A Short Introduction

  • From the time of the Song dynasty (960-1279) historical sources testify not only to the existence, but also to the popularity of professional storytelling in China. In the ever-growing urbanizations, the story-teller had become an established figure of the marketplace and bazaar. This traditional art has developed and continued into the present, in forms based primarily on oral transmission. We find a large number of local varieties of story-telling all over China. The question is whether these arts will be able to live on into their second millennium, face to face with the modern media and the modern lifestyle?

    On the threshold of the twenty-first century the generation of story-tellers who was born and educated early in the previous century is now in old age. But many of them are still active and are great masters of their traditional art. The life conditions of the storytellers of this century have fluctuated, as the society has gone through times of war and revolution. In recent years they have to face the profound changes in peoples' habits and attitudes, when work and leisure and types of entertainment are so different from earlier times. We cannot at present know if the storytellers' oral art will be able to survive the arrival of the modern media-technology. We think it is high time that the international society takes responsibility to preserve this unique oral art. New media-technology is a threat to the oral arts, but it is also a great advantage for preserving the arts that are still alive today.

    In spite of the humble social position of the storytellers, their art always had a heavy impact on the daily life of the Chinese townspeople, serving as the 'university' of ordinary people - the place where culture and knowledge was communicated in an entertaining and simple way. This oral genre played an astonishing part in the formation of the written genres of the novel and short story. Conversely, the historical and fictional genres that were transmitted in written form, influenced the oral genres deeply. The orality/literacy dichotomy, treated in its cultural-specific context, seems of major importance for an understanding of the structural specifics and conditions of existence of the oral arts. The storytelling genres have survived as orally transmitted traditions up to our present time and as such they offer a unique territory for research in oral tradition.

Oral and Written Literature

  • 1. Literature in the oral and written media

    Oral literature in China - like everywhere else - must have existed as long as people have sung songs and told each other stories and jokes. Some kinds of oral performance gain a certain status in the society, often in the context of religious ceremony. Some kinds may develop into semi-professional or professional metiers of verbal eloquence, something that people are willing to pay for. Like language itself, oral traditions grow and decline, imperceptibly change into new forms, die out or persist in unexpected new varieties.

    Some traditions have a long and strong history, and the oral building blocks of the tradition seem durable, being handed down by way of mouth from generation to generation. Memory, repetition and reformulation mark the conditions of their continuous existence. The only way to preserve oral literature outside of the oral medium was by the transformation into written texts. But the very process of writing, including the different materials that served as writing materials in various societies through history, would invariably influence both form and content.

    Our knowledge of oral tradition and oral art is tied up with the particular medium through which we observe it. For studies of former oral traditions the main sources are texts that seem to reflect oral performance in a particularly close relationship. Other sources are found in descriptions of oral genres and performance situations in written literature and in pictorial sources, historical places relevant to performance arenas, props and musical instruments handed down, and archaeological findings.

  • 2. The variability and evanescence of oral literature

    The study of contemporary oral traditions is perhaps the most important basis for understanding the oral literature of former times and other places. In our own time we are able to listen to and see oral artists during live performances. We can experience the art with all our senses and enjoy every aspect of the bodily language that inevitably accompanies any such performance. The artist, depending on the genre in which he or she excels, may or may not use song and musical accompaniment, but will in any case play on the instrument of their whole body.

    Before the invention of the phonograph and tape-recorder, oral literature was highly evanescent. The spoken words would physically disappear the very moment they had been uttered. Tape and video-recordings enable us to ‘freeze’ the oral performance, so that we may repeat the sound or film recording without change. It enables us to study many details of oral performance that could only be surmised earlier. It is possible to compare various performances in detail and thus go deeper into the study of oral transmission and individual variety. But we should not be blind to the fact that the very ‘accurate similarity’ of every repetition of a recorded performance, the ‘textualizing’ that the recording implies, is deeply contradictory to the continuous reformulation and ever changing variety that constitutes perhaps the life nerve of oral literature.

  • 3. Chinese written literature in literary and vernacular style

    Written literature has a history of more than three thousand years in China. As early as 1500 bc people wrote on pieces of bone and tortoise shell, or made inscriptions on bronze vessels. Later, strips of bamboo were bound together and inscribed in vertical lines, serving as the first kind of ‘books’. Important documents were carved on stone tablets and sometimes silk was used as a precious writing material. The invention of paper occurred some time before the first century of our time and writing paper became widespread after 100 ad. Regular paper production and printing developed gradually during the first millennium. Until the 20th century, however, reading and writing was reserved for the privileged that could afford to let their sons study. The written and printed word was accessible mainly to the educated elite, the class of official-scholars, and to a lesser degree, the urban society of merchants, shopkeepers and clerks. The great majority of peasants, craftsmen, and women from all classes, were illiterate or semi-literate. The prestige of written literature was so much the more elevated.

    Official documents, philosophy, history and poetry were all written in a kind of Latin, i.e. the literary style called ‘classical Chinese’ (wenyan), based on the language used by the philosophers and historians from the first three or four centuries bc. This style was the authoritative literary style for two thousand years until the reform period around 1900. It was considered the proper style for people of good taste, a sign of loftiness and elegance (ya). The local orally performed genres were not highly esteemed and seldom found worthy of mention. They belonged to folklore and were considered simple and vulgar (su).

    From the period of the Tang dynasty (618-906) a secondary written style gradually developed, incorporating phrases taken from the spoken language of North China. This literary style was later known as ‘vernacular Chinese’ (baihua). During the following dynasties, it became the vehicle of most fiction genres. Its grammar and lexicon were closer to the daily spoken language, and therefore it was highly suited to render dialogue in a lively fashion.

    The whole genre of fiction (xiaoshuo) was, however, despised by the authorities and the privileged from a very early time. In spite of the deprecatory attitude towards fiction in general, and vernacular fiction (baihua xiaoshuo) in particular, consumption of such works was widespread, not least among the well-educated highbrow class, who edited, authored, commented, and published them. During the 1910s the New Culture Movement furthered the usage of the vernacular style as the new official and educational written language. At the same time, a new literature in modern vernacular was promoted, and the old vernacular fiction was re-evaluated and transferred to the highest pinnacle of the Chinese literary canon.

  • 4. The status of oral literature in traditional China

    In traditional China, the status of oral literature was even lower than that of the genres written in the vernacular style. The narrated and chanted genres (shuochang) constituted the spiritual food of the majority of the population who were neither able to read nor write. They habitually participated in the activities of folk song, telling of folktales, legends and myths and enjoyed the oral performances of drama and storytelling by professional and semi-professional entertainers. Among the country’s leading people, the officials and literati, the literature in vernacular style and the popular oral culture were both considered trivial, low and folksy. In spite of the general opinion, both kinds of literature did, however, find supporters and aficionados even among the educated scholars. There was always some traffic between them and the oral and written vernacular genres through the centuries deeply influenced each other.

  • 5. Oral-related texts

    The oral medium is characterized by a high degree of flexibility, allowing the ‘same’ story to come out differently in every instance of repeated performance. The written medium, on the other hand, tends towards fixation of oral stories into singular versions with a more tight and ‘impeccable’ form, defined by the scribe or editor, rather than by the performer. In Chinese oral arts, the two activities of performing orally and committing oral stuff-material to paper seem but rarely to be undertaken by one and the same person. Even when it happens, there seems to be a vast difference between the two activities, each calling forth its specific framework and genre rules.

    Some written sources stand in a particularly close relationship to oral performance traditions. Such texts are often called ‘oral-derived’. This term, however, implies a one-way derivation from orality to literacy. In Chinese culture we generally find that the influence between the oral and the written spheres is reciprocal. We shall call texts that exhibit this kind of relationship ‘performance texts’ or ‘oral-related texts’, leaving room for the possibility of influence in both directions.

    The earliest anthology of poetry in China, the Book of Odes (Shijing), collected over time from around 1000-600 bc, apparently exhibits close ties to the milieu of oral folk song and ritual performance, thus fitting well with the idea of oral-related text, although knowledge about performance and professional entertainment in archaic China is scarce. Some of the oldest performance texts preserved are prosimetric texts from Tang and early Ming where the alternation between spoken and chanted passages is a predominant feature. These texts are particularly important for our understanding of the early performance practice of Chinese storytellers.

  • 6. The question of ’true orality’ in orally performed arts

    The ‘orality’ and the improvisational aspect of the Chinese professional oral arts have been questioned. It was long debated whether the storyteller’s art was ‘genuinely oral’ or only ‘pseudo-oral’, i.e. a kind of artistic performance of written texts learned by heart. As for this question, it seems necessary to acknowledge the specific conditions of every ‘oral’ tradition: the categories of methodology must fit the object and be so fine-meshed that one catches the essential characteristics of the tradition. While Western theories and discussions are valuable as background and methodological equipment, it is no less important to look into the way Chinese scholars treat their own heritage, and it seems particularly fruitful to inquire into the storytellers’ and other oral artists’ own understanding of their art as reflected in their professional terminology. Most local traditions of storytelling have a rich reservoir of technical terms and slang expressions that are used by the insiders of the profession during discussions of their art or for the training of young novices. Many of these expressions are coined in ways reminiscent of nursery rhymes or jingles, enumerating various elements of oral narration. We shall often refer to such terminology, mainly that used by the Yangzhou storytellers, but also expressions of general impact in China.

Professional Storytelling

  • 1. The performed narrative arts of China—quyi

    Chinese oral and performing literature, as it exists today, is generally divided into two main categories: drama/opera xiqu, and performed narrative arts quyi. Quyi, a term which gained currency only after 1949, is almost synonymous with the former, more descriptive expression 'telling and singing arts' shuochang yishu. Both drama and quyi are professional arts whose performers make a living from their skill or at least are given remuneration for their performances. The fact that those arts are also sometimes practised by amateurs does not basically change their status in this respect. Oral arts which accompany daily life in a non-professional way, like folksongs, worksongs, jokes, riddles, sayings, nursery rhymes, etc., are thus excluded from the sphere of quyi, though they often constitute elements of the quyi genres. The term is none the less broad: It covers a wealth of different and locally founded genres of professionally performed oral arts-about 300 genres are currently registered among the 56 nationalities of China-based mainly on the telling of stories, singing of ballads/lyrics or a combination of both.

  • 2. General features of the performed arts

    The language of the modern quyi is closely related to the spoken dialects of the local areas. Some forms are exclusively in rhymed verse, some in prose, and some combine verse and prose passages. Acting and miming have an important place in most of these performing traditions, but the acting is generally—unlike the drama forms—characterized by 'one person acting out several roles' yi ren duo jue. The number of performers taking part in each session is usually restricted to one to three persons, and the stage props are likewise few and simple. Stringed instruments, drums and clappers are used for accompaniment with many of the quyi genres, while wind instruments are rare. Most of these genres can be traced back several hundred years in their literary and musical development, while some are of recent origin. Few genres have an individual history going further back than the 17th century. But telling and singing literature is found in a variety of older related genres which can be traced back to the Song and Tang dynasties, embryonic variants having been found in sources all the way back to the beginning of historical time in China. By the nature of this literature being primarily oral (and thus not literature at all in the etymological sense of that term), and formerly of low prestige, it is only to be expected that sources are often doubtful and much hidden in obscurity.

  • 3. Various forms of storytelling and Yangzhou storytelling

    Yangzhou storytelling Yangzhou pinghua belongs to the large family of quyi arts, called pingshu or pinghua, characterized by being purely spoken, i.e. with no musical or rhythmical accompaniment, and by length. In contrast to shorter forms of spoken quyi, such as Beijing xiangsheng and Sichuan xiangshu, where the jocular entertainment is kept within the limits of one session of performance, pingshu and pinghua storytellers as a rule tell long serialized tales, taking up a couple of months of daily sessions. The local varieties are called pinghua in the Southeast (e.g. Yangzhou pinghua, Suzhou pinghua, Hangzhou pinghua, Fuzhou pinghua) and pingshu in the northern and central areas (e.g. Ningxia pingshu, Sichuan pingshu, Hubei pingshu).

  • 4. The performance situation of pingshu and pinghua

    The performance situation is largely common to these forms of storytelling. As a rule there is only 'one man and one mouth' yi ren yi kou, i.e. one single artist, a male (more rarely female) storyteller—the storyteller master shuoshu xiansheng or the storyteller artist shuoshu yiren. He sits at a table and spins his yarn, his only requisites being a small stick, the so-called 'wakening-rod' xingmu (in Yangzhou storytelling called 'talking stopper' zhiyu), a handkerchief and a fan. With a sharp tap on the table the storyteller catches the attention of his audience, before he embarks on his story, and during performance he uses it a few times to create tension. But it is never used as a clapper or drum. Pinghua and pingshu are quite different from the genres with a rhythmic beat, such as clappertales kuaiban and drumtales dagu. The handkerchief and fan are used for performance purpose beside their ordinary use. The telling is accompanied by acting and mime, though in the style of acting local traditions differ. Thus Suzhou pinghua is characterized by a relatively high degree of freedom in the movements of the performer and larger gestures, 'wide open door' da kai men, whereas Yangzhou pinghua is characterized by smaller gestures and does not allow the storyteller to leave the table, 'half open door' xiao kai men.

  • 5. The spoken language of storytelling

    The fact that pinghua and pingshu belong to the spoken genres, told in local dialect, does not imply that the language is entirely in prose, nor that it is entirely in vernacular home tongue jiaxianghua. On the contrary, both verse passages, passages in literary Chinese wenyan, and officialese passages in heavy bookish style shumian yu, are part of the linguistic equipment of the storyteller. Some excel in the imitation of other dialects when rendering the speech of people from the various parts of the country. Moreover, the storyteller plays on a wide stylistic register of different sub-dialectal pronunciations as manifested in the speaking style or 'mouth' shuokou. Apart from dialectal differences, the specific selection and application of shuokou make important distinguishing features between the local genres which are further subdivided into different schools men or pai, distinguished by spoken style as well as by repertoire.

  • 6. Contents of storytelling

    The repertoires contain a large common stock of themes from Chinese history, legends and mythology, shared also by the dramatic arts and by the written legacy of the great novels: THREE KINGDOMS SAN GUO, WATER MARGIN SHUIHU, JOURNEY TO THE WEST XIYOU JI, etc. But each of the pinghua/pingshu genres also has stories unique to the local tradition. One example would be the tale of QINGFENG LOCK QINGFENGZHA, a trickster tale from local small merchant milieu. This tale originates in Yangzhou and is told exclusively in Yangzhou pinghua. Since the 1950s there has been a movement to revolutionize the contents of the storytellers' repertoires. This aim has been pursued by publishing traditional themes in 'corrected' editions and by creating modern works xiandai zuopin with themes from the War of Resistance, the Civil War and socialist reconstruction of the People's Republic. The texts for these performances are written by storytellers and other people interested in storytelling. They have-in contrast to most of the old oral traditions-a definite author. Most pieces are short, designed to be performed in one session of storytelling. The contents are strongly coloured by the political propaganda of their time. In Yangzhou storytelling a number of texts of this kind have been produced. The works of xiandai zuopin differ from the traditional art in many important ways. They must be considered a specific category to be treated apart, and they are only sporadically mentioned in this website.

  • 7. Yangzhou storytelling and storysinging

    The closest relative to Yangzhou pinghua is 'Yangzhou storytelling with stringed instrument' Yangzhou xianci, also called Yangzhou tanci, where sung and spoken passages alternate to the accompaniment of the three-stringed lute sanxian and/or the pear-bellied lute pipa. In Yangzhou xianci the spoken passages dominate-telling and singing is seven to three qifen shuo, sanfen chang-and are performed very much in the vein of Yangzhou pinghua. Many Yangzhou artists have been masters of both storytelling and storysinging, and there is still a close connection between the two: a young apprentice may start out as a storysinger and end up as a storyteller and vice versa. On the other hand, the two genres are not only differentiated by the absence/presence of song and music, but also by their repertoires. The themes of Yangzhou pinghua are divided into the 'major texts' da shu, i.e. the historical texts of SAN GUO, SHUIHU, THE TALE OF YUE FEI YUE ZHUAN, etc., and the 'minor texts' xiao shu, i.e. tales of marvels and martial adventure, detective stories, social satires and love stories, such as XIYOU JI, THREE KNIGHTS AND THREE SWORDSMEN SAN XIA JIAN, QINGFENGZHA, etc. Yangzhou xianci takes its repertoire exclusively from the latter kind of texts, especially love stories, e.g. A PAIR OF GOLDEN INGOTS SHUANG JIN DING, JADE DRAGONFLY YU QINGTING. Moreover the performers are often female.

History and milieu

  • 1. The eternal storyteller

    Whenever the children of the lanes and streets are naughty and their parents get annoyed, they hastily give them some coins and tell them to go and sit down to listen to stories about old times. When the tale of The Three Kingdoms is told, and they hear about the defeat of Liu Bei, they fret and some even shed tears. When they hear of Cao Cao's defeat, they become happy and applaud. This shows that the worthy man and the mean will both leave their mark, not to be erased in a hundred generations.

    Su Dongpo (1036-1101)

    Su Dongpo's famous remark on storytelling is complemented by a roughly contemporary masterpiece of art by Zhang Zeduan. His famous painted scroll from 1117, entitled ‘Spring Festival along the River’ Qingming shanghe tu, gives detailed pictures of daily life in the streets of the capital Bianjing. Right at the beginning of the long scroll one finds a storyteller’s booth under an awning at a corner of the street. The storyteller is actively entertaining a small audience of people who seem to have gathered around him while passing by. He turns his back halfways onto the onlooker of the painting, but one can see his profile, an old man with a thin beard, and the enchanted faces of his audience, standing in a halfcircle around his table. His advertises his business on a vertical tablet hanging outside his booth: ‘Explanations’. He pursues his metier in the same natural way as any other artisan in the picture: the wheelwright, the knife-grinder, the boatswain, the carrier, the innkeeper, the pedlar—the people of the ’hundred professions’. Isn't this the eternal Chinese storyteller coming to life before our eyes?

  • 2. The origins of professional storytelling in China

    The rise of professional storytelling in traditional China is a much-disputed question among literary historians. The dating of the earliest testimony of this art varies within a time span of about one thousand years, from the Han dynasty (202 bc—220 ad) to the late Song (960-1279).

    In written sources from the Han dynasty, pointing back to the distant past of early Zhou (c.1200 bc), we have some hints of situations that may have had some likeness to 'performance of stories'. One famous passage refers to the practice of summoning a blind person to recite poems and tell edifying matters to pregnant women during the night, conceived as one of the important ways to secure the birth of a healthy and virtuous child. There is, however, so little evidence about the situation and contents of the telling, that one can hardly conceive of this as a case of professional storytelling as known in China since the Song dynasty.

    When we look for the origins of Chinese storytelling, it is only natural that there should be a long prehistory of more or less informal 'telling of stories' leading up to the establishment of a professional genre of entertainment. The question is only how far one is willing to stretch the concept while looking for the roots. Since stories have been told from time immemorial in all human communities under all kinds of circumstances, we must find the distinctive vestiges that point to storytelling, rather than 'telling of stories'.

  • 3. Telling and singing figurines from the Han dynasty

    Storytelling in China is a time-honoured art. Some prefer to see the earliest evidence of this art in the so-called ‘telling and singing’ statuettes, excavated from Western Han dynasty (bc206-ad25) tombs. These wooden or clay figurines look like male entertainers of a sort, with lively gestures and a face full of humour, sometimes with a drum in one hand. What kind of entertaining they represent, and how far they may be compared to the professional storytellers in China a millenium later, is a nebulous question.

    In 1957 a so-called ’storyteller figurine’ shuoshu yong was found in a Han tomb in Sichuan, and in 1979 two similar statuettes, called 'telling and singing figurines' shuochang yong, were excavated from a site of four Han tombs in the vicinity of Yangzhou. The 'telling and singing figurines' from Yangzhou were found together with twenty-eight other statuettes, defined as either servants, dancers, jokers or 'telling and singing' entertainers. From the looks of these figures little can be deduced with any certainty about the relationship of their activities to the narration of stories—much less to professional storytelling. Nevertheless, the facial expressions of these two figurines are especially fascinating; they do, indeed, seem to exhibit the enchanted smile of somebody carried away by his own story. One of the important outcomes of the finding of these expressive figures is the impetus they are giving to studies of early Chinese entertainment activities, rather than any proof—so far—of professional storytelling in China during Han times. The naming of the figurines reflects the growing awareness of the difference between the more narrowly defined activity of 'storytelling' shuoshu—professionally performed narration of tales with non-religious contents—and the comprehensive idea of 'telling and singing' shuochang, enveloping all kinds of professional and non-professional oral entertainment.

  • 4. ’Transformation’ performances from the Tang dynasty

    From the Tang period a corpus of texts remains, written in an idiom close to the spoken language of the time, the so-called 'transformation texts' bianwen. The texts represent the earliest writings in vernacular prose with inserted verse passages. The body of texts contains tales both of religious and secular content. The Buddhist miraculous 'transformations' are considered to have been developed from the oral preaching of Buddhist sutras which have been practised since the fourth century ad. The bianwen texts with secular content treat the adventurous lives of historical characters.

    The transmitted texts seem ultimately to have been written down under inspiration from oral performances, probably accompanied by the showing of picture scrolls. The bianwen texts represent a link between early Buddhist preaching of sermons, colportage of Confucian morality in tales of historical models, and pure entertainment in tales of historical adventure. The differences between these Tang texts and the written materials connected with storytelling during the Song dynasty should, however, not be overlooked. The broad variety of entertaining arts during Song suggests that the bianwen tradition can be viewed as the forerunner of one or several of the different genres of 'telling and singing literature' shuo chang wenyi, but we cannot necessarily establish a direct and exclusive link to 'storytelling' in the more narrow sense, shuohua, shuoshu. The fact that 'telling of stories' was usually called shuo hua during the Tang period, does not imply that the term had already at this time acquired the specific meaning of professional storytelling which it had during the Song period.

  • 5. Professional storytelling during the Song dynasty

    There is ample historical evidence of the popularity of professional storytelling in China for more than a thousand years. Storytelling was one of the major forms of entertainment in the medieval cities of the Song period (906-1279), as described in several sources on the distractions of the pleasure districts of the capital. The storytelling practised during Song, called 'telling tales' shuohua, contained both spoken and sung performances, often in combination, and many of the themes told are still part of today's storytellers' repertoire. Shuohua is generally recognized as the immediate predecessor of Ming and Qing storytelling, called 'telling books' or 'telling texts' shuoshu which is the form that has survived to the present. The development that has taken place in Chinese storytelling from Song until today is no less important, but the basic framework of the genre, the manner of performance and the professional status of the performers, are features that have remained stable.

    During the Song dynasty, storytelling in the sense of professional performance of secular stories had become a remarkable feature of city life. Records of storytellers' activities are found in a handful of contemporary descriptions from the principal towns. Storytelling took place at the temple fairs, in entertainment areas and booths, in teahouses and wineshops. On festive occasions a storyteller might be invited to perform in the private homes of the leisured classes, and even at the court. There are also indications that storytellers of poorer standing performed in the countryside.

    In a contemporary description from the amusement district of the Song capital, Bianjing, we find the names of individual storytellers, categorized according to theme: 'expounding history' jiangshi (five names), 'adventure' xiaoshuo (six names), 'telling jokes' shuo hunhua (one name), 'telling about Three Kingdoms' shuo san fen (one name), 'telling about Five Dynasties' wu dai shi (one name). Generally storytelling was divided into four schools si jia which are slightly differently characterized in the various sources, but can be summed up in the following groups: 'stories of love and marvel' yinzi'er; 'stories of crime and adventure' shuo gong'an, shuo tieqi'er; 'stories from the Buddhist classics' shuo jing; 'stories from history' jiang shi shu. The oral performance was mainly in prose, but poems were recited or sung in between. Another important characteristic of the early storytelling was the cracking of jokes.

  • 6. Storytelling, storybooks and folkbooks from Yuan to Ming

    The art of storytelling continued to play an essential role in the cultural life of the Chinese population, in town and countryside alike. The way of performance preserved essential characteristics of the genre as evidenced in the earliest sources. Some of the major constant features are: the professional status of the performer; the division of the artists according to repertoire; the shifting between prose and poetry during performance; the length of the tales leading to continued series of performances that are told and acted out in daily installments over an extended period of time. Some themes going back to the Song period are even today part of the storytellers’ repertoire, such as the semi-historical tale of ‘Three Kingdoms’. This saga was told in the bazaars of the Song capital, called ‘Telling about the Division into Three Parts’.

    During the Yuan (1279-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties there was a rich development of subgenres of storytelling, and at the same time writings connected with the storytellers' tales became extremely popular. Already during Song printing of folkbooks began, called ’plain tales’ pinghua, using the genrename of certain storytelling genres. Another written genre with close ties to storytelling was the short story found in ’storybooks’ huaben. Later these books and story collections developed into independent genres of written colloquial literature, deeply influencing the creation of the great Chinese novels zhanghui xiaoshuo. The relation between the written texts and the oral tradition is a much disputed theme. Obviously, works in the written tradition are dependent on already existing oral material (plots, mythologies, etc.), but as that tradition is established, the reverse also becomes true. The written versions reciprocally gain impact on the storytellers' art.s

  • 7. Four hundred years of Yangzhou storytelling

    The present website is concerned mainly with the storytelling from Yangzhou, one of the places in China where storytelling of the pinghua type has a very long and glorious history. Yangzhou is an old town in Jiangsu province, situated in the Lower Yangzi area, between Shanghai and Nanjing. At this place the Grand Canal, artificially created to serve transportation between south and north China, opens into the Yangzi River. This was formerly a key position for communication and commerce. Since the Tang and Song periods, Yangzhou’s position at the junction of the main waterways, helped the town to become one of the major administrative centers of China. The economic situation of the town and the countryside were supportive for the entertaining arts, such as storytelling.

    During the Ming dynasty Yangzhou became one of the most important cultural and commercial centres of China, based on its administration of the salt monopoly, its strategic position for waterway communication, and its rich traditions in handicraft. From the end of the Ming dynasty, storytelling grew immensely popular in the milieu of well-to-do merchants and shopkeepers.

    From the end of the Ming period we have historical sources that mention names of storytellers from Yangzhou and their repertoires, such as ‘Water Margin’, ‘Three Kingdoms’ and other tales. Storytellers of reputation are mentioned in topographical works from the 18th century. From the beginning of the 19th century we have detailed accounts about the various ‘schools’ or lineages of storytellers from the area. The storytellers who told ‘Water Margin’ and ‘Three Kingdoms’ belonged to large ‘schools’ with many ramifications, ultimately going back to four honorable masters from the beginning of the 19th century. During the early years of the Republic (1911-1949) a new oral saga was created in Yangzhou storytelling, taking its theme from the ‘Journey to the west’, another famous Ming novel with early oral-related prototypes. The three themes of ‘Three Kingdoms’, ‘Water margin’ and ‘Journey to the West’ represent a universe of fact, fiction and fantasy that is most beloved among the Chinese. On this website, Sagas of storytelling, you will find extracts told by the Yangzhou master tellers of our time.

    At the time of the 1911 revolution, storytelling was at a high tide. There was a great demand for this kind of entertainment where political comment on the issues of the day might often be interspersed into the traditional tales in a humorous way of double-entendre. The first half of the twentieth century brought the folklorists attention to the art. A vast effort, backed up by government aid during the 1950s, was made to preserve the storytellers’ repertoire in printed books for the general reader. On the other side, the preservation of the oral art as such was given scanty support, and periodically the storytellers’ life conditions were outright neglected. From the 1960s to the 1980s many performers were driven out of their profession and had to find other occupation.

    The earlier system of mutual cooperation between teahouse owners and storytellers in attracting the public was heavily undermined during the 1960s. State ownership of the performance arenas meant, more often than not, closing down of the former entertainment places. During the Cultural Revolution 1966-76 the storytellers’ traditional repertoires were strictly banned and many performers persecuted.

    During the last twenty years new possibilities have opened up. But at the same time the storytellers are now confronting what seems to be the greatest challenge of the oral arts: the modern media world. In order to attract their audience, they must compete not only with the modern electronic media, but they must adapt somehow to the changing habits and lifestyle of the modernized country. The storytellers have been able to survive into the new millenium. Will they survive in the new society? The last word has not been said on this question.

  • 8. Life of Liu Jingting (1587-ca.1670), ’Father of Chinese Storytelling’

    The celebrated storyteller Liu Jingting (1592—1674) from Taizhou in the vicinity of Yangzhou, began to practise his art in the cities of the lower Yangzi area: Yangzhou, Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Nanjing, and later he visited Beijing several times. His performances of historical tales such as Western Han Xi Han, Sui and Tang Sui Tang and Water Margin Shuihu, were highly appreciated wherever he went. His biography is fairly well recorded and there exist several eyewitness reports of his performances.

    Liu Jingting was inheriting and transmitting in a creative way an oral tradition already well established at the time. He seems to have performed mainly on invitation in private homes, so-called 'salons' tanghui, a habit that became widespread not only among the rich, but also among the ordinary citizens on festive occasions.

    The question of which dialect Liu Jingting spoke in his performances is not clear. It has been argued that since he was able to perform not only in the area around Yangzhou, but also in Beijing and in Suzhou, it is not unlikely that he actually spoke Yangzhou dialect, because this dialect belongs to the Northern dialects, affiliated to the normative 'officials' language' or Mandarin, which would be relatively understandable to people both from the North and the South. In his time storytelling (without singing) and storysinging were not clearly separate genres. Because of his eminence, he is generally considered 'the father of storytelling' in China, and honoured as the ancestor of the pinghua and tanci traditions of both Yangzhou, Suzhou and Hangzhou.

    In the biographical sources on Liu Jingting, some other storytellers from Yangzhou are mentioned by name, but nothing further is recorded of them. However, one of his students, Ju Fuchen from Yangzhou, is known to have continued his master's tradition of stories from Sui Tang in the late 1680s and is given much praise in contemporary sources.

  • 9. Liu Jingting in performance

    "The pockmarked Liu from Nanjing had a dark complexion and in his face there were lots of scars and pimples. He was careless and indifferent about his looks, as if he were made from clay or wood. He was a master in storytelling. He told one session of storytelling a day. The price was a tael of silver. Even if you came ten days ahead to make an appointment and pay the fee, you could not be sure he would be free ... I once heard him perform in the plain style of telling (without musical accompaniment) the tale of 'Wu Song fights the tiger on Jingyang Mountain', and it was very different from the version transmitted in books. His descriptions and illustrations went into the finest details, but he also knew where to cut the thread and make a pause, and he never became talkative. His voice rang out like a big bell. Whenever he came to an exciting point, he bellowed and raged so that the noise seemed to make the house fall down. At the point where Wu Song arrives in the inn and orders wine, there is nobody in the inn. At the sudden outcry of Wu Song, the empty jars and pots send out a ringing sound. Thus he would add colour to every interval, and he did his utmost in his care for detail. Only when his hosts were sitting quite attentively and cocking their ears to listen, would he begin to tell. But if he noticed some among the servants whispering to each other, or if the listeners were yawning or showing other signs of sleepiness, he would stop immediately, and nobody could force him to start again. Every evening when the tables had been wiped and the lamps snuffed, and the simple tea bowls were passed around in all calm, he would slowly begin to tell ... "

    Extract from Zhang Dai (1597-1684?): Tao yan meng yi. Zhang Dai witnessed Liu Jingting’s performance in 1638.

  • 10. The milieu of storytelling in old Yangzhou

    In the outstanding topographical work Yangzhou huafang lu [Reminiscences from the Pleasure Boats of Yangzhou], 1793, the playwright and folklorist Li Dou gives lively descriptions of daily life and customs in Yangzhou. This exceptional author is the first to write in some detail about Yangzhou storytelling and other oral arts. Folklore and the telling and singing arts of the people—shuochang —were generally despised by the intellectuals and scholars of Ming and Qing, and therefore such activities were hardly ever mentioned. Li Dou on the other hand, writes about the contemporary activities of storytelling going on in special pleasure-boats, called 'song boats' gechuan, as well as in teahouses chasi, chashe, wineshops jiulou and storytellers' houses shuchang. The arrangement of the storytellers' houses is described as follows:

    There are seats on all four sides. In the middle is the storyteller 's stage. At the door hangs the advertisement: on top three horizontal characters, the name of the storyteller; below four vertical characters, the title of his tale. The owner of the house and the storyteller take turns collecting the income every other day. If the income amounts to one thousand it is considered a reputable feat. These [shuchang] are found in every street and every lane.

    Li Dou gives sketchy biographical information about a handful of storytellers and mentions by name more than twenty persons together with their repertoires. The specific brilliance of the performance of the renowned artists is described in short comments. Thus Wu Tianxu, who told the historical epic of San Guo Zhi, was famous for the way he would keep his sound back, so that it was as if it came from the hearts of his audience, rather than from his mouth. Xu Guangru who told Dong Han, and Wang Deshan who told Shuihu Ji, were mentioned among the foremost artists. Among the tales of this period are some that were created by storytellers on autobiographical background, rather than history or legend: Qingfengzha by Pu Lin, The Braggart's Tale Feituo Zhuan by Zou Bixian. These were satirical and highly humorous accounts of the adventures of small gamblers and tricksters on the bottom of the social ladder in town, incorporating a rich amount of local slang.

    Yangzhou was a cultural centre where all kinds of performing arts thrived, not only storytelling. There was fruitful contact and influence between the various arts, and many storytellers came from the milieu of opera singers, ballad singers and vice versa. This had deep impact on the performing practice. Many of the famous storytellers were well-educated people who had relinguished the pursuit of an academic career and chosen the life of an artiste. From the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century we know about many extraordinary storytellers from Yangzhou: Ye Ying (1733-1797), Wang Jingshan (c.1800), Xue Jiahong (c.1800), Jin Guocan (c.1830). Their repertoires were mainly from San Guo, Shuihu, Yue Zhuan and other historical themes.

    During the Daoguang period (1821-1851) the economy of Yangzhou was severely damaged, because the two most important enterprises of the town were broken up: the system of the salt monopoly and the grain transportation on the Grand Canal. On top of that, the town was severely devastated under the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). The situation was critical for the storytellers ; they had to seek refuge in the countryside and look for new audiences among the peasants and small businessmen. This led to greater mobility of the storytellers, who had earlier mostly practised their art inside the town. Now they began to tour all the hamlets and townships in the surrounding countryside. The audience grew steadily, and at the end of the Qing dynasty there was a regular boom of interest in this entertainment. Some 200-300 hundred storytellers were active in the area. The middle of the eighteenth century inaugurates the period from which we can follow the main schools of Yangzhou storytelling in uninterrupted oral tradition up to the present.

    In the twentieth century the geographical and organizational features that formerly gave the town of Yangzhou advantages in the economical sphere have been further undermined, especially since the Shanghai-Nanjing railway was built in the 1930s, passing south of Yangzhou. Left a little out-of-the-way, the town has, however, preserved many old-fashioned characteristics of custom and lifestyle, and the storytellers' art has survived as a living tradition among the inhabitants of the crooked lanes and streets.

  • 11. The traditional storytellers' house—shuchang

    When the storytellers of today speak of 'how things used to be', they like to refer to a not so distant time when Yangzhou alone had more than twenty storytellers' houses shuchang, not to speak of all the shuchang found in the whole area where Yangzhou pinghua was regularly performed, along the lower Yangzi River. Many of these places were wineshops or teahouses, where storytelling was performed in addition to the serving of meals and drink. But others were established especially with a view to storytelling, while tea and snacks were served in addition. The latter category were sometimes called 'storytellers' societies' shushe. The most respectable shushe or shuchang were situated in the area called Jiaochang in the heart of the town.

    A young inexperienced storyteller had to begin his career in the more vulgar places outside the four city-gates. Only after acquiring a name for himself would he be invited to perform in the shuchang inside the walls, and only after having refined his art in these places, would he be invited to one of the six famous shushe in the inner circle of Jiaochang. Highest prestige was attached to the 'Enlightenment of the People Storytellers' Society' Xing min shushe. After one season of performance at this place, the storyteller's fame would spread all over the region, north and south of the River.

    According to old custom, at the main entrance of a storytellers' house there would be placed a bamboo pole carrying a tablet with the inscription:

    tan jin lun gu,
    xing shi liang yan
    Telling about the present and contemplating the past,
    good words to enlighten the world

    On the wall was glued a scroll of red paper with the name of the storyteller currently performing and the title of his story, called 'red on the door' men hong.

    Inside there would always be an oven for heating water in big kettles. The audience would be seated on long benches with long rectangular tables. In the back there would be a storytellers' stage shutai with a table covered by a red silken cloth embroidered with the name of the storytellers' house. On the table were placed a teapot and teacup, and also two big bowls: one to the left for collecting the fee for tea and storytelling shuchaqian (to be divided between the owner of the house and the storyteller), and one to the right for collecting extra fees xiaozhuanqian in case the audience asked for encores after the main story (this fee was only for the storyteller).

  • 12. The storytelling event of the recent past

    Storytelling would usually take place twice a day: in the afternoon from 2-5 pm and in the evening from 7-10 pm. Before the beginning of the day's performance the owner of the house changdong used to stand at the entrance and receive the guests. After the audience had taken their seats the waiters, so-called 'tea masters' chafang would come round with teacups for everybody and serve hot water from their kettles, often followed by vendors with big baskets, peddling all kinds of local sweets. The storyteller would mount the stage on time, taking his seat at the storyteller's table. With a sharp tap from his stick, he would bring the audience to silence, and the 'tea master' would shout:

    Kai kou!
    He opens his mouth!

    The storyteller's performance would be divided into four parts duanzi. After the first part there would be a short break, and the owner would send around the big bowl to the left to collect the fee for tea and storytelling. After the second part, the waiters would prepare hot napkins for the audience to wipe their faces, add hot water into their cups and pots, and sometimes also serve a light meal, called 'afternoon' xiawu. After the third part the waiters would collect the fees for sweets and meals. When coming to the end of the fourth part, the storyteller would do his best to 'bargain the crisis' mai guanzi to keep the interest of his public. If the audience were so enthralled that they did not want to leave, they would applaud and shout:

    Dazhuan! Dazhuan!
    Encore, encore!

    Then the owner would take the bowl to the right and pass it round. Only when the storyteller had finished this extra part, would the 'tea master' shout:

    Ming'er qing zao!
    Please come early tomorrow!

    When all the customers had left the place, the storyteller would step down from the stage, drink a cup of tea and divide the day's income with the owner of the house, a custom going back to the eighteenth century.

    The above description gives a picture of how Yangzhou storytellers, perhaps in a somewhat nostalgic light, imagine the setting of their art during the prosperous years of yesterday. The Anti-Japanese War 1937-1945 and the Civil War 1945-1949, the social reorganization after 1949, the Cultural Revolution 1966-1976, and the Four Modernizations of the 1980s, have brought fundamental changes to this picture, as has the introduction of modern mass media.

    The private ownership of the storytellers' houses has been transferred to public ownership, while most places have been closed down. The guilds in which the storytellers were formerly organized have been dissolved, and in their place the storytellers have been received into the establishment of art workers, organized in hierarchical structures from national level to provincial and local level, the basic unit being 'The League of Performing Narrative Art Workers of Yangzhou City' Yangzhou shi quyi tuan. The older generation of storytellers are now retired and have a pension. They will usually only give performances if specially invited to cultural festivals and similar occasions. Many former storytellers are not registered as 'art workers' any more, but have changed profession, although they may still give performances, when occasion permits. Younger people who have received some education in storytelling and who may give performances, most often have their primary work in other units.

    What with all the drastic transformations of the social, organizational and economic foundation of the art, it is amazing that Yangzhou pinghua has survived and can still be enjoyed day after day in the 'Great Enlightenment Storytellers' House' Da guangming shuchang, situated in one of the lanes in the southern part of the old Jiaochang area.

  • 13. Great Enlightenment Storytellers' House

    Great Enlightenment Storytellers’ House Da guangming shuchang was opened in 1987, after the remaining old storytellers' houses of Jiaochang had all closed at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Before 1990 the performance of Yangzhou pinghua and Yangzhou tanci took place in the main hall, seating more than 500 people.

    The illuminated stage was placed in the middle of the high-ceilinged hall, where a sombre half-light reigned. The storyteller's table was furnished with a red tablecloth and a microphone. The audience occupied long wooden benches arranged in amphitheatre fashion. The majority were elderly male, but elderly women were also frequent customers, and middle aged of both sexes could be seen. Daily sessions of storytelling took place from 2-4 pm. A storyteller would be hired to perform a cyclus of tales taking up 2-3 months of daily performances. The hall was regularly used for other purposes, such as dancing.

    In the beginning of the 1990s, the main hall was taken over completely for other activities, and Yangzhou storytelling and storysinging had been moved to a smaller room on the second floor. This place was lighter, seemed better isolated and neater. The wooden benches had been exchanged for upholstered seats with backs, but the capacity could not be much more than 150 people at most. In this room there were daily storytelling sessions in the afternoon, each storyteller performing a cyclus lasting several months.

    The wall behind the stage in the new room was covered with large red drapery, adorned with the slogan of 'Let a hundred flowers bloom! Let the old be weeded through to bring forth the new!' bai hua qi fang, tui chen chu xin together with a large picture of a fan and a pipa, symbols of the performed arts quyi. On each side of the drapery there was a wooden tablet with the antithetical couplets:

    Lun gu tan jin, hui ren yi gui
    Liang yan xing shi, yu jiao yu le
    Contemplating the past and telling about the present, teaching so as to advise!
    Good words to enlighten the world, instruction infused in amusement!

    These tablets were, of course, made in imitation of the old tablets at the entrance of the storytellers' houses of former times. Outside the main door of Da guangming shuchang, the current programme was advertised, not on the traditional red scrolls, but on a large frame of white paper, written in fancy characters.

  • 14. The storytelling event today

    Storytelling in Great Enlightenment Storytellers’ House Da guangming shuchang takes place in the afternoon from 2-4 pm. At the entrance to the building there is a ticket office and the customers pay a few coppers to cover both storytelling fee and hot water for tea. The audience, constisting mainly of elderly men who attend the storytelling regularly, arrives well before the time of performance. It is not an expensive and exclusive activity. Most people can afford to attend, if only they have the interest and time to spare, and the daily customers obviously represents the ordinary population of central Yangzhou. Female assistants carry around large kettles of boiling water. People bring their own cups and tea leaves. The formulaic cries of the 'tea master' at the beginning and end of the performance have gone out of use. But the lively chatting, eating of melon seeds, coughing and spitting are features still adding to the cheerful and homely atmosphere.

    The session, called ’a day of storytelling’ yitian shu, consists of two parts duanzi with a ten minutes break after the first hour. The storyteller is usually very precise, mounting the stage exactly on time, and first thing, placing his watch on the table. (The watch seems to be indispensable nowadays, although it is never mentioned when the storytellers enumerate the items necessary for performing). He sits on a high chair which will both give him more room for movements and better allow the audience to watch him.

    The storyteller is dressed in a long, grey or brown, traditional man's gown chang paozi which is seldom used in ordinary life in Yangzhou, although some old men still like to wear this dress. For regular storytelling in the storytellers' house, male performers usually dress up like this, but in other places, such as schools or hotels, they prefer to perform in ordinary clothes. The female storytellers and storysingers are dressed in slacks and blouse, the normal female dress of today, but they obviously put on their best clothes. They do, however, not wear a particular acctresses’ dress. [This is for example a striking difference from the appearance of female storysingers of Suzhou who dress up in the close-fitting silken dress with slit skirt qipao.]

    The moment the storyteller beats the table with his stick, the audience will immediately turn silent, although there might always be a few latecomers jostling for a seat. The audience listens attentively, but the noise from coughing and clearing of throats inevitably forms a continuous accompaniment to the performance. After the first duanzi, the storyteller leaves the stage and retires to a small side room. Cheerful conversation immediately starts buzzing in the resounding hall. The assistants walk around and refill the cups with hot water. Some members of the audience move outside the building to stretch their legs and talk with friends. Some enjoy little snacks that they have brought with them, but there are no vendors of sweets and hot napkins are not available as in the old days.

    Exactly on time the storyteller returns and once more begins his tale with a tap of his small stick. When he finishes the second and final part, the audience rises the very moment he says his last sentence and promptly leaves the hall, laughing and chatting. [No applause, as would be expected in the West.] It seems that the audience expresses satisfaction with the performance exactly by the quick reaction in getting up the very second the story comes to an end.

  • 15. Other arenas of storytelling

    Great Enlightenment Storytellers’ House Da guangming shuchang is not the only place in Yangzhou where storytelling and storysinging are regularly performed nowadays, but it is the only place in the town where daily performances of long tales are performed all year round during the appropriate seasons. Storytelling and -singing are also performed quite regularly in recreation centres such as Guangling Culture Station Guangling wenhua zhan, situated in the eastern part of the town. But in these places storytelling is arranged only occasionally, often in weekends, as a kind of get-together for old aficionados of the art, as well as being a cultural activity offered to the local inhabitants. There are often several performers in the entertainment of an afternoon, and only selected titbits are performed, without being continued. However, the arrangement of the performance by and large follows the above description, and the serving of tea is a mandatory ingredient of the whole.

    Schools and hotels now and then arrange storytelling as entertainment on special occasions. But such performances usually serve as a kind of ’side dish’, in order to add 'local colour' to the arrangement proper. They are short intermezzos of half an hour or less, to humour an audience that has come together for more 'serious' matters. The storyteller often performs in a standing position, with neither table nor chair and without his requisites, storyteller's stick, etc. There is no drinking of tea, and the audience is special for each occasion: a gathering of students, a group of tourists, a delegation of politicians or businessmen, etc. The acting and contents of these performances are also dissimilar in many aspects to the traditional style of Yangzhou pinghua.

    As mentioned above, Yangzhou storytelling and -singing is performed not only in the city of Yangzhou, but also in many other towns all over the area where the Yangzhou dialect is spoken. In Nanjing and Shanghai there are large populations of people speaking Yangzhou dialect, and Yangzhou pinghua has traditionally had famous storytellers' houses here, too. As far back as memory goes, the professional storytellers have always been on the roads, travelling from one place to another, taking turns to perform their repertoires for a couple of months at one place after another. Although the storytellers of today are on a monthly salary, and not directly dependent on the income from their performances, this is still their habitual way of life.

Masters and disciples

  • 1. ‘The father of storytelling’

    The storytellers of former times were paid for their performances and made their living from it. To which degree they were educated formally in their profession is often left to the imagination. The first renowned storyteller of China, whose life is well documented, is Liu Jingting (1587-c.1670), born in Taizhou in the prefecture of Yangzhou.

    He appears to have been more or less self-taught and picked up storytelling from listening to other storytellers in his childhood and youth. He also had an informal teacher, a scholar friend who was an amateur storyteller. His eminence in the art was obviously obtained on the background of a pre-existing rich milieu of storytelling. Even though he is in modern times honoured as ’the father of storytelling’, he was by no means ’inventing’ the art. But he was among the famous artists whose brilliant performance brought glory to the profession as such. He was even received by the emperor and performed for him. Usually he seems to have performed mainly on invitation in private homes, so-called ‘salons’ tanghui, a habit that became widespread not only among the rich, but also among the ordinary citizens on festive occasions. His life and activities were closely attached to the Lower Yangzi area, especially Yangzhou, Hangzhou, Suzhou and Nanjing, although he also spent part of his life in Beijing and other places. He is honoured in China at large because of his influence, not only on Yangzhou storytelling, but also on Hangzhou and Suzhou storytelling and storysinging.

  • 2. Early masters

    During the seventeenth and eighteenth century the sources mainly inform about the names of individual storytellers from Yangzhou and their repertoires, sometimes adding an anecdote or two about their lives or performances. Wu Tianxu, active during the middle of the eighteenth century, was a storyteller of Three Kingdoms, famous for the way he once imitated the thunderous voice of one of the heroes, Zhang Fei, by using silence instead of sound:

    When he came to the point where Zhang Fei’s voice makes the bridge fall down, he first put up a face just like he was going to give a shout. Everyone was cocking his ears, but he would only open his mouth, roll his eyes and gesture with his hands, but still no sound. Even so, in the hall packed with listeners, everyone had the impression of an earthshaking thunder striking their ears. He commented to someone: ‘Could one ever equal the voice of Zhang Fei? To equal it, instead of making the sound with my mouth, I made it spring from everybody’s heart, and only thus can it be achieved’.
    Li Dou: Yangzhou huafang lu, 1793

    By keeping his own voice silent, it was as if an ear-splitting sound broke forth in the imagination of his audience.

    Xu Guangru who told Eastern Han Dong Han and Wang Deshan who told the Record of Water Margin Shuihu ji, were also among the foremost artists of this period. Some new repertoires were based on autobiographical experiences rather than on history or legend: Qingfeng Lock Qingfengzha by Pu Lin and the Braggart’s Tale Feituo zhuan by Zou Bixian. The Braggart’s Tale has survived as a written novel, but is lost in oral tradition. Qingfeng Lock is still part of the living repertoire of Yangzhou storytelling. Pu Lin (c. 1750), the author of Qingfengzha, grew up as an orphan and beggar. He began to learn storytelling with a relative of his wife. It is told about another renowned storyteller from the same time, Xu Guangru, how at first he was a poor storyteller of no special talent, but once when he was very depressed about his metier, he met an old man who taught him the secrets of becoming a master-teller. The latter story is considered interesting and worth recording, but how he became an ordinary small storyteller in the first place is not deemed worthy of many words. The sources are more or less reticent about the ordinary practice of training for the profession of storyteller.

    From around the turn of the nineteenth century, names of many master tellers from Yangzhou are known: Ye Ying, Wang Jingshan, Xue Jiahong, Jin Guocan. Their repertoires were mainly from Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Tale of Yue Fei (Yue zhuan) and other historical themes. Several of them were drop-outs from the upper-class learned society and belonged to the eccentrics, who were well read but did not follow the beaten track. Their success in storytelling seems to have been based both on their reading and their ability to adapt themselves to the oral tradition. However, the sporadic jottings about these artists in historical sources from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, seldom give information about the transmission of the repertoires or the master-apprentice relationship between the performers.

  • 3. Schools of storytelling

    The concept of storytellers' 'schools', called ’door’ men, ’house’ jia or ’branch’ pai, should be understood in the context of transmission from master to disciple of repertoire and performance technique. In the description of the development of Yangzhou storytelling from c.1600-1850, certain themes, such as San Guo, Shuihu turn up again and again. But one cannot speak about 'schools' yet, because too little is known about the transmission. Only the names of single famous storytellers and their repertoires are extant, but it is not possible to follow the transmission from one master to his students and from these students on to further students.

    However, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, individual storytellers trace their master-disciple ancestors through as much as seven generations of unbroken transmission. Yangzhou storytelling, like other local traditions of storytelling in China, is from this period divided into a number of specific ‘schools’ menpai of storytelling, classified according to repertoires and founding masters. Each lineage or school of storytelling has not only a specific repertoire, but also a particular style and narrative technique. The main schools with unbroken transmission from the 1800s until today are:

    Li School of Three Kingdoms
    Founding master: Li Guohui

    Ren School of Three Kingdoms
    Founding master: Ren Decheng
    (Also called: Lan School after a later master)

    Deng School of Water Margin
    Founding master: Deng Guangdou

    Song School of Water Margin
    Founding master: Xu Dianzhang

    School of Qingfeng Lock
    Founding masters: Pu Lin and Gong Wuting

    Wang School of Green Peony
    Founding master: Wang Kunshan

    Apart from these traditions, Yangzhou storytelling comprises about sixty other titles of novel-length sagas, called ‘books’ shu, part of which are now extinct in oral transmission.

    The oldest and major schools of Yangzhou storytelling have grown up around the themes of Water Margin and Three Kingdoms. Around the turn of the twentieth century a new cycle of tales was created on the background of the written novel Journey to the West. Dai Shanzhang, the founding father of this school, re-created the written stuff material of the novel according to the tradition of Yangzhou storytelling, basing himself on the oral practice of his original repertoire of the cycle Western Han.

    The following tables of storytellers’ schools represent a simplified survey of the relationship between masters and disciples. They are, however, not exhaustive: Since only some of the storytellers of the same school are related by blood, the lineages comprise both family relationships and pure master/student relationships. However, it was quite common for a student to frequent several masters and perhaps learn something from different schools, which he combined in his own performances. Or a student might be the son of a storyteller, but later study with other storytellers as well. These more complicated relationships are generally not incorporated in the tables at hand.

  • 4. Deng School of Water Margin

  • 5. Song School of Water Margin

  • 6. Li School of Three Kingdoms

  • 7. Ren School of Three Kingdoms

  • 8. Dai School of Journey to the West

  • 9. The repertoires

    The repertoires of storytelling are drawn mainly from the fount of historical and legendary themes, popular all over China in a wide range of oral and written genres. Between the drama, novel and quyi versions of these stories there is a common frame of reference to both main characters and plot, but the oral versions are relatively independent from the written novels and the drama, although there do exist intricate patterns of mutual borrowing. In Yangzhou pinghua, not only the dialectal form, but also the incorporation of numerous characteristic details from daily life in Yangzhou add to the local flavour.

    In a survey from 1993, the traditional themes, shumu or shu, of Yangzhou pinghua are estimated to sixty-seven works, among which twenty-two themes are counted as extinct, in most cases leaving little more than the titles of the themes behind.

    By word of mouth, generation after generation of storytellers have handed down the tradition of their masters, polishing and reworking the stories, recreating their own versions. The general idea is that the story grows better the longer it grows.

  • 10. Water Margin in Yangzhou Storytelling

    The saga of Water Margin in Yangzhou storytelling of today is transmitted in two major hereditary lines, the Deng School and the Song School. Ultimately the oral transmission is traced back to Liu Jingting around 1600. Historical sources, however, do not allow us to establish a direct lineage from his time to present-day storytellers. Water Margin, as transmitted in an unbroken chain from master to disciple, goes back in direct lineage seven generations to the founding father Deng Guangdou (fl.1821-1862), the founder of the so-called Deng school of Water Margin. There is also a parallel lineage going five generations back to Xu Dianzhang (fl.1821-1862) and his disciple Song Chengzhang (fl.1862-1908), after whom the Song school of Water Margin was named.

  • 11. The Wang school of Water Margin

    The Wang school of Water Margin Wangpai Shuihu takes its name from the most famous storyteller in China in this century, Wang Shaotang (1889-1968) and his descendants. His art was considered equal to that of the world-famous opera actor Mei Lanfang. The saying was:

    In opera, you have to hear Mei Lanfang
    In storytelling, you have to hear Wang Shaotang

    The history of the Wang school goes back four generations as a family tradition and its repertoire consists mainly of four ten-chapter cycles telling the adventures of four famous heroes among the outlaws in Shandong during the twelth century, Wu Song, Song Jiang, Shi Xiu and Lu Junyi.

    In their youth Wang Shaotang’s father and uncle changed profession from small moneylenders to storytellers. The two brothers studied with masters from the two lines of Water Margin, one of them belonging to the Deng school, the other to the Song school. Wang Shaotang’s father, Wang Yutang, combined elements from both schools in his repertoire, and Wang Shaotang further developed this trend and also learned much from other contemporary great masters. He was a highly creative artist. Through studies as well as personal life experience he managed to elaborate and expand his performances to about double length of his elders.

    Wang Shaotang was extremely careful and strict in his education of heirs. Since he had no son of his own, he accepted and adopted his brother’s son Wang Xiaotang (1918-2000) as his son and disciple. Later Wang Xiaotang’s daughter Wang Litang (1942-) was also educated in the family tradition, both by her father and grandfather. There were also storytellers from other schools, who wanted to learn from him and took a personal initiative in this direction, such as his colleague Ma Fengzhang (1899-1965) and the young artist Li Xintang (1935-), who also studied with Wang Xiaotang. In 1960-61 the government arranged for a group of young aspiring storytellers to have classes with the old master, Ren Jitang (1942-), Hui Zhaolong (1945-) (also a student of Ma Fengzhang 1899-1965) and his last student (guanmen dizi), Chen Yintang (1951-). They studied irregularly under his guidance for a couple of years and some of them continued as students of Wang Xiaotang and Wang Litang. They are now themselves teachers to a new generation of young storytellers: Ma Wei (b.1980) has studied with Ren Jitang and Hui Zhaolong and is the youngest member of the Wang School. Extracts of performances from members of the Wang School are found under Sagas of storytelling.

  • 12. Three Kingdoms in Yangzhou storytelling

    Three Kingdoms was likewise transmitted in two major schools of storytelling, the Li School handed down from the founding master Li Guohui (late Qing-Republic) and the Ren School beginning from Ren Decheng (late Qing), also called the Lan School after a later eminent master, Lan Yuchun (late Qing). Presently Three Kingdoms is mainly told by storytellers from two famous branches of the Li School.

    The Kang School, founded by Kang Guohua (1853-1916), and the Wu School, founded by Wu Guoliang (1872-1944), both storytellers from the first generation after the founding master Li Guohui. Both the Kang and the Wu Schools thus can boast four generations of transmission.

    The storytellers represented here include Fei Zhengliang (b.1931) and Gao Zaihua (b.1928), who belong to the Wu and Kang Schools respectively, and are both in the third generation of their lineages. Mr. Fei has spent a lifetime as researcher and editor of Yangzhou storytelling and is presently occupied with editing the family saga into book form. Mr. Gao is active in educating students and in organizing the storytellers’ association, Friends of Yangzhou Performed Arts Yangzhou quyi zhi you. Extracts from their performances are found under Sagas of storytelling.

  • 13. Journey to the West in Yangzhou storytelling

    The saga of Journey to the West is relatively young in Yangzhou storytelling. Dai Shanzhang (1880-1938) created the oral tale around the turn of the twentieth century and was the founder of the Dai School. Dai Shanzhang was originally a storyteller of Western Han Xi Han, that had been transmitted for five generations before him and is still a living tradition. Dai Shanzhang transmitted his art to his younger brothers and their sons, adopting Dai Buzhang (b.1925) as his own son and disciple. Mr. Dai is active as an organizer of the storytellers’ organization and in educating the young generation, mainly spare-time students. An extract of his performance is given under Sagas of storytelling.

  • 14. Transmission of the art and training of disciples

    Professional storytelling is a highly specialized art and the artists have to go through many years of training from childhood or early youth. The traditional transmission of the storytellers’ art from generation to generation took place in the family. It was called ’oral transmission and teaching from the heart’ kou chuan xin shou. Usually storytelling was a family enterprise and the master would teach one or several of his own sons or male relatives (after the 1930s also daughters) to continue his art, but it was also a common practice to accept disciples from outside the family.

    The children were trained from the early age of five or six, and sometimes appeared in public before the age of ten. Famous masters were called upon to take in disciples from outside, and at times such a master might by himself suggest that a younger promising storyteller should become his disciple. But more often storytellers were reluctant to take in children from other families, either because they feared to lose the family 'fortune', or simply because it was a hard job to train a new disciple, and the master would be responsible for the child.

    If the disciple was from another family, a contract was set up between the master and the parents of the child. There was an initiation ceremony with gifts and a meal served to the master. The legalization of the relationship between master and disciple, the ceremony accompanying the situations of instituting and dissolving such relationship was regarded as important. The naming of the regular students is also of particular importance, since the hereditary line of a certain school of storytelling, the identity of the ‘school and branch’ menpai, is based on the masters’ accept of his student by ‘bestowing him an artist’s name’ ciming. The lineage is shown by a common component in the names of all the storytellers of the same line, i.e. the component ‘tang’ found in the names of storytellers of the Wang school, ‘hua’ with the Kang School, ‘liang’ with the Wu School and ‘zhang’ with the Dai School. The name system is, however, not always that simple, as a glance at the table of storyteller’s hereditary lines will show.

  • 15. Oral transmission and teaching from the heart

    Training of the children of the family was the same as for the apprentice from outside, called ’oral transmission and teaching from the heart’ kou chuan xin shou. At first the child was supposed to attend the performances of his father/master, waiting upon him and absorbing the whole atmosphere of the art. Later he would not only attend the performances, but actively try to learn by heart his first story. In the beginning he would only learn a few sentences to retell, but little by little he would have to remember longer and longer passages. Together with the words he would also imitate the gestures and mime of his master. Every day the disciple would go with his master to the storytellers' house and listen to the public performance. Upon returning the master would teach him a passage, which he had to learn for the next day. When left alone he would try to reactivate the master's words in his mind, memorize and rehearse the words and gestures, called 'stage work' taigong. The next day he would have to 'return the text' huanshu, i.e. retell the passage for his master to correct and not infrequently give him a spank, if unsatisfactory.

    When the child or youngster had mastered an episode the length of an ordinary session of storytelling (about 2-3 hours), he would go on to study the repertoire of a whole cyclus, corresponding to several months of daily storytelling sessions. This was practised by attending his master's daily performances, striving to catch the ’story line’ shu luzi, and remember as much as possible of the wordings from the day's performance.

    A disciple from outside the family had free board and lodging in the home of his master. He served his master and took part in all kinds of household chores. When he had arrived at a certain level and learned the basic repertoire, he might sometimes step in for his master and appear in public. When his contract was out or his master deemed it appropriate, he would make his formal debut and start his own career, called ’to cross the sea’ guo hai.

  • 16. Written librettos for storytelling

    Written texts are seldom mentioned in the education, but we know that some storytellers had written materials, called 'librettos' jiaoben. Such texts were in most cases only sketchy notes of the main plot shu luzi, inserted poetry and other fixed passages. But some storytellers had a good education and were interested in writing their tales down in more complete versions. These documents have later been used for editing and publishing the storytellers' texts. Sometimes they were allowed to be copied by storytellers from other families, but such behaviour was regarded as a sign of extraordinary friendship between mature storytellers. There is no indication that the texts were ever used for training of the disciples in the traditional master-apprentice system. Some storytellers were blind, some illiterate. But this was not considered a serious handicap for becoming a storyteller. Storytellers who were born in the beginning of this century usually had some education and would be able to read and write. But few storytellers had the ability or the initiative to write anything more than simple notes for their performances. Most storytellers had no written documents, not even sketchy notes, as aide-mémoire, and the elder generation of storytellers were sceptical towards writing and reading and thought of these activities as destructive for a good memory.

    A person who had not received the basic training in the tradition from master to student, "the true tradition" zhen chuan, but simply would rely on learning by heart from written novels and in this way try to sneak into the ranges of the storytellers, was held in low esteem. His choice of words were considered to be of poor workmanship and his improvisations of low standard. Such performance was called "empty storytelling" shuo kong shu or "dead storytelling" shuo si shu. These negative terms indicate that storytelling was not always based on the oral transmission. There must have been a certain amount of performers who lacked this background, but tried to earn a living in the trade, basing themselves on written materials. But learning from books was looked down upon, a kind of cheating, "keeping people in the dark" menghei.

    The negative attitude to books may explain why we have so little information on the storytellers’ "scripts". Moreover, these expressions are highly interesting as evidence of an alternative view on book learning among the storytellers in a country where the official education system and the written word has had enormous prestige from time immemorial.

    Mutual competition and envy among individual storytellers and the various schools is another side of the coin. In the education of disciples it sometimes resulted in the practice of 'leaving out lines' chou hangzi, i.e. a master would be stingy with his teaching and leave out some of the best passages as a kind of guarantee that his student would not be able to surpass him later on. It indicates how important the teaching from mouth to ear was for learning the art. Another effect of this fear of having one's art 'stolen' toushu was the habit that storytellers could not attend each other's performances without having an agreement.

    The traditional way of transmission was replaced in the 1980s by special drama schools for teenagers who aspired to become entertainers of storytelling or other related genres. The rehearsals were based on learning by heart from book editions of storytellers’ repertoires. In recent years there is, however, a renewed interest in the traditional way of transmission, and young talented students are once again studying with the old masters in a master-disciple relationship. Although the former servant function of the disciple has been abandoned, the young students behave with much reverence and politeness towards their master and are eager to run errands and do him small favours during their daily encounters – a display of the time-honoured Chinese attitude of respect for the elder generation.

    A person who had not received the basic training in the tradition from master to student, "the true tradition" zhen chuan, but simply would rely on learning by heart from written novels and in this way try to sneak into the ranges of the storytellers, was held in low esteem. His choice of words were considered to be of poor workmanship and his improvisations of low standard. Such performance was called "empty storytelling" shuo kong shu or "dead storytelling" shuo si shu. These negative terms indicate that storytelling was not always based on the oral transmission. There must have been a certain amount of performers who lacked this background, but tried to earn a living in the trade, basing themselves on written materials. But learning from books was looked down upon, a kind of cheating, "keeping people in the dark" menghei.

    The negative attitude to books may explain why we have so little information on the storytellers’ "scripts". Moreover, these expressions are highly interesting as evidence of an alternative view on book learning among the storytellers in a country where the official education system and the written word has had enormous prestige from time immemorial.

    Mutual competition and envy among individual storytellers and the various schools is another side of the coin. In the education of disciples it sometimes resulted in the practice of 'leaving out lines' chou hangzi, i.e. a master would be stingy with his teaching and leave out some of the best passages as a kind of guarantee that his student would not be able to surpass him later on. It indicates how important the teaching from mouth to ear was for learning the art. Another effect of this fear of having one's art 'stolen' toushu was the habit that storytellers could not attend each other's performances without having an agreement.

    The traditional way of transmission was replaced in the 1980s by special drama schools for teenagers who aspired to become entertainers of storytelling or other related genres. The rehearsals were based on learning by heart from book editions of storytellers’ repertoires. In recent years there is, however, a renewed interest in the traditional way of transmission, and young talented students are once again studying with the old masters in a master-disciple relationship. Although the former servant function of the disciple has been abandoned, the young students behave with much reverence and politeness towards their master and are eager to run errands and do him small favours during their daily encounters – a display of the time-honoured Chinese attitude of respect for the elder generation.

Elements of performance

  • 1. Storytellers' Terms and Sayings

    The Yangzhou storytellers are traditions-bearers in the full sense of this word. Their art of performance embodies not only verbal repertoires of enormous length, learned by way of mouth from master to disciple through generations, but also the body-language accompanying the words. The movements are rigorously studied together with the words and seem to be a crucial component supporting the mnemonic skill. What is more, the storytellers are transmitters of a world of rules, rituals and habits - a way of life - belonging to the profession. These circumstances of performance and professional life are given expression in a rich vocabulary, used among the storytellers in their dealings with each other and with their disciples, the storytellers' terms. Some of the expressions are well known among the townspeople, while other terms constitute a dialectal argot which is generally not shared with the ordinary citizens of the town. Through this vocabulary we may get a picture of intrinsic phenomena of the performing situation, as well as extrinsic phenomena belonging to their milieu.

    The storytellers' terms bearing on the extrinsic performance situation, such as place of performance, rules of etiquette, job arrangements and payment, etc., reflect the conditions and habits of the profession during the early childhood and youth of the present senior masters. Some of the expressions are still valid in the original sense, while others are obsolete or must be taken in a derived, often humorous sense, because the designated phenomena have been abandoned in modern life. It should, however, be emphasized that the terms are still in living memory and the better part are used bona fide by today's performers.

    From a global perspective it seems most astonishing that Chinese storytelling has preserved its traditions to such a high degree all through this century of revolutions and modernization.

  • 2. The storytellers' house-'the place'

    Yangzhou storytellers' expressions related to the setting against which a performance takes place are here treated under the heading: the place changzi. This is the common designation for the actual physical place where storytelling is performed for an audience. The full form of the word is "storytelling place" shuchangzi, usually translated as "storytellers' house". It is an establishment where an audience of considerable size (between one and five hundred people) can be seated indoors and served tea while listening to the storyteller who is usually performing from a small platform. Many teahouses also served formerly as storytellers' houses, but in such places the serving of tea and food was the primary function, storytelling an additional entertainment. In its specific geographic and historical setting, the storytellers' house exemplifies the performance arena of oral tradition in China in one of its most characteristic forms.

    There used to be more than twenty storytellers' houses and teahouses offering storytelling in Yangzhou. The storytellers would alternate between these places, usually working for a period of three months at one place. Often they would take to the roads and accept jobs in other towns and villages all over the area north and south of the Yangzi River where the dialect is spoken, including teahouses in Nanjing and Shanghai, "touring the market towns" pao matou. Such was the situation when the older generation of storytellers who are now in their sixties or seventies were young. Presently there is only one place in Yangzhou city, the "Great Enlightenment Storytellers' House" Da guangming shuchang, where storytelling is regularly performed in daily sessions of a couple of hours. Similar developments have taken place all over the area. The drastic reduction in number of "houses" is just one indication of the dramatic change that has occurred in the storytellers' life conditions during the twentieth century.

    The storytellers' houses and teahouses had private owners changdong well into the 1960s, when most places were gradually closed. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) the storytellers were not allowed to perform their traditional themes and activity was scarce. It took almost another ten years before a new storytellers' house was made available for performances in 1986, the above mentioned Da guangming shuchang, which is under collective ownership. Terms concerning the storytellers' house are reminiscent of the time when there were many of them in the neighborhood and competition was stiff. A storytellers' house where performances were seldom and the audience scarce was called a "cold place" leng changzi, while a house where storytellers followed one another without interruption and the audience was steady and ample, was called a "hot place" re changzi. A house that was well situated and where it was easy to attract a large audience, was called "a decent place" zhengmian changzi, the opposite of a house, situated out of the way and called "on the border" bianchui.

  • 3. The performance-'a day of storytelling'

    One session of storytelling yichang shu, also called "a day of storytelling" yitian shu, will nowadays last about two hours with a break of ten minutes after the first hour. In the storytellers' house the performances are from 2-4 p.m. Tickets are bought at the entrance. In former times one session was longer, often more than three hours and divided into four sections, called "rounds" zhuan, now called "parts" duanzi, with a "rest between the rounds" xie zhuan. One pot of tea was brewed for every guest, or two or more might share a large pot. A "tea fee" chajin was paid by the members of the audience and another "storytelling fee" shujin was collected together with the fee for tea, usually after the first round. There might also be some extra fees, called "small debts" xiao zhang, i.e. payment for extra service such as brewing fine tea, bringing hot napkins, etc. Sometimes there were also non-paying "special guests" jiayan, friends or relatives of the storyteller or of the owner. There used to be another kind of non-paying audience as well - the so-called "standing listeners" ting zhan shu who would crowd outside the entrance and listen for free, also called "crane listeners" ting xianhe shu, because they were standing on tiptoe like these birds.

    After the fourth round, called "final round" mozhuan or "tail round" weizhuan, the audience would sometimes demand still another passage and loudly shout: "Add a round!" da zhuan, i.e. "Encore!". The owner would then collect extra money from the audience, but the amount would not be fixed, and people out of money would not be pressed; this income would belong entirely to the storyteller. In the recent period payment is only taken for the entrance ticket. People bring their own cups with tea leaves and are served hot water from a big kettle for free. There are no extra services.

  • 4. A storytelling engagement

    The storytellers were engaged on a seasonal basis and the year was divided into four periods of two or three months where one performer was expected to entertain every day for one or two sessions. In some places it was not uncommon to have performances both in the afternoon, "daytime job" ridang and in the evening, "evening job" wandang, or "lamplight storytelling" dengshu. Such a fixed period, or "job" dang, could not be less than forty days, or else it would be difficult to make a contract. At present storytellers are still engaged for such a period in the storytellers' house, but activity is generally limited to two seasons a year. During one season or "job" the storyteller will usually tell one cycle of stories, belonging to his inherited repertoire. The long sagas are told in installments, presupposing a relatively constant body of listeners who follow the development of the tale from day to day.

    The mutual competition between storytellers, vying with one another for an audience, is felt in many expressions. It was comfortable to get a "single job" dudang of storytelling in a locality where there was only one storytellers' house, or even if there were several places, only one of them would be offering storytelling at the time. Then is was more demanding to take on a "double job" duidang where two storytellers were giving performances at the same time in the same neighborhood. This common situation would often lead to serious competition between the two engaged storytellers, trying to entice the audience over to themselves, called "beat the opponent in a double job" da duidang. However, expressions indicating mutual help and support are not lacking, for example when three to five storytellers would share the same performance, taking turns on the stage and telling small extracts from their repertoire, called a "common job" gongdang. Such performances were usually for the benefit of some purpose or to help a colleague in difficult circumstances. If a storyteller was unable to begin his "job" on time, or could not carry through during the whole period, he might invite a colleague or his student to substitute him, "fill the hole" diangong. Since wages were mostly in direct proportion to the size of the audience, being collected during performance and shared with the owner of the place, everybody was of course striving to have a "roaring job" hongdang, when the audience would be plentiful, people jamming in and creating a hubbub.

    From the aspect of income, some "jobs" were more safe than others: in a "garanteed job" baodang, no matter whether the audience was big or small, the salary of the storyteller was guaranteed by the owner of the place. While this was exceptional in the old days, it is the general rule nowadays, when the storytellers are on a fixed salary, paid by their unit.

  • 5. Stage properties

    The Chinese storyteller is only dependent on "his sole person and his sole mouth" yi ren yi kou. Most genres of storytelling without song and music are performed by only one person, but the musically accompanied genres, also called "storysinging", are often performed by two or three. Yangzhou pinghua belongs to the purely spoken genres, performed by one person (usually a male performer) and the requisites are few and simple. The storyteller can make do with no requisites at all, but usually the following items are used:

    Storytelling stage shutai, i.e. a small platform with a wooden table.

    Chair yi, i.e. the storyteller sits on a chair while performing. The chair is a little higher than normal, so that the performer can move freely and the audience see him better.

    Tablecloth zhuowei, usually in red velvet with golden characters, hanging down in front of the table.

    Teapot chahu, the teacup is not specially mentioned in the storytellers' list of items; but we always find a teacup on the table, while the pot is more seldom now.

    'Talk stopper' zhiyu, a small piece of hard wood or jade, in other parts of China called 'waking-board' xingmu; the Yangzhou term refers to the way the stone is used at the beginning of a performance: the first action of the performer is to beat the table with his 'talk stopper' to make people calm down and concentrate, stop talking. During performance the stick is tapped against the table whenever the performer wants to mark a passage or indicate a turn of events.

    Handkerchief and fan shoupa he shanzi are used as stage requisites during performance; the closed fan may be used to symbolize a sword or spear, chopsticks, roller pin; the open fan: a tray, a wall, etc.; the handkerchief: a letter, a book, etc.

    The above items are still in current use. Traditionally the storytellers count two more items: the 'big bowl' da wan, used to gather money from the audience after the first round; already in the 1920s this item was replaced by a money basket, and later by the system of tickets. The final traditional item is only used for Yangzhou storysinging xianci, namely the "three-stringed lute" sanxian. It belongs to the inventory because the two genres are closely related, and many storytellers were masters of both arts.

    Only the 'talk stopper' is a special requisite, while the other things are items of everyday usage, such as handkerchief, fan and teacup. The handkerchief and fan are used every now and then to represent objects of the story told, but they are also used in the ordinary way: to wipe ones face or fan oneself during a hot day. In wintertime the old storytellers do not avail themselves of the fan, but some of the younger generation like to have the fan at hand no matter what the season is.

  • 6. The storytellers' dress

    When performing in the storytellers' house, the storytellers normally dress in the traditional male dress, the long gown chang paozi, but when giving shorter ad hoc performances in schools and hotels, many performers now prefer to dress in a western suit and entertain in standing position without requisites. This kind of storytelling is influenced by modern entertainment genres and particularly by the northern Chinese variety art of "comic dialogue" xiangsheng. Since the 1940s there have been a few female storytellers of Yangzhou pinghua. In contrast to female storytellers and storysingers from Suzhou, who presently dress themselves elegantly in the tight-fitting, silk dress qipao, those in Yangzhou dress in slacks and blouse, the normal style for women in the town.

  • 7. Gestures and face expressions

    "kou, shou, shen, bu, shen
    Mouth, hand, body, step, look

    The importance of both language and body language is expressed in the above saying, numbering the five basic elements of storytelling: "mouth" points to the art of telling; "hand" symbolizes gesture; "body" stands for body movements; "step" stands for movements of the legs in sitting or standing; "look" means the expression of the face and eyes. The acting gestures and face expressions of the Yangzhou storytellers show a considerable influence from Chinese drama. During the students' rehearsals with his master, the gestures and "looks" are rigorously studied together with the words that go with each movement.

    The Yangzhou storytellers traditionally sit down at the table and act using only moderate movements of hands and feet, called "small frame" xiao jiazi, occasionally standing for a short while, but not moving far away from the table, called "the half open door" xiao kai men. This is in contrast to some of the other storytelling traditions that may allow more moving around or may demand less freedom of movement and even smaller gestures. Nowadays some performers of Yangzhou storytelling tend to go in the direction of more freedom: using the "big frame" da jiazi and switching to Suzhou style "wide open door" da kai men.

  • 8. Verbal art

    The large majority of storytellers' terms is concerned with the verbal activity. The "mouth" kou has after all the most important role in this art. A good storyteller is called an "embroidered mouth" xiukou, while the opposite is called a "blunt mouth" dunkou.

    The words should come smoothly and continuously, a basic demand in storytelling technique:

    kuai er bu luan,
    man er bu duan

    Fast-but not confused,
    slow-but without interruption

    The flow of rhythm should be varied, sometimes fast like "pouring water from a clean vase" jin ping dao shui, sometimes slow like "silkworms spitting silk" chun can tu si.

    In addition the performer must master the art of "mouth acrobatics" kouji, imitation of all kinds of non-linguistic sounds, the so-called "six skills" liu ji:

    Galloping, drumming, shooting, crying, laughing, roaring ma, gu, pao, ku, xiao, zao

    The enumeration of six kinds is only suggestive, not exhaustive. Mouth acrobatics is entertaining and easy to appreciate, something the performers are well aware of: they often emphasize this aspect whenever performing for children or strangers who are not used to listen to storytelling. In a traditional performance this element would, however, be used with discrimination.

    Prose is the main form of Yangzhou storytelling , but poetry in various meters, is frequently recited (not sung), called:

    Poetry, verse, songs and prose-poems
    shi ci ge fu

    Poems are learned by heart and change very little from performance to performance by the same storyteller, or from one storyteller to the other from the same school of storytelling. Together with proper names of persons and places, as well as certain set-pieces in literary prose, the poetry passages function as mnemonic milestones for the performer. "The road of the story" shuluzi, i.e. the story line, is laid out with memorable persons, places and poems. Over this structure the tale is woven in a vernacular prose allowing much freedom of improvisation to the storyteller.

  • 9. "Talk" and "mouth"

    The division between dramatic and narrative modes of telling - in Western narrative theory called "showing" versus "telling" or " scene" versus "summary" - is also one of the basic distinctions in the storytellers' conception of their modes of narrative. For this purpose they distinguish different kinds of " talk" bai: Every tale is produced by a combination of dialogue, called "public talk" guanbai, and non-dialogue, i.e. all other forms of narration, called "private talk" sibai. The latter category includes narration of events, descriptions of persons and scenery, storyteller's comments and - perhaps somewhat astonishing - inner monologues of the characters of the tale.

    The storytellers further operate with a set of different styles of telling, called "speaking mouth" shuokou, or just "mouth" kou. The individual shuokou is characterized by special articulation and voice quality as well as mode and style. There are a number of different styles, some of which indicate modulation of pitch, loudness, rhythm and breathing technique: Accelerating speed and special breathing technique, typical of "bold mouth" pokou, is used for emphasis, for example in linked passages where the last words of one sentence are repeated at the beginning of the following sentence. Telling a long passage of several sentences all in one breath, accelerating the pace, but keeping every syllable distinct, is called "piling-up-mouth" duikou. Accelerating speed together with a decrescendo of loudness and pitch are used for ending a performance, "closing mouth" shoukou.

    The most important "speaking mouths" are, however, the so-called "square mouth" fangkou and "round mouth" yuankou, implying a shifting of register, which is felt in phonology, grammar and style. The categories of " public talk" and "private talk" may both occur within the two registers of " square mouth" and "round mouth".

  • 10. "Square Mouth" and "Round Mouth"

    The styles of "square mouth" fangkou and "round mouth" yuankou are used in a broad and a narrow sense. In the broad sense they characterize certain schools of storytelling as being mainly performed in either "square" or "round mouth". The so-called "major texts" da shu, such as Three Kingdoms and Water Margin, belong to the style of "square mouth" which is an indication of their more serious character. "Round mouth" style is typical for the "minor texts" xiao shu, including the famous theme of Journey to the West, considered to be more humorous and light.

    In the narrow sense, "square mouth" and "round mouth" indicate the two main registers into which the performance is variously keyed, according to the narrative mode and the kind of dialogue presented. No matter whether a performance belongs to the "major texts" or the "minor texts", it will contain passages in both "square" and "round", but the "major texts" frequently switch to "square mouth" register, while "round mouth" predominates in the "minor texts". The two registers of "square" and "round" represent different dialectal substrata, as is clearly manifested in phonology and grammar.

    "Round mouth" passages are full of everyday language, dialect expressions and earthy localisms spoken in a homely, fluent diction. "Round mouth" is a relatively homogeneous style, with only a few systematic differences from the phonology and grammar of ordinary Yangzhou dialect. This style is used for the dialogue of ordinary characters in the stories, called "small persons" xiao renwu, and also for narration in an intimate and humorous atmosphere. The storytellers' comments are mostly in "round mouth" style.

    "Square mouth", on the other hand, is an elevated and lofty style, both in dialogue and narration. Passages in "square mouth" style tend to follow a more regular sentence pattern, often using four- and six-syllable phrases, parallelism and other prosodic features akin to the literary and poetic traditions of Chinese. Such passages are performed in a dignified and measured diction. This style includes several sub-categories, most important in the division between dialogue and narration. Dialogue in "square mouth" style is conducted in "officials' language" guanhua, which may again differ somewhat according to the origin of the protagonist: In their personification of "great persons" da renwu, heroes and generals, the storytellers usually imitate "Yangzhou officials' language" Yangzhou guanhua, but important persons from North China are supposed to speak "Northern officials' language" Beifang guanhua. The Water Margin hero Wu Song, famous for killing a tiger with his bare fist, speaks in this latter idiom. The phonological, grammatical and stylistic criteria are marked as belonging to the register of high style, which is heavily influenced by earlier and present day normative language. Narration, i.e. "private talk", in "square mouth" style is grammatically and stylistically marked as high style, but is only potentially so marked in the phonological inventory. That is, in "private talk" the stressed expressions are in high style pronunciation, while unstressed portions of the performance are in normal Yangzhou pronunciation, even though the pace is relatively slow and distinct.

    Some storytellers excel in the imitation of the language and ways of people of all kinds of trade, "jargon" hangdang. Some are very able in "market language" matouhua, rendering the dialect of people from other parts of the country, for example Beijing dialect, Shandong dialect, Haizhou dialect, Longtan dialect, etc. With some storytellers it is still mainly Yangzhou pronunciation with a tint of the various dialects imitated. With others it is a pure imitation of other dialects. This humorous caricature of other dialects and jargons belongs mainly to the "round mouth" register.

  • 11. Telling the tale

    Before entering the stage for the daily performance, the storyteller usually prepares himself in silent meditation in his changing room, called to "warm up the story" wushu. He ponders the string of episodes, the "road of the story" shuluzi, to be told that day.

    Since storytelling is traditionally performed in installments that are continued over several months of daily performances, we have different expressions for how to begin a new story cycle, called "open up a story" kaishu, and how to begin the day's episode, called "open the mouth" kaikou. The simplest and the most common way is to start directly from the point where the story was interrupted the previous day, or begin with a short repetition of the final episode. If the method for "opening the mouth" implies the use of extraneous material, that does not belong to the story cycle as such, this is called a "story head" shutouzi, e.g. cracking a couple of jokes or reciting a poem before taking up the thread of the "real story" zhengshu. The contents of such a poem may be an admonition, a benediction, a lyrical description, etc. Such poems are usually picked up from books or composed individually by the storyteller. A "story head" may also be a short independent story, a new story every day, thought out by the storyteller himself, or taken from famous works. In former times some storytellers might start with chanting poems and songs. The "story head" is meant to bring the audience to silence and wait for eventual latecomers.

    When the storyteller for the first times introduces one of his characters, "revealing the looks" kaixiang, his description of appearance and clothes follows a traditional set of rules, different for each category of characters.

    The plot development is seen as a series of "crises" guanzi, i.e. points of suspense. The storyteller must handle the sequence of "crises" in such away that the audience is kept in a fluctuating mood of suspense. At times the story flows in a slow and relaxed mood of "cold crisis" leng guanzi, then suddenly moving swiftly into a "story of crises" guanzi shu or "hot story" re shu. While some storytellers strive to tell continuously in the "hot" mood, others prefer a balance between cold and hot. A subsidiary way of creating suspense is to give some hints at an early stage of what is going to happen later, called to "air the crisis" liang guanzi or to give a "clue" an'gen. Towards the end of the session there is always a crisis which is not brought to a solution, called to "bargain the crisis" mai guanzi, in order to make the listeners come back the next day to hear what the outcome will be. This kind of crisis is sometimes a "true crisis" zhen guanzi, i.e. the exciting episode is really something of true interest. Sometimes it is a "false crisis" xu guanzi, i.e. the episode seems exciting, but when the solution is given (the following day), it is not very dramatic at all.

    The very final sentences are pronounced in "closing mouth" shoukou, in increasing tempo, while lowering the voice, so that the last syllables are barely heard. This is the signal that the days' entertainment is finished. The audience reacts promptly, not by giving applause, but by getting up from the benches and leaving the theatre during happy conversation.

  • 12. Humour and digression

    The narrative is divided into the "real story" zheng shu and extraneous digressions of various kinds. The real story is about people and happenings that traditionally are told in this connection. Sometimes the storyteller may interpolate extraneous stuff, called "stories outside the story" shu wai shu or "trifles" xiezi. One reason for adding digressions is simply to fill the time schedule. For example: if one storyteller is soon to finish his "job" in the storytellers' house, but the person engaged for the next period has not arrived, then the owner may want the first to stay a little longer. Therefore the storyteller thinks out how to make amendments and extra digressions in order to continue his story for some more days, called to "drag on" tuo.

    Another reason is that digressions, whether extraneous or belonging to the "real story" are most often of a humorous character, "jests" ke and "witticisms" xuezi. The performer will "insert a jest" cha ke that has nothing to do with the plot, in order to arouse people's interest. Sometimes he will manage to make a "jest for the whole theatre" mantang ke and provoke a hearty laughter from everybody, after which he must "give room for the jest" rang ke, i.e. make a short pause so that people can recover from laughing, before he continues his story. While some professional oral arts in China, such as "comic dialogues" xiangsheng, are laughter-provoking to an extreme degree, seeking to make the audience laugh almost continuously throughout the performance, storytelling appeals to a more subtle humour. The audience of storytelling will only infrequently break out in a loud laughter. Rather the listeners will chuckle from amusement every now and then, while being quite earnest in between. This humour is based on a common tacit understanding between the artist and the audience. The enjoyment of the humour is shown by a silent smile, a nodding of mutual understanding. Some schools of storytelling are, however, particularly famous for a kind of slap-stick humour, e.g. the Journey to the West and the Qingfeng Sluice.

    The humour and jokes of storytelling are traditionally divided into the dirty and the clean, called "fishy" hunde and "vegetarian" sude. Storytelling in recent years seems to be extremely "vegetarian" after fifty years of purism during the People's Republic. We still have the categories, though, a reminder that storytelling, like many other oral genres of entertainment, used to be quite juicy.

    The storyteller may end the performance of the day by "dropping a jest" diu ke and make the audience laugh, but more often he will "bargain a crisis" mai guanzi, giving an exciting hint to what is going to happen in the next episode, an old trick to make the audience return the following day.

Sagas of storytelling

  • The living tradition of Yangzhou storytelling contains a large reservoir of repertoires for oral performance, in Chinese called ‘ text’ or ‘book’ shu. The storytellers are educated since childhood by their master in one or two repertoires, and each oral ‘text’ is usually of tremendous length. Some storytellers have a repertoire of four ‘seasons’ or more, which when written down approximates forty thick volumes of text. The historical themes of their tales are as old as Chinese history itself, beginning with the Zhou dynasty (1027-256 bc), the most famous being the tale of the Three Kingdoms San guo from the end of the Han (c. 220 ad), the Journey to the West Xiyou ji from the early Tang period (618-907) and the Water Margin Shuihu from c.1100 during the Song period (960-1276). These tales are told according to the inherited style of the master and the school of storytelling to which the performer belongs, incorporating long passages of memorized text and wordings, but also with a wide room for improvisation.

    The storytellers who tell the same repertoire and have been taught by the same master, or by disciples from the same master, are said to belong to the same ‘school’ of storytelling. In Yangzhou there were formerly more than sixty great repertoires and corresponding ‘schools’, but many are now extinct in oral transmission. Sometimes there are several schools who share the same theme, but have widely different oral versions. In Yangzhou storytelling the tradition of Three Kingdoms is, thus, divided into two famous schools: the Kang School and the Wu School. Water Margin is at present represented mainly by the school of the famous storyteller Wang Shaotang (1889-1968), called the Wang School. Journey to the West is represented by the Dai School. Below, please, find short extracts from performances by master tellers from these four different schools who tell episodes from the three sagas.

    Water Margin - Shuihu

    The extracts are selected from the first cycle of episodes in the repertoir of the Wang School, called Ten Chapters on Wu Song Wu shi hui. The first extract is taken from the very first episode of this cycle, Wu Song Fights the Tiger Wu Song da hu. It is here rendered in an original spoken version for radio 1961 by Wang Shaotang (1889-1968), the founder of the Wang school. Another extract from the same episode was told 1992 by his son and disciple, Wang Xiaotang (1918-2000). The following two extracts, told 1998 and 1992, are by Ren Jitang (1942-) and Hui Zhaolong (1945-) who belong to the next generation of storytellers who studied with Wang Shaotang, Wang Xiaotang and Wang Litang (1940-), daughter of Wang Xiaotang.

    With the exception of the radio performance by Wang Shaotang, the other performances were tape- and video-recorded by the author of this website. The photos are by the late Jette Ross, initiator of this website. Here you will find short glimpses of the performances in sound, picture and text. For complete performances in text—English and Chinese—as well as longer extracts on VCD, see Performers.

    1. Wu Song Fights the Tiger (1) told by Wang Shaotang
    2. Wu Song Fights the tiger (2) told by Wang Xiaotang
    3. Pan Jinlian and Wu the Elder told by Ren Jitang
    4. Swordplay under the Moon told by Hui Zhaolong

    Three Kingdoms - Sanguo

    The first extract is from the First Three Kingdoms Qian San guo, told 1996 by Fei Zhengliang (1931-), son and disciple of Fei Junliang (1891-1952) of the Wu School. The next extract is from the Middle Three Kingdoms, told 1997 by Gao Zaihua (1929-), disciple of Kang Youhua (1898-1951) of the Kang School. Fei Zhengliang’s performance was video-recorded by Svend Nielsen, Copenhagen. Gao Zaihua’s performance was tape- and video-recorded by the author of this website. The photos are by the late Jette Ross, initiator of this website. Here you will find short glimpses of the performances in sound, picture and text. For complete performances in text—English and Chinese—as well as longer extracts on VCD, see Performers.

    1. Beheading Yan Liang told by Fei Zhengliang
    2. Curing the Patient told by Gao Zaihua

    Journey to the West - Xiyou ji

    The extract was told 1996 by Dai Buzhang (1925-), son and disciple of Dai Shanzhang (1880-1938), founder of the Dai School of Journey to the West. Dai Buzhang also studied with his uncle Dai Bingzhang (1899-1972). Dai Buzhang’s performance was video-recorded by Svend Nielsen, Copenhagen. The photos are by the late Jette Ross, initiator of this website. Here you will find a short glimpse of the performance in sound, picture and text. For the complete performance in text—English and Chinese—as well as longer extracts on VCD, see Performers.

    1. The River of Heaven told by Dai Buzhang