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Xiangsheng performers in a Tianjin theater.

Xiangsheng (simplified Chinese: 相声; traditional Chinese: 相聲; pinyin: xiàngsheng; literally: 'face and voice'), also known as crosstalk, is a traditional Chinese comedic performing art, 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 Xiangsheng language, rich in puns and allusions, is delivered in a rapid, bantering style, typically in the Beijing dialect (or in Mandarin with a strong northern accent). The acts would sometimes include singing, Chinese rapping and musical instruments.

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


Modern Xiangsheng is made up of four classic skills:

  • Speaking (simplified Chinese: 说; traditional Chinese: 說; pinyin: shuō): Tell a story, and the pragmatic mechanism of the humor, for example making jokes, tongue-twister and so on.
  • Imitating (simplified Chinese: 学; traditional Chinese: 學; pinyin: xué): Includes Kouji, various accent of characters, dialects, and other sounds. Also includes imitating the "singing" and action of specific characters, etc.
  • Teasing (Chinese: 逗; pinyin: dòu): Make a joke, but tease is the soul of Xiangsheng.
  • Singing (Chinese: 唱; pinyin: chàng): Refer to Taiping lyrics, Peking opera, Pingxi and Bangzi,etc.



Xiangsheng 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, Xiangsheng had evolved to the format as it is known today, is performed in teahouses and theatres as well as, eventually, on radio and television.

There are three major sources of Xiangsheng: Beijing Tianqiao, Tianjin Quanyechang, and the Nanjing Confucius Temple. The origins of some of the traditional Xiangsheng 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 Xiangsheng" 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 Xiangsheng 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 Xiangsheng performer.

Xiangsheng in Mainland China[edit]

After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the popularity of Xiangsheng increased. What had previously been seen as relatively low-class street performing was now regarded as a proletarian art form, and the fact that Xiangsheng was performed in Mandarin made it a useful tool for promoting the use of Mandarin throughout the nation.

Hou Baolin led a group of Xiangsheng performers to reform Xiangsheng in the 1950s, removing what was considered "vulgar" language and content and generally making Xiangsheng more "politically correct". Xiangsheng began to be revered as an art form rather than lowly street performing. Hou later became widely regarded as a master of Xiangsheng and is often characterized as being "China's Charlie Chaplin".[1]

As with many forms of performance art, Xiangsheng 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, Xiangsheng became a standard feature of CCTV's annual New Year's Gala and other popular performing arts shows in China.

Xiangsheng 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 Xiangsheng performances but whose use in this regard had almost completely vanished. A new generation of Xiangsheng performers emerged from this movement, the most prominent of these being Guo Degang. Guo is largely credited with renewing interest among young audiences reared in the Internet age who found Xiangsheng 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.[2]

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 humour in a literal sense, illustrating scenes or stories described by the performers.

Xiangsheng in Taiwan[edit]

In 1949, the government of the Republic of China retreated to Taiwan, and a group of Xiangsheng actors also came to Taiwan. In the same year, Chen Yian (Chinese:陳逸安), Wei Longhao (Chinese:魏龍豪), and Wu Zhaonan met and hosted the Xiangsheng show on radio stations such as Broadcasting Corporation of China and Taiwan Police Radio (Chinese:警察廣播電台). After 1967, he began collecting data to produce "Xiangsheng Collections", "Xiangsheng Highlight", "Xiangsheng Anecdote" and "Rediscovery of Xiangsheng".

Initially, the main audience of Xiangsheng was internal migration mainly from military dependents' villages. In 1985, the performance workshop (Chinese: 表演工作坊; also known as "Biao Fang") launched the theatre That Night, We Speak Xiangsheng (Chinese:那一夜,我們說相聲); performed by Li Liqun (Chinese:李立群), Li Guoxiu (Chinese:李國修), which caused a stir.

Then, "Biao Fang" launched the stage play Tonight, Who Speaks Xiangsheng? (Chinese: 這一夜,誰來說相聲; 1989; performed by Li Liqun (Chinese:李立群), Jin Shijie(Chinese:金士傑), Chen Lihua (Chinese:陳立華), Taiwan Bizarre Talk (1991; performed by Li Liqun), That Night, We Speak Xiangsheng ( (Chinese:那一夜,我們說相聲;1993; performed by Li Liqun and Feng Yugang (Chinese:馮翊綱)), Another Night, They Speak Xiangsheng (1997; performed by Feng Yugang, Zhao Ziqiang (Chinese:赵自强), and Bu Xueliang (Chinese:卜學亮), Millennium Night, We Speak Xiangsheng (2000; performed by Zhao Ziqiang, Jin Shijie, Ni Minjan). Finally, In 2005, This Night, Women Speak Xiangsheng (performed by Fang Fang (Chinese: 方芳), Deng Chenghui (Chinese:鄧程慧), Xiao Ai (Chinese: 蕭艾) was launched. Although they are all claimed to be Xiangsheng, they are actually theatres.

In April 1988, Feng Yugang and Song Shaoqing (Chinese:宋少卿) formed the Comedians Workshop (Huang Shiwei (Chinese:黄士伟) joined in 2001), and originate the performance merge theatres with Xiangsheng. On July 8, 2004, Comedians Workshop assisted Dream Theater to perform Give Me a Tape.

In 1993, Liu Zengqi (Chinese:劉增鍇)and Lin Wenbin(Chinese:林文彬) founded the Taipei Musical Art Troupe. In addition to Xiangsheng, they also introduced many Chinese traditional Quyi, such as Shuanghuang (Chinese:双簧), Pingshu (Chinese: 评书), Shulaibao (Chinese:数来宝), Kuaiban (Chinese:快板书), Jingyun drum (Chinese:京韵大鼓), Meihua drum (Chinese:梅花大鼓), Xihe drum (Chinese:西河大鼓), Danxian (Chinese: 单弦), Taiping lyrics (Chinese:太平歌詞), etc.,which has also promoted the exchange performances between Mainland China and Taiwan.

On August 26, 1999, Wu Zhaonan announced the establishment of Wu Zhaonan's Xiangsheng Club. Only Wu Zhaonan's direct disciples could become official members. In addition to Xiangsheng, it also introduced Quyi, a Chinese traditional form of art, such as Shuanghuang (Chinese:双簧), Pingshu (Chinese: 评书), Shulaibao (Chinese:数来宝), Kuaiban (Chinese:快板书), Danxian (Chinese: 单弦), Taiping lyrics (Chinese:太平歌詞)and Peking opera etc.,.

Xiangsheng in Hongkong[edit]

Northern Xiangsheng has been popular in HongKong since Zhongyuan period. As early as the Qing Dynasty, literati and storytellers from mainland China brought Xiangsheng to South Guangdong and Hong Kong.

After Hong Kong was ceded as a British colony,[1] the development of Xiangsheng in Hong Kong has entered a unique period of localization. In the early years of the Republic of China, Hong Kong's Xiangsheng mainly performed in street, and most of the Xiangsheng artists were mainly jugglers such as Pingshu and Kouji. From all walks of life, they are knowledgeable and enjoy chatting, so they use Xiangsheng to make a living.

In the 40s and 50s, Cinema of Hong Kong began to develop rapidly, and Xiangsheng began to integrate into emerging media. In the old Hong Kong movies, we can see the form of one person and two person Xiangsheng, and began to integrate into the early Cinema of Hong Kong, mostly in the form of actors' monologues and teasing each other.

In 1957, the first Chinese-language TV media in the world, Rediffusion Television Limited, was born, which is the predecessor of Asia Television Limited. Xiangsheng becomes a fixed performance for variety shows. In 1967, Hong Kong's Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) was born, and the long-lasting variety show Enjoy Yourself Tonight was launched. Xiangsheng began to appear in a variety of variants in the variety show, such as the host's speech, the show to show lines.

Xiangsheng in Malaysia[edit]

After the Chinese Civil War, a number of performers from south China went to Malaysia for development (beforeSingapore's expulsion from Malaysia). Crosstalk artists Feng Xiang(Chinese: 冯翔), Bai Yan and Lu Ding performed Xiangsheng in this region. For the Malaysian unique multi-language environment, "Malaysian Xiangsheng" is different from Xiangsheng in mainland China and Taiwan. However, since Mandarin is not a mainstream language, there are few professional performers in Malaysia.

As social commentary[edit]

The small scale and popularity of Xiangsheng make it second only to word of mouth in reflecting popular concerns. Hou Baolin and others have said that Xiangsheng items are "works of comic nature which use satire and humour as their principal base. The cross talks use witty speech, bitter, ridiculous ridicule, in order to achieve the purpose of arrogant "big laugh" and entertaining people. Its earliest form was derived from the juggling of "Yuyou". In these jokes, artists often pinned their mockery and whipping against the rulers. Their satirical content strikes home at contemporary malpractices and also often includes political satire." The role of Xiangsheng in the social commentary was seen after the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976 when Xiangsheng performances provided the first open criticisms of the gang. After 1976, Xiangsheng 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.[2]

Xiangsheng Classifications[edit]

By the number of actors[edit]

  • Dankou Xiangsheng: a monologue by a solo performer
  • Duikou Xiangsheng: a duo dialogue between two performers
  • Qunkou Xiangsheng: a group act by multiple performers (at least three)

By the content[edit]

By chronology[edit]

  • Tradition Xiangsheng: In the Late Qing Dynasty
  • New Xiangsheng: After 1949
  • Contemporary Xiangsheng: After 1980

By the genre[edit]

  • Ma Sect Xiangsheng: The representative personage Ma Sanli, Ma Zhiming (Chinese: 马志明)
  • Chang Sect Xiangsheng: The representative personage Chang Lianan, Chang Baokun (Chinese: 常宝堃)
  • Hou Sect Xiangsheng: The representative personage Hou Baolin
  • Liu Sect Xiangsheng: The representative personage Liu Baorui (Chinese: 刘宝瑞)

Notable performers[edit]

  • Zhang Sanlu (simplified Chinese: 张三禄; traditional Chinese: 張三祿) was one of the fathers of xiangsheng. Zhang was born in Beijing in the late Qing Dynasty, his disciples include Zhu Shaowen, A Yantao, and Shen Chunhe.
  • A Yantao (simplified Chinese: 阿彦涛; traditional Chinese: 阿彥濤) better known by his stage name A Er (阿二) or A Cier (阿刺二), was a xiangsheng performer of Manchu descent. His disciples include En Xu, Gao Wenkui, Chun Changlong, and Shen Zhushan. A Yaotao was born in Beijing, to a rich family of the Sumuru clan belonging to the Eight Banners. During his childhood years, A Yantao developed an interest in traditional Chinese opera and experimented with several different vocal techniques. Later, A Yaotao's family came down in the world, in order to support his family, he studied under Zhang Sanlu and became a second-generation xiangsheng performer.
  • Shen Chunhe, better known by his stage name Shen Er (沈二), who told stories before performing xiangsheng. He studied under Zhang Sanlu and became a second-generation xiangsheng performer. His disciples include Wei Kunzhi, Wang Youdao, Li Changchun, Gao Wenyuan, Feng Kunzhi, and Yu Erfu.
  • Zhu Shaowen (1829–1903), known by his stage name Qiongbupa (穷不怕), was one of the fathers of xiangsheng. He was born in Beijing, and his ancestral home was Shaoxing, Zhejiang. Zhu was honoured as one of the "Eight Oddities of Tianqiao" (天桥八怪). His disciples include Pinyouben, Fu Guizhen, Xu Changfu, and Fan Changli.
  • Hou Baolin
  • Ma Sanli
  • Liu Baorui (Chinese: 刘宝瑞; pinyin: Liú Bǎoruì)
  • Ma Ji
  • Chang Baohua
  • Ding Guangquan
  • Jiang Kun
  • Hou Yaowen
  • Guo Qiru
  • Dashan (Mark Rowswell)
  • Feng Gong
  • Guo Degang
  • Yu Qian (Chinese: 于谦; pinyin: Yú Qiān)
  • Yue Yunpeng
  • Sun Yue (Chinese: 孙越; pinyin: Sūn Yuè)
  • Feng Yi-kang (simplified Chinese: 冯翊纲; traditional Chinese: 馮翊綱)
  • Sung Shao-ching (Chinese: 宋少卿)
  • Lee Li-Chun (Chinese: 李立群)
  • Li Mu (Liam Bates) (Chinese: 李牧; pinyin: Lǐ Mù)

See also[edit]


  • "相声". 百度百科. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
  1. ^ "What is Xiangsheng?". Dashan Online. Archived from the original on 2013-11-30. Retrieved 2013-11-29.
  2. ^ Mackerras, Colin (2004). The Performing Arts in Contemporary China. Routledge. pp. 102–104.

External links[edit]