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March 11, 2011

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The storyteller's tale

ONCE upon a time there was a storyteller who made many old people happy by telling exciting tales every afternoon. They listened for many years. But now the storytelling teahouse is to be torn down. Tan Weiyun hears a last tale.

The old-fashioned Yalu Shuchang is hard to find, though it's not far from city landmarks and just a 10-minute walk from Xintiandi. It's crowded on three sides and overshadowed by tall buildings.

The old teahouse is half hidden on narrow Shunchang Road. It's among a row of dilapidated houses that are to be torn down to make way for commercial buildings.

These are its last days.

But the large, one-room teahouse built in the 1920 has been the spiritual home for the area's elderly residents for the past 100 years.

For only 5 yuan (15 US cents) for a small cup of green tea, a visitor can sit in a wooden chair and while away the afternoon, chatting and playing chess.

The main attraction, however, is the daily performance of shuoshu (tell book/story), a traditional one-man (never women) artistic form of storytelling. This storytelling originated in Suzhou in Jiangsu Province in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and it has been drawing locals for decades.

Every day there are listeners, sometimes as many as 50 or as few of 10, sitting in the cushioned seats around an elevated stage. A waiter walks around refilling tea cups. From 1:30-3:30pm the audience is transported. There's no evening show because elderly people have to go home early and rest.

The performances these days are expected to be the last. The theater is to be relocated to a modern cultural center, according to news reports and neighbors. Locals are sad.

Theater management declined to comment.

Only an estimated 30-50 teahouses in Shanghai offer shuoshu.

People call these teahouses as shuchang, meaning "storytelling theaters."

This storytelling is a solo performance without music in Suzhou dialect and the storyteller assumes every role, from teenage girl to heroic general. By turns he's the emperor, the scheming court eunuch, an ambitious concubine, a wailing infant, a young warrior, a spy, a droning bureaucrat. He is also the narrator.

The multi-faceted performer these days is guest shuoshu artist Meng Zhongxiao, who delivers a classic tale of 15 episodes in 15 days. Each performance lasts around two hours. He's been doing it for 30 years.

"It's really an energy-consuming job," says Meng, who is sweating in his long blue gown, his standard costume, as he leaves the stage.

"A story has to be completed within two weeks, which is a tradition passed down for centuries," says the 55-year-old artist waving the fan to cool himself.

The performance is astounding and grueling. Meng is a mimic who varies tones of and transforms himself; his expressions are vivid and his body language is perfect.

His timing is superb. He can create birds tweeting, a horse neighing, a woman sneezing, a door being slammed or creaking open - and many other sound effects.

He wears his long gown and his only multipurpose props are a folding paper fan, a handkerchief and a small gavel.

A folding fan can be anything - a knife when gripped in the hand, a long sword when carried on the back, an eating plate when opened, a long-stemmed pipe when placed near the mouth and a girl's mirror when held open in front of the face.

The handkerchief can be a book or a letter, while the small gavel is rapped to call the audience's attention to an important turn of plot or an important speech.

On this day Meng's very exciting story is "The Death of Guan Lu" about the adventures of the beautiful spy Guan Lu, working underground for the Communist Party of China before the end of the civil war and foundation of the People's Republic of China. It is based on a true story.

"A good story is fun and interesting with rich historical information," Meng says. "It's half contrived and half true - it's for the listeners to judge. That's the fascination of shuoshu," says Meng.

These stories are standards - no one knows the authors - but all are embellished by the tellers. They combine recorded history, unofficial history passed around for generations, rumors and privately compiled histories that involve scandals, graft and sexual liaisons of figures in history, contemporary figures and celebrities.

Popular stories include the tale of the upright official Bao Zheng (999-1062) during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), who passed a death sentence on his own nephew Bao Mian because he had accepted a bribe; the Yongzheng Emperor (1678-1735) during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), who out-schemed and outwitted his 18 brothers to gain the throne; and the popular love story about the imperial concubine Yang Yuhuan (719-756) and the Emperor Li Longji (685-762) during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Of course, there are salacious tales of scandal, such as tales of sexual adventure from the novel "Jin Ping Mei" ("The Golden Lotus") written in the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and banned for many years. One tale is the adulterous affair between Pan Jinlian and Ximen Qing during the Song Dynasty.

They murdered Pan's husband Wu Dalang with poison, but were later killed by Wu's younger brother Wu Song, famed for killing a huge tiger when he was quite young.

"A storyteller is good at many stories, but he only specializes and regularly tells one or two stories in his whole career," Meng says. "It's really difficult to tell a story truly well." A shuoshu artist is expected to memorize at least 20 story books and to be familiar with folklore and history.

Meng specializes in two stories, the classic novel "Romance of the Three Kingdom" about the wars from the Han Dynasty (202-220) to the Jin Dynasty (317-420), and "Pan Hannian," a true story about a revolutionary who made great contribution to the founding of the People's Republic of China.

In fact, the master storyteller Gu Hongbo (1911-1990) told only a single story throughout his life, the tale of Bao Zheng who sentenced his corrupt nephew to death.

"Those stories handed down through generations and told thousands of times are the quintessence of time, which have mellowed and marinated in the river of history," Meng says. "The audience can always find something new, and a good storyteller will make changes and add variations." Perhaps a twist of plot and a different chronological order of events.

Meng has been spinning tales for three decades. "In the old days, telling stories was a quick way for poor children to earn money," he says. "My father sent me to learn this skill and I soon found I had talent."

When his master was performing on stage, young Meng was listening attentively below, silently imitating every movement and expression. He was required to recite all the stories fluently. "But more important, it is the way a storyteller tells a story that really makes it special," he says.

He learned how to control the story's flow, where to slow down and where to pick up pace, where to insert a little joke and pause for the audience to laugh.

"A performer could develop the story for months in the old days and something as simple as going downstairs could last - with digressions - for two weeks," says Meng.

At one time Shanghai had 1,000 shuchang and decades ago when shuoshu was in its prime, many shuchang offered performances. A seat in a thronged shuchang was one of the hardest things to get.

TV, cinema and the Internet changed all that. Shuchang and tale-telling make way for high-rises.

Meng doesn't seem worried. "When I gave my first show 30 years ago, my audience was old. Today those people are gone but there are elderly newcomers. As people age, they always need a place to recollect the old days."


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