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  • Singing Dead Tales to Life:Rhetorical Strategies in Shandong Fast Tales
  • Eric Shepherd (bio)


Shandong kuaishu, literally "fast tales," is a northern Chinese narrative performance1 tradition with more than one hundred years of documented history. This tradition involves a single performer who integrates rhymed and rhythmic narration, character dialogue, various dramatic techniques, rhythmic musical accompaniment, humor, and exaggeration to bring to life stories and characters in a form of popular entertainment. Performers describe the genre as a folk art that combines the artistic telling of stories with rhyme and rhythm. Fast tales are performed throughout northern and central China for a wide range of audiences and occasions. Performers appear on and off proscenium stages, on television, radio, and the Internet as well as during rural bazaars, as part of holiday variety shows, and for celebratory banquets (Shepherd 2005). Story scripts, or jiaoben, are also regularly appreciated as a form of popular literature in various written and electronic formats.

Enjoyed by young and old speakers of northern Mandarin dialects, Shandong fast tales are indigenous to and often representative of Shandong Province, a coastal region of northeastern China known also as the home of Confucius and the cradle of traditional Chinese thought. Shandong, literally "east (of) mountains,"2 refers to a geographic, political, and cultural region located on the eastern edge of the north China plain and extending outward to form a peninsula that appears on the map to point directly at the center of the Korean Peninsula. It is bordered to the north by Hebei Province, to the west by Henan Province, and to the south by Jiangsu Province. Jinan, situated in the heart of Shandong's agricultural west, is the provincial political capital, while Qingdao, located on the southeast coast, is the provincial economic center. Covering an area of more than 156,000 square kilometers (slightly smaller than the state of Florida), the Shandong peninsula is made up of mostly flat plains bounded on the north by the Bohai Gulf and to the east and south by the Yellow Sea.

In pre-imperial China (roughly sixth century to third century BCE), Shandong was divided into two states: Qi in the north and east and Lu in the south and west. The area occupied by the State of Lu was the home of Confucius and his disciple Mencius, two of China's most influential philosophers, as well as Sunzi, the military strategist who wrote The Art of War. The State of Qi was home to renowned strategist Jiang Ziya and the philosopher Xunzi, whose followers became influential legalists. Contemporary regional differences within Shandong can be traced to the culture of these two kingdoms of the Warring States period, and the ideas of these iconic figures have deeply influenced Chinese culture.

Shandong modern history was turbulent and marked by repeated foreign occupation and war. Germany occupied the region from 1887 to 1914, extracting natural resources, building modern infrastructure such as railroads and wharves, and officially making Shandong a colonial territory from 1898 to 1914. Following the Germans, Britain colonized the Shandong port city of Weihai, located on the eastern tip of the peninsula, and in November of 1914, the Japanese replaced the Germans as the colonial occupants of the area. The post-World War I handover led to Japanese-style military rule in much of Shandong that lasted until 1922, when the China North Sea Government finally gained administrative control over Shandong. In 1938 Japan once again forcibly occupied the region, turning the province into a key strategic location in their military operations in northern China during World War II. At the end of World War II, the Nationalists—aided by the US military—and the Communists struggled to gain control of the area. Qingdao was finally "liberated" from Nationalist (and American imperialist) occupation in 1949.

Since economic reforms began in the area in 1981, Shandong has been a major source of the natural resources that have driven China's rapid development. Today, Shandong is the second largest provincial economy in China and is ranked at or near the top in terms of the production of cotton, wheat, gold, diamonds, and petroleum. Shandong is also known for its seafood, textile...

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