SLAVES TO HU­MOR

The fra­cas around a com­edy star and his for­mer ap­pren­tice has put a spot­light on China’s out­dated ap­pren­tice­ship sys­tem, which is not the best way to train bud­ding tal­ent.

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - RAY­MOND ZHOU Con­tact the writer at ray­mondzhou@chi­nadaily.com.cn

I n 2010, Guo De­gang and Cao Yun­jin had a fall­out. It took them six years to hang out the dirty laun­dry in pub­lic.

Both Guo and Cao are fa­mous co­me­di­ans spe­cial­iz­ing in the genre of cross-talk, or xi­ang­sheng, which is the Chi­nese equiv­a­lent of standup com­edy in the United States.

In 2002, Cao (born in 1986) be­came the ap­pren­tice of Guo (born in 1973). In re­cent weeks, Guo pub­li­cized a for­mal “fam­ily tree”, in which each gen­er­a­tion of ap­pren­tices are listed. A foot­note spec­i­fies that two mem­bers with the word “yun” in their names have been ex­pelled and Cao is one of them.

Guo re­quested Cao to re­move “yun” from his stage name and the lat­ter de­clined. In­stead, Cao pub­lished a long ar­ti­cle de­tail­ing all the “wrongs” Mas­ter Guo had done to him, which caused him to leave six years ago.

While Cao’s ac­cu­sa­tions have not been cor­rob­o­rated, it is clear that his de­par­ture was not easy on his for­mer boss, who con­sid­ers it a “be­trayal” and has all along railed against him in pub­lic al­beit with­out nam­ing names.

It is pre­ma­ture for an out­sider likeme to con­clude who is in the right, but what is cer­tain is that the ap­pren­tice­ship tra­di­tion prac­ticed in China for hun­dreds of years is se­ri­ously out of touch with re­al­ity.

When I was very lit­tle I heard that teenage boys would be given to “masters” to ac­quire cer­tain skills, such as car­pen­try or ma­sonry. Usu­ally the par­ents of the kid were so poor that they could not af­ford to pay tu­ition for a reg­u­lar school and would have one fewer mouth to feed as the kid stayed with the mas­ter, fed and clothed by that fam­ily.

A good mas­ter would have so many kids sent to him that he would send the in­com­pe­tent away. The ca­pa­ble ones would “grad­u­ate” and work for him down the road.

Nowthat I think of it, it was in­deed a vari­a­tion of in­den­tured servi­tude, but both sides en­tered the ar­range­ment know­ing full well what it en­tailed— that is, the mas­ter would teach for free, plus pro­vide free food and lodg­ing, and the ap­pren­tice would work for him with­out pay, at least for a cer­tain length of time. Three years in the crosstalk world, it is said.

Of course there are dif­fer­ences from place to place and from vo­ca­tion to vo­ca­tion. In the 2016 film Song of the Phoenix the kids car­ried their own food when they were sent to stay with their mas­ter to learn the tra­di­tional mu­si­cal in­stru­ment, the suona. That was a story set in the 1980s.

A lot of Chi­nese movies would por­tray masters as sym­bols of tough love and their wives as gen­tle and kind. In not a sin­gle case has there been sex­ual abuse from the mas­ter. But the Pek­ing Opera school in the clas­sic film Farewell toMy Con­cu­bine was deemed byWestern crit­ics as “worse than the or­phan­age in a Dick­ens novel”.

Cao did not viewhim­self as an ap­pren­tice who sold him­self into servi­tude, partly be­cause he paid tu­ition to Guo. He stayed in Guo’s home, do­ing house­hold chores for three years. But he said he had no com­plaints. His fric­tions with his mas­ter be­gan when the lat­ter dic­tated ca­reer choices that he deemed un­fa­vor­able for his growth.

For ex­am­ple, when Cao was given a 18-minute solo by CCTV, seen by many as a rare chance for a break­through, he was or­dered by Guo to quit, who was not on friendly terms with the all-pow­er­ful tele­vi­sion sta­tion back then.

Guo may call his com­edy school/club Deyun So­ci­ety, but it is by all means a busi­ness. When he him­self was down and out, it was easy for his em­ploy­ees to ac­cept lit­tle or no pay. Af­ter all, what­ever per­cent­age of earn­ings one gets from zero is still zero. But when he started to rake in big bucks, his feu­dal style of in­come dis­tri­bu­tion would soon run into the wall.

As his mas­ter-ap­pren­tice sys­tem does not leave room for a mu­tu­ally re­spect­ing form of em­ployee de­par­ture, it is only nat­u­ral that the most tal­ented ones would not stay with him for long.

Guo is just like one of those busi­ness founders who take it very per­son­ally when lieu­tenants or un­der­lings he trusts find greener pas­tures. They did not threaten his sur­vival be­cause, un­like sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions in high tech, the mar­ket for com­edy is big enough to ac­com­mo­date dozens of such or­ga­ni­za­tions and hun­dreds of such en­ter­tain­ers.

Rather, their departures are sub­ver­sive to the old, hi­er­ar­chi­cal mode of ed­u­ca­tion and busi­ness op­er­a­tion, to which Guo sub­scribes. If fol­lowed to the let­ter, the Chi­nese sys­tem de­mands that the ap­pren­tice obeys the mas­ter no mat­ter what.

How­ever, Guo might have for­got­ten that he him­self was not loyal to this sys­tem: He jumped from one mas­ter to an­other, a big no-no as an ap­pren­tice, and he had bad­mouthed pre­de­ces­sors like Jiang Kun. In a sense, he whipped up a storm in the world of cross-talk partly be­cause he was not a docile fol­lower and was ready to break rules. But he would not ac­cept his charges act­ing the same way.

China has two ma­jor com­edy clans (the other led by Zhao Ben­shan) but no com­edy schools. The art of com­edy is im­parted through this kind of rit­ual-rid­den and hu­mor­less ap­pa­ra­tus. Why can’t Guo open a mod­ern school of com­edy and charge rea­son­able fees for his ser­vices? He may end up mak­ing more money as founder of a mod­ern school, which, like a mod­ern en­ter­prise, is able to scale up its busi­ness.

I have al­ways won­dered why Chi­nese schools do not teach com­edy. Yes, ge­nius can­not be taught, but crafts­man­ship can. Out of many run-ofthe-mill com­edy stu­dents will be vir­tu­osos who build their own styles. They do not have to learn from a sin­gle mas­ter, but from all the good ones in the whole world.

The il­lu­sion that a teacher “owns” a stu­dent is pri­mor­dial. The old say­ing “A teacher for a day, a fa­ther for a life­time” should not be taken lit­er­ally— not for most cases. Even a fa­ther should give his chil­dren in­de­pen­dence once they grow up.

Yes, we are all touched by those tales of stu­dent-teacher re­la­tion­ships el­e­vat­ing to those of sur­ro­gate fa­thers and chil­dren, but those are the ex­cep­tions.

As for the word “yun” in­his stage name, it is tan­ta­mount to brand­ing of Guo’s or­ga­ni­za­tion. So, Cao should give it up since he is no longer a mem­ber.

The il­lu­sion that a teacher ‘owns’ a stu­dent is pri­mor­dial. The old say­ing ‘A teacher for a day, a fa­ther for a life­time’ should not be taken lit­er­ally — not for most cases.

CAI MENG / CHINA DAILY

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