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 initially called "The Show-Book of the World." The still-stirring opening lines of their prospectus ran thus:
"To see life; to see the world . . . to see strange things — machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon . . . to see things thousands of miles away."
(Fortunately for everyone involved, Luce eventually settled on a shorter, better name for his publication: LIFE.)
The good fellow featured above, Mr. Wu Tang-shen, was photographed by Jack Wilkes. (See more of Mr. Wu's elegant stylings here.) The Feb. 25, 1946, issue of LIFE described the scene like this:
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.
I have no idea what happened to Mr. Wu after Wilkes made his photos. LIFE never followed up on the old guy. But I like to think that he skated happily ever after, to the end of his days.
Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com. Picture This is his weekly (and occasionally more frequent) feature for The Stacks.
Photo Credit: Jack Wilkes—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images