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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No marked departures from the traditional plot are countenanced

FIGURA hohokam

It can be safely asserted that there exists no aboriginal tribe in the world where the narrating of myths is not confined to a small number of specifically gifted individuals. These individuals are always highly respected by the community, and they are permitted to take liberties with a given text denied to people at large. In fact they are sometimes admired for so doing. While unquestionably the accepted theory everywhere is that a myth must always be told in the same way, all that is really meant by theory here is what I have stated before, namely, that the fundamental plot, themes and dramatis personae are retained. In short, no marked departure from a traditional plot or from the specific literary tradition is countenanced. The liberties that a gifted raconteur is permitted to take with his text vary from myth to myth and from tribe to tribe and, within the tribe itself, from period to period.

Among the Winnebago, the right to narrate a given myth, that is, a waikan, belongs, as I have already indicated, either to a particular family or to a particular individual. In a certain sense it is his ‘property’, and as such often possesses a high pecuniary value. Where the myth was very sacred or very long, it had to be purchased in installments. The number of individuals, however, to whom it would be sold was strictly limited, because no one would care to acquire the right to tell a myth out of idle curiosity nor would it be told by its owner to such a one. What actually occurred was that a waikan passed, through purchase, from one gifted raconteur to another.

This meant that its content and style, while they may have been fixed basically and primarily by tradition, were fixed secondarily by individuals of specific literary ability who gave such a waikan the impress of their particular temperaments and genius. That they would attempt to narrate it as excellently and authentically as their most gifted predecessors had done stands to reason. The strict conformists and ‘classicists’ among the raconteurs would manifestly try to preserve the exact language of a predecessor. However, fidelity was not demanded of him. In fact, an audience generally preferred and valued a raconteur in terms of his own style and phrasing, that is, in terms of his own personality. We must never forget that we are not dealing here with narratives that were written down. Every narrative was, strictly speaking, a drama where as much depended upon the acting of the raconteur as upon his actual narration. This may seem an unnecessarily elementary point for me to stress, but it is frequently forgotten.

On the narrative tradition of the Winnebago , a Native American of the Great Lakes region; Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology, New York: Philosophical Library, p. 122-123
Illustration inspired by a drawing from The Hohokam 

Storytellers for hire in old Russia

CILINDRO HOMO NARR.

As early as in Russian sources of the twelfth century one may read that a rich man, suffering from sleeplessness, ordered his attendants to tickle the soles of his feet, to strum on the gusli, and to tell him fairy tales. Ivan the Terrible, who became one of the popular heroes of the Russian folk tales, was its most avid fancier, and three old blind men followed each other at his bedside, relating fairy tales before he slumbered. Skillful tellers of tales continued to enliven the leisure of tsar and tsarina, of princes and gentry, as late as the eighteenth century. Even at the close of that century we find in Russian newspapers advertisements of blind men applying for work in the homes of the gentry as tellers of tales. Lev Tolstoy, as a child, fell asleep to the tales of an old man who had once been bought by the count’s grandfather, because of his knowledge and masterly rendition of fairy tales.

Roman Jakobson, “On Russian Fairy Tales”, appendix to A. Afanasiev, Russian Fairy Tales, translated by Norbert Guterman, New York: Pantheon, 1945, p. 635
Illustration inspired by a mesopotamian drawing 

 

Force other than his own

hombre_pajaro

How does a man become a singer, you ask? Not through straining his voice on a the bare hill tops, not yet through making presents to many teachers.

Is a singer born a singer then, Parchen-tulchi?”

No, neither is a tulchi (rhapsodist) born. How can a man invent pictures of the world of heroes, how can he see the hundred snowy peaks of Altai and the ten blue lakes and the seventy swift rivers and the red and yellow camels and the herds of black and roan and piebald horses, if these things are not communicated to him my forces other than his own?”

What forces are these?”

When I was a boy of twelve I pastured my father’s flocks on the steppe. One day I saw a giant ride up on a dragon, whether in dream or in fact I cannot tell you. The giant asked me if I wished to become a singer of epic tales. I told the giant that this indeed was my dearest wish but I feared it might never be. For my father was sending me to the monastery to put on the lama’s robe and learn the sacred books. The giant pointed to a white goat, the largest and best of my father’s goats. ‘Give me that goat to sacrifice to the King of dragons,’ he said, ‘and you shall sing such heroes’ songs as will make your name for ever dear where men gather at night around the fires, or meet at the great feasts of the princes.’

Gladly I agreed, the giant struck me on the shoulder, mounted his dragon and was gone. When I came to myself there was no one, no giant, no dragon, but near by a wolf was eating the white goat, the very one the giant had demanded for a sacrifice. From that day I knew that I had the gift of song, given me by the lord of dragons himself.”

And all was then easy – song, and fame, and learning?”

Parchen smiled. “Nothing was easy. For my father beat me sorely because the wolf had eaten his goat. He sent me to the monastery and there the monks beat me because I could not learn the sacred doctrine.”

Yet you became a singer?”

I had the gift. They let me learn the songs and sing. When I knew them I felt the steppe call and left the sacred walls to wander among the tents of the princes and sing the deeds of my people.

I had many songs, and the spirits spoke easily to me, so that I became famous among men. Many were the gifts I had, silks, garments, saddles, carpets, horses, and sheep, but I spent all and went back again to the monastery. In those days I was gay and careless, given to drunkenness and women, was prodigal of all things and loved the life of men. Even at one time I loved a Russian woman, and she me.”

Mongolia; Ralph Fox, “Conversation with a Lama”, New Writing, autumn 1936, pp. 180-181 
Illustration inspired by a Bird Man Rapa Nui, Easter Island

 

The dispeller of worries

Kakadu

In Malay, pengiluar lara, ‘Dispeller of Worries’, is the praise-name for the storyteller who possesses the art of enthralling his listeners. In the course of centuries, the Malay storyteller developed and refined his art until it became the very expression of the swift movement of the prince’s horse; the snake’s winding coils; the heavenly nymph flying through the sky, bright and golden. Inimitable are the images that are strewn across Malay tales.

Jan Knappert, Mythology and Folklore in South-East Asia, Oxford University Press, 1999 p. 195

Drawing inspired by a rock art painting of Kakadu, Australia

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.

One must have a good voice to be a storyteller

lizardmoche

Besides the material told, some purely physical attributes of the storyteller bear on his work. Things like vocal quality and gestures have an effect on the audience and its reaction to the storyteller. Most will, of course, agree that one must have a good voice to be a storyteller. Audience members will complain if a storyteller’s voice is weak (za’if). They appreciate storytellers who have voices which they describe as warm (garm), a voice which is effective in moving them. Storytellers may develop stylized manners of presentation, but these are not offered as the subject of instruction or as the major value of storytelling. […] All storytellers recognize, too, that they may take elements of storytelling style from other storytellers whom they have occasion to hear.

Mary Ellen Page, “Professional storytelling in Iran: Transmission and practice”, Iranian Studies, vol. 12, 1979, pp. 211  
Illustration inspired by a drawing of the Mochica culture, Peru