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Farmers Take to the Stage

On an early summer day, Ding Fasheng, a farmer-turned barnstormer from central China's Henan Province, is leading a group of people in rehearsals for a new magic show inside his two-story villa.

"I hope the new show, 'Devils and Magic,' will be another hit," said Ding, owner of a family-based art group known as "Ding Boyang Rock and Roll Art Troupe," the most popular of the 1,000 art troupes operated by farmers in Baofeng County, Henan Province.

Unlike many rural Chinese counties, where farming remains the main form of production, this county of Baofeng, 950 km south to Beijing, is famous for performing businesses -- offering entertainment shows in magic, acrobatics and martial arts.

The tradition of tricks playing in Baofeng, for instance, began as early as Tang Dynasty (618-907), according to Fan Yusheng, head of the cultural bureau of Baofeng County.

"With just a bundle of cloth, a rope and three bamboo poles, one makes money and returns home by playing tricks," says one old saying. "Amidst heavy beats of drum and gong, there goes trick playing, or monkey-aided entertainment shows, away all our worries fade," says another.

Ding, 63, who has two sons and one daughter, began his entertainment career in 1980 with a loan of 500 RMB (some US$60.24) from the credit cooperative in his township. "In the beginning, I led the family doing shows across the country for 10 months a year, but we only earned enough to feed the family," Ding recalled.

The family-based art troupe was later transformed into a household joint-stock entity with investment from Ding the senior and his elder son in order to avoid contradiction. Every member of the family had an assignment in the art troupe. Old Ding is responsible for making props.

"Business proved difficult in urban districts where cultural life is richer and there are more ways to entertain oneself than in the countryside, so there were few viewers for a show," said senior Ding. "On the stage, every member of the family is an actor, but offstage, we all become people who do all the chores."

To attract an audience, especially urbanites, Ding Fasheng said he later spent more time in improving his skills by participating in different kinds of exchange activities on magic in an effort to add innovation to his playbill.

When American magician David Copperfield gave performances in Beijing in 2002, Ding Fasheng could not pass up the chance. He took his two sons to all of Mr. Copperfield's shows and carefully studied every segment of the American magician in those shows.

"The American master magician is superior with his sleight of hand, and by sitting in his shows, I learned a lot about application of optical parallax and new materials to the art of magic," said the Chinese barnstormer.

Copperfield is best-known for such large feats as making a Boeing 747 and the Statue of Liberty disappear, escaping from a collapsing building, jumping over Niagara Falls and walking through the Great Wall of China.

Based on the inspiration he obtained from Copperfield's shows, Ding developed new tricks, including sawing a person in half, which are so welcome among the farmer audience that they call old Ding their "magic man David."

Fame has also boomed with Ding Fasheng's family art troupe, "Ding Boyang Rock and Roll Art Troupe," which now employees more than people and earns a profit of over 200,000 yuan (about US$24,096) a year.

Ding Fasheng's family art troupe is not alone. Many other village folks from Baofeng County have also been making money by digging up into their cultural resources and starting their own art troupes.

According to Zhang Xinjian, a senior official in charge of the market affairs with the Chinese Ministry of Culture, there are over 2,000 folk art troupes across China, with 100,000 folk art performers, of whom, a half are from Baofeng County.

However, art troupes in Baofeng are mostly family-based, and their shows feature simple skills. Most of them perform only in rural areas across the country, said Yan Baoyin, head of Baofeng County Government.

Yan said the farmer-turned-performers in Baofeng earn over 100 million yuan (about US$12.1 million) a year, accounting for 70 percent of the per capita net income for farmers in the county.

The folk artists have reinvested the profits they made from cultural shows in other businesses in industry, agriculture and trade, greatly promoting the development of the local economy.

In the meantime, the folk artists in Baofeng have also donated 3 million yuan (about US$361,446) for the construction of schools and infrastructure.

"The growth of cultural businesses has brought about political stability and social harmony in addition to economic progress in Baofeng," said Yan.

(Xinhua News Agency May 19, 2005)


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