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March 11, 2011

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Yarns of old still popular

DURING the 1950s, Shanghai had almost 500 storytelling theaters, many in teahouses, but the number shrank to only three during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976).

Storytelling was banned and considered one of the "Four Olds" (old customs, old traditions, old cultures and old ideas) that had to be eradicated.

There was a surge in the early 1980s, when political upheaval ended and more than 200 storytelling venues were recorded. The 2005 statistics showed around 80 and today the number is estimated at 30-40.

Though the number of venues is falling, the number of people who love a good story is rising. Statistics show the audience numbered almost 3.5 million person-times, unimaginable for other folk operas.

"Storytelling is quite popular among old people," says Wang Zhenghao, a researcher from the Shanghai Storytelling Association. "Many listeners set up shuoshu salons and hobby groups by themselves. Some even drive all the way to Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces to see shows every week."

But he expressed concern about the future of shuchang, the traditional venues. Three-fourths are privately owned and operated without government subsidy. Ticket prices range from 1 yuan in the suburbs to 5 yuan downtown.

Many shuchang are shabby and rundown. A storytelling "theater" in Chongming County is only a small room with a black and white TV and an old electric fan; there's no toilet.

"We have to solve the problem in the nearby neighborhood and restaurants," says a storyteller surnamed Zhong, who has performed around Shanghai's shuchang for 20 years. "I'm totally okay with that but how could young artists put up with these conditions for their art? Art is supposed to be pleasurable."

Storytellers earn around 6,000 yuan a month and some can earn 12,000 yuan, depending on audience size and split of the take between performer and shuchang, says Zhong.


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