Last updated at: (Beijing Time) Thursday, October 23, 2003

'Pingtan' -- A dying art form

Facing a severe lack of interest that has seen audience numbers dwindle after 1950s, elegant "pingtan" performances are on the fast track to extinction. Worse yet, no one seems to have any ideas on how to stop it.


Facing a severe lack of interest that has seen audience numbers dwindle after 1950s, elegant "pingtan" performances are on the fast track to extinction. Worse yet, no one seems to have any ideas on how to stop it.

Even Gao Bowen, 33, the youngest male member of the Shanghai Pingtan Troupe and arguably the genre's biggest talent among the younger performers, walks city streets unrecognized. Widely respected for his commitment and passion to ``pingtan,'' the fair-complexioned and neatly dressed Gao is nonetheless pessimistic about the future.

"Sometimes I even have the feeling it is inevitable for 'pingtan' to become extinct," a tall and sturdy Gao says softly. "Pingtan" entered its heyday in the 1950s.

In the Yangtze River Delta alone, there was more than 1,500 performers that were once revered like today's pop stars. Nearly 10 theaters were located along Nanjing Road and a total of 100 were scattered across the city at that time. By the end of 2002, however, the number of "pingtan" performers in China dwindled to about 60, with 50 percent of those based in Shanghai. Only five storytelling theaters remain in the city.

The swift decline is frightening. Gao's partner Zhou Hong is not nearly as pessimistic, but admits that the current situation is not deserved by the elegant art form. She says that during the 1950s and 1960s, a renowned artist such as Gao's mentor Zhao Kaisheng earned about 45 yuan (US$5.4) per day, a decent pay at that time. His daily performances, usually around an hour for each session, amounted to nearly 15 sessions at most, attracted audiences ranging from teen students to retired workers.

By sharp contrast, top performers such as Zhou and Gao only receive 200 yuan for a two-hour performance including expenses for costume and makeup today. They earn about 3,000 yuan per month, about the average salary of a university graduate. "For the majority of today's storytellers, 'pingtan' is just a way to earn a living, says the 36-year-old Zhou, clad in a refined pink 'qipao.' "They don't consider the art's heritage, which has been passed down by generations and was known to fascinate and influence large amounts of people."

For both Zhou and Gao, the income isn't that big a deal, what matters is preserving the essence of "pingtan" and ensuring that it continues. Part of the problem is that younger generations are preoccupied with a variety of entertainment options. The usual "pingtan" audience is comprised of retired people who can afford both time and patience to sit through a performance -- each story is generally divided into 10 sessions, or more, and require the whole day to watch in its entirety. Still, "pingtan" does have a loyal and dedicated following.

Wu Wenjuan traveled from Guangdong Province to Shanghai by train, at a cost of 476 yuan. The 72-year-old spent 15 days in the city last month just to watch the complete set of "Shuang Zhu Feng" or "A Phoenix with Double Pearls," by Gao and Zhou. "When I was living in Shanghai three decades ago, I had a wide choice of different tunes and stories," says Wu. "But now I think that no more than 10 performers can compete with Gao and Zhou, who might have only learned half of their mentors' skills."

Prices certainly aren't keeping audiences away. The average ticket price is only 3 to 5 yuan. Even with cheap tickets, the Yulan Storytelling Theater, the city's largest, on Hengshan Road, has a capacity of only 140 seats. Even worse, one unfortunate situation leads to another. Thus the problems threatening "pingtan" become even more difficult to overcome.

Since junior performers are earning even much less than Gao and Zhou, many have taken on part time jobs to pay the bills. The unfortunate result is that performers have less time to develop or improve songs and skills necessary for "pingtan." With the decline in artistic value, it doesn't take much foresight to guess that even more followers will start looking elsewhere for entertainment. Others such as Yue Maozhong, 64, a retired engineer and lifelong fan of "pingtan," believe the art can return to its former glory.

He points to the example of Peking Opera -- considered a symbol of national pride. The government has supported and promoted the thriving genre both domestically and internationally. Peking Opera has also targeted younger generations by staging performances in universities. "If preferential policy is given and more funding from the government is secured, `pingtan' is sure to be all the rage again in the near future," Yue says.

Wang Xinyi, a program director with the Folk Opera Channel of the Shanghai Oriental Television Station, points out that financial support alone will not heal the gaping wounds of "pingtan." The 27-year-old thinks innovation and media involvement are key factors in reviving the ancient folk art. "Any art form should progress with the time and `pingtan' is no exception," says Wang. "Mass media is also responsible for reporting the current situations. But now the TV screens and newspapers are fully occupied by fashion trends and pop stars."

To boost advertising revenue and gain a larger audience share, even the Folk Opera Channel recently replaced a "pingtan" program with a television series. There's nothing except wishful thinking to indicate a better future for "pingtan." Less theaters, small audiences, poorly paid performers and dwindling skills have created a mountain filled with obstacles.

Not even the art form's star holds much hope. "One day if I see 'pingtan' being performed at subway stations," says Gao, half-joking, but with an undeniable serious tone. "That's the day I will quit." What the Story Tells "Pingtan" is a local professional storytelling style popular in Shanghai, Suzhou and other southern Jiangsu Province areas.

In its most popular form, a pair of performers, usually a man and a woman, sing and tell serial stories, often about romances between gifted scholars and beautiful, cultivated young women. Folk musical instruments such as the "pipa" (lute) and "sanxian" (banjo) are played by the storytellers. (Shanghai Daily)

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