Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Storytelling declining in Shanghai, too

via XINHUA online ):
The Shanghai Daily is noting a massive drop-off in storytelling theatres in the area, blaming modern media in part, for exposing audiences to fashion trends and pop stars at the expense of the folk arts, like pingtan.

Pingtan, by the way, is a regional form of storytelling (popular in East China's Jiangsu, Zhejiang provinces and Shanghai) that typically involves two storytellers, accompanied by music --or prefaced by sung ballads, telling long serial tales. This art thrived in the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) with many of its stories dating to that time. Here's a summary by Eric Miller, of the University of Pennsylvania:

pingtan is a collective term, denoting two forms of storytelling: pinghua (narration without music); and tanci (narration with music, also known as, prosimetric performance, or chantefable). The prose of pinghua, and sections of tanci, is delivered in a styled form of speaking that is different from everyday speech; it has a recognizable cadence. Both pinghua and tanci allow insertion of commentary, anecdotes, poems, and descriptive set pieces; and both involve long, often serialized, tales. In tanci, the story is told in alternating passages of prose and rhymed metrical verse, plus comic-relief passages, singing, and instrumental accompaniment. In olden days, a story could take three months to tell, with an hour session each day: today, two weeks is usually the limit....

In the course of a performance, storytellers go into and out of multiple registers, voices, and dialects. The plot line is delivered in a formal dialect, while asides to the audience are given in the local dialect. Ancient dialects are no longer second nature to young performers or listeners: many elders say that today the singing is good, but the speech is poor. Thus today the frames, or registers, of language styles that performers shift into and out of are in some ways simpler. Instead of switching dialects, a young performer may just switch tone or accent.

The older performers also speak of the diminished attention span of young people: after all, commercial TV -- which is accessible in cities -- has advertisements every 10 minutes (I wonder if the rate of alternation between singing and speaking in tanci has been affected by such developments). Some older pingtan performers say that today, fewer people come to listen to the art, more just to hear a story. Older, well-known stories are regarded as boring by many younger listeners, forcing the development of new stories. Some young people complain that the pace of the storytelling is too slow, that more action and less of the detail that has traditionally been so characteristic of tanci is desired. These changes are perhaps due to the quickening pace of life in modern China and the difference sense of performance introduced by editing and other aspects of TV, videos, and movies.

Eric Miller, Continuity and Change in Chinese Storytelling

The news from Shanghai documents the decline in the number of theatres, and also in the quality of the performers... but I suspect that like many folk arts, it may disappear from public view but not go extinct.

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