Liu Jingting was a master in storytelling

SERPIENTE

 

The pockmarked Liu from Nanjing had a dark complexion and in his face there were lots of scars and pimples. He was careless and indifferent about his looks, as if he were made from clay or wood. He was a master in storytelling. He told one session of storytelling a day. The price was a tael of silver. Even if you came ten days ahead to make an appointment and pay the fee, you could not be sure he would be free …

I once heard him perform in the plain style of telling (without musical accompaniment) the tale of ‘Wu Song fights the tiger on Jingyang Mountain”. It was very different from the version transmitted in books. His descriptions and illustrations went into the finest details, but he also knew where to cut the thread and make a pause, and he never became talkative. His voice rang out like a big bell. Whenever he came to an exciting point, he bellowed and raged so that the noise seemed to make the house fall down.

At the point where Wu Song arrives in the inn and orders wine, there is nobody in the inn. At the sudden outcry of Wu Song, the empty jars and pots send out a ringing sound. Thus he would add colour to every interval, and he did his utmost in his care for detail.

Only when his hosts were sitting quite attentively and cocking their ears to listen, would he begin to tell. But if he noticed some among the servants whispering to each other, or if the listeners were yawning or showing other signs of sleepiness, he would stop immediately, and nobody could force him to start again. Every evening when the tables had been wiped and the lamps snuffed, and the simple tea bowls were passed around in all calm, he would slowly begin to tell …

Zhang Dai, 1597-c. 1684, witnessed Liu Jingting’s performance in 1638 and wrote about it in his work Recollections of Tao’an’s Past Dreams, Tao’anmengyi. Quoted by Vibeke Bordhal and Jette Ross, Chinese Storytellers: Life and Art in Yangzhou Tradition, Boston: Cheng &Tsui Company, 2002, p. 62
Illustration inspired by an Assyrian motif
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Tying up the myth

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Very little of the atmosphere of story telling can be provided on a printed page. A few interesting remarks of one informant may be mentioned. In a native setting of the upper Cowlitz river, according to Mrs. Mary Eyley, stories that were very long would be told in two or more successive nights. In times gone by it was the custom to make a halt, perhaps when the auditors were disappearing or dropping off to sleep, saying something such as: … “Now I will tie up the myth,” implying that the myth was like a canoe, and had to be moored to a log or tree along the river until the next night’s myth journey. When story telling was in order the next evening the raconteur would perhaps say, … “Now I will untie the myth,” and the narrative would proceed from where it had halted.

Continuing the simile, should the raconteur wander from the main stream of the narrative or diverge into a side channel of gossip or other irrelevance, one of the auditors might admonish by calling out, … ‘Your myth might float away.’ It is also of interest to note that each sentence or perhaps even each phrase of the narrative was concluded with an affirmative semi-ritual call of ‘i’…!‘ literally ‘Yes!’ from the auditors, who if awake were expected to respond regularly in that somewhat fatiguing manner. In these sceptical, degenerate, modern days the myths are often received by a merely smiling or even relatively unresponsive audience.

Klikitat (sahaptin), in Melville Jacobs Northwest Sahaptin Texts, New York: Columbia University Press, 1934.
Illustration inspired on engravings from a cave in the island of Götland.