China in the spring of 1978: The country is still coming out from under the devastation of the Cultural Revolution. Many of life's simplest items and services remain hard to come by. Despite the overthrow of the Gang of Four, most Chinese entertainers don't dare make light of everyday conditions - let alone joke about them in front of audiences.
But comedian Jiang Kun, still in his late 20s, risks it. In a skit that he often performed onstage, a customer and the proprietor of a camera store each go through verbal cartwheels to prove their revolutionary rectitude - only a self-obsessed capitalist roader, after all, would ever buy or sell a personal photo. As the skit unfolds, they recite the requisite party slogans as they negotiate a politically correct price, and decide what would constitute a working-class pose.
With shades of the verbal dodging and ducking of Abbott and Costello's Who's On First?, Jiang's routine employed a brand of comedy utterly familiar to Chinese, and called xiangsheng, or crosstalk. Simultaneously showcasing deft linguistic feats, in Jiang's hands it also turned upside down the Mao-era tenet that xiangsheng itself bordered on being counterrevolutionary.
Taking Pictures, as the skit is sometimes called in English, "was an experience that I actually had," Jiang said recently, in a telephone interview conducted through an interpreter. "When you listen to the crosstalk, it sounds funny, but actually it was a sad story."
Although not totally sad for Jiang, for whom it was a stepping stone to becoming one of China's most popular comedians, his fans numbering in the hundreds of millions.
Now, Jiang is heading to Toronto, where he will be performing in Mandarin in two gala shows, on July 9 and 10, at the Toronto version of the Just For Laughs festival. Also appearing on the program, organized by Jiang himself, will be such popular xiangsheng performers as Dai Zhicheng, Shi Shengjie and Shi Fukuan, as well as mimes, sound-effects artists, shadow puppeteers and magicians from China.
For Toronto's Mandarin community, the Just For Laughs gig presents a rare opportunity to witness a comedic master, and other impressive star acts, live onstage. For Jiang, it offers a unique forum in which to connect with one of the biggest Chinese communities outside China. And for the Just For Laughs festival, which last year hosted a predominantly Hindi comedy show, the program represents another important attempt to bring world humour to Toronto stages.
"I went to China two years ago, to go to Jiang Kun's comedy festival, which was influenced, he told me, by Montreal's Just For Laughs," says Bruce Hills, JFL's chief operating officer. "He was performing in front of 6,000 people in an arena. He introduced me to the major players in the Chinese comedy world, and I got a quick education in how seriously China takes comedy."
Wherever he's performing, Jiang doesn't cater solely to older audiences familiar with the cult of Mao and the deprivations of the Maoist years, says Hills, but also to the younger generations of the new China. Among other things, Jiang now incorporates Internet jargon and social-media-style dialogue into his crosstalk. "His audience," says Hills, "is really across the board."
You could almost call him the Bill Cosby of China - if Cosby performed a complicated form of wordplay whose origins stem from the Qing Dynasty, which ran from the mid-1600s to early 1900s; and if Cosby had established himself with a routine famous for signalling to an entire nation that finally, after years of constant revolution, it was okay to exhale collectively and laugh at utter hardship.
"At that time, no one dared to speak out," says Jiang, of the early post-Mao years. "I dared to. We got a great response from the audience. When you look, that was a small and funny thing.
"But at the time, I took a risk," adds the comedian, who now holds the government-endorsed title of managing vice-president of China Quyi Artists Association. ( Quyi is essentially Chinese folk performance, with techniques handed down for centuries. Xiangsheng included, quyi ranges from song to spoken word, and is described as something to be studied rather than merely picked up haphazardly by performers.)
Modern xiangsheng had by the turn of the 20th century become a form of street theatre, Jiang explained to me. But by the mid-1930s, it had graduated to fancier tea houses, and was performed with more of an air of sophistication. By mid-century, crosstalking took a populist turn. Hou Baolin, revered as a master of the form, reworked traditional skits and cleaned up the language, making it more accessible to larger audiences. He essentially distilled the art form down to its rapid and intricate, though respectful, jokes.
"In this way, xiangsheng performances went from the tea houses to theatre stages," Jiang says. But during the early Mao years, "the common people still didn't accept xiangsheng. They thought it was something old, not something new." That's when Hou began working to "purify" the art, as Jiang explains, by removing even more vulgarities. Radio broadcasts of xiangsheng also helped the Communist government in its ambition to spread the use of Mandarin nationally.
Of course, cleaning up any art form risks eliminating the humorous bits. That's the trick that subsequent generations of comedians, including Jiang, have faced: how to update xiangsheng, adding contemporary twists, while keeping it funny?
One unlikely person who's been integral to modernizing xiangsheng is Ottawa native Mark Rowswell, who studied Chinese language and history at the University of Toronto in the mid-1980s before going to Beijing as a student. Eventually, he wound up performing a comedy skit at a New Year's Eve gala on Chinese national television in the late eighties, watched by 550 million people. From then on, he was known by his stage name, Dashan (Big Mountain) and, having met Jiang, became his pupil.
Dashan's signature role in skits is to play a foreigner who can out-Chinese the Chinese: reciting complicated Mandarin tongue twisters at double the speed of his comedic elders onstage, with lots of nuance and wordplay thrown in.
As for Jiang's routines, there are limits to what even he can say today in his native China, despite his popularity. Sex remains largely taboo for mainstream audiences, and political humour still has no-go zones. The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is a clear example of what remains out of bounds.
Says Rowswell, "Because xiangsheng is just comedy and language humour, it's completely non-political. The social commentary in China is often not that direct. I mean, who wants to make fun of a massacre? But there is social commentary about corruption and other problems."
Still, in smaller clubs, comics are testing the boundaries of political - and sexual - jokes. "The whole situation in China is a lot more diverse than I think people recognize," Rowswell says. "There are comedy clubs, or comedy in bars, and that kind of environment can get quite raunchy, but you'd never see that stuff on television and in the mass media."
Although Jiang routinely commands audiences of 500 million or more for his major TV specials, says Rowswell, the comedian has also been helping to revitalize live comedy. "He was one of the guys that 10 or 15 years ago said, 'We're doing too much TV-studio stuff. We've got to get back in front of live audiences, because that's the place to bring up new and young talent.' "
And these days, to take it on the road as well - becoming ambassadors for one of China's richest comedic traditions, while giving audiences half-way around the world a good hearty chuckle.
The Chinese Comedy & Variety Show Featuring Jiang Kun takes place July 9 and 10 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, 190 Princes' Blvd., Exhibition Place. For more information, visit toronto.hahaha.com.