China’s Bending Bodies

Contortionists and Politics in China

by Mariam Ala-Rashi

Edited by Nicole Castro & Thom Wall

This research study proposes an introduction to the performance art form contortionism by examining its theories and functions throughout the 20th and 21st century. It considers themes including the appropriation of contortionism during the golden age of Hollywood and discusses definition issues between contortionism and other disciplines that highlight body flexibility, such as gymnastics and yoga. By examining the genesis of contortionism in ancient China, it aims to explore parallels between the origins of Chinese contortionism and the establishment of Chinese acrobatics. It later dissects the political use of contortionism in socialist China and the development and institutionalization of acrobatic troupes since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Drawing upon a Foucauldian perspective, it further examines the parallels between the Western training of soldiers during the 17th and 18th century, and methods of traditional Chinese acrobatic training in the 21st century at the Beijing International Art School. This monograph includes data from a wide range of literature, material evidence, oral history, current media reports, and considers recent work in anthropology, archaeology, and political history. It, therefore, offers the interested reader, the scholar, the contortionist and contortion practitioner a substantial treatise about the art-form contortionism.

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