Shanxi, 1991: a message from beyond

Hua session 1

Second recording session with the Hua family shawm band, March 1991:
the afternoon entertainment repertoire (Walking shrill CD, §4).
Hua Yinshan on shawm, Hua Jinshan on yangqin;
sheng player on left is blindman Duan Guanming.

In early March 1991 I took the train from Beijing to Datong, accompanied by local scholar Chen Kexiu, for the first of many fieldtrips to Yanggao county, whose unprepossessing exterior cunningly concealed a wealth of ritual life.

Visiting the great household Daoist Li Qing at his home in Upper Liangyuan, we made a date for a grand funeral the following day at Greater Antan village, where he would be presiding over the Pardon ritual with his Daoist band (my film, from 48.35, cf. my book pp.246–50).

pardon-in-colour-version-2

The other main object of my studies in Yanggao was to be the Hua family shawm band, whom we first met one afternoon at their home in Yangjiabu village north of the county-town. We were already impressed by the solicitude of kindly Yanggao cultural cadre Li Jin, whom I have extolled here. He was working at the office in town that day. By the time I began to record the shawm band, most of the villagers were crammed into Hua Yinshan’s courtyard. As I sat there blown away (“literally”, as one says nowadays) by the band’s Ming-dynasty bebop (e.g. sidebar playlist §5, commentary here), Li Jin rode up on his bicycle bearing an urgent message for me.

David Adams, fixer for the English Baroque Soloists, was renowned for his persistence, and somehow he had managed to track me down to Yanggao, seeking to book me for some EBS dates. David had phoned my partner in London, with whom I had left the phone number of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, so he called them; I have no idea how they managed to communicate, but he got hold of the number for the Yanggao Bureau of Culture. No-one in Yanggao spoke any English, but again Li Jin surmised that the phone-call must be from England, and it must be for me (cf. Comrade Paul); and he gamely, if approximately, transcribed David’s name with its unfamiliar letters—Russian was the preferred foreign language when he was studying at school in the 1950s, and pinyin was still little known.

In light snow, Li Jin then promptly set off to Yangjiabu on his bicycle (a contraption that had only become common in Yanggao in the 1980s); somewhat bedraggled, he handed over this important message to me, whatever it meant, before the bemused villagers. Alas, I can’t now find Li Jin’s pencilled note, but the message read something like DEWUEDADAAMS. I was impressed.

Immersed as I was in Daoist ritual sequences and shawm suites, early-music touring already seemed rather remote to me, but it was a pleasant reminder of my other life. In those days, still before email, it was hard enough to make a phone-call from Yanggao to Beijing; it was clearly out of the question to try one of the few landlines in the village, and hey, I was busy… Even when we returned to the dingy county-town, making an international call looked most unlikely. I don’t recall how I eventually got through to David—I guess only on my return to Beijing the following week, in between attending folk Buddhist funerals there. Anyway, I must have hastily pencilled in dates for my diary, perhaps even our Barcelona trip for the Mozart anniversary the coming November?! (Contrast “Can you come and do a Messiah next Monday night in Scunthorpe? There’s no fee, but there’ll be a jolly good tea.”)

Palau Mozart

Like my early run-ins with the local constabulary, this story soon became a popular source of mirth among my friends in both China and London. Though my forays to the Chinese countryside were far from the utter isolation of early fieldworkers in remote climes like New Guinea or Easter Island, on my early fieldtrips I cheerfully gave up any notion of keeping in touch with home (cf. Laowai, on my 1999 Long March with Guo Yuhua in Shaanbei). Those were the days.

For more in this linguistic ball-park, see It’s the only language they understand, and Interpreting pinyin

* * *

Keen as I was to learn more about ritual life in Yanggao, I made it one of our destinations on a tour of Shanxi the following year with Xue Yibing. For the rest of the 1990s I was busy with a major project on the ritual associations of Hebei (see outline of the progression of my work in the second half of this post); but those early trips to Yanggao made an important basis for my more in-depth studies there from 2001 (for the Hua band) and 2011 (for the Li family Daoists).

IMG_1411 - Version 2

The Li family Daoist band tending their motor-bikes and mobiles
between funerary ritual segments, Houguantun 2011.

By around 2004 the ritual “food-bowl” of Daoists and shawm bands began revolving around motor-bikes and mobile phones, which allowed them to “respond for household rituals” far more promptly than their forebears over the previous centuries. By 2013, whereas my own phone had already stopped ringing, on our European tours with the Li family Daoists (see e.g. France 2018Li Manshan and his son Li Bin were busy fielding calls on their mobiles from Yanggao villagers asking them to determine the date for burials and arrange their funeral rituals—a rather similar circumstance to mine in 1991, albeit more convenient.

One thought on “Shanxi, 1991: a message from beyond

  1. Pingback: Daoist ritual: the Pardon | Stephen Jones: a blog – Dinesh Chandra China Story

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