The Dezhou Circus

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I wrote the following article on June 20th, 2010 but almost immediately removed it from my website because I felt it was negative and did not accurately reflect the wonderful time I was having in China. Over a year has passed since I wrote this short article, and with the benefit of hindsight I can say that, while I would never want to visit the Dezhou circus again, I do not regret going. It was a life changing experience, like being imprisoned in South Africa, taken hostage by a mad man, or serving in the military at a time of war. I do not think this article captures the bizarre, dream-like  events or the oppressive heat and thick air, but hopefully it will entertain. – Devon

Dezhou Circus "Gongfu Master"

Stay in school.

I haven’t been to a Western circus, let alone a Chinese circus, in years, so I had no idea what to expect when we went to a Chinese circus near Dezhou today. I only hoped there wouldn’t be depressed animals  paraded around in the 37 degree heat. Ignoring both the obese lethargic tiger (who required prodding to leave his cage) and the wolf made to jump through hoops (despite sporting a limp), the circus was excellent. It defied my expectations by creating a David Lynch dream-like atmosphere, an atmosphere I continue to re-experience, like deja vu.

After a brief sleep (2AM bedtime, 7:45AM wakeup), shower, and breakfast the day started at 9 AM in a mercifully air conditioned bus to the circus. Upon arrival we met Katie, an  tour guide who took 3 years of English at university and spoke relatively well. Like the Chinese tour guides we saw at the Summer Palace and Forbidden City in Beijing,  she carried a pointer with a flag on it in one hand and a loudspeaker in the other. These attention-getting tools nearly made up for her diminutive stature and voice. She also required we wear matching hats, likely to make it easier to quickly usher us from location to location. Were it not for her prodding, we may have missed a lot of the terrors to follow. For assisting in the madness, she deserves a special place in hell. On a positive note, working in the Dezhou circus should count as double time against her sentence to eternal damnation.

"Your soul... is mine."

Is it naive innocence or horror in their eyes? You decide.

After catching the last few minutes of a bizarre gymnastics sequence that featured a small child balancing on a vase and then a woman’s feet, we moved to the next sideshow, a malnourished magician. As we found our seats, the magician launched into a 5 – 10 minute speech, bragging about his abilities while gesturing threateningly at the audience with a pair of chopsticks, like a fascist dictator who had fallen on hard times. Once the show started, his eyes wandered to our seats, specifically to the girls’ seats. Samantha and Mandy, as would soon become the norm, were chosen as assistants. After an impressive  ball-in-cup routine, the wiry magician asked — and received — two reluctant kisses from his assistants. Luckily for them, this moment was not captured on any camera I have access to, so it will exist only as a memory (and perhaps a rash – see a doctor, girls). Before leaving, he asked one of the attendees, who appeared to be Chinese, where she was from. She said she was from South Africa. “Then why are you not black,” he replied. 1

Next, we saw a a monkey show with the monkeys leashed to the trainer. The show intentionally humiliated the trainer, with tricks going wrong and monkeys acting ornery. Unfortunately, at points it became difficult to separate what was scripted and what was not: the monkeys really did look irritated (and the whip marks pointed to abuse). Maybe they were just great actors?

Sichuan Opera Mask Switching

Katie hurried us onward, promising there would be impressive Kung fu masters at the next stop. Until visiting China, I believed Kung fu (aka Gong fu) was a branch of of the martial arts. However, in Chinese it refers “to one’s expertise in any skill achieved through hard work and practice, not necessarily martial.” 2 Today, that “skill” was self-mutilation, and these Kung fu masters were unquestionably experts. I think the pictures explain it better than words, so view the following gallery:

Each act of self-torture aroused a polite yet reserved applause. One of the crowd pleasers was a fat man, positive huge by Chinese standards, who chopped bok choy against his impressive belly. His crowd appeal was due to his charisma and the fact that his stunt was the least extreme and disgusting of all we witnessed. The young man that climbed a ladder of swords did not have nearly as much audience participation. As the show came to an end, the DVD selling began. So strangewas this day and so powerful was this circus’ hypnotic spell that Gus purchased their DVD. I am having a difficult time picturing Gus and Doreen finding an occasion to watch it. On Halloween? At an exorcism? Would they not prefer to pretend any memories of the day were simply dreams brought on by fever?


  1. Fair point, I suppose. When I think of South Africans, I see a crowd of black people with a smattering of whites whose last names are variations of de Klerk

Written by Devon Ireland

October 17th, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Posted in Pictures

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