Embarrassment, pah!

Tying in disturbingly with my posts on Alan Bennett (here and here) and Watching the English:

Never mind all the compelling reasons why the UK might balk at hosting an evil racist misogynist bigot bent on destroying all moral values and sowing global discord. Instead, it may be this one—stated in the petition against the visit—that will quaintly hold sway:

because it would cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen.

And we can’t have that now can we? As to “putting the Queen in a very difficult position”, let’s not go there…

Court jester Boris, as usual, opens his mouth and puts his foot in it with the argument: we’ve had Mugabe, we’ve had Ceausescu, why not Go for Gold? There’s a fantasy dinner party from hell…

Mind the Gap: The Three Homages

Chapter 10 of my book is called Mind the Gap. My use of this classic London underground warning, I gladly concede, may well be less effective in Daoist ritual studies than that of the wonderful Bridget Christie for feminist comedy.

Anyway, I explore how rituals as performed don’t make a close fit with ritual manuals—apart from the fact that the latter are silent. Here’s an instance. [1]

The Li family makes four visits to the soul hall in the morning to Deliver the Scriptures (songjing 送經). The final one of these sessions is Presenting Offerings (shanggong 上供), parts of which are shown in my film, from 32.12.

The Three Homages hymn (San guiyi, also known as Zan sanbao) is part of an unusual sequence in their current practice. This is another instance of the importance of using ritual performance rather than relying merely on ritual manuals. Finding the short text of The Three Homages in Li Qing’s hymn volume (and I haven’t yet found it elsewhere), we couldn’t know that each of its three verses (accompanied by shengguan) is preceded by a choice of solo shuowen recited introit (now commonly based on the Triple Libations of Tea). The first one commonly goes like this:

I hereby declare:
The lustre of time soon passes, life and death are hard to evade.
Don’t ask of the three sovereigns and five emperors, or cultivate the search of Qin and Han emperors most high.
Coveting Pengzu’s eight hundred years, or cultivating Yan Hui’s four hundred years.
Although old and young differ, they can’t help being equal in rank.
Burning incense in the golden incense-burner, jade cups full of tea,
With filial kin raising up the cups, the first libation of tea pouring.

Nor could we know that the hymn is followed by the fast tutti a cappella chanted Mantra to Smash the Hells (which appears not in the hymn volume but in the Bestowing Food manual):


In boundless Fengdu hell, the vastness of Mount Vajra.
Immeasurable light of the Numinous Treasure
thoroughly illuminating the woes of Scorching Pool.
The Seven Ancestors and all the netherworld souls
Bearing incense-cloud pennants,
Blue lotus flowers of meditation and wisdom,
Life-giving gods eternally in peace.

Nor yet could we imagine that the whole sequence then concludes with any short hymn from elsewhere in the hymn volume, like The Ten Redemptions of Sin (Shi miezui) or the Five Offerings (Wu gongyang), again with shengguan.

With its short verses, the tempo of The Three Homages is not as slow as most of the Li family’s hymns, so one might think it would be an easy-learning item, but it is still none too easy for the outsider to learn. Indeed, they don’t grade their learning like this—they just plunge in, picking up the hymns as they occur in ritual practice.


San guiyi text.jpg

The text illustrates a system found in some other hymns, where the last words of each line are repeated to open the following line—as here, the first of three verses:

Homage to the Dao,
The Dao residing on Jade Capital Mountain. [2]
On Jade Capital Mountain preaching the dharma,
Preaching the dharma to deliver humans to heaven.

By the way: fa, commonly equated with the Buddhist “dharma”, is just as common in Daoism. I usually render it as “ritual,” only retaining “dharma” in a couple of binomes—like shuo fa here, and fayan “dharma speech”.

In sum, useful as it is to have collections of texts on the page, none of the efficacy of ritual in performance is contained there. All the segments of this Presenting Offerings ritual differ in style. To read them on the page, as ever, is quite inadequate.

For another instance, see the Invitation ritual.


[1] Adapted from my book, pp.208–9, 264.
[2] Li Qing’s manual gives Yuqing shan 玉清山, which I have (unusually) revised to the standard Yujing shan 玉京山.

Money money money

The term emoluments is suddenly enjoying a dubious revival with a clause in the US constitution that is among many currently battening down the hatches.

The term, while not constantly on the lips of the rap generation, evokes fond memories from my days studying Tang history.

True, this is scant consolation for the current Destruction of Civilisation As We Know It.

Another namby-pamby term used in academia that always makes me giggle is honorarium. But since I very occasionally get one, I mustn’t bite the hand that feeds me.

Musos are more straight-talking. One day our Mozart recording sessions in St John’s Smith square were interrupted by deafening building work outside. Reluctant to send us all home, the conductor discussed with the record company whether they might offer the workmen some kind of bribe to knock it off. Meanwhile the orchestra, aware that we would still have to be paid even if the session had to be called off, wondered whether we might make them a better offer to get them to keep going.

This was around the time of a dispute between a certain conductor and the brass players about overtime. A trumpet player (legendary for many touring exploits besides) put their case with the classic remark,

It’s not the principle, it’s the money!

This actually goes back at least to Eisenhower in 1959.

Flora, Amos, and the tweet


Even without the compelling negative example of Tweety McTangerine, I recoil from social media in the same way that Amos Starkadder, leader of the Church of the Quivering Brethren in Beershorn, argues with the fragrant Flora in Stella Gibbons’ brilliant 1932 Cold comfort farm:

“You ought to preach to a larger congregation than the Brethren,” suggested Flora, suddenly struck by a very good idea. “You mustn’t waste yourself on a few miserable sinners in Beershorn, you know. Why don’t you go round the country with a Ford van, preaching on market days?” […]

“I mun till the fields nearest my hand before I go into the hedges and by-ways,” retorted Amos, austerely. “Besides, ‘twould be exaltin’ meself and puffin’ meself up if I was to go preachin’ all over the country in one o’ they Ford vans. ’Twould be thinkin’ o’ my own glory instead o’ the glory o’ the Lord.”

So this is not so much technophobia on my part; as a “follower” [sic] of Krishnamurti, I’m sure he too would be as mortified by the idea as Amos.

Still, Amos relents under Flora’s subtle blandishments:

“I’m going to go all about in a Ford van. Like the apostles of old, I’ll go about the land.”

On the roar of Moses’ Triumph, see Fun with anachronisms.

Going too far

I’ve been trying to keep my addiction to Alan Bennett under control, but this, from 1992, has a certain topical feel:

A young man sets himself on fire during the Two Minutes’ Silence and, as he lies on the ground burning, shouts, “Think about the people today.” Closer in feeling and in genuine agony to what is being commemorated than anyone else on the parade, he is bundled away to be treated for 60 per cent burns at Roehampton, and nothing more will be heard of him. If Jan Palach had put a match to himself in Whitehall and not Wenceslas Square, the same would have happened. It’s not called “martyrdom” in England, just “going too far”. Still, “it is thought that the Royal Party were unaware of the incident,” and that’s the important thing.


MYL played

Some may (wrongly) imagine folk cultures as a kind of “living fossil”, but in China, thankfully, few yet seek to recreate the performances of the past in arid concert halls. Or at least it’s still a small industry, such as attempts to recreate Tang music… And so far it’s been an exercise performed, with little or no concern for historical style, not by folk musicians but by urban educated pundits and conservatoire performers, trapped within their modern preconceptions. [1] Folk musicians, like symphony orchestras (at least until recently), are quite happy working within their evolving tradition, without agonizing over “preserving” some supposed “authenticity”.

Scholars of Daoist ritual aren’t necessarily seeking to “hear a centuries-old piece of music as it was heard when it was composed”. What they may do, though, is silently equate living performance with that of the Tang or Song dynasties. From my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.369:

While Lagerwey’s fine accounts of Daoist ritual in Taiwan occasionally suggest clues to changing ritual practice in modern times, “our primary interest […] is less to give a complete description of actual practice […] than it is to analyse the deep structure of that practice” (Lagerwey 1987: 91)—an influential perspective that tends to lead to the noble yet arcane goal of studying texts as evidence for the ritual structures of medieval times.

And Daoist scholars do sometimes seek to recreate rituals from the memory of elderly Daoists, as in Shanghai—evidently a worthy “salvage” project, albeit without reference to the changing social context since their youth.

Context and style have changed far less than with WAM—but they have changed. Apart from more general social changes, early music studies influence me in noting all kinds of changes in the Li band’s performance practice since the 1930s (my book pp.358–60):

Recently they have reduced the personnel from seven to six, discarding one guanzi, and the dizi has hardly been needed since the 1990s,

Turning to rituals, since current practice is dominated by funerals, this might at first seem to be their tradition. But they clearly recall a tripartite system of funerary, earth, and temple rituals; even if the latter two are now virtually obsolete, it is clear from their manuals. Thanking the Earth, once their most frequently performed ritual, has been lost since 1954; people can now afford to commission it again, but don’t. Though some temples have been restored, those holding fairs are fewer, and ritual sequences have been simplified along the lines of funerals. Three-day funerals are less common; and when they are held, the old sequence has become simplified and homogenised.

As to ritual segments within funerals, some were already largely obsolete by the 1940s, while others could still be performed in the 1990s but weren’t. Some, like Communicating the Lanterns and Judgment and Alms, have been radically simplified into mere symbolic tokens since the 1990s. Some—such as Dispensing Food or those from the “outer five rituals” like Crossing the Bridges—have become virtually obsolete since the 1950s; Li Qing and his colleagues could perform Opening the Quarters and the Pardon, but his disciples have hardly needed to do so. Yet others were probably rare even by the 1930s (Presenting the Memorial, Roaming the Lotuses, Smashing the Hells) or already lost by then (Offering Viands). Though segments have been adapted under Li Manshan’s leadership, his elders were already doing so long before.

As for the ritual manuals, we must take care to avoid some timeless ideal depiction. As the repertoire shrinks the manuals are not needed at all, but even before the 1950s many segments were performed without them. Li Qing probably didn’t know how to perform some of the rituals whose texts he copied in the 1980s. The lengthy chanted scriptures—around half of the total collection of manuals—were indeed placed on the table during performance, yet Li Qing and his colleagues could recite them so fluently that they barely needed to glance at them; now they are no longer expounded.

Along with the reduction in ritual repertoire, all three performance styles have been reduced—vocal liturgy, percussion items, and melodic instrumental music. The current repertoire of hymns is smaller than that in Li Qing’s score, so where there is a choice (as for Delivering the Scriptures and Transferring Offerings), that choice has become smaller. The “words of blessing” for Thanking the Earth are no longer performed, and fewer shuowen recited introits and mantras for offering paper are used. As the rituals that require them have been lost, instruments like the chaoban tablet, muyu woodblock, and qing bowl have fallen silent; and the dizi flute is no longer part of the melodic ensemble. The lengthy instrumental suites for Thanking the Earth and temple fairs are hardly performed, and the old variety of scales has been reduced. The repertoire of percussion items has also diminished.

But I don’t seek to lead the Li band towards reconstructing the practice of the 1930s, still less that of earlier ages.

Two small examples. Chatting with Li Manshan, I have mentioned how the “classic” instrumentation of the melodic ensemble that accompanies Daoist (and Buddhist) ritual around Beijing, and elsewhere in Shanxi, includes a ten-gong frame of yunluo—like Wutaishan further south, and Tianzhen (adjacent to Yanggao)—where they still use a seven-gong frame, the lowest row missing. If Li Manshan felt so inclined, he could order a ten-gong frame, and “restore” it to the ensemble.

“But we don’t know how to play it!” he comments, reasonably.

“Even I could teach you!” I point out impertinently, adducing the common folk saying,
“A thousand days for the guanzi, a hundred days for the sheng; you can learn the yunluo by the fifth watch”.

But one reason I won’t press the idea is that, despite the Tianzhen yunluo, even Li Manshan’s father Li Qing didn’t recall a ten-gong frame. I may surmise that it must surely have been part of the band at some stage before the 20th century, but I don’t interfere. Li Manshan isn’t in the business of recreation, and neither am I. I describe, not prescribe—except when I transplant them to the alien context of the concert hall, when my subliminal influence, and their own perceptions of the demands of the situation, seem to prompt them to perform with somewhat more grandeur than in the casual current conditions of rural funerals.

Another instance: in Chapter 12 of my book I note that since 1953 there have been hardly any patrons commissioning the two-day Thanking the Earth ritual. Li Qing’s colleague Kang Ren (b.1925) described its sequence to us before his death in 2010; Li Manshan and Golden Noble were interested enough to take notes, but can’t mobilise their local patrons to invite them to do it. Most of its components could be recreated, if there were demand. But there isn’t. This is the kind of thing that Daoist scholars might commission specially as a worthwhile salvage project, but my gentle suggestions lead nowhere. Some other obsolete or rarely-performed funerary rituals (my book ch.13) could also be restored, just about. But local patrons wouldn’t welcome it—it’s inconceivable, until such time as they suddenly do request them.

For thoughts on the recreations of Qing court genres, click here and here; for the recreation of early pieces for the elite qin zither, preserved in early tablatures but long lost from the repertoire, see e.g. here. For the early music movement in the West, see Richard Taruskin and John Butt.

[1] A rather different, if minor, case is recreations of obsolete rituals at the behest of local Bureaus of Culture. Such initiatives feel artificial, and scholars should take care both to point out the conditions under which they are made and to avoid silently equating them with some “authentic” folk practice. See e.g. Overmyer, Ethnography in China, pp.287–95.

More pastiche: Molvania

Do correct me if I’m wrong, but try as I may to detect racist undertones, Molvania: a land untouched by modern dentistry (first and most outstanding in the series Jetlag travel guides) still seems hilarious to me in its loving pastiche of the popular style of travel guides, rather than any perceived slight to Funny Foreigners. Indeed, it spares no energy in exposing racist sterotypes.

The style is faithfully observed, right down to the contributors’ biographies.

Molvania 1

The restaurant reviews are convincing:

Molvania 2

And further to my comments on historical recreation:

Molvania 3

Nor does Molvania neglect music:

Molvania 4

A passage from the sequel Phaic Tăn: sunstroke on a shoestring might come in handy in a lecture on music and socialism:

During the 60s, many Phaic Tănese folk groups were forced to practice in secret. This was not due to government policy, it was a result of their neighbours complaining.

Voices of the world

Voix du monde

For those coming to Daoist ritual from a sinological background (as is likely)—and for those who recognize that if we are going to study ritual, that involves performance, which in turn involves sound—here’s a quick crash course. Indeed, it comes in handy for anyone—particularly for those whose concept of music and singing is based on either WAM or pop (see e.g. here and here).

Among all the ethnomusicological surveys of vocal music, the 3-CD set

  • Les voix du monde: une anthologie des expressions vocales
    (CNRS/Musée de l’Homme, 1996),

with its detailed booklet, makes a precious introduction. A wide range of styles of vocal production is covered here:

  • Techniques
    Calls, cries, and clamours
    Voice and breath
    Spoken, declaimed, sung
    Compass and register
    Colours and timbres
    Disguised voices
    Voices and musical instruments
    Employ [sic] of harmonics
  • Polyphonies
    Echoes and overlapping
    Drones and ostinato
    Parallel, oblique or contrary motion
    Counterpoint and combined techniques.

Apart from a veritable smorgasbord [sorry, been writing too many blurbs] of amazing audio tracks from all over the world, the booklet contains valuable notes, a glossary, and tables such as “Different forms of polyphony” in graphic form:

Voix Polyphony

For ethnic polyphony in China, see here.

Then all we need is to digest

  • Bell Yung “The nature of Chinese ritual sound“, in Yung, Rawski and Watson eds., Harmony and counterpoint: ritual music in Chinese context, pp.13–31

and we’re all set to enter the fray…

Period style


Talking of authentic recordings, here’s the classic 1932 version of Pique-nique by Edouard Ibert (“Call me Ted”) (cf. Authorship):

With Val Rosing’s wonderful plummy voice, and great original, period instrumentation—menacing brass and xylophone, and zany woodblocks, like Cantonese jazz, I may be drawn to it by its heavy use of the pentatonic scale, but the final chorus is a definitive proclamation of those sober values that Made the British Empire “Great”, after the sinister bacchanalian debauchery of the sylvan outing…

See them gaily gad about
They love to play and shout
They never have any cares
At six o’clock their mummies and daddies will take them home to bed
Because they’re tired little teddy bears.

Cf. the reflections of Alan Bennett. And the pique-nique may remind us of Five go mad in Dorset, with lashings of ginger beer…

On a pedantic note, it’s Teddy bears’ picnic, with the apostrophe belonging after bears!


Another maestro-baiting story about an unnamed conductor:

Rehearsing an orchestra, the conductor stops them after a complex wind chord and glares at the second oboist: “You there—that note was out of tune!”

Unabashed, the oboist retorts, “OK then maestro… so was it sharp, or was it flat?”

Floundering, the conductor goes, “It was sooo out of tune, I couldn’t tell!”

Viola jokes and maestro-baiting


  • Stephen Cottrell, Professional music-making in London: ethnography and experience (Ashgate, 2004)

takes a proud place among studies of more “exotic” cultures in the splendid SOAS Musicology series. Complementing the work of Bruno Nettl and Christopher Small, as well as Ruth Finnegan’s classic The hidden musicians, it strikes many a chord with my work on Chinese ritual groups.

As I noted under WAM, it’s not that Western cultures, of any kind, should be a benchmark for discussing other societies; to the contrary, it’s fruitful to integrate them into a “Martian” view of world cultures, wearing both emic and etic hats. Many of Cottrell’s themes resemble those that an ethnographer like me would explore in studying Daoist ritual specialists:

  • The practical aspects of earning a living
  • The importance of “on the job” training, sociability, and oral/aural experience in what seems like a narrowly text-based tradition.
  • The importance of timbre (44–55), little theorized even in WAM but quite prominent in China for the qin zither, deserves recognition in Daoist ritual and shawm bands.
  • His account of “depping” (pp.57–76) augments the parallel that I draw for household Daoists (Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.319–26), not least the insecurity of the freelance living—and it’s fascinating to read (Cottrell p.60) an account of depping from 1760s’ Britain.
  • The modification of dreams: the tensions or discord between early training and ideals (based on solistic individualism and creativity) and the delicate social/practical negotiations, frustrations, and grinding routine of professional orchestral life (42–4, 103–21; cf. also Scunthorpe and Venice, and Ecstasy and drudge); personalities and crisis management within an ensemble (89–90). I should add that household Daoists, as hereditary (almost ascriptive) artisans, don’t experience such a conflict, never setting out with such a spiritual ideal; but the practical exigencies of occupational routine are shared. Here I also think of Yang Der-ruey’s study of the changing training of Shanghai temple Daoists. Cottrell cites a telling comment:

We’re artisans rather than artists. What an orchestral musician is doing is taking someone else’s creative idea which they put down as dots on paper and actually turning it into sound. So we’re more like bricklayers—the architect would do the plan and then they actually put the bricks into place.

  • And his dissection of the performance event, subsuming ritual, theatre, and play (149–82)—continuing from Small’s account, about which he expresses reservations. He observes diversity within the audience and in their responses (159–64)—a feature that for Chinese ritual is clearly germane, not only today but even in (supposedly more homogenous) pre-Liberation society.
  • Cottrell’s discussion of myth and humour (123–47), citing Merriam’s paradigm of low status, high importance, and deviant behaviour—“licence to deviate from behavioural norms” (137, cf. 143)—often reminds me of the Li band (cf. my book p.23); one might also think of other embattled freelancers like actors (“luvvies”). Like household Daoists, musicians are poorly paid. I might add that muso humour (particularly that of the classical muso—or the ritual specialist?!) further serves both to defuse pressure and to deflate pretension. A lot of our stories immortalise hooligan behaviour on tour. Such deviant behaviour—or at least deviant self-image—is a kind of “No, I won’t be a paragon of elite culture for you”, however childish.
  • Good too to see Cottrell drawing attention to “conductor-baiting”—better described as “maestro-baiting” (cf. his discussion of musos’ sarcastic use of the term maestro, p.139), recounting the famous story “You think I know Fuck Nothing—but I know FUCK ALL!” (135–6) (for variations, see my post on Visual culture). He attributes it to Celibidache, but I’ve heard it about Böhm (both are perfect candidates!); and outside the orchestral context it is usually attributed to director Michael Curtiz. Conductors are an authority figure par excellence. Here’s another story about George Szell:

Talking to Peter Gelb, General Director of The Met, someone was defending Szell against the charge of being a bully, remarking “Of course Szell is his own worst enemy”—to which Gelb replied “Not while I’m alive he isn’t”.

  • He cogently discusses viola jokes (131, 136, 142, 144–6)—for which whole websites have arisen, of course. In Plucking the winds (p.233) I cited this one:

What two things have the Beatles got in common with the viola section of the BBC Symphony Orchestra?
Most of them are still alive; and they haven’t been together since the 1960s.

This dates from a time in the 1980s when at least the first part of the punchline was more applicable; though still funny, the joke now has an added period charm (cf. Musical joke-dating). I’ll limit myself to one more:

What’s the difference between a viola player and a supermarket shopping trolley?
The trolley’s got a mind of its own.

Anyway—in all, such ethnographic enquiry is routinely applied to all kinds of world societies, and scholars of Daoist ritual can of course learn much from studies of the “usual suspects” like south Asia or Africa. But it may be stimulating for us to see such approaches applied to an apparently familiar (prestigious? literate?) culture that is easily taken for granted. As with the “great composers” myth, reified ancient Daoist texts can also somehow be taken for granted, tending to dominate scholarly attention at the expense of real changing social performance and experience.

See also Mozart in the jungle, and Perfection is NOT the word for it.

Gems from Chinese history


Some drôle quotes from The Cambridge history of China, which even I didn’t quite dare sneak into the indexes:

What is the use of a stele? —Sui emperor Wendi (“Just call me Wendi”) (vol.3, p.62).

The Cheng sisters were captured and decapitated. Mopping-up operations continued till the end of 43. —(vol.1, p.271). Messy business eh.

The “director of records for the empress” may have kept a record of the emperor’s cohabitations with the empress. This cannot have been a great burden. —(vol.1, p.503).

Hierarchies are an essential part of a well-ordered society, and they must be accepted voluntarily. —(vol.1, p.705). So there.

Let us judge whether the Chinese are a race of ethnocentrics who do not know how to manage when they think they have something to learn from foreigners. (vol.1, p.852) (cf. They come over ‘ere…).

For a sequel, click here.

Ravel et al.

Further to my Ravel page (under WAM):

Tanita Tikaram (where has she been all my life?), for her wonderful Private Passions, chose Michelangeli’s version, also very fine, of the slow movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto.

Apart from Bach (including the amazing Lalo Schifrin) she featured the slow movement of Mozart’s A major piano concerto, with the ill-fated Clara Haskil.

Yet more French letters

Female musicians, Tang Dynasty. Note konghou harpist, rear right.

Further evidence that my taste for drôlerie chinoise is far from recent: a spoof I wrote while helping Laurence Picken with his extraordinary research on Tang music—which I elaborated with another Cambridge mentor, the great Tang historian Denis Twitchett. The genre of faqu 法曲 (“dharma pieces”) has indeed been the (serious) object of scholarly attention. Reading this now, I find the fluency of my affectionate pastiche of academic style somewhat disturbing…

Informal communication with Dr T.H. Barrett [1] has suggested the possibility that faqu may actually mean “French pieces”. Study of a recently discovered and as-yet-untranscribed score from Dunhuang for “hand-wind instrument” (perhaps a kind of manually operated keyed chordophone) entitled Dunhuang shoufeng qinpu 敦煌手風琴譜 reveals a colophon dated 1st April 895 (lunar calendar) which contains references to a certain “Master Ma” (Mashi 馬師), or as we might say, “Chevalier”. The authenticity of this score is no longer in doubt. It includes many faqu, besides one title, Zhena legelede li’a 柘拿樂葛樂德篥阿, [2] evidently a transliteration from a language of the Western Regions (xiyu 西域), but otherwise unattested in Tang sources.

The contacts between the Tang court and the Western world are by now well documented. We find frequent references in Tang anecdotal sources to “strings of onions” (congchuan 蔥串), [3] often in connection with men with a certain type of moustache that became highly fashionable under the emperor Xuanzong, riding carts described as “self-propelling” (zixingche 自行車), [4] and clad in close-fitting garments with black and white stripes (a variant of the yinyang symbol?), as well as floppy caps known as beilei 鞞儡.

The French letter: a rejoinder
Further evidence of the Gallic influence on early Chinese musical culture is to be found in the ancient institution of the fashu 法書 (more recently faxin 法信) or “French letter”, a kind of prophylactic talisman deployed in ancient Chinese households in the hope of avoiding unfavorable consequences.

Traditionalists [5] might evoke the sacred power of music and the jiefa 節法 or “rhythm method”, [6] but more pragmatic counsel, favouring foreign and commercial expansion, and under the influence of Buddhist philosophy, gave rise to the “French letter”.

This popular device was available as early as the Tang dynasty in the form still to be found in temples today, the fawu liutong chu 法物流通處 or “Durex machine”. Although nowadays more innocuous material has replaced the original merchandise, the original meaning of “French thingies” (fawu) is clear. The phrase liutong is somewhat arcane: liu implies dissemination, and tong some kind of intercourse, so one might expect tongliu as an early form of resultative verb—thus, perhaps, “French thingies for penetration and ejaculation”.

Faqu tu
Yet another Gallic connection appears in the instrument fajue 法角 “French horn”, often supposed to refer to a kind of conch sounded in ritual. [7] Recent scholarship suggests that jue was often used metaphorically in the Tang, having once been associated with the debauchery of the notorious Zheng and Wei 鄭魏 kingdoms—the latter also known as “Wei-Hei”. Thus it had the connotation of “horny” or “lascivious” music, as in the term jueshi 爵士, once “gentleman of rank” but by the Tang, “jazz” or “jazzer”. The term dejue 得角 “obtain the horn” is also found in the Dunhuang MSS, apparently referring to a desire for imminent fulfillment; not can this be limited to exclusively religious fervour.

The well-known notational technique of denoting rhythm by means of dots to the right-hand side of the note (again referring to the above jiefa “rhythm method”) is also found as early as the Dunhuang pipa score. Known as pangdian 旁點 “a bit on the side”, this practice is thought to have been inspired by the ancient French penchant for extra-curricular activities, or gewai shi 格外事.

Moreover, the ambiguity in Tang scores between jue 角 and yu 羽 modes (Aeolian and Dorian respectively, differing only in the sixth degree of the scale) may also be traced to the innovative cultural influence of the French. The term yu is in fact an abbreviation of yulong 羽龍 or “feathered dragon”, a mythical beast said to appear upon rendition of this mode (cf. Han Feizi), and this was soon formalized into what we now know as the “feather boa”, and used in the celebrated Huntuo 褌脫 or “Removing the Drawers” dance, itself remarkable for its ambiguity between jue and yu modes. Thus the apparel used in this ancient French ritual dance gave its name to the mode most often used to accompany it.

For a sequel, see here; and for more Tang drolerie, here.

[1] In the Aardvark and Climbing Boot, 14th October 1985. Just before closing time.
[2] For the reconstructed Tang pronunciation of this enigmatic title, see Karlgren, Grammata Serica Recensa. Can the resemblance to Je ne regrette rien be fortuitous?
[3] Alternatively, some commentators have construed this phrase as indicating the Congling 蔥嶺 range in Central Asia. Indeed, the recent excavation of a large hoard of 7th-century snail shells from this very region makes the siting of a French colony there highly plausible.
[4] Thought to refer to a mystical “journey of the spirit”: see H. Maspero, “Le voyage dans le monde intérieur et la difficulté de trouver un endroit pour le parking”, T’oung Pao 27 (1913), pp. 856–979. For a similar view of the spiritual propensities of this means of conveyance, see Flann O’Brien, The third policeman.
[5] On the conflict between rival factions under Xuanzong, see The Cambridge history of China, vol.3.
[6] See Jones, “Time gentlemen please: the bell as colotomic indicator in Chinese ritual music” (for further articles I haven’t really written, see here).
[7] Cf. the hujia 胡笳 “barbarian pipes”, another import from the Western regions. 2019 update: in an apparent nod to Goodness Gracious Me, it has recently been “proved” that the ancient Gauls came from Hunan—where Daoists still use both a conch and a curved ox-horn 牛角 (popularly known as kaluosa 咔螺薩, a more durable form of the French croissant) to great effect in their rituals. Indeed, will Chinese scholars now “prove” that Charlemagne 沙了蠻 was a Tang vassal?

1990 Daoist

Literary wordplay

One for readers of Chinese!

Among the ritual manuals of the Li family Daoists, the final page of Li Qing’s Xiewu ke (below left) yields this ingenious poem about the Eight Immortals (below right), each pair of “characters” making up a seven-word line (4 +3):

This has nothing to do with their ritual practice. Though the composite characters may look at first sight like talismans, any cultured reader would enjoy reading (and deciphering) the poem. For a sequel, see More composite characters.

Li Manshan enjoys such word games, and puts me onto others like this:


to be read thus:


* 到 to be substituted for the implied 倒:
“an upturned 等 turned back upright”.

Indeed, as Sven Osterkamp eruditely tells me, Robert Morrison remarked on a very similar poem in an entry “Enigma” in his A dictionary of the Chinese language (1822), Part III, p.142—expanded upon by Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat in his “Explication d’une énigme chinoise”, in vol.2 of his Mélanges asiatiques (1826), pp.266–8:

Meanwhile over lunch at a transport caff (“Greasy Chopstick”) between visits to Daoists in Shuozhou, our wonderful and erudite driver Ma Hongqi wrote this elegant poem into my notebook, said to have been composed by Yingying on her first meeting with Scholar Zhang in the Romance of the Western Chamber:

Ma poem

which, as the young scholar soon discerned, is to be read first vertically, all the way down; then back upwards, turning left at 花; then all the way back to the right; and finally back to the left, turning upwards at 花—creating this four-line verse:


Variant versions of these can be found online.

More fucking gondolas


Another gratuitous spinoff from the Li band’s trip to Venice (cf. Scunthorpe and Venice, and indeed Venice: daily life in a theme park—oh, and Some Venetian greetings!):

A lesser-known gem of Monty Python is Away from it all,

a ghastly travelogue with all the lovingly recreated stereotypes of John Cleese’s voiceover.

… the one thing that Venice truly lacks—is leprechauns.

Bulgaria gets a candid assessment too:

Hard to believe, isn’t it, that these simple, happy folk are dedicated to the destruction of Western civilisation as we know it…

Eventually it’s exposed in the narrator’s increasingly deranged breakdown:

All this dashing about in search of Peace and Contentment—it doesn’t work! There’s no escaping yourself—how do you face the existential terror, the hopelessness, the dark corridors of one’s mind, the yawning, black, meaningless abyss they don’t tell you about in the brochures…

Several of us recall seeing this in the cinema as a trailer before The life of Brian.

You know whose fault it is? You lot—yes, you, you so-called cinema patrons! You sit there, stuffing your stupid faces with chocolate peanuts, gawping at these dreadful films… Well, why do you put up with them? You could stop them tomorrow if you had the guts to go to the manager and say, Why do you put this rubbish on?

For more travel clichés, see Molvania, and China–Italy: International Cultural Exchange zzzzz.

PC gone mad gone mad

Lee PC

Waaay more fatuous than political correctness is “PC gone mad”—that’s “PC gone mad” gone mad. As ever, Stewart Lee has a definitive routine:

And there’s his eloquent demolition of Amanda Platell’s complaint about Bake Off: she

made minor chocolate ripples by suggesting in print that a middle-class woman called Flora Shedden, and her chocolate carousel, were booted off the BBC’s Bake Off cake contest in favour of Muslim mum Nadiya Hussain, gay doctor Tamal Ray and “new man” Ian Cumming, because she wasn’t “politically correct” enough. Perhaps, wrote Platell, “if she’d made a chocolate mosque she’d have stood a better chance”.
The idea that a chocolate mosque would have scored better than a chocolate carousel suggests a baking competition in which, as well as for the technical quality of the cake, points are also awarded for the meaning and cultural significance of the thing that the cake is made to look like.

The idea that Shedden lost because she didn’t make a chocolate mosque would only hold water had she been in competition with other cakes that had also been baked into the shape of culturally, socially or politically significant icons, saturated with meanings designed to appeal to the liberally biased judges of Platell’s fecund imagination; i.e. a sponge Unitarian chapel, a meringue women’s refuge, a fudge abortion clinic, or an icing sugar Tom Daley. As this was not the case, and her fellow competitors’ cakes were not baked in shapes smothered with inference, it is spurious to suggest that the outcome of the cake contest was decided on these terms.

An obvious subtext to Platell’s story is that the other contestants were favoured, irrespective of the quality of their cake work, because they fulfilled some kind of politically correct quota, such as “Muslim mum” and “gay doctor”. But the idea that this could be a deciding factor is undermined by the presence of the third victor, Ian Cumming, for whom the best denigrating epithet that the increasingly desperate Platell can find is “new man”, a phrase last used pejoratively by a woman wearing legwarmers in the early 1980s.

Anyway, I’m still fond of the musos’ PC version of the Missa Solemnis:

Ms A. Solemnis

Just a harmless bit of fun


Only more serious scholars of the Python oeuvre may be aware of the LP Another Monty Python Record (1971), cunningly packaged as “Beethoven Symphony No.2 In D Major”.

The album contains some of the great classics (Spanish Inquisition, Spam, and so on)—”But That’s Not Important Right Now“. Here I’d like to highlight its “serious” liner notes on the back, which eventually degenerate into a commentary on Beethoven’s Wimbledon debut.

After a lengthy and erudite account of the composer and the symphony, little comments begin to slip in inconspicuously:

The important part of the first subject is Beethoven’s almost disdainful use of the high lob, forcing Hewitt to play right up to the net.
In all the Allegro is a compact and closely argued musical proposition, which would have been impossible on a hard court.
The second tune, which Beethoven said on his arrest was “just a harmless bit of fun”…
Beethoven now goes on to Forest Hills for the American hard court championships, and if this boy can repeat the devastating lobbying and volleying which he has shown on grass, but at the same time control his tendency to swing away on his second service and backhand returns, he could earn his position as No.2 seed behind the burly Roger Chopin of Puerto Rico.

For Beethoven’s creative tribulations, click here; for his dogged refusal to write a tune, here; and for a justly neglected composer, here.

Writing English: the etic view

Further to It’s the only language they understand, we often cite another quote from a Hebei village. Watching me writing in English in my notebook, a  peasant described what I was doing as


It’s not easy to translate nicely—something like

messing around with a couple of dozen letters

Or even

arbitrarily jumbling up a couple of dozen letters.

This is clearly a common sentiment among those unfamiliar with the process—it always gets a laugh. Cf. a local cultural cadre’s noble attempt to render the name of my orchestral fixer in a message (here).

53 GN and WM amused cropped

Relaxing in the scripture hall between rituals, Golden Noble and Wu Mei amused by my notebook.

Actually, my notes would be pretty incomprehensible to most English people too, with all my personal acronyms, abbreviations, and pinyin—like

LMS: HL at end of ZX; + for FS, on shang fatai.

which tells me (and only me):

Li Manshan says: the percussion item Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body (Huanglong san zhuanshen) is played at the end of the Transferring Offerings (zhuanxian) ritual, and also for the Pardon (fangshe), on ascending the ritual platform.

I often marvel when fieldworkers quote from their apparently perfectly formulated notebooks, full of theoretical reflections. Gregory Barz (Shadows in the Field, p.45–62) explores this issue well. For me, an idiolect of shorthand is vital—in the middle of chasing round trying to keep up with Li Manshan, offering round cigarettes in a noisy crowded room, snatched moments between ritual segments to document what I’ve just learned, and further seeking his guidance…


Talking of language-learning, I like this sequence in my old German phrasebook:

The chambermaid never comes when I ring.
Are you the chambermaid?

Maybe the scenario goes like this:

Englishman rings bell.
Woman in black uniform and white apron arrives.
Englishman shrugs; she leaves.
He rings again. Woman comes back.
Englishman shrugs; she leaves.
He rings again. Woman comes back.
Irked, he says to her, “The chambermaid never comes when I ring.”
She leaves again. He rings again. Woman comes back.
(He, with dawning realization) “Are you the chambermaid?”

That is the snake that bit my foot


If you’re thinking of dabbling with Japanese, then as a more practical guide than the sketch “How to learn Japanese in three easy lessons” (freezing cold, constipated, and absent-minded—available on request), then allow me to recommend Teach yourself Japanese, by the reputable Messrs Dunn and Yanada.

First published in 1958, it’s full of phrases that will stand you in good stead. I will cite the examples faithfully in the precise order that the plot develops; and believe me, these citations are real! (For Effle, click here, with further fine links; for another wacky linguistic fantasy, here.)

Let’s begin with

There is a hat on your head.

Gosh! Thanks for telling me! It all seems to start off so innocently. But a hint of the sinister turn that the lessons will be taking comes with

Cats die in water.

Mastery of conjugations for dying is considered essential as early as Lesson 5, and we soon meet

The cat is dead

as well as

Both the man and the dog are dead.

Lest we get bogged down, after a phrase meaning “reading is possible”, we are advised

but it is probably better not to analyse the meaning of expressions such as this.

Just don’t ask no questions and no-one gets hurt, OK? The authors appear to nurse an ambition to write screenplays for Japanese horror films:

The rain is repugnant.

He is an unpleasant child.

More arcane, with echoes of The Third Policeman, is

 Isn’t there a bicycle that isn’t heavy?

It cannot be said that they are not keen to avoid initiating us into the use of multiple negatives. Lesson 9 contains a sentence that will be vital on those visits to the Kyoto police station to take part in identity parades:

That is the snake that bit my foot.

Just imagine all those snakes lined up in identical hats and scarves. Back to the horror film:

There is someone in that room.

This time, some vocabulary for the unfortunate snake, now singled out:

I did not see anybody. I did not meet anybody.

He’s not giving in. More on that story later.

Meanwhile, idiom is the order of the day. The particle Saa

might correspond to “Let me see now”, “That’s a teaser”.

The horror film is never far away:

The window from which the child fell.

Soon after death comes the first hint of alcoholism, beginning with the classic disclaimer

I drank a little beer.

Despite the Japanese reputation for politeness, sometimes there’s just no beating around the bush:

The fact is, his suit is peculiar.

The fact is, this book is peculiar. Death is not going to be enough—by Lesson 13 we have to master suicide:

Why did he commit suicide?

Not because his suit was peculiar, I hope. To take our minds off it all, how about a vacation?

The thing to do in America is to buy shirts.

Forget the Empire State Building—though hey, we’ve already learnt the verbs for falling and committing suicide, so why not?

Let’s not be pedantic—to explain the sentence

You’ve bought the case we saw yesterday?

we are offered the helpful comment

If the case was in the window of the shop when you saw it with your friend, then, on the next day, it was gone, on meeting your friend again you might presume that he had bought it, and would use a sentence like this to ask if your presumption was correct.

Got that? More visual imagery:

We are laughing at the one the tip of which is shining.

It’s OK, they’ve only drunk a little beer. Also highly suggestive is

He saves time by using machinery.

A chainsaw, maybe? Back to philosophy:

Shall I too die tomorrow?

Look guys, we have to learn this properly: a slightly different formulation

could also be translated in the same way, but would imply the will to die—“Shall I too kill myself tomorrow?”

Ma Yuan

Most elegant scene in the budding screenplay is

I wonder if the man who was standing on the island in the middle of the river was trying to get across.

Eat your heart out, Kurosawa.

Back to our man saving time by using machinery:

Let’s use as thick and heavy a lid as possible.

For a while now we’ve been so busy dismembering people and attempting suicide with correct conjugations that we haven’t had time for another “little” drink, but at last in Lesson 16

I drank a lot of sake yesterday, so my head aches today.

Let’s face it,

In spite of the fact that he promised not to drink sake, he drinks a lot every evening.

Well, with such a peculiar suit, you have to, don’t you? More mystery:

The packet is dry, I wonder why the cigarettes are wet.

And here’s a crap-haiku version of the Bucharest bread-queue joke (also available on request—Ed.):

How many cakes are left?
There aren’t a lot of cakes left.
There’s not even one cake left.

Back at the Kyoto AA meeting, predictably, eating cakes is thirsty work:

As there was any amount of beer, we drank a lot.

I saw through that cake-eating shtick right from the start. No wonder that

Every week I think I will go to the committee meeting, but I never can.

Just can’t seem to find the time eh? Back at the police station, we overhear the interrogation following the snake identity parade:

Have you at any time been to see a Chinese play?

(“There some kinda law against it?” sneers the snake cockily, chewing his gum.)

Sure enough,

Are you all lined up?

Back to our man with the machinery:

Today’s meat is different from the usual.

Uh-oh. More useful tips:

If we leave aside the brusque imperative used in military circles and when speaking angrily to inferiors…

Meanwhile, back at the horror film:

You had better not open the door.

Oh well, what the hell:

Do you want to drink some beer?

This is getting scary:

I shall go with you, but before that will it be all right if I just phone somebody?

‘Fraid not, kid. Just get in. Useful once you’ve learnt how to say

Follow a person, trail somebody.

More homespun philosophy:

What is there after this?

Hmm, that’s a teaser. Always good to avoid embarrassment:

In the sentence above the children ran away so the teacher could not see them. A similar thought lies behind: “Let us clear this room up before the guest comes”. Here the purpose is to avoid letting the guest see what an untidy state the room is in.

Yup, beer bottles and body parts strewn all over the darn place. Don’t say you haven’t been warned:

It seems that it is dangerous to go along that road at night.

On the same page, we meet

someone who looks like a doctor.

Inevitably, we are soon asked

Is it still alive? I expect it will still be alive tomorrow.

The weather is playing its part splendidly: apart from the constant rain,

I suppose there will be fog again today.


If you go to a place like that once, you probably won’t want to go again.

By now I’m even worried by

May I give you some water?

Machinery man has an accomplice:

Please go and wash this knife.

For our friend who has walked along the dangerous road at night and asked to make a phone call before coming with machinery man, some more vocabulary that may come in handy—if not for long:

If there is a good opportunity I shall run away.

Too bad, just when he was thinking the man who looked like a doctor would be able to save his leg after that snake bit his foot at the Chinese play. Sure don’t look like he’s going to make that committee meeting. And what is it with water? First it’s the cigarettes, now

I only dried that suit this morning and it’s quite wet again!

The peculiar suit? Cats do tend to thrash around a lot when they’re being held down in water. There’s no escape:

They killed even the children.

Hey! Do you want us to come to your country or not?

The quicker the better.

Just when you’d quite like to be learning sentences that’ll help you make friends, learning how to walk into a shop and buy a black kimono that’s not covered in fucking bloodstains, some more handy everyday vocabulary:

He died at the second hour after taking poison.

Still, there’s useful information:

It is only the third bottle from the left which has poison in it.

Oh well, at least

He had his sword taken away by the policeman.

No wonder that

There is a funny smell in this room, isn’t there?

Not just blatant horror, the more subtle ghost story isn’t neglected either:

I feel that I have been here before.

But machinery man is getting careless:

When I looked in through the window, there was a corpse lying on the floor.

More useful vocabulary—though not for machinery man’s victims, I guess:

One’s legs are there in order that one may walk.

Or is he just goading them? They do have to be, like, attached to your body. By Lesson 27, at last we get a clue to that seemingly inconsequential phrase near the beginning:

You must not go into a room with your hat on.

I see! Machinery man just can’t help dismembering people who walk into his room wearing a hat. That early deadpan comment of his “There is a hat on your head” was the beginning of this whole nightmare. Brilliant suspense. The fact is, his suit is peculiar. Soon the psychological details fall into place:

Cats disgust him.

Lesson 30 covers the polite language, but I fear the time has long passed.

And that’s just the Lessons—you should see the Conversations.

The latest news from Japan is that it looks like the snake’s gonna get off the rap. They can’t pin nothing on him—not even a hat, and he has an alibi for the night of the Chinese play. But will it stand up in court?


Further to my remarks on Ravel (under WAM), the dreamlike last movement of Ravel’s Shéhérazade, “L’indifférent”, is clearly about an androgynous boy, as Roger Nichols (Ravel, pp.54–7) recognizes in a cogent discussion—though he gets a tad bogged down in discussing the gender of the singer/voyeur, as if it matters. You might think the title itself would offer a clue, but some translators couldn’t even countenance the androgynous boy, making it necessary to vandalize, coyly,

Tes yeux sont doux comme ceux d’une fille


Your eyes are soft like those of any girl.

Resting case
I mean, you wouldn’t say, “Your skin is wrinkly like that of an elephant” if you were talking to an elephant, now would you eh? I rest my case (left: me resting my case in Paris, 2017).

Simile can be silly (“What Am I Like? LOL“):

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
“Naa,” [chewing gum], yer allright.”

Anyway, do listen to Shéhérazade in my post—and all the other enchanting ouevres there!

Scunthorpe and Venice

Further to my reminiscences of The Li band in Italy (and my book pp.334–7),

We board another train to carfree and carefree Venice, where we have four wonderful days. We are staying—virtually alone—at the splendid hostel on the tranquil Isola San Giorgio, home of the majestic Cini Foundation, gazing across the water at San Marco. In the evening we take the vaporetto for our first meal at the excellent trattoria Il Giardinetto. This sure beats doing a Messiah in Scunthorpe for a jolly good tea, as we London musos say.

In the spirit of the sinological footnote, the precise version goes like this:

A fixer calls us up and goes, “Hi—can you come and do a Messiah next Monday night in Scunthorpe? There’s no fee, but there’ll be a jolly good tea.”

(Cf. the more tempting message I received in a Shanxi village in 1991.) For more on Venice, see here. Oh, and here. Not forgetting Monty Python’s sublime guide. For unlikely place-names to find in the index of a book on Daoist ritual, see here. And here I surmise that the wisdom of Nadia Boulanger might not have been in quite such demand had she been based in Scunthorpe.

Wisdom of the elders


My maternal grandfather used to say,

“If we had some bacon, we could have bacon and eggs. If we had some eggs.”

Having assumed this was his own invention, I now find that this goes back at least to Groucho, and perhaps to World War I.

Li Manshan likes this line, identifying the sentiment with his memories of privation.

This photo, indeed, would have been taken in the late 1950s, just when Yanggao people were starving.

Eating lions

The English language may have a propensity for wordplay (cf. Headline punning, and Myles), but you can’t beat Chinese. This poem (“The story of Mr Shi eating lions”), composed in the 1930s by Yuen Ren Chao (Zhao Yuanren), plays solely on different meanings of characters pronounced shi:


For what it’s worth, you can read about the Li family’s shishi Bestowing Food ritual in my book

For further wonderful wordplay from the Li family, see here.

Man having trouble with umbrella

As proof that the British have no need of some spurious independence from Europe, I burst out laughing every single time I see the sign for roadworks, famously known as

Man having trouble with umbrella


Somehow the continental version of the sign is subtly different, rendering the joke less comprehensible. Up Yours, Delors, as the tabloids would say.

For more umbrellas, see here.

A music critic


Talking of free-tempo preludes

Many years ago (indeed, “more years ago than I care to remember”—a new entry in Flann O’Brien‘s Catechism of Cliché), we were in a London church, recording some exquisite medieval instrumental pieces called estampies. They are said to have spread through Europe by way of the Crusades, and have been recorded by worthier musicians than me, often with Middle Eastern style in mind. I was on rebec (“What does that even mean?”).

Right in the middle of a take, an irate elderly janitor burst in to subject us to a withering tirade, exclaiming:

“Are you gonna give it a rest? It just goes on and on. I mean, it’s not as if there’s any MERIT in it…”

We decided against inviting him to write the liner notes for the CD.

For other scathing reviews, see here and here.

Bach, alap, and driving in Birmingham

WAGZ score

Hesi prelude and opening of Qi Yan Hui suite: score showing melodic outline in gongche solfeggio, West An’gezhuang village, Xiongxian county, Hebei.

It was Yoyo Ma who put me onto playing the Preludes of Bach cello suites as a kind of alap. Actually, that’s how he introduced the Allemande, the second movement of the sixth suite, playing it al fresco as thanks for our group of helpers at the amazing Smithsonian Festival of the Silk Road in 2002, which he was curating.

As I come to adapt the Bach cello suites for violin, I consider how to play the opening two movements of the sixth suite on their own. Should I play the Allemande first, as a kind of alap? Or else take Bach’s opening movement with majesty rather than virtuosity, at an exploratory rather than hectic pace, as a kind of prelude to the alap of the Allemande… Either way can work.

Prelude and Allemande, 6th cello suite, manuscript of Anna Magdalena Bach.

For wise words on, not to say wonderful renditions of, the cello suites, we can turn to Steven Isserlis (click here for the CD set). Here he is playing the fifth suite (the Prelude here unambiguously meditative, like both the later Allemande and Sarabande):

For another Bach Allemande that seems to suit an alap-esque style, see here.

My brilliant friend Paola Zannoni likens the bariolage of the Prelude to the marranzanu Sicilian jew’s harp. The sixth suite, of course [sic—Ed.], was written for a five-string cello, but—in the current spirit of austerity—I make do with four.

While learning Bach (or indeed shengguan ritual melodies), one has to take care not to take a wrong turning. Like driving in Birmingham, if you take a false exit then you can find yourself going round in circles for hours.


Anyway, free-tempo movements (known as sanban 散板 in educated Chinese) are more commonly associated with solo genres like folk-song and qin—unlikely bedfellows. Apart from alap, one thinks of Middle Eastern taksim (see here, here, and here) and the Uyghur muqaddime (the singing of the latter ideally accompanied by the wonderful satar long-necked bowed lute). In these genres, the term “free-tempo” isn’t precise, since they do indeed have a underlying pulse.

Slow ensemble preludes called pai’r are also an exquisite feature of the lengthy suites of Buddhist and Daoist ritual shengguan ensembles. As with shengguan suites altogether, the pai’r in Hebei (see e.g. here, under West An’gezhuang) are best heard with a small ensemble, like the fantastic group of Gaoqiao village in Bazhou (audio playlist #8, from Plucking the Winds, CD #14—see commentary; this movement actually follows the opening pai’r, but itself opens with its own lengthy sanban prelude), where the heterophony of the four melodic instrument types can be best appreciated.

Such preludes are also a feature of ritual suites around Xi’an. But they are strangely absent from the suites of Daoist ritual repertoires in north Shanxi like those of the Li family—which are otherwise clearly related to the suites of old Beijing, still played in Hebei.

And don’t miss Aretha’s extraordinary alap to Amazing Grace! And the exquisite expositions of dhrupad!!!

Private Passions

Radio 3’s Private Passions is always insightful. The edition with Philippe Sands (here) shows that he too “delights in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”(see Muzak)—Leonard Cohen, Michael Chance singing Erbarme Dich

(see also herehere, and here—and for an Arabian version, here), Bruno Walter conducting Mahler 9 (here, and here) in 1938, and Let’s pretend we’re bunny rabbits. Actually, the latter isn’t such a kitsch choice as its title suggests, but hey.

My posts A Nazi legacy and The Ratline introduce Sands’s harrowing film and books.

Get out of my garden

Here’s a typically tenuous connection with ritual. On the subject of transmission, this piece from Stewart Lee is rewarding as ever:

—as well as his still more thoughtful reflections in How I escaped my certain fate, pp.136–42, 169–76. One of the many delights of this masterpiece is the way that scholarly footnotes often take over, like Flann O’Brien‘s arcane annotations on de Selby in The third policeman.

Some harmless run-ins

Even in my early days of fieldwork, accompanied as I was by trusty colleagues from the Music Research Institute in Beijing, the cops rarely took much interest in me.

In one county south of Beijing the local constabulary reluctantly decided not to throw me out, allowing me to continue innocently “collecting folk pieces” with the stern warning

“Do not investigate anything not within your sphere”

—which I later adopted as the title for the Coda of Plucking the Winds[1]

Grateful though I am to them, with their own undoubted experience of local society, for attempting to help me define a workable scope for my studies, Confucian and Maoist thought alike support a basic tenet of ethnomusicology, that musical culture is intimately related to the society which nourishes it:

Music! Music! Is it nothing but the sound of bells and drums?—Confucius

There is no such thing as art that is detached from or independent of politics—Mao Zedong

However, it was not the moment for me to offer them a lecture on the principles of ethnography (cf. Nigel Barley in Cameroon, and Some notes on Deutschland 89).

* * *

Whenever practicable, I stay in the villages with my local hosts. When I do have to stay in a town, there is usually a cheap hostel available where no-one cares much about regulations. On another occasion in the early 1990s, arriving in a little town, I spent the day with my Chinese colleague visiting a couple of fine ritual associations, recording them and chatting affably. That evening we settled into a wonderful clean hostel, recommended by our musician friends and costing about 40p a day, and next day after more excellent fieldwork we were having a cheap lunch of noodles when the cops arrived.

Brusquely telling me I wasn’t allowed to stay in accommodation not earmarked for foreigners, they whisked us off by car to the county-town, without even allowing us to finish our noodles. Blimey, I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition… Deposited at the police station, the machinery of local bureaucracy swung into action; the county mayor was summoned back from Tianjin, and a private meeting was held for several hours while they decided what to do with me (“Should get away with crucifixion—first offence”). The main purpose of this exercise was surely to give the massed officials an excuse for a vast banquet.

Meanwhile the young cop guarding me happened to be keen to learn some English, so I obligingly helped him pronounce some choice phrases like “Fuck” and “Bunch of wankers” (which, naturally, I explained as meaning “How do you do” and “Welcome to our country”), which I made him repeat in loud and confident tones till they echoed across the courtyard. A visit to the loo revealed a huge pile of ancient turds that had surely been accumulating—like Chinese culture, indeed—since the Ming dynasty.

The meeting broke up in time for them to all go off for their banquet, and the police chief came in with severe demeanour to explain that they had no choice but to expel me from the county forthwith. Not that I wanted to share the banquet—in fact the very threat of a banquet with them would have been enough to hasten my departure—but having not eaten since my noodle lunch was interrupted, I was getting a tad hungry, and the prospect of driving a distance before looking for a transport caff was not enticing. Not to mention the fact that the hostel we had been expelled from was comfortable, the town was charming, the food fine, and the music promising.

The police chief went on to explain that they were responsible for my safety: local hostels might be unsafe, and I could be robbed—or worse. That, he claimed, was why I should always stay in the county-town where the outrageously-over-priced high-class hotels apparently catered to my needs and guaranteed my safety.

I was quick to point out that this was far from the case: whereas in the countryside we are always looked after by wonderful hosts, and indeed the town hostel was a model of civilized hospitality, I knew from occasional stays in fancy urban hotels that they are hotbeds of vice—with drug deals and gambling rings, ladies of the night phoning to offer relaxing massage, you name it. Surely they wouldn’t wish to consign me to such dens of iniquity? As the police chief assured me this was not the case on his beat, I congratulated him sarcastically for being in charge of the only town in China free of such vices, and took my leave. “Welcome to our country”.

Back in Beijing, the story was lovingly retold at the Institute, boosting my street-cred (cf. this incident).

[1] For Chinese translation, see “Qiewu jinxing zhishenshiwaide yanjiu” 切勿进行置身事外的研究 [Do not investigate anything not within your sphere], Zhongguo yinyuexue  2005/3.

Headline punning

Since I often seem to find myself citing drôle headlines, Kate Fox again has some fine observations on the subject (Watching the English, p.225):

It seems to me that the English love of words—and particularly the universal nature of this passion, which transcends all class barriers—is most perfectly demonstrated not by the erudite wit of the broadsheet columnists, brilliant though they are, but by the journalists and sub-editors who write the headlines in the tabloids. Take a random selection of English tabloids and flip through them: you will soon notice that almost every other headline involves some kind of play on words—a pun, a double meaning, a deliberate jokey misspelling, a literary or historical reference, a clever neologism, an ironic put-down, a cunning rhyme or amusing alliteration, and so on.

Yes, many of the puns are dreadful; much of the humour is laboured, vulgar, or childish; the sexual innuendo is overdone; and the relentlessness of the wordplay can become wearing after a while. You may find yourself longing for a headline that simply gives you the gist of the story, without trying to be funny or clever. But the sheer ingenuity and linguistic playfulness must be admired, and all this compulsive punning, rhyming, and joking is uniquely and gloriously English. Other countries may have “quality” newspapers at least as learned and well written as ours, but no other national press can rival the manic wordplay of English tabloid headlines. So there we are: something to be proud of.

And it’s not just the tabloids: even the Grauniad is not above

Nineteen Eighty-Phwoar:
the truth about George Orwell’s romantic “arrangements”

although they would doubtless lay claim to a more post-modern sense of irony than the red-tops bother with.

I’ve made a roundup of the headlines tag here. And there’s more harmless fun for all the family under the China Daily tag.

More on Hebei

Further to my Sects: Hebei page, and remarks in Hebei: new discoveries,

the work of Yin Hubin 尹虎彬 is highly relevant, such as

  • “Hebei minjian biaoyan baojuan yu yishi yujing yanjiu”
    河北民间表演宝卷与仪式语境研究, Minzu wenxue yanjiu 2004.3,

and his 2015 book

  • Hebei minjian Houtu dizhi chongbai 河北民间后土地祇崇拜

This research supplements my outline of the Houtu cult in Part Three of In search of the folk Daoists of north China—illustrated on this blog by pages on the Houshan Daoists and the Houtu scroll.

Another scholar continuing the fine work of Li Shiyu, Pu Wenqi, Ma Xisha and others on sectarian religion is Cao Xinyu 曹新宇.

Social survey

China’s prostitutes were better-trusted than its politicians and scientists, according to a 2009 online survey published by Insight China magazine. The survey found that 7.9% of respondents considered sex workers to be trustworthy, placing them third behind farmers and religious workers. “A list like this is at the same time surprising and embarrassing,” said an editorial in the state-run China Daily.

Politicians were far down the list, closer to scientists and teachers. Insight China polled 3,376 Chinese citizens in June and July this year. “The sex workers’ unexpected prominence on this list of honour… is indeed unusual,” said the China Daily editorial. “At least [the scientists and officials] have not slid into the least credible category which consists of real estate developers, secretaries, agents, entertainers and directors”, the editorial said. Soldiers came in fourth place.

For an elaborate story linking the Sex-Workers’ Association and the Journalists’ Association, see here.

Quotes as sarcasm

At the exit of my local park a glossy new sign has appeared, with a message written in quotes:

“Thankyou for visiting Ealing parks”

It’s not so much the sentiment itself that I mind, but the quotes. It makes it look like they’re being sarcastic—as if it should continue,

dropping your litter all over the place and generally behaving like chavs—“Thankyou very much”.

Remembering an old friend 憶故人

That’s the title of one of the most soulful, and popular, pieces in the qin zither repertoire—unusually, not documented until 1937.


You can find tributes to my mentor Lin Youren (1938–2013) online, including the delightful

included in the fine article

So here I’ll just add a few of my own memories of Lin Youren.screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-12-20-31

Excerpts from my liner notes with the CD:

Lin Youren is a true eccentric. [Here I’m thinking of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove]. His story contains intriguing contrasts, since he learned and taught the qin under the conservatory system, but came to find the juxtaposition incongruous, quietly subverting it from within. […]

His preferred way of playing is alone with a few friends—and, in another ancient tradition of the qin player, a bottle or two of Shaoxing wine. […]

If his playing roams the clouds of Daoist selflessness, his conversation is quirky, cryptic and full of puns.

The CD is very fine—here’s the opening track, “Evening song of the drunken fisherman” (Zuiyu chang wan 醉漁唱晚):

One unusual feature is its inclusion of his “Improvisation for Michael Owen”. More from the notes:

I’m not sure you really want to know this, but the musical germ of this fantasia was the singing of exhilarated English fans in my local pub after we relished Michael Owen’s superb goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. Lin found the famous football song reminiscent of the singing of Miao tribespeople in southwest China (“Not a lot of people know that”, I mused as we emerged from the pub), but by the time we got to the recording session he had wholly internalized it for the intimacy of the qin.

Actually, since Lin Youren was staying with me, he tried it out for the first time as soon as we got back from the pub. A couple of days later we took the train for the recording session at Nimbus’s fine studio near Monmouth. To help him feel at home we plied him with Shaoxing wine; and he felt it would further help the vibe if I sat with him as he played, so he would have a real, and empathetic, audience. He improvised for much longer than the version on the CD, which is edited down—not quite to his satisfaction. Still, this CD was his favourite among all his recordings.

LYR in field

At Nimbus, 1998.


With qin master Zhang Ziqian, 1987.


Qin gathering, 1987. With beard is Suzhou qin master Wu Zhaoji.

For the Beijing qin scene, see here, and my series on the fortunes of the qin under Maoism; for my own mixed feelings about the qinhere. For a meretricious speculation on the rudra vina in India, see n.2 here. See also the qin tag.

Mind your language 2

One of my pronouncements, on the ceremonial music of Xi’an, was magnificently misquoted. Concerned that Chinese scholars had concentrated on rather flimsy and circumstantial historical links at the expense of detailed recent fieldwork, when so many living regional traditions remain under-researched, I had written:

It is ironic that a virtually defunct ritual genre should be among the most studied genres of Chinese instrumental music.

This sentence was too convoluted for one Chinese scholar, who proudly cited me to justify the study of the music:

Dr Stephen Jones has said that it should be among the most studied genres of Chinese instrumental music.

Ha! or Pah!

Watching the English


If it’s pop armchair ethnography you want (and why not, sometimes?), then

  • Kate Fox, Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour

is brilliant.

To be impeccably English, […] one must appear self-conscious, ill-at-ease, stiff, awkward, and above all, embarrassed. Hesitation, dithering and ineptness are, surprising as it may seem, correct behaviour. (41)

And her insights into the “Typical!” rule (pp.199–200, 303–305) and funerals (pp.374–8)… Her final list of English traits (pp.400–414) includes Social dis-ease and Reflexes such as Humour, Moderation, Hypocrisy, Eeyorishness, Fair play, and Modesty.  I’ve also cited her remarks on headline punning. Click here for her comments on funerals.

And say what you like about Bill Bryson, but he too has some fine insights into the British (Notes from a small island, pp.68–9):

It has long seemed to me unfortunate—and I’m taking the global view here—that such an important experiment in social organization was left to the Russians when the British would have done it so much better. All those things that are necessary to the successful implementation of a rigorous socialist system are, after all, second nature to the British. For a start, they like going without. They are great at pulling together, particularly in the face of adversity, for a perceived common good. They will queue patiently for indefinite periods and accept with rare fortitude the impositioning of rationing, bland diets and sudden inconvenient shortages of staple goods, as anyone who has ever looked for bread at a supermarket on a Saturday afternoon will know. They are comfortable with faceless bureaucracies and, as Mrs Thatcher proved, tolerant of dictatorships. They will wait uncomplainingly for years for an operation or the delivery of a household appliance. They have a natural gift for making excellent jokes about authority without seriously challenging it, and they derive universal satisfaction from the sight of the rich and powerful brought low. Most of those over the age of twenty-five already dress like East Germans. The conditions, in a word, are right.

On a related tack (pp.98–9):

And the British are so easy to please. It is the most extraordinary thing. They actually like their pleasures small. […] They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake. Offer them something genuinely tempting—a slice of gâteau or a choice of chocolates from a box—and they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it’s unwarranted and excessive, as if any pleasure beyond a very modest threshold is vaguely unseemly.

“Oh, I shouldn’t really,” they say.

“Oh, go on,” you prod encouragingly.

“Well, just a small one then,” they say and dartingly take a small one, and then get a look as if they have just done something terribly devilish. All this is completely alien to the American mind. To an American the whole purpose of living, the one constant conformation of continued existence, is to cram as much sensual pleasure into one’s mouth more or less continuously. Gratification, instant and lavish, is a birthright.

And on puddings:

It’s a funny thing about English diners. They’ll let you dazzle them with piddly duxelles of this and fussy little noisettes of that, but don’t fuck with their puddings, which is my thinking exactly.

For further comments on being English, see this roundup. Such observation should be part of fieldwork in more far-flung societies too.

In the past

From my book (pp.33–4):

We have to learn to latch onto troublesome terms like “in the past” (guoqu) or “originally” (yuanxian). I’m getting better at leaping in and asking, “You mean in the 1980s? Or before the Cultural Revolution?” or even more precisely, “Before the 1964 Four Cleanups, or before Li Qing went to Datong in 1958? Or before Liberation?” Even the seemingly mechanical task of eliciting dates requires imagination. Though not necessarily clear on dates, they may recall how old they were the last time they performed such and such a ritual, or we may ask questions like “Was Li Peisen still alive?” or “Before your first son was born?”

One day, admiring the trendy outfit that Li Manshan’s second daughter Li Min has bought for her young son, I observe, “Funny, in the past one never had to worry about fashion for kids’ clothing, either in China or England!” She has an astute come-back:
“How do you mean, ‘in the past’?!”
Me: “Ha—that’s what I’m always asking your dad!”
Hoist on my own petard.

Like her dad, she is perceptive and humorous—for more, see here.

New definitions

Daoist ordination certificate, Putian.
Source: Kenneth Dean, Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China.

In the spirit of I’m sorry I haven’t a clue

Further to Speaking from the heart, where I noted the somewhat elaborate definition of the term dundian, here’s another fine definition—ironically, from the Chinese-Chinese dictionary of my Daoist master Li Manshan, no less, which we consulted when I mentioned the term lu , Daoist “registers” (lengthy hereditary titles bestowing the authority to conduct rituals), unfamiliar to him (my translation):

a superstitious thing that Daoists use to trick people

Hmm. Li Manshan shrugs, and we both giggle.

Speaking from the heart

Further notes on fieldwork
A tribute to Antoinet Schimmelpenninck (1962–2012)

 revised version of a talk I gave at the CHIME conference in Leiden, 2012


Amdo-Tibetan area, south Gansu, 2001 (photo: Frank Kouwenhoven).

I never did any fieldwork with Antoinet, but I admired and envied her natural engagement with musicians and with people altogether.

I won’t portray her as some kind of Lei Feng, so this can also be a kind of homage to, and reflection on, fieldwork itself. And I will discuss her alone, whereas of course she and her partner Frank Kouwenhoven, dynamic leaders of CHIME in Leiden, made an indivisible team.

Almost anything can be fieldwork, such as talking to your mum, or your kids, or going clubbing—although we’re perhaps unlikely to undertake all three at the same time. But I refer here to spending time with Chinese musicians in the countryside, which requires a rather different set of skills from hanging out with rock musicians in Beijing, for instance.

Fieldwork by the Chinese on their local musical traditions, in a sense that we can recognize, goes back to at least the 1920s. But when we laowai began to join in in the 1980s, it was exciting to get some glimpses of local folk traditions. We can see that sense of discovering a “well-kept secret” right from Antoinet’s articles in early issues of CHIME[1]

All these years later, I suspect local traditions are still largely a well-kept secret, and that may not be an entirely bad thing. But fieldwork by the Chinese has also thrived since the 1980s; plenty of Chinese are doing great work. In those early days, Chinese fieldwork was rather mechanical: the main object was to collect material in the form of musical pieces, conceived of as rather fixed and somewhat detached from changing social context. Antoinet was at the forefront of broadening the subject; the title of her book, Chinese folk songs and folk singers, is significant. This inclusion of the performers in the frame has borne fruit in Chinese and foreign work.


Among general skills, we might list

  • preparation (finding available material, maps, preparing questions, etc.)
  • linguistic competence (how I envied her ability to communicate, and latch onto regional dialect)
  • musicality (and “participant observation”; routine for us, rare among Chinese scholars)
  • back home: analysis/reflection; sinology and ethnomusicogical/anthropological theory

In addition to my citings of Bruce Jackson and Nigel Barley (Fieldwork, under Themes), further reflections include:

  • Helen Myers in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (New Grove Handbooks on Music)
  • Barz and Cooley, Shadows in the field
  • Lortat-Jacob, Sardinian Chronicles
  • Don Kulick and Margaret Willson (eds.), Taboo: sex, identity and erotic subjectivity in anthropological fieldwork.

As to what is ponderously known as “participant observation”, musicians tend to react well to other musicians—it shows a willingness to engage, and also helps us think up useful questions.

As to what we do after fieldwork: Antoinet was well grounded in ethnomusicological readings, but she was never controlled by theory, she used it critically to illuminate points, as one should. Scholarship is not always like that! Her book really is an amazing achievement. She not only broadened the subject, she made it more profound.

A lot has been written about personal interaction in fieldwork. I like Bruce Jackson’s book very much. We all have different personalities; some of us may seem more outgoing than others. It’s an unfair accident of birth, upbringing, and all that. Musicians will be more forthcoming with people they feel comfortable with—like Antoinet. Of course fieldwork manuals talk about good guanxi, but it’s more. We respect people that we talk to, but we also aspire to some sort of equality; we hope to be neither obsequious nor superior. On the agenda here are sociability, informality, amateurism, humanity/fun/enthusiasm/empathy, and humour—all without naivety or romanticism!

We do naturally adapt our behaviour to different situations. I’m much more sociable in China than in England. Antoinet, it seems to me, never needed to adapt, she was just always naturally gregarious and sparkling.

Age is an interesting factor: I guess it’s good to be old or experienced enough to be taken seriously, but intelligence and sincerity are appreciated, and it’s also good to be young enough, at least at heart, not to seem too important! Antoinet was always self-effacing, companiable.

I do bear in mind Nigel Barley’s warning (The innocent anthropologist, p.56):

Much nonsense has been written, by people who should know better, about the anthropologist being “accepted”. It is sometimes suggested that an alien people will somehow come to view the visitor of distinct race and culture as in every way similar to the locals. This is, alas, unlikely. The best one can probably hope for is to be viewed as a harmless idiot who brings certain advantages to this village.

By the way, I’m not a harmless idiot, I often feel like a harmful idiot: I hope it’s a coincidence that everywhere I go, the local traditions go down the drain…

Our ways of repaying all this hospitality are variable, depending on our means and inclinations. One may send photos and videos, and organise tours; Chinese colleagues have gone so far as to install running water, or find urban jobs for relatives.

I note some some handy Maoist clichés linking fieldwork and Communist ideals:

  • chiku 吃苦 “eating bitterness”
  • santong 三同 “the three togethers” (eating, living, and labouring together. Hah!)
  • dundian 蹲点 (“squat”; more generously defined in my dictionary as “stay at a selected grass-roots unit to help improve its work and gain firsthand experience for guiding overall work”. How long is this dictionary?!)
  • gen qunzhong dacheng yipian 跟群众打成一片 “becoming at one with the masses”
  • bu na qunzhong yizhenyixian 不拿群众一针一线 “not taking a single needle or thread from the masses”

My point here is to get over the empty formalism of such slogans and see through to the sincere humanity that once inspired them.

These thoughts on empathy aren’t something we can do much about, but it’s interesting to reflect on the topic. Obviously enthusiasm isn’t enough; on its own it can be quite irritating!

I guess we all use teamwork to some extent, and Antoinet was good at finding, and supporting, good regional and local scholars to work with. I have always relied heavily on my Beijing colleagues to make notes, at least until circumstance and greater familiarity lend me the confidence to spend time with musicians on my own.

Group fieldwork is good up to a point. It depends partly on one’s means, but the group perhaps shouldn’t be too large. I like the informality and flexibility of working alone, but it is a bit much to take photos and videos and make notes and distribute fags all at once.

 Of course Antoinet was interested in all kinds of music-making, but she was among few laowai who did much work outside the main urban areas. Her two main fieldwork areas were very different: in south Jiangsu she found herself mainly doing a salvage project, but in Gansu she found a ritual scene that is very much alive.

As to time-frame, she and Frank mainly made repeated visits over time, and as I did for Plucking the Winds or my work with the Li family. Talking of Plucking the Winds, I’ve never had such a perceptive meticulous and patient editor as Antoinet.

Obviously, a brief interview with a stranger is likely to yield less interesting or reliable results than long-term acquaintance. But I do take on board the notion of stranger value. On one hand (Jackson, Fieldwork, pp.69–70, after Goldstein),

The collector who comes from afar and will disappear again will be able to collect materials and information which might not be divulged to one who has a long-term residence in the same area.

On the other hand, there’s the whole “You will never understand this music” thing (Nettl, The study of ethnomusicology, ch.11, brilliant as ever).

And then, who is an insider? What of urban Chinese? How might an urban-educated male Fujianese get along with female spirit mediums in rural Shanxi, and so on?! There are several complex subjects for discussion here.

Talking of etic questioning, here’s another vignette from the Li band’s 2012 tour of Italy (my book p.336):

Third Tiger is as curious as ever, always asking weird “etic” questions like “Why are Italian number-plates smaller at the front than at the back?” Bemused, I later ask several Italian friends, who have never noticed either. It strikes me that this is probably just the kind of abstruse question that we fieldworkers ask all the time, and I’m sure my enquiries in Yanggao sound just as fatuous. I must cite Nigel Barley (The innocent anthropologist, p.82)—and note the car link:

They missed out the essential piece of information that made things comprehensible. No one told me that the village was where the Master of the Earth, the man who controlled the fertility of all plants, lived, and that consequently various parts of the ceremony would be different from elsewhere. This was fair enough; some things are too obvious to mention. If we were explaining to a Dowayo how to drive a car, we should tell him all sorts of things about gears and road signs before mentioning that one tried not to hit other cars.

By the way, I was the victim of a flawed fieldwork interview some years ago. A Korean student, whom I knew fairly well, was doing an MA on ethnomusicology in London, and had to do an interview. She knew I was both a violinist and did fieldwork on Chinese music, so she came over to my place with a list of questions all prepared. Her English wasn’t great—like, even worse than my Chinese. OK, her project demanded quite a short interview.

She began with “Who is your favorite composer?” and I went, “Well, music is more about context, mood, not compositions, and anyway I don’t listen to so much WAM these days, and most music in the world we don’t really know of a “composer”… OK, if you insist, then Bach.” She went, “Thankyou. What was the best concert you ever done?” so I observed that we don’t do so many memorable concerts over a year, and that great music-making doesn’t only happen in concerts. “Being an orchestral musician can be frustrating, one’s teenage idealism tends to get beaten down, getting a plane, then five minutes in the hotel before a long rehearsal with a boring conductor, no time to eat properly… You could ask me, what was the most wonderful musical experience I have had—it wouldn’t necessarily be playing with an orchestra…” In response to this cri de coeur, she went on, “Thankyou. What is the difference between the Western violin and the Chinese violin?” Aargh. I mean, anyone would want to follow up on all that I had just said, right? But her rigid questionnaire was in control.

So is that what I have been doing in China all these years—misunderstanding, ignoring leads, and following up with my own stupid blinkered questions?!

One hopes to find questions that will get people talking at length (so avoid questions that invite simple Yes/No answers!); but there was I blabbering on, and all she wanted was short snappy answers!

I’m still very attached to the detailed notes of my Chinese colleagues. One can’t record everything on audio or video, and even if we could, it would leave unclear how many characters should be written. I used to use video mainly to film ritual—I only began to record informal situations later. Antoinet was great at bypassing formality.

They recorded all kinds of things as well as formal singing sessions, and sure they had the means to do that, as well as recruiting helpers and so on.

A questionnaire is essential, [2] but it must always be flexible, following their flow, always thinking of new questions, how to express them suitably, and listening. All of which Antoinet was brilliant at.

For me fieldwork is a constant discovery of how inaccurate and superficial my previous notes were. Antoinet and Frank’s enquiring spirit can be seen in these reflections that Frank later sent me:

We had no such thing as a “method”—in general we did tend to visit singers more than one time, preferably many times, in order to ask them the same questions repeatedly, and to let them sing the same songs more than once, with intervals of days, weeks, months or even years in-between. That was only possible with individual songs, of course, not with spontaneous dialogue songs, which we got acquainted with mainly in Gansu.

I think we learned most from what people told us spontaneously, about their own lives, in personal conversations, which were not strictly private conversations. People are nearly always in a space together with others. But group interviews (group chats, rather) were good, people felt at ease, they were not “attacked” by us, they were simply chatting…

Basically, in our fieldwork, we were always out to discover what we were not aware of yet. That is a hard task. And I think we kept discovering that we had not yet asked the right questions, had not investigated the right topics yet… Even now do I realize that I should go back… Maybe this is only the natural, classic, condition for fieldworkers: you return home with an idea of how things might be, you end up with an hypothesis, you suddenly stumble upon a new hypothesis which sheds new light on the situation, but then you have to go back again to test it, and the work starts all over again… A never-ending process, also because the questions you ask are nearly always bigger than the time and resources you have, and you need to address your problems piecemeal… We often wished we were five hundred people!

By the way, do watch their beautiful film Chinese shadows: the amazing world of shadow puppetry in rural northwest China (Pan, 2007).

In short, fieldwork may be an unending amount of work, but it’s endless inspiration too: and one works better when inspired. So I hope we can keep Antoinet’s spirit alive by emulating her humanity, enthusiasm, and critical intelligence.

For a recent volume on doing fieldwork in China, see here.

[1] Or for Daoist ritual, see e.g. the early fieldwork of Kenneth Dean.
[2] For her sample questionnaire for southern Jiangsu, see Chinese folk songs and folk singers, pp.395–6. Cf. McAllester’s questionnaire for the Navajo.

Strauss (R.) and Elvis


David Lynch always amazes (for Twin Peaks, click here), but the final sequence of Wild at heart (1990) is gorgeous. Morphing, almost seamlessly, from the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss to Elvis, it makes both works seem even more intense; and then Love me tender (really sung by Nicholas Cage!) is filmed in one long take, the camera coiling amorously around him and Laura Dern (cf. Susan McClary on the baroque trio sonata).

Worth celebrating genius—all the more in the USA these days, where the list of artists deemed “overrated” by the arbiter of cultural taste will be growing… (written in 2017)

Li Manshan film: new version

Michele has just uploaded a new version of the film, with only tiny imperceptible changes. Spot the difference…

The main change is removing the out-take at the Temple of the God Palace (8’24” ff.).

We walked over there just after sunrise to go and record, when there wouldn’t be too much background noise. As it turned out, the cooing of birds was deafening—delightful as it was on my headphones, Michele managed to keep it under control when editing later. Li Manshan was going to do a little spoken intro recalling the temple, and since we were joined by a nice villager who also recalled the temple fondly, I thought it’d be nice to get him to stand just out of view of my camcorder so Li Manshan could have an interlocutor. It worked out fine, but their opening exchange made us all burst out laughing:

Li Manshan [confidently explaining the setup to his mate]: So we’re gonna have a natter!
[begins spiel]: In the past this Temple of the God Palace…
[Mate interrupts]: If it hadn’t been demolished, it’d be a tourist spot now!
[Li Manshan has drôle thought]:  … What, you mean you demolished it?!

We tried including this exchange in the film, with a suitable pause while we composed ourselves for Take 2, but it doesn’t quite work unless you were there…