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Certainly the most accessible and exciting of traditional Chinese entertainment, Chinese acrobatics covers everything from gymnastics to magic tricks and juggling. Professional acrobats have existed in China for two thousand years. Ancient stone carvings, pictures on earthen pottery and early written works trace the ancestry of today's spectacular acts to an era long since vanished.
It was during the Han Dynasty, more than two thousand years ago, that the Chinese saw the first acrobats, magicians, and jugglers. Acrobatics developed out of the annual village harvest celebrations. Chinese farmers and village craftsmen, with relatively little to do during the long winter spent their time improving their societal positions by becoming acrobats. They practiced with just about anything they could find around the house, workshop and farm, i.e. cups, saucers, tables, chairs plates, farm tools, etc. They even used their own bodies to form human walls and pyramids. Every year when the peasants celebrated the bringing in of the harvest, the common people would show off their skills by performing new and exciting feats of daring and strength.
Hoop diving originated at harvest time when the field workers used a tool shaped like a large tambourine. These large hoops with woven mesh bottoms were used to shake and separate the grain from the leaves and stems. Workers challenged each other to see how many or how tall a stack they could dive through.
Similarly, the pottery maker would juggle and spin his wares. Spinning a pot to make it uniformly round and smooth is a natural action of the potter. However, when he adds to this a few tricks of juggling, or tossing a pot high into the air, he becomes a local hero performing a thrilling feat.
Climbing to the top of a tall stack of chairs, spinning plates on the end of a long bamboo stick, balancing small wooden benches on the head, flipping bowls with your feet, climbing ropes and long leather straps, these and most other traditional Chinese acrobatic acts derived from the lifelong skills of the village peasant, river sailor and local craftsman.
Building on the traditional performances, today's artists have added new techniques and spectacular stunts, thrilling audiences around the globe. Highly skilled, rigorously trained, and superbly talented, these performers follow an unbroken tradition since 700 BC.
Children learned skills from their fathers and grandfathers before they were of school age. The tradition of Chinese acrobatics is therefore one that has been passed down from generation to generation to become the feats of strength, balance and grace that comprise this unique tradition of China. Like traveling European Gypsies, the great acrobatic families of China would entertain the city rulers and the village people at ceremonial carnivals and public theaters. Today there remain only a few of the famous old acrobatic families. They have now organized China's traditional entertainments into professional acrobatic troupes with formal academies for training promising young entertainers. China has an annual competition for the acrobatic academies.
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