Go to Eric Miller's homepage  

submitted by Eric Miller in May 2000 
for the course, Chinese Folk Performance 
at the University of Pennsylvania.    

Continuity and Change
in Chinese Storytelling
A)  Prologue...  1
B)  Introduction...  3
C)  Subject Matter of Storytelling...  5
D)  Styles of Storytelling... 14
E)  Contexts and Functions of Storytelling... 18
F)  Training and Lifestyles of Storytellers... 24
G)  Media and Technology of Storytelling... 28
H)  Recent Storytelling-Related Experiments... 29
I)   Could There be a Chinese Pop Superstar Storyteller?... 37

A) Prologue

On the recent evening of Saturday, April 15, at the headquarters of Philadelphia’s Asian Arts Initiative, I attended an evening of performances by Asian-Americans.  The event had been described as “storytelling,” and “Personal stories...to explore emotional experiences of family and identity to create a new Asian American aesthetic.”1   The performers, in their twenties and thirties, were of East Indian, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese descent.  Many described their struggles to fit in with and advance in USA society, to find themselves, to speak in public, to run for office in schools, and to overcome verbal and physical abuse.  At one point, the performers formed a tableau onstage as one of them read aloud about their ancestors’ common cultural background in the USA’s Old West, where those ancestors had witnessed traveling medicine shows in which performers had sung, danced, and sold elixirs.  “We are on our way,” read the narrator as the performers stood shoulder-to-shoulder.  I thought, “On your way where?  Into the future, certainly.  But won’t you also be going further back?  Aren’t you interested in your ancestors’ styles of storytelling?”  It seems that for now they were satisfied to use the word, ‘storytelling’ -- which is a definite reference to traditional ways -- but to perform in naturalistic, dignified, proper English. 

After the performance, I expressed these thoughts to Gary San Angel, one of the organizers of the evening.  He told me that the Asian-Americans involved with this event were tired of being marginalized, tired of feeling different and odd, so they were not likely, at least for now, to adopt old-fashioned ways of speaking and moving in performance. 

I well realize that Asian-Americans have been victims of discrimination in the USA.  They have been politically and economically excluded from many aspects of USA life.  Many European-Americans have not viewed or accepted them as Americans, have done their best to cause them to remain strangers in America, preventing them from feeling at home here and forcing them to remain perpetual foreigners, in a perpetual liminal state.2  Asian-Americans have been told to lose their accents and to become articulate in English in order to have any hope of breaking through the ‘glass ceiling’ in business and other fields.  In addition, there are aspects of traditional cultures which are repressive, which one may very reasonably wish to escape.

However, I could not help but think to myself: “How ironic!  These young people say they want to be acknowledged and respected as Asian-Americans, and yet they seem to be making every effort to act as white as possible. Yes, trying to blend in, to speak and behave in business English, is one way to join the global mainstream -- and surely learning how to speak in such a manner is a wise first step.  But another way, one which contributes a great deal to the global conversation, is to demonstrate and teach about one’s ancestors’ expressive conventions.  Perhaps now that so many members of the younger generation of Asian-Americans have proven that they can speak ‘perfect’ English, more will have the confidence to also go back and investigate traditional ways of performative speaking, and to bring positive aspects of those ways into the global conversation.”

This paper looks at continuity and change in some public forms of Chinese storytelling.  It asks: What is changing, and what remains the same?  The paper is written especially with young people of Chinese descent in mind, with the hope that it might be useful to those of them who are interested in investigating and sharing their rich cultural heritage of ways of storytelling.

B) Introduction

As mentioned above, my focus in this paper is on professional, public sphere storytelling.  Such performance is delivered in a stylized manner that marks the process as being different from everyday speech -- that is, there is non-everyday melody and/or rhythm (cadence); it is heightened in some way. 

One can surmise that public storytelling traditions began among hominids shortly after they gained the ability to speak.  By three thousand years ago, it was an advanced art in many cultures, including China:  “Storytelling was one of the many arts of the yu, the entertainers at the feudal courts, during the Zhou Dynasty [1122-256 BCE].”3  This claim is in part based on written sources from the Han dynasty [206BCE-220CE], pointing back to the distant past of the early Zhou, describing storytelling activities.4  As Idema notes,

It is incorrect to say that the Chinese knew no epic poetry, as an enormous amount of it has been preserved.  However, it differs from the European case in that in China epic poetry makes no appearance in the earliest beginnings of [written] literature and that it never became the most highly-valued [written] literary genre and an expression of the most cherished ideals of the nation’s elite.5 

This is to say that the oral epics were not written down as such during the earliest periods of Chinese literacy.  Oral epic may well have expressed the “most cherished ideals” of the nation’s common people, but it seems there may have been some competition between the literate elite and the bards regarding the formation of the canon of early China’s stories, and as the elite created and controlled the written record, they were free to refrain from writing down whatever they pleased. 

In spite of the fact that her neighbors (the Mongols, Tibetans, Lolos, Indians, and various Siberian and Central Asian peoples) possess long and beautiful [oral] epics, none remain in China.  This is not to say, however, that China never had an [oral] epic tradition or the beginnings of one.  Indeed, the fragmented condition of her mythology indicates that the rationalizing instincts of the literati may have prevented it from achieving a coherent corpus of texts.6 

Over the millennia in China, there has been a constant interplay been the written and oral presentation of story.  Professional storytellers have traditionally straddled the dividing line between the ruling class of literati and the illiterate folk.7  “The many different genres of professional storytelling nowadays are usually collectively designated as shuo-shu (‘telling books’).”8  An equivalent term that has become popular since 1949 is quyi.  Another general term is shuo-ch’ang yishu (‘telling and singing arts’) or shuo-ch’ang wen-hsueh (‘telling and singing literature’).  Among the 56 nationalities of China, there are 300 genres of verbal arts currently registered.9  It seems that each locale has its own styles of storytelling, singing, and combinations thereof; and in each case there is a continuum between everyday performance by everyday folks, and performance by specialists in special contexts. 

The genres of public storytelling that I will draw examples from in this paper are pingshu (North: Ningxia, Sichuan, Hubei); pinghua, which includes pingtan and tanci (Central: Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou); shan’ge (Central: Jiangsu province);  muk’yu (Southeast: Guangdong province); zhangkhap (Southwest: Yunnan province, Tai people); and kwv txhiaj (Southwest: Yunnan province, Hmong people, known as Miao people in China).

Pingshu and pinghua involve long, often serialized, tales; the latter four genres are known by many as types of folksong.  Public storytelling can be performed by one person alone, by a lead performer and an assistant, or antiphonally (alternating performers); some genres involve just the human voice, while others involve accompanying instruments such as wooden blocks, various drums, the pipa (lute), the erhu (two-stringed fiddle played with a bow), or bi (flute-like instrument).

Throughout, I will be referring to five historical periods:

 1) Dynastic period (approximately 1800 BCE - 1911 CE).
 2) Early Modern period (1911 - 1949).
 3) Communism (post 1949).
 4) Cultural Revolution (1967 - 77).
 5) Post-Mao period (post 1979).

The following sections of this paper consider, throughout these periods, the subject matter (C), styles (D), and contexts and functions of Chinese storytelling (E); and the training and lifestyles of storytellers (F).  The paper then discusses technology used by storytellers in modern times (G), and recent storytelling-related experiments (H); and finally poses, and begins to answer, the question, “Could there be a Chinese pop superstar storyteller?” (I).

C) Subject Matter of Storytelling

Stories relating to the divine, sex, and the aristocracy were discouraged by the Communist government that came to power in 1949, and then absolutely forbidden during the Cultural Revolution.  The following is representative of the Party’s approach to traditional storytelling:

From time immemorial, China’s peasants have listened with rapt attention to the village storytellers...  But this art, like all others, was the arena of a complex class struggle.  Interwoven with the healthy strands were others twisted in by the feudal ruling-class culture of the past, with its elements of superstition and enervating idealism and inculcating ideas of humble subjection to the forces of tyranny and exploitation.10

“References to religion and sex in stories have been continually repressed by cultural bureaus at all levels.”11  Erotic elements in songs and stories often made people laugh.  Humor often pokes fun at authority.  Thus humor, laughter itself, and anything that might produce it, was seen by the government as possibly problematic.  “Much of China’s storytelling of the past could be perceived as an endlessly fascinating escape from the hard work and oppression of the present.”12  It was this sort of escapism that the Communist government forcefully opposed. 

The cleansing and reformulating of storytelling needed to be quite extensive, as storytelling had shaped the people’s entire sense of the structure of society and the cosmos.  “In traditional China, humans could after death become members of the celestial bureaucracy.”13  Introductions to storytelling events often invoked ancestor spirits, and summoned them to attend.  The storytelling event could be seen as an act of remembrance of spirits, and thus as a gift to please them.  Many stories featured frequent interference by the gods.  Various legends about origins of the Chinese people referred to beliefs in forms of magic and exorcism.

An example of how Chinese governmental and folk cultures have interacted is provided by the acknowledged founder of the shan’ge singing style (in the Wu speaking area of southern Jianhshou): the legendary singer and government official, Zhang Ling.  Zhang’s life-story encapsulates many prominent themes of shan’ge: singing, magic (ability to fly, be invisible, etc.), courtship, adultery, and bold defiance of the gods.14  Some of these songs and stories portray the singing hero of the olden days as putting flesh back on bones and bringing the dead back to life -- thus celebrating the shamanistic power of the ancient hero, and by implication, of the present-day tellers themselves.15  And yet, as noted, Zhang was also government official. 

In general, many traditional Chinese stories featured stock figures from feudal culture, such as aristocratic landlords, scholars, and beauties.  Stories were often dated in terms of the dynasty in which they took place.  Immediately after the prologue (often a poem or song), stories often began with words such as, “In such-and-such year of the glorious Sung dynasty, in the virtuous family Chao...”16 

Moreover, the entire milieu of professional storytellers was related to the court.  Many storytellers performed at court for the entertainment of aristocrats: “In those days of leisure, the reigning house craved to hear some extraordinary incidents for the sake of amusement.”17   One role of storytellers was to sing the praises of local aristocrats: thus one paradigm of the storyteller was as employee, celebrant, and sycophant of aristocracy.

Some Chinese professional storytellers were itinerants who spent much of their careers performing for the common people in many locales; others were based in particular neighborhoods or courts.  In any case, one paradigm of the storytelling event was that of celestial beings gathered around celestial entertainers, or of aristocratic beings in similar earthly environments of ideal wealth and luxury.  City folk and rural peasants could imagine themselves in such situations while listening to stories, and many stories involved luxurious celestial and court scenes.  All of this had to be laundered out of the tradition when the Communists came to power.

In neighboring India, the transition from feudal to bourgeois culture has occurred gradually and without direct enforcement by the government; in China the cultural shift out of feudal culture was abrupt and forced. 

A system of categorization that became popular in China in the 50s is:

1) traditional stories (created pre-1949).
2) stories set in ancient times (created post-1949).
3) stories set in contemporary times (created post-1949).

Many stories created post-1949 have an explicit political dimension.  Examples of stories in this category include: a story about the KMT-Red intrigue set in the 1930s [18]; a story about fighting the invading Japanese; “Xiao Danqui zhi si,” which concerns an undercover red agent in the 30s who at one point must masquerade as a traditional opera singer [19]; action stories based on peasant uprisings and wars before 1949; and military incursions into Vietnam in the late 1970s [20].  There are also many songs and stories about tractors, agricultural heroes, and the graces and virtues of Chairman Mao.21

Actually, topical political stories have been popular in China for quite some time.  For example,

During the final years of the Ch’ing dynasty, reformists and revolutionaries employed prosimetric forms, especially the t’an-tz’u  [tanci], in order to propagate their views more widely.  The most conspicuous example is the “K’eng-tzu kuo-pien t’an-tz’u” (“T’an-tz’u on the Disturbances of the Year K’eng-tzu”) by Li Pao-chia, which deals with the Boxer Rebellion.  The famous female revolutionary Ch’iu Chin (1875-1907) discussed the position of Chinese women in traditional Chinese society in her unfinished [written] t’an-tz’u entitled, “Ching-wei shih” (“Stones of the Ching-wei Bird”).   Other t’an-tz’u introduced European female revolutionaries as examples.22 

The Chinese people have a long history of categorizing stories: The earliest systematic descriptions of storytelling first appeared in the Sung [590-617 CE].

The capital diaries for Kaifeng and Hangchow...contain descriptions of the pleasure precincts of these metropolises, cataloging the amusements offered and listing the most famous artists.  They divide the Hangchow storytellers of the time into four schools, according to subject matter.23 

These categories are: 1) explicating history books (tales on the rise and fall of dynasties in Chinese history, and the wars connected with these great events of state); 2) tales of iron-clad cavalry (tales of recent wars between the Sung and Chin dynasties); 3) telling the sutras (serious and humorous tales on religious subjects); 4) tales of romantic love, miracles, crime, corrupt and incorrupt judges, noble brigands, and sudden and spectacular rises in fortune.24  These stories derived from a great variety of oral and written sources pertaining to canonical historiography, popular lore, and recent crimes and scandals. 

Specific genres of story have traditionally been associated with specific genres of performance.  As mentioned above, pingtan is a collective term, denoting two forms of storytelling: pinghua (also, dashu, which means “big story” and involves descriptions of battle scenes and stories about wars), delivered with stylized speech only, and often performed by individual man; and tanci (also xiaoshu, which means “little story,” and involves love stories and more intimate settings), delivered with song and instruments, and often performed by two women.25

The school of ku-tz’u, performed in northern China mostly by men, also specializes in descriptions of battle stories and scenes.  Within ku-tz’u there exists a great variety of local and personal styles of performance.

Many subjects are timeless.  There is that great constant: the struggle to pass examinations for the sake of institutional advancement.  Other perpetual subjects in Chinese storytelling include lampooning of officials, stupid peasants, quack physicians, cuckolded husbands, and misers.  Stock characters include...the stupid son-in-law who inadvertently insults his father-in-law and mortifies his wife, the trickster Hsu Wen- ch’ang, and the teacher who is outwitted by mischievous students.26 

Many of the humorous stories show how the powerful can be made to look ridiculous: common people outwit magistrates and young people outwit their elders.  In other stories, the victims of tricksters are innocent: such victims (in old stories) include the young men and women tricked into accepting deformed partners by clever matchmakers.  Ghost stories abound, as do “tales of young men bewitched by women who are actually foxes in disguise, stories of the exploits of the Taoist immortals, and stories of filial sons.”27  Other popular subjects include: the rise and fall of dynasties; the brave generals and swordsmen who defended the population against foreign invasions and internal rebellions (or who led just rebellions), and benevolent emperors traveling throughout their realm incognito, coming to the aid of the poor and downtrodden.  (See, for example, “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”)

“Folktales reflect the fears and aspirations of their narrators and audiences.  In many tales, unfilial behavior, excessive greed, or failure to pay heed to omens harbingers a descent into poverty, while proper behavior leads to prosperity.”28  “Tales which circulate internationally may undergo changes as they are told to and by Chinese, as for example, a story about a wicked priest might become a story about a wicked monk, or one about a princess might become one about the daughter of a high official.29

Romantic love is the theme of some of the most popular Chinese folktales...  Probably the earliest and best-known  Chinese marchen is the charming story of the patient love between the Herd-boy and the Weaving Maid.  Marriages in traditional China were arranged by go-betweens, and many of these stories tell how two young people fall in love, are unable to marry, and die from unhappiness.  In other stories, however, women who are either daughters of powerful men, or immortals in disguise, play surprisingly active roles in choosing their mates.30 

Love and romance remains a central subject, although approaches to the subject are changing: for example, many young people are no longer in favor of arranged marriages.  Sex is not generally discussed in public, although the government has occasionally attempted to have folk performers propagate state policies regarding population control and related health issues. 

The legend of Judge Pao is based on the life of Pao Cheng (999-1062), who gained a reputation as a sagacious and incorrupt judge.  “Serialization of the Judge Pao stories on television on Taiwan in recent years testifies to the continuing popularity of this figure.”31  The popularity of Pao Cheng, the honest judge, has its counterpart in perhaps the even greater popularity of the adventures of the noble bandits from Liang-shan Marsh, headed by Sung Chiang.

Many stories have been reworked century after century.  Some have remained popular in tanci performance from the T’ang Dynasty [618-906] until the present day.  Three tales that have been performed in prosimetric fashion for centuries are those of Tung Yung, Meng Chiang-nu, and Liang Shan-po and Chu Ying-t’ai:

When his father dies, Tung Yung is so poor that he indentures himself for a three-year period to a wealthy local aristocrat just in order to pay for a decent funeral.  Moved by his filial piety, Heaven sends down an immortal maiden to assist him.  Her miraculous weaving skills free Tung Yung of his debts within a month.  She gives birth to a son (who would become a famous scholar), and returns to Heaven.32 

Meng Chiang-nu is a paragon of wifely devotion.  During the cruel reign of the First Emperor of the Ch’in, Meng Chiang-nu’s husband is drafted to help build the Great Wall.  He soon dies of physical exhaustion and is buried in the wall.  When Meng Chiang-nu arrives at the labor site to bring her husband winter clothes, she is overcome by grief at the news of her husband’s death, and weeps until the wall collapses at the place where he was buried, enabling her to take her husband’s bones home for proper burial.33 

The bright young woman Chu Ying-t’ai, disguised as a male, goes to study in Hangchow and there befriends Liang Shan-po.  For three years they share a room, and even a bed, with him realizing that she is a girl.  When Chu Ying-t’ai’s father insists that she return home, she urges Liang Shan-po to come to her home and ask for her sister in marriage.  Liang Shan-po eventually discovers Chu Ying-t’ai’s true identity and goes to her home to ask for her hand in marriage, only to discover that she has been promised to someone else.  He returns home and soon dies of grief.  On her wedding day, Chu Ying-t’ai visits his grave: it opens up and she jumps into it, after which it closes again.  From the grave a pair of butterflies emerge.34 

Two classic Buddhist epics are the tale of Mu-lien, the disciple of the Buddha who searches through all the hells to find his sinful mother and save her from her tortures; and “Journey to the West,” the fantastical legend of the pilgrimage of Hsuan-tsang (Tripitaka) and his allies to India to get Buddhist scriptures.

One style of storysinging that originated in Guangdong, a southern province of China, is known as muk’yuMuk’yu literally means ‘wooden fish,’ referring to the oblong wooden blocks with which monks beat time when chanting.  In muk’yu, as practiced by one contemporary performer, Ng Sheung Chi -- or, Uncle Ng, as he prefers to be known -- we can see a transition to the modern world, in his case, of emigration.  “Uncle Ng Comes to the Golden Mountain” is the story of his real life experiences in the USA.  For years, Uncle Ng performed on the streets of NYC’s Chinatown, and in a senior citizen’s center.  Themes of travel, adventure, and separation are of course not new: one story Uncle Ng performs is about a wife’s experience of waiting for her husband to return -- it does not matter if he is off building the Great Wall, or off in the USA, her loneliness and uncertainty of his return are the same.

The uncertainty of modernism, as a cultural genre, is not approved of by the Communist Party.  Therefore the Party resists stories that involve searching for identity or meaning:

Modernism is informed, or at least influenced, by the unprecedented and unending intellectual upheavals of the last century and more, as a result of which no knowledge can be regarded as absolute or permanent, no law -- juridical, scientific, or artistic -- as immutable, and no prescription on the strength of tradition or the extra-rational authority as binding unless one consciously decides to accept it.35 

Although physical fighting, whether in a personal or athletic context, remains a popular subject, war is perhaps not as glorious (or profitable) a prospect as it once was: success in business, acquisition of wealth, is perhaps a more interesting subject to many.  As elements of capitalism are now permitted in China, it seems that there can to a limited degree be stories on this subject, perhaps helping people to define what is morally correct.

In the 1990s, the Communist government’s demand for political propaganda has decreased, but there has been growing interest in ‘genuine’ folklore.  This has inspired some local officials to provide shan’ge singers with a fresh supply of ‘ancient’ long narrative songs.36 

Not all changes are due to Communism.  The coming of industrialization and urban life is a major issue for many Chinese, as it is for people around the world.  For example, kwv txhiaj, performed antiphonally by Hmong couples, involves comparing aspects of one’s lover to aspects of nature.  This genre seems to be loosing vitality as fewer and fewer Hmong actually live and work in the midst of a predominantly natural environment, whether in China and or elsewhere:
Country life, farming, telling the time by the position of the sun, and walking through tropical forests are no longer the way of life for many Hmong people, but learning the songs, poetry, and stories is a way of holding on to an identity as Hmong people.37 
Elements of nature have here become symbols for a lost way of life, as opposed to being actual parts of everyday life.

D) Styles of Storytelling

Chinese storytelling has not been studied by foreigners very much -- perhaps because fieldwork and acquisition of fluency in oral vernacular languages are difficult.  The oral text is fluid and is controlled by the performer during performance, after which it disappears (until the advent of electronic recording!).  Neither has storytelling been studied very much by Chinese scholars -- perhaps because low status can confer to scholars who study low status activities:

Storytelling, a far more modest entertainment than drama, only rarely captured the fancy of the nation’s elite, the literati, whose writings are our major source for knowledge of China’s past...  Ever since the Yuan Dynasty [1280-1367CE], however, the literati have doted on drama, composing plays and writing extensive critical tracts on drama, playwrights, actors and actresses.38

It is sometimes said that pingtan performers “depend on their mouths to eat”: this is a put-down of physical labor.  Traditionally, the lowest social level was inhabited by those who performed in the streets, in the public marketplace.  These were the despised “artists of the bazaar” -- contaminated and contaminating, in constant contact and negotiation with the Other, and often expressing no loyalty to any institution.39  The highest rank was enjoyed by narrators of history, followed by tellers of ghost and love stories.  Among the Tai, the most prestigious stories were the Buddhist epics. 

As mentioned above, pingtan is a collective term, denoting two forms of storytelling: pinghua (narration without music); and tanci (narration with music, also known as, prosimetric performance, or chantefable).  The prose of pinghua, and sections of tanci, is delivered in a styled form of speaking that is different from everyday speech; it has a recognizable cadence.  Both pinghua and tanci allow insertion of commentary, anecdotes, poems, and descriptive set pieces; and both involve long, often serialized, tales.  In tanci, the story is told in alternating passages of prose and rhymed metrical verse, plus comic-relief passages, singing, and instrumental accompaniment.  In olden days, a story could take three months to tell, with an hour session each day: today, two weeks is usually the limit.

The prosimetric form may have originated in India, where it was used to present Buddhist sutras.  The narrative is carried forward in prose, while the intervening songs, often all in the same tune, comment on the action that has just taken place, and to express devotion. 

In the course of a performance, storytellers go into and out of multiple registers, voices, and dialects.  The plot line is delivered in a formal dialect, while asides to the audience are given in the local dialect.  Ancient dialects are no longer second nature to young performers or listeners: many elders say that today the singing is good, but the speech is poor.  Thus today the frames, or registers, of language styles that performers shift into and out of are in some ways simpler.  Instead of switching dialects, a young performer may just switch tone or accent.

The older performers also speak of the diminished attention span of young people: after all, commercial TV -- which is accessible in cities -- has advertisements every 10 minutes (I wonder if the rate of alternation between singing and speaking in tanci has been affected by such developments).  Some older pingtan performers say that today, fewer people come to listen to the art, more just to hear a story.  Older, well-known stories are regarded as boring by many younger listeners, forcing the development of new stories.  Some young people complain that the pace of the storytelling is too slow, that more action and less of the detail that has traditionally been so characteristic of tanci is desired.  These changes are perhaps due to the quickening pace of life in modern China and the difference sense of performance introduced by editing and other aspects of TV, videos, and movies.40 

Storytellers may comment on the happenings of the story by ‘stepping out’ of the story and ‘discussing’ the case with the audience.  Here they have the opportunity to refer to anecdotes from everyday life.  Narrators also may relate the inner thoughts of characters.  Sometimes, when no personal pronoun is used, it is unclear whether the the narrator is speaking on behalf of him/herself, is presenting thoughts or spoken words of characters, or is presenting (imagined) thoughts of audience members. 

Storytellers speak of different types of episodes: description episodes, climax episodes, etc.  Conventional styles of delivery are associated with the various types of episodes.

One method of bringing melody and rhythm into the storyteller’s voice is chanting.  In chanting, a single melody is improvised upon over and over: it is the words that are of interest.  It is common in Chinese folk traditions to match new words to old melodies.41  New words are sometimes improvised on the spot.   Each locale has its own traditional melodies and rhythms.  The characters, history, and landmarks of that village were celebrated in those melodies and rhythms.  In some traditions, each type of story, or each type of episode in a story, is associated with a particular melody and rhythm.  Texts composed by members of various Chinese armies have been set to many local melodies.42 

Today as always a person experiences various internal and external voices; thus, there is still a need for performances in which multiple voices are enacted.  “‘Unlike in opera, you don’t perform a single role, you have to play them all.’”43  There are, of course, still many different languages and dialects all around; thus, there is also still a need for performances which weave together expression in these various languages and dialects.  Singing does not seem to have gone out of style; thus, there is still a place for performance that blends together the different verbal expressions of talking, chanting, and singing. 

The “half-open door” style of performance refers to sitting.  The “full-open door” refers to standing and walking about.  In pingtan in general, body movements are becoming more popular: some pingtan performers have added large stylized body movements derived from Chinese opera.  The increase in visual communication perhaps represents an effort to compete with the intensely visual mediums of TV and cinema.

For the performance of tanci, mixed gender couples only became popular in the 1930s, with the general relaxation of social norms that previously had prohibited men and women from appearing together in public.  Today, there are many female-female teams, as more women and fewer men are entering the field. 

Among the minority peoples such as the Hmong (Miao), Zhuang, Yi, Yao, Molao, Dong, Tai, and Tujia, in southwestern China, there are traditions of antiphonal singing and chanting, in which lyrics are sung in turn by two or more singers: 

One of the most unusual aspects of the Miao epic tradition is that the stories are related by antiphonal singing...  After the song is decided, the narration begins.  The challengers sing a section of the story, ending their song with a question.  The opposing team then repeats much of what the first side has sung, and carries the story farther until they reach a point where a question is traditionally posed.  Then it is the other team’s turn.  This continues until the story is finished, or one team cannot answer a question.44
E) Contexts and Functions of Storytelling

In traditional China, stories were told to entertain, to offer testimony to beliefs, and to teach about the exploits of gods and culture heroes in a timeless past.45  Storytelling was a means of educating illiterate people in the history and customs of China.  The wide variety of storytellers -- who were to various degrees affiliated with various religions and rulers -- presented competing and complementary versions of the culture.

One of China’s most famous storytellers is Liu Ching-t’ing (1590-1669), who performed in the main cities of the Kiangnan area.  “His tales ingratiated him with one of the generals who supported the Ming in 1645 during an attempt to organize resistance against the Manchus.  Liu Ching-t’ing rose to political prominence and socialized with and was celebrated by various writers.46

It seems that in the late 1800s a certain public sphere arose in China which called for the construction of special storytelling recital halls, shu-chang, which typically hold 80-100 people (before then, pingtan and similar genres were performed in teahouses).  Tea and snacks are served in these storyhouses.  Engagements may last weeks or months: storytellers are paid on a commission basis.  The stage area is usually slightly raised.  The only set is a table and a few chairs.  Behind the teller, at the back of the stage, there is often a painting on a screen: sometimes the painting portrays ladies and gentlemen at court.  The essential stage props are two pieces of dry-sounding wood and a fan.  The man’s traditional outfit is a long scholarly gown.

In pre-1949 days, other performance contexts included small villages, the court, open-air marketplaces of cities, and religious festivals and fairs.  In the countryside, performers liked rain: rain meant more audience members, as farmers do not like to work in the fields when it rains.  Each genre had its own traditional location of performance, and audience -- whether young city playboys, village folks, etc.  Marketplaces provided the most accessible venue for the least well-established and well-connected performers.

Big fairs were major markers of the seasons: “People lived in remembrance of one festival and in expectation of the next.”47   Fairs drew spectators from far and wide: they provided opportunities to visit local towns and to worship at locally famous sacred sites.  Festivals often involved processions over days or weeks around a series of villages.  Such festivals celebrated the birthdays of the gods: thus the stories of these divinities would be told on these occasions.  Temples were often the centre of festival sites, and performances would be done outside them.  Storytelling here was ritual activity and was often accompanied by sacrifices and other procedures thought to be pleasing to the gods.  Much was at stake, as these gods were thought to have the power to cause or prevent floods, droughts, and locust plagues.48  These festivals, which in the early twentieth century had begun to diminish in many places, were for the most part ended by the Communists, who replaced them with new types of civic functions.

Beginning in the 1700s, storytellers formed guilds to give members an official status, regulate who would be allowed to perform in their territory, and exert control over fees and conditions in regional teahouses and later storyhouses.  These guilds organized annual multi-day gatherings, called hui-shu or shu-hui, at which a number of storytellers told their best episodes.  Since many storytellers moved about most of the year, these events gave them a chance to view each other’s performances and evaluate which young performers might qualify for guild membership.49

Today, such gatherings are sponsored by state-sponsored storytelling troupes and are overseen by local culture bureaus (the longtime director of the Suzhou cultural bureau is a distinguished scholar of pingtan history).  Gatherings are often held at the end of the year and in early spring, or for a variety of special occasions.  For example, one recent gathering was organized to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mao’s famous comments about art at Yenan: many older pingtan performers chose not to attend.50 

Another performance context was the tanghua, in which storytellers were invited to perform for a specified amount of time, ranging from one day to several weeks, in a private home or other institution.  Storytellers would often be invited to perform at family festivals of the wealthy.  There is an ancient tradition among housewives of having a monk come to one’s home to recite a Buddhist story during a day-long fast.  Today, there may be special storytelling performances in factories, and at civic and corporate functions.

After 1949, the guilds were disbanded and performers were organized into troupes, under the supervision of local culture bureaus.  These troupes, like other official organs in China, have party secretaries who function as in-house disseminators of government propaganda and who regularly organize political study for members.  Post-Liberation troupe-members were once supplied with regular salaries and other benefits, but by the late 1980s and early 1990s many no longer received the guaranteed living wages (‘iron rice-bowl’) of previous decades.51  The Suzhou Pingtan Troupe maintains its own storyhouse: upstairs are its administrative offices, quarters for visiting performers, and a small, troupe-run hotel.  In many such storyhouses, in order to supplement income, videos of action-adventure movies are shown daily, largely to audiences of idle young men. 

In discussing the contexts of storytelling in traditional and modern China, a few words should be said about life in general:  Rice (and other) farming in fields was the primary way of life in traditional rural China.  As ancestors were buried in local earth, there was the sense that these ancestors were reborn in agricultural products and then ingested with the eating of those crops.  Folk and professional storytelling was often done around eating and agricultural events; and the tellers often told about and referred to local people and their ancestors.  What happens to this relatively closed cycle when fewer and fewer people work on the land, and when more and more of what is produced is exported for consumption in other areas?  When more and more people move to cities and other distant places?  There is less sense of local specialness, and less sense of being connected to the past through the land.  There is more performance for strangers and tourists, and storytellers may be utilized to promote regional identity, even as that sense of identity wanes.

In his 1993 dissertation, Mark Bender reported that

the contexts of Suizhou tanci are growing, despite the perceived decline of interest in the art.  Traditional storyhouse performances...are given on a daily basis in hundreds of storyhouses in the Wu speaking area...  There are also opportunities to perform at special performances given at receptions for businesses, banquets, and local government functions.  One trend was for modern housing developments to include a storytelling place for older residents.52 

In late 1991, the Suzhou Pingtan Troupe Great Prize Contest was held.  Judges included troupe leaders, officials from the cultural bureau, and representatives from the Suzhou Pingtan Academy.  Older audiences generally prefer the ancient stories, but one of the winning tales was a selection from the aforementioned story about KMT-Red intrigue set in the 1930s.53 

As early as the Anti-Rightest Movement in 1957, some professional storytellers were singled out as reactionary and imprisoned; others, who had recast their stories and performances to promote the new ideals, were proclaimed as “culture heroes” on a national scale.  Pingtan performances on revolutionary themes, sometimes with large groups of performers onstage, were typical of the Cultural Revolution.  Performers were referred to as aunt or uncle rather than master.54  However, it must be said that many storytellers’ plights were improved by Liberation.  In “The Blind Singers of Guangzhou,” Wen Li-Rong states that before 1949, as a blind female storysinger, she had had very low social status and had been abused by many: she expresses warm appreciation for the Communist Party’s treatment of her.  Li-Rong ruefully describes having performed in opium dens and gambling houses, and tells how at night she had often been forced to “walk the streets, accompanied and led by a seeing person who led by a kerosene lamp, attracting listeners who might invite her to perform in a house.”55  Many performers in her position tried to withdraw from the profession by getting married, which often led to further abuse. 

Among the Tai people of Southwest China, performers of the zhangkhap genre of storysinging, the Buddhist context has been particularly strong. Zhangkhap performers traditionally act as consecrators of events.  Rituals of praying to the gods and paying respects to one’s teachers permeate the tradition.  Performances always begin with a first, drawn-out “zhao, heaui zhao” lyric -- to call upon and honor the first zhangkhap.56   Many zhangkhap singers can “see-it-and-sing-it” -- that is, they have the ability to praise or bless, along traditional lines, anything in the environment.57   Today there are many revivals of Daoist and Buddhist practices throughout China, but people must still be discreet and live in fear of the central government.  Tai culture has evolved from the overtly religious to the secular, but has maintained continuity.  Says Khana Zhuai, the premiere zhangkhap singer of Sipsongbanna, “’I selected some sutras to sing for the people, and brought them out from the temple.  I combined the principles I knew with peoples’ lives.’”58  Today there is a “new breed of performer, one whose strengths lie less in the arena of epic narration and more in the skills of duet-duel put-downs and handling a larger audience.”59

Dialogical performance of the author/singer’s sexuality serves to equalize everyone...  In duet duels, narratives about Buddhism, in which men are dominant, are subsumed into dialogues about marriage, an arena where Tai women hold significant power, such that men and women are made equal opponents in the field of courtship.60 
F) Training and Lifestyles of Storytellers

Who becomes a professional storyteller?

Certainly since the Sung Dynasty [590-617 CE], the myth that any poor student might by perseverance and intelligence rise through the examination system to the highest position in the state” has been commonly accepted in China.61 

However, there have always been bright people who, due to their natures or circumstances, did not do well on state exams.  This is one type of individual who have become storytellers.  For others, becoming a certain type of professional storyteller might represent a great step upward on the social ladder. 

A storyteller’s livelihood has traditionally been a precarious one.  In some cases, due to bitter life experiences, storytellers might be especially critical of authority, and might identify with and tell stories about heroic thieves and pirates -- those outside the social structure -- and about the corrupt and stultifying ways of officialdom.  Today, as entrepreneurship is on the rise, it would seem that small business is a topic that storytellers would relate to, as they themselves are to some degree independent entrepreneurs.

In pre-1949 China, there were apprenticeships and guilds; now there are (state-run) academies and troupes.  In the early 80s, on a wave of enthusiasm over the revival of pingtan, the aforementioned Suzhou Pingtan School reopened. The curriculum entails three years in the classroom, with classes in performance skills (singing, playing pipa [lute], sanxian [banjo], and ways of speaking) and academics (Chinese literature, history, and politics).  Students memorize scripts, then perform portions of them in class during tests.  After coursework, students are assigned to study with a master for three to six months, sitting in on performances and gradually being asked to take part.62 

Most students are from the countryside.  One reason they join the School may be to secure an urban residency permit.  They must sign a contact agreeing to return to local troupes, but evidently there are ways to avoid fulfilling this obligation.  There is a high percentage of girl students, which is one reason that female-female tanci teams are on the rise.  It seems that today, city boys are more interested in other fields, like business.

In the old days, people spoke of a “magic formula” by which the storytelling tradition was passed down from generation to generation.63  The mystique was increased if elements of this formula were written down.  Again, this is related to the Chinese notion that a person of letters is a superior being.  Writing, even among storytellers, conferred high status and career-advancement.

In those days, performers often “specialized in only one form of narration, and frequently limited their repertoire to a certain group of themes, or even to one single theme.”64  Because it takes a long time to be fully at home with a long story, the repertoire of most tanci performers was limited to one or two long stories, with a few medium-length and short stories, some of which were actually taken from the same long story.  Since each master specialized in the telling of one or two long stories, which were regarded as private possession for maintaining his livelihood, the acceptance of an apprentice was, pre-1949, quite a serious matter and was conducted ceremonially.65  The occasion called for incense burning and for the apprentice to kneel in front of the master and the portrait of the founder of the school, then touch his forehead to the ground to show respect.  There was also a contract to be signed, an amount of money to be offered to the master, and a banquet to be held, paid for by the apprentice.  All of these formalities indicated the start of apprenticeship.  An apprentice would observe his master in performance at every opportunity.  There were four stages to the apprenticeship, which could last many years: 1) household duties, 2) learning a story by heart, 3) taking part in public performance, 4) graduation, marked by public performance of the learned story. 

A saying went: “To memorize the master’s words a thousand times is not as effective as seeing the master in actual performance, and to see the master’s performance a thousand times is not as effective as performing it yourself.”66  What tied master and student so closely together was not only the ability to tell the same story, but more importantly, their knowledge that they formed the latest link in a long chain of oral tradition.

Learning, especially for professional storytellers, is a life-long process: the performer constantly polishes his story by adding or altering materials learned from real-life situations and people.  However, today many people do not consider long years of apprenticeship to a professional storyteller to be necessary: one can join a performing troupe, many of which also serve as informal training schools.  “The apprenticeship system of the past, which stressed a pseudo-familial tie between the master and the apprentice, has now been transformed into a learning system.”67   Although written materials of print texts have become more important in the learning process, the fundamental methods in perpetuating the art of tanci still rely heavily on oral-aural means.

The private relationship between master and student is now more opened to society -- as the state contributes some money to the academy or troupe and controls it regardless, practices are more standardized.  In a sense, the master’s local aristocratic patron has been replaced by the state.  A positive aspect of this arrangement is that today a master cannot lord it over a student and behave in a sadistic manner as it seems was often the case in the past (following the model of the aristocratic landlord’s relationship with “his” peasants).  On the other hand, with standardization and institutionalization, the master-student relationship does not seem as intense, the sense of identification does not seem as strong, as it once ideally was. 

Moreover, the educational process today is less restrictive; students are encouraged to be more creative at an earlier stage.  The young have opportunities to break out of the confines of a single genre and apply what training they have received to the development of hybrid forms.

G) Media and Technology of Storytelling

The old style of teaching and performance was “from mouth to ear,” that is, there was no technological or bureaucratic mediation.68  Storytellers have, however, as mentioned, for millennia utilized written notes.  Sometimes these notes were written into booklets, which was passed from master to student.

In the 1930s, radio broadcasts of pingtan became popular, creating a vehicle for the rapid popularization of tanci among a vast audience of Wu dialect speakers (there are 80 million Wu speakers in the region).  “Innovative talents such as Jiang Yuequan used the Shanghai airwaves to introduce new styles of singing to urban audiences, swiftly gaining fame via the new medium.”69  Today, pingtan radio shows are played daily.  For example, Zhou Jie’an, trained as a tanci performer, is the host of a popular Shanghai radio show called, “Weekly Storyhouse.”70   Working performers do not want their entire stories aired because they fear attendance will suffer at storyhouses.  On the other hand, young performers desire the exposure gained from the airing of selections of their stories.

In China as in the rest of Asia, the 1980s brought the cassette revolution.71  Audio cassettes can be used for training, enabling exposure to many different styles and masters.  This is convenient for those who are unable or unwilling to travel or appear in public.  “Dozens of [audio-]tape recordings of well-known performers are available at music counters in stores in Suzhou, Shanghai, and other regional centers.72 

Among Hmong people in the Philadelphia area, it is now mostly only older people who know how to tell stories in the traditional way.  “In this country [USA], where people do not have the time to teach kwv txhiaj, many Hmong have turned to technology.  At any New Year Celebration, a skilled singer will be surrounded by people with tape recorders, who are collecting songs to learn.”73 

At least two TV dramas featuring tanci artists were aired in the 1980s in the Wu speaking region.  The first pingtan music video was issued in 1992.  The tape features Qin Jianguo, a 35-year-old performer in the Shanghai troupe, singing a selection from the Jade Butterfly, surrounded by a chorus of lovely women playing pipa.  The music was electronically enhanced.”74   It sounds as if the musical elements were stressed, and the narrative and verbal elements were played down.

H) Recent Storytelling-Related Experiments

This section describes five different types of recent storytelling-related experiments, in: 1) modern classical / art music; 2) jazz-poetry; 3) pop/rock/disco; 4) rap; and 5) Chinese storytelling in the USA.  These forms differ from storytelling in various ways: for example, they may not utilize narrative or words.  However, these forms represent aspects of culture from which contemporary Chinese storytellers might also draw; and, moreover, many of these modern forms draw upon aspects of traditional Chinese storytelling.

1.  Modern classical / art music.

The composer Li Taixiang was born in 1941.  His father was a member of the Taiwanese Amei tribe and his mother was from the Mainland.  During school years, he took part in performances with a troupe of actors of gezaixi, a Taiwanese type of Chinese Opera.  In 1964, he went to teach among the Amei.  Many of the features typical of Amei music -- including its seeming monotony, and free counterpoint in polyphonic singing -- are found in Li Taixiang’s music.”  His 1976 song, “The Olive Tree,” begins with the question, “Where do I come from?”  It describes in vivid language the meandering of an insecure youth.  Li Taixiang has organized a series of eccentric concerts presenting the newest of the new in avant-garde and pop, entitled, “Chuantong yu Zhanwang” (“Tradition and Prospects”).  This concert series ran eight times, from 1978 to 1985, but was discontinued for financial reasons.  Li Taixiang was one of the first to introduce electronic music to Taiwan; he was also the first to introduce laser and other multi-media stage effects.

In 1979, Li Taixiang composed “Taixuyin” (“Chant of the Great Void”), for thirteen performers.  In this minimalist-influenced and Daoist-inspired piece, Li Taixiang incorporates monophonic, freely contrapunctual singing in a style modeled on the responsorial singing of the Amei, and makes use of elements similar to the Buddhist tradition of reciting scripture (nianjing).  Self-made instruments and electronic effects are utilized.  Aural textures reminiscent of the flowing movements and flexible pitches of mountain songs appear next to bits of Chinese operatic recitation and Buddhist chanting.  The constant repetition of certain words and phrases in different modes of performance -- sung, recited, or as ostinatos -- has a trancelike effect.75 

2. Jazz-poetry.

Jon Jang is a Chinese-American jazz musician.  His composition, “Island: Immigrant Suite #2,” was inspired by his study of the Chinese immigrant experiences at Angel Island.  He was emotionally moved by the poems inscribed on the walls of the immigrant station -- outcries of loneliness, frustration, anger, and dreams denied.  Jon Jang describes his work as “musical language,” trying to “recontextualize Chinese sorrow song within the modern jazz context, but from a Chinese-American perspective.”  A third-generation Chinese-American, he explains that, “With ‘Island,’ I want the audience to experience the souls of people from the Chinese Diaspora that have touched me, and that I hope will bring a rediscovery about the humanity in all of us.”76 

3. Pop/rock/disco

By the early eighties, official role model types...had lost much of their pristine image as many young people were searching for for more realistic, down-to-earth role models to whom they could relate on a more personal basis.  For many young people, popular heroes in films and literature, and even traditional heroes such as Wu Song and Lin Chong from Shi Nan’ai’s classic novel, Outlaws of the Marsh, contained more lively and realistic characters than the lifeless, one dimensional models extolled by the Party.  Many urban youth  saw official role models not as symbols of revolutionary  virtue, but of repression and ideological bankruptcy.77 

The emergence of Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop songs in the early eighties coincided with the Party’s efforts to initiate economic reform and increase contacts with the outside world.  The first pop music to be endorsed by the Party in the wake of the Open Door Policy in 1979 was from Hong Kong and Taiwan.  Many “Cantopop” songs are simply pop or rock versions of popular Chinese folk tunes with revised or new lyrics, utilizing folk instruments. Taiwan rock songs were typically criticized by Party writers:

The words reflect a predilection for dissipation...they’re deranged,  confused, and devoid of meaning.  Those wild tunes,  incessant pulsating rhythms, and unconstrained phrases only give people a kind of sensory stimulus.  These songs also contain many foreign words.78 

Party officials suggested that instead, musicians should attempt to “spread the cool breeze of national music and purify the murky streams of pop music.” In the early eighties, the campaign against spiritual pollution closed all of the Mainland’s cabarets.  But despite the efforts of hard-line ideologues, the campaign was short-lived, partly due to the fact that the campaign was seriously threatening Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, and risked turning away foreign investors and repealing joint-venture contracts. 

At a concert staged in Beijing in May 1986, Jin Zhoujun, a music critic and writer, commented: “‘This concert marks the beginning of a new generation of pop music in China and also marks a departure from the copy-cat Hong Kong and Taiwanese models and a new stage of independent exploration in pop music.’”79   What many mainland singers and musicians needed to get rock off the ground, to embark on this new stage of “independent exploration” (“duli tansuo”), was a homegrown hero, someone they could call their own, someone who could crystallize their rock movement.  Hong Kong Cantopop and Taiwanese pop stars did not measure up.  But a young singer by the name of Cui Jian did.  Chinese rock was born and Cui Jian and his band ADO, made up of both Chinese and foreign instrumentalists, became the mainland’s leading rock group, spawning a host of other home-grown bands in the process.80 

The making of Cui Jian was largely “the result of the huge market for tapes created by the cassette-recorder boom in recent years.”81  The dissemination of music tapes in major coastal and urban centres had already penetrated the market economy, and pop/rock music became a growing market for private entrepreneurs and record companies.82  The most common medium of dissemination of pop/rock music is not via state-controlled radio stations, but via cassette recorders and tapes. 

In September of 1985, Wen Zhonjia and Mei Baojiu set a number of regional and revolutionary opera arias to a drum beat and other electronic wizardry, culminating in a cassette called “Mismatched Medley.”  A cassette version of another group of regional and revolutionary opera arias set to a disco beat in early 1985 entitled “Nanqiang Beidiao” (“Mixture of Northern and Southern Accent”) was jointly issued by the China International Visual Arts company and the Shaanxi Audio Visual Publishing House.83

The interest in new rhythms was not limited to the young: “In the early morning everyday, groups of aged men and women can be seen along riversides and sidewalks twisting to music from pocket tape recorders.  According to a municipal official, more than 8,000 old people have been participating in regular disco sessions at the city’s cultural centers.”84 

The synthesis of pop-rock and traditional Chinese music has thus been actively underway for the past fifteen years.

At first a band may try to imitate the music that comes from abroad.  But in a short period of time, the tendency is to incorporate the new material into their own musical experience.85 

Said one Chinese musician and writer,

“We have numerous minority groups abundantly rich in musical resources and many talented composers who can write even more outstanding works, including popular music.  How can we call  ourselves beggars when we are holding such riches in our hands.”86 

Two films by the so-called “fifth generation of film makers” -- ”Yellow Earth” and “Red Sorghum” -- which appeared in the late eighties sparked off a craze for Shaanxi folk music and gave rise to a pop/rock genre known as the “northwest wind.”  Zhao Jiping notes that songs from yellow Earth were not direct copies of Shaanxi folk songs, but rather used those songs as source material.  Collecting folk songs for the film began in nearly January 1984, when Zhao and others, braving biting cold...traveled to north Shaanxi.  The Yellow River -- a cradle of Chinese civilization -- and to a lesser extent, Yan’an, the hallowed revolutionary base of the Chinese Revolution, is a powerful and potent symbol for many Han Chinese.  For Zhao, the trip to China’s northwest hinterland proved not only a source of inspiration, but the centre of self-discovery and rebirth as well.87 

Another pop/rock genre that emerged in the late eighties was “Prison songs,” which had a distinct Northeast flavor.  This genre was initiated by Chi Zhiqiang and others who had spent time in prison and expressed regret for their crimes and nostalgia for a simpler life.88 

Among the Tai people of Yunnan province, Buddhist monks help organize pop musical events.  “As zhangkhap relies on a set tune reused with different lyrics, so pop tunes may be reused four or five times within the same concert, with a different singer creating new lyrics each time.89  One monk explains that “‘The goal of the pop movement is not to change things, just to build on what already exists in order to lift up our people.’”90  One aspect of “monastic duty is to serve and educate the community,” and some monks are choosing to do this by promoting a new Tai-language pop culture which appeals to younger Tais.91 

The temple has...offered itself as a forum for pop music in ways that  echo that of Thailand and Burma...  In addition, the temple has been active in the promotion of the use and preservation of the classical Tai language, and briefly  managed a small computer center to help locals to typeset documents in Tai, Thai, and Chinese.92 

4. Rap.

In numerous places around Asia and the rest of the world, people are experimenting with the genre of rap: in some cases they are mixing it with local traditions.  (What I know so far of such activities is based on hearsay: I am working to gather proper evidence and documentation.)  Here at the University of Pennsylvania, two Chinese-Americans -- one an undergraduate, and the other recently graduated -- happen to be leading two rap-related organizations: 

Victor Chien organizes “gatherings,” which feature a back-up band, scheduled performers, and open-microphone periods.  I e-mailed to ask him if he feels traditional Chinese verbal arts might in some way be related to rap.  He e-mailed back,

as for continuing a verbal tradition..... that's a sticky one.  i'm taiwanese by descent and first gen. american, but as a result of the latter (and my own lack of initiative in looking into these things), i lack a complex understanding of the traditional forms of storytelling and the like.  as such, i cannot say that i consider myself following a tradition, though i could very well be doing just that.  interesting question..... i'll have to think about that one a little longer. 93

The very week this paper is being written (April 24-29), the on-campus organization TOUCHH (Teaching Ourselves the Unique Culture of Hip-Hop) is presenting a week-long series of performances and seminars pertaining to rap.  TOUCHH was co-founded by Michael LeeYow, who grew up in Brooklyn and has rapped under the name, Da’ Lyrical.  His parents are from Trinidad: he bears the name 
of his maternal grandfather, who was Chinese-Trinidadian.  Is it simply a coincidence that these two rap organizations are operated by young people of Chinese descent, or is this possibly indicative of a relationship between rap and Chinese verbal arts?

5. Chinese storytelling in the USA.

I have already mentioned the pioneering work of the muk-yu artist, Uncle Ng, who has performed in New York City’s Chinatown since 1979.  Numerous Chinese immigrants, based mostly in New York and California, perform varieties of pingtan for fellow immigrants.  Linda Fang is a Chinese-American professional storyteller who performs Chinese stories exclusively in English: she tells folktales, legends, and stories from Chinese history, working mostly in schools.  Sue Yee, an employee of the New York Public Library, tells Chinese folk tales in English in libraries throughout the city.94  Lu Yu is a theatre artist who also works in the schools: presently, with New York’s Pan-Asian Repertory Theatre, he is planning a production of “The White Snake” that would be performed in English but would incorporate various physical and verbal techniques derived from Chinese opera 
and storytelling styles. 

I) Could There be a Chinese Pop Superstar Storyteller?

What might the performance of a Chinese pop superstar storyteller look and sound like?

It should be noted that to date no culture has produced a pop superstar storyteller.95  It might be argued that pop superstardom is antithetical to the localness of authentic storytelling.  However, many pop superstars have exuded distinct ethnicities and geographic locales: Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, for example.  Of course, the content of their work was not local, due to the nature of the genres they were working within.  There certainly have been world-famous -- although perhaps not pop superstar -- writers who used the details of place: Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner come to mind.

The localness of storytelling means that when, for example, the image, “tree,” is mentioned, not only may a particular type of tree may be implied, but a particular tree, one which may have figured in the community’s history.  The common fund of memories and experiences is part of what makes storytelling in a community what it is.  When performance is moved to a national or international stage, the shared knowledge of everyday physical and emotional experience, the intimacy within a community, is lost: it remains to be seen if this can be effectively and compellingly replaced.  One strategy is to present a set of local elements as a realm of exotic nostalgia to be observed, not as a shared living system.

With disconnection from the specifics of the local, there is a basic cultural shift: what might be gained is a shared sense of national or global community, with its own shared culture.  Those who wish to converse on such stages must refer to and help cultivate these new types of landmarks.  These landmarks will never have the same kind of intimacy and emotional power as those of one’s own personal physical circumstances, but they nonetheless can be significant.  To compensate for the loss of ability to allude to local landmarks, a pop superstar storyteller might concentrate on alluding to landmark experiences that all audience members would share and consider important. 

Why have so many other genres of performance spawned pop superstars, while storytelling has not?  Pop songs are self-contained, easily-managed commodities: they feature distinct melodies and typically last only three minutes.  In the cases of dance, visual arts, and instrumental music, there is no language barrier.  However, many TV series (situation comedies, melodramas, and soap operas) and the performers in them have become international hits, proving that seriality in itself is not what is holding storytelling back. 

The spoken language of TV shows can be translated, either through dubbing or subtitles, without radically affecting the product because TV is largely a visual medium.  Storytelling’s center, on the other hand, lies in verbal art.  Thus dubbing (simultaneous spoken translation) seems out of the question.  One practice storytellers seeking translation could experiment with is the projecting of electronic words -- in accompaniment of both in-the-flesh and video-mediated performances.  This might have the benefit of adding to the visual aspect of the event.  If listeners were at times invited to chant along, the effect might be similar to karaoke.

Storytelling thrives on immediacy -- direct contact between tellers and lsiteners.  Until recently, this could only be done in relatively small groups: today, with video projection to accompany in-the-flesh performance, and the possibilities presented by videoconferencing, larger numbers of individuals might be able to take part in a storytelling event.  Is a measure of deification and inaccessibity necessary for pop superstardom?  If so, could a storyteller perform intimately with listeners and yet maintain glamor?  I think this might be possible.

For storytelling to really make sense, what is called for most of all is a sense of community.  To engage in a storytelling event is an expression of love for and faith in a community; and for someone to have the confidence to expound in front of others calls for a rather non-modern, but possibly post-modern, sense of confidence and joy.  Is China or the world ready for this sort of feeling? 

For one to really enter into the types of storytelling events discussed in this paper, one must be able to understand not only the local everyday spoken language, but also have some familiarity with a variety of ancient and neighboring dialects.  A Chinese pop superstar storyteller would have to forego these archaic and arcane forms of expression, but could still shift into various accents and tones of voice, and for short stretches could switch into different languages -- a little Japanese, English, etc.

What might be the content of a Chinese pop superstar’s stories?  Travels around the world.  Stories about how the people and culture have come to be what and where they are today.  Stories about the discovery of old civilizations, and the founding of new ones; adventures, journeys, and struggles.  Meetings with the Other.  Love and romance.  Would stories be told in first or third person, or in both, or by other methods?

In modern times, among many the very concept of epic, of any overarching narrative by which one can make sense out of experience, has fallen out of favor.  Can epic be retrieved?  Many epics have presented their own people as central and good, and have denigrated all others: are there alternative ways to construct epic?

When appearing in a place, a pop superstar storyteller might tell stories concerning how that place came to be and how it has related to the rest of the world -- always with respect toward, and in partnership with, local ancestors and performers.

Miraculous coincidences could be narrated that could be interpreted differently by each listener -- as the workings of the Christian God, Buddha, other divinities, fate, luck, etc.  One feature of a Chinese pop superstar storyteller might be a mystical identity with ancestors who helped found the nation (Buddha, Mao, peasants of the countryside), upon which she/he could draw strength, and to whom the pop superstar storyteller could seem to be a sort of grandchild.

As mentioned, chanted storytelling is not particularly melodic -- chanting often involves variations on a single melody for hours at a time.  Nor is it especially visual -- all one sees is the performer, and one’s own internal imagination.  With electronic projections and telecasts, however, this could be jazzed up, with the use of live special effects, electronic painting, and the showing of accompanying still images and video clips -- a practice which could make the performer seem like an MTV VJ (video jockey), or TV news anchorperson. 

Storytellers often have ambiguous relationships with social-political leaders: storytellers can praise or denounce authority figures.  A pop superstar storyteller’s prime patron would have to be the public, not governments or corporations or their leaders.  Thus it is questionable whether a strong storyteller would receive much air time on TV or radio: it is Internet videoconferencing and webcasting that offer autonomous broadcasting -- and interacting -- ability.

The ability to project video on large screens and to transmit it over large distances to many sites simultaneously might give a pop superstar storyteller a bit of a shamanic mystique, reminiscent of the shaman’s legendary abilities to fly and transform one’s body.  Antiphonal storytelling could be done in arenas with giant video screens facing each other from opposite sides of the arena, with the opponents both onsite, or one or both attending via videoconference.

In sum: Again, in addition to learning how to fit in, I urge young Chinese people to proudly and boldly teach the world about China’s styles of storytelling, and use these styles to show the world how it looks from traditional Chinese points of view; to present these expressive forms to the world, so that people around the world may learn new ways of expressing themselves.  In the context of pop superstar storytelling, traditional methods of seemingly odd, strange, weird, funny, overly-expressive stylized ways of speaking might not appear as backward and embarrassing, but rather as liberating and exhilarating.


1)  From a telephone conversation with a receptionist and the evening’s program.

2)  Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, Boston: Little, Brown, 1989.

3)  W. L. Idema, “Part II: Prosimetric Literature,” in The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, William H. Nienhauser, Jr., ed., Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, 1986, p. 83.

4)  Vibeke Bordahl, The Oral Tradition of Yangzhou Storytelling, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Monograph Series, No. 73, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1996, p. 8.

5)  Idema, p. 85.

6)  Victor H. Mair and Maxine Belmont Weinstein, “Part I: Folk Literature,” in The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, William H. Nienhauser, Jr., ed., Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, 1986, p. 77.

7)  Jaroslav Prusek, Chinese History and Literature, Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1970, p. 401.

8)  Idema, p. 83.

9)  Bordahl, 1996, p. 3.

10)  Anonymous, “New Storytellers,” in China's Cultural Legacy and Communism, Ralph Croizier, ed., NY: Praeger, 1970, p. 196.

11)  Mark Bender, “Zaisheng Yuan” and “Meng Lijun”: Performance, Context, and Form of Two Tanci, Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State U., 1995, p. 181.

12)  W.J.F. Jenner, “Is a Modern Chinese Literature Possible?”, in Essays in Modern Chinese Literature and Literary Criticism, Wolfgang Kubin and Rudolf G. Wagner, eds., Bochum: Brockmeyer, 1982, p. 196.

13)  Mair and Weinstein, p. 79.

14)  Antoinet Schimmelpenninck, Chinese Folk Songs and Folk Singers: Shan'ge Traditions in Southern Jiangsu, Leiden: Chime Foundation, 1997, p. 104.

15)  Prusek, p. 301.

16)  Prusek, p. 237.

17)  Prusek, p. 237. 

18)  Bender, 1995, p. 251.

19)  Bender, 1995, p. 187.

20)  Schimmelpenninck, p. 62.

21)  Schimmelpenninck, p. 8.

22)  Idema, p. 90. 

23)  Idema, p. 84. 

24)  Idema, p. 84.

25)  Idema, p. 87.

26)  Mair and Weinstein, p. 78.

27)  Mair and Weinstein, p. 80.

28)  Mair and Weinstein, p. 80.

29)  Mair and Weinstein, p. 80.

30)  Mair and Weinstein, p. 80.

31)  Idema, p. 88.

32)  Idema, p. 88.

33)  Idema, p. 89.

34)  Idema, p. 90. 

35)  W.J.F. Jenner, “Is a Modern Chinese Literature Possible?”, in Essays in Modern Chinese Literature and Literary Criticism, Wolfgang Kubin and Rudolf G. Wagner, eds., Bochum: Brockmeyer, 1982, p. 195.

36)  Schimmelpenninck, p. 137.

37)  Yang Blianhheng Lo and Pang Xiong Srirathasuk, Kwv Twhiaj Hmoob Phau Ib Hmong Kwv Thxiaj (Book One), Philadelphia: Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalitions, Inc. & The Hmong United Association of Pennsylvania, 1993, p. 8.

38)  Idema, p. 84.

39)  Prusek, p. 298.

40)  Bender, 1995, p. 180.

41)  Schimmelpenninck, p. 6.

42)  Schimmelpenninck, p. 6.

43)  Frank Kouwenhoven, “Storytellers Know Best about Storytelling: NIAS Workshop on Chinese Oral Literature, Denmark,” Chime9, Autumn 96, p. 134.

44)  Mark Bender, "'Felling the Ancient Sweetgum': Antiphonal Folk Epics of the Miao of Southeast Guizhou," Chinoperl15, 1990, p. 34. 

45)  Mair and Weinstein, p. 80.

46)  Mair and Weinstein, p. 84.

47)  Schimmelpenninck, p. 96. 

48)  Bender, 1995, p. 96.

49)  Bender, 1995, p. 163.

50)  Bender, 1995, p. 250.

51)  Bender, 1995, p. 171.

52)  Bender, 1995, p. 164.

53)  Bender, 1995, p. 250.

54)  Bender, 1995, p. 176.

55)  Wen Li-Rong, “The Blind Singers of Guangzhou,” transcribed by Chen Bing-Han, translated by Bell Yung, Chinoperl14, 1986, p. 70.

56)  Sara Davis, Singers of Sipsongbanna: Folklore and Authenticity in Contemporary China, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1999, p.  86.

57)  Davis, p. 85.

58)  Davis, p. 88.

59)  Davis, p. 112.

60)  Davis, p. 165.

61)  Mair and Weinstein, p. 83.

62)  Bender, 1995, p. 177.

63)  Pen-Yeh Tsao, “Training of T’an-t’zu Performers: Processes of Oral Transmission in the Perpetuation of the Su-chou Singing Narrative,” in The Oral and Literate in China, Tokumaru Yosihiko and Yamagutyi Osamu, eds., Tokyo: Academia Music, 1986, p. 224.

64)  Vena Hrdlickova, “The Professional Training of Chinese Storytellers and the Storytellers’ Guilds,” Archiv Orientalni33, 1965, p. 227.

65)  Tsao, p. 224.

66)  Tsao, p. 225.

67)  Tsao, p. 227.

68)  Bordahl, 1996, p. 83.

69)  Bender, 1995, p.163.

70)  Bender, 1995, p. 251. 

71)  Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India, Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 34. 

72)  Bender, 1995, p.165.

73)  Yang Blianghheng Lo, Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk and Jennifer Michael.  “Hmong Kwv Twhiaj (Courting Songs) at New Year,” Philadelphia Folklore Project: Works in Progress,Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter 1992-3, p. 5.

74)  Bender, 1995, p.165.

75)  Barbara Mittler, “The Politics of Identity in New Music from Hing Kong and Taiwan,” Chime9, Autumn 96, pp. 16-7.

76)  Takaki,  p. 507.

77)  Peter Micic, “‘A Bit of This and a Bit of That’: Notes on Pop/rock Genres in the Eighties in China,” Chime8, Spring 1995, p. 82

78)  Shi Guangnan,  “Sentimental Songs Must Pave Their Own Road,” People’s Music,March 1990, p. 3.  As cited in Micic, p. 79. 

79)  Micic, p. 86. 

80)  Micic, p. 86. 

81)  Robert Delfs, “The Controversial Fame of China’s First Rock Star,” Far Eastern Economic Review,12/6/85, p. 40.  As cited in Micic, p. 81.

82)  Xia Bai, “What is the Aesthetic Value of More than 800,000 Cassette Tapes?”, People’s Music,12/783, p. 17.  As cited in Micic, p. 81.

83)  Geremie Barme, “Revolutionary Opera Arias Set to a New Beat,” Far Eastern Economic Review,5/2/87, p. 38.  As cited in Micic, p. 83.

84)  “Retired People in Guangzhou are Taking up Disco Dancing for Entertainment and Health,” 2/7/87, Beijing Review,p. 34.  As cited in Micic, p. 84.

85)   James Lull, Popular Music and Communication, Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992, p. 31

86)  Cheng Yun, “Liangzhou Described in the Northwest Wind,” Peoples’ Music,October 1988, p. 25.  As cited in Micic, p. 92.

87)  Micic, p. 90.

88)  Micic, p. 93.

89)  Davis, p. 201.

90)  Davis, p. 191.

91)  Davis, p. 191.

92)  Davis, p. 203.

93)  Victor Chien, e-mail, 4/14/00.

94)  Sue Yee, telephone conversation, 3/12/00.


Anonymous.  “New Storytellers.”  In China's Cultural Legacy and Communism, Ralph Croizier, ed.  NY: Praeger Publishers, 1970, pp. 196-7.

Barme, Geremie.  “Revolutionary Opera Arias Set to a New Beat,” Far Eastern Economic Review,5/2/87, pp. 37-9.

Bender, Mark.  “‘Felling the Ancient Sweetgum’: Antiphonal Folk Epics of the Miao of Southeast Guizhou,” Chinoperl15(1990): 27-44.

Bender, Mark.  “Zaisheng Yuan” and “Meng Lijun”: Performance,
Context, and Form of Two Tanci.  Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State U., 1995.

Bender, Mark. “Keys to Performance in Kumming Storytelling,”  Chinoperl 19(1996): 21-38.

Bender, Mark.  “The Chantefable Tradition of Suzhou.”  In Traditional Storytelling Today: An International Sourcebook, Margaret Read MacDonald, ed.  Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1999, pp. 85-7. 

Bender, Mark.  “Antiphonal Epics of the Miao (Hmong) of Guizhou, China.” 
In Traditional Storytelling Today: An International Sourcebook, Margaret Read MacDonald, ed.  Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1999, pp. 88-90.

Bordahl, Vibeke, ed.  The Eternal Storyteller: Oral Literature in Modern China.  Nordic Institute of Asian Studies. Studies in Asian topics; no. 24.  Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999.

Bordahl, Vibeke. “Wen Bai Yi Du, Literary and Colloquial Forms in Yangzhou Storytelling,” Chinoperl16(1993): 29-63.

Bordahl, Vibeke.  “Narrative Voices in Yangzhou Storytelling.” Chinoperl 18(1995): 1-31. 

Bordahl, Vibeke.  The Oral Tradition of Yangzhou Storytelling.  Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Monograph Series, No. 73.  Surrey: Curzon Press, 1996. 

Davis, Sara Leila Margaret.  Singers of Sipsongbanna: Folklore and Authenticity in Contemporary China.  Ph.D. dissertation, U. of Pennsylvania, 1999.

Delfs, Robert.  “The Controversial Fame of China’s First Rock Star.” Far Eastern Economic Review,12/6/85, p. 40.

Hrdlickova, Vena.  “The Professional Training of Chinese Storytellers and the Storytellers’ Guilds.”  Archiv Orientalni33(1965): 225-246.

Hrdlickova, Vena.  “The Beginnings of Popular Chinese Literature Urban Centres--The Cradle of Popular Fiction.”  Archiv Orientalni36(1968): 67-121.

Idema, W. L.  “Part II: Prosimetric Literature.”  In The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, William H. Nienhauser, Jr., ed.  Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, 1986: pp. 83-91.

Jenner, W.J.F.  “Is a Modern Chinese Literature Possible?”  In Essays in Modern Chinese Literature and Literary Criticism, Wolfgang Kubin and Rudolf G. Wagner, eds.  Bochum: Brockmeyer, 1982: pp. 192-233.

Kouwenhoven, Frank.  “Storytellers Know Best about Storytelling: NIAS Workshop on Chinese Oral Literature, Denmark,” Chime9(Autumn 96): 132-5.

Kaikkonen, Marja.  Laughable Propaganda.  Stockholm: Institute of Oriental Languages, 1990.

Lee, Robert.  “Singing to Remember: Uncle Ng Makes His Mark.” Artspiral,
a publication of Asian American Arts Centre, NYC.  Vol. 6(Summer 1992): 4-7. 
(A 17-minute videotape accompanies the article.)

Li-Rong, Wen.  “The Blind Singers of Guangzhou.”  Transcribed by Chen Bing-Han, translated by Bell Yung.  Chinoperl4(1986): 61-75.

Lo, Yang Blianghheng, Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk & Jennifer Michael.  “Hmong Kwv Twhiaj (Courting Songs) at New Year.”  Philadelphia Folklore Project: Works in ProgressVol. 6, No. 1(Winter 1992-3): 4-6.

Lo, Yang Blianhheng and Pang Xiong Srirathasuk.  Kwv Twhiaj Hmoob
Phau Ib Hmong Kwv Thxiaj (Book One).  Philadelphia: Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalitions, Inc. & The Hmong United Association of Pennsylvania, 1993.  (Two audiotapes accompany the booklet.)

Lockard, Craig A.  Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia.  Honolulu, HI : University of Hawai`i Press, 1998.

Lull, James.  Popular Music and Communication.  Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992.

Mair, Victor H. and Maxine Belmont Weinstein.  “Part I: Folk Literature.”  In 
The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, William H. Nienhauser, Jr., ed.  Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, 1986: pp. 75-82.

Mair, Victor, Lowell Skar, Laura Hosteler, & Neil Schmid.  “Three Contemporary Approaches to ‘Oral Literature’: Implications for the Study of Chinese Folklore.”  Chinese StudiesVol. 1, No. 8(1990):1-36.

Mair, Victor H.  Anthologizing and Anthropologizing: The Place of Non-elite and Non-standard Culture in the Chinese Literary Tradition.  Durham, N.C.: Asian/Pacific Studies Institute, Duke University, 1992.

Manuel, Peter Lamarche.  Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India.  Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology.  Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1993.

Micic, Peter.  “‘A Bit of This and a Bit of That’: Notes on Pop/rock Genres in the Eighties in China.”  Chime8(Spring 1995): 76-95.

Mittler, Barbara.  “The Politics of Identity in New Music from Hong Kong and Taiwan.”  Chime9(Autumn 1996): 4-46.

Pellowski, Anne.  The World of Storytelling.  Expanded and rev. ed.  Bronx, NY: H.W. Wilson, 1990.

Prusek, Jaroslav.  Chinese History and Literature.  Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1970.

Schimmelpenninck, Antoinet.  Chinese Folk Songs and Folk Singers: Shan'ge Traditions in Southern Jiangsu.  Leiden: Chime Foundation, 1997.

Takaki, Ronald.  Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans.  Boston: Little, Brown, 1989.

Tse-Tung, Mao.  “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art.”  pp. 29-36.  In Literature of the People’s Republic of China, Kai-yu Hsu, ed.  Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, 1980. 

Tsao, Pen-Yeh.  “Training of T’an-t’zu Performers: Processes of Oral Transmission in the Perpetuation of the Su-chou Singing Narrative.”  In The Oral and Literate in China, Tokumaru Yosihiko and Yamagutyi Osamu, eds.  Tokyo: Academia Music, 1986: pp. 221-230. 

Wivell, Charles.  “The Chinese Oral and Pseudo-Oral Narrative Traditions,” Chinoperl5(1975):115-25.

Wong, Deborah.  “I Want the Microphone: Mass Mediation and Agency in Asian-American Popular Music.  Drama ReviewVol. 38, No. 2(1994): 152-65.

Zheng, Su De San.  “From Toisan to New York: Muk’yu Songs in Folk Tradition,” Chinoperl16(1993):165-206.