The abuse of language

Further to the Stasi’s use of language, OK, this is shooting fish in a barrel, but among an endless list of crimes for which Tweety McTangerine will burn in hell is his own distinctive desecration of language (see e.g. 100 days of gibberish).

Well he said, you’ll be the greatest president in the history of, but you know what, I’ll take that also, but that you could be. But he said, will be the greatest president but I would also accept the other. In other words, if you do your job, but I accept that. Then I watched him interviewed and it was like he never even was here. It’s incredible. I watched him interviewed a week later and it’s like he was never in my office. And you can even say that.

Roll over Shakespeare.

The “enemy of the American people” has naturally been having a field day in assessing the first 100 days. Spoilt for choice, I will content myself with citing the excellent Hadley Freeman.

Among my various Tweety posts, perhaps this is most apposite.

Update (2018): another classic speech (aka nonsensical rant):

I have broken more Elton John records, he seems to have a lot of records. And I, by the way, I don’t have a musical instrument. I don’t have a guitar or an organ. No organ. Elton has an organ. And lots of other people helping. No we’ve broken a lot of records. We’ve broken virtually every record. Because you know, look I only need this space. They need much more room. For basketball, for hockey and all of the sports, they need a lot of room. We don’t need it. We have people in that space. So we break all of these records. Really we do it without like, the musical instruments. This is the only musical: the mouth. And hopefully the brain attached to the mouth. Right? The brain, more important than the mouth, is the brain. The brain is much more important.

A new threat to civilisation

After the courgette crisis, a new threat looms, prompting “social media hysteria”: a national hummus shortage. Oh no, whatever are we going to do?!

A survey in 2013 marked Britain as the hummus capital of Europe, with 41% of people having pots in the fridge, almost twice as many as any other country.

Without underestimating the rise of the chattering classes, this looks like a dodgy statistic to me.

Anyway, the Middle East would seem to have more pressing problems right now, even if we don’t. Anyway, now we’ve moved on to tofu, apparently.

Lives under the GDR

*See also sequel here*

The experiences of Eastern European countries under state socialism, not to mention the Soviet Union and China, were all very different (see also Life behind the Iron Curtain: a roundup).

From a comfortable distance, looking at the GDR can seem voyeuristic, some kind of Stasi porn. But perhaps it’s more like “What would we have done?”—as Neil MacGregor asks in Germany: memories of a nation, full of insights on successive eras.

I guess I’m also trying to atone for my lack of curiosity as a touring muso on early trips to the GDR. In 1980 I played Elektra with Welsh National Opera in East Berlin and Dresden. With John Eliot Gardiner, in 1985 we did Israel in Egypt (see under Handel) in Halle, staying in Leipzig—apart from Michael Chance’s divine rendition of Thou shalt bring them in, my main memory is the whole orchestra and choir descending on Peters bookshop like locusts, to spend our over-generous Ostmark subsistence allowance (OK, unlike locusts) by buying up their entire stock of, ur, texts—sorry, I mean urtexts. In 1987 we did a memorable Matthew Passion in East Berlin (note also Hildi’s story).

My readings are also stimulated by my experience of China.

In Leipzig, I already mentioned the fine Forum of Contemporary History, and the Stasi Museum at the Runde Ecke is suitably disturbing. On the exceptional degree of surveillance under the Stasi, I can’t address the literature in German, but two books in English make useful introductions:

  • Anna Funder, Stasiland, a brilliant piece of writing,



Garton Ash notes how Stasi is chasing Hitler fast as “Germany’s best export product”:

Ironically, this worldwide identification of Germany with another version of evil is a result of democratic Germany’s own exemplary commitment to expose all the facts about its second twentieth-century dictatorship, not brushing anything under the carpet. (229)

In 1979, when many Western observers were downplaying or ignoring the Stasi, I felt impelled to insist: this is still a secret police state. Don’t forget the Stasi! In 2009, I want to say: yes, but East Germany was not only the Stasi. (230)

The opening up the Stasi records had enormous consequences:

You must imagine conversations like this taking place every evening, in kitchens and sitting-rooms all over Germany. Painful encounters, truth-telling, friendship-demolishing, life-haunting. (105)

The file ponders the wider problems of writing about people’s lives, and memory:

I must explore not just a file but a life: the life of the person I was then. This, in case you were wondering, is not the same as “my life”. What we call “my life” is but a constantly rewritten version of our own past. “My life” is the mental autobiography with which and by which we all live. What really happened is quite another matter. (20)

He notes

the sheer difficulty of reconstructing how you really thought and felt. How much easier to do it to other people! (37)

The very act of opening the door itself changes the buried artefacts, like an archaeologist letting in fresh air to a sealed Egyptian tomb. […] There is no way back now to your own earlier memory of that person, that event. (96)

Now the galling thing is to discover how much I have forgotten of my own life.
Even today, when I have this minute documentary record—the file, the diary, the letters—I can still only grope towards an imaginative reconstruction of that past me. For each individual self is built, like Renan’s nations, through this continuous remixing of memory and forgetting. But if I can’t even work out what I myself was like fifteen years ago, what chance have I of writing anyone else’s history? (221)

Indeed, my process of writing about people’s lives in China has made me unpack the blurred lines of my own story.

As Garton Ash comes face to face with the people who had informed on him, he experiences constant moral doubts.

As I leave I can see in her eyes that this will haunt her. Not, I think, because of the mere fact of collaboration—she was, after all, a communist in a communist state—but because working with the secret police, being down in the files as an informer, is low and mean. All this is such a far, far cry from the high ideals of that brave and proud Jewish girl who set out, a whole lifetime ago, to fight for a better world. And, of course, there will still be the lingering fear of exposure, if not through me then perhaps through someone else.

I now almost wish I had never confronted her. By what right, for what good purpose, did I deny an old lady, who had suffered so much, the grace of selective forgetting? (129)

He notes the irony in the careers of West German academics:

Cultured, liberal men in their thirties or forties, they are scrupulous pathologists of history, trained on the corpses of the Gestapo and SS. Theirs, too, is a peculiarly German story: to spend the first half of your life professionally analysing one German dictatorship, and the second half professionally analysing the next, while all the time living in a peaceful, prosperous German democracy. (196)

West Germans, who never themselves had to make the agonizing choices of those who live in a dictatorship, now sit in easy judgement, dismissing East Germany as a country of Stasi spies. […]
Certainly this operation has not torn East German society apart in the way some feared it would. In an agony of despair at being exposed as a Stasi collaborator, one Professor Heinz Brandt reportedly smashed to pieces his unique collection of garden gnomes, including, we are told, the only known specimen of a female gnome. Somehow a perfect image for the end of East Germany. (199)

Two schools of old wisdom face each other across the valley of the files. On one side, there is the old wisdom of the Jewish tradition: to remember is the secret of redemption. And that of George Santayana, so often quoted in relation to Nazism: those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. On the other hand, there is the profound insight of the historian Ernest Renan that every nation is a community both of shared memory and of shared forgetting. (200)

He recognises the accident of birth:

I was just so lucky. Lucky in the country of my birth. Lucky in my privileged background, my parents, my education. Lucky in true friends like James and Werner. Lucky in my Juliet. Lucky in my choice of profession. Lucky, too, in my cause. For the Central European struggle against communism was a good cause. Born a few years earlier, and I might have been backing the Khmer Rouge against the Americans. Born in a poor family in Bad Kleinen, East Germany, and I might have been Lieutenant Wendt. […]
What you find here is less malice than human weakness, a vast anthology of human weakness. And when you talk to those involved, what you find is less deliberate dishonesty than our almost infinite capacity for self-deception.
If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person. But they were all just weak, shaped by circumstance, self-deceiving; human, all too human. Yet the sum of all their actions was a great evil. It’s true what people often say: we, who have never faced these choices, can never know how we would have acted in their position, or would act in another dictatorship. So who are we to condemn? But equally: who are we to forgive? “Do not forgive,” writes the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert,
Do not forgive, for truly it is not in your power to forgive
In the name of those who were betrayed at dawn.
These Stasi officers and informers had victims. Only their victims have the right to forgive. (223–4)

He notes people’s withdrawal into private lives:

Intelligent, well-educated, well-informed through watching Western television, they nonetheless devoted virtually all their energies to their private lives, and particularly to extending, decorating and maintaining their cottage on a small lake some half-an-hour’s drive from Berlin. […] My friend Andrea too, concentrated on private life, bringing up her small children in the charmed atmosphere of a run-down old villa on the very outskirts of Berlin. There were lazy afternoons in the garden, bicycle-rides, sailing and swimming in the lakes. (66)

The intersection of family and political history is well described in

a microcosm of modern Germany. I’m also most impressed by

  • Maxim Leo, Red Love (to which I devote a separate post)

—not least by the author’s amazing counter-cultural parents: compared to the lives of my own parents, theirs have been anything but drab. And then there’s

  • Hester Vaizey, Born in the GDR: living in the shadow of the Wall

To return to The file, Garton Ash observes the insidious use of language:

The process for which English has no word but German has two long ones: Geschichtsaufarbeitung and Vergangenheitsbewältigung. “Treating”, “working through”, “coming to terms with”, or even “overcoming” the past. The second round of German past-beating, refined through the experience of the first round, after Hitler. (194)

Another distinctive mouthful with echoes of China is Parteiüberprüfungsgesprach, “a ‘scrutinizing conversation’, a kind of confession for loyal comrades” (Red Love, p.212).

And after my citation of an over-generous definition of the Chinese term dundian, in German not just words but definitions can be expansive too. Abschöpfung is

laboriously defined in the 1985 Stasi dictionary as “systematic conduct of conversations for the targeted exploitation of the knowledge, information and possibilities of other persons for gaining information”. The nearest English equivalent, I suppose, is “pumping”. (108)

Garton Ash goes on to ponder the surveillance system of his own country:

The domestic spies in a free country live in this professional paradox: they infringe our liberties in order to protect them. But we have another paradox: we support the system by questioning it. That’s where I stand. (220)


Thirty years ago, when I went to live in East Germany, I was sure that I was travelling from a free country to an unfree one. I wanted my East German friends to enjoy more of what we had. Now they do. In fact, East Germans today have their individual privacy better protected by the state than we do in Britain. Precisely because German lawmakers and judges know what it was like to live in a Stasi state, and before that in a Nazi one, they have guarded these things more jealously than we, the British, who have taken them for granted. You value health most when you have been sick.
I say again: of course Britain is not a Stasi state. We have democratically elected representatives, independent judges and a free press, through whom and with whom these excesses can be rolled back. But if the Stasi now serves as a warning ghost, scaring us into action, it will have done some good after all. (232)

German fictional treatments of the period include

  • Christa Wolf, They divided the sky, and
  • Eugen Ruge, In times of fading light.

And then there are films like Barbara (2012)

and The lives of others, perceptively reviewed by Garton Ash.

Going back a little further, among innumerable portraits of ordinary German lives compromised, warped, under Nazism, I admire

  • Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin.

Here’s a playlist of 65 English-language documentaries on the GDR:

not apparently including the 1970 BBC film Beyond the Wall, which you can still watch here. For subversive feature films made under the regime, see here; and for a documentary on WAM, here.

* * *

The nuance and detail of studies like those of Garton Ash contrast with Dikötter’s blunt and pitiless agenda in exposing the undeniable iniquities of the Maoist system.

While China and Germany were utterly different, parallels are explored by

  • Stephan Feuchtwang, After the event: the transmission of grievous loss in Germany, China and Taiwan,

and by Ian Johnson.

But for China, archives, and even memory, remain hard to access. For the Maoist era, the literature on the famine is growing—note especially Wu Wenguang’s memory project. Among fictional treatments, few films are as verismo as The blue kite and To live, or (for the last throes of Maoism) the films of Jia Zhangke. Chinese novels too tend towards either magical realism or over-dramatising.

For crime fiction from China and Germany, see here; for life-stories in the Soviet Union under Stalin, click here.

Our modern ears

You think I know Fuck Nothing—but I know FUCK ALL!

Almost anyone knows more than I do about punk, Country, film music, and so on. But when I write about them, however naively, my own narrow classical upbringing only serves as a reminder of what a very basic part of the soundscape all such popular genres are for anyone born since around 1900. This is just as true for WAM performers and the Li family Daoists—and even for scholars who interpret them. We really can’t bury our heads (ears) in the sand any longer, or unhear the sounds all around us.

But that’s only one rationale for the growing role of popular music in ethnomusicology since at least the 1960s—from Wilfrid Mellers on the Beatles or the wide-ranging studies of Susan McClary, to all the important work on genres in Asia and Africa, and so on. More fundamentally, I return to “delighting in all manifestations of the Terpischorean muse“: all kinds of musicking in all societies  should be treated on an equal footing—Amy Winehouse, Erbarme Dich, and Daoist ritual really do deserve to be part of the same celebration (for a great playlist, see here).

* * *

That’s very different from the old cliché of “music is an international language”. For better and for worse, it really isn’t (see here, and here): in any tiny region of the world there is incomprehension, with music (and culture generally) delineating barriers as much as commonalities—and that’s what I’d like to overcome.

Daoist ritual in Hunan

Hunan 1

Yangyuan village, central Hunan: above, ritual in action; below, god images.
From Shidao heyi (see below).

Hunan 2Along with regions like Fujian, Jiangxi, and south Jiangsu, Hunan province is among the hotspots for research on Daoist ritual—which, as elsewhere, is part of a whole range of mutually related ritual and paraliturgical activity, including Buddhist ritual specialists, spirit mediums, and so on.

Any such province represents a vast area, for which it is hard to encapsulate all the individual reports on particular villages or Daoist “altars”. As ever, most such studies, setting forth from sinological historiography, focus on documenting ancient ritual texts and artefacts; less common is detailed ethnography on how ritual life adapts in a constantly changing society—so we learn a lot more about ritual manuals and titles than about migration and motor-bikes. So this vast body of research, that should be of such significance for the anthropology of religion, still seems an autonomous zone fated to remain adrift from wider fields of enquiry,

Much of the scholarship on Hunan has received generous long-term funding from the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation in Taiwan, with early results published in Minsu quyi.

Outsiders like me may feel in need of an overview. Alain Arrault has edited a useful volume of articles:

  • Interdisciplinary studies on the central region of Hunan, Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 19 (2010)

including thoughtful overviews from him and Georges Favraud, including discussions of the thorny issue of “Meishan culture”. Another major topic is statuary, on which there is detailed research by Alain and others (see e.g. here and here).

With Chen Zi’ai 陈子艾, Alain Arrault is co-editor of a substantial related collection derived from a 2006 conference,

  • Xiangzhong zongjiao yu xiangtu shehui 湘中宗教与乡土社会, still awaiting publication.

Another grand maître of Hunan Daoist studies is Patrice Fava, with his fine film Han Xin’s revenge as well as many books and articles. See also More films on ritual drama.

Chen Demei

Chen Demei, protagonist of Han Xin’s revenge.

One of the most fruitful sites has been Yangyuan village in Lengshuijiang municipality. Apart from the fine work of Mark Meulenbeld, Lü Yongsheng 呂永昇 and Li Xinwu 李新吾 have published major works:

  • Shidao heyi: Xiangzhong Meishan Yangyuan Zhangtande keyi yu chuancheng 師道合一:湘中梅山楊源張壇的科儀與傳承, Daojiao yishi congshu (Taipei: Xinwenfeng, 2015), and
  • Jiazhu yu dizhu: Xiangzhong xiangcunde daojiao yishi yu keyi <家主>與<地主>——湘中鄉村的道教儀式與科儀 (Hong Kong: Keji daxue Huanan yanjiu zhongxin, 2015).

Further volumes are planned in the Daojiao yishi congshu series on the Daoism of the Yao people in Lanshan (on which note also the work of Zhao Shufeng 赵书峰)—the ethnic minorities in the western areas of Hunan also having rich ritual traditions. See e.g.

and the work of David Mozina, such as

And a new update:

Under the rubric of ethnomusicology—which should no longer be considered as a separate topic!—are more ethnographic articles by scholars like Qi Kun 齊琨, such as

  • “Xianghuo shenghuo: guanyu Hunan Lengshuijiangshi Jinzhuxiang Yangyuancun shijiao yu daojiao zhiyizhede diaocha” 香火生活: 關於湖南冷水江市金竹山鄉楊源村師教與道教執儀者的調查, Zhongguo yinyuexue 2014.3: 75–85.

and ongoing work by Wu Fan.

A distinct topic is Hengshan in eastern Hunan (the southern Hengshan, not the northern one that has caused such confusion for the Li family Daoists!). Georges Favraud does detailed work on monastic Daoists there. But while the image of Hengshan and its deity is widespread throughout Hunan, its priests have little or no contact with the rituals of the household Daoists elsewhere in the province.

What I’d still like to see is a summary of all this fine work for the non-specialist, addressing groupings of ritual styles among all these bands—and incorporating them within the complex social context of all the periods in which they and their patrons have lived since 1900. For a wide-ranging 1956 survey of expressive culture in Hunan, see here; and for material on the ritual revival of the early 1960s, here; see also Social issues in rural Hunan.

* * *

Meanwhile, as I often observe, studies of Daoist ritual in north China still lag far behind. If only we had such detail for provinces like Gansu, surely one of the most rewarding areas for such research (for preliminary clues, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, ch.6, and here).


Carnegie Hall: David Sedaris and Li Manshan

Bruno Nettl‘s masterly The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions has a typically stimulating chapter entitled “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” (referring to the old joke—”Practise!”; see also here, under “Music and learning”).

In her 2010 interview with David Sedaris, Hadley Freeman (also wonderful) relates this story:

When David Sedaris appeared at Carnegie Hall in 2002, a reporter from the New York Observer asked his father Lou whether he had ever expected to see him playing Carnegie Hall. “Well,” his dad replied, “I expected to see him cleaning Carnegie Hall.”

Carnegie Hall

On losing a Daoist in Times square
For me this inevitably recalls the Li family Daoists’ Carnegie Hall gig in 2009 (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.330–331). They had never heard of the place.

After their flight from Beijing, we had a couple of days to rehearse in New York. They took this seriously, discussing how to adapt their programme for the audience.

The Daoists brought some of their lethal Shanxi liquor (“white spirit”, how very true), and at last I could return the compliment by finding a Western tipple they could seriously relate to—tequila. We dusted off our old stories, joking constantly as they patiently fielded my usual tedious academic questions. Jet-lagged, we often found ourselves meeting up outside the hotel around 3am for a cigarette or three as we watched the street cleaners clearing up the debris of the night’s excesses.

The daily walk to and from the Carnegie Hall was a challenge for my abilities to marshal Chinese peasants in inner-city jungles, anxiously totting them up every time we crossed a busy junction.

But one afternoon as I counted them in through the door of the hotel, someone was missing. Uh-oh, it’s Li Manshan—I’ve mislaid a National Treasure. In a panic, I retraced our steps with his younger brother Third Tiger, looking for a needle in a haystack; I remember chatting with him until we got to Times Square, but then…? As I asked a couple of cops if they’d seen a lost-looking old Chinese guy, they replied with a polite shrug, “Sure bud, we’ll keep an eye out for him.”

After the longest fifteen minutes of my life we came across him standing peacefully at the kerb gazing up at the skyscrapers, without a care in the world. Striding up to him I exclaimed, “I dunno whether to give you a hug or a slap!”

With all due respect to David Sedaris, he may not be so good at performing Daoist ritual as Li Manshan is at telling jokes—including some fine stammering jokes. I didn’t divulge my favourite here, but click here for a great joke told by his son Li Bin, that makes an appendix to my film.

This calls for a song, or two


I don’t mean to go too far down the route of silly puns—there’s a wealth of other sites for that—but in the spirit of Keats and Chapman (see herehere, and here):

There’s this Englishman sharing a train compartment with two young guys from Sweden—Sven, and his friend Olf, who’s dressed in drainpipe trousers and brothel creepers.

After spitting on the floor and sneering at the English guy, Olf goes off to the buffet car to get a can of beer. After one swig he spews it up all over the compartment and lets out a torrent of foul abuse.
“What’s up with him?”, the Englishman asks Sven.
Sven bursts into song:

Rude Olf the Ted loathes train beer.

Oh well, I guess I have to do the old Mary Poppins one too:

Gandhi, with his hunched gait, walked barefoot, so that the soles of his feet became hard. With his frail form, he led a spiritual life, but his diet gave him bad breath. All of which made him (Altogether Now) a

Stoopy calloused fragile mystic, vexed by halitosis.

For an instructive game with Doh a deer, see here.

Oh and that’s a bad miss

As Ronnie glides into the second week of the snooker, it’s also worth tipping our notional hats to the erudite commentators (themselves veteran performers, unlike most scholars of, um, Daoist ritual), full of brilliant detail on both the mechanics and psychology of the event—like good ethnographers (there I go again).

Not quite like this:

In WAM concerts, such detailed information is relegated to a printed programme, and unable to respond to the incidents of performance. This is remedied by PDQ Bach (from his LP):

My favourite BTL comment:

Is it joke?

But actually it’s a highly instructive way of listening… See also Beethoven’s melodic gift—yeah right.

Note also The first snooker commentary.

The late great Hugh Maguire

Hugh Maguire (1926–2013) managed to combine his work as leader of orchestras with making some fine chamber music. I share my admiration for his playing with far more distinguished pupils of his. As he caressed the strings lovingly, his way of turning a phrase was irresistible.

In the NYO another important kind of education for me was pub sessions where he and flautist Norman Knight would swap indiscreet orchestral stories over copious G&Ts.

Blessed with a brilliant Irish sense of humour (see also Irish tag), Hugh could be both charming and tough with conductors; it was he who told me the Hermann Scherchen story. This reminiscence of Jacqueline du Pré, with whom he and Fou Ts’ong loved playing piano trios in the 1960s, gives an idea of his sincerity.

Hugh’s playing appears all too rarely on YouTube, but here’s his wonderful 1964 recording of Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov, not the equally ravishing Ravel version) with Pierre Monteux and the LSO:

BTW, Monteux (1875–1964) had conducted the premières of Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, and Daphnis and Chloé—just imagine! That recording was his last, in his final year.

Pete Hanson, heir to Hugh’s own spirit, recalls his account of a scary moment during the Scheherazade sessions:

Towards the end of a day’s recording, Monteux turned to him after the first take of the finale, with its ethereal high harmonics, and said “Come on Maguire, get it right!”

Hugh too could be as down-to-earth as his playing was sublime. Here’s Pete again, with a couple of choice comments received during lessons:

“You sound great, Pete, all the shapes and feelings are there—but you’ve got to play all the notes!”

“Pete, even if your strings are out, you must play in tune! Just do it wit’ your fingers!”

Nor is the play of fag-ash on ancient instrument the exclusive province of Li ManshanYet again, Cieran Carson has a beautiful description (Last night’s fun, p.54):

So I remember fiddle-players with cigarettes poised between two fingers of their bow-hand, and the ash would wave and sprinkle across their trouser-knees; or the cigarette that drooped between a player’s lips would let drop a little grub of ash into an f-hole of a fiddle, where it disintegrated as it crashed into the ersatz “Stradivari” label. The knees were dusted off, someone rosined up, and a fitful shaft of sunlight would illuminate the dust-motes like a dissolute snowstorm souvenir.

Even better, Hugh really was playing a Strad—like the first fiddler in Mick Hoy’s wonderful story.

This 1968 recording of the Mendelssohn Octet has long been a favourite, with Hugh leading a star cast including Neville Marriner and Iona Brown (or Iona Brown violin, as she’s known):

On the same LP, the poise of Hugh’s playing in the Minuet of the Boccherini Quintet is charming too—with a bold yet tasteful glissando on the cello (0.37, 1.03, and best of all at 3.15):

Boccherini also makes a priceless backdrop for The ladykillers. For an incident in the middle of a string quartet, see here; and for another string quartet, here.

And here’s Hugh leading the Allegri quartet in the Mozart clarinet quintet, with Jack Brymer:

(For the clarinet concerto, click here.)

More vignettes from The souls of China

I’m still absorbing insights from Ian Johnson’s new book.

As he points out (16),

This is not the China we used to know. For decades, we have been used to thinking of China as a country where religion, faith, and values are marginal. Our images of Chinese people are overwhelmingly economic or political; of diligent workers in vast factories, nouveau riche flaunting their wealth, farmers toiling in polluted fields, or dissidents being locked up. When we do hear about Chinese people and faith, it is either about victims—Chinese Christians forced to worship underground—or exotic stories of wacky people walking backward in parks, hugging trees, or joining scary cults.

I would add: one might suppose that all the field reports on local ritual would help correct all this, but they bear little on the issue since they generally avert their gaze from modern society.

Apart from Ian’s chapters on the Miaofengshan pilgrims, the Li family Daoists, the Chengdu Christians, and so on, his fascinating outline of the Eastern Lightning sect (ch.25) calls out for further local fieldwork in its birthplace of rural Henan—none too easy to achieve.

Clearly discerning periods within the reform era since the 1980s, Ian is good on the recent state rebranding of “traditional culture”, the latest exploitation of religion at the hands of commercial interests (e.g. 229, 255, 257, 276–81), and the hijacking of the Clayman Zhang figurines (ch.27) by the “China dream” (358):

The government campaign, he said, is a misuse of culture. If China’s past and its beliefs are presented as static, they are more easily controlled.

In a passage on Miaofengshan (232–3) he gives a fine instance of “What they said and what they meant”, also a popular tradition in the West:

Just as the pilgrimage associations had their flags, the party had its slogans.

Printed on big red banners, they festooned the square:



Parsed, these two slogans meant



An announcer read out the names of the dignitaries present: the head of the Bejing Daoist association, a local representative of the Beijing Municipal Congress, various experts and officials, too numerous to list. Chief among them were representatives from the Intangible Cultural Heritage office. I thought back to the local official from my earlier trip here: it’s not religion; it’s culture. Worshipping a goddess is just culture. Repeat after me.

Such analysis of the nexus and dynamics of power is just the kind of thing historians of religion do for earlier periods like the Tang dynasty; yet it remains rare among supposed ethnographies of contemporary religious life—precisely the period for which we can collect detailed material.

Love song, and more Mozart


Talking of craftsmanship in words and music, here’s Bill Bailey:

Of many classic lines, this is brilliant:

The duck lies shredded in a pancake
Soaking in the hoisin of your lies.

I’m also keen on his pub joke:

An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman walk into a bar—and everything unfolds with a tedious predictability.

More elaborate is this:

And he’s a fine pianist! It would be just as much fun to play Mozart piano concertos with him as with Robert Levin—here playing Mozart’s very own piano:

Gosh—I’m even playing in the band there too, a stay in Salzburg making a pleasant change in between fieldwork trips to Hebei.

Among other tributes to Bill Bailey, see here.

Another headline

Another fine headline, perhaps from the 1950s. Such is its linguistic creativity that I’ll settle here for the language of the day, rather than trying to rephrase the story in PC-speak:

A patient escaped from a loony bin, burst into a launderette, and molested two staff before running off.  The headline ran:

Nut screws washers and bolts

Linguistically an even more perfect version manages to award the first word a plural too:

A rich family named Nuts owned a chain of laundromats [cf. the old “lavatory chain” line]. Having exploited their workers for years they finally absconded. Hence

Nuts screws washers and bolts

For more, do consult my roundup of the headlines tag.

Casing the joint: funeral shops

Arriving in a county-town in China in search of leads to ritual activity in the area, far more promising than becoming ensnared at the Bureau of Culture is to visit the funeral shops (shouyidian, zhizhapu, and so on).

Li Bin’s first funeral shop in town.

Some are actually run by yinyang household Daoists. In Yanggao town, Li Bin’s shop is just one of around half a dozen funeral shops, of which several others are also run by yinyang. Daoists also have many such shops in Tianzhen and Shuozhou county-towns.

Tianzhen funeral shop

Funeral shop in Tianzhen county-town.

Those run by shawm bands tend rather to provide a complete service for weddings—still in Yanggao, Yang Ying and his relatives have a thriving business in Gucheng south of the county-town.

Yang Ying shopfront

The most remarkable concentration of funeral shops I have seen in the region is in Yingxian county-town. All along East Street, just east of the famous Liao-dynasty pagoda and all the tourist tat, over fifty such shops line both sides of the long road.

Yingxian funeral shops

For more photos from north Shanxi, see Chen Yu, Jinbei minjian daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu, pp.93–4.

Whoever runs such shops, they all have close contacts with both ritual specialists and shawm bands, as well as geomancers, cooks, grave-diggers, and so on. They can soon tell you the best bands, and when funerals are coming up.

All this makes platitudinous banquets with local cultural officials pleasantly superfluous.

Ritual life in south Hebei


A Daoist ritual in Guangzong county. Source here.

Separately from his new book, Ian Johnson has written a vivid article about Chasing the Yellow Demon, a community New Year’s ritual in Guyi village in the Handan region of south Hebei.

He updates work by David Johnson [no relation!]—whose own study was based on the work of local scholar Du Xuede 杜学德.

  • Ian Johnson, “Chasing the Yellow Demon”, in Journal of Asian Studies 2017, after
  • David Johnson, Spectacle and sacrifice: the ritual foundations of village life in north China (Harvard University Press, 2009), pp.92–143.
    For the latter, see reviews by Vincent Goossaert and Adam Chau, Journal of Asian Studies 70.3 (2011). See also
  • Daniel L. Overmyer [Ou Danian] and Fan Lizhu (eds), Huabei nongcun minjian wenhua yanjiu congshu: Handan diqu minsu jilu [Studies of the popular culture of north China villages: folklore records of the Handan region] (Tianjin guji chubanshe, 2006), including articles by Du Xuede.

Ian Johnson found that Chasing the Yellow Demon has lately become reified and commodified; he makes further fine comments on the Intangible Cultural Heritage flummery.

Most impressive is Yue Yongyi’s work on the Cangyanshan temple fair.

* * *

Yet the whole area of south Hebei also remains a major site for occupational household Daoists, not part of David Johnson’s purview—indeed, in finding village ritual largely independent of the practice of Buddhist and Daoist ritual specialists (whom he describes simply as clerical “elites”), he sets himself at odds with scholars of religious life in both north and south China.

In counties throughout the Xingtai and Handan regions, household Complete Perfection Daoists continue to perform impressive jiao Offering rituals for their communities. While we await a new volume in the Daojiao yishi congshu series from Luo Dan and Xu Tianji, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.88–94, citing work by local scholars such as Pan Zhonglu 潘忠禄, and major works by Yuan Jingfang 袁静芳.

The windmills of your mind

Windmills cover

While we’re on the wonderful melody, harmony, and orchestration of Michel Legrand, how about The windmills of your mind (apparently * inspired by the slow movement of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante!)—here’s Legrand singing it himself in 1969, the rhythms always fluid:

And it loses nothing in English—I continue to be belatedly impressed at the good taste of Dusty Springfield (English lyrics again from the Bergmans):

But though the lurch to the bombastic is only fleeting, I still prefer to maintain the tranquil mood of the original.

Above the shifting harmonies, not only does the melody relish leaps of a 7th, but after the 3rd phrase each new incipit sets forth by falling a 7th from the previous cadence! Cf. the 7ths in Moon river.

For Francis Lai, see here; and for sequences, here.


* We commonly read that The windmills of your mind is “borrowed” from the opening two phrases of the Mozart; but I can’t find a comment from Legrand himself recognising a conscious inspiration. Anyway, here it is—just as wonderful:

Cf. Mahler and Beauty and the Beast.

You must believe in spring


After blithely adducing French film music for Bach’s Zerfließe, I’m reminded of You must believe in spring—for those tricky moments when you seek inspiration and the Resurrection of Our Lord doesn’t quite fit the bill.

Composed by Michel Legrand for Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), its English lyrics were then written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. I just adore Cleo Laine’s 1974 version—all the more moving for being recorded live:

Tony Bennett and Bill Evans make a magical team too:

The song, those harmonies, made perfect material for Bill Evans—here’s an instrumental version from 1977, released after his death in 1980:

When lonely feelings chill
The meadows of your mind,
Just think if winter comes,
Can spring be far behind?

Beneath the deepest snows,
The secret of a rose
Is merely that it knows
You must believe in spring.

Just as a tree is sure
Its leaves will reappear;
It knows its emptiness
Is just the time of year.

The frozen mountain dreams
Of April’s melting streams,
How crystal clear it seems,
You must believe in spring.

You must believe in love
And trust it’s on its way,
Just as the sleeping rose
Awaits the kiss of May.

So in a world of snow,
Of things that come and go,
Where what you think you know,
You can’t be certain of,
You must believe in spring and love.

For another brilliant Michel Legrand song, see The windmills of your mind.

A master craftsman

Talking of calendrical rituals, the World Snooker championship rarely overlaps with Easter, but Ronnie was on divine form again on Easter Day. Sure, he can lose matches, but when he’s at the table we’re in the presence of a genius. The World event is most satisfying in its two-week span and the length of the individual, um, ritual segments, like a grand jiao Offering…

However troubled Ronnie’s personal history, the fluency of his technique and the sheer ease of his style recall those of a master musician.

I will be glued to his next match, beginning on Thursday evening. And the snooker also happily coincides with the British Forum for Ethnomusicology conference!

Poetic satire

Of a different type of ingenuity from more literary wordplay is a couplet pasted up at people’s doorways in the Cultural Revolution (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.131).

In one of few ways that peasants could ridicule the rigid political system, some satirised the deprivation of their conditions. A couplet commonly pasted up at the time ran succinctly:

Two three four five, six seven eight nine.

This may not seem like the most inspired piece of poetry, but Chinese is so ingenious—everyone knew that the lack of the numbers one and ten meant that people had no yi (“one,” also clothing) or shi (“ten,” also food)—queyi shaoshi 缺衣少食, a proverb that goes back to the Ming dynasty.

queyi shaoshi

One of the Daoists pasted the couplet up and was ticked off by the village cadres. Like naughty schoolboys, villagers joked that so-and-so may have written it but someone else had thought it up. But it was engraved in the sullen sardonic hearts of many peasants.

Still, their impotence reminds me of Peter Cook’s comment:

those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.

As today, satirists’ gain is society’s loss…

See also under famine.

Mark Padmore


The brilliant Mark Padmore, Passion Evangelist par excellence (see here, and here), made a suitable guest on the Easter edition of Private passions.

He began by reminding us of the liturgical context of Bach’s own performances, pointing out that Bach only heard the John Passion four times, and as he constantly revised his works, it was not simply about new composition but also about adapting elements of the whole tradition. All of which, surprise surprise, reminds me of Daoist ritual and Li Qing.

Mark went on to choose Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing Mahler’s Ich bin wer Welt abhenden bekommen (cf. the version here), ending with another kind of devotional singing—from Mahalia Jackson.

Catholics of north China


Village Catholics in Xinzhou region, Shanxi 1992. My photo.

One theme of Ian Johnson’s new book The souls of China, also shown in his YouTube clips, is the resurgence of Christianity.

For an introduction to Catholicism in north China, see

  • Richard Madsen, China’s Catholics: tragedy and hope in an emerging civil society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

For Shanxi, I already mentioned a Catholic village in Xinzhou. Villages just south in central Shanxi are the subject of

  • Henrietta Harrison, The missionary’s curse and other tales from a Chinese Catholic village (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

See also her article

  • “Global modernity, local community, and spiritual power in the Shanxi Catholic church”, in Adam Yuet Chau (ed.), Religion in contemporary China: revitalization and innovation (2011).

Talking of Catholicism in Shanxi, after William Hinton’s remarkable Fanshen, on the land reform in Longbow village in Changzhi municipality, southeast Shanxi, it comes as a surprise to learn in his sequel Shenfan that around 20% of the village’s 2,000 population is Catholic; in nearby Machang the figure is over 80%.

Hinton’s daughter Carma continued his work with some fine films.

As ever, we should bear the whole religious context in mind. South Shanxi is also a focus for studies of the “music households” (yuehu), mainly shawm bands with strong ritual connections. [1] And again, household Daoists are common.

Hebei province is also a hotbed for Catholicism. I discuss the Gaoluo Catholics in a separate page. And for missionaries at the Qing court, see here.

[1] Xiang Yang (2001) Shanxi yuehu yanjiu, Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 2001; Qiao Jian, Liu Guanwen, and Li Tiansheng, Yuehu: tianye diaocha yu lishi zhuizong, Nanchang: Jiangxi renmin chubanshe, 2002.

Temple fairs: Miaofengshan and Houshan

Further to my remarks on temple fairs and Houshan, one of Ian Johnson’s main topics in The souls of China is the pilgrimage to Miaofengshan just northwest of Beijing.

It’s been a popular subject ever since the early study of Gu Jiegang (a stammerer, I now learn!), published in 1928. The fine film-maker Patrice Fava has just made a handsome film about it too, for the Chinese Ministry of Culture—making an intriguing comparison with Ian’s own recent footage. Rather than idealizing the temple fair, Ian takes a more personal ethnographic approach, documenting the changing nuances of people’s lives.

How wonderful to see Sidney Gamble’s footage from 1927! Visitors to Miaofengshan in 1925 included not only Gamble with Li Jinghan but also Gu Jiegang’s team. Even then, despite the wealth of devotional performing associations (huahui, xianghui etc.), they found hardly any performance of complex liturgical sequences. Gu Jiegang’s list of 99 associations making the pilgrimage in 1925 contains only one yinyuehui ritual associationwhich he, like most educated urbanites, would have assumed to be an entertainment group; his list mainly consists of huahui and “incense associations” (xianghui), mostly voluntary pilgrim groups from Beijing.

Note the outstanding work of Yue Yongyi on Miaofengshan, Cangyanshan, and Fanzhuang.

* * *

A misleading image may arise of north Chinese religious life, whereby liturgical sequences performed by occupational ritual specialists and amateur sectarian associations are downplayed. By contrast, on the Hebei plain, the Houshan temple fair has many more ritual associations alongside the huahui. [1]

From my experience of ritual life around Beijing and on the plain to the south, the dominance of semi-secular “entertainment associations” at sites like Miaofengshan seems curious. I think, for instance, of the temple fairs on Houshan in Yixian county southwest of Beijing, so much less publicised in the media. Unlike on Miaofengshan and the other sacred mountain sites just north of Beijing, Bixia yuanjun is a minor deity in this region, which instead is dominated by the cult of Empress Houtu.

But the differences aren’t only their respective deities. The two major annual fairs of Houshan are also attended by vast throngs. Apart from the diverse huahui performing groups (martial arts, stilts, and so on) that one finds on Miaofengshan, amateur ritual associations from many villages throughout the area (our project through the 1990s) also make the pilgrimage. They perform devotional hymns to the patron goddess Houtu, as well as their solemn style of shengguan instrumental suites. The elders recall performing in full the “precious scroll” (baojuan) to Houtu—a lengthy process, though this may have lapsed on the mountain itself. But as I noted in Plucking the winds (p.363),

Despite considerable interest in village sects in imperial times and even until 1949, we find rather little on the observed performance of ritual. One scholar wrote laconically in 1948:

During the recitation of canons and divine rolls [viz. precious scrolls] musical instruments were probably used. In the country districts in North China there are still some similar organizations. They perform on musical instruments when they recite their canons.

Why write “were probably used” when he could have gone and observed them performing the scrolls?!

Houshan is also heavily patronised by spirit mediums, many of whom also have “precious scrolls” from which they perform devotional songs.

I note en passant that whereas the “tea-tents” on the route to Miaofengshan are precisely that, in the Xushui–DingxingXiongxian area south of Beijing the Tea tent association is often an alternative name for sectarian groups like Hunyuan and Hongyang associations; and they perform complex rituals with vocal liturgy and shengguan instrumental music.

The more popular, quasi-secular entertainment groups tend to influence our image of north Chinese religious activity; the cliché is that ritual life is far more complex in the south than in the north. I don’t dispute this (my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.367–8)—some scholars of southern Chinese religion will ask “Where are all the grand jiao Offering rituals?” But we should bear in mind that in the north too, complex vocal liturgy, such as one finds further south in China, is widely performed by groups of occupational Daoist and Buddhist household ritual specialists and amateur ritual associations (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China).

In other words, it’s another case of “customs differ every ten li” (shilidi butong su). Of course, whether or not we find complex ritual sequences, we still need to document all kinds of activity.

As I noted for Houshan and Baiyunshan, state departments compete with local interests for economic control of the substantial profits from such temple fairs.

* * *

There’s also a puzzle that I mentioned in In search of the folk Daoists. We know there were constant transmissions, in both directions, between Buddhist and Daoist temples in metropolitan Beijing and Tianjin (on the one hand), and (on the other) the myriad local temples and amateur sectarian ritual associations in the surrounding areas. But from our material so far it looks as if these exchanges were largely limited to the plain south, hardly in other directions—like northwest, in the case of Miaofengshan. I surmise that this is related to topography, trade links and transport. Northwest of Beijing the land is hilly and poor. The plain to the south, while also poor, was at least more accessible, and on trade hubs.

But there’s always more fieldwork to be done!

[1] For further sources, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.118 n.3.
[2] See ibid., p.8 n.14.

Taking names in vain


From Syriac Rabbula gospels, 586 CE. See here.

He took a sponge, filled it with sour wine and put it on a reed, and offered it to Him to drink.

On a lighter Easter note, an enterprising young adman, asked to come up with an ad for Chumley’s vinegar, used a painting of Christ on the cross averting his face from the proffered sponge, with the fine caption

Take it away—it’s not CHUMLEYS!

That was in the days before Aceto balsamico di Modena, “sourcing”, and “drizzling” were obligatory. “If Jesus were alive today…” See also Jesus jokes; and for John Wayne as centurion, click here.

No less tasteless is the use of a contemporary icon by the arms trade, providing Mark Thomas with the title for a fine book:

These heavy-duty leg-irons are made in South Africa, and are the same type used on the famous Nelson Mandela.

And here’s one from Fay Weldon, no less:

Vodka gets you drunker quicker

Elk lubricant may prove a harder market to crack.

Calendrical rituals

Further to my thoughts on festivals, today is the focus of the round of Bach Passion performances, now a kind of secular pilgrimage very different from the original liturgical context—not just of Good Friday but of the whole calendar (note John Eliot Gardiner, Music in the castle of heaven, ch.9, “Cycles and seasons“). Different too are our ears, bodies, world-views, experiences, sanitation

Mark Padmore, incomparable Evangelist in the Passions, makes some thoughtful points here (cf. this article). Do watch his Matthew Passion as staged by Peter Sellars. And here he is in the John Passion (cf. Passion at the Proms)—how he sings und ging heraus und weinete bitterlich (from 33.48), and how Bach composed it, is miraculous:

Also in the John Passion is one of Bach’s most moving arias is Zerfließe, mein Herze:

Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren        Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears
Dem Höchsten zu Ehren!                                         to honour the Almighty!
Erzähle der Welt und dem Himmel die Not:        Tell the world and heaven your distress:
Dein Jesus ist tot!                                                     your Jesus is dead!

More performative tears (see links here)—like north Chinese Daoist ritual, the aria is also accompanied by anguished wind ensemble, almost evoking (for modern ears) French film music.

While Protestants do their thing, let’s not forget Holy Week in Spain, with solemn hooded processions, soaring trumpets, and saeta devotional songs for the images of Christ and the Virgin (for more saeta, along with other moving cante jondo songs, see here):

Indeed, for me one of the benefits of being a touring muso was being able to combine both Bach Passions and flamenco. In southern Spain flamenco only tends to get going in the small hours, but concerts also begin at 10pm or later. So by the time we had played the final chorus of the Matthew Passion in Seville, there was plenty of time to stroll over the bridge to the wonderful Anselmas bar in Triana, downing a few G&Ts before the flamenco began to get in the groove.

Note also the liturgy of Castelsardo in Sardinia.

* * *

Meanwhile it’s a busy period in the Chinese ritual year calendar too. [1] On the Hebei plain, apart from everyone taking part in the lineage observances for the Qingming festival, Catholics are busy holding Masses and making pilgrimages—not least evading police road-blocks (see here, and for the Gaoluo Catholics, here). It is also the time of the 3rd-moon festival for the goddess Empress Houtu, when many villagers go on pilgrimage to the Houshan mountain temples to revere her.

Houshan disciples

The Houshan pilgrimage, which under the commune system had been observed only by a tenacious minority through the 1960s and 70s, began reviving in the 1980s; by the 1990s it was attracting around 100,000 pilgrims for its 3rd-moon temple fair. We met several village ritual associations on the mountain for the festival in 1995, though Gaoluo village no longer organizes a group; in recent years “people’s hearts are in discord”, as association leader He Qing lamented. In some places the Houtu festival has been revived within the village: for the 3rd-moon festival in 1996, for instance, we visited Shenshizhuang, south of Yixian county-town, whose four ritual associations all celebrate the Houtu festival in their separate ritual buildings in the village.

SSZ xihui 1996

Altar to Houtu, Shenshizhuang West association 1996.

Many villagers make the pilgrimage in small groups on their own initiative. Their vows are pledged to Houtu. One can climb to the Houshan temples to offer incense and pledge a vow, or just make it at home; the vow often used to include a promise to “look after a banquet” for the ritual association.

So the red flag which one often sees adorning truckloads of villagers in the 3rd moon now heralds a group of pilgrims rather than any political campaign—another sign of the changing times. But despite the lengthy impoverishment of ritual and faith, the power of Houtu is still strong: even in 1997 Gaoluo friends reminded me “Here we believe in the Empress Houtu, so a lot of people offer incense”.

* * *

For the dispassionate (sic) observer, some photos may distinctly suggest a stress on masochism in Easter observances around the world. Meanwhile on a visit to the Saudis, celebrated defenders of religious values, our Prime Minister gets herself embroiled in a futile dispute about Easter eggs with the notoriously subversive National Trust. Indeed, this “We’re not even allowed to celebrate our own culture any more” fatuity is itself becoming an annual ritual. Hey-ho.

For thoughts on our approaches to Morris dancing and local Chinese rituals, see here. See also The Annunciation in art and music.

[1] These notes are revised from my Plucking the winds.

A tribute to Francis Baines

Baines concert

Cartoon of Francis by Gerard Hoffnung, 1958.

This week at the Cadogan Hall (among few London concert buildings that I find conducive), luminaries of the early music scene assembled to pay homage to the late great Francis Baines (1917–99) in a concert of music reflecting his wide-ranging tastes.

All-round eccentric and bon viveur, Francis was a true renaissance man, on double bass (sometimes deposited in left-luggage at Victoria because he couldn’t get it onto his barge), viols, hurdy-gurdy, and as composer. Despite being in constant demand on the professional scene, he was a true amateur at heart, a servant of music almost like an ashiqa dervish whirling with his bass.

From the late 1970s, as the early music world became ever more polished, fragrant, and marketable—the inevitable transition from “knit your own yogurt” to Chanel No. 5 (see also here, and here)—one might imagine him finding his amateur ideal going against the tide, yet being both pragmatic and other-worldly, it never cramped his style. He always maintained a sense of both mischief and awed discovery.

He is also lovingly remembered in a beautiful book Francis Baines: musician of several parts, with reminiscences, both moving and hilarious (including more fine maestro-baiting stories), from a variety of distinguished musicians—a contribution to the ethnographic history of musical life in 20th-century Britain.

I’ll limit myself to one story from the book:

Nimbus recording session sometime in the 1980s. Mozart symphonies, Hanover band. Complete takes of whole movements being the modus operandi of this recording company, the rather inexperienced producer emerged from the box to report back on the first take. He said something along the lines of

“It started off well, and then became a bit confused and not so clear in the middle, but towards the end it got better and finished well.”

Francis piped up:

“I believe it’s what they call sonata form.”

Gang leader for a day

Gang leader

In my book I prefaced my outline of the ethnography of Daoist ritual with some general background:

Ethnographers may study any people—a hairdresser in Barnsley, shamans in Brazil, a street gang in Chicago, and so on.

While the Barnsley hairdresser was a fantasy (I can’t find one online—an ethnography, I mean, not a hairdresser—but who knows?), Chicago street gangs have long been a popular theme of anthropologists.

After the more weighty tomes of the Chicago school,

  • Sudhir Venkatesh, Gang leader for a day (2008, reviewed herehere, and here),

based on a decade’s troubled engagement, is the kind of pop ethnography that I admire. He does for Chicago what Nigel Barley did for the Dowayo.

He also lays bare moral dilemmas that are a constant concern for ethnographers. To repeat, all kinds of social activity are their proper domain. For China, this would include not just ritual specialists but cadres and sex workers—who somehow seem like a suitable pairing.

We have ways of making you talk

I have already mentioned my encounter with a stammering shawm player in Shaanbei.

As a stammerer, I’m all for a good stammering joke. Now as a limerick this is no big deal:

But sung as a round, in the fine melody to which it was set, it can be brilliant, with its syncops and manic pile-ups of unconnected final words.

I say “can be”… It sounds great sung in the gentle polished affectionate tones of my Oxbridge chums, one to a part. But for us stammerers, the regimented impersonal nature of such a rendition by a large school choir may seem mesmerizingly traumatic. One imagines poor stammering schoolkids cowering red-eyed with fear in the corner, their anxious parents in the audience. Anyway, let’s just imagine it sung kindly with humour… As usual, it’s all about context, and the intentions of performers and audiences.

It’s easy for you to say that, Steve…

It’s well known that stammerers can sing fluently—indeed, most can do silly voices too, although that’s hardly a long-term solution. I note too that stammering is predominantly male; and that it is also common in Japan, another highly pressurized island culture.

“Stammer” or “stutter” is another instance of US/UK English variation.

And further to the collation of Daoist texts, a note on textual variation: some versions open “There was an old man from Calcutta”. Stammering tends to decline with age—though for sufferers like me it takes variant forms. One wonders whether the old man was an expat, or native to Calcutta; if the latter, his fondness for dairy products may be merely an Raj-esque affectation, or else it may indicate a predilection for paneer and ghee—but that would scupper the p-p-poem.

For a more avant-garde take on stammering, see here; and for the brilliant fugal pastiche Donald Trump is a wanker, here.

You’ll be glad to know that our encyclopaedic resident publication The China Daily covers stammering too:

Feng Kezhi, a 24-year-old garage worker, suffered stammering so much that he once stood in the pouring rain and kept slapping his face but this didn’t cure him. It was Wang’s clinic that brought back his confidence. “There are many people like Feng who need a helping hand and I must try my best to help them”, Wang said.

China presents a fine challenge for stammerers like me.  When the English are confronted by a ferocious bout of stammering, polite embarrassed sympathetic reactions are de rigueur—immortalized by the finely-observed scene in A Fish called Wanda:

Conversely, the Chinese just tend to burst out laughing, a nice honest response.

What’s more, whereas in England we fiendishly covert stammerers can usually get away with limiting our conversations to one or two people, in China one is rarely in a group of less than a dozen; so short of feigning dumbness or unconsciousness, it’s not really possible to avoid public talking. It’s rather good shock therapy: “We have ways of making you talk”—which was of course the motto of the S-S-Stammering Association (hence also the name SS). Progress is only possible once one begins to stammer openly.

It’s good to hear Ed Balls talking (openly, and fluently) about his stammer (see also here):

He joins the ranks of distinguished stammerers like Moses, Demosthenes, the Byzantine emperor Michael II, Wittgenstein, Marilyn Monroe, Kylie Minogue, Maggie O’FarrellJoe Biden, Amanda Gorman, * and JJJJJerome Ellis—and for China, see here. There’s another fantasy dinner party, hosted by Michael Palin—a notable advocate for stammering, and the greatest ambassador anyone could ever have for anything.

The excellent British Stammering Association used to run a cartoon series called Stammering Stan, which was somewhat controversial. But this will be evocative for stammerers:

stammering stan

Li Manshan has a brilliant stammering joke, which he loves telling me—but it’s best if you hear him tell it himself…

For more stammering songs, click here and here. See also the stammering tag, including this post on chipping away at the iceberg of fear.

* Update: 13-year-old stammerer Brayden Harrington just made a powerful speech for the 2020 Democratic National Convention:

* Another update: in The speaking voice, do listen to the brilliant Amanda Gorman, erstwhile stammerer, at the 2021 Inauguration!


Mozart at the tube station

Goldhawk road

Coming out of Goldhawk road tube late on a rowdy Friday night, the station speakers regale me with the moment where the sun clouds over near the opening of the slow movement of Mozart’s 21st piano concerto. Here it is played by Malcolm Bilson:

I don’t linger, I have an onward bus to catch. Fortunately I’ve been accompanying the concerto for several decades, so I can fill in the tranquil opening and the whole progress of the movement; and it evokes memories of many performances over various stages of my life. So even that tiny fragment, in such an incongruous context, is full of meaning for me. It’s another of those pieces that can’t be ruined by their use in film music (in this case Elvira Madigan). But what if you don’t know the piece? The project wasn’t aimed at people like me.

Still, thanks, TFL.

The Li family Daoists: further material

Ian Johnson’s fine new book The souls of China contains many evocative descriptions, not least of our very own Li family Daoists in Yanggao county. His accounts make a valuable supplement to my book and film.

I like his focus on the young Li Bin, forging an innovative path in the county-town while his father Li Manshan remains in the village. He gives further vignettes on “determining the date” (cf. my book pp.186–9). He describes the chain of events that led the Li family Daoists to wider fame—from Chen Kexiu and me to the inconsequential initiatives of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (cf. my book pp.174–9, 331–3, 341–2).

Left: Yuan Xiwen, 2013. My photo.
Right: Shi Shengbao with Li Manshan, 2018. Photo: Li Bin.

Ian gives a sympathetic account of a fine local ritual leader, Shi Shengbao in Yangguantun. But he got an unfortunate impression of the great Yuan Xiwen, distinguished temple leader in Lower Liangyuan (my book p.50, 240; film from 57.49). The guanxi involved in booking Daoists for the temple fair there may be complex, but both local people and Li Manshan himself respect him deeply.

Also most germane is Ian’s focus on the patrons, as well as on other performers, such as spirit mediums. I find myself having to speak up for the shawm bands again. His belittling of them is understandable, given the simple repertoire that they were performing by the time he found them. But a glance at my 2007 book and film reveals that their traditional repertoire was magnificent and complex right until the 21st century; even groups like that of Yang Ying (erstwhile Daoist with the Li band) still perform the old style with searing intensity.

Along with my own work and that of Wu Fan, this all adds to our picture of changing religious life in Yanggao.

The souls of China


Tomorrow Ian Johnson begins an impressive tour into the new Heart of Darkness, as well as China, to Spread the Glad Tidings about his new book The souls of China. Do check out his website, including links to some great video clips.

The author astutely discusses a range of religious and spiritual practices in modern China, linking the present to the past, and the personal to the political. Our very own Li family Daoists play a considerable role (see here), besides pilgrimage groups and qigong cults around Beijing, and Christians in Chengdu—alternate chapters on each building up a fascinating picture of modern Chinese society. We meet a diverse supporting cast of mystics, outlaws, reformers, hustlers, peasants, and bigwigs.

While academic studies of religion in modern China have flourished recently (in both Chinese and Western languages), this book is well researched but reader-friendly, at once more humane and critical than some pious or detached treatments. Benefitting from the author’s long-term residency in China, it will make a valuable resource.

For vignettes from the book, click here; see also Documenting religion in China. Note also the surveys of religion in China by C.K. Yang, Adam Yuet Chau, and Stephan Feuchtwang.

Venice: daily life in a theme park

On brief trips to Venice, the dream of timeless aesthetic delight may override reflection on social change. My 2012 stay there with the Li band was largely untrammelled by such thoughts—partly because I was preoccupied with my daily tasks as minder, roadie, and stage manager. Like most visitors, I was just thrilled to be there, especially with them.

Some months later, staying with Li Manshan in his village, I go online to show his next-door neighbour some images of this magical place, unimaginable to Yanggao dwellers. As I reinforce the myth, the Li band’s visit there indeed seems like a miracle.

But Venice makes a notable example of the conflict between image and ethnography. Among the vast corpus of writings, Jan Morris’s Venice is a classic. I realise I should also seek writings by Venetians, or at least Italians, to supplement the outsider perspective. But here I’ll dip into Polly Coles’s book The politics of washing: real life in Venice (2013), which explores “the uneasy relationship between the Venice in which a few thousand people live out their daily lives and the Venice that is an impossibly beautiful stage set”.

It may seem like living in a museum, or a theme park. Most of the twenty million visitors each year are day-trippers. Over the past three decades the fixed population has dwindled from 120,000 to 55,000—fewer than a thousand years ago.

Yet despite the constant fall in population, real people also live here. One may dismiss their real lives as merely “hideous encounters with domestic necessity”, to cite Compton Mackenzie’s wonderful recollection of his meeting with Henry James. Beset by ordering washing machines and taking the kids to school, Polly Coles begins to feel guilty about the sheer quantity of art that she has not looked at since she became a resident. “The Venetian dream lasts only as long as you can keep it detached from reality and, most particularly, from the reality of modern Italy”. Finding a haberdashery shop shutting down, Polly Coles observes the ineluctable usurping of the variety of suppliers of daily needs by shops selling pizza, ice cream, glass, and masks—a monoculture in which “people are constantly re-enacting the same limited roles: as purveyors or consumers of the city as museum or playground”. “What kind of beauty is barren? Is dead beautiful?

gondola maker

Squiero at San Trovaso. My photo, 2012.

After a while one almost forgets “the inestimable privilege of a daily life without cars”. Greetings between friends are no less gentle, kind, and humorous than in any Italian town. Given that thousands of strangers are traipsing through their living room (literally) every day, I’m amazed how courteous and laidback Venetian dwellers are; one feels no more ripped off than elsewhere. While they are long accustomed to outsiders (they have no choice), perhaps it’s partly because one can never be in a hurry here—although residents and “infantilised” tourists can still be recognised from their pace, their whole body language. As Polly Coles observes, the shared necessity of walking lends an illusion of classlessness.

By contrast, she also comments well on the wider issue (in Italian, and other European languages) of choosing lei or tu, as opposed to the deceptively classless English “you” (pp.155–9). Meanwhile, the Venetian language (rather than dialect) seems cool, indeed zany (an English borrowing from Venetian), with lots of z and weird stuff going on (see also here). I like drio (“busy”). And do read Some Venetian greetings.

Not only are the sestieri like separate villages, but even recently I heard of a 100-year old woman who had only ventured twice as far as San Marco.

While Venice has long been celebrated as a racial and cultural melting-pot, Alexander Lee’s The ugly Renaissance can warn us against celebrating its multi-culturalism too naively. Polly Coles goes on to note the current ethnic contradictions, with its white tourists serviced by East European cleaners and African street vendors (163–70). She’s good on ritual too—like her dissection of Midnight Mass in San Marco during acqua alta, “neither hushed nor holy”, with a “general air of distraction” (pp.111–113). And Carnival: “somebody has organized an enormous party in your backyard but it’s not your party and you don’t know any of the guests”.

After my stay there with the Li band in April 2012, I went back that August to flat-sit on the Guidecca for friends, allowing me time both to reflect on Venice and continue writing my book.

From my diary:

Senses heightened, changing light—large drops of rain, clouds, sunset, gulls bobbing on the waves. Simple pleasures. How long might it be before one began taking for granted the panorama of churches and pastel palaces and windows and balconies and bridges? Even the street signs are delightful.


I emerge from a narrow vicolo into a broad campo. Many canals are as narrow as alleys too.

Just using the wooden shutters is a delight, with their little head of a man, like a chess piece, to hold them in place.

Where does all this arty sensibility get us? How does listening to Monteverdi in an elegant flat on the Giudecca differ from listening to Abba in a council flat on the North Circular with flying geese on the walls? The shared goal, presumably, is happiness.

Supposing some waggish sculptor decided to pre-empt the pigeons by designing a pigeon on top of Our Lord’s head at the apex of a church, would a pigeon come and perch on that too? How many pigeons would he have to sculpt on top of each other for the pigeons to decide, “Stuff this for a lark“? Or would it only be grist to their mill?

It comes as a relief to see some typical ugly modern buildings on the Giudecca, tucked away behind the elegant facade. The walk to my local supermarket, through miniature courtyards bedecked with flowers, has to be the most picturesque ever—but once inside, the standard produce of daily necessities brings a welcome semblance of normality.

From a certain distance on what passes as terra firma, the sight of passengers on a vaporetto evokes a silent search for truth, some mysterious voyage, a pact. I don’t think this comes entirely from Don’t Look Now. Of course it’s not quite like that for the passengers on the vaporetto (cf. Coles, pp.118–24).

Cruise liners have become common, another nail in the coffin. One morning as I emerge from the flat I have a surreal vision. Usually I’m blessed with a wonderful glimpse of the Zattere across the canal through the archway at the end of my narrow alleyway, but today all I can see is a gleaming white tower-block, seemingly constructed overnight, obliterating the pristine view, blocking out the sky “like a genetically reconstructed dinosaur that has escaped from Jurassic Park and is wreaking havoc in the world of human beings” (Coles). And it’s moving too—or is it the Giudecca moving?

If the wholehearted Chinese adoption of tourism is hardly an unmitigated blessing, the march of “progress” and “development” seems unstoppable—compounded by the commodifying agendas of cultural heritage projects. All this is one reason why even scholars of Daoism might pause before adding to the unchanging image of ancient grandeur, rather incorporating ethnography into their accounts.

This week’s dinner-party

Guests for my fantasy dinner-party this week (Friday to Monday):

Jaroslav Hašek, Stella Gibbons, Flann O’Brien, Harpo Marx, Keith Richards, Viv Albertine, Zoe Williams, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Caitlin Moran, Diane Morgan [far-fetched stage name of Philomena Cunk—Ed.], and Bridget Christie.

Dress optional. 1859 for 1900. That gives them 41 years.

It might be churlish of me to worry that Hašek and Myles might not shine in a large mixed group. But hey, it’s a fantasy.

Buildings and music

Thinking back to my student years, I feel rather bad how I took Cambridge for granted—not least its architecture, such as the astounding ancient edifices that served as concert venues for us. Buildings like King’s College chapel only came to mean more to me later, when we were often condemned to performing in slick soulless concert halls—the airport lounges of WAM, where mere scientific “acoustics” rule OK. Of course, some of the older concert halls have acquired a patina—I think of Alan Bennett’s attachment to Leeds Town Hall (for the journey home, see here).

In Oxford I always loved the miniature Holywell music room, but again I somehow took it for granted. Built in 1748, it’s probably the oldest purpose-built music room in Europe, and Britain’s first concert hall. Wood is good—anyway it’s a wonderful room, both intimate and austere.


Not for the usual reasons, I remember rather little about the 60s (as they say), but I did go to a beautiful concert there around 1972 with the Allegri string quartet, led by my teacher Hugh Maguire. I love the way Hugh played the Mendelssohn A minor quartet. Actually, I love the way he played everything—here’s my tribute to him.

Oxford is also blessed with Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian theatre, where I’ve done many memorable concerts.

And then in London there’s the Royal Albert Hall—its in-the-round shape, with the arena, again encouraging a close relationship with the Proms audience (cf. the 18th-century Rotunda). Both building and audience somehow produce a special kind of silence. In Barcelona, the Palau de la Música Catalana has a wonderful atmosphere.

Broadening the theme to sporting performance, the Centre Court at Wimbledon is an exhilarating arena.

Centre Court

On the Li family Daoists’ 2013 tour of Germany our most evocative venue was the Peterskirche in Heidelberg (see also here, under “The reform era”).

Indoor venues are contradictory. In the concert hall, where one “shares intimate and personal cultural moments with strangers“, the very size of the venue seems to mitigate against such intimacy, all the more since the audience is seated in long impersonal rows. The atmosphere of a jazz club, sitting cosily with drinks around little tables, is far more conducive; but economics, and snobbery, make it an unlikely format for WAM.

Of course, rather little music-making in the world takes place in purpose-built concert halls, and not so much of it even indoors. Try Chinese temple fairs, Moroccan ahouach, Andalucian flamenco, or the various ritual sites at a Navajo ceremony… And dingy low-ceilinged basements can host magical events too; venues like the Łódź YMCA, the Wigan Casino, or a church hall may make numinous locations for meaningful performance.

See also Consecrating the sacred space, and What is serious music?!.

Dragging the icon to the trash


For the late great Christopher Hitchens—never one for blind hagiography—the deaths in quick succession of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa (“a simpering Bambi narcissist and a thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf”) were like a red rag to a bull:

How cute that Hitchens was unfairly misquoted as calling Teresa “a lying, thieving Albanian dwarf.” Not lying, merely thieving and fanatical—so that’s all right then…

“Dragging the icon to the trash” is also a suitable metaphor for some biographies, such as Tony Palmer’s film (and book) Menuhin: a family portrait.

Talking of haphazard links through death date, few would think of connecting Lin Zhongshu and Chuck Berry.



A vast new “development”

Hanzhuang chui 93

Last year Ian Johnson described the staggeringly vast plan for the economic expansion of Beijing and Tianjin into Hebei, creating a megalopolis of 130 million people.

More recently, south of Beijing a new planned Special Economic Zone called Xiongan has been announced, enveloping the Hebei counties of Xiongxian and Anxin. On a par with Shenzhen and the Pudong New Area of Shanghai, it is projected to cover 2,000 sq km—nearly three times the size of New York.

This is the very area where our 1990s’ fieldwork revealed some of the most lively village ritual traditions, now described in my two major articles on Xiongxian and the Baiyangdian lake region.

The news is not just stimulating property developers and investors from all over, but most locals will inevitably be excited about the transformation this will bring to their economic circumstances. Not just 100 or 50 years ago, but when we were doing fieldwork there in the 1990s, it was a poor rural area.

Online, jokes were made about how Xiongan men were suddenly the most desirable in the country thanks to their newfound wealth.
One post that went viral on social media showed a man jauntily posing for the camera, purportedly advertising himself as marriage material.
“Xiongan New Area marriage notice: Male, 53 years old… has two acres of land in Xiongxian,” the caption read.

Like the district itself, this story will continue to grow. Spare a thought for local amateur ritual culture, already buffeted by successive waves of Maoism and capitalism. Recent coverage includes Ian Johnson’s visit, an article from Sixth Tone, and this from Andrew Stokols.

Daoist ritual in north Shanxi


For Daoist ritual in north Shanxi, in addition to my works, and those of Wu Fan, the recent book of Chen Yu 陈瑜 is useful:

  • Jinbei Daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu 晋北道教科仪音乐研究 [Daoist ritual music of north Shanxi] (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2015).

It provides details of groups in the counties of Yanggao, Datong xian, Guangling, Hunyuan, Tianzhen, Shuozhou, Yingxian, Shanyin, and Xinzhou, going beyond Part One of my In search of the folk Daoists of north China. I’ve introduced many of these groups in articles listed under Local ritual.

While written in the dry format of Yuan Jingfang’s “music-genre” system (see my book, p. 365), it gives details of ritual sequences, beyond the narrow pigeonhole of “music”.

Notably, for scholars of ritual texts, Appendix 5 (pp.282–377) contains a useful collection of manuals from various groups.

One little caveat: the title of the opening manual in the Li family collection is a fiction. Lacking a title on the cover (or any memory of one), they call it “hymn volume” (zantan ben), as I explain in my book (pp.208–9, 375); while it does indeed contain many texts related to the yankou, Chen’s title is made up.

There is still plenty more to explore in the region—even the Shuozhou Daoists deserve a multi-volume study of their own.

Two Chinese–English novels

Two novels over half a century apart give a flavour of changing Chinese experiences in Britain.

Lao She cover

Mr Ma and son
Lao She
(1899–1966) wrote Mr Ma & Son: a sojourn in London in the 1920s—while he was a young lecturer at SOAS, indeed. At a time when Chinese in the West were represented by “yellow devil” stereotypes like Fu Manchu and Anna May Wong, he evokes the difficulties of mutual comprehension, and the gulf between Chinese workers in the East End and patriotic students trying to negotiate their place in the world—all still ongoing issues.

Back in China, after leading the All-China Resistance Association of writers and artists during the Japanese occupation, Lao She enjoyed another sojourn in the USA until returning to Beijing in 1949. He perhaps made a more inevitable recruit to the political cause after Liberation than the great musicologist Yang Yinliu, but all such intellectuals had to negotiate a tortuous path. In the 1950s he got to know the Hrdličkas in Beijing.

Lao She’s Afterword (“How I wrote Mr Ma & Son”) is full of sophisticated and modest reflections on the encounter between of classical and vernacular style—all the more impressive in view of the later indignities inflicted by the simplistic prose style of Maoist ideology, not to mention his own brutal fate at the outset of the Cultural Revolution.

Mo cover

Sour sweet
Timothy Mo’s 1982 novel Sour sweet is a brilliant evocation of the insecurity of newly-arrived Cantonese immigrants to the UK in the 1960s. Concerned with a different set of questions to intellectuals like Lao She, they seek to survive with their little takeaway business. Little by little, ineluctably, the seemingly separate family worlds of innocent domesticity and Triad brutality clash in shockingly graphic violence.

It’s also very funny. Mo captures the language of new arrivals brilliantly. They put up notices in the restaurant:




Seeing that Mui and the lorry driver have brought a crate of Coca Cola: “Ah,” said Lily, “Whore Lock!” (or a close phonetic representation to that effect), identifying one of the products in question by its Cantonese name.

‘Eh?’ said the driver, considerably startled.

Lily smiled her charming (for westerners) smile. “You like Whore Lock all the time, too, hah! It’s the real thing!” she quoted enthusiastically. Mui averted what might have turned into major embarrassment all around. “My sister not understand English too much,” she explained. “you please excuse.”

Reminiscent of my mentor Paul Kratochvil’s story is an exclamation that Mui hears from one of the truck drivers:

Far kin aid her!

for which she supplies a suitably Confucian interpretation:

May distant relatives come to her assistance.

(Despite a thorough trawl, I haven’t retrieved the original quote, so this is my memory of it. Anyone?)

And Lily’s alarm when she learns of the Terror Pin at her young son Man Kee’s school:

Lily was horrified but not basically surprised. Typical of the English: their discipline was either lax to the point of non-existence or ferocious—like beating Hong Kong factory workers senseless with truncheons and then giving them free medical treatment. The Terror Pin was kept in a glass box of its own. (Display of force often eliminated need for its exercise.) Occasionally, it was brought out when as an additional refinement of torture the children was actually allowed to handle it! She discovered it when she saw Man Kee taking some winter greens in his satchel, obviously as some kind of propitiatory offering, similar to the symbolic offering of lettuce (money) to the New Year dragon. Concerned, as what mother wouldn’t have been, Lily examined Son’s adorable arms for tell-tale puncture marks but hadn’t found any. Good boy.

For some discussion, see here, and this weighty analysis of the book’s Confucian—and Daoist—themes is intriguing. The Daoist link also features here. For Chinese music in Soho, click here.

A sequel to Keats and Chapman


One that Myles should have said:

I once saw a party from Bilbao get stuck in a revolving door.
Hence the saying, Don’t put all your Basques in one exit.

There are several versions of this, but I like this one as it also reminds me of the Czech definition of a Hungarian:

Someone who enters a revolving door behind you and comes out in front of you.

See also here.

Zadok the Priest

Or Zodak, as he’s affectionately known to musos.

Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon King

Names worthy of The magic roundabout. To cite Monty Python and the Holy Grail,

Ooh! I didn’t know we ’ad a king—I thought we were an autonomous collective.

Of course, joking aside, if the lyrics sound silly to us (OK then—to me), to less irreverent 18th-century ears they would have sounded imposing. Anyway, they are blown away by the music, one of the most exhilarating, spine-tingling openings to a piece ever. It always inspires reverence, even in me:

Two Bertrand Russell stories


Further to my early music story, there’s a major sub-genre of “Guess ’oo I ’ad in my cab the other day”, including this:

Know ’oo I ’ad in the back of my cab the other day? That Bertrand Russell geezer! So I asks him, “So what’s it all about then, Bertie?” And do you know, he couldn’t tell me!

In 1948 the great man survived a plane crash into the sea off the Norwegian coast. A journalist phoned him and asked,

 “When you were in the water, did you not think of mysticism and logic?”
“No” I said.
“What did you think of?” the voice persisted.
“I thought the water was cold”, I said, and put down the receiver.

Ashiq: the last troubadour

*Distressing update*

After all these years when the common response to a comment on the Uyghurs of Xinjiang was “The WHAT of WHAT?”, their new-found global fame is yet more unfortunate. It’s hard to believe now that the screening of this film, less than two years ago, came at a time when the Uyghurs were little known, when films like this could still be made about groups that were still active, and still seemed relevant; when dedicated Uyghur scholars and performers still had room to maintain their culture. Following their pervasive silencing since then, among a host of fine articles on the appalling current situation in Xinjiang, see here, and here, including Rachel Harris’s comments on the disappearance of Sanubar Tursun. Among many articles on the distinguished ethnographer and film-maker Rahilä Dawut, another victim of the purge, is this. Click here for remarkable videos of Sufi Naqshbandi ritual among the Uyghurs. For more, see my roundup of posts on Uyghur culture.

I’ve left the review below as I first wrote it.

* * *

In my little list of ethnographic films, I mentioned Liu Xiangchen 刘湘晨, an outstanding film-maker based in Urumqi in Xinjiang. On Monday at SOAS, as part of a conference on Islamic soundscapes in China (itself part of an excellent project[1] he attended a screening of his Ashiq: the last troubadour (2010, 122 mins), one of several films by him on various ethnic groups in Xinjiang.

Filmed mainly between 2003 and 2007, Liu’s four-hour version of Ashiq was shown last year at the splendid Shanghai Centre for Ritual Music, with a detailed discussion (which, ominously, has since disappeared from the web).

Here’s an 8-minute trailer:

and an introduction.

The “exotic” ethnic minorities are always a more popular research topic than the somewhat mundane Han Chinese; I would say, only I’d sound like the UKIPs, that the Han Chinese have become a minority in their own country—which would be just as absurd, given that, in the face of vast Han Chinese immigration to Xinjiang, it is precisely the Uyghurs who feel threatened. But I envy scholars of the minorities the stunning scenery, and the costumes—and if they no longer wear them, they’re used to being asked to put them on for the cameras…

I’m now a little confused about what ashiq actually means among the Uyghurs. Simply stated, they are Sufi mendicants who congregate at the shrines of Islamic saints. From the YouTube blurb:

Some ashiq are ironworkers, others are beggars, merchants, grave diggers, barbers, woman ashiq, Sheikh (the Islamic clergy) and so on.

As Rachel Harris notes, [2] the term may be a rather modern usage for people once more commonly known as dervishes or qalandar. It’s taxonomy again.

Liu described them as marginalized, a minority themselves, but it looks like a substantial phenomenon. And marginalization is their very raison d’être: they thrive on flouting social norms (cf. Merriam). The subtitle “the last troubadour” seems unsuitable, not only since the use of a (largely secular) term like troubadour is hardly useful, but because the film doesn’t seem to show that they are dying out. Maybe they are, but it repeats a mantra chanted by anthropologists since early times, claiming to have discovered a pristine tradition that is endangered, rather than noting constant change.

For an outsider, the film, like that of De Martino in south Italy, may also shock. For the total novice, it will just amaze: didn’t the CCP destroy religion over sixty years ago—all the more in Xinjiang or Tibet? At least it shows what a huge task the CCP faces. Are we to celebrate the slow spread of state education and modernization?

The nomination of the ashiq for Intangible Cultural Heritage status is captioned early in the film without comment, though (like that of the Uyghur meshrep) [3] it will seem so very incongruous; perhaps it serves as a kind of amulet to protect the film from official criticism. As with the Han Chinese, a majority of genres selected for the ICH are grounded in ritual, impossible to reconcile with the state’s goals without destroying them—which may indeed be the idea. It is the duty of the ethnographer to reflect such micro-societies faithfully, like any other. It goes without saying that it is no use to regard them purely as “musical cultures” detached from their social roots.

The conceit of academic objectivity may make ethnographers seem to refrain from either celebration or criticism, yet at the same time (to return to De Martino), some may be shocked, pondering the link between religion and poverty—an obstacle to those social changes that can genuinely improve people’s lives, health, life-expectancy, and so on?

I gave an instance for the Han Chinese in my Shaanbei book (p.86):

Back in the county-town, returning to our hostel one evening, we switch on the TV to find a documentary about coal-mining accidents, which are reported nightly. There are some rather fine investigative programmes on TV these days, and one main theme of this one is how the response of the village Communist Party leadership, rather than considering improving safety measures, has been to give funds to construct a new village temple in the hope of divine protection. OK, in this case the programme happens to fit into an agenda of rationalism against superstition, a view we sometimes feel inclined to challenge, but tonight I can only go along with the presenter’s lament.

One doesn’t have to be a Maoist apparatchik to worry about this. Observers will draw their own conclusions.

Returning to the Uyghurs, the gender issue is sobering too. There’s one fine scene of a group of female ashiq, but as Rachel Harris (whose next book, including a study of female religious groups, I await eagerly) pointed out at the screening, only a female film-maker could get proper access to such groups—like Rahilä Dawut (on whom see here).

The film suggests so many complex issues. It gives full coverage to songs, and texts, not just sonic icing on the cake. The ashiq aren’t big on cake, but some weed helps them commune.

Their basic accompaniment is the sapaye, paired sticks pierced with metal rings, played in a kind of stylized self-flagellation, notable in various degrees in both Islamic and Han Chinese ritual cultures (for one gory instance from Fujian, see Ken Dean’s film Bored in heaven).

The tear-stained faces of the ashiq as they sing may remind us that the expression of suffering is a quasi-universal feature of music-making. But it’s always culturally mediated, with differing implications; Rachel Harris again explores the significance of “performative tears” both for Uyghur and other cultures (for the Bach Passions, see here).

The sudden, startling, introduction of scenes from the bustling modern capital of Urumqi is effective. I didn’t pick up hints to change in the rural scene, which must be constantly occurring too, so the film may seem merely to suggest a contrast between (“backward”?) rural traditions and harsh urban commodification. But the structure works well, right down to the final scenes with a birth and a death, the latter in an extraordinary landscape.

I pen these thoughts as a mere outsider. Talking of which, one also wonders how all this relates to the old rejection of ethnographic outsiders, summarised by Nettl as “You will never understand our music”. But here, as with the late great Zhou Ji 周吉 (1943–2008), one of the consultants on the film, Uyghurs seem to have few reservations about certain Han Chinese (or Westerners, indeed) documenting their lives—as long as they are clearly in sympathy and willing to engage fully. Liu Xiangchen, though not himself Uyghur, was also advised by Dilmurat Omar of the Institute of Ethnology and Sociology at Xinjiang Normal University.

[1] I am grateful to Rachel Harris, estimable authority on Uyghur culture and music, for pointing me towards several sources. As usual, it goes without saying that I am entirely responsible for my interpretations here.
[2] “Theory and practice in contemporary Central Asian maqām traditions” (forthcoming).
[3] Note this important report. See also under Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam.



By contrast with many stories being published today, here’s an apparently genuine story of the choir of King’s College Cambridge on a tour of Australia around 1980:

On a free day, a few of the more enterprising undergraduate choristers, all dressed up in their fancy Chetwynd Society blazers, hired a car and drove off into the outback. Suddenly a kangaroo leapt out in the road in front of them, and they couldn’t help hitting it. Stopping to assess the damage they found that the kangaroo, though unscathed, was dead. With typical Cambridge drôlerie, one of them took off his blazer and put it on the kangaroo, propping it up so they could take a group photo.

At this point, it transpired that the kangaroo wasn’t dead at all, but merely stunned [Altogether now, the parrot sketch—Ed.]. Coming round, it hopped off at high speed into the distance—with blazer, passport, and chequebook, making excellent its escape (in the words of Flann O’Brien).

It was never seen again—though one imagines it telling the tale as it sips cocktails on a Spanish beach…

If anyone can confirm or refine this story, please do!

For an intriguing parallel from David Sedaris, see here. Further musos-on-tour stories (under WAM humour tag) include LOOK!, An orchestral classic, and The Mary Celeste.