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Lin Zhaoming tells his own turbulent tale

Updated: 2014-12-20 Source:Radio Guangdong's English Service Author:intern

Welcome to Today's Focus, this is Sarah Jayne.

[sound clip of Lin Zhaoming telling story on radio]

For more than seven decades, Lin Zhaoming has been animating our speakers; articulating words with such skill he brings to life the inanimate and plays with sounds so eloquently.  

His soulful voice and playful tones are well-known throughout South-China. In the Canton Province of Guangdong, his voice has travelled through airwaves for generations, griping anyone who gets caught in its path…

His signature voice and skills became well-known whilst reading, 'Journey to the West', during the late 70's and things were never again for this gong gu lou …This is the story of a story-teller.

Gong gu lou's are an integral part of the provinces folk art traditions. These story-tellers enchant society and were once respected by all…but the art is dying…and along with it, so too are the gong gu lou's…

Lin zhaoming is one of the last and many would agree, one of the greatest.

After acquiring a degree in law at the Guangzhou University, Lin never quite made it to being the judge he was expected to become.

Instead, he chose to walk a road less profitable: as a stage actor and a gong gu lou. 

(photo by e.rgd.com.cn)


I started [story telling Sic.] when I was around 10. I told stories to peers and they seemed to enjoy it. It was in 1979 that I did regular storytelling at Radio Guangdong. Now I am 86. How time flies!

Having performed in over 400 Cantonese theaters and retold 18 major works, Lin now has a quiet life in Panyu District. During his one-and-a-half-hour talk with us, the grey-haired artist seldom stops to drink the tea he holds in his hand. His clear, loud and resonant voice transports us back to lazy afternoons when we used to listen to him on radios and cassettes.


I just love doing it. You know, our life can't do without stories. We hear stories before learning the ABCs.

Story-telling is an art, and cannot be performed by any one or taken up lightly! Skill and patience are a virtue in this art.


It is hard to set a standard. If you must ask, there are three in my opinion. First of all, a good storyteller should have audiences understand every line he reads. That means he should pronounce Cantonese clearly and correctly. Those who know little or no Cantonese can't take on the role as a gong gu lou. And then comes the tempo and the tone. Talking without fluctuation is hypnotizing. No one likes it. Finally, the plot. It is the plot that draws the most attention.

Whether you listen to stories in the car, at home, before bed or with friends and family, the sound of a familiar voice can be just as entertaining and relaxing as the story itself.


I should thank my mother, who bestowed me with a clear voice. Voice always comes first. But without practice, your voice cannot reach a professional level. Back in the 1970s, there were no advanced facilities like microphones. Nine times out of 10, we gong gu lou faced audiences of over 1,000. If you don't practice offstage, how can you capture all their attention with just your voice? I used to have over 300 shows a year. That resulted in a huge number of practices. So you see my voice now is still loud enough for hawking, if someone wanted to hire me!

Gong gu lou's are a part of a tradition in this region of China and are loved by many. But what really makes a story-teller a true gong gu lou?


I dare not say we've made a great contribution to this folk art. But one thing I've always taken pride in is that we treat gong gu very seriously. Many may think we read straight from the original works. In fact, we seldom do that. I rewrote all the stories I told, as written Mandarin shares little in common with oral Cantonese expression. Lots of changes are required. My manuscripts weighed 20 kilos, containing 10 million words. That kind of earnestness is the most precious thing we left to gong gu.

One skill that makes Lin Zhaoming one of the greatest in his artistic field is his power to draw upon each character, bringing them to life and in turn capturing the attention of his audience so earnestly but with such a grip it's almost impossible to turn away. Lin managed this skill at no greater time than the peak of his career, whilst reading Journey to the West, in the 1970's.


It gave me a big headache when I was given the task of telling the novel. I read the novel again and again and thought again and again. And gradually an idea occurred in my mind: even though there are many characters in the work, the major focuses are on Monk Xuanzang, Monkey King, Monk Pig and Monk Sha. If I could vividly illustrate these four roles, then I might consider it a success. The first character I molded was Monk Pig.

Lin's power to encapsulate and animate absolutely anything became a skill incomparable to anyone else; drawing from reality and throwing it into his fantasy worlds.


At that time there was a bike repairman living near my house who liked to talk with me every time I walked by. He spoke slowly, sometimes with a little stutter. And that struck me as the way to present Monk Pig, a lazy and foolish character. Then, what about the smartest and proudest Monkey King? I asked my son who was keen on animals. He gave me a perfect answer: speak fast with high tones. Monk Sha is a nice and measured guy, so he should have a less varied, deep voice. Finally, Monk Xuanzang, the ultimate goody-goody. I gave him a clear and light voice. And he mustn't speak fast, that's not what a well-educated man should do.

Lin's journey to becoming a gong gu didn't happen overnight, but his fame evidentially did. After reading Journey to the West, people began to realize the potential and greatness of this story-teller and things started to change for Lin…


It was totally beyond expectation. Everyone listened to it. Once, I was walking from Dongshan Lu to Yonghan Lu, and many people were sitting or squatting in front of the shops on the street, attentively listening to the radio. The volume was turned to the max. I had heard a full episode when I arrived at Yonghan Lu. I was just over 30 at that time.

Everyone recognized me. I felt content. Oh, did I mention that all radios at shops were sold out?

Leaving his education whilst on the way to becoming a judge to become a story-teller certainly led Lin on a different path. Becoming a story-teller in itself was full of hardships, but for Lin his career path was also shaped by cultural, political and social events that changed his life forever.

(photo by e.rgd.com.cn)


The Journey to the West crowned me as well as drowned me. I was once accused of spreading superstitions and the story was nearly suspended. Luckily, my perseverance in doing it moved the superior, and the storytelling was allowed to continue. But that sowed the seeds of the bitterness I suffered during the Cultural Revolution. I was made to stand on a table with my head held up against the ceiling from 6 in the morning till 12 at noon, 2 in the afternoon till 10 in the evening. If I moved a little, the guard would just beat me with a stick. It was toilsome and unjust.

I am crazy about telling stories. No regrets, even during the time I was criticized and denounced in public. My career has brought me disasters, as well as fulfillment and happiness.

Lin, at the ripe age of 86 is still continuing to produce more material at Radio Guangdong for his beloved fans, but this could be the last from this great story-teller…


Oh, I am an 86-year-old man. No enough time, you know. I feel a bit tired, honestly. But my obsession with storytelling will never fade. I live for it and I shall die for it.


To read more about the story, please find it in the 2015 January issue of That's PRD