Well before ping-pong diplomacy in the early 1970s, there was acrobat diplomacy. As a result, many people around the world became familiar with Chinese acrobats, performers that did more than just walk a trapeze or juggle on stilts. Chinese acrobats brought circus performing to a new level, for instance by balancing multiple stacks of cups and saucers on the top of long sticks—often from two hands and a foot. In Jingjing Xue’s memoir, Shanghai Acrobat, the author not only tells of training with the Shanghai acrobats from a young age, but also shows how these troupes became the face of China, starting in developing countries and eventually reaching the west.
Xue was sent to an orphanage at the age of two when his relatives could no longer take care of him. He never knew his parents. In 1956 he was selected to learn at the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe. This was the first year of a new five-year training program modeled after the Soviet system. In the past, one acrobatic master would teach students.
In 1959, when Xue was just eleven, he performed in front of Zhou Enlai, Chen Yi, Zhu De, as well as Mao. The following year Xue and his colleagues in the troupe would fly to Africa to bring good will through their performances. Because of China’s then friendship with the Soviet Union, the troupe’s flights first took them to Irkutsk, Omsk, and Moscow.
By the time we descended into Moscow, it was pitch dark outside with thick clouds very close to the ground, making landing very difficult, even dangerous. The plane tried three times before it could land safely. The two failed attempts horrified the older ones in our group, and everyone had their face pressed against the windows. Twice there were cries of “It failed again.” I was so engrossed in the new experience that I did not recognize the danger we were in.
They then flew to Cairo and on to Khartoum, in Sudan, where they performed in front of a packed crowd and the president, Ibrahim Abboud. In Ethiopia they performed for Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife Empress Menen Asfaw. In 1963, the troupe represented China in the Games of the New Emerging Forces, an alternative Olympics held in Jakarta for countries like China, Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and North Korea. Dipa Nusantara Aidit, chairman of the Indonesian Communist Party took photos with the Chinese delegation. President Sukarno welcomed all the athletes.
The Cultural Revolution brought the performances and training to a halt and Xue and his colleagues suffered from hard labor and imprisonment. But in early 1971, after Prince Norodom Sihanouk was overthrown and went to China to find refuge, the Shanghai acrobats performed for Sihanouk and his wife. At the performance, Sihanouk sang two songs he had written, “Lovely China” and “Oh Phnom Penh”. This night would turn out to be significant for the troupe.
After the show, acrobatic diplomacy was again on the agenda. This helped improve the troupe’s status. Sihanouk had not yet liberated his country, but he had liberated us. While most cultural organizations were still involved in hard labor in the rural areas, our troupe was in Shanghai preparing to perform for foreign guests.
Soon Xue and the Shanghai troupe would perform before Nixon and Kissinger when they visited China in 1972. The Japanese Prime Minister, Tanaka Kakuei, was not informed the Americans would be traveling to China, so to keep up with these changes in diplomacy, Tanaka himself traveled to China in June that year. The acrobat performance for Tanaka didn’t go as well, so to speak.
Just as the show was about to start, a TV journalist rushed into the hall and told everyone backstage that Tanaka had had too much to drink and was not coming. We learnt later that Premier Zhou had told Tanaka repeatedly, “Promises must be honored, and actions must lead to results.” Tanaka became excited over the success of his trip, but the Chinese maotai liquor was much stronger than his customary sake, and he couldn’t handle it.
With Tanaka out of commission, Xue and his teammates were told to remove their makeup and pack things up. The show would not go on that evening.
After these two state visits in 1972, the Chinese government decided to send acrobats abroad to Europe. So in early 1973, the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe set off for Albania, where Xue saw Chinese goods everywhere: Phoenix and Forever bicycles on the street and Sun-Oriented thermoses in their hotel. There was even a textile factor named after Mao. They went on to Romania and France. In Paris, Xue performed before Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who was economic minister at the time and would later become president of France. They also traveled to Italy and the UK. In London, the troupe performed before Prime Minister Edward Heath and other British dignitaries, including the leader of the Communist Party of Britain.
By 1980 the troupe was on its way to the US, where they would perform for money for the first time, rather than diplomacy. Xue was thirty-two when he went to the US, which was considered old for an acrobat. Some of the early stops included New York and Philadelphia. When the troupe reached Washington, DC, they went back to their diplomatic role and performed for President Jimmy Carter. The US and China had recently fully restored relations.
Later, in the 1980s, Xue applied to study in Australia and was granted a visa. He ended up staying, getting married, and training the next generation of acrobats in Australia. Some of his students went on to the greatest achievements Australian acrobats had ever reached and he found great joy in their success.
Shanghai Acrobat is similar in many ways to Anchee Min’s Red Azalea, which told of her years as an actress in Madame Mao’s film studio, and Mao’s Last Dancer, the story of ballet dancer Li Cunxin, who defected to the US while performing there, but who, like Xue, ended up in Australia. But Xue’s story is different. His acrobatic troupe was part of China’s early diplomatic efforts after the founding of the People’s Republic as Xue and his teammates helped bring goodwill around the world. It seemed to have worked.