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Northeastern Exposure

In the era of social media and short videos, a new generation of comedians from northeastern China are taking center stage

By NewsChina Updated Mar.1

China’s northeastern region known as Dongbei consists of three provinces - Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang. Yet its identity goes beyond geography. For many Chinese, the region conjures culture and arts with a distinct local color, particularly its comedic style.  

Living in a vast land known for fertile soils and cold winters, people in Dongbei seem to be born with the gift of humor. It’s the birthplace of Zhao Benshan, China’s “King of Comedy,” and a galaxy of comedy stars such as Fan Wei, Song Xiaobao, Xiao Shenyang and Shen Teng.  

Unlike their predecessors, who made their names on stage, film and TV shows like the annual Spring Festival Gala, this young generation of Dongbei comedians has no formal theatrical training. Instead, they are connecting with audiences through livestreaming and short video platforms in a more informal and relatable way.  

New Generation 
Song Yongjia, better known by his screen name Laosi, became a comedian by chance. He worked in Japan for four years and had been a deliveryman in his hometown of Jiamusi, Heilongjiang Province.  

On a winter afternoon in 2017 after a heavy snow, Song cooked a large pot of tofu stew. On a whim, he posted a video on the short-video platforms Kwai (also known as Kuaishou) and Douyin (China’s TikTok) in which he spoke Korean and performed as a Korean man tasting the stew, emulating a bit he picked up from a South Korean variety show.  

“I liked observing people and doing impressions since I was young. I didn’t have a venue for it in the past. I uploaded the video just for fun,” Song said.  

To his surprise, the video got 30,000 views within hours, earning him 1,000 followers. The first video’s popularity gave Song confidence. He started to post videos of his impressions. At first he imitated celebrities, and then developed villager characters. 

Song has a series of one-minute comedic sketches. They are all one-man skits where he plays dozens of characters such as the spoiled wife Dalingzi, the duo Xiaotao and Dafeng - two brothers-in-law suffering under the scrutiny of their wives’ family, and the domestic worker and single mother Chunjuan.  

To perform female characters, Song appears in full makeup and an array of colored wigs. Zhang Cailin, another popular online comedian from the Dongbei region, particularly likes the character Dalingzi. “It’s like he completely becomes a woman while performing Dalingzi,” she told NewsChina.  

Having made 268 skits in three years, Song has gained more than 4.5 million followers on Douyin and 1.1 million on Kwai, where they praise his performances as realistic and genuine without relying on over-exaggeration. “Every time I watch your videos, I feel like I’m back home,” a Douyin user from Dongbei commented.  

China’s livestreaming industry really gained steam in 2016. Re-search from internet giant Tencent shows that in 2016, among the top 20 livestreamers across all platforms, more than half were from Dongbei. In 2018, the rise of the short-video platforms Douyin and Kwai marked the arrival of the short-video format in China. Increas-ingly, more comedy content creators on the platforms hail from China’s Northeast. Before uploading his first comedy video on Douyin in January 2020, actor-musician Zhang Jintiao had struggled for years. Hand-some and stylish, Zhang had small roles in TV series, appeared in variety shows and wrote songs for other singers, but never found his big break. Born in Fushun, Liaoning Province, Zhang had another talent since he was a kid – making people laugh.  

“I always come up with hilarious punchlines and won’t let any joke flop. I love watching skits, sitcoms and comedy films. It was alwaysmy dream to be a comedian,” Zhang told NewsChina. 

As an actor, Zhang took any role he could get. “In the past, if Some-one approached me with a project, they either wanted me to play a handsome prince or a villain. Nobody wanted me to try comedy. It was all quite superficial. They studied your face for a few seconds and determined what role you would play. No one would go deeper to explore your potential. So for a long time, I didn’t get the right chance,” Zhang said.  

Zhang has found his venue. In January 2020, Zhang posted a one-minute video in which he casually chats with his mother in the Dong-bei dialect. It got 30 million views on Douyin in 24 hours, making it the platform’s most popular of the day. He has since made more than 150 videos, many of which feature Zhang having amusing chats with his girlfriend, family and friends.  

Zhang is finally being recognized for his comedic talent. He has more than 4.2 million followers on Douyin. Recently, he was invited on Golden Comedy Class, a China Central Television (CCTV) vari-ety show where he performed skits with accomplished professional comedians. 

Song Yongjia (Laosi) performs one of the six roles in his skit “The First Time Bringing My Girlfriend Home”

Zhang Cailin, a popular online comedian from the Dongbei region (Northeast China)

Zhang Jintiao, an actor-musician who became popular in 2020 for his comedic short videos on Kwai and Douyin

Oral Tradition 
In 1990, Zhao Benshan performed his now classic TV skit “Blind Date” on CCTV’s annual Spring Festival Gala, China’s most-watched TV program.  

By 2019, Zhao appeared on the show 21 times, where he performed a number of classic comic sketches, including “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” (1999), “Selling Walking Sticks” (2001), “Selling Wheelchairs” (2002), “Heart Problem” (2003) and “Not Bad Money” (2009).  

Watching Zhao’s skits are a Spring Festival tradition for Chinese families. His ability to appeal to people both young and old from across the country earned him the title “King of Comedy.”  

Zhao also starred alongside other outstanding comedians from the Northeast such as Fan Wei, Gao Xiumin, Song Xiaobao and Wang Xiaoli in TV comedy series including Liu Laogen (2002), Ma Dashuai (2004) and Rural Love Stories (2006).  

Wang Yanting, an associate professor at Jilin University of the Arts, told NewsChina that the Dongbei dialect is an integral part of the region’s comedy.  

The Dongbei dialect is similar to standard Chinese, making it accessible to people of all regions. It is also a highly expressive dialect with distinctive diction, dramatic tone and rhythm. To a Chinese speaker, it has the unique power to make the most ordinary conversation sound comical.  

As the famous line in the singer Zhao Donglin’s song “Dongbei, Dongbei” goes: “When crossing over the Shanhaiguan, you’ll find everyone there’s a Zhao Benshan.” Shanhaiguan Pass is one of the major passes in the Great Wall that divides North and Northeast China.  

Li Xueqin, 25, is a rising stand-up star. In 2020, she placed fifth on the third season of hit stand-up comedy show Rock and Roast. A graduate of the prestigious Peking University’s school of journalism, Li became a social media sensation in 2018 after she posted several funny short videos on Douyin where she introduces famous landmarks to her crush - pop star Kris Wu. Wu responded online, which immediately put her under the spotlight. She later shone on comedy show Rock and Roast, appealing to audiences with her wit, humor, self-deprecation and trademark Dongbei dialect.  

Li lives in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning Province and a one-hour drive from her hometown, the coal-mining city of Tieling. Tieling is known as “the city of humor”, the birthplace of Zhao Benshan, and also the setting of Zhao’s popular comedy series Ma Dashuai.  

“People always say I’m hilarious¡­ I tell them that’s because they haven’t really been to Dongbei and don’t have many Dongbei friends. Once you visit Dongbei, you’re sure to find hilarious people everywhere,” Li told NewsChina.  

Jiang Fan, vice president of the China Folklore Society and former professor of folklore studies and cultural communication at Liaoning University, said the reason behind the region’s abundance of comedians is its long-standing oral tradition.  

Since the 1980s, Jiang has worked on writing and compiling The Ten Anthologies of the National Folk Literature and Arts and conducted decades of field research in China’s rural northeast.  

Part of her research included pingshu storytelling, a folk art where a single performer narrates stories from history or fiction. Pingshu stories are broadcast on radio stations across China and are popular among older cab drivers.  

“Dongbei people are naturally gifted [pingshu] storytellers. More than half of the well-known storytellers in China are from Liaoning Province. In the 1980s, a number of them emerged who were mostly ethnic Koreans, Manchus and peasants whose ancestors migrated from North China in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911),” Jiang told NewsChina.  

“Tan Zhenshan is one of the most outstanding storytellers. He could tell 1,062 stories, as if it was China’s One Thousand and One Nights,” Jiang added. 

The researcher also cites the northeast’s extremely cold winter as an important factor behind the region’s vibrant oral tradition. “Though today people have more diverse cultural and entertainment choices, it hasn’t been that long since we bid farewell to traditional lifestyles. When electricity was not widespread in the villages of the Northeast, the most basic form of entertainment for people was to stay at home, tell funny stories and perform song-and-dance duets to while away the long winter nights,” Jiang said.  

The popular stand-up star Lin Xueqin appears on the third season of comedy show Rock and Roast (2020)

Zhao Benshan (center), Gao Xiuming (left) and Fan Wei (right) in the sketch "Selling Walking Sticks" (2001)

Seek Joy Amid Hardship
Song Yongjia believes that optimism is something deeply embedded in Dongbei culture.  

The 1990s was Zhao Benshan’s peak of popularity. But for China’s northeastern Rust Belt, it was a time of drastic social change.  

As the birthplace of China’s industrial drive of the 1950s, the Northeast was one of the country’s most urban and developed regions. However, ever since reform and opening-up started in the late 1970s, Chinese society experienced tremendous changes as it transitioned from a planned economy to a market economy.  

In the late 1990s, there were massive layoffs nationwide, particularly in the Northeast where the State-backed economy was deeply invested.  

“Everything changed in 1998,” Song said. The factory where his parents worked shut down. Like millions of laid-off workers in the northeast, Song’s parents lost their “iron rice bowls” - the tenured jobs at State-backed institutions that provided social security for life.  

When he was 12, his parents left for Beijing to find work. The boy was left in the care of his grandparents. A sensitive child, Song read people’s faces and was good at picking up on people’s expressions and moods.  

His keen skills of observation enabled him to create and perform characters with vivid, convincing details. Blending his skits with authentic observations of life, he brings understanding and compassion to every character, no matter how flawed they seem. Zhang Jintiao calls Song a “master of detail.” 

Zhang moved to Beijing with his family at a young age. Every time he returned to his hometown, Fushun in Liaoning Province, he felt the bleakness left in the wake of the economic meltdown, a stark contrast to the booming and bustling Beijing. “However, no matter what, people there have a very positive attitude. They have quite an optimistic view of life,” Zhang told NewsChina.  

Jiang Fan said that Dongbei people can seek joy in hardship.  

In 1999, Zhao Benshan and actress Song Dandan performed the classic comedic skit “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” on CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala, in which they play an elderly peasant couple. Recalling the old days when they struggled with poverty, Zhao says: “I remembered when we just got married, our family only had one electronic appliance - a flashlight!” 

“This line epitomizes the cultural personality of the people who grew up on this black soil - they seek joy in adversity and laugh with tears. They had to be strong, optimistic and open-minded, otherwise they wouldn’t have made it through,” Jiang told NewsChina.  

“Dongbei people are usually very frank and straightforward in expressing their feelings about the world. They are sincere, outspoken and emotional. Today, as people become more formal, rational and even mechanical in their expression, the comic effect of Dongbei people’s natural and direct way of speaking, abundant oral traditions and vivid dialect stands out,” Jiang said. 

From the old guard of Tan Zhenshan and Zhao Benshan to newer comedians like Li Xueqin and Song Yongjia, this land has produced generations of comedians and storytellers, which Jiang stresses is no accident. “The reason lies in its long historical traditions and cultural roots. Of course [Dongbei] would produce so many comedians,” Jiang told NewsChina. 

Liu Laogen Theater, a comedy theater operated by Zhao Benshan, is a landmark of Shenyang, Liaoning Province

Er Ren Zhuan, or song-and-dance duet, is one of the most famous folk art forms from Northeast China