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
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
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
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.