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.

9 thoughts on “Some harmless run-ins

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