History and Milieu (11)
When the storytellers of today speak of 'how things used to be', they like to refer to a not so distant time when Yangzhou alone had more than twenty storytellers' houses shuchang, not to speak of all the shuchang found in the whole area where Yangzhou pinghua was regularly performed, along the lower Yangzi River. Many of these places were wineshops or teahouses, where storytelling was performed in addition to the serving of meals and drink. But others were established especially with a view to storytelling, while tea and snacks were served in addition. The latter category were sometimes called 'storytellers' societies' shushe. The most respectable shushe or shuchang were situated in the area called Jiaochang in the heart of the town.
A young inexperienced storyteller had to begin his career in the more vulgar places outside the four city-gates. Only after acquiring a name for himself would he be invited to perform in the shuchang inside the walls, and only after having refined his art in these places, would he be invited to one of the six famous shushe in the inner circle of Jiaochang. Highest prestige was attached to the 'Enlightenment of the People Storytellers' Society' Xing min shushe. After one season of performance at this place, the storyteller's fame would spread all over the region, north and south of the River.
According to old custom, at the main entrance of a storytellers' house there would be placed a bamboo pole carrying a tablet with the inscription:
tan jin lun gu,
xing shi liang yan
Telling about the present and contemplating the past,
good words to enlighten the world
On the wall was glued a scroll of red paper with the name of the storyteller currently performing and the title of his story, called 'red on the door' men hong.
Inside there would always be an oven for heating water in big kettles. The audience would be seated on long benches with long rectangular tables. In the back there would be a storytellers' stage shutai with a table covered by a red silken cloth embroidered with the name of the storytellers' house. On the table were placed a teapot and teacup, and also two big bowls: one to the left for collecting the fee for tea and storytelling shuchaqian (to be divided between the owner of the house and the storyteller), and one to the right for collecting extra fees xiaozhuanqian in case the audience asked for encores after the main story (this fee was only for the storyteller).
Next: The storytelling event of the recent past