My introduction to pingshu, traditional Chinese storytelling, was Yuan KuoCheng’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. . . .