ALEX CHADWICK, Host:

China, of course, makes a lot more than cars, and it does more than produce cheap goods for us to buy. NPR's Anthony Kuhn visited a place in Northern China famous for training people to become acrobats.

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ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

Outside a farm house in Wuqiao County, a young girl lies on her back, flipping and spinning a wooden card table with her feet, almost as easily as most folks would toss a tennis ball in one hand. She's still in training, so the table is hanging by ropes between two trees for now. This is the Yilin Acrobatic School, one of dozens in the area. Inside its enclosed farm yard, a big carpet is spread on the dusty earth. Young girls are practicing walking on their hands, and teenage girls are doing aerial summersaults while spinning plates on metal rods in each hand. Others are twirling red velvet cloths on their hands and feet like mad pizza chefs.

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KUHN: Wuqiao County sits amid the flat farmlands of Hubei Province on the North China plain. Locals claim that their county has been turning out acrobats for more than 2,000 years. The school's main training hall is a Spartan farmhouse, with a coal stove, a mirror, and a few trapezes. The students are honing their routines with a hushed concentration.

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KUHN: This five-year old is marking time through a 10-minute handstand. Coach Wong Shei Yo(ph) guides some boys as they run and flip onto a floor mat. The 20 kids at this school range in age from five to 16. They practice around eight hours a day. Forty year old Sun Win Ching(ph) and her husband own this school. They've taken their troop to perform in several countries in Asia and Africa. Since they trained as acrobats in their youth, they've seen their profession become respectable.

Ms. SUN WIN CHING: (Through translator) In China, in old days, people looked down on acrobats. They thought acrobats were just paddling tricks, so our social status was very low. But we went overseas and found that foreigners liked us. What is this thing, so strange and mysterious, they said. They looked up to us.

KUHN: Another thing that's changed is that discipline isn't so harsh. Teachers don't beat their students the way they used to when they did poorly. But the regimen is still grueling, and sweat is often mixed with tears.

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KUHN: After a few minutes, Coach Wong tells this sobbing child to come down from his handstand. Across the room, a group of boys is working on a challenging new routine for an upcoming performance.

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KUHN: The older kids lie on their backs in line, bouncing, tossing and flipping the smaller kids along on their hands and feet, finally catapulting them atop a human tower. The top-most kid is supposed to land on his buddy's shoulders. But he misses and two kid's heads smack together.

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KUHN: Luckily, the top-most kid is suspended from a safety harness, and Coach Wong lowers him to the floor.

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KUHN: They've got to practice each move hundreds of times before it's ready to perform, Coach Wong explains.

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KUHN: When they finally perfect the new routine, Sun Win Ching says, it'll be a bittersweet moment.

Ms. SUN WIN CHING: (through translator) For first time they are successful in performing a new act, they always hug each other and cry after leaving the stage. It's partially out of happiness, and it's partially for all the difficulties they went through to succeed. They don't even take time to wipe away their sweat.

KUHN: For now, these kids will go on, taking spills and bumps until finally, they stick the landing. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.

CHADWICK: You can see the students of the Yilin Acrobatic School jump, tumble, and spin tables with their feet. There's video of the young acrobats in action at npr.org.

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