I’ll Be Brief: The Chinese Two Sentence Speech
Social scientists believe that any event in China where there is a stage and a microphone is liable to experience the Chinese ritual known as the "Two Sentence Speech".
The ritual has two requirements. First, there must be an esteemed, preferably elderly audience member present. Second, nobody present really wants to hear this person talk.
When these two conditions are met, the host must extol this guest’s accomplishments, expound their virtues, and lastly, invite them to 说两句话：Say two sentences.
Chinese culture exerts an inexorable and undeniable force on the audience to endure in silent respect as the guest talks unbound by restraints of time, decorum, or self-awareness.
The Two Sentence Speech is a mainstay of Chinese shindigs everywhere. No company party or minor government ceremony would be complete without it.
Speeches vary immensely but all share one defining characteristic: No Two Sentence Speech has ever been or will ever be two sentences long. In this respect, it is similar to the English phrase “I’ll be brief”. As such, the name Two Sentence Speech is not truly misleading, because it is consistently the exact opposite of what it seems to be.
In other words, asking how many sentences are in a Two Sentence Speech is like asking how many licks it takes to get to the tootsie-roll center of a tootsie-pop: Nobody knows.
I have become somewhat of a connoisseur of Two Sentence Speeches as a performer of the traditional Chinese comedy style of Xiangsheng, or Crosstalk. Xiangsheng is performed in Qing dynasty robes and is a distinctly Chinese art form, and is a mainstay entertainment program at small ceremonies put on by local government offices and bureaus.
This type of event is a Petri dish for Two Sentence Speeches. The outfits and comedy style are agar; the associated Chinese cultural context an incubator that creates the perfect breeding ground for Two Sentence Speeches.
I remember standing onstage countless times, smiling blankly while the Xicheng District Associate Secretary of The Committee for the Protection and Management of Minor Folk Arts said good things about the arts and international relations. The speeches reminded me of the sorts of dead-eyed smile-handshake photos politicians pose for at events. Both these speeches and the photographs beg the question: In a world where everything looks so excellent, how could anything be wrong?
Though I might have made things seem otherwise, I actually enjoy these speeches. Sometimes. I am all for respecting elders, and the droning, unguided nature of these off-the-cuff speeches oftentimes leads to some pretty unintentionally funny moments. I reiterate: I am not anti-Two Sentence Speeches.
But for everything there is a season. A time to sow, a time to reap. A time to invite someone onstage due to respect for decorum, and a time to…not do so.
This Friday, for instance, was one of those “not” times.
Some fellow comedians and I had just finished a two-hour stand-up show at a five hundred-seat theatre. The MC had invited us all onstage to take a final bow to the audience, and we had just received what I then believed to be the last round of applause. It was a long show, and people were ready to leave.
But wait! Right at that moment, we were informed that the venerable actor You Benchang was in the audience. You played the Song dynasty magical monk Ji Gong on television in the 80s.
The MC did the simple math. Stage? Check. Microphone? Check. Presence of an elder with B to C-list celebrity status in a vaguely similar field of expertise as the topic being discussed? Check.
You Benchang was coming onstage, and there was nothing any of us could do to stop it.
In an unplanned, culturally reflexive response, the MC said, “And before we leave, we’d like to ask our esteemed guest to say two sentences!”
Mr. You was graceful, courteous, and funny. At the age of 82, he was still lively as ever, shouting jokes and comedic platitudes. He dramatically thanked me and the other foreign performers for performing our Western comedy in China, and for linking the two cultures. It was a classic Two Sentence Speech that soaked up about ten minutes, ending with a group photo of himself and the actors for the ostensibly enthralled audience.
Then the photos were done. Everyone wandered off stage awkwardly. Apparently the show was over.
After the show, some of the performers and I consumed unreasonable amounts of food at a nearby hot pot restaurant. I asked why You Benchang had come onstage.
A friend began, “In Chinese culture, people respect elders by asking them to say two sentences…”
“I know that,” I replied. “It wasn’t inappropriate to invite him onstage. But it wasn’t appropriate either.”
The show was already too long. Everyone had paid money to see the performers, not listen to You Benchang. While nobody would ever dare leave early, nobody was really interested in hearing him talk. The audience was effectively taken hostage.
More importantly, the cultural space was wrong. Two Sentence Speeches at a Chinese company party is one thing. But something about stand-up and the Two Sentence Speech clashed horribly. It mashed the Western relaxedness of a stand-up show with the Chinese formality of a cookie-cutter corporate event. It felt like the corn-flavoured ice cream I had bought the night before: not bad, but wrong.
My friend nodded. It was a typical cultural dilemma scenario, where abiding by social graces sucked up time, yet cultural momentum still insisted upon graces being observed.
Who knows whether future Chinese incarnations of stand-up comedy will include these Two Sentence Speeches when the next generation becomes the teachers and leaders making them. I have no doubt that Chinese culture will continue to insist upon properly-placed courtesies, but the form and content of those courtesies might well change.
In the meantime, I continue to note (and time) every Two Sentence Speech that I hear.
The Great LOL of China is a blog that aims to share the topics and themes that make Chinese audiences laugh. Its creator is Jesse Appell, an intercultural comedian who performs Chinese-language comedy all around China.