History and Milieu (12)
Storytelling would usually take place twice a day: in the afternoon from 2-5 pm and in the evening from 7-10 pm. Before the beginning of the day's performance the owner of the house changdong used to stand at the entrance and receive the guests. After the audience had taken their seats the waiters, so-called 'tea masters' chafang would come round with teacups for everybody and serve hot water from their kettles, often followed by vendors with big baskets, peddling all kinds of local sweets. The storyteller would mount the stage on time, taking his seat at the storyteller's table. With a sharp tap from his stick, he would bring the audience to silence, and the 'tea master' would shout:
He opens his mouth!
The storyteller's performance would be divided into four parts duanzi. After the first part there would be a short break, and the owner would send around the big bowl to the left to collect the fee for tea and storytelling. After the second part, the waiters would prepare hot napkins for the audience to wipe their faces, add hot water into their cups and pots, and sometimes also serve a light meal, called 'afternoon' xiawu. After the third part the waiters would collect the fees for sweets and meals. When coming to the end of the fourth part, the storyteller would do his best to 'bargain the crisis' mai guanzi to keep the interest of his public. If the audience were so enthralled that they did not want to leave, they would applaud and shout:
Then the owner would take the bowl to the right and pass it round. Only when the storyteller had finished this extra part, would the 'tea master' shout:
Ming'er qing zao!
Please come early tomorrow!
When all the customers had left the place, the storyteller would step down from the stage, drink a cup of tea and divide the day's income with the owner of the house, a custom going back to the eighteenth century.
The above description gives a picture of how Yangzhou storytellers, perhaps in a somewhat nostalgic light, imagine the setting of their art during the prosperous years of yesterday. The Anti-Japanese War 1937-1945 and the Civil War 1945-1949, the social reorganization after 1949, the Cultural Revolution 1966-1976, and the Four Modernizations of the 1980s, have brought fundamental changes to this picture, as has the introduction of modern mass media.
The private ownership of the storytellers' houses has been transferred to public ownership, while most places have been closed down. The guilds in which the storytellers were formerly organized have been dissolved, and in their place the storytellers have been received into the establishment of art workers, organized in hierarchical structures from national level to provincial and local level, the basic unit being 'The League of Performing Narrative Art Workers of Yangzhou City' Yangzhou shi quyi tuan. The older generation of storytellers are now retired and have a pension. They will usually only give performances if specially invited to cultural festivals and similar occasions. Many former storytellers are not registered as 'art workers' any more, but have changed profession, although they may still give performances, when occasion permits. Younger people who have received some education in storytelling and who may give performances, most often have their primary work in other units.
What with all the drastic transformations of the social, organizational and economic foundation of the art, it is amazing that Yangzhou pinghua has survived and can still be enjoyed day after day in the 'Great Enlightenment Storytellers' House' Da guangming shuchang, situated in one of the lanes in the southern part of the old Jiaochang area.
Next: Great Enlightenment Storytellers' House