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Shan Tianfang: Forever Electric Wave

When talking about Shan Tianfang and his storytelling, people of different ages tend to smile understandingly. His hoarse and individualistic voice, coupled with much expression and emotion, has been spread throughout the country. Shan is hailed as a "forever electric wave," as his storytelling has left a deep impression on several generations. This year marks Shan's 50th year in storytelling.


Now, over 100 broadcasting stations in China have opened the "Shan Tianfang Storytelling Channel," which shows the incomparable charm of the old storyteller. It will take 30 years to continuously broadcast the stories he has told.


Originally named Shan Chuanzhong, Shan Tianfang was born in 1935 in a family of Quyi (a general term for several kinds of speech-oriented performances). His grandparents and parents were either storytellers or Xihe Dagu (a kind of folk music) singers. Under their daily guidance, Shan could vividly and dramatically tell such stories as Baogong (one of the most upright judges in Chinese history) Cases and Hu Yanqing in Emulation Campaign when he was only five to six years old.



His parents, who endured various hardships, insisted on his changing to another profession and concentrating on academic studies. Not disappointing his parents, Shan entered a scientific department of Northeast Engineering College in 1953, but was delayed due to health problems.


At that time, the People's Republic of China had been established for four years, and storytellers were gradually winning the society's acceptance and respect, which aroused Shan's interest in storytelling. In 1955, therefore, he formally apprenticed to Li Qinghai, an experienced storytelling artist, and got himself a stage name - Shan Tianfang, thus starting his career as a storyteller.                                                                          


His family's influence combined with his inborn talent brought the 22-year-old Shan quick success in the city of Anshan in Northeast China's Liaoning Province. At that time, the teahouses where Shan told stories were always extremely crowded.    


However, feeling inadequate in his knowledge on history and literature, Shan enlisted in the correspondence class of Liaoning University's History Department in 1957, where he studied for three years. Many years later, when commenting on the decision, Shan still sighs with wonder, saying, "It is the then hard work that laid a solid cultural foundation for my later success."


Just as Shan Tianfang was heading for artistic maturity, in 1966 the ten-year catastrophic Culture Revolution started. The honest and frank man was listed as an active counterrevolutionary only because he spoke the truth. During a session of criticism and denouncement, all of his teeth were knocked out, causing the inflammation and enlargement of his throat. His clear and magnetic voice was therefore destroyed, a really huge loss for a storyteller.


Later, Shan and his family were sent to the countryside for reformation, spending a total of nine years scraping the ground, cutting grass, and collecting manure. However, even while doing the strenuous farm work, Shan did not forget to recite his books, such as Romance of Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and Strange Tales of Liaozhai, as well as poems by a poet he once studied. Even in such hard times, he was thinking about his storytelling!


In November 1978, Shan was finally rehabilitated. Shortly after, he returned to the Anshan Quyi Troupe, taking on his storytelling again. The then fifty-plus-year-old Shan, having had his freedom stripped for so long a time, extremely cherished the opportunity and brought his artistic creativity into full play.


From 1979 to 1994, Shan recorded 43 tapes in cooperation with the Anshan TV Station, altogether 3,500 sessions, which were broadcast through more than 100 TV and radio stations throughout the country. When Wang Gang, a famous CCTV anchorman, visited America in 1993, he surprisingly heard Shan's storytelling in a Chinese shop in Washington.



Once a fan from Central China's Henan Province wrote to him, "I have always wondered why you can tell a story in such a fascinating way, and finally got the answer in your name. The original complex form of your surname 'Shan()' has seven '口(kou, meaning mouth', and your middle name 'Tian ()' also has five such mouths. Including your own mouth, there are altogether 13 mouths in all. No wonder!" Although it is only a joke, it shows the fan's (as well as represents people's) high opinion of him. The deciding reason behind Shan's success lies in his diligence. 


As storytelling is a traditional art that is passed on orally, over time, many good storytelling materials lost in the process. In order to preserve the precious folk literature, Shan set a target for himself: to write down all the stories he knows during his lifetime so they can be passed down to later generations. During the daytime, he runs among various TV and radio stations, busily recording his stories, while at night, he bends over his desk, writing down the stories. Over a period of more than ten years, he has compiled and published 47 storytelling novels, with more than 20 million Chinese characters.


In almost every storytelling program at different TV and radio stations, traditional repertoires used to be the routine, and there were few storytelling themed on real life. Therefore, while creating and compiling those traditional storytelling repertoires, Shan made bold attempts to incorporate modern history, with much success. For example, the tales he created, such as, Hundred-year Wind and Cloud, Zhang Zuolin and Hero Zhang Xueliang, were all well received.


In 2005, he has recorded a hundred-episode A Documentary on Seizing the Notorious Robbers, which was adapted from A Documentary on Big and Important Cases of 1990s. In his words, the police officers have paid a lot to crack down on crimes and to maintain the social security and stability; therefore it is the art and literary workers' responsibility to promote their heroic deeds. Besides, he noted, it can also enhance people's awareness of law in an art form that people love.


In Shan's opinion, storytelling, as a traditional art, should follow up with the pace of times. He feels that with unceasing innovations and close-to-life materials, storytelling has a bright future.


In his spare time, Shan likes to read books, newspapers, and the news, which is in fact a kind of material accumulation for his storytelling. Fifty years has passed since he began his career as a storyteller at 21, and he has never stopped making efforts to perfect his artistic performance in between. With his passion and perseverance in the art, Shan has won the audience' hearts, and is acclaimed as "an evergreen tree in Quyi circles."



Over the recent years, however, Shan has been plagued by the problem of no successors to carry forward the traditional art of storytelling. Therefore, he started an art school, and especially opened a major in storytelling performance, which is meant to cultivate a batch of young storytellers to develop the art.


Not long before, the old artist celebrated his 70th birthday. Though advanced in age, Shan remains active in the stage, and continues to bring laughter to millions of households.


(chinaculture.org July 29, 2005)

Pingshu Master Lian Liru
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