Crosstalk is a kind of traditional Chinese stand-up comedy accented with with puns and poetry. The Chinese word for cross talk is xiangsheng , literally “face and voice.” Sometimes the performer gets up alone and talks directly to the crowd. Other times, he brings along another comedian and jousts. If they are any good the audience roars with laughter. The art form began during the Qing Dynasty in Beijing as street art. Jokes dealt with familiar themes: troublesome in-laws, regional stereotypes and impersonations. Creative puns were the norm. [Source: Benjamin Haas, New York Times, March 3, 2011; Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, September 09, 2010]

Benjamin Haas wrote in the New York Times, “Performed in teahouses throughout northern China, it usually consists of two performers dressed in traditional garb engaging in witty banter. Think Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?” One example is a dialogue between a theater director working in Europe and an old friend. The director’s play is about “the three kingdoms,” or in his mind, France, Germany and Italy. But the friend understands it to mean the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. Confusion ensues, and audiences laugh.”

“Throughout cross talk’s history, performers have come from humble backgrounds. Aspiring comedians from poor families studied under a master for three years and performed with the teacher for one season before striking out on their own. One man who had been doing it for 40 years told the New York Times, “Before, cross talk was a way to communicate with people, to educate people...It had to be as good as listening to the radio or reading a book.”

At the height of the Cultural Revolution, cross talk was exclusively used as a propaganda tool. “You can’t laugh at how wonderful Chairman Mao is,” said David Moser, academic director of the CET Beijing Chinese Studies program in Beijing told the New York Times. He wrote his master’s thesis at the University of Michigan on cross talk and has been performing on and off for 20 years. “But there was a technique throughout the whole Mao period called “putting on the hat and shoes,” where you start the piece with some revolutionary praising of the party, then you do business as usual, and then at the end you stick on something revolutionary, he said. When the Cultural Revolution ended, cross talk performers immediately criticized the Gang of Four, releasing years of pent-up political frustration. But a brief period of openness was quickly quashed.

Errenzhuan is a form of comic dialogue from northeastern China.

Crosstalk and Censorship

Benjamin Haas wrote in the New York Times, “But masters like Ding Guangquan, 76, who has appeared on China Central Television’s Lunar New Year gala---the most watched event of the Chinese television calendar---see cross talk increasingly marginalized by political controls and the Internet. Other cross talk elders say the money associated with the form’s popularity has commercialized the shows, watering down the traditional wit.” [Source: Benjamin Haas, New York Times, March 3, 2011]

Today, cross talk topics as innocuous as Beijing traffic are forbidden on TV or radio. “There are a lot of jokes about fake products and tainted food, but none of it gets put on the Internet,” Chu Yang, 31, an avid cross talk fan who travels to Tianjin to see more provocative performances, told the New York Times. “If those were put up, everyone would watch them and the videos would get removed immediately.”

“In recent years, several prominent celebrities have bemoaned cross talk’s decline because of censorship, Haas wrote in the New York Times. “Mark “Dashan Rowswell, a Canadian television celebrity in China who gained fame through cross talk, rarely performs anymore. In a 2005 interview with the Chongqing Evening News, Mr. Rowswell said cross talk had become too scripted and had lost its way since going from street art to television spectacle. Last year, Han Han, China’s most popular blogger and an outspoken critic of the government, declared “cross talk has been utterly destroyed” in a since deleted blog post about the political correctness of the televised New Year’s show.

Then there’s the Internet. “Even traditionalists who has been performing for nearly 40 years acknowledged that cross talk faced fierce competition from online entertainment,” Haas wrote. “The anonymity of the Internet means political humor posted on a blog is far more candid than a cross talk routine. Just as the advent of movies greatly contributed to vaudeville’s decline in the 1930s, Chinese people’s access to more outspoken forms of entertainment may one day relegate cross talk to the status of obscure folk art. Ding complained that many of those who do it “are just doing it for the money.”

Guo Degang, Savior of Xiangsheng

Cross talk that has undergone a revival recently, largely thanks to Guo Degang, a stout, doughy, moon-faced performer and working class hero who voice for many years filled taxicabs and small shops all over China. Chinese media have dubbed him “the savior of cross talk” for attracting young and middle-aged audience members to the aging cross talk crowd.But while the rejuvenated art form has been promoted by the government on some heavily watched television programs, subversive comedians sometimes use it to throw barbs at Chinese politics and society. [Source: Benjamin Haas, New York Times, March 3, 2011; Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, September 09, 2010]

Guo (pronounced Gwo) is one of China’s most popular performers of xiangsheng. He was 37 in 2010 but looks older.. He has a closely shaved head, is seen as a people’s hero for his populist humor, which skewers the police, bureaucrats and celebrities. Megan Stack wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “He's foulmouthed. He's subversive. He has no respect for authority. In a country where an insurgent spirit can land you behind bars, it made Guo Degang rich instead. Sometimes he stands onstage and gripes like a curmudgeon who's plopped down next to you on a bus. In his own theaters and on the road, he talks about his life, his struggles, mundane things. But it comes with intricate wordplays, adroit use of slang, unexpected bursts of rhyme that resist translation into English. [Source: Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, September 09, 2010]

Guo started studying cross talk at age 7 and never finished junior high school. In 1995, he left his hometown of Tianjin to open his first club in Beijing. In recent years, Mr. Guo’s popularity has exploded, and he leads more of a movie-star life than most of his peers. He has opened two more restaurant clubs in Beijing and has appeared in several blockbuster Chinese movies. From his cross talk shows alone, his income last year was estimated to exceed 20 million renminbi, or about $3 million.[Source: Benjamin Haas, New York Times, March 3, 2011]

Describing him as he entered a nightclub, Haas wrote in the New York Times, “Guo Degang, wearing sunglasses at night, strutted into the club followed by an entourage of sharply dressed men and was shown to an elegant private dining room in the back. He sat down and held court as friends from out of town presented him with gifts of liquor, rare mushrooms and artwork. It could have been a scene out of a Chinese version of “The Godfather,” but Mr. Guo is more Ricky Gervais than Don Corleone.” [Ibid]

Guo Degang Crosstalk Routine

“I’m excited to say some things that weren’t allowed on the radio, that television stations wouldn’t air,” was how Mr. Guo began one show in a teahouse, followed by a hearty round of applause. “Cops beat people just to beat them, yell at people just to yell at them, more viciously than any hoodlum,” he continued. “Meanwhile, gangsters are polite. They’ll help you when you need it. So, who’s the gangster and who’s the cop?” [Source: Benjamin Haas, New York Times, March 3, 2011]

A sampling of his routines lingers in cellphone videos posted online by his fans. In one clip, Guo grouses to the audience about a routine that was, in his estimation, underappreciated by a nervous public. "It was on the radio but it wasn't appreciated. It got bad comments," he told the crowd. "It reflected the evil side of ordinary Chinese people. It was not helping to build a harmonious society. It would ruin 50 years of achievements." Then he dropped the sarcasm. "We're hopeless," he told the crowd. "There are many things we can't talk about."[Source: Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, September 09, 2010]

Megan K. Stack wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “That was the Guo whom working Chinese paid some of their hard-earned cash to see after long days at tedious jobs. He talked about sex and corruption and greed, and gave voice to the unharmonious malice that seeped quietly into their thoughts as they struggled to make ends meet. Guo skewered movie stars, politicians and professors, anybody who had prestige, really.”

“Guo's stories could be morbid and crude: The son at a hospital bedside accidentally kills his father by standing on the oxygen line. The singer at a funeral drones on so long that even the corpse gets bored and snatches away the microphone. Gas is passed. Prostitutes turn up their nose at shabby clients. Businessmen put on the airs of professors with eyeglasses and shelves of unread books. Only the poor man, the ordinary Chinese, escaped his monologues with dignity intact. And the crowd understood that he was one of them; he had come from the provinces without money or connections.”

For years, he got more and more popular, and with the fame came money, and even a certain measure of cachet among the country's powerful. He moved from teahouses to theaters. He opened a cavernous restaurant, Guo's Dishes, in the posh Sanlitun district of Beijing. At his wife's nearby boutique, designer frocks sell for well over $1,000. Yet his success didn't change his act. "We can't solve all your problems like cars, apartments, money," he told the crowd one night. "We just want you all to be happy. During the next three hours, we'll try our best to make you happy."

Crackdown on Guo Degang

In summer of 2010, after poking snide fun at officialdom for much of his career, Guo has been abruptly silenced. The comedian has become the highest-profile casualty of a crackdown launched in recent weeks on what President Hu Jintao calls the "three vulgarities": sex-obsessed, mindless and tasteless culture. [Source: Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, September 09, 2010]

Megan K. Stack wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ‘stores purged their shelves of Guo's CDs and books. Hackers assaulted his website so mercilessly that it was temporarily shut down. Two of the most prominent comedians associated with his troupe abruptly quit. The news media tried to dredge up dirt on Guo, accusing him of cheating in business, underpaying his fellow comedians and seducing married women.

“Finely conditioned to detect whiffs of trouble, people are suddenly nervous to talk about him, let alone admit any fondness for his performances. A few outspoken people have stuck up for Guo via Twitter and blogs. The comedian had grown too popular for the government's taste, they contend. And unlike comedians who've twisted the once-subversive genre into a platform for exuberant praise of authority figures, he has been determined to continue the critical, sarcastic traditions of cross talk.”

"He says things nobody else would dare to say, especially in the entertainment industry," Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer who has criticized Guo's treatment on Twitter. "The government was looking for an excuse to teach him a lesson, to say, 'You should be flattering the government instead of criticizing.'"

Guo Degang’s Run In with the Media

The trouble started in early August, when a crew from state-owned Beijing Television showed up at Guo's door to investigate claims that his garden had been illegally expanded into public land. A quarrel erupted. One of Guo’s students, Li Hebiao, physically attacked a Beijing TV (BTV) reporter, Zhou Wenfu, who had come to Guo’s house seeking an interview.

Guo, who was not home at the time, defended Li by pointing out that Zhou had entered without invitation, had repeatedly claimed not to be filming, and had selectively edited the video for broadcast."That's right. He beat up the reporter, so be it," a defiant Guo told a cheering theater crowd days later. But then he struck a mournful note. "I feel sad for my country," he said. "It's very difficult to talk to Chinese people. You try to reason with them and they don't get it. But if you slap them, they eventually get it." Zhou’s paparazzi-style interview tactics notwithstanding, Li eventually was compelled to apologize and spent a week in jail.

But what really got Guo into big trouble was s mocking attack on BTV in his blog. The attack was not welcomed by official media and was deemed vulgar by the Chinese government. CCTV’s Live News broadcast condemned Guo (without mentioning him by name) in a segment titled “Public Individuals Must Assume More Social Responsibility”: “Between the gold and the dross in this industry, he leaves behind only dross. Between the righteous and the outlaws, he has chosen the way of the outlaw. Given the choice between a personal grudge and the responsibility of a public individual, he has habitually fallen on the side of personal grudge---how ugly is the low, vulgar, and pandering behavior of this individual!”

Fall Out of Guo Degang’s Run In with the Media

Grainy video of the scuffle was repeatedly broadcast as China's state media clamored for Guo to be punished. The timing was bad for Guo: Just a week earlier, President Hu had said at a Politburo meeting that trashy popular culture was tarnishing society, and had to be wiped out. Guo's routines, with their earthy sexual humor and taunting tone toward authorities, were ripe for attack.

A national anti-vulgarity campaign was launched in late July to clean up aspects of the entertainment industry deemed “low, vulgar, and pandering” , so Guo’s work, which previously aired without incident on national TV stations and sold in bookstores across the country without controversy, now seems to be on the list of items targeted for clean-up. Beijing’s bookstores received a notice telling them to take Guo’s works off the shelves. Guo’s many small theaters and comedy clubs were closed for overhaul, and there’s even news that the Beijing Radio, Film, and TV Bureau had issued a “blackout” on Guo

As business dried up and colleagues drifted away, Guo's management team scrambled to improve the comedian's image. He donated all proceeds from his last two shows, nearly $30,000, to the victims of flooding in western China. Then he paid $15,000 to adopt a pair of endangered tigers, a popular cause in today's China. But the public relations gestures did little to help. There is still a palpable, if undeclared, boycott on all things Guo. And the comedian himself remains out of sight. His manager tells reporters that the atmosphere is too difficult for Guo or his employees to grant any interviews.

His Beijing theater looks sunburned and deserted. The chestnut roasters, meat grillers and cigarette vendors who've eked out careers peddling cheap treats to the crowds grouse under their breath about the drop in business. But they are afraid to talk about Guo. "It was so popular before you couldn't even get a ticket," says a woman roasting chestnuts over coals. "Now everyone is nervous to talk about him. People know what's going on." Having said that much, she is afraid to give her name. "Everyone has gone on leave for now," snaps a theater employee who shoos visitors away from the theater door. "There's nobody inside. No shows anymore."

Zhou Libo, King of Edgy Shanghai Comedy

Describing an edgy Shanghai comedy performance Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “Amid throbbing music and wild applause, Zhou Libo waddled onto the stage mimicking the gait and gestures of Mao Zedong, Communist China's founding father. Spotlights played across big, gold Chinese characters trumpeting the theme of the night's performance: "I'm Crazy for Money." In a country where leaders don't take kindly to mockery, proclaim socialism as their guiding creed and demand obedience to Beijing, Zhou is an unusual phenomenon: a stand-up comic who ribs officials, celebrates wealth and extols what he and many others in this most cosmopolitan of Chinese cities view as the superiority of their metropolis.[Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, July 6, 2010]

Beneath the gags, delivered in a mix of Mandarin and Shanghai dialect, lurk some of China's most sensitive issues. "I want to make my audience think," Zhou said in a backstage interview shortly before showtime at the Shanghai International Gymnastic Center. "China's political environment is a lot more relaxed than people outside think." While Beijing authorities crack down hard on any stirring of disrespect in Tibet and other areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, they've let Zhou vent---albeit often in a dialect most Chinese don't understand. [Ibid]

He makes cracks about "garlic munchers" in the capital and outsiders who don't share Shanghai's sophisticated ways. Other favorite topics include sky-high real estate prices and the gyrations of the city's stock exchange---also touchy subjects with China's dour leaders.The comedian's Shanghai shtick has won him a huge following among the city's prosperous bourgeoisie, a class that Mao and a handful of fellow revolutionaries vowed to eliminate when they gathered here in June 1921 to establish the Chinese Communist Party. [Ibid]

After starting out in a 700-seat Shanghai theater, Zhou moved his show this year to the Gymnastic Center, which has 3,700 seats. His performances all sold out despite an average ticket price of more than $50, roughly two weeks' wages for the average Chinese. He has also produced a series of best-selling DVDs and a "dictionary of humor" to help decipher his Shanghainese punch lines, nearly all of which get lost in translation. [Ibid]

Snobbish Appeal of Zhou Libo’s Shanghai Comedy

"My audience is mostly white collar. I talk about fairly complicated things for fairly complicated people," Zhou told the Washington Post. "I let simple people talk for the simple people." This year, he caused a stir by declining an invitation to go to Beijing and take part in a lowbrow TV variety show over Chinese New Year. The show, an annual event on China's main state-run television channel, is pitched mainly at peasants and migrant workers who return to their villages for the holiday. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, July 6, 2010]

Zhou said he turned down the offer because he knows "nothing about peasants. My culture is urban culture." Shanghai, though itself primarily a city of immigrants, has a long history of looking down its nose at outsiders. But, as in other big cities, the tension has increased sharply in recent years as migrant workers from the countryside have flooded in looking for work. [Ibid]

In Shanghai, the animosity bubbled to the surface in December after an incident on a breakfast radio show. Xiao Jun, the show's host, read out on air a text message he'd received from an angry listener: "I beg you not to speak Shanghai dialect anymore. I hate you Shanghainese." Xiao, in rude terms, told the unidentified author of the message---apparently a newcomer to the city---to get lost and go home. [Ibid]

The exchange prompted a heated discussion, particularly on Web forums. Outsiders blasted Shanghai, with one Web post ridiculing its "aboriginal" dialect. Natives, meanwhile, said there is no place for newcomers who don't show respect. Zhou, the comedian, has sided firmly with the love-it-or-leave-it camp. Shanghai, he said, "is a melting pot like America" but has no place for those who reject its ways. "If you can't fit in, why come?" he said during his show. [Ibid]

The audience loved it. Among those applauding was Huang Jianqiu, 47, a designer who took his wife, an office worker, to the performance. Their tickets cost a total of $110. Zhou "speaks about our lives and our problems," said Huang, who explained that he wouldn't mind his daughter marrying a foreigner but would have "serious objections" if she fell in love with a peasant from Anhui, one of China's poorest regions. "It's a question of culture," he said. [Ibid]

For all his irreverence, Zhou takes care not to go too far. He never challenges one-party rule and, while mimicking Mao and several leaders who are still alive, he's avoided trying to imitate Hu Jintao, China's very buttoned-down party chief and president. Zhou insists this isn't because he might get in trouble but because Hu is just too bland: "Not every leader can be impersonated. Some leaders don't have any clear special characteristic." [Ibid]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2012

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