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Teahouse tellers stage China comeback

Beijing, June 15: Harassed by emperors and hounded by communists, China’s traditional teahouse storytellers are now trying to find favour with the new force ruling the country ' the marketplace.

In a country rich in myth and history, China’s storytellers, who often told their tales in teahouses, have been one of the main bastions of popular culture. Like the minstrels of Europe, they entertained, created and perpetuated myths, taught religion and protested politics, often with a wry subtlety that infuriated local mandarins.

When communists seized power in 1949, storytelling and other traditions, which Mao believed were the cause of China’s social decay and political subjugation at the hands of Western and Japanese powers, were banned.

“It was the time of the Si Qing (or the ‘four cleans’ ' a political action programme seeking to cleanse China of old politics, old thoughts, old economics and old organisations),” said Ma Zumei, a storyteller in Beijing. “Suddenly storytelling was labelled reactionary and superstitious and forbidden.”

Many storytellers were killed or sent to re-education camps and the teahouses and theatres where they had told their tales were closed. “I was sent to work on a farm in central China,” said Zumei. “Others just disappeared. In the end, only a handful of us survived.”

Now, as China is transforming itself, Zumei and a few surviving storytellers are determined to revive their art and pass it on to a new generation of students and listeners. In a nation that wants to revive the ancient culture it almost lost, people are listening.

Storytellers are performing to growing audiences in new and reopening teahouses across China. Some are even reviving forgotten stories on radio shows.

Zumei performs in the pingshu style common in China’s northern provinces where the storyteller’s stylised, high-pitched voice is accompanied by folk instruments to tell a light-hearted tale in alternating passages of prose and rhymed metrical verse. When she steps on to the stage at the Lao She teahouse in Beijing, her shrill voice, awkwardly cascading tones and pronounced gestures seem weird compared to the smoothness of modern music.

However, Hou Guang, 48, a businessman in Beijing, said there is something reassuring and moving about just listening to their strange rhythms and tones from another time. These are “the sounds and stories of our childhood”, he said. “It’s timeless.”

Still, Zumei admitted she often adds funny, contemporary elements into traditional stories. “Or else we’ll only have old people coming here and that’ll kill us,” she said, calming her throat with a special tea after the performance.

Unlike in Western opera, pingshu performers play all the parts in their story and Zumei just created nine different voices on stage.

It is such aspects of her art that purists relish and many critics said they find Zumei’s modernising of old stories objectionable. But storytelling and teahouses have always belonged to the masses.

Apprehensions that China’s teahouses, where men spent hours in bamboo chairs sipping tea, playing games or cards, and conducting business transactions, were often hotbeds of political foment. That storytellers often carried word of this dissent across the country meant the teahouses and the storytellers were not patronised by China’s emperors.

Denied royal patronage, storytelling became a profession of the lowest social level inhabited by “scoundrels and scum”, as one ancient text puts it. Only the narrators of Buddhist and other religious texts received respect.

That changed in the 17 th century when Liu Ching-t’ing’s bewitching tales made him a favourite in the Ming court of the period.

Today, the degree to which people are once again embracing the very “olds” Mao tried to burn out of China’s collective consciousness would appal and, probably, enrage him. But it is still an incomplete, fragmented process.

Authentic versions of China’s timeless stories will continue to be told by artists such as Zumei and researched in places like universities and art academies. But the real storytelling days, when people ambled into ramshackle smoke-filled teahouses to listen to wandering storytellers repeat tales passed down to them from ancestors are probably over.

Zumei looked down and nodded at the thought. “But we will still have made a difference,” she said quietly. “(The stories we have told) are part of life here and, in one form or another, they’ll last forever.”

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