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Old 'xiangsheng'stirs up new laughs in teahouse
By Mu Qian (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-02-21 06:37

Guo Degang has become a new household name in China, quite on a par with Zhang Yimou and Gong Li.

Guo Degang (L) has won popularity across China along with the revival of xiangsheng. [China Daily]
Off the screen, however, Guo has risen to popularity by word of mouth in teahouses, such as Beijing's Tianqiao Le and Guangde Lou, where he gives live performances of xiangsheng, a traditional Chinese comic talk show.

People pay to listen to his talk because he and his colleagues make people relaxed, Guo said.

Today, his fans have to book tickets a few weeks in advance.

In Beijing, a regular ticket for a teahouse xiangsheng performance is 20 yuan (US$2.5 dollars), and in Tianjin it is only 10 yuan (US$1.2 dollars). Such a performance, lasting for three hours or so, usually consists of seven or eight pieces.

The comedians are attracting an increasing audience not only with low prices but also with their ingenuity in poking fun at everyday incidents.

In fact, the shows at teahouses have become so popular that it is often hard to get a ticket.

And if visitors happen to be in a taxi in North China's Tianjin from 5:30 to 6:30 pm, they will very likely be listening to a radio programme called "Everyday Xiangsheng."

Xiangsheng is one of the best-liked forms of entertainment in North China, and "Everyday Xiangsheng" is among the most popular radio programmes in Tianjin.

"I tune in for the programme every day," said taxi driver Liu Xingyi. "Listening to xiangsheng makes me relaxed, even when I work for long hours."

Popular again

For Yin Xiaosheng, 68, lead performer with the popular Zhong You group in Tianjin, there was a time in the early 1990s when he thought his beloved traditional show was dying.

The comic talk show, which appeared in teahouses in the late 19th century Beijing, was turned into a stage art as part of variety shows in theatres after New China was founded. The performers became theatre artists, while the number of teahouses also dwindled as the catering business was not encouraged.

Fall and rise of comic talk

Xiangsheng originated in Beijing in the second half of the 19th century, when the performers began to appear and attract audiences at the Tianqiao area of Beijing.

It is most commonly performed by two persons, though there are also solos or trios.

Beijing and Tianjin have been the two most important bases for the show. Beijing has given birth to such great performers as Hou Baolin (1917-1993), while Tianjin has contributed masters like Ma Sanli (1914-2003).

In the first half of the 20th century, xiangsheng was mainly performed in teahouses. After the founding of New China in 1949, most of the comedians were recruited into State-run performing arts troupes, and comic talk shows in teahouses gradually disappeared.

However, with teahouses mushrooming in recent years, there has been a revival.

Comic talks enjoyed some popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but still as a part of TV or theatre variety shows.

And in the 1990s, "very few even talked about xiangsheng," Yin recalled, as many younger performers became TV hosts or played roles in short comic theatrical skits.

But Yin and a few of his elderly colleagues, decided they must not give it up. They returned to a small teahouse called Yanle in Tianjin in 1999, not to make money but to continue the tradition of xiangsheng.

Yin also co-founded the troupe, Zhong You.

To his surprise, their performances were warmly welcomed, and they were soon invited to perform in other teahouses such as Mingliu and Qianxiangyi.

At first, their audiences were mostly senior people, but young people gradually took more seats. Today listening to xiangsheng has become chic for many young people in Tianjin. It is even hard for elderly people to go to Mingliu and Qianxiangyi, where young people often book all the tickets.

Now Yanle is Tianjin's only teahouse where the comic talk shows are mainly frequented by senior audiences. After all, Yanle is located at Nanshi, an old area of Tianjin, which was once the centre of xiangsheng in the first half of the 20th century.

Moreover, Yanle charges only eight yuan (US$1) for a show ticket plus a cup of tea, which is cheaper than the regular price of 10 yuan in other teahouses.

Yanle can only hold about 100 people, and after the rental of the venue, the performers have very little left for their income.

"We had thought of giving up Yanle several times, but we couldn't make the decision," said Yin. "Zhong You means 'friends of the audience,' and we should serve all kinds of audience, including senior people."

People queue up outside Tianqiao Le Teahouse in Beijing to get tickets of Guo Degang's performance. [China Daily]
Zhong You offers a repertoire of mostly traditional works. In contrast, Haha Xiao, another group well-known in Tianjin, has come up with more new works to keep up with the times.

"Xiangsheng is a most up-to-date form of performance," said Ma Shuchun, director of Haha Xiao group. "We pay much attention to creating new works and injecting new elements into traditional works."

While the performers are writing new works, more people have come forward to offer ideas for original works on the Internet.

Ma and his partner Tong Youwei won the first prize at the first Internet Xiangsheng Competition of China in 2004 with a new work titled "The Olympic Dream." It was written by Lila, host of a BBS at the "Zhonghua Xiangsheng Net" (www.xiangsheng.org).

Tong and Ma have performed a number of works pasted on the Internet by amateur writers. Most of them are about contemporary life, such as "Western Food" and "Artificial Beauty." After Tong and Ma's amendments, some of these works were welcomed by the audience and became part of the group's standard repertory.

Offering new works is not the Internet's only contribution to xiangsheng. Ma said he had benefited more from the Internet.

"The Internet provides substantial information, which helps me greatly in researching and writing works," said Ma. "Sometimes I also paste my recordings on the Internet for netizens to comment on, so that I can keep improving."

Now Haha Xiao group gives 13 performances in teahouses every week, which tops all the folk talk show groups in Tianjin.

"Among theatres, teahouses and the TV, I like to perform in teahouses the most," said Ma. "The close distance between the performers and audience provides much room for interaction, and the performers can improvise sometimes according to the situation."

In Beijing, Guo Degang started in teahouses and has achieved nationwide fame recently. Today not only his performances in the Tianqiao Le Teahouse are always booked full, but his shows at big venues such as Tianqiao Theatre are also quickly sold out.

Like Yin and Ma, Guo is also from Tianjin but came to Beijing in the hope of pursuing a better career. However, he couldn't get enrolled into State-run troupes, and had to do various odd jobs to survive for a period of time.

Guo said he almost forgot about his own vocation, until one day he passed a teahouse where there was a xiangsheng show by some unknown performers.

From then on, he often went there to listen to the talks and later began to perform with them. That was in 1996.

The first years were very difficult for Guo. In the most embarrassing situation, there was only one person in the audience. Guo and his companions persisted. He did other works to support his performance.

Having studied xiangsheng since childhood, Guo found it very difficult to keep up with it.

"A master may trigger people to laugh with some words, but a student may not be able to do so even if he says exactly the same words," said Guo.

"There is something 'hi-tech' in it," he said.

If Yin and Ma represent the old and middle-aged generations of xiangsheng performers, 33-year-old Guo belongs to the young generation who are more adaptable to their times.

Apart from his performances, Guo writes a blog, has a website, has released an mp3 album, and hosts TV programmes to promote himself.

"Xiangsheng is in my blood," said Guo. "I'm full of gratitude to it, for all my other work benefits from it."

Today, the performances of his Deyun group have not only won acclaim from common fans, but have also attracted white-collar workers and people from cultural circles.

Busy with various invitations, Guo still has many plans, such as opening his shows at universities, compiling a collection of traditional xiangsheng works, and putting on a play in the style of folk comedy talk.

"Modern people are often under much pressure, and need to relax," said Guo. "Everybody can speak, but why do you pay to listen to me?

"Because I can make you happy with my xiangsheng," Guo said.

(China Daily 02/21/2006 page13)

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