History and Milieu (5)
There is ample historical evidence of the popularity of professional storytelling in China for more than a thousand years. Storytelling was one of the major forms of entertainment in the medieval cities of the Song period (906-1279), as described in several sources on the distractions of the pleasure districts of the capital. The storytelling practised during Song, called 'telling tales' shuohua, contained both spoken and sung performances, often in combination, and many of the themes told are still part of today's storytellers' repertoire. Shuohua is generally recognized as the immediate predecessor of Ming and Qing storytelling, called 'telling books' or 'telling texts' shuoshu which is the form that has survived to the present. The development that has taken place in Chinese storytelling from Song until today is no less important, but the basic framework of the genre, the manner of performance and the professional status of the performers, are features that have remained stable.
During the Song dynasty, storytelling in the sense of professional performance of secular stories had become a remarkable feature of city life. Records of storytellers' activities are found in a handful of contemporary descriptions from the principal towns. Storytelling took place at the temple fairs, in entertainment areas and booths, in teahouses and wineshops. On festive occasions a storyteller might be invited to perform in the private homes of the leisured classes, and even at the court. There are also indications that storytellers of poorer standing performed in the countryside.
In a contemporary description from the amusement district of the Song capital, Bianjing, we find the names of individual storytellers, categorized according to theme: 'expounding history' jiangshi (five names), 'adventure' xiaoshuo (six names), 'telling jokes' shuo hunhua (one name), 'telling about Three Kingdoms' shuo san fen (one name), 'telling about Five Dynasties' wu dai shi (one name). Generally storytelling was divided into four schools si jia which are slightly differently characterized in the various sources, but can be summed up in the following groups: 'stories of love and marvel' yinzi'er; 'stories of crime and adventure' shuo gong'an, shuo tieqi'er; 'stories from the Buddhist classics' shuo jing; 'stories from history' jiang shi shu. The oral performance was mainly in prose, but poems were recited or sung in between. Another important characteristic of the early storytelling was the cracking of jokes.
Next: Storytelling, storybooks and folkbooks from Yuan to Ming