FEATURE: Circus county

BEIJING (China Daily/ANN) - A county not only trains acrobats but also functions as a platform for international exchanges.

Houng Pa Sith Yang first arrived in Wuqiao, a county in North China’s Hebei province, in the summer of 2016 to receive training at the Hebei Wuqiao Acrobatic Art School.

The school, which is surrounded by farmlands and narrow lanes, is different from Yang’s home in Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

Yet, she was full of excitement.

“Everything I learned here in China is new, especially the acrobatic techniques,” says the 26-year-old, who started practicing acrobatic moves at 9 years old under the guidance of her aunt, a former acrobat who taught at acrobatics schools in Vientiane.

“I also learned Chinese for two years.”

Yang has been an acrobat with the Laos International Circus since 2012.Her studies in Wuqiao will end in August and she will return to Laos and continue to tour with the troupe internationally.

One of the things Yang learned at the Chinese school is performing with hula hoops.Starting from scratch, Yang practiced five hours a day for three months.

Now, Yang, who weighs 45 kilograms, can perform with 100 hula hoops orbiting her body at once, she says.The other things she learned include ropewalking and plate spinning.

Yang is one of the 35 foreign students currently studying at Hebei Wuqiao Acrobatic Art School.

According to Mu Hongyuan, the deputy-director of international exchange program at the school, the students are from Laos, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Tanzania and will graduate in August.

Wuqiao is considered to be the birthplace of Chinese acrobatics.

Yang Shuangji, the former director of the Wuqiao County Cultural Relics Protection and Management Institution, says acrobatics in the county dates back to the Eastern Wei Dynasty (534-550).

And the art form reached its peak during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

Now, the county not only trains acrobats but also functions as a platform for international exchanges.

Since its founding in 1987, the China Wuqiao International Circus Festival has staged over 600 performances with acrobats from more than 50 countries.

Also, the Hebei Wuqiao Acrobatic Art School, founded in 1985, has not only trained Chinese acrobats but more than 400 foreign students from developing countries as part of a cultural exchange program that was launched by the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Commerce in 2002.

The foreign students usually start training at 8 am with exercises to build flexibility and practice basic skills of somersaulting and handstands.

Then, after a one-hour lunch break, the afternoon is devoted to practicing different circus acts.

By 5 pm, they complete a day of training.

In between, they also learn Chinese taught by teachers of Hebei University.

“After the whole day of training, I like eating hotpot and barbecue with my classmates,” says Laotian student Yang.

“Some of the young girls cried a little when they began training here, but now we don’t feel homesick anymore.”

While the Chinese students have gone off for their winter vacations, the foreign students are at the school and, along with their Chinese teachers, will celebrate the upcoming Chinese Lunar New Year, which falls on Feb 16 this year.

Speaking about the foreign students’ progress, Ma Shumin, who has been teaching foreign students at Hebei Wuqiao Acrobatic Art School since 2012, says: “By the summer of 2018, they will be ready for public performances.

“Acrobatics is a form of art that demands hard work. Most of these foreign students started from zero but they work very hard.”

Ma, who was born and grew up in Wuqiao, is the youngest child of her family and was sent to study acrobatics at age 10. Later, she joined an acrobat troupe in Wuqiao county and in 1995, she started teaching at the Hebei Wuqiao Acrobatic Art School.

“When I was a child, the training was very tough. I did handstands for at least 30 minutes and hundreds of somersaults each day,” recalls Ma, 52.

“The training is much more scientific now. We design different programs for foreign students based on their physical condition and their interests.

“Acrobats depend on the art form to make a living, so they develop an extraordinary willpower, learn to be hardworking and bear hardships.

“Six is a proper age to start training as an acrobat. And those who make it through the hard training can look forward to jobs.”

But older students too give acrobatics a go.

Hikma Baharu, 16, from Ethiopia arrived at the school six months ago and she was surprised to see the moves of the Chinese students.

“It’s much easier to watch them performing and then practice the techniques,” says Baharu, who joined a circus group in Ethiopia called Circus Dolphin, before coming to China.

“I will tour with Circus Dolphin, performing programs I learn from China. I like the circus and when I get older, I will work as an administrator, dressmaker or a set designer.”

Near the Hebei Wuqiao Acrobatic Art School is the Wuqiao Acrobatic World, a tourist site presenting the county’s history of acrobatics.

According to Yan Wenru, vice-manager of Wuqiao Acrobatic World, the venue opened in 1993 and attracts about 500,000 tourists every year.

With two big theatres-one for acrobatic shows and the other for magic shows, the site also has outdoor tents, which have shows every day from 9 am to 5 pm.

“Tourism is the main industry in Wuqiao,” says Yan.

According to Yang Xingming, the deputy-director of the Wuqiao county tourism bureau, Chinese circus acrobats are now regarded among the best in the world and Wuqiao trains talent from across the country.

As of now, there are more than 70 private acrobatic troupes and one government-supported troupe in Wuqiao. And they stage about 200 shows across the country every year.

The average income of each troupe is 2 million yuan ($316,300), Yang Xingming says, adding that China’s economic development and growing tourism industry has brought prosperity to the traditional art form.

However, like many traditional Chinese art forms, acrobatics is facing challenges, such as the shortage of young artists.

“It’s not just a challenge for Wuqiao but also for troupes around the country,” Yang Xingming says.

So, efforts, such as recruiting students from outside Wuqiao, lowering school fees and popularizing the art from among primary school students in Wuqiao, are being implemented to change the situation, he says.

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