The Unexpected Acrobat
By Joan Aragone
Maybe it was the cold weather, or the polluted air, or what seemed an unending color scheme of brown, navy and black, but on this winter Sunday in Beijing, I needed a break.
It was the late 1980’s and I’d been teaching in a university program with excellent students and pleasant colleagues. But China’s mysterious, ancient capital with its labyrinthine levels of power and social and political strictures could feel oppressive. My usual solution for this kind of mood: a bicycle ride, without a plan.
Maybe because Beijing’s winter temperatures had decimated the usual tall trees lining my chosen route along a wide main road, but I noticed for the first time a gazebo on a small hill beyond a low-lying wall that had been hidden in the fall by greenery. It sat in a small, almost empty, neighborhood park with a rusting gate, a great contrast to Beijing’s enormous public parks, former imperial grounds, with lakes, huge pavilions, amusement rides and mobs of visitors. Inside the wall a few families wrapped in padded jackets and heavy scarves strolled around a small clearing lined with mounds of brown dirt. In a tiny pavilion near the clearing a group of old men in dark blue pants and jackets played chess and smoked.
Most Beijing parks, especially on Sundays, teemed with radios, loud speakers and the falsetto voices of Beijing opera buffs practicing outdoors. But this place was oddly quiet. Curious, I parked my bike and entered.
And after a few seconds I saw him— in the clearing near the pavilion where the old men sat —a muscular young man barefoot and stripped to the waist, his long hair bound by a headband, the cuffs of his faded pants rolled to the knee, clutching a large wooden staff and leaping across the dirt in high graceful circles like a Chinese Baryshnikov. He seemed an apparition, some ancient warrior dropped to earth.
His staff cut the air. “Whoosh,” “Whoosh,” like the sound of an eagle swooping. In quick moves, the staff seemed to jump along his back and shoulders, then around to his chest, his shoulders again.
Never using his hands, he spun and wove and the staff moved with him, spinning around his back, down to his shoulders, around his arms, to his chest, along his arms, never touching the ground. If it slipped he kicked it upward and started again.
A whirring hum like an incantation filled the air, the sound coming not from the staff but from three elongated pieces of metal at its end, each shaped like a feather and about eight inches long. And as the staff moved up and around, the whirling metal created a continuous metallic hum. Over and over he spun, while the staff rode up his back, down his chest, down his arms, to his legs, when he kicked it to start again. His body glistened with sweat in the freezing air.
A man on a bench looked up from his newspaper. The old men paused in their chess game. We onlookers nodded, but nobody spoke.
In the center of the barren, wintry park, the man seemed bathed in light. Over and over and over and over, he moved, stopped, started again. He dropped the staff. He started again. Up and down, over and under. Circles of movement, balletic leaps, the only sound the hypnotic whir, like a chant.
I don’t know how long we watched. Time seemed to stop.
Eventually the man on the bench went back to his newspaper; the old men returned to their game; the couples walked on. But the young man, ignoring us all, continued. After a while, I left too.
Months later I saw those movements again— but from a distance in a crowded theater accompanied by gongs and crashing cymbals. It seems my mysterious athlete had been practicing a sophisticated form of martial arts and acrobatics used only for performance. That style of movement, the skill and purity of which I had never seen before or since, is rare. Yet, there it was, on display in a public space in a crowded city on a cold, gray, Sunday morning.
When I returned to the USA, I could never satisfactorily answer when friends asked me how I had liked living in Beijing. The pervasive winter gloom, the polluted air, the monotonous skyline. Yet on that day, as I rode back in the brown haze that passed for twilight, past chimneys shooting spumes of smoke, I would have had an answer.
Some secret of the ancient city had surfaced that day. In a quiet park, in the beauty of the unexpected, the spirit of old Beijing was still alive.
As I rode back home, I realized I was smiling.