Paul Noll telling stories to a rapt audience in a Chinese village. PHOTO BY PAUL AND BERNICE NOLL.

A popular art form in China since the second century BCE, storytelling has many styles, often geographically based. It can utilize both narrative and song and sometimes verse and musical instruments as well. Over time, it has evolved to reflect cultural and societal changes, frequently mixing well-known traditional tales with modern political commentaries.

Storytelling styles in China have roots in the telling of anecdotes, tales, and jokes as far back as the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). By the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), Buddhist monks told religious tales in a popular style. Narration and song, presented with rich description and a lively delivery, attracted many listeners; this use of both verse and prose became an important feature of storytelling in China. At times, Buddhist monks also used visuals (bianxiang, or pictures showing magic transformations) to help illustrate some stories.

During the Song dynasty (960–1279), storytellers emerged in more professional or semiprofessional roles. The luckiest ones told their tales in teahouses or in private houses, protected from the elements, while the less fortunate shared theirs in the streets, festivals, and markets, dependant on coins collected from listeners. Many had to travel through difficult terrain to reach rural audiences, often using fortune-telling and begging to supplement their incomes.

In the seventeenth century Liu Jingting, often called the father of Chinese storytelling, moved many people with his narratives, including true stories from the collapse of the Southern Ming dynasty (1368–1644). From this time, several important storytelling centers and styles flourished, with many storytelling venues offering pinghua/pingshu storytelling without music, and tanci storytelling with a blend of singing, speaking, and instrumental music. The garden city of Suzhou and busy Yangzhou were two cities known for storytelling; by the 1940s, there were sixty to seventy storytelling houses in Suzhou alone.

In nearby Shanghai, changes in storytelling reflected urban growth. In the late nineteenth century, storytelling beggars, often hungry and disabled, often were found in the Chinese part of the city. Fifty years later, the conditions of many storytellers there had improved, with the musical tanci style developing into a sophisticated, popular form. Modern areas of Shanghai, with electricity and improved building techniques, soon boasted entertainment centers up to ten stories high and storytelling theaters seating five hundred listeners. In the 1930s, more than twenty area radio stations had daily storytelling programs; by the early 1940s, Shanghai had over five hundred storytelling venues and two powerful storytelling guilds.

After 1949, storytelling was seen as an important means to spread ideas in the Communist revolution, since it was both a low-cost and well-received form of entertainment in much of China. Many intellectuals tried to teach traditional tellers from various backgrounds and styles to use more modern themes, including new stories praising governmental campaigns or glorifying the role of workers. Traditional storytelling guilds were disbanded and the government started training programs and institutes in order to have more control over content.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) many storytellers were put out of work and had to take up other jobs. Others were imprisoned, or retrained to tell stories about revolutionary heroes like the model soldier Lei Feng, or stories ridiculing superstitions and reactionary beliefs. Stories were sometimes cut in length, too, to accommodate work schedules. Most of the traditional stories were forbidden as reactionary or were censored and changed to reflect the political philosophy of the time.

In the late 1970s, storytelling returned in part to its former state, only to find great competition from both the media and a faster pace of life with more distractions, especially in urban areas. Some forms, like the xiangsheng comic style or tanci, still found many followers while other styles either disappeared or depended on the support of the government to continue. Audiences in the storytelling houses today are usually elderly males, although radio and television performances reach much larger audiences. Stories will always be shared in China for education and for entertainment, but the future of many traditional storytelling styles is in question, with too few younger storytellers emerging to take the place of today’s aging tellers.


The narrative storytelling arts in China, covered by the word quyi since 1949, number over three hundred; the term storytelling covers a varied number of these, depending on the definitions used. In most of them, the teller’s voice is often a powerful instrument, accompanied at times by simple percussion instruments—bamboo clappers or drums—and at times with more elaborate stringed instruments. Even something as simple as a small wooden block, the xingmu, adds to the drama in many styles, capturing the audience’s attention and providing a dramatic emphasis or portraying effects: the slash of a sword, a hero’s moan, horses’ hooves, or the cries of a solitary bird.

The use of humor is also found in many styles, with the lively art of xiengmiang best known for its comic style. Description, too, is a basic tool of the Chinese storyteller, who often combines well-known descriptive formulas to create images of, for example, a hero: eight-feet tall, with a square mouth and full lips, tiger eyes, a face like the round moon, and two long ears.

Often adding to the storyteller’s attraction is the use of onomatopoeia: ming, ming, ming (wind), hua, hua, hua (rain), gululu (thunder), danglanglang (something shattering), guang, guang, guang (cannon shots), and many others. In some styles, sound effects—galloping, roaring, crying—were important as well. Although the use of visuals to tell stories, such as scrolls and paintings, is an important genre in nearby India, such props appear to be less popular in Chinese storytelling, according to the scholar Victor Mair. Other objects used at times include a folding fan and a handkerchief.

Several well-known storytelling genres, under a broad definition of storytelling, are introduced below; many other exciting varieties (for example, Beijing Clapper tales that use two types of bamboo clappers) as well as simple folk styles also exist.


Performers satirize both society and human foibles in the comic form xiangsheng, which has roots in the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). Its humor (with puns, double meanings, and impersonations), fast-paced delivery, and ability to quickly respond to societal changes and concerns have made this a popular variety. The xiang in xiangsheng refers to xiang mao, or facial expressions, while sheng refers to sheng yin, or voice. Xiangsheng performers combine facial and vocal expression to make the four basic skills of xiangsheng: singing, talking, joking, and imitating. This narrative style can be performed with one, two, or three performers, but the two-person type is the favorite.

The langua
ge of xiangsheng is Beijing Mandarin, thus the form is most popular in Beijing, Tianjin, and throughout northern China. Stories before 1949 tended to be risqué and full of stereotypes and insults, thus appealing to the lower-class males who made up the audience. After 1949, the stories and delivery were cleaned up to appeal to all classes, male and female. The popular xiangsheng star Hao Baolin helped to raise the art’s status and promoted the use of fine singing during the sessions. His skill at imitations, along with his other talents, even made him a favorite of Mao Zedong, a great fan of this form.

Traditionally, xiangsheng tellers, like many other storytellers and performers in the oral tradition, apprenticed with a master teller. Today’s tellers are expected to write and create their own material, and amateurs also embrace the art; in 2004, the first Internet xiangsheng competition was held. Recent story topics show a wide range, including housing problems, filial piety, corruption, the effects of government policies, eating dumplings, and even changing one’s job or trade. In the past, the stories might last for about an hour, but today many stories have a shorter format, around twenty minutes, to fit the needs of radio and television broadcasts.

Pinghsu and Pinghua

These two examples of storytelling, from the southern (pinghua) and the northern and central (pingshu) areas of China, feature well-known classics told with expression, but without music. In the past, storytellers in these styles apprenticed to master tellers and worked to perfect episodes that could stretch for months of daily two-hour sessions, with scenes carefully stopped at a dramatic moment to bring the crowd back again. Today’s tellers learn such techniques both in drama schools and from masters, but they tell their tales over a shorter time period.

The stories are often shared in storytelling houses where hanging scrolls welcome listeners with well-known couplets:

Today again you have heard me tell of things
long past.

If you have time to spare, please come early

Inside, audience members, usually elder males, are given tea leaves, glasses, and plentiful hot water. They often munch on sunflower seeds and other snacks to help pass the time happily while listening. A large fan (symbol of the story arts), calligraphy, and or a painting might be found behind the storyteller. The stage is usually a raised platform, with a table, tea, a fan, and the xingmu block (known as the zhiyu, or “talk stopper,” in Yangzhou storytelling).

The stories recounted in these nonmusical forms are usually the great favorites that have been long told, and were also read as novels, including Xiyou ji (Journey to the West), which follows the adventures of pilgrims seeking Buddhist scriptures; Shuihu (Water Margin), about a bandit group in the twelfth century; and San guo (Three Kingdoms), which tells of battles and heroes during an unsettled time.

Intricate descriptions, dialogue, sound effects, facial expressions, and actions bring the stories to life. Today, this style reaches beyond the traditional venues into homes for the aged, business and government functions, and over both radio and television broadcasts.


Stringed instruments are popular in the sophisticated form of tanci (“plucking lyrics”) enjoyed especially in Suzhou and Shanghai. The pipa (a pear-shaped lute) and sanxian (the three-string banjo) are played by a pair of tellers, today usually a male and a female, although some solo performers are found. Most of the listeners in the storytelling houses are elderly and male. They come regularly to the programs, which usually start at 2 p.m. with an opening ballad. Audience members sip tea as they listen to the storyteller/s weave a tale for a two-hour period. In the past stories could stretch on for months, but most stories today continue for two-weeks worth of such daily sessions.

Traditional and new love stories of gifted scholars and talented beauties are popular in this elegant, refined tradition. New stories share political thought as well: stories of exploitation, corruption, crimes, or working-class heroes. Musical melodies support the various characters and scenes; besides basic melodies used by male and female roles, special melodies include the go-between tune for matchmaking, the wild-rooster-crowing tune for rapid descriptions, and a creepy tune for evil characters.

Traditional training for this type of storytelling, usually from master to student, covered the four basics of speech, humor, the music of stringed instruments, and song. The student performed various services for the master and began to learn pieces by listening and repeating, accompanying the master teller to his performances, and observing. In this art, as in others, oft-repeated and concise formulas helped to teach:

? Fast, but not confusing; slow, without pausing

? Pausing the sound, but not the spirit

? Loud but not noisy; soft but not inaudible

? Happy but not hysterical; sad but not morose

Today’s training is done in government institutes, with a short storytelling apprenticeship at the end. Students attracted today to the three-year course in Suzhou (which also leads to a junior-college diploma) frequently come from the rural areas, know little of the art, and are often drawn by the diploma and the chance for an urban residency permit. Grade sizes have dropped to approximately sixty to seventy students in recent years, while in Shanghai very few students study tanci at all.

Chinese oral storytelling is a rich and varied art, changing as it moves into the twenty-first century. It will indeed survive as an art, even though specific forms may weaken, change, or suddenly appear, for it answers a basic need to communicate and to share both heritage and humanity.

Further Reading

Bender, M. (2003). Plum and bamboo. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Bordahl, V. (Ed). (1999). The eternal storyteller: Oral literature in modern China. Richmond, U.K.: Curzon Press.

Bordahl, V. & Ross, J. (2002). Chinese storytellers: Life and art in the Yangzhou tradition. Boston: Cheng & Tsui.

Mair, V. H. (1988). Painting and performance. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

McDaniel, L. (2001) Jumping the dragon gate: Storytellers and the creation of the Shanghai identity. Modern China. 27(4), 484–507.

Stevens, C. (1972). Peking Drum singing. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.

Source: Spagnoli, Cathy. (2009). Storytelling. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2102–2105. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Storytelling (Ji?ng gùshi ???)|Ji?ng gùshi ??? (Storytelling)

Download the PDF of this article