Hot on the heels of hosting UK visits by Buddhist groups from Wutaishan (1992) and Tianjin (1993), in March 1994 I was delighted to invite the great Zhou Zufu to lead a group of Daoists from the Xuanmiao guan temple in Suzhou to perform on a tour of south England.
At the advanced age of 80, Zhou Zufu was wonderful. Adopted into a hereditary Daoist tradition, he had taken part in the numinous 1956 Offering project, and performed in Venice as early as 1984 as part of a mixed group showcasing various genres from Suzhou, invited by Raffella Gallio (see here, under “Lives”).
Having met them at a festival in Beijing in 1993, I worked on a project with the Asian Music Circuit, assisted by Rowan Pease (later my partner-in-crime in our Chinese Bach recording!). We liaised with the Suzhou Daoist Association, who chose a fine group to come to England. They were already experienced in presenting “Suzhou Daoist music” on the concert platform.
Nishang yayun cassette (n.d., late 1980s)
And do enjoy the fine collection of Chinese music clichés in the sleeve notes, with “takes the shape of the exotic flower of the unique of national culture” taking first prize:
At least no-one suggested we call them the Suzhou Taoist Music Philosophy Philharmonic Orchestra (cf. the Sistine Chapel Choral Society).
Besides Zhou Zufu (b.1915), the Daoists that we met at Heathrow included the distinguished Mao Liangshan (b.1927), Xue Jianfeng (b.1925), and Jiang Jierong (b.1926); as well as the (then-) junior Daoists Lu Jianzhong (b.1966), Xie Jianming (b.1971), and Han Xiaodong (b.1972), who were also already becoming fine liturgists—I introduced them in my post on Suzhou Daoism. They performed at tasteful venues in Oxford, Taunton, Hastings, London, Kingsbridge, and Farnham. Alongside my duties as roadie and stage manager I spent some educative time with them.
One free evening in London I took the younger Daoists to a session in an Irish pub, which after all has features in common with their own “silk and-bamboo” style (see several posts under the “Carson” tag), though they were somewhat nonplussed—another hint that music may not be such a universal language.
I was working within the flawed modern Chinese tradition of “religious music”, so while these Daoists regularly perform complex liturgical rituals, I wasn’t so ambitious (or naïve) as to suggest they perform a jiao Offering—which, after all, would take a whole day. Indeed, it might be hard to promote a tour of Daoist ritual, whereas “Daoist music” has a certain cachet.
So the touring programme chosen from their rituals was based on the instrumental ensemble repertoire—which indeed was now being showcased within China by the temple itself. Apart from suites from both Shifan gu and Shifan luogu styles, with their sequences of melodies punctuated by drum interludes, we included some shawm-and-percussion items, and a couple of items of vocal liturgy. For me, having studied the work of the great Yang Yinliu on the Shifan suites in nearby Wuxi, along with early recordings, it was a delight to hear this music live. So even this made a remarkable feast for English audiences, otherwise mainly exposed to the romantic modern solos of the conservatoires.
Zhou Zufu on tiqin and banhu.
As instrumentalists, Daoists are versatile. Apart from leading the group on drum, Zhou Zufu also played tiqin and banhu fiddles; Mao Liangshan also led a suite on drum, as well as playing sanxian plucked lute and shawm.
Mao Liangshan on drum and sanxian. We may consider the fire extinguisher as a subtle allusion to the huojiao 火醮 Offering ritual for protection against fire.
Jiang Jierong and Mao Liangshan on shawms.
So “Suzhou Daoist music” may have become A Thing, but it’s not The Thing.
On tours since 2005 in the USA and throughout Europe with the Li family Daoists from Shanxi, I’ve made a certain progress in presenting “ritual music” on stage—especially when we can preface the concert with a screening of my film. But of course such events are always a compromise: nothing can supplant the experience of attending Daoist ritual in situ.
Opening of Lingbao xianweng jilian fake ritual manual,
which Zhou Zufu brought to England.