The World of The Chinese Storyteller
(First published in Appleseed Quarterly. The Canadian Journal of Storytelling. Spring 1997. Vol. 7 No. 1, pp. 17-23)

It was forty years ago that I discovered the world of Chinese storytelling, a wonderfully diverse world where tales can be told, chanted or sung. This world had never even been hinted at by my professors of Chinese language and literature. I want to share that world with you; let's begin where it all began for me, in a teahouse in Taiwan.

The year was 1956 and I was a newly-arrived graduate student living in Taibei with a Chinese family. I revelled in this different culture; chatting with people on the streets, trying out traditional entertainments. A newspaper ad that announced a variety show led me to a small hall near the railway station. There, I paid my fee, accepted a glass of tea-with-leaves and found a seat on a hard bench next to the aisle where servers moved to and fro, refilling our glasses with hot water as we watched the variety unroll.

A small table and two chairs were placed to one side of the performing area and a waist-high tripod frame supporting a drum was set centre stage. Two musicians took the seats at the table: one bearing a three-string Chinese banjo and the other a four-string spike fiddle. The singer entered - short, stocky and dark, in her mid-forties. She took up clapper and drum stick from the drum, gave a commanding glance at the musicians, who followed her lead as she began a rousing drum pattern. A pause for some spoken words of introduction, another instrumental interlude and then the singing began.

Zhang Cuifeng
formal portrait,
Taibei (1950’s)
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