History and Milieu (2)
The rise of professional storytelling in traditional China is a much-disputed question among literary historians. The dating of the earliest testimony of this art varies within a time span of about one thousand years, from the Han dynasty (202 bc—220 ad) to the late Song (960-1279).
In written sources from the Han dynasty, pointing back to the distant past of early Zhou (c.1200 bc), we have some hints of situations that may have had some likeness to 'performance of stories'. One famous passage refers to the practice of summoning a blind person to recite poems and tell edifying matters to pregnant women during the night, conceived as one of the important ways to secure the birth of a healthy and virtuous child. There is, however, so little evidence about the situation and contents of the telling, that one can hardly conceive of this as a case of professional storytelling as known in China since the Song dynasty.
When we look for the origins of Chinese storytelling, it is only natural that there should be a long prehistory of more or less informal 'telling of stories' leading up to the establishment of a professional genre of entertainment. The question is only how far one is willing to stretch the concept while looking for the roots. Since stories have been told from time immemorial in all human communities under all kinds of circumstances, we must find the distinctive vestiges that point to storytelling, rather than 'telling of stories'.
Next: Telling and singing figurines from the Han dynasty