more on the World of the Chinese Storyteller

The year was 1956 and I was a newly-arrived graduate student living in Taibei with a Chinese family. I revelled in this different culture; chatting with people on the streets, trying out traditional entertainments. A newspaper ad that announced a variety show led me to a small hall near the railway station. There, I paid my fee, accepted a glass of tea-with-leaves and found a seat on a hard bench next to the aisle where servers moved to and fro, refilling our glasses with hot water as we watched the variety unroll.

A small table and two chairs were placed to one side of the performing area and a waist-high tripod frame supporting a drum was set centre stage. Two musicians took the seats at the table: one bearing a three-string Chinese banjo and the other a four-string spike fiddle. The singer entered – short, stocky and dark, in her mid-forties. She took up clapper and drum stick from the drum, gave a commanding glance at the musicians, who followed her lead as she began a rousing drum pattern. A pause for some spoken words of introduction, another instrumental interlude and then the singing began.

Zhang Cuifeng
formal portrait,
Taibei (1950’s)

It was singing such as I had never heard before, akin to speech. Her voice rose, then tumbled down from one shimmering note to another, supported by the strings. Her bold flowing gestures were precisely co-ordinated with the words and music and her face was so expressive I seemed to be understanding her story. Suddenly the rhythm quickened, the melody simplified, the clapper beat became continuous. Then all too soon, with one final slow triumphant couplet, it was over. I had barely understood a word but I didn’t care. It was beautiful. It was exciting. I wanted more.I went back frequently and then that improvised teahouse closed. My landlady, seeing how much I liked this performer, made a suggestion that changed my life:”Why don’t you study with her?” she suggested. “I know someone who knows her.”And so began my friendship with Zhang Cuifeng, singer of Peking Drumsongs. I was to learn a Three Kingdoms tale, Reunion At Old Town, a tale of loyalty, forbearance and valiant deeds. It is the type of tale for which Zhang (and her mentor Liu Baoquan) was famous. As I strove to memorize text, then meter, then music, there was also time for talk. I loved to hear my teacher tell about the real Peking variety show teahouse programmes.

Kate studying with
Zhang Cuifeng (1958)

There would be several kinds of drumsong stories; maybe the melismatic Plum Flower, the twangy country West River, and the nasal lament of Lao Ting. But always taking pride of place would be the strong soaring sounds of the drumsongs from Peking. Included here and there in the programme would be acts of dexterity such as Chinese magic or play with the diabolo or kick-balancing vases. Not to forget that act of verbal dexterity, the Crosstalk, performed by a duo of storyteller-comedians expert in narration, imitation, joking and song. They were almost as popular as the Peking Drumsong so usually appeared next to last.The audience would be coming to enjoy their favourite performers, shouting out “hao!” (bravo) at appropriate points. The gentry sat in boxes, often rented by month or season, while humble folk sat on benches at ground level. Hot towels flew through the air to waiting patrons, tea water arced from great pots into glasses. Children ran up and down the aisles, grown-ups cracked melon seeds and chatted.A Canadian storyteller might shudder at such a venue but in China both audience and teller felt at home. The audience was there to be part of a lively social occasion wherein Chinese culture and history were celebrated in story. They were also there to give critical attention to the fine points of performance technique. So familiar were the tales that any misstep, any subtle variation of music or text drew instant attention. The tales were familiar because repertoire changed slowly. Even the King of Drumsingers, Liu Baoquan, sang no more than forty different half-hour pieces in his lifetime, and only twenty-five of them frequently. When he reworked the Three Kingdoms story, Slopes of Changban, it took him a year to decide on the textual changes, develop suitable variations to the word-reflecting melodies and work out with his accompanists how the instruments would interweave with his voice.

Premier Peking
Drum Singer,
Sun Shujun,
Beijing (1982)

The audience eagerly awaited such modifications and never tired of hearing and rehearing the old tales. Chinese storytellers likened the story to a well-worn garment: “Pick it apart, wash it clean. One hundred washings, one hundred times new.”The training required to satisfy such audiences was grueling. I approached Reunion at Old Town aided by written text and taped performance. Zhang’s own experience in learning stunned me.A pretty child, who picked up tunes easily, she was apprenticed by her family (in effect, sold) to a teacher of beginners at the age of eight or nine. Such teachers were almost always banjo accompanists and they would train four or five students at a time. The children’s life was hard. The students were up before dawn to “sing in your voice” at the city wall with a myriad of others; “you face this way, I’ll face that” Zhang told me. Then back home to do chores, endless chores for ‘teacher-mother’. And then the learning. Neither student nor teacher could read or write. “Mouth tells, heart receives” was the rule and the young students struggled to memorize lines they only half understood. Once you had a short learner’s piece under your belt, it was off to the open air arena of Heaven’s Bridge, or to whichever of the rotating temple fairs was open on that day. Here experience was gained and money made for the teacher. Watching and listening was education too, a necessity when teacher was grudging.

Sun Shujun performing
On The Slopes Of
Chang Ban, Beijing (1982)

The next step up was one of the Heaven’s Bridge teahouses where beauty was sold, presented as art. Female singers sat in a row of chairs on stage while the male “fan-passers” moved about the audience seeking patrons. Patrons would pay to designate singer and song and expected at least the benefit of the singer’s company after the show.Eventually, Zhang and singers like her hoped to graduate to variety show teahouses where they began as an opener and worked their way down to the final acts. As they became known, other opportunities appeared. Late evening was the time the gentry held celebratory banquets with entertainment; the occasion might be festival, wedding, or birthday and the venue was one of the special restaurants built for this purpose. Radio stations might hire singers in the daytime to read ads, and accompany them with a section of song. Record companies too might want them – Pathé and Victor were among the first, Chinese companies followed. The records were old 78s, three minutes to a side. Everyone recorded the first six minutes of a piece only. Why give away material to those coming after you?How accurate, how typical was Zhang’s experience?When in the 1980s I was at last able to study in Peking, I discovered that the performers I met there had had experiences similar to Zhang’s and, in fact, knew her. What was different from my Taiwan experience was the rich variety of genres and performers I could now see and hear. Still, best of all was meeting a great Peking Drumsong artist, Sun Shujun, who taught me Slopes and became, like Zhang, a respected and well loved friend.

Sun Shujun
Another pose from
On The Slopes Of
Chang Ban, Beijing (1982)

I was lucky to come to Peking in time to talk with many of that last generation trained in the old ways; each year more of these elders leave us. Although with the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 there were government supported troupes and subsidized training for young performers, this has decreased drastically in recent years. It is not easy to adapt old forms to new content, stories of contemporary life are not given a chance to wear in. The young in any case prefer pop songs and the electric guitar. The storytelling world I am describing may soon disappear.But let us return to old Peking.Another storytelling genre, similar in some ways to rap, is that of the clappertale. These are short recitations (the Chinese say singings) of rhymed verse stories to the beat of clappers made from pieces of metal, wood or bamboo. Like rap, clappertales had their origins in an underclass; beggars who went from shop to shop making up semi-extemporaneous verses. Lucky verses if you gave, scolding depictions of your faults if you did not. Clappertales only entered the variety show stage in the ’40s but remain, like the CrosstaIk, widely popular today. The clappertale beat has a hypnotic quality as it urges the verse forward. The appeal is visceral and, in the hands of an expert, subtle as well. A scholar-friend of mine once remarked that the Chinese genius for creativity shows itself in a capacity to take the simplest of materials to its ultimate. I think all Chinese storytelling demonstrates this, but none more so, perhaps, than the clappertale.

Gao Fengshan, noted
Bamboo Clappertale
Beijing (1989

In addition to the variety show teahouse, there were other teahouses dedicated to the tellers of epic tales and the singer-tellers, who combined spoken prose with sung verse. These practitioners could hold forth for two hours every day over four months, tracing out the intertwining fates of dozens of characters. Each session built to a climax: “if you want to know what happens next you’ll just have to come back next time!” Seated behind a small table, a fan their only prop, they framed and re-framed the tale each time from memory. If they kept written material it was a simple plot outline (or “story roof -tree”), plus stock descriptions of scenery, costume and battle. Usually they specialized in one particular saga: the 3rd century struggle to reunite the Three Kingdoms into one China, the revolt of the righteous outlaws in All Men Are Brothers, or the exploits of the Monkey King’s Journey to the West.Tellers in the south also featured love stories that developed with marvellous slowness; the maiden hesitating to go down the stairs to her scholar at the beginning of the session might still be there at its close. Some less popular tellers called their wares down the byways of the city, hoping to be summoned to the family compound for a round of stories. Others would tell at the temple fairs, breaking off the story at nicely timed intervals; only when enough coins had been thrown did the performance resume.There is in China, as in all parts of the world, that other great stream of storytelling activity, that of the folk who tell to amuse and to teach us simply as an ongoing vital part of daily living. In China their name is legion, for the Chinese, as a people, are endowed with a profound sense of drama, language and story.

Gao Fengshan, noted
Bamboo Clappertale
Beijing (1989

My landlady in Taiwan, a lively Hunanese, was such a teller. Tales from the operas, legends of Peking, gently moral tales of thrift and extravagance all spilled into her conversation. I loved to listen to her tellings and now regret that I never noted them down. Even more, I regret never having had a chance to stay in the Chinese countryside to hear the stories that unfold there. If ever such an opportunity were vouchsafed me, I know where I would go: deep into the Yimeng mountains of Shandong Province to sit at the feet of Wang Yulan, storyteller extraordinaire.I only know of Wang Yulan through a book, Tales by Four Elders, which includes some twenty-three of her stories, most of which are folktales and all of which are imbued with the life, lore and dialect of village Shandong. There is a photograph of her in the book as well. Small, hair pulled back, cooling herself with a round banana leaf fan, she sits in conversation with her grand-nephew who looks up at her from his notes. This is her story.Wang Yulan was the child of a poor peasant farmer, one child among many, coming somewhere in the neglected middle. Stories her father told, songs her mother sang were her only schooling and she went early to work in the fields. Stories fascinated her. She sought them out at work breaks, soaked them up squatting by a neighbour’s cottage of an evening. And if the men teased her for tagging along, she gave as good as she got, and kept on listening.Marriage at seventeen was a shock, for her father-in-law had been a yamen clerk in his day and kept the new bride very properly close to the family compound. In her isolation it was stories remembered that consoled her, and rebellious always, whenever she could, she shared them with the other new brides as well.

Kate’s landlady, Mrs. Ye, about to tell a story, Taibei (1958)

Before many years passed her husband died, and then her parents-in-law one after the other. Wang Yulan was left alone, and worst of all she had no son to take care of her in old age. In the village way, an elder brother gave her his youngest infant son but these were terrible times of drought, flood and civil war. To keep her son alive she wandered from village to village, from county to county, even into neighbouring provinces, begging as she went. Now the stories she loved quite literally saved her life. Because she could tell, and tell well, when she begged, people gave. Eventually she was able to return to her home village where as life became easier her son could support her. When Four Elders was published in 1986 she lived in honoured leisure, telling to young and old alike, the village’s much loved “Basket Full of Stories”.

With the story of Wang Yulan, our exploration into the world of the Chinese storyteller comes full circle and it is time to close.

It was my Hunanese landlady who first introduced me to China’s ubiquitous proverb-phrases (proverbs-with-a-story) and I, in turn, hand this one on to you, for it has been my guide.

-yin shui si yuan
drink of the stream, think on the source

If this article encourages you to drink further in the great stream of Chinese storytelling, I will be content.

Wang Yulan tells stories
in Cangshan County,
Shandong (1986)