Living in the past


In the mid-1980s a story did the rounds at the Central Conservatoire in Beijing, about a group of students sent to do fieldwork in a remote part of southwest China. In one village the peasants seemed not to have heard of Chairman Mao, and when asked “So who’s in charge, then?”, they hesitantly replied “Um… is it called Great Ming dynasty?” They hadn’t even heard of the Qing.

Of course this sounds apocryphal, a kind of Shangri-La story. Generally, however backward the conditions of places we visit, the scars of Maoism are evident. But I’m not sure we can dismiss it entirely…

It was formative fieldtrips like this, evoked in Liu Sola‘s 1985 novella In search of the king of singers 寻找歌王, that inspired the new generation of avant-garde composers like Qu Xiaosong, Tan Dun, and Guo Wenjing.

Reading Avedis Hadjian’s amazing book Hidden nation, I find a similar case:

Living in tne past Armenians

The residents of an Armenian village in Sasun, in a photo taken by the photographer Shiraz during a pioneering journey in 1973. Such was their isolation that they asked Shiraz to advise “the Armenian king that there are still Armenians in Sasun.” However, the last Armenian monarch, Levon V of the Kingdom of Cilicia, had been dethroned in 1375 by Mamluk invaders.

Such stories are extreme instances of the Chinese proverb “The mountains are high, the emperor is distant“.

Mozart balls

Alma Deutscher

Source here.

Amidst all the hype surrounding Alma Deutscher, she is the only one talking sense:

I love Mozart very much, he’s probably my favourite composer, but I don’t really like it when people call me “Little Miss Mozart” because I don’t like being called “little”. I’m very big, and secondly, if I just wrote everything Mozart wrote again it would be boring.

Another one for the T-shirt of female composers… And further mature proto-feminist wisdom.

A flat miner

That, of course, is the punchline to

What do you get if you drop a piano down a mine shaft?


Among classical musos this is a popular story, whose own punch-line often crops up in rehearsals:

A burly murderer, sentenced to life, is doing his Grade V Music Theory in prison. The well-meaning Associated Board examiner (a perfect part for Michael Palin, surely – not that he exactly needs the work) shows up, and goes through all the exam questions nervously in a little room, seated at the piano with the prisoner standing at his side.

It’s all going rather well till they get to the last question, where the candidate has to identify chords. The examiner says pleasantly,
“Now I’m just going to play you a chord—and I’d like you, if you would be so kind, to tell me if it’s a major or a minor triad!”

and plays a major triad with an encouraging smile. The prisoner looks at him dourly and grunts,
“It’s minor”.

The examiner smiles nervously and says,
“Now I’ll just play it again and see what you think…”
Prisoner goes “It’s minor”.
Examiner, with ever more desperate encouragement: “Ah yes, very good… now I’m just going to play it One More Time, and this time I’d like you to pay attention to that teeny little note in the middle—see whether you find it a little on the low side, or is it, perhaps, rather, um, somewhat high, and bright, and happy…?”

The prisoner walks over to the piano, puts his huge gnarled hand on the examiner’s puny corduroyed shoulder, and says slowly and severely,

“I Think You’ll Find—it’s MINOR!”

Often in rehearsal when there is discussion of the appropriate continuo chord in a figured bass line, we all snowclone in chorus, “I Think You’ll Find—it’s MINOR!”

For F hashtag minor, see link here; and for a music lesson from Bill Bailey, here. For more interview stories, click here.

The shock of the new

Rite“Knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas”, 1913.
“When they cocked their heads against their hands, someone yelled, ‘Get a dentist!’
and someone else yelled back, ‘Get two dentists!’ ” (cited

Though The Rite of Spring has become standard, a classic, since the 1970s, it remains overwhelming today, whether or not you’re familiar with it. Playing it in 1970 with the National Youth Orchestra, conducted by Boulez, was one of the great experiences of my life (see also here). For a 2022 Rite at the Proms, click here.

Never mind that it’s the kind of imagining of “pagan rites” that academically I would dispute—it’s a world away from the cultural pundits’ romanticised view of folk culture! (For a “pagan” ritual performer among the Cheremis, click here; and for the New Year rituals of Gaoluo in China, here; cf. the Hutsul people of west Ukraine).

Among endless discussions, Tom Service gives a succinct introduction. Alex Ross (The rest is noise, p.57) nicely (sic) compares the “riot” at the 1913 première with the release of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK.  Gertrude Stein’s detailed account of the event is curious:

We could hear nothing. One literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music.

Curious, as she wasn’t actually at the premiere (supposing that she had lived long enough not to actually attend the premiere of The sound of music either, she might have said, “One literally could not hear the rite of spring.”)

I’ve cited Richard Taruskin’s fine expression “lite Rite”—“Is nothing Sacred?”, as Keats and Chapman might say. In his stimulating article on Bartok and Stravinsky (The danger of music, pp.133–7; see also pp.421–4), he observes Bartok’s identification of The Rite’s “folk” elements that Stravinsky later disowned:

Even the origin of the rough-grained, brittle and jerky musical structure backed by ostinatos, which is so completely different from any structural proceeding of the past, may be sought in the short-breathed Russian peasant motives.

Alex Ross is also very much on The Rite’s case. In a crowded field, his comments in The rest is noise are very fine, with vivid context in his chapter “Dance of the earth” (pp.80–129), citing Taruskin’s definitive 1996 book Stravinsky and the Russian traditions.

I take Taruskin’s point that the darker energies of The Rite have been “resisted, rejected, repressed”, but even in the most polished performance it’s both exhilarating and disturbing.

Swan Lake it ain’t. Remember, at the 1913 Paris premiere the ballet was just as shocking as the music. You can see a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s own choreography here, and the recreation (from 25.40) following this documentary gives an impression:

Pina Bausch’s version is amazing:

For an intense series of posts on the ballet, see here. Note also Israel Galván’s flamenco-tinged solo version.

And here’s an attractive quandary:

Stravinsky once joked that the dauntingly high-register bassoon solo which opens the piece should be transposed up every year to stop players getting complacent about it. He wanted the effort to register.

But “it’s complicated”—see also here (and note the ritual wind instrument connection). I’m not sure about the dudka, but if it’s really related to the Armenian duduk, then there’s a link to the guanzi of north Chinese ritual bands! There’s a wealth of discussion of that opening solo in bassoon blogs.

Not only do concert-goers “share intimate and personal cultural moments with strangers”, but they have to keep still; the Rite is one of many pieces where this should be an impossible demand. And another where conducting without a score yields fruit:

If Stravinsky really said that Karajan’s version

sounded like someone driving through the jungle in a Mercedes with the windows up,

then good for him.

And then there’s the “original instrument” debate—the “lite Rite”, as Richard Taruskin called it:

This version for organ, far from silly, is just awe-inspiring:

A harpsichord rendition has also appeared on YouTube. Jazz tributes include the Bad Plus arrangement:

In her recent exploration of The Rite, Gillian Moore also observes:

My feelings of creeping feminist unease in writing a book on a ballet about the sacrifice of a young woman created by three men were at least partly relieved when I came across the Russian folk metal band Arkona and their frontwoman Masha Scream.

On a lighter note, here I imagine the Danse sacrale as a suitable riposte to the haka.

BTW, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, less revolutionary but no less captivating, must have suffered by its proximity.

An unwitting put-down


For WAM buffs, a story about Erich Leinsdorf, conducting Mahler with the Boston Symphony in the 1970s:

Driving along the freeway on his way into town for the concert in Symphony Hall, Leinsdorf has cut it a bit fine, so he puts his foot down, and sure enough the cops pull him over.

He’s getting really late now, so he blurts out,

“Look officer, you gotta let me go, I’m a real famous conductor, I gotta go and conduct the Boston Symphony, they’re counting on me—my name’s Erich Leinsdorf!”

The cop (chewing gum languorously) looks at him skeptically and goes,

“I don’t care who you are, bud—you could be Arthur Fiedler for all I care!”

Bach on film

Pasolini SMP

As part of my extensive coverage of Bach (roundup here), two fictional films from the 60s, despite their extreme contrast, are linked both by their intensity and by the way they don’t just accept but probe our own modern values:


(These links come and go. I’ll try and keep an eye on them, but you can do your own YouTube searches if they disappear. For the latter film I found a version enriched by Japanese subtitles, like the Greek subtitles of Johnny the shoeshine guy…)

Hammer and Tickle

Hammer and tickle

What a great title—adopted by several works on Communist humour, just as Broken down by age and sex is popular among statisticians.

Ben Lewis’s Hammer and Tickle: a history of Communism told through Communist jokes [1] has many fine jokes, like this (p.214):

The government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics has announced with great regret that, following a long illness and without regaining consciousness, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the President of the highest Soviet, Comrade Leonid Brezhnev, has resumed his governmental duties.

I’m not sure if this one is in there, but it’s had a new lease of life following Twunt’s latest rant:

A man was arrested for writing “Khrushchev is a moron” on a fence, and given 15 years in prison: 1 year for vandalism, and 14 years for disclosing state secrets.

Courtesy of Homeland, I’ve just noticed the fine metaphor for relations between the communist state and its employees:

We pretend to work, you pretend to pay us.

But Lewis is surely wrong that “For whatever reason the same phenomenon didn’t exist in the same way in South East Asia or China.” The Chinese have more such jokes than anyone, and it’s high time we had a volume of them in English: for starters, click here. One could compile a thick volume just of Li Peng jokes (preliminary offerings here and here).

Cf. More Hammer and tickle, and Big red joke book.

[1] See also e.g. Christie Davies, Political ridicule and humour under socialism.


I have outlined the importance of the Song of the Skeleton in the rituals of both north and south China (In Search of the folk Daoists pp.233–4). It’s a common theme throughout the north—mainly as part of the yankou, both Daoist and Buddhist.

In Yanggao Daoist ritual (Daoist Priests of the Li family, pp.274–5), several hymns are related. The Mantra of the Skeleton (Kulou zhenyan 骷髏真言, more commonly known here by the melodic label Wailing to Sovereign Heaven, Ku huangtian 哭皇天) is prescribed, a cappella, for Opening Scriptures on the first afternoon of a funeral.

It’s a kind of catalogue aria, with seven long verses for the visits to the stations of purgatory over seven days. Its melodic material overlaps substantially with that of other hymns, beginning with the opening of the Diverse and Nameless melody (Daoist priests pp.267–8). The melismatic “Ah, Skeleton” (Kulou) refrain, and the coda in pseudo-Sanskrit (also in common with Diverse and Nameless), are not written here in the manual. My film (from 56’08”) shows the sixth verse:

Ah Skeleton! Skeleton!
On the sixth day he reaches Netherworld Souls Village
His sons not to be seen
Starving and parched, at his wits’ end,
Desperate to sup broth.

From Li Qing’s hymn volume, 1980. The final folio on the left has the opening of Mantra to the Wailing Ghosts—my book p.266, also featured in the film, from 1.03.56).

* * *

For most such hymns one hardly expects an “emotional” response from audiences—in Yanggao, after all, it shares both melodic material and style with many others in the repertoire. But in his brilliant ethnographic studies of ritual practice in old Beijing, Chang Renchun notes how the renditions of two celebrated Buddhist monks moved their audiences to tears. Performative tears feature in many posts on this blog—links here.

Some common versions open:

昨日去荒郊玩游        Yesterday, seeking diversion roaming in the barren outskirts…

So talking of “Yesterday”, Paul McCartney heard his own version in a dream, like Aboriginal singers.


Though secular, it’s deeply moving. Here’s an early solo rendition, live (and Paul’s unaffected style is a major element of the song’s impact—no cover versions come close):

Here’s the remastered version from 2009:

As I observe in the introduction to my series on the great Beatles albums, analysis, while optional, can supplement our response; again it’s instructive to read Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack. Dating from the same period as A hard day’s night, Mellers considers Yesterday a “small miracle”:

Although the opening words tell us that yesterday his troubles seemed far away, the music in the second bar immediately enacts these troubles with a disquieting modulation from tonic, by way of the sharpened sixth, to the relative. The first bar, with its gentle sigh, seems separated, stranded, by the abrupt modulation; and although the troubles “return to stay” with a descent to the tonic, the anticipated modulation sharpwards is counteracted when the B♮is flattened to make an irresolute plagal cadence. […]

The immediate nostalgia of the song is without suspicion of sentimentality, and the corny accompaniment of string quartet can be employed, with validity, to reinforce the music’s frail bewilderment.

Yesterday quartet

George Martin’s manuscript for Yesterday, on display at Abbey road studios.

Pollack’s analysis is also insightful. And as he notes (also in my roundup), the opening uses a device here that Paul was to use regularly in some of his great songs: a declarative word, followed by a pause, and then rhythmically active ascent.

I can be quite confident about our own emotional responses to this song; less so about the responses of various types of Chinese mourners to the Skeleton, over time.

More social commentary

This is another ever-popular story in our fieldwork joke manual:

Taking his donkey with him, a peasant goes into the county-town to do some business in the county government headquarters. Leaving the donkey in the compound courtyard, he goes in.

When he emerges he finds that the donkey has eaten up all the plants in the courtyard, so he storms up to it and bursts out,

“So you think you’re some kind of national apparatchik, eh—cadging a meal wherever you go?!”

In the original Chinese that last phrase is typically blunt and effective:

Hebei: new discoveries

In the recent, ongoing, fieldwork project continuing our work on the Hebei ritual associations, led by the energetic Qi Yi 齐易, most exciting for me so far is new material on Hubenyi 虎贲驿 village.


In Plucking the Winds (pp.90–92) I told how the beautiful surviving copy of the Houtu scroll of Gaoluo village was copied by Ma Xiantu, a cultured teacher and sectarian from Hubenyi village just further northeast. Then teaching in Beijing, he first borrowed the old copy of the scroll from South Gaoluo “to supplement the deficiency of my village’s Hongyang Holy Association”. His brother-in-law, South Gaoluo villager Shan Hongfu, was also staying in Beijing, and watched Ma Xiantu copying the scroll; he then bought more paper and asked Ma to make another copy for South Gaoluo. So Ma Xiantu copied it every day after school. He started copying the scroll in the 6th moon of 1942, and completed it in the 1st moon of 1943, finally adding the punctuation in red while he visited South Gaoluo to hand it over formally to the Association for the New Year’s rituals.

The 2015 fieldwork at Hubenyi, though not mentioning Ma Xiantu or the Houtu scroll, revealed further Hongyang scriptures, including an old copy of the Hunyuanjiao Hongyang zhonghua baojing 混元教弘陽中華寶經. Qi Yi and Song Yingtao 荣英涛 have collected basic data, so with bated breath I await a study from scholars of folk sectarian religion, for whom this whole area is such a rich field… And who will supplement our work on the Foshihui 佛事會 ritual associations around Yixian county?

For Hunyuan and Hongyang sects in the region, see my In Search of the folk Daoists of north China, Part Three.



A 1983 entry from Alan Bennett’s diaries:

Recording The House at Pooh Corner for Radio 4. One story ends,

“Tigger is all right, really” said Piglet lazily. “Of course he is,” said Christopher Robin. “Everybody is really,” said Pooh.

The true voice of England in the thirties.

Cf. AB’s comment on Jan Palach.

And an entry from 1986:

Read Winnie the Pooh to an audience of children at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn. Many have never been in a theatre before. I battle against the crying of babies and the shouts of toddlers and ened up screaming and shouting myself hoarse. It is Winnie the Pooh as read by Dr Goebbels.

For A.A. Milne himself reading from Winnie the Pooh, click here. For international perspectives, click here; and for another evocative early recording, here.

Ecstasy and drudge

Alan Bennett (him again) recalls his early music education attending concerts at Leeds Town Hall—making an ethnographic point that is as valid for Daoist ritual as for WAM (Untold Stories p.412):

So it is not just music that I learn, sitting on those harsh benches, Saturday by Saturday. Music in the concert hall is also a moral education, and watching the musicians at close quarters, I realize that it is not just ecstasy and inspiration but that there is drudge to it too. Sometimes, the players would be on the same tram coming home, and I see that they are just like everybody else—shabby, in dirty raincoats and sometimes with tab ends in their mouths, ordinary people who, half an hour ago, were artists and agents of the sublime.

An unsung local hero


I mentioned the splendid Li Jin 李金 briefly in my book (p.20):

I also made a couple of brief trips doing a reccy of Daoists in the nearby counties, assisted by my saintlike old friend Li Jin, bright young scholar Liu Yan, and feisty Driver Ma, all delightful company. No-one will ever accept any reward for all their work as my amanuensis. Elif Batuman’s fine adage about her time in Samarkand rings true: “We were either trying not to give money to people who were trying to take it, or trying to give money to people who were trying to refuse it.”

Pufo tang

Li Jin (right), with Jiao Lizhong (centre) and driver (and polymath!) Ma Hongqi,
Hunyuan county-town 2011.

Li Jin is indeed a treasure. I only realized quite recently that he was once a celebrated performer—but it’s his infinitely generous sincerity that strikes all who meet him. In this he resembles the great Li Qing, but his story differs in that the Li family Daoists always strived to keep under the radar, maintaining their independence from official control, whereas Li Jin’s life has been shaped more directly by the vicissitudes of the Party. In many ways his story is unexceptional, but while my accounts of Yanggao generally concern folk more than state, [1] it reminds us of the presence of the latter—and the presence of Good People within it.

A year older than Li Manshan (but not related to the Li family Daoists), Li Jin was born in 1945 in the poor village of East Shahe just southwest of Tianzhen county-town. He had two older brothers, and at first his family thought to give him away to a close friend, a childless local doctor, but in the end they kept him. Their grandfather was the patriarch. He had gradually accumulated over 30 mou of land, and with the three brothers helping in the fields, their life was quite comfortable until “Liberation”. In the land reform of 1947–48 they were classified as middle peasants (cf. my book pp.95–9); in the 1964 Four Cleanups campaign they were stigmatized as “rich peasants”, and only rehabilitated in 1982—not unlike the Li family Daoists.

When a basic primary school system was established, Li Jin went to school in the converted Dragon King temple. He recalls the fine opera stage opposite it, where an opera troupe would perform for the gods on the 18th of the 6th moon. The stage remained intact—young Li Jin himself remembers performing the item “Playing the flower drum” (Da huagu 打花鼓) there when he was 10 sui.

By the time he graduated from six years of primary school he was a favourite of the teacher. He became prominent in school performances; what he calls his “silly look” was popular. In 1959 he passed the exam to enter secondary school in Tianzhen county-town—no easy feat. It was life-changing for him. On his very first day there, he was thrilled by the flag-raising ceremony in the school’s huge exercise ground. He began learning Russian enthusiastically, dreaming of becoming a translator. But he was soon chosen to do an audition in Yanggao county for a new state-run troupe that was to perform the popular skittish local duet “little opera” errentai.

So in the 2nd moon of 1960, when only 16 sui, he was chosen to join the new county folk opera troupe (Yanggao xianzhi p.468). This, indeed, was soon after Li Qing was chosen for the regional arts-work troupe in Datong (my book pp.113–118), and at the height of the famine.

Later Li Jin heard that he had nearly got the county mayor into trouble. None other than Jing Ziru, head of the Bureau of Culture and the (only) brilliant local historian of Yanggao (my book p.50), told him that at his audition, the mayor had taken exception to his two “wolf-teeth”, but the others pointed out they could be taken out—indeed, in 1962 he had them extracted by a quack dentist while they were performing in Zuoyun county. Rather him than me.

Li Jin soon went on to become a celebrated performer. The troupe’s expenses were to be footed by all the people’s communes in the county, so it was ponderously named Shanxi sheng Yanggao xian renmin gongshe lianshe minjian gejutuan 阳高县人民公社联社民间歌舞团. If there was a sign at the gate of the compound, it must have collapsed under the weight of its own lettering

Li Jin remembers those early days in the troupe fondly, with its twelve performers and six musicians. Of course it was a terribly tough time, but the troupe was doing well, and led a somewhat less tenuous existence than the common folk, “like being in kindergarten”. Still, he only earned 18 kuai a month.

The leadership praised their first hastily-rehearsed programmes of Da jinqian 打金钱, Zou xikou 走西口, Gua hongdeng 挂红灯, and Gusao tiaocai 姑嫂挑菜. At first Li Jin was chosen to specialize in the handsome sheng roles, but with his “silly look” he found it too much of a challenge, and he soon gravitated to the chou clown role.


The character is meant to make people laugh, but once he made himself corpse. Playing the role of a clown county official, one day he got the words wrong and couldn’t help bursting out laughing. The troupe leaders gave him a kicking backstage but he still couldn’t stop laughing. At the next meeting he was criticized and his 3 mao supplement for the day was withheld. This is the kind of story that musos delight in.

They were on tour all year round. I was surprised to learn that tickets were for sale—so they had to try and control villagers without tickets trying to sneak a look, no simple task.


Following the mood of the times, the troupe soon began performing modern items instead of their original classical stories, so Li Jin’s clown roles were now mainly “negative” characters like spies or traitors, not the more sympathetic (or at least neutral) roles of old. Despite the troupe’s popularity with audiences, and Li Jin’s own reputation, in the Lesser Four Cleanups campaign of 1963 they were banished to the countryside for “tempering through manual labour” (laodong duanlian). As the campaign intensified, they were active in Tianzhen county as a Four Cleanups work troupe. At first Li Jin was excluded from taking part in such “battle teams” (zhandoudui) by his bad class background, but soon the order came down that everyone had to join in, so for the next two years he was part of a group of a dozen or so “Red Flag warriors”.

By 1967 a new directive descended on them, warning them that their performances since the formation of the troupe, glorifying “ox demons and snake spirits, scholars and beauties”, contradicted the agenda of the Party. The leadership decided to amalgamate the troupe with the county’s other opera troupe (for the classical opera Jinju), at the same time reducing the personnel. By 1968 even this new combined troupe was abolished. Li Jin was assigned to work as a cook. His wife was sent to work in a troupe in Xinzhou, rather far south—so even his family was being broken up. He’s grateful that she managed to return after some time.

In 1970 the county established a Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team. All the recruits had to do was to be able to hum a few phrases and not be too ugly, and they were in. But the authorities soon realized the standard wouldn’t do, and had recourse to the disgraced former troupe members. So Li Jin now found himself taking part in simple cheerleading performances, trapped in “a bottleneck of monotony”. But they did raise standards, and their performances enjoyed a certain popularity.

The scene changed quickly from 1976, with more traditional genres regaining a position among modern styles. In 1979 the county “folk opera troupe” (minjian gejutuan, later called Errentai jutuan) was restored, with both new and old styles reflected. Supported by the county leadership, their reputation again spread. Li Jin, still only in his mid-30s, got back to work conscientiously, going on to become Director of the troupe. In 1988, as “popular voting” came into vogue, he stepped down after a close-fought election.

In 1989 he moved to the county Bureau of Culture, a radical change in work style—and a challenge upon which he embarked with typical enthusiasm. He was glad to broaden his experience of local culture. Since then, privately-run errentai groups have bloomed in the countryside, taking a major role at weddings and funerals. I don’t suppose Li Jin is always impressed by the pop style that now dominates there, but he is proud of playing a role in the recognition of the Li family Daoists and the Hua family shawm band in the Intangible Cultural Heritage roster. Despite my reservations about the ICH, I can appreciate his satisfaction.

In a climate since the 1990s whereby most cadres seem to spend their time staggering around pissed from one state-funded banquet to the next, [2] Li Jin seemed to be the only one who ever got any real work done. And he at once understood that I was there to work too, inconspicuously doing all he could to help me—like biking through the snow to convey an obscure foreign message on my first trip.

In recent years, while staying with Li Manshan and following him round funerals, I make occasional visits back to the town for a shower and a nice quiet informal meal with Li Jin. Since his retirement, though not in great health, he has returned to his beloved errentai, taking place in regular amateur meetings.

He is affable and generous with everyone, and accepts people (even me) as he finds them—embodying the noble virtues that the system often trampled on. He has always believed in humanity, social justice, and the aims of the Party.

* * *

This is the kind of life that books like those of Dikötter, single-mindedly focused on tragedy, cannot reflect. Whereas the more focused ethnography of Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden is also unflinching, it is based on fieldwork, and so can’t help showing a certain empathy. But more general trawls through the archives like those of Dikötter can only be partial, another kind of propaganda. One can hardly challenge his details—indeed, the tragedy lies precisely in the way that sincerity was repressed, and it does need documenting—but one needs a more nuanced, perspective.

My account may make Li Jin sound a little like one of those selfless cadres of yore, by contrast with the self-serving crew that holds sway today. But there really were, and are, people like that… See also Yanggao personalities.

There is nothing like a quiet chat over a simple bowl of noodles with Li Manshan and Li Jin.

[1] In my 2004 book on the Gaoluo ritual association, one finds a closer relationship between folk consciousness and local cadres.

[2] Though in my book (p.314) I note recent sumptuary laws, and a jolly good thing too.

Art and architecture

Palin cover

From Michael Palin’s 1995 diaries:

Another Irishman is helping Mr Brown paint his house: “You wouldn’t think he’d painted the Sistine Chapel, now, would you?” says Mr Brown to Helen. The other man, young, thick-set, dark hair, florid face, protests from the top of the ladder: “Paint it? I built it.”



When Li Qing began recopying the family ritual manuals as Daoist activity gradually revived, the very first manual that he copied in 1980 was the hymn volume of funerary texts.

Within this volume, Li Manshan loves, and identifies with, the beautiful long meditation on impermanence titled Kangxi yun—actually attributed to Kangxi’s father the Shunzhi emperor (1638–61), and Buddhist in language. The standard version is known by names such as as Poem on returning to the mountains (Guishan shi 歸山詩), Poem on entering the clergy (Chujia shi 出家詩), or Gātha in praise of the sangha (Zanseng jie 贊僧偈).

The Li family’s ritual manuals are largely superfluous to their ritual practice today: those rituals that are still required they perform from memory. The Kangxi yun is one of many texts in the manuals that are no longer performed; and the Daoists never read the manuals as silent literature. But as I began to go through them with Li Manshan, I found that he was most taken by the poem. It shows how drawn he is to the retreat from worldly cares; household Daoists don’t necessarily evince this, and you might not notice this contemplative aspect of his character.

Li Manshan says parts of it were formerly performed as a shuowen 說文 solo introit within particular ritual segments. He has a distant memory of hearing the Daoists reciting it for a temple ritual when he was 8 or 9 sui, around 1953–54, but he only began taking note of it when he came across it in his father’s hymn volume in the 1980s.

Indeed, it is among several rather long texts grouped together in the hymn volume that could be used thus; but there are no longer any suitable ritual segments in which to recite them. The shorter solo introits still used, like those for Presenting Offerings, are now mostly recited by Golden Noble.


From my film: a shuowen introit from the shanggong ritual.

I’ve long wondered how, and when, this long poem found its way into the ritual manuals and ritual practice of the Yanggao Daoists. We discussed this further during my stay with Li Manshan in 2018 (under “Pacing the Void”).

* * *

For readers less than fluent in classical Chinese (of whom I hope there are many!), below I offer a very rough translation (for the challenges of translating the Li family texts, see here). I can’t find an English rendition of Shunzhi’s standard text (anyone?), but here I use the variant in the Li family manuals, only resorting to the original where sense requires. But often Li Qing’s variants seem no less elegant than the original, and sometimes I even find them preferable.

When we have a more widely-distributed “classical” source with which to compare the ritual texts of household Daoists (as is often the case), one often finds minor discrepancies. Many manuals (including most of those of the Li family) were recopied from memory in the 1980s, so a certain amount of variation was likely. However, while sometimes the Daoists might remember how to recite or sing a phrase or character but not how to write it, in general Li Qing’s manuals are remarkably accurate. Moreover, it’s also likely that variants had entered into the ritual manuals of household Daoists long before that. So it’s hard to tell when and how the variant of this poem arose.

The poem is not just about the emptiness of worldy cares, but refers to Shunzhi’s own struggle between his responsibilities as emperor and his personal inclination to Buddhist transcendence:

The forest of temples throughout the empire offers sustenance like a mountain
Everywhere the monastic bowl depends on the lord to provide.
There is no value in yellow gold and white jade
Only to don [1] the monastic cassock is difficult.
I, as great lord of the land of mountains and rivers
Am concerned for the nation and the people, serving to deflect their troubles.
One hundred years, thirty-six thousand days [2]
For a monk, don’t amount to [3] half a day’s rest.
Confusion on arrival, bewilderment on departure [4]
Travelling in vain for a while among men.
Better not to arrive and not to depart
With neither pleasure nor pain.
Before I was born, who was I?
Who was I at the hour of birth?
I only became an adult after I grew up
And once eyes are closed in the void, then who am I?
In this world the only good is to enter the clergy
With pure heart and peaceful mind, who is to know?
The mouth having taken its fill of eating harmonious flavours
One can always wear restitched robes from cast-offs.
The five lakes and four seas make a superior guest
Roaming free in the God Palace, lodging at will.
Do not call it easy to attain the dharma by becoming a monk
Let us talk only of the various bodhi of bygone ages.
I, as great lord of the land of mountains and rivers [5]
Seek the body of Crop Founder descended to earth.
Bright as is the cassock of the Western Quarter
Why has it descended upon the imperial family?
Just because at first my recitation was deficient
I had to exchange my purple cassock for a humble new robe.
For eighteen years I have been dreaming—
When can I rest from the great task of mountains and rivers?
Today, clapping my hands, I return to the mountains
How can I be expected to control the thousand, myriad autumns?

I’ve largely refrained from adding the Teutonic scholarly footnotes that the text suggests, but:

[1] Using the original 披肩.
[2] Chinese poetry has a lot of lines like this, and they read better in Chinese!
[3] Using the original不及.
[4] Referring to life and death, of course—but please feel free to provide your own joke about the airline of your choice.
[5] Here Li Qing repeats the earlier phrase, whereas the original couplet has “Even without being a true luohan, one also dons the triple vestments of Sakyamuni.” The following couplets of Li Qing’s version depart further from the original, and my translation is even more approximate.

Season’s greetings


Along the lines of

Meretricious and a Happy New Year,

here’s a seasonal entry from Alan Bennett’s 2001 diaries:

15 December. Words only used at Christmas: Tidings. Abiding. Swaddling. Lo! Abhors.

Indeed, as a boy chorister it always felt embarrassing having to sing “Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb”—despite having only the vaguest idea what any of these words might possibly mean (and once you do understand the line, it becomes problematical—it has attracted much comment, notably this). But that’s ritual for you, eh…

AB goes on:

A card from Victor Lewis-Smith with a sanctimonious  picture of Jesus and printed underneath:

Jesus loves everyone—except you, you cunt.

This makes me laugh helplessly.

What makes this entry so funny, apart from the content of the card itself, is both that AB was delighted to receive it and that he saw fit to tell the tale. For a related exhortation from Fascinating Aida, see here.

Conversely, the way AB is portrayed in Love, Nina is hilarious precisely because his persona there is so boring.

Some readers can be so literal… This article by the glorious Philomena Cunk prompted quite a few BTL comments from readers unaware that it’s a spoof, or that she’s a fictional creation (“Like, hello?”)—thus inadvertently making the comments hilarious too.


B and S

In my book Daoist priests of the Li family I coyly decided against

The Hoisting the Pennant and Judgment and Alms rituals go together like Brian and Stewie.

BTW, the Family Guy musical numbers are brilliant, rich in production values.

And for anyone trying to learn stave notation, here’s a handy aid:

For the excellent theme tune (cf. The art of the miniature), here’s a comparison between 1999 and 2017 versions—not entirely akin to Glenn Gould’s different recordings of the Goldberg variations, but perhaps calling to mind the variants of Asteroid:

And a bonus number to complement the role of Family guy in my post Jesus jokes:

For a comprehensive playlist, click here; and for Alan Bennett’s cameo role, here. See also Oh Noh!

The Three Wise Men


Fieldwork reports on local Daoist ritual continue to amass. Note the growing series Daojiao yishi congshu 道教儀式叢書.

In my book I described the main instigators of this impressive movement—C.K. Wang, John Lagerwey, and Lü Pengzhi—as a “holy trinity”. Then I thought maybe that should be the Three Pure Ones (Sanqing 三清)—but actually (since they are not so much objects of veneration as witnesses to marvels), a better metaphor might be the Three Wise Men:

“…Creeping around a cow shed at two o’clock in the morning? Doesn’t sound very wise to me…”
“We were led by a star!”
“Led by a bottle, more like!”

(Sorry, can’t help it…)

Now I’m wondering if they had a list, perhaps from Fortnum and Mason—how embarrassing if they’d all brought myrrh. “Sorry, your choice is already taken, please choose gold”.

For related irreverence, see Jesus jokes.

The Li band in Italy

Taking the Li family Daoists on tour in Italy (Turin, Milan, Venice, Rome) in March 2012 was delightful (my book pp.334–8).


From “our” island towards San Marco. Cheer up, lads.


Li Manshan before the Duomo in Milan.


The band at the Gallerie, Milan.

In Venice (a well-kept secret—Yeah, Right. Good to get here before it gets “discovered”—see here, and here), every other gondola seemed to be full of Chinese tourists. I was delighted to introduce the band to Mirella Licci, whom I hadn’t seen since she was studying the guqin at the Shanghai Conservatoire in 1987!


Venice: lunch at Il Giardinetto with Mirella Licci, our favourite groupie.

One evening we took aperitivos in Campo Santa Maria Formosa with our Confucius Institute hosts (see also here) and two splendid ethnomusicological Giovannis, Giuriati and de Zorzi. Li Manshan felt a particular affinity with the gargoyle on the campanile of the church.

I also note the fine tome by Horatio E. Brown, Some Venetian knockers.

Before I could work on my film on the ritual life of the Li family Daoists at home, we issued a DVD of their concert performance at the Cini Foundation in Venice. For evocative notes on our French tour in 2017, see here.


An aspiring singer on a TV talent show decided to perform Doh a deer, and rashly decided to go out, too literally, on a high note:


Which reminds me—the traditional gongche notation for the melodic skeleton of ritual shengguan ensemble translates nicely into solfeggio (and indeed into modern Chinese cipher notation)…


Da Zouma score, written for me by Li Qing, 1992 (playlist #4, commentary here).

“But that’s not important right now”. I allude, of course, to Airplane:

The Chinese gongche system, like those of Europe and India, is heptatonic:

cipher notation:  1     2     3       4     5       6       7
solfeggio:              do  re   mi     fa    so     la      si
Indian sargam:   Sa  Re   Ga    Ma   Pa   Dha  Ni
gongche:               he  si    yi  shang  che gong  fan
with liu and wu as upper octave notes for he/do and si/re respectively (taking the older system with he, rather than shangas do! Call Me Old-fashioned).

For those who can’t fathom the British propensity for punning, the only line of Doh a Deer that makes any sense is La, a note to follow so—precisely the only line where the author reveals a touching fallibility. Such literal audiences would be happier if it were all like that:

Re, a note to follow do
Mi, a note to follow re
Fa, a note to follow mi
and so on…

It only remains to overhaul the opening line. The original version “La, a note to follow so—if you’re moving upwards in conjunct motion that is” was overruled as too pedantic, of course.

Another fun exercise is to sing the phrases in reverse order, descending instead of ascending from Doh:

Doh, a deer…
Ti, a drink with jam and bread
La, a note to follow ti!
So, a needle pulling thread

Given how well we know the song, it seems a bit weird how crap we Brits are at solfeggio. Another fun game would be to try singing the whole thing only in solfeggio:

Do, re mi, do mi do mi,
Re, mi fafa mire fa

and so on.

Then we can use the tune to familiarise ourselves with Indian and Chinese solfeggio:

Sa, Re Ga, Sa Ga Sa Ga,
Re, Ga MaMa GaRe Ma…

he, si yi, he yi he yi,
si, yi shangshang yisi shang

We can also sing the song to the many scales of Indian raga in turn, with their varying flat or sharp pitches (note my series, introduced here)—a simple example: in rāg Yaman, try singing a sharp fourth for fa, a long long way to run

And here’s a fascinating medley of versions in French, German, Italian, Spanish (x3), Japanese, and Persian:

For a brilliant pun on the Mary Poppins song, see here. And for “do, a note to follow mi“, click here.

Fantasy reviews

Daoist priests of the Li family:

Some critical plaudits that my latest book has not yet received, along the lines of Groucho:


“This book does for Daoism”—Nelson Mandela

“The best Christmas gift since Dame Kiri Sings the Sex Pistols’ Greatest Hits by Candlelight” *—Noam Chomsky

“Of all the books about Daoism I have ever read, this is one of them”—the Dalai Lama

“Beneath this book’s jocular surface there lies an even more superficial message”—Paris Hilton

“A rip-roaring bawdy swaggering outrageous romp, cutting a picaresque swathe through… Oh just buy it OK?”—Brian Sewell
[can we get “smorgasbord” in there somewhere?—Ed.]

“A potent, nay heady, brew of the arcane and the inane”—David Blunkett

“A glowing paean to the indomitability of the terylene trouser”—George W. Bush

“If you only read one book about Daoism, then you must have a life”—Peter Stringfellow

“Right up there with G. Jarring’s classic Matters of ethnological interest in Swedish missionary reports from Southern Sinkiang, published in Lund by the no less wacky Kungl. Humanistiska Vetenskapssamfundet, Scripta Minora, Regiae Societatis Humaniorum Litterarum Ludensis, 1979–80: IV”—Andy Kershaw

For more clichés of blurb-writing, see here. At a tangent, I’m also fond of this real comment:

Excuse me, but we are very lucky that your violin was broken

—a statement with which many of my orchestral colleagues would concur.

* Here I’ve embellished an old Private eye headline:

Dame Kiri

Points mean prizes


Musos always play this game on tour, but I’m sure it’s common in many walks of life.

On tour in Italy, for instance, we all come back from lunch in our different groups, outdoing each other with stories of an amazing find:

Little trattoria in a tiny backstreet, not even a sign on the door, only locals in there, no menu, they just give you what they’re having, five courses, home-made pasta… Toothless old lady dressed in black treading the grapes… And you know, it was incredibly cheap… And then she invited us to her granddaughter’s wedding, and there was this fantastic band playing zampogna and piffero

And so on—you get the idea. See also Nearly an Italian holiday.


Household Daoists tend to know about performance, not doctrine. I focus on practical knowledge—right down to which cymbal patterns to use as interludes for which hymns, and when to use them, or not. What the Li family don’t know, or do, is things like secret cosmic visualizations.

They don’t necessarily know how to write the texts, or if they do so (for me) they may write some characters a bit approximately because they already know how to recite them.

They know nothing of Laozi’s Daode jing, so central to Western images of Daoism. When I quote the pithy, nay gnomic, opening two lines to Li Manshan and his son Li Bin:

道可道非常道    The way you can follow is not the eternal way;
名可名非常名    The name you can name is not the eternal name.

they don’t quite get it, and I have to translate it into colloquial Chinese for them! Hmm…

We have a bit of fun playing with feichang, which in modern Chinese is “very”, rather than the classical “not eternal”. Actually, in their local dialect they don’t use feichang at all, though of course they know it. In Yanggao the usual way of saying “very” is just ke 可, pronounced ka—thus “dao kedao feichang dao” might seem to be “The way is soooo waylike, I mean it’s just amazingly waylike”…

Still, Daoists like Li Manshan will have picked up a broad understanding of the texts they sing every day, even if they have never been taught their “meaning”. They know Laozi not as the author of the Daode jing but as a god.

As I wrestled with translating the Hymn to the Three Treasures (Sanbao zan), used for Opening Scriptures in the morning (Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.262–3, and film from 22.01), Li Manshan explained it to me.


Hymn to the Three Treasures, from Li Qing’s hymn volume, 1980.


The subject of the first verse to the dao, “We bow in homage to the worthy of the dao treasure, Perfected One without Superior” (Jishou guiyi daobaozun, Wushang zhenren) is Laozi himself, so it is he who is the subject of the remainder of the verse: “He descended from the heavenly palace” (xialiao tiangong) refers to Laozi descending from the heavenly palace after beholding the sufferings of the deceased spirit (guanjian wangling shou kuqing)—it’s all about Laozi! So you see, Li Manshan does get the texts…

As for any ritual tradition, where does the “meaning” reside, when texts are unintelligible to their audience? When we translate and explain ritual texts, we are radically altering them as experienced by their audience. True, the performers, the priests, certainly “understand” them, to various degrees, if not in the same way as scholars translating them. I don’t suggest limiting ourselves to the consideration of how people experience rituals, but that should surely be a major part of our studies. Experience lies beyond textual exegesis, consisting largely in sound and vision.

I am reminded of Byron Rogers on an American version of the New Testament (Me: the authorized biography, p.268):

Pilate: “You the King of the Jews?”
“You said it.” said Christ.

There’s another one for the Matthew Passion (cf. Textual scholarship, OMG). “What is truth?”, indeed…

Mercifully, there is no movement to translate the ancient texts of Daoist ritual into colloquial modern Chinese. Of course, for northern Daoist ritual a modern translation wouldn’t make the texts any more intelligible anyway, given the slow tempo and melisma.

Laozi does appear in one of our favourite couplets for the scripture hall (see Recopying ritual manuals, under “The couplet volume”; cf. my book pp.194–5—not easily translated!):

穩如太山盤腿座     Seated in lotus posture firm as Mount Tai,
貫定乾坤李老君     Old Lord Li thoroughly resolves male and female aspects.

For a basic roundup of posts on the Li family Daoists, see here.


Quaint and not entirely useless fact:

The names of indigenous and ancient Chinese musical instruments usually consist of one single character, like

qin 琴 zither
sheng 笙 mouth-organ
zheng 箏 zither
di 笛 flute,

whereas those imported from outside China (generally Central Asia) tend to have two characters, like

bili 篳篥 oboe (Japanese hichiriki; descendant of the Chinese guan[zi] 管子)
 琵琶 lute
erhu 二胡 fiddle (and indeed huqin 胡琴, tiqin 提琴, and so on)
suona 嗩吶 shawm
yangqin 揚琴 dulcimer.

“Not a lot of people know that”. Perhaps we can think of some exceptions?

By the way, the pipa was held horizontally in medieval times, the angle getting higher over the course of a thousand years until attaining its present vertical position—surely the longest and most gradual erection known to mankind.

Lower row, left: Yang Dajun.

There are still a couple of regions where the older more horizontal position has been maintained:

(left) nanyin in Fujian; (right) Shaanbei bard.


In Isobel Fonseca’s brilliant Bury me standing she recalls showing her passport to a young guard at the Polish border:

Uniquely intriguing to him was the stamp for Albania, or “E Republikes Popullore Socialiste te Shquiperise”, with the “Popullore” and “Socialiste” touchingly crossed through by hand.

Funny as this is, she goes on to reflect soberly:

People believe that Gypsies are dangerous because they have nothing to lose. And here I sat, impatient, even indignant, as the pale border guard felt up my passport. Swollen with extra pages, that little accordion and its inky scores of distant anthems was the proof that I was the only one who had nothing to lose. I could just leave.

For Albanian folk music, see here.

Tone of voice, and audiences


Around 1975, while “studying” at Cambridge, I somehow managed to get an invitation to tea with Sir Harold Bailey (see also here), eminent scholar of ancient Central Asian philology. I guess it was Laurence Picken, or Denis Twitchett, who made the introduction.

Sitting me down at his side, Sir Harold at once embarked on a lengthy discourse about medieval Khotanese texts, peering at a jumble of manuscripts on the desk before us. His only companion was his cat, whom he also addressed periodically, without modifying either his gaze or his measured academic tone.

“Here I found a clear clue to a syntactical link with the Sogdian manuscripts that had been excavated some time before… And I suppose you want another saucerful of milk.”

Before I could assure him that I was fine with my cup of tea, he went on,

“It may take some time to map the linguistic links between the various medieval oasis towns… It’s no use rubbing up against my legs like that, you’re not going out into the garden again, we can’t have you bringing in any more birds…”

It took me some time to get the hang of this.

From his obituary:

A task now facing Bailey’s colleagues is the elucidation of his rhyming diaries. When told at our last meeting that the course of a lifetime had transformed these into an epic of over 3,000 verses in a private language concocted from classical Sarmatian inscriptions, I asked Bailey why he was so fond of obscurity. “Well, the diaries are not really so obscure,” he said. “Indeed I’d say there’s hardly a line that could not have been understood by any Persian of the fourth century.”

For another story about context sensitivity, see here. And do read Compton Mackenzie meets Henry James!


In ch.18 of my book (p.342) I reflect on the Li band’s recent concert tours and Intangible Cultural Heritage status:

All this may sound like a typical story of adaptation to modern secular contexts. But it’s not. Let’s face it, the Li family is never going to become the next Buena Vista Social Club. Year in, year out, their livelihood remains performing for local rituals. Li Manshan’s recent nomination as Transmitter of the ICH brings him a modest extra income for now, but the Daoists continue to rely on doing funerals around their home base; their ICH status and foreign tours are only a minor element in their reputation, which is an accumulation of local charisma over many generations. They still lack disciples, either from their own or other families; and crucially, local patrons no longer pay much attention to the niceties of ritual practice.

It all reminds me of the elderly fiddle player in the Romanian village band Taraf de Haidouks, reflecting on his meteoric rise to global success on the world music scene:

A little fairy granted me my wish to be happy in old age. Now I have suits in terylene.

For more on adapting Daoist ritual for the concert stage, click here. For a populist fantasy, see Strictly north Chinese Daoist ritual. See also World music abolished!!! For Paris as pedagogical Mecca, see Nadia Boulanger, and Kristofer Schipper.


Ethnomusicologists, aspiring to some pseudo-scientific objectivity, tend to put their tastes on hold—for like John Cleese in the cheeseshop sketch, we “delight in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”.

The live version is also very fine:

Football songs, Bulgarian wedding laments, ice-cream-van jingles, Demis Roussos, world accordion conventions, even Beethoven, all are grist to our mill.

My esteemed colleague Helen Rees, in a fine outline of the Chinese soundscape, wrote:

Doorbells play Muzak when pressed.

I like that—I play Muzak when pressed too. For more on the doorbell, press here.

And here‘s a sequel on ice-cream vans and garbage trucks!

Drumming (continued)

I’d love to know who the conductor was in this story.

A guest conductor is rehearsing for a concert with a London orchestra. He soon stops them in mid-flow to address the timpani player: “Sir, you sound like someone slapping a pillow with a flaccid penis!”

Coming back to rehearse the band next morning, the conductor makes a speech: “Ladies and gentlemen, you must forgive me for my behaviour yesterday, I was unpardonably rude… Nonetheless, I went back to my hotel last night, and I tried it—and I WAS RIGHT!”

In memory of Paul Kratochvil

Paul 1976

Wedding party, Cambridge 1976.

At Cambridge during the Cultural Revolution, immersed as I was in the Tang dynasty, my only clues to the funkiness of contemporary Chinese culture came from my teacher the fine linguist Paul Kratochvil (a surname that suitably means “fun”). Born in 1933, he had somehow became an expert on the phonetics of modern Chinese, fleeing Czechoslovakia in 1968 to take up a post at Cambridge with the help of the Oxford sinologist Piet van der Loon. He features in this impressive introduction to Prague sinologists (for whom, see here).

Recommending to me a book called Current Trends in Linguistics, Paul looked bemused when I asked him what I should look it up in the library under—like an editor’s name or something:

“Well, Steve, try ‘C’—if that doesn’t work, I guess you could try ‘K’…”

While he was still in Prague, a friend in China addressed the envelope of a letter to him with great economy:


(“Czechoslovakia, Comrade Paul”). Sure enough, he received it.


Over copious beer in the pub where he used to take me for what were euphemistically described as “supervisions”, Paul recalled this story:

While still in Czechoslovakia he had served as interpreter for the Czech army, and at one high-level conference in Prague receiving a Chinese military delegation, he found himself interpreting for a Czech general at one end of the table and a Chinese general at the other.

The talks had gone well, and the Czech general was winding up with the customary sonorous platitudes.

“I hope both sides will be able to exchange experiences!” he declared majestically.

My friend Paul was already a fine linguist, and he knew there were some binomes in Chinese which you could say in the order either A-B or B-A, but alas he thought jingyan, “experience”, was one of these. So he blithely translated, “Wo xiwang shuangfang nenggou jiaohuan yanjing”, which unfortunately comes out only as

“I hope both sides will be able to exchange spectacles.”

This puts the Chinese general in a spot; the TV cameras are trained on him, and he mustn’t make a faux pas. Can this be some weird Czech custom denoting fraternal solidarity? As luck would have it, both generals are wearing spectacles. The Chinese general hesitantly takes off his glasses and holds them out over the table towards his Czech counterpart.

This, of course, presents no less of a challenge for the Czech general; having said nothing at all about spectacles, he is mystified to see this Chinese geezer holding out his spectacles across the table, and he too has to think quickly. Can this be some ancient Confucian ritual denoting fraternal solidarity? He too hesitantly takes off his glasses and offers them across the table.

My chastened mentor later switched on the Prague TV news to see a report, the newsreader announcing solemnly, “And at the end of the conference the two sides exchanged spectacles in the ancient Chinese gesture of comradeship”—as the two generals groped their way to the door.

For a suitable fanfare for the event, see here. Among several more fine stories from Paul, I like this, and indeed this. See also Czech stories: a roundup.


I truly believe that one day there will be a telephone in every town in America—Alexander Graham Bell


The date of the first landline phone in Li Manshan’s village is another of our standing jokes.

This is really embarrassing to admit, but when I asked him about it in 2011, I heard his reply as ‘sisannian’, so I unquestioningly wrote ‘1943’ in my notebook, I mean how mindless was that of me… Only later, writing up my notes back home, did I smell a rat, and it finally dawned on me that he must have said shisannian (qian), ‘thirteen years ago’! (The difficulty of distinguishing shi and si was only part of my howler; and actually, he would never say sisannian for 1943—even if he knew such a date he could only say “32nd year of the Republican era”, book pp.37-8). So the first landline was only installed in 1998, just a few years before mobile phones swept the board.

Now, whenever we misunderstand each other, we just say “sisannian” and fall about laughing. For more on our relationship, see here; and for a classic joke, here. For early linguistic escapades in Hebei, see here.

The percussion prelude

In my book (p.280) I observed a subtlety of Yanggao Daoist ritual that may elude us:

Novices soon pick up the short pattern in rhythmic unison on drum, small cymbals and yunluo that opens and closes every item of liturgy, an accelerando followed by three beats ending with a damped sound. This is known as luopu (“cadential pattern”) and it turns out that the number of beats is fixed, 7 plus 4—unless the guanzi player needs a bit more time to prepare his reed!

See also Tambourin chinois, and Drum patterns of Yanggao ritual .

Much less impressive is Beethoven’s take on this, the four soft quarter-note beats that open his violin concerto (less creative than the EastEnders Doof Doof). The quote from my book is itself just a prelude to the popular story of a famous conductor rehearsing his orchestra in the concerto. Though he was notorious for nit-picking, one might suppose that at least here the band would get up a bit of a head of steam before he started correcting them. But no, sure enough he brings them to a halt even before the oboe can come in.

Turning to the bemused timpanist, he says,

“Can you play that with a little more… magic?”

The timpanist looks back at him sullenly, beats out the four notes again, and goes,


* * *

In Daoist ritual there’s nothing quite akin to “rehearsal”, but during a ritual Li Manshan maintains standards by the subtlest of facial gestures, with a little glare if the ensemble is less than perfect. As I learn, I benefit from such hints.

A meeting with Teacher Wang


With Li Manshan in Hong Kong, 2011

Chinese peasants tend to “eat” cigarettes (chiyan) rather than the standard “take a drag on” them (chouyan)—yet another instance of the practical blunt charm of their language.

Timothy Mo alludes to this locution in Sour Sweet:

“Eat things, eat things,” he said aloud, gesturing to the smoking plates in front of everyone but only lighting a cigarette for himself.
“You don’t eat things yourself, Grandpa?” This was Mui.
“I eat smoke,” he quipped, laughing immoderately at his own wit.

At a conference in Hong Kong (my book pp.333–4) I was delighted to introduce Li Manshan to the illustrious Taiwanese scholar C.K. Wang. Apart from his indefatigable energy in opening up the vast field of ritual studies in mainland China, he has a remarkable gift for finding a place for a surreptitious smoke (cf. the first poem in Homage to Tang poetry). In Hong Kong, where smoking laws are draconian, he would regularly lead us through labyrinthine corridors to some corner of an underground car park for a furtive fag.

This soon became part of my secret language with Li Manshan. Back in Yanggao, he was careful not to smoke in the presence of his baby grandson—so sometimes when I felt he needed a fag-break, I would suggest to him, “Shall we go and hold a meeting with Teacher Wang?”

For Li Manshan and Andy Capp, click here.


To complement OMG, here’s Bill Bailey on the plague of “LOL”:

(He actually did this with an audience at a live standup gig, but it’s disappeared from YouTube).

An economical expression such as

I’m like, hello?”

is brilliant. Our elders (or let’s face it, some of us) would have to fall back on a ponderous formulation like

“I must confess I found myself at a loss to respond to the sheer fatuity of my companion’s comment, and could only register a mock expression of disdain”.

I recommend reading this in the voice of Jacob Tree-Frog (aka The Haunted Pencil, Minister for the 18th century)—actually “I’m like, hello?” sounds just as funny with his patrician tones, like the Queen reading MIles Davis’s autobiography.

Cf. this cartoon found on


Textual scholarship, OMG

One often finds oneself consulting Doesn’t one.

Like “Meretricious and a Happy New Year”, or “She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B”. This is the kind of meticulous historical work that one expects from the scholarship of Daoist ritual texts.

“OMG” isn’t there, but appears to date from at least 1917 (OMG!)—recalling the brilliant Armstrong and Miller sketches (playlist):

And that’s kinda like a commentary on what we do when we listen to Bach (qv): we can’t help hearing the cadences of our own experience of life in the scenarios of the past. And shit like that. Innit though.

In the Bach Passions, textspeak could generally work for the choral crowd scenes, but actually “Erbarme Dich, OMG” fits worryingly well too:



He has risen from the dead, YAY!”

YAY being a more economical version of Hallelujah…

Maybe I’m onto something. Let’s hope not.

Fun with anachronisms

And the roar of Moses’ Triumph is heard in the hills

Without even knowing how I feel about the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, my adorable cat Kali (R.I.P.) threw up over my copy of the Jade Pivot Scripture, which I had bought in an edition printed at the temple.

One ritual title that features only fleetingly in the ritual manuals of the Li family Daoists in north Shanxi is Thunder Lord of Three-Five Chariot of Fire (Sanwu huoche leigong). This is among the attributes of the deity Wang Lingguan, and a trace of the thunder rituals of Divine Empyrean Daoism. [1] In the Li family manuals it appears only in the Mantra to Lingguan and in the Xijing zayi manual, no longer performed and thus no longer familiar to them: [2]


From Xijing zayi manual (Sanwu huoche Lingguan on line 3), copied by Li Qing

So my excuse to discuss it here is flimsy as ever, but we all need a bit of light relief every so often. This also relates tenuously to my comments on hearing Bach with modern ears.

Huoche “chariot of fire” (glossed as “fireball”) may prompt titters at the back, since in common modern parlance it means “train”. Whereas “And the roar of Moses’ Triumph is heard in the hills” is a translation that has been inadvertently amusing only since the spread of the automobile [mental note: must get that exhaust fixed], [3] huoche is an ancient original which could have been affording chuckles to Daoist scholars since the term became common usage for “train” in the late 19th century. When you’re immersing yourself in the abstruse mysteries of the Daoist Canon, you have to take such diversion where you can find it.

What’s more, we may giggle impertinently at another of Lingguan’s attributes, Sanwu (Three-Five)—erstwhile a brand of cigarette that Chinese people associate with Englishness (much to my perplexity, since I’ve never heard of them outside China) just as much as London fog. (For “the smoking substances of non-nationals”, see More from Myles).

So here we appear to find Lingguan smoking a posh foreign cigarette on a train journey through his spiritual domain—being a high-ranking Daoist cadre, he would get to travel soft-sleeper (cf. Fieldwork and textual exegesis).

[1] The appellation may commonly be found in the Daoist Canon, but, more relevant to “texts in general circulation” (my book pp.218–24) and the practices of the Li family may be its appearances in Xuanmen risong: Xuanmen risong zaowan gongke jingzhu 玄門日誦早晚功課經注, chief editor Min Zhiting (Beijing: Zongjiao wenhua chubanshe, 2000), pp. 166–7, 244–5. See also Rethinking Zhengyi and Quanzhen.

[2] My Daoist priests of the Li family, p.376, cf. p.381; for the Divine Empyrean, see also pp.219–20.

[3] A substantial irreverent online industry in such Biblical quotes has arisen.

Fantasy Daoist ritual

The Pardon, 1991

The Pardon ritual led by Li Qing (2nd from left), Yanggao 1991 (my film, from 48.34).

As a change from my literary party game, here’s an arcane spinoff from the game of picking a fantasy world football team, or chamber orchestra.

Let’s choose our all-time most amazing group of Daoist ritual specialists, including both liturgists and instrumentalists. Of course, the list of candidates is endless, so I’d seek to refine the search by selecting those known mainly for their ritual performance, rather than for compiling vast compendia of manuals.

Thus the list could include early luminaries like Kou Qianzhi 寇謙之 (365–448) (who might speak a dialect similar to that of Li Qing, except that they lived over 1500 years apart), Tao Hongjing 陶弘景 (456–536), and Du Guangting 杜光庭 (850–933) (see their entries under Fabrizio Pregadio ed., Encyclopaedia of Taoism).

Churlishly fast-forwarding a millenium, among modern Daoists we could include Chen Rongsheng  陳榮盛 (1927–2014) from Tainan, [1] Zhang Minggui  張明貴 (1931–2016) of the White Cloud Temple in Shaanbei, and our very own Li Qing 李清 (1926–99); among a host of great drum masters one might recruit An Laixu 安来緖 (1895–1977) from Xi’an and Zhou Zufu 周祖馥 (1915–97) from Suzhou.

Above: left, Kou Qianzhi; right, Tao Hongjing;
below: left, Zhang Minggui; right, An Laixu.

For once, we can leave historical change to one side: it remains to be seen how effective Pelé and Messi would be together as a forward line-up, or Saint Cecilia and Bach (in the orchestra, or indeed in the football team; cf. the Monty Python Philosophers’ football). A more basic difference is that—more than football or the WAM canon—the performance of Daoist ritual is always specific to a small locality. Even if their ritual manuals may have a lot in common, household Daoists from different places can hardly work together. Never mind Daoists from ShanghaiFujian, and Hunan; even within north Shanxi, the whole ritual performance of the Li family in Yanggao is significantly different from that of groups in Hunyuan or Shuozhou counties very nearby.

Fun game, though. See also Strictly north Shanxi Daoist ritual.

Chen Rongsheng

Chen Rongsheng.

[1] Until quite recently, much of our knowledge of modern Daoist ritual (despite its great diversity) was based on the tradition of Chen Rongsheng, meticulously documented by Kristofer Schipper and John Lagerwey. Here’s a tribute, with precious clips of Master Chen’s ritual practice:

Links to lengthier ritual sequences here. See also Michael Saso’s YouTube channel for early clips of his Master Chuang.

Funeral music

Invitation, Beijing concert

Beijing concert, 2013.

On the Li family Daoists’ 2013 tour of Germany I suggested an extra item in our evolving concert programme, an a cappella sequence based on the Invitation ritual performed at the edge of the village (my book p.339; film, from 58.14; playlist #1, with commentary here).

At first they were reluctant: while they have no qualms about performing ritual items on stage, they worried that performing an item so explicitly funerary might be unsuitable. I pointed out that some of the greatest music in the concert tradition of Western Art Music is for the dead.

Apart from various requiems, one of the pieces I used to reassure them that funeral music was quite familiar to Western audiences  was Buxtehude’s Klaglied. Though a recording by the wondrous Michael Chance has just disappeared from YouTube (BRING IT BACK AT ONCE!!!), Andreas Scholl’s version is also great:

Not that the Daoists were remotely impressed by it—by contrast with Steven Feld’s influential experiments in finding which kinds of alien musics might strike a chord among the Kaluli (Sound and sentiment). They enjoyed our trip to the Bach museum in Leipzig not so much for the music as to get a glimpse of the life of a European ritual specialist; and when I showed them the EBS video of the Christmas oratorio they were mainly amused to see me in tails. I can’t even turn them on to jazz.

Occasionally some well-meaning urbanites have rashly suggested I bring my violin to play along with the Daoists, or even arrange their music for orchestra—but to their credit, the Li band have the taste never to do so.

Anyway, the Invitation has turned out to be a great success in our touring programme, a moving tranquil interlude between the uproar of “catching the tiger” and the wild percussion of Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms its body. As an encore for our French tour in 2017 we even sang the Mantra to the Three Generations (playlist #2 and #3), which follows the Invitation at the gateway after the return to the soul hall.

For adaptations of ritual to the concert stage, see also here, under “The reform era”.

Context-sensitivity in ritual costume and music


From Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain, here’s his version of the famous, if apocryphal, George Brown story:

Attending an official reception in Peru, very inebriated, he approaches a willowy figure in scarlet for a dance. Brown is repulsed and protests grandly that he is Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; why could he not have a nice dance? The reply comes:

“For three reasons, Mr Brown. First because you are disgustingly drunk; second because that music is not a dance but our national anthem; and third because I am the cardinal archbishop of Lima.”

Jeremy Vine tells how Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson managed to forget the punchline on more than one occasion.

For another celebrated reception story, click here.



Another highlight from The China Daily was a full-page advertisement taken out in 1987 by the wackily-named China National Arts and Crafts Import and Export Corporation Guangdong branch. The detailed report on the fine products on offer to a discerning international clientele should have been headed, simply,

Guangdong Arts and Crafts

But when they sent it for checking, the English proof-reader found one phrase of the text less than elegant, circled it, and, in an empty space—unfortunately just to the right of the caption—wrote “an awful cliché”. Sure enough, the headline came out:

Guangdong Arts and Crafts an awful cliché

I trust this will lead you to explore my roundup of wacky headlines. For homages to Myles’s Catechism of cliché, click here and here.



The China Daily always repays study. A list of items on a Beijing concert programme, c1987, once included (I kid you not)

Gollwogg’s “Cake Walk”.

Here’s a piano roll of Debussy himself (cf. Clair de lune, which isn’t):

For the PC debate, see e.g. here. Cf. Learning the piano.

Anyway, the title puts me in mind of the classic

  • Cave overture by Fingal,

and indeed

  • Pique-nique by Edouard Ibert (Jacques’ little-known kid brother—Ted to his friends).

This is in the same ball-park as the Martin string quartet.

And Swan Lake has come out in Chinese as Goose Pond