Acrobatics, Not Circus! Chinese Variety Art

Chinese acrobatics is one of the most ancient performing arts in the world. It is a skilful set of balancing acts and tricks performed by a group of entertainers dressed in traditional costumes. This art form has existed for nearly 2,000 years and is still popular today. Several standard routines have developed out of the rich heritage and long history of the acrobatics tradition.

Simple acrobatics were being performed in China as early as the Warring States Period (475 – 221 B.C.), but it wasn’t until the Han Dynasty (206 – 220 A.D.) that the first live shows were performed in front of audiences. Acrobatics shows were often performed for emperors and important guests within the imperial palaces, and eventually became widespread entertainment shows among the public.

The styles of Chinese acrobatic tricks developed out of the down-to-earth people’s lives and were heavily connected with routine life and labor. Many of the implements used in acrobatic tricks, like bowls, tables, chairs, plates and jars reflect these commonplace origins.

The typical routines of an acrobatics show range from silly and humorous to skilled and sometimes dangerous. Lion Dancing is a balancing act where troupe members, dressed in lion costumes, perform a series of tricks while balancing on large, decorative balls. Other typical routines include spring board flying, hoop jumping, tightrope walking, fire breathing, extreme martial arts, juggling and the controversial practice of contortionism.

While Chinese acrobatic shows are sometimes compared to the Western circus, there are many differences between the two. Chinese acrobatics rarely, if ever, involves animals, while elephants, monkeys and lions are a big part of any Western circus. Clowns are also never part of Chinese acrobatics, which do include Shaolin monks, Beijing opera characters and so on.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, acrobatics shows have been revitalized and regained popularity with the public. Troupes are sponsored in each province and region, bringing the number up to 120 national troupes and more than 12,000 performers.* Seen as a symbol of Chinese culture, acrobatics troupes often travel around the world performing traditional shows for foreign audiences. Likewise, tourists, both domestic and foreign, flock to watch performances of traditional acrobatics in cities across China.


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