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
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).
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…