Take a walk in Jingshan Park or around the melee of Houhai Lake and you may well see men squatting on the curb while rapping and keeping the beat with wooden clappers. But this isn’t hip-hop, this is shuochang (说唱). And these guys have been down with the kids for around 2000 years.
Although the exact origins of shuochang (or story-singing) are uncertain, a terracotta statue of a story-singer has been found in Chengdu that dates from 25-220AD during the Eastern Han Dynasty. The statue shows a singer banging a small drum, while roaring out his song and gleefully kicking his leg. Now held in the National Museum of China, the statue shows not a stately court musician but a raucous and populist entertainer.
Since that time shuochang has continued to develop, birthing a number of regional variants. The stories were drawn from classics such as “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and “Journey to the West,” as well as from local tradition
With the advent of the Communist revolution in China, shuochang artists (known as 说书艺人shuoshu yiren) were encouraged to attune their stories to revolutionary ideals. This was the first time that the songs had a definite author in contrast to the old oral tradition. It was also during this period that the term quyi（曲艺, folk musical theater）became more widely used. The songs from this time are known as xiandai zuopin (现代作品, modern works) and are often considered as a separate genre.
As with its Western counterpart, this ancient folk music has fed into the modern hip-hop for which the term shuochang is now also used. Early Chinese hip-hoppers Yin Ts’ang （隐藏） used the traditional Erhu fiddle alongside a beat Run-D.M.C. would be proud of on their first hit, “In Beijing.” In its new incarnation shuochang has kept its accessible, demotic feel , with rappers like MC Hotdog and the Big Zoo crew performing in their local dialects. With the release of Eminem’s semi-autobiographical film “8-Mile,” freestyling also became popular in China. Here, the development of this craze can be traced from shuochang’s sister art, xiangsheng (相声, crosstalk), which features two vocalists engaging in biting, quickfire exchange.
The popularity of hip-hop in China has increased massively from its humble beginnings but it is still an underground and less than lucrative scene. Its lyrics often address problems in Chinese society, like Yin Tsar’s “Hello Teacher,” which scathingly deals with hypocritical teachers. This type of commentary also has its roots in xiangsheng. Now even pop megastars such as Jay Chou are tacking raps onto the end of their songs and calling themselves rappers. Groups like Yin Ts’ang, who are still rapping and still struggling to pay the bills , view this with nothing but scorn.