Wu Fan has not only become a brilliant fieldworker, but (sure, this would be related) has a lively mind, with an inexhaustible supply of jokes. Setting off from some casual phrase in conversation, she links stories up in a long chain. Her book is a valuable companion to my publications on Yanggao—as a prelude to one of her classic lines, here I adapt part of my Introduction to it:
When my trusted long-standing fieldwork companion Zhang Zhentao brought along a young female student on our 2003 trip to Yanggao, I was none too pleased. I had a tried-and-tested routine of fieldwork with Zhang, and was afraid that Wu Fan’s lack of experience would get in the way. Coming from a comfortable urban background, she confesses that the conditions of rural Shanxi were a bit of a shock.
But she soon proved well able to endure the tribulations of fieldwork. After a few days staying at the bustling Xujiayuan temple fair—trudging through the mud, trying to handle complicated guanxi among the gujiang shawm bands, chasing around taking in all the diverse festive behaviour while finding time to talk to all kinds of people, after late nights recording the yankou ritual, sleep interrupted by bits of roof falling on our heads and huge moths practising their kamikaze bombing routine on us helpless victims on the kang brick-bed—she was in her element. Shock and novelty give way to familiarity, and soon she was feeling at ease.
It had been a bold move for her to abandon the security of a good job in Wuhan to embark on the dubious rewards of ethnomusicology—I hope she doesn’t regret it! If her background of “Western food” in a large city didn’t prepare her for fieldwork, her experience working in TV did perhaps give her one advantage: she has a natural ease when talking with people, making friends, earning respect, crucial skills that aren’t so easy to learn from a manual on fieldwork technique. Her rapport with people comes into its own when she visits poor blind musicians. Like her elder teachers, she really cares about these disadvantaged people. Apart from all the hard grind, it’s useful if fieldwork can also be fun, and moving. With her, it is—but it never stops her from analysing objectively.
I have always been immensely fortunate in my Chinese fieldwork colleagues, but before my very eyes Wu Fan transformed from a timid pupil into someone whom I could trust to ask all the questions on my mind, and more—to the point that I quickly became even more superfluous than usual, and I now feel I can look forward to an early retirement. Rolling her eyes every time she realized I was about to try and interrupt the natural flow of conversation to suggest an avenue that she already had on her agenda—all in good time, Zhong laoshi… Behind a demure exterior lurks a ferocious intellectual appetite.
I won’t dwell on the difficulties faced by a female fieldworker in a male-dominated society: the scholarly field looks increasingly dominated by women, and Wu Fan has some astute comments on gender issues. One of my most precious videos is of her comical early attempts to forge a bond with a group of tough young gujiang by perching insecurely behind their drum-kit to accompany them in a pop music medley—a sobering instance of participant observation for our times.
If we ever get round to making any useful general observations about Chinese culture, or even north Chinese ritual culture, it will need an awareness of all the local historical, economic, political, and personal factors that make up the experiences of millions of overlapping communities, and will require a whole new army of scholars with Wu Fan’s determination and aptitude.
So on that first trip of hers to Yanggao in 2003, there we were with the Li band at the Lower Liangyuan temple fair, filming the whole sequence of rituals throughout the day and taking the opportunity between them to seek Li Manshan’s wisdom. It had been a long day, but now we were looking forward to the evening Communicating the Lanterns (guandeng 觀燈) ritual. The writing of this term varies: in many ritual manuals it appears as “Closing the Lanterns” (guandeng 關燈)—which in colloquial Chinese means “switch off the light”.
After supper we all retired to the scripture hall to rest, as Li Manshan prepared while Golden Noble adjusted the tuning of their sheng and Wu Mei checked his reeds. We were all tired, but as time went by there was still no sign when the ritual might begin.
Li Manshan’s son Li Bin, always most solicitous for his visitors, asked Wu Fan:
“Aren’t you tired? Wouldn’t you like to go back and get some sleep?”
Wu Fan came out with the classic line, punning on the double meaning of guandeng:
“How can I get to sleep if you don’t switch out the light?!”