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.
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.
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