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Practice makes perfect – the art of stilt walking

Expert stilt walker provides a glimpse into the high life

05·09·2013

Practice makes perfect – the art of stilt walking

Expert stilt walker provides a glimpse into the high life

05·09·2013

Even at 60 years old, Mr Xing Chuanpei is still an active stilt walker. When he first began to practice at just eight years old he got quite a few missing teeth and broken bones.

“I wasn’t bitter,” he said. “It’s just a fact that during practice you will inevitably fall down from your stilts. In the eyes of others, it may seem very dangerous. However, because my father and my uncle all practiced it, often performing at Temple Fairs during Chinese traditional festivals, I picked up how to stilt walk. In this environment, it was a natural thing for me to learn it. After I recovered from my wounds, I started to practice again.”

Chinese stilts, also knows as ‘peg stilts’ in ancient China, are typically fashioned out of wood. The tallest stilt can reach up to one zhang (丈, one zhang equals 3.3 meters), the lowest is about two chi (尺, one chi equals 0.3 of a meters), and the usual length is three to four chi (about one meter). These stilts strap on at the foot, ankle, and knee of the performer. The performance is not just a simple walk. Performers make many complicated maneuvers,  such as doing splits, turning somersaults, or jumping over a table. Some performers even include wit and humor in their shows, using team mates to add a little drama.

These dangerous moves are why some think the art originated in acrobatics. According to Liezi (《列 子》, a Daoist text attributed to Lie Yukou, a 5th century BC Hundred Schools of Thought philosopher),a man named Lanzi made a marvelous performance for the King of Song Yuangong. This man strapped two stilts to his calves; the total length of each stilt being twice his own height. When running and jumping, this performer juggled seven daggers. History suggests that stilt walking was a popular performance, both for the common people and in the royal court. In the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911), Beijing’s Haidian Xibeiwang Stilt Walking Temple Fair was considered the number one Temple Fair by Empress Dowager Cixi. During this fair, stilt walkers put on a huge show; they made full use of 18 tables and arranged them into three layers. Dozens of stilt walkers then climbed onto the tables, and posed in the shape of a giant elephant.

“It is a hard skill, and one needs many years of persistent practice,” Mr Xing said. He suggests that any person who wants to master stilt walking should start practicing in childhood and have at least ten years of experience. Even now, Mr Xing continues to practice one hour every morning.

“The most crucial part is keeping your balance,” Mr Xiang said. “If you practice more, you will eventually know how to do it.”

These days Mr Xing is the chief director of the Haicheng Stilt-Walking Yangge Folk Art Troupe, which has performed all over the world, including at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony. The troupe has about 100 members, including many young people.

“All the troupe members are farmers, and while stilt walking is just their hobby, they all really enjoy it. Whenever their performance brings happiness to an audience, they feel really good.”

This is one of China’s many dying arts, but there are still many passionate people willing to put their all into these traditional skills.

 Image courtesy of Jike.