BEIJING - Zhao Benshan, one of the most famous Chinese comics and a perennial feature of the Spring Festival Gala, announced on Thursday that he has decided to quit the mainland's most-viewed show after nearly 21 consecutive years.
Every year since 1990, the 55-year-old Liaoning native, arguably the most popular Chinese comedian, has taken part in the show, which is organized by China Central Television (CCTV) and staged on the eve of Spring Festival.
But according to a statement released by CCTV on its micro blog on Thursday, Zhao will not appear due to his overwhelming fatigue.
Zhao has fully prepared for his part in the show and has participated in several rehearsals though he has been ill, according to the statement, but he finally decided to leave the gala because "he felt exhausted and excessively tired".
"Zhao's departure will not affect our schedule for the show," said Ma Xin, who works for CCTV.
However, Ma declined to give more details about the comedian's sudden decision to quit.
As of 6 pm on Thursday, nearly 30,000 users on Sina weibo, China's most popular micro-blogging service, have forwarded the statement and more than 9 million micro-bloggers plunged into fray about this news item.
A Beijing micro-blogger who uses the name Mengguniang said she felt disappointed and shocked after learning Zhao will not be featured in this year's show.
"I look forward to watching Zhao's funny performance every year," she said.
Some people said they do not believe that Zhao quit because of his illness and think the real reason is that he lacks the ability to put on a good show after all these years.
"His performance has gotten worse and worse in recent years," said Li Chenguang, an employee from a telecom company in Beijing, adding his decision to leave can bring more opportunities for new actors or actresses.
"Most awards or prizes that Zhao got from the CCTV show are attributed to his reputation rather than the performances themselves," the 24-year-old said. "But I'll still watch the show this year because I don't know what else I can do besides watching the big show."
The show first aired in 1983, and some of China's most famous performers have since launched their careers from its stage. Zhao was no exception.
Although the comedian, also a founder of Benshan Media Group, a cultural company that produces films and dramas, has won numerous titles and accolades in his comedic career, his clout is mainly limited to northern parts of the country.
Some audiences in the south are not very interested in his shows due to regional cultural gaps and their intolerance of Zhao's northeastern accent.
Xu Zhiqing, 51, a civil servant in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, said she will not watch the CCTV Spring Festival show because she has difficulty with the accents in the northern part of China that are often used in Zhao's short dramas.
"I will take my 13-year-old son to go out and do things on the eve, such as strolling around the flower market downtown," she added.