The buskers who used to perform on Mong Kok’s Sai Yeung Choi Street South have gone, to the relief of the area’s residents, who have had to put up with the deafening noise every weekend for 18 years. Some businesses, however, have seen sales drop since the street – previously a pedestrianised area on weekends – reopened to vehicles this month.
Street performance has been around since cities were first settled and it is the earliest from of mass entertainment. Having developed over the preceding centuries, the “one hundred acrobatics” (baixi) were already well established by the Qin and Han periods (221BC–AD220) in China.
On the streets of the capital and other major cities across the empire, buskers performed remarkable and entertaining feats in exchange for cash. There were demonstrations of strength, skill, dexterity, agility and magic shows. Animals such as horses and monkeys were also trained to dance and perform amusing tricks.
For people who preferred more cerebral forms of entertainment, there were storytellers, musicians and singers, as well as street actors who riveted audiences with comic, tragic and romantic performances.
Street performances also served a political function. On at least two occasions, the imperial court recruited thousands of street performers to put on spectacular shows to showcase the empire’s enormous wealth and culture to foreign dignitaries. In the middle of the Yuanfeng-reign period (110–105BC), Emperor Wu of the Western Han dynasty entertained envoys from the Parthian Empire, centred in present-day Iran, and various Central Asian kingdoms with “one hundred acrobatics” featuring a cast of thousands.
In AD609, the fifth year of the Daye-reign period, the famously profligate Emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty hosted Yami Khagan (known in China as Qimin Khan), the ruler of the Eastern Turkic Khaganate, in present-day Mongolia and eastern Siberia, to an extravaganza the scale of which surpassed even the annual New Year fete the emperor put on for his subjects, which typically featured around 30,000 performers.
Like modern-day international sporting events, where guests are meant to be impressed by the organisational ability and efficiency of the host nation, emperors Wu and Yang wanted to awe their foreign guests with the grand scale of the street performances, but it was not only for vanity’s sake. These were also a not-so-subtle hint that the Chinese empire was powerful and affluent, and others had better not entertain any mischievous ideas.
As for the street performers who provided the show of national strength, they went on with their business of entertaining the common folk. Some of these performances developed into different art genres. Storytelling, for example, was the nascent form of the Chinese novel, while street acting grew in complexity and sophistication to become the xiqu (erroneously translated as “Chinese opera”) that we know today.