Although he has the face of a bashful farmer, He Qingkui is currently one of the most popular playwrights in China, having brought the life and laughter of Northeastern farming to both stage and screen. Indeed, his name on a cast list has become something of a guarantee for a play's popularity and comic elements.
Although untranslatable for any other language, these famous lines spoken in a strong Northeastern dialect, almost always inspire broad smiles among a Chinese audience, most of whom will be able to instantly attribute this joke to He Qingkui. At 57, playwright He is now the most popular rustic comedy playwright in the country. People love his witty, intimate style of humor, and his rural characters, who are generally heavy accented and unfashionably attired, but still practical, witty and full of curiosity towards urban life. For his part, He Qingkui does not merely write to amuse an audience, but actually has a genuine love for farmers and country life. In fact, he even claims that his plays are designed to bring new ideas to China's farming community.
"China has a large rural population and a large surplus of rural labor. While the government tries to help them by setting up new towns and creating job opportunities, I want to help them by giving them some modern concepts in my plays. These concepts can replace their traditional ways of thinking so that they can truly find a suitable way to build a prosperous life."
Himself born into a farming family in China's northeast, He Qingkui scarcely attended school as a child. Instead, like so many others, he spent his youthful days helping his father with farming and fishing. Then as a young man, he gradually fell in love with Er Ren Zhuan, a local folk performance art known for being straightforward, intrepid and even boorish at times. Basically speaking, Er Ren Zhuan is like a short comedy piece, with singing and dancing from a male/female pair of performers. Enchanted by this art, He Qingkui soon became an expert Er Ren Zhuan performer, and toured from village to village for five years. Later, he began to write new Er Ren Zhuan operas for his performing repertoire, a development which marked the beginning of his playwriting. In 1990, he became a professional playwright, with the experience accumulated in Er Ren Zhuan giving him endless resources and confidence. In He's own words, his own stage experience tells him exactly when and where an audience will laugh, making his transition from actor to writer relatively smooth.
"Pay A New Year's Call" was the short drama piece that brought He Qingkui national acclaim in 1998, with rural comedian Zhao Benshan proving a perfect partner. Since then, their other collaborations, such as "Tell It Straight", "Hourly Household Worker" and "Selling Crutch" have appeared on every Spring Festival Gala, the main television event for China's Spring Festival. Additionally, all of these pieces were short comic dramas, a genre which occupies a special place in He's heart.
"Short drama pieces are like the dumplings that we eat during Spring Festival. They are delicious dumplings for the soul, while every actor and every drama is a different filling, so that everyone can experience the different tastes of life".
He Qingkui also has a deep unshakable love for China's northeastern culture, which is a mixture of Manchu, Mongolian and Han cultures. Accordingly, he wanted to shape this into a known commodity, which could be appreciated and loved by the whole country. So in every one of his works, be it short comic drama, or TV series, he intentionally adds some unique northeastern elements, of which the best examples are those thick local dialects.
Meanwhile, for those who criticize rural plays as too low-brow, He Qingkui calmly returns that while he is writing for popular culture, this is not necessarily the same as low-brow culture. Indeed, as far as He is concerned, low- and high-brow culture are both born out of popular culture.
After He Qingkui's success in short comic drama, his modern TV series "Peasant Entrepreneur Liu Laogen" also turned out to be a huge hit. Unsurprisingly the story centers around one Liu Laogen, a former village head who opens a local tourist resort to help all the locals get rich. Amusing stunts, Er Ren Zhuan opera, hearty laughter and temporary tears are weaved into the plot, so that it was first choice for both rural and urban audiences upon its initial broadcast. He Qingkui talks about this Liu Laogen series.
"When I was writing Peasant Entrepreneur Liu Laogen, I intentionally involved some new agricultural concepts in my stories, as well as other various elements. My first Liu Laogen series was essentially a story abut how poverty-driven people began thinking of new ideas to get rich, whereas my second puts more emphasis on management and operation. Again, I hope that my TV plays can enlighten my rural audience with some new concepts."
Yet, at the zenith of his career, He Qingkui was recently dragged into a period of terrible pain, with the death of two of family members in just ten days°™first his son and then his drama partner and life-time love Gao Xiumin, also a beloved rural comedy actress. During this difficult time, He was surprised by the tremendous support that he received from fans of his work.
"Back then, when I felt that creating comedies and dramas was a matter best left in the distant past, I didn't notice that there were so many pairs of caring eyes watching me. Those eyes belong to those who had enjoyed my previous works. They are still thankful to me, and their support injects me with great strength, so that now I want to create more good works and thereby return their love. I'm sure that I can do it."
As such, He Qingkui is currently working on his next TV series, which takes another look at the changes and the future of rural society. He also plans to whet the appetites of the general public with a performance at this year's upcoming Spring Festival Gala. On that day, despite his serious demeanor, He should elicit enough shakes of laughter to create an earthquake, under the eyes of hundreds of millions of viewers.