A taxonomy of taxonomies


One of the challenges of maintaining this blog is to overhaul all the categories and tags in the sidebar, although they remain rough and ready. After all, Life Itself is about classifying, organizing—plastic toys, musical instruments (indeed both), bookshelves, shopping lists, concepts, and so on. Here are a few headings:

Indexing is an under-estimated pleasure:

On slicing the pie of music, and religion:

Scholars’ attempts to classify expressive culture in China illustrate how we need a fluid concept of genres, constantly intersecting and crossing borders, as I outlined in my review of the great Anthology. Ethnography is the key.

Organology is a fascinating topic, with the endlessly fascinating Sachs–Hornbostel system:

And, definitively, an early Stewart Lee sketch clearing up a flawed interpretation of the Lord’s Creation:

Far from validating narrow discrimination, all this demands a nuanced, flexible view of human culture…

The Confucian ritual in Hunan


Source: Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Hunan juan.

One subject of Yang Yinliu‘s 1956 ambitious survey of the diverse performing genres in Hunan province was the large-scale Confucian ritual sacrifice of Liuyang, east of Changsha. Appendix 2 of his report,

  • Kongfu dingji yinyue 孔府丁祭音乐 (1958, 78 pp.)

was discreetly tucked away in a separate mimeograph; I haven’t yet tracked down the original, but its material is included in the 2011 reprint of Yang’s Hunan volume, and cited in the Anthology section. [1]

There are all kinds of themes to unpack here. First, a confession: my own reluctance to study the topic is flawed. Cultures routinely exclude certain soundscapes from their concept of “music”, but ethnomusicology counsels a far more inclusive view. Indeed, for China I’m keen to include the songs of spirit mediums, work hollers, and vocal liturgy within our brief. I have no argument with studying elite culture, even if in most societies, including China (both historically and today), it only represents a tiny tip of the iceberg (for imperial culture, see here; and for similar reservations about the qin zither, here).

I keep stressing that our focus shouldn’t be some reified concept of “music”, but expressive culture within society; and the topic of the Confucian rituals may lead all too easily to the glorification of some notional Golden Age of Ancient Sages. So I’m wary of “recreations” claiming to preserve or salvage such glories. Such a mindset may even distract us from other forms of musicking that are far more deeply embedded in social life.

Still, like the performance of modern CCP propaganda, the Confucian sacrifice is a political subject, which of course we have to study. So it may be irrelevant that it seems to exclude most features that I (or the Chinese) can perceive as “musical”, and that (unlike folk ritual) it seems remote from the lives of ordinary people. Ritual often seems austere—we might adduce the hymns or the fast chanted scriptures of household Daoists like the Li family—but expertise, human energy, social interaction, are usually evident in performance.

The origins of the Confucian sacrifices are in the numinous ancient music of Shao, whose wonders made Confucius himself oblivious to the taste of meat, if only for three months. But I’m going to start with the Tang—not because I wish to recreate its glories, but precisely because I don’t.

Now I don’t applaud the xenophobia and moralistic snobbery of the Tang poets Bai Juyi and his friend Yuan Zhen, as society struggled to recover from the cataclysm of the An Lushan rebellion (see here, n.2). Bai’s poems like “The Standing Orchestra” and “Chime-stones from Huayuan” (which I might rename “Just Can’t Get the Staff, Nowadays”) rest on a flawed nostalgic idealization of the Wisdom of the Ancient Sages; but, with ethnographic candour, they also reveal the ineptitude of the yayue Confucian ceremonial performers of his day.

Several studies have been made of these poems, but they were a theme that my teacher the great Tang scholar Denis Twitchett approached with relish (as you may see from our irreverent correspondence on the faqu, here and here; see also my own spoof Tang poems). So below I’ve adapted his (apparently unpublished) translations from a draft that he sent me, retaining the sometimes E.J. Thribb-like character of Bai Juyi’s original, and refraining from adding the Teutonic footnotes that every phrase invites (as parodied by Flann O’Brien’s commentaries on de Selby):

The Standing Orchestra
Drums and fifes of the Standing Orchestra blare out
Dancers perform the two-bladed sword-dance, jugglers toss the seven balls
Slender maidens walk the tightrope, quivering with long pole
Among the orchestras of the Court of Sacrifices is a rigid hierarchy
Those in the upper hall sit, those in the lower hall stand
In the upper hall the mouth-organ songs of the Seated Orchestra are pure
In the lower hall the drum and fife of the Standing Orchestra resound
At the sound of a single note from the mouth-organ songs, everyone inclines their ears
But if drum and fife were to play ten thousand pieces, no-one would listen
The Standing Orchestra is base, the Seated Orchestra noble
Once rejected, a member of the Seated Orchestra joins the Standing Orchestra
Playing drum and mouth-organ to accompany circus acts
But once a member of the Standing Orchestra is rejected, where can he find a job?
First he is sent to the suspended bells and chimes to play the ritual music
The ritual music has fallen so far out of fashion
That incapable dolts like you are ordered to perform the gong and zhi modes
When at the urban sacrifice we pray to the Earth Lord at the circular altar
The claim takes this music to move the spirits of Heaven and Earth!
Hoping to make the Phoenix come and the hundred beasts dance
Is just like driving your carriage north, hoping to arrive in Chu!*
The musicians are all incompetent fools—how can I adequately describe them?
And you, the Three Ministers of the Court of Sacrifice, whatever sort of men are you?

Chime-stones from Huayuan
Chime-stones from Huayuan, chime-stones from Huayuan
Men of old didn’t listen, but men of today listen
Sonorous stones from the banks of the Si river, sonorous stones from the banks of the Si river
Men of today don’t play them, but men of old played them
How is it that men of old and men of today are so different?
Which instruments are used and which rejected depends on the musicians
Although the musicians have ears like a wall, if they’re unable to distinguish Pure from Muddy sounds then they might as well be deaf!
When the pupils of the Pear Garden adjust the temperament
They only know the new sounds, they are ignorant of the old
Of old it was said of the fouqing chime-stones from the banks of the Si
That their sound moved the listener to thoughts of those serving and risking their lives in distant places
But when once the sound of the Huayuan chime-stones had been heard at the palace
The prince’s heart straightaway forgot his subjects guarding the frontiers
And sure enough, when the barbarian brigand rose up from Yan
Few of the generals were willing to die in defence of the borders
If once one understands how music and the state of government are intertwined
How can one simply listen to the clashing and clanging of these instruments?
“Xiang, the player of the stone-chimes, withdrew to his island in the sea”, leaving never to return
And now kids from the Chang’an market-place have become Master Musicians!
Who is there to truly understand the difference between Pure and Muddy sounds
Between the chime-stones from Huayuan and the sonorous stones from the banks of the Si?

So Bai Juyi is contrasting the expertise of the Seated Orchestra with the ineptitude of the ritual musicians, but “It’s Complicated”. The two genres serve entirely separate functions, with different demands. Technical virtuosity doesn’t correlate with efficacity: a lullaby serves its purpose perfectly, whereas the years of discipline that go into mastering a Paganini Caprice hardly go beyond mere technique. And some of the finest musicians in the world come from the “market-place”… Of course, recruiting practices may have changed from Tang to Ming, but I doubt if evidence is available to suggest that later ritual musicians were of a higher standard—they hardly needed to be. Bai Juyi’s argument doesn’t invalidate the performance, but it does rather, um, chime with my own reservations about studying it.

“But that’s enough about me”. Yang Yinliu, with his historical erudition and concern for “literati music”, “palace music”, and indeed “feudal superstition” and the culture of the “exploiting classes”, was doubtless more interested in the Confucian ritual than I am. Whereas I can see the “value” of exploring the topic but prefer to focus elsewhere, for Yang and his colleagues it formed part of the rich topic of archaeology and early historical sources on which they also worked tirelessly.

The wider context
A useful introduction, for the Ming, is

  • Joseph Lam, State sacrifices and music in Ming China: orthodoxy, creativity, and expressiveness (1998).

He stresses those features, even if the latter two may seem rather remote from many people’s understanding of the topic. For dance, see also

The stimulating article

  • Sébastien Billioud and Joël Thoraval, “Lijiao: The return of ceremonies honouring Confucius in mainland China”, China perspectives 2009.4.

mainly concerns Qufu in Shandong (birthplace of Confucius, and site of the most renowned rituals) and the rehabilitation of Confucius since the 1980s.

Confucian sacrifices were performed widely throughout the empire until the collapse of the imperial system in 1911. They are not only documented in the national dynastic histories but also (at the expense of folk traditions!) often occupy an unreasonable amount of space in imperial county gazetteers, compiled according to a template. The topic, burdened by abstruse theory and false nostalgia, may seem largely to belong to the rarefied confines of early sinology. However, as always, it is no timeless “living fossil”, but was constantly remoulded and re-invented throughout the imperial era right down to today.

Through the Republican era the rituals declined. After the 1949 Communist victory they were promoted by the Nationalist regime on Taiwan, but on the mainland they fell silent—apart from a few initiatives from cultural authorities.

In late imperial times the rituals must have been common elsewhere in Hunan too (the Anthology mentions mid-19th-century accounts in the Yongzhou and Jiahe county gazetteers), but it is those of Liuyang that came to achieve national celebrity. So here I’d like to introduce the fortunes of the rituals there over their life-span of a century, from the 1840s to the 1940s.

Liuyang [2]
Confucian sacrifices may have been performed in Liuyang since ancient times, but we only find firm evidence from 1829, when the local jiansheng 監生 official Qiu Zhilu 邱之稑 (1781–1839) was commissioned to begin a lengthy investigation of how to perform the rituals, with funding to establish a Bureau for Rites and Music (Liyue ju 禮樂局). His research was based not only on early compendia (including Han sources and the Qing Lülü zhengyi) but also on a visit to Qufu.

Qiu Zhilu then had to decide on the pitch standard (itself a thorny historical issue); choose the vast instrumentarium and repertoire (indeed, he is credited with incorporating folk elements, revising the system of one note per beat, and expanding the scale); and rehearse the singers, instrumentalists, and dancers. He documented the results of his research in a series of volumes.

Though Qiu Zhilu died in 1839, the rituals he had designed were first performed in the early 1840s. Every three years over sixty youths over the age of 12 sui within the town—“from decent families” shenjia qingbai 身家清白, an assessment that would have been abruptly reversed after the 1949 Liberation!) [3]—were recruited, training for a month before the 2nd- and 8th-moon rituals.

(An aside: I can’t help comparing this to the hereditary training of shawm-band musicians in Hunan and throughout China, who would begin playing percussion in the family band from around 6 sui, moving on to shawm in their early teens, and learning daily through constant participation in life-cycle and calendrical rituals. And that is where real creativity is to be found: for more on elite and folk cultures, with a detailed analysis of a qin piece and a shawm-band suite, see here. But as in the Tang, the efficacity of the Confucian ritual depended not on the performers but on the “arrangers”…)

The Qing statesman Zeng Guofan (1811–72), himself a native of Hunan, sent envoys to Liuyang to attend the ritual, recommending it to the emperor. After the collapse of the imperial system in 1911, the Bureau was still maintained, though only the 8th-moon sacrifice was now held. Wannabe emperor Yuan Shikai (1859–1916) sent envoys, who reported it to be superior to the Qufu ritual; envoys from there and other regions of the country (including Heilongjiang, Yunnan, and Xinjiang) came to study. Apparently the genre even appeared in a feature film made in the early Republican era.

Liuyang 2
Liuyang 1

These photos of the Liuyang performers appear quite widely online, but I can’t find dates—can anyone provide them? The first seems to date from before Liberation; I surmise that the second was taken when Yang Yinliu took them to record in Changsha in 1956. [4]

As ever, I’m struck by both how much has survived and how much has been destroyed, and by the maxim “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”.

The 8th-moon ritual was held in 1937 with an ever-dwindling personnel. After Liuyang was occupied by the Japanese, activity was interrupted in 1944. [5] After Japan was defeated, the temple grounds were taken over by the Nationalist administration and a local newspaper. By the time of an October 1945 performance in the temporary provincial capital Leiyang, following social upheavals, instruments had been damaged and the (recent) tradition much reduced. In 1946 the senior Liu Puxian 劉蒲仙 led a ritual with over a hundred performers, still only a pale reflection of the previous quorum. The last ritual performance took place on 28th September 1948.

After the Communist victory, in 1951 the Liuyang Bureau of Culture retrieved the entire collection of over 350 instruments as well as the textual material, holding an exhibition; from 1953 they were stored in the Hunan provincial museum in Changsha, and some newly-reproduced instruments were made.

Such was the backdrop to Yang Yinliu’s 1956 visit. He now assembled a dozen of the senior performers to go to Changsha, recording some of the main hymns with a motley assemblage of instruments whose pitches no longer matched (a topic that he explored eruditely in his monograph). The Anthology reprints Yang’s own transcriptions of these recordings.

LY JC score

Zhaohe (Zhaoping) hymn to welcome the gods (opening), documented by Yang Yinliu. Source: Anthology.

Hunan was hit by the famine that followed the Great Leap Backward, but in 1962, in a brief lull between campaigns, the Hunan cultural authorities organized another project on the ritual. The instruments were even briefly returned to Liuyang; new performers were trained, and further recordings made. Ever since then the instruments have been kept at the Changsha museum. Meanwhile similar research was ongoing in Qufu.

From the 1980s, the resumption of research (now for the monumental Anthology) coincided with a progressive rehabilitation of Confucius and Confucianism. Indeed, Yang Yinliu’s 1956 work in Liuyang formed an important basis for the glitzy 1980s’ recreation of the most renowned Confucian ritual at Qufu, with which it had long-standing links. In recent years—inevitably—the Liuyang cult has been taken up by the Intangible Cultural Heritage (see here), although, as with many such projects, any tradition has long disappeared. The only remaining source was Qiu Shaoqiu 邱少求 (b. 1931), who had spent nearly ten years performing intermittently after training from the age of 9.

LY JC diagram

Reconstructed diagram showing deployment of instruments. Source: Anthology.

* * *

So once again, we have to unpack the thorny question “What is music?”. As Confucius himself observed,

Music! Music! Is it nothing but the sound of bells and drums?

Always remote from the lives of ordinary people, and performed only intermittently, the Liuyang ritual was a very minor aspect of musicking in Hunan; but it’s one that may attract sinological historians. To be sure, like folk musicking, it was in a constant process of change; and a certain creativity was involved—though far from the kind universal to most expressive culture in China and elsewhere.

With Chinese and foreign scholars alike still keen to imagine “living fossils”, such as the ritual traditions of Beijing, Xi’an, and south Fujian, reification is a dangerous theme throughout traditional culture.

Irrespective of my own ambivalence about the topic, Yang Yinliu’s work, even amidst pressure to downplay elite culture, shows his dedication to all aspects of performance and the historical background. At the same time, he wasn’t alone in studying the Liuyang ritual: the Hunan cultural authorities made efforts to document it throughout the first fifteen years after Liberation.


* Satnav on the blink again—Ed.


[1] Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Hunan juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 湖南卷, pp.2049–57, 2137, 2141, 2179–80, transcriptions 2060–85.

[2] For Liuyang, online sources I have consulted include http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_95b86dd70102xhke.html
In the Anthology, note the biography of Qiu Zhilu (p.2137) and the item on the Bureau of Rites and Music (p.2141).
See also Yu Yizhi 喻意志 and Zhang Yu 章瑜, “Liuyang jikong yinyue chutan” 浏阳祭孔音乐初探, Tianjin yinyuexueyuan xuebao 2008.2. As ever, several details remain to be clarified.
In English, an early mention of Yang Yinliu’s work on the Liuyang rituals is Rulan Chao Pian, Sonq dynasty musical sources and their interpretation (1967), pp.94–6.

[3] Having observed that many of the CCP leaders came from Hunan, I note that Liuyang was the birthplace of Hu Yaobang (1915–89), who would not have made a suitable recruit…

[4] This site, with 52 pages, contains a rich archive of visual images from Hunan, and leads to further sources showing the depth of both literati and popular culture there.

[5] An instance of my problems interpreting the material: I surmise that it continued until then even under Japanese occupation. One would like more detail on the whole period from 1937 to 1949—but please, if you go to Hunan, do look beyond the Confucian ritual!



Two recent themes

Two images from the 1950s.

Recently I wrote a mini-series of posts on the fortune of expressive culture through the first fifteen years of the PRC, and the intrepid scholars who documented it—worth reading along with my tribute to the great Yang Yinliu:

This happens to be an important period for the relationship of politics and culture—the Maoist decades are a crucial bridge from the “old society” to the current reform era—but that’s not the only reason for studying it. One always seeks to gain a picture of change over the lifetimes of informants; if we had visited in the 1880s, or indeed the 880s, we would also have asked them how their social and cultural life had before the cataclysms of the Taiping uprising and the An Lushan rebellion respectively. While I’m critical of reified studies that are limited to the “salvage” of an idealized past, a diachronic approach is always valuable.

* * *

I followed up that series with Great Female Singers Week (cf. A playlist of songs):

Again, these are part of larger series, in this case on gender (for a roundup of posts, see here), jazz, and Mediterranean culture—to which you’ll find links in the above posts.

Expressive culture (both popular and elite) always makes a revealing prism through which to view social change—whether for China, Puglia, New York, or Vienna.

Billie Holiday

So far I’ve struggled to resist devoting this site entirely to Billie Holiday, just rationing myself to her captivating 1957 TV Fine and mellow and a few tracks in other posts. Of course she is one of the stars of my Playlist of songs (indeed, everyone’s). *

But to follow Barbara Hannigan singing a Berg-tinged Embraceable you, I just had to go back to Billie singing it—both 1944 and 1957 versions here:

Among my all-time top songs of hers, You’re my thrill is strangely neglected, as she herself lamented. Again, apart from the extraordinary nuances of her voice, intoxicating and intoxicated (surely this is her ode to heroin), note the chromatic melody and disoncerting leaps (I’ve extolled the magic of the major 7th, and now I feel a paean to the minor 7th coming on) and the brilliant noir orchestration—smoochy strings, wind arabesques, languid swaggering brass interlude:

You’re my thrill
You do something to me
You send chills right through me
When I look at you
’cause you’re my thrill

You’re my thrill
How my pulse increases
I just go to pieces
When I look at you
’cause you’re my thrill

Nothing seems to matter
Here’s my heart on a silver platter

Where’s my will?
Why this strange desire
That keeps mounting higher?
When I look at you
I can’t keep still
You’re my thrill…

It was also natural that Chet Baker, not to be outdone in the shooting-up department, should perform the song:

Generally Chet’s singing has an intensity that matches that of Billie, but for this song I’d always choose her (not that we have to choose).

In Lover man the orchestration again complements Billie’s vocals:

Meanwhile in 1944, far from the turmoil of Europe (just as ethnologist Germain Tillion was composing Le verfügbar aux enfers for her fellow Ravensbrück inmates), a young Miles Davis was combing the New York streets for Charlie Parker, as he describes in one of the great passages of jazz writing.

Billie’s Don’t explain is amazing too. The lyrics, meekly tolerating infidelity, may now seem as dubious as Stand by your man (and dodgy lyrics are by no means the prerogative of popular music), but as always Billie somehow transforms the song:

And whereas she looks radiant in the 1957 TV broadcast, here’s her harrowing live performance of Don’t explain the following year, with more pain than joy:

To learn more about how all this works, apart from the innumerable books on Billie, I keep learning from Berliner’s Thinking in jazz.


* I learn to my chagrin that I’m not the first to discover either Billie or Aretha—but perhaps I can claim credit for the first recording of Dona Rosa.

New tag: Yang Yinliu!

Yang Yinliu 1950

I’ve just added a new tag in the sidebar for the great Yang Yinliu (1899–1984), whose encyclopedic work on Chinese music encompassed elite and folk traditions, historical sources and fieldwork.

The starting point is this tribute, describing his early background in Kunqu, qin, and Daoist circles, and reflecting on his constant determination to document the whole heritage—notably ritual—despite the strictures of Maoism. It leads to further posts on his discovery of Beijing temple musics, his 1956 fieldwork in Hunan (here, and here), and much more.

Enza Pagliara


To follow Barbara Hannigan, another great female singer:

Reminded of Enza Pagliara by my recent post on the intoxicating pizzica (latest in a series on the riches of Mediterranean culture), by way of introduction here’s another perk of the musos’ touring life (cf. here, for Andalucia):

Many years ago I was doing a gig at the Ambronay festival with a baroque band accompanying the choir of New College Oxford. At the reception in the balmy grounds afterwards I found myself chatting with a distinguished-looking Italian woman from the audience—who turned out to be none other than Enza Pagliara. She told me how much she loved the choirboys’ voci bianche, and casually mentioned that she sang too—rather like Lionel Messi saying he likes kicking a ball around. So of course I was keen to learn about her music, and as we were saying goodbye she gave me her CD Frunte de luna.

It was only later when I listened to it, in awe, that I realized it should have been me attending her concert…

Here’s an exhilarating playlist:

Some of the folk-singers assembled on Frunte de luna (including members of Enza Pagliara’s family) can be heard in traditional a cappella style on the CD Le tradizioni musicali in Puglia Vol. 6: canti di contadine e trattoristi di Torchiarolo. Here’s an introduction to the Salento scene, mentioning Ernesto De Martino, Alan Lomax, and local anthropologist Luigi Chiriatti.

See also Italy tag.

Update to A Czech couple in 1950s’ Tianqiao


I’ve just done a major update to A Czech couple in 1950s’ Tianqiao. Even if you have already read my original post, do take another look—I’ve added considerable further material, courtesy of the couple’s grandson (also Zdeněk).

New content includes more vignettes on their early life; a 1968 letter from the son of Robert van Gulik to Ambassador Hrdlička; more on the tribulations of Czechoslovak scholars; and under post-1968 “normalization”, Věna’s wry gratitude to the authorities for improving their health by depriving them of employment…

Note also Czech tag, including appearances from Švejk and Alexei Sayle…