Crosstalk (comedy)

Crosstalk performers in a Tianjin theater.

Crosstalk, also known by its Chinese name xiangsheng (simplified Chinese: 相声; traditional Chinese: 相聲; pinyin: xiàngsheng; literally: "face and voice"), is a traditional Chinese comedic performing arts, and one of China's most popular cultural elements. It is typically in the form of a duo dialogue between two performers, but much less often can also be a monologue by a solo performer (similar to most western stand-up comedy), or even less frequently, a group act by multiple performers. The crosstalk language, rich in puns and allusions, is delivered in a rapid, bantering style, typically in the Beijing dialect (or in Standard Chinese with a strong northern accent). The acts would sometimes include singing, Chinese rapping and musical instruments.

Canadian crosstalk comedian Dashan (Mark Rowswell) says the closest equivalent in English would be Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" sketch.[1]


Modern crosstalk is made up of four classic skills:


Crosstalk is generally thought to have taken form in the late Qing Dynasty, particularly during the rule of the Xianfeng Emperor and the Tongzhi Emperor in the mid-1800s, although its roots may extend as far back as the Ming Dynasty. It began as a form of street performance incorporating joke-telling, comedic banter, imitations, or borrowing from other forms of performance art such as Peking Opera, all with the express purpose of making audiences laugh. By the early days of the Republic of China, crosstalk had evolved to the format as it is known today, being performed in teahouses and theatres as well as, eventually, on radio and television.

The origins of some of the traditional crosstalk pieces still being performed today can be traced back well over 100 years, although in many cases the original author is unattributed. Many skits in the body of work known as "traditional crosstalk" have evolved through generations of performers successively revising material, retaining the general structure or "heart" of a piece while updating specific references with more modern material.

The earliest crosstalk comedian known by name is Zhang Sanlu (simplified Chinese: 张三禄; traditional Chinese: 張三祿), who performed during the mid-nineteenth century. Originally a performer of traditional Manchu style drum-song (Chinese: 八角鼓; pinyin: bā jiǎo gǔ), Zhang eventually switched to doing imitations and telling humorous stories and was considered by later artists to have been the first crosstalk performer.

After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the popularity of crosstalk increased. What had previously been seen as relatively low-class street performing was now regarded as a proletarian art form, and the fact that crosstalk was performed in Standard Chinese made it a useful tool for promoting the use of Putonghua (simplified Chinese: 普通话; traditional Chinese: 普通話; literally: "common speech") throughout the nation.

Hou Baolin (simplified Chinese: 侯宝林; traditional Chinese: 侯寶林) led a group of crosstalk performers to reform crosstalk in the 1950s, removing what was considered "vulgar" language and content and generally making crosstalk more "politically correct". Crosstalk began to be revered as an art form rather than lowly street performing. Hou later became widely regarded as a master (simplified Chinese: 大师; traditional Chinese: 大師; pinyin: dàshī) of crosstalk and is often characterized as being "China's Charlie Chaplin".[2]

As with many forms of performance art, crosstalk was banned during the Cultural Revolution but enjoyed a huge resurgence in the mid-1970s with many skits satirizing the Gang of Four and excesses of this period. With the popularization of television in the 1980s, crosstalk became a standard feature of CCTV's annual New Year's Gala and other popular performing arts shows in China.

Crosstalk entered a period of decline in the 1990s, resulting in large part by increased official sensitivity towards political and social satire following the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 as well as the lack of performance venues outside of sanitized state-run television programming. Many performers called for a return to the teahouses and small theatres that had traditionally been the main venue for crosstalk performances but whose use in this regard had almost completely vanished. A new generation of crosstalk performers emerged from this movement, the most prominent of these being Guo Degang (simplified Chinese: 郭德纲; traditional Chinese: 郭德綱). Guo is largely credited with renewing interest among young audiences reared in the Internet age who found crosstalk to be boring and didactic. Guo's rise to fame, while representing a very traditionalist movement, pitted him against more mainstream, establishment performers such as Jiang Kun (Chinese: 姜昆), the President of the Chinese Ballad Singers Association.[3]

To appeal to younger audiences, in recent years animators have also created animated versions of various skits using audio from past broadcasts. The animated versions often use humor in a literal sense, illustrating scenes or stories described by the performers.

Crosstalk as social commentary

The small scale and popularity of crosstalk makes it second only to word of mouth in reflecting popular concerns. Hou Baolin and others have said that crosstalk items are "works of comic nature which use satire and humour as their principal base. Their satirical content strikes home at contemporary malpractices and also often includes political satire." The role of crosstalk in social commentary was seen after the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976, when crosstalk performances provided the first open criticisms of the gang. After 1976, crosstalk has also provided satire concerning corrupt officials and members of the Communist Party of China, although criticism of the Party as an entity remains off limits.[4]

Famous crosstalk performers

See also


"相声". 百度百科. Retrieved 11 November 2013. 

  1. "What is Xiangsheng?". Dashan Online. Archived from the original on 2013-11-29. Retrieved 2013-11-29.
  2. "著名相声表演艺术家侯宝林的教子故事:要当一个艺术家". eduu论坛. Retrieved 2013-11-12.
  3. "Cross-Talk, A Ming Dynasty-Era Art Form, Returns From the Brink — And Goes International". Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  4. Mackerras, Colin (2004). The Performing Arts in Contemporary China. Routledge. pp. 102–104.
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