Great Proms of our time: how wonderful to have been part of the AAM Prom in 2004, with Rachel Podger and Andrew Manze, the yin and yang of baroque violin, playing the Bach double. Alas, I now find it’s disappeared from YouTube, but here’s their 1996 recording:
It’s a piece that has constantly been rediscovered by audiences over my lifetime. For my generation, brought up on Oistrakh and Menuhin (1958—canonical then, now sounding so joyless as to be hard to take), more recent HIP renditions, no less heartfelt, have given it a new lease of life.
For the 1929 recording by Arnold and Alma Rosé, click here.
I knew Menuhin’s jazz duets with Grappelli, but not the latter’s 1937 Paris recording of the Bach with Eddie South—accompanied by Django Reinhardt! Alas, it’s just the first movement:
A new page (under Themes in Menu) introduces changing ritual life around Xi’an, setting forth from my visits since 1986 and the work of the late great Li Shigen.
It accompanies the new track 11 on the audio playlist, with comments here.
As so often for north China, all the musicological studies are very desirable, but there should be far more to it than that. It can’t be left only to musicologists—it’s just as much a topic for historians, ethnographers, and scholars of religion.
Talking of Roaming in Paradise, perfect music for summer nights (cf. Berlioz) is Mozart’s C major piano concerto—not least the amazing vista that miraculously unfolds in the finale, introduced by an abrupt cadence (from 3.47):
I’m by no means an early music purist, but I really find the fortepiano more expressive here—or rather, the way it suggests the music can be played. All Mozart’s amazing late concertos are really piano and wind quintets, but melting into those string entries (1.03, 1.52) is a spine-tingling experience.
By contrast with the disembodied fallacy of “autonomous music”, our experiences of all kinds of music are always an accumulation of associations. Those sessions with Malcolm Bilson at St John’s Smith Square (in interludes between my fieldwork in China) are a happy memory. It also reminds me of accompanying Roy Howat (also a brilliant Ravel specialist) with Charles Groves* directing the Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra during May Week (which is of course two weeks in June, as Clive James reminds us) in 1974. And Robert Levin’s Mozart is in a league of its own.
Sharing the piece with Natasha, always attuned to classical beauty alongside her taste for icons and electronica, was magical too.
*He had just been knighted. I haven’t written “Sir Charles Groves”, not so much out of resistance to antiquated honorifics, but because it would only remind me of the Sir Simon Rattle story. Oh go on then.
As I snap remorselessy at the heels of the heritage shtick, my cavils revolve around the Chinese concept of mei(you) wenhua 没(有)文化 “lacking in culture”. It’s a cliché referring to people’s degree of modern state education. Even peasants deprecate themselves with the term, though it is precisely the riches of their quite separate culture that “educated” urban pundits purport to admire—before trying to shoehorn it into their own.
Li Bin’s brilliant joke (keep watching after the final credits of my film) subtly satirizes the gulf between peasants and intellectuals. Here’s a fuller English version (my book, p.ix):
So there’s this Ph.D. student on a long-distance train journey, sitting in the same compartment as a peasant.
He’s dead bored, so to pass the time, he says to the peasant,
“I know, let’s play a game. We both ask each other one question. If you can’t answer my question, you have to give me 100 kuai; if I can’t answer yours, then I have to give you 200—because I have a Higher Level of Culture, don’t you know?”
The peasant goes, “Oh right—umm, OK then.”
The student says smugly, “You can start, because I have a Higher Level of Culture!” So the peasant thinks for a bit and asks,
“OK then, I got one—so…
What is the animal with three legs that flies in the sky?”
The student racks his brains. “Huh?? An animal with three legs that flies in the sky? Hey, there isn’t one, surely… Ahem… Crikey—you’ve got me there. OK, I give up, I guess I have to pay you 200 kuai.” He hands the cash over to the peasant.
The student, still bemused, goes on, “An animal with three legs that flies in the sky… Go on then, you tell me, what is this animal?”
The peasant scratches his head and goes,
“Hmm… nope, I dunno. OK then, I can’t answer your question either—here’s 100 kuai!”
As local traditions continue to be distorted, large areas of the world are in danger of being turned into a kitsch Disneyland theme park. A certain amount depends on the “level of culture” of state bureaucrats all along the chain; in China the central ICH authorities do indeed organize “training sessions” for regional cultural cadres, with limited success.
The whole system seems inherently flawed. Local, um, heritage bearers have their own ideas about what to do with their traditions—and given the dubious benefits and evident dangers of the state system, with its own “lack of culture”, people like me might hope they could be left alone to do so. But beguiled by the chimera of fame and fortune, locals—in China and elsewhere—are all too easily hijacked by the power of state machinery and tourism.
Anyway, from ridiculous to sublime—a flippant pretext to extol the glories of Bach:
Not a lot of people know that Bach had a dog called Potentia. Hence the movement in the Magnificat:
Fetch it, Potentiam!
And this is perhaps a suitable place for “most highly flavoured gravy”, a favourite remoulding of “most highly favoured lady” from The angel Gabriel by choristers Down the Ages—see here, with a link to Joseph Needham and Cambridge.
As this turns into a lengthy review, I ponder why I’ve been trying, in an amateurish way, to educate myself about the traumas of modern Europe—beyond the obvious answer, that we all must.
I guess it’s related to my studies of China, and my engagement with the lives of people like Li Manshan; a feeling of duty to report the sufferings of ordinary people I encounter in China—including not just their ritual life but their tribulations under Maoism, with famine, struggle meetings, and labour camps; and my growing awareness of the sufferings of Europeans over a similar period. I don’t want to spoil your holidays (or mine), but as we relish the cultures and scenery of these countries, we shouldn’t forget the ghosts that haunt the landscape.
Among the innumerable studies of the Nazi concentration camp system, Primo Levi is justly famed—actually, I find the sequel The truce just as disturbing as If this is a man, after the camp is finally liberated yet their Odyssey of suffering continues, homecoming ever receding. But I’ve also been deeply moved by
Helm’s account is based on amazingly thorough research and interviews with both victims and perpetrators—much of which was submerged until the end of the Cold War. Of course a historian’s account will give different, more holistic, perspectives from those of an individual inmate, but in a way I find Helm’s work even more moving than that of Levi. At 823 pages, it’s hideously readable—both balanced (whatever that might mean) and personal, in a way that ideologically-driven accounts such as those of Dikötter (for the degradations of Maoism in China) can’t achieve. Even the excellent index is harrowing.
I suppose I’m not alone in thinking of the whole catastrophe in terms of a few appalling place-names like Auschwitz and Belsen, but along with the focus on Ravensbrück, over the whole six years of its existence, we see how very extensive was the whole network of camps, subcamps, death camps, work camps, transports and marches, scarring the whole landscape.
At its height, Ravensbrück had a population of about 45,000 women; over the six years of its existence around 130,000 women passed through its gates, to be beaten, starved, worked to death, poisoned, executed and gassed.
The book opens with an arresting and complex image:
“The year is 1957. The doorbell of my flat is ringing,” writes Grete Buber-Neumann, a former Ravensbrück prisoner. I open the door. An old woman is standing before me, breathing heavily and missing teeth in the lower jaw. She babbles: “Don’t you know me any more? I am Johanna Langefeld, the former head guard at Ravensbrück.” The last time I had seen her was fourteen years ago in her office at the camp. I worked as her prisoner secretary… She would pray to God to stop the evil happening, but if a Jewish woman came into the office her face would fill with hatred…
So she sits at the table with me. She tells me she wishes she’d been born a man. She talks of Himmler, who she sometimes still calls “Reichsführer”. She talks for many hours, she gets lost in the different years, and tries to explain her behaviour. (1)
The book goes on to tell the stories of Langefeld, Buber-Neumann (who also had the terrible distinction of already having been incarcerated in a Russian gulag), and a tragic cast of inmates and their tormentors, with chapters focusing on personalities over the years.
Among them were political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, “asocials”, “useless mouths”, “idiots”, and (later) children; in this camp only around 10% were Jewish. Its shifting population was international, including Germans, Poles (the largest group), Gypsies, Russians, Czechs, French, Hungarians, Scandinavians, and Dutch, all transported there at various stages.
In April 1944 recent arrivals included evacuees from Majdanek, including more Red Army doctors and nurses, as well as 473 Gypsies transferred from Auschwitz. There were Italian partisans, Slovenians, Greeks, Spaniards, and Danes, as well as three Egyptians and seven Chinese. (419)
They were often in desperate straits even when they arrived.
Ravensbrück guards rowing on the Schwedtsee.
Helm also delves into the lives of guards, doctors, and Blockovas (prisoners—at first often criminals—coopted to carry out the day-to-day work of running the camp). The twice-daily Appell roll-call was an ordeal that regularly led to death, as did stays in the Revier “hospital”.
As she observes, the “asocials”, such as prostitutes (pp.56, 96–108, 417–19, and index), have gone largely undocumented:
Unlike the political women, they left no memoirs. Speaking out after the war would mean revealing the reason for imprisonment in the first place, and incurring more shame. […] The German associations set up after the war to help camp survivors were dominated by political prisoners. And whether they were based in the Communist East or in the West, these bodies saw no reason to help “asocial” survivors. (98)
Perhaps the most sickening story (how might one concoct a hierarchy of inhumanity?) concerns the 86 “rabbits” (mostly from a group of 195 women from Lidice near Prague, deported after the 1942 assassination of Heydrich and the punitive razing of the village), objects of unthinkable medical experiments.  But it’s also moving for the way in which the whole camp later rallied round to protect them from being murdered so that their terrible story could at least be told—miraculously, 63 of them survived. Again, Holm switches tellingly to the present day:
I found Zofia Kawińska in her tenth-floor flat overlooking the cranes of Gdansk shipyard. She was one of the second group of victims of Himmler’s sulphonamide experiments. A tiny, bent figure, she walks with difficulty, and has done since the war. I ask if she still suffers pain from the experiments. “A little,” she says, as she offers tea and biscuits.
She stoops to show the scars on the sides of her legs. “They put the bacteria in, and glass and bits of wood, and they waited.” She looks up and fixes me with deep brown eyes, as if to see if there is any chance that I understand. “But I didn’t suffer as much as some. Everyone in Poland came home with wounds.” (243–4)
Surviving “rabbits”, 1958.
The smuggled letters of the rabbits were among many acts of defiance.
In similar vein, Nikolaus Wachsmann, in KL: a history of the Nazi concentration camps (perhaps the most authoritative study of the whole system), refines the view of “prisoners as blank and apathetic automatons, drained of all free will”, recognizing the heroism of such agency, “however small and constrained”. But he makes an important caveat:
We must resist the temptation to make our encounter with the concentration camps more bearable by sanctifying the prisoners, imagining them as united, unsullied, and unbowed. For the most part, the prisoners’ story is not an uplifting account of the triumph of the human spirit, but a tale of degradation and despair.
For anthropologists, the most extremely disturbing instance of participant observation is Germaine Tillion (1907–2008), an ethnologist who had done fieldwork in Algeria before being arrested while working for the French resistance. In impossible conditions she comprehensively documented the activities of the camp, somehow managing to hide her notebooks from the guards. After the war she continued her research on “the history of the de-civilisation of Europe”, and returned to her work on Algeria; her distinguished career was recognized by many awards.
While in the camp Tillion even composed and staged an operetta Le Verfügbar aux Enfers, a spoof of Orpheus in the underworld,attempting to help prisoners “resist by laughing” (567). It has been revived since 2007—my post Operetta in extremis includes a complete performance from 2011.
As the camp population grew constantly with prisoners evacuated from camps in the path of the Soviet advance, the 959 French prisoners (known as the “vingt-sept mille” after their camp numbers) who joined Tillion from Paris in February 1944, “jeunes filles biens élevées”, were quite unprepared for what awaited them at Ravensbrück, and adapted badly. Quartered in the “slums” of the camp, soon they were more hated than the Poles; their health quickly failed. Another group of women arrived in August from Warsaw, obliterated after the uprising—reporting to their compatriots, “There is no Warsaw. There is nothing left.” Hungarian Jews were deported to Ravensbrück in October. Babies were soon starved to death.
As it becomes clear that the Nazis are in retreat, the final chapters are just as tense. Desperate to conceal their crimes, with order collapsing, their brutality becomes even more extreme and random. The reader wills the inmates to survive.
By the end of March  the camp was “like a mysterious planet”, said Denise Dufournier, “where the macabre, the ridiculous and the grotesque rubbed shoulders in a fantastic irrational chaos.” Karolina Lanckorońska, watching the crematorium flames shooting higher every night, was reminded of the beginning of the Iliad. She was still giving lectures on Charlemagne and Gothic art as children in Block 27 played a game of selecting for the gas chamber. In the Red Army block the women were making red flags to hang out to welcome their liberators, while the painting gang had been sent to redecorate the maternity block, where, according to Zdenka’s lists, 135 more babies were born in March, of which 130 died. (616)
Despite the shocking complicity of the Red Cross in Geneva, the tireless, heroic work of young Norwegian student Wanda Hjort (1921–2017), using her status to visit the camp and establish contacts, at last achieves results as many prisoners scramble to be taken to safety in the White Buses, with the tense diplomatic negotiations of Folke Bernadotte, Swedish representative of the ICRC, with Himmler.
But while the buses were being bombed by the Allies, for the majority of women who remained in the camp to await rescue by the Soviet troops, “Liberation” was also horrifying, with widespread rapes perpetrated on women of all nationalities.
* * *
And so into the whole post-war period. Many survivors returning home found there was no home to return to. The Hamburg trials of 1946–8 (a sideshow to Nuremberg)
achieved a great deal. Within a short time the court […] established in the clearest terms the simple fact that everything about the camp was designed to kill. (706)
But the trials were soon followed by amnesia on both sides of the Iron Curtain—and ignominy for the valiant women in the USSR (pp.287–313, 710–11) and the GDR (339–58, 711–14) who had somehow survived only to descend into a new nightmare, now suspected of being traitors. And until 1950, camps like Buchenwald were adopted by the NKVD as gulags for their own prisoners, with many (not only former Nazis) dying in squalor (MacGregor, Germany, pp.468–72).
By 1948 the Allies had lost their appetite for punishing the Nazis and both the war crimes trials and the process of “de-Nazification”—whereby top Nazi supporters were brought to book and denied top jobs—were shut down. (707)
Wachsmann explores the issue in his fine Prologue:
Survivors … were not stunned into collective silence, as has often been said. On the contrary, a loud, polyphonic voice rose up after liberation. … During the first postwar years, a wave of memoirs hit Europe and beyond, mostly searing testimonies of individual suffering and survival.
But as he notes, popular interest soon waned:
Public memory of the camps was being marginalised by postwar reconstruction and diplomacy. With the front line of the Cold War cutting right through Germany, and turning the two new, opposing German states into strategic allies of the USSR and the United States, talk about Nazi crimes seemed impolitic. … Within ten years of liberation, the camps had been sidelined—the result not of survivors unable to speak, but of a wider audience unwilling to listen.
Though popular interest was rekindled to some extent in the 1960s and 70s, more detailed research only took off from the 1990s—with German scholars taking the lead.
By this stage you will be able to decide whether you can face watching this documentary:
* * *
So only now am I beginning to understand the apparent amnesia that took hold all over Europe during my youth—and which still persists in China for the Maoist era (and other more recent events that it’s prudent to bury). Levi explains it well. His If this is a man was published in 1947, but
fell into oblivion for many years: perhaps also because in all of Europe those were difficult times of mourning and reconstruction and the public did not want to return in memory to the painful years of the war that had just ended.
Republished in 1958, it then became exceptionally successful—although even in the 1970s, as Paul Bailey observes in an Afterword, “Primo Levi wasn’t so much forgotten in Britain as totally unknown.”
How did the great humanising traditions of German history—Dürer, Luther’s Bible, Bach, the Enlightenment, Goethe’s Faust, the Bauhaus, and much, much more—fail to avert this total ethical collapse? (473)
In a Postscript to If this is a man and The truce, Levi gives succinct replies to what have come to be called FAQ, like “Were there prisoners who escaped from the camps? How is it that there were no large-scale revolts?” and “How can the Nazis’ fanatical hatred of the Jews be explained?”.
On “ordinary Germans”, I already noted Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin(now also the subject of a film). Levi expands wisely on the topic “Did the Germans know what was happening?” Observing the authoritarian control of the media (not only in Germany, and not only then), he comments:
Under these conditions it becomes possible […] to erase great chunks of reality. […] However, it was not possible to hide the existence of the enormous concentration camp apparatus from the German people. What’s more, it was not (from the Nazi point of view) even desirable. Creating and maintaining an atmosphere of undefined terror in the country was part of the aims of Nazism. It was just as well for the people to know that opposing Hitler was extremely dangerous. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Germans were confined in the camps from the very first months of Nazism: Communists, Social Democrats, Liberals, Jews, Protestants, Catholics; the whole country knew it and knew that in the camps people were suffering and dying.
Nonetheless, it is true that the great mass of Germans remained unaware of the most atrocious details of what happened later on in the camps. […]
He goes on to cite Eugene Kogon’s Der SS staat:
Even many Gestapo functionaries did not know what was happening in the camps to which they were sending prisoners. The greater majority of the prisoners themselves had a very imprecise idea of how their camps functioned and of the methods employed there. […]
And yet there wasn’t even one German who did not know of the camps’ existence or who believed they were sanatoriums. There were very few Germans who did not have a relative or an acquaintance in a camp, or who did not know, at least, that such a one or such another had been sent to a camp. All the Germans had been witnesses to the multi-form anti-Semitic barbarity. Millions of them had been present—with indifference or with curiosity, with contempt or with downright malign joy—at the burning of synagogues or humiliation of Jews and Jewesses forced to kneel in the street mud. Many Germans knew from the foreign radio broadcasts, and a number had contact with prisoners who worked outside the camps. A good many Germans had had the experience of encountering miserable lines of prisoners in the streets or at the railroad stations. In a circular dated November 8, 1941, and addressed by the head of the police and the Security Services to all… Police officials and camp commandants, one reads: “In particular, it must be noted that during the transfers on foot, for example from the station to the camp, a considerable number of prisoners collapse along the way, fainting or dying from exhaustion… It is impossible to keep the population from knowing about such happenings.”
Not a single German could have been unaware that the prisons were full to overflowing, and that executions were taking place continually all over the country. Thousands of magistrates and police functionaries, lawyers, priests and social workers knew genetically that the situation was very grave. Many businessmen who dealt with the camp SS men as suppliers, the industrialists who asked the administrative and economic offices of the SS for slave-labourers, the clerks in these offices, all knew perfectly well that many of the big firms were exploiting slave labour. Quite a few workers performed their tasks near concentration camps or actually inside them. Various university professors collaborated with the medical research centres instituted by Himmler, and various State doctors and doctors connected with private institutes collaborated with the professional murderers. A good many members of military aviation had been transferred to SS jurisdiction and must have known what went on there. Many high-ranking army officers knew about the mass murders of Russian prisoners of war in the camps, and even more soldiers and member sof the Military Police must have now exactly what terrifying horrors were being perpetrated in the camps, the ghettos, the cities, and the countryside sof the occupied Eastern territories.
In spite of the varied possibilities for information, most Germans didn’t know because they didn’t want to know. Because, indeed, they wanted not to know. It is certainly true that State terrorism is a very strong weapon, very difficult to resist. But it is also true that the German people, as a whole, did not even try to resist. In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers. In this way the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance, which seemed to him sufficient justification of his adherence to Nazism. Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.
Turning to memory, Helm notes:
In the 1950s, as the Cold War began, Ravensbrück fell behind the Iron Curtain, which split survivors—east from west—and broke the history of the camp in two.
The abomination wasn’t the only part of the story that was being forgotten; so was the fight for survival.
Even in Britain, where we enjoyed the rare privilege of not enduring occupation, with all its risks and moral compromises, my parents’ generation—even if they hadn’t personally experienced appalling suffering in active service, or in POW and concentration camps—were all scarred by bombed-out buildings, separation and loss, maimings, food shortages, and terrible insecurity. So I shouldn’t wonder that they were relieved to live in peace, unwilling to inflict traumatic memories on children like me, unwittingly blessed to have been born after the war. But there were survivors all around us—like Maria Bielicka, whom Holm visited at her Earls Court flat in 2010:
She said she had rarely spoken of the camp before. When she first came to live in England after the war nobody believed what she had to say. “Nobody here even wanted to know about the camps.” Since then she has “got on with life”, working for Barclays Bank. (175)
How very much more understandable was this amnesia in an utterly devastated continental Europe. So bruised parents retreated to their well-tended gardens and shiny consumer goods, while their children complacently explored the counter-culture of the 60s. For those who cared, politics was about current problems, at home and in the third world. Meanwhile the nightmare continued in East Europe (and China, and the Soviet Union), as the past was buried and distorted even more mendaciously. Victims and tormentors had to coexist.
With all the vast documentation of mid-20th-century abominations that has eventually surfaced, it is hard to comprehend Steven Pinker’s detailed thesis in The better angels of our nature that violence has declined over millenia, and that the two world wars were but minor spikes in the grizzly statistics (see also his website, and FAQ). At least, it seems cruelly irrelevant; of course Pinker himself would be the first to encourage memory of modern trauma.
Sure, for me to write about Amy is rather like a football journalist pontificating on ballet. But she was one singer I was entranced by at the time, rather than decades too late—her music forming a soundtrack while I was getting to grips with the rituals of the Li family Daoists. I continue to listen to her songs in awe. Here’s You know I’m no good, live from the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2007:
I cheated myself, Like I knew I would, I told you I was trouble, You know that I’m no good
The comparison with Billie Holiday is inevitable. Rather as Billie isn’t considered a blues singer (astounding exception here!), Amy isn’t necessarily associated with jazz. Pop, like WAM (at leastsince the 19th century!), is at the narrow end of the spectrum of variation in world music (instances of the broader end perhaps including Indian raga or Aboriginal dream songs)—whereas Amy sang with the freedom of a jazz instrumentalist. Listening to all her different versions of the same song with the aid of YouTube, no matter how strung-out she was, you can hear how she couldn’t help exploring constantly: she couldn’t bear to sing anything the same way twice. So I guess the commercial pressure to churn out the same old standards “note-perfect” contributed to her decline.
Back to black is one of the all-time great songs: *
Sifting through different versions of her songs is instructive (more so, for instance, than comparing recordings of Zerfließe). The whole album is a masterpiece. This BBC film by Jeremy Marre in the Classic albums series is a fascinating insight into the process of creation and recording—great contributions from producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, instrumentalists and friends, with Amy always a moving presence.
For all the craft that went into perfecting the studio album, Mark Ronson comments,
Sometimes I’d even go to her shows and I found it a little maddening, cos I was like, “We worked so hard and these are the songs and people wanna hear it this way, but everything is slightly improvisational. She would never sing a melody the same way twice, because it’s almost like, “Why would you do that? I already did it that way.”
She was at her best (and this may be a universal truth) in small-scale informal sessions.
Please excuse the BBC bias here (“Typical!“), but her 2007 session for them makes a good compromise, where she is on her best behaviour yet comfortable in the personal setting of Porchester Hall, with her home crowd.
I make but a paltry effort to control my addiction to exclamation marks (!). In my defence I cite Mahler himself— I recall the instructions in his scores as being liberally sprinkled with them. Now that I come to seek instances, they’re not so ubiquitous, but here are some examples:
Vorschlage möglichst kurz!
And, like a red rag to a bull for the horns (sic) or clarinets, the immortal
Such exclamation marks add a personal touch—we can feel the composer–conductor communicating with his musicians. At the climax of Der Abschied, transcendent finale of Das Lied von der Erde, they suggest awe:
My search continues for instances of his use of triple exclamation marks!!!
Having drawn attention to Mahler’s use of quintuplets, Der Abschied is full of cross-rhythms— time dissolving into the nirvana of
Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen!
In this melody, emerging out of mysterious ascending motifs on flutes, the triple time is soon subverted by a duple metre, the quintuplet leading into that most distinctively plaintive of Mahler chords. (from 10.44 on the YouTube link here):
* * *
Now, you may think those awed exclamation marks make a flimsy and irreverent pretext to cite the famous John Wayne story—but hey:
In rehearsal for The greatest story ever told, the Duke, playing the Roman soldier who spears Jesus on the cross, says rather flatly,
“Truly he was the son of God.”
The director cuts in: “Not like that—say it with awe!”
Obligingly Wayne repeated his line, still deadpan:
“Aw—truly he was the son of God.”
Hongtong county, in south Shanxi, is always cropping up in studies of local culture in north China—notably since it was used as a huge migration transfer centre to areas further north and northeast that had been depopulated by the appalling dynastic warfare of the early Ming. Like many villages on the plain south of Beijing, Gaoluo, subject of my book Plucking the winds, is said to have been founded as a result of this migration; and Li Manshan’s lineage moved north to Yanggao just around this time. 
A step into Hongtong county in southern Shanxi province and I found myself transported into a land filled with fairy tales.
YAY! The paper hasn’t lost its old magic, then. It does provide a couple of charming pieces of folklore:
The Chinese term used today to mean “go to toilet” or jie shou is also linked to the legend.
The migrants had their hands tied behind their backs when they migrated. They were only allowed to untie their hands when they needed to relieve themselves. Jie shou, which literally means to untie the hands, gradually became the term used for “go to toilet”. The expression spread widely to the provinces where the Shanxi migrants were sent.
Another interesting tale on Hongtong involves a woman by the name of Su San in the Ming Dynasty, who became probably one of the most well-known prostitutes in Chinese history.
Su met young scholar Wang Jinglong at her brothel. The two fell in love and Wang stayed with Su for a whole year but was later chased out of the brothel because he ran out of money. Su was then sold to another man as concubine. She was framed for murdering the man, imprisoned and was sentenced to death.
Meanwhile, Wang who attempted the imperial examination, did well and was appointed governor of Shanxi. He heard about Su’s case and helped with the investigation to deliver her from death row.
The lovers eventually got married and as how all fairy tales end, they lived together happily ever after.
The story has been adapted as a Peking Opera play The Story of Su San (Yu Tang Chun) and became one of the best-known Peking Opera plays in China. Hongtong county where Su San was imprisoned became well-known through the play.
Although the original prison was severely damaged during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), the present one restored in 1984 retains all its original features. For example, there is a cave used for dead bodies, and a well with very small mouth to prevent prisoners from jumping in to kill themselves.
Su San’s story has brought fame to the prison, making it a must-see in Hongtong. Today the site is renamed as “Su San Prison”, and her story is presented by a series of wax statues within the site.
Damn, I’m trying to write about the ICH here… Led astray by The China Daily—“typical!”
Anyway, Ziying You’s article concerns Hongtong as the site of an enduring cult to the ancient sage-kings Yao and Shun, in which several villages form a she parish, with temple fairs and processions.  For ICH purposes it is nominated as Hongtong zouqin xisu “the custom of visiting sacred relatives in Hongtong”  — and yes, sure enough the term “living fossil” rears its ugly head again.
Though not currently on the UNESCO “Representative list” for the ICH, it has been inscribed on the provincial and then national lists since 2006. With typical official razzmatazz, local cultural cadres set up a “Hongtong Centre for the safeguarding of ICH”, niftily bypassing the temple committees which are the lifeblood of the whole tradition.
BTW, as at many such festivals, I see no signs here of liturgical sequences of ritual specialists—only large groups of gong-and-drum ensembles (which are also widespread in Shanxi).
By contrast with the alacrity of cadres,
For most ordinary people, ICH was a foreign term remote from their knowledge and discourse. […] Those who were mobilized to assist in the ICH application expected to receive a large amount of money from the central government to do whatever they wished within their local communities.
Not only has this expectation been unfulfilled—the Yangxie temple committee spent a substantial amount in the extended process of preparing the application. Moreover, the Centre, jockeying for favour with ICH bodies higher up the chain, monopolizes as-yet elusive state funding. And while the local conflicts between the villages did not originate with the ICH application, they were exacerbated in the process. Anyway, the temple committees, true “bearers of the heritage”, have been disempowered.
The ICH project thus became a means for the local ICH centre to exploit the local population and harvest the profits from the state.
Citing Chiara de Cesari, the author comments:
UNESCO frequently ends up reinforcing the power and reach of the nation-state and its bureaucracy, which is contradictory to its own principle of involving local communities and “grassroots”.
Yet again, the ICH machinery appears not to be safeguarding local cultures so much as safeguarding itself.
My encounters over the years with groups earmarked for ICH status—such as the village ritual associations of Qujiaying and Gaoluo, as well as the Li family Daoists—only confirm such findings. But the juggernaut rolls on.
As I write, Haitink’s recent Prom is on the radio, with the Prague symphony. No Mozart balls, just boundless energy and creativity!
The violins sit two to a desk, following the same part on the stand. The inside player (on the left) has to turn the pages.
Walton overtures are fast and full of fiendishly difficult semiquavers.
So in my early days in symphony orchestras a seasoned old pro vouchsafed a handy trick to me:
If there’s a Walton overture coming up, the thing to do, Steve, is to make sure you’re sitting on the inside. You only have to hack out the first half-page—by the time you’ve whipped the page over and got your fiddle back up again, it’s time to turn the next page…
Following my Wimbledon post, what a treat to admire Jo Konta, mature and focused (and object of patriotism—confused, in some less enlightened quarters). Only the stately Venus was worthy to vanquish her, and in the final the sunny Garbine Muguruza made a suitably classy victor in turn.
And then there’s the sublime Roger Federer, magisterial and fluent like Li Qing or Ronnie—utterly different as they are away from the ritual arena.
Just remind me who said women’s tennis (read: sport) was boring? More on the perennial sexism debate:
This week is the fourth anniversary of the loss of my friend Natasha at the age of 34—younger than Mozart, and just less than two years after Amy Winehouse’s death.
Unable to do anything at all for months after, I thought I’d better not cancel my planned stay with Li Manshan in September, and indeed he and the other Daoists were understanding, easing me back to life. The Li family had themselves suffered a family tragedy at just the same time. The funeral rituals they perform are always moving, but now, as the sounds of shengguan blending with the vocal liturgy soared above the kowtowing kin, I felt their grief more personally.
Natasha left barely a trace on the world apart from her wonderful kids. I dearly want to write a book on her, but since I now find I know nothing about her, this tribute will have to suffice.
“Troubled genius” doesn’t do Natasha justice. She deeply touched all who met her; irresistible, she could be impossible. She was the incarnation of Elena Ferrante’s Lila.
Her wild and prodigious early life was spent in Ternopil in west Ukraine. She made her home in London aged 18. Painter and composer, with her icons and Tarot, electronica, Bach, and Arvo Pärt, earth mother and sophisticated cook, femme fatale with her look of heroin chic, chunky jewelry and slinky outfits, finally holding down a mundane job for the sake of surviving as a single mum after teaching and playing in a rock band, childlike and severe, intoxicating and intoxicated, insatiable and hallucinatory, her thirst for knowledge reflected in her multi-coloured notebooks full of sketches and musings, she was on another planet. Hearing Turangalîla, raga, Mozart, or Naturtränethrough her ears, deep in her soul, was overwhelmingly intense.
Natasha’s paintings were both radiant and disturbed—her later works were yet darker. Klimt and Schiele would have lapped her up (and she them). It wasn’t easy for her inhabiting a world of Parajanov:
We were supposed to be going to Mahler 5 at the Proms when she had her first heart attack. This is a perfect version of her song, with Magdalena Kožená and Claudio Abbado:
Thriving on impermanence, that I get. But Natasha, you have to keep living…
With its biographical vignettes, the series is always a good way to explore pieces that may have escaped us. I tend to immerse myself in the works for orchestra, piano, and organ, but how wonderful is his vocal writing—like Harawi, Cinq rechants, or indeed the ravishing Poèmes pour Mi (a fine complement to Berlioz’s Nuits d’été and Ravel’s Shéhérazade). Good to hear Messiaen’s last work too, Concert à quatre.
His Catholic faith was, um, catholic—he made a natural mentor for the budding world music movement. Apart from his beloved birdsong, both his music and teaching were permeated with genres like raga, gamelan, and gagaku. If only I could have introduced him to the Li family Daoist band in Paris!
Just updated my post on the heritage shtick following a tip-off from Helen Rees, no less, that led me to a germane article by Richard Kurin—pondering issues in UNESCO’s agenda for heritage (tangible and intangible), and expressing ethical caveats similar to my own.
I’ve just added a page (under “Themes” in Menu) on
Folk and art music in China: qin and shawm music
Far away from the pop music and cutesy erhu solos that dominate the Chinese media, I’d like to compare two melodies with the common theme of “Geese landing”: the intimate meditative solo Pingsha luoyan 平沙落雁for the elite qin zither, and the searing folk suite DaYanluo 大雁落for two shawms and percussion.
Such utterly contrasting styles may seem to make an absurd comparison, and we shouldn’t suppose that any two pieces with a similar title will have anything in common. In this case it’s more of a convenient pretext to reflect on disparate genres.
One tradition is highly literate, the other non-literate. Yet the incongruous juxtaposition, however polemical, turns out to be illuminating—querying the widely-held myth that qin music, as “art music”, will be more sophisticated and complex than “folk” shawm pieces.
*** Both pieces are illustrated by recordings of master musicians!***
Critical of concert halls too, I’m more than happy to settle for the Victorian setting of the Albert Hall—round buildings have a distinctive ambience, and the unique receptive atmosphere of the series is largely attributable to the Prommers in the Arena, their rapt silence encircled by the seated audience.
If you think my blog is mired between populism and elitism, then get this—WAM for Yoof:
As I learn more Bach on the erhu, swimming always helps me. I’m just learning to internalize putting my clasped fingers into the water more horizontally, beginning the back-pull more immediately and maintaining the power.
When I get home, I take up the erhu, calibrating my motor-movements—string crossings, changing positions, breathing—in the service of my sound-ideal. Still sounds a bit rubbish, but hey. Practice makes perfect.
The annual Wimbledon ritual is well under way again.
Never mind the tennis, the Beebs’s own line-up is impressive enough—Brits like Trusty Tim, always playing with a straight bat [?—Ed.], and the demure Sam Smith, obligatory Funny Foreigners led by generally lovable but sometimes off-message Mac, wise Tracy Austin and Martina Navratilova, with the ever-hot Pat Cash. It’s entertaining to see how the stalwart female commentators maintain patience with the hapless male pundits negotiating the sexist minefield in the wake of the Inverdale–Bartoli fiasco.
Quaintly more antiquated than the other Majors, it’s a benign celebration for the middle classes (including me—I went to school nearby, and sold ice-creams there). As a Guardian review observed in 2022, the event comes with
that familiar sense of something performative, theatrically static, being British for the British, in front of the British.
Like any ritual, indeed any performance, Wimbledon confirms Correct Behaviour (not least to keep those errant Foreigners in line); and it will mean different things to different people. But it’s a visual treat, despite the retro ritual costumes; and as to the ritual soundscape, the ping-pong [sic] of the ball makes a fine soundtrack too—along with the spectators’ Wimbledon groan.
The Beeb gets it just right by clinging on to the old signature tune (like child chimney-sweeps and Morris dancing) by Leslie Statham (aka Arnold Steck)—here in all its extended glory:
Doubtless this old story will be revisited during the longueurs between matches:
Vitas Gerulaitis lost his first sixteen matches against Jimmy Connors. After finally defeating him at the 1980 Masters, he proudly declared:
“Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis seventeen times in a row!”
collating my observations on the troubling effects of the Intangible Cultural Heritage juggernaut on north Chinese ritual—also taking in Stella Gibbons, “Mediterranean diet”, the deep-fried Mars bar, and the Lake District…
I once attended a conference on the ICH at which a wry Chinese scholar asked, “So are we going to inscribe Spring Festival, then?!” I hereby nominate Breathing, indeed Life. Beat that.
I began exploring the false dichotomy between Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi) and Complete Perfection (Quanzhen) branches in my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China(note especially pp.17–18). Now that we have more instances, let’s revisit the scene.
In areas of north China for which I have information (see In search of the folk Daoists of north China), household Daoists may nominally belong to either Orthodox Unity or Complete Perfection branches. But such simplistic pigeonholing may distract us from the details of their ritual practice.
In their rituals and ritual manuals I can discern no significant distinction. When the Complete Perfection branch evolved in the 12th century, its priests (both temple and household) took over Orthodox Unity ritual practice: as John Lagerwey once observed to me, “that was the only show in town”. And while a distinct Complete Perfection literature did evolve (see my book, pp.203–207), their ritual practice never developed into a separate corpus of Complete Perfection ritual texts.
That explains why such an august Complete Perfection temple priest as Min Zhiting (see above) was constantly citing Orthodox Unity ritual manuals from the Daoist Canon; and why the best mainstream source for the manuals of the Orthodox Unity Li family household priests in Yanggao is the repertoire of modern “Complete Perfection” temple practice like the Xuanmen risong.
On the evidence to hand, household Complete Perfection Daoists seem rather more likely to recall their place in their particular lineage poem. They may have a clearer family tradition of earlier ancestors having spent time as temple priests. But household Orthodox Unity priests may also possess both these features. Of course the histories of such groups need documenting, but when we come to performance (which, after all, is the heart of ritual) it may be less germane.
And in some places now—since around 2000—the picture is further confused by a certain “centripetal” tendency. With wider access (such as the internet), some groups that have always been Orthodox Unity may be exploring ways of “legitimizing” themselves by seeking manuals from prestigious central sites like the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, and having costumes and hats made which make them appear to be Complete Perfection Daoists. They may even reform their “local” ritual practice by adopting elements from the “national” White Cloud Temple.
The scene is further obfuscated by a tendency among some scholars (both local and central) to assume that if a group is household-based, then they must be Orthodox Unity—a problem I have already queried. We really must debunk this assumption. In my recent posts, the Changwu Daoists turn out to belong to the Huashan branch of Complete Perfection, and the Guangling Daoists appear to come from a Longmen tradition. Actually, this is not so clear-cut—even non-Quanzhen priests might adopt Longmen titles (note sources by Vincent Goossaert cited in my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.18 n.34).
So while the ritual texts and ritual sequences of the two notional branches are rather similar, what always makes local traditions distinctive is the way in which the texts are performed.
Vocal trio, 2001: Li Manshan, Golden Noble, Li Bin.
Even here there’s another erroneous cliché that needs debunking. Generations of scholars of Daoist music have parroted the notion that in style the “music” of Orthodox Unity (conceived narrowly as “household” or folk) Daoists is more popular and lively, whereas that of Complete Perfection (again, conceived narrowly as austere monastic) Daoists is solemn, slow and restrained. It derives entirely from an unfounded theory about household and temple practice. We only need to watch my film about the Li family band to realize this simply won’t do. Orthodox Unity Daoists, their basic style (exemplified by the zantan hymns that permeate all their rituals) is extremely slow and solemn—but as you can hear, it is indeed punctuated by exhilarating moments. The style of (household!) Complete Perfection Daoists is certainly no more “solemn”. Both branches may use melodic shengguan instrumental ensemble—and if anything, that of the Orthodox Unity groups tends to be more slow and solemn.
Indeed, when I showed Li Manshan my videos of funeral segments by the Complete Perfection Daoists in Shuozhou, he found their performance “chaotic” (luan). Orthodox Unity groups in Yanggao like that of Li Manshan pride themselves on the “order” (guiju) of their performance.
My only ongoing note on this is that several household Complete Perfection groups (such as in Shuozhou and Guangling) may have preserved the element of fast tutti a cappella recitation of the jing scriptures better than in some Orthodox Unity traditions like those of Yanggao. But that doesn’t bear on the false stylistic dichotomy. Like Life, It’s Complicated… We always need to expand our database and use our critical faculties.
Following my articles on the household Daoists of Shuozhou and Changwu, I’ve now added another page to the “Themes” menu, on a group in Guangling, north Shanxi.
Apart from my work on the Li family Daoists of Yanggao, Chen Yu 陈瑜 led me towards other Daoist ritual groups in north Shanxi. We had leads to most other counties in the region, but Guangling was a blank area on our map of Daoist ritual activity. So Chen Yu’s visit there in May 2015 made a valuable addition to our surveys.
It’s been a while since we’ve had any French drôlerie (try A French letter, and the series on the Tang faqu). So it’s high time to remind ourselves of the classic scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
Food for thought on the Brexit debate? And for aficionados of Chinese ritual, note the long trumpet near the opening.
For the taunts of cheerleaders at archery festivals in Bhutan, see here.
Having just naively queried the choices of heritage pundits, I am further reminded of my 2011 visit to Mount Athos by the difficulty of savouring one’s meal in a fado club while concentration is justly demanded on the saudade of the singing.
Attending matins—lasting several hours—in a monastery high above the sea is magical. We make our way to the chapel in darkness, finding the doorway by a tiny glint of candlelight in the inner sanctum beyond. Thuribles fragrant, icons glowing, elusive shadows of black-robed bearded monks flitting past. I find a place in a high narrow wooden stall, ornately designed to deny comfort.
It was all stage-managed for maximum effect: the light of truth scattering the night of ignorance, the Holy Fathers hovering in the shadows, their faces reflecting the candle’s rays, while Christ gazed down from the heavens. Beyond the walls of the church lay the world, unseen, unknown, an immense and incomprehensible universe.
As we stand/lean/doze in our stalls, the incense, lugubrious chanting and deep singing are intoxicating. After an eon the first shafts of sunlight begin to illuminate the scene, the mosaics on the dome beginning to shine down on us.
Kanaris goes on:
Another candle was lit on the far side of the church and a second monk added his voice. The effect was dramatic. Suddenly there was a dialogue. The two melodies alternated, joined, drew apart, curled around each other like the tendrils of a vine (cf. Susan McClary on baroque trio sonatas). George was lulled into a state that resembled hallucination, where one sense entered his mind in the guise of another. Sound became colour. The smoke of incense, burning every day here for centuries, became his own memories. Past and present fused in a molten river of darkness and gilded flames.
For those who have witnessed Chinese temple rituals, attending an Orthodox ceremony will seem rather familiar—even down to the wooden semantron that calls people to prayer. The rhythmic swish of the thuribles may even remind us of the sepaye of the ashiq in Xinjiang. One might also compare scenes from Holy Week in Sardinia in Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s fine film.
* * *
Such a ritual also gives the motley crew of pilgrims a healthy appetite for a friendly reflective chat at the following meal in the trapeza refectory, over what one might expect to be a wealth of succulent local produce. Well, forget it—silence is rigorously imposed among the “diners”, while from a lectern a monk lugubriously intones a passage from the gospels; worse still, the food is both meagre and inexplicably inedible.
So the only “blessing” is that one has to wolf it all down in a considerable hurry—not so much Mediterranean “buon appetito” conviviality, delighting in the copious blessings of the earth that our Good Lord has bestowed; more a 1950s’ English embarrassment at this unfortunate necessity that confronts us.
I’m not knocking Athos. OK, it’s not exactly at the forefront of gender equality, but the rituals, architecture, ancient glowing icons, tranquillity, and stunning scenery all make for an unforgettable experience—and even the meals are indeed a reflection of the world-view that we go there to absorb. Just don’t expect an urbane refined dining experience, that’s all.
A suitable penance for the UNESCO committee that elected “Mediterranean diet” for Intangible Cultural Heritage status might be to consign them to Mount Athos for a few days. That’ll sort ’em out. They will come down from the mountain with a healthy (sic) appetite for a deep-fried Mars bar.
One of the more entertaining excursions of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) project is in the field of cuisine, under whose august portals “Mediterranean diet” has been loftily inscribed.
Among many fun BTL comments there is one from a certain Nickov:
Might have a stab at protecting the Bristol Channel Diet: Gregg’s pasties, white cider and chlamydia.
I also eagerly await an application from the Glasgow cultural authorities (whoever they might be) to, um, preserve the venerable deep-fried Mars bar.
What of Spotted Dick, I hear you cry? And I now note that Fray Bentos is not just a real place, but another UNESCO world heritage site!
I was musing on all this during my recent trip to Lisbon, whose fine cuisine hardly fits into the Mediterranean gastronomic jigsaw.
While we’re on the topic of transmission, this important corrective doesn’t entirely confound the popular cliché that Bach’s music fell out of use after his death. His sons, and their audiences, might not have taken kindly to being told to continue performing their father’s music—though doubtless ICH funding would have influenced their attitude.
Were one to be at all jocular (surely not?—Ed.), one could query many ancient cultural traditions. Where might UNESCO stand on * wife-beating? Or indeed FGM? And whatever happened to child chimney-sweeps? Witch-burning, a tradition eradicated in most parts of the world, is also seriously endangered. Molvaniahas nice comments on all this kind of flapdoodle.
Thanks to Helen Rees (herself a great authority on the ICH) for alerting me to this article, succinctly broaching such issues:
Richard Kurin, “Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage in the 2003 UNESCO Convention: a critical appraisal”, Museum 56.1 (2004), pp.66–77.
The definition, as given in the Convention, can encompass a broader range of activity than the framers assumed. Such cultural forms as rap music, Australian cricket, modern dance, post-modernist architectural knowledge, and karaoke bars all symbolize cultural communities (albeit not necessarily ethnically or regionally) and pass on their own traditions (though not usually genealogically). (69–71)
Not all intangible cultural heritage is recognized for the purposes of the Convention. To be recognized, intangible cultural heritage must be consistent with human rights, exhibit the need for mutual respect between communities, and be sustainable. This is a very high and one might say unrealistic and imposing standard.
Understandably, UNESCO does not want to support or encourage practices inimical to human rights such as slavery, infanticide, or torture. Yet the standard is not without controversy. Is female genital mutilation a legitimate part of intangible cultural heritage to be recognized by the Convention or not? Is a religious tradition that includes Brahmins, but excludes non-Brahmins disqualified as intangible cultural heritage because of its discriminatory quality? Is a musical tradition where only men play instruments and only women sing inequitable, and thus contrary to human rights accords? Determining what is allowable or not as intangible cultural heritage under the Convention will be a difficult task.
Similarly problematic is the “mutual respect” clause in the Convention. Intangible cultural heritage is by definition something used for community self-definition. Many cultural communities though, define themselves in opposition or resistance to others. Their very identity as a people or community relies on their victory over or defeat by others. Their defining songs and tales may celebrate the glory of empire, victorious kings, religious conversion, or alternatively resistance to perceived injustice, martyrdom and defeat—not the mutual respect of peoples. The Convention’s standard is quite idealistic, seeing culture as generally hopeful and positive, born not of historical struggle and conflict but of a varied flowering of diverse cultural ways. Including the “mutual respect” standard can however disqualify much of the world’s traditional culture from coverage by the Convention.
Kurin goes on to query the problematic standard of “sustainability”:
The whole treaty is about safeguarding heritage thought to be endangered to some degree or other. The very fact that a tradition is endangered means that it is not sustainable in its current form or in its current context—hence the need for national or international intervention. Yet by definition a tradition to be recognized as intangible cultural heritage under the Convention and thus worthy of safeguarding, must itself also be sustainable. The provision, though well meaning, is confusing. Sustainability here is an ideal to be achieved, not an eligibility requirement for action.
Surely no one rationally envisions the Convention as safeguarding the transmission of intangible cultural heritage through such coercive forms as legally requiring the sons and daughters who practise a tradition to continue in their parents’ footsteps. No cultural treaty should ensure results through the denial of freedom promised under human-rights accords, with the opportunity for social, cultural, and economic mobility.
Culture changes and evolves. Practices of the past are discarded when they cease to be functionally useful or symbolically meaningful to a community. UNESCO and Member States need not guarantee through financial and symbolic rewards the survival of those customs and practices, beliefs and traditions that the community itself wants to discard. Nor should they encourage particularly harmful practices, or “freeze” cultural practices in the guise of preserving cultural diversity or defending against cultural globalization.
The Convention tends to reduce intangible cultural heritage to a list of largely expressive traditions, atomistically recognized and conceived. The actions it proposes miss the larger, holistic aspect of culture—the very characteristic that makes culture intangible. This is the intricate and complex web of meaningful social actions undertaken by individuals, groups, and institutions. Thousands of human cultures today face a myriad of challenges. Whether they survive or flourish depends upon so many things—the freedom and desire of culture bearers, an adequate environment, a sustaining economic system, a political context within which their very existence is at least tolerated. Actions to safeguard “tangibilized” inventoried items of cultural production are unlikely to safeguard adequately the larger, deeper, more diffuse intangible cultural patterns and contexts. Saving songs may not protect the ways of life of their singers, or the appreciation due by listeners. Far greater more holistic and systematic action is likely to be required.
Two recent books contain useful case-studies and references:
Michael Dylan Foster and Lisa Gilman (eds), UNESCO on the ground: local perspectives on Intangible Cultural Heritage (2015) (review here)
Christina Maags and Marina Svensson (eds), Chinese heritage in the making: experiences, negotiations and contestations (2018).
The Introduction to the latter gives some nuanced perspectives:
As several authors have pointed out, the adoption of the intangible heritage discourse means that many cultural practices, including religious rituals that were seen as “superstitious” practices in the past, are now celebrated as heritage. In this heritagization process many of them have been reconstructed and reinterpreted, and some have had their religious aspects downplayed or ignored. (18–19)
Heritage listings and management is not an innocent and non-political celebration of heritage and culture, but a selective process that leads to hierarchies and exclusion. It can furthermore be used as a tool of governance to control and manage tradition, cultural practices, and religion, and to steer people’s memories, sense of place, and identities in certain ways. Several scholars have pointed out that the use of culture and intangible cultural heritage can be a softer and less visible way of “rendering individuals governable”. The listing, reification, and celebration of certain cultural practices can thus be a tool of governance, especially when individuals and communities are excluded from decision-making but still come to internalize the validation of the selected practices and behaviours. In the context of China, ICH could be seen as a new form of governance and a way to control religious and ethnic communities in particular. (20)
The heritage boom in China is partly driven by the central state and by local governments that are motivated by both ideological and economic considerations. The top-down heritagization process has, however, given rise to new stakeholders who may have their own agendas and express different views. At the same time, the language of heritage has also opened up space for individual citizens and local communities to celebrate and safeguard their own traditions and local history. Individual citizens and communities are experiencing, performing, and documenting heritage in a more bottom-up way, sometimes outside of the state narrative, at the same time as many actors try to capitalize on the official heritage discourse in order to gain legitimacy for their own history and traditions. (28)
I’m sure theorists have been beavering away at unpacking the prescriptive assumption that all tradition must be “good”. Conversely, ethnography avoids prescription—I prefer to devote my energies to documenting the traditions themselves, as I find them, rather than awarding prizes on questionable aesthetic and theoretical grounds, or leading them down the tortuous path of state institutionalisation and commodification.
Meanwhile I find similar concerns expressed for flamencology:
Something is wrong with any interpretative method that reifies genres and objectifies abstractions to the point that events in the present are reduced to reflections of the past.
So I’m not alone in my reservations. See also e.g. this review of a volume on UNESCO on the ground:
Valdimar Tr. Hafstein, “Intangible Heritage as diagnosis, safeguarding as treatment”, Journal of Folklore Research 52.2–3 (2015),
with its opening
Patient: “What is it, Doctor?” Doctor: “There’s no easy way to break this to you: you have heritage.” Patient: “Heritage? Are you serious? What kind?” Doctor: “Intangible. I’m sorry.” Patient: “Intangible heritage… How bad is it?” Doctor: “It is in urgent needs of safeguarding. It is already metacultural.” Patient: “What’s the prognosis?” Doctor: “Intangible heritage is chronic, I’m afraid.” […]
* * *
Here, and in the thoughtful analysis of Heritage movements by John Butt, there are many lessons for China, which are unlikely to be learned. In the south of Fujian province—alongside the extraordinary Hokkien traditions of Daoist ritual, processions with god statues borne aloft on sedans, and nanyin chamber ballads—vicious chronic inter-village feuds are a hallowed part of the local heritage.
In China at least, one must observe that the ICH is a state agency to trumpet the grandeur of ancient Chinese culture, rather than a dispassionate body supporting scholarly research; except in the most hackneyed of terms, it can hardly confront the most basic aspect of such cultures—their traumatic fortunes through successive upheavals since the 1940s. And where do spirit mediums (anchors in maintaining local ritual life, among both the ethnic minorities and the Han Chinese), cults, and sectarian groups stand here? Perhaps fortunately for them, they seem most unlikely to be offered the poisoned chalice of ICH status.
I’ve introduced Ka-ming Wu’s thoughtful analysis of heritage projects in Shaanbei here. While we always need to understand the involvement/intrusion of the state, I’m still concerned that all the attention that scholars (both Chinese and foreign) currently lavish on a state institution distracts them from studying local cultures themselves (of which ICH may or may not be a part). Even those who are sensitive to the flaws of the system may be driven by the agenda of studying it; even noting the way it may be utilized by local agents, it’s still the focus. In a short space of time, it has dominated the discourse. Contrast, for instance, the vast bibliography on ICH with the virtually non-existent studies of the numerous local Daoist lineages in Gansu province and their rituals in changing society. Look, here I am myself having to go on about ICH when I could be writing about the Daoists!
Conversely, the ICH has recently begun to play a significant role in many local cultures, and it is now likely to be included in the remit of fieldworkers. It has become significant among amateur ritual associations in Hebei (first of my main field sites), which otherwise were becoming partly moribund (though for enduring ritual functions, see here).
But fortunately even the Chinese state seems unable to transform local cultures into one big glossy Disneyland. Much ritual activity tends to be spared the double-edged sword of attention from party-state cultural initiatives.While the Li family Daoists in north Shanxi are nominally part of the ICH system, their livelihood and activities remain almost solely dependent on providing funerary services for their local clients—for those who are still left behind in the villages, that is.
My concern is still that the ICH is neither so all-pervasive nor as malleable as some studies suggest.
If all this commodification and reification is a distressing distortion of Han Chinese cultures, it’s still worse for minority traditions such as those of the Tibetans and Uyghurs, for whom the political agenda to sinicise and tame is even clearer: for the Uyghurs, do read this fine recent report.
Expanding our airline theme (Airplane has its own tag), here’s another classic—and apparently true—story handed down in the orchestral world:
On a long-haul flight, as the stewards* are serving refreshments, the captain makes the usual suave and tedious announcement. He then turns to his co-pilot, and—fatally—fails to realize that he hasn’t turned the tannoy off.
So the entire plane hears the captain’s next comment:
“Know what I could really do with right now? A cup of coffee and a blowjob.”
One of the, um, Trolley Dollies, realising the captain’s mistake, interrupts her serving of the drinks and hastily rushes back to the cockpit to alert him that he needs to switch the tannoy off. As she sashays down the aisle, one of the passengers calls out after her,
*For an introduction to my whole series on Mahler, with links, click here!*
It’s always worth tuning in to Donald Macleod’s Composer of the week on BBC Radio 3. Even for a Mahler fanatic like me, last week’s programmes (based on the well-trodden theme of his years with Alma) were instructive.
We all know (don’t we) about Mahler’s settings of Hans Bethge’s embroidered translations of Tang poems for Das Lied von der Erde (composed in 1909 but only performed after his death in 1911). In 1910, as he was fêted in New York, the Schirmers [some sources say the Roosevelts] took him and Alma on a visit to an opium den in Chinatown. Long before the stereotypes of Fu Manchu and Anna May Wong, this could have been an intriguing encounter.
Their visit to the “teeming” Lower East Side Jewish quarter must have been more conflicted (among myriad discussions of Mahler and Judaism, Norman Lebrecht, Why Mahler? is accessible). Alma’s portrayals are not always reliable, but here it’s worth citing her account (Gustav Mahler: memories and letters, pp.161–2)—more prurient than ethnographic:
We were invited by the music publisher, Schirmer, and his wife to dine with them one day and drive with them afterwards “down town”, into China town. The indispensable detective sat beside the chauffeur. We turned out of the busy streets into narrower ones which became by degrees quieter, narrower, darker and more uncanny. We got out, accompanied by the detective with a loaded revolver in his pocket, and went into an opium den. A creature with a sickeningly womanish face received us in an ante-room, where we had to put down a sum of money. He began at once to give us a long list of his successes with white ladies, and told us he acted female parts in the Chinese Theatre. A Chinese woman, of course, may not either act or look on in a theatre. He showed it in his face—it was the most degenerate man-woman face you could imagine. He showed us numerous photographs of American women he had—and he said the rest by gestures. Then he conducted us into several small but high rooms, empty in the middle but furnished with bunks along the sides, each of which contained a stretcher; and on each stretcher lay a doped Chinese with his head lolling into the room. Some of them raised their heads heavily as we approached, but at once let them sink again. It was a gruesomely horrible sight. They were simply dumped there to sleep off their intoxication. They might be robbed or murdered while they were in this state and know nothing about it. The whole scene resembled a baker’s shop with human loaves.
On now to a house of cards higher and higher, up into a room luxuriously furnished for strangers, cushions everywhere, and beside each cushion an opium pipe. And a Chinese, for payment, was ready to smoke a pipe on the spot while we watched him slowly succumb, rolling his eyes and twisting his limbs about. We were invited to smoke too but declined with horror. Next the theatre. Charming, but no play was being given. If it had been, no European would have been allowed among the audience. On again. Rats with long pigtails slunk nimbly and rapidly along the walls of the stinking street. Mahler said: “I can hardly believe that these are my brothers.”
On again. Small shops, small hotels, all silent. Finally, on the outskirts of this district we came on the habitat of a religious sect. There was a large hall at the far end of which sat a man with the face of a fanatic playing hymns on a harmonium in a pronouncedly whining style. The benches were occupied by a starving congregation. We were given the explanation. For listening to those hymns and joining in—a cup of coffee and a roll. What wretchedness in those faces! We pushed our way out, followed by hostile eyes, and for long afterwards we could still hear the flat notes of the hungry singers.
On again, and now the Jewish quarter. It was dark by this time. But here all was life and bustle, chaffering and shouting. The racial difference was staggering, but it was because the Jews worked day and night shifts to lose no time. The whole street was full from end to end of old clothes and rags. The air was heavy with the smell of food. I asked Mahler softly in his own words, “Are these our brothers?” He shook his head in despair.
With a sigh of relief we at last turned a corner and found ourselves in a well-lighted street among our own sort of people. Can it be that there are only class and not race distinctions?
Mahler’s music is so full of what would be known as folk and world music that his consternation is startling; can his success have made him so oblivious to his own background? And as ever, while trying to visualise the ethos of the time, we can only read this with later history in mind.
For more on Der Abschied, see also here and here. For more on Mahler in New York, and an ominous funeral, see Mahler 10.
Sorry, I realize this blog risks turning into an unsolicited and infinite edition of Private Passions.
Handel only gets a rare look-in among my posts on WAM, utterly eclipsed as he is by his contemporary Bach. I’ve already praised Zodak the Chartered Accountant, I mean Zadok the Priest, and I’ve taken part in many a moving performance of the operas and oratorios with John Eliot Gardiner. So despite my devotion to Bach, I have to feature some enthralling slow Handel arias.
Israel in Egypt has long been a signature piece of John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir—performers and audiences alike were overwhelmed by Michael Chance singing Thou shalt bring them in:
For Dixit dominus and the ravishing soprano duet De torrente, click here.
And then Eternal source of light divine is moving in diverse versions. Doing it on tour with Carolyn Samson and David Blackadder was overwhelming (OMG, I can’t believe I was involved in that). But here are a couple more versions, beautiful in different ways:
And never mind HIP “authenticity”, this version is just as moving:
And now I just have to add another rendition—also reminding us of the importance of music in ritual: the entrance of the bride at the royal wedding, sadly neglected in the musical coverage, yet worthy of the spellbinding visual images, setting a magical tone for the whole event, with the passion of Michael Curry and Stand by me:
Eternal source of light divine With double warmth thy beams display And with distinguish’d glory shine To add a lustre to this day.