Storyteller takes couples through A-Z of a traditional wedding

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am

Lin Lingzhi, 38, is skilful at both the art of narration and the traditional folk practice of being a wedding chaperon. A specialist in pinghua - a storytelling dramatic art dating to the Song and Yuan dynasties - since she was 17, Lin later picked up xiniang skills, officiating at wedding rituals. She loves guiding new couples through the ceremonial art form for the entertainment of the guests. To her, pinghua and the xiniang are interesting forms of culture that China can export to the world.

How did you get the idea of being a pinghua xiniang?

As a child, I'd always liked various forms of folk art. At 19, I enrolled in the Fuzhou Central Troupe, which was the best drama school in Fujian at that time. I learned professional pinghua from the mainland's most famous artists and won excellent recommendations from them. The chance to be a xiniang came along when I was about 26, when a neighbour asked me to host a wedding ceremony because he liked my pinghua performance. Unexpectedly, I came off well in the job although it was my first attempt. That prompted frequent xiniang requests from neighbours and friends, so much so that it has almost become a full-time job. Fuzhou pinghua, which is professional storytelling in the local dialect, is a living fossil among popular folk art forms. It's my honour to be able to not only help others with my speciality, but also perpetuate a traditional cultural heritage. I have found the value of life through the work.

Why did you give up a potential career in pinghua and become a xiniang?

I received my credentials as a pinghua artist a long time ago, and I've even taught students how to perform professionally. I had a good opportunity to turn professional at a young age, but there was family pressure - my parents were already old when I was 20 and needed me to take care of them. Being a xiniang, I could work near them and still perform my favourite art form in public. Besides, a normal wedding lasts only about an hour or two. But I've never given up my dream to be an artist and act in a television show.

What makes a good xiniang?

The culture of the xiniang has a long history in Fuzhou. It is quite different from the matchmaker or master of ceremonies that other cities have. The xiniang directs new couples through all the detailed steps of a wedding. She helps the bride win gifts and acceptance from the groom's relatives and friends by expressing rhythmically all the auspicious words in a song or poem and uses her wits to create a delightful atmosphere for the guests. An attitude of providing good service is the most important quality of a xiniang. By projecting a good image, a qualified xiniang can spice up a wedding party with her eloquence, passion and kindness, whether the host family is rich or poor.

How do you relate the traditional elements to the new generation in a modern China?

Whether as a pinghua artist or as a xiniang, it is necessary to keep pace with the times. In my opinion, if tradition is the carrier, then contemporary fashion provides the boost. I keep an open mind to learning the hip language of the young and take note of every good expression and inspiration I come across. With traditional pinghua as the foundation, I often incorporate fashionable elements in an impromptu way instead of using the original version when singing a song for the newlyweds. For example, I say BMW instead of jiaozi (sedan chair) and may use some English in place of the Fuzhou dialect. The guests usually can't help laughing.

Is there renewed interest in such weddings among newlyweds?

More and more people like to do a wedding that way. I've done many for foreigners. In the past, the wedding ritual was like a rat in a hole, limited in its form. After 1949, because it was a remnant of the feudal period, it was seen as superstition and even banned for a long time. Weddings were very simple even in the 1980s. Nowadays, most xiniang are looked upon as more educated and knowledgeable even though they mark a throwback to the old days. People attach importance to traditional weddings, and the xiniang and pinghua are listed as forms of intangible national cultural heritage. I believe traditional culture has a bright future.

What do you want to do next?

With increasingly demanding customers and tougher competition, I have to keep learning to improve my standards. In the next stage, I aim to take pinghua and the xiniang to a more elegant and professional level of performance. I'd love to perform on television. I also want to learn more languages, which can help me take these traditional folk art forms around the world.