Yet more French letters

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 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. Hanfeizi), 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.

[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”.
[7] Cf. the hujia 胡笳 “barbarian pipes”, another import from the Western regions.

8 thoughts on “Yet more French letters

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