Over our various foreign tours since 2005, apart from the core group, we’ve used various people as the sixth member, and Li Manshan’s pupil Wang Ding (on vocals and gongs) fits in well.
Whereas before Liberation the sons of Daoists began learning from the age of six or seven, since the 1990s they only begin when in their 20s at least, whether they start from scratch or adapt from the background of gujiang shawm bands. Li Manshan laments that what few pupils he now has only take it up for the money—he considers them unreliable, perfunctory, jobsworths. In 2010 he took a pupil, a twenty-six-sui-old man, but by 2011 he wasn’t “coming out much.”
By then Li Manshan had another pupil who had been learning since earlier in 2011: bespectacled Wang Ding (b.1975), from nearby West Shuangzhai. He left school after junior secondary; by 2013 he had two children. Since West Shuangzhai has its own fine group of hereditary Daoists, he started learning with Yuan Lishan there, but he soon began to get more work with Li Manshan, so informally became his pupil.
Wang Ding takes the job quite diligently. He has a serious demeanour—almost too serious, the Daoists felt. I liked him, but at first Li Manshan didn’t rate him much. It’s not just a question of a talent for singing or instrumental music, or simply looking the part when taking one’s place before the coffin. Fitting in socially is also a major criterion—just as in a London orchestra (or any social group), personality counts.
Happily, by 2013 Wang Ding had grown in confidence. As he learned the ropes, Li Manshan wrote out some hymn texts for him, so he mastered the basic vocal repertoire. As of 2015 he had learned most hymns, and sings well, making a useful addition to the vocals; he sometimes plays the drum on procession, directs the kin for Transferring Offerings, and he decorates altars too. And now he is far more relaxed and sociable; Li Manshan has come to value his diligence and sense of humour, so he too has become one of the lads, and is now a regular member.
After all the complexity, intensity, and exuberance of the main programme, in France we giggle over my inspired idea for an encore in Germany four years ago: the dangdang gong player should come onstage all on his own and solemnly play a solo, one note per slow beat, taking a bow at the end. The audience might even buy it as a somber and austere meditation:
The Great Music is sparse in sound
This was Wang Ding’s first trip outside China—indeed, outside Shanxi. It was great to have him in France, and I’m proud for him.