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A Teahouse Performer of Traditional Humor

When Guo Degang performs in a teahouse near Tian'anmen Square, tickets always sell out fast.

"I'd rather stand or even get pinned against the wall, if I am admitted into the teahouse," said a ticketless fan.

Thirty-three-year-old Guo is not a pop or movie star but a performer of "Xiangshen", or crosstalk, a traditional form of Chinese humor that is believed to have declined in quality over the years.

"The traditional art of crosstalk is making a comeback after a two-decade eclipse, and Guo is the man to revive it," said art critic Zhang Yiwu.

"All I'm doing is bringing crosstalk back to its original place -- the teahouse," said Guo. For ten years since 1996, the Tianjin-born young man has been delivering his comic dialogues in teahouses in Beijing and his efforts have finally paid off.

Guo has become one of the most popular crosstalkers in Beijing, and both the capital's young and old are attending his performances. Since last November, stories about him have repeatedly hit newspaper headlines, and his crosstalk pieces are lavishly played on TV and radio, or made into audio files for people to download on the Net.

On the January 12 show, he came back onstage for 22 encores, adding three hours to performance, which was originally scheduled for two hours.

Thanks to Guo's performances, the traditional art form has begun to attract the audience's attention again, winning it new fans. One survey said many of Guo's fans are born in the 1970's or 1980's and 80 percent have received a university education.

In Guo's opinion, the dominance of televised crosstalk diminished its charm over the years, but teahouse performances have rejuvenated it.

"Traditionally a crosstalk piece lasts 40 or 50 minutes, but on TV it is drastically truncated for time reasons, sometimes even to three-and-a-half minutes. This may do once or twice, but the art form won't thrive in the long-term by relying solely on TV." Guo said.

"Instead, in a teahouse you face a live audience and you can improvise according to the needs of a specific audience, which is closer to the face-to-face essence of the art form."

Thus, the young man would rather jokingly be referred to as the "less-known crosstalk performer", in contrast to those "well-known" crosstalk stars who gain more fame with each television appearance.

The teahouse approach is not the only reason for his popularity. "He is a man who perfectly mingles traditional crosstalk with modern life features," commented playwright Huang Jisu.

Guo started learning crosstalk when he was eight, and became well-versed in a repertoire of hundreds of traditional crosstalk pieces.

"Almost all the jokes can be found in traditional crosstalk pieces which date back more than a century," Guo said. "All innovations should be based on a good grasp of the tradition."

Guo is noted for his ability to add modern life material to traditional pieces and the subject matter of his crosstalk draws upon every aspect of daily life, from the No.300 bus to noodles with soybean paste.

"His crosstalk is more rooted in daily life than mine is," said Jiang Kun, a famous crosstalk performer. "For instance, I don't know what "300" means, because I drive."

In response to all the praise, Guo said: "I don't intend to revive the art form single-handedly. Giving it a little push forward is enough."

(Xinhua News Agency February 8, 2006)

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