Brian Salter's Blogs:
Beijing’s Diabolical Cephalostachyum Museum

 

It’s there in black and white. Beijing’s very own Cephalostachyum museum. What the…?

Being the ignoramus that I am, I look up Cephalostachyum on Wiki and find it “is a genus of Asian and Madagascan bamboo in the grass family. The plants are of small to medium size compared to most other bamboo. Their choice habitats are mountain to lowland forests.

A museum of bamboo eh? Well, ever curious, your favourite blogger decides to head in the direction of Guang’anmennei to find out what gives.

Right beside the station is a park, and in the diagram of what’s what, there, as clear as day (shown as #3), is an entry for “empty bamboo museum”. I stroll on over, but when I get there I find that it is indeed empty.

Hang on though, the address given on the map is 9 Xiaoxing Hutong; and according to my iPhone, I’m on the wrong side of the road. I retrace my steps, and walk along the correct road, passing a public loo on my left. Ahead of me is what looks a bit like a building site. And on a wall behind piles of paving slabs is a mural that depicts people playing with diabolos.

I head on further in and find a traditional courtyard house, or siheyuan, with 北京空竹博物馆 written over the entrance. According to Google translate, I have arrived at the Beijing Diabolo Museum.

Mystery solved! A Diabolo – or Chinese yoyo, for want of a better word – is traditionally made of bamboo and wood. It is an empty roller, shaped like a dumbbell, which is spun and tossed on a string tied to two sticks, held one in each hand.

Empty roller made of bamboo? Empty bamboo museum? The penny finally drops! God bless the man who invented computer translations!

In the entrance to the courtyard is a mural that says it all… this is definitely a place dedicated to diabolos.

And if one wants any more convincing, the stone relief beside it depicts a similar scene.

The history of playing with diabolos dates back to about 1,000 years ago when it developed as a pastime for the Chinese nobility; but during the Ming Dynasty, it gradually passed down to “ordinary” people.

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), playing and selling diabolos at temple fairs during Spring Festival became a firm tradition. The diabolo also evolved into a popular juggling item on the streets and finally ended up in acrobatic performances too.

Diabolo spinning has been listed as one of China’s intangible heritages (mind you, what isn’t, these days!). Several diabolos can be spun on a single string at one time, and part of the beauty of diabolos – or devil’s sticks – is the number of amazing things you can do with them.

The technical name for a diabolo is actually "kong zhu", although it also has many regional nicknames, such as “wind gourd" in Tianjin, or "che ling" (扯铃) meaning "pull the bell" in southern China.

The size of diabolos can be as small as a chess piece or as large as a car tyre. They also come in various shapes, such as dragons, balls and flowers.

And anyone who has ever gone to a modern Chinese acrobatic performance will definitely have seen displays of dexterity as the acrobats strut their stuff with these infernal devices. The diabolo was officially added to acrobatic performances in the PRC as far back as 1950.

As the diabolos are spun, they make a weird whistling or buzzing sound, which is said to symbolize the awakening of spring.

The Diabolo Museum apparently houses over 400 diabolos and is divided into 3 halls, presenting the development of diabolos in terms of history, techniques and playing tricks. Some notable exhibits include diabolos that are over 100 years old, the biggest diabolo in the world, mini diabolos that are only the size of a fingernail, a diabolo once spun by Puyi, the last emperor of China, and clay sculptures of diabolo spinning in ancient times.

There are also plenty of old pictures such as these showing them being sold on the streets in days of yesteryear.

This museum was first opened in May 2009, and was the first ‘intangible cultural heritage’ themed museum to be sited inside a Beijing community. It covers some 200 square metres.

There are cases full of diabolos, some pretty and others not-so-pretty. As there are no notices in English, it is worth making sure you have the likes of Google translate on your mobile with its instant camera-translation mode switched on.

Traditional diabolos are hand-made, and the complicated process goes through about 17 procedures, including cutting the bamboo, making the body, polishing the wood and adding an axle.

There are photos aplenty showing how they are made…

…and how when they are gathered together in their individual parts they can be assembled into the diabolos we have come to know and love.

The tools used are pretty basic wood working tools. There’s also a small lathe and a worktable.

Also on display is a collection of the sticks used to control the diabolos. Initially, both the spools and the sticks of the Chinese diabolo were made of bamboo, but now they come in different materials such as plastic, wood and rubber.

And lest you have any worry about what you can do with one of these “toys”, there are diagrams to help you out here as well.

My favourite set of diabolos comes as a Chinese Chess (Xiangqi) board, with the individual diabolos being the chess pieces which are moved around. Beautiful!

According to the experts, there are now about 1,000 ways of playing with the diabolo. Not only do they create difficult tricks and beautiful styles, but they also combine this with elegant dancing postures. In circuses you’ll see performers playing the diabolo as they kick shuttlecocks, ride bikes, roller-skate or take part in many other activities.

This diabolo troupe was busy practising in 2004-5.

Being an art form, it’s no surprise that the performers’ costumes are just as important to the overall display effect, and sure enough this museum displays some of the costumes used in famous performances.

There are hundreds of diabolo organizations across China. In Beijing alone, it is said that at least 10,000 people play it. And can you believe that about 30 schools in Beijing now list diabolo playing as a course! Well, nothing surprises me any more, I guess.

One of the most prominent items on display takes one back to November 1st 2007 when the most shuttlecock kicks while spinning a diabolo for one minute were made. Yunji Liu achieved 69 kicks, setting a new Guinness World Record. He was appearing on Zheng Da Zong Yi, CCTV-1’s longest-running entertainment TV show, which became the default PRC home for Guinness World Records, with clips from foreign shows also shown and with audience members answering questions on the Records in order to win prizes.

I somehow think I’d be lucky to achieve even one kick of a shuttlecock while doing anything with a diabolo!

To get to the Diabolo museum, take Line 7 to Guang’anmennei and take exit B. Ahead of you is Baoguosi with Guangning Park on your left. Walk ahead 50 metres and turn left into Xiaoxing Hutong. In about 200 metres you pass a public toilet on your left and the museum is just after that on your right.