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Learn Chinese with Classic China Crosstalk

How the venerable art of comedy can help improve your Chinese


Learn Chinese with Classic China Crosstalk

How the venerable art of comedy can help improve your Chinese


Ever thought comedy could hone your language skills? If not, then think again. One of our editors here at TWOC  was once involved in the expat comedy scene: “I’d say half the Chinese people who show up will think it’s hilarious, and the other half…just want to improve their English,” he says. Happily,  it cuts both ways, and the nearest the Chinese have to stand-up comedy is cross-talk. Though China’s most famous foreigner Dashan, said that the closest precise analogue to cross-talk is something more along the lines of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” sketch.

Now, apart from language, further barriers to “getting'” the humor lie in social and cultural understanding. If you think you are all right on this front then, listening to “cross-talk” or 相声 can be a great way to for you to start bunging a couple of idioms into your next conversation.

We have in the past suggested learning Chinese through movies, either by watching overdubbed and subtitled versions of your favorite English language movies, or by just straight-up watching of Chinese movies. This works, but the problem is that Chinese actors often overplay the dramatic qualities of their voices on camera, as indeed do a lot of English-speaking actors. Think of the Shakespearean craft–not many people speak with that tone in everyday conversation. So by slavishly following this method, you might end up sounding excessively grim or formal, especially if you’re working your way through our list of the top 10 Chinese gangster movies. You probably don’t want to spend your life speaking to Chinese people in a voice which suggests you’re going to grind them into a powder, so to work on your accent, cross-talk is a great option too, as the performers often speak in a regular, conversational tone of voice, particularly if it’s an act with two (对口相声)or more (多口相声)  performers.

There have been a couple of titans of the art, and each of them essentially has their own style, defined by format, genre, and most controversially, their message, if indeed they have one. The easiest to understand is Ma Sanli 马三立, who has been one of the dominant figures in the art for the best part of a century.

Ma Sanli (马三立)


Ma Sanli, of Hui ethnicity, was born in Beijing in 1914, but grew up in Tianjin. Hailing from a line of performing types, his childhood was steeped in the art of cross-talk. When the Cultural Revolution arrived, however, Ma Sanli was condemned as a “rightist”, like so many artists of his generation. Between 1958 and 1977, he was sent down four times to do hard labor. After his rehabilitation, however, he returned to cross-talk, and again established himself at its head. He died in 2003.


Ma’s style is highly accessible, which is great if you’re not ready to tackle some of his colleagues whose style and language were more intellectual. In terms of content, he left history well alone, and tackled some of ridiculous and unsavory parts of Chinese life, with many claiming this as the reason he was looked upon with disfavor by the Communist government. His most famous character, 马大哈, became a household name across the nation, and even today is a byword for disorganization and irresponsibility, his most famous exploit being the mistaken ordering of 50 monkeys from a wholesaler, which run rampant in his company’s office upon delivery, much to the dismay of his colleagues. We have all been there.

Routines (段子)

Another of his classic routines, entitled 逗你玩儿, or “just kidding”, takes a slightly Odyssean turn. I won’t try and dissect this particular frog for you. Here is a transcription to give you the general gist of the thing:


Bǎobǎo, māmā máng qùle, zán wàibian liàng de yīfú ne. Nǐ kànzhe bié ràng rén tōule qù, yǒushì jiù jiào wǒ


Mother: Alright darling, Mummy’s got things to do in the other room. Keep an eye on our things on the clothesline outside; don’t let anyone make off with them. If something’s up, just call, alright?




Baby: Um [agreeing]


Láile yī xiǎotōu, duì háizi:“Jǐ suì la?”


A thief comes, and asks the kid “Hello there little man, how old are you then?”


Wǔ Suì


Baby: I’m Five


Nǐ jiào shénme míngzì a


Thief: What’s your name then?


Wǒ jiào xiǎohǔ


Baby: I’m called Xiaohu.


Nǐ rènshí wǒ ma


Thief: Do you recognize me?


Bù rènshí


Baby: No.


Zánmen liǎ yīqǐ wán ba, wǒ xìng dòu, jiào dòu nǐ wán, nǐ jiào wǒ, jiào wǒ


Thief: Let’s play a game. My surname’s Pullin, I’m called Pullin Yerleg. Come on, say my name. Say it.


Dòu nǐ wán


Baby: Pullin Yerleg.


Hǎo, tài hǎo la


Thief: Perfect! That’s perfect.


Xiǎotōu ná zǒuliǎo yīfú, xiǎo bǎo dàshēng de jiào:“Māmā, tā ná zán jiā guàzi la!


The thief takes the clothes. The infant yells: “Mummy! He’s taken our shirts!”


“Shuí a?”


Mother: Who?!


“Dòu nǐ wán.”


Baby: Pullin Yerleg.


“Hǎohǎo kàn de.”


Mother: Keep watch properly. Stop fooling about.


Xiǎotōu ná zǒuliǎo kùzi, xiǎo bǎo dàshēng de jiào:“Māmā, tā ná zán jiā kùzi la.”


The thief nicks the trousers. The Baby again howls: “Mummy, he’s taken our trousers!”


“Shuí a?”


Mother: Who? Who?


“Dòu nǐ wán.”


Baby: Pullin Yerleg.


“Zhè háizi. Yī huǐ wǒ zòu nǐ, hǎohǎo kàn de bié jiào la.”


Mother: What a child. Watch our things properly or I’ll give you a spanking


Xiǎotōu ná zǒuliǎo bèi dānzi, xiǎo bǎo dàshēng de jiào:“Māmā, tā ná zán jiā bèi dānzi la.”


The thief takes the bedclothes, and the child yells out: Mum! He’s taken our sheets now!


“Shuí a?”


Mother: Who?!?!


Dòu nǐ wán.


Baby: Pullin Yerleg.


Zhè háizi. Zàibu lǎoshí, wǒ zòu nǐ.


Mother: I’ll smack you if you’re not good!


Xiǎo tōu zǒuliǎo, mǔqīn chūláile:“Zánmen de yīfú ne?”


The thief leaves, and mother comes out. “Where are our things?”


Ná zǒu la.


Baby: Oh they’re gone.


Shuí a?




Dòu nǐ wán.


Baby: Pullin Yerleg.


Good delivery of course, is what really makes that the routine so excellent. Embellished with a bit of improv and those famous Tianjin mannerisms he sported onstage, Ma Sanli would make that simple script into a full, well-rounded performance. Links to his work can be found all over Youku, and many of his performances which survived only in audio form have been set to animation (with subtitles). Ma Sanli’s performance of that routine can be found here. You want to be careful, though, as the dialog in that particular sketch he does in the Tianjin dialect, although the narration is Putonghua. The one about the monkeys can be found here.

If you’ve graduated from Ma Sanli and want something a bit different, there are a number of different routes you can take. Guo Degang (郭德纲) is a pretty good bet, and is essentially the dominant man in crosstalk of recent years, an immediate plus being that recordings are pin-sharp, so if you’re struggling, you can actually hear what he’s saying. Ma Ji (马季) and his routine about an epic bickering match between a man’s personified sensory organs is great, and has the added benefit of bringing together some of the great names of the art, which makes for terrific chemistry.

Liu Baorui (刘宝瑞)

I’ve a bit of a penchant for Liu Baorui (刘宝瑞), a classically educated man unlucky enough to have risen to fame during the Chinese Republic era, thus becoming an object of suspicion for the Communists. He had a bad end, but is still recognized as a master of solo cross-talk (单口相声), and most of his routines make his education very clear, many involving highly fictionalized historical events, one revolving completely around an imperial government official engaging in a poetry competition with a stripling self-educated boy who helps out at a bean-curd shop. Terrific stuff.