Fading Memories of New Year’s Eve: Spring Festival Gala Skits
Skits (小品 xiaopin) are a big part of Chinese people’s collective memory of New Year’s Eve. They are performed mainly on the stage of the Spring Festival Gala (春晚 Chunwan) and have brought joyful moments to Chinese audiences year after year. However, in recent years, skits gradually lost their humorous quality and became a tool for political propaganda.
According to Chinese audiences, almost no outstanding sketch has been performed since 2015.1 What’s more, on 2022 New Year’s Eve, instead of tuning into the live gala on CCTV, many people chose to re-watch past skits on online video platforms such as Bilibili.
What makes the Spring Festival Gala skits special?
Following the economic reforms of the 80s, television became extremely popular in China, and the Spring Festival Gala has since been broadcast every New Year's Eve to an audience of up to 1.4 billion. Making such a large audience laugh together is a challenging task for the creators and performers of the skits.
First of all, the skits need to make excellent use of the Chinese language to achieve a humorous effect. In the skits rhyming lines (谐音梗 xieyingeng), two-part allegorical sayings (对仗句 duizhangju), idioms (成语 chengyu), and various puns (双关语 shuangguanyu) express humor and satire. These expressions often tend to become popular in people’s daily conversations the following year. In addition, the occasional usage of northeastern dialect gives the skits an intimate and vivid feeling that resonates with audiences.
Besides being entertaining, skits are also microcosms of the times. The skits are often representative of ordinary people’s daily lives, touching upon topics such as family planning, celebrity chasing, generational gap, urban-rural gap, pension, and housing issues. Many of these contradictions are connected to China’s social transformation and development and affect the lives of most Chinese citizens. Although they cannot be solved on the Spring Gala stage, the skits enable people to laugh about them in a joyful way, even if just for a fleeting moment.
Zhao Benshan: the king of NYE skits
Zhao Benshan 赵本山 is the poster child of NYE skits. He has appeared on the stage of the Spring Festival Gala for more than 20 years,2 until his final appearance in 2011. For the comedian, the skits are not only a means to reach success and notoriety but also a way to create art and communicate with the audience.
In an interview, Zhao talks about his understanding of the skits:
“Skits are not meant to teach people. 365 days per year we are in the process of receiving an education; is it really useful for us to bring ideology even to the NYE night? What’s important for me is bringing joy to the audience, nothing more.”3
However, the happiness Zhao talks about is not shallow and empty but truly resonates with Chinese people. For example, almost everyone in China knows the skit “selling the crutch” (卖拐 mai guai). The sketch tells the story of a man who is convinced by a swindler that he needs to buy a crotch in order to work properly.
By hilariously detailing the process of a healthy man getting tricked into thinking he is ill, the skit highlights how everyone can be gullible and give too much importance to the words of others. This iconic skit popularized the expression 忽悠 huyou “fooling someone.”
From a good laugh to a political lesson
In recent years, the stage of the Spring Festival Gala has become increasingly fancier, but the simple theme of happiness has drifted away from the skits. The 2022 Spring Festival Gala’s first skit, “Father and Son” (父与子 fuyuzi), encouraged left-behind elderly to bring up children, urged young couples to procreate, and promoted the sale of houses for investment purposes.
These rather politicized elements raised audiences’ eyebrows and left many skeptical about the authenticity of the skit. “In this skit there is a sense of ‘bowing heads down’ and accepting a certain point of view,” bluntly commented a user on Zhihu, the Chinese version of Quora.4
Considering the most recent developments, skits no longer seem to be an artistic creation but instead are turning into a tool for propaganda and education, burdening both creators and audiences.
References / To go further
张颐武, “春晚小品路在何方,”人民日报, February 13, 2015, http://opinion.people.com.cn/n/2015/0213/c1003-26558726.html.
小透明明TM, “10年了，赵本山为什么还没被超越？万字长文，最全分析,” video, February 11, 2021, https://www.bilibili.com/video/BV1Nh411y76n/.
赵本山, “我与春晚19年——赵本山,” interview by杨澜, 杨澜访谈录, 2012年第81期, video, 19:05, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUVkhGVJzUM.
曹泽宇(@曹泽宇), “如何评价孙涛、王雷、颖儿在 2022 年春晚表演的小品《父与子》？,” https://www.zhihu.com/question/514234901.