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Rachel Wang

Cross-Talk, A Ming Dynasty-Era Art Form, Returns From the Brink — And Goes International

Guo Degang (left) performs for the 15th anniversary of De Yun. (YC Gong/Flickr)

“As a Chinese citizen…I hereby officially announce that the Australian branch of the De Yun society has been established. The first overseas De Yun will be founded in Melbourne.”

This post on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, came from Guo Degang (@郭德纲), a cross-talk performer who shot to fame around 2005, courtesy of China’s Internet. The post quickly went viral, gaining over 4,000 “Likes,” 20,000 reposts, and almost 15,000 comments since Guo shared it on January 23.

Most comments showed support for cross-talk’s globalization. As @崔德轶-何处染尘 joked: “Old Guo is going colonial! Bad-ass!” User @胡文崧 encouraged Guo to “spread cross talk across the world!”

A brief history

Chinese cross-talk (or “xiangsheng” in Chinese) is an art form that requires of both its performers and its audience a profound understanding of the Chinese language. Usually consisting of a rapid-fire dialogue between two performers, cross-talk liberally exploits the Chinese language’s propensity for homonyms to create rich puns and allusions. The cross-talks usually touch on Chinese daily life, with a dash of social commentary.

Starting with the Ming dynasty, cross-talk began to grow as comedic performances on streets and in teahouses. However, after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and especially after 1960s, the content of cross-talk dialogue has tended to focus on praising the ruling Communist Party. In the 1980s, as cross-talk became a part of state television programming, the medium was further stripped of its grassroots elements, with ribald jokes and ethnic humor leached out in order to make the programs family friendly.

For many years, cross-talk was a regular feature of China Central Television’s Chinese New Year’s Gala, an slickly-produced annual program on the eve of Chinese Lunar New Year watched by more people than the Super Bowl. But cross-talk’s television fortunes declined at the start of the new millennium, as young performers failed to pick up the proverbial baton and audiences grew weary of seeing the same old faces appear again and again, with the same styles and the same jokes. Young audiences reared in the Internet age found the performances boring and didactic. The art form became bureaucratized in the form of the Chinese Ballad Singers Association.

A new renaissance

But this gloom is now beginning to lift. Guo Degang founded the De Yun society in 1996 with the goal of “returning cross-talk to theaters.” The group, now the most famous cross-talk performance group in China, is seen as a savior of sorts for the endangered art form. Guo’s old-fashioned strategy, it turned out, was perfect for the Internet age. Guo and his colleagues perform in teahouses, tickets are cheap, and audience members can record the shows and put them online without paying copyright fees. Gradually, Guo and De Yun rose to fame.

With his image as a rebel against traditional hierarchy and the Chinese governmental system, Guo’s popularity has ranged far and wide. A search for his name on Youtube — which is blocked in China — calls forth about 20,400 results, and Guo’s top video on that platform has been viewed over  200,000 views. On China’s version of Youtube, Youku, Guo’s most popular video has been viewed over 9 million times.

The profusion of overseas Chinese fans is one reason that this distinctly Chinese art form can find an audience abroad. In October 2011, Guo lead a De Yun cross-talk performance in Australia, the first commercial performance outside of China in the history of the art form. Since then, De Yun has performed in Canada, New Zealand, and the U.S. cities of  Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and New York.

Cross-talkers at cross -purposes

Guo’s rise, however, was not without controversy. In his early work, Guo stood almost opposite the mainstream, with sharp and sometimes biting comments. In an online video of a 2005 performance — perhaps his most radical — Guo said, “Should cross-talk be used as educational material; should it be used for propaganda? This is a huge mistake, one that kills the human spirit.”

Guo’s performances have caused heated debate and attracted criticism from some well-known performers with ties to the Chinese government. Jiang Kun, a famous cross-talk performer who now serves as  president of of the Chinese Ballad Singers Association and is a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, critized  Guo as “vulgar” after Guo performed traditional cross talk, replete with dirty jokes and ethnic humor. Guo responded that so-called “mainstream” cross-talk performers betray its traditional roots.  In a 2011, after his successful first foray into Australia, Guo appeared to be thinking of Jiang when he wrote:

I’ve just returned from Australia to Beijing after a complete success. Some ‘eunuch-artists’ have acted hysterically to stir public sentiment. But I sigh for you, I feel sympathy for you. Over many years, you’ve tried to elbow me out, but I’ve maneuvered around you…the rule of cross-talk is to pick on someone your own size, don’t you know that? Come here, I will teach you how to cross talk! And you can teach me ethics — or dirty tricks.

Guo goes mainstream

Gradually, doubtless propelled in part by his Internet fame, Guo is going mainstream. Guo used to joke about being invited to present at China’s Spring Festival Gala television show; this year, he will be a presenter. He’s even joined the Communist party’s political consultative conference, a governmental advisory body comprised of well known private citizens.

Guo’s easing into China’s mainstream is a victory, of sorts, for the Chinese grassroots. Some Weibo users seem at peace with Guo’s new role as mainstream spokesperson for the masses. As @LuckyShow2012 wrote: “Old Guo is not bad; better than some state-owned enterprises which invested abroad. You are earning overseas money, while they are giving away money overseas.” 

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Rachel Wang

Rachel Wang is currently based in Beijing working in media. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Economics, and enjoys reading analyses regarding international affairs, Tim Harford and books about china (that's with a lower-case "c").
  • http://www.chinavortex.com pdenlinger

    Do you mean 相声 by “cross-talk”? If that is what you mean, then why not use the term instead of “cross-talk” which many have never heard of?

    • tealeafnation

      Sure, we have updated the paragraph introducing the cross-talk form for anyone who might be confused. Thanks for reading!

  • http://www.chinavortex.com pdenlinger

    In any discussion of 相声, there should be mention of these two events and people:

    – The Canadian Mark Rowswell 大山 started his career in China based on his ability to 说相声。He has been a regular on the CCTV New Year specials for years.
    – The Taiwan playwright 賴聲川 wrote a play in Taiwan in 1985 那一夜我们说相声 which contributed to the rediscovery of the Beijing art form in Taiwan. Since then, the play has been publicly performed many times in China.

  • China Newz

    In the age of the internet, spreading your material must be easier. Maybe crosstalk is a dying art-form but surely there is a niche for it somewhere. And that somewhere would be the internet.