Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: More on the Oral Tradition

Story Teller with his clapper

Here’s where we left off yesterday: “The story enacted is hundreds of years old. The bandit leader, Song Jiang, and his follower, Wu Sung, are talking in their hideout on the edge of the Liang Shan Marsh. They are speaking Hainanese, a language which no Beijing native would understand. Next to the stage is a projected line of characters; those who cannot understand the actors can read the words.”


The “oldest continuous culture” in the world is really a composite of different cultures, even different ethnic groups. The language that has historically tied China together is its written language. Yet, even in China’s recent history a large percentage of the population was illiterate or just marginally literate. How could such a diverse group have formed a largely unified culture over four thousand years without television? The answer, as Chairman Mao and his followers understood very well, is the traveling story teller. 

During the early years of the twentieth century, when China struggled to redefine itself politically, to throw off feudalism and the Emperor, one of its chief methods was using storytellers. Storytellers told every kind of story — old stories like The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and new stories being written by authors such as Lu Hsun, Lao She, Ba Jin, writers who openly criticized the old faily system, religious superstition, the Japanese, the Emperor. Propaganda or news, if put into a story, caught and held the attention of masses of illiterate people and changed China. Earnest, educated, young people travelled from town to town making speeches and telling stories. In the late 1930s and early 1940’s Lao She wrote plays, operas and stories for storytellers expressly to arouse the Chinese people to resist the Japanese invaders. 

It has been a long time since traveling story-tellers existed in the Western World weaving a spell around their listeners. The story-teller was a gateway to a world beyond our ancestors tedious, boring, physically grueling, monotonous lives. For a non-Chinese to truly understand the magic of the traveling Chinese story-teller, it’s helpful to listen to spoken Chinese in any dialect. Most people know that Chinese is a “tonal” language — almost like singing — which means that a person reciting a story is something very special; words are almost sung, strongly inflected and rhythmic, enchanting to listen to even if a person doesn’t understand the words.

When the story teller came into a village, he announced his arrival by banging something. In some places these things wre two bamboo sticks; in the north of China they were two pelvic bones from a large animal. In some places the story teller banged a drum, keeping time to the rhythm of his voice. Everyone would stop what they were doing and run to hear. 

What stories did the story tellers tell? Just like people today, people were interested in stories that made them feel emotions. The audience loved ghost stories, murder mysteries, war stories, love stories — and history. Suspense, romance, intrigue and tales of derring do. 

If the story teller were any good, he would be able to stay in a town or village for a long time, tantalizingly balancing information with suspense, yearning with satisfaction. To keep a roof over his head and soup in his stomach, a story teller had to entertain his audience, but the culture — that is the political and religious arms of the culture, added another requirement. Stories were supposed to be enlightening in some way, to teach a lesson. 

Many stories began with a parable; each chapter or recitation began with a rhyme pointing (sometimes pretty cryptically) to the main reason for telling the tale. 

From the Chin Ping Mei (Plum Blossom in a Golden Vase) the listener (reader) is supposed to learn that a life given over to sexual satisfaction will lead to a grisly death and a curse lingering on a family for many generations. Karma is an important part of these stories, and there is a continuing admonition to the listener not to do anything to disgrace his ancestors or make life difficult for his children — never mind making his own next life one in which he must repay all the debts of the current life.


Until I started studying this stuff I didn’t fully understand the relationship between being able to read and freedom. It was a huge long project taking the skill of reading into the narrow mountain valleys of China. Even in the 1980s many of the peasants from whom I bought vegetables in the market in my village couldn’t read or write. That says a lot because my town — Shipai, a village near Guangzhou, now part of a very fancy part of Guangzhou — was not remote and the encircling villages were not a big challenge to reach. At least three generations of hard-working teachers struggled to bring literacy to the peasants. My most cherished friend from that time, an old woman from Hainan, couldn’t really read or write, just a few characters. She was a member of the anti-Japanese resistance during the anti-Japanese war. I wish my Chinese were much better and more literate than it is, but as one of my Chinese friends pointed out, “You do all right, Martha. Look at the Old Mother.” We had illiteracy in common. 🙂

The people who went into the countryside to teach reading to the peasants had incredible obstacles, one of which is the complexity of written Chinese. They developed a simplified Chinese based on colloquial Mandarin — Bai Hua — that was easier to teach and learn. Still, in order to read a newspaper, a person needs to be able to read about 2000 characters — out of 50,000!!!

Those bringing literacy to the peasants also had to overcome a lot of resistance to change and the reality that working in the fields takes all a person’s time, especially in the more remote regions where fields were terraced, accessible only on foot with a buffalo. There was no motorized transport of any kind, a situation that still existed in places when I was there. Chairman Mao was very aware of all this and as his army went through China they built stages in many of the villages where they could perform “stories”. I think I wrote about the literacy thing in this book somewhere, but I don’t know where so maybe this is it. Anyway, it’s pretty scary to think that all a person would know would be what another person would tell him/her.

I couldn’t fit the word “scorch” into this post. 😦

13 thoughts on “Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: More on the Oral Tradition

  1. In most remote areas, literacy is unheard of. Growing up in the Philippines, there are plenty of inner villages live for storytelling from generation to generation. Indigenous people here in Canada are great in oral traditions. In Korean history, only the elites were allowed to read and write until one King created a simple alphabet for the commoners to learn.

  2. You are right, I didn’t realize nor did I consider the implications of literacy/illiteracy. I’m going to be mulling this for awhile. So Pearl Buck lived in pre-communist China and was able to hear and experience all the stories being told – prior to the communist infusion of propaganda into them?? Did she leave China before the Japanese invasion? I’m just trying to get a feel for the atmosphere during her life in China… I am finding this fascinating!

    • Pearl Buck left in 1934 when the Japanese were invading China. I don’t remember the details of her leaving other than there was only a small window of opportunity. The Japanese had invaded Manchuria in 1931 and by 1934 had large parts of China under their control. They were insidious, even going to far as to quell rebellion by selling cigarettes laced with opium.

      Pearl Buck was an English teacher at Nanjing University. A wonderful book you might like is her autobiography, “My Several Lives.” I think those years in China would have been scary and exciting. Many Chinese people were doing everything in their power to bring their nation — which was being torn apart by warlords and famine — into the 20th century.

  3. Reading is not innate, our brains aren’t wired to read, it is most definitely a learned behaviour. That is an incredible amount of characters to learn. I still love to listen to a captivating story teller, and you are right there aren’t many around anymore.

    • Garrison Keillor (sp) was the last one I recall. I LOVED working in the garden listening to him on my boombox back in the day. I’m not an aural learner and tend to zone out quickly so for a story teller to keep my attention is a big deal especially when it is JUST sound.

      • Most of the time I have trouble just listening too and keeping engaged. Stuart McLean was a great story teller. Unfortunately the dreaded C took him away, but due to demand CBC replays his show the Vinyl Cafe once a week.

  4. In wonder whether the oral tradition disappeared so far back in the west. I saw a movie recently in which Tom Hanks plays the role of a traveling news reader in the post-(civil-)war Texas. I suppose there must have been people like that in reality. I’ve also heard of chautauquas, which lasted through roughly the same period. If they persisted till the forgotten depression, then I suppose they were a continuation of a tradition which existed in earlier in the cultures that contributed to the US.

    • I don’t think the oral tradition has disappeared at all. People go around listening to podcasts all the time. And TV and radio are oral media. I also think that (and this is pretty recent) the idea of REAL “literature” (and I guess it’s “literate”ure) had to be written which would have eliminated a LOT of people for a LONG time and then scholars and critics got involved. There’s a gulf between “great literature” and stuff people actually enjoy reading. The snobbishness might be residue from the days when having an education and being able to read made you a kind of elite and better than the next guy. I don’t know.

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