|In the foreground are the graves of Hou Baolin 侯宝林 and his third wife, 王雅兰 (Wáng Yǎlán).
In the background Dr. Ma Haide 马海德 (George Hatem) - the two sides of his stone are shown on the next page.
Hou Baolin 侯宝林
Hou Baolin 侯宝林 (Hóu Bǎolín) was born in 1917 of very poor parents. At the age of 4 he was brought to Beijing by his maternal uncle 张全斌 Zhāng Quánbīn and sold. This was not uncommon in those days. A couple without children would pay to have a son, or even a daughter. It was one way for the poor to ensure the life of their child if they were too poor to feed the child themselves. Because they came by train, Hou Baolin believed that he might have come from Tianjin. He never knew for sure, or what had happened to his parents. He knew his uncle's name, probably because his foster father told him. Other than that, he only remembered a pleasant train ride during which he ate lots of chestnuts. His foster father was a cook in a large house and his job was to fetch and carry and help with the work. His foster parents gave him their surname, 侯 Hóu, and called him Xiao You'r 小酉儿. Xiao means Little, You is the period of the day between 5 and 7 in the evening (probably when he was born), and "er" is a diminutive often attached to a child's name. It is typical for children to have affectionate nicknames within the family. Later his adoptive mother gave him the name Hóu Bǎolín 侯保麟.
When he was 11 or 12 he began to slip off after his chores were done to Tian Tan (the Temple of Heaven), a large park in Beijing. There he would watch and study people performing "云手" yunshou - the 28 hand movements of taijiquan and "起霸" qiba - the traditional postures and gestures of Beijing Opera characters. Even today, people practice the traditional arts in Tian Tan and anyone is welcome to join in.
The literal translation of "云手" yunshou is "cloud hands". When taiji is practiced properly, the hands lead and guide the entire body in circular patterns. The positions of "起霸" qiba are used in opera to dominate the stage and to define the characters. Each posture has different emotional as well as status symbols. A king will take different postures than a courtier or a minister. Anger, love, aggression - each has an iconic gesture. Learning both skills would aid him when he eventually decided on comedy as his future. He probably began to practice Beijing Opera and crosstalk at Tian Tan, building his skills with a free, but tolerant audience. Later, he would get small jobs at fairs, work markets and pass the hat, and hope for a private party or two to help pay the bills. That would have been the normal course of a career.
He was making money because in 1938 he got married and in the same year began to study seriously with Zhu Kuoquan 朱阔泉 (Zhū Kuòquán), a master of crosstalk. He had decided that he didn't want to continue with opera, but would focus on comedy. This was a monumental decision, because in those days, the comic actor was held in disdain. They performed in markets, as fillers for serious actors, and were generally paid little. But he loved to make people laugh and even as a young man could see the artistry possible in crosstalk.
He was 21 at the time. His teacher, Zhu Kuoquan, changed his name to 侯宝林 Hóu Bǎolín. It has the same pronunciation as that given to him by his adoptive mother, but the characters are easier to recognize and the meanings "treasure" and "forest" sounded better for a stage name. He studied with him for about two years to refine and hone what he had taught himself through imitation and trial and error. The body and voice disciplines of taijiquan and Beijing Opera both wove into the color and style he developed.
Crosstalk (相声 xiàngshēng) is an ancient form of Chinese comedy based on story telling. Its literal meaning is "reciprocal voices". Crosstalk is like watching an "I Love Lucy" skit or a Charlie Chaplin film. The story should stand repeated retelling, because many crosstalk performers will perform the classics. Many people know the most famous stories by heart. They still enjoy a good performance. Part of the comedy comes from the voices, usually one is high and one is low. They raise, lower, whisper, and pause to tickle the ears and excite the senses. The story must be good enough, and told well enough, so that you can see the action. It is a form of entertainment that is very effective on the radio because, like music, the effect is in your mind. Many cab drivers listen to crosstalk shows in the afternoon as they drive the streets of China. They know the stories by heart, and still laugh. There is something about the sound that appeals, even if you don't know the language. Napster has (had) a few snippets for free sampling so you can hear it yourself, and I have placed a few links to videos of Hou Baolin at the bottom of the page.
Crosstalk can be performed by a single individual, by a pair, or by a group. The most common form is the pair. As in our paired comedy, one person has most of the comic lines and one person is the straight man, who by asking questions or reacting to the story, sets the scene. In his early career in Beijing, Hou Baolin performed alone and with different partners. He was developing a personal style that was different from others.
Crosstalk in the early century was full of vulgarities, innuendo, and low comedy. It appealed to the uneducated who were looking for a moment of respite. Skits making fun of the former Qing Dynasty were popular expressions of their discontent. Slapstick, insult and sex were used to cover a lack of true comedic skill. He did not think of comedy as something at the bottom of the acting profession and set about to improve it. He spurned the cheap laughs and excluded vulgarity and innuendo. He focused attention on personality and situations. The situations made the comedy and the people made the laughter. He created word pictures in the audience's mind that would explode at the "twist" or pun of the story. He was a master at the punch line and of irony. All of this took years to develop. He wasn't alone. There were others of the same mind, for instance, another master of the same period, 刘德智 Liú Dézhì.
In 1940, he made another life change. He and his wife had had a child who died in infancy. The marriage ended in divorce. He moved to Tianjin to work in a theater there and on the radio. There were many small theaters in the concession districts. Tianjin was divided into the British concession, the French concession, etc. Some included crosstalk on their bills. What he found was that only the poor, rowdy theaters included crosstalk. The theaters for the upper classes were limited to opera and musical performances. He would soon change that.
In Tianjin, he met Guo Qiru 郭启儒 (Guō Qǐrú, 1900 - 1969) who was also performing on the "circuit". They teamed up to make a pair and they stayed together for 20 years. This mating was just what Hou Baolin needed. The stories became three dimensional. Guo added humor, tolerance, and a certain timbre to the performance. They were a great pair. They complemented one another on many levels. Both men saw the comedy as coming from the union, not from one or the other, no matter what the public thought. The jealousies that broke up other teams never touched them.
The pair continued to refine and improve crosstalk, both by writing new stories and by treating it as an art form. Among their stories are Marriage and Superstition (Hou Baolin), Learning Shaoxing Opera, Opera and Dialect, and The Drunkard. They collaborated often, but Hou Baolin also wrote stories himself. Just the titles give you some of the major themes of crosstalk: everyday life, the stupidity of Lords and Emperors, all opera (probably because of his early training, he loved to make fun of it), dialects and accents (and the misunderstandings that result), and human weakness. Luo Baolin was a serious scholar of Chinese comedy and wrote extensively about its history and produced works on the art of crosstalk. They were generous with their time when it came to teaching others the skills of crosstalk. By teaching others the new forms, the whole of the art improved.
Today, famous crosstalk artists command the highest pay and prestige. It wasn't always that way. In 1944, when Hou Baolin was in Tianjin, he was paid a third of what a singer or opera singer would be paid.A show would include many different forms of entertainment, but it would end with the star performance, the closer, the climax. Usually this was a famous singer. The pattern leading up to that moment was formula. Comedy was used as filler to give time to change sets, or to provide a change of pace between musical numbers, and it was paid the lowest. This "scale" had been in place for a long time, certainly back into the Qing dynasty. But Luo Baolin and Guo Qiru were beginning to draw the crowds.
As Hou Baolin's son, Hou Yaohua, told it in an interview, the pair was so popular that many people left the theater after their performance, they didn't wait to see the rest of the show, they had had their climax. As this trend continued, it threatened the show. The manager went to Luo and proposed that he perform at the end, after the star. In other words, be the star. Luo asked how much they would be paid. The manager offered 100 yuan, much less than the star who would make 500 or more yuan. Luo refused and went on "strike". It didn't last long. He and Guo Qiru were soon headlined, at more than star salary - after all, there were two of them. From then on crosstalk performers began to be paid as equal artists. That also improved the quality and quantity of crosstalk, and helped other performers, as well.
He remarried when he first went to in 1940 Tianjin and had two children, a son and a daughter. His wife died soon after the birth of the daughter. In 1946, he married again. His third wife was an opera singer, 王雅兰 (Wáng Yǎlán) and they had two boys and two girls. One of the girls died when she was 7. It is Wang Yalan who is pictured on the tomb. Life was improving for the family, even though it grew so large, Hou Baolin and Guo Qiru got successively better bookings and did radio features.
After the liberation, things became much better for those in the performing arts. They became recognized as workers and were formed into arts associations. Luo Baolin and Guo Qiru, continued and expanded their radio work and made increasingly important personal appearances on the best stages both in Beijing and Tianjin. The radio and recordings brought them a national audience. Success brought comfort and security to his growing family, a security that he never had in his early life.
The picture was ideal until the Cultural Revolution. The family was dispersed - one child to this place, another to another place. Hou Baolin was sent to Huaiyang to the 57 military cadre school for reeducation (淮阳五七干校劳动改造). That broke up the family. His second son, Hóu Yàohuá 侯耀华, was left to support what was left of the family during this period. The other members of the family who could help were dispersed. The oldest son, Hou Yuzhong 侯玉忠, went into the army and was sent to Hainan Island during the Cultural Revolution The youngest son, Hóu Yàowén 侯耀文, was gone for 10 years (1965 - 1975), and the youngest daughter was gone for eight years.
While Hou Baolin was in the countryside he was persecuted by some of the gangs who loved to attack anyone famous. They degraded his comedy and career. Mao Zedong came to know that Hou Baolin was embroiled in the chaos of the revolution and perhaps heard of the additional persecution. Hou Baolin was one of his favorite crosstalk performers, and Mao sent to have him returned to Beijing.
The next great sadness was the loss of his friend and partner. Guo Qiru died in 1969, ending their 20 year partnership, When Hou Baolin eventually returned to work he continued to perform, but with several other partners. He again reached the top of his profession and popularity among the Chinese people.
Hou Baolin died in 1993 and is buried with his third wife, Wáng Yǎlán 王雅兰.
His legacy lives on in many young performers of crosstalk and other forms of comedy, but also within his own family. His older son by his third wife, Hou Yaohua 侯耀华, is also a performer and actor who became a vice president of Chinese Academy of Television Drama and an artistic director. And his younger son, Hóu Yàowén 侯耀文 by his third wife was named one of the 10 best Chinese comics for many years. He even won international awards for his work.
Hou Baolin had discouraged both boys from going into entertainment when they were young. He wanted to see that they had the education he never had. He wanted them to go to college and have a profession. He looked back on his life and wanted to spare them the same pains and struggles that he had faced. They, on the other hand, saw the joy of crosstalk and of the industry. Hou Yaohua was taught skills to work in a factory and that served him well to support his family, but his dreams were as strong as his father's. In middle-age he was able to successfully make the career change after years of trying.
The youngest son, Hou Yaowen used to sneak off, as did his father, to see crosstalk, practice with friends, and perform when possible. He left school early to perfect his skill and made it to the top. His father didn't approve. His father told him that if he wanted to be a true artist that he had to read, and read widely. That without knowledge of science, literature, music, art, and philosophy he could only get cheap laughs. Understanding must be at the base of any art, and an understanding of more than the skills involved, an understanding of all aspects of life. All of his children, without the benefit of formal education, practiced the habits of the scholar.
The following two links are for cartoons of Hou Baolin and Guo Qiru in crosstalk. Probably many performances are only available in audio so that they have been animated.
Animation of Hou Baolin and Guo Qiru (CCTV) A joke about the Beijing accent.
Hou Baolin 侯宝林 and Wang Yalan 王雅兰
Last update: July 2009
© Marilyn Shea, 2009