The Peking Acrobats
Peking, pronounced “PEY-king,” means “Northern Capitol” in Chinese. Peking was the name Western cartographers gave Beijing during the creation of the official postal atlas of 1912; the name was used until the Communist Party of China restored Beijing as the official name of China's capital city.
The Peking Acrobats are one of the professional acrobatic troupes based in Beijing, China. The Peking Acrobats debuted in 1986. The troupe has toured North America for over 20 years, and the stunning physical and artistic feats of the acrobats are accompanied by live traditional Chinese music. In 2005, the Peking Acrobats expanded their tour route to include Western Europe. In addition to their extensive touring, the Peking Acrobats have appeared on television shows, including setting the world record for the 21-foot-high Human Chair Stack on Guinness Book Primetime.
The Peking Acrobats also performed in the movie Ocean’s 11, and Peking Acrobats alumnus Shaobo Qin appeared in the film and its sequels. The Peking Acrobats filmed an HD DVD of their 2005 North American tour. The Peking Acrobats have also shared the stage at the Hollywood Bowl with the Hollywood Bowl orchestra, most recently in 2008.
History of Chinese Acrobatics
For over 2,700 years, Chinese acrobats have been astonishing audiences with their grace and physical strength. Chinese acrobatics originated from the daily work, chores, battles, ceremonies and sacrificial rites of life during the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.).
Legends exist that say the father of famous philosopher Confucius was an acrobat and a strongman.
Modern Chinese acrobatics evolved from the use of common, everyday objects to exercise stunts of grace, skill and precision. A long winter cooped up inside made peasants, workers and sailors anxious for activity. They used household objects or other common tools to perform acrobatic tricks and alleviate their boredom. Climbing on a tall stack of chairs was simply a way to get your furniture noticed and sold at market; the same for pottery balancing. The art of hoop diving was also invented from making play of work – field workers challenged each other to dive through grain separators after removing the tool’s woven bottom.
The art of acrobatics developed as a lively folk alternative to the formal and monotonous court entertainments of the time. But by the Han Dynasty (202 B.C. – 220 A.D.), acrobatics caught the attention of the ruling class. The best acrobats were registered as professional performers and incorporated into “The Hundred Entertainments,” a government program that called on jugglers, singers, tumblers and dancers to travel the country and perform for visiting dignitaries.
The Entertainments disbanded with the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in 907 A.D. Acrobatics survived, though the rulers of the Ming and Qing Dynasties considered it to be “unrefined entertainment.” The art was still passed from generation to generation, though outdoor festivals were often the only venue for these traveling acrobat families.
Centuries passed, and the perception of acrobatics as high art came again during the late 18th century with the emergence of the Peking Opera, a combination of music, combat, mime, dance and acrobatics that attained the status as premiere theatre of China. By 1949, acrobatics, the oldest of all folk art forms had evolved into a more formal and sophisticated performing art, one designed for better audience viewing and appreciation of the increasingly complex skills displayed by performers.
The founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1950 provided for the Ministry of Culture of the Central People’s government to officially support the acrobatic arts. They formed a troupe, based in Beijing, consisting of the most outstanding acrobats from China’s major cities. Each acrobat performed his or her own specialty, which had been developed after years of dedicated training. Out of this Beijing troupe evolved large professional troupes, which today number more than 250. These companies continue to flourish, traveling worldwide to bring the art of Chinese acrobatics to an international audience, enrapturing and inspiring people of all ages, cultures and backgrounds with their astonishing skills.
Traditional Acrobatic Tricks and Skills
The Peking Acrobats devote years to daily training, stretching and exercising to achieve flexibility—and the status of professional acrobat. As early as age 6, acrobats attend special schools where half of a student’s school day consists of general education and the other half is devoted to acrobatic training. Even after acrobats have left school, continued practice and maintenance of flexibility are important to prevent injury and keep in performance-ready shape.
Below is a sample of traditional Chinese acrobatic skills, some of which acrobats today perform exactly as they were performed over 2000 years ago.
- Barrel contortionist – An acrobat maneuvers in and out of a narrow barrel in various contortions, including handstands and toe touches.
- Bench balance – Acrobats balance bowls of rice on their heads while they move in handstands on stacked benches.
- Bowl piling – A unicyclist balances on a table and, without falling off the cycle or table, kicks up bowls, kettles, and spoons to a pile on her head.
- Cycling – Chinese acrobats use both unicycles and bicycles to perform stunts on. One of the most impressive feats is the use of cycles to create human pyramids. Acrobats sometimes also incorporate roller skates into their act.
- Diabolo skill – The word diabolo is not from Spanish diablo (“devil”) but from the Greek dia bolo for “throw across.” The skill originated from tricks with the Chinese yo-yo, which a user throws back and forth on string between two sticks. It is a traditional Chinese sport; jugglers compete with tricks on the diabolo, using sticks to spin and toss the yo-yo in the air.
- Double-bottle balance act – For this act, the acrobat uses his head to balance a layered stack of glasses and trays. To heighten the difficultly of the skill, the glasses are filled with water and the acrobat plays an instrument and dances, all without spilling a drop.
- Double-fixed poles – This is one of the most ancient acrobatic skills and is depicted in drawings from over 1,000 years ago. Performers shimmy up freestanding poles and jump from pole to pole.
- Hoop diving – Another of the most ancient Chinese acrobatic traditions, hoop diving was originally called Swallow Play because jumpers attempted to imitate the graceful movements of the bird as they dove through rings.
- Lion dance – The lion dance is combination of dance and martial arts. The lion is a symbol of strength and happiness, and the dance is performed to ward away evil spirits and to bring good luck.
- Meteor juggling – A performer swings a rope with glass bowls on either end. The acrobat somersaults and twirls the rope, all without spilling the water in the bowls.
- Pagoda bowl balance – In this hand-to-hand balance, a male acrobat stands on the floor while a female balances a bowl of rice on her head and handstands on his head.
- Rope walking – One of the oldest recorded acrobatic skills, rope walking dates back to the Han Dynasty of over 2,000 years ago. Any acrobatic feat performed on a tightrope falls into this category.
- Suspended Strips – This acrobatic skill began as a folk sport. It is similar to trapeze work, but instead of a bar fixed onto strings, acrobats use two cloth strips to show off upper body strength.
- Wushu – Wushu literally means “martial art.” The title usually refers to Chinese traditional group gymnastics, made a national sport in China in 1949. As a sport, wushu parallels gymnastics—there are choreographed routines that include somersaults, lifts and jumps. The term wushu was first applied to hand-to-hand combat and other military self- defense training over 3,000 years ago.