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Magic and martial arts spread by canal from Cangzhou
By Yao Minji

Dozens of eyes are fixed on three small inverted bowls and three balls controlled by 68-year-old magician Wang Baohe with both hands. It's the old shell game. Spectators guess how many balls are under each bowl before Wang reveals the answer. It's one of the oldest tricks around and Wang has made a living with it for more than 30 years.

"You can get as close as you want," says Wang, who is known as "Ghost Hand."

Many rush onto stage and kneel just in front of a table - he has taken away the red tablecloth at their request. His sleeves are also rolled up to show there's nothing up his sleeve.

"You didn't put in the balls yet. They are still in your hands," yells a man who's only centimeters away from Wang's hands above the table.

Wang shows both hands - all three balls are gone.

This is the fifth consecutive time he plays the simple trick and the audience is still unwilling to leave - it's baffling and frustrating not to understand a simple sleight of hand.

"It looks so simple and that's why it has been performed all through the centuries as a classic trick," Wang tells me when I express bewilderment.

"Strictly speaking, there's no magic trick. I only act after they call out the answer, but I'm too fast for anyone to catch my movement, so I'll never lose. Anyone can learn it in a few minutes, but it takes years to practice," he tells Shanghai Daily.

It's a simple act, less than 10 minutes, but each time Wang removes something or adds something at the audience's request. In the end, he even dispenses with his table, bowls and balls, and instead uses spectator's cupped hands in which he places bottle caps. But the people can never guess how many they are holding in their own hands.

Wang always wins and eventually the audience moves on from his periodic performance to other attractions in the a acrobatic theme part in Wuqiao County in suburban Cangzhou, about an hour's train ride from Tianjin Municipality.

The county is known as "China's hometown of acrobatics," which covers conjuring, juggling, spinning sticks and plates, fire-eating, sword-swallowing and smashing rocks and bricks with a single bare-handed blow.

In the area, there are tomb murals of men juggling, spinning plates and sticks, and balancing on moving horses. These date back to the Eastern Wei Dynasty (AD 534-550). Even today, it is not uncommon to see children stretching and bending in contortions or playing magic tricks for fun.

"We performers have an old saying. 'Go south if southerners want you and swim north if northerners expect you. If neither does, then spend years along the canal'," Wang recalls.

This sums up a couple thousand of years of experience from Chinese performers. "Areas along the canals are often more dynamic, attracting traders and sailers from all over the country. As a performer, you surely want to go someplace dynamic with a lot of people," Wang says.

Even when the canal was no longer the key transport route, it was still lively and towns were magnets. When Wang was little, he used to travel and perform with his father.

"My grandfather, my father and I all went to a lot of different places to chuang ma tou. We went north to Beijing and south to Nanjing in Jiangsu Province and Shanghai," he says.

The idiom chuang ma tou literally means "to brave a wharf" and is often used by street performers, magicians and gangsters to mean exploring a new market and establishing their reputation. In the old days, performers traveled by ships on the canal and each time they tied up at a new wharf, that was a new market. Performers today still use the old canal term to refer cities far from any water or wharf.

"The origins of the performance tradition in Wuqiao County are hard to trace, but according to folk songs and oral tradition, the first performers were farmers who practiced tricks to entertain family and friends in the field," explains Zheng Zhili, an archeologist and canal expert from the Cangzhou Bureau of Cultural Heritage.

Gradually, they traveled to nearby villages when they were not farming and they realized that people would pay to enjoy their performances.

"The canal has definitely helped to carry on the tradition and expand its reputation by transporting these performers along the water system to all kinds of cities along the way," Zheng says. Those cities were often the most crowded and prosperous regional centers at the time.

The canal operation was at its peak in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when merchants gathered in canal cities and needed entertainment. That was also the peak time for Wuqiao's acrobats and magicians.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, "Ghost Hand" Wang's grandfather was a highly popular street performer at Beijing's Tianqiao, an area famous for bringing together performances from all over the country. One of his best tricks was also the shell game with three bowls and three balls.

In the late Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties, when the number and social status of merchants increased rapidly, entertainment business also developed rapidly. Many important canal cities, such as Beijing, Tianjin and Zhenjiang in Jiangsu Province, all had entertainment areas where these performances were concentrated.

At the theme park in Wuqiao County, performers swallow one-meter-long swords, breathe fire and smash rocks and bricks with their bare hands.

Today, instead of performing along the canal, performers are trained more systematically through dozens of training schools and many performance troupes in the country.

In the old days, there were temples near the wharves that were dedicated to performance gods. Performers would go there to pray for good fortune and safety before they set sail and to express thanks when they returned to the wharf.

Martial arts

Cangzhou is famous not only for its magicians, acrobats, jugglers and other performers, but also for its martial arts practitioners. The city is also widely known as the "hometown of martial arts." Nearly half of more than 100 martial arts practiced in China are said to have originated in Cangzhou and then been spread all over the country through the canal.

It is common to see old people practicing martial arts in public parks all over China, but in Cangzhou they practice many more schools than tai chi and mulan, which are slower and easier to pick up by seniors. It's common to see swords, knives and sticks all over the parks.

"I started when I was eight years old, but that's nothing special around here," says 76-year-old Ma Honglin, a local celebrity. "My childhood friends and my neighbors' children all did it. We learned from adults in the neighborhood and practiced with each other. One day we heard about a great master in a nearby village, so we all went there to learn from him."

This sounds like a martial arts novel in which the young disciple becomes the master, but it happened less than 70 years ago and it's still happening today. Ma has become the master.

Every day at 6am, he holds free practice sessions in the people's park. The only exception is Chinese Lunar New Year's Day. His students are of all ages and backgrounds and include opera actors who must perform martial arts on stage.

As with other performances, the martial arts culture in Cangzhou also reached its peak in the Ming and Qing dynasties. "By the late Qing Dynasty, it already enjoyed an overseas reputation," says Wang Zhihai, vice chairman of the city's martial arts association.

The martial arts tradition dates back more than 2,000 years. "The development of the canal and Cangzhou's location near major canal cities like Tianjin and Beijing made it a must-see stop for ships and barges with valuable cargo.

Famous bodyguards

Trading companies used to hire guards to protect cargo and valuable products and martial arts masters from Cangzhou were among the most popular guards. Officials also sought their protection when traveling on the canal.

"At one time in the Qing Dynasty, 90 percent of the famous bodyguard companies were in Cangzhou and many had branches in the capital Beijing," Wang says.

The place was so famous that other bodyguards, contrary to tradition, remained silent in reverence when their vessels passed Cangzhou. In general, bodyguards were supposed to yell out their security company's name to warn off robbers as they passed a town. They would also wave their banners. But not when they passed Cangzhou.

"I used to practice right by the canal when I was a child," master Ma recalls. "When I was in my teens, the canal was still very crowded with cargo ships and sailors working on the boats. An entire district is called the canal district. I remember seeing ships as late as the 1970s."

He even remembers the sailors songs that he used to hear all the time back then. He bursts into song:

"Turning and turning along the canal, twisting, twisting we go forward. Ah hei yo, I sing with sweat. Ah hei yo, I sing with courage ..."

Those lines are just a few from the many songs sailors sang as they worked their barges and ships. There were different work songs for different positions, such as fore and aft, and various jobs. Many old residents in the canal district can still sing a few lines, like Ma.

As in many northern cities, sluice gates are closed at the city's border to maintain the water level of the unused downtown canal, which is being turned into a tourist attraction. The water has been cleaned, river banks have been landscaped, decorative lights have been installed and sightseeing boats are expected to ply the waters.

"I haven't visited the renovated canal, but I can imagine how nostalgic it will be for me," martial arts master Ma says. "I must try to practice martial arts there at least once."

Ma is master of a dozen martial arts forms, which is not uncommon for Cangzhou locals. Many schools teach martial arts as exercise. One of the most popular forms is called pi gua quan, which literally means "chop hanging fist."

"Beware. It's a rather wild and explosive style of martial arts," says Wang, another master and coach from the martial arts association. He is best known for the chop hanging fist.

"What do you mean by explosive?" I ask.

Wang clears a space around himself, of around two meters.

Bang, bang, bang ...

Without realizing what is happening, I feel the air rushing past and see Wang's arms whipping as though they are not attached to his body. He is around 1.7m tall, but at that moment, his arms seem like those of a person of 1.8m or 1.9m.

"This is just the very basic first movement of the fist," he says calmly, like an entirely different person from the human windmill I just witnessed.

"The point is to extend your reach further than your enemy could ever anticipate," Wang says, showing his secret, his joints.

They seem to have been broken or impossibly stretched. I touch a round depression on his shoulder joint - he could place an egg there.

"Almost all the masters you have read about came from Cangzhou and learned their techniques in Cangzhou," Wang concludes. "Then, in the old times, they traveled, often by canal, to different places to chuang ma tou."

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