Sunday, August 2, 2009

What is Crosstalk?

Crosstalk in action: the late Ma Ji (left) and Tang Jiezhong

[Part 2 in my (very) irregular Q&A series on Chinese pop culture - Part 1 is here]

Crosstalk (相声, pronounced xiàngsheng), is a popular comedy style pretty much unique to China. It usually has two performers, but can be done solo or with a group of three or more. Crosstalk relies on puns, impersonation, vocal agility, gentle satire and lots of sarcasm. It's probably the dominant form of performance comedy in China, in much the same way stand-up comedy dominates in the English-speaking world.

Channel-surf the dozens of Chinese TV channels, and it always seems to me that at least one of them will be showing crosstalk. It comes into its own every Lunar New Year, when the most-watched TV show of them all, CCTV's New Year Gala variety show, will feature several performers. The best-known crosstalk exponents are household names with lucrative advertising deals and whose books and DVDs are best-sellers.

The popularity of crosstalk seems to wax and wane. Its origins date back to the mid-nineteenth century, and it was a popular form of entertainment in the tea-houses of the northern cities of Beijing and Tianjin in the first half of the twentieth century. With the founding of the Communist Party's New Republic in 1949, teahouses began to disappear, and the performers were incorporated into state-run performance troupes.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s China embarked on its Opening Up period which saw a relaxation of both economic and social policy. With a greater sense of freedom, satirical crosstalk staged a mini-revival, before its popularity flagged again in the 90s. However, crosstalk's status as a component of the much revered "Chinese traditional culture" means it enjoys official favour, so heavy exposure on the State-run TV and radio keeps it firmly in the public spotlight.

It remains to be seen whether it can win the hearts of the young generation of Chinese, a more sophisticated audience who have been exposed to Korean sitcoms and Western film comedies. Some younger people see crosstalk as old-fashioned, while even older audiences look fondly back on the "good old days" of crosstalk. The criticism of the present generaton of performers is that they are much more derivative and unoriginal, their sketches written by committees or even solicited from the internet. The satire sticks to safe topics (unscrupulous business, rampant materialism), and studiously avoids any subject that might not meet government approval. Sketches might even contain an uplifting message, fitting in with the government's concept that art and entertainment should provide a positive influence.

Crosstalk's popularity also has a distinct regional bias. The north is where crosstalk has its roots, and from where most of the top performers come, and that's where its biggest fanbase lies. In the south and western regions of the country, however it hasn't taken the same grip on the public's affections, and is overshadowed by other forms of entertainment.

Sadly many of the biggest names in crosstalk have recently passed on. Ma Sanli, Ma Ji and Hou Yaowen all died in the past six years. The baton has been passed to the new generation, names like Guo Degang and Feng Gong, whose challenge is to maintain the tradition while keeping it relevant to modern audiences.

Perhaps the future belongs to the newest star to emerge, Xiao Shenyang (pictured right), who came to prominence just a few months ago with his performance in the CCTV New Year Gala show. Unlike the greats from the past, Xiao Shenyang usually performs on his own - sometimes his wife or another person will act as the straight man/woman. Impersonation and physical comedy, important components of crosstalk, are his trademarks; yet to Western audiences his style seems much more accessible because of its similarities with stand-up.

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