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Flashing eyes revive storytelling

A desolated courtesan stands in a boat on choppy waters as dark clouds boil overhead. Her lover has betrayed her and she is about to hurl her jewel box into the river and then drown herself.

This sorrowful image springs to mind like a vivid motion picture each time I watch 63-year-old Li Renzhen, a master of Yangzhou tanci, or storytelling to music, perform her own play titled "Du Shiniang," after the courtesan.

The fictitious story of the sympathetic courtesan is well known in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) literature.

Li is a legendary reformer who reinvigorated the once-rigid old folk art by making it expressive and making contact with the audience. She is a performer, who even goes to the countryside to entertain, and has written more than 100 plays.

Li's mellifluous voice, the plucked strings of her pipa (Chinese lute), and her talking eyes combine to turn an otherwise dull tanci play into a "film" - you "see" what she sings.

You "see" in Li's eyes the grief of the courtesan whose lover abandoned her because he thought she was destitute and he wanted money, not love.

You "see" the courtesan's determination to end her life, a life tormented by dishonest men.

You "see" the soiled soul of her lover who repented only after discovering that she actually had a treasure box of invaluable jewels, which she tossed into the waves.

Before Li herself reformed Yangzhou tanci, a folk art dating back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), performers were required to remain immobile and impassive as they told their story to music. It could be one or two persons speaking lines and singing.

They could not even dart a glance, their eyes were fixed, the tone was very simple and flat. No wonder Chen Yun, a late central government leader, said in the 1960s that Yangzhou tanci was "monotonous."

Liu Liren, a retired teacher from Yangzhou University who wrote many lyrics for tanci, says the old, tedious style allowed no eye contact, no emotional communication between an actor or actress and the audience.

Master Li herself tells Shanghai Daily: "In a way, the performers were not to blame for the monotony. In old China, there might be ladies in the audience and a male performer might risk being called flirtatious if his eyes were too expressive."

Tradition dies hard, and few challenged the stiff performing style until Li took up the cause.

"Li used to put a slip of paper on two posts on either side of the performing area and dart her eyes between them," lyricist Liu recalls.

"It was like Mei Lanfang, the late master of Peking Opera, who tried to perfect his eye expressions by following the ever-shifting shadows of flying pigeons."

Li says she was a fan of huju (Shanghai Opera) and learned a lot from late huju master Ding Shi'e (1923-1988). She used to emulate Ding to improve her own expressions.

Li's efforts to rejuvenate the art were rewarded in 1985 when national tanci experts recognized the "Li-style" as a pillar of Yangzhou tanci.

Li-style, named after Li Renzhen, breaks from tradition by broadening the range of musical notes from a few to about a dozen. This, together with expressive eyes and face, brings color to characters that the old style left flat.

In the late 1980s, audiences and experts in Yangzhou began to call Li China's "Queen of Tanci," a reputation now endorsed by China's mainstream media such as the online edition of People's Daily.

On June 11, the Ministry of Culture designated Li the national-level bearer of an intangible cultural heritage - Yangzhou tanci, for her efforts to revive and reform the folk art.

Tanci literally means telling a story while playing an instrument. It combines talking and singing, often accompanied by the pipa, a plucked, four- or five-string lute.

Tanci is mainly popular in the Yangtze River area, notably Suzhou and Yangzhou, both in Jiangsu Province.

Yangzhou tanci used to have fewer plays than Suzhou tanci, but thanks to Li's effort, Yangzhou is catching up. She has composed more than 100 plays in Li-style, and most of them were hits with the audience.

In 1990, her original play "Ode to Ancient Yangzhou" ("Ge Chui Gu Yangzhou") won the first prize in China's first national folk art contest.

In 1995, her original play "Riverside House" ("Wang Jiang Lou") won the top honor - the Peony Prize - of China's second national folk art festival.

While Suzhou tanci usually features two players - they divide the many characters in a story - Li excels in solo play, shifting among different characters. A daunting task for any actor.

I'm a fan of Suzhou tanci, and indeed I feel that Li has few matches as a solo tanci player.

For one thing, she commands a wider vocal range than most other tanci players.

For another, she is accomplished with all the four sonic parts of a pipa, from the neck to the base, while most others handle three parts at best.

When I first interviewed her in April, I was surprised that her fingernails were calloused.

Many performers prefer to wear fake nails or use a plectrum to touch the strings, but not Li. For her, real nails are always better. No pain, no gain.

In 1984, death nearly visited her when she was performing in the countryside. Unlike many of today's tanci players who seek fancy stages or urban tea houses, Li often went down to rustic areas to entertain local folks.

One night, she was so absorbed in tape recording in her room that she didn't notice a hissing cobra until it was almost too late. She dashed out just before the cobra struck.

"I didn't know there was a snake show that day. It might have slipped from a cage. When I finally heard the hissing, at first I thought it was an old guy hiding in a corner who was up to no good," she recalls.

Aside from physical hardships, professional jealousy sometimes struck.

In 1980, she was traveling in a boat on choppy waters to perform in a town in Yangzhou. It was in that rocking boat that she got the inspiration to create "Du Shiniang," about the courtesan.

Li herself somewhat identified with the woman to whom life had been so unfair. She herself was injured by office politics and people who wanted to ruin her career.

"I want to be a pure person, a pure artist," she says. "That's not easy." Virtue, she says, comes before talent.

Now she teaches in an art school in Yangzhou.

Some students are very gifted, she says. "I just hope they pursue their art and not overnight fame."


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