The World of Chinese - - Contents -


T “o be con­tin­ued in the next chap­ter,” was ping­shu master Shan Tian­fang’s (单田芳) sig­na­ture sign-off, the rasp­ing con­clu­sion to more than 12,000 ra­dio episodes “book com­men­taries” recorded over a 60year ca­reer.

Septem­ber 11 saw the fi­nal chap­ter in the life of a sto­ry­teller whose idio­syn­cratic ren­di­tions of clas­sic Chi­nese texts made him a na­tional trea­sure, as Shan died aged 83. Four days later, his iconic catch­phrase was re­peated over head­phones worn by thou­sands of loyal fans who at­tended Shan’s memo­rial at Bei­jing’s Babaoshan Ceme­tery, many wor­ried who would turn the next page of this de­clin­ing tra­di­tional art.

“My fa­ther’s only re­gret was that he was un­able to fin­ish record­ing a few epics be­fore his death,” wrote Shan’s daugh­ter, Shan Huili, in an open let­ter pub­lished after his death. “This re­gret em­bod­ied my fa­ther’s anx­i­ety over the in­her­i­tance and de­vel­op­ment of the ping­shu (评书, book com­men­tary) art over the years.”

Nor was Shan the first ag­ing master to worry about ping­shu’s fate. In 2008, the late per­former Jin Wen­sheng told me­dia, “[I’m afraid] ping­shu is go­ing to dis­ap­pear when I die…so I must not die.”

Shan did more than his share to pre­serve ping­shu: In his life­time, he pro­duced ra­dio and tele­vi­sion recitals of more than 110 sto­ries, span­ning 6,000 hours, en­sur­ing that records of his per­for­mances will long out­live him.

Born Shan Chuanzhong to a fam­ily of folk per­form­ers in Yingkou, Liaon­ing prov­ince, in 1934, Shan had aspired to leave the life of an itin­er­ant en­ter­tainer. How­ever, in 1954, he was forced to drop out of col­lege for fi­nan­cial rea­sons, and be­came an ap­pren­tice of ping­shu master Li Qing­hai.

When Shan made his de­but in a tea­house in An­shan, Liaon­ing, in 1956, ping­shu was just be­gin­ning to hit the air­waves. It’s claimed that ping­shu, also known as pinghua (评话) and pingci (评词), was in­vented by the leg­endary King Zhuang of the Eastern Zhou dy­nasty (770 BCE – 265 BCE). A more plau­si­ble an­ces­tor is the stage art of shuochang (说唱, “speak­ingsing­ing”), which was pop­u­lar in areas south of the Yangtze River dur­ing the Tang dy­nasty, and later spread to Bei­jing. In later cen­turies, when per­formed at the im­pe­rial palace, the singing parts were re­placed with “com­men­tary.”

“Among the nu­mer­ous pro­fes­sions, ping­shu is the most dif­fi­cult to master,” ac­cord­ing to a folk verse. “It is not easy to master the nar­ra­tion, com­ment­ing, and act­ing in­volved, which re­quires mem­o­riz­ing thou­sands of lines.” Based on the study of clas­sic Chi­nese nov­els and his­tory, the sto­ry­teller com­poses an oral script that nar­rates the story, with oc­ca­sional asides to ex­plain back­ground in­for­ma­tion or com­ment on the char­ac­ters, their ac­tions, or their mo­ti­va­tions.

The script then has to be mem­o­rized and re­counted us­ing dif­fer­ent ges­tures and voices for each char­ac­ter (or as the verse has it: “The voice shall be loud and vary in speed and vol­ume. The sto­ry­teller alone stages a drama con­sist­ing of both lit­er­ary and fight­ing parts”). Tra­di­tion­ally, artists per­formed live at a tea­house or a stall in the mar­ket, stand­ing be­hind a wooden ta­ble with only a hand­ker­chief, fold­ing fan, and wooden block with which to make the sound ef­fects—along, of course, with the magic of their voice.

Shan’s iconic “cloud cov­er­ing the moon” rasp, which seemed par­tic­u­larly suitable for nar­rat­ing his­tor­i­cal epics, was ac­tu­ally the re­sult of throat surg­eries for in­fec­tions he de­vel­oped dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion—when he was branded a “coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary” and sen­tenced to hard la­bor in north­east­ern China. After en­dur­ing what he called “life’s great­est suf­fer­ing,” Shan re­sumed sto­ry­telling in 1979, this time record­ing a his­tor­i­cal novel, The Ro­mance of the Sui and Tang Dy­nas­ties, for An­shan Ra­dio Sta­tion. Pre­mier­ing on Chi­nese New Year in 1980, this se­rial was even­tu­ally heard by over 100 mil­lion lis­ten­ers dur­ing its 56 hours of broad­cast.

In the 1980s, ping­shu’s pop­u­lar­ity rode on the coat­tails of ra­dio, be­com­ing a na­tion­ally pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment as a portable wire­less found it­self into most house­holds. Shan, along with Yuan Kuocheng, Liu Lan­fang, and Tian Lianyuan were known as the “four ma­jor con­tem­po­rary ping­shu mas­ters,” renowned as much for their im­pec­ca­ble mem­o­ries as their sto­ry­telling flair. “I’ve ac­tu­ally read some of those nov­els be­fore lis­ten­ing to Shan, but it is his nar­ra­tion, with back­ground de­tails and com­men­tary, that brings all char­ac­ters and scenes to life,” Mr. Zhao, a re­tired worker from Bei­jing who now owns an an­tique stall, told TWOC.

Cui Min­sheng, a 59-year-old Bei­jing taxi driver, has lis­tened to Shan ever since he started driv­ing, over 20 years ago. “I drive 12 to 24 hours a day, and al­ways lis­ten to ping­shu as I drive,” he ex­plained. “Some­times, to find out what hap­pens next, I’d skip eat­ing or chat­ting with col­leagues so I could stay in the car.” Dubbed “the voice of the taxi,” as lis­ten­ing to him is be­lieved to be the best time-killer in traf­fic, Shan’s plain lan­guage and en­er­getic de­liv­ery ap­pealed to both lit­er­ate and il­lit­er­ate lis­ten­ers. “I never went to school, so I’ve never read these sto­ries be­fore, though I’ve heard some from my el­ders. Shan’s per­for­mance gives me more de­tails and com­ments,” Cui says.

Yet the sit­u­a­tion is vastly dif­fer­ent

for the “post-80s” and “post-90s” gen­er­a­tions. “My first idea was that my fa­ther must be sad,” 25-year-old Liu Siyao re­sponded vaguely, after hear­ing news of Shan’s death. As a child, Liu was “forced” to lis­ten to Shan by her ping­shu- loving fa­ther, who was even in­spired to be­come a po­lice of­fi­cer by the tales of hero­ism and moral­ity he heard on the ra­dio. How­ever, by the time that Shan re­tired in 2007, younger and more cyn­i­cal lis­ten­ers, who grew up with other en­ter­tain­ment op­tions, be­gan to con­sider these ra­dio se­ri­als old-fash­ioned, slow-paced, or sim­ply too long.

“While driv­ing, I like to lis­ten to some­thing more in­ter­est­ing and en­ter­tain­ing, such as mu­sic or [talk shows about] re­la­tion­ships, to re­lieve the pres­sure of work and mod­ern life,” Guo Qiang, a 35-year-old white-col­lar worker and part-time Didi driver, tells TWOC. “Un­like taxi driv­ers, we don’t have much time to fol­low a full story.”

Shan was not deaf to the need to mod­ern­ize his pro­fes­sion. Since the early 1980s, he had been col­lect­ing, com­pos­ing, and record­ing new sto­ries to ex­pand the lim­ited tra­di­tional ping­shu reper­toire. Tak­ing a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in his­tory by cor­re­spon­dence, Shan also cor­rected many in­ac­cu­ra­cies in the clas­sic scripts and con­ducted metic­u­lous re­search be­fore writ­ing his own.

In 1995, he founded his own ping­shu pro­duc­tion com­pany in Bei­jing, Shan Tian­fang Cul­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Com­pany, and co­op­er­ated with over 400 ra­dio sta­tions to broad­cast his per­for­mances. Three of his orig­i­nal scripts, White-browed Hero, Moun­tain and River Tears, and He­roes of Ad­ven­ture have been adapted into TV se­ries. Shan cul­ti­vated more than 30 adult ap­pren­tices and even ran his own Weibo ac­count, now in­her­ited by his daugh­ter, who set up a ping­shu school in 2017.

The master’s in­flu­ence has also been felt in other tra­di­tional arts: “His voice is so spe­cial that in a cer­tain pe­riod, many per­form­ers in short sketch, crosstalk, and other folk arts im­i­tated him,” crosstalk per­former Miao Fu told news site The Pa­per. “That’s the artis­tic in­flu­ence of a master.” How­ever, when Shan took in his last ap­pren­tices in 2010, he warned them about the dan­ger of imi­ta­tion. “Master kept telling us, ‘Don’t copy my voice, don’t copy my scripts, but fo­cus on cre­ativ­ity,’” one stu­dent, Shenyang ra­dio host Sun Gang, told the Shenyang Daily.

In­deed, ac­cord­ing to ping­shu master Liu Lan­fang, lack of new con­tent is one of the ma­jor road­blocks to ping­shu mod­ern­iza­tion. “The hun­dred or so tra­di­tional books have all been more or less adapted in the 80s, 90s, un­til the 2000s; their scripts are all used up,” Liu told China News in March. “You can’t adapt as much [con­tent] from mod­ern works, though some [scripts] are be­ing writ­ten.” Shan also tack­led the heart of the prob­lem in a 2010 in­ter­view with the Yangtse Evening News. “In my days, there was more of an in­tel­lec­tual at­mos­phere; ev­ery day we stud­ied pol­i­tics, cur­rent events, and did artis­tic ex­change…now, ev­ery­one is chas­ing prof­its.”

Ad­di­tion­ally, the life of a per­former re­mains dif­fi­cult. “Ping­shu artists in their 20s have to travel on packed sub­ways or buses to go per­form on the out­skirts of Bei­jing, and only earn 150 RMB per hour,” Liu told Xin­hua in 2015. “The folk arts are dif­fi­cult; with­out 10 or 20 years of prac­tice and ex­pe­ri­ence, you can­not en­rap­ture an au­di­ence…[but] with so lit­tle in­come, it’s dif­fi­cult to get young peo­ple to in­vest these ef­forts.”

But young artists have be­gun to pub­lish per­for­mances on Weibo, some­times edited down for length. Ama­teur per­former Zhang Zhun has got­ten up to 54,000 views for his episodes of “cre­ative ping­shu”— 20minute nar­ra­tions of the Ja­panese comic One Piece. “On the week­end, I still go to ping­shu halls to nar­rate tra­di­tional ping­shu… the au­di­ence is mostly el­derly,” Zhang told China Youth Daily in 2012.

Later, he told Tian­jin’s Metro Ex­press, “I hope to at­tract young lis­ten­ers to the art by nar­rat­ing One Piece in a ping­shu style, but of course, my per­sonal in­flu­ence is like a cup of wa­ter be­fore a burn­ing car…at least, some peo­ple who have never heard of ping­shu be­fore now know what it is.”

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