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

Ch.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 biomes—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.

[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 Civilization 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. 


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 book 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 analyze 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 homogenized.

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 his father 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 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 mobilize 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.


[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

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.

Molvanian cuisine has certainly come a long way from the time when you could only find a few greasy, dimly-lit and over-priced cafes in the centre of Lutenblag. Nowadays such establishments have sprung up everywhere throughout the country.

The restaurant reviews are convincing:

The emphasis is on elegance and the set menu includes a choice of several sumptuous main courses followed by a fruit sorbet, designed to help cleanse the palate in preparation for dessert which, unfortunately, also happens to be fruit sorbet.

And further to my comments on historical recreation:

With a keen eye to period detail, this disused building has been painstakingly restored to its original form. Why the owners of Spakiegjo bothered is a mystery, as the place was only built 12 years ago and used to be a video rental shop.

Nor does it neglect music:

No trip to Sjerezo would be complete without [this is a perennial feature of the style] a visit to the grave [typographical style too is carefully mimicked] of local composer Vicktor Chezpak. A child prodigy, he could play piano, violin, flute and cello by the age of 10. Mysteriously, this ability largely deserted him a few years later and by the age of 14 all he could manage was a few tunes on the harmonica. […] The massive marble mausoleum stands at the end of an avenue of silver birch trees and is unique, as much for its intricate architecture as for the fact that Chezpak is not actually yet dead. According to an inscription on the door the cenotaph was constructed by local music lovers in anticipation of the long-awaited event.

The faithfully-observed style of the biographies of contributors is excellent too.

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.