Make Em Laugh Cover

Make ’Em Laugh: How a Northeast Folk Performance Escaped Decline

By blending tradition with modern pop culture, northeastern “errenzhuan” was catapulted into the big leagues of Chinese showbusiness—but at what cost?

It is ten minutes before curtain-up, and the Master of Ceremonies of the Dongbeifeng Errenzhuan Theater in Changchun, the capital of Northeast China’s Jilin province, is very happy to see a foreign face in the audience. “England! Football! Oh yeah!” he shouts in English to TWOC with a laugh while enjoying a cigarette with friends.

Behind him his theater is lit up like a Broadway stage. Lamps illuminate full-length posters with enticing action shots of the night’s performers, while a suona, a shrill double-reed horn, squeals to a recording of a thumping electro beat from hidden speakers. “I was at the Jilin Academy of Arts. Actually, how about you write Communication University in Beijing? That sounds better,” the MC asks.

Tonight, it’s all about buying low and selling high—how else to get the bodies in the seats? As audiences in Dongbeifeng’s house laugh along to jokes on stage about female body image or other current social kickers and applaud with plastic “clappers”—hand-shaped noisemakers the theater provides specifically for that purpose—it’s easy to believe that errenzhuan (二人转), a folk performance combining vaudeville and Chinese opera, has escaped the decline that most traditional opera and performing arts seem fated to go through in modern China.

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Make ’Em Laugh: How a Northeast Folk Performance Escaped Decline is a story from our issue, “Access Wanted.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Alex Colville

Alex Colville is the former culture editor at The World of Chinese. Blown to China by the tides of curiosity, then marooned here by the squalls of Covid, Alex used to write for 1843, The Economist, and the Spectator from the confines of a cold London flat. When he’s not writing for TWOC, he can be found researching his bi-weekly column for SupChina from the confines of his freezing Beijing hutong.

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