Chinese Stories in English
A Critique of '90s Crosstalk
Jiang Kun: An Idol's Twilight
by Cloud's Retreat (Yun Yetui, pen name of Zhang Letian)
[Chinese xiangsheng (相声, often translated as “crosstalk”) is a comedic genre usually but not always for two performers. Think Abbott and Costello or Burns and Allen and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it’s like. It depends heavily on puns, dialect and localisms, so the routines often lose their humor in translation. Nevertheless, undaunted by the prospect of failure and believing that a poor translation may sometimes be better than no translation at all, Fannyi decided to give this critical essay a go.]
When Jiang Kun performed Anxious in 1991, I absolutely did not expect that it would turn out to be my idol’s final glory. He was still a young man full of vigor and vitality in the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s, when he performed sketches like The Star’s Appearances, Is It Me?, Face of Prediction, Jin Gang’s Leg, and others. After Anxious, though, he suddenly seemed to have no idea what crosstalk is all about. Every move he made was awkward.
His mentor Ma Ji had always been rather leery about Jiang Kun's appointment as the head of the Central Talk and Sing Group when he was at the top of his game. He believed that administrative posts cost too much energy. The facts show, however, that Jiang Kun has continued to diminish even after he resigned as head of the group. His collaboration with fellow comedian Dai Zhicheng is recognized as a mistake in art circles.
Dai Zhicheng, who is ten years younger than Jiang Kun, is an outstanding performer in the lead roles in crosstalk. He seems to have become famous overnight after partnering with Jiang Kun, to the extent that not many people remember his past cooperative performances with colleagues in his own age group like Zheng Jian and Liu Hui.
The famous work Anxious is an intimate connection of crosstalk with the middle and lower class people that nourish her. Who would have expected it to be the last close contact? The work is based on the writings of Mr. Liang Zuo. In 1991, Jiang Kun and the delightful Yu Yong, with the help of an excellent screenplay, successfully created the character nicknamed “Old Nervous”, a Beijing resident:
—— (On a road in heavy traffic) You're OK getting' to work, right?
—— I'm worried about after I get to work, the guy who takes attendance.
—— The attendance guy? What's to worry?
—— Five minutes late and he marks you down. And haven't you heard about the red lights on this road? If there's a red light, you gotta stop. If you don't, the guys with the lanyards will come running. The guy with the black lanyard won't care, but except for him, if they've got a lanyard they'll care about everything you do.
—— I got even more anxious after the kid started school. First grade, I had to take him and pick him up every day; second grade, he didn't pay much attention in class; third grade, he couldn't keep up with his lessons; fourth grade, too much extracurricular stuff; fifth grade, he learned how to cut class to go to the movies; now in sixth grade he's lookin' at the high school entrance exam.
—— That exam is the biggest worry!
—— When the kid can't do his lessons, he keeps on askin' me. Tell me, what's more of a worry that that?
—— So, you help him out.
—— If I knew how to do 'em, what would I be worried about?
—— You don't know how to do them, either!
—— Man, you don't know how hard the sixth grade lessons are these days! There was this math problem, it said if you're adding water to a big pond, water from the tap would fill it up in 48 hours. But if you're letting water out, the release tap would empty it in 69 hours. So, with both taps open, how long would it take to fill the pond? You tell me, isn't that a crock? Water in this country is so precious, why the heck would you open the release valve while you're filling the pond!
—— [Cough!] Well, it was just a calculation problem!
—— You, if you lay down and go to sleep, you won't worry any more, right?
—— I worry when I'm asleep, too.
—— Who do you worry about when you're asleep?
—— The other evening I'd just laid down and the old lady next door yelled something. Oh boy, that voice! I didn't get any shuteye all night!
—— What'd she yell?
—— "I heard the price of groceries is goin' up!"
—— That old lady likes to spread rumors!
I think everyone who loves crosstalk will fondly remember laughing as they listened to Anxious, because that sort of performance is so "close to the heart". Isn't the everyday life of ordinary Chinese people just like that? In at nine and out at five, going through the trivia of daily life, pulling the kids around, attacking the housework, buying hard-to-find goods or bargain-basement stuff, and if you want to find a place that isn’t mobbed with people you have to go to the U.S.
From the young man who dreamed of winning an Oscar in Flight of Fancy, to the rather selfish, still-young-but-past-the-marriageable-age fellows in Self-Selection and Escapist Daydream, and then on to "Old Nervous" in Anxious, in his most outstanding works Jiang Kun portrays the fate and psychology of ordinary people whose hearts are taller than the heavens but whose lives are thinner than paper. His unique characteristic – a cheerful and outgoing personality – determined that he would be best at elaborating such themes.
Truth is, Jiang Kun didn’t want to pass off on his strong points. In the following year’s televised Spring Festival Gala, he and Tang Jiezhong starred in Song of the Corridors, which also reflected the lives of city residents. This one left me feeling like a stranger, though.
The crosstalk was about two men carrying a new piano upstairs. Things were piled up messily in the corridors, and the men were obstructed by the condo owners on the second, third and fourth floor landings.
Cluttered corridors are a basic aspect of Chinese city life, and also good material for satire, but here it was spoiled by Jiang Kun's constant “whining”. He rambled on incoherently with every person who blocked the way, an endless stream of words resulting in an unrealistic dialog. The difficulties of carrying a piano could in no way arouse sympathy from the audience in the way that the grievances of "Old Nervous" had.
Near the end of the dialog, the piano is stuck on a narrow landing between the third and fourth floors, unable to move forward or back. In front a vicious dog crouches like a tiger watching its prey, and from the rear a pregnant woman about to give birth prematurely is approaching. Jiang Kun does the “setup” with the following lines:
—— Standing there on the stairs, all sorts of feelings welled up inside me: Tell me I'm right, a man shouldn't have to go through such an arduous journey just to move one tiny piano!
—— When I saw what was happening, my nose itched and I started to cry!
—— Oh, Jeez!
—— Cries that were hard on the ears, "Wah, wah, wah!"
—— Eek! Why would you make noises like that?
—— What me? she was droppin' her kid right there!
This was an ambivalent "setup", talking just for the sake of talking. It seems that Anxious used up all of Jiang Kun's talent and passion. After that his works with a "common man's voice" theme got more and more affected and less and less tuned in, eventually ushering in Treader, a total flop from beginning to end: A "big brother" steps on the foot of someone living in the same courtyard and spends fifteen minutes apologizing – and segues into a boundless commentary on everything important that happened in the previous year.
The failure of content in Jiang Kun's crosstalks in the 1990s was mainly reflected in the mountains-out-of-molehills topics and in over-exaggeration. He realized that he had to remain current, so he did everything he could to work "characteristics of the era" into his dialogues. Thus he virtually separated himself from the lives of ordinary people – the original source material for his comedy. He no longer talked and laughed freely like he used to. Instead, as soon as he came on stage, he was an impoverished mind searching with all his might for ways to get a laugh. To do so he wasn't above playing endlessly on a trivial detail, producing the failure of blathering and "forced laughter" that was Treader.
As another example, take 1993's Rhapsody to Beauty with its theme of "the rage for beauty":
—— (Jian Kun asks Tang Jiezhong) When you went for plastic surgery, did your old lady go, too?
—— Of course we went together!
—— And after the surgery you both looked like new people and couldn't even recognize each other!
—— Is it ever that bad?
—— If you got up early in the morning and didn't recognize each other under the covers, what'd happen?
—— What would happen? We'd match up our code words.
—— Could you do that? Like in that war story? "Sky kings cover ground pounders"….
—— "The precious tower stops the river monster!"
—— "Maha, maha!"
—— "Talking at noon, no one's got family!"
—— Gee, Old Tang, it's really you!
—— Who else?
—— You can't always rely on code phrases.
—— I have another way: Hang a sign out!
—— Hang out a sign?
—— My wife works at the zoo. She's always hanging signs on the animals' cages. I write my details on a sign and hang it on when I get up, so there'll be no mistake.
——…. It's just that your family's inclined to make random notes, and what if you can't find where you put them? One day you'll get up in the morning and be so busy you'll hang on a sign and make a mess of things!
—— And what will be written on that sign?
—— "The cat's name, the rat's type, miscellaneous edibles, gregarious something, autumn rut, identical twin!"
It's OK to clown around in crosstalk, but not to resort to trickery. These excerpts from Rhapsody to Beauty have distinct scars from a hacking. Jiang Kun's trite subject matter and hackneyed language have to violate the industry's taboos.
Why would Jiang Kun get himself into such an embarrassing situation?
Jiang Kun's last collaboration with Tang Jiezhong, which was probably in 1992, was called Friendship and Competition. It was the second time the Jiang-Tang partnership performed in the "odd mother and child" style, where the characters argue with one another. (The first time was in Antonyms, a skit that's all but forgotten.) The theme was that "friendly feelings" couldn't replace "competition" in business dealings.
Obviously, the work uses the common crosstalk technique "misplaced common sense" to create comic fodder. It starts with two people boasting about their watermelons. After talking about “friendly feelings” they turn to mutual bragging. There was nothing new in this material, but Jiang and Tang unexpectedly performed in a more unorthodox manner:
—— Eating my melons will make you young again!
—— Eating my melons will cure infertility in men and women!
—— How can you say that? How can you say that? Your melons can cure infertility in both men and women?
—— Well, can your melons really bring back youth?
—— I was just making a comparison.
—— Well, I was just making a description.
—— …. I have proof: The Prime Minister of England ate a melon of mine and immediately was ten years younger!"
—— I've got proof, too: The President of the United States ate one of my melons and got pregnant right away!"
"Common sense misplacement" dialogues use preposterousness as their keynote. From it they distill humor that is a delight to the ear, not just amiable. The author of Friendship and Competition, however, gave precedence to "currency" in his considerations: The inclusion of "The Prime Minister of England" and "The President of the United States" rigidly injected "currency" into the plotting of a traditional work.
However, Jiang and Tang never realized that this kind of "marriage of themes" is basically unstable. The nineties really wasn't a time of "When doing business, shouting slogans is job one". Against that background, a pair of crosstalk performers dressed in western clothes exchanging slogans to sell melons, and adding the "characteristics of the era", it's hard for me to imagine how they got thrown into this linguistic realm they created for themselves. And regarding the fun inherent in the "punch line" in this part of the skit, Jiang Kun's ability to drive it home in the "odd mother and child" style is truly limited. The “absurdity” he's built up to comes out as vulgarity rather than humor. To see "vulgarity" appear in a Jiang Kun dialog is heartbreaking.
Resorting to absurdity in an "odd mother and child" routine is the same. Humbleness Theory by Tianjin's famous masters Li Boxiang and Du Guozhi is from a completely different realm.
—— Professor Li, my family really has it tough!
—— Professor Du, my family is too poor!
—— We only eat rice one meal a year!
—— The only way we get a bath is to jump in the river!
—— In my family, we've only got one pair of pants for six people to wear!
—— That's a lot better than my family. When we go to sleep, the eight of us use one cough mask!
—— Jeez, you guys are grasshoppers!
The failure of Friendship and Competition exposed Jiang Kun's inexorable decline. With his performing style, he absolutely couldn't execute dialogues of Humbleness Theory's type. This shows that Jiang Kun's development has been limited by his continuous working with older partners over many years. He has his own unique style, but he hasn't experimented with a variety of artistic techniques. As he's gradually grown older, his voice is no longer crisp and his image is no longer youthful. As his partners became less appropriate, the "transition" problems he faced gradually surfaced.
I miss Take Photos Like This, Time and Youth, Poetry and Love, The Passenger and I, Flight of Fancy, Such Poets, Escapist Daydream, Is It Me? and Self-Selection. These works are Jiang Kun masterpieces. Without exception, they show his young and dynamic image. However, Jiang Kun, like the course-haired young men he sculpted, lacked the ability to anticipate danger in times of peace.
After partnering with Dai Zhicheng, Jiang Kun fell completely into an identity crisis.
Dai Zhicheng also comes from the teasing style of crosstalk. With his resounding voice, he's better at "debating" than at "setting the stage" with introductory remarks. Jiang Kun couldn't count on the contrast with him to recreate his former glory. What's even worse is that, with Dai Zhicheng at his side, Jiang Kun became the famous "old-timer of crosstalk", and he's also a teaser. In his resume, however, "teaser" and "youth" had always been synonymous, so this put him in an impossibly awkward dilemma — the seeds of which were laid during the development of Jiang Kun's talent: The characteristics of the partnership forced him to change his style, while deep-seated aspects of his original style limited his ability to change.
Jiang Kun had three good-as-gold partners at the height of his fame – Li Wenhua, Zhao Yan, and Tang Jiezhong. They seemed to be tailor-made to suit Jiang Kun, to the extent that he at most relied on his partner's assistance to mold his style, and didn't enrich his comedic methods. Li Wenhua and Tang Jiezhong could play the "urchin joking with an old man" more or less to good effect. And his fellow apprentice Zhao Yan, while about his own age, is blessed with the appearance and temperament of a youth old beyond his years, and thus can click with Jiang Kun. In his artistic career, Jiang Kun’s mentor, Ma Ji, also worked with … many other distinguished and talented masters. Other partnerships … were refined over years together, but they were all brothers who learned the art from childhood. Their minds had an almost telepathic connection and their styles complemented each other.…
Jiang Kun, as the backbone of the team, bears responsibility for the decline of the comic art of crosstalk. He can't shift the blame. The ten years he's been going downhill are precisely the ten years when crosstalks have been completely reduced to the status of "opening acts". Only pieces from the good years are left for us to remember. I'm trying to defend the aesthetic value of crosstalk, but a generation younger than mine treats it as a haunting by the psychological condition of nostalgia. As the 1990s drew to a close, except for improvements in material well-being, how much else did we have that was worth looking forward to?
Reality has made us forget the beauty we once had.
[See here for another translated essay on Chinese humor by this author – Fannyi]
21st Century Chinese Literature Compendium; 2002 Internet Compositions, p. 251
Translated from http://bbs.tianya.cn/post-185-250061-1.shtml
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