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The Acrobats of China's Wuqiao County

Coach Wang Xueyou works with a 5-year-old student, who's been at the Yilin Acrobatic School for less than a year, with a backwards stretch while performing a handstand.
Andrea Hsu, NPR
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Coach Wang Xueyou works with a 5-year-old student, who's been at the Yilin Acrobatic School for less than a year, with a backwards stretch while performing a handstand.
With help from the coach's wristwatch, students at the Yilin Acrobatic School hold a handstand for 10 full minutes.
Andrea Hsu, NPR /
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With help from the coach's wristwatch, students at the Yilin Acrobatic School hold a handstand for 10 full minutes.
Teenage girls practice their routines -- the girl in the foreground spins a replica of a Ming vase with her feet, while the two girls in the back spin velvet cloths like a pizza chef would spin dough.
Andrea Hsu, NPR /
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Teenage girls practice their routines -- the girl in the foreground spins a replica of a Ming vase with her feet, while the two girls in the back spin velvet cloths like a pizza chef would spin dough.
A group of boys practice a challenging "pyramid" routine. The topmost boy wears a safety harness -- for now.
Andrea Hsu, NPR /
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A group of boys practice a challenging "pyramid" routine. The topmost boy wears a safety harness -- for now.

With more than one billion people packed into a nation about the size of the United States, there are countless regional specialties within the nation of China -- pickles to porcelain, teapots to tangerines.

One district in northern China is famous for producing artists who walk on their hands, juggle tableware and twist themselves into knots -- in other words, acrobats.

Wuqiao County, in the flat farmlands of Hebei Province on the North China Plain, is home to dozens of acrobatic schools. Locals claim that their county has been turning out acrobats for more than 2,000 years, since the Western Han Dynasty.

Acrobatics hasn't historically been a well-regarded profession in this ancient land, says Sun Wenjing, who owns and operates the Yilin acrobatic school with her husband.

"In China in the old days, people looked down on acrobats," she says. "They thought acrobats were just peddling tricks. So our social status was very low."

Things began to change when Chinese acrobatic troupes began touring outside of China.

"We went overseas and found foreigners liked us," Sun Wenjing says. "'What is this thing, so strange and mysterious?' they said. They looked up to us."

The discipline has also changed. In today's acrobatic schools, teachers don't beat their students when the students do poorly, the way they used to. But the regimen is still grueling, and sweat is often mixed with tears.

Each acrobatic move must be practiced hundreds of times before a student is ready to perform. And when the troupe finally perfects a new routine, Sun Wenjing says, it's usually a bittersweet moment.

"The first time [the students] successfully perform a new act, they always hug each other and cry after leaving the stage," she says. "It's partly out of happiness, and partly for all the difficulties they went through to succeed. They don't even take time to wipe away their sweat."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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