On the fringes of storytelling

People tend to keep their distance from Jin Ping Mei, at least in public. Its graphic sexual content has given the late-Ming classic a reputation as smut that it has been unable to shake off. Performers of pingshu, the art of storytelling, have conquered great classical novels as well as more contemporary tales but have stayed away from the story of the Ximen Qing household.

But last year, unknown storyteller Liang Jun announced his intent to record a pingshu version. The media was incredulous at the time; unexpurgated, the novel would have no chance of airing on the radio or TV, and apart from the sex, it was thought that there's not much in the novel to hold the interest of a listener who's more used to the thrills of wuxia fiction. Liang was undaunted, pointing to the popularity of Korean soaps whose episodes don't necessarily end in cliffhangers. The most sensible commentators urged patience and recommended listening to Liang's version before passing judgment.

They didn't have long to wait: in late December an episode surfaced online. "Ximen Qing ****s+ Wu Yueniang", a four-minute segment (listen here), produced three reactions. First, derision at the storyteller's skills. Second, disgust at the pornographic content. Third, denials from all parties concerned.

Liang Jun is a student of Liu Lanfang, a master storyteller and the chair of the China Quyi Artists Association, a fact that was emphasized in a lengthy report on Liang in the Beijing Daily Messenger last week. Two days later, the paper printed a letter from Liu, who disavowed any connection with a pingshu version of Jin Ping Mei and played down her connection with Liang.

For his part, Liang Jun has disowned the leaked segment, not because it's particularly smutty, but because it's just a demo and doesn't represent his final product. He maintains that there's nothing wrong with performing Jin Ping Mei, particularly since his adaptation used the clean version published by People's Literature Publishing House as a master source.

* * *

# Here's an appreciation of storytelling by the essayist Ye Qingcheng that's been circulating for a while. It turns up in this week's San Lian:

The story goes...

When I had just arrived in Beijing, I was not used to the noise of the taxi drivers. The driver would attempt to strike up a conversation, but when I didn't reply, he'd turn on the radio. The resounding voice of the storyteller would fill the cab like a massive sunflower.

It had been a long time since I had listened to storytellers. When I was younger I'd lain on my bed listening to The Story of Yue Fei, loving it to death - in my dreams, the white-robed Yue Fei, carrying a silver pike while riding a white horse was the Prince Charming of my childhood. Though Hubei had its own Hubei storytellers, I'm a little ashamed to admit that I never really listened to them. The dulcet tones of the Chu accent are nothing like the sharp, flinty voices of true Beijingers, and are really not the stuff of storytelling.

But now I have fallen back in love with storytelling. Night after night in these mobile teahouses, as someone talks of "Northern Knight Ouyang Chun" - was this Cases of Magistrate Bao or Seven Heroes and Five Gallants? One episode spoke of Bai Yutang challenging Magistrate Bao to his face, with bystanders afraid for his life: "Have you come to be judged, or to judge the master - he says one thing, and you reply with a mouthful." Magistrate Bao was furious: "Guards! Bind him and cut off his head!" It was obvious there's no way he could die, but my heart still involuntarily seized up. At this point, the car came to a sudden halt, and the driver flipped the meter: "16 yuan." I almost said, "Drive a little bit futher and let me hear the ending," but in the end I was too embarrassed.

Storytelling is the nightly entertainment assortment that appeases the hunger of my soul. I was struck by the notion once that I'd be able to hear the entire Cases of Magistrate Bao like this. But of course it was not to be. Once chanced across Duke of Mount Deer as told by Lian Liru, and my delight changed to disappointment: the craft antics of Wei Xiaobao were drowned amidst the storyteller's endless chatter and interludes; he was enveloped in stuff like "Xiaobao listened silently, then exploded with rage" - a little clumsy, a little comical, and a little at a loss for action. His southern rascal character suddenly felt like a shirtless old Beijinger. The crudeness of the storyteller is like a stump carving; what it needs is a wooden knot dug up from the soil, from among the people, which then can be chopped and chiseled at will. What can you do with a piece of Suzhou embroidery?

Most interesting was definitely from Romance of the Second World War: "Now when Stalin heard this, he was enraged, and thought, Hitler, you've gone too far, you despicable creature..." If I hadn't been constricted by my seatbelt, I would have fallen to the ground, foaming at the mouth. Friends said that they have even heard a storytelling version of Women's Volleyball. I haven't had the pleasure of listening to that, so I can only speculate: " that instant there was an 'aah' sound, and everyone raised their heads to look. It was the captain, Sun Jinfang. Sun Jinfang had seen that they were in dire straits..." I'm unable to go on.

When I happend to discover that the traffic station will give road information in a storytelling style, it immediately had my rapt attention: "Now a young man by the name of Xiao Ma, in order to buy medicine for his mother, got on his bike and set off down the road. Little did he know that coming along behind was large truck and, quicker than it takes to me finish this sentence, there was just a "shhk, whoosh, bam, aaah" (a whole string of nearly unwriteable sounds)...but the young Xiao Ma was lying in a pool of blood. Such a tragedy that this storyteller has a hard time telling it....."

I'd had enough. "Driver, can you change the station?"

Why so callous? The young Xiao Ma wasn't some substitute civet, nor the death-defying Bai Yutang. He was a real live person just the same as everyone else. We shouldn't be so heartless as to delight in the telling.

There's a great storytelling archive here that has all of the classic stories (except one, naturally) as well as Sun Yi's series on the Second World War. A quick glance doesn't reveal Women's Volleyball, but you can listen to Shan Tianfang's Athens series, whose "Register of Heroes" (episode 15) mentions the accomplishments of the volleyball team.

Note 1: 《西门庆××吴月娘》 - The censorship in the news reports is odd, since the missing word is 床战 rather than the graphic obscenity you'd expect. See this for more [expletive deleted] strangeness.
Note 2: Read the original text of Ye Qingcheng's essay to appreciate her attempt at imitating a pingshu style that doesn't come across in translation. I'm not sure I understand what she has Stalin say about Hitler - anyone care to enlighten me?

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There are currently 2 Comments for On the fringes of storytelling.

Comments on On the fringes of storytelling

Thank you for a nice atricle and good translation.
Comment to Note 2. The translation is okay. But if you want to know in detail, what it means, I suggest the following explanation (with the help of my Chinese friends). Stalin said: ...Hitler, you the big nose, you a not a good man, you a not even a thing..." Of course it is a curse. And the humor is that the story-teller presents Stalin's thinking as a thinking of a Chinese, that is why 你这个老鼻子 it is better to translate directly - "you the big nose" ( and not "you go too far" or something like this).

And one small notice. The story 狸猫换太子, mentioned in the original text, is one of the most famous "palace stories". It tells about the imperial concubine, who stole the newborn child of the imperor's wife and substituted him with a skinned wild cat ("your wife gave birth to monster"). So, it is better to translate the title of the story as "A wild cat is substituted for a newborn prince".

Best wishes,

Thanks for the comment, Yury. I had assumed the author was trying to imitate a Beijing storyteller and intended 老鼻子 to be used as it is in Beijing dialect - a colloquial expression meaning "too much". Only it's not really grammatical there.

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