Shan Tian­fang: A Sto­ry­telling Life

By por­tray­ing var­i­ous char­ac­ters, sto­ry­telling artists like Shan Tian­fang try to make their per­for­mances not only en­ter­tain­ing, but also ed­u­ca­tional and thought-pro­vok­ing.

China Pictorial (English) - - NEWS - Text by Ru Yuan

Shan Tian­fang, one of the most cel­e­brated Chi­nese sto­ry­telling mas­ters, died at the age of 84 in Bei­jing on Septem­ber 11, 2018 af­ter a long bat­tle with ill­ness. The death of Shan, whose works in­flu­enced gen­er­a­tions in China, trig­gered a wave of nos­tal­gia.

The tra­di­tional Chi­nese art form of sto­ry­telling, also known as ping­shu, boasts a time-hon­ored his­tory. It is be­lieved that as early as the Tang Dy­nasty (618-907), an art form sim­i­lar to modern-day sto­ry­telling had al­ready emerged. By the Song Dy­nasty (960-1279), the art had be­come pop­u­lar with au­di­ences, es­pe­cially in north­ern China.

Like his sto­ry­telling peers, Shan usu­ally per­formed an en­tire story by him­self, stand­ing be­hind a ta­ble with only a few props such as a fan and a block of wood called xingmu to re­mind the au­di­ence to be quiet or at­tract their at­ten­tion. With witty, hu­mor­ous com­men­tary and ex­pres­sive body lan­guage, Shan won the hearts of spec­ta­tors with his vivid de­scrip­tions. The renowned sto­ry­telling artist pro­duced so many works that it would take more than 30 years to air all of them at a rate of one episode per day. His sto­ries cov­ered a wide range of top­ics from Chi­nese mythol­ogy to cur­rent so­cial af­fairs.

Early Life

Ac­cord­ing to Chi­nese me­dia re­ports, the num­ber of those who have watched or lis­tened to a Shan per­for­mance reached nearly 200 mil­lion, ac­count­ing for one seventh of China’s pop­u­la­tion. Ro­manceof the­sui(581-618)and­tang­dy­nas­ties, White-eye­brow Hero, He­roes ina­trou­bled­time and Thethree He­roes and Five­g­al­lants are some of his best-known sto­ry­telling works.

Shan was born in the chilly win­ter of 1934 in Yingkou City, Liaon­ing Prov­ince in north­east­ern China to a fam­ily of folk artists. His fa­ther played sanx­ian, a three­stringed plucked in­stru­ment, and his mother per­formed xihe dagu, a drum­ming sing-along tonguetwister pop­u­lar in some parts of north­ern China.

When he was young, Shan tran­scribed sto­ries for his par­ents to be used in per­for­mances, and by the age of 12, the boy had al­ready mem­o­rized nu­mer­ous nov­els. “But des­tiny played a ma­jor role in my de­ci­sion to be­come a sto­ry­teller,” Shan once as­serted.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from high school, Shan was ad­mit­ted by North­east­ern Uni­ver­sity. “I dreamed of be­com­ing an en­gi­neer or a doc­tor.” How­ever, he soon dropped out of the school due to a se­ri­ous ill­ness and later, in 1953, for­mally launched his sto­ry­telling ca­reer. He made his stage de­but at the age of 24 and quickly rose to fame by per­form­ing clas­sic sto­ry­telling works.

Across the decade from 1954 to 1964, Shan per­formed at tea­houses and small the­aters. “You meet peo­ple in­volved in a wide va­ri­ety of trades at th­ese places, and you per­form the same story dif­fer­ently for dif­fer­ent au­di­ences,” said Shan. “By tour­ing like this, I grew up quickly.” Dur­ing this pe­riod, Shan per­formed a wide range of works in­clud­ing some adapted from Soviet nov­els and even Sher­lock Holmes sto­ries, which laid a solid foun­da­tion for his fu­ture devel­op­ment.

His down-to-earth work at­ti­tude even­tu­ally paid off. Shan soon formed a dis­tinc­tive style. He es­pe­cially ex­celled at ad­just­ing his own voice to turn ab­stract plot el­e­ments such as vi­su­als, col­ors, and emo­tions into con­crete and de­tailed de­scrip­tions.

Old Art in a New Time

In the late 1970s, Shan re­turned to pub­lic life af­ter the end of the

“cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion” (1966-1976). Against the back­drop of China’s im­ple­men­ta­tion of its re­form and open­ing-up pol­icy, the Chi­nese peo­ple were ea­ger to em­brace art, which had been re­stricted dur­ing the pre­vi­ous decade of tur­moil. Tra­di­tional sto­ry­telling works, many of which orig­i­nated in an­cient Chi­nese his­tory, man­aged to hang on to a large fan base. More­over, af­ter a few years of rapid eco­nomic devel­op­ment, greater num­bers of Chi­nese peo­ple were able to af­ford ra­dios by the early 1980s, through which sto­ry­telling pro­grams could be trans­mit­ted to ev­ery house­hold.

Ac­tu­ally, be­fore the 1980s as well as in the sub­se­quent decade, ra­dio had been the dom­i­nant mass medium in China. By broad­cast­ing his works, Shan quickly be­came one of the most pop­u­lar sto­ry­tellers in the coun­try. His voice man­aged to pro­duce a mag­i­cal and mes­mer­iz­ing qual­ity that drew lis­ten­ers’ at­ten­tion and fu­eled their imag­i­na­tions.

Dur­ing this pe­riod, Shan’s skills were fur­ther honed and ma­tured. He es­pe­cially ex­celled at us­ing nu­anced dic­tion to nar­rate sto­ries and mod­u­lated his voice to per­fec­tion. For ex­am­ple, while pre­sent­ing a fight­ing scene, Shan in­jected ner­vous­ness into his voice which made lis­ten­ers feel as if they were on-site and wit­ness­ing the fight­ing with their own eyes.

Shan once com­mented that in some sense, mass me­dia changed the com­mu­ni­ca­tion mode of sto­ry­telling. Later, when TV found its way into the homes of more Chi­nese peo­ple, Shan made fur­ther ad­just­ments to make his sto­ry­telling more suit­able for the medium by us­ing more ges­tures and ex­pres­sions to sig­nify a sit­u­a­tion. “It was def­i­nitely a re­form for the art,” he com­mented. “When you per­form in the­aters, you can keep an eye on the au­di­ence’s re­ac­tion the whole time while work­ing,” ex­plained Shan. “But when you do sto­ry­telling on TV or ra­dio, you’re only look­ing at cam­eras and crew. Ac­tu­ally, I had to con­jure some imag­i­na­tion at first, and hyp­no­tized my­self to be­lieve I was ‘act­ing’ in front of a crowd, which helped my per­for­mances be more nat­u­ral.” Leav­ing a Valu­able Cul­tural Legacy

In 2007, Shan an­nounced his re­tire­ment. In 2012, he won the Life­time Achieve­ment Award at the 7th Pe­ony Awards for China Quyi yi (folk art forms in­clud­ing bal­lad singing, sto­ry­telling and cross-talk). k). Like al­most all tra­di­tional Chi­nese e art forms, sto­ry­telling re­quires years ears of train­ing, usu­ally through a long g ap­pren­tice­ship with a mas­ter. Along ong with mem­o­riz­ing pas­sages that can be hun­dreds of thou­sands of f words long, sto­ry­tellers also have to in­cor­po­rate cer­tain cus­toms and nd

un­der­stand the back­grounds of each char­ac­ter, re­lated his­tory, ge­og­ra­phy, and other en­chant­ing as­pects of the sto­ries they tell.

Shan be­lieved that along­side thou­sands of hours of prac­tice, a sto­ry­telling artist must be will­ing to de­vote all of his or her time, ef­fort and tal­ent to the work. The artist needs to un­der­stand the core of the sto­ries first, trans­late them into his or her own words and then com­ment on them. “As a sto­ry­telling per­former, you need to help the au­di­ence feel trust, love, ha­tred, fear and hope in the story only us­ing your voice,” Shan once said.

While some ex­pressed con­cern that sto­ry­telling faced new chal­lenges posed by modern en­ter­tain­ment, Shan con­sid­ered the modern era a com­bi­na­tion of “the best of times and the worst of times.”

“Com­put­ers, tablets and modern tech­nol­ogy en­able pro­fes­sion­als to record their sto­ries on­line and share their work with more peo­ple,” he opined. “It de­pends on how you use them.”

Shan did voice wor­ries about the fu­ture of sto­ry­telling on quite a few oc­ca­sions, but he was even firmer on the point that sto­ry­telling was ir­re­place­able due to its ten­dency to de­liver a sense of pos­i­tiv­ity. By por­tray­ing var­i­ous char­ac­ters, artists try to make their per­for­mances not only en­ter­tain­ing, but also ed­u­ca­tional and thought-pro­vok­ing.

Sto­ry­telling shares the beauty of oral sto­ries and high­lights the val­ues of Chi­nese cul­ture. Many time-hon­ored sto­ries re­main closely con­nected to peo­ple to­day. “Sto­ry­telling is not only my job but also my life,” Shan once said. By ded­i­cat­ing his en­tire life to the art of telling sto­ries, Shan left a valu­able cul­tural legacy to be em­braced by gen­er­a­tions.

2010: Shan per­forms in Tian­jin. Shan be­came a house­hold name in the 1980s with the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of ra­dio. Later, he be­gan to per­form on tele­vi­sion. VCG

2011: Shan signs books for buy­ers in Qing­dao, Shan­dong Prov­ince. Shan an­nounced his re­tire­ment in 2007 and won the Life­time Achieve­ment Award at the 7th Pe­ony Awards for Quyi (a gen­eral term for tra­di­tional Chi­nese folk art forms) in 2012. VCG

2014: Shan receives flow­ers from young fans af­ter per­form­ing in An­shan City, Liaon­ing Prov­ince. His witty, hu­mor­ous and ex­pres­sive per­form­ing style is ap­peal­ing to spec­ta­tors of all ages. VCG

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