Learning: Hu Zhihou

The guanzi oboe, leader of the shengguan melodic ensemble that accompanies temple and folk liturgy throughout north China, also has a foothold in the conservatoires—though it is far less popular a solo instrument there than the erhu or pipa. Just as I noted for the suona shawm, there is quite a gulf between folk and conservatoire versions of the guanzi.

Back in 1987, my official “unit” for my second half-year stint in China was the Central Conservatoire in Beijing. My main supervisor there was the great Yuan Jingfang, who (resigning herself to my frequent excursions to the countryside) managed to teach me a lot about the instrumental ensemble music on which she is the leading expert. My first book Folk Music of China was in large part a result of my studies with her.

While I already realized that folk ritual and instruments were to be learned through constant ritual experience rather than in the arid setting of the classroom, I thought I’d better show willing by taking the odd lesson from the guanzi master Hu Zhihou, himself a pupil of the great Hebei Daoist master Yang Yuanheng in the 1950s.

Turning up for lessons every Monday morning at 8am, the warm-up breathing exercise Teacher Hu set me was to smoke a couple of cigarettes with him. This was a real challenge for me, since at the ripe old age of 33 I had still only succeeded in training myself in the consumption of alcohol—absorbing that aspect of my violin teacher Hugh Maguire’s education but not his cavalier smoking habit.

Even my exploratory first fieldtrips to the countryside in 1986 were conducted without the social lubricant of sharing cigarettes. I was now becoming a fully-fledged yanjiusheng (研究生 “research student”, or 烟酒生 “scholar of fags and booze”)

So, egged on Teacher Hu, I obediently puffed away in the classroom before spluttering into the guanzi, failing to make much progress in coaxing more than a weedy squawk out of the poor instrument. Fiddling around with reeds and working out fingerings certainly stood me in good stead for my later (passive) immersion in the world of folk guanzi playing, but I can hardly claim to have made the most of his wisdom.

When in 2013 I brought the Li family Daoist band to Beijing to give a recital at my alma mater, I was delighted to find Hu Zhihou in the audience.

He had always been a keen student of folk guanzi playing. While I was “studying” with him, he was leading the suave conservatoire version of the Zhihua temple repertoire—albeit rather distant from the haunting original style. And like Yuan Jingfang, he had made an early  fieldtrip to Yanggao, where he admired the playing of Liu Zhong in Li Qing’s Daoist band—we were all spellbound by Liu Zhong then, in the days before it transpired that there were other Daoist guanzi players there who were even more respected.

Erqing and WM

Wu Mei and Erqing, 2009.

So now I was delighted that Hu Zhihou could relish the brilliant playing of Wu Mei. As I introduced them after the concert, I observed boldly:

“Teacher Hu, I must admit that you never managed to teach me the guanzi! But one thing you did teach me really well, for which I am eternally grateful, is smoking!”

Sure, it’s possible to do fieldwork in rural China without it (I refrain from drinking “white spirit” there, for instance, so I don’t completely go native), but the conviviality of the exchange of cigarettes may seem a necessary temporary expedient—a sacrifice for our art.

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