Oral and Written Literature (6)
The ‘orality’ and the improvisational aspect of the Chinese professional oral arts have been questioned. It was long debated whether the storyteller’s art was ‘genuinely oral’ or only ‘pseudo-oral’, i.e. a kind of artistic performance of written texts learned by heart. As for this question, it seems necessary to acknowledge the specific conditions of every ‘oral’ tradition: the categories of methodology must fit the object and be so fine-meshed that one catches the essential characteristics of the tradition. While Western theories and discussions are valuable as background and methodological equipment, it is no less important to look into the way Chinese scholars treat their own heritage, and it seems particularly fruitful to inquire into the storytellers’ and other oral artists’ own understanding of their art as reflected in their professional terminology. Most local traditions of storytelling have a rich reservoir of technical terms and slang expressions that are used by the insiders of the profession during discussions of their art or for the training of young novices. Many of these expressions are coined in ways reminiscent of nursery rhymes or jingles, enumerating various elements of oral narration. We shall often refer to such terminology, mainly that used by the Yangzhou storytellers, but also expressions of general impact in China.
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