Shan Tianfang, a Superstar of Chinese Storytelling, Dies at 83
中国评书大师单田芳2008年在天津演出。 VCG, VIA GETTY IMAGES
Shan Tianfang, a storyteller whose energetic oral renditions·· of classical Chinese novels and historical events propelled the ancient pingshu tradition into the modern age for generations of Chinese, died on Sept. 11 in Beijing. He was 83.
The cause was multiple organ failure, said Xiao Jianlu, Mr. Shan’s business associate and the manager of the Shan Tianfang Culture Communication Company.
Mr. Shan tried for many years to avoid becoming a performer of pingshu, the Song dynasty-era storytelling tradition. Growing up in 1950s China in a family of folk art performers, he had seen struggle firsthand. It was a life of constant financial troubles and low social status.
So it was with great reluctance when, out of financial necessity, he became an apprentice to a family friend who was a master of pingshu. He made his debut in 1956.
In the pingshu tradition, the performer wears a traditional gown and sits behind a desk equipped with a folding fan and a wooden block, which is used like a gavel. The storyteller recounts a legend — typically a classical Chinese epic — from memory, using different voices and exaggerated gestures as well as adding occasional background detail and commentary.
Mr. Shan grew to love the storytelling form, which is popular across northern China. It is a demanding profession that combines acting, oration, writing, historical research and literary criticism and requires countless hours of memorization.
But bothered by what he felt were the many historical inaccuracies and superstitious fantasies found in the classical epics, Mr. Shan, who had studied history, soon began performing his own interpretations based on his meticulous historical research.
In teahouses around the northeastern region, he became celebrated for his fresh takes on the classics.
“The new China was not the same as before,” he once said in an interview. “People wanted to see a pure stage free of superstition with characters that actually made sense.”
With the onset of the repressive Cultural Revolution in 1966, however, radicalized youth sought to root out all remnants of China’s ancient “feudal” culture, and that included pingshu. Mr. Shan was labeled a “counterrevolutionary” and sent to do manual labor in a village in northeastern China.
In his memoir, published in 2011, he called those years of persecution his “life’s greatest suffering.”
With the collapse of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, Mr. Shan set out to revive his pingshu career. Many Chinese were hungry for something other than bland, party-approved propaganda, and it was against this backdrop that he leapt at the opportunity to record a pingshu radio broadcast.
He soon discovered that performing on radio was vastly different from doing so in teahouses. There were no props, no reactions from the audience to guide him — just Mr. Shan and the microphone in a recording studio.
So for his first radio performance, an abridged version of the historical novel “The Romance of Sui and Tang Dynasties,” Mr. Shan used the studio’s three recording technicians as his audience and adjusted his performance based on their reactions.
The performance had its premiere in 1980 on Chinese New Year, and more than 100 million Chinese were estimated to have tuned in during the 56 hours over which it was broadcast. It was the beginning of a dramatic second act both for Mr. Shan and for pingshu in the People’s Republic of China. He was soon a household name across the country.
“In the 1980s everyone had a radio, so you could hear Shan Tianfang everywhere, in homes and in taxis,” Zhu Dake, a Chinese cultural critic, said in an interview. “He took a traditional art form and made it popular by adapting it to the new era in the most simple way.”
Over six decades, Mr. Shan recorded more than 110 stories for radio and television totaling about 12,000 episodes and spanning 6,000 hours. His best-known works include his renditions of Chinese classics like “White-Eyebrow Hero” and “Sanxia Wuyi” and his dramatizations of historical figures like Zhuge Liang and Lin Zexu.
Even today, hop into a Beijing taxi and the driver may be listening to one of Mr. Shan’s recordings.
“For my generation, Shan Tianfang was a master,” said Zhao Fuwei, 48, a Beijing taxi driver. “If back then there was such thing as a viral star, then Shan Tianfang was definitely the hottest viral star.”
“Listening to his stories has made it easier to kill time in bad traffic,” Mr. Zhao added. “He was so good at making complicated historical stories simple and interesting. You feel like you could relate to the characters in his stories, even though they lived a long time ago.”
Shan Chuanzhong was born on Dec. 17, 1934, in Tianjin, China. His mother, Wang Xianggui, was a stage actress. His father, Shan Yongkui, was a folk musician who played the sanxian, a three-stringed Chinese lute.
Growing up, Mr. Shan and his four sisters frequently moved around northeastern China with their parents, an experience that left him longing for a more stable life and career. But in the early 1950s, when his parents divorced and his mother left the family, Mr. Shan gave up his dream of being a doctor and embraced his performance heritage.
After completing his apprenticeship with a pingshu master, he joined a folk arts troupe in Anshan, a town in northeastern China known then for its teahouses and pingshu performers.
He found early success on the regional teahouse circuit until the Cultural Revolution, beginning in 1966, derailed his career for a decade.
He is survived by his son, Shan Ruilin; his daughter, Shan Huili; two grandchildren; and a great-grandchild. His wife, Wang Quangui, died in 1992.
The revival of Mr. Shan’s career in the early 1980s and his subsequent rise to national prominence paralleled the re-emergence of the pingshu tradition.
But in recent years many of the great pingshu performers have died, and the tradition is fading. By the time Mr. Shan retired in 2007, interest in pingshu among Chinese had all but been replaced by mobile phones and gaming.
Nevertheless, even after retiring, Mr. Shan worked tirelessly to promote pingshu among young Chinese, mentoring apprentices and starting a school dedicated to the folk arts.
Ever willing to adapt to new technologies, he posted a message to his Sina Weibo microblog account on Sept. 6, five days before his death. It was an announcement about a new live-streamed lecture series about pingshu.