(from Chinese Acrobats Through the Ages by Fu Qifeng)
There were quite a few folk artists during the Warring States Period of Chinese history who promoted the progress of acrobatic arts.
It is noteworthy that during the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods there were actually acrobats who demonstrated their skills on a battlefield where two troops fought each other. "Xu Wugui," chapter 24 in Zhuang Zi, recounts: "Yi Liao of Shinan juggled balls, and the conflict between two houses was eliminated."
Xiong Yiliao of the Chu State was good at "juggling balls." Once, in a battle between the states of Chu and Song, the troops of the two sides were confronting each other in a fight at close quarters. Yiliao appeared in front of the Chu troops and calmly, in the face of the enemy's axes and spears, juggled nine balls at the same time.
His superb performance stupefied the officers and warriors. The Song troops fled helter skelter without fighting and the Chu troops won a complete victory. This is a unique example of the use of an artist's miraculous skill to defeat the opponent by a surprise move. But this story shows the great popularity of acrobatic art and how people were completely convinced by artists with marvelous skills.
Because folk art was made use of by rulers, acrobatics gradually advanced from the commoners into the mansions of nobles and high officials.
Lie Zi (The Book of Lie Zi), a philosophical work attributed to Lie Yukou of the Warring States Period, records that in the Spring and Autumn Period, Lan Zi, of the state of Song, presented a performance for the ruler. He could run to and fro on very high stilts and could also juggle seven swords. Duke Yuan, of the state of Song, appreciated Lan Zi's great skill and gave him generous rewards.
Guo Yu (Discourse on the States) was reportedly written by Zuoqui Ming to record mainly the sayings of nobles in different states during the last years of the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century B.C. to 770 B.C.) and in the Spring and Autumn Period. It reports an acrobatic performance of a midget climbing a pole. This refers to a buffoon dwarf at the court of the state of Jin who demonstrated the skill of climbing up a pole before many spectators.
These are the earliest records of performances of court acrobats found so far.
(From An Authentic Account of the Embassy of the Dutch East-India Company to the Court of the Emperor of China, 1794-1795 taken from the journal of Andre Everard van Braam.)
While all this was passing, the comedy was going on without interruption, and some Chinese were also performing feats of activity upon the theatre. Of one of these I cannot help speaking, on account of the extraordinary strength he possessed in his feet, and because of all the tumblers I saw in China, he was the only one deserving of mention. Even in Europe this man would have attracted the attention of spectators.
Lying down on his back, he held up his legs vertically in the air. Upon the sole of his feet was next placed a ladder of six long steps, with a flat board at the bottom. A child of seven or eight years of age then climbed up the steps, and sitting on the upper one, played a number of monkey-tricks, while the man kept turning the ladder first one way and then another. The child afterwards descended and ascended, twisting his body in such a way between the steps that the different parts of it were alternately on the two opposite sides of the ladder. This diversion lasted at least 15 minutes.
When the exhibition of the ladder was over, two men brought an enormous earthen vessel, which must certainly have weighed more than 125 pounds, and which they laid sideways upon the feet of the strong man. He turned it round and round and over and over with astonishing rapidity.
The child was then put into the vessel at the moment the mouth of it was turned from the Emperor, towards whom it was immediately brought round again by the man. The boy then made signs of respect, and climbing over the edge, got upon the top of the vessel, seated himself there, and assumed a variety of attitudes, letting himself hang down over the edge, by which he held with his hands, and enlivening the performance by a thousand playful tricks.
I do not know whether I have succeeded in giving the reader an idea of the boldness of these two feats. As to myself, I do not remember ever to have seen any in Europe that astonished me so much.