A successor to Myles

Talking of Brief encounter, Trevor Howard also appeared, remarkably, in the title role of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (Vivian Stanshall, 1980)

—yet another gem that I missed at the time.

It’s hard to classify—a Spike Milligan remake of Last year at Marienbad?

That was inedible muck. And there wasn’t enough of it.

Worthy of the great Flann O’Brien is the line

If I had all the money I’ve spent on drink—I’d spend it on drink.

Along with punk, the film was part of the rich tapestry of British culture at the time (please be upstanding for God save the queen)

You don’t own me


I promise I won’t make a habit of this—and sure, there must be thousands more sites where this came from—but here’s a great list of

17 feminist songs that were ahead of their time
(where the links no longer work, you can find them with a search).

All the more important under the current assaults on what should be common sense, and the major role of women in leading the protests.

However can I have missed You don’t own me? (Lesley Gore, 1963) all this time? Or at least, how did I miss the 1964 cover by Dusty Springfield?

I’m finally getting why people get so hooked on Country (like you do on the suites of north Chinese shawm bands. Possibly.)—it’s good to see it featuring so strongly here. Kitty Wells, and Dolly Parton—feminist in, um, plain clothes…

How good to include Ethel Smyth’s 1910 suffragette anthem!

(Hmm, given that one seeks to discard outmoded gendered nouns, the term “suffragette” seems a bit ironic… BTW, you don’t hear much about “usherettes” these days, eh? They were a vital part of the Away from it all cinema experience.)

And of course “no playlist is complete without” the incomparable Billie Holiday

But how did I will survive (1978) not get onto the list? Anyway, here it is…

And here’s an updated list “to get you hyped for the women’s march“.

To return to Country: of course, the antithesis of all this is Stand by your man (1968, not great timing), but it’s still a great song, somehow—as long as you ignore the lyrics…

Tammy Wynette spent most of her life vainly trying to defend it. Here’s some more “negative teaching material”—with this quote she just digged herself further into a patriarchal hole:

Personally, I’m not particularly fond of the thought of digging ditches or climbing telephone poles. I’d rather stick with something a little more feminine. I wouldn’t want to lose the little courtesies that we’ve always been extended, like lighting cigarettes and opening doors, and pulling out chairs and things like that. I enjoy that. I guess I just enjoy being a woman.

Oops. Retired Rear Admiral James Foleyso retired he’s dead—will be nodding his head wisely and playfully slapping her cute lil’ ass.

At the time I may not have clocked You don’t own me, but at least I was aware of Dusty (!).* And digressing only a tad from the feminist path, I do vividly remember Cilla’s Anyone who had a heart (1964, her cover of Dionne Warwick’s 1963 version)—but great as both are, you must hear Sheridan Smith’s astounding cover (from the 2014 TV series Cilla):

The sheer creative energy of music in the often-discredited 1960s is an endless topic. But we can always put in wider context—not just civil rights and hippies, but further afield, in Nigeria, or the ongoing struggles of Eastern Europe… And ritual specialists in Chinese villages!

See also Gender: a roundup.

* My friend Rowan points out wisely that I’ve never been aware of anything at the time. Now I’m still living in the past, for all my so-called “contemporary ethnography”…

Concert etiquette, and auditions

À propos Ravel’s Piano concerto for the left hand: two-handed pianists soon got in on the act, though how to occupy the spare hand must take some thought. In This Day and Age one imagines young pianists saying,

“You know what’s so great about the concerto? You can text your mates while you’re playing it!”


Alternatively one could wear a boxing glove on the right hand, or a glove puppet, making suitably cute gestures to reflect the changing moods.

In Certain Quarters such behaviour might go down like a one-legged man at an arse-kicking party.

Conversely, watching people texting with two thumbs, I think of the mbira.

While we’re on deficiencies in the limb department, apart from the one-legged men in The third policeman, this classic audition springs to mind (Tarzan, “A role that is traditionally associated with…”):

Historical ears and eyes

Brief encounter

We can never unhear the soundscape of our times (for a roundup of posts on reception history, see here).

As I continue to delight in Hélène GrimaudRachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto (1902) comes with a lot of accumulated baggage, which may both blur and enrich our appreciation. The most obvious instance is the soundtrack of Brief encounter.

Even for me, growing up in the swinging 60s, this is an inescapable association—let alone for my parents’ generation, for whom the story of the wife’s reluctant retreat from a life-enhancing affair back to a stultifying marriage would have been still more telling, and modern, than for more recent audiences in similar situations. Readily parodied, the film must have meant a lot when it was released—in 1945, of all times. The play by Nöel Coward dates from 1936; it was at his insistence that the concerto was later used for the film—and then we might try and think ourselves back to 1902 when Rachmaninoff completed it…

Whether or not we can (or wish to) put all this aside, it’s a magical concerto—especially in the hands of Hélène Grimaud and Claudio Abbado:

* * *

And while I’m on Rachmaninoff, I can’t believe I never got to play the 2nd symphony, also overwhelming… Of all the versions, André Previn’s recording with the LSO is much praised (for his name in Chinese, see here):

The great Rozhdestvensky with the LSO in 1988 (Andrew Marriner with the clarinet solo in the slow movement!):

(cf. their live performance in 1984, with cuts).

But I’m most attached to this live performance in the Concertgebouw:

This seems to be an exception to my rule that our experience of all kinds of music is enriched by early associations. Not only have I never played it, I only got to know it properly over the last few years.

More Rachmaninoff herehere, and here.

A tribute to Yang Yinliu


Yang Yinliu, 1950.

Since I mentioned Yang Yinliu’s groundbreaking work on the Zhihua temple, he too richly deserves a tribute. Indeed, since soundscape is such a basic aspect of Chinese culture, his work should form a basic training for us all.

Yang Yinliu 楊蔭瀏 / 杨荫浏 (1899–1984) is often described in mediaspeak as “the Chinese Bartók”, but Bartók should rather be described as “the Hungarian Yang Yinliu”. A fine musician and fieldworker, erudite historian, and incidentally a Protestant, Yang’s whole oeuvre was remarkable.

Brought up in the final years of the Qing dynasty in the milieu of the Daoist instrumental music and the refined Kunqu vocal dramas of the Wuxi area near Shanghai, Yang was a fine exponent of qin zither, pipa and sanxian plucked lutes, and the ethereal falsetto singing of Kunqu (I haven’t yet found my copy of the precious recording from the 1920s found recently in Berlin). He learned instruments from Daoist priests (including Abing) from the age of six, joining the elite Tianyun she society.

YYLIn Wuxi, under the tuition of the American missionary Louise Strong Hammond, he studied English and Western music theory. He also became an active Christian. He went on to gain a cosmopolitan education in Shanghai, attending St John’s University from 1923. After returning to Wuxi in 1926, he was married in 1928, becoming a professor at Yenching University in Beijing in 1936. Offered a job in the USA heading a Chinese music institute there, he commented, “I can do nothing if I leave Chinese soil, where Chinese music lives.”

After the Japanese occupation in 1937, and through the troubled 1940s, not inclined to join the Communist base area in Yan’an, Yang moved from Nanjing to posts in Kunming and Chongqing, always continuing his research.

The Wuxi Daoists
Yang and his cousin Cao Anhe returned regularly to Wuxi, where they were engaged in a long-term project studying the music of the local Daoists. Of their two major books on the theme, their work on Shifan gu was first published in 1957, Yang’s on Shifan luogu not until 1980.

In some respects Yang seems like a traditional historical musicologist rather than an ethnographer; but he was well aware of complex social issues. This passage on the position of Daoists in Wuxi society illustrates his sophisticated interest in ethnography and ritual practice, besides his more traditional “musicological” concerns: [1]

In the past [?!], Buddhists in south Jiangsu divided into two types, Chan school (chanmen) and Auxiliary school (fumen).

Those of the Chan school were completely vegetarian, and didn’t have families. They only used percussion like woodblock, bowl, nao and bo cymbals, and tonggu drum to punctuate their vocal liturgy; they didn’t play any melodic instrumental pieces. They never took part in production, living in their temples, some of which had large estates.

The Auxiliary school ate meat and had families. Few in number, they lived scattered in the villages, taking part in agriculture and only reciting the scriptures and litanies as an auxiliary occupation. Among the Buddhists, they are the only ones who play the fanyin [melodic instrumental repertoire] and [separate] percussion items.

Among the Daoists, the Complete Perfection (Quanzhen) school (belonging to the Qingchengshan style of Sichuan) were similar to the Buddhist Chan school, not using separate percussion items or silk-and-bamboo instruments. Those who played the fanyin and separate percussion items mostly belonged to the Zhang Heavenly Masters school of Longhushan in Jiangxi.

Among the latter group, there was a further clear class distinction. A minority of abbots possessed ritual titles of the Zhang Heavenly Masters, like “Master who Guard the Way” (daoweishi) or “Ritual Master” (fashi), and mostly owned land. They didn’t take part in production. They interacted with landlords and the bourgeoisie in the cities and villages, taking ritual work and contacting and hiring the common village Daoists to take part in major rituals (daochang fashi).

These common Daoists mostly took part in agricultural production, being hired ad hoc: performing for rituals was an auxiliary occupation for them. In both agriculture and Daoism, they were an exploited class. These common Daoists—even the indispensable drummers and flute players, with their excellent musical technique—only got a tiny wage for a whole day’s work.

Conversely, the “Masters who Guard the Way” and “Ritual Masters”, having only taken responsibility for quite brief ritual segments of a few hours like Issuing the Talismans (fafu), Reporting the Memorial (zoubiao), and Flaming Mouth (yankou), claimed a reward many times higher than that of the others. Those who played music were mostly the common semi-peasant Daoists; very few of the “Masters who Guard the Way” and “Ritual Masters” could do so. This shows that in the past it was agricultural life that produced and developed music.

Never mind the diplomatic PC spin (for “reading between the lines”, see my article cited under Hunan below), Yang had already observed the important distinctions common to local ritual cultures all over China, long before the major projects on local Daoist ritual since the 1980s. [2]



Shifan gu and Shifan luogu, c1962.

Nearby, the Daoist rituals of Suzhou were also thoroughly documented in an amazing 1956 project. Following such early work, major studies of the Daoist rituals of Suzhou, Wuxi, and Shanghai have been made since the 1990s. [3]

The Music Research Institute
After the 1949 “Liberation” Yang’s erudition was much needed. Managing to adapt to the new Communist regime, he was appointed director of the newly-formed National Music Research Institute of the Central Conservatory of Music (predecessor of the Music Research Institute [MRI] of the Chinese Academy of Arts), beginning a golden age for research there. Under his committed guidance they accumulated a large archive of field recordings and traditional notations.

A qin player himself, he was closely involved with all his eminent colleagues’ research on qin (see my series on The qin zither under Maoism, starting here).

The golden age of the MRI, 1954;
right to left Guan Pinghu, Yang Yinliu, Pu XuezhaiZha Fuxi, Li Yuanqing.

In due course the MRI was given a new building (typically, soon dilapidated) in Dongzhimenwai in the northeast of the city. Even in the 1980s, when it became my home base between field trips, its bare dingy corridors were animated by the spirits of the old masters. The new compound, further out in Huixinxijie, is less characterful.


Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe at the MRI, 1961.

Both before and after Liberation, until the early 1960s, in collaboration with other fine scholars—notably his cousin and lifelong companion Cao Anhe (1905-2004)—Yang managed both to perform remarkable research on a range of living traditions and to compile major collections and transcriptions of traditional notation. Just as important was his monumental history, first in draft from 1944, covering with unique erudition the whole of Chinese music history, and elite as well as folk genres, albeit couched in the language of its time.

His most renowned recording—on another trip home to Wuxi in summer 1950—of pipa and erhu solos by the blind beggar Abing, is perhaps his least interesting. Abing was once among the Daoists whose company Yang kept in his youth, but the 1950 recording was a casual event, on a day off from working with the Daoists who were his main focus.

His work on the Zhihua temple followed on from his 1952 monograph (with Cao Anhe) of the “Songs for Winds” band from Ziwei village in Hebei during their 1950 visit to Tianjin—a band still active when Xue Yibing and I visited them from 1989. In summer 1953 Yang made an important visit to Xi’an to investigate the music (and scores) of local ritual groups; and he drew attention to the ritual music of Shanxi, notably the Buddhist mountains of Wutaishan—also later to become major scholarly themes in China. [4] With Cao Anhe and Jian Qihua he also took part in a project to transnotate a rare score of the “suite plucking” repertoire of old Beijing. For more evidence of his good taste, see here.

Hunan, 1956
Along with his historical research, Yang Yinliu did all kinds of fieldwork. Just as remarkable as his studies with the Wuxi Daoists was a major fieldwork trip he led to Hunan province in 1956, amidst escalating collectivisation. There Yang Yinliu headed a team documenting all kinds of ceremonial music-making, notably ritual and customary musics. Despite the politically correct language of the published volume, they seem to have taken what they found. The resulting “Report on a survey of the musics of Hunan” (Hunan yinyue pucha baogao, 1960) has 618 pages, besides separate mimeographs on Confucian and Buddhist ritual. I’ve written about it at greater length here.

This, the first general survey of all the genres of a given area, was an influential blueprint for later regional surveys from the 1980s, notably the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, on which see my

  • “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003), pp.287–337.

The energy of those times at the MRI, in the midst of increasing political control, was remarkable. Also wide-ranging was an early fieldtrip to Fujian for two and a half months in the winter of 1961–62, led by Li Quanmin, and published in 1963. [5]

In 1962 Yang Yinliu published a masterly overview of Chinese notation in his Gongchepu qianshuo 工尺谱浅说.

All this extraordinary work was carried out under the most taxing conditions. Worse was to come: academics and peasants alike, as representatives of the “Four Olds”, suffered grievously after the Four Cleanups campaigns began in 1963. In May 1965—after the end of the campaigns, when over thirty MRI employees had undergone Socialist Education in Chang’an county, Shaanxi—they celebrated their temporary freedom with a visit to Huashan:

Huashan 1965

In the row behind, fifth from left is the trusty Li Wenru (for whom, see here). Source: Yang Yinliu jinian wenji.

As the Cultural Revolution broke out, even in the Hebei village camp where Yang and others were sent for “re-education” he furtively continued research, including studies (along with Huang Xiangpeng, another distinguished colleague) of the 1972 excavation of the Han tombs at Mawangdui (see e.g. Micic, p.104). During this period Yang’s colleagues members of the elite qin fraternity were also given permission to continue their studies.

“How to assess religious music”
Within the confines of the day, Yang Yinliu paid just as much attention to “literati” and “religious” culture as to more popular genres (pace Joseph Lam). Indeed, Yang was perhaps predisposed to studying early music history; and it wasn’t so much post-Liberation ideology that drew him to popular living genres, but his own training in performance (Kunqu, Daoists and so on).

In the useful article

he discusses Yang’s own article “Ruhe duidai woguode zongjiao yinyue” 如何对待我国的宗教音乐 [How to treat religious music], Wenhui bao 1961.3 (also reproduced in the 2013 Yang Yinliu jinian wenji), written just as a very brief lull in extreme leftist policies followed the climb-down after the terrible famine.

Meanwhile scholars had been discussing the classification of genres; their framework was enshrined in the 1964 Minzu yinyue gailun [Survey of Chinese music]. Despite the separate and subsidiary place of “religious music”, they were aware that ritual practice pervaded all genres of rural performance. Indeed, Yang seems to have been the first to use the term “ritual music” (yishi yinyue ) in China. [1] From 1959 he also spent many years revising his masterwork Zhongguo gudai yinyue shi gao [Draft history of Chinese music], which was finally published in 1981. Covering literati, palace, folk, and religious traditions required him to take great care over how to couch his language.

So in his 1961 article he was subtly, and boldly, justifying the very need to study ritual traditions, using the language of class struggle while attempting to refine it. It will hardly satisfy modern anthropologists of religion; indeed, it makes a rather severe test of our ability to interpret writings of the time. Of course, in the 1950s the tenets of ethnomusicology were still far from common even in the West. Yang’s use of language shows the hoops that scholars had to jump through in order to get on with documenting the diverse genres.

After the downfall of the Gang of Four in 1976 and the demise of the commune system, Yang Yinliu finally saw his great history formally published, and cultural and academic life restored. Though he lived long enough to witness the revival of tradition, he could hardly have imagined how widespread it would become, and how important the study of ritual and its soundscape was to be. How he would have delighted in the renewed energy of the Anthology and later fieldwork projects! His interests may have been more directed towards the “salvage” of genres common in his own youth and throughout imperial history, but I think he would have understood the value of documenting their fortunes since Liberation, even if that was still to remain a sensitive subject.


The Protestant hymns of Yang Yinliu
Unlike Bartók, Yang wasn’t also a composer. Except

As a coda to this little tribute, the 2-CD set from Wind Records ends with a touching hymn that Yang wrote in 1934, a simple harmonization of the qin piece Yangguan sandie:

I was most moved to hear the Beijing Protestant Church Choir sing it at a memorial concert for Yang in November 1999. His Christian background has long been recognized, but only with the liberalizations since his death did it become possible in China to admit, sotto voce, that he remained a Christian all his life. This makes his hymns all the more moving, especially bearing in mind all the silent tribulations since the 1940s of Chinese Christians, along with artists, intellectuals, and peasants.

* * *

Along with my Chinese friends, some of whom were his pupils, I can’t help feeling a deep nostalgia for the golden days of the MRI. Yang Yinliu’s combination of encyclopedic knowledge and musicianship are likely to remain unmatched. If only my other great mentor, Laurence Picken, had been able to confer with him!

Like many ethnomusicologists, I no longer want to be limited by the narrow association with “music”, but while Yang Yinliu’s writings are wide-ranging as well as profound, his focus on “music” was also admirable.

Finally, two suitable quotes from a junior colleague of Yang (see Peter Micic’s second comment below), and a pupil, [6] who were also to become my mentors:

Yang Yinliu was a large tree full of lush leaves and branches reaching high into the sky. I can only caress each branch and leaf with my hands.Yang was a bridge between the ancient and the modern, Chinese and foreign. I’m still walking along that bridge that Yang built.   —Huang Xiangpeng (for whom, see Peter Micic’s comment below)

Through him, Chinese music history was freed from the shackles of the text, allowing the music and the musicians to take centre stage.   —Qiao Jianzhong


With two distinguished successors of Yang Yinliu at the MRI, 1989: Huang Xiangpeng (left) and Qiao Jianzhong.

Alas, I arrived in Beijing in 1986 a couple of years too late to pay homage to Yang Yinliu in person. But his spirit animates us all.

Selected resources

  • Zhongguo gudai yinyue shi gao [Draft history of ancient Chinese music] (Beijing, 1981)
  • Yang Yinliu yinyue lunwen xuanji [Selected articles by Yang Yinliu on music] (Shanghai, 1986)
  • Qiao Jianzhong and Mao Jizeng, eds.: Zhongguo yinyuexue yidai zongshi Yang Yinliu (jinian ji) [Yang Yinliu, master of Chinese musicology, commemorative collection] (Taipei, 1992)
  • Chuancheng: Yang Yinliu bainian danchen jinian zhuanji/Heritage: in memory of a Chinese music master Yang Yinliu (2-CD set, Wind Records, 2000) [with detailed booklet]
  • Yang Yinliu quanji [Complete works of Yang Yinliu] (13 vols, Jiangsu wenyi chubanshe, 2009)
  • Yang Yinliu jinian wenji [Collected articles commemorating Yang Yinliu] (Beijing, 2013)
  • Han Kuo-huang, “Three Chinese musicologists: Yang Yinliu, Yin Falu, Li Chunyi”, Ethnomusicology 24.3 (1980), pp.483–529
  • Stephen Jones, “Yang Yinliu”, in The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians (2001)
  • Peter Micic, “Gathering a nation’s music: a life of Yang Yinliu”, in Lives in Chinese music, ed. Helen Rees (University of Illinois Press, 2009), pp.91–116. Note also references.

[1] Sunan chuidaqu, 1957 edition, pp.11–12. This passage was cut from the 1982 edition. There may be a story to tell here: perhaps such material was still more sensitive when they revised the text around 1980 than it had been even in 1957.

[2] See also Meng Fanyu 孟凡玉, “Lun Yang Yinliude yishi yinyue yanjiu” 论杨荫浏的仪式音乐研究, Yinyue yishu 2017.6.

[3] For a simple introduction to the musical and ritual culture of south Jiangsu, see my Folk music of China, pp.246–8.

[4] Ibid., pp.195–202 and 213–45.

[5] Cf. ibid. pp.286–321.

[6] Cited in Micic, “Gathering a nation’s music”, pp.105–106.

Vera and Doris


Vera de Bosset.

Further to Igor Stravinsky (“Gran visits York”), here’s Alan Bennett again (Writing home, p.30):

During the [1963] run of Beyond the fringe in New York, Dudley Moore and I took refuge from a storm in the Hotel Pierre, where we were spotted by an assistant manager. Saying that there had been a spate of thefts from rooms recently, he asked us to leave. A small argument ensued, in the course of which an old man and his wife stumped past, whereupon the assistant manager left off abusing us in order to bow. It was Stravinsky. We were then thrown out. I have never set foot in the Pierre since, fearing I might still be taken for a petty thief. Dudley Moore, I imagine, goes in there with impunity; the assistant manager may even bow to him now while throwing someone else out. Me still, possibly.

And then (2010):

I tell John Bird the story of Dudley Moore and me seeing Stravinsky and his wife Vera in the Hotel Pierre in New York in 1963, saying how the name Vera has always seemed to me to humanise Stravinsky. “Not so much as Stockhausen,” says John. “His wife’s name was Doris.”

Now, I’m not so humourless that I can’t see how Vera and Doris (“wives”) are funnier than Igor and Karlheinz (“Great Composers”). Noting that the English have been making light of Storm Doris this week, this brings me to hurricanes.

In the USA, for many years hurricanes bore only female names. The male meteorological community found female names

appropriate for such unpredictable and dangerous phenomena.

Pah! In the 1970s the growing numbers of female meteorologists began to object, and since 1978 onwards male and female names have alternated (Yay!). Nor are they expected to suggest menace, like characters in a horror movie. Fleur or Katrina might be femme fatales, but Tammy and Bob are homely, and Nigel nerdy.

However, in the US people may prepare differently for storms depending whether they bear a male or female name. Hurricanes with female names cause significantly more deaths—apparently (by contrast with that idea of “female menace”) because people perceive them as less threatening, leading to less preparedness and thus causing more damage. You can’t win…

BTW, please can we stop making out that countries and ships are feminine?! Otherwise we’re lucky in English not to have to worry our pretty little heads about gendering nouns

The “case for the defence” shoots itself in the foot most messily in a breathtakingly Neanderthal essay “Why We Call a Ship a She” from “Rear Admiral” Francis D. Foley—apparently the Benny Hill of the US Navy. This is just a sample:

There can be a great deal of bustle about her as well as a gang of men on deck, particularly if she is slim-waisted, well-stacked, and has an inviting superstructure.

And FFS, it dates from 1998! If it came from 1698 I might reluctantly, um, consider it within the cultural context of the day; but this is indeed the cultural context that afflicts the USA at the moment. Too bad Foley is no longer with us—he would be a shoo-in for the post of Gender Equality Adviser in the new US administration. But amazingly there are plenty more where he came from, eager to fall on their flaccid pork swords before the Amazon hordes of the “liberal media”…

Cf. Surely… in the Messiah.

“No sensa humor, these wimmin…” Never mind Bridget Christie—even Foley’s junior contemporary Stella Gibbons would have given him a piece of her dainty mind.

This is a battle that is important to pursue, like “actress”, “chairman”, and “ballerina” (see Words and women)—however much the “PC gone mad” cabal may splutter.

Doh a deer, a female deer—but that’s not important right now”, indeed.

I rest my case.

Resting case

Resting my case. After Li band tour, Paris.

For more on sexist language, see here, with further links.

Papa papa papa papa papapa, papa papa papa papaaaaa PA!


For me, that Parks and recreation theme is right up there with Pete Moore’s 1968 classic Asteroid, or should I say the Pearl and Dean intro—a relic of bygone days when people went to a dark place called “the cinema”. (In the pre-mobile age, they couldn’t even say “I’m in a dark place at the moment”.)

Asteroid belongs well just after the style so effectively parodied at the opening of Monty Python’s Away from it all. And it shows that we too can learn additive rhythms—in this case, 3+3+2. We might set the repeated ambiguous ascending opening phrase to “I’ve got rhythm”.

If historical musicology is your bag, you can compare various versions over time—from the classic

through the 90s’ version, to the 2006 creation. The latter (at all of 2’16”) seems positively Wagnerian in its expansiveness; with our attention-span long conditioned to a quick burst, it takes some getting used to.

I note online comments on the BBC news report on the story:

This appears to reference something in British culture.
This Pearl and Dean thing seems pretty trivial and obscure to me.

O tempora! O mores! (You can read this as a football result: “Tempora nil—Mores nil.)

Now, Call Me Old-Fashioned [What, again?—Ed.], but the original has an authentic feel that is hard to recapture.

It’s tempting to use the piece as a prelude segueing right into the WAM classic of your choice—like the opening of the John Passion, the slow movement of the Schubert string quintet, or the Adagietto of Mahler 5.

Anyway, ritual efficacy does not necessarily correlate with duration. Ha.

It might also serve as an anthem for stammerers like me. For more pa-pa-pa, see here.

One more time, Altogether now:

Papa papa papa papa papapa, papa papa papa papaaaaa PA!

Parks and recreation


More from the Terpsichorean muse:

Just as brilliant as Family guy and Soap is Parks and recreation, with the most joyous theme tune ever:

From the innocent vamp, with its tiny yet prophetic throw-away ending, to the zany syncopated opening of the tune (like the end of Boléro played a lot faster than the much-too-fast versions of lesser “maestros”), via the crazy successive modulations à la Berlioz, to the manic ascending scale introducing the recapitulation to coy simplicity—how does it cover so much ground in 30”?! And this is the full version that doesn’t always get aired!

Ecstatic… Here are some great moments from the series:

A forfeit for theorists


As I noted in my book (p.366), while in many ways my work on the Li family Daoists has rather little in common with the numerous Chinese field reports on local Daoist ritual, one feature (blessing or curse) that it shares with them is its economy with theory.

Theoretical reflections on Chinese ritual come largely from Western scholars—though they speak mostly not to such disciplines as performance studies or visual anthropology but to the realm of the sinological historian. To be sure, such discussions may be instructive, such as Helen Siu’s theory of ritual fragmentation, or the recurring discussions following from James Watson’s ideas on orthopraxy or the Wolf–Freedman–Weller debate on unity and diversity in Chinese culture.

Theoretical discussion, “like cunnilingus, is dark and lonely work, but someone’s got to do it”—to cite Joseph Heller on tending sheep (in England the bon mot is usually applied to coal-mining). Don’t get me wrong, when done well it can yield great rewards (and Heller’s analogy still applies).

For thoughtful integration of theory with ethnographic detail, one thinks of Clifford Geertz, or (closer to my field) Adam Chau, and Rachel Harris. And indeed Catherine Bell, whose two fine books Ritual theory, ritual practice and Ritual: perspectives and dimensions provide a useful overview of the gamut of polysyllables—phenomenological, redemptive hegemony, and so on—and how useful they may be. Allegedly.

BTW, I like to think of “Bourdieu’s habitus” as a tiny sylvan dwelling, made out of twigs, where elves live; and I imagine him in a little red pointy cap, poking his head out.

Again, such terms (like local, emic ones) can be instructive, as long as they are thoughtfully adopted and adapted. Anyway, anthropologists should hope both to “do things” (fieldwork) and to theorise; but (as with religion) some excel at, or prefer, one or the other. And I guess they themselves will identify “ludic” qualities to their own language.

In the introductions of earnest PhD theses the homages to Foucault, Bourdieu, Gramsci, and so on, often seem like an obligatory kowtow to the God of the Soil (拜土地爺). We also liked to use this expression in our early days of fieldwork, when courtesy visits to the local officialdom were a sensible precaution before “going down” [sic] to the villages.

* * *

As a forfeit for such polysyllabic obfuscations, I hereby decree that henceforth, whenever scholars wish to introduce any abstruse theoretical perspective (“negotiation of identity”, “dialectic of objectification and incorporation”, and so on), they should have to add a line from Wei Hui’s 2001 novel Shanghai Baby (“a story of love, sex, and self-discovery”. Grrr), a trail-blazer in the budding, nay pert, genre of Chinese chick-lit:

 she moaned, as he nimbly slipped off her CK panties. [1]

That’ll learn ‘em. Apart from the exotic foreign brand-flaunting, I may add that just for extra racist value—the potent Other—her lover is German. Anyway, you get the gist—it makes Jackie Collins look like Wittgenstein, and the Chinese people may justly be offended that the book wasn’t shortlisted for the Bad Sex Awards.

As a litmus test of our noble conceptual terms, we might try translating them for our peasant friends, or The Plain People of Ireland. Their bemused expressions may remind us of the limitations of such theories, rather than discrediting them.

But “I didn’t get where I am today” [at home with a bottle of Bombay Sapphire—Ed.] by peddling such flapdoodle. Conversely, do consult the wise reflections of Catherine Bell on ritual studies.

[1] The translation, otherwise less reproachable than the book itself, gives “underpants”, surely less idiomatic.

Reading Chinese: a caveat

Not unlike the order of spoken binomes, temple placards can be confusing to read. Written horizontally, they usually read from right to left; but sometimes, as when an emperor bestows a placard on a temple, they may read from left to right. This can even be an issue in reading secular slogans, which now almost always read from left to right.

Among the numerous stories of Tian Qing, eminent pundit of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, this is one of few that I dare publish…

A distinguished elderly Buddhist monk from mainland China was visiting Taiwan. Above a little restaurant opposite the temple that was hosting him, he was alarmed to see a sign:



It took him a while to work out that hopefully it might read in the other direction:



For another fine instance, see here. For more Chinese character-play, see under the Chinese jokes tag—this one is particularly charming. OK then, here’s another story from Tian Qing—again on a Buddhist theme.

A slender but magical clue


Former monks of Beijing, September 1954.

The whole topic of amateur ritual associations on the Beijing plain, and indeed north Chinese ritual, was first suggested by a 1953 monograph, slim yet astounding, by the great musicologists (and musicians) Yang Yinliu and Zha Fuxi on the shengguan music of recently-laicised Buddhist monks throughout the north and east of Beijing city, commonly associated with the famous Zhihua temple—just at a time when they found themselves in difficult circumstances after the radical social transformations around Liberation, suddenly deprived of their ritual livelihood. [1]

You can hear a haunting track from Yang’s 1953 recordings in the playlist in the sidebar, #14 (commentary here). For a roundup of posts on the Zhihua temple and related ritual activity, see here.

One of the most moving sections of the monograph [2] is a remarkably frank and perceptive letter that Zha Fuxi wrote to the former monks, dated 30/12/1952. As a qin master and scholar, his aesthetic world was remote from theirs, but he deeply valued their music, and quite understood how disgruntled they were.

While I realize that you are trying to pursue your livelihood on the basis of your knowledge of the new society, you will try to consign your repertoire to the cultural sphere… […]

But you bitterly regret that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your youth of studying this music to the point of damaging your health and wasting your opportunities to study culture [sic]. You are particularly resentful that because you are uncultured [sic] you can’t express how these heritages of your elders in the temple—its two great arts of intangible music and material architecture—are worth preserving.

Zha goes on to itemise all the respects in which their music was such a valuable resource for musicology, partly seeking to bolster their self-esteem. He concludes by recognising how very tough their learning process was, and suggests patience, in the hope that

even if some people in the old society despised you, their moral character has been raised in the new society and they will gradually recognize you.

But of course he was unable to suggest how their position in the new society might be practically ameliorated; the ritual business of their youth would never be restored. Under Maoism both the monks and the scholars would suffer in various ways (for ritual artisans at the time, see here).

Fast-forward to the reform era since the 1980s. For two decades, whenever I returned to Beijing from the countryside, I would go and visit the former monks, notably the late lamented Benxing, and by the 1990s they were training a new generation—a group of teenage boys from Qujiaying village.

But they continued to feel resentful, despite social liberalizations and the ongoing efforts of well-meaning scholars and cultural officials to reinstate the prestige of their music, with frequent conferences and TV appearances, propaganda for the whole “living fossil” “cultural heritage” shtick. Media publicity was one thing, the reduction of their busy ritual “rice-bowl” since 1949 quite another. Today the new recruits are rather good; led by the bright Hu Qingxue, they even manage to do folk rituals as well as obligatory tourist “performances” of the shengguan music at the temple.


Former monks performing a funerary yankou ritual, Beijing suburbs 1993

This film features cameos from Hu Qingxue and our revered master Benxing, but also illustrates the current media style of presenting such culture…

* * *

Anyway, I digress. The 1953 monograph soon attained an iconic status in Chinese musicology, as indeed did Yang and Zha themselves. [3] But Beijing and the Zhihua temple are only the tip of the iceberg. In his monograph Yang Yinliu mentioned a hereditary sheng-repairer (dianshengde 點笙的) called Qi Youzhi, who used to mend and tune the instruments of the Zhihua temple. Thoughtfully, he even provided Qi’s address:


South of the capital, Baxian county east, Xin’an town, Zhongyong street.

Thirty-six years later in 1989, with my brilliant fieldwork companion Xue Yibing I began a survey of ritual associations on the plain south of Beijing. Baxian county was to be on our route, so I copied the page—just on the off-chance that anyone there might still remember him. Arriving in Xin’an town, as soon as we mentioned Qi Youzhi, the members of the ritual association exclaimed, “Sure! We’ll go and get him for you!” He was still only 70 sui, a mere youngster by the standards of many ritual specialists we were now finding everywhere. Our chats with him yielded some interesting material on the transmission of shengguan music throughout the area.

QYZ 1989.jpg

Qi Youzhi (right) with Xue Yibing, Xin’an 1989.

The Qi family was among many lineages of sheng-repairers active around Beijing and the countryside just south. According to Yang Yinliu, Qi Youzhi was the sixth or seventh generation of sheng-repairers in his lineage—though he told us he was the fourth. His grandfather Qi Baoshan had worked for the imperial palace lamas in Beijing. Before the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Qi Youzhi’s father Qi Lanpu used to play sheng in the Tianqiao district of Beijing. Later, through contacts with palace eunuchs, he learnt to repair sheng, building a reputation with temple musicians. His older brother Qi Lanting and his oldest son Qi Youcai also took up the business, and they also repaired sheng in Tianjin.

Qi Youzhi, Qi Lanpu’s second son, [4] was born in 1920. In 1929 he began to play sheng in the Shifan association in Xin’an town, and from 1931 until the Japanese invasion in 1937 he helped his older brother with his sheng business in Tianjin and Beijing. There he learned to make and repair sheng; they also made guanzi oboes, dizi flutes, and shawms (laba).

They used to go out to find work repairing sheng, making the rounds of all the Buddhist and Daoist temples. At the North Great Gate of Tianjin, Qi Youzhi recalled, the Buddhist monks at the “Buddhist temple” and the Daoist priests at the Chenghuang miao had many sheng. We asked him if nuns (called “juvenile monks”, youseng!) also played shengguan music; indeed, the Qi family used to tune sheng for the Taishan miao nunnery and the one in Xiaomalu (“Small road”). They used to go to tune sheng not only for the Tianjin and Beijing temples, but also throughout the villages, tuning and mending sheng for both types of ritual association, “northern” and “southern”—the latter also known by the fine terms qie 怯 (“rustic”) and kua 侉 (“with an outsider’s accent” or “bumpkin”); he maintained sheng for shawm bands too. But after the Japanese invasion in 1937 their activities were highly restricted.

Based in Xin’an in the mid-1940s the family resumed its work, apparently even through the 1946–7 civil war. Twice a year Qi Youzhi used to go on a long trek by foot to Beijing with his uncle, staying in villages on the way and tuning sheng wherever there was work. In Beijing, he recalled that temples like the Guandi miao in Sitiao, and the Guangji an at Chaoyangmenwai dongdaqiao, used the classic “capital” (“northern”) shengguan music. But the Baita si, Huguo si, and Longfu si temples seem to have been “rustic” or “southern” in style, since they included small shawms (laba) in their shengguan ensemble. The gradual destruction of this whole landscape of old Beijing has been bulldozed most radically since the 1990s.

After the 1949 Liberation, Qi Youzhi could no longer find work in Beijing, since priests were returning to lay life and temples were now largely inactive—but significantly there was still plenty of work repairing sheng for the village ritual associations. Indeed, this work continued until the Four Cleanups in 1964. By 1980 Qi Youzhi was 61 sui, and, despite the revival, seems to have been much less active.

We went to see him again in 1993, between visits to two amazing village ritual associations near Xin’an, Gaoqiao (Buddhist—another sheng-making/repairing lineage; audio playlist track 8, and commentary) and Zhangzhuang (Daoist).

By then our team was joined by Zhang Zhentao, who has since published detailed work on the sheng and its history. Meanwhile Yuan Jingfang made detailed studies of the Zhihua temple style, further adding to the list of its clerical exponents.

Everywhere we went on the Hebei plain, we made a point of seeking out sheng-repairers—often they were themselves members of a ritual association, but anyway they always knew precisely where other groups were active in the area. We also valued sheng players, always most knowledgeable about scales and pitch systems—in Hebei, Shanxi, and throughout north China.

* * *

I still marvel at that miraculous thread which linked us so vividly to Yang Yinliu’s time with the Zhihua temple monks, and further back to the world of palace eunuchs and the ritual life of the Qing dynasty.

[1] Yang Yinliu (1953) Zhihuasi jing yinyue caifang jilu [Record of visits to the capital music of the Zhihua temple], 3 parts, Beijing: Zhongyang yinyuexueyuan Zhongguo gudai yinyue yanjiushi, mim., now available in his complete works. This post is based on my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.146. For Buddhist and Daoist ritual life in Beijing and Tianjin, see ibid., Appendix 1, whose citations include Vincent Goossaert’s splendid 2007 book The Taoists of Peking, 1800–1949. As I note in the Appendix (p.222), only five of the nineteen former monks assembled came from the Zhihua temple. On ritual life in old Beijing I must also mention the works of Chang Renchun 常人春; for many more links, see here.
[2] Part 2, pp.40–45, signed with his other name Zha Yiping.
[3] Cf. Tian Qing, “Shijimo huimou: Zhihua si yinyue yu Zhongguo yinyuexue” [A fin-de-siecle retrospective: the music of the Zhihua temple and Chinese musicology], Zhongyang yinyuexueyuan xuebao 1998/2: 38–45.
[4] As you see from the page from Yang Yinliu’s notes, he had learned that Qi Youzhi was adopted son of Qi Fu, another distinguished sheng-repairer. We didn’t clarify this—such family relations can be hard to elicit on a brief acquaintance.
[5] See In search of the folk Daoists, pp.145–55.


Here’s another true story, that Andrew Manze told me at Chicago airport on a 2003 US tour, rendering me helpless throughout the flight and well into the rehearsal:

A renowned Swedish avant-garde trombone soloist (hmm—take your pick) is doing a concerto in Helsinki. He arrives at his hotel the day before the gig, and when he goes for a pee in his bathroom, the loo doesn’t flush. Same happens again after the rehearsal, so he thinks, I must tell them at reception to get it fixed. But he doesn’t get round to it.

Next morning the loo flushes OK, so he thinks no more of it. But just before going off to the gig, he has a spectacular pre-concert dump, and sure enough the loo again fails to flush. As he’s leaving his room to set out for the concert hall, all dressed up in his penguin suit, he notices a chambermaid outside. So he gestures to her to follow him into his bathroom, points theatrically to the massive turd floating unrepentantly in the bowl, summons up one of his few words of Finnish: “LOOK!”, and pushes the handle as if to flush it.

It flushes.

Yet more Ravel: an update



Along with the many entries under the Ravel tag, and I’ve been adding to the main page dedicated to him as well:

cliquez ici!

Besides great recordings of Shéhérazade, L’enfant et les sortilèges, the piano concertos (with Kind of blue as a bonus!), the Introduction and Allegro, and so on, you can now find Monteux’s classic 1955 Daphnis and Chloé, and a 1954 recording of the piano trio.

Headgear: a tough choice

Just when you thought these jokes couldn’t get any more niche, here’s one from the so-called Xinjiang Autonomous Region in west China, where ethnic tensions are intense. The indigenous Uyghurs (who are Muslim) and the immigrant Han Chinese are often at loggerheads; there’s also a milder minority population of Hui Chinese Muslims, who wear a distinctive white cloth cap. After one recent wave of ethnic violence, this story did the rounds:

A young Hui guy in Urumqi is desperate. “What am I supposed to do? If I wear my cap, I get beaten up by the Chinese. If I take it off, I get beaten up by the Uyghurs!”

For a distressing update on the situation in Xinjiang, see here.

***star-ratings, after SG

in the category cloud of the sidebar, I’m toying with a ***star-rating (now called *MUST READ!*)—not so much to help you separate the wheat from the chaff, but rather in homage to the great Stella Gibbons (1902–89), who wrote in her Foreword to Cold comfort farm:

And it is only because I have in mind all those thousands of persons not unlike myself, who work in the vulgar and meaningless bustle of offices, shops, and homes, and who are not always sure whether a sentence is Literature or whether it is just sheer flapdoodle, that I have adopted the method perfected by the late Herr Baedeker, and firmly marked what I consider the finer passages with one, two or three stars. In such a manner did the good man deal with cathedrals, hotels, and paintings by men of genius. There seems no reason why it should not be applied to passages in novels.

The “Loam-and-lovechild” style that Gibbons parodied is perhaps a cousin of what Elisabeth Lutyens—there, another fine female composer—christened the “cowpat school” of English music (“folky-wolky melodies on the cor anglais”, and so on). Here’s a *** passage from Cold comfort farm:

***His huge body, rude as a wind-tortured thorn, was printed darkly against the thin mild flame of the declining winter sun that throbbed like a sallow lemon on the westering lip of Mockuncle Hill, and sent its pale, sharp rays into the kitchen through the open door. The brittle air, on which the fans of the trees were etched like ageing skeletons, seemed thronged by the invisible ghosts of a million dead summers. The cold beat in glassy waves against the eyelids of anyone who happened to be out in it. High up, a few chalky clouds doubtfully wavered in the pale sky that curved over against the rim of the Downs like a vast inverted pot-de-chambre. Huddled in the hollow like an exhausted brute, the frosted roofs of Howling, crisp and purple as broccoli leaves, were like beasts about to spring.

Miss Stella Gibbons published Cold comfort farm in 1932. What a genius. The sequel is also brilliant, not least for her opera parody.

Taranta, poverty, and orientalism


Watching the 1959 footage of healing sessions for possessed women in south Italy by Ernesto De Martino and Diego Carpitella, one may feel almost voyeuristic (Part One, and Two).

Below I cite a review by Stephen Bennetts (Weekend Australian, Review section, 28–29 January 2006) of

  • Ernesto De Martino, The Land of Remorse: a study of Southern Italian tarantism.

First published in 1961, The Land of Remorse is a classic of anthropological detective work. Was this bizarre phenomenon really caused by the bite of the tarantula, or was it instead a mere “superstitious relic”, or a localised form of psychosis prevalent among illiterate Southern Italian peasants? Almost sixty years ago, in 1959, a group of scholars arrived in the small town of Galatina to unravel the riddle. They comprised a historian of religion (De Martino), neuropsychiatrist, toxicologist, psychologist, anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, social worker and photographer.

It soon became clear that the research team was documenting the last vestiges of the cult, which by now had retreated to an isolated pocket of peasant society in Salento, the stiletto heel of Southern Italy. Tarantism still persisted in its classical form in the music and dance therapy sessions conducted in the home, whilst the partly Christianised form of the cult, amputated of its musical and dance component, continued in the grotesque and histrionic displays at the Chapel of St Paul, as possessed tarantati arrived for the feast day of Saint Paul to ask the saint for healing.

In De Martino’s analysis, the mythology of the taranta and the catharsis of the possession state provide a framework in which personal psychological tensions common throughout Southern Italian peasant society could be publicly dramatised. Private sufferings caused by unhappy love, bereavement, sexual frustration, or subaltern social status were transfigured into annually recurring possession states which were culturally determined, rather than being the result of a real spider bite. The ritualised healing through dance and music provided victims with psychological closure and reintegration back into the community, at least until the summer of the following year.

[According to one Salentine authority, the last episode of tarantism involving actual possession took place in 1993, but the last living practitioner died in 2000. Yet “tarantism” has recently taken on another curious form. The current Southern Italian folk revival and associated pizzica dance craze incorporate a grab bag of different impulses: re-emergent Southern regionalism, the reevaluation of a peasant past which is now distant enough for young Southern Italians to romanticise rather than feel ashamed of, and a rejection by the Italian anti-globalisation movement of the television-fixated “cultural homogenization” of Berlusconian Italy. De Martino’s book has now achieved cult status beyond the academy; go to many folk concerts in Southern Italy today and you will find it on sale alongside tambourines, castanets and other accoutrements of the recently exhumed Southern Italian past. In a process which has been aptly described as “proletarian exoticisation”, De Martino’s plain female peasant tarantate have given way in contemporary reworkings of the theme to video clips featuring dissociated but picturesque young beauties writhing to the latest tarantella folk hit. Within the current Salentine folk revival, De Martino functions as a kind of symbolic fetish, validating an isolated area of Southern Italy which almost nobody had heard of until the “rediscovery” of tarantism and tarantella ten years ago suddenly put Salento on the map.]

Along with more detached ethnographic observations, one easily discerns severe social problems here—not least poverty, and not just the role of the church. Urban Chinese observing rural Chinese ritual may be beset by similar, prescriptive, responses—which will be secondary for foreign fieldworkers, more entranced by the persistence, perhaps exoticism, of religious practice there. That’s partly why study of the practices of “primitive” ethnic minorities are so fashionable.

De Martino’s work, though focused on religion, makes a successor to Carlo Levi’s 1945 book Christ stopped at Eboli, and even James Agee’s 1941 Let us now praise famous men, with the photos by Walker Evans. Accounts like these are a world away from the idealizing of peasant communities often implied in Chinese cultural studies. But both types have their own agendas. Meanwhile, brave Chinese journalists have blazed a trail, with village surveys like those for Anhui, and a substantial body of work on the famines around 1960.

We may contrast the anthropology/ethnography of religion with pious insiders’ views of religion. Of course a participant or “believer’s” own account will be important material. But if in the description the ethnographer promotes her own “belief”, that is dangerous: more like propaganda. Empathy is to be desired, evangelism to be avoided. Good histories of Christianity or Islam are unlikely to come from the standpoint of proponents for such beliefs.

So what is, or should be, the anthropologist’s view on religion? While showing how it works in the society, one doesn’t have to promote it as entirely beneficial there, or to that of other societies. Of course our picture is blurred by the quest for ancient oriental wisdom, which may even follow on from hippy mysticism. It is remarkable how commonly this still plays a role in studies of Daoism.

Some scholars make a case for the superiority of Daoism as a world view, over other religions and other world views. Not only is this not the job of the ethnographer, but it may flaw the whole research enterprise. What we learn from such accounts is what a Western scholar, of a particular upbringing and taste, thinks about Daoism; not what Daoism in society is like.

To repeat, it is different to develop a certain empathy with one’s subjects than to come from a standpoint of evangelical zeal. In the course of an ethnographic relationship one will doubtless begin to explain their mindset, their backstory, and so on. But the study of Daoists is mainly to be done with the same kind of anthropological curiosity that one would bring to the study of any other group, such as Party cadres or sex workers (funny how those two random examples seem to make suitable bedfellows. I didn’t say that).

Participant observation brings many benefits. In the case of religion, to participate fully in the life of Daoists will certainly confer insights—but there is no single type of Daoist, and even participation is only one aspect of the duties of the scholar. One should observe not only how religious activities inspire local patrons, or bring social cohesion, but how people may ignore or oppose them. I’m not even arguing with evangelism, necessarily; just that it blurs proper scholarship.

Study of oriental religion risks exoticizing. Even if the scholar avoids the trap of “Just look at this rare ritual I’ve stumbled across/gained unique access to”, rituals may yet be portrayed as “special”, ancient, mystical, and so on—whether they are or not, and downplaying their routine nature. This kind of social behaviour is normal. The visitor may stumble (once) across something supposedly rare, but more likely it will be repeated again and again—always adapting over time.

Note also this documentary from 1952, with funeral laments from Lucania:

and the 1958 sequel Magia Lucana:

For more recent pizzica, see here and here; and for Sardinia, here. I’ve also outlined work on folk musicking around Italy. For the festa of the Madonna of Mount Carmel in East Harlem, New York, click here.

More on Hebei

I’ve been revisiting my account of the amateur ritual association of South Gaoluo, my field-base through the 1990s, and I’ve just added a page (click here) on two major characters in the association. Now I’ve also given a roundup of posts on the village.


The New Year’s rituals 1989, our first visit

In my sojourns with the Li family Daoists in Yanggao I am mainly chatting with one extended family, seemingly detached from politics—not even on my early visits in 1991 and 1992 did we ever have any contact with local cadres. The headquarters of the village “brigade” have long stood derelict. Indeed, the experience of household Daoists—as freelancers, like shawm bands or carpenters—was different from that of peasants tied to the land, and they largely felt at a distance from the efforts of the leadership to rebuild society, more concerned for their own livelihood, always straining to gain some independence from the production teams. Moreover, Li Qing’s family was among the “black elements” in the village, suffering discrimination. Even if I had spent more time with the senior generation, I suspect their experiences of Maoism would have been similar: though inevitably deeply affected by political vicissitudes, they had little investment in the public affairs of the village.

By contrast, through the 1990s our team from the Music Research Institute in Beijing was doing a survey of villages on the plain south of Beijing, documenting amateur village ritual associations. These groups perform vocal liturgy, ritual percussion, and haunting shengguan wind music, mainly within their own village for funerals and calendrical festivals for the gods, so they are basically supported by the whole village.

While doing “hit-and-run” missions to several dozen villages in the area, I was increasingly attracted to one, South Gaoluo. Apart from the well-preserved condition of all aspects of the association’s ritual practice, I was drawn by the musicians’ personalities, and I ended up doing a detailed study on the fortunes of the village and its ritual association through the 20th century. What I tried, and failed, to write was a kind of cross between The Archers, Wild swans, and Philharmonia.

As I compiled the history of the association, several sources helped me to put its ritual and social culture in political context. There, many of the members of the association held positions of authority under all three periods of 20th-century history, so we naturally talked with the village leadership. With their detailed knowledge of the modern history of the village, several senior men, past and present cadres, were able to offer clear accounts of major events in the area and to connect them to the village’s ritual association.

But in both cases (occupational household Daoists and village-wide amateur ritual associations) the complexities of local relations can have a deep influence on ritual practice. Perceived cultural capital also changes. As with my work on the Li family Daoists, dry timeless disembodied lists of ritual sequences and vocal and instrumental items are far from adequate. What is fascinating is the interaction of personal biographies, the whole social and political environment, with changing ritual practice.

So on the new page I illustrate all this with the stories of two outstanding members of the South Gaoluo association, Cai Fuxiang (c1905–79) and Cai An (1942­–2012). In the official discourse, Cai Fuxiang would merit a polite footnote as an “old revolutionary” who preserved the ritual manuals and the performance of the vocal liturgy under Maoism; whereas the great Cai An might hardly feature at all. For more on the liturgists, click here.

You say potato

Pronunciation and oral transmission

On the perils of over-reliance on the written text (like—you guessed it—Daoist ritual manuals)—Let’s call the whole thing off:

“Look I’m sorry, I just don’t see what’s wrong with this relationship.”

See also this tribute to Bird and Fortune.

Among less confused versions of the song, I can never resist Billie Holiday:

and a fine version from Barcelona in The magic of the voice 2—with a suggestion for a Catalan version…

Note also Pomodoro!, a wonderful history of the tomato in Italy; and Music and the potato.


This story from 1999, in my Shaanbei book, already describes a bygone age:

One afternoon, after a couple of weeks in the countryside unable to get in touch with my partner in London, I decide to try and find a phone from where I can make an international call. Yangjiagou still has no phone [like Li Manshan’s village at the time!], certainly not one connected to the international network, so with my colleague Guo Yuhua we set off by foot down the hill towards the district township, almost an hour’s walk.

We find a phone in the post office and, miraculously, I get through. As I pay the sullen assistant, she makes out a receipt, asking what name she should fill in. I tell her not to bother, but as we come out onto the street, I take a look at the receipt: she has made it out to “WOG” (laowai).


After returning home to London I framed it.


Country titles

Further to tune titles (from The China Daily, and in Irish music),

on the many websites devoted to drôle country song titles, I like

How can I miss you when you won’t go away?

Also of note is

Get your tongue outta my mouth, I’m kissing you goodbye. *

Many such titles, of course, are a stark record of the misogyny of the milieu, though some express mutual alienation—if that helps…

À propos, I note Nicholas Dawidoff’s splendid book title In the country of country—another piece of musical ethnography. See also the films of Ken Burns and Rich Hall.


* On a more scholarly tack, for farewell poems in the Tang dynasty, see here.

Gendered nouns

Creme caramel

In our little grammar revision, we’ve done nominal classifiers—so further to gender in French, here’s Lee Mack on the topic (watch from 2.17):

You can’t win with the French. I went to a French restaurant recently, I thought, ”I’ll make the effort, I’ll order in French.” When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Me dad taught me that just before he was jailed in Italy for killing 20,000 Christians. This waiter came in and I was trying to order the egg custard. And I said,

”Have you got… le creme d’oeuf?”

And this waiter went, ”It’s not le creme d’oeuf. ”It’s la creme d’oeuf. ”It’s feminine.”

I said, ”It’s not feminine, is it? It’s an egg custard. What do I need to know the sex of an egg custard for? I want to eat it—not fuck it.”

Don’t get me started on the feminine gender of ships

Taking it on the qin

Following my tribute to Lin Youren, I should explore my ambivalent relation with the qin zither. Such a dominant image of Chinese musical culture, it is as if the whole varied spectrum of European musics were represented mainly by the clavichord.

In my first few years studying Chinese music I was obsessed with the qin, practising constantly while seeking out the Great Masters of the day—Wu Jinglue, Zhang Ziqian, Wu Zhaoji, and so on. Later I came to feel less involved with it, partly because I found less time to devote myself to playing—not exactly that I no longer felt worthy, rather that my studies of local folk culture and ethnography gradually distanced me from elite culture (see also here).

Immersing myself in the culture of shawm bands—by far the most common form of instrumental music in China for many centuries—performing for life-cycle and calendrical rituals, I found myself among poor people, many disabled and former opium smokers—virtual outcastes, like gypsies. See my

  • “Men behaving badly: shawm bands of north China”, in Rachel Harris, Rowan Pease and Shzr Ee Tan eds., Gender in Chinese Music (University of Rochester Press, 2013), 112–26.

But their music too was always played at the behest of the imperial elite, even if the latter wouldn’t dream of playing it themselves; the musicians often consider notation superfluous, but it was of great complexity, sophistication, and, well, antiquity. So too for the vocal liturgy and shengguan ensemble of ritual specialists. In this detailed analysis I compared a qin piece with a suite for shawm band.

In China at least, I don’t find terms like “classical” (or “art”) and “folk” very useful. “Classical” musics are somehow old and prestigious, favoured by social elites, and often handed down partly by means of notation; folk music (like herpes, as observed in Molvania) is largely handed on by oral transmission.

Our image of Asian culture is still largely based on the “art” traditions, like sitar in India—at the expense of local folk traditions. In China the qin is represented by several hundred CDs and a wealth of material online. But however wonderful we may find it, in imperial times, despite its prominence as an image for poets and painters, there were never more than a few hundred people who could play it. A solo amateur tradition, its main life, still today, is not on the concert stage but in gatherings of amateurs, called qinhuiqin meeting” (perhaps “qin wag”), and there are lively little qin communities all round the world.

Great—but in China and elsewhere a lot of music (like folk-song or ritual opera) is presumably “old” too, although it never stands still, and it’s dangerous to make assumptions about the superiority of one or the other: any music is valued, or not, within its social context. But if you think how many people there must be in China who sing folk-songs—at least a few tens of millions, at a conservative estimate. So how many CDs are there of genuine Chinese folk-singing (he asked polemically)? Putting aside vast numbers of recordings of conservatoire-trained performers on stage, and apart from several CDs of ethnic minority singing, I know of precisely two. The diverse repertoires of the shawm bands are similarly under-represented.

When we know so little about most Chinese musical cultures, it seems fair to say that the qin is one topic that is over-subscribed.

Of course, elite culture is clearly part of the whole fabric, but—until recently—it has naturally dominated the discourse of the elite. In most social groups in the West, few people have heard of Bach. And when qin scholars do study the social background of the qin, they describe not temple fairs or funerals, but poetry, painting, calligraphy—the inner life of the imperial literati and their modern evolution. But its sanitized image, and the lack of broader social context, seem to feed into the whole patriotic spiel about the glory of ancient Chinese culture.

So I now find the qin something of an autonomous zone, even a fetish. We have plenty of recordings, and its distinctive notation (a form of tablature) is of course a rich historical treasury. But I’m somewhat disturbed by the slavish adherence to the reified text. As with Daoist ritual studies, scholarship concerns texts more often than social ethnography. The process of dapu, recreating early scores whose performing tradition has long been lost, has become popular since the 1950s. The qin’s codification and fetishization of timbre, too, is overestimated; folk-singers, shawm players, and so on, are just as sensitive to timbre.

“Just saying, like…” Still, the qin is a wonderful way into the elite culture of the imperial literati, and its music is mesmerizing. I explore this issue in musical detail here.

It gets ever harder to give a succinct outline of sources, so I’ll just mention a few that I have found useful. One place to start is John Thompson’s comprehensive site, including a section on Zha Fuxi’s 1956 fieldwork and recordings, one of the most numinous resources for the sound-world of bygone generations, partly found on the 8-CD set An anthology of Chinese and traditional folk music: a collection of music played on the guqin (China Records, also reissued in Taiwan).

There are fine CD sets of archive recordings from Wind Records, ROI, and Hugo; and the qin features impressively on YouTube, under guqin.

The regular coverage in the CHIME journal is accessible.

Bell Yung writes well not only on qin music and notation but also on social change:

  • “Music of qin: from the scholar’s study to the concert stage”, ACMR Reports 11 (1998): 1–14
  • his chapter in Andrew Weintraub and Bell Yung eds. Music and cultural rights (University of Illinois Press, 2009)
  • and more on his site bellyung.weebly.com.

A classic is Robert van Gulik’s The lore of the Chinese lute (1940).

More under the qin tag, including Spiritual and marvellous mysteries; A rare duet for qin and erhu; and my series on the fortunes of the qin in Beijing under Maoism.

Jazz solo

bass solo

As an entr’acte between all the WAM stories (sallying forth, perhaps, from here), here’s a jazz joke.

A marriage guidance counsellor is having a tough time at a session with a couple reluctant to make any effort—sullenly refusing to speak to each other, only addressing their bitter comments through the counsellor.

So he whips out his double bass and starts playing a convoluted jazz solo. At once the couple strike up an animated conversation.

Intrepid early-and later-music bass player Pete McCarthy told me this one on a long coach ride on a US tour, c2001.

Yet more organology


The star of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was the long trumpet vuvuzelawhich enabled spectators to feel as if they were in the middle of a beehive.

The Guardian commented,

Some people say the vuvuzela originates from a tribal instrument used to summon people to important meetings. Others say it comes from a plastics factory in south China. The truth is unclear.

More organology

Erqing and WM

Household Daoists Wu Mei and Erqing on guanzi oboes. From my film.

After my little outline of vocal styles, to be further amazed at the infinite creativity of human beings, do check out the Sachs–Hornbostel (or should I say Hornbostel–Sachs?) system of classifying musical instruments.

Also fine, with instructive illustrations, is

  • Geneviève Dournon, “Organology”, in Helen Myers (ed.) Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The new Grove handbooks in music), pp.245–300.

Based on the Dewey system, and constantly subject to fine-tuning, it may seem a tad hardcore, but we’re still allowed to use the common terminology (flutes, drums, and so on)—all this just helps when we need more precise definitions. It may be old hat to ethnomusicologists, who continue to deepen the topic in study groups, but it’s worth adding to the armoury of, um, scholars of ritual… Taxonomy, after all, is among their basic concerns—from zhai (“fasts” or “retreats”) and jiao (“offerings”) to yin mortuary rituals and yang rituals to bless the living (also equivalent to “white” and “red” rituals), and the Li family’s tripartite classification of funerary, earth, and temple scriptures (baijing, tujing, miaojing) (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.25).

BTW, the double-reed guanzi, leading instrument in the ensemble accompanying north Chinese ritual, is a descendant of the ancient bili 篳篥, a pre-Tang immigrant from the “Western regions“—though perhaps not France. It is related to the Armenian duduk, which is so much better known (“Innit, though”, nodded The Plain People of Ireland). Sachs-Hornbostel distinguishes cylindrical and conical bores (zzz)—though that is a complex issue, explored by Jeremy Montagu; but it doesn’t seem very instructive about the difference between oboes like the guanzi and duduk (with lipped reed, overblowing at the twelfth) and shawms (with reed enclosed in the mouth, overblowing at the octave), which is so crucial in north China.

For further useless facts about Chinese instruments, see here. And for another candidate for the Sachs–Hornbostel system, here.

Clothes clothes clothes music music music boys boys boys


Under the rubric of delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, having just added a meretricious page on Gregorian chant, I now offer an equally piecemeal post on punk.

Further to Lives in jazz, Viv Albertine’s memoir

  • Clothes clothes clothes music music music boys boys boys [1]

(to give it its full title—her mum’s reproach to her as a teenager) is a beautiful inspiring book, full of sincere humanity and insight. We can draw a veil over the story of her messy “dalliance” (dunno why I’m suddenly coming over all Jane Austen) with Johnny Rotten. The account of her post-punk life is no less compelling than that of her time in The Slits, with their amazing singer Ari Up (RIP). Women, and sexism, in punk are justly favoured topics in musicology and glossies alike—more so, I note, than Daoist ritual (funny, that). For female punk band Vulpes in Madrid, see here.


For Viv Albertine’s next book, see here.

I was sadly unaware of all these brilliant singers at the time, except (for some reason) for Nina HagenNaturträne (1978) has long been one of my favourite songs (see this playlist):

You can, and must, watch her singing it live on video too, but that recording is astounding. I was busy being a Boulez groupie… OK, there’s room for technique in punk too, but it’s not quite the point; I could presumably square that song with my snobby sensibilities long before I also learnt to rejoice in the Sex Pistols or the Ramones. Or Daoist ritual…

Just as much as the Matthew Passion, or Wozzeck, it makes want to learn German:

Natur am Abend, stille Stadt
Verknackste Seele, Tränen rennen
Das alles macht einen mächtig matt
Und ich tu’ einfach weiterflennen

We can save punk in China for another time—but again, it’s all part of the rich ethnographic tapestry. Not quite punk, but Cui Jian’s classic song Nothing to my name

prompted a fine complaint from Wang Zhen, veteran of the Long March:

“What do you mean, you’ve got nothing to your name? You’ve got the Communist Party haven’t you?”

Mutatis mutandis, Thatcher might have concurred.

[1] Pedantic note: most superior reviews abide by the title’s lack of punctuation.

The art of translation


Burlesque-only (who may now seem like a more benign, cultured, dignified, humane, sophisticated, intellectual, and honest prototype for Tweety McTangerine)


is alleged to have described Angela Merkel as a “culona inchiavabile”. This was magnificently rendered in English as

unfuckable lard-arse.

Fine as the original Italian is, this is a splendid translation. Of all the possibilities for culona (“big arse”) and inchiavabile (“unscrewable”), it must have taken considerable artistry to come up with “unfuckable lard-arse”. Imagine the translator, worn down by years of work at tedious political committees rendering the minutiae of financial subsidies, finally able to spread his wings and exercise his dormant mastery of idiom.

Better still, Auntie’s former rottweiler-in-chief Jeremy Paxman raised the issue in his interview with Berlusconi, enquiring in his measured patrician tones,

“Mr Berlusconi, is it true that you once described Angela Merkel as an unfuckable lard-arse?”

Such translation puts in context my strivings to render ancient Daoist texts.


Having praised them both, my amusement about Stravinsky’s description of Messiaen is tempered with surprise:

All you need to write like him is a large bottle of ink.

But then he described Ravel as a “Swiss watch maker” too, so just let’s move on. There’s no pleasing some people…

In Nicolas Robertson’s brilliant series of anagram tales, composed in free moments on choral tours in between (or during) frequenting local hostelries and singing like angels—anagrams masterminded and elaborated by  (“more on that story later”)—Igor Stravinsky comes out as

Gran visits York

A tribute to Laurence Picken

I was one of Laurence Picken’s more tangential disciples, but he remains among the great inspirations of my life. [1]


I know several of us have fond memories of turning up for lunch at his little house overflowing with books, a sherry followed by a carefully prepared meal, listening to him explaining, non-stop for four or five hours (for all his encyclopaedic erudition, he knew nothing of small-talk; see also here) how the marker to the right of the column in some 11th-century Japanese zither manuscript had been misinterpreted—with liberal asides on plainchant, birdsong, and medieval Sogdian viniculture—to which I occasionally managed to interject “I say, fancy that…” And that’s how it went, every couple of months for about twenty-five years.

Apart from his immense scholarly arsenal, he was a true amateur, an enthusiast. He maintained a network of like-minded people, communicating extraordinary enthusiasm for a topic that, even by the high standards of obscurity of those topics that many of us here today pursue, was pretty arcane. His devotion to scholarship was nothing to do with conforming to institutional demands; as a bit of a Lone Ranger myself, I now realise where I got it from.

He corresponded indefatigably with scholars all over the world (not least Eastern Europe)—he had to wait far too long for the invention of email. Though I think his influence on Western scholarship on Chinese music has been disappointingly slight, his work on Tang music had echoes in that of Chinese scholars, including He Changlin and a group of scholars in Shanghai, from Ye Dong and Chen Yingshi to a newer generation. Senior scholars like Yang Yinliu, Huang Xiangpeng, Ren Erbei, and Yin Falu were themselves engaged in similar work through the 1950s, and would have relished a chance to exchange ideas with Laurence (see here).


Having assisted him with his magnum opus Music from the Tang court for many years, I finally began going to China in 1986. The reason for my first visit was to seek clues to Tang performance practice in living traditions there—how to recreate his transnotations in a convincing style. Except for his early and late visits, most of his life coincided with a period when few foreigners could gain meaningful access to living traditions in the PRC. And immediately I discovered a vast unknown treasury of living folk and ritual music, soon putting historical musicology to one side in favour of contemporary ethnography (see e.g. my Plucking the Winds, pp.169, 184–5). But what I really appreciate is that Laurence entirely understood, and was immensely generous and supportive of this churlish choice of mine.

A special edition of Early Music, edited by Richard Widdess, includes my succinct thoughts on the relation between “early music” and living traditions in China, with thoughts on notation and recreation:

  • “Source and stream: early music and living traditions in China”, Early Music August 1996: 375–88.

As I published a lengthy analysis of some of the pieces from the Hua family shawm band’s suites introduced in my 2007 book (and the accompanying DVD film, and an amazing CD; cf. Dissolving boundaries), it reminded me that while Chinese and Western scholars have described the scales and macro-structure of Chinese instrumental music, few have done any serious analysis of its melodic progression—so Laurence’s project with Noel Nickson (however traditional in style) on the Tang repertoire remains a bold, comprehensive, and detailed body of work. My only reservation is that I’m not so keen on analysing old scores when we can’t hear how they actually sounded; doing fieldwork in rural China, I’m happy if we can make an educated guess—within a living tradition—about how a score no longer in use was performed 100 years ago, let alone 1,000!

A distant relative of the Cambridge early music movement (Dart, Munrow, Hogwood…), Laurence’s Tang music project was controversial, not least in Japan, where it challenged deeply-held assumptions about the sanctity of gagaku[2] Most striking is his theory that in Japan the Tang scores were gradually retarded—ending up being played up to sixteen times more slowly, robbing the melodies of their melodic coherence. Generally this remains convincing, though our later experience of living genres in China like the temple music of Beijing, or nanguan in Fujian, might prompt us to refine it.

Unlike some scholars, I quite accept that the Tōgaku scores that Laurence collected do indeed represent Tang music. But I wish I could debate with him now. His tenet that we should read the scores “with no more information than that given in the manuscripts themselves” [3] may seem at odds with his following comment, “the attempt to determine what an ancient text meant at the time when it was written”. So I think he might concur with my response:

I agree absolutely that we mustn’t assume the way a piece is performed now is the way it was performed before; this was his way of explaining an alternative to the passive acceptance of modern-day gagaku performance practice in Japan. However, one cannot possibly “use only the information contained in the scores themselves”! Recreations of European medieval music (a tradition to which Laurence belonged) always try to extract as much information as possible from early instruments, treatises, anecdotal literature, iconography, society, and so on—and also, notably, from living traditions which have remained relatively stable, as performers of European medieval music do for folk singing and instrumental heterophony in Europe and North Africa. All such material is abundant for the Tang, and Laurence would have loved to make more use of it; one cannot possibly treat the score (a skeletal outline) as if it provides all the information necessary to performance (it doesn’t even do that for Bach or Mozart!), in some kind of cultural void. Of course, we need to select judiciously which cultures we use as our material. Music is never merely notes on a page!

Laurence remained committed to the qin zither after his initial studies in wartime Chongqing, along with Robert van Gulik (imagine…). In the 1960s he provided notes for John Levy’s Lyrichord recordings of Daoist and Buddhist ritual in Taiwan and Hong Kong, a rare initiative for the time—Laurence would have been excited by later projects on the mainland. (I note, en passant, that one online catalogue, under Genre listing, gives “Non-music”!)

The interminably long titles of his articles were endearing—my prize goes to

“The musical implications of Chinese song-texts with unequal lines, and the significance of nonsense syllables, with special reference to the art songs of the Song dynasty”.

And his language was charming, with formulations like

In this context, sheng 聲 is to be understood as an acoustic phenomenon with extension in time—something organized so that (again in time) it may be complete or incomplete; in fact, a tune.

Apart from his chamber music gatherings, I have another cherished memory of Laurence playing Bach on the clavichord—above which a magnificently garish framed picture (gift from a friend in China) of the workers, peasants, and soldiers clutching the Little Red Book, celebrating the “achievements” of the Cultural Revolution.

* * *

And for what it’s worth (not, you realize, for what it’s not worth), here are my notes for Laurence’s memorial service:

Music from the Tang court:
Qinghai bo (Waves of Kokonor)

Rachel Harris (dizi flute)
Stephen Jones (sheng mouth-organ)
Sun Zhuo (zheng zither)
Richard Widdess (bo cymbals)
Simon Mills (changgo drum)

Laurence worked for several decades on recreating the Tang court music of the early 8th century. His insights from deciphering scores exported from Tang China to Japan still deserve wider recognition.

We tried playing these transcriptions in the 1970s, with more enthusiasm than ideas about Tang performance practice, or indeed any Chinese performance practice—given that this was during the Cultural Revolution, when we had virtually no access to the practice of traditional music in China. I still have little idea of Tang practice, but trying to play such pieces under the influence of “ancient” genres still performed today for rituals in the north Chinese countryside—notably the shengguan wind ensemble of ritual specialists around Xi’an, Wutaishan, and Beijing—yields what I find rather attractive results.

Laurence changed the course of my life. I first went to China in 1986 in search of clues from living music there about how to perform these scores, and he was most generous, as ever, in understanding my rapid conversion to the documenting of living traditions in China, postponing historical reconstruction—well, until now.

In returning to the piece Qinghai bo (Waves of Kokonor), we ornament the simple outline of the tune, in 12 bars of 8/4, as Laurence suggested; we model our version on shengguan music, and are also influenced by our playing of Shanghai teahouse music. Whereas Laurence convincingly showed that Japanese performance practice had retarded the melody substantially, we begin with a very slow ornamented version, and gradually strip the ornaments away as we speed up, as they still do in Shanghai. I have no evidence that this practice was used in the Tang—given that the piece seems to be in 8/4, the first, slow, version is most likely to be “original”, but the faster versions are closer to the way that Laurence would have heard it, so these successive versions are more like alternatives.

Today we use dizi flute, sheng mouth-organ, and zheng zither, all of which have early scores for this melody; accompanied by a small Korean changgo drum (a rough approximation to the Tang jiegu), and a pair of small cymbals, as in north Chinese ritual music today.

Laurence didn’t allow purism to delay his exploratory renditions of these pieces: one of my enduring memories of him is his playing of the melodica, with a completely straight face—I’m sure he would have recognised that modern ritual specialists’ style on the sheng, with its addition of fifths and octaves to the melodic line, might make a more suitable model.

While this is far from a historically informed rendition, it marks an advance from our versions of the 1970s; Laurence would doubtless have many comments! The music at last sounds Chinese—if not necessarily Tang Chinese…

For the work of Allan Marett, another pupil of Laurence, click here and here. For more gagaku, see Messiaen in Japan, and Toru Takemitsu. And for Laurence’s work on folk instruments of Turkey, see note under Bartók in Anatolia.

[1] Just a few partial references:
On film, a charming interview from 1983:

See also

[2] Among much discussion, Richard Widdess provides context: “Historical ethnomusicology”, in Helen Myers (ed.), Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The New Grove handbooks in music), pp.219–37.

[3] Ibid. p.221.

More fieldwork tips

The Police squad series builds on Airplane the way Don Giovanni builds on Le nozze di Figaro.

An idée fixe that often comes in handy during fieldwork (see also under Themes) is the old “Cigarette?” line:

In rural China the etiquette of exchanging cigarettes and lighting up for each other is an important skill for the fieldworker to acquire, confirming social bonds (my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.24). Generally, when two or more men meet they compete to be first to get their offer accepted. The first offer is vehemently rejected; the giver is then obliged to insist until the cigarette is reluctantly accepted. The word thankyou is never used. Some shoving may be involved. Then the two compete to be first to proffer a light; as the recipient lights up, he expresses appreciation by touching the lighter’s hand with the little finger of the hand holding the cigarette, and the man with the lighter takes care to keep the flame going as he lights his own. I learn to emulate Li Manshan’s ritual of reluctantly accepting a cigarette, his frown, his look of confusion—“What is this funny little tubular object that is being offered to me, and how should I react?”

With the Li family Daoists we’ve developed a classification of cigarettes according to price, which varies widely. Using the class status language of land reform, we call the posh brands “rich-peasant fags”—the cheaper ones are for wannabe poor peasants like me.

Police squad provides another useful idée fixe on the importance of local knowledge in fieldwork:

The Greek subtitles inadvertently add a further Pythonesque touch. Though perhaps less so if you’re Greek.

My current favourite fieldwork tip heads this post.

The life of the household Daoist

vocal trio 2001

Vocal trio, 2001: Li Manshan, Golden Noble, Li Bin.

Not so much

Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington


Don’t put your son on the Daoist ritual arena, Mr Li.

Patrice Fava’s film Han Xin’s revenge, about the rituals of a group of household Daoists in rural Hunan, is very fine. The voiceover contains an intriguing line:

“Many young people choose to become Daoists.”

Whether in Hunan or elsewhere, today or when the film was made, I find this hard to believe—it seems a romantic notion.

As I observe in my book, Li Bin (b.1977) is the ninth generation of Daoists in the Li family, and could well be the last. Moving with his family to the county-town in 2007 was initially a stepping-stone for his son to get a better education—seeing it as a route towards betterment, just as his forebears had done under successive regimes.

Even if new recruits can now skimp on the training, Daoist fathers no longer want their sons to continue the tradition; there are now easier ways to make a better living, and people like pop music anyway. Fees are low, and the lifestyle, working long days and nights traipsing around backward demoralized villages, is tough and none too comfortable (see e.g. recent diaries of Li Bin and Li Manshan). Potential young recruits go away to seek urban laboring work or get a good education leading to a secure job in town, providing an escape from the countryside towards urban registration and higher wages. And this is what their parents (including Daoists) want for them.

In The souls of China (p.48) Ian Johnson puts it well (in a passage about Li Manshan’s “determining the date” activities):

… Their relief was palpable, but so was Old Mr Li’s exhaustion. It was a tiring life, always on call, staying in people’s homes, burying their dead, eating their banquets. The questions never stopped—an avalanche of new challenges and problems that were overwhelming these old villages.

So whereas Daoist ritual somehow managed to survive after Liberation in 1949, and to revive after the liberalizations from 1979, today, in a world turned competitive, where the villages themselves are depleted, working as a household Daoist offers no route to advancement. As the Daoists realize, official initiatives like the Intangible Cultural Heritage project are quite unable to solve these issues.

If there are indeed areas of China where recruits do still emerge to perform a more complex repertoire of rituals, it would be interesting to discern reasons for such variation.

All this is explored in my film too. After screenings I like to ask the audience,
“Would you let your sons take this up as a livelihood?”

This doesn’t amount to hand-wringing, however. Daoist ritual has adapted under all kinds of vicissitudes over the last century, as it always has done.

Yet more conducting

Berlioz opening

In the Rozhdestvensky film, I like his solution (from 22.29) to the perennial problem posed by the opening of the Symphonie fantastique:

“I simply invited them to begin”

and then let them get on with it.

Which reminds me, a noted baroque conductor (or “semi-conductor“, to use Norman Lebrecht’s term) was rehearsing the opening of a slow aria in the Matthew Passion. One of the wind players suggested he might try subdividing:

“Could you give us 7–8 into it?”

Conductor, indignantly: “I didn’t get where I am today by giving 7–8!”

“I didn’t get where I am today by…” soon became another musos’ snowclone.

And here’s Larson’s take on conducting.

The Invitation ritual

At the heart of the funeral sequence of the Li family Daoists today is the Invitation ritual (zhaoqing 召請). This introduction is adapted from my book, pp.109–12, 298–307—and do watch the film from 58.14. For audio segments, click on ##1–3 of the playlist in the sidebar (commentary here). See also Translating Daoist ritual texts.

This is another illustration that ritual manuals don’t tell the whole story—performance is primary.

1 Li Manshan

Fig. 1: Li Manshan performs the Invitation,  2009

I have two reasons to focus on the Invitation—one about simplification, one about complexity. This is one of the few ritual segments for which the Daoists still have a manual, although as usual they don’t need it in performance. It is among the longest in their collection, but they now perform only a small part of its nineteen double pages; as with Fetching Water, a comparison of their present performance practice with the manual shows a significant simplification. Perhaps the term “complete” in the title Zhaoqing quanbu suggests that it was commonly abbreviated. But only rarely can we speculate how long it may be since they used more of its text.

As to complexity, whereas today the bulk of their performance of funerary texts consists of slow choral hymns, for this Invitation sequence the a cappella rendition over a mere fifteen minutes or so is now perhaps their most densely-packed, complex, and varied segment of ritual performance, full of dramatic contrasts in tempo and dynamics—with both slow and fast choral singing and chanting, free-tempo solo singing, and a variety of styles of percussion interludes and accompaniment.

The Invitation was also a major section within the lengthy nocturnal yankou ritual, both here and in the great temples. For two-day funerals now, with the yankou anyway obsolete, the Invitation has evolved into a public ritual at dusk before the evening session of Transferring Offerings. Whereas even in the early 1990s many village onlookers accompanied the kin, creating more bustle, now it is largely a private ritual for the kin.

The sequence
First, as the Daoists arrive at the soul hall, Golden Noble faces the coffin to recite a seven-word quatrain solo.

The manual opens with the quatrain “Sandai zongqin ting fayan 三代宗親聽法言”:

Let the three generations of ancestors hear the dharma speech,
Paying homage to the previous souls by burning paper money.
May the dharma speech open up the road to the heavenly hall,
To invite the deceased souls to attend the jasper altar.


Fig. 2

But instead Golden Noble recites another shuowen introit—which appears on the last page of the manual. That is how he learned from Li Qing, and it does the job just as well:

May the deceased souls come to the Bathing Hall, [1]
Transforming their shape and countenance to return to the immortal realm.
Now dipping into the bowl to bathe their bodies,
For an audience with the Three Treasures on the way to the Western Quarter.

Golden Noble then calls out “Proceed together, led by the Dao” (tongxing daoyin 同行道引), as shown at the end of the opening quatrain of the manual. If we didn’t know by observation, that would be a clue that while the preceding quatrain was performed at the soul hall, the remainder of the manual is to be performed on arrival at the site on the edge of the village.

Hereby Shaking the Bell
The next section in the manual, no longer performed, is Hereby Shaking the Bell (Yici zhenling 以此振鈴). One of several Yici zhenling texts that are a common part of the temple yankou, this slow sung hymn may also be used for other rituals, such as Delivering the Scriptures and Transferring Offerings—although the Yanggao Daoists no longer use it there either.

Song in Praise of the Dipper
Once they reach the site at the edge of the village, the altar table is set down, and the kin kneel in two rows in front of it while the Daoists stand in two rows behind it. Golden Noble presides, wielding flag, bell, and conch as he stands facing the kin. After a short percussion prelude with blasts on the conch, the first text now performed is Golden Noble’s solo chanting from the section of seven-word couplets opening Xinzhi jiguo 心知己過. Now he usually only chants the last two of the six couplets in the manual:


Fig. 3

I am the one to report the declaration of the procedures at the Jade Capital,
Vowing to save all beings and emerge from the web,
So the deceased soul may be born in the upper realms,
We sing in unison the Song in Praise of the Dipper.

This indeed serves to introduce the Song in Praise of the Dipper (Gedou zhang), a slow choral hymn sung tutti a cappella. The title is to the Northern Dipper, otherwise not prominent in their funerary texts, explaining the respective responsibility of the five quarters for the salvation of the soul. Its seven-word couplets are each sung to the same melody; the short strophic melody has all the hallmarks of other hymns.


As each sung couplet ends, Golden Noble shakes the bell, waves the flag, and bows, as the other Daoists play a cymbal interlude—a variant of the pattern Qisheng 七聲 as notated by Li Qing, as you can see below from the tiny differences in the first and penultimate bars between the naobo line in practice and the Qisheng mnemonics. As ever, the line for the drumming, ever flexible, shows a typical version as played by Li Manshan.


In recent years they tend to sing the hymn rather faster than they know it should go (you can hear a more majestic version in concert on track 1 of the audio playlist, and on the 2014 DVD). Anyway, with a very gradual accelerando over the verses, as they reach the seventh and eighth couplets they launch into fast isorhythmic chanting. They now play the fast cymbal interlude Gui jiao men (“Ghosts calling at the door”)—a pattern the same length as the processional Tianxia tong but differing subtly.


This leads into the five-word quatrain Jishou wufang zhu, sung tutti isorhythmically to a simple descending melody, without percussion, now slightly less hectic:

Bowing to the lords of the five quarters,
The masters of the lads of the five spirits
Open up the roads of the five quarters,
Receive and guide all the ghostly souls.

GDZ 2.jpg

Fig. 4

Then two sections summoning a roster of gods of the local territory—now accompanied by percussion, and punctuated twice by the Gui jiao men cymbal pattern—are chanted tutti, most hectically. Prepared by the instruction at the end of the Song in Praise of the Dipper (Great Supreme, in haste like the Northern Dipper!), and in extreme contrast with the long slow melismatic hymns that now dominate most rituals, this transitional sequence flies past as black clouds swirl, purple mists coil, with complex adjustments of style, tempo, and instrumentation. This too is a rare instance in Yanggao today of the kind of fast chanting commonly heard in south China.

The Invitation verses (playlist #1)
In abrupt contrast to this rousing climax, time now stands still as Golden Noble gently begins to sing a sequence of solo verses in free tempo, accompanied only by his shaking of the bell, with Li Manshan punctuating the phrases with a brief subdued pattern on drum. Li Manshan has let Golden Noble lead this ritual since about 2003; his solo melody is modeled on the way that Li Qing sung it. Even the way he repeats words in the opening phrase (Zhiyixin zhaoqing, yixin zhaoqing, zhaoqing) is distinctive, setting a contemplative mood. We are in the middle of barren countryside, far from the bustle of the village; as night falls, the main light comes only from the little piles of paper money burned by the kin. Notwithstanding interruptions at the end of each verse by a fast loud chorus with percussion, and periodic deafening explosions of firecrackers, this exquisite solo plaint perfectly reflects the desolation of the surrounding countryside where the ancestors are to assemble.

The twenty verses in the manual, each beginning “Vowing with hearts at one we Invite” (Zhiyixin zhaoqing), describe all kinds of occupations of the lost souls: emperors, ministers, generals, literati, sing-song girls, beggars, and so on. These verses are also found in the Li family’s Buddhist (not their Daoist) yankou manual—a sequence sometimes attributed to the great poet Su Dongpo (1037–1101). The twenty verses are now never sung complete; the chief Daoist chooses no more than six or seven of them. Both Li Manshan and Golden Noble agree that they should be performed complete, and were “in the past,” but even Li Manshan never heard the elders recite the whole sequence. To give an idea of the literary beauty of these texts, here is the opening verse (recto, lines 3–6):


Fig. 5

Vowing with hearts at one we Invite:
Emperors and lords of successive dynasties,
Empresses and concubines of epochs immemorial,
Bedecked in twelve-gemmed crowns,
Countenance outranking three thousand rouge-and-kohl belles.
All under heaven their remit, all under heaven their family,
Ultimately ascending.
Singing within the palace, dancing within the palace,
At the final moment they can only perish and fall.
Alas! Have you not heard?
Once astride the dragon of Yu they cannot return,
(tutti) In vain to deploy the Pipes of Shao within the Department of Caverns,
Fluttering the shadows and echoes, imperceptibly approaching!

But once rendered in exquisite solo melody, such textual beauty is multiplied.

For the last two seven-word couplets at the end of each verse (last line of recto and first line of verso), the first is still sung solo, while for the second the whole group interjects to chant the text fast. But, then, instead of the manual’s elegant and long refrain (opening “And thus from time immemorial” Rushi guwang jinlai, 5th–3rd lines from end of verso above) confirming the invitation, they now substitute a single phrase “Fluttering the shadows and echoes, gradually approaching” (Piaopiao yingxiang ranran lailin 飄飄影響冉冉來臨), again sung tutti. This phrase is borrowed from the shorter sequence of a mere three Invitation texts from their other (“Daoist”) shishi manual.[2] It leads into another burst of the cymbal interlude Gui jiao men.

That is how Li Qing taught them, but they know that the two versions were once alternatives: when the older generation used the longer refrain, it was still sung solo, and they didn’t use a cymbal interlude. So using the Piaopiao phrase with cymbal interludes wasn’t Li Qing’s invention in the 1980s; but already by then, deciding that the full refrain was too long, they were generally adopting the shorter version.

Some other adaptations also have to be learned orally. In the Jinwu sijian section about the sun and moon, and again in the following verse “Gazing from afar on mountain hues” (Yuanguan shan youse), the name of the deceased has to be inserted, and another text replaces the tutti coda of the manual.

The Invitation verses in Beijing Buddhist ritual
I have to take it on trust that all twenty sections were once performed complete, including the longer refrain. The substitution of the “Fluttering the shadows and echoes, gradually approaching” phrase with cymbal interlude for the longer final refrain shortens the ritual a little; and the more recent practice of reciting only selected sections shortens it further.

Actually, the version as sung by the Li family in Yanggao is remarkably similar to that of Buddhist temples in old Beijing. In a fine initiative from the mid-1980s, the performance of the Buddhist yankou by former monks from popular temples in Beijing was recorded; later it was also transcribed and notated.[3] The Invitation sequence, virtually identical in text, is interesting.[4] All twenty sections were indeed performed for the recording. The text is divided between main and assistant cantors, both singing in free tempo with impressive beauty, accompanied only by the bell, the refrain of each section fast choral with drum. So again, it is worth pursuing temple links.

The Invitation memorial
When Golden Noble has finished singing the Invitation verses, first the short section Chenwen dadao 臣聞大道 (see Fig. 7 below) should be recited fast, either solo or tutti, with percussion, confirming the efficacity of the ritual in saving the deceased. This text is commonly omitted today.

Then (as specified in the manual, in red ink) Golden Noble presents the memorial. Having handed the bell to a colleague, who sounds it continuously, he takes out the folded document from his pocket, singing it solo in the same melodic style as the preceding “Vowing with hearts at one we Invite” verses, only more exuberantly, with muffled accompaniment on drum and small cymbals and occasional fast tutti choruses repeating a phrase. He unfolds each new section as he folds up the previous one—though he hardly needs to consult it except to check the names of the kin. In recent years, if the others start accompanying too fast on percussion then Golden Noble sometimes likes to corpse the others (especially his mate Wu Mei) by reading faster and faster, rolling his eyes rapidly up and down over the text.

The manual doesn’t contain the text of the memorial; it is not among the templates in Li Qing’s collection of ritual documents, and Li Manshan and Golden Noble write it from memory. Sometimes entitled Memorial of Rites and Litanies to Escort the Deceased (Songzhong lichan yiwen), it is addressed to the Court of Sombre Mystery for Rescuing from Suffering (Qingxuan jiuku si), and announces the details of the deceased and lists of the preceding three generations of kin. Generally Li Manshan writes the text first and fills in the names of the ancestors later when a member of the kin brings them to him. Dates, as always, are written in the traditional calendar.


Fig. 6: Invitation memorial, written by Li Manshan, Pansi 2011

Having sung the memorial complete, Golden Noble opens it out and hands it over to be burned by the kin, while the Daoists slowly and solemnly declaim a final five-word quatrain “Thousand-foot waves at Bridge of No Return” (Naihe qianchilang), another common temple text:


Fig. 7

Thousand-foot waves at Bridge of No Return,
Bitter sea myriad leagues deep.
If the soul is to evade the cycle of rebirth and suffering,
The Daoists are to recite the names of the Heavenly Worthies.

The return procession
So now after the document has been burned, if Redeeming the Treasuries is combined then the two treasuries are burned. The Daoists then lead the kin on procession back to the soul hall. Whereas the whole of the previous sequence has been performed a cappella, they now play shengguan all the way back while the kin burn paper to illuminate the way for the ancestors; on procession on the way out, they only use percussion because there is no-one to escort yet.

However, in Li Qing’s manual there follow thirteen verses for Triple Libations of Tea (san diancha). Li Manshan recalled these verses being recited on the route back, accompanied by Langtaosha on shengguan, but later they only played Qiansheng Fo without vocal liturgy. They still sometimes use a three-verse version for the solo introits in Presenting Offerings before lunch, and as a slow accompanied hymn for Transferring Offerings.

Even after the Libations of Tea were omitted, villagers used to “impede the way” (lanlu) on the return to demand popular “little pieces” from the Daoists, but by the late 1990s no longer did so—they now had plenty of other opportunities to hear pop music. Since around 2011 the kin often just stop occasionally to burn paper, not all along the route as they should. Altogether, the impetus towards simplification derives from the changing needs of the patrons.

The hymn at the gate (playlist ##2 and 3)
On the return to the soul hall, the Daoists now stand informally around the gateway to sing the Mantra to the Three Generations a cappella, as the kin again kneel and burn paper. This is the “Jiuku cizun” text in the manual. As usual, this a cappella version is sung faster than that with shengguan, though they retain the cymbal interludes. They round off the hymn with the fast percussion coda Lesser Hexi, and then lead the kin into the courtyard with a short burst of the pattern Tianxia tong. That is the end of the Invitation as performed today.

But in the manual, before the Mantra to the Three Generations, a further text Lijia quyuan 離家去遠 appears—also apparently a hymn, but unknown today. The volume then concludes with the solo recited quatrain that in current practice they recite at the initial visit to the soul hall; and then a final six-line hymn Qinghua jiaozhu, which should be sung (again, surely a cappella) while the oldest son kowtows.

One wonders how there was ever time for all the extra material in the manual, within what was once an even more busy ritual sequence throughout the day. The ritual in its present condensed form may have taken shape gradually, and it still makes a cogent and moving sequence that meets the needs of patrons.

Beyond just documenting which sections of text are performed today and which have been lost, we need to know how the texts are performed, and how Daoists adapt the material. It’s always hard to imagine the performance of ritual texts from the page, but here is a fine instance of variety. The text is rendered efficacious, and its drama heightened, through a varied yet cohesive sequence of slow solemn choral singing, hectic mantric choral chanting interspersed with percussion interludes, and exquisite free-tempo solo singing accompanied by conch and bell. Such a cappella rendition is of a different kind of complexity from the slow melismatic hymns that now form the bulk of their performance. Despite ritual simplification in modern times, the Daoists need to internalize complex rules—orally—in order to deliver the text efficaciously, animating it into a magical sequence.

[1] By the way, the Yanggao Daoists now have no separate Bathing (muyu) ritual, though it is part of the obsolete shezhao muyu ritual in Li Peisen’s funeral manual.
[2] It is used in the Summons (shezhao) ritual of the temples: Min Zhiting, Daojiao yifan 道教儀範 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng 2004 edn), p. 179.
[3] Ling Haicheng, Yuqie yankou yinyue foshi 瑜珈焰口音乐佛事 cassettes, with booklet (1986); Yuan Jingfang, Zhongguo hanchuan fojiao yinyue wenhua 中国汉传佛教音乐文化 (2003), pp.301–451, Yuan Jingfang Zhongguo fojiao jing yinyue yanjiu 中国佛教京音乐研究 (2012), pp.228–439. Cf. Chang Renchun, Hongbai xishi 红白喜事 (1993), pp.324–6.
[4] Yuqie yankou yinyue foshi, cassette 4b; Yuan Jingfang Zhongguo hanchuan fojiao yinyue wenhua, pp.389–395, Yuan Jingfang, Zhongguo fojiao jing yinyue yanjiu, pp.386–391.

Periodizing modern China


Satirical Chinese saying, c2010.

In my book Daoist priests of the Li family I stress the importance of fieldwork on the modern period, not just attempting to imagine the rosy distant past. Talking of the modern period (p.141):

Just as historians document ritual change throughout the medieval and late imperial periods, we find constant adaptation in the years before and after the Communist revolution of 1949. Similarly, a detailed account of over three decades of ritual practice since the liberalizing reforms of the early 1980s reveals continuing changes.

Chinese peasants have a different conception of time from the periodization we find in official history. Li Manshan described his wedding in 1971 as “after the end of the Cultural Revolution”; “land reform” is often used to mean the privatization around 1980; and now when people mention “liberation” they often mean after the end of the commune system in the 1980s. Now that the Maoist era is a rather distant memory, it may seem like a blip in the long sweep of history—but it has left deep scars.

Similarly, while in the official story the term “three years of difficulty” (1959–61) makes a veiled recognition of the devasting famine, it means little to many peasants, since they suffered from severe food shortages right through from the early years of collectivization until the collapse of the commune system.


Talking heads

Further to Alan Bennett’s reflections, bearing on the trope of WWJD (“What would Jesus do?”—a snowclone, I now learn), this is from his Talking heads monologue A chip in the sugar:

She said, “He knows what I mean. Where did you get those shoes?” He said, “They’re training shoes.” She said, “Training for what? Are you not fully qualified?” He said, “If Jesus were alive today, Mrs Whittaker, I think you’d find these were the type of shoes he would be wearing.”

Catching the tiger, Wu Mei, oboes and cymbals

This Larson cartoon reminds me of the “catching the tiger” tricks of the Li band—a rare moment of secular entertainment within the liturgical sequence.

In my film (from 42.52), Wu Mei’s tricks are charming (see also §B8 on the DVD with my 2007 book)—interesting also to compare (from 51.22) the more leisurely 1991 version of his predecessor Wang Chang.

Wu Mei [1] (b.1970; film from 53.52; see also this vignette), known as Zhanbao 占宝, is one of the great wind players in world music. Of course he does everything—also singing the liturgy, playing the large cymbals for a cappella sequences, and occasionally giving another Daoist a turn on the guanzi while he plays sheng mouth-organ. He’s a Daoist, not a “musician”, yet his musical genius is indispensable to the success of the Li band.

He was the fourth of five children from a poor family—his blind younger brother spent some time learning the shawm, and their father was an old friend of Li Qing. Wu Mei was at once enchanted by the sound of the funeral ritual, and there and then he went up to Li Qing and asked him if he could become his disciple. He went to live with him for the first year, and then commuted by walking an hour from his village, five li away.

Wu Mei recalls that the first time he played guanzi for a ritual was for a funeral at Lower Liangyuan in 1990, during his third year, playing small guanzi along with the aged Li Yuanmao on large guanzi. This might remind us of young, pre-punk, Nigel Kennedy in duet with venerable Yehudi Menuhin. But Wu Mei doesn’t remember much about it—they just got on with it; anyway, the seniors were satisfied with his playing.

When the hymns are accompanied by shengguan, a good guanzi player makes all the difference. Like Li Yuanmao or Li Tong in the old days, Wu Mei is not just totally reliable, he is inspired, helping the other Daoists to sing to the best of their ability, complementing them perfectly—managing to combine a deeply mournful tone with an almost playful way of weaving in and out of the melodic line, ducking and diving, sometimes soaring. The singers recognize that a good guanzi player is a great help to them in rendering the text.

Wu Mei soon became a local star. With his radiant innocence, he is on another planet, floating in the clouds above this world of dust. Here there is no empty display; he is a vessel, a puppet for the gods, like Bach. On guanzi—and not just in slow hymns but even in the zany “catching the tiger”—he has none of the posturing of the virtuoso. And not even just when he is actually playing: it is delightful when he takes a little break in the instrumental suite or the popular errentai sequence, doodling a little phrase reflectively on the guanzi before plunging back into the fray.

WM zhuo laohu

Concert performance in Rome, 2012

He is always devising new decorations, like renaissance divisions—experimenting, seeking new ways of making transitions. The others are attuned to all this as they accompany him. While the decorations of the older generation remained within strict confines, Li Manshan and Golden Noble observe that in recent years Wu Mei has been experimenting beyond the “rules”. To me, there was always an element of playfulness even in the slow solemn style (like Liu Zhong, although he wasn’t so admired); and if this is modernizing, then I’m cool with it. When I suggest to Li Manshan that Wu Mei’s ornaments are still serious and spiritual, he defers to my musical ears—but obviously he is a master musician with way more experience of the style. Perhaps the way to see it is as an innovation that began with Liu Zhong and has culminated in Wu Mei—it’s amazing, even if not strictly kosher. Bach would have adored Wu Mei’s guanzi playing.


The way he plays the large bo cymbals is childlike and adorable too; you can sense how utterly comfortable he is as a musician. Again he has a particularly charming way of decorating the patterns, tastefully testing his partner’s creativity and probing the possibilities. The most exhilarating, and by far the longest, cymbal piece is Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body, now played only as a coda for Transferring Offerings (for which, apart from the edited version in my film [from 1.11.07], you can enjoy a fantastic complete concert rendition in the 2014 DVD), but also prescribed upon ascending the platform in the Pardon (film from 50.31). Wu Mei and Yang Ying can’t help showing their delight in it, whereas Erqing and Li Bin maintain their serious demeanour. This is the only percussion piece that ever attracts an audience, and even applause. Local or urban, Chinese or foreign, no-one remains unmoved by this exhilarating piece.


[1] These comments are edited from my book.


À propos the Marx brothers, apart from the verbal dexterity, their charm was also beyond words:

Harpo is naturally most endearing to musos—notably Steven Isserlis, whose brilliant tribute is here (the link to the radio programme may be defunct, but watch this space). Note his fine historical reflections too.

Harpo’s mute persona might have been inspired by Rossini’s trio Mi manca la voce

For Steven’s Bach, see here.