On a roll

Updated: 2012-02-24 08:39

By Chen Yingqun (China Daily)

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On a roll
China's diabolo programs have won many international awards. Zhang Xiuke / for China Daily

Traditional juggling act continues to delight young and old, at home and abroad

In the Xuanwu district of Beijing, Wang Huiying stands before a crowd in a red costume, complete with ornaments that glitter in the early morning sun. Wang, 62, is still sprightly enough to perform whirls, splits and jumps to lively music, before ending her repertoire with a one-leg balancing act that generates laud applause.

But the retiree has a crucial traditional Chinese prop to help her perform these popular stunts - a diabolo or juggling spool manipulated on strings.

The diabolo, known to have originated from a Chinese yo-yo, was initially made of bamboo. It can be spun, thrown and caught by a string that is tied to two sticks held in the performer's hands.

The whistling sounds the spool makes when it is used symbolizes "the awakening of spring", says Li Shi, a member of the Beijing Folklore Society.

The history of playing the diabolo dates back to about 1,000 years in China and was first created as a pastime for the Chinese nobility.

But during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), it gradually passed onto ordinary people and became a beloved folk activity. Men and women, young and old, all enjoyed playing it, Li says.

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), playing and selling diabolos at temple fairs during Spring Festival became a firm tradition. The diabolo also evolved into a popular juggling item on the streets in line with acrobatic acts and performances that delighted local residents and visitors alike.

Li Lianyuan, a 65-year-old certified "national master" of the diabolo, recalls that his grandmother, a great player and also a street vendor in old Beijing, would usually draw viewers' attention by juggling the diabolo.

As more people took up the diabolo, many varieties of making and playing it developed. It can now be recognized in circus-skill toys enjoyed around the world.

Initially, both the spools and the sticks of the Chinese diabolo were made of bamboo, but now they come in different materials such as plastic, wood and rubber.

"The size of the diabolo can be as small as a chess piece, and as large as a truck tire," Li Lianyuan says.

The shape of the diabolo has also changed significantly. Apart from the traditional ones with two discs, there are mono bolos with only one disc.

"They are of various shapes, such as dragons, balls and flowers, which add to the enchanting beauty of any performance," Li Lianyuan says.

The diabolo is easy to learn, the simplest way to practice it being to move both sticks up and down. Practitioners cite the aesthetic charm displayed, soothing sound generated and health benefits derived as major draws.

Hao Delai, a 56-year-old diabolo player who started learning it in 2007, found the activity improved his physical and mental wellbeing.

"Playing the diabolo is good for your eyes, brain and helps you keep balance," Hao says.

"While playing, one has to be concentrated fully. That increases my optimism and gives me peace of mind."

The benefits, popularity and expertise of the diabolo are continuing to spread beyond Chinese shores.

The diabolo was officially added to acrobatic performances in 1950 and is now considered a quality Chinese performance, says Zhang Yanrong, a coach with the Beijing Acrobatic Troupe.

For the past few decades China's diabolo programs have won many international awards. Zhang and her teammates perform every year around the world, including in the United States, France, Britain and Italy.

"These are highly difficult programs with dozens of people playing the diabolo together," Zhang says.

"The gestures must be beautiful and the actions must be sharp."

Amateur diabolo players have contributed to the art in their own way.

"Most of the ordinary players are older and cannot compete with the young acrobats in uniformity or difficulty, but they are better in creating various novel and stunning styles," says Li Lianyuan, president of the Beijing Guangnei Diaobolo Association.

These diabolo players are extremely innovative and come up with numerous tricks and styles. There are now about 1,000 ways of playing with the diabolo.

"They have created various difficult tricks and beautiful styles, and combined it with elegant dancing postures," Li Lianyuan says.

Hao Delai is able to play the diabolo as he kicks a shuttlecock, and Wang Huiying has famously added yoga movements into her diabolo use. Other players are able to play the diabolo as they ride bikes, roller-skate or take part in many other activities.

The Guangnei Diabolo Art Troupe, an amateur diabolo group consisting mainly of middle-aged and elderly members, is frequently invited to perform at home and abroad.

These players succeeded in having the diabolo put putting the diabolo onto the Intangible Cultural Heritage List at the national level in 2006.

Members are also working hard to spread diabolo culture and play. There are hundreds of diabolo organizations nationwide. In Beijing alone, at least 10,000 people play it, Li Lianyuan says.

"You can see people playing the diabolo as part of their morning exercises in almost every park in Beijing."

Li Lianyuan and a number of other diabolo players also volunteer at the Diabolo Museum of Beijing, which was built in 2009 and has welcomed about 30,000 visitors, including many foreigners. Everyday, the volunteers hold diabolo performances and teach visitors techniques.

They have also brought the diabolo to schools. About 30 schools in Beijing now list diabolo playing as a course.

Some organizations in Beijing this year are holding international competitions and inviting international players to join them, says Zhu Guiru, secretary-general of the diabolo fitness committee of the Beijing Workers' Sports Association.

"There are many excellent diabolo players around the world, so we wanted to invite them and share our skills."

The diabolo has become an artwork and a Beijing souvenir. It is reflected in items including Chinese chess, necklaces, earrings and many other artworks and handicrafts.

The diabolo items have also become collectibles and appear frequently in auction markets.

"While the cheapest, ordinary diabolo costs about 10 yuan ($1.59, 1.22 euros), the most expensive ones can be about 30,000 yuan," Zhu says.

As retiree Wang juggles her diabolo at the Diabolo Museum of Beijing, 9-year-old Sha Hongqing, who is visiting the museum for the first time, asks his grandfather to buy one for him so that he can "learn as he watches".

"It's really interesting. I've already discovered four styles in only one hour," Sha says with a smile.