China's street-dancing stilt walkers risk safety in exchange for thrills

Natalie ThomasUpdated 22nd February 2019
(CNN) — When Liu Guoliang puts on his makeup and straps on his stilts, he's participating in a Chinese tradition that's been in existence for centuries, if not millennia.
There are many different origin stories for stilt walking in China, and historical references dating as far back as 5 BCE.
In northern Hebei province, the legend goes that hundreds of years ago a flash flood struck, threatening villages with destruction.
In a moment of benevolence, 12 spirits floating on clouds blocked the path of the waters and averted catastrophe.
Representing these spirits, the stilt walkers are supposed to bring good luck, and for centuries they'd be present at any major event in Chinese life, including New Year celebrations, important birthdays and funerals.
"We're professionals," says Liu following a performance at a Chinese New Year fair in Baoding, a city in Hebei province. "As long as people need us to perform, we'll go."
The tradition has evolved differently in various parts of the country.
Hebei stilt walkers stand a meter or so above the ground, dressed as one of a dozen spirits, including the big-headed ghost, the medicine man or the king of evil.
The troupe travels from town to town, announcing their presence with the crashing of drums and cymbals. The traditional routine involves dancing, jumping over increasingly high benches and balancing on one leg in a kind of sideways split.
For this their troupe master Liu Guozheng, who goes by the stage name of Hong Long, pays the walkers 60,000 to 70,000 RMB per year (about $9,000 to $10,000). When not on the road the performers live together on his old family farm.

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It's a hard life. Falls and fractures are inevitable, says Liu, who, at 37, has been training for more than 10 years.
But as China modernizes, the stilt walkers are facing a new challenge: keeping their audience interested.
"Before we'd just go from village to village, walk around and that was it," says Liu. "But now there aren't many people who like that kind of performance. To put it coarsely, they're a bit sick of it."
“As long as people need us to perform, we'll go.”
Liu Guoliang, Chinese stilt walker
So the troupe has gradually been working on some new moves, and for inspiration they looked to the Internet.
"We got this new style from these videos online showing street dance moves," says Liu.
In a prefab metal warehouse on the edge of Baoding, the stilt walkers train three hours a day, replicating the moves they found online -- but with giant wooden poles attached to their feet.
"They're all pretty dangerous," admits Liu of the moves.
"It's changed so much," says troupe leader Hong. "Our original style of stilt walking was more about the twirly dancing...There was almost no acrobatics in the performances."
So far, the sacrifice has paid off. There's renewed interest in the stilt walkers and the troupe has even appeared on Chinese state TV.
"We often go to places and get so many people going, 'My God, that's awesome,'" adds Liu.
For Liu to be able to keep the tradition alive, the risk is worth it.