Up on the stage, the “fish” first played in the court and then all at once jumped into the pool, immediately turning into a large flounder, spraying water and vomiting fog. Suddenly, in the mist, it became an eight-foot long yellow dragon, jumping to the ground and shaking his head.
Performed as an indication of the Han Dynasty emperors’ extravagant lifestyles, the “Fish Dragon” play illustrates that the tradition of magic in China has a long and complicated history.
Although there is speculation as to the origins of magic in Chinese society, many sources agree that magic first made its appearance in the “Hundred Plays” of the Han Dynasty, very possibly making China the birthplace of magic. Some plays included performances of sword swallowing, acrobatics and of course, sleight of hand illusions; the combination of which was called “huanshu”(幻术)which translates as “illusions”.
Overall, the traditional focus of Chinese magic has always been on acrobatics, with sleight of hand tricks being thrown into for extra entertainment value. The combination of illusion and acrobatics eventually trickled down to street level where sleight of hand was introduced into performances as a way to bring in extra income. These performances were also used to dazzle and entertain audiences during times of celebration. Tricks from these performances were skilfully developed and handed down from generation to generation. However, during the Cultural Revolution, this art form almost completely disintegrated, since magic was considered deceitful and anticommunist.
This being said, the history of magic in China runs much deeper than just the origin of sleight of hand tricks.
The idea of magic is present in many traditional Chinese beliefs, and the fascination with the practical application of magic and superstition has always been present in Chinese society. This is seen in the ancient practice of alchemy, in many traditional folk stories and myths, as well as the religions on Taoism, Daoism and the Chinese zodiac. This kind of magic provides means to an end and is more closely aligned with witchcraft in western society, usually harnessed through vehicles such as talismans and amulets, as well as through the likes of spells and potions.
Ideas of evil or good spirits and good or bad omens have always been present in Chinese teachings and society and were often warded off in large spectacles or demonstrations by a trained shaman. Since these “mystical” beliefs were so commonplace in Chinese society, magic would go on to find its way into the pop culture of the times, eventually evolving into the sleight of hand tricks seen today and in the Hundred Plays of the Han Dynasty. Under these conditions, it makes sense as to why magic became a spectacle of public fascination in ancient times, as well as latterly a danger to the rising of Communist Party.
During the Sui and Tang Dynasties, magic exchanges with Japan and India became more frequent. In the Southern Song, Ming and Qing Dynasties, ancient colour tricks, such as “Tibetan coercion”, and magic monographs such as “Immortal Magic” and “Goose Magic Collection” played a positive role in the development of magic in Japan and the West.
Magic in China now, is less of a public fascination, with even sleight of hand tricks falling out of favour, partly because magic lost a lot of its allure and prestige during the Cultural Revolution, and because it is very hard to make a sustainable living off of magic. The latter often discourages young Chinese generation from taking up magic as a possible career path and/or hobby. On account of this lack of interest, the Chinese magicians of today tend to rely on outdated or uncreative tricks that do not amaze audiences as they once did, or when compared to the performances of western magicians, such as the legendary David Copperfield. This in turn fails to generate youthful interest in the art form.
This being said, there are some Chinese magiciansa in recent years who have gathered attention for the industry. In 2009, Liu Xian, a famous Taiwanese magician performed at the Spring Festival Gala, which became a turning point for Chinese interest in magic; creating exposure for the previously underexposed industry. Since then, some popular magic-themed TV shows and other media have emerged.
However, the aforementioned obstacles do not deter everyone. Nanjing local magician, Mario, was first introduced to magic by his father when he was 3-years old. The trick Mario’s father performed consisted of his father holding up one finger and then covering it with a handkerchief which was then pulled away to reveal two fingers. Mario credits this experience with igniting his lifelong interest in close-up magic. Speaking with The Nanjinger, he stated, “It sounds really stupid but actually that [experience] means a lot to me. Because at that time I realised that something really common in our daily life, if you make it into another kind of expression, then that can become magic”.
Magic might be his passion, but Mario is not a professional magician, opting instead to study Tourism Management at a local university since it has a steady income. Finding jobs related to magic in Nanjing is also not easy, with the options being limited to selling magic products or bra teaching magic at the only magic store in Nanjing, and holding shows.
Even magicians who hold regular shows “will not have a fixed salary. … unless they are a celebrity”, says Mario. Magicians in China are falling behind due to a perceived lack of interest by the general public, causing the shows that are held to be poorly advertised and of a smaller calibre, further inhibiting the spread of the art form.
However, the interest in magic does exist in the right circles, where it appears to be going nowhere anytime soon. The magic scene in Nanjing is of decent size, for a relatively niche interest in both Chinese and Western cultures, with Mario describing it as a “large circle…for those lovers of magic. But it is a small circle for people from different jobs”.
While the circle of practising magicians is relatively small, there are still some members of the Nanjing pubic with an interest in witnessing magic with their own eyes. For them, there are places such as North Magic Bar, located on Changfu Jie. A safe haven for those lovers of magic, its entrance is even an illusion; cleverly concealed in an inconspicuous fruit stand which only opens to those individuals whom grab the correct shelf.
North holds stand up and close up magic performances every night and has become one of the hottest bars in Nanjing; a hopeful sign for the rekindling of interest in Chinese magic.