March 11, 2011

CHINA: Sing me a story - Where to hear old-time pingtan

SHANGHAI / Shanghai Daily / Feature / March 11, 2011

THERE are various kinds of storytelling in China. One of the most popular is pingtan storytelling to music involving one or two artists, reports Chen Yu.

Senior people are attracted by a shuoshu artist's story at Qibao Shuchang . Photo by Hang Lingbing

Pingtan is more usually performed by two artists, one man and one woman, though sometimes it is performed solo or as a trio. The man narrator usually plays the sanxian, a three-stringed plucked instrument, accompanied by the woman artist who plays the pipa (lute). The storytelling goes back and forth between two people.

Like shuoshu storytelling, listening to pingtan is a favorite pastime of elderly people as they sip their tea in shuchang, or storytelling theaters. The stories may be folktales and legends, or modern stories.

As the number of old teahouses and tea culture decline, so does storytelling venues. Still, there are places in Shanghai to listen to pingtan and shuoshu. Here are a few.

Wuding Shuchang
* One of the most famous shuchangs in Shanghai is Wuding Shuchang on Kangding Road E.
* The 20-year-old theater has relocated three times and its current home is in the charming old house where legendary writer Eileen Chang (1920-1995) was born.
* Now part of a community center that includes a library, Wuding Shuchang is considered a site of intangible cultural heritage.
* Shows can be as short as 30 minutes or longer than an hour.

Yalu Shuchang
* Set up in 1920, Yalu Shuchang is now housed in a 1970s-style theater with creaking ceiling fans and a deep-red curtain near the Xintiandi shopping and dining center,
* It is believed to be the only venue where pingtan has been performed daily for 10 years.
* Shuoshu is also performed.
* Hours: Daily shows start at 1:30pm

Luyi Shuchang
* Located near crowded Sichuan Road N., Luyi Shuchang has a private garden and seems worlds away from the busy shopping area.
* Rain or shine, elderly pingtan fans line up every day for the show. Some sing one or two lines from their favorite shows.
* From the calm garden, one steps into the calm theater itself where listeners sip tea at tables and enjoy the show.
* Every week Luyi Shuchang holds pingtan salons for fans and people who want to learn how to tell a good story to music.
* Hours: Daily shows start at 1:30pm

Qibao Shuchang
* Qibao Town in Minhang District is famous as a thousand-year-old sanctuary just 20 kilometers from downtown Shanghai.
* People know it for beautifully preserved old houses, shops and lanes, as well as delicious food.
* But it also has an excellent shuchang for both pingtan and shuoshu - classical teahouse where people while away the afternoon, sipping tea, playing cards and Chinese chess and listen to stories.
* Tickets are only 2 yuan per person, and visitors can stay for an entire afternoon.
* In addition to storytelling, there are performances of shadow plan and other folk entertainment.

Fengxian Seniors Center
* This center is exclusive for senior people: men 55 years old, woman 50.
* It offers activities and entertainment and provides a place for people to make friends.
* The 250-square-meter pingtan theater seats 140 guests and can accommodate 200 people.
* Throughout the year, the Fengxian Seniors Center invites famous pingtan artists to perform.

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