My book Daoist priests of the Li family, and the film that complements it, mainly document the maintenance of their ritual tradition in the countryside of Yanggao county (for a roundup of posts on the Li family Daoists, click here). But Chapter 18 of the book makes an interlude discussing their recent wider exposure, “marching towards the world”.
Taking the Li family Daoists on tour between 2005 and 2018 was both delightful and instructive. Our first forays to perform abroad were to Amsterdam in 2005 and the USA in 2009. After I began visiting the Li family Daoists again in Yanggao in 2011, the following year we visited Italy in the first of three tours sponsored by local Confucius Institutes (CI) (see also here, and here).
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In 2013, after a year of constant emailing with the various German CIs, we’re on the road again at last.
This time on gongs we have Guicheng instead of Third Tiger, who is busy organising a campaign in his work-unit. I meet up with the band at Hamburg airport on 5th April. At our hotel the Daoists get back in practice with the coffee machine, and we catch up. Next afternoon we walk over to the CI, impressive with its elegant new repro Yuyuan pavilion teahouse modelled on the one in Shanghai. They rehearse and discuss the new item I have suggested, an a cappella sequence based on the Invitation ritual at the edge of the village. At first they were reluctant, worried that performing an item so explicitly funerary might be unsuitable. I point out that some of the greatest music in the Western concert tradition is for the dead. Apart from requiems, I go onto YouTube to play them the Buxtehude Klaglied (do you know that piece? It’s amazing!). The Invitation turns out a great success in the program, a moving tranquil interlude between the uproar of “catching the tiger” and the wild percussion of Yellow Dragon.
Next morning we just make our connection to Geneva, first of several fraught changes at the labyrinthine Frankfurt airport. On the plane, without any encouragement from me, the Daoists soon realise the beer is free—touring musos after my heart. Wu Mei listens to Chinese pop on his headphones. At Geneva we are received splendidly by the CI and Xavier Bouvier, enthusiastic head of the Geneva Conservatoire. Apart from the concert I give a lecture and show my film. As in Italy, I am happy to introduce the Daoists to old friends. Before rehearsing in the fine conservatoire hall we take some fun photos, with Li Manshan seated at the grand piano.
At Leipzig airport we are met by Thomas Rötting, indefatigable CI fixer all these months. Leipzig is wonderful. Our hotel is right opposite the Nikolaikirche—not only Bach’s church but the starting point of the 1989 Montag protests, only a few months after the Tiananmen demos. If the date means anything to the Daoists, they would recall how they were learning to do rituals with Li Qing. Apart from the GDR legacy (see under Life behind the Iron Curtain), I feel as if I am taking the Daoists to a holy site (cf. Bach—and Daoist ritual). I have played Bach here myself, even before the fall of the Wall, and have been banging on about him to the Daoists for years. On our visit to the fine new Bach museum they are as spellbound as I am, finally getting what I have been on about all this time. As I stand with Li Manshan at the urinals in the posh new loo there, he muses, “Wow, so this is where old Bach used to take a piss, eh!”.
Next day in our lecture-workshop at the CI I observe, “Now that the Li family know about Bach and have heard his music, I wish I could invite him to hear them!” Bach would have adored Wu Mei’s guanzi playing (cf. Bach and the oboe).
The gig is magnificent. The audience goes wild, their faces rapt; I love the feeling of turning on audiences to this music that has enchanted me for so many years. By now all the CIs are latching onto how very special this tour is.
Heidelberg concert, April 2013.
Happily, our last two concerts are in churches, the two sheng mouth-organs filling the building with a majestic sound just like Bach on a huge organ with all the stops out; indeed, it is the same instrument. Heidelberg is charming, if overrun with tourists (again mostly Chinese), whereas Erlangen, our final stop, is more tranquil. There, leaving Li Manshan to rest at the hotel, we are given a guided tour of the local brewery, where the Daoists imbibe the beer tastings keenly—so we can organise a piss-up in a brewery, then. The final concert is majestic. Meanwhile I’ve had plenty of opportunity to keep consulting Li Manshan and Golden Noble about the finer details of funeral segments, both on the road and while resting at hotels.
By now most of the Daoists are miraculously speaking standard Chinese—more, I hope, from talking with educated urban Chinese helpers and other laowai than from being with me. Next day we take the train from Nürnberg to Frankfurt airport. The Daoists get tax refunds on their gifts, which they promptly spend on duty-free. We bid fond farewells, their plane arrives on time for the train back to Yanggao, and next morning they’re ready to Open Scriptures for yet another funeral—hitting the ground running, just as on later tours (cf. Li Bin’s 2017 diary). For all the ephemeral pleasures of touring, the basic context for their performance, their daily “food-bowl”, remains the local funerary business.
For our 2017 mini-tour of France, click here, leading to a series of related posts.
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