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Magic and martial arts spread by canal from Cangzhou, Hebei Province

By Yao Minji (Shanghai Daily)

08:45, November 28, 2012


The Grand Canal carries not only produce and raw materials, but also magicians, acrobats, fire eaters and martial arts masters sought all over the country as bodyguards. All come from Cangzhou, "Ghost Hand" tells 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.

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