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Performing Local Identity in a Contemporary Urban Society: A Study of Ping-tan Narrative Vocal Tradition in Suzhou, China

SHI, YINYUN (2016) Performing Local Identity in a Contemporary Urban Society: A Study of Ping-tan Narrative Vocal Tradition in Suzhou, China. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.



China has many rich traditions of storytelling and story singing, which are deeply rooted oral traditions in their particular geographical areas, carrying the linguistic and cultural flavours of their localities. In Suzhou, the central city of the Yangtze Delta’s Wu area, the storytelling genre pinghua and the story singing genre tanci have become emblematic of regional identity. Since the 1950s, the two genres have been referred to under the hybrid generic name ‘Suzhou ping-tan’ after the city, or simply ping-tan in abbreviation.
Nowadays typically comprising extended narratives performed over the course of half a month, ping-tan has maintained popularity up to the present day. Each afternoon, people go to the unique performance venue of the shuchang (‘story house’), which combines teahouse, performance venue and social centre, to enjoy solo or duet performances given by shuoshu xiansheng (‘storytellers’). The sung episodes are set to an accompaniment of sanxian banjo and – in duet performance – also pipa lute. In the context of face-to-face communication, establishing an empathetic bridge between storyteller and audience is of paramount importance, necessitating storytellers to polish and tailor their artistry efficiently in response to audience feedback. Following the development of radio broadcasting since the 1920s and television since the 1980s, ping-tan has also been widely delivered directly into people’s homes. Listening to and watching ping-tan has become a part of many local people’s daily habits.
This thesis seeks to explain how Suzhou ping-tan has maintained its vitality in contemporary society. Various oral performance traditions have declined with the range of alternative types of entertainment that have bloomed in recent times, yet a great many Suzhou citizens still take for granted that ping-tan represents their local cultural identity. Drawing upon fieldwork conducted since 2011, this thesis explores the interconnectedness between the storyteller and audiences during and outside of performance. It analyses performer/audience ‘feed-back loop’ communication within a variety of fields of ping-tan activity, focusing in particular on the following areas: the role-playing and identity presentation of storytellers and audience members, the different types of ping-tan follower and their respective forms of involvement, the use of gesture in performance to communicate further layers of meaning, the nature of the mutually complementary relationship between words and music in ballad singing, and the effects of television and radio dissemination on ping-tan culture. This thesis identifies ‘feed-back loop’ interplay as being a key factor in ping-tan’s success, facilitating the multi-faceted involvement of all participants within a flexible and unpredictable shared experience.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > Music, Department of
Thesis Date:2016
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:02 Aug 2016 11:08

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