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    For China’s Abandoned Children, Acrobatics Is a Harsh Last Hope

    Critics pan rural schools as exploitative and dangerous. Advocates say they fill a social need.

    ANHUI, East China — Nine-year-old Zhengyang never chose the life of a performing acrobat.

    Just months after he was born, Zhengyang’s mother ran away and was never seen again. His 20-year-old father, a migrant construction worker who had long been estranged from his own divorced parents, then left Zhengyang in the hands of the boy’s octogenarian great-grandmother, who was also tending to her bedridden husband.

    After Zhengyang’s great-grandmother passed away three years later, his father entrusted him to a friend, the then 21-year-old acrobat Li Xiaogao, to be trained as his first acrobatic apprentice at his home in the rural outskirts of Anhui’s Bozhou City.

    Six years on, Zhengyang is now just one of 14 children aged 5 to 11 that train, perform, and live together as members of Li’s acrobatic troupe. China’s globe-trotting state acrobatic troupes are internationally renowned, but the country is also home to many small, family-based troupes such as Li’s — which were how acrobats passed on their skills for centuries — that still train and perform in rural areas. Li knows of several similar troupes in his local area, but the nearby county of Linquan, which has a long tradition of acrobatics, boasts an estimated 1,200 private troupes and over 20,000 trained acrobats.

    After years of arduous daily training, a short, muscular Zhengyang can now backflip, tumble, bend like a contortionist, lift children his age, whirl around hung by a rope around his neck, and suspend himself horizontally from tall poles. Despite his young age and humble background, he has already performed his stunts before millions: on TV, to his 600,000-plus online fans, and in hundreds of local shows.

    Troupe heads such as Li maintain that their groups serve as a free, self-sustaining means for disadvantaged children to secure glittering livelihoods as acrobats — as well as a caring home. But such groups have become increasingly controversial as China has modernized: Critics argue they are exploitative, unprofessional, dangerous, and offer rural children a less effective career path than school.

    On a brisk March Saturday morning, Li’s students train across the large outdoor courtyard of his country home. Five of them take turns doing flips across the bare concrete floor, the slapping sounds of their hands and feet mingling with distant crowing roosters and rumbling trucks. “Brother Gao’s Acrobatics School,” referring to Li’s given name, is scrawled in faded yellow letters on the courtyard wall.

    “As you can see, we’re not extremely professional,” says 27-year-old Li while sitting in a child-sized chair with his grumpy-looking 3-month-old. He watches in silence as the children flip, stretch, and twist, occasionally giving pointers or telling them to switch movements. Li acts as leader, trainer, and local agent for the children, but the troupe is a whole-family operation: His wife, sister-in-law, and parents also help take care of the kids, while his brother-in-law helps to oversee training and take children to performances. Even young Zhengyang, who calls Li “uncle,” sometimes leads training.

    Li’s troupe has no legal basis or teaching certifications: Parents commit their children to Li on a purely spoken agreement and can take them back whenever they want. Later that day, one of the children’s parents comes by to pick them up.

    On weekdays, Li and others will wake the kids at 6:20 a.m., drive them to school by minivan and bring them home at 4 p.m. They then spend an hour doing their homework, finishing with two hours of acrobatic training or a nearby performance. They often livestream evening training sessions on Kuaishou, a video app particularly popular in smaller cities and the countryside, which helps generate a bit of income.

    The troupe mostly makes money through local shows and events, where the children perform several evenings a week and on weekends. These bring in 1,500 to 2,000 yuan ($220 to $300) per show, says Li, which adds up to “many tens of thousands” per month. Though a hefty sum for rural Anhui, Li claims money is tight, with the income used to house, clothe, and feed the kids, as well as Li’s wider family. Part of it also goes toward acrobat essentials: Li owns two white minivans to transport the children, a Sony Alpha camera to film promotional clips, and a MacBook Pro to edit them.

    Stretching on a cardboard sheet next to Li is Juncheng, a quiet 5-year-old whose dark, slanted eyebrows lend him a sorrowful expression. He’s bending like a scorpion, with his chin and chest on the ground, arms tightly folded, and feet dangling in the air either side of his head. For the next hour, he lies there, occasionally groaning from the effort. Stretching like this every day sets the essential groundwork for acrobatic moves by training a high degree of flexibility, explains Li. It’s something that can only be trained around the age of 5, which is why acrobats must begin so young.

    “It’s like this every day,” Li says. “Acrobatics is tedious. You don’t have to say too much: Just teach them a little, and that’s enough for them to train for a long time.” Li, who comes from a poor rural family, says he was fascinated with acrobatics when he was young. When he was 7, his parents sent him to acrobatics hub Linquan County to train and perform under the direction of a master, who later became his father-in-law.

    Years later, after taking on Zhengyang as an apprentice, Li switched from performer to trainer and talent agent, taking the child on a whirlwind tour of national talent and gala TV shows when he was just 6. After two years, Li was exhausted from life on the road and saw that the constant touring was having an impact on Zhengyang’s schoolwork. Since then, he’s decided to keep operations local. The troupe has since expanded, with some parents hoping to give their children a taste of fame.

    For many rural parents, Li’s school is also a convenient and cost-free place for their children to live and be looked after. As Li explains the benefits of stretching, Mengyu, 8, displays the fruits of hard-earned flexibility: While maintaining a handstand on an elevated platform, she practices using her feet to shoot arrows at a moving target. She, like most children in Li’s troupe, is the child of divorced parents who often work in cities far from their hometowns. “The parents break up, then the dad is away all year long working as a migrant laborer, and the mother remarries,” explains Li. Others are the children of parents who struggle to make ends meet as they look after both their children and elders.

    Over the past several decades, hundreds of millions of China’s rural residents have left their homes to work higher-paid jobs in urban centers. Due to restricted access to welfare in cities and migrant workers’ long seven-day work schedules, however, many leave their children behind in the countryside, resulting in a 9-million-strong population of “left-behind children.” At best, these children are left with loving relatives; at worst, with aging grandparents emotionally or physically incapable of caring for them, or alone.

    Left-behind children are more likely to have physical and psychological issues, including malnutrition, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, tendencies for self-harm, and aggressive behavior, says Yang Fan, assistant professor of social policy at the School of International and Public Affairs and the China Institute for Urban Governance at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. The phenomenon has also been linked to incidents that have gained national attention, such as group suicides, parricide, and sexual abuse cases.

    Left-behind children are also more likely to have divorced parents, since working apart for long periods of time puts a strain on married couples, says Yang. The separated parents seldom effectively negotiate who takes care of these children, he adds, and the kids are sometimes bullied because of the social stigma attached to divorce in conservative areas.

    “In this kind of family, the kid’s guardian can be really shortsighted,” says Yang. Parents may seek to make their children earn a livelihood as quickly as possible, even if it means cutting short the state-mandated nine years of compulsory education, he explains. Nevertheless, Yang sees such troupes as a means of eking out a living for children in poverty-stricken areas.

    Yin Dongdong, the head of a charity that helps left-behind children in a county near Bozhou, says that government policies encouraging rural entrepreneurship and relaxing internal migration restrictions have already helped to alleviate the problem of left-behind children. Providing care for the children of divorced parents, however, can still be an issue. “Their parents don’t have a strong sense of fatherly or motherly responsibility toward their first child,” says Yin. “They’ll want to break relations with the child and won’t want too much contact.”

    Six-year-old Ruibing — a left-behind child who started at Li’s school just a few months ago — carries a constant look of confusion on his tanned face and seems to be a bit of an outsider among the children. The son of a divorced, permanently absent father and a mother who has an unspecified mental illness, Ruibing was expelled from school for violent behavior before joining Li’s troupe. His hair — grown long at the back, a local custom for male children in his region — was a matted mess when he first joined, and he had developed quirks in his isolation, such as randomly opening his mouth sideways and rubbing dirt on his face. Several short months of daily social contact and discipline seem to have helped: When his grandmother recently visited the school, she broke down in tears upon seeing him so well-behaved, says Li. When later asked for the contact details of pupils’ guardians, Li didn’t respond.

    Li argues that acrobatic training can offer children like Ruibing discipline and focus, while also equipping them with skills that guarantee employment. Besides that, he also sees himself as carrying on a cultural tradition that has fewer and fewer inheritors. In China, traveling acrobats are sometimes associated with begging, and parents have preferred to see their children avoid such grueling training and aim higher in recent years.

    Chinese media have written about the dearth of acrobat recruits and people tiring of seeing the same old tricks. Last year, a real estate media account on social app WeChat even called on real estate property developers to add acrobatics to their opening ceremonies in the name of cultural protection.

    But others are happy to see the art form vanish completely. On his Kuaishou account, Li says he receives private messages asking if he’s a child trafficker, and that baseless viewer comments suggest the children at his school wear terrible clothes, eat bad food, and are regularly beaten.

    Under a thread discussing the lives of rural acrobat children on Zhihu, a Quora-like Q&A platform, a respondent who claims to be a former acrobat says that acrobatic schools trick clueless parents by professing to teach a useful and employable skill, while actually beating and psychologically abusing the kids, as well as depriving them of an education — all for a skill with a limited lifespan. “The exhaustion and pain you suffer from childhood to university age is useless,” they add. “My greatest hope is that this harmful thing, acrobatics, can disappear from the world.” Another purported former acrobat points out acrobatics’ high injury rate and the accompanying hospital bills that eat into one’s income. A video shared online in 2017 shows the bloody scene of a teenage acrobat who fell from a tall pole that snapped mid-performance.

    In 2017, Chinese News Service reported on a troupe in central Henan province’s Puyang that was made up of 20 children — most of whom had divorced parents or came from poor families, with some once leading criminal lives. The article’s accompanying photos depicted children with pained expressions doubled over and being threatened with bamboo-stick beatings. The troupe in question was later disbanded by local authorities for operating without any teaching qualifications.

    Close to the wall in Li’s courtyard, a 6-year-old boy in a heart-covered T-shirt is practicing bending backward into a bridge pose. After missing the floor with his hands, he smashes his head on the concrete floor with a sonorous thump, sending the other kids into fits of laughter. “He’s new,” says an older child matter-of-factly as the boy rubs his sore skull.

    Zhengyang has had worse: He once needed six stitches after a botched jump from a plank. After only a week of rest, he was back to training. “I always need to push myself: If I get hurt, what will happen to them (the young acrobats)?” says Zhengyang, commenting on the incident with a sense of responsibility unbefitting a 9-year-old. “If I don’t make money, if I get hurt, then everyone will go hungry. We also have the electricity bill, food, and clothing — all these living expenses would not be possible (without me).”

    Some professional acrobats, such as Chen Xichang, a performer at the award-winning theater-based acrobatics extravaganza “Water Show,” are also strongly opposed to rural child acrobat troupes. Chen’s decent salary — 20,000 yuan a month — and age — 29 — point to the longer-term career potential for acrobat hopefuls, but he thinks that most rural troupes are irresponsible, teaching basic tricks to children for pocket money. “There’s no future in this; it’s the equivalent of throwing children into a fiery pit,” says Chen during a phone call with Sixth Tone, with no reference to a particular troupe.

    Chen has seen devastating acrobatic injuries firsthand. He once saw a fellow acrobat fall onto a concrete floor from a revolving Ferris wheel, crushing his kneecap. Nevertheless, Chen, who poetically describes acrobatics as a lover he can’t help but return to every day, disagrees that acrobats are doomed to a short career. Even if they lose their flexibility, they can move into strength-based tricks and subtler performances such as magic, as long as they practice every day.

    Rural acrobat troupes still train children into a profession that is better than working as a migrant laborer — which comes with low wages that make it hard to get married, maintains Zhao Li, the 31-year-old head of a rural acrobatic school-troupe with 20 students in eastern Shandong province. Coming from a poor rural family, he could only eat meat once a month growing up, but acrobatics offered him a chance for a better life. He estimates that his wife, also a trained acrobat, has performed in over 10 countries outside of China. Training has improved, as have the safety equipment and props, he says.

    He Xiaobin, the former creative director of China’s national acrobatics troupe, tells Sixth Tone that people’s objections to acrobatics are generally based on ignorance of the art form. Although acrobatic training is undeniably tough, he thinks Chinese society has a bias against physically exhausting learning, while being accepting of mentally taxing work. “The path of study for students — from primary school to high school and college entrance exams — is also tiring work. It’s just that everyone thinks this type of fatigue is acceptable and appropriate,” says He. “The exhaustion felt by learners of acrobatics, or even dancers and gymnastics, is less commonly seen.”

    He is not opposed to rural acrobatic troupes, saying their continued existence points toward a social need. And as for fears that acrobatics is fading, He says that the reducing number of troupes is a simple matter of market consolidation and survival of the flashiest.

    In the evening, Zhengyang, Mengyu, and the other kids get dressed in hot pink and silver costumes and pack acrobatic equipment into Li’s white minivan. The children split into two groups to perform at three separate events which will bring in a total of 7,500 yuan.

    It’s already dark when they arrive at the night’s first performance — a birthday party for a local businessman’s son. Following a deafening performance of suona — a traditional Chinese horn — played to a techno backing track, it’s time for Li’s troupe. On a stage built on the back of a truck, siblings Yuli and Kai first perform a routine hanging from a slow-spinning metal frame, ending with them spinning across from each other suspended only by their necks. Afterward, clips from previous TV appearances introduce Zhengyang. Li hypes his star pupil’s routine with running commentary over throbbing dance music.

    When the show is finished, around 9 p.m., Zhengyang and Mengyu go to another performance. As they pass another five similar street shows, Zhengyang falls asleep, sitting upright in the trunk of the car.

    The next show has an audience of hundreds of villagers. As they watch, with mouths agape and faces lit by the purple hue of the stage lights, one man on the side of the stage uses a rack of four mobile phones to livestream the show to different apps, including Kuaishou. After a traditional stand-up comedic performance, Zhengyang performs his familiar routine. This time, instead of a smattering of claps, his moves are met with raucous applause and shouts of “good!”

    On the way home, past pitch-black, tree-lined country roads, Li looks gaunt. While driving, he says he hopes that, one day, his students won’t have to run around to live shows like this. His long-term vision is for the children to develop unique talents such as singing, dancing, and, of course, acrobatics, so that they can earn a living from livestreaming. When the time comes, he says he’ll pay for them to attend extra courses if necessary — as he did to learn video editing — and his dream is to set up a studio for online content creation. For now, however, he is too tired to do it.

    The next day, Zhengyang comments on last night’s shows, saying he loves performing, especially the sound of a happy audience’s cheers. “It felt great. Everyone was so enthusiastic,” he says. “I was really happy to see them applaud me.” But acrobatics remains as much a necessity as it is a passion: “I like acrobatics, but whether I like it or not, I need it,” he says, parroting Li. Without acrobatics, he believes he’ll have to work as a migrant laborer on construction sites like his father when he’s older. Li pushes Zhengyang’s father to contribute more toward future expenses such as a car — often a prerequisite for marriage — lest his son disown him when he reaches old age.

    To Zhengyang, Li’s troupe is family: “I look after every one of them. In my heart, each one of them is very important to me. To miss one of them is to miss a family member.” He’s not seen his mother since she left, and his father only comes to visit twice a year, during Lunar New Year and on his birthday in the traditional calendar. “Unless it’s a special occasion, there’s no way he’ll come back to see me,” he sighs.

    Li’s kids appear close: Between sets, they chat and thump each other’s backs to massage away tension, and when Zhengyang practices lifts with Mengyu, they smile and chat, their faces still grimacing with effort. During breaks, the children are left to their own devices, often unsupervised, and will amuse themselves by going around on a three-wheeled truck or gathering around Li’s mobile phone to watch online TV series. At one point, a girl picks up a large white pole and starts chasing the boys with it.

    “It’s not bad here. I have so many friends; at least I won’t be lonely,” says Zhengyang. He likes asking questions about his favorite school subjects, science and history, such as which country started the world wars, and which lost them — the answer to which makes him smile. “But Germany, they’re now a peaceful country, aren’t they?” he says. “Maybe in the future, they’ll help humanity colonize the second moon of Jupiter. There’s water there. That’s what my teacher told me.”

    Despite his interests and inquisitive mind, Zhengyang sees acrobatics as the way forward. “Even if I get into university, I’ll keep up with this,” he says. “I can’t give up halfway ... If I do, all my previous practice would be in vain. I’d be heartbroken. It would be terrible.” But it may come at a cost: Li’s wife says that the life of constant performing is tiring out Zhengyang and affecting his schoolwork.

    Between sets where he practices various lifts with Mengyu, Zhengyang is pensive. “Do you have any dreams?” he asks. “I do. I have so many, there’s no way I can accomplish them all in a lifetime. I want to travel in space one day.”

    Zhengyang also hopes to become a master acrobat and to have his own troupe so he can pass on the torch and train acrobats that are even better than him.

    He stays silent for a bit, then adds with a smile, “Also, one day, I’m going to find my mom.”

    Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

    (Header image: Children watch Mengyu’s performance in Bozhou, Anhui province, March 22, 2019. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone)