Before attempting to describe Chinese Acrobatics (and one may well question whether the practice of acrobatics in China differs from the practice of acrobatics elsewhere, in the same way that Chinese Cuisine differs from the cuisine of, say, France), it would be helpful to first define what is meant by the term "acrobatics". Most sources that describe Chinese Acrobatics seem to equate it with circus or theatrical performances, i.e., confusing it with its applications, while even a dictionary definition can sound either somewhat circular or simply inadequate (a dictionary might define acrobatics as the activity of an acrobat, while it defines an acrobat as someone who performs acrobatics, and it is not much more helpful if the definition rests on the term "gymnastics", since this term is also often defined in a similar, circular fashion, and often any definition of the term seems to leave out the concept of motion entirely).
A reasonable, if somewhat long, definition of the term "acrobatics" would therefore seem to be the following:
"The performance of physical feats such as leaping, hopping, swinging, twisting, tumbling, cartwheeling and somersaulting, and even cycling, rollerskating, walking or standing, the latter perhaps on only one foot, where these require complete poise, such as in connection with tightrope performances, involving balance and the precise control of movement." And of course, activity of this nature (and the above is not intended to be an exhaustive list!), especially where it requires superb balance and the precise control of movement, requires as well great physical strength that rests on specific exercises and practice, practice, practice!
With this definition in place, it will be easier to distinguish the discipline of acrobatics, as it is – and has traditionally been – practiced in China, from the Chinese art forms in which it often plays a major role, and to describe the elements on which the discipline of Chinese Acrobatics rests.
The Two Pillars of Chinese Acrobatics
- It focuses especially on the waist and legs, since strong abdominal muscles is the key to all precisely controlled movement involving the bending, twisting, etc., of the torso – especially where this takes place in slow motion, as it were – while strong legs are essential for maintaining perfect balance when standing still (e.g. on a tightrope), perhaps encumbered with additional weight, or while engaged in movement, whether supporting additional weight or not.
- It emphasizes the controlled strength and harmonious coordination of the various component parts of the body while maintaining infinite muscular flexibility, so as to achieve fluid, agile movement that exudes power under perfect control. It achieves this through conventional and martial arts exercises that relate to Qigong, or slow, deliberate and graceful movement, combined with proper breathing techniques, that are designed to harness the "qi", or the body's life force.
These two simple elements constitute the pillars on which Chinese Acrobatics is founded. Note that the primary emphasis in Chinese Acrobatics is on the lower torso, i.e., on the abdomen and downward, not on the upper torso, which, in Chinese Acrobatics, is somewhat downplayed. This is no doubt owing to the primary applications, or art forms, in which Chinese Acrobatics plays a major role, which conveniently leads us to that final subject.
The Applications (Art Forms) Of Chinese Acrobatics
Chinese Acrobatics has its origins in Chinese Folk Dance, and, indeed, Chinese Folk Dance remains one of its main applications to this day. For example, the Dragon Dance employs dancers who are also acrobats, as acrobatic movement is required in order to bring the mock dragon to life, but acrobatics also plays a role in many other Chinese Folk Dances. In addition, just as the Chinese Folk Dance also transitioned to the Chinese Theatre, Chinese Acrobatics has also transitioned to the Chinese Theatre.
Many theatre performances during China's Imperial period involved roles that required an acrobat, and some plays involved segments consisting of solo performances by acrobats – usually to the accompaniment of music – such as between-act solo performances while the set was being re-arranged. This eventually led to local performances that involved more or less pure acrobatic displays rather than song & dance numbers, drama, etc. Or, after the "highbrow" play had been performed, which required a certain level of respectful decorum on the part of the audience, a rowdy troupe of acrobats might take the stage as the alcoholic beverages began to flow, ordinary folk found their tongues and the noise level rose accordingly.
Acrobatic "theatre" performances of the type just mentioned had the air of a circus performance, where the acrobats performed all manner of leaps, hops and somersaults, or stood atop one another while the acrobat on top might have performed a juggling act, etc. What we think of as circus today was in fact born out of such performances.
Modern-day Chinese acrobats still appear in theatre roles, such as in Peking Opera (Beijing Opera) performances, where they are also indispensable, but they appear mostly in Chinese Folk Dances – during the various annual festivals such as the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations (aka Spring Festival) – and in circuses, where they entertain with a broad range of acts, from the peformance of magic (i.e., sleight of hand, etc.) to clowning to juggling to special acts involving stacks of plates, bowls, glasses, etc., being placed – sometimes tossed! – on the acrobat's head, while the acrobat – who may or may not be on horseback, or mounted on an elephant – deftly maintains perfect balance.
In recent years, Chinese acrobatic performers have won many prizes in international competitions, and China has recently been honored with the distinction of being the country with the 'World's Best Acrobatic Performances'. In fact, Chinese circus is as popular, if not more popular, outside China as it is inside the country, so the demand for ever new circus acts means that Chinese Acrobatics will no doubt continue to enjoy a prosperous future.