Masters and Disciples (2)
During the seventeenth and eighteenth century the sources mainly inform about the names of individual storytellers from Yangzhou and their repertoires, sometimes adding an anecdote or two about their lives or performances. Wu Tianxu, active during the middle of the eighteenth century, was a storyteller of Three Kingdoms, famous for the way he once imitated the thunderous voice of one of the heroes, Zhang Fei, by using silence instead of sound:
When he came to the point where Zhang Fei’s voice makes the bridge fall down, he first put up a face just like he was going to give a shout. Everyone was cocking his ears, but he would only open his mouth, roll his eyes and gesture with his hands, but still no sound. Even so, in the hall packed with listeners, everyone had the impression of an earthshaking thunder striking their ears. He commented to someone: ‘Could one ever equal the voice of Zhang Fei? To equal it, instead of making the sound with my mouth, I made it spring from everybody’s heart, and only thus can it be achieved’.
Li Dou: Yangzhou huafang lu, 1793
By keeping his own voice silent, it was as if an ear-splitting sound broke forth in the imagination of his audience.
Xu Guangru who told Eastern Han Dong Han and Wang Deshan who told the Record of Water Margin Shuihu ji, were also among the foremost artists of this period. Some new repertoires were based on autobiographical experiences rather than on history or legend: Qingfeng Lock Qingfengzha by Pu Lin and the Braggart’s Tale Feituo zhuan by Zou Bixian. The Braggart’s Tale has survived as a written novel, but is lost in oral tradition. Qingfeng Lock is still part of the living repertoire of Yangzhou storytelling. Pu Lin (c. 1750), the author of Qingfengzha, grew up as an orphan and beggar. He began to learn storytelling with a relative of his wife. It is told about another renowned storyteller from the same time, Xu Guangru, how at first he was a poor storyteller of no special talent, but once when he was very depressed about his metier, he met an old man who taught him the secrets of becoming a master-teller. The latter story is considered interesting and worth recording, but how he became an ordinary small storyteller in the first place is not deemed worthy of many words. The sources are more or less reticent about the ordinary practice of training for the profession of storyteller.
From around the turn of the nineteenth century, names of many master tellers from Yangzhou are known: Ye Ying, Wang Jingshan, Xue Jiahong, Jin Guocan. Their repertoires were mainly from Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Tale of Yue Fei (Yue zhuan) and other historical themes. Several of them were drop-outs from the upper-class learned society and belonged to the eccentrics, who were well read but did not follow the beaten track. Their success in storytelling seems to have been based both on their reading and their ability to adapt themselves to the oral tradition. However, the sporadic jottings about these artists in historical sources from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, seldom give information about the transmission of the repertoires or the master-apprentice relationship between the performers.Next: Schools of storytelling