Theater, business and wading into the sea
by Peter Micic


Peter Micic writes about music, art and language for Danwei. He also operates a service that arranges visits to parts of the Forbidden City most people never see.

You can see his previous articles on Danwei here. In this new article, he recounts the history of two Chinese words that started as Qing dynasty actors slang and became buzzwords of the Chinese business elite.

Seafarers and cave dwellers

by Peter Micic

Some years back I came across a cartoon. Government officials and individuals in China diving head first into an ocean of wealth hoping to strike it rich in the wake of economic reforms in the late 1970s. Some waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen their toes, or at most, wet their ankles. One guy sported a baseball cap clasping a fish (a homonym for wealth). Another had taken the plunge too far and was being attending to by a lifeguard. Others struggled to stay afloat. But all was not lost. One poor fellow with a bump on his head was taking notes from an artful businessman holding a book titled A Guide to Wading into the Sea.

The term xiahai (‘wading into the sea’) gained currency in the early 1980s in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s brand of economic pragmatism to refer to people from all walks of life who seized the opportunity to branch out into business and make extra sources of income. Another graphic term zouxue (‘to walk the caves’), referred to people in the entertainment industry who found opportunities to make extra money by performing.

Both terms have their origins in the Chinese theatre.

The term xiahai was theatrical jargon to refer to amateur opera performers turn professional. In the mid-nineteenth century, there was a significant increase in the training of non-professional actors and training schools. These amateur actors were called piaoyou (‘ticket friend’). During the Guangxu Period (1871-1908), two famous piaoyou guilds attracted many amateur actors, the Spring Sun Friendship Guild and the Emerald Peak Hut.

The piaoyou system was in principle opened to all non-professional actors, but in practice, it excluded those who did not have the income and connections to find the best teachers and instructors. An elaborate and highly formal ritual ceremony where a famous teacher accepted an amateur as an actor apprentice began his rite of passage into the professional work of the theatre. These non-professionals began their careers in training schools or clubs called piaofang, and their amateur performances became known as piaoxi.

Acceptance into the professional world of the theater was known as xiahai or piaoyou xiahai (actor apprentice-cum-professional’) *. Some of the most famous Peking opera actors who rose from the status of piaoyou to the top of their profession in the late Qing and early Republic include Zhang Erkui, Yan Jupeng, Zhu Qinxin, and the Manchu prince Hongdou Guanzhu.

The term zouxue was theatrical jargon among jianghu (‘rivers and lakes’), itinerant performers who wandered from place to place eking out a living, not unlike the jongleur entertainers in Europe during The Middle Ages. The term jianghu designated musicians (instrumentalists and vocalists) and other entertainers—street performers, singers, actors, storytellers, and dancers. This is how scholar John Minford describes the meaning of the word:

In the world of the street performers (our circus folk), people who have had to live by their wits, outsiders, sometimes hermits, nearly always elements considered disreputable by society...this brotherhood’ exist in defiance of the stifling convention and hypocrisy of Confucian society, it brings together men and women whose quest for freedom has driven them outside society. In this sense, the truck drivers I met in a roadside cafe in northeast China, for whom being on the road is freedom, inherit the age-old values of the jianghu world.*

These peripatetic entertainers were also referred to as xue (‘caves’). The term not only suggests a temporary lodging for itinerant performers constantly on the move, but also a living pushed to the fringes or underground (i.e. ‘the cave’).

In its contemporary usage, zouxue is discursively defined as ‘a freelance performer who is sponsored by one or several work units, ’ ‘performers who join a troupe temporarily to give performances here and there,’ ‘a performer who performs outside of their work unit on the sly to earn an extra income, ’ ‘moonlighting,’ ‘seafaring,’ ‘professional performers, and even students, teachers and broadcasters.’ As the above examples illustrate, no two definitions are the same. A zouxuetuan was a group of performers or entertainers who toured the country. They were also called xuedui (‘cave brigades.’) One who managed and organized cultural events and negotiated contracts with records companies were called xuetou (‘head or leader of the cave.’)

So why ‘on the sly?’ In the early 1980s, there was initially considerable prejudice and resentment targeted at individuals who engaged in business. Within the entertainment industry, the degree of secrecy became part of the zouxue rhetoric. There were a number of reasons for this, among them, apprehension that once you started to earn another source of income, state paid jobs would be jeopardized, and the fear of paying income tax.

A kindergarten nurse-cum-pop singer told a reporter in the late 1980s that how much she earned was a ‘secret,’ but after only three performances, she had made enough to buy a refrigerator, colour TV and washing machine. Her family could now frequent some of the best restaurants and hotels in Beijing.

While many took on part time jobs performing in bars, clubs, restaurants, joint-venture hotels, and public relations events, it was pop singers who could potentially make good money. In the late 1980s, the performance fees of pop and rock singers were widely publicized in the press. One report published in 1988 noted that well-known pop singers could earn between 800 to 2,000 yuan for one concert.

In September 1993, the composer He Luting criticized the fanatical craze for pop stars and their incomes, pointing out that Chinese society was now so swept by materialism that money measured the value of almost everything. ‘This trend is as deadly for the future of China’, he wrote, ‘as corruption and economic crimes.’ Other critics bewailed the increasing commercialization of the music industry where the music charts (paihangbang), were little more than ‘money charts’ (paiqianbang).

Other reports told of celebrities demanding exorbitant performance fees, and treating concert organizers with considerable arrogance and ill temper. In September 1996, the pop singer Wei Wei, who lost her job at the Central Song and Dance Ensemble the previous year because she had apparently failed to share the proceeds from two concerts, demanded an extra 40,000 yuan before a show in Hengdian, Zhejiang province. Concert organizers were also careful to handle stars with kid gloves, especially if payment was calculated according to each song for fear that they would ‘walk off the stage.’

As in market economies elsewhere, the system of stars in China was determined by whether they were profitable or not; the market expanding for certain musicians and disappearing for others. Two groups of pop singer emerged: the ‘idol school’ (ouxiangpai) and the ‘strength school’ (shilipai). The ‘idol school’ generally targets teeny boppers, churning out hits that are sometimes derisively called ‘saliva songs’ (koushuige) or bubblegum pop, and characterized by a quick turnover of singers succeeding each other in dizzying rapidity. ‘The ‘strength school,’ in contrast, is considered artistically ‘stronger’ and more ‘talented,‘ with a far longer obsolescent date then their idol school counterparts.

The pop star’s ascension in the reform period and the increasing commercialization and ‘packaging’ of pop singers for the mass market became the subject of one film directed by Huo Jianqi in 1996 called Singers (Geshou) A widely successful comedy skit shown on the Spring Festival Gala Evening (Chunjie lianhuanhui) in 1995 called ‘You Package It Like This,’ (Ruci Baozhuang) performed by Zhao Lirong, Gong Hanlin and Jin Zhu satirized the excessive need to package oneself—looks, speech, fashion, hairstyles—to get ahead in a consumer-oriented society.

Zouxue and xiahai have left behind a fascinating etymological vapour trail from their origins in the Chinese theatre to their use as graphic markers of making money in the 1980s.


Note 1: In Yangzhou dialect the term guohai (lit: ‘cross the sea’) refers to storytellers who have made there debut on stage after completing their apprenticeship with a teacher. See ‘Storytellers Terms: A List of Yangzhou Storytellers’ Jargon and Technical Terms’ in Vibeke Børdahl The Oral Tradition of Yangzhou Storytelling, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Curzon Press, 1996:450.

Note 2: John Minford ‘The Deer and the Cauldron,’ East Asian History, Canberra: Australian National University, 1993, 9-10n24.

There are currently 8 Comments for Theater, business and wading into the sea
by Peter Micic.

Comments on Theater, business and wading into the sea
by Peter Micic

A fine piece of popular history well written and a delight to read. Thank you.

Xiahai is a term coined during 1920's in Shanghai as the process of women starting dancing partner/escort type of jobs in dancing halls. It describe the "river of no return" type of scenario - once you are in it, you will never get out.

下海 was originally "theatrical jargon to refer to amateur opera performers turn professional" during the late Qing dynasty, or "a term coined during (the) 1920's in Shanghai"; now, which is correct?

Scott, my references for 'xiahai' come from several sources. See entry for 'xiahai' in Tang Caoyuan, Tao Xiong (eds.), Zhongguo xiju quyi cidian, Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe, 1991:59. See also A.C. Scott ‘The Performance of Classical Theatre,’in Colin Mackerras (ed.), Chinese Theatre, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983:120, and Isabelle Duchesne, ‘The Chinese Opera Star,’ in John Hay (ed.), Boundaries in China, London: Reaktion Books, 1994:217-222.

'Jianghu' (江湖), mentioned above, is another word that is used to mean a range of different things.

As I understand it, it's original meaning referred to the type of life outside conventional society of the attractive rogues of the Heroes of the Marsh (水浒传), but it's also used to describe the brutal world that is the setting of kung fu stories — competing warlords, cruel central governments, and evil foreign invaders.

Today it is also used to describe criminal gangs and triads, but also certain social and professional circles: people in Beijing who work in media, culture and art often talk about their peer group as jianghu.

Does anyone know anything else about this word and how it started being used in the way Peter Micic describes in the article above?

From the inestimable Peter Micic:

The image of the jianghu as vagabonds, wanderers pushed to the periphery of 'respectable' society finds cognizance in other terms for entertainers and actors. As I mentioned in a note in my article, the term bianchui (lit: 'border; frontier') in Yangzhou theatrical jargon, refers to a storyteller's house, relegated to the borders of 'decent' society.

The expression zou jianghu is often used interchangeably with chuang jianghu, pao jianghu,
and pao matao. In the Hanying Dacidian (1993: 1888), pao jianghu is defined as 'wander[ing] about, making a living as an acrobat, fortuneteller, physiognomist, etc; live the life of an adventurer, a boxer, salesman; wander around without settling down anywhere.'

The images and picaresque themes of itinerant entertainers as vagabonds and wanderers also has striking parallels with the terms liumang, bopi and haohan. On liumang see 'Liumang: Observations on Chinese "Hooliganism" in Geremie Barmé and Linda Jaivin Liumang: Observations on Chinese Hooliganism in New Ghosts Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, New York: Times Books, Random House, 1992, 247-250. On bopi see China News Analysis, June 15, 1992, no. 1462:2-3, and Barmé 'Wang Shuo and Liumang (Hooligan') Culture', Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, July, issue 28, 1992, 49n84. On haohan see W.J.F. Jenner 'Tough Guys, Mateship and Honour: Another Chinese Tradition', East Asian History, Canberra: Australian National University, no. 12, 1996:1-34.

Thank you Peter Micic, I've no doubt your references attributing an earlier origin are correct. Now, how about the characters and origins of the Shanghainese phrase "che-lo" formerly used as an excoriation? It seems to date to the Republican period but any knowledge including the characters would be helpful, please.

Dear all: thanks. I am doing researches on jingju, chinese "theatre", performance, shamans and so on...
Useful infos in an elegant writing and great comments...thanks!

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