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Cross Talker Ma Sanli and Traditional Chinese Culture
Ma Sanli, a leading exponent of the traditional performance craft of cross talk, died recently in Tianjin, aged 90. Devoted to the artistic discipline for his entire life, this great man was profiled by folk expert, Xue Baokun, in an interview published in the People’s Daily.

According to Xue, a professor from Nankai University and advisor to the Chinese Ballad Singers Association, Ma’s performance, enjoyed by both highbrows and lowbrows, was an embodiment of the spirit of Chinese traditional culture (e.g. the golden mean) as described in the Analects of Confucius, considered by some to be the bible of traditional China.

Ma Sanli was brought up in a family of cross talkers with both his father and grandfather renowned for their cross talk performance and style. In 1929, 15-year-old Ma was formally made an apprentice to Zhou Deshan to learn the craft of the comic dialogues. At that time the plebeian culture was moving across coastal regions -- descending from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties -- and was to greatly influence Ma’s style.

On stage, Ma was a talented exponent of creating vivid and rich descriptions of the characters, often absurd and exaggerated, in order to express tragedy behind the humor.

As he got older, Ma began to produce more thought provoking work in his much loved one-man comedy talks.

Professor Xue made an interesting comparison between the styles and performances of Ma and Hou Baolin, another famous cross talker:

“Both Hou and Ma were leading artists, running neck and neck, in China’s cross talk circles. As a matter of fact, after my graduation from Peking University, initially it was Hou who introduced me to Tianjin-based Ma and then encouraged me to specialize in his performance style and technique. The reason was quite simple: during his life Hou had great admiration, that bordered on worship, for Ma Sanli.”

Unlike Hou, who presented an elegant classical performance in the third person, Ma gave a first-person perspective in order to make what was thought beautiful “ugly” as he demonstrated in his works, Buying Monkeys, Meeting Fiend and Yellow Crane Tower. The well known cross talker, Jiang Kun, remarked that “cross talk is an art of amusing others and Ma’s performance made people laugh in an unusual way, which is beyond imitation.”

Ma’s work was though a reflection of the feelings of the ordinary man, the man in the street. As he said, real life is the source of the art form. Instead of just making faces at the audience, cross talk should reach into the heart of things for its inspiration.

Giving uncomplicated and unsophisticated performances, Ma won the admiration of the ordinary people. They were his wealth, he was fond of saying. In 1984, when his wife was dying, Ma was on stage for a scheduled performance. Feeling guilty about it afterwards, he erected a gravestone for himself, beside his wife’s, to compensate for the fact that he put his performance before all the other important things in his life.

Ma Sanli once said, “A cross talker’s artistic level can only be judged by the audience. I shall never forget my loyal listeners. There is no denying that a cross talker’s career relies on a wide and devoted audience for their success.”

(China.org.cn, translated by Shao Da, March 3, 2003)

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