In recent years, traditional Chinese art forms have caught the attention of more and more young Chinese. One of the most popular performance art forms among young people right now is Suzhou pingtan, a folk art of storytelling and singing.
Suzhou pingtan, which originated in Suzhou (a city in East China's Jiangsu Province), and which thrived in Shanghai, has a history of more than 200 years. A table and one or two chairs set up in alleys, teahouses or wineshops are all that's needed to start a pingtan show. During the performance, the artist sings legendary stories in the soft, beautiful tones of the Suzhou dialect, while playing the sanxian (a Chinese stringed instrument) or pipa (a four-stringed plucked musical instrument). Audiences are fascinated by the unique charm of Suzhou pingtan, which in the past was among the most-favored form of entertainment in the glamorous Shanghai Bund area. The original form of pingtan still exists in the alleys and teahouses in the Yangtze River Delta. Influenced by other music forms, Suzhou pingtan, which is undergoing subtle changes, is becoming a brand new symbol of traditional Chinese culture.
In September 2020, NetEase Cloud Music launched a show, Unforgettable Notes, to promote music forms that are intangible cultural heritage items of China. In one episode, Sheng Xiaoyun, who is referred to as the "queen of pingtan," performed with Miserable Faith, a rock band in Hangzhou, capital of East China's Zhejiang Province. They gave a new interpretation of the band's masterwork, West Lake, by incorporating elements of a Suzhou pingtan classic, White Snake: Meeting on the Broken Bridge.
Inside the Fenghe Pavilion, holding the pipa in her hand, Sheng began to sing the lyrics from White Snake: "As we row the boat in the pond, the water ‘pats' the boat merrily; the breeze sweeps the boat, sometimes from afar, sometimes from nearby; the Broken Bridge over the water is covered by residual snow, however no one has ever stepped on it."
Along with the lyrics, the "dialogue" between traditional folk art and popular music quickly resonated with the audience. In the alternation of pingtan lyrics and rock song lyrics, Sheng's delicate singing style and the magnetic voice of the band's lead singer, Gao Hu, constantly reminded the audience of the past and present. The numbers of online viewers and topics related to the performance both exceeded 10 million. In particular, the performance was popular among Chinese youth.
"I've always wanted to work with pop singers," said Sheng, adding she hoped to break the barrier between pingtan and rock-n-roll, to introduce pingtan to a larger audience and show them its unique charm.
"You know, pingtan and rock-n-roll have something in common. For example, similar to the way of singing rock songs, a pingtan performer sings in a different speed and flow every time. Given the freedom and lack of restraint, the two art forms come together," says Sheng. She believes fusion does not mean killing individuality; instead, it means coexistence.
In recent years, a group of young pingtan artists have made many bold attempts to add fashionable elements to the art form.
As director of the Shanghai Pingtan Troupe (China's only State-level pingtan troupe) and one of the top actors in China, Gao Bowen several years ago performed a mini-pingtan play, Jack and Rose, adapted from the film Titanic, with his colleague Lu Jinhua. While singing in English, Gao and Lu both wore Western-style clothes, rather than a traditional long gown and qipao, respectively.
Also very innovative is the pair's jazz pingtan. In the China New Music House series, created by Beijing 13 Month Culture Communication Company, Gao and Lu boldly mixed ancient music and jazz, and launched a series of new pingtan plays, including Wang Kui Failing Guiying, Pearl Tower, and other traditional pingtan plays.
The rendition of jazz coincides with the free and improvisational rhythms of Suzhou pingtan, and the different cultural backgrounds of the two musical forms have sparked new thoughts and emotions among audiences, especially among young people. This expression has drawn more people's attention to pingtan and opened more possibilities for pingtan, the quintessence of Chinese classical opera, to connect with contemporary life through other music styles.
In addition to making innovation in its form of expression, pingtan artists add the latest literary themes to pingtan's contents. Flowers, a novel written by contemporary Chinese writer Jin Yucheng, was adapted for the stage by the Shanghai Pingtan Troupe a few years ago. The novel, written in the Shanghai dialect, struck a chord with audiences, when it was narrated in the soft dialect of Suzhou.
Tradition and Innovation
"Once I heard a clip of a ballad sung by Gao Bowen, I was attracted by it immediately. Then, I listened to some more clips (of the ballad) online," said one audience member of the New Music House.
In recent years, both Sheng and Gao have made great efforts to attract the attention of the new generation of audience goers: University students. They have held pingtan activities on campuses and carefully selected the most catchy songs, such as Thunderstorm and Lin Huiyin. While talking about her first performance on campus, Sheng was deeply impressed. She said: "The performance was far more welcomed than I originally imagined. The students all watched the performance in awe of traditional Chinese culture. It was beyond my expectation that the audience asked for an encore."
Of course, Gao also admitted it was rather difficult for students to sit still during the short lectures about pingtan. In advance, Sheng and Gao had to make various plans to deal with the possible silence. In addition to the letters and dates of ancient couples, they talked about the romantic relationships of today's young couples. Then, they sang a few lyrics. In this way, the students' interest (in pingtan) was gradually aroused.
Young people are living in an era that has changed dramatically. Even the contexts of Shanghai and Suzhou dialects are different from those in the past, Gao said. So pingtan must adjust its content to reach a younger audience, which means performers need to adapt themselves to current trends and keep relevant at all times.
As a young pingtan artist, Lu Jinhua, in her 30s, has a deep understanding of this. In her opinion, pingtan should never be just like "an old relic dug up out of an ancient tomb." She adds, "First, what you sing should be pleasant to hear, and second, it needs to be fun. First of all, ask yourself whether you like it or not. For me, if I don't want to listen to it myself, then there's no chance audiences will like it either."
Injecting Vitality into Pingtan
In Gao's eyes, pingtan is not an unearthed cultural relic housed in a museum, but a living art form that needs to be passed on to future generations. Helping pingtan regain its vitality, so it can be inherited by the next generation, is a major challenge facing pingtan artists.
In 2020, Lu Jinhua participated in the National Cross Talk Show in Beijing and performed her pingtan work about fighting COVID-19 (the novel coronavirus disease). Through the story of nurses leaving home to take care of patients, she showed the fearless spirit of the medical workers in the fight against the pandemic, and the story was acclaimed nationwide.
Lu's innovation of traditional pingtan is not new. During the past several years, innovation has been key in her career as a pingtan artist. During her solo shows, she boldly incorporates various musical elements — including piano, guitar, sheng (a pipe wind instrument), percussion, and even electronic music elements, as well as vanishing elements of traditional music and folk arts collected during her tours to various regions of the country — into pingtan.
According to Gao, whether it be conventional pingtan performances or newly adjusted versions, the key to making the performances resonate with audiences lies in the artists' mastery of the pingtan performing skills.
Photos Supplied by VCG
(Source: China Today / Women of China English Monthly July 2023 issue)
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