Chinese Storytelling Arts

September 4, 2006

Quotes from my new favorite book, Chinese Storytellers: Life and Art in the Yangzhou Tradition by Vibeke Bordahl & Jette Ross…

From the beginning of the nineteeth century we have detailed accounts of the various ‘schools’ or lineages of storytellers in the [Yangzhou] area. The storytellers of Water Margin and Three Kingdoms belonged to large schools with many branches, ultimately going back to four honorable masters…

…generally storytelling was divided into four schools (si jia): ‘stories of love and marvel’ (yinzi’er), ‘stories of crime and adventure’ (shuo gong’an & shuo tieqi’er), ‘stories from the Buddhist classics’ (shuo jing), and ‘stories from history’ (jiang shishu).

Among the northern storytelling styles, Tianjing storytelling (tianjin pingshu) is performed in a lively milieu in teahouses and storytellers’ houses in the centre of town. A most interesting characteristic is the spontaneous dialogue between the performer and his audience that takes place, not only during breaks, but also during the storytelling proper.

During the last half century, since the birth of modern China, the creation of new works of quyi [narrative arts], including storytelling — as a political weapon — was given official attention and government support. Quyi, reflecting movements and campaigns all through the 1950s-1980s, such as the Anti-Japanese War and the reconstruction of the country, are sometimes individually authored (and may be performed by the author). Sometimes such works are recreations of popular modern stories, known throughout the country [probably thanks to revolutionary opera or other media]. This type of ‘new storytelling works’ (xin shu) are mostly short, not longer than a single session of storytelling [compared to the traditional 40-day serials], and often even shorter, so that several different performances are stringed together to make up an afternoon’s entertainment.

I’m only a third of the way through this book, but already I feel that this tradition is a rich, deep well that younger storytelling traditions (such as roleplaying) might easily drink from. Lots of good stuff here.

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