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Multimedia: The Old School

As a multimedia reporter, I admit I am occasionally given to bouts of smugness. I may get no respect from the grizzled guardians of old journalism, I tell myself in these moments, but I am the vanguard, the future — the intrepid journalistic do-it-all wading into the torrent of 21st century technology to bring the world a new form of storytelling.

Or not, as it turns out.

This past Saturday was the last official day of China's Spring Festival vacation. To mark the occasion, I went to Ditan Park in the northeast corner of old Beijing to catch the last day of the Spring Festival Temple Fair. The Beijing temple fairs are a Qing Dynasty tradition, revived in recent years, and consist generally in hordes of locals descending on the city's old temple grounds to eat over-priced food, play carnival games and buy loads of useless schlock — like inflatable giraffes, which, for some mystifying reason, were a must-have this year. I went with the vague hope of catching a Beijing Opera performance, which my neighbor told me was available this year. Instead, after 20 minutes jostling my way through the crowds, hands held boxer-like in front of my face to protect myself from the giraffes, I ran into the man pictured above, whose name (according the placard in the picture) is Chen Qihuan and whom I now humbly respect as a professional forebear.

Chen is among the last performers of something called layangpian (拉洋片,or "pulled movies"), one of the "Eight Great Curiosities of Tianqiao" — a genre of traditional entertainment I'd never heard of before but which apparently was quite popular a hundred years ago. The centerpiece of layangpian is a large box with peepholes cut into the front, through which the audience watches a series of slide-mounted paintings manipulated by an invisible pulley system in back. The entire thing is operated by one person, who stands on a stool to the side of the box using one hand to manipulate the pulleys and the other hand to play the cymbals, all while narrating the story in a delightfully crude mixture of song and poetry. In other words, a turn-of-the-century audio slideshow.

My Mandarin wasn't good enough to catch the particulars of the story — something evergreen about the Boxer Rebellion and the effort to cleanse China of foreign devils — but his pitch to the crowd was clear enough: "It can't compare to a modern movie. It's not that entertaining. But it's a hell of a lot cheaper."

I'm thinking seriously of lobbying the GlobalPost editorial board to make that our new slogan. All in favor, please register your support in the comments section below.

[You can see more pictures from the Temple Fair here. Also, try this nice little "sonic tour" of last year's temple fair at the Temple of the Eastern Peak from NPR's Day to Day (RIP).]