MELISSA BLOCK, host:
In China there is a long tradition of professional mimics who imitate sounds as a form of entertainment. Now there aren't many practitioners still practicing that art. We'll hear from one of them, who is trying to carry on the work of his grandfather.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.
ANTHONY KUHN: At the end of the last imperial dynasty, Cheng Kuan fell on hard times. Cheng eked out a living as a street performer among the musicians and storytellers, contortionists and strongmen of Beijing's Tianqiao neighborhood. He performed a combination of acrobatics, magic and martial arts. But his specialty was mimicry, particularly imitating animal noises. Cheng's grandson Cheng Jiaqiang remembers learning a wide range of skills from his grandfather.
Mr. CHENG JIAQIANG: (Through translator) When I was seven years old, my grandfather would wake me and my brother up at 4:30 in the morning to practice our basic skills, such as handstands. My grandfather's skill was superb.
KUHN: Cheng's ancestors were Manchu bodyguards in the imperial court. With his heavyset physique, he'd make a good bodyguard, too. In fact, he works for a state-run arts troupe. Like a martial arts master, Cheng says his power is rooted in his dan tian, an acupressure point in his lower abdomen. As he summons his energy, his torso contracts, his mouth opens, and�
(Soundbite of chicken)
Mr. CHENG: (Through translator) To be a good mimic, you need a skinny tongue that can move left and right, up and down, clockwise and counterclockwise. You have to practice until it's really agile. Like imitating a galloping horse, you make that sound by flicking your tongue.
(Soundbite of horse)
KUHN: Cheng continues through his barnyard repertoire.
(Soundbite of bird)
(Soundbite of sheep)
KUHN: But the Cheng family's real strength is bird songs, especially those of the thrushes and larks that you see elderly Beijingers taking to local parks in ornate wood and brass cages. Cheng tweets out a duet with his brother.
(Soundbite of birds)
KUHN: Cheng's art is in danger of dying out. During the Cultural Revolution, traditional art forms such as mimicry were banned, as were the master-disciple relations that kept them alive. The master-disciple relationship ensures that an art will not be widely taught. Cheng says the idea is to pass on your skills only to individuals whose talent, commitment and integrity will do justice to the art.
Mr. CHENG: (Through translator) Accepting a disciple is different from having a class with students. Most people don't have what it takes: lips, teeth, throat, tongue and nose. I'm very strict about this. You have to really love mimicry. You have to treat it like a job. It's not just playing around.
KUHN: Cheng has just accepted his first disciple, an earnest-looking young man named Jiao Jian. Jiao says he practices his skills two hours a day and is happy to be making progress under his master's guidance.
Mr. JIAO JIAN: (Through translator) At first, practicing was quite lonely. I was just at home making noises. But after a while, birds outside my house, especially magpies, would start chirping along with me.
KUHN: Cheng concludes with his signature act. He mimics a bird mimicking a musician imitating a bird.
(Soundbite of bird)
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.