Godspeed, Storteller Guy - An Obituary for Shan Tianfang

Godspeed, Storteller Guy - An Obituary for Shan Tianfang

Original author: Charles W. Gravelle (BWAXN) 2018-09-13

Chinese edition by: Yang Shu (Shenyang On My Mind) 2018-09-21

One cold winter’s night, barely a month after I first arrived in Shenyang, I needed to get a taxi home as the weather had grown too chilly to comfortably walk the distance I needed to go. I climbed into the old, red Volkswagen, gave my directions, and we drove off. Waiting at the first set of lights, the driver turned on the radio. I had expected music, but instead the heavily accented voice of a man narrating a drama joined us. This incorporeal presence was not at all unwelcome; to the contrary, I found myself captivated just by the manner in which he spoke.

在我第一次来沈阳大约一个月后的一个严冬的深夜,天冷得让我不可能安稳地走那么远的路回家,我必须打辆出租车。我连滚带爬地钻进一辆破旧的红色大众,告诉司机要去哪儿,开车走人。在过第一个红绿灯时,司机打开收音机,我期待着能听到一段美妙的乐曲,然而喇叭里传出一个口音厚重的男人的声音,他正在播讲一段故事。这一突如其来的方式并未让我讨厌,反而他那种独特的表达方式深深地吸引了我。

 Shan Tianfang Performing a reading in the 1980s -《言归正传——单田芳说单田芳》

Shan Tianfang Performing a reading in the 1980s -《言归正传——单田芳说单田芳》

It was two days after his death that I first learned Shan Tianfang’s name and saw his face. Do not let it then surprise you to know how sad I felt to hear he had passed away at 83. I had known him and known him well. I never needed to know his name; I could describe him simply as “the storyteller guy” and people knew who I meant; Shan was unparalleled. For decades, his unmistakable voice could be heard telling stories across the Northeast. 

直到他死后两天,我才知道他的名字叫单田芳,也第一看到他长什么样。别以为我是刚刚听说他享年83岁撒手人寰而陷入悲痛之中,我早就知道他,而且相当熟悉。我无需叫出他的大号,我只要说他是个“讲故事的老伙计”,你就应该明白我说的是谁。单田芳在这个领域可以说是盖世无双。多少年来,他那独一无二的嗓音在东北大地永不间断地讲着各种各样的故事。


There was a sense of peaceful continuity being able to get into a taxi far from home, ride for an hour listening to his voice, pass through a brief interlude of silence, then get inside and find your family listening to the same story. From homes and shops, to parks and plazas, people throughout Shenyang spent their days listening to Shan Tianfang. 

你在离家很远的地方坐着出租车,有一个点的时间能听着他的声音赶路。下了车会有一小段寂寞的间歇,等进了家门,收音机里传出的还是车上听到的故事。就这么顺理成章地接续下来,毫无间断。从卧室到商店,从公园到广场,沈阳人一天天,不管走到哪里,都能听到单田芳。

 Shan Tianfang’s parents, teacher, and his teacher’s wife - 《言归正传——单田芳说单田芳》

Shan Tianfang’s parents, teacher, and his teacher’s wife - 《言归正传——单田芳说单田芳》

Shan himself was no stranger in Shenyang. Born in Yingkow, Shan’s family later lived in Shenyang where his mother regularly put on her own performances at Beishichang. Shan also spent some time at Shenyang’s Northeast University.

单田芳与沈阳这座城市有着诸多缘分。他出生在营口,后来举家迁居沈阳。他的母亲在北市场开场说书,名噪一时。后来单田芳还曾考入东北大学的前身东北工学院,可惜因病辍学。


I confess that my own Chinese is still insufficient to easily follow his stories, but that doesn’t matter. A friend asked if I could understand Shan Tianfang’s stories and I replied that I could. To demonstrate, I quoted a line from one of my favorite performances:

“砰刷刷刷刷刷刷刷刷嘎嘣!” (Pēng shuā shuā shuā shuā shuā shuā shuā gā bēng!!!)*

His strongly emotional storytelling always made it easy to feel what was happening in the stories despite the language barrier. 

我承认我的这点中文水平还不能完全听懂他的故事,但这不碍事。一个朋友问过我,你能听懂吗?我告诉他,我能。我给他演示一把,是我最喜欢的一个桥段:
“砰刷刷刷刷刷刷刷刷嘎嘣!
”他讲起故事来,声情并茂,让你身临其境。

*Writers Note: Shan is famous for his frequent and highly energetic use of sound effects


Shan was not too shy to liven up scenes of action, battle, and glory with his collection of vivid sound effects. Occasionally, my friends and I would copy this distinct style for fun when we were sharing our own stories, not out of disrespect, but because Shan’s approach was so genuinely fun and engaging. 

单田芳非常善于表现打斗和战争场面,他的那些精彩的拟音效果完全能合成一个炫酷的专辑。有时我和朋友们会模仿他的样子互相逗闷子,绝不是拿他老人家开涮,而是因为他的一招一式总是能让人愉悦开心。

 The first time I saw Shan’s face - in his obituary.

The first time I saw Shan’s face - in his obituary.

Given how full of life he sounded on the radio, I was surprised by his rather frail picture in the obituary. I always imagined him as rather large man, both in stature and weight, for it seemed to me that a man so full of life and color ought to be himself larger than life. That the story telling giant from the radio could inhabit such a humble form in life speaks to his talent and the power of his character.

当我看到他讣告上憔悴的照片,我真有些不敢相信,在电波中树立起的高大威猛的形象完全破碎了。在我的认知世界里,他是一个充满了生活经验与传奇色彩的人物,他的形象应该远远超过生活中的他。然而,正是这谦卑寻常的真实躯体在电波中用他惊天动地的故事来展现他的天赋与力量。

 The Shenyang Daily Newspaper announcing Shan's Passing - 2018

The Shenyang Daily Newspaper announcing Shan's Passing - 2018

With Shan’s passing, the Northeast lost a living cultural treasure: the voice of a man whose spirit reached across generations - not through politicking, film, or industry - but through sheer storytelling talent. Shan’s legacy is a gift of adventures, dramas, and heroism that ignited the imaginations of millions and will continue to do so for some time. 

单田芳走了,东北失去了一个文化瑰宝:他的声线穿透了几代人的心灵,不是靠政治背景、院线票房、产业投资……完全靠讲故事的水平。他留给后人的遗产充满了冒险精神、戏剧性和英雄主义,他为亿万普罗大众点亮希望的灯火,他的影响会久久不散。


The man is gone, but Shan Tianfang’s voice will still accompany me on my next taxi ride and be waiting when I get home. Godspeed, Storyteller Guy.

单田芳走了,但他的声音将一直陪伴我,在载我归程的出租车上,在温暖舒适的家中。一路走好,讲故事的老伙计。


Special thanks to Shenyang On My Mind.

Shenyang On My Mind
Factory City: The Lost Landscape of Tiexi

Factory City: The Lost Landscape of Tiexi