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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Making the familiar material relevant to the audience

CATFISH_HN

The storyteller does not recreate some else’s work but rather creates his own interpretive version in the process of telling the story. Through the use of such devices as analogies, the storyteller imbues the familiar material with meaning relevant to his audience and puts his own particular stamp on the stories.

Mary Ellen Page, “Professional storytelling in Iran: Transmission and practice”, Iranian Studies, vol. 12, 1979, pp. 212
Catfish. Illustration inspired by the ceramics of Mimbres Culture, Nuevo Mexico.

Tales by the mile

mujeres

From our encampment near the shore of this famous lake [Lake Urmia] to the city or Mârâgâ [Maragheh] is eighteen miles: we made this march at night. Moollâh Adeenah, the story-teller of his majesty, was one of our party. The Elchee [ambassador] asked him to beguile the weariness of our road with a tale.

‘How many farsekhs* long do you wish it?’ was his reply.

‘At least five,’ was the answer.

‘I can exactly suit you,’ said the Moollâh; ‘you shall have Ahmed the cobbler.’

I could not help laughing at this mode of measuring a tale; but I was assured it was a common custom, arising out of the calculation professed story-tellers were compelled to make of the leisure of their hearers. All further remarks upon this usage were put an end to, by Moollâh Adeenah desiring us to be silent and attentive; his wish being complied with, he commenced as follows:

‘In the great city of Isfahan lived Ahmed the cobbler, an honest and industrious man…’ [the retelling of the story takes 19 pages ]”.

* 1 farsekh = c. 3 miles = 5 kilometres

Sketches of Persia, from the journals of a traveller in the East, London: J. Murray, 1845 , p. 252 (first published in 1827).
Illustration inspired by Bushman rock paintings in the Cederberg, South Africa

 

 

Stories are the houses we live in

Kalevala

Stories are the houses we live in. They are the food we set on the table, consume, and absorb into the blood. Stories do not exist fully, however, except in the physical presence of those who tell them. Later, mysteriously, they maintain this physicality when they well up to our inner eyes and resound in our inner ears in the process we call memory. Storytellers are thus the architects and masons of our universe. They build arcs of invisible stone that span huge banquet rooms. They also build the commonplace rooms that shelter us routinely. Whether in grand or humble style, storytellers serve us the spiritual food we live by, both the plain truths and the more delicious lies.

Who are the storytellers, then? … [In fact,] we are all both storytellers and story hearers. We must be both these things if we are to navigate the world in which we live, each part of which … is partly our own making. Barring some terrible trauma, these twin faculties of storytelling and story hearing are inalienably ours from a very early age. Throughout life these faculties remain at the core of our intelligent being, shaping our thoughts, calling us back from error, and guiding us incrementally toward whatever our future may hold.

John Niles, Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999: 64-65
Illustration inspired by the logo of the Kalevala Society

Nothing to fear during the performance

 

Pez dentado

Before Keldibek began a performance of Manas he told the herdsmen that they might come to the camp without fear because their cattle would go home by themselves, and no one –neither man nor wild beast– could steal even the last sheep whilst he was singing Manas. But when he began to sing, the yurt trembled, a mighty hurricane arose amid whose murk and din supernatural horsemen, Companions of Manas, flew down so that the earth shuddered beneath their horses’s hooves.

Kirghiz; quoted in Hatto, “Kirghiz”, en Traditions of Heroic and Epic Poetry. Volume I: The Traditions, edited by A. T. Hatto, London: The Modern Humanities Research Association, p. 305; Manas is the national epic of the Kirghiz people, and tells the exploits of the eponymous hero and his descendants.
Illustration inspired by a drawing of a fish found in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea.