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Diabolo Anthology

The text below, titled “Diabolo Anthology”, was commissioned by the National Library of France (BNF) and the National Center of Circus Arts in Châlons-en-Champagne (CNAC) for the documentary project “Encyclopédie des Arts of the Circus". You can find this text, in a shorter version, on the official CNAC site.



Unclear Origin

The diabolo, as a traditional variety art in China, has been present in the performing arts (“Chinese circus”) for several centuries. The numbers are most often performed by a group of young girls. The recreational object of the diabolo actually comes from China, between the 1st and 11th centuries, where its name "kouen-gen" means "device to sooth the mind", but there are at least four different names depending on the times and Chinese regions.

However, it is difficult to ignore the similarity with the "rhombos", an object of witchcraft from ancient Greece and Italy (6th century BC) which is manipulated with a string possibly attached to sticks.

It was from Beijing, just after the Revolution, that the first "kouen-gen" was brought back to Europe by the English diplomat Lord Macartney. At the beginning of the 19th century, this outdoor game crosses the English Channel, prized by the bourgeoisie. It takes the name of "devil" in reference to the intense and high-pitched whistle ("a racket of the devil") that the air produces by the rotating slots.

The first diabolo circus artist in Europe is Ramo Sameo who performs from 1820 throughout Germany. The popularity for the "devil" game had ups and downs during the 19th century, and it was in 1906 that the Franco-Belgian engineer Gustave Philippart reinvented the object by giving the cups their conical shape and offered the name “diabolo”, a pun between the french for devil “diable” and the Greek verb “diabállô” (dia – bállô, literally “ to throw through”). Then follows, throughout France, a democratisation of the game, with many competitions but also many accidents, which ultimately will cause its ban in most public spaces and a great loss of notoriety.