With the Rise of Comedians, China Embraces Raunch

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Comedy is on the rise in China, and one of its unlikeliest stars is a cross-dressing performer known as Xiao Shenyang, or “Little Shenyang.” Born in hardscrabble northeast China, the 29-year-old comedian has a reputation for gender-bending costumes (sparkly hair bows, women’s blouses, a sports bra) and occasional vulgarity. That made his debut on the national stage all the more remarkable. Little Shenyang appeared in last year’s Lunar New Year gala show organized by state-run CCTV, a yearly holiday ritual that typically tops the charts for TV viewership. While his jokes were scrubbed clean of sexual innuendo that night, the fresh-faced youth did wear a skirt—calling it a “Scottish kilt.” After he said something perceived as effeminate, another comedian, Zhao Benshan, called him a Chinese name that means either “ass kisser” or “ass demon”—derogatory slang for homosexual. The audience roared with laughter. (Later Zhao, who is Little Shenyang’s mentor and China's most popular TV star, denied any homosexual connotations. “How do I know what words gay people use? I don’t associate with them,” he told NEWSWEEK.) Little Shenyang was an instant hit with the show’s 600 million–strong audience, prompting so many Netizens to Google his name that his hits temporarily exceeded those for Mao Zedong and Jesus Christ combined.

Little Shenyang’s sudden stardom reflects the shifting standards of permissiveness in Chinese society. The government is cracking down harder than ever on discussion of politically sensitive topics, including the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the banned Falun Gong spiritual sect, and the failings of top leaders. Censors have shut down blogs featuring controversial political views (called “black” content), jailed outspoken Netizens, crossed swords with Google over the official ban on certain words and phrases, and tightened controls over traditional media. Yet at the same time, dirty jokes and other sex-related topics—which Chinese have dubbed “yellow content”—are venturing out of the closet, onto the stage, and into public discourse. “It’s clear that ‘yellow’ humor’s okay, but ‘black’ humor is still not allowed,” says Li Yinhe, a social scientist and China’s leading expert on gay culture.

To be sure, not all “yellow” content is publicly permissible. This February, 3,000 Web sites and 270 blogs were shut down for “vulgarity or pornography.” Guangdong Webmaster Huang Yizhong was sentenced to 13 years after showing porn clips on his site. One of the biggest taboos these days is the pairing of yellow and black humor. Earlier this year, for instance, authorities clamped down on satirical spoofs pitting evil “river crabs”—which in Chinese sound like the words for “harmony,” a political mantra identified with President Hu Jintao—against the virtuous “grass mud horse,” or caonima, which is a homonym for the sexually explicit expletive “f--k your mother.” The wildly popular “grass mud horse” allegories spawned the manufacture of caonima plush toys, droning scholarly treatises about the beast, and a children’s song that went viral on YouTube.

But authorities seem more tolerant when the raunch comes from a wholesome source. Indeed, Little Shenyang comes across not just as an edgy comedian but as a talented singer and down-to-earth 20-something as well. In person, he is modest, even polite, making it hard to imagine him telling off-color jokes, chugging multiple beers onstage, and prancing about in full makeup, a tuxedo, and sequined hair clips, squeaking, “I’m all man!” In an interview with NEWSWEEK, he denied that his unconventional stage persona had any homosexual message. “It’s just a performing style to make people laugh, to be closer to real life,” he says. “I act in the way a boy I once knew in my hometown village did. His parents had longed for a girl, [so] they dressed him up as one. It has nothing to do with gay issues.” He denies speculation that he’s homosexual, and has a 5-year-old daughter with his wife, Shen Chunyang, who often performs with him onstage.

Since he catapulted to fame last year, he’s acted in a film by renowned director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Hero), filmed on location for another movie directed by Zhao, cut a music video, and traveled to Taiwan with other performers for a sold-out show in early July. His following is devoted. “He can play the sissy, and he can also be macho,” says English teacher Liu Shuan, 38, after she watched him perform earlier this year in Beijing. Another fan, 20-something Sun Xiaomin, waved a signboard declaring LITTLE SHENYANG, WE LOVE YOU! from her front-row seat at the same show. “He’s a natural-born comedian and sings so well,” she says. “He doesn’t need to do crazy stuff.”

The Little Shenyang phenomenon is mainly the provenance of China’s post-’80s generation—youths who became adults after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. But it’s also a throwback to earlier, less uptight times. Westerners sometimes perceive Chinese society—incorrectly—as sexually conservative. That prudish image grew out of the communist Chinese regime’s obsession with social control. In fact, cross-dressing performers and gay culture had thrived in China for centuries before the communists grabbed power in 1949. In Mao’s time, especially during the tumultuous 1966–76 Cultural Revolution, artists and performers were restricted to “revolutionary” styles and themes, homosexuals were persecuted, and nosy neighborhood committees monitored marriage and divorce.

Only after Mao’s death in 1976 did authorities begin to dial back on their intervention in sexual matters. Today, authorities still occasionally crack down on high-profile gay and lesbian community activities—as they did in January at a “Mr. Gay China” pageant in Beijing. Against this backdrop, Little Shenyang is both cutting-edge and old-fashioned in his evocation of prerevolutionary China. “That someone who acts as a character that’s neither a man nor a woman can get on a stage and be seen by 600 million people, that’s clearly a breakthrough in China,” says Liang Long, the cross-dressing lead singer of Second Hand Rose, a popular Chinese indie band.

Indeed, Little Shenyang’s style of comedy—called er ren zhuan, or “two-person twist”—has deep traditional roots and routines. Unlike Western stand-up comedy, two-person twist is part verbal sparring between a man and a woman (often a married couple), part pop concert, and part rambunctious physical comedy à la Jerry Lewis with outrageous costumes. (One favorite skit involves a male comedian chugging a bottle of beer onstage while standing on his head on a chair.) Dating back at least 300 years, this form of comedy originated in northeast China, where ribald itinerant performers told dirty jokes, sang, and danced in farming communities to entertain peasants during the frigid and fallow winter months. (Little Shenyang was born in northern Liaoning, where Shenyang is the provincial capital and the origin of his stage name; his real name is Shen He.)

Men from this area are perceived as the Archie Bunkers of China—stubborn, beefy, primitive, and goofy. The region’s comedy plays up that stereotype, although Little Shenyang’s gender-bending ambiguity has lent him a more contemporary image. In one recent show, he wore imperial-style silk robes with a pink Hello Kitty backpack. Still, his recent public performances are tame by Western standards. The banter is more 1950s I Love Lucy style than Jim Carrey or Andy Kaufman. In one performance not long ago, he declared he could “tell immediately whether a man and a woman are a couple.” How? “If the woman walks into a plate-glass window and the man immediately massages her injury, they definitely aren’t a couple. But if the man shouts at her ‘Are you blind?’ they must be married!”

Indeed, ribald humor may be ascendant in China, but it nonetheless relies on innuendo, allegory, and puns, which allow performers to deny they’re being “vulgar”—a characterization that remains officially frowned upon. “I don’t know what is regarded as ‘vulgar,’ but I know audiences like my performances,” Little Shenyang says. “Er ren zhuan comedy used to have sexual content in the past, but my teacher Zhao Benshan made reforms.” Both performers practice a “green,” or healthy version of the comedic form.

Little Shenyang attributes much of his success to Zhao’s support. The entrepreneurial Zhao opened a school in northeast China to train performers in the style. Although sex jokes were a staple of prerevolutionary comedy in the region, Zhao says he aimed to “clean up” the two-person twist “so everyone can appreciate it.” He also acknowledges that live performances may include dirtier jokes than televised ones. For example, during a public stage performance in Shenyang, one comedian made fun of the bandleader for having tummy trouble while traveling with a Japanese acquaintance: “You know, the Japanese are really advanced; they don’t have cell phones anymore, they just make phone calls out of their hands. Then the next day the bandleader shows up, and he’s got toilet paper sticking out of his butt. The Japanese guy says, ‘What’s that?’ and the bandleader says, ‘We Chinese are pretty advanced too. This is a fax machine.’ ”

The line between acceptable and taboo can seem very fine. In a more private performance at Zhao’s school, a man dressed as a woman exposed a fake breast and squirted milk into the face of a dying Chinese soldier—a scene Zhao says wouldn’t be allowed in a public performance because it bordered on bad taste.

The immense popularity of both Little Shenyang and Zhao relies on their ability to steer clear of political sensitivities—despite the obvious opportunities to take pot shots at Chinese politicians. (Satirical mimicry is another feature of er ren zhuan.) The young protégé says his performances “are disconnected from politics,” and he restricts his imitations of famous people to other singing stars.

Little Shenyang still toys with becoming a singing star himself. Growing up in poverty, he slept on train-station benches while traveling with the performing troupe he joined after grade school. His mother was an amateur er ren zhuan performer who sometimes brought her young son along to sing at funerals. There Little Shenyang developed the sweet, poignant voice that captivates fans today. Eager for more, he trained long and hard to overcome stage fright, the jeering of his peers, and the condescension of his neighbors. “When I was young, colleagues used to laugh at me when I performed and shout ‘Get off the stage,’ ” he says. “I’d rather be beaten up than endure that.” Today Little Shenyang is a hero in his hometown, where he had a new house built for his parents and enjoys a fame he never dreamed possible. Look who’s laughing now.

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