Chinese Storytelling

Chinese Storytelling

Elements of Performance

  1. Storytellers Terms and Sayings

  2. The storytellers house

  3. The performance

  4. A storytelling engagement

  5. Stage properties

  6. The storytellers' dress

  7. Gestures and face expressions

  8. Verbal art

  9. 'Talk' and 'mouth'

  10. 'Square Mouth' and 'Round Mouth'

  11. Telling the tale

  12. Humour and digression

Elements of Performance (10)

"Square Mouth" and "Round Mouth"

The styles of "square mouth" fangkou and "round mouth" yuankou are used in a broad and a narrow sense. In the broad sense they characterize certain schools of storytelling as being mainly performed in either "square" or "round mouth". The so-called "major texts" da shu, such as Three Kingdoms and Water Margin, belong to the style of "square mouth" which is an indication of their more serious character. "Round mouth" style is typical for the "minor texts" xiao shu, including the famous theme of Journey to the West, considered to be more humorous and light.

In the narrow sense, "square mouth" and "round mouth" indicate the two main registers into which the performance is variously keyed, according to the narrative mode and the kind of dialogue presented. No matter whether a performance belongs to the "major texts" or the "minor texts", it will contain passages in both "square" and "round", but the "major texts" frequently switch to "square mouth" register, while "round mouth" predominates in the "minor texts". The two registers of "square" and "round" represent different dialectal substrata, as is clearly manifested in phonology and grammar.

"Round mouth" passages are full of everyday language, dialect expressions and earthy localisms spoken in a homely, fluent diction. "Round mouth" is a relatively homogeneous style, with only a few systematic differences from the phonology and grammar of ordinary Yangzhou dialect. This style is used for the dialogue of ordinary characters in the stories, called "small persons" xiao renwu, and also for narration in an intimate and humorous atmosphere. The storytellers' comments are mostly in "round mouth" style.

"Square mouth", on the other hand, is an elevated and lofty style, both in dialogue and narration. Passages in "square mouth" style tend to follow a more regular sentence pattern, often using four- and six-syllable phrases, parallelism and other prosodic features akin to the literary and poetic traditions of Chinese. Such passages are performed in a dignified and measured diction. This style includes several sub-categories, most important in the division between dialogue and narration. Dialogue in "square mouth" style is conducted in "officials' language" guanhua, which may again differ somewhat according to the origin of the protagonist: In their personification of "great persons" da renwu, heroes and generals, the storytellers usually imitate "Yangzhou officials' language" Yangzhou guanhua, but important persons from North China are supposed to speak "Northern officials' language" Beifang guanhua. The Water Margin hero Wu Song, famous for killing a tiger with his bare fist, speaks in this latter idiom. The phonological, grammatical and stylistic criteria are marked as belonging to the register of high style, which is heavily influenced by earlier and present day normative language. Narration, i.e. "private talk", in "square mouth" style is grammatically and stylistically marked as high style, but is only potentially so marked in the phonological inventory. That is, in "private talk" the stressed expressions are in high style pronunciation, while unstressed portions of the performance are in normal Yangzhou pronunciation, even though the pace is relatively slow and distinct.

Some storytellers excel in the imitation of the language and ways of people of all kinds of trade, "jargon" hangdang. Some are very able in "market language" matouhua, rendering the dialect of people from other parts of the country, for example Beijing dialect, Shandong dialect, Haizhou dialect, Longtan dialect, etc. With some storytellers it is still mainly Yangzhou pronunciation with a tint of the various dialects imitated. With others it is a pure imitation of other dialects. This humorous caricature of other dialects and jargons belongs mainly to the "round mouth" register.

Square Mouth (Wang Xiaotang)
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mpeg 6.5Mb
Round Mouth (Wang Xiaotang)
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Next: Telling the tale