TIME Culture

This 66-Year-Old Chinese Figure Skater Has Very Smooth Moves

In 1946, photographer Jack Wilkes captured the elegant -- and energetic -- ice-skating maneuvers of an elderly Chinese gentleman named Wu Tang-shen.

In February 1946 readers of a popular weekly magazine were introduced to exactly the sort of scene Henry Luce likely had in mind when, a decade earlier, he and poet Archibald MacLeish crafted their famous prospectus for a publication they initially pitched as “The Show-Book of the World.” The still-stirring opening lines of their prospectus ran thus:

“To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things — machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work — his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away. . . .”

(Fortunately for everyone involved, Luce eventually settled on a shorter, better name for his publication: LIFE.)

The energetic old fellow featured in this gallery, meanwhile, was photographed by Jack Wilkes — a native of Wales who covered WWII in Asia for LIFE. The scene was described in the Feb. 25, 1946, issue of the magazine in the following way:

Once a week during the winter a slight, bearded, 66-year-old Chinese gentleman named Wu Tang-shen solemnly pads his way down to the ice pond in the Forbidden City section of [Beijing], changes his sandals for a pair of 20th-century skates and spends a quiet Chinese afternoon cutting complicated figures on the ice. There a short while ago LIFE photographer Jack Wilkes discovered and photographed Mr. Wu while he executed his pirouettes, crosscuts, beaks and spread eagles with the ease of an accomplished figure skater of the old school.

At the age of 16 Mr. Wu cut these capers for the Empress of China and was rewarded with a pension of five taels of silvers ($4) per month for life. But the Manchu dynasty [now commonly referred to as the Qing Dynasty] unfortunately died before Mr. Wu, and now Mr. Wu works for a living as a merchant. His skating still retains its former grace, and the figures he cuts are those of Western skaters. There is no figure 8 in Chinese.

There is, alas, no record of what happened to Mr. Wu after Wilkes made his photos. LIFE never followed up on the old guy. But it’s pleasant to think that he skated happily ever after, to the end of his days.

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