Denis Twitchett: more Tang drôlerie


Prompted by Tang poetry, I’ve been having fun revisiting my old correspondence with the great Tang historian Denis Twitchett (1925–2006; for bibliography, see here).

At Cambridge Denis gave me a thorough training in Tang history, most of which I later forgot. After I moved to London in 1976 to eke a living as an orchestral fiddler, while I was still busy helping Laurence Picken with his magnum opus on Tang music, I was also helping Denis with editing the Tang volumes of The Cambridge history of China. After he took up a post at Princeton in 1980 he continued to guide my studies from afar, and indeed it was largely thanks to him that I gleaned clues to the potential for Tang music studies in the PRC before I finally began my explorations there in 1986 (for more, click here). Like Laurence, Denis may just have been relieved when I jumped ship from Tang culture in old books to the grimy realities of contemporary fieldwork (for my Beijing epiphany, see here), but anyway they both looked most kindly on my apostasy.

As I reported back from my trips Denis continued to send me entertaining letters. I’ve already given some brilliant instances of his takes on Tang sources (here, and here). So here are some further gems.

After I returned from China for the second time in 1987 he wrote:

Dear Steve,
It was good to hear from you. I had thought of giving you a call while I was home during the summer, but I thought you were still in China, doing your juggling and fire-eating routine on the Bund in Shanghai, or touring Kweichow with a Jamaican steel band or something of the sort…


In 1988, having finished with the Liao dynasty (“good for many a chuckle”, although my favourite Liao statue is keeping a straight face), Denis sent me one of his more wacky fantasies, on the subject of the disastrous An Lushan rebellion in the mid-Tang (see here, n.2). Its tone suggests a medieval Private eye or The fast show; it may be a tad niche, but it’s based on his deep knowledge of the period (note the date; and I’ve converted his Wade-Giles to pinyin. “HM” is of course the emperor Xuanzong):

Report to Chang’an Control / attn. M. From Agent 0069/6/ACDC
Agent Wang, deep cover as mess waiter, NECINC Fanyang

Report of conversation in Mess, recorded 1st April 745. Speaker: Field Marshal An Lushan, Duke of Fanyang [or “Fanyang Fats”, as Denis described him elsewhere], CINC HM Forces Northeast, KCMG, VC, Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Hero of the Peoples of Bohai, etc.

Just got back from Chang’an. Shocking place nowadays, everything gone to the dogs, can’t even get a decent pink gin in the Generals’ Mess of the Palace Guard, no bloody soldiers to be seen, no backbone, no discipline, no-one salutes any more, sloppy sentries, gang of washerwomen could storm the palace, not like my day, not a decent curry to be had in the whole blasted city—whole place crawling with nancy-boys and bloody priests, not a fighting man in sight—makes a fellah puke.

HM in a damn good mood when I arrived, banquet, gifts of silks and silver for the sideboard, told me a good one after the eleventh toast, about some hu 胡 and his trained rhinoceros that shat on the palace carpet—never have happened in my day, no respect, no discipline, no backbone—poor bloody animal probably frightened by all those queers around the palace. Anyway, er, what was I sayin’?  (Keep that bloody port moving, colonel, and no mentioning ladies’ names in the Mess.) Ah yes, just before I left, called me in for an extra audience—most inconvenent time, clashed with m’ tiffin, and an appointment with m’ tailors, not to speak of a special soiree for season-ticket holders at Madame Minsky’s—still, duty is duty, what.

HM in a none-too-happy frame of mind, I can tell you. One of those moods of his, strong sniff of Indian incense in the air, dilated pupils—had a horse once that looked like that, had him put down pretty smartly. “Well, An”, he says, “SMITE those bloody Turks. Thrash the sordid little buggers and their Evil Empire into submisssion. Goddam swine have been blocking the import of OUR whisky—no bloody laughing matter, An—insult to the flag—nothing like it since the Picts and Scots—make an example of them—only good Turk’s a dead Turk. Need more men? Goddam nonsense, An, who’s to pay for them? My household budget? Lend you a few drooling eunuchs if you like, bit of fresh air would do them the power of good. MORE HORSES? Doncha know how the bloody animals breed? Well, steal some from the Khitan.” I tell you, I was glad to get back to HQ.

Well, what are we to do? Turks all buggered off to Turkey years ago. Of course we in the service go on reporting about the Turkish Threat, just so He will keep the army up to strength. If he got to know that the Turks are all glasnost and stale piles of horseshit headed west, we’d all be in a fine bloody mess, civvy street, no servants, no duty-free booze, no horses, no huntin’, no rape and pillage for the other ranks, have to live with the memsahib, among all those poofters and bloody politicians and perverts at court. Far worse than fightin’ real Turks. Have to join the board of some hu company selling surplus bows-and-arrows and substandard pikes to any old wogs just to make ends meet.

So we’ve just GOT to have our Turkish war—get some medals, write off a few of our dead soldiers, get some new horses and a bit of extra cash. First of all we’ve got to hire some Turks, or hire some fuzzy-wuzzies we can pass off as Turks—all those damn foreigners look alike. Not too far away, all those baggage carts are a write-off, and we don’t want a mutiny on our hands, and not too tough, must have a few heads to send to HM and a spot of rape and looting for the other ranks. Any ideas to the Adjutant by 0700 Friday—and for God’s sake pass that bloody port.

By the way, send a runner to Geshu Han asking him to stop stealing all HM’s whisky—come to think of it, old Han’s a bloody Turk himself, but we’d better not fight him. Then HM will think Objective Achieved, and we can all settle down to a Quiet Life again.

[Recording interrupted by loud noises, breaking crockery, various grunts, groans, and imprecations]

… ‘nother thing. War House talkin’ of sendin’ us new subalterns with bloody degrees—from the Guozi jian, den of bloody iniquity, all perverts, pederasts, Russian spies—the Big Man and the Cardinal won’t give them jobs in the civil service, say those Red bloody professors have encouraged them to THINK, in between bloody rogering ’em. HM won’t have them around the palace, can’t stand their smart-arsed talk, Humanity and Righteousness and Filial Piety, God what a load of Cock, sort of poems HM likes are that Irish drunk Li Bai’s* limericks—wrote one about me, the slippery little sod, started

There was an old man from Fanyang
Who was screwing a Turk on the kang

Forget the rest, but it ended “He ruptured himself with a twang”, too bloody painful to think about. So what was I saying? Oh yes, about those damn subalterns. They’re sending ’em to us, to knock some sense into ’em—HM’s idea of a bloody good joke. Could’ve bin worse though, threatened to send us a regiment of damn eunuchs—God, it’ll be Women in the army next! Tell the RSM to make it hot for them, unlimited square-bashing, pike drill, fencing, riding, archery, cold baths, polish everything twice a day, no drink, no women, left-right left-right, lights out at 1900 hours, wake ’em up at 0100 for a medical inspection, then at 0400 for the old Assault Course on the Taihang mountains, you know the sort of thing. Make men of them, or better still, kill the little sods.

Don’t know who began this examination lark, uselss load of crap they fill their heads with, better to apprentice them with Madame Minsky if you ask me, Teach ’em What’s What, see how the world works, collect the luncheon vouchers and take the credit cards. Way it is, they write orders it takes me all day to understand. HM says “Smite the buggers”, they write “Take Pains to Extend the Benevolence of His Sacred bloody Majesty over All Lands and Peoples”. What’s a simple chap like us to make of it, eh? Only Benevolence I’m interested in is HM’s Benevolent Fund for Decayed General Officers. Not like in the Old Days…

Steward! There’s a bug in this decanter! [Recording breaks off.]

Denis was always on the case of Tang music and the Central Asian connection. Apparently unpublished (apart from a brief article in Asia Major 1990) is his lengthy, meticulous analysis of the relation between the music monographs of the “old” and “new” versions of the Tang dynastic history, tracing their origins in the Taiyueling biji 太樂令壁記 of Liu Kuang 劉贶.

He further pursued the An Lushan theme in a 1988 letter, with another agent providing background on Xuanzong’s consort the celebrated femme fatale Yang Guifei. After getting himself elected Vice-President, Cardinal Chen Xilie

got Him Indoors going on a real religious kick, gongs and incense, prostrations day and night… Then he agreed to lock up his EX-daughter-in-law in the palace as a nun. So it seems that his holy nun had ambitions to get back into showbiz; rattling the tambourine for the Cardinal in the palace chamber is as bad as being a housewife in Westchester with no company but the Avon lady and the dentist. She’s been hitting the gin bottle and she’s sick of revival meetings, so she needs some Action. So what does she need but an Agent? Solly my friend, you take her on, nice little earner, and I book her at the palace for you.

[They haggle over their percentage: “You might as well be a Sogdian!”, and the informant warns against the “casting kang“]

What’s her shtick? Well, she does a nice little number on the pipa, does that new dance the Arabs are so good at, the Syrian Twirl—and there’s this new music from Tashkent (Shiyue 石樂)… [which Denis notes is not twinned with Little Rock, Arkansas; “there is some evidence that it is still performed. The etymology also suggests why rock musicians are constantly stoned.”]

If only scholarship were always such fun… As Denis wrote, “Shame Asia major doesn’t take this sort of stuff”…

See also this roundup of posts under the Tang tag. For further vignettes from Cambridge mentors, see the priceless stories of Paul Kratochvil (e.g. here, and here; more under Czech tag), and tea with Sir Harold Bailey.

* One of Denis’s recurring themes was his proposition that Li Bai was actually an Irishman called Patrick O’Leary. For Irish and Chinese music, see here; and for the limericks of Alan Watts, here.

6 thoughts on “Denis Twitchett: more Tang drôlerie

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