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From Silk to Stories:
Tellers and Toastmasters Trade Threads of Traditions Through Visit
By Craig Harrison DTM, PDG
A Spring 2007
edition of
The Toastmaster

The Peoples' Republic of China in 2007 is a country steeped in tradition yet clearly in transition. On a recent trip with forty other professional storytellers from across the US this Toastmaster experienced the old and the new over a three-week period.

Storytelling — Bridging the Continental Divide

We visited Gengcun, an impoverished rural village whose storytelling tradition dates back to the time of Marco Polo, who trekked the old Silk Road, Gengcun boasts a 600-year tradition of storytelling! Among its 1,200 residents are more certified storytellers than any other location in China. According to Nancy Wang, one of the organizers of multiple storytelling visits to the village, some are master tellers, who know over 500-600 stories! With the help of two levels of interpreters our English stories were translated, first into Mandarin, then into their local Pinyin dialect. Over much of a week I and other tellers told and heard stories in their school among 3rd and 4th grade students, and also told and listened to stories in the homes of village tellers, and in their Hall of Stories.

Story Threads

From local tellers we in turn heard stories about dragons, turtles, monkeys and elephants, about evil step-mothers and promiscuous children, mischievous dogs, emperors and dowagers, love unrequited and love reciprocated. Many stories of these men and women echoed stories we'd heard of Persian, Native American, African, European and Russian origin. We learned many of our stories had Chinese variations as well. When not telling stories in and out of school we engaged in arts and music projects, dancing and joining in celebrations at their local shrines.

Despite differences in language it was fascinating to hear the story of the three little pigs in Chinese, to simultaneously enjoy the immediacy of a mime's routine, and to use facial and body gestures and smiles honed in Toastmasters meetings to connect with foreigners on their own soil.

Watch Your Tone!

In the Chinese language intonation is everything. We learned the same sound, "ma," depending on its tone, can have five different meanings, from mother to hemp to horse and beyond! Inflection informs meaning. Many of the stories hinged on subtleties of language: puns and dual meanings of words, based on tone. Humor came in waves as these subtleties were revealed through translations. Other differences abounded. We learned about Chinese lucky numbers (eights abound), feng shui and the significance of certain colors.

Tellers and Toastmasters Unite

Another highlight of our trip was a visit with eight other storytellers to Beijing #1 Toastmasters (#6126-U) in Beijing, on September 11th. There our tellers told 90-second stories and engaged as a panel in a question and answer session with members who were speaking English as a second or third language. One teller, 14 year-old Chloe Clunis, dazzled Toastmasters with her prowess for her age; Colorado teller Anita Strickbiine spoke poignantly about how her father's life and hers were both changed through Toastmasters, when he joined in Germany almost 50 years ago while serving in the US Army. Yours truly shared experiences of departing California an expert in communications, only to be humbled by a lack of comprehension on arrival.

The Laugh Heard Halfway Around The World

Most exciting for this Toastmaster was the realization that a specialty club I chartered in the San Francisco Bay Area, Laugh Lovers (596430-57), has inspired a similar club, Shanghai Humor Toastmasters (998733-85) in China! Humor really is a universal language.

Toastmasters Paving the Way

Nowhere is Toastmasters growing as rapidly as in China. Through promotion of communication and leadership skills it is leading a cultural evolution that is contributing to China's key role in our current world.

While China prepares for its date with destiny as host of the Summer Olympics in 2008 I encourage you to prepare to experience all that is China in the twenty-first century.

© Copyright 2006 Craig Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

Your storyteller, past District Governor Craig Harrison, DTM of Oakland California's Lakeview Toastmasters (2767-57), is also a board member of the Storytelling Association of California. He founded Expressions of Excellence!™ to provide sales and service solutions through speaking. Visit his storytelling site www.HackinBoo.com.

SAAC sponsors the annual Bay Area Storytelling Festival, held the weekend before Memorial Day of May each year outdoors in El Sobrante, CA.

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