Charlie Chin specializes in the “teahouse style” of classical Chinese storytelling, which involves nesting stories within stories like a Russian doll. Both Chin and his style were new — and delightful — to me. Wearing black pants, soft black slippers, and a long, black Chinese shirt with long white sleeves peeking out from the cuffs, he entered the stage calmly and began telling deliberately — no chit chat.
His words were elegant yet filled with humor, wisdom and life. Although he incorporated authentically pronounced Chinese names into his stories, he didn’t speak with a Chinese accent. He is originally from New York and now lives in the San Francisco area.
In addition to skillfully using the usual storytelling tools of voice, face and body, Chin used a large, golden fan in myriad ways to emphasize dramatic moments, to indicate transitions and, most fascinating, to portray a huge variety of characters. A flick of Chin’s fingers and the fan became an elderly woman’s cane, a pot of money, a teapot, a gambler’s winning hand, a bowl of food, the rising sun and more.
Chin told of a great emperor, Kublai Kahn, inviting an esteemed scholar to his court to mentor his three sons and help determine which should become the next emperor. That was the frame story for the night.
Within that story, the scholar told stories to teach the three sons about life. Within those stories, other characters told stories, too. A wife told a story to relax her worried husband, for example, so that he could fall asleep. A storyteller in the marketplace told stories to entertain the shoppers. When one of the shoppers’ sons disappeared, the storyteller gave her advice on how to find them.
The story nesting was not just about different purposes in telling nor just about plots within plots. It also involved repeated references to story elements such as characters (death, for example), themes (wisdom), items (blue cloth), occupations (herbalists), geography and more. This echoing technique might have been confusing but instead it was a delicate pleasure.
The stories after the intermission were in response to the emperor’s sons asking the scholar for marriage advice. By the end of the evening I was getting a little tired of the old-fashioned generalizations about men and women but I still admired the storyteller’s comic timing in presenting them.
I loved the way Chin ended the evening. He said something like: And now you have learned a lot. If you didn’t learn a lot, at least you learned a little. If you didn’t learn a little, at least you didn’t get sick. If you did get sick, at least you didn’t die. Let us be grateful.