A major contribution to civilisation

It seems that, like the Bolton Choral Society in their own chosen métier, my goal of Encapsulating the Intricacies of the oeuvre of Flann O’Brien recedes ever further.

Ian Sansom reflected on his mixed success:

Imagine: you’re better than James Joyce; you end up like Miles Kington.

I take the point, but for many fellow-Flanneurs it may not seem germane. Myles’s oeuvre is Sue E. Generis (if he didn’t say that, then it must have been me), self-standing—which, allegedly, is more than he was.

How can I have been so remiss as to neglect Timothy O’Keefe’s edited volume Myles: Portraits of Brian O’Nolan (1973)? Fortunately, my old friend Rod (himself an honorable, nay upstanding, member of the Royal Society of Flannologists) has stepped into the unsavoury breach of my Stygian ignorance [Hope we wiped his feet afterwards—Ed.], drawing my attention to a fine reminiscence therein by Niall Sheridan:

His interest soon shifted to a suggestion of mine—the All-Purpose Opening Speech. This was to be one endless sentence, grammatically correct, and so devoid of meaning that it could be used on any conceivable occasion: inaugurating a President, consecrating a Cathedral, laying a foundation-stone, presenting an inscribed watch to a long-standing employee. This notion delighted him, and he decided it must be given to the world, translated into every known language. If nation could speak fluently to nation, without any risk of communicating anything, international tension would decline. The Speech would be a major contribution to civilisation, enabling any inarticulate lout who might lever himself into power to emerge (after a brief rehearsal) as a new Demosthenes.

I was to make the original draft in English. Denis Devlin was to undertake the translation in French and Brian himself would do the Irish and German versions.

I can remember only the opening portions of the Speech, which ran (still incomplete) to some 850 words:

“Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, and reluctant as I am to parade my inability before such a critical and distinguished gathering, comprising—need I say—all that is best in the social, political, and intellectual life of our country, a country, I may add, which has played no inconsiderable part in the furthering of learning and culture, not to speak of religion, throughout all the lands of the known globe, where, although the principles inculcated in that learning and that culture have now become temporarily obfuscated in the pursuit of values as meretricious in seeming as they must prove inadequate in realisation, nevertheless, having regard to the ethnical and moral implications of the contemporary situation, etc, etc, etc.”

When the translations had been completed we had a reading in Devlin’s home. Any rubbish can be made to sound impressive in French, and Denis had produced a superb version, rhythmic, mellifluous and authoritative. It conveyed (to our delight and amazement) even less meaning than the original.

Brian (who delighted in the simplest sleight-of-hand) whipped a walrus moustache from his pocket, fixed it under his nose and read his Irish version, in a wickedly accurate impersonation of our Professor of Irish, Dr Douglas Hyde, later the first President of Ireland.

“What do you think of that?” he asked, looking from one to the other.

Denis told him that he admired his brio but deplored his occasional slurring of consonants. I told him that listening to his delivery was like wading through warm stirabout at one’s feet.

Undeterred by this mixed reception, Brian quickly replaced the walrus moustache with a toothbrush affair and poured out his German translation in imitation of Hitler at a Nuremberg rally. As he ground out the Teutonic gutturals, spitting and snarling in comic menace, he knew that he had made the hit of the evening.

Actually, if the speech wasn’t already in use then, it has since become entirely standard.

Talking of inarticulate louts levering themselves into power, this seems all the more necessary in our own fractured age.

And vis-à-vis my own Catechism of Chinese Cliché, must I now gird my loins for a Chinese version of their fine creation?

New paperback editions

After an interlude when my three Ashgate volumes (the first two being part of the fine SOAS Musicology series) suffered a prohibitive price-hike, in April they are being reissued by Taylor & Francis in affordable paperback editions. You can pre-order them here (under “Books”!)

The two Ritual and music books are all the more worth snapping up for their accompanying DVDs—the first makes useful background for my film on Li Manshan.

While I’m about it, details of my 2016 book Daoist priests of the Li family are here.

And you can order Plucking the winds, my riveting account of the South Gaoluo village ritual association and its history, here!


Sometimes on early morning swims I have the pool to myself for a while. It doesn’t get much better than that (“or does it?“).

As I swim, I think of Bach, and Daoist ritual [unbeatable Pseuds’ Corner entry—Ed.] Some aspects of swimming may intermittently involve the brain—like in crawl, concentrating on getting the hand shape right as it enters the water, pushes forwards, and starts to pull back; aligning the pull-back of the arm with the body, and so on.

In Daoist ritual, far from the cerebral, conceptual, philosophical, or spiritual learning of texts, physical memory plays a major role—motor movement, muscle- and (for sheng, guanzi, cymbals) finger-memory, the body; internalizing through ritual practice, experience, starting from young, like boys in any hereditary folk tradition such as the Li family Daoists.

Learning violin pieces is more of a private affair. Apart from physical practice, I’ve always internalized them silently too—while walking, dozing, swimming, and so on. Even away from the instrument, it’s a physical exercise: my fingers are always moving—like those of guanzi oboe players in north China. This has always accounted for quite a lot of “practice”—for me, anyway. I didn’t get where I am today.

But so much learning consists of simple repetition. I note that in French and Italian the word for rehearsal is répétition/repetizione (for more, see note here). So while swimming I engage the mind for a while and then empty it to let my body take over.

Dire straits

Shuishen huore

Source here.

In China my vocabulary—acquired at a time when the commune system was still a recent memory—is absurdly peppered with classic expressions from the Maoist era, like “not taking a single needle or thread from the masses”. My Chinese colleagues have been known to exclaim, “Steve, you sound like a bloody village Party Secretary from the 1950s!”

Of course my usage (like much convoluted Oxbridge-speak) is partly satirical—but only partly.

One handy phrase is actually ancient, going right back to Mencius:

shuishen huore 水深火热
“waters deep, fires raging”—or simply “in desperate straits”

Used in imperial times to describe the abysmal sufferings of the common people, it was applied under Maoism [by Mao? source?] to the plight of populations under capitalism, in need of rescue. Elaborating on the motto, here’s an instance of the lively critiques going on these days (this is from a US-based site, but it’s no longer unimaginable within China):

During the Cultural Revolution there was a famous slogan, “The happy Chinese people are deeply solicitous for the American people, who live in desperate plight”. Experience tells us that the standard of living of the American people living in desperate plight far exceeded that of the happy Chinese people, and that the American people living in desperate plight didn’t seem to need the concern of the happy Chinese people. Under the theory of the great class struggle, tens of millions of happy Chinese people starved to death.

Again, when I use the phrase “waters deep, fires raging” about life in the UK or the West, I’m not being entirely satirical. It partly ties in with that “typical” English self-deprecation, and as the above quote shows, the irony of applying it to the USA can have been lost on few Chinese, even under Maoism. But the expression can be genuinely useful—it is worth reminding some Chinese people (who may still have a rose-tinted view of life in the “Western paradise”) about homelessness, alienation, strains on social care, and so on. If we can be honest about our problems, perhaps China can be too—let’s dispense with the platitudes.

Anyway, “waters deep, fires raging” never came in so handy as now—to describe the current turmoil amidst environmental degradation and moral turpitude, with civilized values widely threatened. Finally its time has come.

Gems from the farm, or Crumbs of comfort

CCF film

Still giggling at Stella’s resumé of The Flayed, I must just return to celebrating the original Cold comfort farm.

You might think it would be one of those books that could only be spoilt by being Made Flesh (or at least celluloid, or whatever they use these days, with their new-fangled ungodly ways). But the 1995 TV film is highly regarded, and at a tender age, having recently read the book, I found the 1968 serialization most drôle—such as Alastair Sim as Amos, perfect:

“Ye know, doan’t ye, what it feels like when ye burn yer hand in takin’ a cake out of the oven or wi’a match when ye’re lightin’ one of they godless cigarettes? Ay. It stings wi’ a fearful pain, doan’t it? And ye run away to clap a bit o’ butter on it to take the pain away. Ah, but” (an impressive pause) “there’ll be no butter in hell!”

Then there’s the herd of Jersey cows—Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless; and Aunt Ada Doom’s regular use of the dilapidated Milk Producers’ Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeepers’ Guide to smite anyone within reach.

The book also exemplifies the clash of urban and rural cultures that is a major theme of anthropology, not least for China. The Li family Daoists sum it up brilliantly in their joke after the final credits of my film.

Flora takes on the project of Meriam the hired wench, in labour yet again:

And carefully, in cool phrases, Flora explained exactly to Meriam how to forestall the disastrous effect of too much sukebind and too many long summer evenings upon the female system.
Meriam listened, with eyes widening and widening.
“ ‘Tes wickedness! ‘Tes flying in the face of nature!” she burst out fearfully at last.
“Nonsense!” said Flora. “Nature is all very well in her place, but she must not be allowed to make things untidy.”

Meriam’s mother (wife of Agony Beetle, no less) has a plan for her daughter’s growing brood:

“Come another four years and I can begin makin’ use of them.”
“How?” asked Flora. […]
“Train the four of them up into one of them jazz-bands. […] So that’s why I’m bringing them up right, on plenty of milk, and seein’ they get to bed early. They’ll need all their strength if they ‘ave to sit up till the cows come ‘ome playing in them night-clubs.”

Lastly, statuesque sullen ravaged Judith:

I am a used husk… a rind… a skin.

Fragrant Flora’s own personal bible, The Higher common sense by the Abbé Fausse-Maigre, isn’t always up to the challenge posed by the Starkadders. (BTW, one wonders if the Abbé lived at 7 bis, rue du Nadir-aux-Pommes.)

Judith gives a classic rebuke to Flora’s gentle probing:

“By the way, I adore my bedroom, but do you think I could have the curtains washed? I believe they are red; and I should so like to make sure.”
Judith had sunk into a reverie.
“Curtains?” she asked, vacantly, lifting her magnificent head. “Child, child, it is many years since such trifles broke across the web of my solitude.”

Em creeps in with a pie

As I noted in Conference at Cold comfort farm (1949), Stella Gibbons predicted the whole Cultural Heritage flapdoodle. And again, long before Jo Brand, she was no less prescient about the comic potential of the pie.

She sends up much of the avant-garde—including (sic) Benjamin Britten, whose Peter Grimes had been premiered in 1945. Here she gives a resumé of Bob Flatte’s new opera The Flayed:

For the benefit of readers who are not familiar with the work of Flatte it may be remarked that The Flayed is typical of his latest and most powerful manner, and deals with the tragedy of two types named Stan Brusk and Em Wallow, living in a Bedfordshire village. Em is Stan’s girl, but he loses her to Bert Scarr when the latter comes to work in the local tanning factory. Stan Brusk is a sadist who derives pleasure from tanning hides and has twice been publicly reproved by the foreman for gloating while at work. In a powerful recitative and aria Stan defies the foreman, describes the pleasures of tanning, and at last falls down exhausted under a vat.

A series of sinuous themes follows, intended to represent the smells from the vat winding over his unconscious body. In the dinner-hour Em creeps in with a pie, which she does not know has been poisoned by the fumes from the vat. Bert Scarr then enters. He and Em sing a duet, in which Bert confesses that he has always had a secret craving to be flayed like one of the hides in the factory and Em expresses her horror and scorn of him. At last she falls under the vat on top of Stan, who recovers consciousness and misunderstands her action. Em, Stan, and Bert are then overcome by fumes from the vat, and dream they are in Hell.

The Weeping Skeleton’s song which follows has been said to refute, once and for all, the accusation that Flatte’s operas lack light relief. The song may not represent humour as it is generally understood, but to deny that the theme of four minor chords given out in glissando form by the first violin and repeated in fugue form by solo instruments one after the other until it ends abruptly on the drums is expressive of a rationalised and resigned humour (perhaps most akin to irony) is merely imperceptive.

Em recovers first and revives Bert with a piece of the pie. The foreman comes in accompanied by a chorus of Operatives and Tanners and accuses Bert of slacking. Bert, already poisoned, and driven by his neurosis, jumps into the vatful of skins and is suffocated. Em eats some pie and dies. Stan stabs the foreman with his penknife (a present from his mother on his seventh birthday, and symbolizing her neurotic hold over him) and the foreman dies. While Stan is singing the Flagellation Song and driving out the chorus of Operatives and Tanners with a whip, his mother, Widow Brusk, enters. After she has sung an aria in which she confesses that Stan is the illegitimate son of a taxidermist who seduced her in early youth, thus accounting for her son’s sadistic obsession, Stan symbolically attempts to skin her and they both become insane. The opera then ends. It was to represent English music at the International Music Festival the following year.

Which is as good an excuse as I need to play this:

Making a fine companion to Dud’n’Pete’s caveat on fieldwork.

Stella is stellar


In my somewhat implausible online egg-and-spoon race, Miss Stella Gibbons remains neck-and-neck with Li Manshan and Flann O’Brien.

I’ve finally got round to reading her little-trumpeted* sequel to Cold comfort farm, Conference at Cold comfort farm (1949).

(*Little Trumpeted could be one of her local rural names, like Howling and Mockuncle Hill. Bill Bryson is a clear heir to this niche fetish, with his predilection for [real] names like Seething, Wrangle, Nether Wallop, Thornton-le-Beans, Shellow Bowells, and so on.)

In Conference, written at a time when Britain was going through a revolution in the aftermath of devastating war, with social justice briefly in the air, and in certain circles also cultural innovation,  Flora revisits the farm some sixteen years after her earth-shattering initial stay, once again putting things to rights.

The book satirizes both the avant-garde and (some five decades in advance) all the Intangible Cultural Heritage flapdoodle—at a time, remember, when it was neither profitable nor popular (indeed, Stella’s mockery of pretence was akin to that of Myles). A few gems:

Hacke, with his sculptures Woman with Child and Woman with Wind.

And Messe: “Of course, I don’t put him within miles of Peccavi. I should put him somewhere between Pushe and Dashitoffski.”

There’s even a dodgy Oriental Sage.

Meanwhile, Reuben reports to the ever-sane Flora on the visit of a Mr Parker-Poke from Th’ Ministry :

“He—he did say as I were niver agricultoorally eddicated.”
“I am very sorry, Reuben.” Flora laid her hand upon her cousin’s for a moment. “No, you are not agriculturally educated; you only know how to make things grow.”

Shades of the Great Leap Backward?

*.* *

Who ever supposed Stella was a one-trick pony (and I didn’t say “filly”)? Never seduced by the blathering blandishments of Bloomsbury, Not For Nothing has she been Dubbed [sorry—there’s another one for the Catechism of Cliché, or Molvania] the Jane Austen of the 20th century.

And now there are all her other novels, long neglected, for us to read too.

Sacred and secular


Here I further explore my first post on Chinese shawm bands. This is going to be not so much a review of a review, but rather continuing reflections on taxonomy and the sacred—secular continuum.

In his 2012 review of my 2007 (!) book Ritual and Music in North China: Shawm Bands in Shanxi (BSOAS 75, pp.208–9), David Johnson (author of several fine works on north Chinese ritual) gives a good description of the book, but seems to think I shouldn’t have bothered writing it. I’ve done this kind of thing myself—wishing a book had been on another topic appealing to my own personal taste. But revealing his sinological agenda, he seems to suggest that only religious texts are important in social life—not even religious or ceremonial activity.

Some ethnographic projects attempt a rather broad overview of cultural life for their chosen fieldsite, as I went on to do in my 2009 book on Shaanbei. More common is to case the joint roughly in an introduction before focusing on one particular genre, like folk-song, or Daoists—or (as I said in my most recent book, p.363) hairdressing in Barnsley, street gangs in Chicago, shamans in Brazil, and so on.

Johnson observes that I am “deeply attached” to such rural music. Fair enough, but it’s not quite the point; “delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”, ethnographers are likely to find value in their chosen research topics, while seeking to be descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Johnson makes some interesting points about the role of shawm music in local cultures, but his deduction,

that Jones devotes an entire book to music that the villagers regard as little more than noise shows that it is really the music he is interested in, not its ritual or communal meaning,

is amply disproved throughout the book, and all my publications! Indeed, a closer reading of my pp.59 and 114 (that he cites) would show the necessity of understanding the shawm music in both its social context and musical detail. In general my work is far more focused on social change than on musical analysis, although I did go on to write a detailed analysis of the repertoire of the Hua family shawm band:

  • “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”, in Simon Mills (ed.), Analysing East Asian Music: patterns of rhythm and melody, Musiké vol.4 (Semar, 2010), 25–112 (with a sequel here),

My book that he reviewed did precisely what it said on the tin: I was describing ritual and music in Yanggao (funerals and temple fairs), with a focus on the shawm bands. Wu Fan later did this more thoroughly in Chinese. We were both aware that Yanggao people associate their ritual/ceremonial life with yinyang gujiang, Daoists and shawm bands: patrons require both.

So whilst I quite agree that “the Daoists are clearly the central actors in the rituals of Yanggao county”, it’s unfair to comment that I have “little to say about them”. Given that the focus of my book was the shawm bands, it already contained considerable material on the Daoists, on the basis of what I knew then, before I was able to devote a detailed study to them in turn—perhaps, again, not to Johnson’s sinological satisfaction.

It’s also a bit rich to accuse me of neglecting the Daoists when he never mentions them at all in his field sites of south Shanxi or south Hebei, which happen to be some of the richest for Daoist ritual life. But I won’t (quite) take him to task for ignoring it, since the focus of his research there was on other genres. And he reveals the paleographical blinkers of the sinologist by complaining that I hadn’t read any ritual manuals. Indeed, it’s true that, in Yanggao at least, I hadn’t—then. But nor have most of the practising Daoists there; like them, I focused on actual ritual practice. But all that’s neither here nor there; to repeat, my book wasn’t primarily about the Daoists: it was about the shawm bands!

You might as well criticise an ethnography of the Manchester Hacienda for not discussing Beethoven manuscripts and the history of the Hallé.

Otherwise, he almost had a point. Like all the Daoists in his fieldsites about whom he is silent, the Yanggao Daoists did indeed richly deserve a detailed study, and Johnson wasn’t to know that by the time his review came out (belatedly, in 2012) I was deeply engaged in precisely that work.

My two books on Shanxi (2007) and Shaanbei (2009), focusing on the shawm bands but also adducing other major genres, were indeed quite a lengthy interlude between my detailed studies of one village (2004) and then one household (2016).

And once I was able to devote my attentions to the Li family Daoists again, I made a point of first unearthing their ritual manuals (since they had no practical use for them, this meant cajoling Li Manshan into finding them, a long process over several visits); and then reading and exploring with him their relation with changing practice— their mismatch with rituals as performed. You (and Johnson) can read all about it in my recent book, and still more vividly, film.

For mature and generous pensées on recent works about religion in north China, including Johnson’s and mine, see the review essay by Vincent Goossaert,

As field reports on Daoist ritual in southeast China continue to amass, I’m all agog (a complete gog) to read studies of the innumerable local Daoist traditions of north China. These are the theme of my 2010 book In search of the folk Daoists of north China and many posts on this blog (notably those collected under Local ritual), but there is still much to explore.

Rag Kafi Zila

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, click here!*


Kafi, ragamala:
“Holding a delightful rasna-flower and wearing a garland of flowers,
she is a beautiful lady who enjoys the fanning. She has a celestial voice.
Such is Kafi ragini, who enters fully into the exploits of a hero.”

From the late 60s, at a time when it was hardly possible to be amazed by the riches of Chinese traditional music, I was devoted to Indian music—which then meant mainly the solo “classical” traditions, as it mainly still does in the popular image.

If Heart of Glass reminded me fleetingly, impertinently, of rāg Marwa and Nikhil Banerjee, I still treasure his lyrical rendition of rāg Kafi Zila, which appeared magically on BBC Radio 3 in the early 1970s.

It’s an entrancing raga, for the second quarter of the night. Within its basic minor scale with flat 3rd and 7th, it sometimes features the major 3rd degree. Here’s the introduction to rāg Kafi in The raga guide:

Kafi RG 1

Kafi RG 2

The suave BBC announcer’s introduction (citing Alain Daniélou) remains etched in my heart:

Of shining whiteness,
Kafi, who inspires lust,
tenderly sits on the lap of her playmate in the royal palace.
Fond of parrots,
she is dressed in blue
and decked with jewels.
She is the image of sensuousness.
In the Lotus of my heart
I cherish her,
lovelier than Lakshmi
the goddess of Fortune.

Of course, as with Bach, I’m just reporting my own infatuation, which is merely a product of a particular place, social milieu, and time—far from the responses of indigenous audiences of various types.

Here’s one of several exquisite versions by Nikhil Banerjee, with Anindo Chaterjee on tabla:

And here he explores Mishra Kafi for over an hour:

Click here for a sarod version by Amjad Ali Khan.

Here’s a relatively light, but always entrancing, vocal rendition by the Dagar brothers:

As I observed here, training in Indian sargam solfeggio is a basic grounding in monophonic musics—far from a mere conceptual exercise, it draws us towards the heart of the music.

More on tones

One of the few terms in yoofspeak not susceptible to HRT is LOL, never ascending.

OMG is curious: often intoned at a rather high constant pitch, like the first tone in Chinese—and (perhaps through the pervasive influence of Friends) drawn out dramatically: O——M——G…

Another recent entry in the lexicon of tonal variety is that weird announcing thing the female presenters of Strictly do, in mantric unison:


Chanted hypnotically, this time at a rather constant mid-range pitch, it might sound merely jaded, but has been magically rescued from its previous function of expressing sullen apathy to suggest instead some awesome process, divinely decreed. Again, this may be related to gender.

Of course, there’s a wealth of academic discussion about the importance of the semantics of stress and pitch in English. Here’s just one stimulating example, with some inter-cultural comparisons.


Meanwhile, back at Chinese ritual, unlike choral hymns (easily notated, with fixed pitches and tempo), the performance of shuowen solo chanted introits in Chinese ritual doesn’t necessarily attract much musical analysis (or transcription). But again, if we seek to learn how to be a Daoist, we need to pay attention to their rendition—not spoken but parlando, rather fast and high, each phrase descending. Listen again to the way Golden Noble sings this introit at the soul hall before the Invitation procession (my film, from 58.14):

May the deceased souls come to the Bathing Hall,
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.

Heart of glass, and Rag Marwa

Heart of glass is yet another masterpiece from the late 70s—just after Naturträne.

Apart from its spacey vibe, there’s one detail of Debbie Harry’s song that Yer Average fan will experience instinctively, but the tedious analytical bent of the musicologist may home in on: the hallucinatory temporary modulation at the end of the third line (find/blind), fleetingly sketching a major triad on la—all the more ironic for the deflation expressed by the lyric.

That harmonic shift reminds me of rag Marwa, with its implied major scale on Dha/la (A major, one might say) over the Sa–Pa/do–so/C–G drone, the flat re (C♯) clashing with the tonic. Sure, Heart of glass hardly compares with the complexities of the ascending and descending scales of the raga, worked through over a long period, but hey.

Most transcendental are renditions in dhrupad style. Here’s Zia Mohiuddin Dagar on rudra vina, in his last year:

And Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar:

Nikhil Banerjee on sitar:

Here’s a sarangi version from Sultan Khan (compliments to the heading ‘Marwa’-lous!)):

For another rendition on sarangi by Ram Narayan, click here. For Amjad Ali Khan on sarod, see under Raga at the Proms; and for Hariprasad Chaurasia on bansuri, see Raga for winds.

For a roundup of my series on raga, with a general introduction, see here.

The iceberg

For Chinese culture (ritual, music) I always use the image of the iceberg—

to contrast the tiny little chunk that protrudes above the water (the conservatoire concert solos, and so on) with the vast unseen mass of popular culture below the surface—like temple fairs, shawm bands, household Daoists, spirit mediums

Of course it applies widely to world cultures (cf. Italy). Even under the umbrella of WAM, there’s a fluid canon changing over time, with many outer rings; socially too, it’s not just the professional symphony orchestras. And Indian music is far more than sitar solos.

As to Daoism, it’s far more than the Daoist Canon and the White Cloud Temple; and far more than wise southeastern Daoists doing their mystical sublimation in the course of a jiao Offering. And Daoist ritual—over China, north China, Shanxi, north Shanxi, and even in the north-eastern central area of Yanggao county, is far more than the Li band!

Speech therapists too consider “the iceberg of fear“.

More on fieldwork

Further to my remarks on the illusion of “becoming at one with the masses”, I’m always struck by the irony of hanging out with Chinese peasants whose whole life-experience and world-view are totally different from my own. That’s commonly the kind of thing that ethnographers do, of course.

“Stranger value” would be most unlikely to butter any parsnips if a middle-aged English academic were to descend on a bunch of Newcastle punks (cf. my post on vocabulary). They would quite rightly tell me to get lost—although possibly not in those precise words. Chinese peasants are more hospitable.

Early bird

Two classics from the touring musos’ repertoire:

A trumpeter has enjoyed a convivial night out after a gig. Staggering back to his hotel in the small hours, he manages to recall that the band has an early flight, so (congratulating himself on his clear-headed practicality) he walks unsteadily up to the receptionist and asks her in suave yet slurred tones,
“I say, would you be so kind as to book me an alarm call for 6.30?”
“Certainly sir,” she replies. As he staggers off she calls after him,
“Um—you do know it’s 6.45?”

And one about another trumpeter:

After a gig in New York, he’s fast asleep when the phone rings.
A jaded voice drawls,
“Did you book a wake-up call?”
“Oh, um… yeah.”
“Have you had it yet?”
“Er… No.”
“Well, WAKE UP.”


The early bird gets the worm. But the second mouse gets the cheese.

Ritual life of Beijing temples

ZHS 1992

The Qujiaying recruits, and me, learning from former monk Benxing, summer 1993.

Ritual transmission is supposed to have gone from the Zhihua temple to Qujiaying; or rather, from the many temples of Beijing and Tianjin to the many villages on the plain south. But the Zhihua temple tradition has only been maintained since the 1990s through the initiative of Lin Zhongshu in sending a group of teenage boys from Qujiaying to the temple to learn from the elderly former monks.

And actually this kind of thing was also common before 1949—villagers might spend extended periods based in Beijing or Tianjin temples, performing ritual business with the monks among the folk; later they would return home, now able to use this experience in their own village association. Locally, Buddhist monks like Haibo and Daoist priests like Yang Yuanheng also taught many associations.

And just as Qujiaying needs to be seen in the context of ritual associations throughout the plain, the musicological furore surrounding the instrumental music of the Zhihua temple should be expanded to the ritual practice of its monks—which in turn should be considered within the changing social context of Beijing and Tianjin before 1949 (and indeed since). I outlined the highly complex scene of a variety of ritual service providers in Appendix 1 of my In Search of the folk Daoists of north China.

One Beijing researcher who does this well is Ju Xi 鞠熙. Along with brilliant Daoist scholars Vincent Goossaert and Tao Jin 陶金, we are all inspired in part by the detailed recollections of former Beijing ritual specialist Chang Renchun 常人春, such as

  • Hongbai xishi: jiujing hunsang lisu 红白喜事——旧京婚丧礼俗 [Weddings and funerals: wedding and funeral customs of old Beijing] (Beijing: Yanshan chubanshe, 1993).
  • Jinshi mingren da chubin 今世名人大出殡 [Grand funerals of famous people in modern times] (Beijing: Yanshan chubanshe, 1997).

Chang Renchun.

For a roundup of posts on the Zhihua temple and related ritual activity, see here.

Filming techniques

Like I’d know…

Following my naïve reflections on the general plan for filming, here are a few hallowed film techniques that Get my Goat:

1) The Ken Burns effect. Don’t get me wrong, his series on jazz is like (sorry) the greatest documentary series ever??? But zooming in slowly to focus on the eyes of a photo is such an insistent habit—bludgeoning the viewer into sharing a profound experience of which the object is innocent.
My brilliant editor Michele Banal (or Michele trivial as he is now known) has educated me in the value of movement in showing photos, but he’s obligingly worked round my wish to keep it subtle and avoid such sentimentalizing.

2) Closeups of hands. In a similar vein, lingering shots of the interviewee’s hands are to be avoided. It may be a desperate measure to paper over a dodgy edit, but again it corrals us all into a conspiracy of profundity. Gnarled, clasped in anguish, elegantly manicured, or not, they’re just hands.

3) Slow-mo. I mean, what’s the point? Sure, used subtly it can sometimes be a useful way round a dodgy bit of filming, but why would we want to see people doing stuff at the wrong speed?

3) Filming while moving backwards as the subject walks towards you. It’s a cliché of many movies, often satirized in the standard corridor scene. Watching most dramas I am quite able to suspend my disbelief, but here I keep thinking, “Hey, how can they not have noticed that there’s this film crew moving backwards in front of them?”
No less irritating is the documentary presenter walking into shot, addressing some earnest words to camera, and then floating off again reflectively. Again, this is well satirized.

For voiceovers, see here.

OK, enough. Next I shall pontificate on canine dentistry…

Lin Zhongshu: a sequel

QZJ with LZS 2013 low-res

Qiao Jianzhong (left) and Lin Zhongshu (2nd left) documenting three decades of tireless work in 2013.

Still thinking about Lin Zhongshu—further stimulated by chats this week with Chinese friends. Again, my overview of the Hebei ritual associations may come in handy.

However impressive, and amusing, his tenacity in buttonholing the leadership, the outpouring of grief at his loss among the Chinese musical community is remarkable. The Chinese have long surpassed us laowai in their filial piety.

Lin Zhongshu was just an ordinary poor peasant, and we met many other village ritual specialists and local leaders who were also determined to transmit their local ritual culture. By contrast with the actors in the better-known (and apparently better-preserved) ritual cultures of south China, we came to regard such “obstinacy” as a characteristic of the northern peasant, so little esteemed.

Similar tenacity is also etched on the face of Shanxi household Daoist Li Manshan. Small groups of occupational household Daoists are a rather different case from large amateur ritual groups like the Hebei associations. Whereas the latter perform as a duty mainly for their home village (only occasionally, and without reward), household Daoists like the Li band are in constant demand, eking a living for their families. But again, such unsung local heroes embody the “obstinacy” of peasants maintaining their ritual cultures all over north China.

Perhaps it represents, in part, an attempt to rebalance our whole view of China, dominated for so many centuries by the shift to the south. But aside from all the grandiloquent speeches and official meetings, all who met Lin Zhongshu (even otherwise-dispassionate academics) were moved by his determination.

His efforts in those early days were beset by residual anxiety that such activity might still be considered “feudal superstition”—as we saw in the comments of Liu Fu. Doggedly pursuing “the whole dragon” of official connections, Lin was now seeking to establish a role, a “value”, for folk culture, legitimizing his association within the official discourse—but the price was to marginalize its ritual functions.

My mentor Qiao Jianzhong, the very first to take Lin Zhongshu’s own passion to heart, maintained constant contact with him ever since that historic first visit to Qujiaying in 1986. This culminated in his 2014 book

  • Wang: yiwei laonong zai 28 nianjian shouhu yige minjian yueshede koutoushi 望:一位老农在28年间守护一个民间乐社的口述史 (Beijing: Zhongyang bianyi chubanshe, 2014),

a beautiful piece of meticulously documented oral history of three decades of striving, with Qiao’s own perceptive comments, all completed in a labour of love. [1] Even his catalogue of Lin’s huge archive is astounding. Apart from the details on the village association, I am impressed by Lin’s reminiscences of his experiences before the Cultural Revolution, and Qiao’s analysis. The training of a group of Qujiaying youngsters at the Zhihua temple in the 1990s, who went on to become the heirs to its shengguan tradition, is also described in detail with help from Hu Qingxue, leader of the temple group.

It’s not exactly narcissistic of me to quote one tiny exchange between Lin and Qiao; rather, it hints succinctly that their chats were not only detailed but also pleasingly informal.

[They’re recalling a 1995 conference for which I submitted an article. Knowing that I had also written for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Lin reflected,]

“Old Jonesy’s a stutterer!”
Qiao: “Old Jonesy’s a great bloke.”

Over the years our colleagues Xue Yibing and Zhang Zhentao also took part gladly in the developing topic. More recently Qi Yi, based at Hebei University in the provincial capital Shijiazhuang, has been no less energetic—I’ve posted on his new project on the Hebei associations, which is an expanded restudy of our own in the 1990s.

Many other eminent musicologists, such as Xiang Yang and Zhang Boyu, were also impressed by Lin Zhongshu’s efforts on behalf of his village culture. You couldn’t not be. He was an unstoppable juggernaut.

Perhaps the Hebei associations needed a figurehead. Qujiaying immediately dominated, and despite all the fieldwork we would soon do in other villages, it has maintained this position in the media throughout. Over the following years all the Great and the Good in Chinese culture were cajoled into making the trek to Qujiaying.

It may be seen as a model for the Intangible Cultural Heritage, but a more detached observer might regard it as a negative example. Just as the Zhihua temple monks came singly to represent a far more complex ritual scene in the Beijing temples of yore, this was unfortunate. While there was already less to explore in the traditional social contexts of Qujiaying than in almost any of the other villages, vestiges of such contexts were inevitable casualties of the new reified brand-marketing.

So virtually the only ethnographic study now possible there was the ethnography of official commodification. Even that would have been difficult at the time, since scholars weren’t invited there to stand back and make detached analyses—all were expected to play their own active role in the propaganda drama. Such events may seem like more glamorous recreations of the secular official festivals of the 1950s.

Only recently have the thoughtful reflections of Qiao Jianzhong and Zhang Zhentao provided this kind of picture. Zhang points out the “presence of the state” (guojia zaichang 国家在场), which has been a fine topic of Chinese anthropologists of religion at least since the volume edited by Guo Yuhua 郭于华, Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁. In This Day and Age, such analysis must replace the old “living fossil” clichés.

One thoughtful early article on Lin Zhongshu came from Xiao Mei萧梅, most distinguished of musical anthropologists in China:

  • “Shouwang qingshazhang” 守望青纱帐, Renmin yinyue 1997/7, reproduced in her book Tianye pingzong 田野萍踪 (Shanghai yinyuexueyuan chubanshe, 2004), pp.80–85. The book makes an instructive read altogether.

So for lionized groups like Qujiaying, and indeed later South Gaoluo, fame has come at a cost—both to them and us. With only finite energy available, research was distracted by all the ritualised visits, homages, and posed group photos. Not only did all this flummery take time, but it also tended to ossify concepts. And as Zhang Zhentao observes, one may react to the host of laudatory inscriptions on display there (at the forlorn “concert hall” that Lin somehow got built) rather as people do to the Wailing Wall—Wang Qinghe’s film also hints at this mood.

Lin Zhongshu’s only goal was the success of the association. He achieved widespread personal recognition belatedly in 2012 when—along with Ravi Shankar and Bruno Nettl, no less—he received the inaugural Taichi [sic] Traditional Music Award in Beijing. Perhaps he set no great store by it—he never had selfish motives in mind—but it can’t have been unwelcome; anyway, his peasant world-view never changed.

In recent years, younger recruits to the amateur associations are both drawn away from the tradition by migration, pop music, and so on, and are also eagerly availing themselves of new technology. There are several Weixin online groups on which they enthusiastically discuss their village traditions, doing all the things that the internet can do. Such connections were unimaginable to all of us until recently, but in the case of poor isolated north Chinese villages, where few even travelled further than a day’s walk away until the late 1980s, it is mind-blowing.

My own hippy resistance to grand formal occasions has long been an amusement and a headache for my dear colleagues, to whom I hereby kowtow in belated apology. Over the years I have managed (mostly) not to bite too fiercely the hand that feeds me, but really all I want to do is hang out with ritual specialists informally, and at funerals and temple fairs—and we’ve actually had great success in bypassing the vacuous platitudes of official encounters. It is to my own cost that I would have been more able to enjoy the company of Lin Zhongshu and others at Qujiaying if the village hadn’t become caught up so soon in the media circus.

One further hope of mine is that the study of the Hebei associations should be incorporated far more fully into that of ritual and religion. To be sure, even apart from the reified commodification of the media and Intangible Cultural Heritage, many such groups have indeed been moving further towards the secular end of the spectrum, but I still see them as part of a network of sectarian associations, so they deserve study way beyond the narrow confines of musicology. The topic should encompass the diachronic study of diverse kinds of religious activity, including recent change. [2]


[1] The brief notice in CHIME 20 (2015, p.208), though suitably enthusiastic, lacks any wider background—thus portraying Qujiaying, not untypically, as some unique miraculous phenomenon.
[2] E.g. for a broader coverage for Gu’an county (where Qujiaying is situated), we have a volume of articles by local scholar Zhao Fuxing, in Daniel L. Overmyer [Ou Danian] and Fan Lizhu (eds), Huabei nongcun minjian wenhua yanjiu congshu: Gu’an diqu minsu jilu [Studies of the popular culture of north China villages: folklore records of the Gu’an region] (Tianjin: Tianjin guji chubanshe, 2006).

The wonders of auto-translation

I’m sure many authors have seen their finely-crafted prose befall a similar fate, but a crazy garbled version of the vimeo blurb for my film that I found online, if not entirely accurate, is very funny.

Apart from dubbing my fine editor “Michele trivial”, gems include

This movie intimate portrait explores the lifetime of the eighth technology Taoist Li Manshan (b.1946) household, chief of a gaggle of formality specialists within the poor countryside of Yanggao County.

Nor does the title of my book get off lightly:

Daoist monks of formality Li household, life within the village of China.

I always try to pen a compelling blurb, but I have been outshone here. I can’t wait to see the gaggle of formality specialists in Paris in May.


On syntax, in cases like these it can be tricky to surmise whether the opening adjective should apply to the first noun or to the following adjectival noun–noun pair. Some may be clarified by means of a judiciously-placed hyphen, but that would spoil the fun:

  • Vibrated concrete manufacturer
  • Missing intelligence officer
  • Edible oil merchants—and indeed Crude oil merchants
  • Used car dealer
  • Small business adviser [peering over desk]
  • Great Queen Street
  • Hot bread shop
  • Swiss watch maker
  • Fat free yogurt
  • Overweight lorry driver
  • Affordable housing shortage [one for conservative governments, confident that we—or rather they—can indeed afford a housing shortage]
  • Wild goose chase [man, that was one wild goose chase]
  • Rare book librarian [don’t see many of them around]
  • Illegal migration bill [that’s just what the migration bill is],

as well as this literary contribution:

and the classic

  • Fine tooth comb,

and perhaps even

  • One trick pony [How many trick ponies?].

A letter to the leader of a quartet belongs in this category too.

Recent news items have featured

  • Huge face database
  • Infectious disease expert
  • Racist dog whistling, perhaps owned by
  • Rightwing beer magnate:

Welcome to our theme café, Sir and Madam, I’m Fido, your racist dog waiter for this evening, and I’ll be whistling your favourite racist ditties for you to sing along to—specials on the board, and a fine selection of craft rightwing beers. (Did you just see that Pekinese? I dunno, they come over ‘ere… Woof! LOL—What am I like?) Perhaps I can warm you up by warbling The Stammering Coon.

This almost leads us towards silly headlines (rounded up here):

  • Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim
  • Prostitutes Appeal To Pope
  • British Left Waffles On Falklands

And this, from Terry Jones and Michael Palin, no less:

Front raps

Some punctuation might help here:

Come on England

And a related case, under “Document design matters” on Twitter:

Document design matters

See also Punctuation for truck drivers, and Publicity.

Obituary of a determined village leader


From Wang Qingren’s film Sound of Laozu (2013).

Lin Zhongshu 林中树 (1940–2017), a great village leader deeply concerned, nay obsessed, with maintaining his local culture, died on 18th March, aged 78 sui.

Chinese chat-sites are already buzzing with substantial tributes (here and here), and over the coming weeks and months there will doubtless be many more. So here’s my own tribute—my thoughts here (albeit thirty years too late) may differ somewhat from the many hagiographies within China, but also derive from deep respect for him.

Right into the very end of the 20th century, Qujiaying 屈家营 village was an exceptionally  poor village in the exceptionally poor county of Gu’an, Hebei province—a short but bumpy trip south of Beijing, and a world away. It’s still nothing to write home about today. Lin Zhongshu was not himself active as a  performing member of the village’s amateur ritual association (another kind of Country music?), but he cared passionately about it. In the early 1980s, just as the liberal reforms were gradually kicking in, he became village chief, and it was entirely thanks to him that scholars became aware that there was far more to ritual culture around Beijing than the Zhihua temple.

Lin Zhongshu’s “obstinacy” (zhizhuo 执着) is legendary. He constantly besieged cultural officials and scholars in Beijing with phone-calls and visits right to the “head of the dragon”, not in the least deterred by the cultural gap. It was as if an unwashed and semi-literate chairman of the Surbiton village choral society just made up his mind to get on the phone to Roy Jenkins, or buttonhole Ted Heath, insisting that they make the journey to Surbiton to hear them performing in their grotty church hall. Actually, that’s easier to imagine.

And to the extent that Qujiaying became renowned not just among musicologists but throughout the Chinese and international media, Lin Zhongshu’s Herculean labours were fulfilled. A more subtle approach would  hardly have succeeded.

As we soon discovered, Qujiaying is one of hundreds of similar amateur village ritual associations in the region with a rich tradition of ritual performance—while their vocal liturgy seems to have long dormant, their shengguan wind ensemble, ritual percussion, and reciting of the gongche scores all amazed scholars, some time before we realized it was a widely shared heritage.

QJY 1987018

Brilliant Feng Wenci leading the magnificent percussion suite on bo cymbals, my first visit 1987. My photo.

The first, historic, visit of scholars to Qujijaying on 28th March 1986 soon became a new calendrical fixture for Qujiaying, annually celebrated with a gaggle of media pundits descending on the village. Thinking back, despite Xue Yibing and Wu Ben’s fine article, I realize the ethnography of ritual life was never on the agenda with Qujiaying; visitors came largely for an “autonomous” musical experience. But it was on my visit in 1987 that I met Xue Yibing, and with Qiao Jianzhong we hatched the scheme of a survey of ritual associations throughout the plain.

But from Wang Qinghe’s fine film (see below) we can also see that media exposure hasn’t succeeded in securing the future of the association. As with other ritual associations like that of Gaoluo, the problem was acute anyway. We advised Gaoluo against “going down the Qujiaying road” (and Lin Zhongshu really did have a road built to the village!), and his tireless initiatives (and later the Intangible Cultural Heritage project) haven’t managed to resolve the issues. But I didn’t have a better solution.

Admittedly, all the ensuing flummery—with grandiose speeches, romanticized fake-antique costumes, official funding way beyond the imagination of a poor Hebei village in the 1980s (not least the incongruous construction of a new “concert hall”), “living fossil” flapdoodle, and so on—inevitably distracted from the association’s declining role in the ritual life of local people, confirming the media reification of ritual cultures.

Meanwhile, back in the late 1980s, scholars soon became aware that beyond the Zhihua temple, and beyond Qujiaying, similar ritual associations were ubiquitous on the Hebei plain. On the whole background to our “discoveries”, apart from the various links here and in my other posts, I’ve just noticed this interesting discussion between Liu Fu, Zhang Zhentao, Qi Yi, and Yin Hubin.

We also soon learned that such identification with their ritual culture was quite standard among village leaders. We met many village cadres who not only led land reform and Maoist campaigns, but preserved and performed the ritual manuals of their village association, like Cai Fuxiang in Gaoluo. But no-one could compare with the obstinate ambition of Lin Zhongshu.

Authoritative figures like this, perceiving no contradiction between Maoism and the gods, were crucial to the maintenance of ritual culture through the commune system.

I was impressed to read young Chinese music students tweeting “yesterday Lin Zhongshu departed, today it’s Chuck Berry“. [1] Times they are a-changin—and they always have been, as any scholar of medieval Daoist ritual can tell you.

If “Without the Communist Party there would be no new China”, then without Lin Zhongshu there would be no project on the Hebei ritual associations, no new Chinese musicology. His departure is another milestone in their history.

Here are some photos from his funeral, taken by Qi Yi 齐易, who has diligently followed up our fieldwork on the Hebei associations.


2Led by Hu Qingxue, Qujiaying villagers, later trained in the Zhihua temple style, kowtowing before the soul hall at Lin Zhongshu’s funeral, and playing the classic sequence Jinzi jing, Wusheng fo, and Gandongshan.


The funeral placard

Material on Lin Zhongshu and Qujiaying is too plentiful to encapsulate here. Apart from the links above, and a plethora of journalistic articles, scholarly coverage began with a brief yet brilliant article by Xue Yibing 薛艺兵 and Wu Ben 吴奔,

  • 屈家营音乐会的调查与研究, Zhongguo yinyuexue 1987.2: 87–96,

with all the kinds of musical and social detail that we would later augment. For further sources, see my article here.

Qiao Jianzhong 乔建中, successor to Yang Yinliu as director of the Music Research Institute in Beijing and one of the great instigators of research on north Chinese music, documented Lin Zhongshu’s own account in

  • 望:一位老农在28年间守护一个民间乐社的口述史 (Beijing: Zhongyang bianyi chubanshe, 2014).

and Zhang Zhentao 张振涛 writes perceptively as ever in articles such as

  • 平原日暮——屈家营的故事, Zhongguo yinyuexue 2009.3.

His memorial to Lin Zhongshu has also just been posted by the Shanghai Centre for Ritual Music:

  • 他让乡村乐社走进国家乐史 ——祭林中树

Among many rather grandiloquent films, this leads to further links, while a more sober film by Wang Qingren 王清仁 (2013) is both fascinating and disturbing.

For a list of sources on the Zhihua temple and the current group, see here; and for a roundup of some posts under the Gaoluo tag, here.


[1] Actually, both died on 18th March, so perhaps it was a question of time zones. Anyway, this is no time for pedantry.

Countrier than you


As I browse the back catalogue of Rusty Debris, I find Rich Hall makes an engaging guide for my latent dilettante interest in Country. He’s also a fine Tweety-baiter, of course, such as this. And his BBC4 film is both instructive and hilarious:

Country may often seem banal to us poncey liberal elite—although we’re on thin ice if we’re going to laugh at the outfits. But like flamenco, or tango (or, come to think of it, almost any genre worth its salt), beyond the cosy domestic image it’s about pain, and poor suffering Hugh Manity.

Another entry in the list of drôle Country song titles:

If you won’t leave me, I’ll find someone who will.

In time the industry managed to cash in on the outlaw image (at first latent, later a badge of honour) that came to supplement the homely veneer—embodied in The Highwaymen and the great Johnny Cash. And so on to Willie Nelson (“Then one day, thankfully, his house caught fire”).

Rich’s comments on Tom Hiddleston’s ill-advised Hank Williams biopic I saw the light are priceless. He also manages to give short shrift to John Travolta, Taylor Swift, and even Bono.

Like a gen-u-ine ethnomusicologist, he notes the diverse ethnic origins of Country, its local distinctiveness, migration, and patronage. Again, there are some fine taxonomies here. He notes the shift from Nashville to Austin, and the Cosmic Cowboy collision of redneck and hippy. And wow, there’s some hot fiddling.

He only lets himself down a bit on female singers, who were (and are) such a major aspect of the genre’s success.

There are also some nice details on changing instrumental technique—a trademark of the best discussions of music—like “He [Chuck Berry Junior, not the Chuck Berry, R.I.P.!] told him [Waylon ] to replace the top E string with a banjo string to bend it easier, and to shave down the frets on his guitar to get a lower action.”

The secret is to replicate, not to regurgitate.

This quote from the online blurb could be an encapsulation of ethnomusicology:

As he unearths the roots and inner workings of country music, Rich finds it’s more than just music—it’s a lifestyle.

There are loads of wonderful documentaries on such topics, avoiding hagiography while evincing proper respect—but where are all the programmes about shawm bands or Daoists, eh?

Update: Ken Burns now has a major series Country music (cf. his Jazz series), its eight parts now being shown in abbreviated form on BBC4. Just the opening programme, on the early history of Country to 1933, is an aural and visual feast. For more, see here.


See also Accordion crimes.

Chinese insights on fieldwork

As a reminder that Chinese fieldworkers are by now quite familiar with the Western unpacking of dubious illusions about “the three togethers” and “becoming at one with the masses”, a 2016 conference on fieldwork theory explored the theme. The paper by Chen Yongchao 陈泳超 has perceptive comments on the relation between “insider and “outsider”:

  • “ ‘Wuhai’ ji daode” ‘无害’ 即道德, Minzu wenxue yanjiu 民族文学研究 2016.4.

Downhill: Steven Wright

Before Milton Jones and Tim Vine, but considerably after Hildegard von Bingen, there was Steven Wright, king of deadpan brevity.

Went out and bought myself a decaffeinated coffee table.

With that wording, and his delivery, that version is superior to some that you’ll find online.

This next “joke” is widely attributed to Milton Jones, but I swear I heard it Steven Wright doing it around thirty years ago:

Shortly before he died, my grandmother [pause] smeared my grandfather from head to toe in lard. After that, he went downhill very quickly.

Again, online versions are less well crafted. I distinctly remember the pause—he’s already got the audience thinking, WTF…

Like Daoist ritual, the texts are very fine on the page, but it’s all about performance. Here’s the first of five clips  some from 1985:

More here.

Inevitable further link: Stewart Lee’s routine on the Sardine joke and joke ownership.

Humour: why?

Perhaps it’s time for a pensée, or apercu, about some of the seemingly incongruous juxtapositions on this blog.

I realize some of these jokes may try the patience of disgruntled readers who have come here, in all innocence, seeking insights into the Wisdom of the Ancient Sages or the Mastery (sic) of the Great Composers. And indeed vice versa: anyone here for laughs will be pretty cheesed off to have to plough through blow-by-blow accounts of Daoist ritual and Messiaen.

Humour has always played a major role in my rapport both with my colleagues and local subjects—but that’s not the card I’m going to play.

Rather, humour can serve to console, to resist, to create ludic connections. It’s no more universal than music—but just as in Daoist ritual (which not only uses language creatively but incorporates segments to entertain mere mortals), and just as in WAM (thinking, for instance, of Haydn and Mozart), humour reminds us of our humanity.

Anyway, I like it.

Jokes (again, like Daoist ritual) are created by people, they take on a life of their own, transmitted in different versions over time for changing audiences. And despite silent, empty, versions in print, they thrive on and evolve through live interaction in performance.

However (and once again, like ritual or music), I’m sure this can become less satisfying for the professional, churning out the same routine night after night for an unfamiliar audience. That’s why Stewart Lee is so great, and it’s what makes his book How I escaped my certain fate so thoughtful. But that’s not important right now.

An orchestral classic


Gary Kettel.

À propos orchestral humourStewart Lee does a typically labyrinthine riff giving the old sardine joke his signature going-over:

Loath as I am to spoil the fun, in the WAM biz where people used to employ me, this story is famously attributed to the master-percussionist and all-round piss-artist Gary Kettel.

A hooliganesque Cockney, Gary was What They Call “a breath of fresh air” in the staid orchestral scene. During Boulez’s années dorées at the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducting many challenging works, he much admired Gary’s musicianship, and they formed a charming and unlikely bond (see this story).

The version of the sardine joke handed down to posterity in the orchestral biz (which beyond Gary’s own recollections has some further effective, if fanciful, detail) goes like this:

Once (this must have been in the mid-70s) he was on tour in South America with the London Sinfonietta, doing the, um, challenging Eight Songs for a Mad King.

So Gary’s at this fancy British Council reception after the gig in Buenos Aires or somewhere, getting quietly pissed in a corner on his own, and this posh bird comes up to him and goes,

“I say, I don’t believe we’ve been introduced—weren’t you playing in the concert? I did so enjoy your delightful rendition of that charming work!” [that’s a nice touch, by the way, if you know the piece, “but that’s not important right now”].
“Do please remind me,” she goes on, “what was it you were playing?”

“Oh, I fool around a bit on the drums, luv,” goes Gary—”So wot you doin’ ‘ere then?”

“I’m here with my husband.” she replies loftily.

Gary goes on, chummily, “An’ wot does your old man do then, darlin’?”

“My husband’s in oil!” she exclaims, proudly.

Gary goes, “What is he, a fuckin’ sardine?”

I like the details here. And the punchline is a good instance of the importance of the word “fuckin’ ”—not least for rhythm and euphony. The story also reflects musos’ own delight in “deviating from behavioural norms”.

Keen as I am on the ancestry of texts (my book ch.11), just as one does in exploring the relation and transmission of Daoist texts (well, I say “one”…), I wonder: Gary’s not sure, but could he have heard it from Tom O’Connor, or did they both get it from someone else, and so on (zzz)?

The Tom O’Connor version is less personal and less funny—which is precisely what makes it a suitable victim for Stew to mangle, a banal ground-bass lying prone for his endless florid divisions, a Goldberg variations from hell…

For further detail, see How I escaped my certain fate, pp.257–69—by now tuned into the De Selby footnotes in The third policeman, (and here), you will find further verbose and erudite annotations there too.

For another reception story, see here, on George Brown pissed at a reception in Peru.

The Catechism of Chinese Cliché


Following the Li family Daoists‘ 2012 tour of Italy, praise within China came in a report published online in the regional capital Datong. Written in bold red characters in the style of a report on a bumper harvest in the Great Leap Forward, here’s an excerpt:


Recalling Myles and my very own Catechism of Orchestral Cliché, this inspires me to pen a Catechism of Chinese Cliché:

What kind of response did they evince in their audience? Would it have been sullen and apathetic, by any chance?
No. It was warm and enthusiastic, Begob.

What did the performances achieve?
They consolidated the friendship between the Chinese and Italian Peoples.

Surely they did more than consolidate it?
OK, they developed it too.

And what was the art of Chinese Daoist culture able to do where?
Be magnified 弘扬 and promoted 宣传 in a foreign country.

Just in a foreign country?
Oh all right then, you win—on the soil of a foreign country.

So what did the performances receive from the Italian people?
A good assessment and high praise.

And what did the tour do for the entire group?
Um, it encouraged and stimulated their trust and determination to revive our Chinese Daoism.

So since their return, what are they now doing?
They are gradually perfecting and elevating their art.

Is that all?
[grits teethThey are developing and strengthening it too. Do give it a rest.

The report also contains a resounding clarion call:

This is the pride of us Chinese People! The pride of the Chinese Nationality! It is the pride of us Shanxi people! The pride of Datong people! More precisely, it is the pride of our 300,000 People of Yanggao!

I’m not entirely taking the piss. A report like that, however comical and cliché-ridden it may seem, evinces genuine feelings. Even if such terms are alien to peasants like Li Manshan, some people do use them, and most can; and it’s a useful skill for us outsiders to deploy them in suitable contexts.

Also, such coverage subtly, um, Consolidates the reputation of the Li family and Daoist ritual in north Shanxi. What it doesn’t do is make local patrons and audiences value their rituals as much as pop music.

BTW, the article is quite right to observe that “More precisely, it is the pride of our 300,000 People of Yanggao”. Still, it uses the duplicitous Chinese media title for the Li band, “Hengshan Daoist Music Troupe”—which I take to the cleaners here.

Still on the theme of International Cultural Exchange (grrr) between China and Italy, I penned the party game The Silk Road (“hours of harmless fun for all the family!”).

While we’re about it,

What is the Venice of the East?
Suzhou, if you must. Like Balham is gateway to the south.

Note also clichés of Chinese art and music, as well as the fine parody Eat, pray, self-love: my lyrical journey through the heart of genocide country. Cf. Tibetan clichés.

Punctuation for truck drivers


A complex and costly new legal ruling (or here) vindicates us nerdy language pedants. It’s brought devotees of the numinous Oxford comma out of the woodwork again.

To show the risks of eschewing the Oxford comma, here’s another party game—you can make up your own lists from the template:

I’d like to thank my parents, Mother Teresa and the Pope

I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty

I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling

I have been inspired by my parents, Donald Trump and Barbara Cartland

I owe a profound debt to my parents, Beyoncé and Stephen Fry

The theme is further explored in several articles on the languagelog site. I’m partial to a TV listing spotted in The Times:

Planet Ustinov—Monday, C4, 8pm. By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.

See? Punctuation rules OK. Or is that Punctuation rules, OK?

Update, 2022
Yet another fatuous Tory intervention in grammar inspired this contribution:

At the government’s circus-themed party, I struck up a conversation with the clowns, Suella Braverman and Nadine Dorries.

More, with helpful illustrations, here and here.

Vocabularies, educated and local

ZZT Houshan 1995

Zhang Zhentao with members of the Xiaoniu village ritual association, Houshan temple fair, Yixian 1995.

One aspect of respecting our local hosts, and “abiding by local customs” (ruxiang suisu 入乡随俗), is that fieldworkers should be careful not to inflict their educated vocabulary on locals. Just as you wouldn’t use poncey language in talking to Newcastle rappers, or to old-time musicians in Kentucky (so “harp” rather than “harmonica”)—even if they may understand it, or even adopt it temporarily for our benefit. Vocabulary reflects world-view (yijing 意境, as educated Chinese would say), so we should try and latch onto it.

Some terms are just a matter of basic fluency: one never “plays” (yanzou 演奏) instruments, for example, but (according to their means of sound production) one blows (chui 吹), beats (da 打), bows (la 拉), or plucks (tan 弹) them. In Yanggao, the often-used term kabulei (“fantastic”) would be kebulai in standard Chinese, but bucuo is the standard urban version. I like duohuir (“When?”, actually more like duohuor), more classically economical than the cumbersome standard shenme shihou.

Of course it’d be silly to try and go native; we can only retain our personality. But little efforts to adapt to their world-view pay dividends. Often we will seek a more idiomatic way of expressing our own scholarly vocabulary.

In the table below I give some random examples from my fieldwork experience in ritual and musical life, mainly in north China. Maybe I’ll add to it as I go along—these are just some of the terms I’ve picked up. [1] Of course, it relates to taxonomy. Some terms (such as those for spirit mediums) are gender-based.

But few of these terms can be applied casually across the board: precisely because they are local, one can’t even expect (for instance) to use a Shaanbei term for spirit medium in north Shanxi—still less in Guangxi or Fujian.

Guo Yuhua, in her book on Shaanbei, transcribes villagers’ accounts in their own language with rare precision. But few fieldworkers will be able to master the remarkable secret language (“black talk”) of shawm bands and ritual specialists in Yanggao.

Educated term English local term
tuan ensemble, group etc. ban
huitong 会统
foshihui 佛事会
tan 壇
peng 棚
etc. etc.
yanchu 演出
biaoyan 表演
perform banshi 办事
yingmenshi 应门事
songjing 送经
chuhui 出会
zangli 葬礼 funeral baishi 白事
qushi 去世 to die xiashi 下世
yishi zhixingren 仪式执行人 (!) ritual practitioner fashi 法师
shigong 师公
duangong 端公
jiaozhu 教主
tangzhu 堂主
zhangjiaode 掌教的
erzhai 二宅
nianjingde 念经的
wentan 文坛
xiansheng 先生
etc. etc.
daoshi 道士 Daoist laodao 老道
yinyang 阴阳
jia heshang 假和尚 (!)
etc. etc.
xuesheng 学生
tudi 徒弟
mensheng 门生
chuantong 传统 tradition (lao) guiju (老)规矩
lingdao 领导 leader dangjia 当家
(secular and sacred)
keyiben 科仪本 ritual manual jingshu 经书
jingben 经本
shu 书 !
yueqi 乐器 musical instruments jiahuo 家伙
xiangqi 响器
dajiyue 打击乐 percussion luogu 锣鼓
faqi 法器
xiangqi 响器
suona 唢呐 shawm weirwa ?
wazi 娃子
laba 喇叭
etc. etc.
suona dui 唢呐队 shawm band guyueban 鼓乐班
chuigushou 吹鼓手
chuishou 吹手
gujiang 鼓匠
shaopian 哨片 reed mimi 咪咪
yinyuejia 音乐家 musician yiren 艺人 (used sparingly)
shenpo 神婆
shenhan 神汉
spirit medium mingren 明人
daxian 大仙
xiangxiang 相相
xiangtou 香头
matong 马童
shenguan 神官
dingshende 定神的
tiaoshenr 跳神儿
qigai 乞丐 beggar yaofande 要饭的

[1] See also my In search of the folk Daoists, pp.12–15.

For St Patrick’s Day

St Patrick


Always on the case with calendrical rituals (and as a change from Myles), I now offer a couple of apposite Irish jokes to celebrate St Patrick’s Day—one about animal husbandry, the other on religion:

Two farmers chatting:
“My cow fell down a hole—I had to shoot it.”
“Did you shoot it in the hole?”
“No, in the head.”

This seems to be related to the séance joke.

And now for religion:

O’Malley is leaving his favourite bar when he gets run over by a bus. He gets to the gates of heaven and St. Peter tells him he can’t enter unless he passes a test. But he decides to go easy on him.
“What’s got five fingers and is made of black leather?” he asks.
O’Malley scratches his head, thinks hard and finally gives up.
“It’s a glove,” says St. Peter. “Let’s try again—What’s got ten fingers and is made of black leather?”
O’Malley is stumped again. After pacing round in a circle and scratching his head, he gives up.
“Why it’s two gloves.” says St. Peter, amazed. “Don’t you see—ten fingers, black leather…”
But being in a generous mood, he decides to give O’Malley one more chance, so he lobs him an easier one:
“Who is the patron saint of Ireland?’ he asks.
“Now let me see now,” says O’Malley. “Would that be three gloves?”

As I swapped stories and cigarettes at home with Li Manshan, I did a a Chinese version of that one, substituting “Who is in charge of (dangjia 当家) the Chinese Communist Party?” for the last question.

Learning the piano

By contrast with the Sonatas and Interludes of John Cage, and as part of my occasional series on music acquisition, and also on language learning, here’s Milton Jones:

I used to wonder if, in China, young piano players used to have to learn “Knife and Fork”.

Doubtless a formative early piece for Lang Lang.

Zhou and Nixon

For broader perspectives on the learning process in world music, albeit with fewer jokes, see the fine documentary series Growing into music.


With such cultural refinement at the Helm, who needs the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, eh???

See also under Black books.

A letter from a great man


John Cage, Cuernavaca, 1973. Photographer: Dorothy Norman. Courtesy of the John Cage Trust.

Here’s a treasured letter I received from none other than John Cage (eminent mycologist to boot—Harmony of the Spores, that’s a good one) in 1972, when I was 18—replying to my bold schoolboy enquiry about the Yijing (as we later learned to call it) and impertinently asking if I could become his pupil:

Cage letter

Isn’t that lovely? Writing by hand, charming and to the point. Those were the days… This was long before I got hijacked by Daoist ritual, but it reminds me of my then absorption in Zen and Chinese mysticism. The energy of those times—by contrast with China, just after Li Manshan got married, amidst the stagnation following the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution…

As to me—to paraphrase Alan Bennett, the rest isn’t history.

Apart from all Cage’s aleatoric explorations, and my personal preference for 5’20” over 4’33”, the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (1946–8—the heyday of Bird, Dizzie, Miles, and Billie (You’re my thrill, 1949), while Messiaen was composing Turangalîla; and the eve of the Communist takeover in China) seem to echo gamelan, cimbalom, or santur:

Trauma: music, art, objects

Norman Lebrecht has long laid bare the links of celebrated senior conductors (as well as Karajan…) to Nazism: it’s one subtext of his fine book The maestro myth.

I just read his review of Fritz Trümpi, The political orchestra: the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics during the Third Reich.

The book actually takes the story through to our own times. As Lebrecht observes, neither orchestra emerges with any credit—indeed, it’s a shocking account.

For me, as a teenager in the National Youth Orchestra (of GB), another inspiring conductor (apart from Boulez) was Rudolf Schwarz (1905–94). Member of the Vienna Philharmonic in his youth, later inmate of Auschwitz and Belsen, after the liberation of the camps he eventually ended up in Bournemouth, remoulding the orchestra there. His Bruckner 7 with the NYO was wonderful—all the more intense with his laboured conducting style, partly the legacy of a broken shoulder-blade in Auschwitz. Never a superstar in the Karajan mould (which was why musicians appreciated him), he was a formative influence on the young Simon Rattle, my contemporary in the NYO.

Bruckner 7 is in the incandescent key of E major, just like the basic scale of the Li family Daoistsshengguan ensemble—I often think of it while I listen to the shengguan piercing the bright blue sky of rural north China (e.g. playlist, #4, with commentary here).

Meanwhile, as Rudi was being dragged through the camps, here’s Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Adagio with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1942. Like Philippe Sands’ choice of Bruno Walter conducting Mahler 9 in 1938— and just as with Daoist ritual—we have to personalise such seemingly disembodied works, and place them in time.

You can find a newly remastered version here. For Celibidache’s Bruckner 7, see here.

Furtwängler’s relationship with Nazism has been much debated. Generally reluctant to collaborate, he did what he could, even helping some Jews escape, and with close ties to the resistance. Yet inevitably people baulk at his participation in events like this Beethoven 9 for Hitler’s birthday, also in 1942:

Lebrecht sums up his legacy (The maestro myth, p.93):

In Furtwängler the Nazis retained an interpreter who performed German music with undiminished conviction while genocide was committed in his name. By opting to remain, he endowed the Nazis with cultural respectability at a  crucial moment in their ascent, and in wartime gave moral sustenance to their cause. In his confrontations with tyranny, Furtwängler proved a feeble adversary who was all too easily manoeuvred into outright collusion. The humanity he expressed in music was was traduced and travestied by his paymasters. His legacy as a performer may well be among the most significant in the annals of conducting, but his conduct under political pressure compromised the very profession on which he wielded so formative an influence. [for Lebrecht’s more recent exposé, see here.]

Still, it’s easy for us to say that. Reflecting on the Nazi era from the perspective of our blessed safety from invasion and  agonising choices, Neil MacGregor poses the disturbing question “What would we have done?”. In his brilliant 2014 book Germany: memories of a nation (and no less enchanting are his podcasts—the perfect Radio 4 voice!), using both works of art and everyday material objects, he ponders how we can fit the great humanistic traditions of Germany into the same picture with Nazi barbarism. And having suffered throughout this whole period, people of Central and Eastern Europe would still have to continue making appalling moral choices for decades to come.

Apart from MacGregor’s astute discussions of earlier historical artefacts, one can’t help being drawn into those from more recent history—like the slogan (“to each what they are due”) above the camp gates of Buchenwald—just a few miles outside the Weimar of Goethe and Bach:


MacGregor observes the noble lineage of words that had once signified an ideal of justice—the very words that Bach used as the title of a cantata in 1715 Weimar. Indeed, as a prelude to John Eliot Gardiner’s epoch-making Bach Cantata Pilgrimage all through 2000, I played a modest role in the Christmas oratorio at the Herderkirche in Weimar—here’s Part One:

Next day we all visited Buchenwald.

I’m not sure we can derive any encouragement from MacGregor’s idea that the stylish lettering of those words above the gate (designed by an inmate, Communist and former Bauhaus student Franz Ehrlich) might be read by fellow inmates as a subtly subversive message that the SS would eventually get their just deserts. By the way, Ehrlich survived, also disturbingly, to become a Stasi informant under the GDR.

MacGregor gives a fine diachronic survey of Käthe Kollwitz’s work,

as well as the incarnations and migrations of Ernst Barlach’s Hovering angel (1926, cf. the 1966 GDR film The lost angel),


along with reflections on Remembrance ceremonies.

But he also discusses movingly the “rubble women” (Trümmerfrauen) who rebuilt shattered Germany after the war, and objects such as a little hand-cart pulled by refugees from Eastern Pomerania in late 1945—now reminding us tellingly of the refugee crises of our own day.

The wonderful Forum of Contemporary History in Leipzig has a similar exhibit.

But to return to Trümpi’s book, this tale of two orchestras brings us, shamefully, right up to the lives of my generation and later. It was not until 2013 that the Vienna Philharmonic revoked the Ring of Honour it had bestowed on three leading figures in the Nazi genocide—including Richard Strauss’s patron Baldur von Schirach, who (also in 1942) described the deportation he oversaw of 65,000 Viennese Jews to the death camps as a “contribution to European culture”. Indeed, our feelings about those celebrated Viennese New Year’s concerts can’t help being stained by learning that it was Schirach who instigated them.

As an aside, these orchestras haven’t exactly been at the forefront of gender equality either. Competing hotly in the misogyny stakes with “Rear Admiral” Foley, Karl Böhm (a Great Maestro far more flawed than Furtwängler) is quoted as saying that “the Nazis aren’t that bad—they want to eliminate women from politics.” Digging himself into a deeper hole, he went on, “Of course, not all women are worthless—Rainer Maria Rilke [sic] wrote some good poems.”

And now there are new causes for anxiety, threatening all the liberal values that have been achieved so painfully over several centuries.

NB also posts on Ravensbrück, SachsenhausenMetamorphosen, A Nazi legacy, The Ratline, and Gitta Sereny; as well as posts on Maoism in China, starting here; see also under Life behind the Iron Curtain, as well as Aleppo: music and trauma.

A golden oldie

More graffiti:

Someone comes along and writes up


Someone else crosses out GRILS and writes


Yet another wag comes along and writes underneath


This is ancient, and versions are widely cited—but like a haiku it shouldn’t be spelled out too laboriously.

OK then, here’s another haiku:

Wots wrong with us grils?
Someone comes along and writes—
Oops, missed the first line

HRT and tones


Sorry to sound my age, but I may as well weigh in on the plague of HRT (High Rising Terminal), AQI (as we Brits call it in tribute to our Ozzie friends), or even uptalk.

I’m not recommending the confident tones of Military Man, but it sounds so needy??? Like I’m really insecure??? I’m like, maybe you’re an extra-terrestrial alien who doesn’t understand plain English??? Or like I’m just talking bollocks???

It may literally [there’s another one] enter the written language, as in this comment on an article about Barbara Pravi at Roland Garros:

I’m a tennis and Eurovision fan? I was so happy today?

The gender element is important too. Robin Lakoff, in her important book Language and women’s place (1975??? Sorry, that’s not HRT, it’s just surprise that she logged it so early??? Anyway, the 2004 edition has new annotations. Falling tone. So there.) argued that women were socialized to talk in ways that lacked power, authority, and confidence. Her account of “women’s language” interprets HRT as a gendered speech style which both reflects and reproduces its users’ subordinate social status—uncertainty, hesitancy, and indecisiveness.

According to Sharyn Collins, uptalk has also become more popular because of our dwindling attention span. She believes that the rising tones we so often hear in snatches of conversation are in fact people striving to divert their companion’s attention away from their mobile phone. “People are checking as they speak to make sure you’re paying attention,” she says.

* * *

Meanwhile, in standard Chinese, the second ascending tone is one of four that help distinguish one character from another. But in Yanggao, home of the Li family Daoists, it’s not easily heard—siding with us old fogeys??? (Oops, there I go again). Adapted from my book, p.23:

One feature of Yanggao dialect that does strike my cloth ears is how the descending fourth tone is used with abandon, notably in place of the low dipping third tone, as in hashui (drink water: ha not he, note), pijiu (beer), fanguanr (restaurant), or ritual terms like dagu (playing drum) and xietu (Thanking the Earth)—all with a heavy accent on the final falling syllable, not the standard low dipping tone. With my notoriously poor grasp of the tones, this becomes something of a relief to me: if in doubt, use the fourth tone!

Yanggao peasants call a spade a spade. Not “a spade???”

Among the Daoists, apart from Li Manshan, most obstinate in clinging onto his dialect is Wu Mei; his voice is as characterful as his guanzi-playing. The Daoists loved it when I mimicked his question in Milan in 2012, when we were taking the train to Rome. In his version of “Does Milan have an airport?”, the feijichang of “airport” comes out with the final chang descending conclusively. On my trip to Beijing with the Daoists, they do their best to adapt, but I’m reluctant to abandon the dialectal terms I’ve picked up, to the consternation of my urban friends.

Conversely, around Laishui and Yixian counties on the Hebei plain,  the descending fourth tone of standard Chinese sounds like an exaggerated third tone, falling and then rising, as in the words si temple and hui association, both often quaintly melodic rather than conclusive—an echo of HRT???

We must resist HRT??? It’s like really irritating???

For more language peeves, see e.g. Reaching a crescendo, or not, and Momentarily.

Pub conversation

Stewart Lee always hits the nail (here, the xenophobes) on the head. Discussing the perils of moving to the countryside, he observes:

In London, if your pub becomes a BNP pub you can easily go to another one. But in a village where there is only one pub you have to make the best of it and try and join in the conversation.


“Oh, hello. Er… Hated any new races lately?”

“Yes, Polynesians, actually. And blacks as usual, obviously. Yourself?”

“Oh, you know, just the Jews mainly. You know me.”

Creative writing footnote: the “Yourself?” is finely observed, astutely capturing the chummy Faragesque language.

Walking shrill: shawm bands in China

Walking Shrill CD

In extreme contrast to the image of glamorous female soloists on the concert platform, male shawm bands are by far the most common form of instrumental music in China. They perform mainly for life-cycle and calendrical rituals—as you do…

Bands are widely known as “drum music bands” (guyueban 鼓乐班), the members as “blowers-and-drummers” (chuigushou 吹鼓手) or just “blowers”. In Yanggao they are called “drum artisans” (gujiang 鼓匠).

Indeed, these bands are more ubiquitous and indispensable at funeral and temple fairs than groups of ritual specialists. In Yanggao the Daoists and the shawm bands alternate, and often go on procession together.

Such groups are common throughout China—not to mention the Islamic world and early Europe (for a roundup of posts, click here). To give you an idea of just how common they are in China, take the Anthology volumes on instrumental music for Liaoning province. There are no solo pieces, nor any pieces for strings; instead it contains four wind ensemble genres:

  • the music of the shawm bands (guyue 鼓乐);
  • shengguan 笙管 pieces (here a subsidiary repertoire of the shawm bands)
  • yangge 秧歌 pieces (again played mainly by the shawm bands); and
  • “religious music” (sic), with subheads for Buddhist and Daoist music, including vocal liturgy, percussion, and shengguan pieces.

But this overview for one single province contains 1,491 pages, of which 1,113 are devoted to the shawm bands—and as ever, the material published on them was only a tiny proportion of that collected.

That’s an outline for one whole province. In 2001, within the single county of Mizhi in Shaanbei, a local band boss estimated that there were 138 bands working at least part-time there. Again, contrast the qin, with its tiny elite coterie of players, and its vast media presence.

It’s the majestic timbre, heterophony, and complex repertoire of long suites of northern bands, played on XXL shawms, that appeals to me particularly. While my main focus has always been Daoist and Buddhist ritual, its vocal liturgy accompanied by shengguan ensemble, I realised I had to give serious attention to the shawm bands too. So from 1999 to 2005 I took some lengthy time out to document them.

My two books Ritual and music of north China are largely about such bands, in north Shanxi and Shaanbei respectively; both include DVDs. [1]

Status and disability
Shawm bands were always at the bottom of the social pile. Virtual outcasts, they were often illiterate, bachelors, opium smokers, begging in the slack season, associated with theft and violence. Freelance like household Daoists and carpenters, they had difficulty adapting to the straightjacket of the commune system, but revived by the 1980s.

At least until recently, shawm players often had some disability, notably visual. In north Shanxi, in Yanggao town alone, blindmen Liuru (c1931–2007), Erhur (b.1946), and Yin San (b.c1947), were all fine players and delightful people (for more on blind shawm players in Yanggao, see here; for posts on blind musicians, here).


Liuru (left) and Yin San, 2003.

In China and much of the world, blind musicians are thought to have special musical gifts. Erhur learned, and loves to sing, the gongche solfeggio, but pointed out playfully, “Only a stupid musician needs notation”! Take that, qin players (see also here)!

7 Erhur

Erhur, 2003.

Elderly Liuru, living in pitiful conditions, was also devoted to the gongche of the suites.

9 shack

Liuru’s shack in Yanggao county-town, 2003.

I also met several stammering shawm players. Like the fraternity of one-legged men in The third policeman, as a stammerer myself I naturally identified with fellow sufferers like Yuanr, the young shawm band boss in Zhenquan township, Shaanbei—bluntly known as “The Stammerer” (Jiekazi). When I introduced myself he thought I was taking the piss. Both his colleagues and mine had a terrible time trying to conceal their mirth once we got ch-ch-chatting. Imagine the number of tapes you’d need to record the interviews.

Blind boys also often become itinerant bards. For Shaanbei, see here; for a harrowing tale of blind bards in Zuoquan, Shanxi, here; and for blind bards in Gansu, and great songs on the Coronavirus by stammering folk-singer Zhang Gasong, here.

North Shanxi
I studied the Hua family shawm band in Yanggao county (also home of the Li family Daoists) on and off from 1991 to 2005. Over the years I got to know many other bands in Yanggao too; since 2011 it’s been a pleasure to continue meeting them at funerals. Yang Ying, a regular dep for Li Manshan’s Daoist band, is also the leader of his own family shawm band, one of the finest in the area. Shi Ming, Li Qing’s friend from their days in the regional troupe, led a great band in Wangguantun just west.

8 Shi Ming band

Shi Ming’s band, Wangguantun 2001.

The Hua band played magnificently, despite being totally dysfunctional as a family. Led by two senior brothers on shawm and drum who were barely on speaking terms, they played in perfect ensemble, with complex heterophonic melody, and meticulously graded tempi. I still admire their artistry as much as I admire the Li family Daoists.

We did some great tours together (Washington DC, Holland, England), and made the most spectacular CD, Walking shrill, that should be part of everyone’s collection. Go on, order it—it’ll blow your head off.

While we’re about it, I wrote a long detailed analysis:

  • “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”, in Simon Mills ed., Analysing East Asian music: patterns of rhythm and melody, Musiké vol.4 (Semar, 2010), pp.25–112.

Only slightly less complex is this intriguing excursion—and there are two tracks (#5 and 11) on the audio playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here. See also these notes on our first visit.

Here the classic style consists of long suites for large shawms. But since soon after I began visiting (“Typical!”), as my books show, such majestic music has largely become a casualty of the “big band” pop style adding trumpet, sax, electronic keyboard, and drum-kit. Hey ho.


CWZ big band

Chang Wenzhou’s big band at village funeral, Mizhi 2001.

Further west, the barren loess hills of Shaanbei, heartland of the revolution, is renowned inter alia for its shawm bands (chuishou). We met many bands there.

1981 photoShawm players from Mizhi county, assembled for a regional festival in 1981.

Scholar Huo Xianggui, who began collecting Shaanbei shawm music as early as 1971 (!), had regular contacts with some of the great players, including Jin Wenhua, Hao Yongfa, and Chang Wenzhou. In another a revealing story about status, revealing the chuishous’ own sense of inferiority, he tells of an incident with the great shawm player Li Daniu—a poor illiterate opium-addicted bachelor. The Party hoped to cultivate Li’s talent by recruiting him for a state troupe, but he found it hard to adapt. One morning Huo invited Li Daniu to his room, and wanted to take him out for breakfast, but Li wouldn’t go. As Huo was about to go off to get food to bring back, Li insisted on squatting outside to wait for him, with the room locked; only half-joking, he said, “How am I supposed to explain if something in your room goes missing?”

By the 1990s, most distinguished of shawm players in the area was Chang Wenzhou, also a fine luthier, though he could be almost as difficult as the Hua brothers. Li Qishan’s rival band was also very fine.

By contrast to the mercenary atmosphere in Mizhi county-town, I enjoyed my time in the hill village of Yangjiagou with the lowly and unsung village band there. Of no great technical distinction, they merely supplemented their livelihood by doing occasional funerals. The two leading shawm players there, Chouxiao and “Older Brother” (on the left of the photo), semi-blind, were delightful unassuming people.

YJG band

The Yangjiagou band playing for a village funeral there, 1999.

The 1999 funeral sequence from Yangjiagou is one of the highlights (§B) of my DVD Notes from the yellow earththat comes with my 2009 book.

The northeast
As a kind of footnote, both to this post and to my account of our 1992 fieldwork, in summer 1992, just after our trip to Shanxi, we visited southern Liaoning province to seek shawm bands there.

Northeast China is also renowned for its majestic bands with large shawms. [2] The editor of the Anthology for Liaoning (see above), Yang Jiusheng 杨久盛, had a rare grasp of the material—like his fine colleague in Jilin province, Li Laizhang 李来璋.

Through Yang Jiusheng we found a wonderful young scholar in Panjin county called Li Runzhong 李润中. He was himself son of a fine shawm player—so he had already done rather well for himself.

Besides making the usual transcriptions from his recordings, he had diligently collected rich material on social contexts (including photos, maps, and diagrams), and written brief biographies of some of the leading shawm band players and ritual specialists in the county. Locally published in several thick volumes, his work, like the music of his county, is likely to remain unknown.

This was a period when the Anthology was in full swing, but it was also an insecure time after the chipped “iron rice-bowl” of the commune era. Under Maoism people, in their villages and secure work-units, knew they were screwed; now they had to go out and fend for themselves, and would probably still get screwed. But Li Runzhong, like our friends in Hebei, was passionate about doing the fieldwork.

A vast archive of precious recordings for the Anthology languishes unpublished. Perhaps it was then that I realised someone would have to document this major aspect of Chinese musical life for outsiders.


Liu Yongqing (b.1922) at funeral, Liaoyang city, 1992.

Here are two pages of images from the Anthology volume on Jilin province:Jilin 1

Jilin 2

Further south many bands play a rather light repertoire, though there are some fine genres, such as the longchui 笼吹 of south Fujian (#15 on playlist in sidebar, with commentary here). The Shiyin bayue 十音八乐 of Putian, better known for its “civil” ensemble with strings, also has a ceremonial repertoire for shawms:

Using circular breathing, the two shawms play continuously in heterophony, often an octave or two apart. Home base (cf. the sheng) is the lowest note, do in the basic scale; the upper player often “walks shrill” with soaring and searing high notes. With drum, cymbals, and gong thwacking away too, the sound is deafening even from a hundred metres away, but sitting in the band is a serious yet intoxicating challenge to the ears.

Our SOAS shawm band
Now from the sublime to the ridiculous:

Having taken part occasionally, and sketchily, in the ritual associations of Hebei on yunluo gong-frame and even sheng, I eventually took the plunge with the shawm too. Shawm music is much harder to learn than either the ritual shengguan ensemble of the Daoists or their vocal liturgy; the instrument itself is a challenge (certainly for a baroque violinist…), and the wild improvised decorations can only be learned through prolonged exposure from young. But hey—I knew it would help me get a handle, however rubbish I was.

13 me and band

I accompany Hua band for funeral, Wangzhuang village 2001. Photo: Chen Kexiu.

At first I didn’t try taking part with the Hua band, but when I got to Shaanbei in 1999 I thought I might have a go on the shawm. Chang Wenzhou showed me the ropes, and I tried a few pieces out with Dage and Chouxiao in Yangjiagou.

FXP 2001

With Feng Xiaoping’s band, Yulin 2001.

In 2001, after more fieldwork in Shaanbei with my Beijing colleagues, I spent some time alone in Yulin, the regional capital. Putting aside my scruples about such a culturally inappropriate context, I went for daily “lessons” several times a week, one-to-one with a younger folk player, Feng Xiaoping. He got his band together for an informal “graduation concert” in his courtyard for bemused neighbours (well, they didn’t have much choice). After getting through a little suite I was completely knackered. The place names used at the dentist sprung to mind. As in Teach yourself Japanese, I drank a little beer.

In Yanggao with the Hua band in 2003, I mainly stuck to cymbals or gong—like their sons do from aged six!

In 1999 I had come down from the mountain, like Moses (also a stammerer, I note), with a whole set of instruments made by Chang Wenzhou. At SOAS I now had a little coterie of like-minded ethnos: Rachel Harris, Simon Mills, Manuel Jimenez, and Morgan Davies, all fine musicians, experts in their own various genres (Uyghur, Korean, Indonesian, Indian), and great mates. So, just for fun and our own instruction, we boldly decided to have a go at learning a few pieces. This is not like learning the erhu in a conservatoire—they are wild complex long semi-improvised pieces.

We made enough progress to give the occasional gig for suitably uncritical audiences—at CHIME conferences in Venice and Sheffield (not Scunthorpe), at SOAS, and even on procession (aha!) at the Lord Mayor’s Parade. We strung a few pieces together in little suites, and had a lot of fun.

Later I also bought a set of instruments in Yanggao (like “the music itself”, they vary from region to region—it’s no good playing Shanxi repertoire on Shaanbei shawms, or vice versa!). We all loved the Hua band’s wild repertoire, but it was considerably more daunting than that of Shaanbei. Still, I had all my recordings and videos, and I was making transcriptions anyway, which served as a useful crutch—another compromise, since picking it up entirely by ear would have been a challenge too far for us. Rachel, Simon, and I took turns on the two shawms, and since the drum is always an anchor, we relied heavily on the intuitive brilliance of Manuel Jimenez.

SOAS shawms

Then in 2005 I managed to get the Hua band invited for a tour of England. My old friend Bureau Chief Li, from the Datong regional Bureau of Culture, who had acted as “group leader” on the band’s 2002 DC trip, came along for the ride again.

Bureau Chief Li has always been most tolerant, nay supportive, of my fascination for folk culture—like a bemused dad baffled by his son’s obsession with Aston Villa. On the National Mall in DC, taking one look at all the performance tents set up for a mind-blowing array of groups from all over the Silk Road, he exclaimed, “Hey Steve, you bring us all this way and they’re supposed to play for another bloody temple fair?!” In England our most delightful gig was in Portesham Village Hall in Devon, home to a great jazz series. This time Bureau Chief Li chuckled, “WTF?! You’ve gone and done it again, Steve—this time you’ve got us a gig in the sodding village brigade headquarters!”

Anyway, during this visit, SOAS impressively invited the Hua band for a brief residency. We solemnly assembled daily in a little recording studio in SOAS and took turns joining in with the band on all the various instruments. One evening Morgan and I took a couple of the youngsters to a blues bar—though no strangers to the considerable vices of Yanggao town, they seemed a little nonplussed.

Now that we’re dispersed to the far corners of the globe, or at least of England, we’re all deeply nostalgic about those years. It’s not that we did it at all well—it could sound excruciating—but we learnt a lot, and it was the perfect way to work up a thirst for a good session in the nearby art-deco bar of the Tavistock Hotel, not least in memory of  hosting the Hua band there in 2005.

Alas, the Hua band has since gone the way of many “blower-and-drummer” families. Drummer Hua Jinshan survived a stroke onstage in Amsterdam later in 2005. Falling ill there doubtless saved his life: if it had happened back home in Yanggao, it would have been curtains. As he recovered in hospital, I could only obey his pleas to wheel him daily to the courtyard for sneaky fag along with a motley crew of inmates. But his younger brother Hua Yinshan died of cancer, and Wuge, Yinshan’s son, was stabbed to death in an unsavoury brawl.

My usual rant
(For a similar one, see here; see also this). If you’ve heard me go on about this before, then go and pour yourself a large G&T.

None of what we tried at SOAS could possibly happen in a Chinese conservatoire. Sure, plenty of folk musicians have become professors there, but once enshrined in the big city they have to develop a more, um, “scientific”, more breezy repertoire. No-one there would dream of learning long suites of up to an hour, in the style of local folk genres, or emulating a bunch of peasants.

The brief of anthropologists/ethnomusicologists is to study people in all levels of society, and to show that all kinds of music-making are valid aspects of social activity, local cultures, in constant flux. Different genres have different aesthetics, all based on social practice.

So we mustn’t assume that state education is the norm. Among all the kinds of music in the world, WAM is rather exceptional, in its notation-based classroom training system and its domination by “concerts”. But that’s the ethos of the conservatoire. All kinds of musicians learn in different ways.

Vocal music too is rarely dependent on the state educational system. In England, aspiring bluespeople, like Mick and Keef, learned their art in art schools. Jazz was only seriously institutionalized from the 1980s, though school bands were always an influence. Elsewhere traditional music may be adopted in similar fashion: there are schools for flamenco, Irish music, muqam, and so on, but often they change the flavour of folk style—and anyway they only represent a miniscule tip of the iceberg.

My old friend Matt Forney, long-term Beijing resident whose towels I have often darkened in between my trips to the countryside, is a fine old-time banjo player. How do spirit mediums in Guangxi, or indeed punks in Beijing, learn? Such folk performers have no need of notation, training classes, WAM theory, and so on. It may be a continuum, but we shouldn’t confuse one for the other.

As to instrumental music: solos are rare in China, as you can see from the Anthology. Solos for erhu, pipa, and zheng are neither a norm nor an ideal. Notable aspects of traditional music-making include oral transmission, versatility, flexibility, and not performed for “concerts”. Folk instrumental music remains male-dominated, whereas since the 1980s the conservatoires have become dominated by women.

So look at these differences between local shawm bands and conservatoire suona soloists: different society, different values, different aims, different music. Even the names of the instruments are different: the urban term suona (found in historical sources) is rarely heard in rural China: instead they use a variety of local names, like weirwa, wazi, or laba. That’s why I fall back on the English word shawm.

Shawm bands
(chuigushou 吹鼓手, guyueban )
suona soloists
By far the most common form
of instrumental music in China.
Not so numerous, even in conservatoires.
Weddings and funerals. Concerts on stage; film sessions.
(formerly) Family training, from young;
largely oral training, in course of rituals.
Some blind or disabled; they may beg
in the off season.
Partial to liquor and drugs.
Even if from a rural background, they now learn with a “teacher” in the conservatoire.
Notation plays a role.
Upwardly mobile!
(formerly) Long complex suites derived
from imperial tradition.
Short simple pieces derived from 20th-century modern urban values.

The upwardly-mobile conservatoire suona soloist will never aspire to the social context of the blowers-and-drummers. The most one can hope is precisely what does happen: maybe the former will pick up a few techniques from the latter.

Learning in a classroom, whether in China or elsewhere, is very different from the participant observation of the ethnographer. This difference is clear in China, where the former is done in conservatoires, the latter not at all.

If we learn shawm pieces, we’re unlikely to do it for the same reasons that a young boy in a shawm band family does; his reasons are not the ideal for us—we don’t want their lives. The rural bands may be occupational, but it’s not the kind of professionalism to which conservatoire musicians aspire. Suona soloists in conservatoires learn with a view to doing concerts on stage, or making money in pop/film studio sessions, not doing weddings and funerals.

I should stress again that notation may be a badge of elites, but is not so common either in China or elsewhere, nor is it a criterion for superiority! Notation is not at all important as a learning tool in China or elsewhere, though it may be a totem/fetish for those seeking to establish a “canon”. Of course it may be a useful tool for our analyses…

Yang Der-ruey’s study of a Daoist training school in Shanghai (anyway an exceptional case: most Daoists learn through hereditary family training in the course of rituals) shows the school’s break with tradition, and its irrelevance once they begin working in the real world, collaborating with temple patrons and spirit mediums. Even for amateur genres like Shanghai silk-and-bamboo, the point of learning isn’t to win prizes or even to “perform” in stage “concerts”; it’s a social activity, not to be judged by conservatoire standards.

The kinds of music promoted in conservatoires are very selective: mainly solos that can be taught, with precise scores, one-to-one, like a Brahms concerto or a Chopin étude. The flexibility of traditional ensembles, folk-singers, or a spirit medium, is not required here. But this gives people a very narrow picture of what Chinese music is about, both musically, socially, and historically. One may attempt to create a “canon”, but within the whole field of Chinese or world music it will be no more significant than that of WAM. Such a discourse may even play into a dangerous nationalistic, patriotic, narrative.

In China some examples of the chasm between folk and conservatoire aesthetics are the rare attempts by conservatoire musicians to render traditional music; in failing to subscribe to its aesthetic, they entirely lack the “flavour” that makes it effective, as with their polished stage renditions of the shengguan music of the Zhihua temple, or silk-and-bamboo: meticulously rehearsed from fixed parts, with graded dynamics, and so on.

In general, though, conservatoire musicians neither want to nor could learn local folk traditions. They learn a fixed version of “the dots”, overlooking style, and entirely removed from the social context that nurtures it. They may consider this superior, “improved”, more “scientific”. The musical style of rural shawm bands is also ridiculously difficult—but the point is that there’s no reason at all why conservatoire students would want to learn long shawm suites like this.

In sum, the conservatoires do what they do, and that’s fine. It’s just that as ethnomusicologists we seek to offer a broader soundscape and a broader social range. And anyway, for a sensitive musician, the intensity and grandeur of the folk style will be far more rewarding than those cute little conservatoire pieces.

So after all this discussion of urban (and urbane) concert performance, we should return to the rural ceremonial setting by watching the Hua band playing their hearts out at a funeral—see my lengthy analysis here.

See also my roundup of posts on shawm bands around the world.

[1] See also my Folk music of China, ch.10, and its CD, as well as the 2-CD set China: folk instrumental traditions. In Chinese, my colleague Zhang Zhentao has also written well on them. Cf. my “Men behaving badly: shawm bands of north China”, in Gender in Chinese Music, pp.112–26.
[2] See my Folk music of China, ch.10, and §4 of the CD. Note also two CDs from François Picard: Chine, Hautbois du Nord-Est, musiques de la première lune, and Chine, Hautbois du Nord-Est, la bande de la famille Li (Buda, Musique du Monde, 1995).


Hot on the heels of The check-up, maybe this is a reverse variation on the “pull back and reveal”, only with the joke on the subject, not the object (or something—how would I know, I just do fieldwork on Daoist ritual):

A medium is holding a séance. With a group of genteel clients assembled around her table, lights dimmed, she begins, softly,
“Now everyone—before we begin, I just want to ask you, has anyone here ever seen a ghost?”
They all bow their heads in silence, but one geeky chap sticks his hand up and goes perkily,
I have!
They look curiously at him. He goes on,
And—what’s more—I’ve fucked one!”
Incredulous, the medium asks him,
“What? You mean… you’ve… fucked a ghost?”
Disconcerted, he pauses. Then, nonchalantly:
“Sorry—I thought you said goat…”

The lady doth protest too much, methinks

Having suggested suitable T-shirts to go with the book and the film, I just have to cite the wonderful Bridget Christie again.

In summer 2016 Theresa May came in for what footballers call “a bit of stick”—never so trenchantly as here (from Christie’s A book for her, also excerpted here):

I’m not entirely sure about women wearing a “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt. Or men, for that matter. It’s overstating the case a bit, isn’t it? It’s like wearing a T-shirt with “I am not a racist” on it. It makes me suspicious. I assume that most people’s default setting is feminist, until they do or say something that makes me think otherwise. If I went bowling with a friend, for example, and they took their coat off to reveal an “I am not a racist” T-shirt underneath, I don’t think I’d feel relieved at all. On the contrary, it would make me very on edge. I’d spend the whole night worried I was bowling with an ironic racist.

A few years ago, because Tory feminists were in the papers all the time, talking about Tory feminism, it made me think about what Tory feminism was, which fed into the standup in my show War Donkey in Edinburgh in the summer of 2012. This is how it went:

I’ve been trying to work out what a Tory feminist is, because I keep seeing photographs of female Tory MPs in the newspapers, wearing T-shirts with “This is what a feminist looks like” on them. What, like a T-shirt? How can a T-shirt look like a feminist? A T-shirt looks like a T-shirt, doesn’t it? It should say, “This is what a T-shirt with ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ written on it looks like”.

That’s what it says on the front, anyway, of the Tory feminists’ T-shirts that they’re all wearing now. And on the back it says, “Not really, I’m a Tory, you gullible dick”.

Then underneath that it says, “I axed the health in pregnancy grant. I closed Sure Start centres.’”That one’s got a smiley face next to it. “I cut child benefit and slashed tax credits. I shut down shelters for battered wives and children. I cut rape counselling and legal aid.” Winking face.

“I cut funding for CCTV cameras and street lighting, making women much more vulnerable. I closed down all 23 specialist domestic violence courts. I cut benefits for disabled children.” Sad face with sunglasses on. “I tried to amend the abortion act so that women receive one-to-one abortion counselling from the pope before they go ahead with it.” Winking face with tongue out. The back is much longer than the front, by the way. It’s a tailcoat, basically. They’re wearing tailcoats.


The check-up

Comedians’ autobiographies are not always edifying, but Arthur Smith’s memoir My name is Daphne Fairfax is a lovely warm and thoughtful book—not least for his account of his father.

But that’s not important right now“. One of Arfur’s favourite jokes is widely told:

A man goes to a doctor for his annual check-up.

The doctor says: “Well, I’m afraid you’re going to have to stop masturbating.”

“Oh no,” says the man. “Why?”

“Because,” says the doctor, “I’m trying to examine you.”

This is another instance of what is known (ironically, in this case) as the “pull back and reveal”, where you (zzz) describe something and then reveal that the situation is not what people would expect. Stewart Lee gives it a typically thorough going-over (How I escaped my certain fate, p.196–7).

Singing from a different hymn-sheet

vocal trio 2001

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

That’s the zippy title of Part One of my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China.

There I observe that nationally, Daoist ritual is far from standardised. Our picture (still misleadingly reinforced in encyclopaedias and media coverage) has previously been based on southeastern Orthodox Unity Daoists performing jiao Offering rituals, using manuals from the Daoist Canon; to be sure, scholars note a wide variety of practice even in south China, both within a region like Fujian and between regions like Jiangxi, Sichuan, or Jiangsu.

But to include in our picture the vast area of north China—always wrongly assumed to have no household Daoists at all, merely celibate temple-dwelling Complete Perfection priests—suggests a still more complex taxonomy. Household ritual specialists may be either Orthodox Unity or Complete Perfection; and at least until the 1940s,  temple-dwelling priests too might belong to either branch. Moreover, the very distinction doesn’t explain nearly as much as has been assumed: rituals, and ritual texts, of the two branches overlap to a great extent.

“Singing from a different hymn-sheet” also seems a suitable metaphor to challenge the reified conformity of many reports by both scholars of Daoist ritual and Chinese musicologists—their dry, silent, timeless lists often relegating thick ethnographic description and accounts of society and lives in change (my book, pp.364–6).

So just as ritual is itself diverse, I’m seeking a more varied spectrum of our areas of enquiry.

En passant, I note that Daoists rarely sing from hymn-sheets at all! They may possess ritual manuals, but in performance they are seldom needed (my book, pp.203–14). Oral transmission is a major element in both training and ritual practice. Often the only manuals they place before them on the table are the jing scriptures—lengthy discursive texts, chanted very fast, isorhythmically. Anyway, the efficacy of a ritual lies more in its performance than in its written text: ritual is conveyed by means of sound.

The Catechism of Orchestral Cliché

As threatened, here is my very own niche sequel to the Myles na Gopaleen Catechism of Cliché—another penetrating piece of WAM ethnography, if I may say so.

On what descending act of flagellation will you see me?
The downbeat.

And not long afterwards, at what reduplicated den of refreshment?
The double bar [“Sounds like my kind of place”, nods Myles.]

On the reasonable assumption that the imbibing of a certain liquid refreshment will be de rigueur there, what is your only man?
A pint of Plain. [I don’t mind if I do.]

Where, you ask me, can I come and do a Messiah next Monday night?
In Scunthorpe.

And what is there not?
A fee.

But what will there be, pray?
A jolly good tea [scowls].

And upon what nocturnal occasion will it be all right?
On the night.

At what relative labial experience did the Maestro take that Scherzo?
Quite a lick.

And if I ask you, from what angular body-part does the Maestro not know his arse?
His elbow.

Finally, where is there a cheque?
In the post.

See also Endeavour.

* * *

Meanwhile, for the classicist (manqué or otherwise), another (“real”) entry from the Catechism of Cliché:

Quando timeo Danaos?
Et dona ferentes.

The enticing Dona Ferentes, along with Timothy Danaos, also play a cameo role in At-swim-two-birds, where they are the two Greek lawyers at the trial of Dermot Trellis [any relation to Ivy?—Ed.] for authorial autocracy . Non-nationals?!

Take a flying jump

A glowing paean from one Führer to another—Tweety McTangerine (yes, the Mango Trumpolini himself) on another Great Helmsman:

You have to give him credit. How many young guys—he was like 26 or 25 when his father died—take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden… he goes in, he takes over, he’s the boss… It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one. This guy doesn’t play games.

That’s how it’s often cited, but in the interests of scrupulous balance, the fuller transcript puts it in context:

If you look at North Korea—this guy, he’s like a maniac, OK? And you have to give him credit. How many young guys—he was like 26 or 25 when his father died—take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden—you know, it’s pretty amazing when you think of it. How does he do that? Even though it is a culture and it’s a cultural thing, he goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss… It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn’t play games. And we can’t play games with him. Because he really does have missiles. And he really does have nukes.

“It is a culture and it’s a cultural thing” (like the KKK and NRA, eh?)—there, who says he doesn’t do eloquent anthropological refection? Eat your heart out, Bourdieu. This guy, he’s like a maniac, OK?


This photo reminds me of a classic story, perhaps originally from the USSR, but widely shared in this Chinese adaptation (Fieldworkers’ joke manual no.23). Diplomatic as ever, I shall cunningly disguise the identity of the butt of the joke, notoriously dim, by calling him Lee Beng.

Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Lee Beng are taking a flight together with a group of schoolkids when the plane develops a fault and begins an alarming descent.

There are only three parachutes on board, so Deng Xiaoping grabs one, straps it on his back, and loftily declaring “The People need me!” he leaps out; soon his parachute unfurls and he glides down to earth. Jiang Zemin follows suit.

Lee Beng gets the idea, so he too grabs a bundle, straps it on his back, and exclaiming “The People need me!” he throws himself out after them.

One of the schoolkids looks down as he hurtles earthwards and cries out, “Waah! Uncle Lee’s got my satchel!”

Coming back to the leaders who inspired this post, one can but dream.

Chinese mouth-organs and Irish flutes

Irish flutes

While I was writing with affection and awe on the sheng mouth-organ, I recalled that Ciaran Carson has a similar passion for the tactile minutiae of Irish flutes and their human custodians (Last night’s fun, “Hard to fill”, pp.49–57). Each chapter takes the title of a tune, and (like life, and like jokes!) each tune leads into another.

A few excerpts to give a flavour:

He picks up the foot-joint and prises out the little brass pins which hold the C♯ key in place; he turns it over, and there, under the touch of the key, are the initials “A.L.”, the hidden mark of Alexander Little who spent some time with D’Almaine and later set up shop on his own at 24 Chenies Street (1847–54) and then at 35 Devonshire Street (1854–73).
This is a six-keyed flute of Jamaican cocus-wood, weathered to a rich dark chocolate brown with oxblood striations glinting under the immediate surface. […]
We are in Sam’s workshop at 1 Exchange Place, Belfast. Exchange Place is, in Belfast parlance, an “entry”: a narrow lane between two streets, a backwater or a short-cut, a deviation from the beaten path. Exchange Place is an entry: we talk and breathe in an exhalation, a many-layered scent of shellac, beeswax, raw and boiled linseed oil, tallow, almond oil, aromatic blackwood shavings, nitric acid and ammonia. I believe you can smell the blue steel blades and boxwood handles of the antique tools: gravers, gouges, chisels, pliers, diamond files and flat files, pincers, chasers. You pick one up and feel its oily-sharp edge with grainy specks of sawdust on it.
And this is not to speak of the unspeakable archaeological layers of things strewn and assembled on every available surface in the workshop: pins, papers, screws, tobacco tins and and coffee jars, thread, waxed paper, empty bobbins, walrus, tusks, billiard balls, sealing-wax and string, envelopes, cigar-boxes, empty glasses, tannin-encrusted teacups, bus tickets, knives, a bottle of Angostura bitters, a drawing-plate, a bicycle repair-kit, two old trade tin trays (Ross’s Mineral Waters and Buckfast Tonic Wine) with rusted pocks in them, bills, invoices, a blue tin of Vaseline, Christmas cards and postcards, a blowtorch, fluxes, solders, coils of silver wire, brass tubing, wine corks, an old cardboard advertisement for Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts, brass plate, a Swiss Army knife, dust, unaccountable detritus and filings of long-gone operations, a Bo-Peep matchbox which rattles with brass thumb-tacks when you pick it up, washers, drill-bits, oil-cans, tea-pots, files, gimlets, scissors, a copy of the Irish News from last year, a shrivelled chip, Kirby grips, bulldog clips, Jubilee clips and paper-clips, a square damp packet of Saxa salt, Blu-Tack, bits of putty, sealing-wax, a little paper packet of cigarette-lighter flints, a candle stub, a Zippo lighter, cotton-wool, a sticky tin of Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup, wisps of steel wool, and the blue glint of methylated spirits shivering in a glass square-shouldered glass-stoppered bottle against a stained, scarred patch of the workbench; on a window-sill, three little tinker-made tin inkwell-shaped receptacles with milled brass screwtops, containing pumice, tripoli and rouge, each bearing the original early Victorian price of three shillings (3/-).

Click here for Pakie Duignan in duet with fiddler Peter Fitzpatrick.

And Last night’s fun is just as wonderful on performance practice. I’ve linked Chinese and Irish musics before; for a change from the usual comparison with silk-and-bamboo (for both social context and heterophonic sound-world), Carson’s recollection of Pakie Duignan reminds me of Daoist guanzi-player Wu Mei:

His way of breathing was a joy: it had economy and grace and power; his management of time was perfect. He had the time to hit whatever note it was that came next, then to extend the breath into the next phrase like a sudden almost-visible extension of the room, as if this phrase had yearned to be united with its predecessor, and now they were together. Then he’d cut the end of that phrase and wander off into the split chink of a twilight zone, momentarily. Normal business would resume some time, but in this instant he had gone down steps he’d never seen till then, that led down to a dark harbour where water clucked against the boats and rocks and a constellation could be seen reflected.

Astounding—go on, read the chapter, and the whole book!

Like Carson’s fantasy on the role of the Irish breakfast in musical life (“Boil the Breakfast early”, pp.15–21), that’s just the kind of loving detail, mutatis mutandis, that we need for China, and Chinese ritual.

As with the syncopated cadential pattern in the hymns of the Li family Daoists, we need to evoke all the practical insider’s detail and the embedding of ritual with daily lives—not just grandiose theory and ancient mysticism. If we’re going to write about music—and ritual—at all, then along with Berliner’s Thinking in jazz, Carson’s book is a paragon. For more, see my series on Irish music!

Temperament and savoir-faire

Whenever I surprise myself by somehow getting my head around some arcane (to me) computer technique—like a screenshot, or a widget (What kind of language do you call that, ask the Plain People of Ireland), I recall Alan Bennett’s 1984 diary entry:

1 October, London. I mend a puncture on my bike. I get pleasure out of being able to do simple, practical jobs—mending a fuse, changing a wheel, jump-starting the car—because these are not accomplishments generally associated with a temperament like mine. I tend to put sexual intercourse in this category too.

Cultural exchange

A couple of years ago my washing machine broke down. I called out an engineer, a friendly Caribbean bloke who busied himself taking it to pieces, hooking it up to his fancy gauges, machine parts and tools all over my kitchen.

I left him to it for a while, and on coming back I asked him, in typical poncey Oxbridge language,

“So, um, have you reached a preliminary diagnosis of the problem that seems to confront us here?!”

“I ‘ave indeed, sir,” he replied affably, “It’s completely fucked!”

The beauty of the mouth-organ

Li Qing on sheng, 1991.

This is a tribute not just to the sheng mouth-organ, but to the late great Daoist master Li Qing, and to the whole tradition of wind-playing and liturgy among Daoist bands in north Shanxi.

I have already compared the role of the sheng, accompanying the guanzi oboe in north Chinese ritual bands, to that of the keyboard for 18th-century kapellmeisters. And we’ve met sheng tuners and players in other posts. Meanwhile, for historical studies on the instrument, from ancient times right down to today, you can’t beat the works of Zhang Zhentao 张振涛, my old fieldwork companion. Here I approach the sheng not as a historian but as musician and ethnographer.

Apart from its exquisite noble tone, one of the beauties of the sheng is the way the monophonic notes of the melody are harmonized with fifths and octaves in a kind of organum (unlike the cluster chords of Japanese gagaku—surely “going too far“!).

Only now does it occur to me that the position of the pipes around the bowl, seemingly confusing yet brilliantly designed for practical convenience by some ancient genius, is a prototype (“Typical!“) for the layout of the alphabet on a typewriter or computer.

Sheng invariably have seventeen pipes, but the Zhihua temple in Beijing is one of few traditions where they all have sounding reeds; in most groups they have fourteen, or even eleven. The full complement was useful when they needed to play all four scales of the earlier repertoire, but today, now that they play in only two or three scales, fourteen suffice for most genres.

So the sheng of the Daoist bands in Yanggao, including the Li family, have fourteen sounding reeds. With their distinctive curved mouthpiece, evoking the sheng depicted in temple murals of the Ming dynasty, the instruments are made by the hereditary luthiers of the Gao family in nearby Gaoshantun village, friends of the Li family for many generations. Their sheng have the most exquisite sonorous tone—on our 2013 tour of Germany they filled churches like a huge organ.
sheng diagram
Source: Chen Yu, Jinbei minjian Daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu ch.4.1.

Home base is the various doso (he-che, in gongche solfeggio) pipes at the back, played with the third and fourth fingers of both hands (pipes 15, 14, 13, and 11 in the diagram), giving a nice full chord. The middle fingers of the right hand are hooked inside to give access to the inner holes of pipes 3 and 4 (re and mi). The Li band (and many others in north Shanxi) vary the usual position of the ti and its harmonising  fa ♯ (dafan 大凡 and gou 勾, pipes 5 and 6)—playing this distinctive chord (featured sparingly in melodies, as it’s not part of the pentatonic scale) with the two thumbs stopping adjacent holes right in front of the player’s face. It’s a great feeling.

As the fingers glide effortlessly from pipe to pipe, it’s really tactile to play, and utterly comfortable to listen to and watch. Sheng players are at ease with their instrument—none so much as the late great Li Qing. You can admire the fluent mastery of his disciples in my film too. With frequent use the pipes are soon gilded with a patina where the fingers have worn them down.

Li Bin 2011sheng closeup
The sheng is a bugger to maintain, though. Like a harpsichord, it needs tuning regularly. Most players can do a rough tune whenever necessary. Whenever we return to the scripture hall between ritual visits to the soul hall, while Li Manshan busies himself writing the next set of documents for the upcoming ritual, Li Bin or Golden Noble try out the tuning of the various sheng at their disposal.

After going through the cycle of fifths and octaves, depending on his aural diagnosis Li Bin pulls any errant pipes individually out of the metal wind-chamber (“bowl”) in which they are held. Sounding the pipe by stopping its hole while blowing through the bottom, he then takes a droplet of hot red wax with his soldering iron and applies it carefully to the tiny metal tongue (the “free reed”) to “dot” (dian 點) it, or scrapes off a tiny sliver of wax. He replaces the pipe in the bowl and tries out the fifths and octaves again; then he makes sure the two sheng needed for the next ritual segment are in tune with each other too. It’s a long patient process. Still, at least once a year Li Bin takes all the group’s sheng to Gao Yong in Gaoshantun for a thorough overhaul.

47 wind instruments

The wind instruments, 2003.

The dizi flute has fallen out of use since then. The curved trumpet can be admired in “catching the tiger” in my film.

This kind of insider detail that I aspire to here is surpassed by Ciaran Carson in Last night’s fun.

Stamina, mastery, and virtue
For some rituals they may be playing continuously for nearly an hour. Since the sheng sounds while both blowing out and sucking in, the two players can, and must, maintain an uninterrupted wall of sound for the guanzi oboe to bounce off. Even while accompanying the shorter hymns of around 15 minutes, they use the brief percussion interludes between verses to empty the bowl of all their accumulated saliva onto the ground—and to empty their own noses and throats too. Playing the sheng, apparently so effortless, is a feat of stamina—the guanzi still more so. They have to play all day long, often till after midnight—both seated, standing, and on lengthy processions, outdoors through winter cold and sweltering summers; and they’re busy most days. It’s rather like doing seven cantatas and a few motets over a day, interspersed with three or four Mahler symphonies. Every day. All for little pay. No wonder they no longer want their sons to take up the trade.

Among all Li Qing’s disciples the standard of sheng playing is amazing. Li Bin is the anchor; Golden Noble, when he’s not on vocal duties, is dependable; Wu Mei, when he’s not enchanting everyone on the guanzi oboe, is also a fine sheng player; and Erqing, though often busy doing migrant labour outside the area, is fantastic too. Of the deps, Yang Ying (also a fine guanzi player) is great, as is Li Sheng, in his more folksy, restless way; and Daoists from other lineages who regularly dep with the Li band, like Yan Xuewen and Yuan Xuedong, are also accomplished.

But when they recall Li Qing’s style on the sheng, everyone—pupil or not—is in awe of him. Even urban professional musicians concurred: that was why he was selected for the state troupe in the regional city of Datong in 1958. An old colleague of his from their brief years there together recalled, “He was the greatest musician I ever met”. Li Qing played guanzi too, but spent most of his time leading from the drum, singing the vocal liturgy.

You don’t necessarily get to hear Daoists playing for their own satisfaction outside the context of performing ritual, but sitting in Li Qing’s house while he accompanied Liu Zhong’s guanzi on his sheng, I was in the company of true amateurs, master musicians.

informal session

Informal session at Li Qing’s house, 1991. Left to right: Li Qing (sheng), his second son Yushan (yunluo), Liu Zhong (guanzi), Li Zengguang (drum), Kang Ren (sheng), Wu Mei.

And there was another reason why everyone revered him—his gentle benevolent nature. Not all folk artists live up to their obligatory Communist image of selflessly “serving the people”—but Li Qing did. His local reputation was immense. His mastery of ritual complemented his musicianship and his kindly heart.

OK, I’d better say this again:

The Li band may be outstanding instrumentalists, but they’re not “Daoist musicians”! They’re yinyang—household Daoist ritual specialists.

However important the melodic instrumental music may be for the efficacy of their rituals, it’s always subsidiary to vocal liturgy and percussion. And the shengguan players perform those fluently as well: they’re all versatile. Not just the chief vocal liturgists Li Manshan and Golden Noble, but the others sing too. And they all regularly take turns on the various percussion instruments. That’s what it means to be a yinyang; that’s the main thing they know about doing ritual.