Xiangsheng

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Xiangsheng (相声) is one of the most popular and influential types of Chinese performing art. It can be said that nobody in China does not know or like it. It is humorous and highly satirical by nature.

Though similar performance had been popular for centuries, it was only in the reign of Emperor Xianfeng (r. 1851-1861) of the Qing Dynasty that xiangsheng became established as an independent art form.

The first xiangsheng artists were Zhang Sanlu and Zhu Shaowen, the latter's stage name being Qiong Bupa. He used to perform in the entertainment quarter of Beijing, Tianqiao. He always began with a ragged verse which started and ended with the same word (something like a palindrome phrase). Then he imitated the street hawkers' peculiar cries and sang some ancient songs. As the audience grew, he started his proper xiangsheng item. Zhu's four apprentices all had stage names in a similar style. Zhu and his two contemporaries, A Yantao and Shen Chunhe formed the earliest three big categories of xiangsheng artists who passed on their skills to their disciples.

After over a century's development, xiangsheng art has ushered in its eighth generation of artists.

Since the late Qing Dynasty and the early years of the Republic of China, xiangsheng art has made great advances in content and skills, and representative artists have emerged in different periods. For instance, in the late Qing period a group of artists whose names all contained the character "de", were Yu Delong, Jiao Dehai, Zhou Deshan, and others. People called them the Eight "Des" of xiangsheng. There were Li Dexi with the stage name of Wan Renmi and Zhang Shouchang art, in the period of the Republic.

After the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, talented artists Hou Baolin, Ma Sanli, Ma Ji, who was Hou's student, and Ma Ji's student Jiang Kun all displayed highly distinctive skills and have become very famous artists.

There are three forms of xiangsheng. The earliest form was performed by one person, and was called Dankou xiangsheng. Its contents were mostly jokes and humorous stories. Later, Duikou xiangsheng or "cross talk," performed by two persons, appeared. One man was called Dougen, and the other, Penggen. When A is the primary talker while the B side chimes in, this is called yitouchen (heavy-at-one-end), and the subject of argument between them is called zimugen. Recitals and narration are called guankouhuo, and imitations of opera songs and words are called huhuo. The third form of xiangsheng performed by three or more persons is called Qunkou xiangsheng. It calls for one artist to say funny things, while others chime in and yet another makes them stray from the subject. Of the three forms, cross talk was the most popular and widespread.

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