The State Department had better keep its people away from the Kennedy Center this week, or America's tilt toward China is likely to turn into one long, slobbering kiss.

The Shanghai Acrobats, who leaped, flew, rolled, bounced, shot and sprang onto the Opera House stage last night, have got to be the niftiest piece of Chinese propaganda since hot and sour soup. They could turn John Foster Dulles into a raving sinophile.

Where to begin? With an apology, first of all. To the people of Shanghai from the people of the United States. Let the word go forth: We will never again use the word "shanghai" as a nasty synonyn for seagoing kidnap.

With that clarified, it's time to describe Zhang Guoliang and his nose-balancing act. The "bridge of the nose" is no longer a mere figure of speech when you see the cargo that Zhang loads onto it: A wine glass (full, of course), then a little transparent table-top, then five more glasses, then another table-top, then four more glasses, another table-top, a lamp, and then, suddenly, so many lamps and glasses that you lose count. And as if that weren't enough -- it is, really -- while still carting this king's ransom around on his nose, Zhang takes two unsupported, parallel ladders and clumbs them, one foot on each.

If you don't care for nose-balancing, there's "Ding Wuan -- the Pagoda of Bowls," in which a woman does a one-handed handstand on a man's head while balacing half-a-dozen bowls on her head and feet. And there's the teeterboard act, and jar-juggling, and plate-spinning. And if that doesn't do it for you, have you ever seen 12 people riding around on one bicycle?

Chinese acrobats are the inheritors of a 2000-year-old tradition that, according to the Shanghai troupe's literature, had almost died out before the revolution. The current Peking regime is apparently working hard to keep the tradition alive. Whatever the effort, it's worth it.