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 'China Soul': Martial Artists
and Acrobats of Tianjin
Performance at Staller


by Ling Zhu

On November 11, 2017, I went to see a much-anticipated show in Staller Center for the Arts at Stony Brook University. A renowned acrobatic group from China, the Martial Artists and Acrobats of Tianjin, performed "China Soul" in honor of the inauguration of the China Center and for the 10th Anniversary of the Confucius Center at the Charles B. Wang Asian/American Center.

Before the show, I kept myself from searching up the group or looking at their past performances as I didn't want to spoil the experience with my expectations. Being not as culturally diverse as my mainland cousins, I expected acrobats to just flip chairs and break sticks and bricks.

As a kid, the closest that I've been to Chinese martial arts was through the lens of Hollywood movies that depicted fighting and combat as the only values for practicing martial arts. This departed from the elegance in Chinese martial arts, ranging from Wing Chun to Shaolin Kung Fu, that teaches self-defense and the balance between Yin and Yang. As soon as I went to the ticket office and saw the long lines and crowded entrance filled with students and families, it heightened my expectations.

As expected, the seats all filled up for a sold out crowd. Around me, there were many conversations going on simultaneously. As the lights dimmed, the ambient sounds turned to whispers, and then to complete silence. For the first few seconds, I, like many other viewers in front of me, was captivated by the opening scene, a bellowing expansive golden-yellow cloth with acrobats moving in curvatures underneath it, creating illusions of a barren dessert.

There was an obvious difference in skill and experience between the acrobatic group I saw as a child and this, as moments later, I saw a group of acrobats, in colorful costumes, jumping through rope lassos without a fail. It was as if I was in the desert at night sneaking a peak at a traveling tribe of nomads entertaining themselves with music and dancing across a fire. Already, my expectation of the archaic chair flips and bricks was discarded.

Being from a traditional Chinese family, I have seen the Chinese Spring Gala every Lunar New Year. And without an exception, there would always be a segment relating to martial arts and, more specifically, Shaolin Kung Fu. But this was the first time seeing this type of performance in person.  


It was also the first time for Three Village resident Kevin Le and his younger twin brothers Connor and Jason to see a live performance. They were thrilled.



Photos by Tuan Le


In China, traditional martial arts are a big part of Chinese culture, from the elders practicing Tai Chi every morning by the park to the diligent disciples who train for more than 10 years. Yet, the art is in a steady and unfavorable decline. In the past, martial arts were an integral part of a practitioner's life and traditional martial arts held a greater influence than a simple ceremonial display.

Modern Chinese people have divorced their daily lives and culture from traditional martial arts, and masters refused to accept noncommittal disciples who only train for two to three years for the thrill of it. Therefore, seeing these young martial artists perform so diligently in front of the audience was a delightful experience. It introduced Western audience members to traditional Chinese martial arts and kept the tradition alive, very fitting for an act named "Soul of Martial Arts."

Throughout the show, there were multiple instances when I felt goose bumps forming and hair rising. I felt my joints hurt when I saw the artists contort and bend their bodies. The slithering contortion duo bent their backs and stood on their heads, supporting each other. Their colorful green and pink costumes represented what I assumed to be a lotus flower, which in Buddhism symbolizes rebirth and enlightenment. Thinking back to the act still send chills down my spine.

A similar act, the "Ballet Adagio," showed a couple that used powerful gymnastics and acrobatic skills harmonized with slow, graceful ballet movements to symbolize, as I interpreted it, two star-crossed lovers. While I was captivated by the acts, I also admired how the artists kept smiling. Underneath those smiles and makeup, those effortless yet powerful movements, and the heavy and long costumes, are years of training.

It was an honor to have the Martial Artists and Acrobats of Tianjin performing on Long Island for the first time. They definitely deserved the audience's standing ovation in the finale. One person in the front row was still clapping long after the curtains fell.








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