Characteristics of Chinese Acrobatics
Chinese acrobatics ranks among the best in the world thanks to its long history, rich repertory and distinctive artistic characteristics. The artistic characteristics can be summarized as follows:
First, Chinese acrobatics has long stressed the basic training of the waist and legs, and has attached great importance to the skill of standing on the head and hands as evidenced by many Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) brick paintings, murals and pottery figurines which feature headstands, handstands and somersaults. Performers of traditional magic were required to have good acrobatic skills. Otherwise, the fact that they were usually clad in a loose gown concealing scores of objects weighing as much as 100 pounds would have prevented them from doing somersaults while producing objects like bowls filled with water or blazing metal bowls.
Second, Chinese acrobatics is characterized by feats of strength and daring performed cleverly, precisely and accurately, and the ability of retaining balance in motion. The ability of Chinese acrobats to perform rope-dancing stunts on a stack of benches placed on a plank and building pyramids on a free-standing ladder shows their superb skills at stabilizing themselves and retaining their balance in motion -- skills that require years of hard training and skills that reflect man's spirit of braving hardships and danger.
Third, the traditional form of conjuring known as "ancient splendor" which flourished during the Han and Tang (618-907) dynasties seems to create something from nothing. The difference between Western magic and Chinese magic is that the former conjurers stress stage sets, lighting and sound effects, while their Chinese counterparts place little attention on stage design and their only prop is either a plain loose gown or a piece of cloth draped around their bodies. They are able to produce a wide range of objects from their loose gowns, including enough dishes for an 18-course dinner, as well as live fish and birds. In addition, they can even conjure a blazing bronze fire pan from their gowns immediately after one somersault and large glass container filled with water and fish after the next. Traditional Chinese magic has a sizable repertoire known for its superb skill, with The immortal Grows Beans, Auspicious Abundance and A Chain of Rings accepted as masterpieces by the world's magic circles. Chinese conjurers use only limited props and instead hide most of objects needed beneath their loose gowns. Therefore, high-level skill and physical strength is needed to handle the hidden objects. The art of conjuring is an expression of man's wisdom and reflects the desire to create material and spiritual wealth, as well as aspirations for a happy life.
Fourth, Chinese acrobats can juggle, both light and heavy objects with dexterity, particularly with their feet. Juggling objects with the feet is mostly done by females lying on a special square platform. The artists manipulate a variety of objects ranging from wine buckets, porcelain jars, tables, ladders, poles, planks, drums and gongs to silk umbrellas and people weighing more than 100 pounds. They can also turn heavy items like wooden tables and slippery porcelain jars so fast that one can barely recognize the object being juggled. Acrobats in the past showed their techniques by juggling heavy objects. Today, however, they stress both light and heavy objects. Acrobats juggling light objects such as paper umbrellas or colored rugs must have a good understanding of the buoyancy and resistance of the air before in order to perform well. Acrobats practicing jar tricks often lose a patch of hair due to the fact that heavy jars thrown high land on the same spot. However, their hair will grow back once they gain skill in landing jars on their heads with the slightest effort. Traditional conjurers must undergo hard training before they can skillfully manipulate hundreds of pounds of objects secreted beneath their loose gowns. The new item Beating Gongs and Drums in which acrobats juggle and play percussion instruments simultaneously has raised the art of juggling to a new level. The spirit of keeping forging ahead characteristic of acrobatic artists has provided great encouragement to mankind.
Fifth, Chinese acrobatics features the combination of great physical strength and quick and nimble somersaults. It requires unusual physical strength on the part of the performer supporting a pyramid, as the Tang Dynasty acrobat who, records indicate, balanced a long pole on his head while 18 people performed aerial stunts. A lacquer painting on a bow dating from the Tang Dynasty, which is now housed in Japan as a national treasure, shows a man supporting a long pole on his head with six people performing aerial stunts. A contemporary veteran acrobat showed great strength by using his hands and feet to lift four stone barbells and eight people weighing over 1000 pounds. Other items such as Drawing Strong Bows and Wielding a Heavy, Long-shaft Broadsword also require unusual physical strength. The Complete Set of Martial Arts Routines is perhaps a typical item of traditional Chinese acrobatics that combines great physical strength and nimble somersaults. Acrobats in the performance sometimes resemble fish swimming effortlessly in the water, sometimes like swallows drafting through trees and other times like butterflies dancing gracefully among flowers. Related acts fully demonstrate the skills of combining physical strength and somersaults to perfection.
Sixth, Chinese acrobatics, an art form closely related to people's production and daily-life activities, uses labor tools and objects as props, including bowls, plates, jars, cups, ropes, whips, poles, ladders, tables, chairs, umbrellas and hats. Some items are based on production activities, folk games and sports such as lassoing horses or cattle, driving carts and skipping rope.
Seventh, Chinese acrobatics employs a number of beautiful traditional handicrafts as stage props, including porcelain jars and plates decorated with colorful designs of dragons and phoenixes, and tastefully patterned silk umbrellas and rugs. Related props not only make the performance more appealing, but also display the beauty of traditional Chinese handicrafts.
Eighth, Chinese acrobatics is noted for its flexibility in terms of the size of performance venues and the number of performers. Performances can be staged in squares and theaters, on the streets and even in small living rooms. The number of performers required can vary from a single person to as many as 100 people. The great flexibility of Chinese acrobatics has enabled the art form to mature and develop a fine tradition through the ages.
Finally, Chinese acrobatics has maintained a strict master-apprentice system and has been closely related to other forms of the performing arts. Chinese acrobatics is an art that was handed down from one generation of a family to another, as well as from master to apprentice. Some Chinese localities are celebrated for acrobatics. For example, Wuqiao County in Hebei Province is often referred to as the "home of Chinese acrobatics." Acrobats have long respected their masters and loved their profession. They have done their best to preserve the art learned from masters and hand their skills down to younger generations. Acrobats in the old society led miserable lives, but never treated their profession lightly. Instead, they managed to pass their skills onto the right people and would rather die of hunger than pass their skills onto an outsider in a rash moment. Acrobatic performances through the ages have incorporated the many strong points of other performing arts such as traditional opera, dance and martial arts, and have in return provided the latter with inspiration.