Final curtain falls for classic storyteller

发布时间:2018-09-25 09:44:13   来源:China Daily    浏览次数:
Shan Tianfang won a large base of enthusiastic fans with his vivid and captivating performances. 

It is 8 pm on a Friday in Beijing. In a small house, a pingshu-traditional Chinese storytelling-show is about to start.

Staged every Friday, the shows last for about 90 minutes and each performer tells one 20-minute tale. The performances are usually amusing and spontaneous.

But the show on Friday was not a typical performance. Using perfect timing and his deep voice, Zhao Liang, 37, opened the evening telling the story of the powerful Chinese warlord Zhang Zuolin (1875-1928). During the performance, Zhao either frowned, laughed or wore a serious expression. Afterward, three other pingshu artists took to the stage in turn.

The items they performed were some of the most classic pieces interpreted by Shan Tianfang, one of China's top pingshu masters, who died at age 84 in Beijing on Sept 11.

A crowd of more than 100 people, including the young and elderly, gave the performers a long standing ovation at the end of the evening.

Zhao, who started learning pingshu with Shan in 2010, said: "We wanted to pay tribute to Shan. He represented the highest level of the art of pingshu, and thanks to him, the old Chinese art of the one-man show has been kept alive among generations of Chinese audiences."

Zhao is also a host on online radio station Beijing Joy FM, where he focuses on programs that promote pingshu.

"It is an art form that belongs uniquely to the Chinese. It's like Chinese people eating with chopsticks. The Chinese language is such a sophisticated language and that's what makes pingshu so special," Zhao said.

Du Xinjie, a young pingshu artist, performs a classic piece interpreted by Shan Tianfang during a tribute to the master in Beijing on Friday. FENG YONGBIN/CHINA DAILY

Pingshu emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It is one of the most widely popular forms of quyi-a general term for traditional Chinese folk arts that also include ballad singing and cross-talk, or xiangsheng. In 2008, pingshu was inscribed as part of the country's intangible cultural heritage.

Most pingshu stories are adapted from ancient Chinese literature.

One of Shan's best known works was The Romance of Sui and Tang Dynasties, based on the historical novel of the same title by Chu Renhuo (1635-82). This tells the stories of events that led to the fall of the Sui Dynasty (581-618) and the rise of Tang Dynasty (618-907).

With a simple backdrop-usually a pair of screen doors, a table, a folding fan and a block of wood (known as xingmu)-Shan won a large base of enthusiastic fans for his solid techniques and improvisation in describing scenes from the book in a vivid and captivating way.

He also accompanied the stories with witty comments and expressive body language that appealed to audiences of all ages and interests.

The xingmu is knocked against the table to start, end and highlight the performance, while the fan is used by the artists to illustrate some activities, such as writing a letter, reading a book or pointing a sword.

Liu Lanfang, 74, one of the few female pingshu artists, wrote on her Sina Weibo account, "It is with profound sorrow that we have lost the great artist, Shan Tianfang."

Mourning her old friend, Liu said she worked with Shan for more than 30 years in the Anshan Quyi Troupe, and Shan had made a great contribution to pingshu, performing over 130 works in live shows and on recordings for radio and television stations nationwide.

Liu's work The Story of Yue Fei was one of the most well-received among Chinese audiences in the 1980s. It tells the story of the patriotic general Yue Fei (1103-1142) of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) army.

Liu said: "Pingshu delivers a sense of positivity, with the central theme of each story portraying vividly different characters. The contrast between good and evil in the stories told by pingshu artists is not only entertaining but also educational.

"Listening to pingshu has allowed generations of Chinese people to appreciate the art of oral stories and the underlying values of Chinese culture. Although the pingshu tales are old, the core values told in the stories are still connected to today's audiences.

A farewell ceremony for Shan Tianfang is held in Beijing on Saturday. Shan's interpretations of stories appeal to audiences of all ages. CUI JUN/FOR CHINA DAILY

"For example, the stories of loyal and law-abiding officials' fight against evil and corruption in society, and dauntless folk heroes' helping poor people, symbolize the virtues of loyalty, integrity and courage."

One of Liu's students, Wang Fengchen, 38, also performed in the show in Beijing to pay tribute to Shan.

Born in Heze, Shandong province, Wang not only performs pingshu but has written material for the stories since 2005.

His parents and grandparents listened to the stories, exposing him to the art form when he was a child.

"At the time, I listened to pingshu stories on radio stations. I liked imitating the artists' voices and repeating the stories on my own," said Wang, who started to learn the art form with Liu in 2006.

"The pingshu artists' performances are as amazing as today's superhero movies. As a young boy, I was fascinated with and inspired by those stories. Those tales, especially the heroes in war stories, inspired me to establish my own moral guidelines."

Radio is one of the ways in which pingshu has reached audiences, and in the 1970s and '80s such shows were very popular.

Elderly people would sit in comfortable bamboo chairs to enjoy the stories while sipping tea. Students would go home at noon to listen to them while having lunch. Taxi drivers would stay tuned to the radio for the shows for a whole day.

A section of a story lasted for half an hour and was usually broadcast three times a day. Performers such as Shan, Lian Liru and Tian Lianyuan were popular among fans.

Liu Daming, 36, a Beijing native and civil servant, said: "I was introduced to pingshu when I was about 8 years old. My grandfather and my father listened to shows on the radio, and pingshu became a significant part of my life-on my way to school, during my lunch break and before I went to bed.

"I am impressed by the artists who have to memorize passages sometimes hundreds of thousands of words long. They also have to incorporate the origins of certain customs, the backgrounds of each character, the related history, geography, and other enchanting aspects of the stories they tell."

Liu also goes to watch live shows that feature young artists, especially Wang Yuebo, who not only performs old tales but also invents new material. Paying just 30 yuan ($4.35) for a ticket, he often has a pleasant afternoon watching these shows.

Liu said: "No other performers support him, nor does he use any multimedia platforms to add color to the stories during his 90-minute performance. He just tells the story while adding a humorous and vivid analysis of the characters."

Like some other traditional Chinese art forms, such as xiangsheng and calligraphy, pingshu requires years of training, usually through a long apprenticeship with a master.

Most important, the artists must passionately devote time, effort and talent to their work. They need to understand the morals of the stories, translate them into their own words and then comment on them.

However, the art form faces a threat from the challenges posed by modern types of entertainment. There are fewer places to watch performances and some artists have switched to other occupations because it is hard to make a decent living.

Wang Fengchen said some young performers are trying to keep pingshu alive and up to date by reinventing it with the inclusion of topical jokes and satire.

Liu, his teacher, has been recording performances at China Central Television, taking in one new work each year.

Thanks to modern technology, professional performers can now record their stories online so that more people can access their works.

One of the most popular podcast platforms is the app Himalaya FM. When Shan Tianfang died, it included 69 works performed by him on its pingshu channel.

Last year, Beijing Vocational College of Opera and Arts launched a pingshu major, including the art form in the academic system for the first time. Wang Fengchen is co-writing teaching material for the major, which he said will attract eight to 10 students a year from around the country.

"The younger generation is lucky to have many options for entertainment, such as computer games, television and movies. But I still I enjoy pingshu and these old tales," he said.

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