TV

Stifled Laughter: How the Communist Party Killed Chinese Humor

No laughing matter: a hilarious investigation into the destruction of modern Chinese humor

by David Moser

Americans seeing it on Chinese TV for the first time usually have the same reaction: “Chinese stand-up comedy!” And indeed, the surface similarity is striking: two performers stand up on a stage in front of a live audience and engage in rapid-fire humorous repartee, with their interaction following the tried-and-true formula of a “straight-man” acting as an exasperated foil to the muddle-headedness of an illogical clowner. One is reminded of the classic American comedy duos like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, George Burns and Gracie Allen, or 60s TV acts like Rowan and Martin and the Smothers Brothers. The Chinese art is called xiangsheng (literally, “face and voice”), which is usually translated into English as “crosstalk”, and for most of the twentieth century this performance form was virtually synonymous with humor in China.

Beyond the surface resemblance there are differences. While American stand-up comedians tend to work solo, in China the two-person format is the dominant one (perhaps reflecting the cultural tendency toward collectivism vs. the American cult of the individual). Crosstalk performers tend to be somewhat more formal and “stagey” in their delivery than their American counterparts. But the major difference lies in the overall structure of the performance. An American stand-up comedy routine tends to consist of a string of jokes loosely strung together, with the performer flitting from topic to topic with throwaway lines as perfunctory segues from one subject to the next. In contrast, a crosstalk piece is always a coherent, self-contained routine with a fixed narrative or unifying main premise. In this sense, a typical crosstalk piece more resembles a scripted dialogue such as Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine, or the Marx Brothers’ “Why a Duck?” scene. There is a repertoire of hundreds of traditional crosstalk pieces, as well as new pieces being written all the time, and each time a piece is performed the original premise and overall structure is preserved, with the performers free to add material or edit sections according to the needs of a specific performance. The subject matter of crosstalk draws upon every aspect of Chinese culture, from history, regional dialects and folk tales to contemporary issues like the one-child policy or economic modernization.

Crosstalk used to be phenomenally popular in China. Teahouses and auditoriums were packed each night with enthusiastic audiences, every theatrical troupe had a stable of crosstalk performers, and crosstalk was an essential part of every Chinese New Year variety show. In a culture not yet glutted with mindless entertainment, crosstalk was the major populist form of humor, and it was genuinely loved by audiences from every walk of life.

However, there is now widespread consensus that the art form has drastically declined in quality over the last few decades. Performances on radio and TV have dwindled considerably, and crosstalk is barely given a perfunctory place in the major variety shows. Audiences and performers alike perceive a crisis; is the form in danger of dying out completely?

There are various explanations for this decline. Some lament that, with the advent of tape recorders, the master-apprentice system of transmission has fallen by the wayside, resulting in a lowering of performer standards. Others maintain that the severe time constraints of TV deny performers the breathing space they need to deliver an adequate performance. Media analysts put the blame on competition from the influx of foreign DVDs and more free-wheeling Hong Kong entertainment products. Everyone seems to have an excuse for crosstalk’s increasing inability to hold an audience.

The excuses all ring hollow. Similar humor forms remain wildly popular in the States and in other countries. Stand-up humor is easily staged, quickly produced, and has an immediacy and topicality that no other form of humor can have. All people, including Chinese people, crave the cathartic release that laughter provides. If done right, there is no reason to think crosstalk would not enjoy the same popularity as its foreign counterparts. The real cause of crosstalk’s decline is painfully obvious, though no one dares to publicly acknowledge the truth: the Communist Party killed it.

The Chinese government has systematically stifled crosstalk by bowdlerizing its tradition, restricting its natural growth and evolution, and reducing the form to a sycophantic, unsatisfying — and unfunny — shadow of its former self.

Younger audiences exposed to only the lukewarm pap that now passes for crosstalk on Chinese TV have no way of knowing that it was at one time a freewheeling, vibrant, and even rambunctious art form. Developing from humble origins as a type of street theater in the Qing Dynasty, by the 1940’s it had become a complex oral performance form that maintained an anti-authoritarian and even slightly subversive quality. It was wildly politically incorrect, lampooning everyone — pompous social elites, corrupt officials, country bumpkins, the handicapped, prostitutes, the effete intelligentsia, and even the KMT leaders in power at the time. It is difficult to convey the culturally-embedded style and content of crosstalk humor in a brief article such as this, but suffice to say, the form was every bit as rich and varied as the traditions of American Vaudeville and stand-up comedy.

Then came 1949. 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.

Typical of pieces that were deemed unacceptable was “Drinking Milk”, a one-person piece which goes as follows (drastically truncated here for space reasons):

An old man takes sick with a rare disease. The doctor tells him “This is a serious illness, my friend, but we can cure it for you. There’s a special Chinese herbal medicine that will fix you right up. But there is one problem: the prescription requires that you drink milk with it.”

“Why, that’s no problem.” the old man says.

“HUMAN milk,” clarifies the doctor.

“Well, that’s no problem either. It just so happens my daughter-in-law just gave birth to a baby. I can just get some milk from her.”

“Sorry, but there’s one more requirement,” says the doctor. “The milk has to be drunk directly from the breast, otherwise it loses its effectiveness.” Whew. This might be a little tricky. What can he do? The old man has no choice but to directly approach the daughter-in-law with his problem. He explains his predicament to her, and she is quite understanding.

“It’s a matter of life-and-death,” she says. “Of course I’ll help you.” So she timidly opens up her blouse and lets the old man suck the milk. But he has barely had one mouthful than the son — who had heard that his father was ill — returns home from work early. Opening the door and seeing his young wife there with his very own father in this rather compromising situation, he is understandably pretty pissed off.

“Dad!” the son cries in shock. “What the hell are you doing?” The father, seeing his son’s displeasure, stands up indignantly and says, “So! I drink one mouthful of your wife’s milk and you get this upset? Have you forgotten how much of MY wife’s milk YOU drank when you were a baby?”

This piece is no longer printed or performed in the media. It has for all intents and purposes disappeared from the crosstalk repertoire, though older performers remember it and can perform it in informal settings. The average Chinese audience member would be amazed that crosstalk in its current innocuous form had anything even this mildly risqué in its past.

But if they found this piece surprising, they would be absolutely flabbergasted by the X-rated premise of piece called “The Birdie that Doesn’t Chirp”. The piece is a double entendre-filled conversation between a man and a lady friend. (Female performers were rare; crosstalk, like early American stand-up comedy, was almost exclusively a male domain). The man mentions to the woman that he owns a special kind of bird that doesn’t chirp. Under puzzled questioning from the woman, it turns out the curious bird in question has no feathers, has only one eye on the top of its head, stays inside its “cage” most of the time, can grow or shrink in size at certain times, and so on. As the dialogue proceeds it becomes increasingly obvious to everyone but the innocent woman that the “bird” in question is actually the man’s penis. At one point the woman suggests that he take his bird out to a teahouse, as is the custom of Beijingers who raise birds as a hobby:

Man: A teahouse? Forget it! Last time I went to a teahouse at Wangfujing, as soon as I took off his cover, the waiter came running over. “Cover it up! Cover it up!” he said. “If you don’t cover that up, I’m gonna scald it to death with boiling water!”

Woman: Oh.

Man: Better cover him up, right? So I covered him up.

Woman: It seems to me you don’t know the first thing about birds. You can’t put his cage on the table if you go to a teahouse. All that dirty bird poop. While you’re drinking your tea, you hang your birdie up.

Man: Hang it up? No way!

Woman: Why?

Man: Dizzy from the height.

Woman: Nonsense. Birds don’t get dizzy.

Man: No, I mean I would get dizzy.

Woman: What’s it got to do with you?

Man: It’s my bird, after all.

Very sophomoric humor, of course — sort of the Chinese equivalent of a Playboy party joke. But it is revealing to see how far this kind of frankly sexual content could be taken in pre-1949 China. Crosstalk performers referred to this sort of piece as hunkou, which could be loosely translated as a “meat [as opposed to vegetarian] dish”. There is absolutely nothing remotely approaching it in the broadcast media today. (It is difficult for scholars to reconstruct pre-Liberation crosstalk because in the political extremism of 50s and 60s most of the historical record of the art form, including films, scripts, and recordings, were destroyed or irrevocably lost. A wire recording of this piece was made in 1953, and somehow resurfaced in 1990, whereupon the fragile steel wire technology was transferred to audiocassette tape by a member of the Academy of Social Sciences and passed on to a Princeton professor.)

Crosstalk also had an abundance of black humor. The premise of the piece “Selling Coffins” is almost Monty Python-esque: A coffin seller burdened with a surplus of merchandise desperately tries to unload more coffins on his customers using hard-sell techniques:

A: [to the customer]...The smaller coffins also can be put to other uses besides burying people, you know.

B: Like what?

A: Do you have a child in your family?

B: Yes.

A: Swell! You can buy one of these small coffins and use it as a baby stroller. It’ll be perfect: the handles on all four sides will keep the baby from falling out.

B: No good. A stroller has wheels, a coffin doesn’t. Without wheels, how can you rock it back and forth?

A: Just put four wheels on it and there you go! It shouldn’t cost much money.

B: But... the baby will be terrified jostling about inside!

A: Oh, don’t be such a fuddy-duddy! Stick a little mattress in there and it’ll be just fine.

B: Boy, you’ve got a solution for everything.

A: So you’ll buy one, eh?

B: Well, I... no, it won’t work. There’s no place to hang mosquito netting in the summer.

A: What do you need mosquito netting for?

B: Without it, the baby will get bitten by mosquitoes!

A: So just shut the lid. The mosquitoes won’t be able to get in.

B: But with the lid shut, the baby will suffocate!

A: So much the better.

B: What?!?

A: You can just wheel the coffin to the cemetery to bury the kid — no need to hire pallbearers.

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.

During the dark days of the Cultural Revolution the form virtually ceased to exist. The arts had become merely a tool of indoctrination, and crosstalk proved to be particularly fragile and unsustainable in this new environment. While a revolutionary ballet can still retain some degree of compelling visual power, or a propaganda movie can still hold some purely cinematic value (note Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will), the purely verbal form of crosstalk had no other artistic elements to fall back on, and thus became effectively dead.

Mao Zedong himself was an avid fan of crosstalk, and would hold performances in his residences at Zhongnanhai on Saturday nights. Interestingly, he requested only the traditional repertoire, having no use for the newly produced, revolutionary pieces. Like his wife Jiang Qing, who banned all foreign films but viewed Disney movies in the privacy of her living quarters, Mao continued to foist revolutionary art on the masses, while privately enjoying the unexpurgated classics.

In 1989 I interviewed crosstalk star Hao Aimin, who was one of the younger artists who performed in these weekly performances at Zhongnanhai. In the relaxed setting of my dorm room at Peking University, he related what it was like to perform “stand-up” in front of Chairman Mao:

We would peek out from behind the curtain backstage while we were waiting to go on, and there would be Chairman Mao, all red-faced, dancing waltzes with the young women. Chairman Mao was a large man, very robust, but actually quite graceful on his feet, and a good dancer. Seeing him in this context -- as a human being rather than a world leader -- enabled us to relax a bit and not be so terrified when it was time to go on. Still, standing up in front of Chairman Mao telling jokes could be intimidating. You had the feeling the people in the audience were afraid to laugh unless he did. Zhou Enlai was a better audience in this respect. He himself was more easy-going and laughed readily at all the jokes. He also had a tendency to anticipate the punchlines, and would say them along with you. This would spoil the joke somewhat, but it made for a more relaxed atmosphere.

In the late 1970’s, following the end of the Cultural Revolution, crosstalk experienced a rebirth as performers were again given more or less free rein to exercise their creative powers. This time the satirists had a safe and officially-sanctioned target: the Gang of Four and the excessive zealotry of the decade that had just ended. Performers took gleeful pleasure in getting comedic revenge on Jiang Qing and her cohorts, and dozens of pieces appeared with titles like “The White-Boned Demon” (the name of an evil spirit in the novel Journey to the West, which became a nickname for Jiang Qing). Jokes about the Gang of Four that had been circulating underground for years could now be put to use in these routines, and crosstalk performers were even free to show off their much-vaunted imitation skills to viciously parody Jiang Qing’s sing-song Shandong accent:

A: [imitating Jiang Qing] I’ve always studied diligently since I was young. I persisted in reading Marxist-Leninist literature five hours every day, and Chairman Mao’s works for seven hours every day. Comrades, I read four works from cover to cover: I can recite from memory Lenin’s Das Kapital, and Marx’s The Collected Works of Lenin...

B: Come off it! Give us a break!

A: Comrades, the struggles at the top are complex, and there are those in political circles who oppose me.

B: Yeah, they can see you’re a schemer and an opportunist!

A: They say that I have openly tried to subvert the Party. These accusations are totally groundless! Sure, I tried to subvert the Party, but it was never openly!”

You get the idea. Not exactly side-splitting humor. Most of these pieces don’t hold up well, of course, being perhaps prime examples of the type of humor for which “you had to be there”. But the laughter was truly cathartic, as audiences were now free to laugh at what just a few years earlier had been an oppressive aspect of everyday life.

One of the more successful pieces of the post-Mao period was “How to Take a Photograph”, which did a wonderful job of skewering the absurd politically excesses of the time:

A: On the wall of the shop was a piece of paper, and at the top it said NOTICE TO ALL CUSTOMERS.

B: What did it say?

A: It said: “All revolutionary comrades who come in the revolutionary door of this revolutionary photography shop, before asking any revolutionary question, must first call out a revolutionary slogan. If any of the revolutionary masses do not call out a revolutionary slogan, then the revolutionary shopkeeper will take a revolutionary attitude and refuse to give a revolutionary response. Revolutionarily yours, the revolutionary management.”

B: Really “revolutionary”, all right. It was like that in those days. As soon as you went into the shop it went like this: “Serve the People!” Comrade, I’d like to ask a question.

A: “Struggle Against Selfishness and Criticize Revisionism!” Go ahead.

B: [to the audience] Well, at least he didn’t ignore me. [Back in character] “Destroy Capitalism and Elevate the Proletariat!” I’d like to have my picture taken.

A: “Do Away with the Private and Establish the Public!” What size?

B: “The Revolution is Without Fault!” A three-inch photo.

A: “Rebellion is Justified!” Okay, please give me the money.

B: “Politics First and Foremost!” How much?

A: “Strive for Immediate Results!” One yuan three mao.

B: “Criticize Reactionary Authorities!” Here’s the money.

A: “Oppose Rule by Money!” Here’s your receipt.

B: “Sweep Away Class Enemies of All Kinds!” Thank you.

The piece catapulted the young performer Jiang Kun into instant success, and more pieces followed. For a brief period of time, crosstalk had an officially sanctioned target and almost total license to attack it.

This period of satiric openness did not last long. Once the brief period of letting off steam had subsided, political topics were once again off-limits. Those in power did not wish for discontent with recently-toppled regime to begin to spill over into the current one. Genuine laughter is liberating, contagious, and ultimately threatening to the established rule.

However, crosstalk was at least able to return to its roots, and no one was more qualified to lead in this renewal than the art’s greatest living practitioner, Hou Baolin. Hou had been rehabilitated at the end of the Cultural Revolution after being branded as a “rightist”, and was now free to continue the work of revising and expanding the crosstalk repertoire. Hou Baolin was a self-taught performer with a prodigious memory and an uncanny ear. With a Buster Keaton deadpan face and a relaxed, understated style, his performances had an urbane sophistication lacking in many other performers. Hou’s strong point was not satire per se, but rather the basic skills of the art, which involved imitating dialects and opera styles, and capturing the rich range of Chinese speech in impressive vocal displays. With these techniques as a basis, he revisited and revamped the older pieces, recycling and playing with the rich set of plots and characters in traditional Chinese literature and mythology. As popular as he was, his performances could only be characterized as masterful museum pieces. They represented the (pasteurized) cream of the old repertoire. With his undisputed comedic mastery, and with the content of his performances safely apolitical, Hou maintained a position as the premier crosstalk performer during the decades after 1949, becoming practically synonymous with the art itself.

As towering a figure as Hou was, he was not the person to take on the task of incorporating subject matter relevant to Deng Xiaoping’s China. Jobs, family relationships, consumer behavior, social attitudes; all were changing at a dizzying pace, and for crosstalk to remain funny, it would have to begin to reflect these new developments. What the increasingly sophisticated audience was crying out for was comedy material that examined the current realities of Chinese life, jokes that dealt head-on with the new and often traumatic changes unfolding under the new market economy. The raw material for such humor was certainly out there in abundance, and by all rights the 1980s should have been a heyday for Chinese crosstalk performers.

It didn’t happen. The task of producing effective crosstalk material was made nearly impossible by the fact that the government was still not allowing any content in the arts that smacked of criticism. Satire needs a target, but what social phenomena could performers possibly use as fodder for humor? The increasing ranks of laid-off workers? The chaotic collapse of the longstanding danwei (“work unit”) system? The gaudy excesses of China’s nouveau rich? The spoiled-brat “little emperors” resulting from the one-child policy? Such juicy topics were off-limits, effectively preventing crosstalk humor from even getting off the ground. Even more frustrating was the fact that all these topics were being lampooned in the rich underground repertoire of jokes, doggerel poems, and song parodies circulating among the public. The jokes being told by cab drivers were funnier than those of the professional comedians on TV. What were crosstalk performers to do? They rehashed old material. They parodied TV ads. They recited tongue-twisters. They resorted to slapstick. And the form continued its downward slide, with audiences becoming bored and disgusted with the increasingly irrelevant blather performers were forced to produce.

For a very brief time in the late 1980s, however, it seemed as if one performer, Jiang Kun, teamed up with a talented young writer named Liang Zuo, might be able to put some teeth back into crosstalk by adopting a tactic that creative artists under other repressive regimes have employed, namely incorporating subversive messages into their work while on the surface adhering to guidelines of political correctness.

The first success of this duo was a piece called “Reflections in the Tiger’s Mouth”, the basic premise of which is as follows. A young man accidentally falls into a tiger pit at the zoo and finds himself face to face with a hungry tiger. Attempts to rescue him fail, and, suddenly forced to confront his own mortality, he frantically searches for some metaphysical consolation in his last remaining moments of life. But where to turn at this existential crisis point? His thoughts turn to a few communist slogans and the Four Modernizations, but these fail to provide either escape or spiritual comfort:

A: [Shouting to spectators looking down into the tiger pit] Hey, up there! Shouting slogans won’t do any good, the tiger doesn’t understand them! Hey, up there! If you really want to emulate the spirit of Lei Feng, some of you should come down here and rescue me!

B: Did any of them come down?

A: “Communist Party members follow me!”

B: Are you a Communist Party member?

A: Uh, don’t ask. Anyway, it was obviously me who took the lead in coming down here in the first place! . . .

B: After all this time you haven’t thought of a way to escape!

A: Take it easy! Wait till I discuss this with the tiger.

B: Oh, so you’re going to discuss it with the tiger?

A: We’re going to do a little “ideological work”. [addressing the tiger] “Tiger! Tiger! Open your eyes and take a good look at me. I’m pretty skinny — no meat!…Tiger, if you have mercy on me today and don’t eat me, if you let me get out of this, I. . . I promise I’ll lead a good life. I’ll not only work for the Four Modernizations, I’ll even work for the Eight Modernizations. I won’t show up late for work at my work unit, and in the evening I won’t leave early. I’ll do everything my superiors tell me. At home I’ll be a model of filial piety, I’ll cherish my brothers and sisters. On the street I’ll obey the traffic rules, and I won’t spit on the ground!”

He then seeks some metaphysical solace in various religions — Christianity, Islam, Buddhism — but realizes to his dismay that he doesn’t know enough about any of these belief systems to take advantage of what they have to offer. When he is finally pulled to safety, he once again puts these metaphysical questions aside as he directs his attention to wooing the attractive young lady who helped organize his rescue.

The genius of the piece is its two levels of meaning. On the surface it is merely a humorous vignette about a hapless Everyman frantically trying to save his own skin, and Jiang Kun delivers a manic Jerry Lewis-like performance that makes this reading plausible. But the underlying message was evident to those who could read between the lines: namely that the Party, in abandoning the legacy of Chinese history and replacing it with merely a bankrupt and empty ideology, had failed to provide ordinary people with any moral or ethical grounding for their daily lives. Jiang and Liang had a hit on their hands, a piece that truly resonated with audiences — and it made it past the censors!

In another piece called “Self-Selection”, Liang Zuo manages to deal humorously with issues of gender identity, and even to flirt with the topic of homosexuality and bisexuality — issues that were not then or now acceptable topics for TV humor. The protagonist goes to the doctor and is told that he has come down with an extremely rare gender disorder: he is now exactly half-way between a man and a woman — he is neither male nor female. There is, however, an operation that can be performed on a special a gland in the brain. If the doctor twists the gland to the right, the patient will become fully male again; if the gland is twisted to the left, the patient will become a female. The doctor, realizing that this is a momentous decision, advises the patient to go home and discuss the options with friends and family members.

What follows is an exposition of the advantages and disadvantages of being one sex or the other in the Chinese social context. In the process of hypothesizing and weighing options, the protagonist keeps getting his gender roles confused:

A: As a woman I would still have to find a mate... Hey, how about if I choose a man as a mate?

B: Aren’t women supposed to look for men?

A: ... Okay, I’ve got to make a careful decision. A matter of “Till death do us part”, I can’t choose just anybody. I’ll pick... Hey, how about Little Mengzi at our work unit? He’s in a leadership position.

B: You have to decide this for yourself.

A: Nah, Little Mengzi doesn’t have the right look. He’s only 1.65 meters tall.... He has these stupid-looking double-fold eyelids — his eyes look like two belly buttons! He’s so short and dumpy, yet he loves to wear blue jeans, his two little buns poking out so tight... I can’t figure out figure out why that Li girl would pick him.

B: Huh? Little Mengzi has a fiancé?

A: They’ve been engaged more than a year now.

B: Then why are you butting in?

A: Isn’t everybody advocating “the third party sticking their foot in the door” these days? [Chinese term for the third member of the triangle in an extramarital affair]

B: Who’s advocating that?

A: Well what are all these articles in the newspapers and magazines on the subject?

B: They’re all opposing it!

A: ... Well, anyway, who’s “the third party” after all? Little Mengzi’s fiancé is the “third party”, not me! I’ve been sharing a bunk-bed with Little Mengzi ever since I started work at the factory. Has she ever spent the night in the same room with him? Plus, if I get married to Little Mengzi, it’ll save a lot of trouble. We wouldn’t even have to apply for housing, we could just move my bedding from the top bunk to the bottom bunk and that would be it! The housing situation is so tight these days, it would save the leaders of the work unit a lot of hassle!

B: You’ve got an answer for everything!

A: Sure! With so much competition for housing, you leaders have to think of some solution. If everyone did like I’m proposing, men marrying men and women marrying women...[pause] Uh, I guess that would be crazy wouldn’t it?

B: You’re finally catching on.

In the end the protagonist, having discovered that both genders have their advantages, chooses not to have the operation at all. “I’ll just stay like this — right in the middle!” he says. Again, for the vast majority of the audience, the humor of the piece is perceived to center around the protagonist’s obvious violations of “common sense”. But to hipper members of the audience — and especially gays and bisexuals — exchanges such as the above were knowingly evocative. In China’s homophobic society, where crowded same-sex dorm rooms and living arrangements are the rule, the situation hinted at here would be immediately recognizable to many as the only means for homosexuals to enjoy relatively safe, long-term clandestine sexual relationships. Furthermore, merely toying with the blurring of gender roles in a humorous context can lead to deeper reflection and awareness of these issues on the part of the average Chinese, who might never encounter an open and serious discussion of the subject elsewhere. As a piece of social satire operating in the context of the relatively more restrictive social environment, one might make a comparison to the 50’s Hollywood film Some Like it Hot, where cross-dressing and gender-switching were all played for laughs, yet a more challenging — even subversive — subtext was there to be read by anyone sensitized to it.

The best Liang-Jiang collaboration was a piece entitled “Big News”, which was premiered as part of the televised Chinese New Year’s festival in the spring before the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The piece was an immediate and phenomenal hit. The premise is as follows. A tells B that he has heard it through the xiaodao xiaoxi, (“back alley information”, i.e., “the grapevine”) that the government is about to come up with a bold new experiment: Tiananmen Square is going to be converted into an outdoor free market, where hundreds of getihu enterprises would be allowed to set up stalls and hawk everything from blue jeans to VCRs. The straight man is incredulous that the historic square would be converted to such a crass commercial venue:

B: Tiananmen Square is the window of China. How could it be appropriate to plunk an outdoor market down there?

A: Window of China? Right! Foreigners don’t know what China is like. They can take one look at the square and say “An open-air market? Hey! China has a commodity-based economy!” Taking another look, they say “Hmm, and everything is pretty cheap, too! Okay, now we know!” And that’s the first step.

B: Oh, so now they know.

A: A window, you said. They take one look and get the picture. Foreigners take one look and think “Not bad!” ... It’ll put their minds at ease. “So much bustling activity, so much prosperity! Surely China will have no trouble repaying its debts!”

The jokester proceeds to counter all of the straight man’s objections. You say the marketplace will clutter up the front of the Great Hall of the People? This has advantages for the leaders — when they get hungry during a particularly exhausting meeting, they can just step outside and buy a bowl of wonton soup! You say the open air market would be a distraction during important governmental activities? On the contrary, the market would provide visual aids; when the topic of the meeting came around to the problem of poor quality-control in industry, all the goods arrayed in the outdoor stalls could serve as handy examples. And so on.

The piece was dynamite humor at the time. The ostensible premise was the perils of gullibly swallowing the absurd rumors circulated in the xiaodao xiaoxi, but more astute members of the audience were, of course, aware of the delicious irony of the true underlying subtext, which poked fun at the contradiction between China’s rapid economic reforms and its continuing rearguard political policies. Of course, “Big News” didn’t merely point out this dichotomy — it rubbed the government’s nose in it. Audiences at the time laughed gleefully at the incongruous image of the somber square filled with hundreds of small capitalistic entrepreneurs at their outdoor stalls catering to rowdy hordes of bargain-hunting shoppers. The piece continued to be performed and talked about during the following few months of 1989, as life imitated art: Tiananmen Square indeed came to resemble a kind of boisterous outdoor marketplace as the student protesters took over. The piece managed to achieve something close true political satire, a form of humor totally absent from the Chinese media.

Then came the night of June 4. After the initial chaos of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a new ice age for the arts set in. “Big News” disappeared from the public record, and Liang Zuo himself became fed up with the crosstalk domain, turning to more lucrative TV serials. He died of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of 44. Crosstalk’s slump began to deepen, with the routines becoming increasingly perfunctory and aimless — and not funny. Some of the more talented performers jumped ship, crossing over into movies or cashing in on their fame by starting their own companies. What was left was a core group of veteran performers who were reliably entertaining but increasingly irrelevant, and a rag-tag assortment of inexperienced rookies who could only recycle lame jokes or wail pop song parodies.

And so the situation remains today. The result is that crosstalk’s presence on TV and radio has diminished significantly. Nor is the situation much better with live theater performances. Beijing, the center of the art form, now has virtually no venues where one can enjoy a performance on any given night. The more traditional city of Tianjin fares a bit better, boasting a few traditional performing arts teahouses (perhaps the Chinese equivalent of comedy clubs) where loyal fans can pay five yuan and spend an evening munching sunflower seeds and drinking tea while watching crosstalk. Unfettered by the time constraints of television, veteran performers are free to spin out the traditional pieces (some lasting as long as an hour) in more or less their full glory. Good as these routines are, some of the pieces are more than 50 years old. It would be as if New York audiences flocked to a comedy clubs to enjoy reprisals of Jack Benny or the Marx Brothers. Classic stuff, to be sure, but humor must reflect the times.

Nobody is more painfully aware of these problems than crosstalk performers themselves. It is they who have to endure the nightly “flop sweat” arising from confronting bored and contemptuous audiences. The words of one veteran performer are typical:

Naturally we all agree that crosstalk just isn’t funny anymore. It’s the computer age, but we’re still up there doing pieces about Peking Opera and peddler’s cries. The tragedy is, there is plenty of material out there. Everyone complains about the traffic in Beijing. Can we make a joke about it? No. It would be construed as a criticism of the municipal traffic authorities. Everyone is downloading porn from the Internet now. Can we mention this in a joke? Forget it. It would be admitting that Chinese people have sexual hang-ups, too… And never mind poking a little innocent fun at our political leaders. Never in a million years. So what’s the point of even trying to be funny?

In fact, every facet of daily life is so politicized in China, that crosstalk performers actually find themselves avoiding indigenous Chinese subject matter for their routines. For part of his performance in the CCTV Spring Festival show for the Year of the Horse, Jiang Kun, the leading performer of his generation, simply revamped a couple of foreign jokes downloaded from the Internet. Surely one would think that some culturally relevant, home-grown Chinese humor would have been more appropriate for such an important TV event. Perhaps it was not worth the multi-leveled steeplechase that the censorship process entails.

The result of decades of constant conservative pressure from these TV censors is that the general tone of all the entertainment media in China is now unrelentingly laudatory, saccharine and Pollyanna-ish. And this style has become so ingrained that any content that is the least bit irreverent, iconoclastic, snide, or mocking (i.e., anything displaying the essential attitudes of humor) is perceived as downright crass and socially disruptive. Such an atmosphere of polite, cheery civility is not conducive to the performing arts in general, but for the purely verbal humor of crosstalk, it is paralyzing.

The Chinese audience, now savvier and more internationalized, craves something spontaneous and honest, but crosstalk performers seem unable to provide it. One famous performer (who asks that I not use his name) laments that his career in the PRC has left him incapable of performing comedy in any other way:

I’ve been overseas, and I’ve seen these American comedians like Robin Williams interacting with the audience, and so much of it is just improvised. My fans say “You’re so funny, and quick-witted. I bet you could do that, too. Why not just get up on the stage and go with the situation, play it by ear with the audience? People would love it.” But I say, no, it’s really too late for me. If right now you gave me the total freedom to stand up on the stage and say anything at all, in the end I’d just end up mouthing the same old things, falling back on the same routines. It’s second-nature to me now. There might be hope for the next generation, but for not for me. This is all I know how to do now.

Yet where is this new generation to come from? The most serious sign of the crosstalk’s moribund status is that virtually no stars have arisen in the past ten years. Clearly, the art needs new ideas, new material and new faces, or it is in danger of extinction. But what new talent is going to want to embark on a sinking ship?

I was once at a party attended by several crosstalk performers. As the evening wore on and the maotai liquor flowed, a few of them began to get up and tell jokes that were popular at the time, including this one about police corruption:

A new cop, his first day on the job. After putting in a day’s work, he decides to go to a movie to relax. As he’s standing there in line, the person in front of him turns around, sees his police uniform, and says “You’re new, right?” The cop is surprised.

“Well, yes, how did you know?”

“Cops don’t wait in line, they just cut to the front of the line.”

The cop thinks, “Great! One of the advantages of being a cop!” So he cuts into the head of the line, and indeed no one dares object. He pulls out his wallet to buy a ticket and the ticket seller says “You’re new, right?”

“Why, yes, how did you know?”

“Cops don’t have to buy tickets. They just go in for free.” The cop, increasingly pleased with the perks of this job, goes into the theater.

He starts to look for a seat on the ground floor. Someone says “You’re new, right?”

“Well, yes, how did you know?”

“Cops don’t sit with the ordinary people. They go up to the reserved padded seats in the balcony.” The cop is pleased with this, and goes up to the reserved seats.

As soon as he sits down, the person next to him says. “You’re new, right?”

“Well, yes, how did you know?”

“Cops don’t sit politely with their feet on the floor. They always lean back and put their feet up on the seat in front of them.” So he leans back and puts his feet up. And he’s thinking this is a pretty good job.

Suddenly he receives a phone call on his cell phone. “We’ve just heard there’s a prostitution ring at the Chaoyang movie theater,” says the police dispatcher. “Go look around and get some evidence, and you can get a promotion!” What luck! The cop happens to be at that very movie theater. So he pulls out his flashlight and begins opening doors, looking for some prostitution activity. And sure enough, upon opening one of the doors, he sees a man in there with three hookers in bed with him.
Triumphantly he says “Get up, all of you! You are all under arrest, including you, buddy.”

One of the hookers says “Hey, you’re new, aren’t you?” Now the cop is really dumbfounded.

“Yeah, but how in the world could you possibly know that?”

The prostitute points to the man in bed with them and says “You don’t recognize your own chief of police??”

This joke is typical of the kind of humor that circulates among the general populace and gets sent around the Internet in China. Mild as it is, this joke could never be told on Chinese TV. After the laughter died down, the performer who told the joke complained to me:

You know, there is so much resentment against the police right now. I would love to be able to tell this joke on the stage. The audience would go crazy, for sure. I always feel that this is the kind of humor we should be making, stuff that the audience can identify with, stuff that really reflects the kind of problems they meet in everyday life. As years go by, news events come and go, and all kinds of these jokes make the rounds, but they never get aired on TV. Year after year all sorts of marvelous humor is produced and then forgotten, and never makes in on the public record. Centuries from now, people will look back and say “Where was the humor in China after 1949?” Well, it was here, folks, they just wouldn’t let us speak it out loud.

It is ironic that China, with the world’s largest population, also wastes more human resources than any country on earth. An entire generation of talent was effectively lost during the Cultural Revolution. And it could be argued that, since 1949, China has metaphorically shackled and silenced all its Lenny Bruces, Mort Sahls, Richard Pryors, Dick Gregorys, Eddie Murphys and Margaret Chos. Of course, all cultures are different, and such potential Chinese comedic geniuses would have undoubtedly produced standup comedy with “Chinese characteristics”. The pity is that we will never know what that comedy might have been like.

If crosstalk is dying, it is not because of inexorable market forces, or because of some ineffable cultural difference. It is rather the fault of the Communist Party, whose paranoia and pathetic sense of dignity has produced a media environment in which nothing truly humorous can ever arise and flourish. It is the Party that killed the laughter. And this is truly no laughing matter.

There are currently 24 Comments for Stifled Laughter: How the Communist Party Killed Chinese Humor.

Comments on Stifled Laughter: How the Communist Party Killed Chinese Humor

Hello folks,

I am writing a book about humour under Communism.

Do any of you know if the Chinese made any jokes about Mao or Communism 1949-89?

Regards,

Ben Lewis

Wow what a great and informative article! It's amazing that you actually got to meet with one of the legends of the art. I really enjoyed this article though it was quite depressing -- thanks so much for sharing.

What a great article! And the Chinese who made any jokes about Mao or Communism 1949-89 had been set to Mao to tell the jokes.

This is fascinating. I do have to add that there is a place where the art of crosstalk still survives and thrives. On the bastion of Chinese free speech - Taiwan. I saw a hilarious show there two years ago picking on corrupt officials and the corrupt president, making fun of the last Japanese governor of Taiwan, and those tour guides who drag you to the shops where they get there kickbacks...

The joke about bird is my first time heard, even in English, it is really a joke for a Chinese.

I am wondering why Guo De Gang was not mentioned in this article,,he seems to have made Xiang Sheng popular again,,and some of his jokes are very risque,,,but of course other than poking fun at bad habits of officials (ie 村村都有丈母娘) he doesn't make political jokes.

XX: This article was written before Guo Degang's big breakout.

@Ben Lewis - I know a great one:

(Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De go on a flight together, half way through the flight both engines fail, the leaders prepare to don parachutes and jump from the plane, but there's a problem: They are one parachute short.)

Mao: "Alright guys, I'll ask you each a question, whoever answers incorrectly first doesn't get a parachute. Comrade Zhu - how long did the anti-Japanese war last?"

Zhu De: "Comrade Chairman, it was eight years"

Mao: "Good! Comrade Zhou - How many Japanese devils were killed in the anti-Japanese war?"

Zhou Enlai: "Comrade Chairman, 800,126 Japanese devils were killed"

Mao: "Good! Comrade Deng - What were their names?"

(The engines start up again and it looks like they are going to make it, but just before they land the engines cut out again, this time for good)

Zhou Enlai: "Good news Comrade Deng! I have found one for you!"

(Comrade Deng grabs the sack that Zhou Enlai hands him and hurls himself out of the door)

Zhou Enlai: "Reporting Comrade Chairman, the bag that Comrade Deng just used was an ordinary book bag!"

Okay, that last bit was a lot funnier when I was told it, but I think it's a decent joke all the same.

Dear all--I am working on a feature about North Korean humor. Can anyone recommend some experts on Communist humor we might interview? Many thanks, sjh

Are there recordings/transcripts of the chinese on the web?? Links would be much appreciated.

Great piece (now that I come across it), although you need to strip out quite a lot of political "spin" of the author's.

"Genuine laughter is liberating, contagious, and ultimately threatening to the established rule." -- some might differ with this statement. Letting off steam is the opposite of threatening "established rule", and indeed in many societies watching stand-up comedy is a decidedly middle-class pursuit.

Thank you so much for writing this knowledgeable article, which presents to me the very development and the status quo of the Chinese crosstalk.

I'm a fun of crosstalk, and I remembered once a satirist said:
"The very essence of humor is satire."

there is one crosstalk regarding the first leadership of china: one day the wife of Mao Zedong was taking a shower, Zu De, Zhou Enlai are watching through a hole on the wall. Then Mao Zedong walked by and criticized Zu De and Zou Enlai,he said, see how Deng Xiaoping is not tempted by this. Zhou Enlai said, yeah, he is looking for a chair to stand on(Deng Xiaoping is too short)

cool.....


i am a chinese campus student

my english is not very well

but i will try my best to have a understanding of it

and remember the article

when i have a better english

i will come back to have a review~

thank u for your care about china

thank u

ls的好囧~
this article is very informative . i think this is just part of the reasons.

People by second-nature know how to avoid root reasons and find "many reasons" for things like crosstalke decline. Interestingly,people prefer to believe irrelevant reasons. I never heard any political jokes during those days. Maybe revolutionary people never made it ,heard it.If I found any I will sent to you.

Below is a SMS which is popular recently. Hope you can understand it. cause every person mentioned is famous hero in the history of communist party and every question has been answered in a morden way.

江姐问:国民党被推翻了么?
答:被阿扁推翻了。

董存瑞问:劳动人民还当牛做马吗?
答:不劳动了,都下岗了。

吴琼花问:姐妹们都翻身得解放了吗?
答:思想解放了,都当小姐了。

扬子荣问:土匪都剿灭了吗?
答:都改当公安和城管了。

杨白劳问:地主都打倒了么?
答:都入党了。

雷锋问:那资本家呢?
答:都进人大和政协了!

刘胡兰问:同志们都藏好了么?
答:都隐身上网了

毛主席问:大家现在都在忙什么?
答:都在斗地主
毛主席:那我就放心了…

This post was wonderfully enlightening. It reminded me of a scene in a movie by Ann Hu, "Shadow Magic" where two comedians in the audience were commenting (cross talking) on scenes throughout the silent film being shown.

I used to think American TV was lousy, then I saw Chinese TV...those guys who must pay big yuan to their hair stylists in order to look like they just fell out of bed...the performers who think that dressing in ridiculous looking clothes, making funny faces at the camera, and talking like 10-year-olds is "funny", and the singers...yeeech! Talentless "chicks" gyrating on stage in skimpy costumes (oh well, just turn down the sound), the relentless, boring disco beats, the lame, predictable subject matter (I LOVE Zhongguo! I'm having troubles with my boy/girlfriend, kiddies are cute, I miss my mommy, those Tibetans/Yunnanese/Xinjiangers are SOOOO exotic, let's do some really lame version of the rumba!) and always, in the background, 20 or 30 young guys/gals in costume swaying slowly together in (more or less) unison, performing routines so simple that any high school cheerleading squad would be ashamed of them. Rant over and out.

david, good one. Vulgarity nationalised! hurah. eeeeekk. But hey, in a country with no criticism, neither literary, artistic or social, what can one expect? Annway, not if the US of A is much better... but better for sure:)

So I like the article and I love those skits and dialogues that he used as examples. But I'd really like to know the source of this essay and see where it's been published etc. Looking up both the author and article title, it seems circulation is primarily amongst blogs. I could be wrong, so help me out.

Thanks

I was born in 85 and I'm sure I've heard both the milk piece and the coffin piece, the last one definitely on radio. Our radio still broadcast quite some good old pieces from the old times, and that include the 80s, when the creativity was much better than today.

i thoroughly enjoyed the article. well written and nicely supplemented by the jokes. wondering when this suppression of humor will either burst or under the resulting pressure of suppression, self-efface or evolve into something completely different.

What a great article! The unlimited censorship and the obscurantist policy is strangling the imagination and creativity of chinese people.

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