On the silent Street of Eternal Success where nightfall chases away the day's last pushcart and crying tot, the only glow of life radiates from the Red Lantern Teahouse.
Inside is an old, stooped man gesticulating like an auctioneer from a small stage. He raises his voice, then lets it drop with dramatic results as he indulges his audience in a tale from Chinese classical history.
All eyes fix on Liu Yizhang performing the age-old folk art of storytelling. At 7:15 nightly, he slaps a bamboo chunk on a table and resumes his chronicle of scheming eunuchs, banquets served on plates of gold and an emperor's "dragon bed" big enough for 18 concubines sleeping under sheets of silk.
For the price of admission of 7 cents, Liu's listeners get a bowl of jasmine tea and an earful of China's dynastic past no longer taught in communist schools here.
Storytelling once was as much a part of China's folk culture as the Yiddish theater was in the shtetls of old Russia. Every country fair had its spellbinder, drawing a few coppers for a good yarn before losing his customers to the jugglers, fire-eaters and stilt-walkers.
But this fine old tradition of oral history was killed with other quaint customs when Communist officials of the 1970s persecuted storytellers for "propagating feudalism."
Now that social controls have loosened again, oldtimers like Liu have slowly begun to resurface in places like this overgrown country town in China's southwest grain belt.
"To understand modern times, you have to know more about the past," Liu said during the intermission of a recent performance. "These days people don't know much history. So, I'm half actor and half teacher."
Liu, 70, began spinning historical tales in the 1950s after years of study. He said he has memorized the better part of 10 epics, which he reviews and rehearses before each night's appearance.
"You have to make the story very interesting or the people will go away," he explained. "Sometimes you have to perform."
Liu devotes three months to each saga, speaking two hours nightly at the Red Lantern for half its proceeds. In his blue cap and Mao suit, he looks like a cadre leading political studies in Marxist theory.
Once he gets going, however, Liu is pure ham. He recoils in mock fear to portray a prince's wrath and strums a fictitious harp to imitate court minstrels. His voice gets high in the concubines' quarters, authoritative when the emperor speaks and submissive in a room of servants.
He brings home his story with parenthetical flourishes, noting how a famous Tang Dynasty general loved to eat the sugar balls so popular in Chengdu. The rich tapestry of classical intrigue clearly transports the audience from the grim realities of contemporary China.
"The chief eunuch prepared a banquet with chopsticks of ivory and silver tips, each weighing 250 grams," he exclaimed, smacking the table with open hand, then wagging his index finger at a young listener.
"The servants brought in delicious leopard fetus and bear's paw on gold and jade plates while 50 dancing girls entertained," he said. "Oh, the guests' eyes were swollen with envy."
A congregation of 60 sat spellbound as Liu moved seamlessly through his story, toothless men nodding in agreement and drawing on homemade pipes, bespectacled teen-agers balancing elbow on knee and housewives chomping on sunflower seeds.
The teahouse was still except for shadows of Liu's theatrical gestures playing off the whitewashed walls of the dimly lit, narrow room. A giggle here, a throat cleared there, were the only intrusions.
Waiters in dirty white aprons quietly circled with blackened kettles, refilling bowls. Listeners bobbed down for a sip of the steamy liquid.
An hour passed this way, and then Liu declared a break with the clicking of his bamboo chip. The audience, stretching as if from a good nap, offered appreciative reviews.
"Some guys tell you a story for the money and don't care if you understand it," observed a retired knife sharpener who has listened at Liu's feet for months. "This is a very capable man."
A 20-year-old factory worker agreed, saying, "He makes a story much more interesting than anything you can read in a book."
Fifteen minutes later, Liu slapped down the bamboo and began turning back another page in his oral history.