Chinese theatre is a larger-than-life extravaganza of talent, tradition, and technology

By Jack Souther

The Chinese tradition of doing things on a grand scale dates back centuries to the building of the Great Wall, and the quest for supremacy continues to influence almost everything the Chinese set their mind to, including theatre. Each performance we attended during our three-week tour seemed bigger and more lavish than the last. It would be hard to choose the best, but these are three of my favorites.


Beijing Acrobatic Show

From my attempts at the gym I know how tough it is to just stay atop one of those simple balance boards made from a plank and roller. So I was suitably impressed at how deftly the big guy on stage rocked back and forth on his teetering plank. I was even more impressed when he put the contraption on top of a small table and climbed aboard. What happened next defies all the laws of gravity and physics. The big guy on the balance board held two young women, one on each side. The girls placed a second table on top of his head and a little guy on another balance board was lowered onto the upper table and started rocking back and forth.

But there was more! The little guy, balanced on his roller 15 feet above the stage, put three bowls on the end of his plank, stood up and with a flick of the board sent them spiraling into the air. The bowls landed — one, two, three — on top of his head. He took them off and bowed matter-of-factly to the audience. This was just one of dozens of astonishing acts in a fast-paced performance that includes high-wire artists, gymnasts, contortionists, and acrobatic dancers.

The ancient art of Chinese Acrobatics goes back at least 4,000 years. Originally developed as a form of folk sport and village games it was performed by, and for, working-class people and scorned by the upper classes. But around 2,500 years ago the skill of the performers began to capture the attention of the emperors. Music and costumes were added and by the time of the Han Dynasty (221 -220 BC) Chinese Acrobatics had evolved from folk sport to stage performance. What became known as the "Hundred Plays" during the Tang Dynasty has grown into a modern, world-class entertainment phenomenon that employs more than 12,000 performers.


The Tang Dynasty Show, Xian

It has been called the "city of death".   Xian is the keeper of China’s imperial past. Seven-thousand terra cotta warriors still maintain their silent vigil at the grave of emperor Qin Shi Huang, who died there more than 20 centuries ago. It's the city where a unified China was born in 221 BC, and it served as the country’s capital through 11 successive dynasties. Its monuments and museums preserve the mute imperial treasures of China's golden age of culture and art. But on the stage of the Shaanxi Grand Opera House the splendor of Xian's renaissance period is brought back to life in the Tang Dynasty Show.

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