Věna Hrdličková, Zdeněk Hrdlička,
and narrative-singing in 1950s’ Beijing
This article is based on material kindly provided by Lucie Olivová (former student of Věna Hrdličková) and the couple’s grandson Zdeněk.
My brief mention of narrative-singing in 1950s’ Beijing leads me to a remarkable Czech couple, and thence to the Prague sinologists, prompting me to consider the work of Chinese and Czechoslovak scholars—and their tribulations.
The Prague sinologists
The Prague school of sinology became widely admired for its achievements in the realms of modern and traditional Chinese literature, linguistics, history, and philosophy. It was led by the great Jaroslav Průšek (1906–80), who became head of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Charles University.
Do read Marián Gálik’s useful introduction to their work up to the demise of state socialism.  It both attests to their remarkable energy and gives glimpses of careers and lives (both Czech and Chinese) frustrated by political currents—among countless instances, we might compare the vicissitudes of the great Ming scholar Wang Shixiang.
Věna Hrdličková and Zdeněk Hrdlička
For Věna Hrdličková (1925–2016) and her husband Zdeněk Hrdlička (1919–99), useful introductions are
- Lucie Olivová, “Chinese and Japanese storytelling: selected topical bibliography of the works of Věna Hrdličková and Zdeněk Hrdlička”, CHINOPERL papers 25 (2004), pp.87–97 
- Vibeke Børdahl, “In memory of Věna Hrdličková, 1925–2016”, CHINOPERL papers 35.1 (2016), pp.83–8 (here).
Among their own articles are
- Zdeněk Hrdlička, “Old Chinese ballads to the accompaniment of the big drum,”Archiv orientální 25.1 (1957), pp. 83–145
- Věna and Zdeněk Hrdlička, “Lianhua lao and its traditions”, in Vibeke Børdahl (ed.), The eternal storyteller: oral literature in modern China (1999), pp.71–7.
I am also most grateful to the Hrdlickas’ grandson Zdeněk for sharing further material—including a draft translation (awaiting publication) of an eloquent series of interviews in Czech with Věna by Ivana Bakešová (Czech Chinese Society, Prague, 2016). Below, apart from direct citations (indented), I have collated and adapted text from all these sources.
Under the Nazi occupation, universities were closed and most Czech books were forbidden. Věna came from a schoolmaster’s family, whose classroom was a hut with an earthen floor. Teachers now had to say Heil Hitler! as they entered the classroom—though, as Věna recalled, they did it carelessly, just waving their hand at most.
Managing to avoid being sent to work in Germany, at high school Věna studied English, when most schools were teaching French and German. Meanwhile she attended dance school—where she met her future husband Zdeněk. His father, a widowed railwayman, was also a bandmaster.
The couple became interested in China—Věna inspired by early poetry, Zdeněk with a view to contemporary prospects. They discovered that they could study Chinese with Průšek at the Oriental Institute. In 1945 Zdeněk, together with other colleagues, founded the journal Nový Orient [New Orient]—still being published.
In 1946, at Průšek’s recommendation, they received scholarships from the Ministry of Education to study in the USA. They travelled by train to Paris, where a sailors’ strike compelled them to spend a month, and then took the ship to New York. Since term hadn’t yet begun, they used the interlude to get married. They spent two years studying in the USA (Věna at Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Zdeněk at Harvard), attending lectures and seminars by John Fairbank, Edwin Reischauer, and others. Following the war, Harvard was now favouring modern spoken Chinese above classical studies.
In 1948 they returned to Europe by ship from Québec. Back in Czechoslovakia the Communists, under Soviet domination, were tightening their grip. As I remind myself, Prague was still recovering from the trauma of long Nazi occupation, the devastation caused in the 1945 uprising and Soviet “liberation”, and the ensuing expulsions of (and vengeance upon) the German population. 
As Czech universities reopened, the couple enrolled in Sinology and Religious Studies at Charles University; Věna also studied Japanese. Zdeněk graduated in 1949 with a thesis on the Daoist concept of immortality; the next year Věna graduated with her thesis on the author Ki no Tsurayuki in Heian Japan.
Meanwhile in 1949 the People’s Republic of China was founded. That year a Chinese Peace Delegation visited Czechoslovakia, led by Guo Moruo, soon to be president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences; Zdeněk was chosen to attend. From 1950 he was employed at the Oriental Department of the Ministry of Information and Culture, and that winter the couple joined the first Czechoslovak cultural delegation to the PRC, led by Průšek.
They took the Trans-Siberian train, stopping off in Moscow for a couple of days. There Věna recalled the perils of crossing chaotic roads with crazy drivers, and admired the palatial metro system. And then they took the train through Siberia. In the dining carriage, as Švejk connoisseurs they shared their enthusiasm with an elderly gentleman. After spending the night in a little hotel at the border in Manzhouli, they changed to a Chinese train. Průšek, cracking sunflower seeds, was full of expectation. They arrived in Beijing in beautiful sunny weather, the sky clear above the glistening rooftops of the Forbidden City near the embassy. Their affable hosts had new winter coats made for them.
Still, returning to Beijing after an absence of around ten years, Průšek was disappointed, exclaiming “This is not the China I knew.” And while Prague in the late 1940s, recovering from war, must have been devastated, Věna’s strongest initial impression of Beijing was the poverty. When they arrived in the winter cold, she stood through the night at her window in the Beijing Hotel watching rickshaws trudging through the snow. She was also shocked by the lines of blind people walking the streets. She admired the Chinese for the speed with which they were able to fall asleep, no matter where they were. But as she became acquainted with the society, she appreciated the urge of the Chinese to improve their conditions.
In 1951 Zdeněk was appointed the first Czechoslovak cultural attaché to the PRC. Wanting to live among the Chinese rather than in an expat bubble, they rented a modest siheyuan courtyard house, living beside poor neigbours in Zhong Shicao hutong alley just west of the Zhihua temple—just as Yang Yinliu and his colleagues were discovering the Beijing temple traditions there.
Their cook Lao Zui served as a general fixer for them, finding them books and arranging for a lianhualao troupe to perform at their house. Their first son, also called Zdeněk, was born in Beijing in 1952; their teacher (a Manchu) gave him the Chinese name Huasheng 华生 “born in China”, soon adapted by their nanny to Huashengmi (Peanut). Their second son Stanislav was born in 1957.
During a period of remarkably good relations between the two countries, the couple got to know leading cultural figures—including academician Guo Moruo, painters Qi Baishi and Xu Beihong, Slavic scholar Ge Baoquan 戈宝权 (1913–2000), authors Mao Dun, Ding Ling, and Lao She, Indeed, Lao She had also been studying in the USA, but had made the fateful decision to return to the New China out of patriotic idealism.
As secretary the Hrdličkas were happy to find Yang Leyun 杨乐云 (1919-2009). Among her later translations into Chinese were the works of Bohumil Hrabal—another Czech author hardly suited to state socialism.
By contrast with most pampered Western academics, the couple had in common with Chinese scholars a legacy of occupation and a tacit awareness of the constraints of the new society.
During their mission they negotiated an official gift of Chinese books to the Oriental Institute, which became the core of the Lu Xun Library in Prague, and the purchase of Chinese antiquities for the National Gallery.
Meanwhile in 1953 a Czechoslovak team was filming a documentary about the construction of the Sichuan–Tibet highway—including rare glimpses of a landscape of daily Tibetan life and traditional ritual that was soon to be erased. Premiered in 1955, the film won awards at the film festivals in Venice and Karlovy Vary. It was screened in Czechoslovak cinemas in 1956, but it was later banned by the Communist authorities, right until its recent rediscovery and showing in Prague.
After the 1949 “Liberation” these early years of the PRC were a relatively optimistic period, before collectivization and campaigns intensified. By contrast with residents from the Western bloc,  not renowned for their devotion to Chinese expressive culture, the Hrdlička couple were exceptionally interested in the performing arts, immersing themselves in the narrative-singing scene.
Narrative-singing in early 1950s’ Beijing
Sinology has traditionally been concerned mainly with silent written texts, and remains so in many branches of the field. As Věna later recalled, they were now drawn to oral performance culture because with some 80% of the population illiterate, it was largely thus that they transmitted their history and culture. They were also aware that oral traditions would be threatened by the modern media.
In China there was little ethnographic discussion of the changing conditions of narrative-singing between the 1940s and the Cultural Revolution, but the couple provide some glimpses. Following in the footsteps of Průšek in the 1930s, they often visited the Tianqiao quarter. In an article published in 1968 Věna evoked their explorations:
The T’ien-ch’iao, Peking’s Heavenly Bridge, was one of the most colourful places of this kind, where not only storytellers but also other entertainers regularly competed for attention. Despite its exalted name, it was an unpretentious marketplace with simple earthen arenas, small crude huts and humble teahouses, but it offered much enjoyment for modest sums. We spent there many unforgettable hours enthralled by the mastery of puppeteers, the deftness of magicians, the incredible skill of acrobats, and of course the art of the storytellers. They often commented on our presence with improvised verses, which, though not complimentary, were witty and never really offensive. Eventually, when we became more familiar with fairly frequent attendance, they treated us in the same way as they did the Chinese in their audiences.
We used to invite itinerant storytellers and ballad-singers to our residence in Peking. Though their dress made it obvious that they were poor, their professional pride gave them great dignity. After singing, they were served tea. They then would bow and leave quietly. Some of them in time became our friends, divulging the secrets of their art and helping us to collect handwritten and printed texts of various forms of shuo-shu.
In their article on lianhua lao they recalled:
In the early 1950s we had occasion to watch a group performing caichang lianhua lao in the Tianqiao market, while we were studying shuochang in the field. Thus we made their acquaintance and they consented to give us a performance in our home, in a typical hutong [lane], Zhongshi caor in the eastern part of the capital. These performers from the marketplace presented their act in the courtyard, surrounded by a wall. In addition to the principal of the troupe, Wang Pingtan, there were two women singers, a comic actor, and a musician [on sanxian]; they were typical folk performers, and obviously of low social standing. They had not yet been brought under the aegis of any of the professional organizations then being set up to reform the narrative arts by purging their repertoire of elements of feudalism, as the phrase was, and replacing this with texts that could serve political ends, and help in the struggle against illiteracy, corruption, or for equality of the sexes.
Of course, despite the formation of such troupes, only a few performers were ever recruited to this cause, and only sporadically—as we can see in my notes from Shaanbei. In the cities (such as Yulin), change would have been caused as much by the evolving control of public space as by political elements.
Teahouse in Tianqiao, 1987. My photos.
After I began working in China from 1986, I only dabbled in the narrative-singing scene in Beijing. Whereas many amateur clubs remained active after reviving, the Tianqiao scene enjoyed but a brief revival in the 80s before the area was irretrievably glamourized. Though narrative-singing moved to more salubrious fake-antique venues, some charming amateur clubs have persisted.
Prague and Japan
Their time in China was interrupted when Zdeněk was recalled to Prague in 1954, where he now taught Asian history at Charles University. When they returned to Prague, Věna completed her doctoral thesis on storytelling, based on her fieldwork in China. She defended it in 1959.
The 1956 revolts in Hungary and Poland had ramifications in China—where the short-lived Hundred Flowers movement soon led to the Anti-Rightist campaign, condemning many to tragic fates. Meanwhile Hungarian and Chinese musicologists met in Beijing.
When the Czechoslovak diplomatic mission in Tokyo reopened belatedly in 1957, Zdeněk was appointed chargé d’affaires there (1957–61), later serving as Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador (1964–69). They decided to live in a Japanese-style house.
They were on good terms with the Soviet ambassador Nikolai Fedorenko (1912–2000), “an elegant, handsome man” with a wealth of international experience, who served as Soviet representative at the UN from 1963 to 1968. Over at the American embassy were their former teachers John Fairbank and Serge Elisséeff.
They could only take the boys to Tokyo under the condition that they would attend Russian school, but when circumstances became a bit more relaxed they transferred them to Japanese school, where they were taught in Japanese in the mornings and in English in the afternoons; the children were happy there, and apart from speaking Czech at home and learning Russian they became fluent in Japanese and English. Their grandchildren too followed in the family footsteps.
Despite the intensive workload in these posts, the couple continued to pursue their cultural interests enthusiastically. Věna continued to explore folk story-telling. Each tea-house had a banner saying which story-teller was going to perform that day. They were pleasantly surprised to find small story-telling theatres in the Ueno quarter, including one for rakugo 落語. They were enchanted by Japanese folk ceramics, travelling throughout Japan to collect them, and later presenting them in exhibitions and writings. They studied the tea ceremony, cuisine, gardens and bonsai.
I note superfluously that during their interlude in Prague they do not seem to have met the young Alexei Sayle, later himself to become a folk storyteller…
The Prague Spring and “normalization”
Amidst diverse global revolutions, the couple was spared the Cultural Revolution in China. Their old acquaintance the great author Lao She, himself an aficionado of narrative-singing, was hounded to death in 1966.
But in August 1968 the Prague Spring was brutally crushed when the Warsaw Pact armies occupied Czechoslovakia. The family were on holiday in Prague. It was night-time, and still jet-lagged, they didn’t hear the airplanes with their transports of tanks—they were only woken by the sound of someone shouting: “The Russians have invaded!” Věna thought it was nonsense until she switched on the radio. Zdeněk immediately set off for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where a lot of employees had already gathered, moving to safety some documents that might be of potential interest to the invaders.
He was ordered to return immediately to Japan. Not knowing what was awaiting them, or even if they would ever be able to return, they only took bare necessities in their rucksacks. A friend drove them to the Austrian border, and they flew Swiss Air to Tokyo. At the airport they were met by embassy employees and Japanese reporters; Zdeněk made it clear that the country had been brutally invaded. The newspapers published photographs of him and Dubček. The Czechoslovak flag was flown at half-staff on the embassy building.
As Věna recalled, the Japanese were supportive, but diplomats behaved according to their political affiliations; among the east Europeans, only the Romanians could offer any support. At first, embassy employees unequivocally condemned the occupation, but then gradually things became blurred. As it became clear how the situation was going to evolve, some started distancing themselves.
The couple’s postings to China and Japan evoke the career of Robert van Gulik, who served in China before the Communist takeover, going on to successive postings in Japan. Of course, they moved in different circles: the only contacts between diplomats of the Western and Soviet allies occurred at formal receptions. Still, in Tokyo the couple did indeed meet van Gulik. His third posting there from 1965 had to be interrupted in June 1967 so he could return to the Netherlands for medical treatment, where he died in September. But after the Prague coup the following year van Gulik’s son Pieter sent Zdeněk this letter of sympathy:
Meanwhile, with murky realpolitik, the Chinese leadership also denounced the Soviet-led intervention—ironically, given their support for the quelling of the 1956 Budapest uprising (not to mention later events in Beijing).
Jan Palach’s self-immolation in 1969 predated the common resort of Tibetans protesting occupation.
The couple remained in Tokyo for around a year, but they took recall as a matter of course; they knew what awaited them, and never considered emigration. As soon as they arrived back in Prague, Zdeněk was sacked from the ministry. He briefly became research fellow at the Oriental Institute, but during the so-called “period of normalization”  that followed the repression he lost his new post—he wasn’t even admitted to the Oriental Institute library.
While his was a high-profile demotion, he was not alone: as Gálik shows, several other Czech sinologists, including the great Průšek, were expelled from the Academy of Sciences, and the Party, over these years. No-one was immune, neither academics nor ordinary workers.
The Hrdličkas had to go to some lengths to secure the children’s progress in education, with help from their neighbour Jiří Marek (1914–94), author of the script for the 1968 TV series Sinful people of the city of Prague. Věna was pressured into taking early retirement, and Zdeněk too received a small allowance. They took their fate stoically.
In 1976 Zdeněk and Věna retreated into idyllic rural seclusion—emulating principled ancient Chinese literati like the poet Tao Yuanming (never an option, alas, for their counterparts in Maoist China). In the tiny village of Brzánky on the river Elbe the couple cultivated their Wine-Press Manor (Na Lisu); visitors delighted in the magical atmosphere there, discussing poetry and the arts in the garden over wine with their hosts.
Their bucolic retreat, though dilapidated, had a large plot of land. Without electricity, they had no fridge, but they did have a cold cellar. They grew garlic, kept bees, harvested fruit, and made their own wine—which though ordinaire, they relished because of the work and joy that went into it. In a way it was a beautiful life, giving them time to read and study. Věna later reflected wryly that by depriving them of employment the regime improved their health.
They liked to have guests, such as the renowned art historian František Dvořák with his wife Nataša, and their friends like the artists Jan Zrzavý (1890-1977) and Kamil Lhoták (1812-1990). Denied passports, the couple weren’t allowed to travel abroad; but over the years their foreign friends managed to visit them at the cottage. They maintained contacts with Russian friends who had denounced the occupation. In April 1989 their old friend Ge Baoquan visited them there:
Through the oppressive years of Soviet occupation, Věna managed to keep her post of lecturer at the Department of Asian and African studies of Charles University—still, she was only belatedly awarded the full dozent professorial qualification in 1990. In the Department she mainly taught Chinese literature, training a number of students—including Lucie Olivová. Věna’s textbooks The history of Chinese classical literature, vol.1 (1980), and An introduction to sinology (with Jaromír Vochala, 1985) are still valued.
Most of the studies that Věna and Zdeněk wrote jointly during the 1970s and 80s could only be published under her name. A couple of journals were bold enough to publish his papers, but Nový Orient, the popular journal for Asia—which Zdeněk had created—remained closed to him.
Meanwhile, of course, many of their friends, both at home and in China, were punished in many ways from the mid-50s until the early 80s. Both peoples had suffered under wartime occupation and had to adapt to one-party rule; both had seen brief liberalizations ruthlessly crushed.
A certain rehabilitation came when Zdeněk, with other enthusiasts, was able to found the first ever Bonsai club in Prague, which later became the Prague Bonsai Society. They published a quarterly newsletter from 1981; from 1990 it became a journal in successive incarnations. As well as organizing activities, exhibitions, and lectures, here it was possible for Zdeněk to publish. The couple designed several Chinese and Japanese gardens in Czechoslovakia, receiving a gold medal for the design of a Japanese garden at the Flora Olomouc Exhibition in 1983.
After the Velvet revolution of 1989, new freedoms opened a sudden range of possibilities. The couple once again traveled to the USA, Japan, and China.
In the new Czech Republic, they participated in the re-establishment of the Czech-Chinese Society and the Czech-Japanese Society. They organized projects such as an exhibition of paintings by Qi Baishi at the National Gallery at Prague, and the publications of miscellanies, including the often-reprinted Èajová zastavení [Tea stations] (Prague, 1997). Věna published literary translations of contemporary Chinese novels, and Chinese and Japanese folk tales, which appeared in splendid Czech and foreign editions. She translated over a hundred films, mainly from Japanese, for Czech TV and other distributors. She was much decorated.
So at last they were able to publish under their own names. After working together at the tranquil cottage, the couple published the popular book Emperor Shenzong’s China (Čína císaře Šen-cunga) and books about Japanese and Chinese gardens.
Zdeněk’s sudden death in March 1999 came as a painful shock to all his friends and acquaintances; however, Věna continued her activities and research with commitment and perseverance.
Chinese studies of narrative-singing
After 1949, although the Hrdlička couple explored the narrative-singing scene on their own initiative rather than in collaboration with Chinese scholars, the latter too were busy studying and promoting the diverse genres along the middle of the vocal spectrum from folk-song to opera.
Of course, the big cities were only the tip of the iceberg. Later studies tended to focus on the Jiangnan region, but genres still common around Beijing and Tianjin include Jingyun dagu 京韻大鼓, Meihua dagu 梅花大鼓, and Xihe dagu 西河大鼓. Yang Yinliu himself began studying the danxian 单弦 melodies of Beijing as early as 1950, soon after arriving there.
For a nationwide inventory, see
- Shuochang yinyue 说唱音乐 (ed. Zhongyang yinyuexueyuan Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo, 1961).
While its 589 pages consist almost entirely of transcriptions, it includes a useful bibliography. Many festivals were also held through the 1950s.
Above: danxian performer Rong Jianchen (front, 4th from left) with disciples, 1954.
Below: Founding of drum-singing guild, Tianqiao, 1940s.
Source: Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Beijing juan.
Large-format lianhualao led by Rong Jianchen and Wang Wanfang (6th and 5th from right), 1950s.
Source: Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Beijing juan.
Though the work of the Chinese scholars was constrained and reified, it laid the foundations for later studies, notably the Anthology—for which note the provincial volumes of both the Zhongguo quyi zhi 中国曲艺志 and the Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng 中国曲艺音乐集成—see my “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003).
Jingyun dagu masters. Above: Liu Baoquan, 1920s. Middle: left, Liu Baoquan, 1936; right, Bai Yunpeng. Below: Bai Fengming.
Source: Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Beijing juan.
Ma Zengfen 馬增芬 performing Xihe dagu, 1950s.
Source: Zhongguo quyi zhi, Beijing juan.
Some fine archive recordings are included in the 2-CD set
- Shibaduan quyi 十八段曲藝 [English title Shuochang: the ultimate art of Chinese storytelling] (1998).
Many clips are also available online, from both before and after Liberation, such as these items from Liu Baoquan, Luo Yusheng, and Bai Yunpeng.
Meanwhile it became apparent that alongside entertainment genres, the ritual component of narrative-singing was also widespread and important in local cultures throughout China. The Czech couple’s explorations could hardly extend to the countryside—even just a few hours south of Beijing, narrative-singers continued to perform through the 1950s, alongside ritual groups.
* * *
In what may sometimes appear as a Western-dominated field, all this serves as a reminder of the wider world of scholarship and the international situation in the years following the revolutions of the late 1940s, as well as the achievements and vicissitudes of scholars and artists both in China and in Soviet-dominated countries.
With many thanks to Lucie Olivová and Zdeněk the younger!
 Lucie Olivová, Věna Hrdličková–Zdeněk Hrdlička: A list of published works and oral presentations 1945/46–2002 (Prague: Oriental Institute, 2002, bilingual) lists almost a thousand bibliographical entries under headings including storytelling, Chinese and Japanese gardens, Japanese pottery, and Chinese literature.
 See e.g. Keith Lowe, Savage continent: Europe in the aftermath of World War II, pp. 126–35; for background on the early Communist period, see Anne Applebaum, Iron curtain: the crushing of eastern Europe.
 from journalists like Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley to politically-engaged residents like the Hintons and the Crooks: see Beverley Hooper, Foreigners under Mao: Western lives in China, 1949–1976 (2016).
 As I write this, I’m reading Christopher Hitchens’ remarkable memoir Hitch-22, where he describes it as “one of the most casually ugly phrases of the whole 20th century”—but then, if anyone is equipped to demolish such insidious language, it’s the Czechs themselves.