Diplomacy

XLY temple
Last week I walked over with Li Manshan to the Lower Liangyuan temple to take another look at its old (and recent) murals. It’s one of the staging posts of the funky deity Hutu (Elder Hu), whose temples Willem Grootaers wrote about in the 1940s.

In my early days in Hebei we had a couple of harmless run-ins with the constabulary in Hebei, as well as one a bit later in Shaanbei (see under §2 here). I’ve never had any hassles at all in Yanggao, but as we’re walking home a passing police-car stops us and the two cops, friendly enough, ask Li Manshan politely where I’m from and who I am. With great presence of mind (resembling Clifford Geertz’s wonderful story about fleeing from the police in a Bali village after a cock-fight) Li Manshan replies authoritatively,

“He’s from England—he’s a professor of music!”

I’ve heard him call me many things, but never that. Getting the hang of it, I chip in,

“Master Li is an international star!”

Peering sceptically at our incongruous double-act, the cops digest this unlikely information. Easily satisfied, they drive off down the dusty track, leaving Old Lord Li and me to light up and continue our walk home.

So, although my enquiries have less and less to do with music, I seem to be protected by the goddess of music—a Chinese Saint Cecilia.

LMS Rome

 

Translating Daoist ritual texts

Zhaoqing screenshot

Dunno about anyone else, but I enjoy watching my film again in the company of an audience!

I can’t now imagine all the work that went into this. Apart from the filming itself, and working with Michele to do all the editing, it was good to match up Li Qing’s ritual texts to the hymn singing, and fun showing how the cymbal patterns work, captioning the guangcha mnemonics—first as Daoist percussion karaoke (from 24.03) and later as they whizz past in Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body (from 1.11.07).

Translating all those ancient Daoist texts was no picnic, but they’re really beautiful—like the Invitation sequence at the edge of the village towards dusk, with Golden Noble’s solo rendition of the “Vowing with Hearts at One” verses:

Vowing with Hearts at One we Invite:
Emperors and lords of successive dynasties,
Empresses and concubines of epochs immemorial,
Bedecked in twelve-gemmed crowns,
Countenance outranking three thousand rouge-and-kohl belles.
All under heaven their remit, all under heaven their family,
Ultimately ascending.
Singing within the palace, dancing within the palace,
At the final moment they can only perish and fall.
Alas! Have you not heard?
Once astride the dragon of Yu they cannot return,
In vain to deploy the Pipes of Shao within the Department of Caverns,
Fluttering the shadows and echoes, imperceptibly approaching!

But once rendered in exquisite solo melody, such textual beauty is multiplied.

Note also that all these texts are conveyed at quite different tempi: the choral hymns before the coffin extremely slowly, the solo recitations in parlando style, the choral mantras at such speed that the subtitles can hardly keep up. This important aspect of ritual performance is rarely reflected in translations on the page.

Having consulted the exegeses of wise abbot Min Zhiting (no less) in the White Cloud Temple on the meaning of the hymns, I still had some doubts. I recall the months of email ping-pong with Li Bin as I sought his advice. The Li family never discuss the “meaning” of the texts, nor did their elders ever “explain” them as they were learning, so I was really impressed when Li Bin clarified points phrase by phrase. The process of singing them, molto adagio, almost daily over more than thirty years, does seem to give them the occasion to reflect on their meaning. Of course they’re not “educated” interpretations, but the Daoists do clearly have their own “understanding” of the texts they sing.

Another beautiful text in their manuals, for reciting, is the Shunzhi emperor’s meditation on impermanence.

xietu yiwen

I also relish the language of Thanking the Earth memorials (my book, ch.12). Soon after the revival of religious life following the collapse of the commune system, along with recopying the family ritual manuals, in 1981 Li Qing’s uncle Li Peisen (see here, and here) copied a memorial for a domestic Thanking the Earth ritual held by his father Li Tang in the late 1920, with its detailed genealogy.

At the Numinous Treasure Court of the Great Ritual it is hereby declared: upholding the Orthodox Unity Teachings, resident in that place named Upper Liangyuan village in the southeast district beyond the city gates of Yanggao county in Shanxi province; responding to heaven and rewarding the gods, beseeching blessings and fulfilling the vow, to avert calamity and assure well-being; I, Li Tang, with faithful heart, on this day do kowtow. […]
xietu yiwen detailReciting the auspicious texts of the Eleven Great Luminary stellar lords of the Sombre Capital of Upper Clarity, Li Tang and others, resident in the Central Kingdom, favored among mankind, invariably moved by the great virtue of Dragon Heaven, ever reliant on the Earth Court to engender thorough understanding of the high and the broad, repaying sincerity unretained. Hereby having augured the auspicious period, the Retreat is to be held as follows.
On this day we invite the Daoist acolytes to set up a Daoist arena for well-being in our courtyard over two whole days in the hall, kneeling and reciting the Diverse true scriptures and holy mantras for the Great Supreme, facing the Heavenly Worthies in homage; the precious litanies for the Great Ritual, Lighting Lanterns, and Bestowing Food, burning paper and presenting up offerings for the holy gods of the seven originals and the true lords of the nine thearchs.
Our wish is that the whole family will be tranquil, its members in well-being, livestock thriving, our fields fertile, relying entirely on the protection of holy benevolence in the lustre of our daily business.

There are some fine translations of such numinous ritual texts in the works of Ken Dean and John Lagerwey—and indeed in David Hawkes’s translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber.

More Czech drôlerie

Another little entry in my list of Czech witticisms, following on from Paul Kratochvil’s wonderful story about exchanging spectacles, as well as the Czech definition of a Hungarian. Can also be filed under International exchange.

In Prague in the 1990s, as China continued to open up, I knew a bright student of Chinese music who was dipping his toes in the burgeoning scene of international business. He told me they had a saying about doing business with the Chinese:

1) They always try and get you
2) They always get you.

This is in the same ball-park as Molvania—I guess I find such observations less dodgy as long as they don’t involve British prejudices…

Yet another village funeral

ZJYT lingtang
On my recent trip to Yanggao I spent most of my time at home with Li Manshan, making little trips to nearby villages with him or his son Li Bin. But of course I had to check out a funeral and catch up with the other Daoists, so Li Bin came to collect me to drive to Zhu Family Cavetop.

The village population, 749 “mouths” in 1990, has now declined to only a couple of hundred at most. By the time we arrive, the other Daoists have already Opened the Scriptures at the soul hall, singing the Hymn to the Three Treasures as prescribed. After Li Bin delivers the paper couplets and diaolian inscriptions, we go to the scripture hall, which today is conveniently the little room on the south side of the funeral family courtyard, right by the soul hall—so no need for the usual long procession.

I catch up with my old mates Golden Noble and Wu Mei, whom I haven’t seen since our French tour last May. Golden Noble has high blood pressure and is off the fags and booze; Wu Mei is sweet as ever. They check out my blog on their phones.

ZJYT jingtang

The cosy atmosphere of the scripture hall.

Li Sheng

Li Sheng makes repairs to his sheng.

Li Sheng, another regular member of the band and a dedicated chain-smoker (my nickname for him is Fag Devil 烟鬼 Yangui—the gui in falling 4th tone!), is as hyper as ever. His manic energy reflects both in his quickfire dialect and in his fine sheng playing—he struggles to conform to the solemn immovable posture of the Daoists of which Li Bin is a master. He comes from a renowned gujiang shawm-band family from the nearby township of Shizitun. He didn’t know what year he was born; chatting in 2013, he only knew that he was 60 sui, so I translated that to 1954. He is twelve years younger than his brother, a wonderful cultured gujiang also called Li Bin. They learned with their distinguished blind father Li Zhonghe (1908–88), who was still playing in his eightieth year. Again, these two Li families have long been on good terms—the great Li Qing sometimes played in Li Zhonghe’s shawm band in the 1970s. Li Sheng’s older brother went off to work as a cadre in the mines in Datong around 1970, and Li Sheng did some work there too, as well as doing petty trade in Datong, returning around 2000. He has four daughters and one son.

To make up the numbers for the Daoist personnel today, Li Bin has booked two yinyang I haven’t met before, both from hereditary traditions. They’re nice, but turn out to be of somewhat limited abilities. While the gujiang shawm bands have a reputation for smoking dope, some Daoists do too, crushing annaka amphetamine pills into their cigarettes to give them energy (cf. my book, p.325). In the scripture hall my new mates use tinfoil to smoke annaka through a rolled-up 1-kuai note.

As I soon learn when I take a session on small cymbals, the new drummer “calls the beat” arbitrarily, so I keep getting confused about where to place the down-beat. This is just as irritating as an old Daoist I met a few years ago who kept beating out the syncopations on small cymbals, no matter whether we were anywhere near a cadence—”unruly” (bu guiju), as Li Manshan tuts.

The band makes up for the time saved on procession by playing “little pieces” and popular errentai melodies as they arrive at the soul hall. But no-one here cares anyway, and it’s the latest in a long line of funerals where they merely need to go through the motions, with the simplest ritual sequence possible. None of the kin, returning from the big cities for the funeral, kneels or kowtows. No-one pays attention to the Daoists even when they launch into a showy errentai sequence (except in the afternoon, when they even applaud).

Along with the kin we have a good communal lunch in the big tent set up outside, with disposable (yicixing) plastic crockery—I never miss an opportunity to use the expression yicixing (“one-off”), corpsing the Daoists. Meals at Yanggao funerals have improved as ritual practice has declined.

I take a siesta along with three other yinyang in a heap on the little kang brick-bed. The pop band on the truck outside starts up around 3pm, but there’s only a tiny audience even for this, and they soon drift off too. After the Daoists’ first visit of the afternoon, a group of travelling beggars shows up—the usual personnel, with head-mikes, an erhu, fan, and clappers.

ZJYT beggars

Funeral beggars.

 

ZJYT LB on daguan

Li Bin on large guanzi, flanked by Golden Noble (left) and Li Sheng.

For the Daoists’ second visit of the afternoon they only play a popular errentai medley. For the third session Li Bin (who usually plays sheng mouth-organ) leads the hymn Diverse and Nameless on large guanzi—good, in tune, with a fine new instrument he’s found. For a change Wu Mei plays drum, but he’s somewhat distracted by using his mobile at the same time… The beggars return, and then the Daoists play another errentai sequence. I’m bloody cold and less than riveted (as we say in the orchestral biz, “Of all the funerals I’ve attended in Yanggao… this is one of them”), so I get Li Bin to take me back to Upper Liangyuan before the Invitation ritual. As I get home Li Manshan and his wife are busy making paper artefacts together.

As Li Manshan observes at the end of my film,

Things ain’t what they used to be
今非昔比

Fashion notes

funeral pop better

Pop outside gateway, Yanggao village 2018.

Two lists, just possibly somewhat partial, of what is In and what is Out in rural north China:

Things that are at no risk of going out of fashion:

  • hawking and spitting / emptying contents of nose onto the floor
  • exchanging cigarettes
  • “leather” miniskirts
  • corruption
  • piles of stinking rubbish by the roadside
  • pollution
  • getting legless (for which there’s a nice Yanggao term, erjinban 二斤半)

(If Uncle Xi is as omnipotent as China-watchers suggest, then WTF?!)

Oh, and

  • Hymn to the Three Treasures as first sung hymn (Opening Scriptures) on arrival at the soul hall.

Things that have gone out of fashion (cf. my book, Coda pp.357–61):

  • Thanking the Earth
  • funerary Communicating the Lanterns, Crossing the Bridges, yankou
  • shengguan suites for earth and temple scriptures
  • yunluo frame of ten pitched gongs, dizi flute
  • reed-matting on the kang brick-bed (Plastic Rules OK)
  • Serving the People [remind me when that was In?]
  • pop music at funerals!!!

The latter came as a surprise to me. As you see in one of the most striking images of my film (from 30.32), whereas in the early 1980s villagers were glad to restore the “old rules”, by the 90s they were much more excited* by the pop bands performing on a truck outside the soul hall. Their acts soon became quite innovative. But over the last few years even the audience for pop has dwindled, as people can watch the Real Thing (sic) on their phones.

 

*In Li Manshan’s words: leqilaile 乐起来了!

A country bumpkin

dav

Photo: Wang Hui.

Just back in Beijing after a wonderful time with Li Manshan in Yanggao (more posts to follow when I find the time), I feel a bit like a newly-arrived migrant, a country bumpkin 土包子.

After a welcome shower and a change of clothes, I try to divest my accent of little vestiges of Yanggao dialect—remembering to say bucuo instead of kabulei (“fantastic”), and using the cosy third tone again instead of Yanggao’s handy substitution with the falling fourth tone. The poor villages of north Shanxi already seem like another world.

First film screening at Beijing Normal University yesterday seemed to go down well, convened by the brilliant Ju Xi, with some bright students making interesting comments. Even though Li Manshan went to great lengths on the voiceover to speak Yangpu “standard” Yanggao Chinese rather than tuhua dialect, I’m delighted when rather few of the urbane native audience find his voiceover comprehensible—so they too often have to follow my English subtitles.

Discussing how painful it is to edit a three-day funeral down to about 40 minutes (and hour-long concerts on tour), I comment “I’m even more radical than Chairman Mao”, which gets a laugh.

Neither in the countryside nor in Beijing do I yet detect much evidence of a cowed population living under the yoke of a sinister autocracy—but hey, I’ll learn…

So I look forward to our further sessions at Beishida over the next week, as well as two more film screenings at People’s University and Peking University, chaired respectively by distinguished scholars Cao Xinyu and Wang Mingming—whose courses, instead, I should be attending:

Renda flyer lowres to use

Beida screening copyFurther screenings coming up in April and May in London and Berlin—will keep you posted.

Upcoming film screenings in Beijing

film image

For anyone within spitting distance of Beijing (and I use the phrase advisedly), I’m screening my film there three times over the next week.

  • Wednesday 21st March: Beijing Normal University, 2pm
  • and twice on Tuesday 27th March: People’s University at 2pm, and
    Peking University at 6.40pm.

Details on Weixin, no doubt…

Here’s the flyer for the 21st March screening:

BSD film

The People’s University event:

Renda flyer lowres to use

and the same evening, at Peking University:Beida screening copy

Makes a change from Xi Jinping posters, eh.

A ghost village

This mini-series will be more edifying if you’re familiar with my film and book on the Li family Daoists—or perhaps it’ll lead you to them!

From my book (pp.310–11):

As young villagers abandon the stagnant countryside to seek laboring work in the towns, it is mainly the elderly who are left behind; younger people still stuck there seem listless and devoid of prospects. In the hills, some new villages have been built in rather better surroundings nearby, like Yang Pagoda and Sujiayao. Around 2009 half of the population of Renjiayao paid a one-off fee of 50,000 kuai to move to the new village of Xinhebu, built just south of the county-town as part of a state poverty-alleviation project; the new village has four hundred households, assembled from various poor villages. Now only a couple of dozen poor elderly people are left behind in Renjiayao. Most of the population of Gaojiayao have been relocated to Luotun, itself none too prosperous but at least on the plain. Just southeast of Upper Liangyuan, Shankoutou, always tiny, is nearly deserted now. Ghost villages are emerging. And meanwhile the plain villages too are depleted of young labour.

Soon after midnight on the day I land in Beijing, I take the night train to Yanggao. As I leave Beijing I also abandon the modern calendar: instead of Monday 12th March it is now 2nd moon 25th. The train is quite empty, and I doze fitfully on my bunk (for a fuller diary, see here).

Arriving at 5.36am, I get off at the sleep station along with five others. Li Manshan’s son Li Bin is there to meet me; the roads in the county-town have been mended, so at last the street before his funeral shop is passable. After stopping off to unload my gifts, he drives me to Upper Liangyuan to stay with his father. Driving along new roads smooth as a baby’s bottom, we pass the new elevated section of the train line—soon the journey from (and more importantly, to) Beijing will take a mere hundred minutes! Even the track from the main road to the village is improved since my last visit.

Li Manshan is now only doing funerals nearby—Li Bin has very much taken over, and he’s always worked off his feet. After taking me to Upper Liangyuan he has bowls to smash that morning in three villages—the solo ritual that poor families sometimes request instead of the usual lengthy liturgical sequence with the whole band.

As the sun rises, the wise and adorable Li Manshan comes out to greet me. I say hello to the family’s new doggie, occasionally let off its tether in the courtyard. After lighting the stove Old Lord Li soon has to zoom off on his motor-bike to Yangguantun to decorate a coffin (my book, pp.190–92). I stay home to try and sleep off my jet-lag, only waking up to be fed by his wife Yao Xiulian. Over baozi dumplings I ask a bit more about her background: born to a poor-peasant family in 1951, she was one of five kids. Unlike the illustrious Li Qing, who sent all his children to school, Yao Xiulian’s parents declined to let her and her sister attend, so she remained illiterate. The only city she’s ever visited is nearby Datong, where her daughter lives.

By the time I wake from my siesta Li Manshan is back and fast asleep. A neighbour drops by for a gossip; he wakes up and joins in. I get used again to the basics of country living, though after all these years I still find the local dialect really tough. I get online courtesy of his cool shepherd neighbour. We have a nice supper of noodles and then retire to the west room to chat till late.

Next morning we wake just before dawn. After a relaxed breakfast with Li Manshan and his wife, a guy shows up to ask him for a “determining the date” prescription (see my book, pp.185–9): it’s for “moving the earth”, so Li Manshan writes it on red paper.

We stroll over to the site of the old Zhenwu miao temple (see map), hoping naively to find a neglected stele like we did for the Fodian miao and Sanqing dian temples (my book, pp.46–9), but there’s nothing to see at all. The woman living opposite invites us in for a chat; she’s a Protestant, one of a tiny community that has sprung up in the village over the last few years. Hedging her bets, she has a Xi Jinping poster on the wall, next to her Christian calendar. Li Manshan is always affable, popular with everyone. It’s getting quite hot, so I leave my jumper at her place.

I’ve long wanted to visit Shankoutou (pronounced Shankioutou!), the next village south, 2 Chinese li (1 kilometer) distant—mainly because it’s so tiny. When I ask Li Manshan, “Is there a temple there?” he replies, “Every house is a temple!” I can’t think how to convey the wryness of this aperçu.

SKT walk

So we set off, first along a narrow track through a barren gulley, then emerging into open country, following Li Manshan’s internal Daoist satnav up and down to a frozen river. Fording it, we climb the slope up to a reception committee of nine free-roaming donkeys awaiting us.

SKT

Figures in the county gazetteer give a 1948 population of 63; according to our hosts, in 1970 there were 100 dwellers (under the people’s communes the village counted as the 9th brigade of Upper Liangyuan); back with the gazetteer, by 1990 there were still 75 villagers. Now only five aging families, eleven people, are still “left behind” here. But it’s hardly the mysterious ghost village I envisaged, and my only reward is the murals around the kang brick-bed in the house of a family that invites us in; they were painted in the late Cultural Revolution, which counts as “old” round here. They also have a Xi Jinping poster on their wall.

kang mural

Kang murals, 1973.

On the walk back we stay west of the river, the idyllic vista marred only by the cement factory, with its stink and pollution. Old Lord Li sets off over the fields he was given after the land division, which he now rents out. I call him a landlord, and he takes it in the spirit in which it was meant. Reaching Upper Liangyuan again we pass by the site of the Sanguan miao temple and Li Qing’s old house. As I collect my jumper from the Protestant woman I wish her a Happy Easter. Stopping off to chat with various friends, with the usual copious exchanges of cigarettes, we get home by midday.

 

 

Weather report from north Shanxi

courtyard in snow

Li Manshan’s courtyard.

OOH it’s snowing today in north Shanxi!

After a rather underwhelming funeral in Zhu Family Cavetop* village yesterday (on which more anon), this morning Li Bin has to do the burial with the band there and then go off on his own to “smash the bowl” in two other villages (see my book, pp.193–4). But the snow won’t deter him, not being a wimpy Englishman; Li Manshan has just zoomed off on his motor-bike to smash a bowl too.

Traipsing across the slippery courtyard to the latrine in the southwest of the courtyard is even more of an adventure than usual, and I “literally” (as the argot has it) freeze my arse off as I squat there, the wind biting into my buttocks (TMI—Ed.). At least there’s a little roof. And at least I can go back indoors—the family doggie is tethered in its kennel in the courtyard. Here dogs and cats are just animals, not sentimental anthropomorphic consolations.

 

*Zhujiayaotou: why the final “tou“? Most “cave” villages in Yanggao are just XXX Family Caves (Renjiayao, Sujiayao, Gaojiayao, and so on). This is yet another example of my fatuous etic questions to which Li Manshan gives short shrift…

A stopgap

mug

Stove, with Li Manshan’s precious mug.

Depending on your taste, you will either excuse my recent silence or find it a relief.

I’ve been busy preparing for a little trip to China, so I now find myself at home with the splendid Li Manshan in Upper Liangyuan village, catching up with him and the Daoists. It’s been nearly two years since my last visit, so I feel somewhat out of practice, though I saw them on our tour of France last May (see series under the archive for May 2017). Since publishing my film and book, it’s great to hang out with him, neither of us under such pressure to document the family history—though I can never stop taking notes, filling in some gaps and getting updates on their recent activities (for diary, see here).

In due course I’ll leap into action with a series of vignettes on everyday country life away from the hubbub of Beijing, but meanwhile, do check out my numerous posts on the Li family, Yanggao, and so on—such as Li Bin’s diary since they returned from France.

Back into the fray…

The notation of ritual sound

gongchepu

In articles on this site I often stress how soundscape is basic to ritual performance. In north China ritual specialists identify three types of organized ritual sound, “blowing, beating, and reciting” (chuidanian): melodic instrumental music, percussion, and vocal liturgy—in reverse order of importance, with vocal liturgy primary. Some groups accompany their vocal liturgy only with percussion, but where melodic instrumental music is performed, it is an essential component of ritual: “holy pieces” (shenqu), transcending language. Whereas vocal liturgy is not notated—most ritual manuals document only the texts, not the melodies to which they are sung—the outline of the melodic (and indeed percussion) instrumental music that punctuates and accompanies it is recorded in scores of gongche solfeggio. [1]

When the Qujiaying village ritual association, south of Beijing, was “discovered” in 1986 we already knew about the shengguan ensemble and its gongche scores (notably those of the Zhihua temple in Beijing) thanks to the ground-breaking work on Yang Yinliu in the early 1950s, later comprehensively studied by Yuan Jingfang. In our project on the Hebei plain, we soon broadened our attention to ritual manuals, but the shengguan wind ensemble and the scores of village ritual associations were always among our major concerns.

In the fine tradition of anthologies that Chinese musicologists do so well, the major new compendium

  • Zhongguo gongchepu jicheng 中国工尺谱集成 [1]

collects some of the most important scores of gongche solfeggio. It provides rich material on the continuity of early history with modern folk practice.

The anthology is based more on northern shengguan than on southern genres—the distinctive scores of nanyin in Fujian and Taiwan are already collected in many separate anthologies.

The compendium comprises ten volumes to date:

  • General (a fine introduction to historical variants of notation and metrical markers)
  • Beijing (2 vols)
  • Hebei (3 vols)
  • Shaanxi (2 vols, for the major repertoires of ritual groups around Xi’an)
  • Jiangsu (including major early Daoist scores)
  • Liaoning (including scores for both shengguan and the amazing shawm bands there)

The scores of Beijing temples, and those of the related village ritual associations on the Hebei plain just south, take pride of place. The detailed commentaries on the Hebei and Beijing material are the work of Zhang Zhentao, continuing the masterly chapter in his book Yinyuehui.

Hanzhuang XWJ

Most volumes further include useful tables of qupai labelled melodies.

Such scores also often contain precious prefaces bearing dates of transmission, as we saw in Xiongxian.

Hanzhuang xu 1

Gaoluo 1989

* * *

Of course, like the Daoist Canon, and like the ritual manuals of living groups, scores are merely silent artefacts. They should be combined with recordings of their transmitters, who have long experience of bringing them to life—first by decorating the skeletal notes of the score by singing in unison, and then in ritual performance, taking the instruments up to play them in heterophony suitable to the different instrument types. While some musicians learn mainly by ear, the score is an important repository representing the tradition.

But just in case you think the silent score is somehow equivalent to “the music”, then don’t just consult my transcription of Hesi pai under West An’gezhuang here (§2), but listen to the shengguan tracks on the playlist in the sidebar (including tracks 9 and 10, showing the progressive decorations)!

I should also add that notation is not a criterion for excellence. Many musicians, and ritual specialists, in the great and small traditions of the world don’t need it at all, and for others it is merely an aide-memoire, as in this case.

Indeed, this isn’t just an issue for music. This is not the place to discuss wider issues of oral and literate cultures, but this radical comment from Plato, no less, is suggestive:

This discovery of yours [writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things but will remember nothing; they will appear to be omniscient but will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

As Paul Cooper comments,

I love that when Plato complains about the spread of the written word in 370 BC, he sounds like my granddad complaining about the internet.

Such issues are thoughtfully explored by ethnomusicologists—for leads, see the fine chapters of Ter Ellingson and Richard Widdess in Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The New Grove handbooks in music), and Bruno Nettl, The study of Ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, chs. 20 and 26. And for wise words on the history of notation in WAM, see here.

These gongche scores are a major aspect of the study of ritual. But that’s enough writing—wouldn’t want to offend Plato…

 

 

[1] See e.g. http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2017-09/06/c_129697492.htm,
http://3g.china.com/act/culture/11171062/20170906/31301663.html,
http://news.takungpao.com/mainland/topnews/2017-09/3491181.html.
[2] I gave an overview of gongche notation in my Folk music of China (ch.7); cf. my article “Source and stream: early music and living traditions in China”, Early Music August 1996, pp.375–88. As ever, Yang Yinliu gave a masterly survey in his Gongchepu qianshuo 工尺谱浅说 (1962).

The art of the sheng repairer

GGZ Fan Huilai 93

Fan Huilai overhauling sheng, 1995.

An important theme in our fieldwork on ritual associations around the Hebei plain is that of the itinerant occupational sheng mouth-organ repairers (dianshengde 点笙的). They make cameo appearances in several pages on Local ritual, so here I’d like to collect some of the material. [1]

While I constantly stress vocal liturgy, the shengguan wind ensemble is also a major aspect of the ritual soundscape in north China. The role of the sheng in the ensemble is somewhat akin to that of the baroque continuo. Like a harpsichord before a Bach cantata, the sheng needs regular fine-tuning in advance of performance. The term diansheng (dotting the sheng) derives from the adding of a drop of wax to the reed to tune it, but includes general maintenance; played for long rituals, with their sound-chambers susceptible to moisture, wear-and-tear on the sheng is considerable. Musicians may tune individual instruments themselves, and any sheng player can do it after a fashion, but it is a difficult job to do well, and a well-tuned sheng section is an important aspect of a good ensemble. As with the work of the luthier worldwide, it is a slow and meticulous task (for a loving tribute to instruments and instrument-making in Irish music, see Last night’s fun).

Occupational Daoist bands in north China, like the Li family in Yanggao, tend to maintain their own sheng; with quite a small personnel, they rarely have more than four to tune. Players can all carry out basic repairs, and in between the many ritual visits to the soul hall over the day they busy themselves in the scripture hall making fine adjustments to tuning. This is among the many practical skills that Daoists have to learn. Still, Li Bin takes all the band’s sheng to fine maker Gao Yong once a year for a thorough overhaul.

On the Hebei plain, amateur village ritual associations tend to be much larger, often using as many as twenty sheng players—so occupational sheng-repairers are much in demand. Most associations invite a sheng-repairer to tune all their sheng systematically two or three times a year, or before their major outings, at least before the New Year rituals. The Zhaobeikou association had its sheng repaired at least three times a year, once “before the lake freezes over”, again before the New Year rituals, and also before the river lanterns ritual of the 7th moon. Some associations may be reluctant to spend money on inviting a repairer—although in some villages in the early reform era payment for this comes out of the funds of the village committee. Around 1995 it cost 5–10 yuan to tune one sheng; most associations had at least eight sheng to tune. Sheng-repairers were making a good living.

When a ritual association buys new sheng, musicians take them to be tuned (pin sheng 品笙) to the standard pitch of their own association, taking the che gong of their yunluo or tuning them to the lowest note of their dizi flute.

So apart from their vital musical services to the village ritual associations, the sheng tuners act as a unifying factor in communication, an informal rather than institutional link. Experienced observers of musical life over the whole area, they serve not only ritual associations but also shawm bands and opera troupes, and they know a lot more about local ensembles than any cultural cadre we have met. They often go on tour throughout the villages, but ensembles may also take their sheng to the craftsman’s home. Again, most craftsmen still come from long hereditary traditions.

Below I introduce some of the more renowned sheng-repairers and makers around the Hebei plain.

Bazhou, Xiongxian, Jinghai
Back in 1989 our very first clue to the ubiquity of ritual associations on the Hebei plain came from Bazhou county. Based in Xin’an town, the Qi family was among many lineages of sheng-repairers active around Beijing, Tianjin, and the countryside just south.

We met Qi Youzhi (b.1920), from a long line of sheng-repairers in his lineage. His grandfather Qi Baoshan had worked for the imperial palace lamas in Beijing. Before the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Qi Youzhi’s father Qi Lanpu used to play sheng in the Tianqiao district of Beijing. Later, through contacts with palace eunuchs, he learnt to repair sheng, building a reputation with temple musicians. His older brother Qi Lanting and his oldest son Qi Youcai also took up the business, and they also repaired sheng in Tianjin.

qyz-1989

Qi Youzhi (right) with Xue Yibing, Xin’an 1989.

They used to go out to find work repairing sheng, making the rounds of all the Buddhist and Daoist temples. They also tuned sheng throughout the villages. Twice a year Qi Youzhi used to go on a long trek by foot to Beijing with his uncle, staying in villages on the way and tuning sheng wherever there was work. After the 1949 Liberation, Qi Youzhi could no longer find work in Beijing, since priests were returning to lay life and temples were now largely inactive—but significantly there was still plenty of work repairing sheng for the village ritual associations. Indeed, this work continued until the Four Cleanups in 1964. By 1980 Qi Youzhi was 61 sui, and, despite the revival, gradually became less active.

Nearby in Gaoqiao village—whose Buddhist-transmitted ritual association is so outstanding (playlist track 8, and here)—the Shang family sheng factory is a long-established cottage industry. A local source claims that they too were repairing sheng for palace groups in Beijing as early as the Xianfeng era (1850–61), and that they made their first sheng in 1853. By the 1980s they were making sheng for the Hongsheng instrument factory in Beijing and Tianjin; by 1993 they had even started making shō for Japanese gagaku. In 1995 they were charging 140–180 yuan for a new sheng. The head Shang Xuezhi was often on tour, mending sheng for ritual associations (and also shawm bands and opera groups) over a wide area; he kept a three-volume list of his clients, wonderful evidence of the continuing vitality of the associations.

In Xiongxian, another excellent sheng repairer was Fan Huilai, based in Gegezhuang (see photo above; below, some of his equipment). By 1993 he was visiting about sixty associations every year (including Catholic groups in Hejian county), charging 5 yuan to repair each sheng. As he pointed out, most associations had about eight sheng to repair, but some, like Quantou on the Baiyangdian lake, had as many as eighteen.

GGZ sheng stuff 2GGZ sheng stuff 1

Still in Xiongxian, there was a local saying: “from Nanjing to Beijing, the Shao family of Gaogezhuang are good at reparing sheng”. They came twice a year to Hanzhuang to repair the association’s sheng, tuning eight sheng for 100 yuan. Hanzhuang has a sheng said to be from 1929, with “made by Shao Guanghui” incised on one of the reeds; they had another even older one with a wooden bowl.

In Jinghai further east, Lesser Huangzhuang (also with its own ritual association) had an instrument factory specializing in sheng. They had been making sheng since before the Japanese occupation. In the 1950s the business was collectivized; in 1968, while assistant chief of the village revolutionary committee, Li restarted the workshop. Since the 1980s it had split into eight (!) household industries. One of their itinerant repairers was Tao Laicheng, who regularly visited the Zhangzhuang association in Bazhou, for instance.

E. Jiangcun sheng

Sheng parts, East Jiangcun, Renqiu county. Photo: Music Research Institute, 1993.

Xushui and Yixian
In my article on ritual associations of Xushui county I introduced Qingmiaoying, another village long famed throughout the region for its hereditary makers and repairers of sheng mouth-organs. Several groups in this western region of the plain have fine old sheng made by the Qingmiaoying craftsmen, and all spoke of them with respect. In fact, since the technique of instrument-making has suffered, old instruments may survive better than new ones, and their timbre is much valued by musicians.

E. Yuzhuang chui

The Altar of Accumulated Altruism, East Yuzhuang 1995.

In 1995 we found Yao Haijun (b. c1965) at Qingmiaoying. His great-grandfather Yao Leping died in the Cultural Revolution; he still ran a stall at the county-town market in the 1950s. Leping’s son Hongru (b. c1914), and grandsons Xinghua (b. c1930) and Xingli, also took up the trade. In Dingxing county nearby, the Yishangying association had some fine sheng made by Yao Jiqing in 1951. Yao Haijun was letting his 10-sui-old son watch while he repaired sheng, hoping he would take it up too.

Yao Haijun was charging a dozen or so yuan to tune one sheng. Associations were bringing him over a hundred sheng every year to tune; in the 12th moon someone came virtually every day. He tuned a lot of them for free, because of long-standing good guanxi with the associations, and he wasn’t mercenary.

Another sheng-repairer in Qingmiaoying, Wang Qinghe, had learned from Yao Leping, and lived to the age of over 100 sui. His son, known as Tiger Wang (Wang Laohu, over 60 sui in 1993), continued the business; the Gaoluo association used to go to him on occasion right until 1991.

Just north in Yixian county, Li Kungui, a member of one of the four ritual associations in Shenshizhuang, was a sheng repairer active within a smaller radius. His father also repaired sheng, having learnt from one Zhang Rui. Li Kungui also mended sheng for the village’s East association, but the West association has its own sheng-mender. In this case, Li has been responsible for a certain local standardization in pitch. The fixed pitch of the Upper Huanghao association used to be D, but he changed their pitch to E for them to match that of other groups in the area—such as East and West Baijian, as well as Lower Huanghao and Mawuzhuang.

A nice story illustrates musicians’ awareness of the dangers of sheng-repairers going on tour to other villages. Senior musician Fu Zhongren (c1898–1983) had a comprehensive knowledge of the repertoire of “holy pieces”, but realizing that Li Kungui used to go round other villages repairing sheng, he wouldn’t teach him too many pieces in case he taught them to other associations!

Further south
Before the Japanese invasion in 1937 a sheng-repairer called Du, from Dujiazhuang in Shenxian county quite far south, walked to Gaoluo every winter to tune sheng for all four ritual associations there. Villagers said the maker was called Du Furui. We also heard of him in Yixian county: near the Western tombs of the Qing emperors, cultural cadres had found some old sheng with “Dujiazhuang in Shenzhou” incised on them.

In Jingxian county still further southeast, another renowned sheng-making lineage was the Wang family from Yangzhuang, [2] which went back some five generations. They were versatile, making many other instruments too; and like other such cottage industries, they have moved with the times, supplying instruments for urban professional troupes.

Since they are itinerant, sheng-repairers may also transmit the paraliturgical music, either directly or by acting as intermediaries. Two early transmitters of the “southern” style of shengguan music in Xushui were sheng-repairers, the Daoist priest Wang Leyun (fl. 1860) and Feng Daya (fl. 1920s), both from further south.

I look forward to reading material on sheng-repairers in regions like south Hebei, where shengguan is also a major component of the rituals performed by household Daoists.

***

I have discussed sheng-repairers at some length, both to illustrate continuity with pre-Liberation traditions and to suggest the practical material basis behind ritual culture in local society. Though there are no longer stalls at town markets, village repairers still still do good business making the rounds of rural ritual ensembles, as well as maintaining their contacts with urban outlets and taking part in innovations in instrument design. Sheng-repairers, like the assistants in funeral shops, are likely to be a more useful source of local knowledge than cultural cadres.

 

[1] See Zhang Zhentao’s masterly study, Shengguan yinweide yuelüxue yanjiu [Temperamentology of sheng pipe positions] (Ji’nan: Shandong wenyi cbs, 2002). For north Shanxi, note also the work of Chen Kexiu and Jing Weigang. For sheng factories in a changing society, see e.g. http://www.onesheng.cn/news/102721.html.
[2] See e.g. Yu Xuehong 于学洪, “Shengwang shijia” 笙王世家, Yueqi 1984/5 and 1984/6.