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Talking up the Art of Xiangsheng
Though entitled "Mingchun Qu" (Bright Spring Melody), the show to be staged at Poly Theater from January 26 to 28 has nothing to do with music.

It is a xiangsheng show, or comic crosstalk.

Even most Chinese do not know that "mingchun" is an old technical term indicating "xiangsheng," according to Jiang Kun, one of the creators of the show and an established xiangsheng artist.

Moreover, Jiang uses the word for his show for a second reason: he hopes the historic genre will regain its appeal and have a promising future like the "bright spring."

Created by late writer Liang Zuo (1957-2001) and Jiang, the five-scene show takes audiences to some of the critical junctures in the development of the genre from the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to today.

Each scene contains a piece of xiangsheng which typically reflects the social condition and people's life of that time.

It could be seen as the epitome of the periodic history of xiangsheng and a picture of performers' vicissitudes of life.

"Through it, people can know how xiangsheng has adjusted to the change of time as well as how the performers adapt themselves to different social conditions," said Jiang.

The creator also appears as a very aged narrator who witnesses all the changes. His words connect one scene to the other, besides performing xiangsheng in some of the scenes.

Dating back to the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), the traditional comic genre has had the country roaring with laughter for centuries, and has recently even been adopted by a number of foreigners. However, "Bright Spring Melody" will leave audiences something in addition to laughter.

Some critics have called it "a smile with tears."

"As I kept laughing during their rehearsal, I also tasted something approaching bitterness," said Zhang Xuejun, a reporter with a Beijing-based entertainment newspaper.

Wang Zhenlin, a 55-year-old retired worker, said: "I have listened to xiangsheng for dozens of years but know nothing about the hardship the xiangsheng artists suffered until I saw the show." Wang saw the premiere of the show last September.

Originally created by Liang and Jiang in 1994, the show has been staged for small groups of the public in Shanghai and Shenzhen. But Jiang was not so satisfied with that version and stopped to revise it.

"After a few performances in 1994, I found it was not the right time to perform it, because at that time, xiangsheng was still one of people's favorite pastimes and the hardship during its development and the concern about its future development did not seem so striking," said Jiang.

"And, of course, we were not satisfied with some stories and xiangsheng pieces in the show."

But another critical time is coming.

Xiangsheng has seen a dramatic decline in recent years with fewer masterpieces and performers. There are few live shows of xiangsheng at theaters. Many performers, however, are unwilling to devote all their time to crosstalk.

Their dilemma is the same as that faced by other practitioners of Chinese folk art - in a rapidly developing society where people have more and more diverse choices of entertainment, the traditional forms seem to be increasingly unattractive to the public.

"I hope the show can help remind both insiders and audiences to revive traditional art," said Jiang.

So he restaged it last September.

"Eight years have passed, the show has been improved to provoke your laughter as well as tears," said Lou Naiming, director of the show. She also directed it in 1994.

The xiangsheng show also involves a century-long love story: A young man named Xiao Jiaozi pursues a girl named Chungu at the end of the 19th century but they do not get married until the start of this century.

As the story begins, Xiao Jiaozi falls in love with Chungu and devotes himself to pursuing her. He takes her for a stroll around the fair where they listen to a traditional xiangsheng performed by Jiang Yazi and Gou Jiucai.

The fair attracted various folk artists and was the traditional place for xiangsheng performances before the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949.

The xiangsheng artists, like other poor folk artists, earned a living by performing crosstalk there. But life was by no means easy for them. They were despised and oppressed by the wealthy and bigwigs and led a miserable life.

"Jiang Yazi" and "Gou Jiucai" both are typical stage names for xiangsheng performers. Dressed in a traditional style, "Jiang" and "Gou" stand behind a desk, on which there are two pieces of ribbons with their names written on - all these are traditional style xiangsheng at that time.

The second scene is set at the time of the war against Japanese invasion. Forced to perform for the Japanese officers, a pair of xiangsheng artists abuse the Japanese in an ambiguous way in their cross talking.

The patriotic xiangsheng artists were humiliated and insulted by both the Japanese invaders and the quislings.

Then the nation is liberated. The xiangsheng performers ushered in the founding of the New China with great rejoicing.

But they came across new trouble: Many traditional works were out of date, and what kind of new pieces should be created to sing the praises of the new life?

The following scene is set in the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). The xiangsheng artists also suffered a lot in the decade of turmoil. xiangsheng was criticized as a decadent art belonging to the old society. The xiangsheng artists had much to complain about but dared not breathe a word.

Time develops into the modern era for the last scene. Xiangsheng entered a period of full bloom in the 1980s and early 1990s while being strongly challenged by current entertainment.

Xiao Jiaozi's love for Chungu actually symbolizes the xiangsheng performers' pursuit of the art genre. It takes Xiao Jiaozi about 100 years to woo the woman he loves, while several generations of xiangsheng artists have devoted themselves to xiangsheng.

The creators leave the audiences as well as xiangsheng artists a happy and promising ending.

"We have to face the cold fact that the art is declining," said Jiang. "But we hope xiangsheng becomes popular again through our hard work," said Jiang.

Ni Ming, who performs Xiao Jiaozi, added: "We are bold enough to face all the challenges and confident of a promising future."

(China Daily January 20, 2003)

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