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As Standup Comedy Makes Inroads in China, a Red Line May Limit Laughs

Chinese comedian Xiao Xue performing at the club Humor Section. (Bo Gu)

"Before the show, my mom asked me, ‘You're performing tonight?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘This is what you're gonna wear? … This outfit looks cheap. It doesn't look fashionable. It doesn't complement your body. The shirt looks like nobody's going to marry you, ever. For you to show up on stage looking like this, I think it's very disrespectful of your audience.’"

“I said, ‘Mom, it's a free open mic, this is all they deserve.’ "

The whole room burst with laughter.

Meet Alex Shi, a 31-year-old from China’s northeastern city of Changchun. On this summer night, she’s performing standup comedy at Paddy O’Shea’s, a popular Irish bar in central Beijing.

As one of the few standup comedians performing in English in Beijing, Shi works at different venues, from high-end hotels like the Hyatt Regency Beijing Wangjing to bars tucked away in Beijing’s few remaining narrow traditional alleys, or hutong. A longtime freelancer in the communications industry, she now devotes most of her free time to comedy.

Live standup comedy in Gulou, Beijing. (Ma Jing)
Live standup comedy in Gulou, Beijing. (Ma Jing)

Standup comedy began making inroads in China more than a decade ago, but it took off over the past few years as open mics and standup comedy competitions became hit shows on China’s tightly controlled internet, where they are known in Mandarin as talk shows.

Even though the comedians can make audiences cry with laughter, the performers skirt topics that might draw official condemnation. Those limits may force them to focus on jokes about more universal topics, such as nagging mothers.

"I think Chinese performers are better than those in the West. Why? Because there are no taboo topics in Europe and the United States. You can talk about anything you want,” said Chen Xi, a 41-year-old journalist in Beijing who asked VOA Mandarin to use a pseudonym in fear of attracting attention.

“In China, you can’t tell political jokes. You can’t tell jokes that will ‘hurt others’ feelings.’ It's really not easy for them to still be this creative.”

Chinese audiences appreciate the effort. Tencent, the multiplatform Chinese company known globally for its game Fortnight, hosts Rock & Roast, an online standup comedy competition that has nearly 6 billion views on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform.

Liu Lijuan is vice president of Xiaoguo Culture, a leading comedy show content provider in China and co-producer of Rock & Roast. In an interview with the Shanghai News Daily in October, Liu said there were about 50 comedy clubs in China as of 2020, about 10 times the number of clubs nationwide in 2017. Shanghai, the nation’s financial hub, boasts 20 comedy venues, more than half of them open on weeknights as well as weekends, according to Liu.

Ticket prices range from $15 to $59 (99 to 380 yuan), depending on the lineup. For popular comedians, scalpers find buyers for $540 (3,500 yuan) tickets, according to the Shanghai News Daily report. The average annual per capita disposable income in Shanghai is about $11,150, according to Statista.

Multibillion-dollar companies are inviting standup comedians to their annual meetings or hiring them to boost their products’ images. In early July, China’s state media Xinhua News Agency employed standup comedy in a video to refute the COVID-19 lab leak theory.

Tony Chou started his career as a standup comedian in 2013 and founded his club Humor Section in Beijing last year. He used to work for the state-owned China Central Television’s English channel, but now he’s immersed in the world of standup comedy.

Tony Chou performing standup. (Zeo Niu)
Tony Chou performing standup. (Zeo Niu)

“I think the standup comedy scene in China today is like the environment in the '80s and '90s in the U.S.,” he told VOA Mandarin in a phone conversation. “Many people have poured into the industry because they think they can make money. Most of them are always in a rush to perform but not to create.”

“For me, I love standup comedy because of the freedom, the freedom to say what I want to say,” Chou said.

For Shi, most of her jokes are related to her relationship with her mom — how her mom urges her to get married, how her mom gets into her business, how her mom is nagging her every minute of every day.

Compared with anything-goes Western standup comedians, Chinese comedians remain cautious about the topics they target, Shi said. “I think there’s an unwritten rule that we shouldn’t talk about anything that’s vulgar or too extreme,” she added.

Shi believes that because she performs in English, the official censorship is not as intense. Yet in popular online comedy competitions, contestants must avoid crossing the red line that will draw official ire.

In an episode of Roast! — a Chinese version of the American Comedy Central Roast — that aired on March 14 — former Chinese men’s football team captain Fan Zhiyi mocked the disappointing performance of the Chinese men's basketball team in the 2019 Basketball World Cup, an event, held in China, that was a qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I can pass the ball to others [with my feet]. You can’t even do it using your hands!” Fan quipped. A clip of his routine became a Chinese internet sensation, with over 200 million views on Weibo.

Yet Fan also touched some nerves. On March 15, the day after the show aired, the government-controlled Xinhua News Agency published an article criticizing him for “hurting the feelings of basketball fans” and blasting the producers for “using him to raise ratings.” On March 16, the Chinese Football Association rolled out a code banning players from “openly inciting animosity.” And while the code did not include retired players, it seemed meant to warn everyone affiliated with the association.

“Article 59 of the code indicates that players or officials who publicly incite others to hostility and violence will be severely punished. Violation of this provision will result in a minimum suspension of one month and a fine of at least 200,000 yuan (about $30,000),” reported China’s party-backed news outlet Global Times, referencing a report in the Beijing Daily, the official newspaper of the Beijing Municipal Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

On March 21, citing “insufficient time for editing,” the producers of Roast! canceled the second half of the sports edition.

In April, Beijing authorities fined the organizers of a standup comedy show in a small Beijing theater 50,000 yuan, or $7,700, for “using vulgar terms in its performance which violate social morality,” according to the Global Times.

“This is the first case in Beijing where a standup comedy show has been punished with fines for banned content, and it shows zero tolerance for this behavior, setting a precedent for the emerging standup comedy genre in China,” said the state-backed news outlet.

Chou believes that standup comedy not only should be a performance but should also reflect the actor's perception of social issues. "In the West, standup comedy has evolved for a long time. The art is down-to-earth yet profound,” he said. “You can touch lots of social issues in your content.

“Yet in China, if you want a bigger audience, you have to move from clubs to online platforms or theaters,” he said. “Then you will have to deal with stricter censorship.

“For a good Chinese standup comedian, if you ask him or her to go to the theater, it’s like asking an artist to perform on CCTV’s New Year gala,” said Chou, referring to "Chunwan," the annual variety show extravaganza that has been one of the world’s most-watched TV shows since its first broadcast in 1983.

Chou concedes there are financial considerations to being tapped for a broadcast that can turn a performer into a star. Yet as a comedian who maintains that freedom of speech is the soul of standup, accepting an invitation to the really big show means that “he or she will have to perform according to ‘the main theme of the era.’ ” And, said Chou, “That’s torture.”

Lin Yang contributed to this report.