Metaphors in Zhao Benshan’s Comedy Sketches

Zhao Benshan
Master of Chinese Comedy Sketches

The CCTV’s Spring Festival Eve Gala (中国中央电视台春节联欢晚会) is a significantly important component of Chinese contemporary performance. Although the Gala is prominently influenced by Chinese politics, its nationwide popularity is strong evidence of its consistency of the Chinese common people’s preferences (百姓喜爱). Among all the performances in the Gala, comedy sketches are always “main characters” gaining the audience’s sufficient attention and applause. A comedy sketch (Xiaopin小品) is the best-received popular show in the Gala, evokes laughter among the largest national audience (Liu). Generally, a comedy sketch consists of a series of short amusing plots and scenes between one to ten minutes. Meanwhile, the actors or comedians of comedy sketches are usually the improvisers on stage. However, comedy sketch is not absolutely equivalent to short comedy. In Chinese, “Pin ()” is comprised of three “Kou()” which means mouth. Following the features of pictograph, Chinese people interpret “Pin ()”, three mouths, as the reflection of phenomena or problems after the discussions or conversations. Therefore, through the performance of comedy sketch, actors sometimes revealed intentionally or incidentally reveal their attitudes, comments or judgments about the traditional social norms, emerging social phenomena or problems and even political issues. Because of the pervasive political intervention and the art form of comedy sketches, the popularity of comedy sketch represents a new phrase in the politicization of the arts in China (Gao and Pugsley). Nevertheless, a successful comedy sketch must receive the Chinese common people’s recognition instead of the approval of the Chinese government. As a result, under governmental supervision, the abundant metaphors emerged in Chinese comedy sketches for allusively arousing the audience’s resonance and avoiding the offending Chinese government. These metaphors always point to the social and political phenomena or problems that widely perceived by Chinese common people, but never confirmed or reluctantly mentioned by the official.

Zhao Benshan attended Chinese People’s Congress

    Throughout the development of Chinese comedy sketches, Zhao Benshan (赵本山) contributed numerous excellent and famous comedy sketches bringing audience enduring laugher and reflective thinking. Zhao’s comedy sketches were recognized by both Chinese common people and government, and he has earned the first prize for the “comedy sketches”category for consecutive thirteen years from 1999 to 2011. Because Zhao’s achievement and dominance are out of reach, Zhao is the acclaimed contemporary king of the comedy sketches (Liu). In Zhao’s comedy sketches, the various metaphors are an indispensable factor of his success on stage. Since Zhao’s performing career originated from playing Errenzhuan, a traditional folk performance from rural areas in Northeast China, Zhao’s character on stage was always a peasant elder from Northeast China (Wang and Zhang). Therefore, the metaphors in Zhao’s comedy sketches were usually generated from the rural life experience and general thoughts of a peasant. Although Zhao seldom stated complicated theories or thoughtful ideas on stage, his concise sentences can always lead the audience to reflect on the current situation of Chinese society. 

Zhao played Errenzhuan (二人转) with Chinese famous singer Song Zuyin

    From Zhao’s various outstanding comedy sketches, “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (昨天,今天,明天)” and “Talk about It (说事儿)” are two special performances containing abundant metaphors. Both of the comedy sketches were presented in the form of television interviews between the peasant couple Baiyun (白云) and Heitu (黑土) and television show host Cui Yongyuan. Zhao played as Heitu who was an honesty (实在的) peasant elder who was willingly speaking the truth in his mind. Song played as Baiyun who was sensitive about her reputation (好面子). In the form of a television interview, Heitu owned multiple opportunities to directly expressed his attitudes and comments towards the social phenomena and political situations in China. Through the dialogue between Heitu and Cui, many deliberate oral metaphors were included allusively. Besides the oral metaphors, Zhao also applied his exaggerative behaviors to form the visual metaphors. In the meantime, “Talk about It” could be considered as the sequel of “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”. The time gap between these two comedy sketches was six years from 2000 to 2006 which was the golden period of Chinese economic development. Hence, the change of character features was another prominent metaphor about the influence of Chinese economic reform on individuals. From metaphors in “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” and “Talk about It”, the audience could impressively perceive the inner thoughts of Heitu as well as majority peasants in China towards social transformation. These two comedy sketches are great examples of studying metaphors in Zhao’s performances. 

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (今天,明天,后天)
Zhao’s Poems(doggerel) 4:20 – 5:20

In “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”, Zhao applied various metaphors to reflect the social and political problems. At the beginning of the comedy sketches, Heitu and Cui discussed the topic of television interviews. As a peasant elder, Heitu directly interpreted the “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” as its literal meaning and explicitly narrated his activities and plans in these three days. However, Cui, as well as the majority audience, could directly understand that the interview topic pointed to the past, present and future. When Cui corrected Heitu’s interpretation, Heitu responded that Cui should change a more “appropriate” topic name. Zhao’s intentional uneducated interpretation was a metaphor for the peasants’ problems involving Chinese society. Significantly influenced by the Chinese Cultural Revolution, few people in rural areas were well-educated. With the end of the Cultural Revolution and begin of economic reform, the intellectual regained the respectful status in society and peasants’ so-called priority status gradually vanished (Yang). However, some intellectuals are used to laugh at peasants for their lack of basic literacy and scientific knowledge. Under this circumstance, peasants could hardly adapt to the urban areas where were dominated by the intellectuals. Therefore, Zhao deliberately used his false and apparent interpretation of the interview topic as a verbal metaphor of the embarrassing situation of peasants in urban life. 

    Besides this short verbal metaphor, the most concentrated metaphors contained in Heitu’s doggerel. After introducing himself, Heitu was asked to talk about the excellent situation (大好形势) in China. At first, Heitu straightened his back and lowered his hand to look at his speech draft which was also doggerel. Heitu’s movements were very similar to the communist leader’s preparation for the speech in front of common people. Cui especially emphasized that Heitu’s speech topic is an excellent situation which was also a frequent topic of communist leaders. Heitu’s movements before making speeches were an impressive physical metaphor for communist leaders’ speech. Played as a peasant, Zhao’s amusing imitation of the communist leader not only bring the audience laugher but also revealed the huge distance from a peasant to a communist leader. From communist theory, leaders should be close to common people (接近群众) and listen to their suggestions (聆听群众). In fact, common people could always perceive that communist leaders were far superior to them in various fields from public subsidies and social status. Therefore, Zhao vividly used his body movements as a physical metaphor for showing the distinct distance between a peasant and a communist leader.

Heitu(Zhao) read his doggerel on stage

    Furthermore, the content of Heitu’s doggerel allusively formed a metaphor about the Chinese political environment. In his doggerel, Heitu passionately read that foreign world was too chaotic because of the frequent resignation of the cabinet as well as prime minister and the impeachment of the president. At the end of his speech, Heitu shouted out that China owned the best (political) environment in the world. Superficially, the audience could consider Heitu’s doggerel as a compliment towards the stability of Chinese politics. However, if the audience owned basic knowledge about Western democracy, they would notice that the so-called chaos was actually the embodiment of democracy. In other words, the stability of Chinese politics in Heitu’s doggerel could allusively remind people of the dictatorship. Zhao used his words as verbal metaphors for the long gap of each leadership transition in China. This metaphor could influence the audience to doubt the current Chinese political environment after comparing it with Western democracy systems.

Cui Yongyuan, Zhao Benshan and Song Dandan sat from left to right

    After completing the speech, Heitu deliberately slipped and fell over from the chair. Although his incautious behavior seemed unintentional this was a metaphor for Chinese society. The time of this comedy sketch was in 2000, a golden year of Chinese economic development. However, with the growth of the capital market, the severe social problems emerged and brought people the doubt about national policies. The gap between the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural and the elder and the youth enlarged rapidly and thus caused the sudden social stratification. In Heitu’s words, he mentioned that he fell over for moving forward two steps further. “Two steps further” alluded to the rapid economic growth in China and his tumble alluded to the social problems brought by the economic growth. In the meantime, he fell over just after he praised the Chinese political environment. Therefore, his tumble could also be interpreted as an allusive expression of misdoubt towards his previous compliments. In a word, his intentional tumble was another physical metaphor for showing the emerging social problems and misdoubt of his previous speech. 

    In “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”, the interaction between Heitu and his wife Baiyun also formed many interesting metaphors. After talking about the international political environment, Cui wanted to talk with Heitu and Baiyun’s personal affairs (唠家常). Therefore, they mentioned about many interesting things in their dating period. When they talked about the gifts in dating time, Baiyun mentioned that she took some of the wool from sheep in her production brigade and used wool to make a sweater for Heitu. However, Song’s stealing was found by the leader in the production brigade and then sent her to the conference of critics (批斗会). But Heitu finally spoke out the truth that Baiyun only stole the wool from only one sheep out of fifty sheep. Heitu’s explanation generated an allusive verbal metaphor for national treatment towards common people. In literature, the common people living at the bottom of society were sometimes described as the sheep since they created a huge wealth reaped by the upper class. Taking wool from sheep is similar to obtaining wealth from common people. Hence, Zhao allusively used “stealing wool from only one sheep” as a verbal metaphor pointing out that the Chinese government preferred to obtain wealth from common people. This metaphor was based on the social situation at that time. The individual companies once were suffered from high taxes compared with the state-owned companies (Yang). In the meantime, the rapid inflation since the economic reform also indirectly transferred the wealth from common people’s wallets to the national treasury. Therefore, the audience could generate resonance about this metaphor based on their social experience.

Talk About It (说事儿)

Compared with “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”, “Talk about It” included more metaphors for emerging social phenomena and problems. “Talk about It” was the sequel of “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”, and Zhao, Song, and Cui still performed together in the form of a television interview. Zhao still played as a peasant elder and remained honesty. However, what Baiyun (Song’s character) and Cui experienced from 2000 to 2006 caused huge differences in their features. After attending the television program at CCTV, Baiyun became a celebrity in her village, and thus Baiyun was very haughty and peacockish. Because of the pressure on CCTV, Cui suffered from depression. These changes between two related comedy sketches are parallel metaphors for the influence of social transformation. 

When Cui expressed his curiosity about the current love life between Heitu and Baiyun, Baiyun summarized that a leader without news was not a real leader and a celebrity without affairs was not a real celebrity. Zhao was the scriptwriter of his most comedy sketches (Wang and Zhang), and he deliberately added this comment as a verbal metaphor for satirizing the social phenomena of seeking attention from the public. With the development of the capital market, public attention could easily be transformed to be power and wealth. Therefore, some politicians and celebrities preferred to conduct the abnormal activities only for attracting the public and then gaining popularity. On the other hand, those politicians and celebrities became even more tolerant of exposing their personal life to obtaining public opinion and then allowed them to be more popular. On stage, this parallel expression was a verbal metaphor impressively satirizing the desire of obtaining public attention in society.

Baiyun(Song) bragged her living standard

     For ensuring that both Heitu and Baiyun told the truth about their life, Cui asked one of them to wear headphones and interviewed the other one. When Cui asked Baiyun about her life, she bragged that she took a private airplane to Beijing and wore mink cashmere worth forty thousand CNY. However, Heitu brought Cui with more credible answers: they took the tractor to Beijing and rented the mink cashmere forty CNY per day. The huge difference between Zhao’s honest answers and Song’s peacockish lies was a vivid verbal metaphor for the pervasive vanish in society. The economic growth and capital market gradually caused the increasing gap between the personal incomes as well as personal properties. As a result, people started to judge people’s success by their living standards. Under this circumstance, the peacockish people with low income still pretended to have a good living standard for earning respect from others. Baiyun’s lies represented the vanity of those people and Heitu’s truths brought the audience a deeper impression of Baiyun’s vanity. Zhao successfully applied the exaggerated comparison between truths and lies to satire the vanity in society.

Cui read Baiyun’s book Yuezi(月子)

     Besides the boast of living standards, Baiyun also bragged her success in writing her book Yuezi (月子). First, Yuezi plagiarized the CCTV female host Ni Ping’s book name Rizi(日子). Secondly, Baiyun, as a peasant woman who not graduated from primary school, was capable to write a book. However, since Baiyun became the celebrity, she still believed that she had talent in writing books and earned the support from other villagers. However, Heitu told Cui the truth that villagers took her books only because they were free. Writing and selling books was another metaphor for mocking the celebrity effect in society. With the support and “packaging” from the capital market, some celebrities used their popularity to sell their low-quality products. Although those low-quality products did not match their high prices, so many fans totally disregarded the quality and only cared about supporting their favorite celebrities. But those peasants seemed to be more rational about their celebrity in the village. Heitu mentioned that peasants only used Baiyun’s books to sustain and protect their restrooms’ walls. In a word, as an impressive metaphor, Baiyun’s books reflected the abnormal celebrity effect in society. 

I have Nothing (一无所有)

A Piece of Red Cloth (一块红布)

Because of communist interference in Chinese literature and art circle, directly express opposition towards the Chinese Communist Party and the government was prohibited. Since the Chinese economic reform, besides the comedy sketches, metaphors were not only abundant in various art fields. In the field of rock music, numerous musical themes were inseparable from sociology (Jones 128). One of the leading figures of rock music is Cui Jian, “the father of Chinese Rock”. In Cui’s rock music, various metaphors were about politics, especially about opposition to political oppression. In his famous rock song “I Have Nothing”, Cui repeatedly sang that “will you go with me”. This repeated lyric was a very seditious metaphor for appealing people to join the march for seeking democracy in China. In another song “A Piece of Red Cloth”, Cui directly applied the song name as a metaphor of the mind control of the Chinese Communist Party. The lyric of this song included a sentence “I know your suffering best”. Through the touching lyrics and energetic rhyme, Cui successfully applied those allusive metaphors to spread his thoughts about politics. As a result, his songs were widely spread among college students, private entrepreneurs and other people concerned about Chinese politics (Jones 125-128). In reality, many protesters in June Fourth Incident voluntarily selected Cui’s “I Have Nothing” and “A Piece of Red Cloth” as their unofficial anthems (Jones 120-121). 

Rhinoceros in Love (恋爱的犀牛)

    Besides Cui’s rock songs, Meng Jinghui’s modern experimental plays also included abundant impressive metaphors for the emerging social problems brought by Chinese social transition. In the design of plots and lines, Meng Jinghui adopted the method of comedy sketches to bring laughter to the audience (Hsiung 251-254). Although Meng’s plays were significantly longer than the comedy sketches, some separate parts of his plays had similarities to comedy sketches as well as deliberate metaphors. In Meng’s famous play “Rhinoceros in Love”, promoting the toothbrush scene resembled the comedy sketch with amusing plot and dialogue. Promoting toothbrushes was an exaggerated metaphor for the conflicts between newly introduced capitalism and deeply rooted socialism (Hsiung 253-255). In another scene of learning a foreign language, actors emotionally spoke different foreign languages mixing with their local tones and then created an amusing atmosphere. The students’ intentional incondite pronunciations were a metaphor for the worship of foreign cultures in society. Therefore, similar to comedy sketches, the metaphors brought Meng’s plays with more connotation.

    All in all, the comedy sketch is a wonderful art carrier of metaphors. The comedy sketch master Zhao Benshan is always skillful in the application of metaphors to express his comments and reflections about social and political phenomena or problems. Zhao’s talent in performing and perfect cooperation with Song and Cui allowed “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” and “Talk about It” to be classic examples including expressive and thoughtful metaphors. Those metaphors not only bring the audience laugher but also shaped Zhao as a widely recognized master of comedy sketches. In the meantime, due to the Chinese political environment, metaphors about society and politics were also abundant in other art forms like rock music and modern experimental plays. The society and politics motivate the emergence of metaphors, and metaphors bring Zhao Benshan’s comedy sketches a more profound social and political significance.

Bibliography 

Gao, Jia, and Pugsley, Peter C. “Utilizing Satire in Post-Deng Chinese Politics.” China Information 22, no. 3 (11/2008): 451–76. doi:10.1177/0920203X08096793.

Yang, Jie. “‘Fake Happiness’: Counseling, Potentiality, and Psycho‐Politics in China.” Article. Ethos 41, no. 3 (9/2013): 292–312. doi:10.1111/etho.12023.

Zhang Hongxia张红霞 Wang Zhen 王震. “Zhao Benshan’s Short Sketch in the View of Relevance Theory.” English Aboard 海外英语, no. 14 (2017): 186–87.

Jones, Andrew. “Like a Knife: Ideology and Genre in Contemporary Chinese Popular Music.”  Ithaca, NY: East Asia Program 14853-760.

Hsiung, Yuwen. “Emotion, Materiality and Subjectivity: Meng Jinghui’s Rhinoceros in Love.”  Asian Theatre Journal, no.2 (2019): 250-259. doi: 10.1353/atj.0.0050.

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