History and Milieu
History and Milieu (4)
From the Tang period a corpus of texts remains, written in an idiom close to the spoken language of the time, the so-called 'transformation texts' bianwen. The texts represent the earliest writings in vernacular prose with inserted verse passages. The body of texts contains tales both of religious and secular content. The Buddhist miraculous 'transformations' are considered to have been developed from the oral preaching of Buddhist sutras which have been practised since the fourth century ad. The bianwen texts with secular content treat the adventurous lives of historical characters.
The transmitted texts seem ultimately to have been written down under inspiration from oral performances, probably accompanied by the showing of picture scrolls. The bianwen texts represent a link between early Buddhist preaching of sermons, colportage of Confucian morality in tales of historical models, and pure entertainment in tales of historical adventure. The differences between these Tang texts and the written materials connected with storytelling during the Song dynasty should, however, not be overlooked. The broad variety of entertaining arts during Song suggests that the bianwen tradition can be viewed as the forerunner of one or several of the different genres of 'telling and singing literature' shuo chang wenyi, but we cannot necessarily establish a direct and exclusive link to 'storytelling' in the more narrow sense, shuohua, shuoshu. The fact that 'telling of stories' was usually called shuo hua during the Tang period, does not imply that the term had already at this time acquired the specific meaning of professional storytelling which it had during the Song period.
Next: Professional storytelling during the Song dynasty