Pingshu is a traditional style of Han Chinese storytelling tradition in which a storyteller performs with no musical accompaniment. It is especially popular in northern China. In southern China it is called and pinghua. Pingshu was extremely popular in the 1980s, when the Chinese were first able to afford radios and listened to pingshu along with radio drama programs. People of all ages listened to storytelling when they worked in their fields and relaxed at home while sipping tea. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Pingshu dates to the Song Dynasty (960-1278). Amy Qin wrote in the New York Times: “In the pingshu tradition, the performer wears a traditional gown and sits behind a desk equipped with a folding fan and a wooden block, which is used like a gavel. The storyteller recounts a legend — typically a classical Chinese epic — from memory, using different voices and exaggerated gestures as well as adding occasional background detail and commentary. It is a demanding profession that combines acting, oration, writing, historical research and literary criticism and requires countless hours of memorization. [Source: Amy Qin, New York Times, September 17, 2018]

Popular stories brought to life by pingshu storytellers included General Yue Fei, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Cavalier with White Eyebrows and Sui Tang Yanyi. Among the most famous Pingshu performers were as Shan Tianfang (1934-2018), Yuan Kuocheng (1929-2015), Tian Lianyuan (born 1941) and Liu Lanfang (born 1944). In recent years many of the great pingshu performers have died, and the tradition is fading. Interest in pingshu among Chinese has largely been replaced by mobile phones and gaming.

Websites and Sources: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC); Classics: Chinese Text Project ; Side by Side Translations; Poetry: Li Bai Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classic Novels: Journey to the West site ; English Translation PDF File ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Culture: China ; China Culture Online ;Chinatown Connection ; Transnational China Culture Project
Books: “Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction“ by Sabina Knight (Oxford University Press, 2012) ; “The Culture and Civilization”, a massive multi-volume series on Chinese culture (Yale University Press); “Anthology of Chinese Literature from the Earliest Times to the Fourteenth Century” edited by Cyril Birch; Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture,” translated by Stephen West, edited by Victor H. Mair, Nancy S. Steinhardt, and Paul R. Goldin (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005)].

Shan Tianfang: China’s Premier Pingshu Storyteller

Shan Tianfang (1934-2018) was arguably China’s most famous pingshu storyteller. Amy Qin wrote in the New York Times: His “energetic oral renditions of classical Chinese novels and historical events propelled the ancient pingshu tradition into the modern age for generations of Chinese. He tried for many years to avoid becoming a performer of pingshu. Growing up in 1950s China in a family of folk art performers, he had seen struggle firsthand. It was a life of constant financial troubles and low social status. So it was with great reluctance when, out of financial necessity, he became an apprentice to a family friend who was a master of pingshu. He made his debut in 1956.[Source: Amy Qin, New York Times, September 17, 2018]

“Mr. Shan grew to love the storytelling form. But bothered by what he felt were the many historical inaccuracies and superstitious fantasies found in the classical epics, Mr. Shan, who had studied history, soon began performing his own interpretations based on his meticulous historical research. In teahouses around the northeastern region, he became celebrated for his fresh takes on the classics. “The new China was not the same as before,” he once said in an interview. “People wanted to see a pure stage free of superstition with characters that actually made sense.” With the onset of the repressive Cultural Revolution in 1966, however, radicalized youth sought to root out all remnants of China’s ancient “feudal” culture, and that included pingshu. Mr. Shan was labeled a “counterrevolutionary” and sent to do manual labor in a village in northeastern China. “In his memoir, published in 2011, he called those years of persecution his “life’s greatest suffering.”

Shan Chuanzhong was born on Dec. 17, 1934, in Tianjin, China. His mother, Wang Xianggui, was a stage actress. His father, Shan Yongkui, was a folk musician who played the sanxian, a three-stringed Chinese lute. Growing up, Mr. Shan and his four sisters frequently moved around northeastern China with their parents, an experience that left him longing for a more stable life and career. But in the early 1950s, when his parents divorced and his mother left the family, Mr. Shan gave up his dream of being a doctor and embraced his performance heritage. After completing his apprenticeship with a pingshu master, he joined a folk arts troupe in Anshan, a town in northeastern China known then for its teahouses and pingshu performers. He found early success on the regional teahouse circuit until the Cultural Revolution, beginning in 1966, derailed his career for a decade.

Shan Tianfang Brings Pingshu Alive on Radio

Amy Qin wrote in the New York Times: With the collapse of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, Mr. Shan set out to revive his pingshu career. Many Chinese were hungry for something other than bland, party-approved propaganda, and it was against this backdrop that he leapt at the opportunity to record a pingshu radio broadcast. He soon discovered that performing on radio was vastly different from doing so in teahouses. There were no props, no reactions from the audience to guide him — just Mr. Shan and the microphone in a recording studio. [Source: Amy Qin, New York Times, September 17, 2018]

“So for his first radio performance, an abridged version of the historical novel “The Romance of Sui and Tang Dynasties,” Mr. Shan used the studio’s three recording technicians as his audience and adjusted his performance based on their reactions. The performance had its premiere in 1980 on Chinese New Year, and more than 100 million Chinese were estimated to have tuned in during the 56 hours over which it was broadcast. It was the beginning of a dramatic second act both for Mr. Shan and for pingshu in the People’s Republic of China. He was soon a household name across the country.

““In the 1980s everyone had a radio, so you could hear Shan Tianfang everywhere, in homes and in taxis,” Zhu Dake, a Chinese cultural critic, said in an interview. “He took a traditional art form and made it popular by adapting it to the new era in the most simple way.” Over six decades, Mr. Shan recorded more than 110 stories for radio and television totaling about 12,000 episodes and spanning 6,000 hours. His best-known works include his renditions of Chinese classics like “White-Eyebrow Hero” and “Sanxia Wuyi” and his dramatizations of historical figures like Zhuge Liang and Lin Zexu.

“Even today, hop into a Beijing taxi and the driver may be listening to one of Mr. Shan’s recordings. “For my generation, Shan Tianfang was a master,” said Zhao Fuwei, 48, a Beijing taxi driver. “If back then there was such thing as a viral star, then Shan Tianfang was definitely the hottest viral star.” Listening to his stories has made it easier to kill time in bad traffic,” Mr. Zhao added. “He was so good at making complicated historical stories simple and interesting. You feel like you could relate to the characters in his stories, even though they lived a long time ago.”

“The revival of Mr. Shan’s career in the early 1980s and his subsequent rise to national prominence paralleled the re-emergence of the pingshu tradition. Nevertheless, even after retiring, Mr. Shan worked tirelessly to promote pingshu among young Chinese, mentoring apprentices and starting a school dedicated to the folk arts. Ever willing to adapt to new technologies, he posted a message to his Sina Weibo microblog account on Sept. 6, five days before his death. It was an announcement about a new live-streamed lecture series about pingshu.

Chen Ta: Taiwan’s Last Wandering Bard

Discovered as an old man in 1962, Chen Ta was famous for his poignant, improvised Hengchun-style folk epics — but lived most of his life in poverty. Han Cheung wrote in the Taipei Times: “Armed with a moon lute (yueqin) — a traditional Chinese string instrument — 73-year-old Chen Ta sat in a recording studio with Cloud Gate Theater director Lin Hwai-min in 1978. Lin started to explain to Chen the scene he had in mind from the story of Han Chinese immigration from China to Taiwan when Chen interrupted him. “I know that story,” Chen said. He asked for two cups of rice wine, adjusted his instrument and launched into a detailed, improvised epic. Three hours later, Lin told Chen they had recorded enough material. Chen protested, “I haven’t gotten to the part about Chiang Ching-kuo yet!” [Source: Han Cheung, Taipei Times, April 10, 2016]

“He then sang about Chiang, and finished with: “Taiwan became a great place, known by everybody 300 years later.” That is how Chen, who was illiterate, formed his songs. And he could seemingly go on forever, and was asked at least once to leave the stage because he exceeded his allotted time. Folk music expert Chien Shang-jen, who recounted the story above in his preface to Chen’s biography The Wandering Bard Chen Da by Hsu Li-sha, refers to Chen’s songs as “improvised poems based on the time, place and event of that moment.” His neighbor Chiang Hsiu-ying recalls in the biography that when Chen visited her home, he would first ask her father about the family’s situation and then make up a song on the spot about what he was just told. “It was always positive and auspicious, and my father would be very happy,” she said. They would then give him some rice or money to buy food.

“Born and raised in Hengchun, Chen learned his craft from his brothers and was considered somewhat of a delinquent for playing music all day and not working in the fields. He honed his skills while working in Taitung and singing Hengchun-style folk songs with other migrant workers from his hometown. Chen began his career as a traveling musician after returning to Hengchun when he was 20 years old, often walking all day from town to town. He was popular among locals — often bringing his audience to tears — but lived in poverty. Handicapped after a stroke at age 29, he never married as a result but is said to have fathered a son with a widow.

Chen Ta Becomes a Recording Star

Han Cheung wrote in the Taipei Times: ““Chen did not expect his big break to come in his 60s. In 1966, Hsu Chang-hui and Shih Wei-liang, both European-educated musicians, decided that Taiwan also needed its own music and set out to document local folk music that was disappearing to Western tunes. Hsu was saddened by the state of Chen’s life, writing in his journal: “He has no family (no parents, children or relatives), living alone in a house unsuitable for human habitation (if it can be considered a house at all).” “When he picked up his yueqin and sang with his voice that sounded like cries of grief…I felt that I found it, I found the soul of the Chinese folk music I had been searching for so many years,” Hsu added. [Source: Han Cheung, Taipei Times, April 10, 2016]

“Hsu and Shih then recorded Chen’s songs and released them as records — one of them contained a single long epic on a tragedy involving a father and son who lived in Hengchun. They also actively promoted Chen’s music, attracting much media attention. Chen appeared on television for the first time in a special news program in 1972, where he improvised a song about “two good men who come from Taipei to the south to film a television program.”

“Chen became famous — but he still continued to live in poverty, collecting recyclables when he wasn’t playing music. Hsu Li-sha writes that his neighbors considered Chen a talented man but still somewhat looked down on him because he did not have a proper job. This opinion would not change with his fame.

“In the late 1970s, Chen was invited to Taipei as a resident performer in a Western music restaurant Scarecrow, whose owner wanted to shake things up to save his often empty establishment. Known to never sing the same lyrics twice, he packed the house for two months — but still wore the same tattered clothes, leisurely drinking tea and chewing betel nut as if he were still in Hengchun.

“Chen celebrated his 72th birthday in Taipei. It was the first time he had cut a Western-style cake, and he sang a song about it. A few days later, he was the main act at the first annual Folk Artist Music Festival organized by Hsu Chang-hui. Tired of life in the big city, he eventually returned home, exhausted his earnings and by 1980 he had returned to his old life as a traveling musician, although he would still make trips to perform at schools and other events in Taipei. On April 11, 1981, Chen was hit by a bus on his way to Hengchun. He died that night.

Non-Han Ethnic Literature in China

The Han Chinese are the dominate ethnic group in China, making up more than 90 percent of China’s population. But there are 55 other ethnic groups, some with large population’s outside of China. In the interview with Chinese Reading Weekly, Bai engsheng, a Naxi who has held several senior positions in the Chinese government literary ethnic minority research apparatus, including his current role as Secretary of the China Writers Association, said: “In ancient times, the myths, epics and narrative poems of minority ethnicities blossomed with éclat in the garden of Chinese — even global — literature” and then mentions the the following authors and works: “Guan Hanqing, Pu Songling, Nalan (Xingde), Cao Xueqin, Abay (Ibrahim) Qunanbayuli, Tsangyang Gyatso), Mahmud (al-Kašgari), Ali-Shir Nava’i, Kutadgu (Bilig), The Gate of Wisdom, Compendium of the languages of the Turks, Secret History of the Mongols, Dream of the Red Chamber, Storied Building with a Single Floor, Weeping for the Red Pavilion, and The Story of the Qing Dynasty History.[Source: Bruce Humes, Ethnic ChinaLit, December 17, 2014]

Bruce Humes wrote in Ethnic ChinaLit: “It is interesting to note that Bai does not mention Life of Jangar (Mongol), King Gesar (Tibetan), and Manas (Kyrgyz), which are now officially recognized by Beijing as the three great non-Han epics of ancient Chinese literature. Over the last year or so, however, several experts in ethnic literature have pointed out that these works are still not widely introduced in standard textbooks on Chinese literature used in the PRC today.

Liu Daxian, a member of the editorial staff at the quarterly Studies of Ethnic Literature, emphasizes that “mother-tongue literature” includes both written and oral forms. He points out that “literature” as defined and promoted via China’s modern education, media and scholarship, tends to focus on written forms such as the novel, poetry, essays and drama, and since much mother-tongue literature — by which he basically means “literature in indigenous languages except for Mandarin” throughout the essay — doesn’t easily fit in those categories, it is viewed as a non-mainstream, even subtly inferior class of literature.

“If anything, Bai’s list of Chinese literary classics by a range of multi-ethnic authors moves in the opposite direction. He concentrates on “written” (as opposed to “oral”) literature, and considers the texts he cites as mainstream. But does his list represent the result of a positive and inclusive view of Chinese literature, or an expansive, even imperialist one in which the Chinese literary establishment is attempting to appropriate classics that rightfully belong to other peoples of Northeast and Central Asia? On the one hand are works such as The Dream of the Red Chamber, authored by Qing Dynasty Manchu writer Cao Xueqin. Written in Chinese, I assume few would dispute its positioning as a classic of Chinese literature.

“In the disputed category would be the works of Tsangyang Gyatso, the sixth Dalai Lama and a poet whose love songs in Tibetan verse are much beloved among Tibetans and Han alike. Many would consider it ironic that Tsangyang Gyatso’s writing should be considered part and parcel of the Chinese literary tradition, given that he was kidnapped and deposed in a series of murky events, possibly with the consent of Emperor Kang Xi of Qing.

“Potentially more controversially, several of the works cited by Bai were written in non-Sinitic languages by authors whose people were simply not a part of the Chinese empire at the time. Secret History of the Mongols, for instance, which is renowned as the “oldest surviving Mongolian-language literary work.” Granted, the only existing text is a Ming Dynasty Chinese translation of a text originally in Uyghur script, but this is a history of Genghis Khan written for the Mongol royal family at a time when the Mongols had not been incorporated into China — the Mongols ruled the Han, not vice-versa.

“Perhaps an even more striking example of Bai’s “appropriation” are two famous works by Turkic authors. Mahmud al-Kashgari, an 11th-century Muslim Uyghur scholar and lexicographer of Turkic languages from Kashgar, was the author of Compendium of the Languages of the Turks (Diwan Lughat al-Turk). According to Unesco, it “is a cultural treasure for the Turks of Turkey as well as for the Uzbeks, Uyghur s and other Turkic peoples. It is the richest source for the language and the ethnography of the Turks at a time (the eleventh century) when they were becoming the dominant military and political force in the Muslim world.”

“In fact, at the time of Mahmud al-Kashgari’s birth, Kashgar — located in China’s modern-day Xinjiang — had not been under Chinese control for centuries. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica (Kashgar), “After 752 the Chinese were again forced to withdraw, and Kashgar was successively occupied by the Turks, the Uyghurs (in the 10th and 11th centuries), the Karakitai (12th century), and the Mongols (in 1219).”

“Slightly further afield is another of the works cited by Bai Gengsheng, Wisdom Which Brings Good Fortune (Kutadgu Bilig). It is thought to have been penned by Yusuf Khass. Hajib, a native of Balasagun (modern-day Kyrgyzstan), which was then the winter capital of the Karakhanid empire. According to Wikipedia (Kutagdu Bilig), the work was completed in about 1069 AD and presented to Tavghach Bughra Khan, the prince of Kashgar. It was written in the Uyghur-Karluk (Khaqaniye) language of the Karakhanids.

Lack of Literature in Regional Dialects in China

Victor Mair wrote in his Language Log: “I wish that there were vibrant, vital written forms for Hokkien, Shanghainese, Hakka, and many other varieties of Chinese, just as there are for Bengali, Gujarati, Oriya / Odiya, and so forth in India. Considering the plethora of spoken languages in China, I believe that the development of corresponding written languages for at least the major varieties would lead to mutual enrichment and invigoration, including of the national language. [Source: Victor Mair, University of Pennsylvania, Language Log, August 20, 2013]

While there have been some sporadic efforts to write Taiwanese-Amoyese, a full-blown literary tradition has never developed for that language. There have also been occasional efforts to incorporate a few words of the local language in so-called Shanghainese literature, but it usually amounts only to a sprinkling of Wu lexical items in what is basically a Mandarin matrix. The situation for the other topolects is even less, with next to none or no written form at all. It is only in Cantonese that there has been anything approaching true topolectal writing. I suspect that this has been possible mainly because of the special sociopolitical conditions that obtained while Hong Kong was a colony of the British Empire. Whatever the reason, I am always pleased when I learn of evidence that written Cantonese is clinging to life.

Some renowned Chinese writers use some dialects in their works to add local flavor. For example, Jia Pingwa wrote his “Qin Opera” with a lot of obscure dialect and idioms of Shaanxi province, and nearly all of Beijing writer Wang Shuo's novels have strong marks of the Beijing dialect, which make the works vivid and amusing. Yan Lianke's characters have thick Henan accents.

Jin Yucheng's Fan Hua (Blooming Flower) won one of Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2015. Written in the Shanghai dialect, it had been regarded as a "black horse" in literature circles since its publication in 2012. However, it has won several important literature prizes and has proven popular even among readers in their 20s and 30s. A novel about Shanghai life, Fan Hua's use of the local language gives it just the right flavor for its location. While Putonghua (Standard Chinese) is the standard choice for Chinese literature today, Jin's use of the Shanghai dialect has been seen as a bold and interesting choice. "Chinese literature is getting monotonous both in language and form. I want to be special, and have my own language," Jin told the Global Times in a preview interview before the announcement. [Source: Global Times, August 16, 2015],

Image Sources: 1) Storyteller, Bukliin archives ; 2) Book, Calligraphy, Palace Museum Taipei ; 3) Encyclopedia, Li Bao, wikipedia; 4) Handscroll, Columbia University; 5) Tang party, University of Washington ; 6) Red Chamber TV, Hongloumeng; 7) Bei Dao, 8) Pearl Buck, Pearl Buck website

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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