Posted by Jeremy Goldkorn on Tuesday, November 16, 2004 at 12:00 AM
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):
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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