Society

Size matters

Why China’s tallest people are in Gansu

At 2.36 metres China's tallest man, Bao Xihun doesn't really need stilts

The Chinese are walking tall, and nowhere more so than in Gansu’s Yongdeng County where they reach 5.8 metres. About 4 metres of that is thanks to the wearing of stilts. (The average Chinese male is 1.77 metres, according to Alvanon, a clothing consultancy firm that scanned the bodies of 28,000 Chinese in four provinces).

The stilts form part of a post-Lunar New Year festival, where up to 100 trained performers don leg-extensions. The three day festival – centred on Kushui Street – draws daily crowds of 60,000, according to the China Daily and is yet another example of how folk traditions continue to thrive in China, in spite of modernization.

The event, which is known as the ‘Dragon raising its head’, occurs annually, and dates back to 1368 and the first Ming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang.

According to legend, Zhu’s military adviser, Liu Bowen passed the village and saw that to the east there was a ridge in the shape of a dragon. This shape was supposed to symbolize the birth of a new king – a disturbing prospect for Zhu’s newly created dynasty. So Liu then cut the outline of the ridge with his sword.

Similar to the experiences of Meng Tian, one of the builders of the Great Wall (see Sino-File in WiC1), Liu’s act affronted the natural order and created terrible feng shui. The village’s once-green pastures turned arid. In order to waken the dragon once again – and bring back the verdure – the festival was created.

Quite how walking on stilts rouses the dragon is not apparent, but it is still taken very seriously by the locals. Each participant has to go through years of training before being permitted to don the stilts. It’s little wonder, given the performers must walk around for three hours on ‘giant’ stilts that weigh up to 10 kilograms. Children use shorter stilts and in a sign of the festival’s continued vibrancy a five year-old took part in this year’s event. Dressed in Chinese opera costumes, it all adds up to quite a spectacle, which is perhaps why the State Council awarded the festival special status in 2006 as part of China’s “intangible cultural heritage”.


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