Origins of the Chinese Circus

200 BC – 200 AD – Han Dynasty, Sichuan Province – Juggler with balls and knives – Carving, stone of the “Hundred Games.” [source: Chinese Acrobatics Through The Ages, p15]

The origins of the Chinese circus are not entirely crystal clear. There are debates and differing opinions when it comes to the exact history behind the circus, which is not a surprise when you take into account how long it has been around!

First records of the Chinese circus - including carvings and mural paintings - date back more than 2,000 years to the Warring States period (475–221 BC), with evidence of performances developing further during the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BC - 230 AD). Although it is believed that the art may have actually started around 3,000 years ago!

One theory is that the acts originated in imperial courts, with performers entertaining the houses in a manner similar to western court jesters. However, it is more likely that the circus was a folk art that was later adopted by the imperial houses. The acts evolved from a simple exhibition of skills into a performing art, with a varied repertoire of skills including tumbling, balancing, plate spinning, pole balancing and rope dancing. The circus came to be known as The Show of One Hundred Tricks.

Chinese street performers seen by Johan Nieuhof in 1655-57

The circus became a family tradition, much like in European circuses, with skills being passed from generation to generation. Successful circus families became famous, with their names being known far and wide.

The circus declined in China in the mid-20th century as a result of the second world war, but in 1949 the art received a boost from The People's Republic of China to preserve the art form and fund the training of new performers.

There are over 200 circus and acrobatic troupes within China today and most of them have toured around the world. 

The Chinese State Circus is currently touring the UK with it's new production - 'Dynasty'.