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  • The Narrative Arts of Tianjin: Between Music and Language
  • Ashley Thorpe
The Narrative Arts of Tianjin: Between Music and Language. By Franesca R. Sborgi Lawson. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011. 198 pp. Cloth £55 ($89.50).

Starting from the early transformation texts (bianwen) of the Tang dynasty, narrative arts have blossomed into approximately one hundred forms. Enjoyed as performance forms in their own right, they were also a likely influence on the major theatrical genres, for instance the development of metered recitation (shuban) in jingju (Beijing opera). Yet, these narrative traditions remain relatively underresearched in both ethnomusicology and theatre studies. While there are a number of valuable articles on this subject, analysis tends to be restricted to specific forms in isolation rather than a comparison across practices. Lawson's book, based upon extensive fieldwork research undertaken in the 1980s and early 1990s, makes an important contribution to our understanding of narrative arts, despite weaknesses arising from dated research.

The study is divided into two parts. The first part, "Background," outlines the analytical, historical, and social framework of narrative arts, especially in Tianjin. Chapters 1 and 2 stress importance upon the pre-1949 term for narrative forms, shuochang (lit. "speaking-singing"). Lawson reinterprets the word to mean "performature"—performance forms that draw upon both musical and literary dimensions. In further splitting the term shuochang into its constituent elements, shuo (speaking) and chang (singing), Lawson argues that shuo stands for the semantic aspects of performance, and chang for the aesthetic; elements that are finely balanced in different narrative arts. [End Page 305]

Chapter 3 provides a useful contextual overview of the history of narrative arts in China until 1949, which, although brief, provides sufficient context for the analysis of the specific practices that follow. Chapter 4 focuses on post-1949 developments, outlining changes in troupe organization due to central government patronage (the "iron rice bowl" policy, which provided job security for artists), and noting the effect of changing the generic term for these forms from shuochang to quyi (vocal arts). While a discussion of the effect of this on troupes and their modus operandi is fascinating, it is also where the lack of recent research upon which the book is based becomes problematic. Lawson discusses the creation of "contemporary narrative texts" (pp. 26-27), but when research has been undertaken in the 1980s and early 1990s, the precise meaning of "contemporary" is obscure. Similarly, Lawson asserts that young artists prefer to perform works that will guarantee a good audience rather than take risks with new work (p. 30), but the source for this assertion is from an interview undertaken in 1988. With no further contextualization, the reader is left to speculate upon the contemporary relevance of this finding.

Chapter 5 outlines key social conventions underpinning Chinese society, specifically the concepts of "face" (mian) and "connections" (guanxi). Readers who already have some knowledge of Chinese society may find the long explanations of these concepts hackneyed, but their inclusion is justified by an analysis of how they underpin practice, specifically in structuring relationships between teacher and pupil, as well as competing institutions. In a very engaging section, Lawson explores how amateur performers negotiate artistic hierarchies to emerge as highly successful performers in their own right, sometimes even more successful than professionals due to a lack of institutional and professional obligations.

Chapter 6 analyzes the relationships between music and language, specifically through a discussion of the ways in which "performature" draws upon elegance (ya) and vulgarity (su), traditions of classical literary language (wenyan) and the vernacular (baihua), and music and speech, to appeal to a broad audience. Using the work of Libermann, Lawson argues that narrative forms should be positioned on a sliding scale between shuo and chang. The resulting overall thesis is a fascinating one: each form uses an intricate relationship between text and music to emphasize different performative aspects for different formal, emotional, and social effects.

The second part, "Performances," focuses on four specific narrative forms to be found in Tianjin: Tianjin popular tunes (tianjin shidiao), Beijing drumsong (jingyun dagu), fast clappertales (kuaibarshu), and comic routines (xiangsheng). In chapter 7, Lawson deftly demonstrates how Tianjin popular tunes sit at the "singing" end...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2109
Print ISSN
0742-5457
Pages
pp. 305-307
Launched on MUSE
2012-07-11
Open Access
No
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