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Art of Shaanxi storytelling honored

By CHEN NAN | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2021-08-11 09:15
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WEI XUEMING/FOR CHINA DAILY

This is a typical day for Yang Jinlong.

At 9 am, he drives to primary schools and middle schools in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, to teach students about Shaanxi kuaiban, a form of Chinese traditional form of storytelling in the Shaanxi dialect to the rhythm of bamboo clappers, after which the art form is named. Sometimes, the classes involve rehearsals for performances and competitions.

Usually, his classes run until about 6 pm, and then he returns home to prepare classes for the next day.

On the weekends, he teaches for six hours each day at art education institutions in Xi'an. As a veteran Shaanxi kuaiban performer, he also spends time writing and rehearsing new pieces.

On June 10, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism identified 325 national intangible cultural heritage items in Beijing, increasing the list established in 2006 to 1,557 items.

Shaanxi kuaiban, which emerged during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), has been included.

"Kuaiban has a large fan base in Shaanxi. There are many professional artists and amateur performers," said Yang, 45.

Yang has been teaching young people the art form since 2003 after graduating from the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts in Beijing, where he majored in quyi performance. Quyi is a general term for Chinese folk art forms, including ballad singing, storytelling, crosstalk and clapper talk.

"Art education is important for students in China. Just as many students learn to play Western musical instruments like the piano and violin, there are many people learning traditional Chinese folk arts, including Shaanxi kuaiban. They are committed and passionate," he said.

Born and raised in Xi'an, Yang was introduced to the art form by his father, an amateur performer, when he was 6. Since his younger brother also practiced Shaanxi kuaiban, the two usually performed at schools together.

Yang was trained by Li Shaojie, whose father, Li Runjie, was a veteran performer and is credited with reviving the art form.

Kuaiban is popular in northern China, including Beijing and Tianjin. According to Yang, Shaanxi kuaiban was influenced by the artistry of different regions.

The art form can be performed by a group of performers or solo. With one or two pairs of kuaiban of different sizes in hand, the performers speak in the local dialect while telling stories, which are usually about martyrs.

"As a young boy, I was intrigued by the art form because many of the stories are about heroes. The performer tells stories while playing kuaiban, and it's easy for the audience to remember the stories since all the lines rhyme," Yang said.

In 2011, Shaanxi kuaiban was recognized as an intangible cultural heritage at the provincial level by Shaanxi. With the support of the government, the art form has been promoted and introduced to local schools as part of their art education.

The government offers Shaanxi kuaiban inheritors like Yang funds every year to give performances and hold public events such as workshops and competitions to popularize the art form.

In July last year, an intangible cultural heritage preservation base for Shaanxi kuaiban was launched in Xi'an, with Yang as its head. The base has organized a series of programs to promote the art form, including commissioning Shaanxi kuaiban artists to write original pieces that tell stories about the province.

The new national intangible cultural heritage items released by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism were selected from 943 nominations from around the country. The items fall into 11 categories, including folklore, traditional music, dance, sports, arts, medicine and diet, which is a new category.

According to Wang Chenyang, director of the ministry's Intangible Cultural Heritage Department, those categories are important aspects of Chinese society and convey lifestyles.

So far, the central government has recognized 3,068 national intangible cultural heritage inheritors. At the provincial level, inheritors number over 16,000.

Since 2006, the central government has spent 8.79 billion yuan ($1.35 billion) on efforts to preserve intangible cultural heritage items. The yearly subsidy for inheritors at the national level has increased from 10,000 yuan to 20,000 yuan this year.

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