Masters and Disciples (16)
Written texts are seldom mentioned in the education, but we know that some storytellers had written materials, called 'librettos' jiaoben. Such texts were in most cases only sketchy notes of the main plot shu luzi, inserted poetry and other fixed passages. But some storytellers had a good education and were interested in writing their tales down in more complete versions. These documents have later been used for editing and publishing the storytellers' texts. Sometimes they were allowed to be copied by storytellers from other families, but such behaviour was regarded as a sign of extraordinary friendship between mature storytellers. There is no indication that the texts were ever used for training of the disciples in the traditional master-apprentice system. Some storytellers were blind, some illiterate. But this was not considered a serious handicap for becoming a storyteller. Storytellers who were born in the beginning of this century usually had some education and would be able to read and write. But few storytellers had the ability or the initiative to write anything more than simple notes for their performances. Most storytellers had no written documents, not even sketchy notes, as aide-mémoire, and the elder generation of storytellers were sceptical towards writing and reading and thought of these activities as destructive for a good memory.
A person who had not received the basic training in the tradition from master to student, "the true tradition" zhen chuan, but simply would rely on learning by heart from written novels and in this way try to sneak into the ranges of the storytellers, was held in low esteem. His choice of words were considered to be of poor workmanship and his improvisations of low standard. Such performance was called "empty storytelling" shuo kong shu or "dead storytelling" shuo si shu. These negative terms indicate that storytelling was not always based on the oral transmission. There must have been a certain amount of performers who lacked this background, but tried to earn a living in the trade, basing themselves on written materials. But learning from books was looked down upon, a kind of cheating, "keeping people in the dark" menghei.
The negative attitude to books may explain why we have so little information on the storytellers’ "scripts". Moreover, these expressions are highly interesting as evidence of an alternative view on book learning among the storytellers in a country where the official education system and the written word has had enormous prestige from time immemorial.
Mutual competition and envy among individual storytellers and the various schools is another side of the coin. In the education of disciples it sometimes resulted in the practice of 'leaving out lines' chou hangzi, i.e. a master would be stingy with his teaching and leave out some of the best passages as a kind of guarantee that his student would not be able to surpass him later on. It indicates how important the teaching from mouth to ear was for learning the art. Another effect of this fear of having one's art 'stolen' toushu was the habit that storytellers could not attend each other's performances without having an agreement.
The traditional way of transmission was replaced in the 1980s by special drama schools for teenagers who aspired to become entertainers of storytelling or other related genres. The rehearsals were based on learning by heart from book editions of storytellers’ repertoires. In recent years there is, however, a renewed interest in the traditional way of transmission, and young talented students are once again studying with the old masters in a master-disciple relationship. Although the former servant function of the disciple has been abandoned, the young students behave with much reverence and politeness towards their master and are eager to run errands and do him small favours during their daily encounters – a display of the time-honoured Chinese attitude of respect for the elder generation.
Next: Elements of performance