Shanghai Circus World Acrobatic Show

Today, the Shanghai Acrobatics Show is a tourist destination. An acrobatic show that relies on skill of the performers and the highly advanced technology to go with it, it entertains audiences around the world. It relies modernization of technology and seeks to use the new technology to create a show to entertain people from all backgrounds. It is highly successful as it draws many Americans, Japanese and European tourists to it nightly. Its ties to Canada and movement to be a Chinese equivalent to a Cirque du Soleil show are also noteworthy1. However, the history of acrobatics throughout the development of modern China is noteworthy as its impacts can be seen both culturally and politically today.   

History of Acrobatics

In early China, acrobatic shows were primarily for the upper classes. However, even then it was not a major aspect of Chinese culture until the 14th century. It was primarily a equestrian court that entertained the Chinese Emperors, nobility and the foreign dignitaries bringing tributes to China2. In the early 20th century, as China began to urbanize, more local troupes, specifically in Shanghai, began to form as there were more people to entertain in local areas. These troupes worked together to entertain people while also competing against each other3. Later, once the Communist party came to power, they realized they could use acrobatics for several purposes.

The first of which was that acrobatic performers were looked down upon in society. They were poor and illiterate yet they offered a value of entertainment. The Communist Party sought to increase their prestige by establishing their own acrobatic troupe during the Japanese invasion. This not only helped the Communist Party’s reputation among those poor and illiterate in the struggle against Japan but would also play a key role in the war against the National Party by winning the lower classes.

The second benefit was that the acrobatic troupe during the Japanese invasion was a morale booster to the soldiers. The soldiers could return to a motivational performance that reminded them of the culture that they were fighting to keep. It’s benefit in this way was resounding and received support from the highest ranking officials in the Communist Party. This support even came from the head of the Communist Party in Mao Zedong3.

Support for the troupe came directly from high-level officials, including Mao Zedong, head of the CCP, who claimed, ‘Acrobatics … (is) “revolutionary art,”’ and ‘proletariat performing art’ 


Expansion of Acrobatics

After promoting acrobatics internally, the Communist party then sought to export Chinese acrobatics as a manner in which to repair foreign relations3. However, during the Communist Party’s push for acrobatics, many messages of nationalism for China would pushed. In order to effectively repair foreign relations, some of these messages would have to be tempered. To do this, some folk dance was included in the performances.

Figure 1. Yange Folk Dance [3]

This is an example of including folk dance. It is yangge from Northern China, mainly Yan’an. The significance of this integration also shows the tradition China still maintains as talked about in class and the preservation of the diversity to show foreign countries for foreigners to understand China at its core. This is similar to Dynamic Yunnan in its incorporation of folk dance in everyday life. It created a sort of “living museum” to a smaller degree than Dynamic Yunnan. As mentioned in Wang’s “Analysis of the Inheritance and Development of Original Ecology Music”, the importance of maintaining folk customs through various types of arts and social events are key to maintaining it within China and then even externally and sharing the rich cultural history of China.

These types of changes were necessary once China started to engage with foreign countries. For example, when Shenyang went to perform to the exiled Cambodian king, custom costumers were created instead of the traditional army costumes as well as given strict orders to stay away from sensitive topics3. The purpose of this was clear in that the CCP wanted to gain new allies in the form of the deep culture that China had to share instead of the sensitive political aggression that existed during that era.

Figure 2. Chinese Military Acrobatics [3]

Then in 1972, Shenyang acrobatic troupe traveled to the US. They were given custom western styled clothes and properly educated on how to behave. On their best behavior, they traveled around performing very traditional Chinese acrobatics in hopes of educating the US population about Chinese culture. Sponsored by non-us government groups, it was known as a way for the two cultures to really learn about the culture of the other instead of the political systems. It ultimately proved to be extremely successful. It helped bridge connections formerly shattered and lift trade sanctions that existed3.

Figure 3. Shenyang Acrobatic Troupe US Tour [3]

In 1972, while Shenyang Acrobatic troupe toured the US, the Shanghai acrobatic troupe received then US President Richard Nixon4. This troupe was specifically prepared to entertain the US President Richard Nixon as the two countries began to talk for the first time in more than two decades. It’s importance to educate Nixon and show the deep and rich culture of the Chinese was critical and especially useful since it had been sponsored by the Communist party. It was a perfect symbol to show how the Communist party had worked to benefit the lower classes who were ostracized and the economic opportunities afforded as places like Shanghai had urbanized. It also then had included folk cultures within the performances and was a highlighted model for the world to learn about the Chinese culture instead of the politics.

Today’s Era

Moving to today, there are many aspects found throughout the history of Chinese acrobatics that influence its use today. When going through the performance of the acrobatic show, it, like Dynamic Yunnan, seems to have different scenes that are unrelated. The overall performance appears to be a random assortment of acts where each individual act achieves some purpose and has different Chinese aspects to it.

One of the scenes that can be discussed is the following scene5. At 5:00, the acrobat appears to release her long sleeves as she continues to jump on the stick. This is similar to the traditional Chinese sleeves as seen in the Chinese adaptation of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler”. It’s correlation to the traditional Chinese clothes and when the acrobatic shows were primarily focused on the courts and upper classes are a key reminder of the long Chinese past. It also then combines this with an impressive feat as the acrobat must now combine an old Chinese dance style with advanced acrobatics. Like the Beijing Olympics as discussed, the Chinese acrobat seeks to push her own body to its maximum capability while adding traditional elements to the performance.

By using traditional Chinese garbs in a performance designed for both domestically and internationally, the Shanghai Acrobatic troupe manages to achieve two goals. It would be a key element in educating foreigners about the Chinese culture and the tradition that remains in it as the acrobats pushed themselves to do physical challenges that other westerns do without such cultural elements. It connects the foreigners through an entertaining show in China and helps encourage those to come to China. From that visit, people can learn to communicate better as they understand the culture itself and the importance that culture can have on the political decisions.

The next pattern seen in the acrobatics show is one discussed in the Beijing Olympics. The pattern of advancing acrobatics into the modern world and continuing its advancement is similar to the Beijing Olympics. The incorporation of technology in the performance itself. By doing this, the Chinese seek to add another element that not only enhances the performance but help further foreigners views on the advancement of China. As can be seen in at 8 minutes in the following video5, there is a screen behind the trampoline. Through the movement of the acrobats on the trampoline and the moving videos to create a visual where it appears to the audience to have multiple dimension movements.

Like historically in the early 1970s, the Beijing Olympics was another major stepping stone in China’s relations to the world. As discussed in Brownwell’s “Introduction What the Olympic Games Mean to China”, the Western world remained mistrusting of communism. Through connecting and advancing the technologies involved in the performance of the opening games, the Chinese hoped to inspire their own people with a show demonstrating how far the country has progressed while communicating through the technological advances to the rest of the world ancient Chinese traditional elements. Today, as can be seen in this past video, the Shanghai Acrobatic Show continues to do this daily in both China and on worldwide tours. Its successful incorporation of technologies and immense size are a more daily version of this Olympic opening ceremony as the world continues to globalize and nations connections are both closer than they ever have been but also remain so far apart.

Ultimately, the Shanghai acrobatic show developed throughout history and cannot be what it is today without the Communist Party’s support. From promoting it as a tool in the war against the Japanese to utilizing it to help lower classes in urban areas the ramifications of the acrobatics politically in helping the Communist Party in cultural ways also remains a key element of acrobatics. The internal political benefits also extended to the outside realm as well. The political sphere that acrobatics as it toured the US and was used to entertain US president Nixon remain a key element of the Shanghai Acrobatic Show. Its importance as a tourist destination to bring foreigners to China helps both the Chinese government politically and economically as a central place in eastern Asia and moves to a global superpower in both regards.

The connection through the acrobatic shows, especially the Shanghai Acrobatic show, to the other methods studied in performances like Dynamic Yunnan, the Beijing Opening ceremonies and the Chinese yue opera version of “Hedda Gabler” is the combination of the traditional cultural elements within certain sections and the technological advances shown in the overall performance. By doing this, like in the other manners, the connection from the Chinese to the western world is further strengthened politically, culturally and economically. In its inception, the Shanghai Acrobatic Show had connections to Canada where westerners were recruited for its inception. The goal of this was to create the Chinese equivalent of a Cirque du Soleil where it was capable of entertaining masses but also maintain the Chinese traditions. As can be seen in the breakdown of the two videos, this show manages to accomplish this goal of maintaining the Chinese traditional elements in combination of a western performance and doing so at a high level.

Ultimately, it results in a highly successful, entertaining and educating performance. It deepens the cultural connections and remains an important venue for westerners to attend in their tour a rising global superpower in a world that seeks to connect together unlike at any other point in history. The importance of creating unique shows especially ones that have been used throughout history and constantly evolved as the country has changed to build bridges instead of walls. An experience that pushes technological advances, cultural history and acrobatics bodies to the maximum performance is one that is highly important and must have a rich history in the development and usage to be used so prominently in political spheres like it has in US-China relations.


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1Leroux, L. P., & Batson, C. R. (2016). Cirque Global:
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2Jia, Susan. “Chinese Circus and Its Audiences: Past and
Present.” New Theatre Quarterly 35.4 (2019): 365-72.


3Zhang, Tracy Ying. “Bending the Body for China: The Uses of
Acrobatics in Sino-US   Diplomacy during
the Cold War.” International Journal of Cultural Policy, vol. 22,
no. 2, Routledge, 14/3/2016, pp. 123–46, doi:10.1080/10286632.2014.956665.


4Wikipedia contributors. (2019, December 17). Richard Nixon’s
1972 visit to China. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Retrieved 01:02, December 20, 2019, from


 5(2013, November 10).
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6ERA_Shanghai Circus World_ERA Tickets_Ticket Booking. (n.d.). Retrieved from