The High-Flying Art of Chinese Acrobatics

The dangerous and exhilarating sport of acrobatics has a long history in China

BEIJING, May 14, 2010 — -- Balanced high on a single bicycle, 20 Chinese girls contort themselves into knots. A young male performer runs frantically around an insane apparatus akin to a gerbil's wheel high above the stage. They do flips through hoops and use springboards to flip and stand on each others' shoulders.

They perform incredible stunts that leave the audience gasping and cheering for more. It's a spectacle that easily beats the circus. There is no competition or scoring, but acrobats must rely on the competence of their partners and train constantly, so as to not injure themselves or worse. And in China, the motherland of acrobatics, the performers are the best in the world.

It's considered both an art form and a sport and it has a long and rich heritage in China. It's been around in this country for more than 2,000 years and the ancient form was based thematically on the life experiences and work of the people. Instruments of their professions, like tables, chairs, jars and bowls were used as props for the performances.

In old China, acrobatics was popular but never performed in theatres because it was looked down upon by the upper classes. Today, things are very different. There are over 120 acrobatic troupes here and more than 12,000 people involved in performances. Chinese acrobatic troupes have toured a hundred different countries and are employed en masse by huge productions like Cirque du Soleil.

Today, athleticism reigns. It requires extraordinary balance ability, agility and coordination. And Chinese performers start honing their skills at a very young age.

At the Chaoyang Theatre in Beijing, which was packed full of foreign and Chinese tourists on a random Thursday afternoon, we meet some of the acrobats before the show.

Twenty-five-year-old Wang Quan modestly tells us he balances bowls in the show. This can be more accurately be described as Wang Quan standing on the shoulders of a man, while balancing on a wheel and using a springboard to bounce bowl upon bowl onto his head. Not a single one drops to the floor.

Wang explained to ABC News why he thinks the Chinese are so good at acrobatics. "Chinese acrobats are trained from a very young age, while acrobats from other countries only start when they are 15 or 16. So our skills are better."

Zhou Yingying is a 16-year-old girl from Sichuan province who works at a theatre in Beijing. She performs a contortion with a group of girls during the show. She's been training since she was 8 years old.

It's a job which earns her approximately $200 a month, the wage for a young beginner.

"My parents sent me to the local acrobatic troop to learn. I didn't like it at the beginning," she told ABC News. "The training was too hard. But I got used to it later on. Now, I like my job."