Performed narrative arts known as quyi (song-arts), or shuochang yishu (telling and singing arts) vie with importance in Chinese oral literature with Xiqu (sung-drama/opera) and folksongs. As a professional art dramatizing tales in instalments, quyi have survived in China for over a millennium, producing numerous local forms in the vernacular.
The three broad types of quyi are distinguished by the proportion of speech to song. The spoken genres include the long serialized tales known as pingshu (book telling) in northern and central China and pinghua or ‘storytelling’ in the southeast (see Suzhou pingtan), as well as shorter forms like xiangsheng (comic dialogues) filled with plays on words and repartees. Sung forms, such as the dagushu (long stories for drum) and danxian (ballads for one string instrument), constitute a second type. A third one stretches the musical and rhythmic qualities of language far beyond ordinary speech. These are the kuaibanshu (clappertale) forms in rhymed prose in which the storyteller stresses the intonations and rhythm of the words in a quasi-melodic ‘rap’ accompanied by bamboo clappers. The latter type also may juxtapose speech and song as in tanci, a form of chantefables that alternates the singing of accompanied ballads with dialogue and narration.
Unlike traditional theatre, the performance of quyi requires very few artists (usually between one and three), little make-up and no scenery. Story-tellers may use accessories like a fan or a piece of wood for emphasis or to represent an object in the story. They may also accompany themselves with a drum and clappers or string instruments such as the sanxian (three-string lute), yangqin (hammered dulcimer) or pipa (pear-shaped lute). With this economy of means comes the requirement that the storyteller be able to embody several characters and display a panoply of narrative and mimicry techniques. The classic repertoire often shares stock stories with classic novels and drama, such as The Romance of Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi), Tales of the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan) and The Journey to the West (Xiyou ji). Extra episodes are often added to embroider the exploits and foibles of heroes, whose characters come through all the more vividly. Some of the contemporary repertoire directly takes to a socialist lifestyle, while others, such as Ma Sangli’s sketches about factory meetings and hospital care, satirize the absurdities of modern life. National (non-Han) minorities possess their own genres and repertoire, such as the Tibetan Epic of Gesar.
In the 1950s, the Communist regime, realizing the potential of quyi as a vehicle for reinforcing their cultural policy, began to support storytelling through public institutions and programmes. Artists, now salaried, performed in ‘storyteller houses’ (shuochang) or teahouses, where a modest cover charge replaced the traditional contribution for ‘storytelling and tea’ (shuocha qian). ‘Cultural workers’ collected and revised traditional works in accordance with the new ideology, in effect censoring works considered feudal, superstitious or erotic. Some entirely new creations are immensely popular. For example, Hou Baolin’s comic sketch on local cultures, Theatre and Dialects’ (Xiqu yü fangyan) achieves its comic effect by imitating local dialects and the idiosyncrasies of regional operas. The radical reorientation of society since the 1980s, however, has deprived most storytellers of their government support and does not augur well for a living art form more suited to the conviviality of the past. With the exception of xiangsheng and pingtan, quyi tend to have become museum pieces for special events before an audience of workers, students or tourists.
See also: string ensemble
(1983). Zhongguo da baike quanshu, xiqu quyi [Encyclopedia of China: Drama and Quyi]. Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.
Bordahl, Vibeke (1999). The Eternal Storyteller: Oral Literature in Modern China. Nordic Institute of Asian Studies. Richmond, UK: Curzon Press.
Bordahl, Vibeke and Ross, Jette (2002). Chinese Storytellers: Life and Art in the Yangzhou Tradition. Boston: Cheng and Tsui.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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