Spring Festival Gala

Spring Festival crosstalk and the reform era

JDM090121jiangkun.jpg
Jiang Kun returns to the Spring Festival Gala

The program for CCTV's Spring Festival Gala, the huge annual variety show that airs on January 25 this year, is almost in its final form. After four rehearsals, details about the performances have emerged, generating mild excitement in the mainland media about who will perform what.

The Gala has been overshadowed this year by news about a grassroots competitor that harnesses online memes and takes advantage of the novelty of shanzhai culture, a fascination with knock-offs that erupted last year. But CCTV's show hasn't been relevant for quite a while: as a measure of its timeliness, consider that this year it is finally bringing together Jay Chou and Song Zuying more than two years after a netizen posted a surprisingly catchy mashup of Jay's "Herbalist's Manual" and Song's "Spicy Girl".

Zhao Benshan annual skit is always one of the evening's highlights, even though it tends to get mediocre reviews these days. This year, he had one of his scripts shot down by Gala organizers, a action that could be interpreted as a ploy to drum up audience interest in the event. Journalist Teng Yun posted the following imagined conspiracy plan after the news hit the media:

A plan for killing Benshan's Gala skit:

  1. Benshan and the Gala conspire to kill his skit;
  2. Media reports make a big deal out of this, and channels devoted to it appear online;
  3. Anticipation is kindled in people across the country and they collectively gang up in support;
  4. The Gala may set a new ratings record for its time-slot;
  5. Benshan's Guandong Master (关东大先生), which airs during the Spring Festival season, does brisk ad sales.

Hype in China's entertainment world always follows this format.

Other comic performances are perennially criticized for simply not being very funny. In Stifled Laughter: How the Communist Party Killed Chinese Humor, David Moser explains how crosstalk, standup routines also known as xiangsheng, went from cutting-edge satire that entertained audiences to lifeless acts that were forced to be uplifting:

After the communist takeover, Party officials in charge of entertainment for the new China agreed that the crosstalk genre was too rowdy and impertinent to be allowed in its present form. It went without saying that the sexual humor had to be cleaned up, but authority figures were also now off-limits, and performers could no longer ridicule the peasantry, who were now the class heroes of the revolution. Crosstalk and other entertainment forms were now called upon to "praise" (gesong) rather than to "satirize" (fengci). Few dissenting voices dared point out the obvious problem, namely that "praise" is not very funny. But no matter. In typical Chinese fashion, a special task force was formed, the "Committee for Crosstalk Reform", under whose guidance hundreds of traditional pieces were revised and cleaned up for public consumption. Many pieces could be salvaged with minor cosmetic surgery, while others could only be discarded completely.
...
These examples at least illustrate the range of freedom that this performance domain once had, and the kinds of salty content that pre-Liberation audiences were routinely exposed to. The point is that early crosstalk, like any indigenous folk art form, was able to reflect daily life in a rich, genuine way. Performers were free to explore both the virtues and the foibles of the Chinese people, both the glories and the excesses of Chinese culture, and the pleasures along with the annoying absurdities of everyday life. In short, crosstalk was able to laugh at the full range of things Chinese, including the darker side. When the Party got their puritanical hands on the form after 1949, they immediately began to it pull out its satirical teeth, turning it into an bland mouthpiece for political policy.

Speaking about the sketch he will perform this year, Jiang Kun (whose career Moser discusses in his article) elaborated on the difficulty of marrying crosstalk's satirical nature with the demand that Gala pieces fulfill the "praise" requirement:

The defining characteristic of crosstalk is its function as satire. As a Spring Festival crosstalk piece whose subject matter reflects the accomplishments of thirty years of the reform era in China, and whose contents need to keep pace with the times, it is indeed no easy thing to handle the relationship between praise and satire. When Sun Chen, Ma Dong, and I were thinking about the piece, the one common point we came up with was how to use crosstalk language skills to say "small" but not "big," to say "family" not "nation." Using small matters to show the big picture, employing clever foreshadowing, and not losing the satire amid the praise lets the audience ponder the piece even as they laugh.

The same goes for other comic performances. The Beijing News carried an opinion piece yesterday calling for Spring Festival crosstalk and comedy sketches to be allowed to return to their roots by relieving them of the responsibility to praise the country's accomplishments.

It's too late to save this year's Gala, whose sketches will sing the praises of the Olympics, volunteerism, the reform era, and cross-straits relations, but perhaps one day audiences won't need the threat of banned material to get them interested in watching the latest skits and crosstalk acts.

Ease Up on Crosstalk and Comedy Sketches

by Pan Caifu / TBN

It's nearly Spring Festival Gala time again, yet reports have been muted with much of the limelight being hogged by the shanzhai gala. Zhao Benshan's skit has been the prize item on the evening's program for the past few years, but it is beginning to lose its luster. People have become ambivalent: "It's not the Spring Festival without the Gala" no longer applies.

Rehearsals for the Gala are going on right now. I looked through the spoken-word items on the program, and as usual there were no surprises. Jiang Kun's crosstalk piece "I'm a Little Dizzy" (我有点晕), which has a groundswell of online support, will have a few new bits, but its status as a praise piece has already been determined: to respond to the grand theme of the three decades of the reform era, it describes changes in China over the past thirty years. Similarly, Feng Gong's "Warm Winter" presents three decades of change on Silk Street, Li Weijian, Wu Bin, and two crosstalk actors from Taiwan will perform "Tuantuan and Yuanyuan,"* a sketch about cross-straits kinship, and Guo Da and Cai Ming will appear together in "Beijing Welcomes You," a skit that chases Olympic fever and expresses the sentiment of volunteers by telling of a scramble for Beijing Olympic volunteer uniforms.

Crosstalk skits by these big names touch on major topics like the Olympics, the reform era, and Taiwan relations, so we see how this former street-side art form has now been given the task of bearing up the master narrative. I saw nothing of satiric crosstalk that cuts up social phenomena. In the 1980s, starting with "Universal Brand Cigarettes" and "Eating Noodles," the Spring Festival Gala turned uncultured crosstalk and sketches into a popular art form, sending a whole group of excellent pieces like "Pickpocket Company," "Contest of the Five Senses," and "Playing Cards" into millions of homes and turning sketch actors into comic stars. But as their power grew, the responsibility they bore grew ever heavier.

Having a satiric art form praise the new era and sing along with the main theme isn't an innovation. Earlier generations came up with it, and it's a good way to give people what they like to hear. But "responsibility" implies restrictions: given crosstalk's foundations as satire, when laughter is slapped with the "praise" label, some sort of split is inevitable. Satirizing ugliness means considering social implications, satirizing an individual means taking into account their social standing, satirizing corruption means evaluating whether you'll mislead the audience or damage someone's image. When all of this is incorporated into a crosstalk piece, can it even crack a smile as it attempts to make people laugh?

It's difficult to generate laughter when light satire and easy humor is given a prescribed direction. These spoken-word pieces are no longer interesting or popular because they have lost their essential qualities. Hence crosstalk is in decline, and comic sketches are in decline. People avoid Spring Festival Gala crosstalk and seek out small-theater crosstalk or go to errenzhuan theaters, or even make their own Spring Festival crosstalk. Thus Guo Degang is hot, small-theater crosstalk is hot, and netizens and the masses say that this is what crosstalk really is.

To make crosstalk and sketches attractive again we've got to give them room to return to their original form. There's a stage for celebratory crosstalk, and there ought to be a marketplace for satirical crosstalk as well. We shouldn't be afraid of satire, nor is there any need need to get angry at mockery, much less worry that errors will propagate by overestimating their negative effects. They're just bits of crosstalk, diverting pieces of entertainment for the audience. The sky won't fall simply because of a few cynical remarks. In this chilly economic climate, listening to Guo Degang and watching Xiao Shen Yang (who's finally been deemed worthy of the Gala after missing out on it last year) can bring a bit of joy to people who are barely scrimping by. This too is putting the people first.

In the first years of the Spring Festival Gala, crosstalk and comic sketches joked and scolded as they satirized all kinds of social phenomena, and they were popular with audiences. There weren't any negative effects. They represented the advanced productive forces back then.* Today, we are making great progress and culture and life are becoming increasingly free, yet crosstalk and sketches have lost their potency and have grown distant from the people's ambitions. They've become under-developed productive forces, and this is not something that the common people are happy to see.

We look forward to a time when crosstalk and skits can be at the forefront once again.


Notes

  1. 团团圆圆, the name of the two pandas sent to Taiwan. Taken together their names mean "reunion."
  2. Representing advanced productive forces is one of Jiang Zemin's Three Represents.
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There are currently 6 Comments for Spring Festival crosstalk and the reform era.

Comments on Spring Festival crosstalk and the reform era

Thanks for linking the older article, that was interesting.

Crosstalk on CCTV is consistently unbearable. Non of these praise-singing awkward pseudo-comedians got the gig by merit. I just hope foreigners don't think this is the best we can do. It's not! At least we still have Zhao Benshan but as big as he is, even he has to conform most of the time. The second half of his skit last year was unbearable, embarrassing for him and I'm sure he knew it.

David Moser's article is a very good read. I read it when it first appeared on Danwei. But he failed to mention the rise of Guo Degang, one of the few crosstalkers that are actually funny but of course you won't see him on CCTV with all the ruthless colleagues of his guarding the turf. Also because he wouldn't be funny any more if he had to have his material censored - there wouldn't be a minute's worth left!

Unless they bring on Guo Degang, Zhao Benshan's skit will always be the only thing I watch out of the whole thing.

Shame to see the white monkeys appearing again.

"Shame to see the white monkeys appearing again."

I think you took a wrong turning; for the China Daily forums please take a right at nationalistic junction, straight ahead along prejudice row, and sharp left at children's corner.

Off you go.

I doubt more than 0.01% of foreigners in China can understand nevermind appreciate crosstalk.

The in laws I watched the program with enjoyed some of it a lot though..

I basically agree with Pan Caifu, but I do wonder how much widespread displeasure there actually is with the Gala. Like Tom (above), I watched the Gala with my in-laws (middle-aged, traditional, Northern Chinese, not very Internet savvy), and like every year, they seem to pretty much enjoy the Gala. In fact, we watched it on re-run another two or three times, or more precisely, it was kind of on TV in the background as family and friends visited in the days after.

This leads me to question how me to wonder, if the show is still generally watched by almost all working class and middle class Chinese (or at least northern Chinese) why on earth would the Party change it from its current politically-driven, up-lifting nature, which at least from the looks of the in-laws’ and extended family’s reaction, seems to be effective?

I would disagree with Pan when he says, “In the first years of the Spring Festival Gala, crosstalk and comic sketches joked and scolded as they satirized all kinds of social phenomena, and they were popular with audiences. There weren't any negative effects.” From the Party’s point of view, I think there could be huge negative effects from allowing humor to go uncensored. Good satire, one might argue, is extremely effective at pointing out hypocrisy, lies, contradictions and injustice. Assuming the Party (or the society which they control) has a bit of those problems, why would they ever sign off on hurting themselves? I’m not saying censorship is moral, I just think its effective.

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