WHAT struck Shan Tianfang most, as he walked into the studio for his first radio broadcast at the end of the 1970s, was the lack of things. No brightly painted screen to set the scene for his pingshu, or storytelling. No block of wood on the table, to make the audience pay attention or to scare them stiff. No folded fan to snap open for a surprise, simper behind, or whip through the air as a sword. A traditional storyteller needed only those three props. Still, he could manage. With the side of his left hand, he could bang emphatically. And with his voice alone he could evoke the creaking wingbeats of a flying bird, the pealing, descending glugs of a man taking poison or the power of an adversary, “the corners of his eyes and brows showing a thousand streams of killing aura”.
The thing he missed most was an audience. He was used to the teeming tea houses of north-east China, packed with old folk smoking in bamboo chairs and children running round. Here there were only two sound guys in headphones. He remembered, though, that for his first official performance in an Anshan tea house, in 1956 when he was 23 and faint with nerves, he had tried his routine on a few colleagues first. A few were as good as a crowd. So he told “The Three Heroes and Five Gallants” to the sound guys, improvising and with lots of slang as usual, watching closely to see where they laughed, and where they dozed off.
That broadcast, he later found out, was heard by 100m people. It brought him such fame that by the end of a 60-year career he had performed more than 12,000 episodes of more than 100 stories on 500 TV and radio stations. He had filled stadiums. His hoarse, smoky voice, “cloud covering the moon” as the saying went, was listened to everywhere, by farmers in fields, workers commuting and, especially, by taxi drivers, to while the traffic away. “Wherever a well has water”, people tuned in to him.
He had grown up in Liaoning province before the Communist revolution of 1949, his mother (“The Pale Girl”) an actress and his father a player of the three-stringed lute. But he knew from childhood, as he shook the money-basket round after their shows, that this was not much of a living. Folk arts might be centuries old, but they had low social status. He hoped to be a doctor or an engineer, until the collapse of his parents’ marriage threw him back on pingshu to maintain his seven sisters. Fate ordained it so. He had always been good at memorising, diligent at practice, and after more instruction he was happy to spend the decade from 1956 to 1966 playing the tea-house circuit.
His favourite stories were always the classics, not least China’s four great novels: the medieval “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, “The Journey to the West”, where an intrepid monk went searching for Buddhist texts, “The Dream of the Red Chamber”, in which 40 main characters portrayed a noble family’s 18th-century decline, and “Water Margin”, with its wild band of 108 scheming outlaws. Some stories had hundreds of chapters, each ending with a coy “To be continued”. As a keen student of history he altered some tales a bit, playing down the demons and spirits and giving his listeners, instead, characters that made sense. He also turned recent events into stories, poring over newspapers, as soon as the sun came up, to find reports of policemen foiling notorious robbers. Fighters against injustice touched a soft spot with him: the wrongly court-martialled General Sheng of “I Know Your Name Well”, or the “White-Eyebrow Hero” Lord Bao, China’s most righteous judge, whose story he had been telling all and sundry since he was five years old.
During the Cultural Revolution, however, he fought injustice himself and lost. The builders of the New China did not need his old tales, those remnants of the imperial and feudal system. They sent him to the far north-east, his teeth knocked out to silence him, to cut hay and cart manure. He escaped, and lived with his family on the streets for four years, selling artificial flowers. In 1978 he was rehabilitated, though with a mouth full of painful plastic through which he had to learn to speak again. He summed up life then in one word, “Endure”. But it rapidly got better.
In the hectic consumerist China of the late 20th century he cut a deliberately quaint figure. On television, in plain robes before a screen of ancient symbols, he did not move from behind his table, letting his hands, eyes and voice paint scenes, characters, emotions, even abstractions. The young loved him as much as the old, and the government declared him an Inheritor of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage; his fans called him “an eternal electric wave” and an evergreen tree. Kind words, but he still worried that he had no obvious successor to carry on the oral tradition.
To stave off silence he set up a storytelling academy in Beijing, put his favourite tales into 47 books and blogged on Sina Weibo. Yet most of that was words written down. His gravelly voice was what mattered: so much so that a channel was set up in 2005 just to keep broadcasting his stories. At an episode a day, the stock would last until 2036. Ever since that first studio performance he had reminded China that it needed those tales, after all. Despite its rush to modernity, it needed him.