Comedian Ma Sanli’s bitter “amusing” life

There is a saying in Tianjin comic circles that “no one is without Ma”, meaning that most of the comic artists in Tianjin are influenced by Ma’s comic, including Guo Degang, who has become very popular in recent years. When it comes to Ma’s comic, it is important to mention the widely known comic master Ma Sanli, whose comic strips “Talking Blind”, “Kua Residence” and “Eating Lantern” are still popular today.

Early Career

Ma Sanli was born in 1914 in Beijing to a family of traditional artists. The “Eight Virtues” refers to the eight brothers of Ma Delu’s generation who were famous in the world of comic opera, as they were all ranked by the word “virtue”.

Because of his generosity and skill, Ma Delu was loved by his master, Enpei, and later married his daughter, Zuiqing, and they had two sons, Ma Guiyuan and Ma Sanli. After Zuiqing died of illness, Ma Delu married Ding, who had many conflicts with Ma Gui Yuan and Ma San Li.

Later, Ma Sanli had to leave high school to study with Zhou Deshan, one of the “Eight Virtues of Comedy”, because Ma Delu’s income had decreased and he could not pay for Ma Sanli’s continued education. Before that, his brother Ma Guiyuan also graduated from the Tianjin East Malu Commercial School and entered the comic circle. Ma Sanli regrets this.

The article “Ma Sanli’s life is difficult” published in Book City reveals the hardships of Ma Sanli’s learning. At that time, although his master was Zhou Deshan, his real master was his father and brother, because what he had to learn was the work of the Ma family. The Ma family’s work is the most difficult to learn, as it is known as a comic, focusing on word accuracy, size accuracy (tone of voice, intonation, volume, etc.), and baggage accuracy. He was also a hard-tempered brother, with strict rules and high standards, and when Ma Sanli made a mistake, he was beaten or scolded.

Once, being beaten so badly, Ma Sanli even went to enroll to become a police officer. In the end, it was the desire to make a name for himself that pushed him to go on step by step. In addition to his brother’s request to “learn, practice, see, act, change”, he himself added a “fine”. At the same time, he proposed to himself that “he must learn, he must know, he must be good, he must be refined”, and this became his lifelong standard of art.

In 1933, Ma Sanli became a family man. Afterwards, his brother became addicted to opium, his brother and sister-in-law divorced, his father died, and his stepmother, Ding, left home. The series of blows were too much for Ma Sanli, who was in his early twenties, to bear, and he became very ill for three months. After recovering from his illness, Ma Sanli began to sell his art around the world to earn money in order to help his elder brother and support his family.

In one of his memoirs in his later years, he detailed his travels southward: “Following the train route one stop at a time, small counties, small villages and towns, bazaars, temple fairs, are performance venues, teahouses, bookstores, roadsides, big car stores, brothels, etc., are also performance venues. The larger places, business is good, stay a few days more, such as Cangzhou, Texas, plain, Yucheng and Jinan. If business is bad, you don’t stay in a hotel, you stay overnight in the waiting room of the train station, and then leave at dawn. No matter how good or bad the business is, I often keep sending money to my family, afraid that my partner and children do not have money to eat. Sometimes I saved two dollars and sent it home quickly. My own food and drink expenses, frugal to a pathetic degree.”

In 1940, when Ma Sanli was making a name for himself in the comic circles of Tianjin, he was forced to join the Brotherhood Theatre Company, of which the traitor Yuan Wenhui was the boss, when he was asked to perform at comic gardens and radio stations in Beijing and Tianjin. Ma Sanli, who was being oppressed, “suffered a lot of hardships and was not earning any money. He wanted to leave the troupe, but did not dare”, and this situation lasted until the victory of the war in 1945.

After that, Ma Sanli soon rose to fame and popularity in Tianjin, and his family’s conditions improved.

He was branded as a “rightist” and almost jumped off a building

During the early years of the Chinese Communist Party, artists were not yet affected too much. Ma Sanli not only participated in the cultural team of the sympathy mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and served as the vice captain, but also became the deputy head of the Tianjin Municipal Quartet and a member of the Municipal Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Ma Sanli, who felt that he was living a happy life, was very grateful to the Chinese Communist Party.

However, after a few days of good life, Ma Sanli was branded as a “rightist” during the “anti-rightist” movement in 1958. The reason why he was branded as a “rightist” is said to be his adaptation and performance of “Buy a Monkey”, which portrayed the nationally known character “Ma Daha” who was sloppy and not serious about his work.

Another story is that during the “Great Leap Forward” in literature and art, the leaders of the opera troupe asked the actors to show their determination to create as many works as possible in a year, and Ma Sanli, after being named, first said that he would “create 50,000 comic pieces in a year” and then asked the leaders rhetorically “Do you believe what they say?” This became the cause of his being branded as a “rightist”.

Ma Sanli, who had just been branded as a “rightist”, had no place to find old clothes, so he wore a cheap leather monkey with an otter collar from a yard sale to the theater. This aroused the anger of the “revolutionary masses” who managed the costumes: “This is a demonstration to the proletariat!” So a hot iron was placed on the monkeys, and “smoke rose from the work for a while”.

Ma Sanli also fought against the unjust treatment, and even almost jumped off a building, but to no avail. At this time, Ma Sanli was in his forties and in his prime. According to his son Ma Zhiming, it was the time for him to produce good work, but he was sent to labor.

Ma, who was 13 years old at the time, was also implicated by his father and fell from the sky to the ground, and was not treated well during rehearsals. In an interview with Southern Weekend, Ma recounted his past experiences. Once, Ma left his practice shoes at the rehearsal field, went back to get them, and had a run-in with the head of the human security section. The head of the human security section stopped him and went back to the rehearsal hall for a week to make sure he hadn’t set fire to it before letting him go.

In 1962, Ma left the theater school where he had been living for six years and went south to join his two brothers who were doing comedy with others. Soon he was able to support himself. This experience was a good sharpening for him.

On the night of March 16, 1961, Ma Sanli, who had been working on a military grain farm in the eastern suburbs of Tianjin for more than a year, was announced as a “rightist” and could return to his original unit to resume his old job. Ma Sanli burst into tears on the spot. But the first day he went back to work, the leadership of the unit on his appointment: according to the use of handyman, every day, come early and leave late, come and go to report in advance, no phone calls, no phone calls, no night shift; no comedy on stage; no pressure play axes; no name on the posters; no conversation with the actors; excellent work is not praised, not rewarded. This, Ma Sanli calmly accepted.

According to “Ma Sanli’s Biography”, Ma Sanli stayed next to the communication room every day after he finished his work or performance, and answered “no” or “don’t know” to anyone who came to ask anything. For example, when the orchestra player burned rosin for the hokum and asked him to borrow a match, he apologized for saying “no” even though he was holding it in his hand, for fear of catching fire and being held responsible.

In 1963, Ma Zhiming, who had drifted south, entered the Tianjin Municipal Opera Troupe and became a colleague with his father. Ma Zhiming soon became a leading young comedian. However, bad luck did not leave Ma Sanli and his son.

The years of being branded as “counter-revolutionary

After the “Four Clean-ups” campaign began in 1965, Ma Sanli and Ma Zhiming, father and son, were beaten as “active counterrevolutionaries” one after another.

According to Ma’s recollection, on May 27 of that year, Ma was half asleep when he was called up by the task force and asked to explain his father’s most disgraceful behavior – whether he had a gun at home, whether he had a hand grenade, and whether he had written any reactionary slogans. A few years ago, Ma Zhiming said in an interview with the South Week reporter, “If I really expose it, I want to make progress too!” But “Buy Monkey” is a paragraph written by the cadres in the city He Chi, the head of the group gave him. He said he used this paragraph to conspire against the party, which he has that ambition?”

What Ma could not figure out at the time was: how did his father, who in 1953 had purchased three small houses, each of 9 square meters, with a family of 16 people, become a big poisonous weed that blended into the literary world and into the opera troupe in a vain attempt to change the sky and oppose the Party and socialism?

According to the revolutionary masses, those who love to listen to Ma Sanli’s comedy “are the dregs of society, the military and police, the special forces, and the naughty and hypocritical stragglers, the objects of such purges”, and “only those who are dissatisfied with socialism and want to subvert it love to listen! But even under such circumstances, Ma Sanli was not banned from the stage due to his reputation, and Ma Sanli, who loved comic songs, insisted on performing as long as he was not banned from the stage. It is said that there was a soap factory worker who loved his comedy and was afraid that Ma Sanli would be bullied, so he followed him home every night after the show and acted as a volunteer bodyguard. As for Ma Zhiming and Ma Sanli’s comic Wang Fengshan, they were ordered to work in the background and were not allowed to go on stage.

In 1968, Ma Sanli was ordered by the “revolutionary organization” to write down the so-called historical materials in his own handwriting, writing out his life experiences one by one. Between the lines, he reflected the humble psychology of that era.

In 1970, Ma’s father and son were sent down to the southern suburbs of Tianjin until 1977. Ma Zhiming grew vegetables and castor in front of the house, raised chickens and ducks, and lived a pretty good life. It was also during this period that Ma Zhiming, in conversation with his father, slowly smacked out the flavor of Ma’s comic: his father’s humor was almost cold humor. Many times like a family routine, laying out for a long time.

Although sent down to the countryside, Ma Sanli never forgot to memorize the words, practicing almost every morning, which laid the foundation for his later comeback.

It is a sigh of relief that Ma Sanli was beaten as a “rightist” from the fall of 1958 to the fall of 1977 when he returned to the city’s opera troupe, and during the 19 years Ma Sanli only spoke for 3 years, corresponding to the 11 years of four deportations to labor, as well as being locked up in the “cowshed”! For five years, he did odd jobs such as cinder blocks and cleaning. This kind of sadness did not only happen to Ma Sanli under the Chinese Communist Party.

A life of “amusement” and self-confessed “wretchedness in life”

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, in 1977, Ma Sanli and his son returned to the Tianjin Opera Troupe, and only after the CCP “rehabilitated” him in 1979 did Ma Sanli learn that there was nothing in his file to identify him as a “rightist” or “anti-Party”. He was labeled as a “rightist” and “anti-Party”. He was branded as a “rightist” solely because the number of targets had increased from four to eleven, so he had to be reported to make up the number. This numbering changed his future years. This kind of weirdness brings more than laughter and tears to people.

In his later years, Ma Sanli composed a comic sketch “teasing you”, which implies that he spent his life “teasing you”, but I wonder if he also felt the life of teasing himself?

In the 1980s, Ma Sanli and Wang Fengshan teamed up to bring back to the stage many of their best performances, including “The Moon in the West River”, “The Article Club”, “Opening a Porridge Factory” and “Selling Hanging Tickets”. Ma Sanli also created and performed a series of humorous one-liners including “Teasing You”, “Family Recipe”, “Health Inspection”, “Eighty-First Floor” and “Chasing” without any comic support.

Ma Sanli, who is regarded by society as a leading comedian and comedy master, did not completely bid farewell to the stage until 2001 and was keen to engage in some social activities. But according to his children, Ma Sanli refused to accept any of these titles. He preferred to stay alone in his room after a lively event, light a cigarette, and sit for half a day without saying a word.

In the summer of 1993, Ma Sanli, who has always been careful with his words, made a rare summary of his life: I am a miserable man, a wretch in life. He also said again and again, “I am not a master, not an artist, I am just an ordinary old artist, an old artist who loves comic songs and likes to study them.” And the old artist with such ordinary aspirations lived a bitter life amidst the tumultuous clouds of the Chinese Communist Party.