Ritual images: Gaoluo

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GL Dizang

This first page under a new series on ritual images again concerns Gaoluo.

Apart from their ritual manuals and gongche solfeggio scores, all four ritual associations in North and South villages of Gaoluo have collections of images, including god paintings, diaogua hangings and donors’ lists, from various stages since the 19th century—displayed for calendrical rituals of the village community.

Ritual paintings of north China

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(under Themes, in main Menu)

SGL old pantheon detail

For aficionados of visual culture:

The main focus of our fieldwork on the Hebei plain through the 1990s was the ritual performance of amateur village-wide associations there. But of course we also documented the material artefacts of these groups—including ritual manuals, gongche solfeggio scores for the shengguan wind ensemble, donors’ lists, and so on.

I now realize that by comparison with elite painting, temple murals, and so on, what we may call “folk art” is not so well represented—either in print publications or online. So this is a new sub-menu for ritual paintings of village groups, mainly from Hebei. I’ve already included some of them in various posts/pages, but now I’m adding many more (mostly from the period since the late 19th century, but also some painted since the 1980s).

Most of these images are displayed for calendrical rituals (notably the New Year) and/or for funerals—the Ten Kings images are used for both.

Of course, these material artefacts are a sub-theme; our main material consists of a rich archive of audio and video recordings of ritual performance. Contemplating such images in a museum is a last resort: they are the backdrop to the ritual soundscape of vocal liturgy and “holy pieces” of shengguan wind ensemble, and a representation of the changing spiritual life of local communities. As you digest these pages, you might even listen to the items of vocal liturgy and shengguan on the playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here).

Nicknames

As Kate Fox observes, the creativity of the English language reveals itself at multiple levels.

The fragrant Gary Lineker recalls how the the team-mates of the footballer Kiki Musampa called him Chris (think about it). There are more where that came from, like Fitz Hall—known as One Size.

Brian Smith, a “straight” symphony-orchestra violinist who became a semi-detached admission to the rarefied early music scene in the 1980s, had a whole series of drôle nicknames for his new colleagues, making his conversation surreal: “I think Identikit’s gone off with Ironing Board”. Once word got round that I was making regular trips to China, I became The Missionary. He only used the real names of musos who had a life outside early music and thus qualified as Real People.

Conductors’ nicknames are another rich vein under the rubric of maestro-baiting. The great Charles Mackerras was known as Slasher—not an allusion to his conducting technique, but an abbreviation of his anagram: Slasher M. Earcrack.

Shadow puppets and Satie

Photo: Frank Kouwenhoven. © CHIME, all rights reserved.

Among a select group of films on rural life in China, little-known but brilliant is

  • Chinese shadows: the amazing world of shadow puppetry in rural northwest China (58 minutes, Pan Records, 2007).

Fruit of the collaboration between Frank Kouwenhoven and the late lamented Antoinet Schimmelpenninck of the CHIME foundation in Leiden, it evokes the changing lives of itinerant troupes in the poor villages of Huanxian county in east Gansu. Both in the scenes of villagers chatting and in their performances, you can feel the film-makers’ empathy with rural dwellers.

The puppetteers often perform as part of the Crossing the Passes (guoguan) ritual to protect children.  A similar ritual in Shaanbei is shown in my film Notes from the yellow earth (with my book Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei, p.37); see also my note for Daoists in Changwu in Shaanxi, not far away.

The sound-world of the puppeteers is remarkable, with gutsy percussion, fiddles, and shawms accompanying passionate vocals. [1] On the Chinese shadows soundtrack, piano music (Howells, Smetana, Janáček, and so on) makes a disorienting contrast with the guttural sounds of the Gansu singers and their earthy instrumental accompaniment. At first I had reservations about this choice, when we have so little opportunity to savour the sounds of village China—but I’ve come round to it as an effective personal reflection of the film-makers.

In similar mood, in Frank’s moving portrait film of Antoinet’s life, a tribute shown at her funeral, he used Satie’s fifth Gnossienne—less well-known than the others:

[1] Featured on the 2-CD set The beauty of Chinese opera, one of an excellent series of historical recordings from Wind Records. For more singing from Gansu, see here; for other ritual groups, here: and for ritual life among the ethnic groups of the region, here. See also under More films on ritual drama.

Sacred river

Radio 3 doesn’t seem to be speaking to Radio 4.

Like Neil MacGregor’s thoughtful series on German history, his new BBC Radio 4 series Living with the gods is typically urbane and engaging. As he immediately disarms my reservations about material culture and museums, the series makes an accessible mission-statement for the anthropology of religion. And the BBC Radio 3 marathon Sacred River (see also the love-in on https://twitter.com/bbcradio3), the latest of many epic broadcasts, seems like a fine idea to complement it.

I’m most reluctant to cavil at my favourite radio station, and normally I’d be grateful for such a playlist of glorious music (cf. my paeans to the Proms). But it seems something of a retreat from the global perspective of MacGregor’s series. Whereas in Living with the gods he can discuss social contexts, with music examples making evocative soundbites, it’s proved less easy for a programme of “spiritual music” tailored to a Radio 3 audience to address world soundscapes within their regional societies.

Radio 3 is generally rather good on, um, world music (a tradition going right back to David Munrow), but here Neil MacGregor’s stimulating introduction is soon deflated, as one “masterpiece” of (let’s face it, Christian Europe) WAM choral music follows another. My own blog is full of Bach, Mahler, and Messaien—but in Sacred river, whereas one might wish for more challenging juxtapositions from around the world, here a mere five out of fifty tracks are devoted to other world genres (and that’s a generous count: OK, a bit of plainchant, but Ladysmith Black Mambazo? Trio da Kali with The Kronos quartet? Hey!), choices like the Pathétique symphony or the Allegri Miserere hardly open our ears to new horizons. It’s The Great Composers in a new costume. And though “music and ritual” is a rich topic in ethnomusicology, the site offers few links to further sources—even from its own output.

Inevitably, I think of the percussion coda Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body of the Li family Daoists, that concludes their Transferring Offerings ritual. Of course neither this nor most other ritual traditions around the world might work on the radio on their own. But listeners deserve more than the Usual Suspects like qawwali, “Find your inner peace with the sound of Buddhist chant”, and “the oldest song in the world”. Sure, they might not necessarily conform to the hackneyed message of Peace and Love, that cramped ghetto from which Neil MacGregor rescues us. But if the Radio 3 team had half his imagination (as I write, he’s discussing royal power, sliding effortlessly from Zadok the priest to bronzes from Benin and China, with asides on Trump and Putin), they could have found more stimulating and offbeat tracks, even from their own archive—aboriginal dream songs, ritual shawm bands, Andalucian saeta, gospel, you name it. So Sacred river ends up undoing the fine work of Living with the gods. Do keep exploring Radio 3, which is full of creative programming—including—such as Late junctionWords and music, and notably The listening service.

Of course, what it needs is a TV series. Alas, since a little heyday in the 1980s there has been little appetite for informed anthropological documentaries on local cultural life—in which ritual features prominently.

Hey-ho. Just saying, like…

Recording and editing

After our rendition of The Feuchtwang Variations à la chinoise at Stephan’s party—which surprised us as much as the guests, even without kazoo—we wanted to make a separate recording, but we had few illusions about how it could turn out. However modest our remit (it would be too ambitious to try and edit within movements, and we didn’t do too many takes), even the minimal editing that Rowan undertook was still a time-consuming process.

Typical exchange during rehearsal:

Me: Can you give me a lovely lingering arpeggio on that first chord, like a theorbo?
Rowan: No.

For me, it recalls all those orchestral recording sessions through the 80s and 90s—with section leaders crowding into the box to make notes and report back, doing endless retakes of a single chord, with the editor then taking months to compile a version that was a total fabrication. Of course, live recordings are far more satisfactory, if we can wean ourselves off glossy perfection—even then, we tended to do a couple of patching sessions after the concert.

It also reminds me of a comment from—you guessed it—Alan Bennett, in his 1990 diaries, on working with the Delme string quartet in recording the soundrack for his Proust film:

27 June. […] Striking about the musicians is their total absence of self-importance. They play a passage, listen to it back, then give each other notes, and run over sections again. George Fenton, who is coordinating the music, also chips in, but he’s a musician. David H., the director, chips in, but he isn’t a musician, just knows what atmosphere he wants at various points in the film. In the finish even I chip in, just because I know what I like. The musicians nod and listen, try out a few bars here and there, then settle down and have another go. Now one could never do this with actors. No actor would tolerate a fellow performer who ventured to comment on what he or she was doing—comment of that sort coming solely from the director, and even then it has to be carefully packaged and seasoned with plenty of love and appreciation.  Whereas these players, all of them first-class, seem happy to listen to the views of anyone if it results in them doing a better job.
[…] The readiness of players in a string quartet to absorb criticism from their colleagues has been noted by doctors, and the BMA video was made to be shown to businessmen as a model for them to emulate. Perhaps it should be shown to Mrs Thatcher.

Such humility is a trait that musicians might not recognise in themselves; anyway, AB was lucky to work with a quartet, as orchestral recording sessions are (inevitably) far more hierarchical, with a clear pecking order (giving rise to maestro-baiting). Still, the contrast with actors (and politicians) rings true.

The Feuchtwang Variations

The wise and infinitely supportive Stephan Feuchtwang continues to inspire generations of anthropologists in China and worldwide (see also here) with his work on Chinese popular religion. He has just celebrated his 80th birthday—and so do we all!

Stephan's invitation edited

Design: Lotte van Hulst.

For the party at the Tabernacle (a great venue, and, um, marker of the changing territorial identities of West London religious life!) his wonderful family played some popular and moving musical items, with the assembled guests on kazoos (anyone have a funky collective noun for kazoos in English, or measure word in Chinese?). And following my little foray into a world-music version of Bach earlier this year, we did a warmup act as a heartfelt tribute to Stephan, essaying a little medley from the Goldberg Variations—with me on erhu fiddle and Rowan Pease (unsung Lucy Worsley of East Asian popular culture, currently embroiled in the China Quarterly struggle for academic freedom) on sanxian banjo (or should I say friction chordophone and plucked lute?) [Nah, give it a restThe Plain People of Ireland].

Wong

Not Rowan, not playing the sanxian.

That makes a total of five strings—and all without a safety net. Since Bach never wrote for either piano or sax (shades of WWJD), if his music can sound great (to us) on those instruments, then why not erhu and sanxian, eh. We haven’t tried adding a kazoo yet, though. As I said in my intro:

Just imagine that the Italian missionaries, like Pedrini, [1] at the court of the Qianlong emperor in 18th-century Beijing had invited Bach for a sabbatical—and indeed Stephan, although that was perhaps a little before even his time… So we’re going to essay a little medley from what should now be known as The Feuchtwang Variations[2]

Since among Stephan’s many talents he is also a viola player (“Not a Lot of People Know That”), I can avail myself of a couple of the muso’s classic excuses:

It was in tune when I bought it…
and
I didn’t really study any place, I just sort of… picked it up..

[studiously] After intensive research on the performance practice of both Leipzig and Beijing in the 1740s, I can now say with some certainty that…  it wouldn’t have sounded like this.
[Cf. John Wilbraham’s remark.]

If you enjoy this half as much as we do, then we will have enjoyed it twice as much as you.

Framed by the Aria (itself infinitely enchanting—molten, ethereal, suspended in time), we played the first variation (blimey), then numbers 18 and 25—a perfect selection, eh. Short of recording daily until Steph’s 90th birthday, we’re never going to play it to our satisfaction (editing this is a similar challenge to editing one of my voiceovers), so meanwhile here’s an almost-recognizable attempt, just to give you a flavour—It’s the Thought that Counts. Just think yourselves lucky we didn’t do the repeats. Take It Away (and don’t bring it back):

Stephen Jones (erhu), Rowan Pease (sanxian, vocals).
Recorded in Maidenhead, 14th November 2017.

“They said it couldn’t be done”—and they were right! (Cf. Bob Monkhouse).

Just to make our chinoiserie version sound a little less banal, try the opening of the Aria on Lego harpischord, and Pachelbel’s Canon on rubber chicken—differently charming…

Li Qishan band 2001

Li Qishan’s family shawm band, Shaanbei 2001.

Never having played the Goldberg Variations on a keyboard, I (like millions of others) am deeply familiar with it through recordings—notably that of the iconic Glenn Gould, of course. So at the age of 286 I’m almost in the position of a young player in a Chinese family shawm band, who begins to play the melodies on shawm after many years of aural experience (and let’s just be grateful I didn’t do an arrangement for large Shaanbei shawms—yet). Similarly, I hardly needed to consult Bach’s notation, except out of curiosity. At the same time, anyone playing the piece is inevitably conditioned by the experience of hearing Glenn Gould’s version.

We played the medley in F rather than G—less as a result of all my erudite research into 1740s’ pitch standards (not), but just because I like a lower tuning on the erhu.

Bach party

Blending with invisible singers to left of picture. Stephan in red on left. Photo: Cordelia Pegge.

For the ecstatic Variation 18 we recruited a backing band consisting of Stephan’s daughters Rachel and Anna, along with Harriet Evans (outstanding scholar of the status of women in China). I arranged some personal lyrics, often in a kind of verbal hocket, incorporating (in stave 3) anthropology (with a little jest on the challenge, for some of us, of mastering the abstruse nature of Stephan’s theory!), (in stave 4) his dear wife Miranda, and his love of cycling:

Goldberg Var 18 in G

For the recording, without vocal backup, Rowan and I take the upper parts wordlessly, in more ethereal vein. Do feel free to sing along with a partner of your choice (cf. the karaoke versions of Daoist ritual percussion in my film, from 24.09).

And then the slow and intense minor-key Variation 25 is just amazing. Here Rowan’s singing supplies further harmonic intensity, evoking Glenn Gould’s own occasional inadvertent vocals. [3] And with the sustained sound of the erhu, and all my one-finger chromatic slides (1st finger on the way up, 4th finger on the way down), it sounds even better—or rather, it could do in the right hands. Not unlike a Chinese ondes martenot—trad keyboards just can’t compete with the vocal quality of bowed instruments.

And OMG, how about this:

Sure, our version goes a tad faster—again, not resulting from any holier-than-thou baroque authenticity, but because it helps the whole harmonic logic.

Returning briefly to the modern piano—Bach was of course performing and composing modern music, and maybe what appeals to me in Joanna MacGregor’s version is that it seems tastefully rooted in her whole experience of our own contemporary piano sounds. Here’s the hallucinatory final repeat of the Aria:

Still, Bach is amazing on tuned percussion too, like this:

It can also sound wonderful as a string trio:

For Uri Caine’s stuttering variation, see here.

All this wealth of divine music I offer in tribute to the great Professor Feuchtwang!

 

[1] For missionaries at the Qing court, see here. “They come over ‘ere, with their fancy harpsichords…”
[2] Maybe I can concoct a couple of Chinese musicians in 1740s’ Leipzig from the Bach archives. If north African wind players were active at European courts of the day, then why not… International cultural exchange, eh. Note also Bach and Daoist ritual—not least Li Manshan’s classic remark.
[3] This encomium could come in handy for Rowan’s CV:
“Less irritating than Glenn Gould”—Dr S. Jones.

 

Performance ethnography

Pace Robert Hanks and indeed the great man himself, one can never have too much of Alan Bennett.

From his 2008 diaries, more perceptive ethnography of both orchestral musicians and audiences (cf. here and here), about a TV broadcast of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra from the Proms:

… one of the cameras fascinated with a particular woodwind player who has a good deal to do, but who in turn obviously fancies the flautist who’s next but one. So at the end of his own contribution he’ll often half-turn in order to pass the tune or whatever to this flautist, and she is equally attentive during his solos. There’s a cellist with a cheeky face who plainly makes jokes, a bear of a violinist who throw himself about a lot, and next to him the child violinist with a face made tragic by concentration. It’s hard to conceive how such a small figure copes with the great winds of Brahms, though he’s more composed about it than his hairy and demonstrative neighbour.

It’s moving, too, of course because of the moral stance of the orchestra, though the players are by now probably bored or at least matter-of-fact about this ethical burden. But with similar experience in the theatre (including I hope The History Boys), one longs to stay with them once the performance is over and they disperse. Who looks after the child, I wonder, whom does the cheeky cellist sleep with and are the flautist and the woodwind player as close as their performances suggest? So there’s sadness too in being excluded from all this and longing, just as there is coming away from the theatre or for some people, I imagine, the football stadium.

Competing with the lofty claim of detached spiritual contemplation of the work in hand, such observation is a universal yet little-documented feature of attending public performances—just the kind of detail that ethnomusicologists might seek, and that the “absolute music” wing of WAM scholars would eschew.

My work with the Li family Daoists is full of such detail, both for their funeral practice at home—such as Golden Noble corpsing the others while reciting the Invitation memorial, or the reluctance of the kin to pay attention to the liturgy of the Daoists they still feel obliged to hire—and for their concerts on tour (such as this, and this). But even in the 1990s I had apparently read enough Geertz, Barley, and so on to pay attention to the behaviour of the Gaoluo villagers—like this passage (Plucking the winds, pp.304–5):

After supper on the 15th, the “temple” courtyard is packed. Apart from South Gaoluo villagers, some have also come from the North village and elsewhere. Many have come to offer incense, but many also just for the fun. Boisterous children are chasing around letting off firecrackers, both outside and inside the “temple”. Five sticks of incense are considered “a bundle” (yifeng).

As to ordinary villagers, though there are more women than men offering incense, quite few of the people are elderly: young and middle-aged women and young men seem to be more active in this. Many pray silently to the goddess Houtu for a healthy son, or for the health of their aged parents; more generally, people pray for good luck and prosperity. One couple were offering incense for the safety of the husband, who is a driver—even for the most diehard atheist, recourse to divine help is particularly tempting on Chinese roads. The atmosphere is highly jocular as people enter the courtyard. As they go to offer incense and kowtow they look embarrassed, but then when they are actually doing it they become extremely serious. Then as they get up and dust down their trousers, they look all embarrassed again, and, avoiding meeting the gaze of all the onlookers, they leave the area, often going into the “temple”.

Of course, Geertz, Barley, and indeed Bennett may do it better, but as with WAM, such social ethnography is quite rare in (both Chinese and foreign) studies of Daoist ritual, which are more concerned with recreating the abstract deep structure of medieval texts and ritual sequences. And similarly, it’s not one or the other—both angles are desirable.

* * *

Later in 2008 AB notes a comment on the distressingly populist Classic FM radio:

Elgar’s Nimrod conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. It doesn’t get much better than that. Or does it? Give us a call.

They come over ‘ere…

Central Asian musicians, Tang dynasty.

Here’s a companion piece to my post on foreigners during the Cultural Revolution, where I acknowledged my anachronistic use of the epithet laowai 老外.

I read that indeed the term didn’t become common until the 1980s—just in time to greet me on my late arrival (for some words that Shakespeare may not have invented, see here). The Chinese wiki article on laowai makes a useful succinct introduction, explaining its interplay of respect and xenophobia. I’m still curious to learn how the winning combo of lao and wai suddenly caught on. A detailed forum on the nuances of this and related terms has been initiated by the erudite Victor Mair, so here I’ll just add a few personal reflections.

A still more blunt term is dabizi 大鼻子 “big nose”; foreigners in China have to get used to frequent appraisals of their physiognomy, but as an autonym, at least, the term can be drôle. I’m also fond of the more quaintly retro yang guizi 洋鬼子 (“foreign devil”), which a senior Taiwanese mentor—and, crucially, friend!—likes to call me. As ever, such terms are context-sensitive; they may even confirm guanxi (“You’re my mate—we can take the piss together”).

At a tangent, in Shaanbei a fine shawm-band leader is widely known as Jiekazi “The Stammerer”—in rural China, attitudes towards stammering are both less po-faced and less courteous.

Craig and Ming

Waiguoren!” (not yet “Laowai!”). Craig Clunas, Ming tombs 1975.

Staying with China (derogatory terms for foreigners are of course a rich topic worldwide), apart from the various historical terms (hu 胡, fan 番, yi 夷, man 蠻, and so on—mostly with a strong suggestion of “barbarian”), I’m now curious to learn how the Labouring Masses of the Tang dynasty would have hailed the substantial number of laowai on the streets of 8th-century Xi’an in the popular argot of the day.

We may now regard the Tang as the first great world-music boom, but as musical nationalists of the day (like the poet Bai Juyi and his mate Yuan Zhen) might have said,

“They come over ‘ere, with their fancy bili and pipa…”

Or their Qing-dynasty counterparts (so does building walls work, then? Eh??):

“They come over ‘ere, with their fancy erhu and suona and yangqin…”

OK, I made those up, but this is a genuine Tang quote (adding impertinent male judgment on female attire to the heady xenophobic mix): [1]

Our women are acting like foreigners’ wives, studying foreign make-up;
Entertainers present foreign sounds, servants to foreign music!

Straight out of the Daily Mail, that. With the current surge in “patriotism”, a new campaign to purge corrupting foreign influence from the Chinese instrumentarium would be left mainly with the xun ocarina and the sheng mouth-organ—which might fail to excite even Uncle Xi. It’s ironic that after successive waves, it was the Model Operas of the Cultural Revolution that were largely responsible for a renewed vogue for the instruments of the Western Art Music tradition.

Closer to home (yet equally apposite), a classic rebuke to xenophobia is the great Stewart Lee’s UKIP routine (“Bloody Huguenots, Coming Over Here—doubting trans-substantiation, with their famed ability to weave little jerkins out of lace…”). And to supplement his fantasy chat down the UKIP pub:

“Apparently the guitar is descended from the oud—that’s bloody Moorish, mate! What’s wrong with Morris dancing, that’s wot I say!”

[Inconvenient footnote: an inconclusive etymology suggests that “Morris” is itself derived from “Moorish”…]

As simplistic nationalist agendas rear their ugly orange heads yet again, it’s always worth unpacking language. See also A fine riposte, and Das Land ohne Musik.

For the “Golden Age” of the Tang, Chinese scholars might learn from 17th-century Holland.

 

[1] See e.g. Suzanne E. Cahill, “Our women are acting like foreigners’ wives! Western influences of Tang dynasty women’s fashion”, in Steele and Major (eds), China chic: East meets West. Among many works, see also Marc S. Abramson (ed.), Ethnic identity in Tang China. The works of Edward Schafer (notably The golden peaches of Samarkand and The vermilion bird, written at a time when such study was neither profitable nor popular) have long been an inspiration for those studying Central Asian culture in the Tang.

 

More Ted Ibert

bear

Always a keen ethnographer of religion, Alan Bennett documents the ritual paraphernalia of calendrical observancess in a diary entry for 2007:

17 May. Outside the bank I see the local vicar, his arms full of balloons and a Sooty teddy bear in the crook of his arm. “It’s Ascension Day,” he explains.

Pursuing the teddy bear theme, AB reflects on his own innocuous image:

20 December. […] I shall still be thought to be kindly, cosy, and essentially harmless. I am in the pigeon-hole marked “no threat”, and did I stab Judy Dench with a pitchfork I should still be a teddy bear.

 

Women of Gaoluo

Woman Zhang

Woman Zhang at 90 sui, 1998.

Chain-smoking cross-legged on the kang brick-bed with all the carefree abandon of the elderly, wielding her cigarettes with more relish than accuracy, Woman Zhang (Zhangshi nü 张氏女, b.1909) told us what she could about her life. As she said, entirely without feminist irony, “I had no [given] name until going to work [in 1958] in the Great Leap Forward—that’s when they gave me the name Yurong.”

Apart from the Li family Daoists (film, and book: also tag in sidebar), my other most in-depth ethnography concerns the ritual association of Gaoluo, just south of Beijing. On this blog I’ve written about two leading figures there, as well as their performance of “precious scrolls”—and also the village’s substantial minority of Catholics.

It may not have escaped the alert reader that much of my fieldwork is basically about the public activities of men. I made a partial attempt to redress the balance with three posts on Women of Yanggao (starting here). So here are some further notes on the status of women in rural China, setting forth from our chats with the characterful Woman Zhang in Gaoluo in 1998, and again based on vignettes from my book Plucking the winds (where you can find further detail).

Though 90 and illiterate, her mind is quite clear, and to my relief she speaks with a clear calm voice in a standard accent. Given her advanced age (she claims to remember the long pigtails still worn by men for a while after they ceased to be enforced with the fall of the Qing dynasty), our meeting should have been a fascinating glimpse into village history. But, in total contrast to the detailed day-by-day accounts of the cultured men Shan Zhihe and Shan Fuyi, I was taken aback by her ignorance of the momentous events which had convulsed the village. Of course, men can be muddled too; but this wasn’t muddle. We know a lot of men who are totally vague about dates, but at least they have participated in history, even when only trying to escape it or deplore it, and one can learn a lot. The problem was that she was not only uneducated and a woman, but had been widowed over fifty years earlier: she had simply played no part in the village’s public history. This itself was a salient lesson. We supplied the dates below: significantly, the only date she had ever heard of was 1960, the famine.

While nominally a Catholic, Woman Zhang “believes in everything”. Though she was only brought to Gaoluo from her home in a village in Dingxing just south in about 1930, she had heard stories about the famous Boxer massacre at Gaoluo in May 1900. Some of the Catholics took refuge in the Catholic stronghold of Anzhuang further south, while others fled to the Xishiku church in Beijing. Woman Zhang’s father-in-law Shan Zhong was the only survivor of his whole family from the Boxer massacre; two sons and a pregnant daughter had been slaughtered. Shan Zhong himself had gone to Dingxing town that day; on his way back he got as far as Wucun village just south of Gaoluo when he got wind of the massacre and fled, taking refuge in the Xishiku church in Beijing. After it became safe to return to Gaoluo, Shan Zhong remarried, taking a young wife.

1930 donors' list, South Gaoluo

1930 donors’ list.

By 1930 the village ritual association, sensing a need to compete with the revival of Catholic power, commissioned a new set of ornamental hangings for the New Year rituals (see here, under Ritual rivalry). Shan Zhong was by now an established leader of the village Catholics—but impressively, he was one of the most generous contributors whose names (all male, as heads of households) appear on the rival association’s handsome donors’ list.

That same year Woman Zhang, then 22 sui, was brought to Gaoluo to marry Shan Zhong’s 14-sui-old son Wenli, the youngest of their three sons. Later the Italian missionaries became popular partly because like the local spirit mediums they could cure illness, and Shan Zhong also gained quite a reputation as a healer. But he died only a year after Woman Zhang’s son was born, quite soon after the building of the church.

Soon after I married here, the Catholics used to try and get me to come to church, but my mother-in-law wouldn’t let me—I couldn’t just please myself when I went out, she’d beat me. They talked it over with the other Catholic wives. They took me to church, and after the service was over they took me home, so the mother-in-law didn’t beat me.

Through the growing fug of cigarette smoke, as we tried impertinently to help Woman Zhang direct some of her ash in the general direction of the floor, she went on: “They taught me eight scriptures [jing: hymns, I think, as often in folk parlance]—I couldn’t read them, I just learnt them by heart. Dunno what the words mean, though!”

Japanese warplanes bombed Laishui county-town at 8am on 17th September (the 13th of the 8th moon) 1937, and that same day Japanese troops first entered Gaoluo. Coming from the direction of Wucun to the south, they were just passing through; they had about fifty tanks, and were covered by aircraft. The troops entered the village before Woman Zhang could take her children to the church to hide; they passed by her house. In order to dissuade them from murdering them all and setting fire to the village, the village leaders went out to welcome them. Before the Japanese even entered the village, they shot dead a villager who rashly stuck his neck out to look, but after entering Gaoluo they harmed no-one, just asking for fresh water, eggs, and meat. The venerable Shan Zhihe, along with Cai Ming (a sheng-player in the ritual association who worked as a pig-slaughterer), was responsible for looking after them and giving them water—the Japanese made them drink some first to be sure it was not poisoned. Though they soon went on their way after a token search, Japanese cavalry and infantry passed through constantly for several days on their way to Baoding, and Gaoluo villagers had to look after them.

Woman Zhang was widowed during the War against Japan. Her husband, Catholic Shan Wenli, hoping to join up with the guerrilla army, had gone out with a big stash of opium to use as a “sub” for travel expenses, but it was soon stolen. Though he eventually managed to join the army, he was wounded first in one eye and then in the body. He was brought home to die, still only in his 30s. Woman Zhang went to kowtow to Cai Yantian, who by this time had been ordained as a priest by Bishop Martina, to ask him to come and give her husband the last rites.

In our talk we fast-forwarded to 1958 and the infamous campaign for making steel—most frenetic, exhausting, and pointless campaign of the Great Leap Forward, in which many households were deprived of precious equipment, even including woks and door-latches. Woman Zhang was enlisted, and since this was virtually the first time she had been allowed out of the house, she was now given a personal name—at the age of 50 sui. She told us with an incredulous cackle: “They wanted me to make steel out of woks!” She didn’t have a clue what that was all about, and none of us could enlighten her.

1960 was the worst year: villagers agreed it was just unbearable. Though the famine is generally known as “the three years of difficulty” (sannian kunnan shiqi), it is colloquially identified simply as “1960” (liulingnian). Everyone was still expected to report for work, but only able-bodied people could survive; less sturdy villagers soon got ill and started dying. Malnutrition was as serious as at any time in the hated old society. Woman Zhang remembers having to eat yam leaves to avoid starving to death. The village cadres were in the same boat—at best, they might have been able to sneak into the canteens after work to snatch an extra mouthful of snake-melon.

She perked up when we went on to seek her opinions on the Red Guards:

Oh yeah—what were they on about? I couldn’t make it out. I know they used to parade through the streets…

But some of their victims were her fellow Catholics.

Our time with Woman Zhang was both funny and sad. She had lived through so much over the last nine decades, but had little clue what had been going on. Over the following weeks, as winter turned to spring, I often saw her sitting outside “taking the breeze” at her gateway in the bright sunshine, looking curiously at passers-by and giving me a somewhat formal nod. Life too had passed her by, which maybe was not altogether a bad thing. Pretty bad, though: she had lost her husband young, and with or without him had led a semi-existence.

Still, she reckons life is much better than in the old society, and this is no expedient courtesy to a foreign guest. Blissfully oblivious of the continuing persecution of the Catholics and the general convulsions the society was subjected to, she was genuinely grateful both for Liberation and the reforms: “Now you can get to eat barley and white flour—years could pass in the old days without that stuff.” On the other hand, when we asked her provocatively, indeed rather desperately, whether she preferred the old or the new village cadres, she had absorbed enough of the cynical climate to retort: “They’re all rubbish, they just bully people, what is there to prefer?!”

Woman Zhang perhaps typified the belief of the older generation of women. Though a Catholic since she was young, she finds Jesus rather remote: “Who of us has actually seen Jesus?” But as to “Mountain Granny” (shanli nainai, a popular term for the local goddess Houtu), “How can you help believing in her? The village women used to buy incense and go on pilgrimage to burn incense on Houshan, so I went along too. Catholics aren’t supposed to burn incense, but I went on the quiet, they didn’t know. Yes, I believe in Granny.” As we saw, she went to Catholic services, but she also enjoys visiting the association’s lantern tent at New Year, and likes both the shengguan wind music and the percussion; she remembers hearing Cai Fuxiang recite the Houtu scroll, and though she didn’t understand it, she liked to listen to that too. Cases like hers confound those “tick one box only” surveys of “religious faith” in China.

Rural sexism
Local literatteur Shan Fuyi, as ever, had a nice story. In 1990 the leaders of the association were seeking donations from villagers to refurbish their ritual building. As it happened, South Gaoluo’s nouveau-riche entrepreneur Heng Yiyou was working away from the village when they called at his house, and his wife only had a paltry couple of kuai to hand. When Shan Fuyi, who was to write the donors’ list, asked her whose name he should write, she exclaimed sharply, “Write Heng Yiyou’s name of course—do I count as a person?!”, hitting the sexist nail on the head. Shan Fuyi did as she said, but soon realized they couldn’t put Boss Heng down for such a meagre amount. When he tracked Heng down, Heng now gave a further 100 yuan, besides four long bamboo poles from which to attach the association’s pennants. Luckily the donor’s list had a blank space at the top where Shan Fuyi could write up the extra donation, giving Boss Heng appropriate recognition.

1990 beiwen

1990 donor’s list, by Shan Fuyi.

The trenchant remark of Boss Heng’s wife gives us a pretext to reflect on the status of women in village life. For the record, she’s called Li Shufen! As Shan Fuyi observes, people are not generally aware of women’s names unless they are close relatives.

In Gaoluo, although women are devout in taking part in the ritual activities which the ritual association serves, both spiritual and secular spheres continue to collude in excluding them from learning the ritual music. Their exclusion from the association reflects their exclusion from power and influence in village society as a whole, underlining the persistence of tradition and the limited scope of the revolution. Sexism, like irrational violence, is one aspect of tradition which one could understand the Communists hoping to overturn, but they were largely unsuccessful.

I must preface these comments by admitting that they are entirely impertinent: I have only added to the burdens of both women and men while in Gaoluo, feeling unable to offer any practical assistance, and never transcending my status as a guest. One of our most uncomfortable experiences in these villages is the helpless feeling of colluding in the macho tradition, all men in a group smoking and chatting while the women cook for us. At meal-times, they serve us while the men all sit around the table discussing the Important Things men talk about; the women then get to eat the cold left-overs, often outside in the courtyard, only after we vacate the table and they have served us with tea. Our entreaties for them to join us are laughed away. To be fair, this happens mainly when there are guests: normally the family eats together, though segregation is also sometimes observed.

Thinking of Shan Zhihe and his arranged marriage, or of Woman Zhang and Cai An’s mum with their bound feet, I can’t help observing that despite the continuing glaring inferiority of women’s social position today, there has been some progress—thanks to the enlightened Communist Party, as I joke with them. Young people at least choose their own partners now, and even if the women won’t share the meal they have prepared for the men, they all now have a certain amount in common, standing around making good-humoured jokes while the menfolk are chatting away over their booze and fags.

But progress has been painfully slow. After Liberation, obeying a central decree, the village Party branch dutifully elected a token female head of the new Women’s Association. Under the commune system, the vague idea was that she should implement gender equality and the female liberation campaign, but there was no specific programme, and the position was largely a sinecure. The only thing anyone could remember her organizing was International Woman’s Day on the 8th March, when the women were summoned to a meeting. After the birth-control policy began to be enforced strictly in the 1980s, that became her main duty, an onerous and invidious one, dependent largely on the orders of a male establishment.

While Party membership is the means to career progress, the Gaoluo Party branch, like most others, has made no efforts to “develop” bright young female applicants; as one cadre said, “It’s a waste of time, they’re going to leave the village sooner or later [to get married]”—exactly the reason given for denying women admission to the ritual association. Men join the Party with the prospect of becoming cadres. Women are caught in a neat Chinese Catch-22: they are not considered for Party membership because they are not going to become cadres, and because they are not going to become cadres, there’s no point in admitting them to the Party. As we saw, some girls began to attend school in the 1950s, but seldom progressed to higher grades.

Traditional morality has retained its stranglehold in many respects. There are simply no women in the village with any authority. Any woman seeking an active social role was, and is, likely to be cursed as a slut (“broken shoe”, poxie) by men and women alike. The only publicly active woman I heard of was the mother of formidable He Qing, a respected midwife. Until at least the 1960s, women were just not allowed out of the house, as Woman Zhang’s story reminded us. Women and men did not mix unless they were related. Even at the village opera in 1998, the audience consisted almost entirely of women and children; the few men who wanted to watch clambered onto the rooves or walls.
opera
It’s clearly not that men don’t like opera. Perhaps they are embarrassed to be seen among women and children? Gender segregation is still mutually agreed upon.

Only the new karaoke bar, where separate gangs of teenage boys and girls eye each other up, posturing before the video-CD screen is overthrowing traditional morality, much to their relief and the chagrin of the elders; such bars in the nearby towns are indeed notoriously equivalent to brothels. Hence also the traditional disdain for female opera singers, who display themselves outside the house in the company of men. The female singers in the new village opera group have to watch their step—their reputation is at stake.

Returning to the association rituals, apart from women’s active participation in worship, some major female deities are worshipped, notably the Bodhisattva Guanyin and fertility goddesses like the goddess Houtu. Although the associations are invited to perform for the funerals of men and women alike, it is the eldest son who kowtows to the male leader of the male association to invite it. Donors’ lists for New Year or for special donations for new ritual manuals, god paintings or instruments list the male head of the household. In the secular sphere, government campaigns have long attempted to raise the prestige of female children in China, with wall slogans protesting feebly that “daughters are also descendants”.

slogan
Yet female infanticide remains common; under siege from the draconian birth control policy, women and men alike attend association rituals to pray to Houtu to be granted a healthy son.

The continuing exclusion of women from the ritual associations is all the more disturbing since there is a certain crisis in transmission—not so much as a result of political campaigns culminating in the Cultural Revolution, but rather since the 1980s, as young men desert the villages in search of work, at the same time espousing the modernity of pop music. Meanwhile the potentially gifted daughters of fine musicians remain in the home village, at least until marriage. Yet there is no prospect of adaptation. Girls are neither offered nor do they seek a role in public ritual.

Niu Jinhua

Niu Jinhua (left) with Yan Wenyu‘s widow (among several Gaoluo women with bound feet), 1996.

Since women are such a silent group in our studies, in 1996 we finally had a chat with Niu Jinhua (b.1920), mother of our host maestro Cai An—with great difficulty, I may add, since she is rather deaf; her brilliant granddaughter helped us get through, acting as interpreter. Though women are not allowed to perform the vocal liturgy or the ritual shengguan wind music, they benefit from listening to it as much as men. Asked if she likes the music, she replied enthusiastically, “Oh yes! I’ve heard it all my life, I like to listen, you can’t get tired of it (bufan).” One often hears villagers use this expression about shengguan music, but her matter-of-fact statement will remain with me, summing up its enduring impact; other women we’ve asked also express active enthusiasm. Niu Jinhua goes on, “My old home [Zhangcuitai village, just further north] has a ritual association, just the same as the one here, same pieces, they recite the Buddha too, and hang out the god paintings at New Year.” Cai An chips in: “Yes, I went there when I was young—it’s very like our association.”

As we all smile quizzically, my friend Xue Yibing then asks Cai An’s mother ingenuously,
“Were there ever any women who learnt the music?!”
“Oh no!”, she cackles.
“Why not, then?!”
“It was Old Feudalism in them days, wannit, how could women take part?!”

While I wondered if the fact that women still don’t learn meant that we are still stuck with “Old Feudalism”, her comments sparked off a group discussion (which, for men, was quite observant) on the position of women in village life.

The men, while doing nothing about it, rather like their British counterparts, readily admit that women have a much harder time than men. Their explanation of the male monopoly on ritual is feeble: “The ritual performance of the associations is a business for Buddhist and Daoist priests; what with setting up the altar and burning the petitions, everyone kowtowing, it wouldn’t be convenient if there were women there.” Though I recall that nuns used to perform rituals and even play the shengguan wind music, the point is at least that men and women should be segregated—yet even all-female performing groups are rare in rural China. But after all, women constitute the majority of those offering incense and making vows during these rituals.

The male musicians go on, just a bit more plausibly, “Anyway, women just don’t have the time to study the music; their life is much more harsh, in the old days grinding flour, making shoes, mending clothes, cooking, looking after the kids, they were so busy. Men have nothing much to do except tilling the fields; especially in winter, they have time to learn the music.”

Indeed, men (both in Gaoluo and Beijing) think women’s liberation has gone too far. A familiar male lament is heard: “Nowadays the women even get their husbands to do the household chores!” To be sure, women can have quite a temper, and men commonly deplore their fate with the nice, if sexist, pun “I’ve got tracheitis”, tracheitis (qiguanyan) being homophonous with “hen-pecked” (“wife controls strictly”). One otherwise bright young village boy, back for New Year from his studies at college in Tianjin, couldn’t see what I was on about, claiming rather wistfully that men and women in Gaoluo were entirely equal—overlooking little details like the total absence of women in positions of responsibility, their failure to go on to higher education, their relegation to eating the cold leftovers after the men have taken their fill, and the fact that several Gaoluo wives have been bought. Moreover, since able-bodied men now migrate to the towns to seek work, women are left behind on their own not only to run the house and look after the elderly and young but also to tend the fields. Apart from that, they have a great life…

Though all this doesn’t exactly get to the roots of sexism, I’ve given a couple of vignettes. That’s how things were in Chinese villages in the 1990s; so much for gender equality under Maoism or the reforms. The closest we came to influencing women’s status in Gaoluo was that Cai An’s mum finally got used to being included in a round of cigarettes—hardly a great coup in favour of the global women’s movement.

All this began to change towards the late 1990s when rural girls began to move from secondary education to college in the towns and cities—but that’s another episode in the story.

YAYwatch

Unlikely as it may sound, I have recently been startled to find myself prone to exclaiming “YAY!”, for which I’m about forty years too old.

This sad habit isn’t formed so much by watching the brilliantly awful Jessica Hynes on the BBC TV series W1A (see this post on voiceovers), as by finding the ironic ambivalence of its usage a useful shorthand. Once it might have been “YES!”, and still earlier “Jolly good show!”, “Hoorah!”, or “Spiffing!”, but “YAY!” has more layers of meaning—the older the speaker, the more pleasantly disquieting it sounds. So that’s my defence.

Chinese vocabularies for approbation change even faster. Victor Mair’s language log has some fine examples, like this. Following bucuo and taibangle,  I still like the north Shanxi kebulai—but I’m not yet aware of any terms with the ironic sense of “YAY!”.

See also OMG and LOL.

A different kind of song


As if we needed further evidence of the refined tastes of Tweety McTangerine in the cultural sphere (let alone his fawning admiration for dictators expert in brutal repression):

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/13/you-are-the-light-philippines-duterte-sings-love-song-for-trump

Call me old-fashioned, but as love songs go, I still prefer Bill Bailey’s version

The duck lies shredded in a pancake,
Soaking in the hoisin of your lies…

And we can only sigh to recall the days not so long gone when there was taste at the White House (for more on Aretha, see here):

The Houtu precious scroll

*Click here for link to page!*
(again, under Themes > Local ritual in top menu)

Hot on the heels of my article on the Houshan Daoists, we need a rather more detailed account of the “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷) [1] performed by amateur ritual groups on the Hebei plain.

The four ritual associations of South and North Gaoluo all have early copies of precious scrolls on several themes, but what they, and I, consider their most exquisite volume, the Houtu scroll, was copied only in 1943 (see my Plucking the winds).

While the Ten Kings scroll was commonly recited for funerals until the 1964 Four Cleanups campaign, the Houtu scroll was performed for calendrical rituals—notably the New Year and Houtu’s own festival around 3rd moon 15th, either on Houshan or in the home village (playlist, track 6, and commentary).

The whole point of these precious scrolls is that they are performed for rituals—they’re not musty tomes to be read silently in libraries. And their performance practice—in the hands of peasant ritual specialists—transpires to be rather complex. As I always say, one can hardly study ritual without focusing on how it sounds.

This article is based on my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Appendix 3, which contains further refs.

HTJ image

 

 

Regional cultures

An ethnologist rarely noted is Ken Dodd, who commented profoundly on variations in regional cultures—as in the Chinese “customs differ ever 10 li” (shili butong su 十里不同俗):

You can tell a joke in Liverpool and they won’t laugh in London… they can’t hear it.

Michael Billington reflects:

It strikes me I’ve been lucky enough in my lifetime to see two performers kissed with genius. One was Laurence Olivier, who could enthral an audience with his animalistic power and interpretative originality. The other is Ken Dodd, who has the capacity to take a roomful of strangers and, through a fusillade of verbal and visual gags that never lets up, induce in them a spirit of collective ecstasy.

Ken is renowned for the length of his shows. Lord Grade has suggested that Xi Jinping’s recent interminable address to the Chinese party faithful was secretly scripted by Ken. If only…

Revolution and laowai

liuxuesheng

Acting the part: new UK students from class of 1975, Foreign Languages Institute, Beijing.
Robin Needham (R.I.P.), Andrew Seaton, Howard Nightingale;
Frances Wood, Derek Gillman, Richard King, Steve Crabbe;
Harriet Evans, Pippa Jones, Beth McKillop, Rose Kerr, Sarah Garbutt.
Photo taken at Wudaokou photo shop and hand-tinted there, autumn 1975.
Courtesy Beth McKillop.

In the light of later exposés of the Cultural Revolution, the acquaintance with Chinese society of laowai (“Wogs”)* from my generation, idealistic students at Cambridge, now inevitably seems somewhat less than well-informed.

The great Frances Wood, long-term curator of the Chinese collection of the British Library, and whose insights and mellifluous voice regularly inform BBC Radio 4’s series In our time, evokes that generation’s experience of revolutionary China in her brilliant memoir Hand-grenade practice in Peking: my part in the Cultural Revolution. The blurb makes a good summary (extra points too for eschewing the standard “smorgasbord” and “picaresque swathe”):

In 1975 I went to Peking for a year, together with nine other British students who had been exchanged by the British Council for ten Chinese students.** The latter knew exactly what they were doing: learning English in order to further the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. We were less sure.
From 1966, China had been turned upside down by young Red Guards who were encouraged to “Bombard the Headquarters”. Professors, surgeons, artists, pianists, novelists and film directors were attacked for their bourgeois pursuit of excellence or their attachment to decadent Western ideas.
Though by 1975 there were no longer violent street battles or badly beaten bodies floating down the Pearl River, we found Peking University governed by a Revolutionary Committee of workers, peasants and Party members determined that we should not learn too much and become experts divorced from the masses.
With our Chinese classmates, we spent half our time in factories, getting in the way of workers making railway engines, or in the fields, learning from peasants how to bundle cabbage or plant rice seedlings in muddy water. Heroically, we stayed up half the night to dig rather shallow underground shelters in case of nuclear attack. Much of the rest of the time was spent in class, with two compulsory hours of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought every Saturday morning and compulsory sport, which included hand-grenade throwing. I studied Chinese history which had to be revised overnight when Deng Xiaoping was criticized for the second time and erased from the record. The constant hammering of political rhetoric, broadcast from tannoys hidden in every tree, and the endless expositions of Marxist-Leninist dialectic were only interrupted by funeral announcements as yet another ancient revolutionary went to join Karl Marx.
Just after I returned home, the Great Helmsman himself, Chairman Mao, died. Within weeks, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was not only over but renamed “The Ten Disastrous Years”. The reinstated Deng Xiaoping bounced back and declared that it was glorious to be rich: all my helpful digging and enginemaking had been a mistake.

To some, the book may seem to make light of what was a distressing period for Chinese people, but as Frances notes:

To all those in China who suffered terribly at the time I apologize for my determination to amuse myself and be amused by what I found. I only began to discover what was happening to China’s intellectuals [not just them, I might add—SJ] when I got home.

With quaint stoicism Frances and her fellow-students learn the arts of aimlessly moving rubble, the “ceremony of entering into traffic” (as a Chinese student interpreted the phrase rite de passage) on rickety bikes, and the labyrinthine system of coupons, chits, and travel permits. Cabbages play a major role. Her description of the dangers of eating the baozi dumplings of unheated restaurants in winter brought memories flooding back (also evoking Bill Bailey’s “soaking in the hoisin of your lies“):

They were difficult to pick up and dip in soy sauce at the best of times, even if you had all your fingers free to manipulate the chopsticks. Eating them in in an outer coat and padded cotton mittens was a very messy business, and it didn’t take long for the front and cuffs of our coats to become stiff with soy sauce and bits of baozi.

Frances relishes her excursions in search of imperial architecture—which, distressingly, even in those revolutionary times (despite the best efforts of the Red Guards) was much more abundant than today.

With vital government departments depleted, and “so-called experts” dismissed, in favour of glib and dangerous populist slogans (now where have we heard that recently?), Frances reflects on the weird campaign extolling Lei Feng, with its classic song

I would like to be a tiny screw… Put me in place and screw me tight.

Meanwhile, pressed into finding a party-piece to compete with their North Korean and Albanian counterparts, the UK students soon become adept at trotting out “the British national songOld MacDonald had a farm. On other occasions, wheeled out for visits of foreign dignitaries, they feel like model prisoners.

As she devours “negative teaching material“, Frances identifies many experiences familiar to foreigners in China, like holding a fluent conversation in Chinese with a local, who then suddenly interjects, “Can you understand Chinese?” Even her final chapters on the culture-shock of returning to Blighty, bewildered by excessive choice, rank alongside the dénouement of Nigel Barley’s The Innocent anthropologist after his stay in Cameroon.

In his introduction, Oliver Pritchett regards Frances as part of the great tradition of intrepid British women explorers—reminding me of Ronnie Ancona’s spoof. The book is perceptive, hilarious, and warm-hearted, and you must read it at once!

Cambridge 1974

Partying at the Oriental faculty, Cambridge 1974. Beth McKillop, Carol Murray, Catharine Saunders, Tim Wright, Hisako Tottori (later Princess Takamado), a fragmentary bearded Paul Kratochvil, Nick Menzies, Craig Clunas with hair, Evelyn Laing, me with even more hair, André (then “Al”) de Vries.

All the while, amidst the deep waters and raging fire, I was granted a welcome dispensation to remain safe in the ivory towers of Cambridge. When I wasn’t drunk in charge of a string quartet (with grateful thanks to Adnams and Bartók), my own naïveté focused on obstinately reading Tang poetry and Huineng’s Platform Sūtra, inspired as I was by fine scholars like Denis Twitchett and David McMullen—as well as Laurence Picken‘s work on Tang music, and Michael Loewe’s training in Han-dynasty texts. As Frances observes,

Learning Chinese then was like learning a dead language: there seemed no hope of ever using it in China.

For me (rather like the attitude of the LA Phil board towards composers) it wasn’t so much a case of “no hope of using it in China” as “no danger of having to use it there”. My classical bent went along with my stammer—reluctant even to speak English, I couldn’t imagine ever trying to communicate with foreigners. Quelle horreur!

For the early inspirations that drew me to Chinese studies, I wrote a series beginning here.

me 1974

This photo was also taken in 1974, as I went for an exam in spoken Chinese—a concept hardly less ridiculous now than it was then. The fusty pursuits of Tang history were already somewhat antiquarian in an increasingly leftie Cambridge, and hardly appealed (then) to my fellow students. Apart from Frances and Craig, others like Beth McKillop and Nick Menzies, as well as students from other UK universities, were plunging into the fray and Becoming At One with the Masses with extended stays in China as part of their course. Some were rather keen on the revolutionary baptism; the tastes of others were more historical (in China, as Frances notes, “History was regarded as a very dangerous weapon which could not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands”). More than flared trousers, history—which had then seemed like, well, history—soon came back into fashion, and many of my fellow-students later became distinguished sinologists of imperial China; but unlike me, they had already noticed that one’s studies needed to be grounded in some kind of current reality.

Still, I suspect few of us were at all clear by this stage that the Labouring Masses were in a depression that must have seemed terminal, bitterly disillusioned with constant lurches in central policy, and suffering from constant hunger; or that this was already prompting a “silent revolution” in private enterprise, some years before decollectivization became an official policy.

Another 1975 photo [1] of the great Craig Clunas makes an evocative image:

Craig
Craig’s own caption:
Shock and awe on childish faces as Foreign Friend massacres the greatest hits of revolutionary modern Peking opera, Yan’an, 1975.
My take:
Becoming At One with the Masses: revenge for Langlang.
“Wow—
Taking tiger mountain by strategy! Don’t get to hear that much—just what we need!”

Back at Cambridge my only compromise to modern China (indeed, anything after the 9th century) was taking supervisions with Paul Kratochvil, although his expert guidance consisted mainly of plying me with beer and jokes in the pub—for which I’m eternally grateful. But in the vein of Arthur Waley, cocooned in a disembodied dream of ancient oriental wisdom, I only began spending time in the Real China a decade after my fellow-students; whereas they evidently got time off for good behaviour, I’ve since made up for my insouciance by spending the last three decades traipsing around dusty Chinese villages trying to document the fortunes of ritual culture under Maoism, learning to read between the lines of the arcane socialist vocabulary that Frances explores so tellingly.

Still, my first trip in 1986 was hardly prompted by any desire to engage with modern China: I went in search to clues to Tang-dynasty performance practice in living genres. It was only when I found folk culture a vibrant and fascinating theme that I switched my focus to modern society and the ethnography of local religion.

Since 1993 my lengthy stays Becoming At One with the Masses as guest of the Gaoluo ritual association, and later the Li family Daoists, belong under the heading of dundian, “squatting”, or more elegantly “making a base”. I was never dragooned into moving rubble, but in Gaoluo I did spill the occasional bucket of water from the well—and in 2013 I managed quite effectively to get in Li Manshan’s way (my book, pp.132–3):

Coming across the phrase Shoulders unable to carry, hands unable to grasp, soft and sensitive skin… as I made inept attempts to help him with the autumn harvest, I thought it might have been coined to parody my efforts. Rather, it is a standard expression used to describe the travails of urban “educated youth” in performing physical labour after being sent down from the cities to the countryside in the Cultural Revolution to “learn from the peasants.” The experience was a rude shock for such groups all over China; brought up in relatively comfortable urban schools to believe in the benefits of socialism, and often protected from understanding the tribulations of their own parents, they were now confronted not just by the harshness of physical labour, but by medieval poverty.

For my counter-productive work on the harvest we reached a deal whereby Li Manshan would pay me at the rate of 1950s’ work-points. As I suggested that he might extend this arrangement to my sessions depping in his band for funeral rituals, that month I must have earned several pence—almost enough to buy a dough-stick back in Beijing.

How I envy Frances’s early excursion to Datong and its temples, the Yungang grottoes, and even a nearby coal mine. From the train she observed the very villages where I was later to immerse myself in household Daoist ritual groups like the Li family—then nearing the end of over a decade of forced inactivity. In 1974 Li Manshan and his wife had their second daughter, Li Min; their son Li Bin, later to become the ninth generation of Daoists in the lineage, was born in 1977.

The innocence of us laowai at the time is all the more reason why we need to continue our quest to understand the period—and those before and since.

In a topical—somewhat older but no less relevant—kind of remembrance, Frances features in the new Channel 4 documentary Britain’s forgotten army. Meanwhile our teacher Michael Loewe is still going strong at the age of 95. Craig couldn’t attend his lecture at SOAS recently, since he was himself giving a talk on Freud and China—one of those niche Mastermind topics like Norman Wisdom and Albania (I know which I’d choose).

 

[1] Among many great sites for photos of the Cultural Revolution, see here. For another account, leading on into the reform era, see here. For a major survey, see Beverley Hooper, Foreigners Under Mao: Western lives in China, 1949–1976.

 

* If the more polite term waiguoren (“foreigner”) was in use in the 1970s, then by the time I arrived in 1986 the more informal, and less diplomatic, laowai was often heard as we walked the streets. Or at least that’s what they always shouted at me… See sequel here.

** For the British Council to send ten UK students to Beijing in exchange for ten Chinese students sounds like a hostage deal gone wrong. Maybe bumbling Boris has this up his sleeve?

Namesakes

Not me, with Sid Vicious.

Of my several distinguished namesakes, I will (alas) not be readily confused for my fellow muso Steve Jones, guitarist of the Sex Pistols—imagine the look on the face of his Careers Guidance Officer at school.

Press cuttings about him provide me with hours of harmless fun. This quote might seem to describe one of my own performances of the transition into the finale of Beethoven’s 5th symphony:

We were all looking at one another. It wasn’t panic, it was more confusion.

Another Stephen Jones, of Babybird, received this concert review:

Stephen Jones abused his audience, his band, and himself.


 

Background and heritage

Further to Alan Bennett’s thoughts on faux nostalgia, his diaries often reveal the contrast between his own insecurity, inherited from his modest background, and the innate confidence of his Oxbridge peers. From an entry describing his appearance at the Tony awards:

11 June, New York. I am then bundled through a back door and across the street to Rockefeller Plaza where a whole floor has been given over to the press. I’m thrust blinking onto a stage facing a battery of lights while questions come out of the darkness, the best of which is: “Do you think this award will kick-start your career?”

News of my lacklustre performance on this podium must have got round quickly because I’m then taken down a long corridor off which various TV and and radio shows have mikes and cameras and there is more humiliation. “Do you want him?” asks the PA at each doorway, the answer more often than not being “Nah”, so I only score about four brief interviews before I’m pushed through another door and find I’m suddenly back in the street in the rain and it’s more or less over.

Even his admiration for Neil MacGregor is tinged with a sense of inferiority:

26 November. I go part of the way back in a cab with Neil and I ask him about his job, which he revels in and which is not simply confined to the British Museum. He’s practically a cultural ambassador or an UNESCO representative, just back from the Sudan where he’s one of a group surveying the antiquities likely to be submerged by a new dam, currently being constructed on the Nile. The problems though are not simply to do with cultural artefacts and he talks of the villagers the dam will displace, who, although they have been told what is to happen and for whom alternative accommodation has been provided, have nevertheless no idea of which this being uprooted will mean. The human and antiquarian problems in Sudan are mirrored in Iraq where the Director of Antiquities, a Syrian Christian, single-handedly defended his museums against the depredations consequent on the invasion and the war. Now in the aftermath he has to ransom his two sons who have been kidnapped and despairing of such circumstances has left Iraq for Damascus, ultimately hoping to get to America. As Neil pours this out, the words tumbling out of him as they do I feel both inadequate and ill-informed and it’s perhaps as well he doesn’t travel all the way but gets out at St Pancras to go to the Museum—looking, as he always looks, absurdly young but, I would have thought, one of the most remarkable men of his generation.

The Houshan Daoists

*Click here to read page!*

So far, most of my pages on local ritual have described traditions in Shanxi. The province of Hebei, surrounding Beijing, may seem “too close to home”, lacking the romantic image of either the ethnic minorities or the barren northwest, but it is a remarkably fruitful site for fieldwork.

While the topic belongs with my pages on Gaoluo (under Other publications), I’ve put it under Local ritual, since it sets forth from the lives of Daoist priests.

You can find background on the Hebei plain south of Beijing by consulting the many sources in my introduction here, but one major site in our fieldwork on ritual life there was Houshan 后山, in Yixian county, centre of the cult to the female deity Houtu 后土, whose temple fair I’ve already outlined.

This sketch of the Complete Perfection Daoist priests of the temple there on the eve of the 1949 Liberation again illustrates their close connection with the ritual life of local villagers. In a (lavishly illustrated!) article I introduce the Houshan priests; the village ritual associations and sects nearby which continued their ritual tradition; the rich trove of “precious scrolls” in the region; and nearby temples to Houtu.

Pantheon, Liujing 1995

Philomena Cunk

Cunk
As another cautionary tale for fieldwork interviewers, how delightful to find Diane Morgan back on our screens, after her deadpan incarnation as “professional TV dimwit” Philomena Cunk (now with her own tag in the sidebar!).

Among innumerable aperçus, here’s her exegesis of Benefits Street:

They weren’t claiming benefits like MPs do, but a different type of benefits that they weren’t entitled to, because they were poor.

Her Moments of wonder series contains some classics, like her potted history of “femininism”:

—not least her helpful comment on Emily Davison throwing herself in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913:

They [women] did this partly to highlight how unfair it was that women didn’t have a vote but horses did. And also because, being women, they really liked ponies.

On Shakespeare (“Did Shakespeare write boring gibberish with no relevance to our world of Tinder and peri-peri fries—or does it just look, sound and feel that way?”):

Among her hapless interviewees (watch from 24.19), she consults the valiant Ben Crystal, co-author of the Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary, testing him on a list of words that Shakespeare, er, might or might not have made up:

cuckoo?
ukulele?
omnishambles?
mixtape?
[fumbles ineptly with script]
sushi?
titwank?

—a list surely on a par with the names in Rowan Atkinson’s roll-call. Another perspective on Shakespeare is offered by the series Upstart crow.

Diane Morgan now has a hilarious role in the new TV series Motherland, written by the equally brilliant Graham Linehan and Sharon Horgan. I’m reliably informed that it’s horribly well observed:

I really want the children to be brought up like I was—by my mother.

It looks as if a Chinese version might be in order, though I’m not holding my breath.

 

Yet more jazz: Clifford Brown

Still exploring the trumpet genealogy (for list of posts, see here), another fine player, influenced by Fats Navarro, was Clifford Brown (1930–56):

And the only known film footage of him:

Here’s a tribute from Ken Clarke.

* * *

I also have to single out the most stunning solo from Roy Eldridge (following a plaintive one from a dying Lester Young) inspired by a spellbound Billie Holiday on their utterly gorgeous 1957 TV session.

That’s in a class of its own, but other early videos (despite the arid studio setting) give a feeling of jazzers relishing each other’s creativity, like this clip of Bird with Coleman Hawkins (and later, with Buddy Rich on drums):

I’ll leave Bird, Dizzy, and Miles for another time—so much material…

As I keep saying, if only we had such a wealth of video footage for Yanggao shawm bands and Daoists in the 1940s—or Bach’s band in the 1720s, for that matter.

A gig

The late great Linda Smith (1958–2006) was much loved by her colleagues. Simon Hoggart gives an affectionate tribute to her in A long lunch, including a story that strikes a generational chord—she told it herself, but here’s how he recalls it:

Though she had been to Sheffield University, and most of her early success as a performer had been around South Yorkshire and Derbyshire, she often returned to London and would always see her mother in Erith.* She’d explain why she was coming down—she had a gig in the West End on Saturday, but would pop over on Sunday before returning to Sheffield for another gig…
After some years of this, her mother would drop into that voice all children, of whatever age, dread hearing from their parents, the voice that means “I am about to ask a very serious question that I haven’t liked to ask for a long time, but now I need to know…” What is it going to be? Probably “Why don’t you marry and settle down?”

“What I want to know,” said her mother, “is—what is a gig?”

More gems here.

 

*Erith in Kent, a town of which she said: “It’s not twinned with anywhere, but it does have a suicide pact with Dagenham.”

Wind, ethnicity, gender

My time with Chinese shawm bands (most ubiquitous of performers for rural ceremonial) leads me to dabble mildly in studies of early European wind bands. So I’m struck by this detail of a 1520 Portuguese painting:

trombone

The Engagement of Saint Ursula and Prince Etherius,

It makes an alluring image for reviews of Miranda Kaufmann’s new book Black Tudors: the untold story, though it’s familiar to musicologists on the period—leading me to a glimpse of some of the fine work that scholars do for early European organology. See these images—Keith McGowan’s groundbreaking work on wind bands (which we await, um, breathlessly) encompasses social aspects of early European players of ethnic minority backgrounds—who, as in China, were generally low in status. And the painting is included in a survey by Will Kimball on early sackbut grips (and I thought my work was niche…)

That image comes from Portugal, but Kaufmann opens her book with a vivid account of John Blanke, trumpeter at the Tudor court.

John Blanke (rear, centre), from Westminster tournament roll, 1511.

As she notes, African musicians (mostly wind players) had been playing for European monarchs and nobility since the 12th century. More commonly represented in painting are Middle-Eastern shawm bands, as in Carpaccio’s Baptism of the Selenites.

So if the 1520 Portuguese painting is the earliest surviving representation of a black trombonist, then when was the next, eh? Before the 20th century?

Moving laterally (like a trombone slide), here’s Melba Liston:

While we’re about it, any excuse to cite Some like it hot:

And Vermeer’s The art of painting attracts as much interpretation as Las meninas:

* * *

Now, much as I admire Chinese music historians and the many fine collections of early iconography of Chinese instruments, I wonder if the Confucian habit of merely citing early written sources without discussing them applies in that field too: beyond merely displaying images, we need to interpret them.

While I’m on the subject, citations of early texts by Chinese scholars seem to assume we all know what they mean; they feel no need to translate them into modern Chinese. Yet when I query how to translate such passages, even the best scholars aren’t necessarily clear—and the uncertainty is precisely why we need to discuss them.

* * *

On a topical note, I caught a glimpse on the news recently of a shawm band playing for a demo in troubled Catalonia. Among the amazing regional variety of folk culture in Spain, folk Catalan double-reed instruments include grallatarota, tible, and tenora.

For a handy list of posts on trumpets, wind and brass bands, see here. See also trumpet tag.

 

Faux nostalgia

In Alan Bennett’s parody The pith and its pitfalls (Writing Home, pp.383–6—”taking the pith”, of course) on the writer and his [sic] roots, he writes thoughtfully of the perennial English fashion for the nostalgia of childhood deprivation—whose Chinese parallel reminded me of The four Yorkshiremen sketch.

Can there be a slag-heap north of the Trent up which ardent young directors from Omnibus, Aquarius, or 2nd house have not flogged their disgruntled camera-crews in pursuit of that forward-retreating figure, the artist?
[…]
What I do recall of my childhood was that it was boring. I have no nostalgia for it. I do not long for the world as it was when I was a child. I do not long for the person I was in that world. I do not want to be the person I am now in that world then. None of the forms nostalgia can take fits. I found childhood boring. I was glad it was over.

There are fashions in childhood as in anything else. A nice, middle-class background was no longer in vogue by the time I started to write. No longer in Vogue, either. Early in 1960, when my colleagues and I were writing the revue that was to end up as Beyond the fringe, we were photographed for that magazine. We sped in a large Daimler to North Acton, where the photographer spent some time finding a setting appropriately stark and gritty for the enterprise on which we were to embark. We ended up gloomy and purposeful against a background of cooling-towers and derelict factories.

I have never done any of those filmed portraits I started off by parodying, though the urge is strong. It is always gratifying to be asked to explain yourself, if only because it makes you feel there is, perhaps, something to explain. I admit, too, that from time to time I catch myself slightly overstating my working-class origins, taking my background down the social scale a peg or two. It is a mild form of inverted snobbery, which Richard Hoggart might dignify by calling it “groping for the remnants of a tradition”. As the man says in the sketch, it is a question of belonging. You would like to think you belong somewhere distinctive, whether it is a place or a class, but you know you are kidding yourself. However, I see that opens up another vast area of humbug and self-indulgence, namely, the writer as rootless man, so I think I had better stop and go home—wherever that is.

Fats Navarro

As I noted in my first post on Chet Baker, among the innumerable delights of Paul Berliner’s book Thinking in jazz is his exploration of trumpet styles and links between them.

Most of these players can be explored, miraculously, on YouTube—here’s Fats Navarro (1923–50, yet another distressingly short life):

God, I wish I could do all that…

It’s gratifying that Anthropology is not only one dry textual approach to bebop, but (thanks to Charlie Parker) a real living piece:

Cf.

Lady Bird:

Casbah, again with Tadd Dameron, and Rae Pearl (Harrison) singing:

And savour Guilty, a rare male-voice ballad featuring Earl Coleman:

From his last gig, with Bird on 30th June 1950—a week before Fats died:

The treasures of YouTube are inexhaustible, but as a change, the 4-CD set The Fats Navarro story is instructively annotated, like other gems in the Proper Records series—and it ends with two further searing tracks from that last session.

Language and football

Some gems from Alan Bennett’s 2005 diaries, in his recent collection Keeping on keeping on:

1 May. Martha, Charlotte and James’s youngest, has been slow to read but now aged eight is making great strides, particularly enjoying spelling. She is being given additional tuition by the father of a friend, a retired teacher who is also employed by Manchester United; the foreign half of the squad he is teaching to speak English, the English half he is teaching to read and write.

8 December. I buy a bottle of organic wine at Fresh and Wild and looking at the label see that it says “Suitable for Vegetarians and Vagrants”. Momentarily I think, “Well, that’s thoughtful, someone admitting that winos deserve consideration like everyone else”, before realizing, of course, that it says not “vagrants” but “vegans”.

16 December. Roy Keane has the face of a mercenary. Meet him before the walls of fifteenth-century Florence and one’s heart would sink.