A secret language in north Shanxi


Blind shawm players Liuru (left) and Yinsan, Yanggao town 2003.

The use of Verlan backslang in Engrenages/Spiral reminded me of a fascinating secret oral language in north Shanxi. I’ve mentioned it en passant in my writings, but since I can’t seriously expect readers to follow up such links, it deserves a post to itself.

Known as “black talk” (heihua), it belongs to the wider family of insiders’ languages used by marginal social groups and tradespeople. [1] In north Shanxi it was spoken mainly by the members of outcast shawm bands (here called gujiang 鼓匠 rather than the common chuigushou), illiterate and often blind—mainly, but not entirely, for secrecy. Here I cite the section in

  • Wu Fan 吴凡, Yinyang, gujiang 阴阳鼓匠 (2007),
    Yuebande heihua” 乐班的黑话, pp.119–25.

During her fieldwork in Yanggao county Wu Fan—a native of Wuhan in Hubei—latched onto this arcane vocabulary with amazing alacrity (for her own skills in punning with Daoists, see here). Meanwhile, local scholar Chen Kexiu (to whom we may credit the “discovery” of the Yanggao Daoists and shawm bands), brought up in Yanggao, published an article incorporating the wider region of north Shanxi:

  • Chen Kexiu 陈克秀, “Yanbei guchuiyue yirende heihua” 雁北鼓吹乐艺人的黑话, Zhongguo yinyuexue 2007.4.

The terms for numbers (used mainly to discuss money and fees: Table 2–5 below) were still common until recently. They describe verbally the components of a character, just as Chinese people do routinely when explaining in conversation which character to use, like koutian wu 口天吴 for the surname Wu 吴, or wenwu bin 文武斌 for the given name Bin 斌.


Above: numbers; below: instruments.

To explain a few instances:

  •  1:  yi 一 becomes dinggai 丁盖, “the cover of the character ding 丁”
  •  2:  er 二 becomes konggong 空工, “the character gong 工 emptied”
  •  3: san 三 becomes chuan 川, rotating the character 90 degrees
  •  7:  qi 七 becomes zaodi 皂底, “the base of the character zao 皂”
  •  8:  ba 八 becomes fengai 分盖 “the cover of the character fen 分”
  • 10: shi 十 becomes tianxin 田心, “the heart of the character tian 田”.

What is remarkable here is that this style is used by illiterate, often blind, shawm players. The theory is that blind men, unable to see who might be listening to their conversation, needed a language where they needn’t fear saying something indiscreet, such as offending their patrons. Yet it’s a highly visual language; I wondered how it came into being. After all, even illiterate blindmen could be told how some characters were written; but you don’t have to know the etymology of words in order to use them!

One might suppose that these terms would be more widespread, but I haven’t found other instances yet. At the same time, another vocabulary for numbers (in various written forms) was in common use here—as around Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
刘 (流) 王 (汪) 挠 (神) 斜 (心) 内 (爱)

Throughout China, folk musicians commonly use local terms for their instruments (Table 2–6 above); such names are still used in Yanggao and elsewhere (cf. other areas such as Shaanbei). The derivation of the insiders’ terms for repertoire (Table 2–7 below) is obscure; again, the stimulus was perhaps secrecy—to avoid their choices being understood by their patrons. But these terms seem to have become largely obsolete, along with the repertoire itself (for the searing complexity of which, see here).

heihua 2

Above: titles of shawm suites; below: terms in daily life.

Expressions for daily life (Table 2–8 above) include huoyin 火因 for yan 烟 “smoke” (again splitting up left and right elements of the character); tiaoma 条码 “hottie”; dianyou 点油 (“lighting oil”) for hejiu 喝酒 “drinking liquor”; and kou 口 (prounounced kio) for chi 吃 “eat”. Some of these are dialectal, heard in more general parlance. Chen Kexiu gives an extensive list—and his examples of conversations are daunting:


As you can see there, even the local term gujiang for the members of shawm bands becomes pijia 皮家 (“skins”) in their own parlance.

Thickening the plot, Chen Kexiu goes on to introduce a separate style of black talk used by shawm bands, one that incorporates the ancient fanqie 反切 phonetic system into speech (qiekou 切口) (cf. the blind bards of Zuoquan county). For instance, while the term xunmenshi (or xingmenshi 行门事, yingmenshi 应门事, with shi pronounced si!) is standard local parlance for performing a ritual, one shawm player might ask another (cf. the simpler but no more intelligible 去哪儿贬皮呀? above):

呆劳乃拉许论没人是哩? (到哪儿寻门事?)—“Where are you going to do the ritual?”

Unlike the specialized secret vocabulary that we noted above, once you grasp the principle you can apply it to any words—and it doesn’t require literacy. But the shawm bands among whom Chen Kexiu collected this qiekou style of speech don’t seem to use the specialized vocabulary like the numerical terms; he attributes the qiekou style in particular to the lowly hereditary families of ritual specialists known as “music households” (yuehu), who were descended from banished imperial officials. While there is plenty of evidence for the yuehu further south in Shanxi [1] and elsewhere, I’ve never been very convinced by the piecemeal clues to their presence in north Shanxi. All this is tenuous, but perhaps the supposed yuehu connection for this particular style might just go towards explaining the literate, visual basis of the numerical terms, which otherwise seems so mysterious.

* * *

Much of this vocabulary of the shawm bands was adopted by folk opera groups, also lowly in status; and through constant interaction at rituals household Daoists like the Li family, while somewhat more esteemed, used it to some extent. Of course, all these expressions are pronounced in Yanggao dialect, itself none too easy for the outsider to understand; heihua (“black talk”) itself is pronounced hehua!

The language was still commonly used in the 1990s, but senior blind shawm players were giving way to younger players who no longer suffered such social stigma, and their traditional repertoire was largely replaced by pop. Still, it reminds us what a daunting task it can be for fieldworkers to enter into the aesthetic world of folk performers.

Let’s recite the numbers 1 to 10—altogether now:


For some erudite literary wordplay from household Daoists in Yanggao, see here.


A worthy competitor with the various classy Scandi noirs that enrich Saturday nights on BBC4 is the French Spiral, whose seventh series has just started. If you’re new to it, it’s worth starting from the beginning—in which case, let’s talk again sometime next year.

The French title Engrenages doesn’t translate easily, referring to interlocking gears—by extension, an inescapable series of events, almost a vicious circle: “Enmeshed”, perhaps?

As with the Scandi noir series, the Grauniad recaps—and their BTL comments—are most enlightening. This led me to Alison Crutchley’s article on the language of the series, “Pute de merde de con! The linguistics of Spiral slang“—again to be read with important BTL comments. As you may imagine from A French letter (a drôle resumé of my Li Manshan film), my schoolboy French is utterly unable to keep up with such dialogue as it flies past; but the article makes fascinating reading.

Thus I learn of loan words like bagnole (from Occitan), “car” (also caisse); and clebs, “mutt”, from Arabic. And

Spiral’s cool kids use Verlan, a type of back slang. Karen calls her girl friends les meufs, Verlan for femmes; Zach texts keufs to his accomplice, to warn him of les flics (“police”).

What’s more, keuf (from keufli) has been re-verlaned, with further resonance, to feuk! And occurring along with the Chinese underworld theme of series 7 is noich (or noichi), for chinois.


Further topics (also continued in the BTL) include the minefield of using tu and vous (cf. Italian, and this splendid Chinese story); gender; and the subtleties of swearing (cf. French taunting), with arcane variants and combinations of putemerde, and con. It’s amusant to learn that the French for fisting is le fist-fucking, although le fisting apparently serves too—either way, let’s consider it another English export in which we can take patriotic pride.

But just when we thought we were world leaders at punning, it turns out that French is exceptionally rich in puns too. Is rien sacré?

Surely this is the way to inspire kids to learn foreign languages. Surely Quelle bande de branleurs! (“What a bunch of wankers!”) is more attractive and practical than La plume de ma tante. I did indeed relish languages at school, but for some reason the ones that I (like the board of the LA Phil) favoured were all dead (cf. Revolution and laowai). So now I regret that it took me so long to realize that languages could be not so much an elegant yet gratuitous abstraction, or a sadistic ordeal of irregular verbs, but rather, a pathway to understanding fascinating cultures and communicating with real living people (“Like, hello?”).

Conversely, in this case I’m relieved that I can enjoy the script’s linguistic niceties from the comfort of my sofa without having to negotiate them in the gritty milieu that the drama depicts—as has been aptly observed, it’s hardly a promo from the Paris Tourist Board. Spiral really puts the noir into noir.

And now we can relish Series 8 on BBC4!!!

Meanwhile in Glasgow, Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting is helpfully provided with a glossary… For English word games, see here; for the evolving Chinese language, here. See also Kaliarda, Lubunca, Polari.


[1] Note Qu Yanbin 曲彦斌, Zhongguo miyu hanghua cidian 中国秘语行话词典 (1994). 

[2] For links to the major studies of Xiang Yang and Qiao Jian on the yuehu in the Shangdang region, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.86–7.

8 thoughts on “A secret language in north Shanxi

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