Balance, Toss, and Flip

 Article by Wu Xiuling

This article is provided by the Taiwan Digital Archives Request-for-Proposals Project, the subsidiary project of Taiwan Digital Archives Expansion Project
Folk acrobatics have always been the most anticipated performance at the Taiwanese National Day Celebration every year. In the performances, agile acrobats execute fantastic feats, such as unicycling, jumping through flaming hoops, plate spinning, jujitsu, handstands, and human pyramids. The performers always scare the audience a bit by making the pyramid wobble on the brink of collapse before executing perfect flips in the air, landing on the ground to receive boisterous applause. Finally, the performance always ends with the biggest human pyramid, the Jin Yu Man Tang (a Chinese idiom referring to a prosperous household), bringing the cosmopolitan affair to a mighty climax.
In fact, live performances by entertainers demonstrating the specialties of their region as tribute before the royal court and at folk festivals can date back as early as the Song Dynasty. For example, in Dong Jing Meng Hua Lu (translated variously as A Record of Dreaming of Hua in the Eastern Capital, A Record of the Dream of the Land of Hua of the Eastern Capital, and so on), the author recounts a substantial number of performers travelling to the capital during nationwide celebrations for the Emperor’s birthday. They put on shows featuring pole-climbing, skipping, handstands, contortion, bowl handling tricks, spinning jugs with the feet, tumbling, qing zai (akin to horse vaulting or voltige), and so on. Paintings and stone carvings from the Han Dynasty also demonstrate figures performing wrestling, juggling, pole-climbing, tightrope walking, sword-swallowing, and fire breathing. For thousands of years, generations of Chinese performers have kept surprising audiences with their amazing capabilities.
Some of the earliest professional acrobats in modern Taiwan were former members of performance troupes from the Chinese mainland. Historical events during the mid 20th century lead them to stay in Taiwan, where they performed in theaters, hotels, night clubs, and army bands. Performing in commercial shows such as those at night clubs was particularly stressful and taxed the creativity of performers, who were asked to come up with new programs every three months. 
Acrobatics received a fair amount of attention from the Nationalist Government during that time, as Taiwan did not wish to lose the battle in art to her enemy across the Taiwan Strait. In 1973 (62nd year of the Republic Era), the Ministry of Education established the Chinese Variety Art Troupe, a group that was often sent overseas to facilitate diplomacy through their performances. In 1978 (67th year of the Republic Era), Mr. Li Tanghua opened the Chinese Variety Art Training Center. Moving beyond the tradition of passing skills from father to son or from master to apprentice, Mr. Li started the systematic training of acrobats. Finally, in 1982 (71st year of the Republic Era), the National Fuxing Dramatic Arts Academy (now known as the National Taiwan College of Performing Arts) established the Department of Variety Art. Since then, comprehensive programs bringing together courses in performance specialties with courses on general subjects for aspiring acrobats.
Professional acrobatics training in Taiwan is divided into five major categories: balancing acts, juggling, gymnastics, martial arts, and tumbling. Students must also learn other traditional arts such as dance, drama, traditional crafts, acrobatic parades (traditionally held as part of religious festivals), and so on. Graduates of these schools can perform at gala banquets, in restaurants, street performances, and theaters, in dance companies, martial arts competitions and circuses, among others. Compared to acrobats in the earlier days, acrobats who have graduated from professional schools have acquired more solid and diversified skills, as well as better diplomas—all of which allow them access to more performing opportunities.
Mr. Li Tanghua and his variety art troupe. 
Once folk acrobatics became a branch of the performing arts, it could not avoid being evaluated using the standards of professional performing arts. Contemporary audiences have also become more and more demanding. How, then, can this traditional art form show off its uniqueness? And where does the folk acrobatics of Taiwan fit along the spectrum along with the acrobatic technique honed to perfection in China, the dazzling performances of the Cirque du Soleil, and other traditional and avant-garde acts?
Ms. Cheng Yujun, chairperson of the Department of Acrobatics and Dance at the National Taiwan College of Performing Arts, was once visited by a French director. Contrary to the faculty members’ assumption, that foreigners must consider these traditional stunts rather old-fashioned, the French director commented that maintaining the traditional mode of presentation was precisely the best way to perform this traditional art.
Folk acrobatics today incorporate the experience and wisdom of acrobats accumulated for thousands of years. Although it has not developed any set forms as other performing arts have done, its artistic and entertainment value are the result of thousands of years of evolution. Moreover, though modern day acrobats combine creativity, multi-media projection technology and stage effects, if the physical skills of the acrobats are not up to par, no amount of state-of-the-art technology will save the performance.
The repertoire of early acrobats from all over the greater Yangzi River area was in fact largely uniform. What they passed down to their apprentices was also the most traditional set of stunts. These core traditional stunts were the basic skills acrobats needed to master, and are also the skills most in need of recording and preservation.
However, the passing down of traditional arts and skills usually only took place in the exclusive interaction between the master and his apprentices. How does one preserve such an art that lacks a script or written records of its development and has been evolving constantly? Moreover, a preservation and archiving project must involve some kind of categorization and systematization. However, it is extremely difficult to define the boundary between folk acrobatics and other performing arts because during its long history of development, folk acrobatics has received influence from various arts and traditions. Therefore, the preservation of folk acrobatics has been very challenging right from the very beginning—starting with trying to decide on an official name for this art form. In Taiwan, acrobatics performances do not involve animals, so it cannot be called ma xi (Chinese for “circus”, lit. horse drama). In Mainland China, acrobatics is referred to as za ji (lit. mixed skills), which sounds too “mixed.” In the earlier days, professional acrobatics training schools called their courses zong yi ke (lit. variety art courses), which can easily be confused with variety shows. Today, after schools are formally becoming colleges, they have adopted the term “folk acrobatics,” a name that accentuates the special aspects of this art form. Performances of folk acrobatics have also begun to draw upon elements of Taiwanese culture, such as indigenous dance. 
Artists (Zhao Family Troupe) in new, special period costumes.
Performance of Ying Yang Wan Li (The Eagles’ Worldwide Journey), with acrobats in native Taiwanese dress.
“A Review of Folk Acrobatics in Taiwan” is a digital archive project aimed at preserving precious historical data on folk acrobatics. Chaired by associate professor Dr. Huang Yifeng, deputy director of the Center for General Education at the National Taiwan College of Performing Arts, the project is literally racing with time. As senior acrobats pass on or change career paths, the acrobatics history disappears along with them.
Many of the photos or images digitalized earlier were found to be low-resolution. Nevertheless, when the research team tried to re-digitalize these data, the original documents were, more often than not, already lost. Several of the original people who provided these data have also passed away, and the research team was unable to retrieve data from their families.
In light of this situation, the research team started with the data available at the college and has published material obtained thus far on the project website. The website contains the following categories: Introduction to the Research Team, Historical Review, Acrobatic Performance Styles, Acrobatic Performance Forms, Archive Search, and Bios of Important Acrobats.
“Archive Search” includes videos and digital images of props, costumes, and photos of performances and artists. The images of props on the website have been grouped into different categories. Most of the props are often seen in our daily lives, such as water jars, chairs, staircases, and blankets. However, acrobats nowadays usually use props made of specialized materials instead of the “real” thing to facilitate the performances. The resolution of the images in the archive is at least 600dpi. Visitors to the website can enlarge the images of every prop and costume, and they can also read more details referring to their material, size, what performances it is used with, among others. 
Under the entry “Acrobatic Performance Styles,” the research team added “magic” to the traditional five categories of acrobatics so as to include the images of the magic props invented by Mr. Zhang Yu in the early days. Under the entry “Archive Search,” an impressive collection of approximately 1,200 costumes are neatly classified into oriental and western styles, awaiting visitors’ curious eyes. Finally, since the National Taiwan College of Performing Arts is a professional training school in performing arts, its collection of teaching resources is also an invaluable source of data that must be preserved. Therefore, the research team has taken the effort to type out all the old teaching materials. The electronic documentation of these teaching materials makes it possible to get a comprehensive view of the transformation and changes in the teaching of acrobatics over the past twenty years, and allows website visitors to gain a deeper understanding of education in folk acrobatics.  
Mr. Chen Jinming performing with the Chinese yo-yo.
Among the digital content archived this year, the old photos and oral histories have attracted the most attention. The content provides a record of family and training troupes in early days including the Zhao Family Troupe, Zhang Family Troupe, Pan Family Troupe, Zhu Family Troupe, and Wang Family Troupe, among others. Given the passage of time and the changes it brings, along with a decline in traditional troupes, some data was missing, making the challenge of creating an archive a very difficult one for the project team. 
As these old troupes usually did not have the habit of listing detailed programs on their program schedule, nor did they videotape their performances for fear that it might affect ticket sales, the research team had to rely solely on photos to piece together what went on onstage.
Another challenge that the research team encountered in the process of data collection arose from the unique personalities of master acrobats in Taiwan. For example, the legendary acrobat Mr. Li Tanghua has always kept a low profile. For years, he has not agreed to any interviews. Without his first-hand accounts, the picture of the history of acrobatics in Taiwan will always be missing a piece. Assistant professor Cheng Yuchun believes that digital archiving is a step-by-step mission that can only be accomplished in several phases, and that for the research team, the most important long-term goal continues to be answering the question of how to explore more and more of the valuable cultural assets of Taiwan. 
Mr. Zhang Yu’s props for teaching magic: an Indian basket and guillotine.
“Flying Swallow Balancing a Bowl”, a classic feat demonstrated by Ms. Zhang Huozhu. This is also a signature feat of Ms. Xia Juhua, a renowned acrobat.
After thousands of years of history, the life force of folk acrobatics is still strong thanks to its unceasing demand for evolution and renewal. In ancient China, acrobatics started from streets and markets, and gradually made its way to the royal court and onto the stages of modern theaters. Now, folk acrobatics of the 21st century has come back to the people. As skillful acrobats demonstrate perfect sense of balance with handstands, human pyramids, plate-spinning, and so on, they must also seek their own balance between tradition and innovation while walking the road of the acrobatic arts. That said, whether acrobats are dressed in traditional Chinese clothing, Taiwanese indigenous costumes, or superman tights, a human pyramid is still a human pyramid. 
Li, J. M. (1993). The Ancient History of Chinese Games and Arts. Taipei, Dongda Publishing House.
Fu, Q. F. & Fu, T. L. (1989). The History of Chinese Variety Art. Shanghai, Shanghai People’s Publishing House.
Cai, X. X. (1998). Research on the Development of Variety Art and Opera. Taipei, Wen Shih Che Publishing.
Cai, X. X. (2008). Variety Art and Opera. Taipei, Kuo Chia Publishing Co.