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Crosstalk Makes a Comeback

Crosstalk, a traditional form of comic storytelling, is making a comeback in China's teahouses and theaters.


Audiences can laugh the night away every Saturday at the Qianxiangyi Teahouse in Tianjin, entertained by the apprentices of Hou Baolin, Ma Sanli or Yin Shoushan -- all leading crosstalk artists of years past -- for only 20 yuan (US$2.40).


The success in Tianjin has also given impetus to the rejuvenation of crosstalk in Beijing and other places.

Although the art form originated in Beijing in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Tianjin became a sort of off-Broadway performance venue where rising stars honed their styles and new pieces were tried out. The city was renowned nationwide for the quality of its crosstalk performances.


“We only want to bring the traditional pieces back to the audiences, helping them to learn their charms and connotations,” said Yin Xiaosheng, head of the Zhongyou Arts Troupe.


Known in Chinese as xiangsheng (literally, "face and voice"), crosstalk was the predominant form of comedy throughout most of the 20th century. In the old days in Tianjin and elsewhere, temple fairs and markets were the main places for crosstalkers to perform, although they occasionally also appeared in teahouses or theaters.


Usually presented by a duo, crosstalk pieces draw on every aspect of Chinese culture, from history and folk tales to contemporary social issues. Although there are hundreds of pieces in the traditional repertoire, they are constantly edited to suit the times and the audience, while new works are written as well. This is one of the features that has made crosstalk a populist art form throughout its history.


“Crosstalk is a face-to-face art form,” said Liu Bin, a crosstalk fan who is a regular at Qianxiangyi. “It's worth paying for the performance to enjoy it in such a personal setting. It's totally different from seeing it on TV.”


“Crosstalk was in the doldrums with competition from other art forms, especially TV,” said Wang Xiaochun, headmaster of the Northern Storytelling Arts School of China (NSAS). “But it has regained its status with crosstalk fans, especially young people, growing aware of its rare qualities.”


The reawakening of interest in the traditional art is going beyond merely watching and listening for many. “More and more students are coming to NSAS to study crosstalk, including some girl students,” said Wang, “They are sure that crosstalk will have a strong market.”


Zhang Haitao, dean of academics at NSAS, believes that marketing is an important component of crosstalk's continued development. “The old masters performed several times a day,” Zhang said. “Some of them even performed at a place for a month or more, but they never repeated a piece. Otherwise, nobody would come to watch.”


Tian Lihe, one of China's leading crosstalk artists today, agrees. “The old masters would be afraid to go on stage without dozens of pieces memorized. Market competition offers some advantages to the development of crosstalk.”


(China.org.cn by Unisumoon January 6, 2005)

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