Acrobatic Art

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A Brief Introduction to Acrobatic Art

The art of Chinese acrobatics has enjoyed both a long history and a rich national flavor, and has been one of the most popular art forms amongst the Chinese people. In a broad sense, acrobatics is the collective name for various kinds of feats. In primitive societies, acrobatics were closely related with music and dance, and became dominant amongst the existing cultures at that time.

In the Variety Shows of the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) and performances in the imperial court of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the art of acrobatics was very prosperous, just like music and dance. However, after the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, acrobatics, together with classical dance, became looked down upon. However, some of the superb acrobatic feats from the previous dynasties were still handed down to later generations and were subsequently refined. Chinese acrobatic art spread overseas and enjoyed a good reputation during the late years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the early years of the Republic of China (1912-1949).

During the Qin Dynasty (221-207BC), Jiaodi Drama (a drama that incorporates an ancient wrestling skill), originally popular amongst commoners, was introduced into the imperial court. Later during the Han Dynasty, Jiaodi Drama developed into a variety show consisting of various music-dance acrobatics, including sword juggling, handstands, tightrope walking, feats on horseback, pole climbing, fighting with animals, etc.

Historical records show that Han Emperor Wudi (r.140-86BC) held a grand banquet and awards ceremony during the spring of 108BC. Large-scale acrobatics performances were staged during this event, including various variety show feats and performances from foreign acrobats. The inclusion of exotic feats made the acrobatics during the Han Dynasty more developed and colorful.

In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), acrobatics were prevalent both in the imperial court and amongst ordinary people as well. Royal families not only appreciated acrobatics during banquets but also held acrobatic performances during the processions of high officials. An Outing of the Lady of the Song, a mural in the Dunhuang Mogao Grottos, showcases one of these examples.

The acrobatics during the Tang Dynasty were was not as developed as those in the Han Dynasty, and some programs in the Jiaodi Variety Show were eliminated, but the programs left enjoyed surprising development and took on new characteristics.

During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), acrobatics moved from the imperial court to the realm of ordinary people, and the performance forms and program repertoires witnessed profound changes. The emergence of Cheng and Zhu’s idealist philosophies and the prevalence of feudal ethics made the acrobatic art that came from ordinary people—and was close to real life—receive repulsion. Except for some variety show items used in military training and the performances during imperial court ceremonies, most acrobatics programs were used by the acrobats to make a living in front of a paying audience in their vagabond way of life.

These changes made some large-scale programs disappear, while various small-scale programs—such as those performed by families or individuals—came into being. Juggling skills saw unprecedented development, and some performance forms involving feats of the waist, legs or head emerged.

During the Ming (1638-1644) and Qing dynasties, acrobatics were still a way of living for some people. Programs performed by individuals, father and son, or master and apprentice saw much development, and many small-scale serial acrobatic performances were formed that retained traditional feats.

The art of Chinese acrobatics has developed its unique artistic characteristics through: (1) much attention to the training of waist, leg and head feats; (2) stability in dangerous movements and quietness while performing; (3) the production of something strange out of something plain; (4) attention to both heavy and light, hard and soft skills (for instance, juggling objects with the feet involves objects of varying weight, including heavy objects like wine jars, wood blocks, ladders, gongs and drums as well as quick and light objects such as parasols made of thin silk); (5) the juxtaposition of extraordinary strength with light, nimble somersault skills; and (6) good adaptability.

Revised June 22, 2011