The Great LOL of China

Bow before the master

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 7:33pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 7:36pm

There are many different ways of learning comedy, and apparently some of them involve bowing to an old Chinese man.

Two weekends ago, I kowtowed to Xiangsheng master, Ding Guangquan. Master Ding is my mentor, teacher, supporter, and biggest fan. Fifty of his seventy years have been spent performing Xiangsheng, making Master Ding a mentor of a type that has all but died out in the West. He is the head of a comedic lineage and tradition stretching back over a hundred years.

Xiangsheng, as a comedy form, originated in the Qing Dynasty. The art form is passed down master to student, meaning that there exists an official “family tree” of every performer who underwent the initiation ritual that I attended last Saturday. Master Ding can trace his lineage to his master, Hou Baolin, the greatest performer of the last century.

By the math of Xiangsheng apprenticeship, this past Saturday I become a member of the eighth generation of Xiangsheng performers. This now means that I am the “little brother” of China’s top comedian Guo Degang, though Guo has not called me to congratulate me yet.

During the ceremony, the daughter of Master Hou delivered a speech focused on maintaining tradition. She urged us to use comedy not just to make people laugh, but to add art to the world with crosstalk. For Master Ding, whose reputation comes from training foreigners to perform Xiangsheng, these words were particularly poignant.

Gift-giving is another important part of the ceremony. Master Ding presented me with a small block of wood inlaid with silver wire and a fan inscribed with the phrase 弄月嘲风. Literally translated, the phrase means, “Fool the moon and satirize the wind.” It is a reminder to us that true comedy comes from the world around us, and that no topic should be off-limits.

As comedians, we are those who dare to 嘲笑不正之风:joke about the “improper winds” of our time. The wood block, a key Xiangsheng prop, is used to pound the small table onstage at every Xiangsheng show. The SMAK sound is a call to attention for the audience and a call to arms for comedians.

Newly minted disciples also speak at the ceremony about their experience training with the Master. During my speech, I recalled a freezing night in Shandong province in 2012 when Master Ding brought me and three other pupils to perform on the Shandong Province New Years’ Gala.

One of our cohorts missed the bus to Shandong, leaving the rest of us hurried to memorize his lines in case we needed to go on without him. After a harrowing twelve hours of frantic dress rehearsals and backstage whispering, our show came off without a hitch. We emerged from the shoot exhausted, freezing in the midnight winter wind in a parking lot outside the studio.

As I shivered in my thin performance robe, hardly able to remain awake, Ding Laoshi bounded around the lot, giving out words of encouragement on the show to each actor in turn. “Great job,” he told me, “you dealt with the changes really well. You should be proud of your show tonight!”

The type of person who travels hundreds of miles to put on a good show despite any and all challenges is the type of person I want to apprentice myself to. The type of person who performs at the peak of his art at age seventy, with no financial incentive, simply for the love of the art, is the type of person I want to learn from.

Master Ding has taught me that comedy is comedy and teaching is teaching, regardless of language and culture. In our classes we discuss the minutia of communicating with the audience. We go over at length the importance of eye contact, of physical spacing, of smiling at the right second. We discuss how to discover what is special about yourself, and use that something to win the audience over to you and your experiences.

He is passionate but even-tempered; the only time I have every seen Ding Laoshi yell was when he cursed out a television producer who gave us the inspired stage direction to speak worse and 出洋相, “put on a foreign face” and gaffe intentionally by playing the bumbling foreigner. Master Ding shouted himself hoarse, saying that he trains Xiangsheng performers, and you get the best Xiangsheng they can perform or nothing. The producer argued foreigners speaking Chinese at all was “good enough.”

Good enough for television was not even close enough for Master Ding.

Then, the last step of the ceremony: bowing three times to the seated master. I would be lying if I did not say it was a bizarre experience to bow to someone. I have never done it before, and I cannot foresee when I would ever do it again.

Xiangsheng is Master Ding’s life, job, and family tied into one. To do what you do so well to make it your life is inspiring; to open up that life to those outside of your blood and ask only for effort and devotion in return is astounding.

I believe that when that sort of trust and drive is tied to a goal as important and human as intercultural comedy, it is indeed something worth bowing down to.

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.