Masters of rhyme

Updated 2017-06-13 15:51:45 China Daily
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A sculpture of a shulaibao performer on display at Beijing's Tianqiao area. SHEN JINGWEI/FOR CHINA DAILY

A sculpture of a shulaibao performer on display at Beijing's Tianqiao area. SHEN JINGWEI/FOR CHINA DAILY

The rare Chinese folk art shulaibao flourishes, fades and returns again

Former U.S. president Richard Nixon was surprised when Chinese folk artist Meng Xin performed rhythmic storytelling with a pair of ox scapulas when the former U.S. leader visited Beijing in 1993.

The president said Americans had long had beef, but ancient Chinese were smart enough to turn ox bones into performance instruments.

That art form, known as ox-bone shulaibao, dates to about 700 years ago. But its popularity fell after famed artist Cao Dekui stopped performing in the 1930s.

Cao was famous for rhythmic storytelling with the help of ox scapulas but was disheartened to see the art form being misused by some people. So he asked his disciple, Gao Fengshan, to pursue it with bamboo clappers instead.

Gao was orphaned at age 6 and struggled on the streets before beginning to learn shulaibao in the Beijing neighborhood of Tianqiao in the late 1920s.

After Cao's death in 1939, Gao explored the art further, changing the performance position to standing instead of kneeling on one knee. He also became head of the Beijing Ballad Singers' Troupe in the 1950s.

"In any performance, Gao sought to excel in breathing, tone, rhythm, clapping ... everything," says Meng, who followed Gao back then.

But shulaibao, like many other art forms, was suspended during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

Meng had to leave Beijing not long after he declared his lifelong devotion to the art.

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Meng Xin performs traditional rhythmic storytelling in Taoranting Park in Beijing. WEN CHENGHAO/FOR CHINA DAILY

Meng Xin performs traditional rhythmic storytelling in Taoranting Park in Beijing. WEN CHENGHAO/FOR CHINA DAILY

"Gao told me not to give up before my departure to the rural area in Inner Mongolia," Meng says. "He gave me his clappers and said, 'Remember that a man can never become a saint without adversity.'"

Despite poverty and unemployment, Meng persisted with shulaibao and even incorporated folk art of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region into it, before he resettled in Beijing in 1979.

He was a meat seller at a department store until his talent was rediscovered and landed him a job at a performing troupe in Beijing about a year later. It later became Beijing Children's Art Troupe.

Yet Gao's health wore out quickly. Gao was moved to tears when he saw Meng bring self-prepared food 10 days in a row.

"He told me that he had not wanted to teach me. But since I had done well with the art form, he decided to help me learn," Meng says of Gao.

"I would shut myself in the troupe's rehearsal hall, so I could see myself in the mirror and the blanket would soften the damage if the bones dropped."

He finally got the rhythms correct, after breaking baskets of scapulas and injuring himself during practice.

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Meng Xin performing in 2011.

Meng Xin performing in 2011.

A chance came in 1992, when he was asked to write about old Beijing and perform with ox scapulas.

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