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October 1, 2009

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All-round artist takes humor to wide audience

Born in a small cottage to a peasant family in Tieling City of northeastern China's Liaoning Province, Zhao Benshan is seen as the symbolic success story of the nation's grassroots culture.

Zhao was orphaned when he was six and learned many northeast performance art styles, including Er Ren Zhuan, a style combining singing and stand-up comedy.

Zhao later brought the art form to the whole country and then great portions of the world.

His talent to make people laugh quickly gained the attention of noted comedian Jiang Kun.

Jiang recommended Zhao to the 1987 CCTV New Year's Gala, a television program broadcast around the country. Since his debut, Zhao has spent every New Year's Eve on the live gala for 21 years and his popularity continued to soar.

He turned to acting and directing TV series after 2000 and created some characters that became household names, including Liu Laogen and Ma Dashuai, featuring the life of peasants in the New China.

A former member of the Top 10 Richest Chinese Actors on Forbes' annual celebrity list, he took a 30-member Liaoning provincial folk art troupe on an infamous United States tour before the Spring Festival two years ago.

First, Zhao was sued by some audience members in Los Angeles seeking US$1 million in damages for alleged breach of contract, deceptive advertising and other allegations.

It is believed Zhao was taken advantage of by his US agent.

Then there was harsh criticism of the American performance itself.

Bi Ruxie, a writer in New York, lashed Zhao for being "wretched in appearance, vulgar in his performance and coarse in his speech."

Chen Mei, a lawyer in New York, said she had received many phone calls in protest after Zhao's performance.

"The troupe's satiric remarks are directed at, first, the disabled; second, the obese; and third, those afflicted with mental diseases. In mimicking the crippled and other disabled people, they are basing their pleasures on the suffering of others," Chen said.

On returning home Zhao became bigger than ever.

His acting associates, such as Gao Xiumin, Song Dandan and Fan Wei, along with his "apprentice" Xiao Shenyang all gained nationwide popularity with his help.


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