“Learning Manchu” through Comedy

“Learning Manchu” through Comedy

Lei Lin, AM Candidate

Harvard University

Xiangsheng 相聲, commonly referred to as “crosstalk”, is a traditional Chinese comedic performance in the form of a solo monologue (dankou 單口), a dialogue between two comedians (duikou 對口), or a multi-comedian conversation (qunkou 群口). When xiangsheng appeared as a performing act in the Ming dynasty, dankou monologue was the most common form; during the Qing, duikou dialogue surpassed it in popularity, and has since become the form that is most frequently performed.  This is still the case today. Performers deliver their lines in rapid fire, typically in a strong Beijing or Tianjin accent.  The clever, bantering style is rich in puns and allusions, and the overall content usually offers a satirical view of contemporary social and political phenomena.

Traditional xiangsheng routines (called duanzi 段子) – passed on from teacher to student, generation after generation – have unavoidably experienced some transformation, but the gist has hardly changed.  This means that, given their long history and popularity, many xiangsheng routines have preserved a great deal of information relevant to the time when they were originally created and performed.  This makes them of interest, not just to students of Chinese performance and literature, but also to those working in social history and cultural studies.  And, it turns out, also to those working in Manchu studies, since it turns out that one well-known xiangsheng routine is titled, “Learning Manchu” 《學滿語》.

“Learning Manchu” is a dialogue between two comedians that employs the common “double act” trope of a comic (or “funny man”) (A) and straight man (B).  According to the version provided by Yu Chunming (1911-1985?), a famous xiangsheng artist, this routine starts with A teasing B for being Chinese but unable to speak “Chinese,” i.e., all the languages of China.[1]  He starts out asking about Mongolian:

A: You say you can speak Chinese. So, let me ask you: are inner Mongolians Chinese or foreigners?

B:  Chinese, of course.

A: Then speak a little Mongolian for us.

B: I can’t.

A: What? You’re done for!

The comic, A, then moves on to Manchu:

A: You’ve heard about Manchus, right?

B: Yeah, they’re the ones we say are “in the banners.”

A: So let us hear some Manchu.

B: I don’t know any.

A: Hold on.  Just now you told me that all Chinese people can speak Chinese.

B: That’s right.

A: Are Manchus foreigners?

B: Of course not.  They’re Chinese.

A: But you can’t speak Manchu!

B: When I say I can speak Chinese, the “Chinese” I am talking about is the language of the Han. I’ve never studied Mongolian and Manchu.

A: You are pathetic!  Here you are, performing xiangsheng, which is supposed to pay attention to imitating the way people from different provinces speak, and to all those dialects.

B: That’s true.

A: But you don’t even know Mongolian or Manchu!

Having clarified the importance of knowing Manchu and other ethnic languages to be a qualified xiangsheng performer, A alleges that he knows Manchu and offers B a chance to learn Manchu from him. B joyfully takes up the offer, and then things get interesting:

A: Manchu people are in the banners: Plain yellow banner, bordered yellow banner, plain white banner, bordered white banner, plain red banner, bordered red banner, plain blue banner, bordered blue banner, altogether eight banners.

B: Yes.

A: If we want to learn Manchu, we shouldn’t put ourselves into the Eight Banners.

B: Why not?

A: There may be people in the banners sitting in the audience here.

B: Yes, that’s possible.

A: And we are making jokes about Manchu, but the audience might say we are mocking Manchu!

B: True, true.  So what do we do?

A: We can set up two more banners.

B: Good idea.  Which two?

A: Well, there’s no black banner or American-flag banner.  We can do these.

B: Okay!

A: I’ll be in the black banner, and you be in the American-flag banner.

B: Okay!

A: Next, though, we both need to have a “zuo-ling” and a “bo-shi-hu.”

B: What are “zuo-ling” and “bo-shi-hu”?

A: We are under the charge of the “zuo-ling.” And the “bo-shi-hu” is our boss.

And so forth.

This routine is all in Mandarin, of course. So we have to do some guesswork as to the Manchu words and ideas embedded here. In this context, “zuo-ling” 佐領 should be nirui janggin in Manchu, a captain of a banner. “Bo-shi-hu” 波士乎is bošokū, a corporal. This gets more challenging when A and B finally start their language lesson:

A: Great, now we are in the banners. We should start to speak Manchu.

B: So how do we do that?

A: Well, when we meet, I say, A-ge!

B: What does “ah-guh” mean?

A: It means “elder brother.” Then I say, A-ge-san-ye?

B: Huh?

A: That means, “How are you, elder brother?”


B: How should I answer?

A: You say, San-ye!  “I’m fine!”  Let’s give it a try.  Ah-ge-san-ye?

B: San-ye!

A: Then I say, Duo-de-ge-me-san-ye?  This means, “How is your whole family?”

B: What should I say?

A: You say, Ge-me-san-ye!  “Everybody’s fine!”

B: Ge-me-san-ye!

A: Not so fast! I haven’t asked you yet. [pause] A-ge-san-ye?

B: San-ye!

A: Duo-de-ge-me-san-ye?

B: Ge-me-san-ye!

A: Ai-bai-cai?

B: Huh?  “Buy cabbage?”

A: What are you buying cabbage for? “Ai-bai-cai” means, “Where are you going?”

B: So what do I say back?

A: You say, Mai-ji-ge-mai-ta-bi.

B: That’s too much all at once. “Ma-ni-ge?”  “Scold your brother?”

A: What are you talking about, “Scold my brother”?!  Mai-ji-ge-mai-ta-bi.

B: Mai-ji-ge . . . “mai-guan-bi?”  “Buy a pen?”

A: “Buy a pen?”  Why don’t you go buy yourself some ink while you’re at it?  One more time: Mai-ji-ge-mai-ta-bi.

B: Mai-ji-ge-mai-ta-bi.

A: Right. So I ask you where you are going, and you say Mai-ji-ge-mai-ta-bi , “I am going out to take a walk.”

B: Got it!

A: So let’s take it from the top.  A-ge-san-ye?

B: San-ye!

A: Duo-de-ge-me-san-ye?

B: Ge-me-san-ye!

A: Ai-bai-cai?

B: Mai-ji-ge-mai-ta-bi.

A: Bi-xi-ni-mo-bo-luo-te-fu-fu-bo-li-duo, a-me-ya-he-sa-ya-ha-lie.

B: Forget it.  Go and find a foreigner. I don’t understand this at all. I can’t keep up!

A: You’re not doing so badly . . .
B: What should I reply?

A: You say, Huang-yi-la-ku, huang-yi-la-ku.

B: Come again?

A: Huang-yi-la-ku, huang-yi-la-ku.

B: Huh? “The yellow shirt pulled the pants?”

A: What?! No, no.  Say it: Huang-yi-la-ku.

B: Huang-yi-la-ku.

A: That’s it!

The punchline at the end is a typical “A makes fun of B” pattern:

B: You’ve got to translate this dialogue for me. I have to understand.

A: You don’t really have to learn this.

B: No! I want to know. […] There must be some trick!

A: Well, to tell you the truth, I took advantage of you a little, ‘cause you’re just so dumb. […]  I can’t tell you now because I’m afraid you will be mad at me.

B: I promise I won’t be mad at you or hate you.

A: Oh, alright.  Since you are so easygoing, I’ll tell you. Bi-xi-ni-mo-bo-luo-te-fu-fu-bo-li-duo, a-me-ya-he-sa-ya-ha-lie means, “Would you like your mother to marry me, taking you with her?”

B: Then what is that Huang-yi-la-ku, huang-yi-la-ku bit that I said?

A: You said, “Let’s do it, let’s do it!”

A YouTube performance of this sketch is available here  (advance the clip to the 17:20 mark for the start).  You’ll hear the comic claim, “As far as I know, I’m probably the last person left in the whole world who really studies Manchu!” “真正研究的, 據我所知全世界只剩我一個人!” One version of the full text of the routine is available here.

If we leave the other words aside and look at only the Manchu in the routine, the dialogue that A teaches B is this:

Age saiyūn?                                              Sain.

Boode gemu saiyūn?                               Gemu sain.

Ai baita?                                                    Majige baita bi.

Bi sini eme bure … ?                               Hūwanggiyarakū. Hūwanggiyarakū.

Despite the garbled pronunciation, the shorter sentences are generally clear.  Baita is pronounced as “bai-cai 白才,” and boo is pronounced “duo 多.” The Chinese translation of the Manchu dialogue that A gives is not “wrong” but inaccurate. For example, he translates ai baita as “Where are you going?”  But this should be, “What’s up?” or “What’s the matter?”  Similarly, majige baita bi should be “I have a little something to do,” but is translated as “I am going out to take a walk.” Unfortunately, most of the longest sentence, which is the most important trick that A sets up for B, is not intelligible. It may be that it is partly nonsense.  If we check other versions of the performance of “Learning Manchu,” we find that every time the routine is performed, this long “trick sentence” is slightly different. In fact, once the straight man says hūwanggiyarakū – meaning “there is no harm” or “it doesn’t matter” – the comic can translate the trick sentence however he likes, and the joke is accomplished.

The history of this routine is not traceable today, so we don’t know when it was first created or how it has changed. What we do know is that most older-generation xiangsheng artists, who were active during the Republic period, still remember the lines and can perform this routine. Also, the history of xiangsheng in the Qing period and the Republic was closely connected with the destiny of the bannermen, who were the most important audience, sponsors, and even amateur practitioners of xiangsheng. The so-called “Pure School” 清門, access to which was limited to bannermen only, was established by bannermen who performed xiangsheng for free, in contrast with “Impure School” 濁門 artists, who performed for money. When the Qing dynasty fell and bannermen were faced with a crisis in livelihood, many “Pure School” members had no other skills but xiangsheng performance, so they had to abandon their principles and became professional xiangsheng artists to make money.

“Pure School” artists composed new routines and contributed significantly to xiangsheng as a performing art. Possibly “Learning Manchu,” which gives us a wonderful glimpse of late Qing culture, is one of their works.

[1] Liu Yingnan, ed., Zhongguo chuantong xiangsheng daquan buyi 《中国傳统相声大全.补遗》 (Beijing: Wenhua yishu, 2005), p. 403.

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