For more than half a century, Beijing Qinshu has almost been an art of one man Guan Xuezeng, who is the founder and most famous performer of this form of musical storytelling. Unfortunately, because of a lack of successors, this art might end up an art of no man.
In Beijing's rich tradition of musical storytelling, Beijing Qinshu may not be the best-known genre, but it is probably one that is most characteristic of Beijing.
Accompanied by the yangqin dulcimer, erhu (two-stringed bowed instrument) and sihu (four-stringed bowed instrument), Beijing Qinshu is sung with a clear Beijing accent. The high pitch of speaking, the retroflex "r" sound, and the witticism of Beijing dialect are all shown in its singing.
Listening to Beijing Qinshu, one might notice that the melody is very much in accordance with the tones of the lyrics, which makes it easy to understand.
"I was born and raised in Beijing. Never teasing anybody, never offending anybody, I always want to do things wellTalking about the appearance, if I am not number one, I won't be worse than number two, but I have dated six women, and failed three pairs"
Such are the lyrics of a piece of Beijing Qinshu sung by Guan as an interlude in Zhang Yimou's film Keep Cool (1997). The light-hearted and humorous mood of the work added to the comedic plot, and disclosed the conflict between traditional Chinese culture and people's spiritual world in modern times.
"Beijing Qinshu is a local product of Beijing," said Guan, who is now 84 years old. "Sung in Beijing dialect, it sounds warm to Beijingers."
Born in a poor Manchu family in Beijing, Guan had only two years' primary education before he had to drop out to help support the family. He had been a vendor, porter and underage worker when he was only 11.
The Manchu people have a long tradition for quyi (a general term for various local folk performing arts in which speech, chanting or both are used).
Influenced by his mother and aunt, Guan often listened to the radio programs of quyi in the street, and sometimes he went to teahouses where quyi performances were held. Because he was a small boy, teahouses didn't charge him.
When Guan was 13, he became an apprentice of Chang Deshan, a performer of Danqin Dagu, which was the forerunner of Beijing Qinshu.
This form of musical storytelling originated in the folk tunes popular in the countryside of Beijing and Hebei Province, which evolved into the Wuyin Dagu during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) emperor Dao Guang's reign (1821-1850).
Wuyin Dagu, which means "drum-storytelling with five sounds," is so named because of its four accompanying instruments plus the singer's voice.
Around 1935, a performer named Zhai Qingshan reformed Wuyin Dagu and called it Danqin Dagu, which means single-instrument drum-storytelling, because it was accompanied only by a yangqin except the clappers and drum beat by the singer himself. Danqin Dagu was popular in radio programs because its simplified accompaniment made the singing part clearer.
However, at that time most performers played in the streets to make livings, and the volume of a single yangqin was too low, so some performers came up with an eclectic form that used the yangqin and sihu.
At 14, Guan became a professional performer of Danqin Dagu. His repertory at that time was mainly traditional folk tales such as Wujia Po and Wang Erjie Misses Her Husband. Some of the works were very long and lasted for months, like Huilong Zhuan.
Through years of practising and performing, Guan accumulated rich experience. He could improvise rhymed words according to the situation of performance.
After the founding of New China in 1949, Guan and his yangqin accompanist Wu Changbao reformed the melodic and rhythmic patterns of Danqin Dagu and renamed it Beijing Qinshu, which means Beijing's storytelling with dulcimer.
In Guan's career, he has sung over 1,000 works of Beijing Qinshu in about 20,000 performances. Having told stories throughout his life, his own life has become a story that reflects the fluctuating history of modern China.
Many of Guan's works have been influenced by politics. For example, in the 1950s, Guan composed a piece titled Debt of Blood to Be Paid by Blood for the Korea War; in the 1960s he wrote The Cuban People Will Surely Win; during the "cultural revolution"(1966-76) he had to write works for political movements, like A Public Prosecution.
Only since the 1980s could Guan rediscover his witty and humorous style, which Beijing Qinshu is best at.
He adapted many jokes for Beijing Qinshu, such as The Henpecked Village and Reciprocal Courtesy, and also wrote works that reflected the new age, like Citizens of the Capital Abide by the Civilization Convention.
Though Guan retired in 1984, he kept writing new works, including the interludes for the film Keep Cool and TV series Snuff Bottle. Last year, China Record Corporation released a three-CD anthology of Guan's Beijing Qinshu recordings.
However, Guan found that Beijing Qinshu was declining. Today, even in those teahouses with quyi performances, Beijing Qinshu is hard to hear. Though Guan has taught many students in the past, very few of them are still carrying on the art.
Guan's last student, 38-year-old Wang Shucai, is practically the only professional performer of Beijing Qinshu now.
A farmer from Sanhe, Hebei Province, Wang became fond of Beijing Qinshu after hearing Guan's singing in Keep Cool in 1998. Since 2001, he began to study with Guan, who not only taught him for free, but also treated him to Beijing's traditional noodles with meat sauce every time he went to Guan's home for lessons.
Wang became a performer of the Beijing Quyi Troupe last year. Though there are not many commercial performances for Beijing Qinshu, he often performs Beijing Qinshu in campuses when his troupe tours schools.
At the University of International Business and Economics and the graduate school of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Wang's Beijing Qinshu were warmly received and he had to give encores.
"People like Beijing Qinshu because it is the unique sound of Beijing, just like noodles with meat sauce which are the unique food of Beijing," Wang said. "We should pay more attention to our local culture now."
Fortunately Beijing Qinshu is receiving more attention. It has been included in the survey of intangible heritage resources of Beijing's Xuanwu District by the district's culture committee.
Xuanwu District is where the most quyi teahouses in Beijing are located. Tianqiao area in the district was where Guan and many other old quyi performers used to busk. Xuanwu District also has rich resources in terms of time-honored shops, folk activities and religious culture.
As of last month, the Culture Committee of Xuanwu District has recorded over 200 items of intangible heritage resources, and will select some of them to apply for the masterpieces of national or municipal intangible heritage next year.
On June 10, the first "Day of Cultural Heritage" of China, supported by his family members, Guan went to the Xuannan Cultural Museum of Xuanwu District to help survey Beijing Qinshu as an intangible heritage resource.
"Now that more effort has been made to preserve Beijing Qinshu, I hope it will be carried on," Guan said. "In 2008, if my health is still OK, maybe I can sing Beijing Qinshu at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics."
(China Daily July 13, 2006)