Tue, Jan 25, 2005 - Page 16 News List

The circus has just come to town

The traveling show that features feats of wonder is an institution in China's vast countryside

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Xinglong, China

The bald man in a monk's flowing robe pounded a drum and a dull, rising beat echoed through the darkened streets with a promise of something in short supply in this grim, isolated town: entertainment.

The circus had come to town, in the form of a dirty pink bus carrying about 20 men claiming to be disciples of China's most revered kung fu traditions. But this would not be a fighting exhibition. The men promised to eat metal balls, sleep on beds of sharpened blades and perform other acts of physical wonder.

All for the low price of 3 yuan, or about 36 cents, cheap even for China. They pitched a striped tent on a vacant lot littered with broken concrete, beat the drum and waited. In a town where the closest city is three hours away by narrow mountain road, people came.

"This is not a movie," promised the announcer, who provided commentary and pounding disco music during the show. "This is not a video. This is a real live show."

It was less certain whether these were real live monks. But, really, that did not matter to the more than 100 people who crowded into the tent on a cold winter night, many of them squealing young children whose usual entertainment is state television.

In remote Chinese towns like Xinglong, the traveling show is a tradition much like the freak shows that sometimes still turn up at county fairs in the US. Usually, these Chinese troupes gravitate to smaller places with vaudeville-style shows of singing and dancing, or Chinese opera. Sometimes they bring circus acts.

"There are lots of them in the summer," said Yu Zhimei, who owns a restaurant, Higher than Heaven, a half block from the tent. "Circuses and singing and dancing performances. The audiences love it."

But gesturing toward the tent, she sniffed. "Sometimes the level of sophistication is very low. Some groups like this don't have much money. They just use a tent. Other, better groups can rent the hall in town."

Inside the tent, the small children bundled in smudged winter coats did not seem to mind. They watched a shirtless, chubby man offer a short prayer to Buddha. Then he grimaced and groaned as a man from the audience dropped four small metal pellets the size of BBs into his mouth.

"Quicker, quicker!" the children screamed.

The man grunted and stuck out his tongue as proof that he had swallowed the pellets. Then he promised to retrieve them.

"They will go through my body," he promised. "I'm going to push them back through my mouth, eyes or ears. Which one do you wish?"

The children showed no mercy. "Your eyes!" they shouted.

He gritted his teeth and pressed his hand against the right side of his stomach. He said he was going to push the BBs through his chest into his head. He said he was summoning his years of physical and spiritual training as a fighting monk.

Apparently, that was not enough.

"Give him a chopstick, friend!" the announcer shouted.

The monk then pressed the chopstick against a bulging vein in his neck, pushing it slowly upward until a silver glint appeared in the corner of his eyelet.

"Clink, clink."

Two small metal pellets fell out of his right eye into a tin cup below. A few seconds later, after sliding the chopstick up his left side, the monk produced two more balls, out of his left eye. The astonished crowd murmured as if they had witnessed a miracle. (No one seemed suspicious that the monk had shielded his eyes moments earlier, perhaps just long enough to slip in the BBs).

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