Translating China’s Xiangsheng Comedy Scene

What is the deal with international comedy? Join me each week to ask that very question in Comedy Tourism as I explore different trends and traditions of how the rest of the world makes funny in their respective native tongues. Don’t forget your passports! Just kidding, you don’t need your passport. Or do you? (You don’t.)

For a culture that generally believes the sum is greater than its individual parts, stand-up comedy seems doomed to fail in China. And yet, xiangsheng is one of the oldest comedic traditions in the People’s Republic, dating back to the Qing dynasty (for all you non-history buffs, it collapsed in 1912).

Translated literally, xiangsheng means “face voice,” but is more commonly referred to as “crosstalk.” Unlike modern American stand-up, crosstalk uses two comedians and sometimes even an entire group. Not unlike American comedy, xiangsheng usually employs the “double act” trope of a straight man and a stooge perpetually at philosophical odds — similar to Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Nichols and May, even Jim and Dwight.

Xiangsheng requires the mastery of four talents: speaking (說), imitating (學), teasing (逗), and singing (唱). Crosstalk routines are heavy on the puns, sometimes political, and more often than not quite crass. All the most famous performers have been men (sorry ladies), but they usually wear costumes that to the unsophisticated eye pretty much look like dresses. Think Monty Python meets Kids in the Hall meets the Marx Brothers, and they all get together to perform “Who’s On First” in China. Hilarity ensues?

Well, maybe. If my little surface scratch here piques your interest, I recommend reading an excellent article by David Moser written for a few years ago detailing the rise (and fall, according to him) of xiangsheng. Although his piece is very political, he also presents translations of some classic crosstalk routines, which are surprisingly difficult to come by in English. My personal favorite of Moser’s selection is a routine by comedian Jiang Kun entitled “How To Take a Photograph.”

A: On the wall of the shop was a piece of paper, and at the top it said NOTICE TO ALL CUSTOMERS.B: What did it say?A: It said: “All revolutionary comrades who come in the revolutionary door of this revolutionary photography shop, before asking any revolutionary question, must first call out a revolutionary slogan. If any of the revolutionary masses do not call out a revolutionary slogan, then the revolutionary shopkeeper will take a revolutionary attitude and refuse to give a revolutionary response. Revolutionarily yours, the revolutionary management.”B: Really “revolutionary”, all right. It was like that in those days. As soon as you went into the shop it went like this: “Serve the People!” Comrade, I’d like to ask a question.A: “Struggle Against Selfishness and Criticize Revisionism!” Go ahead.B: [to the audience] Well, at least he didn’t ignore me. [Back in character] “Destroy Capitalism and Elevate the Proletariat!” I’d like to have my picture taken.A: “Do Away with the Private and Establish the Public!” What size?B: “The Revolution is Without Fault!” A three-inch photo.A: “Rebellion is Justified!” Okay, please give me the money.B: “Politics First and Foremost!” How much?A: “Strive for Immediate Results!” One yuan three mao.B: “Criticize Reactionary Authorities!” Here’s the money.A: “Oppose Rule by Money!” Here’s your receipt.B: “Sweep Away Class Enemies of All Kinds!” Thank you.

LOL, right?

At the risk of stating the obvious, the greatest obstacle to enjoying xiangheng for a comedy tourist is the language barrier. George C. Scott getting hit in the nuts with a football xiangsheng is not. It’s a presentational form of comedy that relies heavily on twists of the tongue and language puns only native speakers can truly appreciate. Also, almost all routines online are in Mandarin and you can pretty much forget about subtitles.

Enter Da Shan. Da Shan, which means “big mountain, is a Canadian xiangsheng performer — at least no one can blame America for cultural imperialism here. But gosh-darn does that Canuck speak some beautiful Mandarin. Luckily, a few of his routines are available online with English subtitles, like this solo performance:

I came in a skeptic, but I left a believer. While I’m certain some of the linguistic intricacies were lost on me, this bit really made me laugh. That’s impressive, especially since Da Shan looks like the teaching assistant of my 9th grade English class who was a total joke and overused the word “essentially.” Essentially, my exploratory of crosstalk yielded initially funny results.

But I had little success finding English translations of xiangsheng beyond Mr. Big Mountain. And trying to understand the humor of crosstalk without the assistance of your native tongue is nearly impossible. Globalization stops here, folks. For instance, watch one of the most famous crosstalkers and moreover comedians in China right now, Guo Degang, do a routine (he’s the fellow in purple):

Your guess is as good as mine. Unless you speak fluent Chinese, in which case please email me your guess immediately as it is most likely better than mine!

I’d like to keep this column as apolitical as possible, but with comedy that’s a difficult task. Even a comedian as popular as Guo Degang has run into trouble in a country notorious for censorship. The video above is of a banned routine of his and he’s had many more run-ins since, so much so that last year his own comedy club in Beijing was allegedly shut down for “restructuring.” David Moser, in his aforementioned article, compared xiangsheng performers to Lenny Bruce, and judging by Degang’s situation he might not be so far off.

My assessment? Though it’s difficult to come by, xiangsheng offers a great insight into Chinese culture. And if you can come by it, if nothing else it will make you laugh.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

Translating China’s Xiangsheng Comedy Scene