Laugh it off: Xiangsheng style

Xiangsheng, or crosstalk, that thrived during the Qing Dynasty remains a popular performing art form in China, and has been recognized as an intangible cultural heritage. 

Xiangsheng, or crosstalk, is arguably the most popular comic performance in China, appealing to people of all ages — old and young, men and women. The closest thing to it in the West could be the Abbott and Costello sketches that were big in the United States in the 1940s and early 1950s.

Crosstalk first appeared in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) as a kind of spin-off of the “imitation show” that was hugely popular in the previous dynasties. That probably explains the ancient Chinese term of today’s 相声 (xiangsheng, literally meaning mutual voice) was 像生, which has a similar pronunciation but means imitating other languages or behavior.

But most people believe that it was not until the middle and late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that crosstalk established itself as a unique and independent art form.

Performed mainly in Beijing dialect and combining puns, allusions and banter with storytelling, xiangsheng is essentially known for its humorous and satirical nature. It could be a comedic monologue, dialogue or multi-player sketch.

Earliest form

As the earliest form of xiangsheng, dankou or monologue, is performed by an actor who mainly cracks jokes or simply narrates humorous stories.

It is known as qunkou if it is performed by three or more people.

But most of the time, xiangsheng is performed by two actors and is called duikou. The lead actor is called dougen, while the one playing the supporting role is called penggen.

The two actors usually discuss or argue over a subject or social phenomenon in a satirical and humorous manner. The main purpose, of course, is to trigger roars of laughter among the audience.

There are four key skills in xiangsheng, namely, shuo (talking), xue (imitating), dou (teasing) and chang (singing).

Shuo means speaking or talking. It sometimes includes Chinese rapping. Actors usually show off their shuo skills by gushing out in one breath a fusillade of several dozens of names, such as those of Chinese dishes. Tongue twister is also a favorite way for xiangsheng performers to demonstrate their skill.

Xue, or imitating, is usually a very interesting part of xiangsheng and involves ventriloquists who imitate the sounds and voices of human beings, birds and animals. Actors also imitate the peculiar cries of street peddlers wandering in Beijing’s narrow alleys or the various distinct dialects in different parts of the country.

Xiangsheng performers also frequently imitate the movement, gestures and behaviors of other people, sometimes in a clownish manner.

Dou, teasing, in xiangsheng means to crack jokes. Performers usually try their best to prepare or set up narratives that end with a punch line, called doubaofu.

Chang, or singing, is a way for xiangsheng performers to demonstrate their vocal skills to attract the attention of the audience. Usually, they sing famous arias of Chinese operas, especially the Peking opera. But nowadays, they also include popular folk or pop songs with an eye on the younger audience.

The xiangsheng skills are usually passed on from masters to disciples. After three years of apprenticeship, the students perform with their teachers for a few seasons before striking out on their own.

In the early years, xiangsheng performers typically came from a humble background, starting off as street performers. The most popular venues of xiangsheng used to be Beijing Tianqiao, Tianjin Quanyechang and Nanjing Confucius Temple.

Later, they began to perform in teahouses and theaters. With the arrival of radio and television, xiangsheng began to reach audiences everywhere, particularly those in the southern part of the country.

Imaginechina

From left: Hou Baolin, Liu Baorui and Ma Ji perform xiangsheng on Beijing TV in 1980s. Dubbed the Chinese Charlie Chaplin, Hou has been hailed as the greatest xiangsheng master of the 20th century.

Household names

As a result, xiangsheng performers became household names. The best-known names over the past five or six decades include Hou Baolin, Ma Sanli, Guo Degang as well as Dashan, a Canadian whose real name is Mark Rowswell.

Dubbed the Chinese Charlie Chaplin, Hou Baolin (1917-93) has been hailed as the greatest xiangsheng master of the 20th century.

Instead of clowning around the stage, Hou often resorted to sublime verbal skills, spontaneous humor and a rich knowledge of Chinese history, art and literature to make audiences laugh, thus lifting the once low and vulgar comic performance to genuine stage art form.

Ma Sanli (1914-2003), of Hui nationality, was born into a xiangsheng family. His father, Ma Delu, was dubbed one of the eight distinguished xiangsheng master performers of his time. The son formally began his xiangsheng apprenticeship when he was only 15.

Performing mainly in Tianjin, a metropolis in northern China, Ma was known for his profound artistic skills, keen observation of daily life, well-developed performance as well as his stern-faced humor and a signature smoky voice.

He was also very good at performing the dankou, or single-actor xiangsheng.

Guo Degang also hails from Tianjin. Born in 1973, he began to study performing arts when he was only 8. His xiangsheng mentors include Hou Yaowen, Hou Baolin’s son.

In 1995, Guo set up the Deyun Society, a theater as well as a school for xiangsheng performance and training.

His witty and exquisite performance, which had a grassroots flavor, led to the resurgence of xiangsheng and greatly increased its popularity, particularly among young audiences.

With more than 60 million followers on social media and an impressive fan base, Guo is definitely a superstar of xiangsheng and comedy in China today.

SHINE

Mark Rowswell (left) hit the big time after appearing as Dashan, meaning Big Mountain, on a popular Chinese TV program in 1989. He later began his formal study of xiangsheng under the tutorship of renowned xiangsheng artist Jiang Kun.

Mark Rowswell studied Chinese in a Canadian university and later at the Beijing University. Thanks to his exceptional linguistic gift, Rowswell, who was born in 1965, speaks impeccable Mandarin.

He hit the big time after appearing as Dashan, meaning Big Mountain, on a popular Chinese TV program in 1989. He later began his formal study of xiangsheng under the tutorship of Jiang Kun, a well-known xiangsheng artist.

This caused a stir in the art circles in China as xiangsheng was always regarded as a highly skilled art that was beyond the reach of most native Chinese speakers.

Now, besides being a household name in China as a star xiangsheng performer, comedian and TV host, Rowswell also serves as a cultural ambassador between China and the West.

Thanks to the unremitting efforts of generations of xiangsheng performers, it remains even today one of the most popular performing art forms in the country. In 2008, xiangsheng was inscribed on the national list of intangible cultural heritages in China.

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