Just for laughs

A Ming Dynasty art is being revived by a 27-year-old, whose humorous take on the hot topics of the day wins new fans for xiangsheng, or crosstalk. Cheng Anqi reports.

Wang Zijian’s schoolmates can scarcely believe the painfully shy high school student is now a crosstalk performer. The Beijing native, who used to stutter, can keep his audience amused for more than an hour, directing his humor at the hot topics of the day – be it the political situation in Libya, soaring oil prices or the odious killing of a young woman.

Even as traditionalists bemoan the dilution of traditional Chinese art forms, saying they have become too formulaic after moving from the street to television, young comedians like Wang – hip 20-somethings – are giving the art of crosstalk, or xiangsheng, a biting edge in Beijing.

Wang has been making a name for his troupe by presenting comedy combined with storytelling about everyday occurrences and international politics.

And Guangmingge Teahouse is where this comedic revival is unfolding.

“Oil prices are skyrocketing. As the oil nozzle reaches into my oil tank, it also sticks in my throat,” he says at the start of a stand-up act recently. It is met with a hearty round of applause.

Later, he has his audience in stitches with a reference to the Guo Meimei scandal, saying, “It doesn’t matter who my father is. The one who buys me a Maserati will be my father. ”

In late June, Guo, who claimed to be linked to the Red Cross Society, boasted online about her luxurious lifestyle and uploaded pictures of what she claimed were her Maserati and Lamborghini cars, triggering concern that donated money was being misused.

Another popular joke from his show is about “sea sightseeing”, a reference to the torrential rains in Beijing in June.

The audience laps it all up.

“I want to restore the art of xiangsheng. It used to be a way of communicating with people, of educating them. It has to be as good as listening to the radio or reading a book,” says Wang, 27, the founder of Xiangsheng Di Er Ban (The Second Troupe), a 14-member troupe that has been drawing the laughs since 2009.

Xiangsheng emerged during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and became popular in Beijing as a form of street art during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Wang’s inspiration is Huang Caigui, a soldier who served the Beiyang government (1912-1928). After retiring, Huang took to the streets to present stand-up comedy based on the news of the day. His satirical skits about the constant fighting among warlords brought him immense popularity.

“In the old days, Huang’s street shows recreated the news for people who were illiterate but alert to the then unstable political situation,” Wang says. “But even now, although people are educated and there is no war-like situation, they just skim the news as they rush through life. I want to help them digest the weekly news events through my shows.”

Wang is sought after by youngsters for his populist humor, which takes aim at everything from social phenomena and politics to celebrity antics.

But the atmosphere at the teahouse as The Second Troupe gets into its act is very relaxed, with troupe members playing the guitar, besides using body language and dance, to enhance the appeal of their performances.

Their takes on current affairs goes down well with the audiences. “This is new generation crosstalk for both traditionalists and the balinghou (people born after 1980),” Wang says.

Affordable tickets – just 30 yuan ($4.63) – help pull in the young and middle-aged crowd to join older crosstalk fans.

“Wang’s humor is spot on, and I come here to enjoy what I can’t get from radio and TV,” says Lian Chen, an avid crosstalk fan who travels to Beijing from Hebei province especially for Wang’s shows.

“I don’t think crosstalk is becoming marginalized. It has just acquired a new face,” he says.

Crosstalk’s history is dotted with performers from humble backgrounds. Aspirants from poor families usually studied under a master for three years and performed with the teacher for one season before striking out on their own.

But Wang is an exception.

Although drawn to xiangsheng when he was 15, his stuttering kept him from talking to people and left him embarrassed every time he spoke.

While in high school, Wang got to know a qigong master, who cured him of his stuttering by teaching him breathing techniques.

After graduation, Wang worked as a television editor at a State-owned company, which gave the young man access to many firsthand documentary films from home and abroad. But he still shied away from speaking to a crowd.

The xiangsheng enthusiast in him eventually prevailed, and he practiced hard to develop his public speaking skills.

He shot to fame with a comic performance held by an art community at Beijing Normal University in 2007. He recalls that he was so nervous he nearly forgot his lines on stage.

“The audience’s laughter gave me the confidence I desperately needed, so that even someone who stutters can manage fluent speech with the help of the right therapist,” he says.

As his popularity swept Beijing, Wang quit his job and devoted himself full time to crosstalk, although his monthly income of 6,000 yuan ($927) was far below what he earned before.

“My parents were aghast that I was risking my ‘iron rice bowl’,” says Wang, who apprenticed under Hou Yaohua, one of the nation’s top crosstalk stars.

“An inborn sense of humor and showmanship are the key to success. I’m positive about my future because I believe people will always want to laugh.”

Source: China Daily

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