The World of The Chinese Storyteller
(First published in Appleseed Quarterly. The Canadian Journal of Storytelling. Spring 1997. Vol. 7 No. 1, pp. 17-23)
It was forty years ago that I discovered the world of Chinese storytelling, a wonderfully diverse world where tales can be told, chanted or sung. This world had never even been hinted at by my professors of Chinese language and literature. I want to share that world with you; let’s begin where it all began for me, in a teahouse in Taiwan.
The year was 1956 and I was a newly-arrived graduate student living in Taibei with a Chinese family. I revelled in this different culture; chatting with people on the streets, trying out traditional entertainments. A newspaper ad that announced a variety show led me to a small hall near the railway station. There, I paid my fee, accepted a glass of tea-with-leaves and found a seat on a hard bench next to the aisle where servers moved to and fro, refilling our glasses with hot water as we watched the variety unroll.
A small table and two chairs were placed to one side of the performing area and a waist-high tripod frame supporting a drum was set centre stage. Two musicians took the seats at the table: one bearing a three-string Chinese banjo and the other a four-string spike fiddle. The singer entered – short, stocky and dark, in her mid-forties. She took up clapper and drum stick from the drum, gave a commanding glance at the musicians, who followed her lead as she began a rousing drum pattern. A pause for some spoken words of introduction, another instrumental interlude and then the singing began.
It was singing such as I had never heard before, akin to speech. Her voice rose, then tumbled down from one shimmering note to another, supported by the strings. Her bold flowing gestures were precisely co-ordinated with the words and music and her face was so expressive I seemed to be understanding her story. Suddenly the rhythm quickened, the melody simplified, the clapper beat became continuous. Then all too soon, with one final slow triumphant couplet, it was over. I had barely understood a word but I didn’t care. It was beautiful. It was exciting. I wanted more.
I went back frequently and then that improvised teahouse closed. My landlady, seeing how much I liked this performer, made a suggestion that changed my life:
“Why don’t you study with her?” she suggested. “I know someone who knows her.”
And so began my friendship with Zhang Cuifeng, singer of Peking Drumsongs. I was to learn a Three Kingdoms tale, Reunion At Old Town, a tale of loyalty, forbearance and valiant deeds. It is the type of tale for which Zhang (and her mentor Liu Baoquan) was famous. As I strove to memorize text, then meter, then music, there was also time for talk. I loved to hear my teacher tell about the real Peking variety show teahouse programmes.
At the age of 75, as I look back on half a century of involvement with Chinese literature, I am bemused. There was little hint in my early life that I would turn into a Chinese scholar. New England born and bred, I hardly seemed fated to wander. In fact, with a BA in physics and a job at a Long Island laboratory, I seemed set for a scientific career.
But in my suitcase was a book from an English lit. course – Ezra Pound’s translation of Confucian classics, with facing Chinese character text. In my spare time, with a dictionary, I began to work my way back and forth: Chinese to English to Chinese… it was wisdom and fun; physics was abandoned.
For three years I studied both modern and classical Chinese, loving the language and culture, dreaming of seeing China. When a chance came to study in Taiwan, I leapt at it. My Hunanese landlady, Mrs. Ye, became my guide to Chinese culture; best of all she pointed me to Chinese storytelling and Zhang Cuifeng.
Four years later I returned to the States; the transition to graduate student bookwork was painful but instructive. The library was full of mainland publications which described and analyzed a bewildering variety of genres I had never heard of. When would I see them for myself?
I began teaching Chinese literature at the University of Toronto in 1966, and whenever possible drew Chinese performing arts material into the curricula, to the students’ enjoyment. In 1973 I saw China for the first time, and in the 80’s made several research trips to hear, study with,
and record some of China’s superb singer-tellers.
All were patient and generous to a fault with this inquisitive foreigner. I studied with my wonderful Peking Drumsinging teacher, Sun Shujun. Then at the peak of her powers, now, at age 80, she still mesmerizes audiences with her art. Gao Yuanjun and Gao Fengshan, leaders in their arts, taught me clappering too.
I wanted to share this material with students, many of whom spoke no Chinese; a method evolved where, with Chinese tellers in my mind’s eye, I told the story in English first, and then we listened to the recordings. It worked, and it led to my English tellings in the wider community. After retirement in 1986, storytelling became my main focus.
Now I live in Victoria, my traveling days over, grateful for the students and the performers in China and Taiwan who helped me along this path, and happy to chat with any storyteller who happens by.