China’s trailblazing female comedians tackle taboos

BEIJING (AFP) – Strutting onstage with well-honed confidence, 23-year-old comedian Qiqi is part of a new wave of young, female stand-up acts in China, crashing into what has always previously been a man’s world.

Her jokes were met with roars of laughter from the well-heeled young professionals watching in a packed Beijing theatre.

“I’ve always liked making people laugh ever since I was small, it gives me a sense of accomplishment,” Qiqi told AFP, using her stage name.

She is among those benefitting from a surge of interest in stand-up in China, thanks to a wildly popular new web series called Rock & Roast.

It racked up hundreds of millions of views this summer, and made viral sensations of several of its female stand-ups – their refreshingly outspoken anecdotes about awkward romantic encounters, body image and annoying male traits clearly striking a chord with audiences.

“My boss can’t even properly describe the tasks he wants me to do,” Qiqi, sporting dangling cherry earrings, riffed to knowing chuckles from the crowd.

Stand-up comedian Qiqi (R) and fellow comedian Ailun in Beijing. PHOTO: AFP

“He said, ‘Hey, can you arrange a meeting with so-and-so?’ The person, time and place are all missing. It’s like he expects us to have some kind of telepathic connection!”

Qiqi’s full-time job is at an Internet media company, and her sets often draw upon her daily life and common millennial complaints.

She first dabbled in open mic performances three years ago, when stand-up was making its first inroads in China – shows where she said she “had no idea what she was doing”.

But the self-deprecation in her act is something fans are drawn to.

“One of the biggest characteristics of female comedians is that they dare to laugh at themselves,” said one audience member after a recent performance.

And Qiqi is steadily gaining fans, earning up to CNY9,000 (USD1,400) a month from shows.

Qiqi said she was once called “vulgar and cheap” by an online viewer, and argues that women are subjected to more scrutiny than their male counterparts.

She shies away, though, from being labelled a ‘feminist’ – seen as an inherently political term in China.

Yang Mei, another Beijing-based comedian, left her film industry job last year to perform full-time.

“I’m wearing a new jumper I bought for the occasion, just in case there are any hot guys in the audience,” she quipped in one of her shows.

“I just had a look around at the male audience members – I think I can probably take it off now.”

She said web-streamed shows like Rock & Roast have brought the industry “forward by at least five to 10 years”.

However, the increased exposure has also left contestants open to online criticism and abuse.

One of the most prominent Rock & Roast contestants, Yang Li, gained legions of fans for a much-shared joke asking why men “look so mediocre, but still have so much self-confidence?”

But it prompted an angry backlash online, with a prominent Beijing law professor calling Yang and her fans “pampered

little princesses”. And Yang Mei said she avoids jokes about controversial topics.

Yang and Qiqi both said overall, shows like Rock & Roast have encouraged women to try performing, and boosted their visibility.

“I think women are natural performers, because we’ve been considerate of men’s thoughts and feelings since we were little, but suppress our own,” said Yang.

“But nowadays, there are more and more channels for women to express themselves – including stand-up comedy.”