The versatility of the Chinese peasant

stool folded

Folding stool, Li Manshan, late 1960s.


On tour again with Li Manshan and the band! Just wonderful to be with them again. More notes on our trip to follow soon, but meanwhile:

I’ve always been amazed by my Chinese peasant friends’ ability to make things work in straitened conditions back home. Their DIY skills are wide-ranging, from fixing dodgy electrical connections to tweaking the reeds of the guanzi oboe.

One of my favourite illustrations of this (my book, p.21) is the way Li Manshan conscientiously mended his satellite dish—surely a natural skill of Daoists, given their understanding of constellations and experience in Pacing the Void!

Also from my book (p.134):

One day at a funeral as Li Manshan sits calmly on the kang brick-bed of our poor host, preparing yet more documents for ritual burning, I notice the charming paintings on the wall, framed by maze-like decorations. Li Manshan recalls, “I used to like making that pattern—I did some for our house in 1969.”

In 2013 he gave me a lovely little wooden folding stool that he made in the late 1960s. His mates had seen one in in a nearby village, so he walked over there and took a good look at it, drawing a design. Back home, he couldn’t find the right kind of wood, so he talked the reluctant village storekeeper into giving him some. It’s only willow—cypress would be better, as he observes. Anyway, it shows Li Manshan’s versatility.

By now the village little opera band was transformed into a propaganda troupe, known as “club” (julebu), but the cadres were lukewarm about promoting it. Li Manshan, despite his class label, went along sometimes. Assuming that he had sprung from the womb with a fag dangling from his mouth, I was amazed to learn that he only began smoking at this time, when the others kept offering them to him. He has made up for lost time since then. On a brighter note, he began brushing his teeth occasionally.

One day the stool may end up as a priceless museum relic, folk art. For now it’s a lovely gift from an eighth-generation master Daoist to a wannabe foreign disciple; when he made it, it was a little display of creativity and individualism in a period of tedium and repression, by a young man from a family under a cloud, trying to weather the storms of Maoism.

6 thoughts on “The versatility of the Chinese peasant

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