In mid-December, the most famous Chinese Xiangsheng (“相声,” aka crosstalk) society Deyunshe (德云社 Dé yún shè) began to recruit new disciples.
In a promotion for the recruitment event, the founder and master comedian Guo Degang 郭德纲 explicitly said that Deyunshe will not take in female disciples: “[Girls] can do whatever they like, just don’t waste their time with us. We are not discriminating against them.”
This is not the first time Deyunshe got attention for turning down female disciples.
In the past, Guo explained, “Xiangsheng is not suitable for women. We don’t usually talk about it as people blame us for gender discrimination. But it’s actually out of respect for women. If [she] is extremely talented, we may take a look.”
Guo’s statement aroused a heated discussion on the internet. Audiences now see more and more excellent female stand-up comedians via TV shows like “Rock & Roast.” So why can’t women be good at crosstalk?
What is crosstalk?
We need to take a look at Xiangsheng’s history to understand where Guo’s statement comes from.
Xiangsheng is a traditional Chinese comedy genre, staging bantering dialogues between two comedians.
It’s a language art based on Northern Mandarin accents, rich in puns and allusions. Xiangsheng societies still keep the long-established master-disciple relationships. The pass their art from one generation to the next.
It is believed that Xiangsheng originated as a street performance in the late Qing dynasty. In the beginning, Xiangsheng performances involved filthy and off-color jokes to attract audiences.
In the feudal society, women were discouraged from public appearances. Forget performing as an entertainer on stage and using vulgar language. Xiangsheng was thus a male-dominated comedy genre from the beginning.
In the mid 20th century, masters like Hou Baolin 侯宝林 and Ma Ji 马季 reformed Xiangsheng. Performers now use more decent language and jokes that are better-received by all age groups.
However, this is not to say that today’s Xiangsheng is a highbrow art that completely breaks away from its vulgar street tradition.
So why can’t women join now?
Even though more and more women have become fans, Xiangsheng is still exclusive to male performers with only a handful of exceptions. Whether it’s sarcasm or self-depreciation, Xiangsheng performers often tell jokes by making a fool of themselves.
They carry on many old scripts such as 梦中婚 (Mèng zhōng hūn, “Dream of a Wedding”) that were passed down to them. These scripts are full of stories and punch lines speaking from a man's perspective.
Guo Degang's claim of refusing female disciples seems grounded in history and tradition. Many Xiangsheng performers from Deyunshe, such as Yue Yunpeng 岳云鹏 and Guo Qilin 郭麒麟, share the same view.
They believe that female disciples will not do well as audiences expect women to behave femininely.
It is said that females will not win audiences’ hearts if they follow Deyunshe’s tradition of telling the same dirty jokes and acting with the same masculine body language as their male counterparts.
An Internet Debate
Guo Degang’s statement stirred up an internet debate. On Zhihu, the Chinese counterpart of Quora, many Xiangsheng fans supported Guo Degang.
Some of them pointed out that the traditional master-disciple relationship in the Xiangsheng world is more than a regular teacher-student relationship.
It is very similar to a father-son relationship, following the Confucius value. Disciples live with the master, serve the master and learn from the master. It will be inappropriate, or awkward, for a female disciple to do the same for her male master.
Some people express understanding for what Guo Degang meant by “respecting women.” The first step of Xiangsheng is to swallow one’s pride because “many Xiangsheng jokes and punch lines are achieved via self-offense...let alone those making fun of man’s sexual characteristics.”
Yet this statement does not always hold true. In the West, female stand-up comedians who joke about women’s sexuality and maternity like Ali Wong, Nikki Glaser and Iliza Shlesinger can still make audiences laugh and earn their peer’s respect.
Admittedly, there is a huge difference between the West’s and the East’s acceptance of women using filthy humor. If we set this aside, we can still spot a dilemma in the discourse.
As pointed out by many Zhihu users, the lack of female Xiangsheng performers impedes the development of female-friendly scripts. Without enough works created from a woman’s perspective, female performers find it hard to break into this male-dominated industry.
It is true that the tradition is not to the advantage of female performers. They will have to invent new scripts to replace the old ones. They will have to go through more hardship to prove themselves.
But it is not impossible to become a female performer. Though rare, people such as Wei Wenhua 魏文华, Liu Chunhui 刘春慧, Zhang Wenxia 张文霞 and Ji Tianyu 姬天语.
Deyunshe, as one of the best Xiangsheng societies in China, should never send out such a negative message to those inspiring female performers. What if they have the talent and determination to reform this genre and create a new path for women?
It’s time for Deyunshe to reflect on the potential systematic discrimination against women. Like how Hou Baolin once saved Xiangsheng from being a completely lowbrow art, tradition is never canon.