In recent years, traditional Chinese art forms have caught the attention of more and more young Chinese, due to their innovative nature. One of the most popular among young people right now is Suzhou pingtan, a folk ballad about the art of story-telling.
Born in Suzhou, in east China’s Jiangsu Province, and thriving in Shanghai, Suzhou pingtan has a history of more than 200 years with many practicing schools. The place for pingtan performance is very simple. A table and a chair (or two chairs) set up in alleys, teahouses or wine shops are all that’s needed to start a show. During the performance, while playing a three-stringed (Sanxian) or four-stringed plucked musical instrument (pipa, or Chinese lute), the artist sings the stories of legendary couples or adventure stories in the soft, beautiful tones of the Suzhou dialect. Listeners become immersed in the unique charm of Suzhou pingtan, which in the past was among the most favored entertainment in the glamorous Shanghai Bund area. Until today, the original form of pingtan still exists in the alleys and teahouses of the Yangtze River Delta.
Influenced by other music forms, pingtan is also undergoing subtle changes, becoming a brand new symbol of traditional culture.
Lu Jinhua, a pingtan performer from the Shanghai Pingtan Troupe, performs on stage.
Crossover of Pingtan, Rock-n-Roll, and Jazz
In September 2020, NetEase Cloud Music launched a show called “Unforgettable Notes” to promote music forms which are intangible cultural heritage items of China. In one episode, Sheng Xiaoyun, called queen of pingtan, worked together with Miserable Faith, a rock band, in Hangzhou. They gave a new interpretation of the band’s masterwork West Lake by incorporating elements of a Suzhou pingtan classic White Snake: Broken Bridge Meeting, with both works from the same legend.
Inside the Fenghe Pavilion, holding a Chinese lute in her hand, Sheng began to sing the lyrics from the White Snake, “The boat is rowed through the deep water area, we play 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 people. 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 remind people of the past and present. The number of positive online views and comments on this program both exceeded 10 million, mainly from the youth.
“I’ve always wanted to work with pop music singers,” said Sheng, adding that she hoped to break the barrier between pingtan and rock-n-roll, so as to introduce pingtan to a larger audience and show them its unique charm.
“You know, pingtan and rock-n-roll have something in common. When we perform pingtan, even the same artist sings differently each time in speed, flow, and emphasis, similar to rock songs, which are sung differently from time to time. With this freedom and lack of restraint the two kinds of art come together.
Sheng believes fusion does not mean killing individuality, instead, it means coexistence.
In fact, in recent years, a group of young pingtan artists have made many bold attempts to add a fashionable note to the art form.
As director of the Shanghai Pingtan Troupe and a national A-level actor, Gao Bowen has performed a mini pingtan play called Jack and Rose, adapted from the film Titanic with his colleague Lu Jinhua. On the stage, instead of wearing a traditional long gown and qipao, they both wore Western-style clothes, and sang in English.
Also very innovative is the pair’s jazz pingtan. In the New Music House series created by Beijing 13 Month Culture Communication Company, they boldly mix ancient music and jazz, and launched a series of new pingtan, including Wang Kui Failing Guiying, Pearl Tower, and other traditional pingtan plays.
The way of thinking and rendition of jazz coincides with the free and improvisational rhythms of Suzhou pingtan, and the different cultural backgrounds of the two have sparked new thoughts and emotions among audiences, especially young people.
This expression has successfully 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 the innovation in expression forms, in content, pingtan also looks for the latest themes. A contemporary Chinese writer Jin Yucheng’s novel Flowers has been adapted for the stage by the Shanghai Pingtan Troupe a few years ago. The novel, written in Shanghai dialect, struck a chord with many audiences, including its own author, when it was narrated in the soft dialect of Suzhou.
During a given performance, which lasts more than an hour, five performers, including Gao Bowen, an established name in pingtan circles, alternately came on stage. What they applied was the basic skills of narrating, delivering the punchline, playing stringed musical instruments, singing and role playing. In addition, the dialogue included some of the expressions in Shanghai dialect unique to Flowers. All the characters in Flowers were spoken on stage in the form of pingtan.
Gao Bowen (left) is performing pingtan on stage in a traditional Chinese long gown.
Tradition and Innovation
“Once I heard a clip of a ballad sung by Gao Bowen. I was attracted by it immediately. Then I went online to listen to some more,” said an audience member of the New Music House. For many young people come to listen to pingtan for the first time, a fashionable interpretation and expression of pingtan has paved the way for them to enter the temple of traditional Chinese culture.
In order to make pingtan appreciated and accepted by more young people, both Sheng Xiaoyun and Gao Bowen focus their attention on the new generation of audiences: students. They have held activities of pingtan on campuses and carefully selected the most catchy songs, such as Thunderstorm and Lin Huiyin. Talking about the first performance on campus, Sheng was deeply impressed, “The performance was far more welcomed than I orginally imagined. The students all came to listen to it in awe of traditional culture. It was beyond my expectation that the audience asked for an encore.”
Of course, Gao also admitted that it is a rather difficult task for students to sit still during the short lectures about pingtan. In advance, they had to make various plans to deal with the possible silence. They talked with students about the letters and dates of ancient couples. They also linked it with the romantic relationships of today’s young couple. Then they sang a few lyrics. In this way, their interest 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.” “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 would like it either,” she said.
Lu Jinhua performs pingtan together with Zhang Gasong (left), a famous folk musician from northwest China’s Gansu Province.
Injecting Vitality into Pingtan
In Gao’s eyes, pingtan is not an unearthed cultural relic collected in a museum, but a living art form that needs to be passed on to next generations. How to help it 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 Beautiful Hair, which is about fighting against COVID-19. Through the story of nurses cutting their hair short before departure to assist patients in need, she showed the fearless spirit of the medical workers in the fight against the pandemic, which was acclaimed nationwide.
Lu’s innovation of traditional pingtan is not new. In the past several years, innovation has remained key in her career as a pingtan artist. She hopes to create works that embody reality. In her solo shows, she boldly incorporates 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 tour to all parts of the country, into pingtan.
According to Gao Bowen, whether it be conventional pingtan performances or newly adjusted versions, the key of making them resonate with audiences today lies in the artists’ mastering of basic pingtan skills.
LIU ZHAOHUI is a reporter with Xinmin Weekly.