It is 8 pm on a Friday in Beijing. In a small house, a pingshu－traditional Chinese storytelling－show is about to start.
Staged every Friday, the shows last for about 90 minutes and each performer tells one 20-minute tale. The performances are usually amusing and spontaneous.
But the show on Friday was not a typical performance. Using perfect timing and his deep voice, Zhao Liang, 37, opened the evening telling the story of the powerful Chinese warlord Zhang Zuolin (1875-1928). During the performance, Zhao either frowned, laughed or wore a serious expression. Afterward, three other pingshu artists took to the stage in turn.
The items they performed were some of the most classic pieces interpreted by Shan Tianfang, one of China's top pingshu masters, who died at age 84 in Beijing on Sept 11.
A crowd of more than 100 people, including the young and elderly, gave the performers a long standing ovation at the end of the evening.
Zhao, who started learning pingshu with Shan in 2010, said: "We wanted to pay tribute to Shan. He represented the highest level of the art of pingshu, and thanks to him, the old Chinese art of the one-man show has been kept alive among generations of Chinese audiences."
Zhao is also a host on online radio station Beijing Joy FM, where he focuses on programs that promote pingshu.
"It is an art form that belongs uniquely to the Chinese. It's like Chinese people eating with chopsticks. The Chinese language is such a sophisticated language and that's what makes pingshu so special," Zhao said.
Pingshu emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It is one of the most widely popular forms of quyi－a general term for traditional Chinese folk arts that also include ballad singing and cross-talk, or xiangsheng. In 2008, pingshu was inscribed as part of the country's intangible cultural heritage.
Most pingshu stories are adapted from ancient Chinese literature.
One of Shan's best known works was The Romance of Sui and Tang Dynasties, based on the historical novel of the same title by Chu Renhuo (1635-82). This tells the stories of events that led to the fall of the Sui Dynasty (581-618) and the rise of Tang Dynasty (618-907).
With a simple backdrop－usually a pair of screen doors, a table, a folding fan and a block of wood (known as xingmu)－Shan won a large base of enthusiastic fans for his solid techniques and improvisation in describing scenes from the book in a vivid and captivating way.
He also accompanied the stories with witty comments and expressive body language that appealed to audiences of all ages and interests.
The xingmu is knocked against the table to start, end and highlight the performance, while the fan is used by the artists to illustrate some activities, such as writing a letter, reading a book or pointing a sword.
Liu Lanfang, 74, one of the few female pingshu artists, wrote on her Sina Weibo account, "It is with profound sorrow that we have lost the great artist, Shan Tianfang."
Mourning her old friend, Liu said she worked with Shan for more than 30 years in the Anshan Quyi Troupe, and Shan had made a great contribution to pingshu, performing over 130 works in live shows and on recordings for radio and television stations nationwide.