Ren Erbei in later life. All images here from this article.
In the course of decluttering my groaning bookshelves, I find I’m not ready to part with my little collection of the ouevre of the great
- Ren Erbei 任二北, also known as Ren Bantang 任半塘 (1897–1991), 
who over his long career shone a light on sources for song, dance, and drama in the Tang dynasty (618–907) through the prism of the literature of the day (for a roundup of my posts on the Tang, click here).
At Cambridge I was introduced to his early writings by Laurence Picken and Denis Twitchett. Laurence was keen to explore such sources, but it was mainly Denis who led me deeper into the complex process of compilation of the musical material in the official Old Tang history (Jiu Tang shu 舊唐書)—notably the now-lost Taiyueling biji 太樂令壁記 [Wall inscription for the Director of the Imperial Music Office] by Liu Kuang 劉眖, a work from the early part of Xuanzong’s reign, before the An Lushan rebellion (755–63).
Denis opened “A note on the ‘Monograph on music’ in Chiu T’ang shu” (1992) with a classic sentence [I’ve converted his original Wade-Giles to pinyin]:
Almost forty years ago, when I was beginning work on my PhD dissertation, I spent many enjoyable evenings reading through the “Monograph on Finance” of the Jiu Tang shu with Piet van der Loon, attempting to relate its text with other Tang period sources, and to see what is possible to deduce about the way Jiu Tang shu was put together over a period of more than two centuries.
YAY, party time indeed! After moving to Princeton in 1980, Denis gave me occasional updates on his work by postcard:
Meanwhile, scholars were studying an extant work from the heyday of Xuanzong’s court, the Jiaofang ji 教坊記 by Cui Lingqin 崔令钦, edited by Ren Bantang in Jiaofang ji jianding 敎坊記箋訂 (1962). Such sources made important material for Laurence’s recreations of Tang court music.
I now look on all this impressive research with a mixture of deep admiration, nostalgia, and relief that I went on to find a very different kind of party. By the early 1980s I realised how the study of Tang music had long been a hot topic in mainland China, and was now reviving vigorously there.  So it was Tang music that made the stimulus for my first visit to China in 1986 to study at Peking University under the great Yin Falu; but as I discovered the riches of living folk ritual culture on regular forays to the countryside, I was already in the process of defecting from the silent sources of early history. Though I picked up my own copies of Ren Erbei’s books in Beijing, I soon became a Tang manqué. Still, I continued visiting Laurence to update him on my fieldwork, and Denis kept in touch so we could meet up on his occasional return visits to Blighty.
* * *
Ren Erbei was prolific; most of his later publications were based on research he began before Liberation and pursued under Maoism. Two major books (albeit far from easy reading even for the heavy-duty sinologist):
- On Tang drama: Ren Bantang, Tang xi nong 唐戏弄 (2 vols, 1958/1982)
- On Tang sung poems: Ren Bantang, Tang sheng shi 唐聲詩 (2 vols, 1982; see e.g. here and here).
After the end of the Cultural Revolution he finally published his book on Chinese jesters,
- Ren Erbei, Youyu ji 优语集 (1981, in draft since 1963)
(cf. Beatrice K. Otto, Fools are everywhere: the court jester around the world, 2001).
He also edited an important collection of lyrics from Dunhuang:
- Ren Bantang, Dunhuang geci zongbian 敦煌歌詞總編 (1987).
His essays are collected in
- Ren Bantang wenji 任半塘文集 (2006).
Yet another interrupted career
Whereas before I began spending time in China I had regarded such scholarship as belonging safely in libraries, once I began visiting senior intellectuals I couldn’t help becoming engaged with their life stories and tribulations under the decades of Maoism (see e.g. Craig Clunas on Wang Shixiang, in my post on his wife Yuan Quanyou; cf. Yang Yinliu, and Li Shiyu).
Brought up in Yangzhou, Ren Erbei gained admission to Peking University at the age of 18, embarking on the study of early ci and qu lyrics. After graduating he took up posts in his home province of Jiangsu.
Teachers at Yangzhou 5th Secondary School, 1921; Ren Erbei back row, centre.
Following the 1949 “Liberation”, he became professor at Sichuan University in 1951. While constantly beset by political problems, particularly after being branded a “rightist” and “historical counter-revolutionary” in 1957, he still managed to persist in his research despite spending extended periods in detention.
Rehabilitated following the downfall of the Gang of Four, after all his ordeals in Chengdu he was helped to return to his native Yangzhou, taking up a position at the Normal University there in his eighties.
Ren Erbei with his wife after their return to Yangzhou, 1984.
He now trained a bright young disciple, Wang Xiaodun 王小盾 (Wang Kunwu 王昆吾, b.1951) (see his tribute, and here), who went on to publish works such as Tangdai jiuling yishu 唐代酒令艺术 (1995) and Sui Tang Wudai yanyue zayan geci yanjiu 隋唐五代宴乐杂言歌辞研究 (1996, following the 1990 Sui Tang Wudai yanyue zayan geci ji 集, co-edited with Ren Erbei). 
Ren Erbei’s tribulations under Maoism were no less distressing for being so common, making his scholarship all the more impressive.
 Both were hao (“style”) names that he himself chose. His original name was Ren Na 仁吶, while his zi name (given upon maturity) was Ren Zhongmin 任中敏; both the na and min characters (the former of which I learned as nuo) alluded to Confucius’s dictum “The superior man wishes to be slow [na] in his speech and earnest [min] in his conduct”. The main Chinese baike article on Ren (written with impressive candour, with an extensive bibliography) appears under Ren Zhongmin. For further aspects of Chinese naming customs, click here.
 How unfortunate that Western and Chinese scholars had been unable to engage in “international cultural exchange” through the Maoist decades, and that Western sinologists had such limited access to Chinese research—rather as Robert van Gulik was largely unable to partake of the 1950s’ renaissance of the qin zither in the PRC(see my tribute to him, under “Interlude: fate and nostalgia”).
 While I’m here, I may list a couple of basic sources on Tang expressive culture:
- Quan Tang shi zhongde yuewu ziliao 全唐诗中的乐舞资料 [Material on music and dance in the Complete Tang Poems] (ed. Zhongguo wudao yishu yanjiuhui 中国舞蹈艺术研究会, 1958)
- Tangdai yinyue wudao zaji shi xuanshi 唐代音乐舞蹈杂技诗选释 [Annotated selection of poems on music, dance, and acrobatics in the Tang dynasty] (ed. Pu Zhenggu 傅正谷, 1991).