The Art of Storytelling

YVONNE YAN 
illustrates her experiences with pingshu.

My introduction to pingshu, traditional Chinese storytelling, was Yuan Kuo Cheng’s “Journey to the West,” a classical Chinese novel popular among all ages. Since then, pingshu has become a significant part of my bedtime story. I fall asleep imagining the Handsome Monkey King angering all the gods and fighting against the deities, swinging his 17,550-pound golden rod from heaven to hell, and using his 72 transformations to overcome all challenges throughout the journey. Words come out of Yuan’s mouth like clips of movies, vivid and captivating, as if the characters appear right in front of me. Listening to pingshu has allowed me, along with generations of Chinese, to appreciate the art of oral stories and the most powerful aspects of Chinese culture.

Most of the pingshu stories that I have listened to are drawn from Chinese history and can be broken into several classifications. The story of loyal and law-abiding officials or chivalrous and dauntless folk heroes, for instance, is my favorite. The characters in this type of pingshu, such as the “Pure Official Bao,” help the commoners fight against evil and corruption in society, symbolizing the virtues of leniency and integrity.

Other types of pingshu also have their own characteristics: the conflicts during the Three Kingdom Period following the Han Dynasty and the early heroes of the Tang Dynasty are typical stories of the establishment of Chinese dynasties; the widely known stories of the Yang family and the renowned Chinese hero Yue Fei both depict tales of dynasties and conflicts, relating to a specific group of soldier’s experiences in resisting barbarian invasions; the last type of story, which differs from the previous three types in both content and narration style, is about fictional legends of monsters, ghosts, or about being challenged in life. The most well known story of this type is “Journey to the West,” which depicts the arduous journey of a small group traveling to see Buddha in order to gain enlightenment.

During my brief interactions with contemporary pingshu artists, I have come to learn more about the art as a folk tradition of telling stories. Since the mid-Qing dynasty, pingshu gradually became an important recreational tool for people to communicate information, share interests, and enjoy their glorious history. Traditional pingshu artists usually perform in teahouses or small theaters, where people can gather around on a nice afternoon.

Like calligraphy and many other Chinese traditional art forms, pingshu requires years of training. Such experience comes from a long apprenticeship with a master. An aspiring storyteller might have to perform years of basic chores, such as cooking for the family and cleaning the house. Most importantly, the artists must passionately devote time, effort, and talent to the business of attracting a permanent audience. The famous pingshu artist Yuan, who retired several years ago, once characterized pingshu as “difficult mental and physical labor.” Not only do the artists have to memorize long passages, sometimes hundreds of thousands of words long, they also have to incorporate the origins of certain customs, the backgrounds of characters, the history and geography, and other enchanting facts about the stories they tell.

To help the artists narrate stories in a more exciting way, pingshu has also developed a few widely used stage props: a table, a folding fan, and an attention-catching wood (xingmu). It is incredible to imagine that riveting performances can be achieved using such simple objects. The performer usually stands behind the stable during the entire performance. The attention-catching wood, a rectangular piece of dark wood, is knocked against the table to start the performance and to highlight climactic moments of the story. The artist uses the folding fan to illustrate certain physical actions, such as brandishing a sword or reading a book.

Ironically, while modern technology has threatened the existence of traditional art forms, it has at the same time helped outpingshu in many ways. Professional storytellers can now record their stories on a variety of media, so that more people can have access to their work. The change has benefited people like me, who prefer listening to pingshu on a MP3 rather than going to a teahouse. Capturing the stories in digital form also preserves the stories themselves, leaving an important legacy of Chinese culture. Whenever I am confused about the use of a certain phrase in Chinese, I can always find an explanation in a pingshu story.

From years of experience listening to pingshu, I have gradually come to form my own insights about the art. What is more important than narrating a story, “shu,” in my opinion, is “ping,” which means the process of appreciating and commenting. The artists need to understand the morals of the stories themselves, translate them into their own words, and comment on their significance. “Artists should not seek shortcuts, nor should the stories be tepid. Keep in mind that practice makes perfect,” Yuan said.

Through depicting brave soldiers, loyal officials, and vicious monsters, pingshu stories also convey the underlying values of Chinese culture. Liu Lanfang, the current president of China’s Ballad Singers Association has commented, “pingshu delivers a sense of positivity, with the central theme of each story basing upon filial piety, philanthropy, and honesty.” Her famous pingshu, “The Story of Yue Fei,” was the most popular story among young people in the 1980s.

Accounting the life of a general who led the Southern Song dynasty’s army to fight against the Jin people’s invasion, the Story of Yue Fei stimulated the young and energetic to study hard, restore China’s economy, and work for the future of the country. Although the idea of being loyal to the emperor has long died out since the end of China’s feudal dynasty, feelings of patriotism have been maintained and imbued in generations of Chinese through storytelling.

At the same time, the Story of Yue Fei ends with Yue Fei being killed by Qin Hui, who is forever associated with treason in Chinese culture. People have built statues of Qin, along with three other traitors who killed Yue Fei, in front of Yue’s cemetery in Hangzhou. Even today, many express their anger towards the traitors by kicking or spitting at their statues while visiting and paying respect to Yue’s tombstone. The two main themes that all pingshu stories have in common, patriotism and the contrast between good and evil, are best combined and presented in the Story of Yue Fei.

More often than not, the people who listen to pingshu stories belong to my parents’ or grandparents’ generation. They grew up in an environment in which listening to pingshu was the only thing to do everyday after dinner, and they can’t imagine not having these stories in their lives. Although I started listening to pingshu with my father when I was in elementary school, it was not until middle school that I started to fully appreciate this art.

I often go back and listen to Journey to the West, my first pingshu tale. I think about how the Handsome Monkey King challenges Buddha and other authority figures fights against villainous monsters, and defends commoners against inequality. Through his story, the Monkey King has inspired me to establish my own moral guidelines, to never fear authority and to never be condescending to others.

My generation is lucky to have many trendy options for entertainment, and most tend to spend their free time online or watching television.

I don’t. I choose pingshu.

Yvonne Yan is a junior at the Lawrenceville School. Contact her at yyan16@lawrenceville.org.

This article appears in the November 2014 issue of China Hands.

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