A long-standing passion for the art of crosstalk

The revival of a centuries-old form of comic dialogue in Beijing's teahouses is due largely to Guo Degang

In Beijing, the most fashionable way to spend the Lunar New Year used to be going to the city's theatres to catch some ballet or experimental drama.

Revellers would pass on the capital's traditional performance arts for a night of Swan Lake or the latest production by avant-garde director Meng Jinghui .

But in the past couple of years, thanks largely to one man, audiences have been flooding back into Beijing's teahouses to rediscover the pleasures of a centuries-old form of comic dialogue called crosstalk.

The impetus for the crosstalk revival is Guo Degang , 33, whose repertoire is based on blending the well-established form with contemporary topics. In the censorship-free world of the theatre, Guo has won a following, especially among the young, by elevating satiric dialogue to pure entertainment, rather than an educational session. He has also wrested it back from television and rehabilitated it as a face-to-face encounter.

Beijing-based folklore commentator Zhao Xiaolin credits Guo with 'triggering the revival of crosstalk in theatres and with traditional techniques'. The style has been so successful that there are now several teahouses featuring live crosstalk shows and Guo's troupe has grown from several performers to nearly 100.


Guo was born in Tianjin and began studying many of the traditional art forms of northern China at an early age. He would follow his father, a policeman, to various theatres to catch different shows and, from the age of nine, began developing the quick lips and knowledge of traditional opera that are essential to his trade.

In 1996, he headed to the capital with the dream of becoming a crosstalk artist, co-founding the Deyun Troupe.

In the troupe's early days, the performers were forced to move from teahouse to teahouse and sometimes performed for an audience of one. Guo and his actors could not make ends meet and his almost pathological passion for the art was sometimes the only thing that kept him going. 'I love crosstalk. That's why I am still here after all these years,' Guo said.

Then last year, almost without warning, Guo and his Deyun Troupe seemed to become popular overnight, attracting fans among university students, white-collar workers and television personalities. He was even invited to perform for the families of former Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference chairman Li Ruihuan and former premier Zhu Rongji .


Tickets for a sold-out performance at a five-star hotel last Christmas Eve changed hands for more than 4,000 yuan.

It's a long way from the post-revolutionary days when, like other traditional art forms, crosstalk was cut off from its cultural roots as part of the Communist Party's effort to rid the country of 'feudal garbage', and new works were created as pure propaganda.


Guo and his troupe have gone some way towards repairing that break by finding new inspiration in the classics. 'Crosstalk is a traditional art. I use the classical works as a base and associate the art with some current social trends and my own understanding,' he said.

For example, in one routine, Guo impersonates an unsuccessful bank robber who escapes with the cash but ends up being caught after getting stuck in Beijing's bad traffic.

In another, Guo tries several times to commit suicide but continually fails. Finally, he decides to give up the idea and have a drink - a Sprite. The moment he puts his lips to the bottle, police pounce and put him in detention. The joke is a veiled reference to followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement who reportedly incinerated themselves with fuel stored in a Sprite bottle.


Guo's appeal is his use of absurdity, his delight in making fun of high-profile personalities and his ability to expose the aspects of a person's character that they would rather keep hidden. Beijing marketing specialist Wu Chuang says he likes Guo's work because he ridicules reality. 'The characters in his routines are usually nobodies. They are humble, poor and put down by society. The characters seem to be laughable. But it is a way of expressing the discontent in society,' Mr Wu said.

Guo agrees the key to crosstalk is to satirise reality, but not at the price of entertainment. 'People will learn something after laughter,' he said. 'Only after entertaining, can we talk about being educational. The audience doesn't come to me to learn moral principles. They come from all walks of life, how could I be qualified to teach them?'

His approach is a contrast to that of state-sponsored performers, employed by government ministries to perform a propaganda function. 'What is the educational function of a bear performance or 15 people riding one bicycle?' he said.


Guo and his band of performers are also able to skirt the official line by performing primarily in teahouses and not on television, where crosstalk has maintained a higher profile over the decades and censorship is a more important priority. He says art has paid a price for censorship.

'Censorship is part of the Chinese character,' he said. 'But can a dozen people make a judgment on behalf of millions of people? Why have there been no outstanding Peking opera artists since 1949 [when the Communist Party took power]?'

He insists the benchmark for a good or bad performance is whether an audience pays to buy tickets and this is partly what sets his troupe apart from its rivals. The Deyun Troupe survives on what it makes and none of the members receive government salaries.

But does this reliance put him at risk of having to cater to the lowest common denominator? 'The audience has to make a judgment. My performance is not prepared for everyone,' Guo said.

There are few signs the audience is getting bored with Guo's special comedic formula. Last October, to celebrate Deyun's 10th anniversary, Guo and his troupe staged six days of performances and on the last night, the performances continued to packed houses well into the early hours of the next morning.