Rock it, Mom

Rock it mom 2

In an entirely futile effort to keep my finger on the pulse of Chinese popular culture, I’ve been watching the current TV hit series Rock it, mom (Yaogun kuanghua 摇滚狂花, directed by Li Jun 李骏 and Jing Lipeng 荆丽鹏). It’s well contextualised in a China Project article (cf. this review).

Rock It, Mom tells the story of Peng Lai [played by Yao Chen 姚晨], an over-the-hill, middle-aged rock singer. A run of disappointing relationships caused her to move to the US, where her music career never took off, leading her to return to China. As she tries to put her troubled life back together in her home country, she reconnects with her long-lost teenage daughter Baitian [Zhuang Dafei 庄达菲], whose passion for rock music inspires her to restart her career.

Rock it mom 4

The mother-daughter dynamic, competing in their destructiveness, makes a refreshing study in alienation. Once again I am reminded of Long March veteran Wang Zhen’s classic riposte to Cui Jian’s Nothing to my name:

What do you mean, you’ve got nothing to your name? You’ve got the Communist Party haven’t you?

You can watch all twelve episodes as a YouTube playlist, currently without English subtitles:

To help keep roughly on track, the first two episodes with woefully impressionistic subtitles are here:
https://www.iq.com/play/rock-it-mom-episode-1-l6o2m3oxv8?lang=en_us
https://www.iq.com/play/rock-it-mom-episode-2-m2ta0571zk?lang=en_us

It does make me miss Beijing—skyscrapers, underpasses and all (cf. Beijing yogurt).

Rock it mom 3

See also Platform, New musics in Beijing, and Liu Sola, voice of alternative China.

More muzak: ice-cream vans and garbage trucks

Ice cream van

Further to my post on Muzak, at a certain remove from traditional scholarship on the Great Composers or Daoist ritual, a couple of examples of how ethnomusicology “delights in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”, in the immortal words of John Cleese.

Back in the heady days of the SOAS shawm band, my mate Simon (not to be confused with Philomena Cunk’s mate Paul, bane of many a hapless expert interviewee) took time out from his research on percussion in Korean shaman rituals to undertake a fieldwork project about the music of British ice-cream vans. Like Liu Kuang’s Wall inscription for the Director of the Imperial Music Office in the Tang dynasty, the loss of this work is to be lamented, but Simon recalls driving around in his parents’ Morris Minor with the window down in the peak of summer, listening out for ice-cream chimes:

After picking up the tell-tale sounds, I’d pursue the van until it stopped (if it wasn’t already stationary), park nearby, buy an ice-cream, and hover around until the queue had disappeared. Then I’d approach, briefly summarise my project, and conduct my semi-structured interview—designed to elicit all the van owner’s experiences and thoughts regarding chimes. Only a small minority of owners declined. Most were eager to talk. I remember a couple of responses especially clearly: a huge Italian man threw up his arms and said “Of course I like the music. If you don’t like-a da music you don’t like-a da ice-cream”; another guy said something along the lines of “Honestly, it’s a nightmare. I get home and the tune is still going round and round in my head—sometimes I can’t sleep”. Someone else had removed the usual tinkly ice-cream chime and had rigged up a huge stereo system blaring out jungle music. Nowadays, it seems that the chimes are UK-made [see below], but back then, I remember people telling me that they typically bought Swiss-made music boxes. One man did things rather differently, having a special box made for his fleet of vans that played a Welsh hymn in a computer game beeping kind of style (he was servicing a patriotic rural area in the valleys). The van owners made some interesting comments about territory too—how they would listen out for others’ chimes as they drove around, making sure not to get too close.

A Guardian article by Laura Barton from 2013 reminds us of the distinctive sounds of the British summer, like the low, sweet call of the wood-pigeon and the distant sound of leather on willow. Some history:

The earliest chimes were operated like a music box and fitted with a magnetic pickup and amplifier. It wasn’t until 1958 that transistors transformed the van chime, along with amplifiers that could be fitted to the vehicle’s battery. Traditional British ice-cream vans have tended to use Grampian Horn loudspeakers, angled downwards, towards the road, to diffuse the sound, and though the technology has improved sound quality, the distinctive tinniness of the ice-cream van’s call is largely regarded with affection.

This sounds like a candidate for the nostalgia of Memory Lane UK. Now, indeed,

in a move that has brought jubilation to the ice-cream industry, chimes can play for up to twelve seconds rather than four; and once every two minutes, instead of three. Vans may also now chime while stationary.

YAY! Although this ruling is not actually to be blamed on the bureaucrats of Brussels, it’s just the kind of victory in which the Minister for the 18th century would exult—apparently evidence of the staggering success of Brexit (Yeah Right), liberation from the yoke of Brussels red tape, along with the right to feast on bendy bananas.

As to repertoire, a representative of MicroMiniatures, leading company for the manufacture of the chimes, explained that among the most popular tunes are O sole mio, Greensleeves, and Match of the day, as well as Jerusalem, The stripper (um…), Nessun dorma, Cherry ripe, and Waltzing Matilda (the BTL comments to this 22-minute (!) YouTube compilation open with a list; for further detail, click here).

John Bonar of Piccadilly Whip [Ah, the coy innuendo of British punning!] commented, “We’ve just always used the Pied Piper since the start, so all the vans we order come with that tune. You get pretty sick of it. But whatever tune you’d have you’d get pretty tired of it.”

If you find 22 minutes a tad excessive, there’s quite an array of more succinct medleys on YouTube, such as this:

The sonority makes me wonder if Indonesian ice-cream vans borrow from the gamelan…

* * *

For Taiwan, in a refreshing change from studies of ancient nanguan ballads, another recent Guardian article explores the island’s musical garbage trucks. Recycling (sic) research dating back many years, a recent article by Chinese-music scholar

addresses the topic in detail.

Garbage in Taiwan is at the centre of a musical assemblage that resonates beyond the confines of the nightly waste collection soundscape. Garbage trucks in Taiwan are musical: Beethoven’s Für Elise or Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska’s Maiden’s Prayer announce the garbage truck brigade’s arrival at designated times and places throughout urban Taipei. Neighbours stream into the street for a turn at depositing their pre-sorted waste into the proper receptacles. Taiwan’s semi-tropical climate, combined with a densely situated human population and the presence of well established rat and cockroach populations, makes garbage management a matter of daily urgency.

Guy traced Taiwan’s pop music “from the early 1980s through to the present as evidence of ways in which everyday habits and practices of reckoning with waste have seeped into a wide range of sensibilities”.

Despite efforts to diversify the repertoire, it has remained far more limited than that of British ice-cream vans. A maiden’s prayer was preloaded onto trucks bought from Japan in the 1960s, and has remained strangely tenacious. The other dominant tune is Beethoven’s Für Elise, apparently preloaded onto trucks bought from Germany.  Now embedded in the Taiwanese psyche, the sound of the garbage trucks has been incorporated into modern Taiwanese culture:

And I would heartily concur with

“Whenever I hear Für Elise, I feel like I need to take out the garbage as well.”

To my ears the stark monophony of this limited repertoire sounds more alien, even sinister, than our jovial ice-cream-van jingles—but I quite recognise that they serve different contexts, so maybe I’m just orientalising… And while these instances may be considered muzak in the broad sense of manipulating behaviour, they serve to alert the community—closer to the use of muzak in 1950s’ factories than to the subliminal aural conditioning that anaesthetises us in elevators or shopping malls.

Cf. Thinking outside the (music) box, What is serious music?!, The art of the miniature, and even The call to prayer.

Roundup for 2022!

Like a suburban Sisyphus doing and undoing a jigsaw, having gone to great lengths to mix up the daily sequence of my diverse topics in a stimulating fashion, it’s that time of year when I try and reassemble them into some kind of thematic order (cf. 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021). In September I essayed a handy roundup of roundups, covering some of this ground; and in November I listed Some recent *MUST READ* posts. As ever, in the sidebar you can consult the tags and categories, and even the monthly archive (scrolling waaay down); the homepage still provides useful orientation.

Disturbingly, the items featured below are just a selection, but do click away on all the links…

Perhaps I can begin with a story that combines several of my interests:

While I can’t quite claim to have won the World Cup for Argentina,

and I’m exceptionally fond of

  • Ogonek and Til, for fans of tennis, fado, and Noh drama—wacky diacritics and nasal vowels, with matching anagram and limericks.

Meanwhile I seem to have recovered from being a Ticking Time-bomb:

* * *

China:

And it’s always worth reminding you of my film on the Li family Daoists, and this roundup of posts on them, as well as my work on Gaoluo village.

Tibet (updated roundup), including

I also update my collected posts on Uyghur culture, including

Turkey features prominently in my Roundup of posts on west-central Asia, as I try to educate myself (and even this is only a selection):

leading on to

and William Dalrymple:

Some posts on Ukraine (Applebaum, Snyder, Sands), also linking to

As to other world music,

An Irish music medley, including recent entries:

North Indian music (collected posts):

Jazz (roundup of another extensive series) (Turkish jazz listed above):

And then:

Western Art Music: among this year’s posts on Bach (updated roundup) are

Mahler: my whole series is now listed here, with recent additions

Also

Society, religion, ritual:

A mélange of other topics:

New entries in A Sporting medley include

Drôlerie:

Well, that’ll keep you busy—as a reward, in future perhaps I’ll try posting every three days, rather than every other day, and I might even reblog earlier posts a tad less avidly—not wishing to try your patience (“You must come over and try mine sometime”—Groucho).

CHIME: Chinese music studies in a changing China

The prime of CHIME, the European Foundation for Chinese Music Research, coincided with a heyday for Chinese music studies, encompassing a range of historical topics, regional traditions of ritual, opera, narrative-singing, folk-song, and instrumental music, as well as pop and avant-garde music. The CHIME journal is full of valuable information—articles, field reports, and reviews of books, CDs, films, and concerts—for the PRC, Taiwan, and the diaspora.

CHIME 1989
1989 seminar at Kingston, London, hatching the idea of CHIME.

A recent discussion of the board, when we hinted at an issue that I’m only just beginning to see more clearly, is doubtless relevant not only to China but further afield. From around 1985 to 2010 there was a remarkable energy in fieldwork, research, and pooling information. In the PRC after the collapse of the commune system from the late 1970s, along with the vast revival of traditional culture (see e.g. Testing the waters, and Ken Dean: discovering Fujian ritual life in the early reform era) came a renewed vigour in fieldwork and research. The work of the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, along with the major institutes in Beijing and Shanghai, open to new ideas (notably from anthropology), all rippled out to the provinces, counties, and villages. At the same time, Chinese and foreign researchers were able to collaborate on fruitful fieldwork and research projects. Outside China, apart from CHIME, ACMR in the USA made a useful forum (cf. Chinoperl); funding for tours was available, and recording companies like Ocora and Pan were keen to release CDs.

ant
Antoinet Schimmelpenninck in Amdo-Tibetan area, south Gansu, 2001 (photo: Frank Kouwenhoven).

But as China has changed, so have we; much of that energy has since been deflected. CHIME was based in Leiden, where Antoinet Schimmelpenninck and Frank Kouwenhoven devoted a charming old house to a growing archive, where they hosted lively gatherings. Since the sad loss of Antoinet in 2012, the bulk of the collection has been moved to Heidelberg, the instruments to Lisbon (both major tasks); meanwhile leading lights on the committee had found academic jobs, developing their own projects.

The CHIME journal: first (1990) and most recent (2019) volumes.

Of course, political constraints always had to be negotiated in the PRC, but the scene there was now deteriorating, first under the stultifying reification of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project (from around 2005), and then (since Xi Jinping came to power) with increasing limitations on research and publishing. Today, our research in the humanities is inevitably coloured by the spectre of Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong; state surveillance is ever more extensive.

Apart from CHIME’s annual conferences, I keep hoping that its online Newsletter can be maintained—but now I finally realise that it’s hard to do so. All the diverse material was relatively simple to collate when we were all going to China regularly, and when there was a wealth of stimulating activity to document. Despite the shrinking scope within the PRC, there must still be plenty to report, but one would now need to find other people to draw attention to it. While in the early days CHIME could serve as a clearing house for such information, one wonders who might be able or willing to do so now: various names have been mentioned, mainly younger European scholars currently based in China.

But another crucial factor in CHIME’s changing dynamics is the internet revolution, wondrous yet indigestible, with WeChat, Facebook, Instagram, and so on creating new, more immediate forums, as material (both textual and A/V) has become available online in China. Even so, outside China, if someone could take on the task, a comprehensive index would still be useful: a revamped CHIME website could make a useful focus for all the diverse information that emerges. Hopefully it will also include A/V material uploaded from the archive—working with Heidelberg, now its home. Apart from inclination, time and money are inevitable hurdles. Like Life.

Breakdancing on the eve of Tiananmen

Ziwei 4

In 1950, soon after “Liberation”, the great Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe invited a wind band from Ziwei village (in what later became Dingxian county, Hebei) to record in Tianjin, coining the term “Songs-for-winds” (chuige 吹歌), which soon became a standard—and misleading—image for wind bands in Hebei (click here). But they never managed to go to Ziwei, and Yang soon began work on the ritual music of the Zhihua temple in Beijing.

By the late 1980s, as fieldwork resumed after the hiatus of the Cultural Revolution, Yang Yinliu’s successors in Beijing were clarifying the “northern” and “southern” styles of wind ensemble serving amateur ritual associations on the Hebei plain. The “northern” music accompanying ritual referred to the solemn classical style of temple ensemble (led by small guanzi oboe), and this was to be our main focus in the villages. The more popular repertoire of the “southern” style (with large guanzi) sounded more secular, and was more readily recruited to political campaigns—but as we later learned, it too served funerals and temple fairs. Both styles had been used in the temples of Beijing, Tianjin, and the Hebei plain (see e.g. A slender but magical clue, and under Festivals) since the early in the 20th century.

Stimulated by the 1986 “discovery” of the Qujiaying village ritual association, I began working with the Music Research Institute in Beijing to document the similar groups all around the Hebei plain just south. Our fieldwork began to develop with a reccy over the New Year period in 1989, before the Tiananmen protests got under way.

Ziwei 3

By the early 1950s Ziwei was a large village with over a thousand households; by the time of our visit it had doubled. The origins of its wind ensemble were in the classical style. Even before Liberation they had been providing wind players for professional troupes in Beijing, Tianjin, and elsewhere in the region, and they kept doing so through the Cultural Revolution.

We accompanied them on a trip to perform for a wedding at a township in nearby Lixian county, and on our return to Ziwei we held a recording session. Whereas the membership of most ritual associations is male, here unmarried women also play the wind instruments. The association’s repertoire included breakdancing (piliwu 霹雳舞), recalling Taiji, and a pop singer—both highly serious in demeanour (cf. rebetiko). After decades of isolation, pop had spread from south China as the commune system disintegrated (see Platform), along with a major restoration of ritual life.

Langfang huahui 1991

We got another glimpse of the secular end of the continuum on a 1991 trip to Langfang city. And during our fieldwork around Xushui county in 1993 and 1995, where the temple connection was evident yet again, we found more material on the “southern” style. Some villages like Gaoluo had both northern and southern ritual associations.

QMZ 1958

The Qianminzhuang association, Xushui 1959.

Still, the southern style was always subsidiary, both in the villages and in our fieldwork—see our reports, county by county, under Local ritual.

Some Chinese posters and pinups

In 1993, as I plunged deeper into fieldwork on ritual associations in rural Hebei, while staying at a dingy hostel in Laishui county-town I was struck by this graphic public information poster from the local Public Security Bureau:

Poster LaishuiThis detail is particularly fine:

Poster Laishui detail
Caption:
Don’t casually drop cigarette-butts or rubbish, and don’t spit all over the place;
maintain cleanliness inside and outside the dwelling.

More precisely, and indecorously, I may add that tutan 吐痰 encompasses the staggeringly common habit of emptying one’s throat via the nose onto the ground, generally with a loud and dramatic flourish—a sound that accompanies some of my finest recordings of ritual performance. At the time it didn’t look as if campaigns against the tradition would have much effect.

Moving swiftly on, political posters have long been a popular topic, but travelling down to the countryside, some intrepid art historian might care to make a diachronic and regional survey of pinups adorning the otherwise bare homes of poor peasants since the 1980s’ reforms, which cheerfully rub shoulders with family photos, posters of Party leaders, and images of deities like Guanyin. I found this montage on the wall of a home in Gaoluo village around 1993:

Pinups Gaoluo

Pinups often make a drôle backdrop to our portraits of wise old folk musicians, like this 1995 image of vocal liturgist Li Yongshu in Yixian county nearby:

Li Yongshu, Baoquan 1995

Here’s a selection from Shaanbei, heartland of the Chinese revolution, in 1999:

All this by contrast with the god images that adorn the ritual building at New Year—Gaoluo again (see here, part of a series on Ritual paintings of north China):

Gaoluo 1989For more recent Uncle Xi pinups, and incentives to display them, see God images old and new, 2—sequel to an article that features murals adorning kang brick-beds dating from just after the reforms of the late 1970s.

ZQ meinv

The 2002 Silk Road festival

Hua gig

I mentioned the 2002 Smithsonian Silk Road Festival in Washington DC in my post on, um, Jerusalem, national anthems, and football, but now that I come to revisit my photos and notes, I’m struck by what an extraordinary event it was—and how much of it I missed!

The Silk Road has long been an alluring marketing slogan, but it made a spectacular pretext to gather musicians and craftspeople from all along the route—a remarkable feat of organisation, particularly only a few months after 9/11.

In tents set up on the National Mall (Xi’an Tower, Kashgar Teahouse, Nara Gate, Samarkand Square, Istanbul Crossroads, Venice Piazza…), a wealth of groups performed daily over ten hot summer days. To name but a few: Turkmen, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Uzbek, Mongolian, Afghan; [1] Bukharan Jewish traditions from the USA; Peking opera, narrative-singing from Beijing and Suzhou; Indian folk, notably Kathputli string puppets and Manganiyar musicians from Rajasthan; Persian classical, Khakasian, Armenian, Azeri, Turkish, Uyghur muqam… And for sacred cultures, besides Tibetan monks from Drepung monastery in exile (cf. The Cup), Bauls from Bengal, and Syrian Christians, a group of Alevis from Turkey performed their sema ritual. Also featured were martial arts and wrestling from Mongolia, India, and Iran, as well as a range of craft and food traditions.

Walking Shrill CD

Here’s the thing: I hardly managed to catch any of these performances!!! My role was to look after the Hua family shawm band (2004 CD Walking shrill, my 2007 book, and Dissolving boundaries)—the shawm (suona/zurna) having reached China via the Silk Road, you dig. Having visited them at home in Yanggao county, north Shanxi, in 1991 and 1992, I had returned there in 2001 with a view to inviting them for the festival, and I then focused on Yanggao shawm bands for some time—only managing to devote my attention fully to the Li family Daoists from 2011. Anyway, I had to be constantly at the service of the band as minder and roadie, both on the Mall and at our hotel—handling their Byzantine (sic) family dynamics, keeping them happy, varying and refining the repertoire for two gigs of 30’ or 45’ each day, while augmenting my notes on their part in the ceremonial life of Yanggao. The Hua band were accompanied by the genial Li Hengrui from the county Bureau of Culture, who occasionally made himself useful—though I didn’t have the foresight to veto the yellow silk pyjamas that the bureau had designed for them.

Bureau Chief Li teased me for bringing them all this way just to play for “another bloody temple fair”, but the band found it a rather familiar setting. They also played on parade, with Yoyo Ma (figurehead of the festival) making a valiant effort to count to 4 on the gong—the band worked out that he was a Big Cheese, but couldn’t imagine that he would ever make it as a musician.

All the participants stayed at the same hotel, where our meals were provided; during the day on the Mall we rested in the performers’ area, where we were fed.

with Shuni

With able organiser Shuni, herself a gifted musician.

Impressive as the daytime gigs were, most delightful were the nightly parties back at the hotel, with everyone dancing to the Indian singers, Turks on zurna, Armenians on duduk, and so on. I did a routine with Indian juggler Kishan while Hua Yun did his amazing tricks on wind instruments.

On their first trip outside Shanxi, the Hua brothers were remarkably sociable. They particularly enjoyed hanging out with the Rajasthani musicians—significantly, both came from peasant backgrounds, whereas some of the other groups had rather more conservatoire training. Perhaps some of the musicians who shared an overarching tradition, like the various maqam groups or Central Asian bards, were able to forge more meaningful relationships. Any political tensions were swept under the (brightly decorated) carpet. I’m wary of the modern cliché “International Cultural Exchange” (click here, and here), even if the Silk Road embodies the idea—but the main point was simply for audiences to be able to hear all this wonderful unfamiliar music, as a gateway to further explorations. 

Hua with Rajas

The Hua brothers also met up with Zhang Fengxue, a paper maker from a village in Chang’an county south of Xi’an—their dialects made it hard for them to communicate, so sometimes I had to try and interpret (Yeah Right). Zhang recalled going on rain processions with the village “water association” (shuihui) to Taibaishan in 1952, 1976, 1979, and 1992.

Left, Kathputli puppets; right, Hua Yun with Drepung monk.

In the hotel’s outdoor pool, the Tibetan monks practised underwater meditation, their swimwear matching the colours of their robes. They offered me a Mañjuśrī mantra that they suggested could cure stammering:

OM A RA PA CA NA DHI

Left, blues; right, with Roksonaki.

I took the younger members of the Hua band out to hear blues at Bar Lautrec; everyone met up in the hotel bar early in the morning to cheer on Brazil for the World Cup final. At the 4th July party we admired the fireworks; a nice Turkish volunteer shaved my head, long before I became a regular with my Kurdish barber in Chiswick (cf. At the barbers). The Hua band did an impromptu gig with the Kazakh folk-rock band Roksonaki. Finally we admired a Silk Road fashion show, and Yoyo played a moving Bach solo alap in gratitude to the legion of helpers.

fashion 2

It was the most exhilarating time. There I was, rubbing shoulders daily with a wealth of musicians with whom I would now love to hang out; but there was nothing to be done—I gladly devoted myself to the Hua band.


[1] For an introduction to such traditions, with AV samples, note The music of Central Asia website,

Sufism: Naqshbandi ritual in Istanbul and beyond

So far, my dabblings in the ritual traditions of Istanbul have consisted mainly of exploring the cem ceremony of the Alevis—itself a substantial topic, both in the city (here, with sequel) and around Anatolia. In its values, gender inclusiveness, and ritual style, Alevism is closely related to Bektashi beliefs, but is quite distinct from other Sufi orders (tariqa) active in Turkey.

An online article by Ömer Tuğrul İnançer makes a useful introduction to the ritual activities in Istanbul of orders such as Mevlevi, Halveti-Jerrahi, Qadiri, Sa’diyya, and Rifaî (see e.g. this extensive list of tekke lodges by order, and historically, by district).

Naqshbandi traditions
Like other tariqat, the Naqshbandi order has a wide presence around west, central, and south Asia. [1] It is influential in Turkey, where it is largely urban, supported by literati, bureaucrats, and merchants.There its pronouncements evince a less than liberal strain, vocally opposing perceived social decadence; opposing Westernising reforms, its leaders are critical of “heterodoxy”.

Hakan Yavuz, in his chapter “The matrix of modern Turkish Islamic movements: the Naqshbandi Sufi order”, observes that “the Sufi orders have turned out to be the major institutions for the aggregation of economic and political interests”. Focusing on Istanbul, he considers the Naqshbandis under the rubrics of inner cultivation and religious salvation, a tool for upward mobility, a network for social and political services, and a model for a community—headings that one might well apply to other orders too.

Naqshbandi Yaddasht
Concentration on God (Yaddasht). Source.

As to the Ottoman background, Sultan Mahmud II (1808–37), suspicious of charismatic popular leaders and competing loyalties within the state, banned the Naqshbandiyya-Khalidiyya order in Istanbul, as well as the Bektashis. But under later Sultans the Naqshbandis expanded their influence, often taking over Bektashi lodges, becoming “one of the most important forces between ruled and ruler”.

In the early years of the Republic, despite their support for Atatürk’s War of Liberation, the Naqshbandi and other Sufi lodges were banned. Still, their

ability to adjust to new situations and to develop new arguments neutralises the hostile propaganda of opponents who seek to identify the movement as fundamentalist or an “enemy” of modernity. For example, the Naqshbandis fully supported the Turkish War of Independence but protested against the radical and authoritarian secular transformation of the system by Mustafa Kemal.

Most of the eighteen rebellions against state policies between 1924 and 1938 were led by the Naqshbandiyya. But they were better able to survive persecution than some other orders.

In response to repression, most of these orders gradually transformed from strictly religious associations into competing educational and cultural informal associations with religious underpinnings. They gathered support from sections of traditional society, which regarded the Kemalist variant of secularisation as too radical and destructive for Turkey’s social fabric.

Indeed, “the post-Republican elite, which shaped the opinion and identity of the leading Muslim movements, evolved among local Naqshbandi groups in Istanbul and Anatolia”, and “the Turkish Muslim understanding of Islam is very much filtered through Naqshbandi concepts and institutions”. In modern Turkey, Naqshbandi is the most politically active of the Sufi orders; like others, they are closely involved in education, healthcare, commerce, and media promotion. Of the four main branches in Istanbul, most wealthy and influential is the lskenderpaşa, based at their Mosque in Fatih. But Hakan Yavuz argues that the remarkable adaptive powers and pragmatism of the Naqshbandi

may lead to decline, not so much because of state suppression or rivalry from other orders, but because of its smooth adaptation to capitalism and its integral involvement in Turkish politics, both of which may undermine the spiritual and cultural aspects of the order.

As he suggests, along with a reduction in the mystical and heterodox features of Islam and Sufism, Islam has been delocalised and a new, abstract, highly centralised and economically conscious faith created to cater for the modern urban population.

Dhikr
On the Asian side of Istanbul, we visited the village of Beylerbeyi, just along the Bosphorus from Üsküdar and Kuzguncuk, to attend the Thursday evening dhikr (zikr) ritual at a Naqshbandi dergah (see here, and wiki), where Sheikh Mesud Efendi (d.1908) was influential. Set in a picturesque old quarter up the hill, the wooden building is just as fine.

Naqsh exterior 1

The practice of collective dhikr (zikr) is intense. Among the Naqshbandiyya it is traditionally classified as either khafi “silent” or jahri “loud”; they seem to find both acceptable—see e.g. Isenbike Togan’s chapter on the historical controversy between them in Central Asia, n.1 below.

Glimpses from the women’s gallery.

Directing prostrations in a packed hall, the sheikh chanted a series of invocations, with occasional simple group responses. As the lights were switched off, the worshippers turned to sit in a circle facing the sheikh, the repetitive group invocations becoming more intense. In a segregated area on the upper floor a substantial group of women was also deeply devout, as my companions reported.

* * *

With such a very basic grounding in live ritual, I turned to YouTube for the wider picture, where several videos suggest the deeply immersive somatic experience of Naqshbandi dhikr. In her Introduction (n.1 below), Elisabeth Özdalga observes:

Many Sufi orders practice the dhikr collectively, with intensive and emotion-laden expressions, where the partakers move their bodies rhythmically as they loudly pronounce the names of Allah. The Naqshbandis are traditionally known for greater self-restraint. […] [They] have generally been regarded as more sober and orderly in their religious practices than other Sufis.

I can’t assess this as a general characterisation, but from the clips below it seems to need modifying. This substantial excerpt from a haḍra ritual in Bosnia is well annotated, featuring both Arabic qasidahs and Turkish ilahis:

Still more imbued with emotive expression are the rituals of Uyghur Naqshbandis, in a region of Central Asia that was invaded by the Chinese Communists in 1949. In retrospect, the Chinese state’s approach towards Islam in the decades before the clampdown under Xi Jinping may now appear relatively benign (see here). This zikr was recorded by Jean During in southwest Xinjiang in 1988, during a period when Uyghur traditions were enjoying an impressive revival after the end of the Cultural Revolution:

And the remarkable excerpts below show Uyghur Naqshbandis performing zikr in south Xinjiang on the eve of the Chinese campaign to obliterate Uyghur culture:

As to the Western diaspora, Naqshbandi groups meet in Europe and north America (cf. Alevi ritual), such as the Osmanli Dergahi in New York, transmitting the teachings of Shaykh Nazim Al-Haqqani (1922–2014), who moved from Istanbul to Syria, while also based in his native Cyprus (cf. wiki)—this 2017 video is among many on their YouTube site:

* * *

I’m acutely aware that outsiders like me cannot even begin to comprehend Sufi ritual. But my visit to the Naqshbandi lodge in Beylerbeyi reminded me again that (as in much Daoist and Buddhist temple ritual) the heart of ritual performance lies in The Divine Word, embodied through the pure a cappella vocal liturgy of the mosques and Sufi orders. In this case, the observance is unmediated even by percussion. 


[1] See e.g. Elisabeth Özdalga (ed.), Naqshbandis in western and central Asia: change and continuity (1999), including Isenbike Togan’s chapter on central Asia (on which see also here). Note also the chapter on Afghanistan by Bo Utas.
For Xinjiang, note Rachel Harris, Soundscapes of music in Uyghur Islam, and (for the Istanbul connection) her recent lecture, from 42.00 (see here). For Uyghur Sufi bards on pilgrimage in Xinjiang, see also Ashiq: the last troubadour.

“Making a mistake” in Foreign

Blue kite stillFrom Blue kite (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1993).

With “mistakes” (closely followed by denials—notably Brexit) having become routine under this evil Tory regime, I’m reminded that I’ve always been fond of the Italian sbaglio (verb sbagliare), with the appealingly economical negative prefix s- creating an expressive diphthong. Admittedly in this case a positive version baglio/bagliare is elusive, but it reminds me of other words equivalent to English dis-, such as

  • svantaggio disadvantage
  • sfiducia mistrust
  • scontento discontent
  • sfigato loser
  • scaricare unburden
  • sfiorire wither
  • staccato detached
  • sforzando “with excessive force”—Beethoven’s speciality.

Like I’d know… A suitable aperitivo here is the negroni sbagliato (cf. the Lumumba and cubalibre).

Returning to “mistakes”: in British politics, “misjudgements” that have appalling social and economic consequences can now be casually brushed aside with a patrician air of disdain. In China,  however (as throughout the socialist bloc), “making a mistake” (fan cuowu 犯错误), a catch-all for political, sexual, and indeed clerical misdemeanours, is now used humorously—despite (or because of) its Maoist heritage, with the disastrous personal and familial consequences that could ensue from innocent infringements against the fluctuating political orthodoxy of the day, or entirely innocuous casual remarks—cf. Goulash deviationism, China: commemorating trauma, and movies such as Blue kite and Living. In documents from the Maoist era the term is a sparse hint of such faux pas, as under The Houshan Daoists, requiring us to read between the lines (see my review of the Anthology of the folk music of the Chinese peoples).

When the iron bird flies

*Another instalment in my education on the history of modern Tibet*

Iron bird cover

The independent scholar Jianglin Li—evidently no longer based in China—has a useful website War on Tibet, working with Matthew Akester. I’ve been reading her book

  • When the iron bird flies: China’s secret war in Tibet
    (Chinese original, Taiwan 2012; English translation by Stacy Mosher of the revised version, 2022, 550 pages).

After her 2010 book Tibet in agony: Lhasa 1959 (English version 2016), When the iron bird flies describes the brutal military conflict in Tibetan regions from 1956 to 1962, which has long remained a closely guarded secret. It supplements chapters in Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snows (1999) (see his review of Li’s book) and vols 3 and 4 of Melvyn Goldstein’s magnum opus A history of modern Tibet (2013, 2019), as well as recent volumes like Conflicting memories.

The main focus of When the iron bird flies is the regions of Kham and Amdo (for some sources on the latter, click here), whose chiefdoms had always been resistant to external political power. Li’s account is based both on Tibetan accounts and classified Chinese documents within the PRC, as well as interviews with Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal.

map
Traditional Tibet, comprised of the three provinces of Kham, Ü-Tsang, and Amdo,
in current Chinese administrative divisions. Source: Marvin Cao.

For several years after occupying minority regions the Communists moved slowly; but the trigger for the convulsions of the late 1950s was “democratic reform”—their euphemism for coercive land reform and expropriations. It was launched over several stages in different provinces: in Yunnan in 1955, Sichuan in 1956, Gansu and Qinghai in 1958, and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) in 1959. Revolts broke out widely as the reforms were being imposed. Li introduces the system that soon became routine: work teams, struggle sessions, the fixing of class statuses, taxation, confiscation of grain and guns, assaults on monasteries. Even Tibetan activists groomed to the Communist cause were shocked to see the disastrous effects of reform when they returned to their localities.

The “first shot in the Khampa armed rebellion” came at Sertar county in Garzê. In response the Sichuan Party bosses only escalated the situation.

By the end of March 1956, eighteen of Garzê Prefecture’s twenty counties and forty-five of its seventy-seven townships had experienced full-scale or localised insurrections involving a total of 16,000 people and more than 8,000 firearms. During this time, fourteen land reform work teams came under attack, and ten county seats were besieged or encircled. More than 200 land reform cadres were killed, and the PLA suffered more than 300 casualties.

Reform was not invariably met by resistance:

In Middle Village and Lower Village in Ngawa’s Trokyab county, land reform was completed in about three months without conflict. But when the work team proceeded under order to Upper Village to launch land reform, it came under attack, and almost all of the thirty land reform work team members were killed.

But heavy taxation and grain confiscations led to food shortages.

Resistance by the Hor Drango (Shouling) monastery in Drango county was suppressed in March 1956. After Communist troops “annihilated more than 700 people,” “the Shouling temple’s eighty-member council sent representatives to the county’s Work Committee to deliver a written assurance that they would not resist taxation again”. This indicates that taxation was the direct reason for the Drango monks’ resistance.

As both Chinese and Tibetan sources show, with many of the most influential monks and laypeople having been recruited to official positions in the CCP system, resistance came mainly from the lower middle classes, including farmers, herders, monks, and traders. Li studies the class composition of areas, with tralpa (who leased land and cultivated their own crops) and gepa (who cultivated land or worked as servants for landowners, headmen, or monasteries):

The vast majority of peasants in these regions cultivated their own fields. Tralpa were not necessarily poor, and families with surplus labourers could engage in trade or hire themselves out. As a result, when the Tibetan regions were divided into class categories, the landlords, rich peasants, and middle peasants were mainly tralpa, whom the CCP classified as “serfs.”

As in Han Chinese regions, class classification was arbitrary and variable by locality. With land that had previously been communally owned now becoming state property,

a district designating 10 to 20% of its people as “landlords and rich peasants” meant that a relatively large portion of the middle stratum had their assets confiscated; this caused many of them to join in uprisings. [….]

 Every stage of the land reform process in Kham, from its preparations to its implementation, demonstrated the arrogance and high-handedness of the CCP regime, as well as the ignorance and brutality of its cadres.

Numerous problems in the “redistribution” of resources were intractable. Resistance to land reform was inevitable. In response the Party requested military reinforcements while mobilising Tibetans into the army—who, hastily trained, suffered the heaviest casualties. The first battle, over nine days in March 1956, was in Lithang in southwest Garzê (cf. this post).

Lithang 1957.1

Lithang 1957.2

In a series of battles, both sides suffered heavy casualties. Determined to crush all resistance, on 29th March the air force dispatched two Tupolev Tu-4 aircrafts (a gift from Stalin to Mao) to strafe and bomb the monastery. Next day the PLA made their final assault.

This battle being the PLA’s first major military operation in the Tibetan region, its shock wave was felt by both the Chinese and the Tibetans. Tibetans were shocked by the “iron bird,” a powerful modern weapon they had never before seen or heard of, while the Chinese commanders were surprised by the willpower of the Tibetan resistance. In the following years, Tibetan willpower and Chinese modern weaponry would clash over and over again.

Lithang1957.3

Southwest of Lithang, the people of Chatreng were also fiercely independent. Again, the early years of Chinese occupation were relatively mild, but in mid-February 1956,

Chatreng’s two main monasteries received a document from the work team. As Tibetans recall it, the document included seven points:

1) Lamas and monks have to be eliminated; 2) monasteries and their contents have to be eliminated; 3) worship and ritual are prohibited; 4) the wealthy and eminent members of the community have to be eliminated; 5) all land will be appropriated by the state; 6) all property will be appropriated by the state; 7) everyone has to obey the Liberation Army and serve them. If you do not agree to this, we will bomb you from the air and send troops on the ground and wipe you out. […]

The Tibetan leaders of Chatreng secretly held a meeting to discuss the document and then sent a messenger to deliver a strongly worded reply:

You officers, district heads, and soldiers are here in our land without the slightest justification, and have no business imposing these seven points, which are completely unacceptable. You had better leave immediately, otherwise we have also made our war preparations, and there is no doubt that we will fight.

From 20th March county government bases were besieged by the local Tibetans. When the surrounded Chinese finally managed to send word to Zhou Enlai, reinforcements were dispatched. On 2nd April bombers were again deployed, destroying large areas of Sampeling monastery and killing over two hundred monks and laypeople. Three monasteries in the region were bombed over nearly a month. Chatreng was destroyed.

Among the land reform work teams were many Tibetan activists trained by the Chinese. In Nyarong (yet another region long resistant to external power), 185 out of 257 members were Tibetan. The rebellion there began in February 1956, as land reform teams came under attack, with insurrections breaking out in 78% of rural townships. Again, PLA reinforcements were sent. Coercive reforms continued throughout the year.

In Ngawa prefecture, Sichuan province (focus of Barbara Demick’s Eat the Buddha), uprisings broke out from March 1956, again prompting Chinese military intervention. As elsewhere, “goodwill troupes” occasionally sought (vainly and cynically) to mollify a furious population even while persisting in reforms.

The following chapters turn to what became the TAR, where reforms were delayed, with a useful survey of the early years under occupation. But by 1956 news of the violence in Kham was causing great alarm in Lhasa among the Tibetan leadership and public. Li describes the intense diplomatic intrigue in 1956–57 surrounding the Dalai Lama’s visit to India, involving Zhou Enlai, Nehru, and the USA—as Zhou emptily promised the Dalai Lama that there would be no reforms for six years. The Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa on 1st April to find the situation increasingly tense. Meanwhile the CIA-trained Chushi Gangdruk (“Four Rivers and Six Ranges”) volunteer army prepared to resist Chinese occupation.

The “socialist transformation” continued, with forced collectivization around Golok Prefecture in 1958, as the Great Leap Backward (my apt term) caused untold suffering right across China. By August,

resistance among the Qinghai Tibetans had spread to five autonomous prefectures, 24 counties, 240 tribes, and 307 monasteries, involving more than 90,000 people. The Chinese government sent in five army divisions and 30 regiments of various kinds, plus 25 companies of armed police and local militia, for a total armed force of more than 50,000, including air force, artillery, infantry, cavalry, armoured troops, and others. […]

In Chikdril County, 1,050 people, nearly 10% of its total population, were arrested within three years. More than half of these captives died in prison over the next five years, and some were in jail until the early 1980s. Of the hundreds of herdsmen arrested from the Khangsar clan, only about twenty of them ever made it home again.

At least 9,262 people were arrested in Golok Prefecture, the vast majority of them males in the prime of life; in some places the proportion of young men to young women was one to ten.

As the military campaign shifted north from Sichuan and Yunnan to Qinghai and Gansu, Li documents the horrific “Yellow River massacre” at what later became Khosin Township (Yulgen county) on 1st June 1958—as ever, carefully assessing the conflicting sources.

After a Chinese convoy was ambushed in Yulshul, rebellions broke out at monasteries, with bombers again deployed. Over a third of the population of Yulshul died in these years. Many survivors were imprisoned in labour reform camps, where they died or suffered for long years. With food shortages worsening, in May 1958 the PLA murdered monks at the Drakar Drelzong monastery in Tsikorthang, Tsolho Prefecture; in September there was a bloodbath at Drongthil Gulch. A second wave of assaults took place from June to September 1959.

As the Chinese military administration was convulsed by Rectification and Anti-rightist campaigns, Tibetan resistance to reform was widespread—though what Chinese sources portray as rebellion (thus creating a pretext for massacres) was sometimes a mere exodus of herders fleeing collectivization. Refugees were described as “bandits” if they were killed, or “liberated masses” if they were captured. Resistance continued in 1959, met by massive troop deployments, with further major battles.

In 1958 a major arrest and denunciation rally took place at Kumbum monastery in Rusar county, Qinghai. The monastery then has 1,615 monks—remarkable in itself, we might suppose. Tibetan Buddhist life had been relatively unscathed through the early years of occupation; but now the CCP initiated a secret “religious reform movement”, in which Buddhist activity was specifically targeted, notably the monasteries. A document from the period noted the scale of the issue:

more than 5,000 monasteries of various sizes, and 450,000 religious personnel, among which there are more than 3,000 lamaist temples and 250,000 lamas in Tibet; 20,000 lamas in Mongolia and Xinjiang; and a total of 2,000–3,000 lama temples and more than 170,000 lamas in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, and other provinces.

Apart from ideology, the monasteries possessed substantial assets, in land and precious material artefacts—Li gives regional instances of the assets confiscated, metal statues and religious implements. Labrang monastery (in Gansu), with its 4,000 monks, was surrounded in April 1958; after “reform” began in June, over 1,600 people there were arrested, imprisoned, or executed. Many monasteries were now destroyed. In Qinghai province,

223 monasteries in the pastoral areas have been disbanded, 51.98% of the total, and 17,685 religious personnel have returned to secular life, composing 36.56% of the total. Among these, 97.5% of the monasteries in Huangnan prefecture have been disbanded, and 55.1% of religious personnel have returned to secular life; adding in those arrested or sent to group training brings it to around 95% of the total. In Hainan prefecture, 91.8% of the monasteries have been disbanded, and 87.9% of religious personnel have returned to secular life. In Haibei and Haixi prefectures, more than 80% of the monasteries have been disbanded, and more than 70% of the religious personnel have returned to secular life. The emergence of these new scenarios shows that religion is on the brink of total collapse.

The Anti-rightist campaign gave another pretext to denounce religious figures. As a Qinghai document declared:

After a large number of religious monasteries have been destroyed and a large number of religious personnel have returned to secular life, all localities must rapidly launch religious systemic reform work in the monasteries that have been purposely retained. […] The monasteries that remain must be controlled by progressive elements and must be completely controlled under the party’s leadership.

Another Party document explained:

In order to look after the religious beliefs of the masses, block rumours and provocations by counterrevolutionaries inside and outside of China, and facilitate the centralised management of lamas who have not returned to secular life, preserving some temples is essential. As to the appropriate number to retain, this should be according to the influence of the temple and the views of the masses. Rank the temples; in principle it is undesirable to retain too few. […] In terms of retaining temples, it is advantageous at present to retain more rather than less.

By the beginning of 1959, the vast majority of monasteries in Amdo and Kham had been closed down, occupied, or destroyed. I note that whereas in post-reform China the Cultural Revolution makes a scapegoat for a far more protracted range of abuses, in the vast heartland of the Han Chinese, the Communists began destroying temples from the early 1950s—in some areas as soon as they took power, even before the national “Liberation”. I’m also reminded that food shortages there predated the 1959–61 famine by several years, following collectivization. Yet Tibetan religious faith was not extinguished: it went underground.

Sera
Struggle meeting against monk officials in Sera monastery.

Lhasa
Struggle meeting against a Tibetan government official in Lhasa.

Lhasa was “the last hope”, where activists and ordinary people from Kham sought refuge in ever larger numbers. Li surveys the fateful events leading to the Dalai Lama’s escape to India—described in greater detail elsewhere, including her own earlier book. But as resistance continued, fierce battles took place in Lhoka, Namtso, and Mitikha. 1960 saw further campaigns. She looks in more detail at the covert activities of the CIA Tibet Task Force. The extended resistance in Chamdo from 1959 to 1962 was yet again ruthlessly suppressed with annihilation campaigns and aerial bombing.

Finally Li attempts to collate the conflicting statistics over the whole region—deaths in conflict, arrests, Chinese troop numbers, confiscated assets, and so on. Just the figures suggesting population decrease are staggering.

From 1956 to 1962, the iron horse galloped wildly across the plateau. Wherever its iron heels trod, the flames of war were ignited, monasteries collapsed, scriptures were burned, people were killed, and leaders fled into exile. The political system, economy, military, culture, and society of the Tibetan people were completely destroyed.

And again she reminds us of the tragic personal experiences buried beneath such statistics.

In an Afterword, Li considers the “rehabilitation” of the early 1980s, further evidence of the grievous losses of the secret war. She notes the Panchen Lama’s 1962 petition; and she hints at the further wave of destruction that was to follow with the Cultural Revolution, observing the ironic fates of some of the worst central and regional Chinese masterminds of the holocaust, purged and humiliated.

* * *

So much for the “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet”—the succession of atrocities reminds one of the genocide of Native America, or the wartime devastation of the Bloodlands. While we should take into account the grievous wounds inflicted by Maoism in the Han Chinese heartland through the period, this doesn’t diminish the horror of the Tibetan case.

After the individual memoirs that I reviewed recently (here and here), the broader canvas and more dispassionate tone of this volume are no less affecting; Tibetan and Chinese documents are interwoven with personal stories, some recounted by ageing exiles in India. Whereas in the 1950s the Chinese presence in Tibet was novel and tenuous, by the 1970s, following the violence of the Cultural Revolution there, it became a fait accompli, with the suppression of public memory seeking to bury the story of the appalling brutality of the late 1950s. But the imprint of the period clearly remains deep in people’s hearts, making a backdrop to the sporadic unrest that continues to erupt around Amdo, Kham, and the TAR.

For those studying expressive culture, all this makes an important reminder that the much-vaunted “singing and dancing of minority peoples” could hardly be maintained during such a traumatic period of social disruption. Yet, remarkably, after the downfall of Maoism in the 1980s, people pieced together the fragments of cultural life with alacrity, while adapting to new social changes (see e.g. Some folk ritual performers).

More gems from Cambridge sinology

CHC

Apart from feeling mildly guilty at defecting from Tang history, another spinoff of my current decluttering is rediscovering random notes from my time editing and indexing volumes of The Cambridge History of China. I’ve already listed some jocular citations from Han and Tang history, so here’s a sequel with gems that I may not have sneaked into the indexes.

Vol.1:

derivative ideas 693
gibberish 692–3
no-ado 693
nudism 833
Other, A.N., as consort of Wu-ti 174
pedantry, academic 758
reality: Hsün Yue criticises 806
supreme nothing, spiritual nothing 839

Vol. 3:

An Lushan the Man
beauty, no harem
cleavage
climax, early
horse-dung
Liang, Later dynasty; Liang, Even Later dynasty
nincompoop, feckless
nonentity, pliant
obsequiousness
riff-raff
wife, monopoly tax

* * *

Maspero

Meanwhile, here are some out-takes from my index to the 1981 English translation of Henri Maspero’s Taoism and Chinese religion:

Divine Man
euhemerism, naïve
Eating Filthy Things
forgetting the body
hairdressers
Heavenly Kitchen
heavy breathing
ho-ho
hot breath
knitting, spontaneous
latrines
massage
orgies
Purple Dame
pustules
sitting down and losing consciousness
Transcendent Pig
vermin, buried in

* * *

I also discovered some more drôle pronouncements on Tang music—we can probably hazard a guess at their author:

“Secular, amnesic, notational dyslexia in the reading of post-13th century flute notations of Tōgaku pieces”

—apparently “people forgetting how to play old scores”:

Perhaps this was a piece in which interest was quickly lost, a piece picked up as an item of temporary fashionable interest, but for which no interest remained after the Chinese court itself had lost interest following the An Lushan rebellion.

Giggle we may, but this was just the kind of analytical detail on the Tang repertoire that I found so fruitful—in the days before my epiphany among the peasants of dusty north China villages.

Nature makes regular guest appearances:

The process occurs, however, no matter what the fermented vegetable substrata may be; and the title is not to be regarded necessarily as referring to wine from fermented grape-juice.

And

There can be no gainsaying the powerful atropaeic significance of the wild duck in East Asian folk belief.

On my penchant for wacky indexes, see The joys of indexing; Lexicon of musical invective; and my draft index to Nicolas Robertson’s outstanding series of anagram tales. For my early spoofs on Tang poetry (“precocious signs of the pointless inanity that was to distinguish my later writings”), click here. And do read Denis Twitchett’s informed spoof on An Lushan, and the faqu series (under A Tang mélange).

Some recent *MUST READ* posts

Cetegories

The *MUST READ* category in the sidebar directs you to some of my more worthwhile posts whose topics deserve to be savoured and shared.

Here’s a selection from recent entries, on a variety of themes:

  • The sceptical feminist, Janet Radcliffe Richards’ 1980 masterpiece, argued with dispassionate philosophical clarity, and still highly relevant despite some period features
  • Some Kurdish bards: politics, gender, and heritagification—epic tales of love and war, plangent kilam laments, with some fine recordings, archive and recent
  • Ogonek and Til—for fans of language, tennis, and fado! Wacky diacritics and nasal vowels in Polish and Portuguese—with matching limericks, and a bonus entry for Gran visits York….

  • Bach in an empty forest: a mesmerising mile-long xylophone in a Japanese forest, the wonders of a Bach cantata, Myra Hess’s wartime National Gallery concerts, and Takemitsu’s early alienation from Japanese musical traditions
  • Dream a little dream: interesting as it is to listen to earlier and later renditions, Cass Elliott’s 1968 version is enthralling—with the most radiant modulation ever!

  • The kiosk in Turkey and Europe: late-Ottoman mansions in Istanbul—the ancien régime, a haunted house, women’s changing status under the Republic, and shanty-town migrants; followed by some European kiosks, with cameos from The fast show and The third man
  • Mahler: a roundup!!! The definitive voice of our age—the symphonies, as well as chamber versions, and piano rolls; quintuplets and major 7ths; Alma and Anna
  • Ray Man, pioneer of Chinese musicking in London: social and musical change in the UK, Hong Kong, and mainland China—with homages to the Cantonese music scene and the early days of Ronnie Scott’s in Gerard street.

I’ve grouped these posts in the form 3+2+3, in the hope of encouraging you to revisit my post on aksak additive metres!

For an earlier list, click here.

Tang culture: a tribute to Ren Erbei

Ren Erbei late
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), [1]

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:

Denis postcard 2b

 

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. [2] 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,

He also edited an important collection of lyrics from Dunhuang:

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.

Ren Erbei 1921
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 and wife 1984
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). [3]

Ren Erbei’s tribulations under Maoism were no less distressing for being so common, making his scholarship all the more impressive.


[1] 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.

[2] 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”).

[3] 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).

Attending Greek liturgy in Istanbul

Greek church for blog

Having been impressed by Epiphany at the Greek church near the iskele ferry in Kuzguncuk, recently we got to attend Sunday service at the main Greek church further up the main street (for a fine study of the mahalle‘s multi-ethnic past, see Nostalgia for cosmopolitanism).

Greek church

The Greek population of Istanbul (like other ethnic groups there) having progressively dwindled since the early 20th century, only special feast days attract more than a very few worshippers from around the city.

One might just find the service a sad illustration of the decline of Greek culture in Istanbul, but it made me think. While I’ve long been alienated from prissy, drab Anglican worship, turning as an outsider to Orthodox liturgy (or to any ritual and musical tradition) I’m not in search of the exotic, but I’m drawn to it as if it’s a mystery, not in the sublime sense but like a thriller—trying to work out what’s going on, to decipher its rules.

The distinction between emic and etic perceptions comes into play. Rather than the more spectacular rituals that often attract scholars and visitors, stimulating their mystical romanticism, it’s good to attend normal services to get an impression of ritual as routine. As with the rituals I’ve frequented with Li Manshan’s Daoist band in rural China, one begins to perceive that for those attending it’s partly an obligation, and that for the ritual specialists, to some extent “it’s just a job” (more radically, Frits Staal described ritual as “meaningless”; cf. Catherine Bell). Of course, in both cases there are elements of duty to tradition, even faith; but any “meaning” we impute must be broader than mere doctrine, involving changing social perceptions.

In church the liturgists and assistants do their job unfussily; as in Britain, the little congregation goes through the motions with greater or lesser commitment—it’s a weekly duty. Devout spiritual feelings can’t be taken for granted.

In China, conversely, where the Gaoluo village Daoist/Buddhist ritual association often seemed to be going through the motions, attending vespers in the house church of the Catholic minority there I was struck by their intensity and solidarity, apparently a result of their outlaw status since the 1949 revolution. But whereas the Chinese village Catholics maintain their faith tenaciously, the Greek urban Catholics are a tiny minority overwhelmed in a sea of Islam.

Catholic vespers
Vespers in Gaoluo, 2001.

As to soundscape (the major vehicle for expressing whatever “purpose” there may be to ritual!), the Greek liturgists chant in monophony, with occasional organum, conscientiously alternating solo and choral sections. The tinkling of the thurifer, with the smell of incense, adds a further dimension—which to me remains transporting, though again that’s perhaps not the point.

And without being at all hung up on “living fossils” or Ancient Wisdom, I am somehow inspired by being reminded of a world beyond the dominance of the three-minute pop song, just as the sound of the Muslim call to prayer does more insistently, more publicly (and also routinely). Whereas the silences between phrases of the call to prayer are part of its magic (again, a magic that is not necessarily experienced), in church the liturgy is more continuous; even in melodic material, it reveals a different world from that of the call to prayer or ilahi hymns, though the latter are largely diatonic too.

See also Society and soundscape, and From the holy mountain.

A Tibetan life: the winding road

*Part of my education on modern Tibet*

Shawo

translated by Hannibal Taubes in the promising new journal of Tibetan studies Waxing Moon, makes a significant addition to our understanding of Tibetan people’s lives.

It’s the “auto-narrative” [1] of Shawo Tsering (1932–2015), a high-ranking regional leader from the Tu (Monguor) minority in the Repkong (Chinese Tongren) district of Qinghai province—part of the greater region of Amdo, an increasingly prominent focus of Tibetan studies (cf. Conflicting memories; for further leads, see under Labrang 1; see also When the iron bird flies). Written in Chinese, it was edited by local historian Zhao Qingyang and published in 2010.

Benno Weiner provides an Introduction, noting ways in which authoritarian states manage memory and history, and the various forms of “unofficial memory” circulating just below the surface of state historiography (cf. my China: memory, music, society). He unpacks the agendas of the series of local “cultural and historical materials” (wenshi ziliao, where Shawo Tsering’s account was published) that thrived irregularly in the PRC (cf. Paul Katz on Wenzhou).

The translator’s own introduction is lucid. Tibetans who have fled into exile have written numerous accounts of the iniquities of Chinese rule, but while publication is far more strictly controlled within the PRC, as Hannibal observes,

Students in a class on Chinese or Tibetan history should be exposed to the forms of moral-historical discourse produced by the CPC for and about itself, and have an understanding of how those Chinese, Tibetans, and others who serve the PRC justify themselves as ethical actors. For better or for worse, people like Shawo Tsering made China and Tibet what they are today, and they will shape these nations’ futures; their experiences are correspondingly important. Students should be schooled in the “hermeneutics of suspicion” necessary to read such texts, including the ways that subtle forms of criticism and dissent are coded within the “public transcript” of authoritarian states. In point of fact, Shawo Tsering himself explicitly warns us to read his own words critically. Of a speech he was forced to make in 1978, he comments: “In fact human affairs are always like this. You can’t say what you want to say, and you must say what you don’t want to say—this is what’s called ‘words that violate the heart’ (Ch. wei xin zhi yan).”

Despite Shawo Tsering’s frank account of the Maoist cataclysms between 1958 and 1978, “the fundamental legitimacy of PRC rule on the Tibetan plateau is never questioned”. Still, scholars of the PRC are used to reading between the lines (see my review of the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, and under Yang Yinliu). Shawo Tsering’s account of his life from the 1930s to the 1990s subtly challenges “some of the fundamental discursive pillars upon which the post-Mao narrative of Amdo’s incorporation into China rests”.

Hannibal provides most useful summaries before each chapter.

Chapter 1, “A childhood of many difficulties”, covers the period from the early 20th century to the 1949 Communist victory in China, with complex power relationships. Major figures include the controversial Muslim leader Ma Bufang, and the Tibetan monk, reformist educator, and modernist politician Sherap Gyatso.

In Chapter 2, “Setting out on the revolutionary road”, Shawo Tsering recalls the early years of Chinese occupation until 1958, when he became a prominent cadre under the new regime, serving as a “crucial linguistic and cultural bridge to the complex societies of Tongren”. He married with a grand ceremony, headed educational work in the county, and became vice-director of the prefectural Bureau of Culture and Public Health.

As Hannibal writes,

Shawo Tsering’s narrative journey towards “liberation” climaxes in his 1956 interview with premier Zhou Enlai, a scene that perfectly encapsulates the mixture of cult of personality, religious fervor, patronising cultural essentialism, Marxist developmentalism, resource-colonialism, and rhetorical CPC assumption of the imperial mantle that characterises the Chinese Communists and their relationship with Tibet.

Nevertheless, Shawo Tsering’s account is not entirely sycophantic. As is typical in such PRC publications, he refers to negative or politically sensitive events obliquely, and criticises state actions by praising people or policies that he feels resolved such problems.

Chapter 3 relates his bitter experiences of the “leftist storm” between 1958 and the end of the Cultural Revolution. As monasteries were closed, revolts broke out and labour camps were filled; Shawo Tsering’s assessment “is given force by the fact that, while imprisoned himself, he was given the task of reading out the verdicts and sentences”. Amidst heavy loss of life, the Great Leap Forward led to severe famine. He recalls that during his imprisonment from 1958 to 1962,

my family had experienced unimaginable change. In 1959, my three sons all contracted infectious measles. They were not able to see a doctor. One after another they were carried away by the god of death. In 1960 a natural disaster occurred. There was no grain harvest. During the hardships of that time, my mother, wife, and little brother all left this world. Another younger brother had only been able to escape starvation because he was studying at the prefectural teachers’ college. My little sister recalled to me the scene of my mother’s death: When my mother died, my sister was laying in her arms, but how my mother died, how her body was carried away, these things my sister was unable to remember. After my mother’s death, my sister had become an orphan, begging for food every day at the doors of village houses.When I heard how each member of my family had cruelly perished, when I saw the scene of cold desolation before me, all of my spirit collapsed. It was as if I’d suddenly lost consciousness, and become a man made from wood. I spent over a month at home. Many people from the village came to see me, telling me how my family had died, as well as who else in the village had passed away, so and so, and so and so, and on and on.

Further campaigns culminated in the mass hysteria of the early Cultural Revolution, whose vicissitudes he also recalls in detail.

Chapter 4 describes Shawo Tsering’s later career, from being rehabilitated in 1979 to his retirement in 1995. Charged, “quite simply”, with the rebuilding of Amdo, he became “an indispensable figure in restoring some legitimacy” to the Party’s attempts at post-Mao good governance. As the monasteries began to re-open, he hosted the 1980 visit of the Panchen Lama, and confronted practical problems. He led a Tibetan opera troupe on a tour of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

In Chapter 5 he reflects on his life after retirement, and outlines the fortunes of his family. Again, Hannibal provides useful context. 

By its final pages, the book has revealed itself as an extended plea to a Sinophone audience not to allow the catastrophes of Mao’s reign to happen again—in this moment, the composite narrator Shawo Tsering speaks with a moral and historical authority that is both Tu, Tibetan, and Chinese.

Two years before the account was published in 2010, new protests had erupted in Lhasa and throughout the Tibetan plateau. Tibetan-language education had already begun to be replaced by Chinese. Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, the climate has deteriorated drastically. As Hannibal concludes,

The Tibetan regions generally have seen growing surveillance, militarization, media censorship, and arrest and intimidation of activists. It is unlikely that Shawo Tsering’s frank discussion of his experiences between 1958 and 1978 would be published in the PRC today.

With his detailed footnotes, Hannibal’s translation contains a useful glossary and bibliography. It’s a fascinating story that requires us to abandon simplistic views of Tibet’s modern history.


[1] I note that the Chinese zishu (“auto-narrative”) often has an element of “confession” from the Maoist era—cf. Kang Zhengguo.

China: One Second

One second poster

I’m probably not alone in harking back to the early films of Zhang Yimou, rather neglecting his ouevre since then. While he later turned to glossy big-budget blockbusters, he still made more affecting films like Not one less (1999), The road home (1999), and Coming home (2014).

I admired his recent film

Set in the sand dunes of the barren northwest during the later years of the Cultural Revolution, it was filmed in Dunhuang (for Li Ruijun’s movies set in Gansu, see Fly with the crane and Return to dust, the latter post suggesting further links on life there).

One second scene

Described as Zhang’s “personal love-letter to cinema”, One second has thus been likened to Cinema paradiso, but while both are set against the backdrop of a repressive regime, Zhang’s film is more permeated by pain. The main character is a fugitive from a state labour camp, desperate to catch a tiny glimpse of his long-lost daughter in a newsreel. His quest is hindered and helped by a young orphan urchin girl and “Mr Movie”, the projectionist responsible for the mobile cinema touring the desert towns; after the rather farcical mood of the opening sequence, their changing relationships become quite affecting. Most poetic are scenes of the villagers mobilised to clean and restore the damaged celluloid—a metaphor both for individual striving and for the herculean yet largely futile mass projects of Maoism.

Like Return to dust, the film has also fallen foul of the censors, despite international acclaim. Sensitivities perhaps concerned the Uyghur issue, as well as renewed caution about exposing the indignities of the Cultural Revolution. However the film has been re-edited, it looks to navigate political anxieties rather cleverly—the ending, as hope dawns with the collapse of Maoism, is almost saccharine. But as Cath Clarke observes in her review,

With all the tinkering and tweaks, what censors haven’t been able to expunge is the torment and suffering on the face of Zhang Yi’s political prisoner; this is a deeply felt film, grief and pain go to the bone.

I got to watch it on Mubi. Here’s a trailer:

Lhasa: streets with memories

*Part of my extensive series on Tibet*

Lhasa cover

Having revisited Keila Diehl’s study of the soundscapes of Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, I’ve also learned from re-reading an imaginative evocation of the focus of their longing:

  • Robert Barnett, Lhasa: streets with memories (2006).

Just as Lhasa can’t stand for the whole of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), the latter doesn’t represent the whole of “Greater Tibet”, with the majority of Tibetan people within the PRC living in the extensive regions of Amdo and Kham to the north and east, comprising large areas of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. Along with fine scholars such as Tsering Shakya and Melvyn Goldstein, Robbie has documented the modern history of Tibet in detail—the 1950 invasion, the 1959 uprising, the Cultural Revolution; the early 1980s’ reforms, protests from 1987, the tightened security from 1993 as Chinese (both migrant workers and tourists) began to flood the city, and renewed unrest since 2008.

The book is a sophisticated and personal affective history of a city, revolving around memory (cf. more recent volumes edited by Robbie, Forbidden memory and Conflicting memories). He eschews simplistic stereotypes: both nostalgia for an “unspoilt” mystical paradise before the 1950 invasion, and horror at the garish modern architecture that bludgeons dwellers with the inescapable Chinese presence. The main text, interspersed with notes on his visits to the city, is quite succinct, with substantial endnotes not cued in the main text but offered as further reading—it’s a blessing that one’s reading is uninterrupted by in-text references.

He opens the Preface with some broad context:

Returning to London after some years away, I am struck by the way each street evokes specific memories and sometimes poignant feelings. I sit on the upper deck of the No.55 bus and look over the iron railings and the walls that shield Gray’s Inn Fields. I see the windows of an office once occupied by a leading politician, and the blue plaque that marks the house in Doughty Street where Dickens lived…

Some of these associations mark moments that are significant only to me, while others might be relevant to a larger community. Some derive their potency from something I have read or heard, a film I have seen, or scraps of conversation that I cannot quite recall. They are triggered by the sight of memorable buildings and places that I pass.

Cities can be illegible to foreign visitors; as Robbie excavates the multiple stories of Lhasa, he finds that

some of the elements that I will find will turn out in time to be my own invention, or to be irrelevant to the web of associations most valued by the inhabitants or even damaging to their interests.

In the following Note on history, he traces inhabitants’ reserve about speaking with foreign visitors back to the British military expedition led by Younghusband in 1903–4. This was followed in 1910 by another invasion, this time from the East, as a Chinese military force occupied Lhasa; but the 13th Dalai Lama soon declared his country fully independent. Robbie gives a lucid, nuanced account of the debates over the status of Tibet, ably rebutting Chinese claims.

Lhasa 1904Plan of Lhasa, 1904, by L.A. Waddell. Source.

Chapter 1, “The unitary view”, critiques the rosy views of pre-occupation Lhasa by both outside observers and refugees—the “easygoing and carefree life” of religious festivals, picnics, and parties. Such accounts from exile represent

not naïveté or a desire to mislead, but a natural flattening of memory, an understandable form of evocation by people forced to abandon their homeland, and a counter to overstated, opposing claims by those who had usurped their positions and ridiculed their legacy.

Robbie reveals a more complex picture—not only theft and monkish misbehaviour, but incidents like the 1912 sacking of Tengyeling monastery, the blinding of Lungshar in the 1930s, and the prison death of the former regent Retring. Complementing such accounts is Jamyang Norbu’s article on the “dark underbelly” of Lhasa before the 1950 invasion.

A contrasting kind of one-dimensionality that mirrors nostalgic exile accounts is the typical Chinese view of the Tibetans as “enthusiastic and open-minded and good at singing and dancing”. The latter is a trusty cliché, dutifully parroted (even by a young Chinese musicologist trying to do fieldwork in Lhasa in 1956—though he wasn’t so naïve as to dispense with a revolver).

Besides, pre-1950 Lhasa was politically diverse, modernising, with an international presence. As early as 1904 Younghusband had been offered Huntley & Palmers biscuits in the Lhasa Yamen by amban commissioners—perhaps the inspiration for Jamyang Norbu’s vignette in The mandala of Sherlock Holmes.

Such reflections are juxtaposed with Robbie’s notes on the trauma of his first visit in 1987, which coincided with a major demonstration against Chinese repression—first of a series of protests over the following years. He also uses these notes to suggest the partiality of his own impressions.

Chapter 2, “Foreign visitors, oscillations, and extremes”, continues the story of early portrayals of Lhasa. The golden roofs of the temples and the splendour of the Potala are staples in the accounts of visitors that yet accompany a contrasting image of dirt, both physical and moral. Not just Chinese but many Western observers too found the images of Tibetan Buddhism to reveal “bigotry, cruelty, and slavery”. Such visitors were at once entranced and repelled. Among the latter were Christian missionaries; Robbie cites a leaflet from as late as 1990:

Is there no light that cuts through the demonic darkness in Tibet, a nation long steeped in demonism and Tibetan Buddhism called Lamaism? … Satan has enslaved the people to a lifetime pre-occupation with right words and works. “Om mani padme hum” and other phrases are chanted repeatedly to false gods.

Such views can easily “mutate into engines of persecution”. I might add that while being a missionary would seem to be a serious handicap when seeking to understand a non-Christian culture, it has been noted that some of them have shown a remarkably enlightened view, favouring description rather than prescription.

Lhasa 1950s
Lhasa, late 1950s.

Meanwhile Robbie continues to unpack the Chinese attempt to rewrite history in Tibet. Most Chinese statistics and descriptions now use 1980 as the date

to mark the beginning of Chinese modernization in Tibet, much as if China had not been in control for the previous thirty years. […] Had the previous decades not been excised from the Chinese calculations, the overall achievement in Tibet, at least, might have seemed marginal.

Chapter 3 considers topography as a window on the Tibetans’ own moral world-view, with illustrations from early history, including the place of Buddhism. While they always conceived Lhasa as Ü, the “centre” of a square, later they depicted themselves as belonging to the northern, barren region—a different concept from the vain Chinese claim of occupying the “central kingdom”. Robbie gives a cogent account of debates over the “civilising” influence of the 7th-century Chinese princess Wencheng.

Chapter 4 looks at the spiritual geography of Lhasa, including the Potala, the Jokhang temple, the Barkor, and the Norbulingka. He notes that tranquility was not a fitting attribute to describe the city or its teeming monasteries; the Barkor was not only a pilgrimage site but a thriving market. The layout of the city was shaped not [only] by its religious edifices, but by the market squares and aristocratic mansions.

As elsewhere, there was no sense of contradiction between commerce and religion: for both Tibetans and foreign visitors,

the excitement of Lhasa was as much about shopping as about prayer—

until the Chinese occupation, when commerce and supplies abruptly disappeared.

It is one of the great tragicomic ironies of the Chinese presence that since the new transition point of 1980, Beijing’s main claim to legitimacy in Tibet has been the fact that it has brought consumer commodities to Tibet; until the Chinese arrived, the shops had been full of them.

Chapter 5 considers the 1980s’ reforms, when the Chinese began initiating grandiose construction projects—hotels, hospitals, squares, danwei work units, long broad thoroughfares. As the city expanded hugely, formerly isolated settlements on the outskirts became part of an unbroken urban sprawl. Around the Barkor some noble mansions remained intact, but many old houses had been so neglected for decades that demolition seemed inevitable. New buildings before the late 1980s were “large, symmetrical, and regular, […] statements of the solidity and purposiveness of the new regime”.

À propos foreign rulers making a statement by reshaping the streets of another nation’s capital, Robbie offers an aside on the Hanoverian project in Edinburgh,

the capital of a mountain territory with a strong and traditional religious culture scorned by the new rulers; it had also been annexed, through a claimed but disputed legal process, by a neighbouring state. In both cases the new rulers belonged to an aspirant dynasty that had foreign, protestant, progressivist, and puritanical ideas. Both dynasties were capable of immense feats of organisation, rapid technological advancement, and inordinate cruelty.

In 1995 a new set of construction projects for Lhasa was unveiled, among which the most grandiose was the vast military parade ground of the New Potala Palace Square—nicknamed Kalachakra Square by the locals in subtle homage to the exiled Dalai Lama.

I reflect that just as in Beijing, it seems absurd that one can now be nostalgic for the old architecture not only of the 1950s, but even of the 1980s.

Chapter 6 continues the story with the vogue for geometric structures in glass and chrome, replacing the former concrete. Until then,

building primarily in cement offered the advantage that fewer trees would need to be cut down in Tibet. This rationale was largely theoretical, because the Tibetan forests were anyway then being cleared to supply the market for timber in inland China.

From 1992, as petty commerce was encouraged, box-shaped, one-room shops proliferated in central Lhasa. Karaoke bars also became highly popular. In 1996 the official Party newspaper in Tibet published a letter from an unnamed reader:

Comrade Editor,
On a recent stroll through the streets of Lhasa, this writer discovered that the shop signs of several stores, restaurants, and karaoke dance halls showed extremely poor taste. Their display is strongly coloured by feudal superstitions, low and vulgar, of mean style, with some even making indiscriminate use of foreign names…

By 1997, while the city covered an area seventeen times that of 1950, the Tibetan quarter was shrinking fast. With the rise of (largely Chinese) tourism, some efforts were made to create new buildings that blended with the Jokhang in style, if only cosmetically.

Late in the 20th century the Tibetan quarter of Lhasa was thus a confusion of religiosity, decaying mansions, feverish construction, half-planned amenities, and demolition sites as it faced the onward rush of rapid modernization.

Lhasa 96

Chapter 7 takes us into the 21st century. At last, private houses were built in a hybrid Tibetan style. As wages of government employees rose, partly in compensation for restrictions on their behaviour and to mollify them for the influx of Chinese workers, some built new Simsha homes on the outskirts: “a new style of Tibetan housing, living, and class division had finally emerged”. Parks too, rendered soulless under Maoism, became Tibetanized. Still, casual visitors were unlikely to notice such changes amidst the hypermarkets and giant housing developments.

Western journalists and writers like myself found that our stories of five or ten years earlier had to be rewritten. Like our predecessors who had come with the British invasion a century before, we arrived prepared to write about the iniquities of the system and departed somewhat in awe of its achievements. This time the achievements were economic rather than spiritual, the system was Chinese rather than Tibetan, and the change was effected by major alterations in local policies more than by the exigencies of foreign outlook or temperament. Those who had created narratives after 1987 that focused on dissent, protest, and their suppression by the state found themselves wandering down streets where there were fewer police visible and far less crime than in the cities from which they had come. Those streets were now lined with arcades, malls, and shops advertising the same cornucopia of endlessly available commodity goods we were accustomed from our own histories to see as the goal of social progress.

Some writers even began to tone down their criticisms of the regime. While “the modern mechanisms of discreet control still abounded”, open demonstrations had ceased—for now.

Robbie also notes the “Tibet chic” craze among the Chinese middle classes, with a new respect for Tibetan Buddhism, seeking spiritual enlightenment in a way not unlike that long pursued by Western pilgrims. This craze was not matched by greater state tolerance, as monasteries were controlled even more strictly.

Meanwhile Robbie was changing too; by now he was Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, spending summers in Lhasa as a visiting teacher at the university there; as he became accustomed to modernization, it lost the ability to shock him. He finds his vision becoming blurred:

As my life in Lhasa filled with the momentary excitements and quotidian disappointments of work, relationships, food, and sleep, the streets I had studied became ways to get to a meeting or a meal, and buildings whose history I had once dreamed of understanding became permeable exteriors of which only the contents mattered: they became unnoticed extensions of the people I knew and the ways in which they lived, talked, and slept. Any clarity of vision that I had once thought I had on arrival became obscured, and the lines that Italo Calvino had said were written in the corners of city streets and the gratings of windows became invisible. They could not be deciphered. They were no longer available as the distinct elements that the foreign writer wishes for, to control, describe, and play with according to his or her dreams.

As to interactions with Lhasa dwellers, as he has already noted, where the line lies that Tibetans cannot safely cross in conversations with others

is a matter of contention, and it changes from time to time, according to political conditions, the temperament of certain leaders, individual interpretations, and, most dangerously, erroneous calculation of risk.

Visitors may not know when they have caused harm. He and his students

mainly inferred the rules that limited us through a vague sense of recent history or from collective fears. These last were more effective than explicit prohibitions.

In Chapter 8 he talks with a Chinese friend who confides, in a rare moment of candour:

“I do not like what we have done to this city. We have not treated these Tibetans as well as they deserve. The buildings are too low. What this place needs is tower blocks like we have in Chengdu.”

And he visits a student in his class, a stern-faced Chinese cadre who was part-owner of a high-class nightclub. Locals would describe her as gya ma bod, neither Chinese nor Tibetan, a mestizo. Her Tibetan mother, born to a poor rural family, had become a leading official.

The half-goat, half-sheep grazes both the pastureland and the mountainsides; she doesn’t run away to sea. The pure-breed lives only in the imagination, and finally migrates in search of dreams; the hybrid buys shares in nightclubs, reads books in foreign languages, and adapts. The one enchants, the other discards outward charms. With her the future lies.

In the brief concluding Chapter 9 Robbie recaps the diverse architectural styles and the world-views they represent, reminding us of earlier historical themes.

Within the walled and unwalled compounds of the city formed by these streets and buildings live people the archaeology of whose lives can scarcely be read from their exteriors, and whose present surroundings may speak nothing of their histories and desires.

While interrogating silent buildings may seem a poor substitute for meaningful interaction with people, Robbie stresses the dangers of claiming “knowledge” of such a culture, and gives revealing notes on necessarily guarded encounters with Tibetan (and Chinese) Lhasa dwellers. He has led the way in detailing the indignities and abuses from which Tibetans continue to suffer under Chinese rule, but here they are hinted at rather than spelled out. In similar vein, the book is illustrated with line drawings—again, of buildings rather than people; and again, whereas one might suppose that photos would have reminded us better that Lhasa is a Real Place (for remarkable photos from the Cultural Revolution there, note Woeser’s book on the topic), instead the drawings underline Robbie’s focus on the elusive, fuzzy nature of memory.

Since the book was published in 2006, the relative standoff that had prevailed in Lhasa and further afield at the turn of the new century has again been shattered by yet another cycle of protest and repression (for Robbie’s analysis of the 2008 protests, see e.g. here). Surveillance has become ever more high-tech, with police cameras and checkpoints prominent.

Alongside documentation that is rarely so qualified by doubts about subjectivity, Lhasa: streets with memories is a most welcome study. For updates, see e.g. posts (in Chinese) by Tsering Woeser (blog; Twitter), such as this (translated) from 2013.

It is most important to keep the travails of the Tibetans in the public eye alongside those of the Uyghurs.

A roundup of roundups!

Apart from my annual surveys (2021 here), I’ve added a tag in the sidebar for roundups, where I group together posts on a particular theme. Whether or not you share my fetish for taxonomy (see e.g. here) and the joys of Indexing, as long as you start clicking away on the links (and the links within them…) then this could be a really useful navigational aid!

I could have sworn I published this roundup of such roundups before, but it seems to have disappeared. Note especially

China:

and surveys of my series on

I essayed an inventory of Chinese jokes under

Further global surveys:

Some other themes:

Western Art Music:

—a theme that also makes appearances under World musicking and ethnography:

Popular culture:

Drôlerie:

and

Yangzhou 1958: a glimpse of Daoist ritual

Yangzhou cover

I’m always concerned to trace the story of research on ritual in China under the first fifteen years of Maoism from the 1949 “Liberation” until the eve of the Cultural Revolution. I’ve introduced the impressive 1956 project on Daoist ritual in Suzhou, and Yang Yinliu’s remarkable fieldwork in Hunan that same year (following his 1952–53 study of the music of the Zhihua temple in Beijing); the “Buddhist music” of Wutaishan was an early topic; and my post on a 1960 report on “old customs” of Wenzhou includes further links, as does Images from the Maoist era. I’ve commented on how the very concept of “Daoist/Buddhist/religious music” misleadingly ringfences the topic, when soundscape should anyway be a major element of ritual studies.

1966 was the major cut-off point, but research (and ritual practice) was highly constrained after the Socialist Education campaigns began in 1963; and already by 1957–58 the Anti-Rightist campaign and Great Leap Backward had disastrous consequences (see Cultural Revolutions). We can find several more signs of life on the eve of the Leap, such as the Xi’an scholar Li Shigen’s 1959 report on his 1957 visit to the White Cloud Mountain in Shaanbei. And I just recalled another one,

  • Yangzhou daojiao yinyue jieshao 揚州道教音乐介绍 [Introduction to the Daoist music of Yangzhou], edited by the Yangzhou Cultural Association (Wenlian). [1]

This slim mimeograph of 37 pages, compiled in 1957 and published in 1958, consists mainly of cipher-notation transcriptions of the Qingchui dipu Shifan gu 清吹笛譜十番鼓 gongche solfeggio score for dizi flute of (paraliturgical) melodies for Shifan ensemble, a score which is said to have been handed down in the Chenghuang miao temple since the Ming dynasty.

By contrast with the outstanding work of Yang Yinliu, the pamphlet is entirely reified, with no social context at all on the severely-reduced conditions of ritual activity in the urban temples or the surrounding countryside—but at least it suggests a concern for ritual music at the time, that was only able to get into full swing as traditions and scholarship revived after the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s.

After a nugatory, formulaic introduction, the transcriptions are in three sections: qingchui dipu 清吹笛譜 solo flute scores, daoqing 道情 popular vocal melodies, with texts, and—most interestingly—twelve zanjing 讚經 hymns, again with texts:

  • Baihe ci 白鶴詞
  • Jiuku zan 救苦讚
  • Putuo qu 普陀曲
  • Sanguan zan 三官讚
  • Kaijing zan 開經讚 (Songjing gongde 誦經功德)
  • Zhaoqing 召請 1
  • Zhaoqing 召請 2 (cf. the Invitation ritual in north Shanxi)
  • Huanghua dangxing tianzun 黃花荡形天尊
  • Zhuangzi tan kulou 莊子嘆骷髏 (again, cf. north Shanxi)
  • Qiyan Sanhua 七言散花
  • Zhuanlian ji 捲簾偈
  • Jishou guiyi 稽首皈依
  • Tan fusheng 嘆浮生

Yangzhou Sanguan zan
Hymn to the Three Officers (Sanguan zan).

Since the 1980s, the Anthology (see my “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3, 2003) sometimes affords valuable prospects of local ritual traditions—such as the household Daoists of Changwu, subject of a substantial section in the narrative-singing volumes for Shaanxi. Otherwise, “religious music” mostly appears under the “instrumental music” volumes—supplementing recent fieldwork with studies from the 1950s. For Jiangsu province the coverage of “Daoist music” gives pride of place to Suzhou, Wuxi, and Maoshan; Yangzhou is absent.

Yangzhou 2007 coverPerhaps there has been further study, but Zhu Ruiyun 朱瑞云 (b.1929), the main author of the 1958 mimeograph, finally published a much expanded revision in 2007, Yangzhou daojiao yinyue kao 揚州道教音乐考. Despite all the advances in China in the ethnography of religion since the 1980s, its 366 pages are still largely limited to hackneyed musicological concerns. Zhu had no training in Daoism, but since the 1980s many other cultural workers around China managed to educate themselves about their local Daoist ritual traditions—some (as in Fujian, Jiangxi, and Hunan) becoming considerable authorities, producing a wealth of fine ethnographic work.

The introductory material, including a brief account of ritual practice, consists largely of generic citations from early history; Zhu spectacularly avoids even the briefest reference to any modern ritual activity in Yangzhou. In the transcriptions (now in Western stave notation), the brief section of hymns, after the opening Kaijing zan, even dispenses with the ritual texts that he provided in the 1958 mimeograph.

At least we now learn that the Qingchui dipu Shifan gu score was provided by Sun Guiyuan 孙归源, fourth-generation abbot of the Chenghuang miao temple, to whom Zhu was introduced while he was working the Bureau of Culture in 1957. And the brief account by Sun Guiyuan’s son, written in 1991, tells us that the temple was demolished in 1950 and the score destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

Alas, this is one book we can well do without. So Daoist ritual around Yangzhou still cries out for detailed research—not only on imperial history, but fieldwork on current activity (both temple and folk), [2] and studies of change from the Republican to Maoist eras. We may find the 1958 mimeograph meretricious (and a Happy New Year), but I still admire the work of scholars through all the travails of Maoism. Meanwhile, it’s a reminder to return to the splendid work on Daoist ritual around Suzhou and Wuxi.


[1] In Yangzhou, a more popular topic has been the lively (secular) folk traditions of qingqu 清曲 narrative-singing, which are the subject of many dedicated studies since the Yangzhou qingqu caifang baogao 揚州清曲采访报告 of 1962 (yet another impressive monograph from the Chinese Music Research Institute, in the lull between the famine and the Socialist Education campaigns), and the genre features prominently in the narrative-singing volumes of the Anthology.

[2] As usual, the most promising approach will be simply to spend time there “among the people”, chatting with locals and perhaps hanging out at funeral shops. Almost wherever one goes, household Daoist (and Buddhist) groups are in demand to provide services for mortuary rituals—as shown even by a popular article like this from 2016, in which the author, on a visit home to Yangzhou, is surprised to find that his father has taken up the Daoist trade late in life. For temple Buddhism, see e.g. this announcement for the Water-and-Land ritual as performed at the Daming si temple.

Shaanxi in fiction: Jia Pingwa

Jia Pingwa

The Chinese novelist Jia Pingwa 贾平凹 (贾平娃, b.1952) maintains his reputation despite often falling foul of the censors—a pattern all too familiar to other artists such as film-makers.

Brought up in southeast Shaanxi in a village in the Shangluo region, Jia Pingwa studied at the provincial capital Xi’an from 1971. His novels exemplify “native-place fiction” and the blending of traditional story-telling and modern verismo. For useful introductions to his work, click here and here.

I’m particularly keen to read

  • Feidu 废都 (“Ruined city” or “Abandoned capital”, 1993; translation by Howard Goldblatt, 2016), and
  • Qinqiang 秦腔, 2005; (forthcoming translation “The Shaanxi opera” by Dylan Levi King and Nicky Harman—see here, and here).

King introduces both novels in an evocative account of a trip on which he and Harman followed Jia back to his home village, now converted into a theme park…

“Native-place” writing has a clear affinity with the movies of Jia Zhangke (no relation!). Indeed, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and the female writer Liang Hong are the subjects of Jia’s 2019 documentary Yizhi dao haishui bianlan 一直游到海水变蓝 (“Swimming out till the sea turns blue”)—characterised by Liu Qing, in her critical review from a gender perspective, as “fixated on the self-mythologising of ordinary men”. Here’s a trailer:

For the use of local dialect in ethnography and fiction, see Guo Yuhua, under “Language”, and n.7 there. See also Chinese film classics of the early reform era, and Liu Sola; for Shaanxi under Maoism, cf. the memoirs of Kang Zhengguo. One might even venture into Shaanbei-ology and the traditional story-tellers of the region…

The street players

Gushu yiren promo

Another addition to our list of Chinese film classics of the early reform era:

Between The horse thief (1986) and The blue kite (1993), Tian Zhuangzhuang‘s movie Gushu yiren 鼓书艺人 (“The drum singers” or “The street players”) was released in 1987. It’s adapted from the last novel of Lao She—written in New York in 1948–49 before he made the fateful decision to return to serve the Chinese revolution (for Mr Ma and son, click here).

Gushu yiren still

The movie is set during the War of Resistance against Japan in the urban metropolis of Chongqing, where the Beijing drum-singer Fang Baoqing has sought refuge from the invaders with his family and opens a thriving tea-house with Tang Shaoye, another refugee story-teller. When Baoqing’s dream of setting up a school to ameliorate the lowly status of performers is shattered by a Japanese bombing raid, he sets up a little tea-house in the suburbs. There, as he makes friends with the progressive writer Mengliang, Baoqing and his daughter Xiulian soon do well from performing Anti-Japanese stories.

Gushu yiren still 1

But devastated by the loss of his “older brother”, Baoqing wants to give up his project. Mengliang encourages him to send Xiulian to school, but with her lowly background she is driven out by her well-to-do schoolmates. Xiulian, abused, abducted, and then abandoned by a ruffian entrusted to look after her, returns pregnant. As victory over the Japanese is declared, the film ends with the distressed family setting sail to an uncertain future (as did Lao She).

Here’s the film—sorry, no subtitles:

By comparison with Tian Zhuangzhuang’s other work (in particular The blue kite [1993], a most outstanding film) and that of other members of the “fifth generation” (cf. composers), I find The street players somewhat conventional and melodramatic. Under my post on Chinese film classics, far more creative and realistic is To live (Zhang Yimou, 1994), which sets forth from the travails of a shadow-puppet troupe in Beijing during the civil war; and for a (more magical than realist) movie on a rural bard, see Life on a string. For narrative-singing in Beijing and Tianjin, click here and here.

China has always been part of…

Further to the Pelosi Imbroglio [1970s’ Manchester prog-rock band—Ed.], the brazen fatuity of the Chinese Foreign Ministry evincing the “38 Shandong dumpling restaurants and 67 Shanxi noodle restaurants in Taipei” to prove that “Taiwan has always been part of China” (“The long lost* child will eventually return home”) has been gleefully ridiculed on Twitter (I’m so gobsmacked that I’m not even going to bother inserting a hyphen in “long lost”). Twitter promptly became full of such logic as

  • Beijing has always been part of America:

  • and indeed, China has always been part of Kentucky:

  • The meme also gave rise to “Paris has always been part of Tibet”:

There’s no end to this: it could run and run.

I have to say, there are some fine historians in China—but the apparatchiks at the Foreign Ministry are clearly not the sharpest tools in the box. On the other hand, they can spew their idiocies with impunity to a captive audience—autocracies didn’t get where they are today by being rational (cf. Stewart Lee’s taxi driver). Did you know that the word gullible is not in the Chinese dictionary?

For another logic bypass, see Tucker Carlson on racism.

The Queen Mother of the West in Taiwan

Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week for an audience with President Tsai Ing-wen was both bold and costly. As she tweeted,

America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.

But at such a highly sensitive moment in world affairs, her trip has inflamed relations with the PRC, prompting much ominous sabre-rattling from them; and according to many China-watchers, and indeed the US government, it was ill-advised. So far not only has the PRC regime escalated the war of words, but it is retaliating seriously by launching live-fire military drills.

Pelosi’s visit was illustrated by this striking image that has been making the rounds on social media:

Pelosi

The transliteration Nanxi Peiluoxi 南西 佩洛西 is felicitous (cf. Shuaike 帥克 for Švejk). Her Italian parents migrated west (xi 西), and her mother came from the south (nan 南); more to the point, in the image above the final xi character has been elided into the popular deity Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu 西王母). * It illustrates the, um, nexus between sacred and secular power that one finds so often in Chinese religion, both before and since the 1949 “Liberation” (such as the ritual associations of Hebei; see e.g. my Plucking the winds). And on opulent processions in both Taiwan and Fujian across the strait, such god images are borne aloft on palanquins to re-assert territorial boundaries.

Mazu
Mazu. Source.

Still, by contrast with Pelosi’s excursion, pilgrimages for the seafarers’ goddess Mazu 媽祖 have been a major factor since the 1980s in the political, economic, and cultural rapprochement of people on both sides of the strait (see e.g. here).

President Tsai also awarded Pelosi the civilian Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon (Qingyun xunzhang 卿雲勳章)—another ritual title (cf. deities such as Houtu, enfeoffed as Chengtian xiaofa Houtu huangdi 承天效法后土皇帝). Perhaps Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi’s Italian-American background further enhances the ritual connection, recalling the Madonna pilgrimage (another niangniang female deity) of Italian Harlem.

And as to Pelosi and Catholicism, click here for a discussion of an extraordinary image from the Chinese embassy in France, depicting the Virgin Mary (Pelosi) as a baby-stealing witch. 

For Pelosi’s “long history of opposing Beijing”, including her 1991 visit to Tiananmen to commemorate the victims of the 1989 demonstrations, click here.

Pelosi Tiananmen

Meanwhile, as rabid nationalist Hu Xijin of the Chinese Global Times denounced Pelosi’s visit, Chinese netizens have fabricated an unlikely fantasy love affair between them:

Pelosi Hu

Just as unlikely, “back in the USA”, for once, Fox News and Mitch McConnell—normally Pelosi’s harshest critics—are full of praise for her initiative.

* * *

Around the time of Obama’s visit to China in 2009, “Obamao” T-shirts (“serve the people”) were sold in Beijing before being banned:

ObamaoSource.

While the T-shirts made a popular kitsch image in Beijing, adroitly combining enthusiasm for a foreign icon with misplaced nostalgia for Mao, in the USA they were soon in demand among Obama’s opponents, who fatuously compared his health-care reform with the Holocaust.

The world is a complicated place (You Heard It Here First).


I suppose most people read it simply as “Nanxi Peiluoxi wangmu niangniang” rather than “Nanxi Peiluo Xiwangmu niangniang”, but it’s a nice ambiguity—cf. the classic story of the hilarious misconstruing of a report on Prince Sihanouk’s visit to China!

From the holy mountain


The ancient fortress, monastery of St Anthony, Egypt.

Travel writing takes many forms, from Evliyâ Çelebi to Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, and Bruce Chatwin (for a wise survey of the genre through changing times, see this article by Barnaby Rogerson). Female authors like Dervla Murphy and Sarah Wheeler are in a minority. With added focus, generally sacrificing a certain readability, travel writing may shade into anthropology.

William Dalrymple (website; wiki) may seem like a natural successor to his travel-writing guru Patrick Leigh Fermor (see e.g. his tribute to Mani: travels in the southern Peloponnese). But whereas I find Leigh Fermor’s confident purple prose irksome, as he zigags “between sleeping on peasants’ mud floors and bursting into consular drawing-rooms or baronial halls with his letter of introduction: ‘Oh, good, there you are, just in time for the brandy’ ” (I concur with Neil Ascherson, who cites Vesna Goldsworthy‘s book Inventing Ruritania), Dalrymple’s own work is more endearing. Before going on to write distinguished scholarly tomes on Indian art and history, he hit on a winning formula with several popular travel books—including

Xanadu

His first book

soon became a bestseller. It describes his four-month journey along the Silk Road over the summer of 1986, before his final year as a Cambridge undergraduate—just as I was returning from my first stay in China.

In his own words,

In Xanadu records the impressions, prejudices, and enthusiasms of a very young, naïve and deeply Anglocentric undergraduate. Indeed my 21 year old self—bumptious, cocky, and self-confident, quick to judge and embarrassingly slow to hesitate before stereotyping entire nations—is a person I now feel mildly disapproving of: like some smugly self-important but charming nephew who you can’t quite disown, but feel like giving a good tight slap to, or at least cutting down to size, for his own good.

Indeed, “gazing at flowers from horseback” can produce trite generalisations (“Dogubayazit was full of sinister, swarthy Turks”), but his jovial tone makes for good reading.

His journey makes a cultured latter-day variant of the hippy trail that had borne fruit in leading Veronica Doubleday and John Baily to Afghanistan, where they made a base in Herat on the eve of the Russian invasion. With Dalrymple’s historical bent he reads up on early travellers’ accounts rather than on modern ethnography.

He begins at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where, having noted the sectarian divide, he takes some holy oil (which, as he notes wryly, he pours not into a goatskin flask but into a plastic phial from the Body Shop) to deliver to the site of Xanadu, the summer capital of Kublai Khan, just as Marco Polo had done in the 13th century. Following in Polo’s footsteps, * he embarks on an ambitious trek east, with two intrepid female companions in relay.

At my primary school we knew all about Marco Polo. He wore a turban, a stripy robe a bit like a dressing gown, and he rode a camel with only one hump. The Ladybird book which had this picture on the cover was the most heavily thumbed book on the school bookshelf. One day, my friends and I put some biscuits in a handkerchief, tied the handkerchief to a stick, and set off to China. It was an exhausting walk as there were no camels in Scotland, and by teatime we had eaten all our biscuits. There was also the problem that we were not absolutely sure where China was. It was beyond England, of that we were certain, but then we were not absolutely sure where England was either. Nonetheless we strode off manfully towards Haddington where there was a shop. We could ask there, we said. But when it began to get dark we turned around and went home for supper. After consultation we decided to put the plan on the shelf for a while. China could wait.

The trip, long unfeasible, at last looked more promising with the opening of the Karakorum Highway in 1986. In Jerusalem

the streets were filled with elderly Saga pensioners on pilgrimage from Preston; in the Via Dolorosa weeping Evangelicals sung “Kum-ba-ya” against the background of wailing muezzin. There were a few miserable-looking Presbyterians, some rotund Eastern European widows, and an Ethiopian cleric in his flowing cassock of grey serge.Pallid, short-sighted Orthodox Jews shuffled past clutching Uzi sub-machine guns. The Arabs—wearing pin-stripe for practicality, and keffiyeh to attract the tourists—had taken up station outside their shops: Rainbow Bazaar, The Omar Khayyam Souvenir Museum, Magic Coffee House, The Al-Haj Carpentry Store.

But as he notes,

This pantomime of subservience had gone on day after day for centuries. Jerusalem has always been a tourist town. The pilgrims have changed, religions have come and gone and empires with them; only the knickknack sellers remain.

Travelling through Israel by bus, he notes

the shoddy sprawl of supermarkets, warehouses, drive-in cinemas, factories, and military installations—all imposed over the old Palestinian villages, bulldozed after their inhabitants were evicted in 1948.

In Syria they go in search of traces of the Assassins, a militant wing of the heterodox Isma’ili sect in medieval times. In Aleppo he tuts at child slavery in a shoe factory, visits a nightclub (Django Reinhardt songs played by an Armenian band), and admires the architecture, commenting on the city’s long history of massacres and sieges.

They move on to Turkey, travelling northeast from Ayas to Sivas and Erzurum. His companion Laura tempers his romanticism:

“We could be the first people to see this view for hundreds of years,” I said, moved to unusual lyricism.

“Balls,” said Laura. “People come up here all the time.”

Gok medresse

In Sivas he contrasts the styles of the Ulu Cami mosque and (above) the nearby Gök medresse. With the medieval Armenian connection looming large, they also get a lesson on the 1915 genocide.

Laura chador

As they near the border with revolutionary Iran, logistical challenges become ever more daunting, with Laura now equipped with a full-length black chador and headscarf. They are underwhelmed by Tabriz:

The atmosphere of Tabriz on our arrival exactly paralleled that at the time of Polo. The oil wealth of the 60s and early 70s had financed a population explosion in the town, and if the town had ever had an old-fashioned, Russian flavour [as their guidebook claimed] it had certainly lost it by the time we visited. Like any other rapidly developing town in the Third World, Tabriz was surrounded by miles of ugly urban sprawl.

They get another lesson on politics from an Armenian priest. At Sultaniya and Saveh they ponder the story of the Three Wise Men and Zoroastrianism.

Unable to attempt the northern route through Afghanistan, they keep moving southeast, cadging lifts with groups of devout Afghans until they reach Baluchi Pakistan, a welcome relief. They move on to Quetta, where Dalrymple’s great-aunt had lived as the wife of the Commander of the Western Command, India.

They recover from the ordeal of the train to Lahore by enjoying the luxurious hospitality of a Pakistani friend from Cambridge—air conditioning, baths, clean clothes, a swimming pool, and Mozart, all making a well-deserved interlude between their travails (cf. Nigel Barley on the veranda). As he bids farewell to his brisk companion Laura—a cross between Boudicea and Joyce Grenfell—his fragrant accomplice Louisa arrives for the latter leg of the journey, “dressed as if for the King’s Road”. His love for Lahore has remained a major theme of his ouevre.

Having faced more Kafkaesque bureaucracy to gain permits to enter China, they set off again. With an interlude on Alexander the Great, they cross the border into Xinjiang, rejoining the trail of Marco Polo at Tashkurgan, yet another drab border town. More ingenuity is required in order to keep moving north towards Kashgar.

There they stay at Chini Bagh, residence of George Macartney for twenty-eight years around the turn of the 20th century as the Great Game was being waged, now converted into a dowdy hotel—offering yet another illustration of decline. Kashgar in the 1980s might now seem an unspoilt paradise, but it was already the object of modernisation with Chinese characteristics, its old city walls being demolished over a long period, like those of Chinese cities such as Beijing. Still, as yet there were no cars, and few bicycles; no police surveillance on every corner or labour camps. Venturing behind the façade, they are shown the sights by Mick, a genuine 60s’ hippy who has moved on from Kabul and Goa. They find a world of bazaars and craftsmen, and admire the Id Kah mosque; they even glean further clues to the Nestorians.

Uyghur kids KeriyaUyghur children, Keriya.

In retrospect this seems like a happy period for the Uyghurs, when despite the scars of the Cultural Revolution, cultural and religious traditions were reviving on a large scale. Along with local scholars, Sabine Trebinjac and Jean During were just starting to document the riches of Uyghur musical life.

Sabine KashgarWedding band, Kashgar 1988,
from booklet with 2-CD set Turkestan chinois/Xinjiang: musiques Ouïghoures.

Having spent ten days in Kashgar they negotiate a series of lifts to skirt the desert by the southern route via Khotan and Keriya. In Keriya they gatecrash a drunken banquet for German geologists hosted by effusive Chinese apparatchiks—which unexpectedly eases their onward progress in the company of a busload of stoned Uyghurs (hash “is to the Sinkiang People’s Autobus Company what McEwan’s Export is to British Rail”). In Charchan, exhausted, they are finally apprehended by the Public Security Bureau, who deport them by sending them by train all the way to Beijing, away from what they realise is the Lop Nor nuclear testing ground peopled by mutants.

By way of the Gansu corridor and Shaanxi, the train to Beijing takes six days, so they’re happy to graduate from Hard Seat to the luxury of Soft Sleeper.

I vowed never again to travel on a heap of coal slag, never again to stay in a hotel that smelled like a morgue, never again to use a squatter that belched up its contents over the user. I had done all that. If something needed to be proved it was proved. From now it would be a holiday cottage by the seaside, a rocking chair and some new, relaxing hobby, perhaps knitting or crochet.

After exploring Beijing by bike, and eating fourteen chocolate eclairs in three hours, they set off on one last mission north to the site of Kublai Khan’s summer capital Shangdu (Xanadu), on the steppe of what is now Inner Mongolia. Taking the train as far north as Chengde, summer palace of the Qing Manchu emperors, they again dodge the Public Security Bureau to take the bus to Duolun. Although the cops catch up with them, they finally reach their goal, where Dalrymple pours the oil from the Holy Sepulchre into the earth.

Then, rather as in the dénouement of Teddy bears’ picnic, they have to hurry back to take the plane home for the start of term.

WD and Lou
Back at Cambridge with Louisa, “looking smug”.

* * *

While In Xanadu makes some telling observations on the societies he travels through, the people whom Dalrymple encounters often seem merely a drôle backdrop.

Far from dropping out, his youthful Long March was the start of an illustrious career. Following City of Djinns (1994), I’ve been re-reading his third book,

It’s already in a different league. By now his blend of early history and contemporary observation is more assured and thoughtful. He’s no longer a backpacking student but an accredited journalist and author, and his budget is less constrained. The people he gets to meet are more informed, and at 454 pages the book is considerably longer than In Xanadu, allowing for more detail.

Holy mountain map

Dalrymple follows the path of the 6th-century monk John Moschos, guided by his book The spiritual meadow, a diary of his travels around the Eastern Byzantine world. He embarks on a six-month journey in search of the modern descendants of the Christian Levant—different political exigencies often making a dangerous trek.

In the popular imagination, the Levant passes from a classical past to an Islamic present with hardly a break.

Yet for over three hundred years before the rise of Islam in the 7th century the Eastern Mediterranean was almost entirely Christian. The spiritual meadow

could be read less as a dead history book than as the prologue to an unfolding tragedy whose final chapter is still being written. […]

Today the West often views Islam as a civilisation very different from and indeed innately hostile to Christianity. Only when you travel in Christianity’s Eastern homelands do you realise how closely the two religions are really linked. For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now lost in Christianity’s modern Western incarnation.

Moreover,

In the Middle East, the reality of continuity has always been masked by a surface impression of cataclysm.

Dalrymple had already mastered the art of the short suggestive opening sentence with In Xanadu:

It was still dark when I left Sheikh Jarrah.

And the following chapter opens:

Latakia is a filthy hole. I had forgotten how bad it was.

He opens From the holy mountain at the Orthodox monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos—with another winning opening sentence:

My cell is bare and austere. **

Moving on to Istanbul, his vignette of the Pera Palace Hotel makes an extreme contrast with Athos. He reflects on the multi-ethnic Byzantine history of Constantinople, and the gradual erosion of tolerance since the late Ottoman era. Greek and Armenian priests give him a gloomy picture of the severely reduced current circumstances of their flocks. He visits the nearby Princes’ Islands, where Greeks were in a majority until the early 20th century.

But his quest is only just beginning.

As the physical world fell into decay, thousands left their families, intent […] on becoming monks and hermits in the desert.

He moves on to Antakya (Antioch) in southeast Anatolia, going in search of clues to the early stylites. From Moschos he gathers that

visiting these pillar saints was a popular afternoon’s outing for the pious ladies of Antioch’s more fashionable suburbs. […]

It was strange: a ragged illiterate hermit being fawned over by the rich and highly educated Greco-Roman aristocracy; yet odder still was the idea of a hermit famed for his ascetic simplicity punishing himself in the finest setting money could buy. It was like holding a hunger strike in the Ritz. […]

They were men who were thought to have crossed the boundary of reality and gained direct access to the divine. It is easy to dismiss the eccentricities of Byzantine hermits as little more than bizarre circus acts, but to do so is to miss the point that man’s deepest hopes and convictions are often quite inexplicable in narrow terms of logic or reason. At the base of a stylite’s pillar one is confronted with the awkward truth that what has most moved past generations can today only sometimes be only tentatively glimpsed with the eye of faith, while remaining quite inexplicable and absurd when seen under the harsh distorting microscope of sceptical Western rationality.

Next he visits the frontier town of Urfa, site of ancient Edessa, another crucible of diverse faiths (including Manicheans, Zoroastrians, and Nestorians), where

Orthodoxy was only one among a considerable number of options available to the inquiring believer. […] Doctrine was still in a state of continual flux, and no one interpretation of the Christian message and no single set of gospels had yet achieved dominance over any others.

In modern times, after waves of incidents, the whole region had been purged of Armenians in 1915 (though for a detailed recent ethnography, note Avedis Hadjian, Secret nation). He learns of the ongoing neglect of Armenian monuments, and the political constraints on archaeology.

Holy mountain 2
Suriani woman at the fortress church of Ein Wardo.

Diyarbakir, Dalrymple’s next stop, was now the centre of the Turkish army’s struggle with the PKK (cf. Some Kurdish bards). Braving a succession of checkpoints, Dalrymple manages to reach the ancient Suriani Orthodox monastery of Mar Gabriel, now much reduced but still functioning, as well as the fortified village of Ein Wardo, stronghold of Suriani defence against the Ottoman and Kurdish troops in 1915—an Assyrian genocide was under way at the same time as that of the Armenians.

Holy mountain 1

In search of clues to living Nestorianism, he is told:

“I believe there is a very large Nestorian community in … is there somewhere in London called Ealing?”

Ealing?”

“Yes, I think that’s right,” said George. “It was in Ealing that the current Nestorian Patriarch was crowned. There should be far more Nestorians in London than here. Ealing has the largest Nestorian community in Europe.”

Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late 20th century: go in search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find that they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street in London.

After another fraught journey into Syria, then a relatively safe haven for Christians, he reaches Aleppo, with notes on another faded grand hotel that appealed to a former generation of English travellers:

The inexplicably horrible food, the decaying neo-Gothic architecture, the deep baths and the uncomfortable beds: no wonder Lawrence and his contemporaries felt so much at home here—the Baron is a perfect replica of some particularly Spartan English public school strangely displaced to the deserts of the Middle East.

Exploring the countryside, he notes the role of monks and holy men in quelling evil spirits, a tradition that still continues. He visits the convent of Seidnaya (previously visited by Colin Thubron), with Muslims praying together with Christians.

Back in Aleppo, he finds a church where the monks still sing Urfalee chant, “apparently the most ancient form of Christian music still being sung anywhere in the world” (cf. Chant and beyond). As Dalrymple fishes for a simple, exotic soundbite on the style, the Italian scholar Gianmaria Malacrida offers careful caveats—which I admire as much as I admire Dalrymple for citing them.

Click here for his update on the cultural damage in the early days of the Syrian civil war.

En route to Lebanon, he is struck by the surreal roadside artwork:

Perhaps strangest of all were the unlikely lines of hoardings that rose above the forbidding ruins lining the highway:a smiling Claudia Schiffer stretched out leopard-like in Salvatore Ferragamo next to a yellow sandstone French colonial villa so riddled with great round shrapnel-holes it resembled an outsize slice of Emmental; the Marlboro cowboy with his ten-gallon hat and herd of steers beaming out over an apocalyptic wasteland of shattered tower blocks; a metal tube of Bodymist—un beau corps sans effort—set against a carbon-black skeleton of twisted metal that had once been a filling station. […]

It was like a morality tale, spiralling downwards through one of the world’s greatest monuments to human frailty, a huge vortex of greed and envy, resentment and intolerance, hatred and materialism, a five-mile-long slalom of shellholes and designer labels, heavy artillery and glossy boutiques.

In Beirut he gains insights from the historian Kemal Salibi, who directs him to Leila Badr, an archaeologist who gives him leads to Byzantine remnants around the city. And he consults the journalist Robert Fisk, “a chronic war junkie” who gives him some valuable, if dodgy, contacts. He learns more of the Maronites, Christian supremacists who emerged from the civil war “with their reputation for ruthlessness, barbarity, and political incompetence enormously enhanced”. The trail leads him to the Maronite town of Bsharri, once famed for its saints, now for its warlords. It was soon to become a scenic tourist destination, not least as the birthplace of Khalil Gibran—whose bequest of the royalties from The prophet had led to a bitter war between rival Maronite clans. Back in Beirut, Dalrymple visits a camp for Christian refugees from Palestine.

Continuing south by a tortuous route into Israel, he gives a succinct introduction to the modern history of the occupation of the West Bank. He delves further into the Armenian history of Jerusalem, and (as in Turkey) learns more about the highly politicised world of archaeology in Israel. He expounds the history of St George, on whom the English have no monopoly.

As the various Christian populations of the Middle East seek sanctuary abroad, without them

the most important shrines in the Christian world will be left as museum pieces, preserved only for the curiosity of tourists. Christianity will no longer exist in the Holy Land as a living faith; a vast vacuum will exist in the very heart of Christendom. As the Archbishop of Canterbury recently warned, the area, “once centre of a strong Christian presence,” risks becoming “a theme park”, devoid of Christians “within fifteen years”.

Holy mountain 3
The monastery of Mar Saba.

Dalrymple enters the desert of the West Bank—once a rather densely populated terrain of monks and monasteries. Staying at Mar Saba, the only living monastery there, he admires their austere regime, but is less impressed by the inedible food. Again recalling Mount Athos, his descriptions of monastic rituals are always evocative (see below).

Ever the historian, he visits the chapel of St John Damascene, whose refutation of heresies The Fount of knowledge makes a critique of Islam—as a new, if heretical, form of Christianity:

What Damascene wrote in this cave was largely responsible for saving Byzantium from the ban against sacred art that has always been part of Islam and Judaism. Without Damascene’s work, Byzantine ars sacra would never again have been permitted, Greek painters might never have been able to pass on their secrets to Giotto and the Siennese, and the course of the Renaissance, if it had happened at all, would have been very different.

And he draws our attention to the prayer niche, “another of those features of the early Christian world which has been lost to modern Western Christianity, yet which is still preserved in Islam”.

His explorations of Egypt start in Alexandria, long deserted by its Greek, Jewish, and Armenian entrepreneurs. Dalrymple visits an abandoned synagogue, and finds the gathering place of the city’s last Greeks.

He offers a vignette on the 1895 discovery of ancient papyrus fragments at Oxyrhynchus by the British archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt, remarkable not just for their classical texts but for their rich archive of Byzantine correspondence and administrative documents, revealing the lives of ordinary people.

In the desert southeast of Cairo he reaches the Coptic Orthodox monastery of St Anthony, still flourishing. Again, the 3rd-century hermit monk was pursued by a fan club of fashionable intelligentsia. By the early 5th century some seven hundred monasteries filled the desert between Jerusalem and the southern border of the Byzantine Empire.

In contrast to medieval Western monks, the Egyptian desert fathers also tended to reject the concept of learning, the worship of knowledge for its own sake. St Anthony was particularly scathing about books, proclaiming that “in the person whose mind is sound there is no need for letters”. […] Many of St Anthony’s Coptic followers emulated his example, preferring a life of hard manual labour and long hours of prayer to one of study.

Indeed, Plato had already lamented the discovery of writing!

Unlike the other monasteries on Dalrymple’s journey, St Anthony’s continues to attract young monks—literate, often university graduates, and keen students of arid farming techniques. Dalyrymple finds them “kind, gentle men, much more modest and reasonable than the bristling Greek brigands of Mar Saba or their sometimes fanatical brethren on Mount Athos”. He gives another vivid depiction of vespers:

Now, as if from nowhere, at least sixty monks had materialised in the nave and all were chanting loudly in a deep, rumbling plainchant quite different from the elusive, bitterwseet melodies of Gregorian chant or the angular, quickfire vespers of the Greeks. Individually the gentlest of men, the Copts at prayer made a massive, dense, booming sound, each stanza sung by the monastic cantor echoed by a thundering barrage of massed male voices. The wall of sound reverberated around the church, bouncing off the squinches of the dome, crashing onto the mud-brick roof then down again like a lead weight into the nave. Yet despite its heaviness, there was nothing harsh or brutal about the Coptic chant, the swelling notes of the refrain resolving to give the whole threnody a tragic, desolate air, as if all the distilled deprivations of generations of monks were being enunciated and offered up, at once an agonised atonement for the sins of mankind and exorcism foretelling the terrors of the night to come. […]

There was a moment of silence as the monks marched from the middle of the nave, through the swirling incense, to a long lectern near the sanctuary where a line of ancient bound vellum lectionaries lay open. There the brethren split into groups. Quietly at first, those on the north began singing a verse of the psalm of the day, those to the south answering them, the volume gradually rising, the stiff, illuminated pages of the service books all turning together as the chant thundered on into the late evening, accompanied now by an occasional clash of cymbals or an ecstatic ringing of triangles. As the service progressed and the tempo of the singing rose, novices swung their thuribles and the great cumulus clouds of frankincense coagulated into a thick white fog in the body of the nave…

I’d love to find videos of such rituals.

After five days in the seclusion of St Anthony’s, he is horrified by the mundane chaos of Cairo, and soon moves on in search of more desert monasteries. He eventually gains permission to visit the province of Asyut, centre of Egypt’s Coptic population, but closed to foreigners since the Islamist insurgency. The prospects seem gloomy, with Copts migrating, first to the anonymity of the cities, and then abroad. With an armed guard he reaches the fortified Coptic Abbey of Deir al-Muharraq, which had recently been attacked. As the convoy moves on to Kharga, an even more remote area, he reflects on the different problems confronting Christians around the Middle East:

In southeast Turkey the Syrian Christians were caught in the crossfire of a civil war, a distinct ethnic group trodden underfoot in the scrummage between two rival nationalisms, one Kurdish, the other Turkish. Here it was their ethnicity as much as their religion which counted against the Christians; they were not Kurds and not Turks, therefore they did not fit in. In Lebanon, the Maronites had reaped a bitter harvest of their own sowing: their failure to compromise with the country’s Muslim majority had led to a destructive civil war that ended in a mass emigration of Christians and a proportional diminution of Maronite power. The dilemma of the Palestinian Christians was quite different again. Their problem was that, like their Muslim compatriots, they were Arabs in a Jewish state, and as such suffered as second-class citizens in their own country, regarded with a mixture of suspicion and contempt by their Israeli masters. However, unlike most of the Muslims, they were educated professionals and found it relatively easy to emigrate, which they did, en masse. Very few were now left. Only in Egypt was the Christian population unambiguously threatened by a straightforward resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, and even there such violent fundamentalism was strictly limited to specific Cairo suburbs and a number of towns and villages in Upper Egypt, even if some degree of discrimination was evident across the country.

* * *

Dalrymple’s work exemplifies why many foreigners are attracted to the Mystic East, in search of grand architecture and the vestiges of ancient civilisations. Sometimes his work reads like a more dependable modern rebranding of Gurdjeff and the Truth Seekers; but his highly readable blending of early history, spiritual quest, and current affairs is really most impressive. 

FWIW, all this reminds me why I really don’t like travelling. It’s not really that I have any sense of “belonging” in London; but I’m averse to being a stranger, an ignorant foreigner unable to communicate. If I’m going to go somewhere, I want to stay there a bit, and get to know at least the basics of what makes the society tick. In China, “hit-and-run” missions can be useful, such as Yang Yinliu’s Hunan survey in 1956, or our reccies of south Fujian (1986/1990), north Shanxi (1992), and the plain south of Beijing; but I’ve relished making a base in one village, and with one family. Indeed, Dalrymple perhaps reached a similar conclusion, having made his home in Delhi since 1989, producing erudite (and always accessible) studies on the art and history of the Indian subcontinent.

* * *

Dalrymple has also written and presented several TV series. In From the holy mountain he himself exposed the long history of bitter conflict in the region (Moschos makes clear “the horrifying, almost apocalyptic nature of the destruction he witnessed around him”), exacerbated in a polarised modern world; so while he might have chosen to join the media in focusing on the gloomy outlook, with all the irreconcilable schisms, instead he prefers to preach a contrasting gospel—the shared roots, diversity, and historical tolerance of Christianity and Islam.

His pacifist credo is clear from the documentary Sufi soul: the mystic music of Islam that he presented for Channel 4 in 2005, directed by Simon Broughton (cf. the 2-CD set The Rough Guide to Sufi music). Filmed in Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, India, and Morocco, the programme offers a broad survey of Sufi musical traditions:

The exigencies of commercial TV suggest that I shouldn’t mark them down too much for including some of the Usual Suspects like the Whirling Dervishes (cf. Bektashi–Alevi ritual, 1). But hey, I continue to churn out armchair vignettes of world music—so “I can’t talk”…


* Later, Frances Wood‘s doubts that Marco Polo even reached China have not been well received.

** Perhaps someone can give me a more accurate version of the spoof on the classic opening for a crime novel that goes something like this:

Dead.

That’s what the portly middle-aged man lying in a crumpled heap with blood seeping over the bare warehouse floor from a gaping wound in his skull was.

Gansu: Return to Dust

Li Ruijun

Though I’ve never ventured as far as Gansu, I’m always keen to include it in our picture of the culture of northwest China. *

Among the talented younger generation of Chinese film-makers is Li Ruijun 李睿珺 (b.1983). A native of Gaotai county of Zhangye prefecture in Gansu, his style is based on the challenges faced by the dwindling populations of his poor rural home.

I included his Fly with the crane (2012) in my list of documentaries and verismo movies on rural life in China. Inspired by films such as Bicycle thieves, Li (like recent Iranian directors) adheres to the splendid tradition of using amateur actors, judiciously training professionals to immerse themselves in the local lifestyle—as in his latest movie Return to dust (Yinru chenyan 隐入尘烟, 2022), premiered recently at the Berlin International Film Festival (interview; reviewed e.g. here). Here’s a trailer:

and an excerpt:

By September, playing safe before the Party Congress, the film was removed from streaming sites, and online discussion censored. Zhang Yimou’s film One second had to endure similar scrutiny.

For more northwestern verismo, Jia Zhangke continues to bear the torch for rural Shanxi; and for Shaanbei, I’m still enamoured with The story of Qiu Ju, among the movies featured in Chinese film classics of the early reform era. Further south in rural Hunan, note the documentaries of Jiang Nengjie. Given the ongoing repression of the cultural scene, young directors are showing remarkable creativity in negotiating the shifting sands of censorship. Cf. the “native-place fiction” of Jia Pingwa and others.


* On Gansu, I’ve introduced

More composite characters

couplets for blog

Checking in with the Li family Daoists (click here for a roundup—and do watch our film, if you haven’t already!):

In the same vein as Li Qing’s poem to the Eight Immortals (Literary wordplay), his grandson Li Bin has just sent me this image of a cute New Year’s duilian couplet that he spotted, pasted up at a gateway in Anjiazao village in Gucheng district, south of the Daoists’ base at Upper Liangyuan.

At least, it looks like a duilian, with upper (right) and lower (left) columns both apparently comprising seven characters. Actually it’s another of those series of composite characters, each one containing four characters within it. The deciphered text is a fairly standard auspicious New Year’s wish for prosperity, but the visual effect is striking. As you will soon discern, the motto at the top reads

万事如意,招财进宝,三羊开泰,出门见喜。

The right-hand mottoes read

岁岁平安,五谷丰登,春满人间,八方来财,紫气东来,日进斗金,欢聚一堂

and to the left,

年年有余,四季安康,和春京月,七星高照,吉祥如意,恭喜发财,金玉满堂。

In a poor county where literacy levels were low right until the 1990s, I’m impressed by this creativity with the script.

57 shengguan trio

The shengguan group, 2011: left to right Li Bin, Wu Mei, Yang Ying.

Meanwhile, as the world lurches from one crisis to the next, Li Bin and the Yanggao Daoists are busy as ever providing ritual services to their local community. During the pandemic, while he couldn’t lead a ritual band for funerals, he was still in demand to determine the date, site the grave, supervise the encoffinment, and so on; and now that the initial alarm has receded in Yanggao, he again leads his band for the rituals culminating in the burial.

Some Kurdish bards

dengbej old young 2

Storytelling is always an oral repository of a people’s history and culture—as, for instance, in the Balkans (here, under “Bards”), Ukraine, Central Asia, and China. Now I’ve been trying to learn a bit about the dengbêj bards of Kurdistan.

There are majority Kurdish populations in regions of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, * all of whom have vexed relations with the relevant state authorities. Repressed in varying degrees of severity under different regimes, many have gone into exile. **

Kurdish mapMap, CIA 1992. Source: wiki.

Dengbêj
Among the variety of genres, here I’ll focus on Kurdish dengbêj storytellers within the borders of modern Turkey. In English, I look forward to reading

  • Ulaş Özdemir, Wendelmoet Hamelink, and Martin Greve (eds), Diversity and contact among singer-poet traditions in eastern Anatolia (2018; contents here), with its evocative cover image:

bards 1931Musicians during the Festival of Folk Poets in Sivas, 1931.

and

  • Wendelmoet Hamelink, The sung home: narrative, morality, and the Kurdish nation (2014) (revised excerpt here, on politics and song texts).

Traditional settings included şevbihêrk evening gatherings, urban cafés, and weddings. For later generations the dengbêj came to be associated with poverty and dependency, working for a beğ or an ağa. Their broad repertoire comprises epic tales of love and war, recited solo, fast and loud; some distinct mournful songs (kilam, stran) may be heard with instrumental accompaniment. Waves of conflict and repression have impacted the dengbêj; and it soon becomes apparent that change over the past century has resulted in reification.

I was drawn to the bards by the enthusiasm of popular singer Aynur for the great dengbêj of yesteryear, such as Dengbêj Şakiro (1936–96):

Biro 1936

Şeroyê Biro (right), 1936. Source.

Şeroyê Biro (c1881–1970) (this song punctuated by a variant of the ubiquitous drum-and-shawm combo):

Karapetê Xaço (d.2005; estimates of his birthdate range from 1900 to 1908), an ethnic Armenian (for his story, see here):

And more recently, here’s the celebrated Seyîtxanê Boyaxçî (1933–2020), from Diyarbakir—with a young singer:

Women dengbêj
While this is formally a male tradition, Marlene Schäfers thickens the plot by finding female dengbêj (“From shameful to public voice: women dengbêjs, the work of pain, and Kurdish history”) (for some readings on women’s music, see here).

dengbej Gazin

As in many traditional societies, women’s voices are heard

mainly in domestic, private and all-female spheres to which outsider and/or male ears are rarely admitted. The impression that Kurdish women lack voice is hence a result less of the actual absence of voice than of the way in which public and private spaces are differently valued. The general devaluation of the private (and female) sphere means that voices whose range is limited to the private become considered as insignificant. What counts, in our modern age, is public voice—precisely that which women have frequently been denied.

The women dengbêj are known especially for their kilam laments, expressions of pain and suffering, “closely related to epic songs (destan), funeral lamentations (şîn), and lullabies (lorî)”. While the kilam may be sung solo, they also match the mournful quality of the qernête (duduk, balaban) double-reed pipe, as we have already heard.

Renowned female singers included Meryem Xan (1904–49) (wiki, and here):

and Ayşe Şan (1938–96)—over two hours of singing here:

Schäfers also cites a kilam by Dengbêj Gazîn (1959–2018) from Van, with a play of words on gazîn, which is both the singer’s stage name and means “cry” or “shout”:

I am Gazîn, I am a dengbej,
I am neither deaf, nor am I mad
My eyes are shedding tears
I tell the sorrows of my heart

Nobody hears my voice
I tell the sorrows of my heart
Nobody hears my voice.

I am the heart-broken Gazîn
My insides are full of blood
I am like Xeçê, like Zîn
In the face of the enemies of tyranny
There remains no place for me to go
In the face of the enemies of tyranny
I turn towards the struggle.

I am Gazîn amidst the villagers
I am a milkmaid on the pastures
I cry out like a crane
In the face of the enemies of tyranny
I have become a captive in the mountains
In the face of the enemies of tyranny
I turn toward the desert and the mountains.

She appears on YouTube, both on film (others e.g. here, here, and via this post):

and in many hauntingly plangent audio recordings, such as in this playlist, and:

Dengbêj Gazîn was sentenced to one year in prison for singing Kurdish songs in 2010, deemed by the state prosecution to constitute “propaganda for an illegal organisation”, though she was acquitted in 2013.

In her chapter in Diversity and contact among singer-poet traditions in eastern Anatolia, Schäfers cites Gazîn’s kilam on the subject of the Van earthquake in 2011, making further acute observations on the topic of the “ownership” of orally-transmitted songs.

Here‘s an extensive playlist for the dengbêj.

“Heritage”
Clémence Scalbert-Yücel (“The invention of a tradition: Diyarbakır’s dengbêj project”, 2009), finds that since the rise of the “nostalgia industry” in the 1990s, dengbêj have been rediscovered, institutionalised, and “protected”. Moreover,

The dengbêj “tradition” as it exists today is the result of a several-decades-long process of negotiation between different Kurdish individual and collective actors, between different parts of Kurdish society, and between these Kurdish actors and representatives of the state. It shows that both the state and the Kurdist movement(s) have demonstrated contradictory attitudes toward dengbêj, ranging from protection to disinterest and repression, and that the practice of the dengbêj as well as the definition of the “tradition” have been profoundly shaped by this process. […]

Even though there is no longer a ban, auto-censorship is still in force and the dengbêjs are represented as “innocent relics” who portray the Kurdish part of the “Anatolian mosaic” promoted by official narratives in the 2000s.

The first part of the paper examines the survival of a certain way of dengbêjîin in spite of repression by state institutions, wider social changes, and a rather disinterested Kurdish movement. The second section looks at the revival of the dengbêj practice and at a renewed interest among some Kurdish activists, looking specifically at the municipality-led project.

Following the partitioning of Kurdish territory with the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, under the Turkish Republic the dengbêj have been subject to sporadic repression since the 1930s, most severely in the 1980s.

But dengbêjî was not only repressed by the state. It was also impeded by a Kurdish population that was both worried about persecution and had to some degree lost interest due to wider social changes (urbanisation, the arrival of television, and the development of new, “modern”, musical forms), and because of the attitudes of some within the Kurdish movement.

Scalbert-Yücel notes the change of context to performance at the official Houses of Dengbêj, for festivals, and on TV.

First, the songs performed today are shorter. […] Firstly, lack of practice, sometimes for a couple of decades, led to a loss of memory and shortening of the songs. The second reason is directly linked to the issue of the performance and the audience. The contemporary audience does not necessarily appreciate long epic stories, nor do they always understand them. This is reflected in the way in which people visit the House: they come for a little while, sit in the room with the dengbêj, and listen for them for a few minutes. They also often record the songs with their mobile phones, like they would shoot a photo souvenir. For the festivals and the television, the long epic songs are also largely shortened and cut.

Abbreviation had a longer history dating back to the early recording industry, to which the shorter kilams were better suited.

Economic and symbolic stakes also pushed people toward the use of instrumentation: adding instruments makes the dengbêj easier to listen to, more attractive, and potentially more famous. This changed the form of the music. […]

Political and guerrilla songs are also censored by the associations or TV channels. This means that an important part of the repertoire remains “in the chest” of the dengbêj and may eventually be forgotten. This can also halt the creative process and lead to a fixation of the dengbêj in the past, or give new directions to the creative process. Also, “old” songs seem to be given more value than the new ones as representing the “tradition”, the real “culture”.

As learning from tapes became common, the chain of transmission has been transformed.

Dengbêjs have become symbolic; they have become a heritage [mîras], as said one of the music professionals interviewed, who compared them to swords in a museum: before they were used daily by everyone; now they stand on a shelf.

All this supplements our list of flawed Intangible Cultural Heritage projects around the world; the Diyarbakır project reminds me in many ways of the ICH programme in China, with the remoulding of the “feudal” and “backward” past, and all the ambivalence of “registration” (both “looking after” and “controlling”: see Bards of Shaanbei, under “The reform era”).

In another fine article, Marlene Schäfers (“Being sick of politics: the production of dengbej as Kurdish cultural heritage in contemporary Turkey”, 2015) interrogates the recent construction of dengbê as Kurdish “cultural heritage”.

Given a longstanding and engrained history of systematic and violent persecution, repression, denial, and assimilation of all matters Kurdish by the Turkish state, Kurdishness has effectively been rendered an inherently and inescapably political subject position in Turkey today.

She seeks an understanding that

allows for a continual slippage between cultural heritage understood as, on the one hand, marking the essence of the Kurdish nation and being therefore of an inherently political nature and, on the other hand, constituting a non- or pre-political realm of folkloric engagement with ethnic traditions.

And she notes Nathalie Heinich’s felicitous term “the administration of authenticity”.

As critics of liberal multiculturalism have repeatedly noticed, tolerance is extended only on the condition that the object to be tolerated remains within boundaries determined by the tolerant majority itself.

dengbej old young 1

The dengbêj of Van are briefly introduced here, with this film:

Even those pushing for cultural preservation concede that the dengbêj is now a somewhat nostalgic embodiment of Kurdish identity. Movies and pop music are more influential than their laments, and the form’s rural strongholds are declining as young people move to cities. Whereas performers were once honoured guests at private houses and weddings, they now sing mainly for television, tourists, and folkloristic recordings. Their stories are shorter these days, in accommodation to both modern audiences and their own dwindling abilities.

For some very different expressive forms, see Dervishes of Kurdistan and Zaza and Hawrami. See also Reviving culture: the Yazidis, and Bektashi–Alevi rituals (1: Istanbul, 2: Anatolia).


* For background, see e.g. Walter Posch and Jaffer Sheyholislami (eds), The Kurds: history, religion, language, politics (2015). Note the bibliography by Chris Houston, Anthropology of Kurdistan (2017), and Robert Riegle, A brief history of Kurdish music recordings in Turkey (2013); see also Christine Allison, “The shifting borders of conflict, difference, and oppression: Kurdish folklore revisited” (2016). For introductions to Kurdish music, see sections in The Rough Guide to world music, the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, and the Garland encyclopedia of world music. As elsewhere, the popular songs promoted in the media inevitably receive more media coverage than musicking in rural life. But note some fine CDs from Kalan Mûzik, such as Traditional music of Hakkari (2004). See also e.g. Gönenç Hongur, Politics, struggle, violence, and the transformation of expressive culture: an ethnography of Kurds’ musical practices in Turkey (2014).

 

** I think of the Tibetans, also stateless—their homes (within the People’s Republic of China) in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Amdo, and Kham, as well as Nepal, Ladakh, Bhutan, India, and the diaspora; for some Tibetan bards, click here and here.

Li Shiyu on folk religion in Philadelphia

來而不往非禮也

LSY cover

We impertinent laowai are used to descending on a Chinese community to interpret its customs, but it’s less common to find Chinese ethnographies of religious life in Western societies.

Li Shiyu 李世瑜 (1922–2010) was a leading authority on Chinese sectarian religion and its “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷). Alongside his historical research, he was concerned to document religious life in current society—although it was hard to broach the latter in China after the 1949 revolution. In his work on the precious scrolls, I have also been impressed by his attention to performance practice. When I met him in the early 1990s he was still going strong, and still doing fieldwork.

Li Shiyu 1993
Li Shiyu with his wife, 1993. My photo.

Grootaers heying

Li Shiyu undertook his early field training in rural north China in 1947–48, on the eve of the Communist revolution, assisting his teacher, the Belgian Catholic missionary Willem Grootaers, in documenting village temples around the regions of Wanquan, Xuanhua, and Datong. [1] Whereas Grootaers was mainly concerned with listing the material evidence of “cultic units”, Li went further in describing sectarian activity. His resulting thesis Xianzai Huabei mimi zongjiao 现在华北秘密宗教 [Secret religions in China today], was published promptly in 1948, focusing on four sects including the Way of Yellow Heaven (also active in north Shanxi in counties such as Yanggao and Tianzhen, and later documented by scholars such as Cao Xinyu and Liang Jingzhi).

After the 1949 “Liberation” Li’s research was highly circumscribed (like that of countless other scholars such as Wang Shixiang), though he managed to continue his study of the precious scrolls, publishing a major catalogue in 1961. It was only after the liberalisations of the late 1970s following the collapse of the commune system that was he able to resume his work in earnest.

And in that early reform era, from 1984 to 1986 he also spent eighteen months as a Luce Scholar at Pennsylvania University. Hannibal Taubes (always ready to supply a stimulating lead: e.g. here, and here) alerts me to a chapter in Li Shiyu’s memoirs (Li Shiyu huiyilu 李世瑜回憶錄 [2011], pp.296–311) in which he attempted to apply the kind of field methods that he had acquired under Grootaers (described in pp.267–70) to the “folk religions” of the USA, with vignettes of the diverse Christian life of urban Philadelphia.

LSY opening

In his last six months there Li Shiyu made an ethnographic survey of church activity in the university district—an area of twenty streets and some 8,000 inhabitants. The 160 churches there might be large or small, with some shared by more than one denomination; seventeen were established Catholic and Protestant churches, while the others belonged to over seventy different groups that had mostly been formed since World War Two, some of them just small “house churches”.

LSY and deputy mayorWith the Mayor of Philadelphia.

My eyebrows were raised to read of Li Shiyu’s first port of call: in search of statistics, he began by consulting the very people he would never dream of going anywhere near in China—the Police Chiefs 公安局局长 (!) of the district and city. In China, local police archives (see Liu Shigu’s chapter for Fieldwork in modern Chinese history) would make most instructive sources on religious activity for the whole era of Maoist campaigns, but attempting access would be rash. Indeed, to Li Shiyu’s lasting anguish, his 1948 thesis had been used by the Public Security Bureau to suppress the very sectarian groups he had respectfully documented.

Anyway, when the Philadelphia police chiefs were unable to help, the City Council introduced him to the Mayor, who asked, “Why do you wanna know? You been sent by your government? Are you gonna give your report to them when you go back?”. [2] Li Shiyu replied that he was just doing academic research, nothing to do with the government—just as we might have to explain in China (cf. Nigel Barley in Cameroon, cited at the end of my post on The brief of ethnography).

In answer to Li Shiyu’s query whether churches needed to register when they opened, the Mayor explained how “freedom of religious belief” worked in the States; all people had to do was to find a property, ideally one bequeathed in someone’s will, tax-free and rent-free. He went on, “Some pastors are pitiable—unable to find a site, they have to rent one temporarily, paid by donations from the congregation or from their subsidiary occupation. Spreading the teachings is a good thing, it’s good for society, there’s no need to register with the police—so I dunno how many churches there are in Philly.”

Next Li Shiyu visited the Westminster Theological Seminary. But as one has to do in China, he soon gave up on officialdom, “going down” to the churches themselves, one by one. As he notes, in an unstable, even dangerous, American society, parents sought to prevent their children getting into trouble by introducing them to the spiritual power of the church (rather like the elders of Hebei ritual associations, as recalled by many villagers such as Cai An). Li absorbed himself in the intensity of sermons and choirs, getting to know congregation members. But rather than observing the mainstream churches, his experience in China doubtless prompted him to seek out some of the more less orthodox, charismatic groups—some of which forbade marriage or the owning of property.

To imbue us with the holy spirit, here’s a musical interlude from 1976 (which will get you in the mood for Aretha’s ecstatic Amazing Grace):

Li Shiyu’s survey makes fascinating reading in Chinese, bearing in mind his particular concerns, suggesting parallels with religious life in China. A case in point is the first, and most remarkable, of his nineteen vignettes, “The Holy Mother descends from the mountain” (Shengmu xiashan 圣母下山).

I doubt if Li Shiyu quite knew what he was getting into [3] when he stayed for ten days in a hostel on 36th Street, whose basement was the meeting place of the International Peace Mission. The mission was founded by the controversial African-American preacher Father Divine—here’s a short documentary:

After his death in 1965 the organisation was led by his white wife Edna Rose Ritchings, known as “Sweet Angel”, “Mother Divine”.

Mother DivineMother Divine signs her book for Li Shiyu.

In March 1986 Li Shiyu witnessed Mother Divine’s annual “descent from the mountain” (the “mountain” of her estate at Woodmont in the suburbs), and even made a speech as guest of honour at the banquet. But he can’t have been privy to Father Divine’s turbulent story or the Peace Mission’s intrigues. From 1971 Mother Divine was engaged in a dispute with cult leader Jim Jones, until he fled to Guyana in 1978 and instigated his followers to commit a horrific mass suicide there (subject of several documentaries, e.g. here)—alas, just the kind of cult that the Chinese state seizes on as a pretext to suppress peaceful gatherings of believers.

Li Shiyu goes on to introduce the Miracle Temple of Christ; he takes part in a “qigong” healing session, and a service involving “wild kissing”; he is struck by the silence of prayer at a Quaker (Kuike! 魁克) meeting (evidently “unprogrammed worship“), discovers Sister Tina’s lucrative psychic fortune-telling business, and observes a rather stressful immersive baptism. In an experiment that only the most intrepid fieldworker will care to contemplate, he confuses a couple of what sounds like Jehovah’s Witnesses by showing a genuine interest in their teachings, asking them etic questions like why there were so many denominations in Philadelphia, and their economic circumstances. And he describes the only occasion in visiting over a hundred churches when he was met by a hostile reception.

While Li Shiyu was in the States, Robert Orsi’s study of the Madonna cult in New York’s Italian Harlem was published, a book that would have impressed him.

* * *

Of course, Chinese scholars have long sought to understand “Western culture”; one might even see it as the mainstream of Chinese intellectual life since at least the May Fourth era (for science, philosophy, fiction, music, and so on)—I think, for example, of Fou Ts’ong’s father Fu Lei. Though Western culture didn’t reside solely in advanced technology or reified masterpieces of high art, it was rare for Chinese scholars to have the curiosity (or means) to contemplate the ethnography of living Western societies.

Even making the transition from rural to urban ethnography is rather rare, let alone shifting one’s sights from rural China to urban America. Just as Western fieldworkers in China build on a considerable body of research by local scholars, within the USA such charismatic traditions attract much study. And like Western scholars making an initial survey in China, during Li Shiyu’s time in Philadelphia he could hardly engage with the complexities involved in documenting religious life, or address issues such as race, gender, poverty, migration, and social change.

Still, he clearly found the encounter most fruitful and suggestive. For Chinese readers, potentially, such studies might suggest that “superstitious” practices were not unique to a “backward” China, that they have their own social logic. Li Shiyu’s non-judgmental, etic viewpoint is refreshing.

Though he gives Christian Science an easy ride, when interviewed by a representative he encapsulates a significant issue: asked, “Why do you want to come to the States to study our folk religion?”, Li Shiyu replies feistily, “That’s a question I’d ask your scholars—why do you come to China to study our folk religion?!”, citing the Chinese proverb Lai er bu wang fei li ye 來而不往非禮也 “Not to reciprocate is against etiquette”. Click here for the more elaborate interview in The Christian Science Monitor

Despite his somewhat testy initial encounter with the Mayor, Li Shiyu clearly relished the ease of doing fieldwork in the States, without the fear of consequences that bedevilled research under Maoism in China. His sojourn in Philly must have made a welcome relief before he plunged back into the fray of fieldwork in China, as academic pursuits there became more free—if never free enough.


[1] See the detailed critique on the site of Hannibal Taubes, in four parts starting here; for bibliography, see n.1 in my article on The cult of Elder Hu.

[2] The Mayor was apparently Wilson Goode—who might well have been feeling sensitive since he was under the shadow of an investigation into the police’s botched attempt the previous year to clear the building occupied by the radical anarcho-primitivist cult MOVE, when a police helicopter had dropped a bomb that led to a fire destroying four city blocks, killing eleven (including five children) and leaving 240 people homeless (documentary here). Goode himself later went on to become a minister of religion.

[3] Rather as I had no idea in 1989 when I first witnessed the New Year’s rituals in Gaoluo that the village had been the scene of a major massacre in the 1900 Boxer uprising, and that the Catholics there had later been evangelised by Bishop Martina, who was accused of plotting to blow up the Communist leadership at the 1949 victory celebrations in Tiananmen: click here.

Small—Far away

Europe is all very well, but the Asian side of Istanbul is really quite enough.

When I do venture to cross the Bosphorus, being aboard a boat still gives me a buzz—my first time afloat since looking after Li Manshan and the Daoists in Venice in 2012.

Yusuf painting

The centre of the world, by renowned Kuzguncuk artist Yusuf Katipoglu (1941–2018).
Üsküdar on right, Kuzguncuk on left.

us on boatReturning to Üsküdar the other afternoon, as landmarks gradually became visible I was trying to recognise its mosques from afar. I was on the lookout for the Yeni Valide Camii (1703)—where we had previously admired a double ezan call to prayer—and the charming little Şemsi Paşa Camii (1581) on the coast; perhaps even the Atik Valide Külliyesi (1583) further up the hill. But at first I couldn’t quite make out any of them.

Uskudar mosques

Şemsi Paşa Mosque (right), Yeni Valide Mosque (left).
Not actual size (Discuss).

I made some fatuous remark like “The big mosque looks very small”, whereupon my Wise Companion Augusta patiently offered me a lesson in perspective not unlike that of Father Ted to Dougall:

Augusta promised me the mosques would soon look bigger—and as if by magic…

In art, the development of perspective is commonly associated with Renaissance Italy (Brunelleschi, Piero della Francesca, and so on). BTW, for China, do read the fascinating article by Hannibal Taubes on the use of perspective on temple murals and opera stages in rural north China since the 19th century!

OK, we’re not talking Art here, more the disconnect between my eyes and brain. Like hello?

For a return match, see Line judges.

The headscarf, emblem of the Chinese revolution

Images from 1968 (left) and 1980 (right); see here.

In north China the white cloth that male peasants tie around their heads became an emblem of the revolution. The custom long predated the 1949 Liberation, but was another casualty of the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s.

While the headgear was common throughout the north Chinese countryside, it is often associated with Shaanbei, revolutionary base from the 1930s. In this 1981 group photo from Yulin, only a couple of shawm players were wearing them (see Walking shrill), outnumbered by the peaked caps which were a more modern image of the revolution:

1981 photo

In the hill village of Yangjiagou, here’s the shawm player Chang Bingyou (1916–98), father of our friend Older Brother:

Chang Daye

Though fashion moved slowly in the countryside, by the time I visited Shaanbei in 1999 headscarves were already rare. Here’s the Yangjiagou band at a funeral in 1999:

YJG band

So it was purely in a spirit of nostalgia that we took this photo with Older Brother and Chouxiao in 1999:

YJG trio

But some older people in the region were still wearing the headscarf—here’s a band from Linxian (across the river in Shanxi) at the Baiyunshan temple fair in 2001:

BYS shawm band

Here’s Guo Yuhua with the last Yangjiagou villager still wearing it in 2005:

GYH chat with last headscarfed man

In the countryside south of Beijing, headscarves were also rare in Gaoluo by the 1990s. The wonderful He Yi was virtually the only villager who still wore one:

In the depth of winter villagers often wore protective earflaps:

GL wentan

Vocal liturgists perform for funeral, South Gaoluo 1995.

In Gaoluo even I resorted to headgear, affecting an English proletarian flat ’at.

See also Funerary headgear.

* * *

Meanwhile, a world away from the Chinese revolution:

JEG

English Baroque Soloists rehearsal: see Barbed comments.

The fine line between irony and Looking a Complete Twat is lost on the repugnant Minister for the 18th Century, “eternally trapped in the ridiculous fancy-dress outfit that he once wore for a laugh at a school party” (oh, I said that):

RM

And speaking of Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson, here’s an instance of his characteristic gravitas:

BJ hat

Irony was also in full flow during the recent Opening of Parliament, with a crown worth billions of pounds, delivered in a gilded carriage, on display during a speech that neatly sidestepped the cost-of-living crisis (government advice: “Why not try earning more money?”):

Crown

As to clothing, one might note that men are not only free to choose for themselves, but that they are also kind enough to decide on behalf of women.

Well folks, I guess that’s just about it for tonight!

Recent studies of the Uyghur crisis

The professorial inauguration of Rachel Harris at SOAS was a splendid multi-media event, with live music, a new short film, and Rachel’s account of her recent fieldwork on the culture of Uyghur refugees in the Zeytninburnu district of Istanbul. For her books on the Uyghur soundscape, click here and here.

It’s hard to keep up with publications on the Uyghur genocide. James Millward offers a useful selection of readings, leading to this bibliography.

Among several fine scholars is the anthropologist Darren Byler, who has recently published several works. His Terror capitalism: Uyghur dispossession and masculinity in a Chinese city (2022; interview here) is a major study. A more succinct account, but just as incisive, is

  • In the camps: life in China’s high-tech penal colony (2022).

In the camps cover

Detailed case studies of the nightmares endured by innocent people illustrate the web of checkpoints, digital surveillance, and facial recognition, operated by private technology companies and police contractors; and the mass internment projects that are aimed not at a small number of criminals but at the entire Muslim population.

The surveillance system itself produced assumptions of guilt, of pre-criminality. As the system manufactured these claims, many Muslims were made to hide their moral objections by wearing masks of loyalty to the state programme. Those who lacked these masks were dehumanised under the lights and cameras of the camps. They were transformed by plastic stools, electric batons, and automated cruelty. They were trained to sit still, cower when appropriate, to accept beatings silently, to sing loudly, to always smile, and to say “Yes!” to every command. They were conditioned not to register the smell of excrement, fear, and sweat that came with the open buckets used as toilets, the crush of unwashed bodies in cramped space, and their terror of the guards. They stopped noticing the glare of bright lights in the middle of the night. They stopped feeling their constant hunger. They stopped thinking about the distant future or the past.

Smartphones, which became common from 2005, seemed a blessing, allowing people to share information widely—all the more once WeChat became popular from 2010. Sharing knowledge with Islamic communities abroad was just one aspect of this. This soon turned into a “phone disaster”, as state scrutiny of the device became a major tool in its “War on Terror”.

As Byler discovers, the chain of guilt leads to tech companies in the USA, and within the PRC to the forced labour of factories both in Xinjiang and in the Chinese heartland. Meanwhile camp guards, technicians, and “teachers”—Han Chinese, Uyghur, and Kazakh—were also desensitised, although many were deeply traumatised. A Muslim women, conscripted from her primary school job to teach Chinese to camp inmates, soon realised that this assignment was no ordinary “training centre”. Finding her first “pupils” were handcuffed elderly men with beards, without thinking, she used the traditional greeting “Assalamu alaykum”.

When she said this, the students froze. “They looked terrified. I realised I had said something wrong. I introduced myself and started the class. I just stared at the blackboard, and didn’t turn back to look at their faces. I couldn’t turn around because some detainees were sobbing. Some of the old men’s beards were wet from crying. I tried to compose myself. I didn’t look back at all during the class. I just kept writing and erasing the characters on the blackboard.

Gradually she acclimatises to the performance demanded of her. The staff too are under constant scrutiny, their every movement recorded on camera, their own phones monitored.

The violence of functioning within the camp system wore her down. Violating the personhood of others resulted in a violation of her own sense of dignity and self-worth.

Relatives of the disappeared lived in fear too. Family separation has become endemic; “in some Uyghur-majority areas, as many as 70% of children up through age five are now held in Mandarin-medium ‘Kindness Kindergartens’ while their parents are in prisons, camps, or factories“. On the rare occasions when inmates were permitted supervised family visits, it was even more painful to have to go through the charade of pretending that everything was fine.

Those who are eventually released from the camps, cowed into subservience, often find themselves coerced into forced labour as factory workers for Han Chinese companies. The fruits of their labour are sold around the world. Propaganda praises such enterprise as “poverty alleviation” for a backward people, whereby they acquire “life skills”, workers are entirely deprived of legal protections, forming a captive underclass.

One camp survivor observed,

We often became hopeless. Sometimes we really felt hatred towards the Chinese people, to the point where I would catch myself thinking that I could kill Chinese government workers just to feel something. But then I think about all the Han Chinese people I’ve met who also criticise Xi Jinping, who curse him. So I can’t blame the Chinese people for this; they are victims too.

Finally Byler turns to the global picture. He notes that the surveillance system of Xinjiang is an extreme, “perfected” instance of those deployed around the world, and developed in the West at companies such as at his own base in Seattle, with Microsoft, IBM, Amazon, Google, Adobe all deeply implicated.

The management of Covid is also implicated in such systems:

The ability of Seattle, Kansas City, and Seoul to respond as rapidly as they have to the pandemic relies in part on the way systems of oppression in Northwest China have opened up a space to train biometric surveillance algorithms. The protection of others depends on […] ignoring the dehumanisation of thousands of detainees and unfree workers.

Byler notes the potential of such technology to further entrench racialization in the USA.

The algorithms make it appear normal that black men or Uyghurs are disproportionately detected by these systems. They stop the police, and those they protect, from recognising that surveillance is always about controlling and disciplining people that do not fit into the vision of those in power. The world, not China alone, has a problem with surveillance.

For Michael Dillon’s LRB review of In the camps and other recent works, click here.

* * *

A more wide-ranging study is

  • Darren Byler, Ivan Franceschini, and Nicholas Loubere (eds), Xinjiang Year Zero (2022; free download here).

XJ Year Zero cover

The volume is an outgrowth of the Made in China Journal, where several of the essays were originally published. The Preface by Andrea Pitzer, and the editors’ Introduction, spell out some of the main themes: camps, surveillance, technology, labour exploitation, and global connections. Aimed at the whole society, ethnic cleansing criminalises the everyday lives of Muslims in Xinjiang.

The book is in three broad sections. Part One, “Discursive roots”, traces historical factors.Ye Hui, “Nation building as epistemic violence”, situates the repression of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang in the history of global imperialism, outlining how the dispossession of populations in Xinjiang today is an effect of secular nation-building. Zenab Ahmed, “Revolution and state formation as oasis storytelling in Xinjiang”, analyses assimilationist policies targeting Uyghur spirituality and mythic storytelling. Guldana Salimjan, “Blood lineage”, traces how conceptions of racial purity and authenticity have shaped national consciousness throughout the history of the PRC. David Brophy, “Good and bad Muslims in Xinjiang”, examines how Beijing taps into global discourses of counter-radicalisation emerging from the US-led War on Terror. In “Imprisoning the open air: preventive policing as community detention in northwestern China”, Darren Byler digs into how counterinsurgency strategies developed in the USA, Israel, and Europe have been adapted for “community policing” in Xinjiang.

Zero 1

Zero 2

Part Two, “Settler colonialism”, situates the case of contemporary Xinjiang in a longer-run history of Han settler colonialism. Tom Cliff’s photo essay “Oil and water” depicts the lives of Han Chinese settlers in Xinjiang. Guldana Salimjan, “Recruiting loyal stabilisers: on the banality of carceral colonialism in Xinjiang”, details the ongoing human transfer project in Xinjiang through the banal language of recruitment and employment. In “Triple dispossession in northwestern China”, Sam Tynen explores multiple forms of everyday dispossession and displacement of Uyghurs outside the camps. Timothy Grose, “Replace and rebuild: Chinese colonial housing in Uyghur communities”, outlines the ways in which Uyghur spaces are being reorganised, resulting in the disruption of conceptions of home; as in other colonial projects, “civilising” the indigenous population entails destroying their tradition. Rian Thum, “The spatial cleansing of Xinjiang: Mazar desecration in context”, details the meaning and implications of the destruction of three of the most revered sacred and historical sites in Xinjiang (see also Shrine festivals of the Uyghurs), as well as the desecration of graveyards. Guldana Salimjan, “Camp land: settler ecotourism and Kazakh removal in contemporary Xinjiang”, explains how the discourses and practices of ecotourism are used to justify the removal of Kazakh communities. Darren Byler, “Factories of Turkic Muslim internment”, shows how the internment camps are producing cheap labour for the factories moving to Xinjiang to take advantage of the situation.

Zero 3

Tourists entering the new Kashgar Old City, 2015.

Part Three, “Global connections”, concerns the global nature of mass detention and the emergence of a high-tech surveillance state in Xinjiang. Nicholas Loubere and Stefan Brehm, “The global age of the algorithm: social credit, Xinjiang, and the financialisation of governance in China”, draw connections between experiments with “social credit” and broader global processes of financialised inclusion, reflecting on what this means for social control. Darren Byler, “Surveillance, data police, and digital enclosure in Xinjiang’s ‘Safe Cities’ ” explores how Xinjiang’s “Safe Cities” are facilitating forms of surveillance and digital enclosure. Gerald Roche, “Transnational carceral capitalism and private paramilitaries in Xinjiang and beyond” examines the role of an international private security firm in Xinjiang, considering how the global security industry precipitates the circulation of methods and technologies of control in China and beyond. Séagh Kehoe, “Chinese feminism, Tibet, and Xinjiang”, looks at the plight of women and ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang from the perspective of the Chinese and international feminist movements. Nitasha Kaul, “China: Xinjiang; India: Kashmir”, compares China and India in their treatment of “othered” populations in Xinjiang and Kashmir (which share a border).

In the Conclusion, the editors update the story and note important issues that the international community needs to address. An Appendix gives a detailed timeline since 2009.

Scholarship on the PRC can no longer ignore such impressive research on the repression in Xinjiang and elsewhere—which must continue to be highlighted among the many current alarms around the world.

This is the latest in my series on Uyghur culture, with posts listed here.

Rulan Chao Pian: an exhibition

Rulan 1

The Harvard Library has a new bilingual exhibition (until the end of August) on the life and work of Rulan Chao Pian 卞趙如蘭(1922–2013; here, and wiki), with rare books, original field recordings, and other material from her research and teaching.

Rulan 1941 Cambridge

1941, Cambridge, Mass. Source.

Daughter of the linguist Yuen Ren Chao, Rulan Chao Pian was a leading scholar of the performing arts and music history of China, teaching at Harvard from 1947 until her retirement in 1992. She was one of the founders of CHINOPERL. In 1974 she became the first Chinese American woman professor at Harvard. Soon after mainland China opened up with the liberalisations of the late 1970s she was active in researching and lecturing there, while spreading word abroad of the revival in performance traditions and scholarship.

Rulan 2

In her bibliography, note the wealth of articles on Peking opera and narrative singing. On early history, her 1969 book Sonq dynasty musical sources and their interpretation explored material that was already being interpreted by scholars like Yang Yinliu in China and Laurence Picken in England. See also the festschrift Themes and variations: essays in honor of Rulan Chao Pian, ed. Bell Yung and Joseph Lam (1994).

Ding without dong

À propos household appliances, I’ve already regaled you with the saga of my ancient fridge. Now, in another of those “hideous encounters with domestic necessity“, my trusty doorbell is on the blink.

It hasn’t worked for months, even when I imaginatively changed the batteries; so in the absence of a sturdy knocker (cf. Horatio E. Brown, Some Venetian knockers), my rare visitors have been reduced to beating vigorously on my door. Now, working diligently with a fine array of tools, my fine neighbourhood handyman has managed to reinstate the ding, but I still find myself without dong. It makes me feel better that it wasn’t just that I put the batteries in the wrong way round.

Examples I’ve heard of the ding-dong (not to be confused with the polemical ding-dong, nor with Dang in Gujarat and Korea—nor indeed with Dingding, Chinese for Tintin, or Doof-doof) all seem to be standardised at the same pitch, concert F♯–D:

Conditioned by long experience, on hearing the ding one’s ears eagerly anticipate the dong. Thus I can’t help hearing the first pitch as a mi, looking forward to a resolution on do (“do, a note to follow mi“—see Solfeggio). If the first note were a single pitch devoid of social history, one could perfectly hear it as a do, or indeed any other pitch degree.

Brahms 4The two-note motif could be any major third, actually: I doubt if anyone hears it as ti–so or la–fa, or even the fifth and third of a minor triad, as at the opening of Brahms 4—but once my second note is restored, I’m going to have a jolly good try to hear it that way. Were I an Inuit hunter (yeah right), the motif would have its own associations (looks around for doorbell on igloo).

* * *

If you’re really at a loose end (and currently for me this serves as a welcome distraction from trying to get to grips with ritual theory, with all its “redemptive hegemony flapdoodle), the doorbell has an interesting history. Or at least a history. As Wiki helpfully explains, it’s

a signalling device typically placed near a door to a building’s entrance. When a visitor presses a button the bell rings inside the building, alerting the occupant to the presence of the visitor.

Thanks for that, wiki (it’s even funnier, with a link defining the word “door”—”a hinged or otherwise movable barrier that allows ingress [entry] into and egress [exit] from an enclosure”). The article goes on:

William Murdoch, a Scottish inventor, installed a number of his own innovations in his house, built in Birmingham in 1817; one of these was a loud doorbell, that worked using a piped system of compressed air. A precursor to the electric doorbell, specifically a bell that could be rung at a distance via an electric wire, was invented by Joseph Henry around 1831. By the early 1900s, electric doorbells had become commonplace.

Bell-pulls

Before electrical doorbells, large houses and estates often had complicated mechanical systems to allow occupants of any room to pull a bell pull and ring a bell at a central bell panel in the staff quarters, to summon a servant.

Note the operative word there (cf. All things bright and beautiful).

Bell pull cartoon

James Gillray, 1804.

Irresistibly evoking the capacious household of the baffling Jacob Tree-Frog, aka The Haunted Pencil or Minister for the 18th century,

bell pulls may be used to summon workers in homes of people who employ butlers, housemaids, nannies, or other domestic workers, [who] and often have a tassel at the bottom.

Owl's bell pull

English readers of a certain age may also associate the bell pull with Eeyore and Owl.

Of course, more artsy sounds have been developed. I’m reminded of Helen Rees’s fine aperçuDoorbells play muzak when pressed”.

Zeng Houyi bells

Indeed, you may recall that I rejoice in the sonorous Chinese surname of Zhong 鐘, “Bell”. Picture a domestic scene in Hubei in the 5th century BCE: whenever someone popped in for a chat with the Marquis Yi of Zeng over a pot of tea and a macaroon, a slave had to notify his master by striking the relevant bell of his immense set of bianzhong with a wooden mallet. Fortunately, of the sixty-four bells, only one is required to create the ding-dong, as each was ingeniously designed to sound two notes a third apart!!!

See also Cowbells: Mahler, Messiaen, and Bill Bailey.

Cultural Revolution jokes

CR jokes cover

While there’s an abundance of collections of satirical stories from around the Soviet bloc (see Hammer and tickle, with further links), I’ve noted the general neglect of the rich seam of subversive Chinese jokes debunking the Maoist decades, and indeed the following reform era. Serving as an outlet to defuse genuine distress, they constitute a major resource for understanding the “sentiments of the people” (minqing 民情).

In a substantial recent post on David Cowhig‘s useful website, he rounds up some fine Chinese sites for modern political jokes—notably this and this. He classifies them under headings such as Gang of Four jokes, dialect jokes, sex jokes, extreme political rituals, and historical revisionism. * Among David’s links are a site for Jiang Zemin and Li Peng stories, with more on the latter here (roughly translated here)—for some choice Li Peng stories on my own blog, click here, here, and here.

Admittedly, some of the stories are for the specialist and are hard to translate effectively, hinging on arcane Chinese puns. This one is worth bringing out when adopting the popular slogan jinburuxi 今不如昔 “things ain’t what they used to be” (as does Li Manshan at the end of my portrait film, from 1.19.20):

One evening the production team held a general meeting, and according to the instructions of the county committee and the commune, the old production-team leader expected the members to severely criticise the reactionary fallacy that “the present [jin] is not as good as the past [xi]”. But all evening no-one spoke up, because everyone felt that the present was indeed not as good as the past, so what was there to criticise? The old team leader had no choice but to prompt everyone: “How can the present be worse than the past? How much does gold [jin] cost a catty? How much does tin [xi] cost a catty?” So commune members came out with their criticism: “What a load of bollocks—of course gold is more expensive than tin!”

生产队晚上召开大会,老队长根据县委和公社的指示,要社员们狠狠批判“今不如昔”的反动谬论。可是开了大半夜,没有一个人发言,因为大家都觉得的确是今不如昔嘛,怎么批判?老队长没有办法,只好启发大家说:“怎么会今不如昔呢!金子多少钱一斤?锡多少钱一斤?”社员们一听,纷纷批判:“真是胡说八道,金子肯定比锡贵嘛!”

This related anecdote also links up with Tian Qing’s wonderful story:

There used to be a famous restaurant called Da Sanyuan in Changdi, Guangzhou. During the Cultural Revolution, it was ordered to change its name to Jin sheng xi 今胜昔 [The Present Beats the Past]. When Hong Kong or overseas compatriots came back to Guangzhou, reading from right to left in the traditional manner, they read the name as “The Past Beats the Present” (昔胜今). So they didn’t know whether they should enter the restaurant.

从前广州市长堤有一间众人皆知的著名酒家 “大三元”,文革中被勒令改名为“今胜昔”。而香港或是海外侨胞回广州时,都按旧时从右到左读法,便把 “今胜昔” 读成 “昔胜今”。搞得他们不知道进去好还是不进去好。

Two stories on blind obedience:

During the Cultural Revolution, there were often mass criticism meetings. One day someone’s father was dragged up on stage and criticised. At the end of the meeting, he was asked to shout slogans to make a clean break with his father and draw a clear line between the two of them. He rushed to the front of the stage and shouted with his arms held high:
“Down with my father! Down with my father!”
At this point the crowd joined in, jumping up and raising their hands, yelling :
Down with my father! Down with my father!

And

The work unit held a meeting to criticise Lin Biao and Confucius. A tenor and a soprano got on stage to lead the audience in chanting slogans:
(leader) “Down with Lin Biao!”
(crowd) “Down with Lin Biao!”
(leader) “Down with Confucius!”
(crowd) “Down with Confucius!”
(leader) “Harshly criticise ourselves and restore propriety!”
(Crowd) “Harshly criticise ourselves and restore propriety!”
After the slogans, there was a brief moment of silence before the leaders spoke. Just then, old Zhang from the communications office rushed out backstage and shouted to the leaders seated on the podium:
“Phone call for Director Wang!”
So the whole crowd followed him by chanting:
“Phone call for Director Wang!”

Just like “Yes! We’re all individuals!” in The life of Brian:


* More generally, in The joys of indexing (a zany read, not least for introducing the Lexicon of musical invective) I outlined some of the main themes among my “Chinese jokes” tag in the sidebar:

Sihanouk

Stories of Prince Sihanouk visiting China, an intriguing sub-genre.

Ray Man, pioneer of Chinese musicking in London

with a homage to Cantonese music and jazz in Soho

RM 2022 for blog

Ray Man at home, 2022.

The splendid Ray Man (文賢慶, b.1937) has been a pillar of the Chinese music scene in the UK since he arrived from Hong Kong in 1956. It’s been many years since we met up, but it was delightful to visit him again recently at his house in Chalk Farm, listening as he recalled the old days with his quirky sense of humour. His story illustrates profound social and musical changes in the UK, Hong Kong, and mainland China. [1]

Ray’s early life in Hong Kong
Ray was brought up in rural San Tin in the New Territories, just south of Shenzhen (then still a sleepy little town!). The Wen lineage was the dominant clan there. Ray’s early memories are of hiding from the Japanese troops after they invaded Hong Kong in 1941. His father was a seaman who went on to trade rice in Singapore; imprisoned by the Japanese, he was only released when his father-in-law (who had long emigrated to New York) paid a huge ransom. But he lost his business, and after the war it was some time before he could return home; he was now suffering from TB.

HK Fan He
“Work and play”, from the iconic albums of Fan He.

In San Tin living conditions were poor. After the surrender of the Japanese, Ray moved with his mother to Kowloon in 1946, helping her with a little homemade catering enterprise, delivering congee and snacks.

HK Cantonese opera 1950s
Hong Kong club, 1950s. Source.

At the age of 9, while reading a cartoon book in a stairwell, Ray was entranced by hearing a blind busker playing a plaintive melody on yewu [yehu] 椰胡 coconut fiddle. He began frequenting the bustling area around Temple street, [2] where a variety of entertainments could be heard, such as the naamyam ballads sung by teahouse bards. Ray had absorbed Cantonese opera from infancy, perching on his mother’s back at New Year in the village; his older brother was a great fan, so now Ray too went along to clubs to relish the drama. He borrowed a violin (evocatively transcribed as 梵鈴), by then a popular member of the Cantonese ensemble, and picked up yehu and gaohu fiddles, as well as various plucked lutes.

Ray finds his feet in the UK
Following the British Nationality Act of 1948, waves of immigrants arrived in the UK from the Pearl River Delta—mostly male, and single, working in Chinese restaurants (wiki: here and here).

Through his old seafaring connections, Ray’s father, in frail health, reached London in 1955. In late 1956 Ray himself borrowed the princely sum of £165 for his own passage to the UK, boarding a ship with only his violin, Chinese yewu, and banjo; after forty-five days at sea he was less than pleased to find himself having to disembark in Marseilles (cf. Nearly an Italian holiday). Eventually he made his way on to London, finding the new Chinese community in Soho, which, as restaurant work supplanted seafaring, had recently replaced their original base of Limehouse—potent material for the racist fantasy embodied by Fu Manchu (see e.g. here, and here).

Limehouse 1911
Limehouse, 1911.

Musicians from China had performed in 19th-century London, but I haven’t found early evidence of musical life among its small settled Chinese community. In Soho Ray soon observed the gambling habits of Chinatown and acquainted himself with the Chinese Workers’ Association. There he took out his violin to play a little piece of Cantonese music to the old folks sitting around. When they all stopped what they were doing, he too broke off, thinking “I play something wrong?”. Far from it: “Hey, why you stop? Keep going—never hear something like that before!”

Here’s a solo by the celebrated Hong Kong violinist Yin Zizhong 尹自重 (1903–85), from the heyday of Cantonese music:

1956 club for blog
The “London Co-operative Workers’ Association Music Group”, late 1956;
Ray (holding violin) is fourth from right.

Just a few days after arriving in London, Ray was recruited to an ersatz group to be shown on BBC TV, portraying a sanitised image of the London Chinese community—all spruced up in smart suits and ties, a far cry from the drudgery of their real lives. Ray was the youngest, and as he recalls with a chuckle, though apparently the only one in the photo not playing, he was the only real musician in the band—“they no play anything at all!”. When they told him the group was going to appear on television (which indeed was still in its infancy), he asked, “What’s that?!”

As Chinese and Indian restaurants began to provide jaded British palates with a welcome relief from their drab post-war diet, Ray took work where he could find it, mainly as waiter and cook around the north of England—Hull, Manchester, and York; he remembers Bradford as particularly poor.

Back in Hong Kong he had enjoyed the sound of the saxophone in the Cantonese opera ensemble. While working in the first Chinese restaurant in Belfast he paid £165 for his first sax, taking part in jazz bands. He was startled to have to fork out £920 for his second one, paying it off by HP instalments.

After learning to drive in Newcastle in 1957, in Soho Ray spent some time as a driving instructor: “That’s right, I was the first driving instructor—in history!”, he chortles; “All my students were gamblers and gangsters!”. But he managed to avoid being ensnared by the Triad mafia.

Meanwhile Ray’s father was still suffering from the effects of TB, and Ray spent a stressful time finding treatment for him on the impressive new NHS—which enabled him to live until 1998.

A fast learner, Ray was hard-working, easy-going, and popular. Quite soon he had aspirations to become his own boss. By now his mother was living with her father in New York; they encouraged Ray to come and join them there, and he was tempted—not least by the prospect of learning to play jazz on the sax. That would have been a different story altogether (“That would have been a different story”). Instead, his jazz idols came to Soho.

The 1960s: swinging London
By now the Soho jazz scene was beginning to take off. In 1959 Ronnie Scott opened his club in the basement of 39 Gerard street.

Ronnie Scott

Ronnie Scott’s, original venue. Source.

From 1962 Ronnie’s began hosting jazzmen from the USA, working round the ban on overseas musicians. Just up the road was Ray’s restaurant—which itself soon served as an after-hours nightclub for jazzers still on a high, needing to keep jamming after they staggered out of Ronnie’s at 3am. There Ray loved hearing great artists like his idol Ben Webster—here he is with Ronnie in A night in Tunisia (1965, as part of BBC2’s Jazz 625 series):

BTW, Ben Webster took the first solo in Billie Holiday‘s astounding 1957 TV appearance, the all-time most moving jazz video (click here—part of my extensive jazz series)!!!

Billie
Billie entranced by Ben Webster’s playing.

Ray was captivated by the new sound, so very different from the slick commercial pop music of the day. Himself a migrant from a poor rural background, he identified with the way that black people gave voice to their hard life, infused by the blues, “singing from the heart” (as later did Liu Sola, from her very different background). Later, during my time with the band, Ray was bemused and amused by the raised eyebrows of patrons when the splendid Black British percussionist Reggie took part.

Ronnie with KirksOriginal caption (source):
Mrs Edith Kirk smiles at Ronnie Scott as he holds a glass of wine and stands alongside
Rahsaan Roland Kirk, outside Ronnie Scotts’ [sic!] Jazz Club,
39 Gerrard Street, London circa 1963.

Recalling the blind street musicians of his youth in Hong Kong, another jazzer whom Ray much admired was the blind sax player Roland Kirk. Here he is at Ronnie’s in 1964:

Doubtless those early sessions also gave Ray his lasting taste for the “jazz cigarette”. At the same time, he is well aware that trying to make a living from making music is a fraught and insecure life. While unable to transcend mundane concerns (like Henry James!), he is devoted to the amateur ideal of Chinese music, aspiring to the simple life with a kind of detachment that now reminds me of my Daoist master Li Manshan.

One day at the club Ray received a visit from a cheery plainclothes sergeant from Holborn CID. “We’ve been watching you for the last six months, Ray. My partner’s crazy about your place. Enjoy it! Just slip us a hundred quid now and then, there’s a good fellow…”

Opening the shop
By 1967, as the jazz scene was catering to rather more salubrious patrons, Ronnie’s had moved to its present venue in Frith street. Ray lost a lot of money in 1969 with his older brother on an ambitious project to organise “the first professionally-organised, full-length Cantonese opera in London”, but they now managed to set up a takeaway together. In 1972 Ray took on a little restaurant at a prime location in Covent Garden just across from Chinatown, on the corner of Earlham street. He began by selling instruments from a corner of the restaurant, with a display in the window looking onto Shaftesbury avenue. Soon this promised to become a business on its own.

RM shop
Ray’s shop, 1982.

Another guest at Ronnie’s was the versatile jazzman Yusuf Lateef—here he is live in 1966:

Yusuf Lateef’s music often featured oriental instruments such as shawms, flutes, and bells (e.g. Eastern sounds, 1961), and later he used to augment his collection at Ray’s shop. It was he who introduced John Coltrane to Inayat Khan’s book on Sufi music which a mystically-inclined fellow violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave me in 1978—just around the time I was playing in Ray’s band! 

Our paths converge
On Sunday afternoons Ray got a band together to rehearse for occasional appearances at Chinese community events. The musicians were then still largely second-generation immigrants or recent arrivals from Hong Kong, some just passing through.

While Ray was gradually accommodating a more “pan-Chinese” style, his own culture was rooted in Cantonese opera and instrumental pieces. In Hong Kong and Guangzhou, the youthful genre of “Cantonese music” had been remarkably innovative through the Republican period, incorporating jazz-tinged violin, guitar, sax, and zany xylophone (cf. Shanghai jazz). Click here for a playlist with nine LPs of the great Lü Wencheng 呂文成 with his band, issued between 1957 and 1967. There’s more to Cantonese music than meets the ear—here’s a fine traditional rendition of Shuangsheng hen 雙聲恨 (“Double voicing of bitterness”), based on the plangent yi-fan mode (with brief excursions into more cheerful scales), with a trio led by Yin Zizhong, c1930: [3]

In 1972, as the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution were subsiding, I began studying ancient Chinese at Cambridge under Denis Twitchett, often visiting Laurence Picken there to learn about Tang music—at a time when Chinese music seemed to reside solely between the pages of history books, and the survival of any traditional cultures in mainland China was a matter of guesswork. In those days, blinkered by my classical training, I had little idea of either jazz or folk (cf. What is serious music?!). While my listening tastes in Asian music were for Indian raga, visiting Ray’s shop gave me my first inklings of how a living Chinese musical tradition might sound.

By now I had begun picking up the erhu fiddle. On my visits to Soho and Chinatown, besides finding books on Zen and Daoism at Watkins in Cecil court, I would browse in the recently-opened Guanghwa bookshop. Among the Chinese books there, alongside collections of model operas, revolutionary songs, and the occasional pamphlet on imperial culture (mostly fulminating against Confucius), I found a tutorial for the erhu and a couple of collected scores of modern solos. That was how I first acquainted myself with cipher notation—but I would learn more through emulating the nuance of Ray’s playing.

RM band c1979
With Ray Man’s band for Chinese New Year at Imperial College, early 1980s
(the music-stands revealing our novice status!).
Ray in the middle on plucked lute, me second left on erhu.

After graduating in 1976 I settled in London, working in orchestras under maestros like Boulez and Rozhdestvensky while continuing to help Laurence Picken on his Music from the Tang court project. It was through taking part in Ray’s Sunday sessions that I got used to playing the erhu in ensemble. All this was long before I first began visiting China in 1986, coming to realise the huge variety of regional cultures and joining in sessions at silk-and-bamboo clubs in Shanghai.

Ray’s shop was “like a bazaar”, as The Asia magazine described it. There he began offering tuition on a range of instruments. In 1975 he married Manyee, who had recently arrived from Hong Kong; they went on to have three children. Ray must have had a certain flair for business, but soon he could let Manyee take on the daily business of running the shop while he sat sage-like in the basement studio, surrounded by his instruments and the fug of herbal substances, his eyes always sparkling. A true aficionado, his English has remained engagingly impressionistic, as has his Mandarin. I guess I imagined him as a kind of musical Lee Chong.

Since the 1980s
The early Chinese communities around the UK had largely been Cantonese-speaking immigrants; even in the 1980s mainland Chinese voices were still rarely to be heard on the streets (for fictional treatments of Chinese lives in London, click here).

The insular dominance of the Cantonese community in the UK might have lasted longer had it not been for the death of Mao, the overthrow of the Gang of Four, and the ensuing dismantling of the commune system, which paved the way for the spectacular emergence of mainland China after decades of isolation, reverberating widely. Soon, as people arrived from all over China to study or do business, Mandarin was commonly heard on the streets of London. Gradually, as restaurant workers moved out to the suburbs, along with the wider transformation of Soho, the Cantonese focus of Ray’s band was diluted.

Back in the homeland too, amidst radical social change—both in postwar Hong Kong and in mainland China (following both the 1949 Communist takeover and the 1980s’ liberalisations)—“Cantonese music” lost much of its energy, becoming stultified in polished renditions on the concert platform. [4]

As “world music” became A Thing, Ray’s Soho shop continued broadening to stock a wide array of instruments from around the globe, and stars from the pop and film music scenes (George Harrison, Elton John, Björk, Noel Gallagher…) began visiting in search of exotic sounds.

RM Chalk Farm shopThe shop in Chalk Farm.

In 1999 the shop relocated to Chalk Farm, opposite Camden market, catering to the growing market in ethnic instruments; but in 2020 it was forced to close by the pandemic.

Whereas the Bhavan centre makes a well-supported focus for Indian expressive culture in west London, with fine visiting musicians teaching and performing a range of genres, London lacks a comparable venue for Chinese music. Numerous community associations have been formed; New Year brings out a parade of pan-Chinese lion and dragon dancing around Chinatown; Cheng Yu maintains a forum for the literati world of qin and pipa, and the “pan-Chinese” style that had evolved out of silk-and-bamboo. But Ray’s dream of a London Chinese music centre has remained unfulfilled. Similar initiatives in Chinese musicking have been held in the communities of Liverpool and Manchester, again broadening out from their original Cantonese base. If only south Fujian immigrants (a significant component of the later UK Chinese demographic) had a community maintaining the venerable amateur art of nanyin, for instance; but for such regional traditions we can only look to China itself.

From 1986, when I finally began exploring China, my fieldwork soon came to focus mainly on ritual life in poor northern villages, leading me to Gaoluo and the Li family Daoists. But it was Ray who first opened up that world to me, and I still feel grateful for my early exposure to Cantonese music with him—rather as he seems to have continued recreating the dream of his early musical inspirations in Hong Kong.

With many thanks to Ray and Manyee


[1] In addition to chatting with Ray and his wife Manyee, I’ve consulted various early press cuttings, notably an article in The Asia magazine (29th August 1982).

[2] For the transformation of Temple street in later decades, see e.g. this 2011 documentary.

[3] Chapter 15 of my 1995 book Folk music of China has a basic survey, along with various genres in Guangdong province; the Shuangsheng hen recording (transcribed on p.360) is #15 of the CD with the 1998 paperback edition, or #8 of disc 2 of my 2-CD set China: folk instrumental traditions. Many thanks to Yuan Jingfang, who introduced me to a range of genres at the Central Conservatoire, Beijing, in 1987.

[4] See also The folk-conservatoire gulf. For the changing times of Hong Kong musicking, note the research of scholars such as Bell Yung (including Cantonese opera: performance as creative process, ch.4) and Yu Siu-wah 余少華. Opera played a prominent role for early Cantonese immigrant communities in north America (cf. sites linked under A Daoist temple in California); and click here for Cantonese music societies in Vancouver since the 1930s.

Wacky headlines: a roundup

Bake Off

With the headlines tag in the sidebar already so voluminous, here’s a handy roundup of some of my favourite posts there. After we’ve digested Kate Fox’s insights on headline punning, I propose

cliché

From the Mystic East:

Boris

Others from my own “pen”:

Irreverently,

There are also hours of harmless fun in the “crash blossoms” archive of languagelog.

And I can now offer a recent headline from the Istanbul Bugle, of which I am proprietor and sole contributor—describing the confusion of the Orthodox priest responsible for throwing the Epiphany cross into the Bosphorus, yet unable to locate the incense for the thurifer:

Cross Toss Boss Joss Loss

Spirit mediums in China: collected posts

Houshan medium

Spirit medium for the deity Houtu, Houshan temple fair 1993. My photo.

In a post on gender in Chinese religious life I suggested a bold, nay revolutionary, idea:

I wonder how long it might take for us to totally reverse our perspectives on “doing religion” in China—privileging oral, largely non-literate practices and relegating elite discourse (including the whole vast repository of early canonical texts) and temple-dwelling clerics to a subsidiary place?!

In contrast to the more literate manifestations of religious practice in China that dominate sinology, spirit mediums also play an important role in local society (note the useful bibliographies of Philip Clart and Barend ter Haar). The gender ratio varies by region, but in many areas female mediums dominate, serving not only as healers but as protagonists in religious life; for women in particular, becoming a medium gives them a social status that is otherwise unavailable. Their tutelary deities may be either male or female.

me-mot

Me-mot mediums in Guangxi. Photo: Xiao Mei.

This is to draw your attention to a new “mediums” tag in the sidebar. The main posts include

  • Lives of female mediums, introducing studies on Guangxi (XIao Mei) and Wenzhou (Mayfair Yang)—as well as our own work around Hebei and north Shanxi, on which I reflect further in the second post of my series on
  • Women of Yanggao.

And I’ve introduced studies on activity in

as well as

  • the self-mortifying mediums of Amdo (here, and in note here).

Under Maoism, whereas public forms of religious life were vulnerable to political campaigns, the more clandestine activities of mediums were tenacious—indeed, the social and psychological crises of the era ensured that they continued to emerge (see e.g. the work of Ng and Chau above). Still, distribution is patchy; in this post I discussed the decline in Gaoluo village.

For the rituals of mediums in Korea, see here and here.

Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 1: Istanbul

Alevi cem 17
Sema
for Alevi cem ritual, Istanbul 2022.

In modern Turkey, a major component of the diverse Ottoman religious heritage is the ritual life of groups subsumed under the broad umbrella of Sufi dervish ritual—whose histories and evolution the dualistic language of Sunni and Shi’a is quite inadequate to encompass. [1]

Misleading taxonomies are common in world religions. With my experience of China, I think of  Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection Daoism (e.g. for Hunyuan); at folk level, even the terms “Buddhist” and “Daoist” may be problematic, such as in Hunan. And I’ll remark on further features that the Sufi groups seem to share with folk ritual practices in China.

A distinctive strand here is the practice of Bektashi and Alevi groups. [2] While I’m in Istanbul, haughtily eschewing the sanitised stage shows of “Whirling Dervishes”, commodified for tourists, I’m keen to attend a ritual. The devotional religious groups engage in activities with a certain discretion, so—quite properly—they don’t readily offer access to impertinent outsiders. But while they have also gone into partial lockdown since the pandemic, cem rituals are still being held.

I’m merely trying to get a very basic handle on this topic; perhaps my superficial foray below will suffice merely to show how immense it all is—so readers who actually know about it can look away now

* * *

In both their doctrines and ritual practices Bektashis and Alevis, now commonly associated, have indeed long had much in common. Both, for instance, worship Ali (son-in-law of Muhammad), the Twelve Imams, and the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli, and both emphasise the Four Gates and Forty Stations. They make an annual pilgrimage in August to the shrine of Haji Bektash Veli at Hacıbektaş in central Anatolia.

To simplify historical nuances of doctrine and terminology that elude me, Alevism is a general belief system with ascriptive identity, whereas Bektashi is an order in which one can enrol. Some scholars have distinguished rural Alevis and a more educated elite of urban Bektashis.

As Caroline Finkel observes in Osman’s dream,

The devotional practices of mosque-goers and dervish could be accommodated side by side in one building, and many mosques today associated with Sunni Islamic observance once had a wider function, as a refuge for dervishes as well as congregational prayer-hall.

In Ottoman times Bektashis were closely linked to the Janissaries; they went into decline after the latter were suppressed in the “Auspicious Incident” of 1826 (Osman’s dream, pp.437–8):

Prominent members of the order were executed, and Bektashi properties in Istanbul were destroyed, or confiscated and sold, or converted to other uses. […]

The practice of affiliation to more than one dervish order was so common, and the attempt to eradicate Bektashism at this time so vehement, that sheiks of other orders were also rounded up and sent into internal exile. Largely because of their infiltration into and acceptance by other orders, however, especially the officially-favoured Nakşibendi order—on whom their properties were bestowed—the Bektashi were able to survive clandestinely, and by mid-century they were again finding favour within elite circles.

Following World War One, despite the Bektashis’ supportive role in the War of Independence, Atatürk outlawed such Sufi groups in 1925; since then (by contrast with the recent commodification of the “Whirling Dervishes”) their ritual activities take place discreetly, since some Muslims still consider them heretical. The main base for the Bektashi sect is now in the Balkans and Thrace, notably Albania.

Although some Alevis claim to be Bektashi, the eliding of the two is quite recent. As our encyclopedic Kuzguncuk neighbour Kadir Filiz observes, the problematic term “Alevi–Bektashi” was coined by Mehmet Fuat Köprülü (1890–1966) in his work on Sufism; he also applied the labels “orthodox” and “heterodox” to Islam, recently deflated by scholars like Riza Yildirim (who encapsulates his detailed historical and field studies here and here; also in English, see e.g. here). By the late Ottoman era, as the militant, rebellious kızılbaş “red-heads” [3] were perceived negatively, popular parlance began replacing the term with “Alevi”; but under the new Republic, Alevism came to be associated with radical leftist views.

Lodges and houses of gathering
The situation became further politicised from the 1950s, when Alevis from rural areas of Anatolia began migrating in large numbers to major cities like Istanbul. There they used long-dormant Bektashi tekke lodges as cemevi (“houses of gathering”) [4] and formed local associations, named after their native region; since the 1980s the cemevi have been rented officially, and younger generations have come to refer to them as Alevi–Bektashi lodges. As both context and ritual practice have been modified, this has also been a period of an “Alevi renaissance”, reaffirming identity against the dominant culture of Sunni Islam.

The urban cemevi now have an ambiguous status. In modern Istanbul they often serve partly as social centres, but many rituals are also held in private homes; one dede leader told us that well over fifty cemevi are active there. [5]

State suspicion of the Alevis has been heightened by the presence of a significant Kurdish component among them, making them yet more vulnerable to attack—with serious incidents since the 1960s and 70s, such as massacres at Maraş (1978), Çorum (1980), and Sivas (1993), amidst tacit government connivance. While Alevis make up a substantial part of the Turkish population, at home they may be shunned by their neighbours, and at school children still have to keep quiet about their heritage.

The accuracy of the cherished notion of gender equality has recently been challenged by Alevi women.

Ritual practice
Along with migration, ritual change has become a major research topic (see Catherine Bell, Ritual: perspectives and dimensions, Chapter 7; for China, see e.g. Guo Yuhua, and north Shanxi).

Alevi studies are thriving too. Alongside the insights of Riza Yildirim (see above), I note works such as

See also e.g.

Such studies lead to a wealth of further research, both historical and ethnographic. [6] Meeting practitioners in Istanbul, I’m also reminded of how much material (including audio and video recordings) is shared online by such groups, who maintain regular contacts with their fellow-believers around Anatolia and Thrace.

As with the Islamic practice of the Sunni majority, Sufi cem (djem) communal rituals are performed with the general purpose of dhikr (remembrance, reminder). While in most Sufi orders women are rarely allowed to participate in rituals, in Bektashi–Alevi practice men and women worship together.

Sites such as this outline the annual cycle of Alevi cem rituals; they may also be held for initiation, commemoration, vows for good health, for joining the army, and so on. Langer summarises the sequence of an individual Alevi ritual thus: after a preliminary “discussion” (sohbetmore commonly muhabbet) by the presiding dede, and symbolic court case (görgü), the main service (ibadet) consists of a sequence of prayers (both solo and choral) to the Twelve Imams, hymns to the Twelve Duties, prayers of repentance, and invocations, concluding with an ecstatic sema dance. Sipos and Csáki (pp.53–66) give a detailed account of a full sequence of Bektashi ritual segments, which I summarise:

  • animal sacrifice and preparations
  • arrival, settlings, furnishings, lighting of the candles
  • “secret” section, including reconciliation of grievances (cf. the Uyghur mäshräp?)
  • sequence of nefes hymns
  • tripling (üçleme), with toasts
  • supper
  • pleasant [rather, instructive] conversation (muhabbet)
  • further sequence of nefes
  • semah whirling
  • closing prayers and blessings.

The ritual leader (dede/baba) presides, flanked by a bard (zakir or aşık), who leads the vocal liturgy accompanying himself on a bağlama long-necked plucked lute.

In orthodox Sunni ritual, even melodic instrumental music is considered unsuitable—just as in Chinese temple Buddhism and Daoism (cf. A cappella singing). Indeed, in China one’s search for “religious music” can easily be misled by such a narrow association (see Unpacking “Daoist music”, and The notation of ritual sound). As long as ethnographers pay attention to soundscape (still, alas, quite a tall order), our main theme should be ritual in society (note Michelle Bigenho‘s thoughtful comments).

Sipos and Csáki mention the collection work of Turkish Radio and Television (TRT), reminding me yet again of China:

In the Turkish folk music stock of the TRT, numbering over 4,500 items, there are sporadic tasavvufı halk müziği or “folk religious” tunes, usually under the generic label of “folk song”. [footnote: The TRT repertoire contains the variants approved by a committee of the tunes officially permitted for publication. The committee often makes changes on the tunes before printing, first of all modifying the words not deemed appropriate.]

In China I have expressed grave reservations about UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage programme (see this roundup; note also Rachel Harris’s critique of their programme for Uyghur culture, in particular the mäshräp). For Turkey UNESCO has adopted the “Alevi–Bektashi sema ritual. This film could do with more documentation:

But their outline sums up the issue:

In Turkey, each and every inhabitant of the State is held to be Turkish and Sunni. If Alevis are not Sunni, how then can they be Turks? Since such a notion is inconceivable to many Turks, there is only one possible answer: since Alevis are Turks, they are also Sunnis. If this were not the case, they would become a danger for the Turkish nation and State. Consequently, research on Alevi religious rituals is potentially problematic both for the stability and security of the State and for the Turkish national psyche. To sum up, a large-scale education programme is needed to build bridges of communication between those belonging or not belonging to the Islamic world—Alevis, the Turkish Sunni majority, and the authorities, who usually perceive social reality through Sunni lenses. Future educational projects and campaigns should not concentrate solely on Alevi culture and religious rituals, but rather on folk culture and rituals in Turkey seen as a part of contemporary Turkish culture.

A Bektashi cemevi in Zeytinburnu
Despite my profound ignorance, local practitioners are most welcoming. On the European side of the Bosphorus, in Zeytinburnu “outside the walls” (now also a fragile home for many Uyghurs fleeing persecution in China) we visited a senior Bektashi couple at their apartment, where they hold regular cem gatherings.

Bektashi altar room

Bektashi Bahtiyar baba (on ritual sheepskin) and ana bash.

Bektashi baba and his wife (known as ana bash “leader of the female section”) were both born in Edirne in eastern Thrace, he in 1953, she in 1952; they mainly spoke Turkish. Their ancestors were all devotees. His parents had come to Edirne from Bulgaria in 1950; his father was also a Bektashi baba. Their families moved to Istanbul in the late 1950s.

BB on baglama Sipos and Csaki

Bektashi baba accompanying a cem. From Sipos and Csáki 2009.

He referred us to his solo recordings of hymns with bağlama plucked lute, featured in many YouTube playlists under Bektaş Bahtiyar, e.g. here.

An Alevi ritual in suburban Istanbul
In the distant southern suburbs on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, we attended a weekly ritual at a well-appointed Alevi cemevi, consulting the wise Erzade Özgür dede (b.1983) and his wife Songül ana, who also possesses estimable ritual knowledge.

Before the pandemic struck, over a hundred devotees would take part in the cem; currently around twenty gather—male and female, old and young, all wearing their ordinary clothes, including the dede, who sits on the sheepskin with a mic, flanked by the zakir. He delivers a long opening muhabbet in his normal voice—instructive, personal, relaxed but serious—with occasional contributions from the congregation. The main participants at the meydan ritual arena tie red or green sashes at the waist, with two young men taking a staff; the gatekeeper holds a staff too.

After the muhabbet of over an hour, the zakir strikes up on bağlama, also amplified. His instrumental taksim leads into a nefes hymn; then another speech, and another song, as an 80-year-old Kurdish elder lights a three-candle electric candelabra. The congregation is now getting involved, with cries of “Allah Allah!”, then call-and-response.

The assistants remove their socks before blessing the carpet and unfolding it. Water is poured into a bowl while chanting, going round the congregation to ritually cleanse their hands and faces. Three women bow with a brush; more call-and-response; longer group chanting. All prostrate as the volume rises; kneeling, the worshippers all beat their thighs to a little suite of nefes with bağlama. The mood is ever more ecstatic.

Alevi sema 7

Another speech as all prostrate again, another bağlama song, then sema around the carpet with two men and two women, barefoot. They stand on the edge of the carpet to bow to the dede, who invites others to dance, with two more men joining in. With the three main dancers, slow and fast nefes alternate, accelerating wildly. The dancers bow again.

Then the women silently brush the carpet while bowing. The simple lokma food offerings are blessed. After another brief discussion, the candles are extinguished, the carpet replaced.

All this helped me appreciate the different roles of the twelve hizmet duties or services (cf. guanshi in north China, assistant to the huitou leader), such as çerağcı supervisor of the candles, süpürgeci sweeper, and selman provider of water for ritual washing.

Alevi cem group pic

Erzade dede A couple of days later, taking the Metro to the southern terminus, we were invited to supper at the couple’s apartment, along with a bright young disciple—another instructive and delightful evening. Erzade dede’s family brought him to Istanbul when he was 3. He was chosen by his grandfather at the age of 13—his father wasn’t a dede—and he sometimes commuted to Ankara for further instruction. After military service, and the death of his mentors, by his late 20s he was already taking over ritual duties. Having learned in his youth to sing nefes while playing the bağlama, now (like many urban dede) he leads the ritual alongside a separate zakir. He is a respected community leader.

An Alevi–Bektashi lodge in Kadıköy
On Sunday afternoon the following week we went to the Göztepe district of Kadıköy to visit an extensive and imposing Alevi–Bektashi dergâh lodge, rebuilt openly since the late 1980s. A throng of devotees were gathered, visiting the tombs in the grounds and seeking blessings from the dede for their young children and sick relatives, offering lokma. Accompanying himself on bağlama, a zakir sung a wonderful nefes hymn for us in praise of Abdal Musa (see sequel to this post), disciple of the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli. I look forward to returning for a regular ritual at their fine cemevi.

See also Alevi ritual in rural Anatolia.

* * *

Alevi ritual in the diaspora
The whole history of Bektashis and Alevis—before, during, and since the Ottoman era—is one of migration over a large area. Scholars such as Robert Langer explore the transfer to the wider diaspora in recent decades. The documentary Heavenly journeys (Marcel Klapp, 2015) illustrates Alevi ritual life in Germany, with comments from older and younger generations:

Note also Tözün Issa (ed.), Alevis in Europe: voices of migration, culture, and identity (2017), introduced here. And for Alevis in Toronto, see Ayhan Erol, “Identity, migration and transnationalism: expressive cultural practices of the Toronto Alevi community (2012). [7]

Setting forth from the guidance of Kadir and the diligence of Augusta,
with gratitude to wise Bektashi–Alevi elders!


[1] For the transnational picture, see e.g. The Routledge handbook on Sufism (2021); for a basic outline of Sufi orders in Turkey, see e.g. here, and for Ottoman Constantinople, on the useful site History of Istanbul, here and here. Kadir Filiz directs me to the classic study Richard Gramlich, Die schiitischen Derwischorden Persiens.

[2] I adopt the common form Bektashi rather than the orthography Bektaşi. For the Ottoman social-political context of Bektashi orders, see Caroline Finkel, Osman’s dream; brief mentions that may pique one’s interest include Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger, pp.187–90; Mark Mazower, Salonica: city of ghosts, pp.81–2.

[3] For a casual connection, cf. “red-head” Daoists in Taiwan, e.g. Kristofer Schipper, “Vernacular and classical ritual in Taoism”.

[4] Again, cf. folk hui assemblies/associations/sects in China—by contrast with officially-registered “venues for religious activity”, where only a tiny amount of overall ritual life takes place.

[5] This article includes a list of 64 cemevi in Istanbul (cf. historical photos of the tekke, and this introduction; for architectural features, and more vocabulary, click here). On politics, see e.g. Tahire Erman & Emrah Göker, “Alevi politics in contemporary Turkey” (2000), and sources cited in this post under “Ritual practice”. For the wider religious background since the founding of the Republic, see here. As I write, yet another round of the Alevi Federation’s dispute over the exorbitant utility bills suffered by the cemevi is under way, hinging on its attempts to gain status for them as places of worship.

[6] For briefer introductions to Bektashi ritual and music, see e.g. here; wiki has articles on the Bektashi order, Alevism (here and here), Alevi history, and sema / sama.
For Thrace, in Janos Sipos and Eva Csáki, The psalms and folk songs of a mystical Turkish order: the music of Bektashis in Thrace (2009; 669 pages, consisting largely of transcriptions and lyrics with translations), note “The religious ceremony” and “The music of the Bektashis in Thrace” (pp.38–77). Jérôme Cler’s introduction to the topic for Anatolia is enriched by videos and further links; see sequel to this post. My taste for ritual sequences is amply displayed in the many posts on local ritual in China.

[7] For Mevlevi practice in Germany, see Osman Öksüzoğlu, “Music and ritual in Trebbus Mevlevi tekke (lodge) in Germany” (2019). Among a profusion of Sufi groups around Turkey and elsewhere, the Mevlevi order (founded by Rumi, with its centre at Konya) enjoys a high profile, notably for its association with the “Whirling Dervishes”.

A domestic couplet

home duilian

While most domestic couplets pasted at the gateway of ordinary families are somewhat trite, this one caught my eye, at a peasant gateway in a north Shanxi village:

聖言興旺是正道
世事衰微盡蒼桑

For the Word of the Sage to flourish is the Proper Way
For worldly affairs to decline evinces chronic vicissitudes

This may seem to reflect an enduring pre-Liberation faith—the Word of the Sage apparently referring to a Christian worldview (“the Word of God”). But it’s combined with phrases adapted from a poem of Chairman Mao:

人间正道是苍桑
The Proper Way among humans is inconstant

—appealing, whether fortuitously or ingeniously, to political correctness. Shame I didn’t have a chance to chat with the host.

For a Buddhist meditation on impermanence in the vocal liturgy of the Li family Daoists, click here.

Chinoperl

Cperl site

CHINOPERL, a US-based association for the study of oral and performing traditions of China, was founded in 1969 by a distinguished group including Yuen Ren Chao, Harold Shadick, and Cyril Birch; notable figures such as Rulan Chao Pian and Kate Stevens continued the initiative.

Cperl

The main focus of CHINOPERL is regional traditions of narrative singing (shuoshu 说书, shuochang 说唱, quyi 曲艺) and drama, both staged and unstaged. The recently-revised website contains a contents list for back issues of the journal, with articles by scholars such as Wilt Idema, Victor Mair, Bell Yung, David Johnson, Mark Bender, and Vibeke Børdahl.

Whereas CHINOPERL tends to stress historical and textual research, on my own site posts featuring narrative-singing have a more ethnographic bent (notably for ritual), with introductions to local genres around

Note the valuable archive recordings in the CD sets here. And of course there’s a wealth of sites in Chinese, which I won’t even attempt to survey now… See also CHIME: Chinese music studies in a changing China.

Epiphany in Istanbul

In church 1

Sanctification of Water ritual, Agios Giorgios, Kuzguncuk.

To follow Bach’s Epiphany:

Having blithely ignored Christmas in London, I arrived in Istanbul again just in time for Armenian and Greek Orthodox Christmas on 6th January.

The Armenian faithful in Istanbul have somehow managed to maintain their liturgical traditions despite over a century of persecution. We went up the hill in Kuzguncuk to attend a Mass for Christmas Eve in a sparsely-attended minor church.

It’s also Epiphany (Theophania) for the Greek Orthodox Church, observed with the agiasmos Sanctification of Water ritual, when the Bishop throws a wooden cross into the Bosphorus to be retrieved by swimmers—a ritual performed at several sites around Istanbul (for background on the religious life of Istanbul Greeks, see e.g. here). But the core ritual is the lengthy service that precedes it, which we attended at the lovely little Agios Georgios church in Kuzguncuk—next to the synagogue, on the other side of the road down from the main Greek church Agios Panteleimonas.

In Istanbul today Greeks are far fewer than Armenians, but this was an impressive service, with a quartet of liturgists punctuating the recitation of the priests, with jangling thurifer.

Left, the head priest blesses worshippers with light;
right, preparing to sprinkle blessed water on the congregation with a sprig of herbs.

In church 2

On right, dove awaiting release to the heavens (and an ICONIC choice of jacket).

on road

We all followed them across the road through the ferry station to the shore, where two pious swimmers retrieved the wooden cross from the waters; meanwhile a dove (representing the Holy Spirit) had waited patiently during the service before being released to the heavens (cf. Messiaen).

Left, at Fener (source); right, at Kuzguncuk,
with swimmer presenting cross that he has retrieved from the Bosphorus.

Our Greek friends note the symbolism of fish, Ichthys, and Jesus as fisher of people, as well as abundance. China makes the same connection between yu 魚 fish and yu 餘 abundance; and most large-scale rituals (both for temple fairs and funerals) there include segments for Fetching or Inviting Water (qushui, qingshui, and so on; see e.g. our film, from 41.06).

Last year Covid rules prevented the Sanctification of Water being held in Greece, but it was observed by the Greek community in Istanbul. For more thoughts on Greek liturgy in Kuzguncuk, click here.

The topic might lead us to consider ayazma holy springs, healing, and the wider context of Holy Water in Eastern Christianity and other faiths. And spare a thought for the beleaguered Catholic minorities in China, including Gaoluo.

With thanks to Kuzguncuk friends!

Roundup for 2021!

Emma Leylah

As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.

Some essential posts:

I’m going to emulate Stella Gibbons and award *** to some other *MUST READ!* posts too…

China: on the Li family Daoists, recent and older posts are collected in

and it’s always worth reminding you to watch our film

Elsewhere,

Tributes to three great sinologists:

The beleaguered cultures of the

  • Uyghurs (posts collected here) and
  • Tibetans (posts collected here), including

I’ve begun a growing series on Turkey (with a new tag for west/Central Asia):

Among this year’s additions to the jazz, pop, punk tags are

WAM:

Bach (added to the roundup A Bach retrospective):

as well as

On “world music” and anthropology:

On gender (category here, with basic subheads):

Germany:

Italy:

Britain (see also The English, home and abroad), and the USA:

More on stammering:

On a lighter note:

Even just for this last year, I realise there’s a lot to read there, but do click away on all the links! And I can’t resist reminding you of some of my earlier favourites, notably

Ma Yuan

The zheng zither in Shandong

The elite, rarefied qin zither enjoyed an unlikely Golden Age during the first fifteen years of Maoism, as I show in my series of vignettes. Though it was largely self-contained in its ivory tower, in the 1950s the new energy at the Music Research Institute in Beijing to study all kinds of traditional music combined with the official populist ethos to encourage occasional exchanges—such as this illustrious gathering with masters of the zheng 筝 zither at the house of Yang Dajun:

Zhao Yuzhai at MRI

Qin and zheng exchange, mid-1950s (see e.g. here). From left,
back row: Zhao Yuzhai, Yang Dajun, Gao Zicheng, [unidentified], Cao Zheng, Wu Jinglue;
front row: Wang Jinru, Cao Dongfu (playing), Luo Jiuxiang, Zha Fuxi.

Of the zheng players there, Zhao Yuzhai and Gao Zicheng came from Shandong, Cao Zheng and Cao Dongfu from adjacent Henan; Luo Jiuxiang represented the Hakka style of east Guangdong, far south; Wang Jinru was based in Beijing.

Unlike the seven-string qin, the strings of the zheng have individual bridges. Though just as ancient as the qin, it has much more in common with local folk music; while some prominent advocates like Cao Zheng made more exalted claims for its grounding in ancient cosmology, it still feels like a poor cousin of the qin. Its regional distribution is patchy, but Zhao Yuzhai was part of a thriving zheng scene in southwest Shandong, based (as often) on the local ensemble that accompanied vocal performance; the musicians were itinerant and semi-occupational.

My sparse early clues to folk musicking in Shandong (Folk music of China, p. 209) have been much augmented by the publication of the Shandong volumes of the Anthology (see my review “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”), in this case particularly for instrumental music (Zhongguo minjian qiyuequ, Shandong juan 中国民间器乐曲, 山东卷, 1994).

Throughout the Anthology, ensemble repertoire always far eclipses solo pieces; like other volumes for north China (e.g. Liaoning), the coverage of Shandong is dominated by the shawm-band repertoire (cf. “Reading between the lines”, pp.317–18), to which the first 1,269 of 1,958 pages are devoted. Solo pieces for the zheng occupy pp.1515–1620 (among online surveys of the Shandong zheng, see e.g. here).

Zhao Yuzhai 赵玉斋 (1923–99) [1] came from the Heze region of southwest Shandong, also renowned for its shawm bands. He was a disciple of the great blind musician Wang Dianyu 王殿玉 (1899–1964).

Wang Dianyu 1943

The Dong Lu yayue she 东鲁雅乐社, led by Wang Dianyu, 1943.
Right to left Chen Baozeng 陈宝曾, Gao Zicheng 高自成, Zheng Xipei 郑西培,
Wang Dianyu 王殿玉, Han Fengtian 韩风田, Zhao Yuzhai 赵玉斋, Tan Yonghe 谭永和.

The core string ensemble is for zheng, yangqin dulcimer, pipa, and ruyigou fiddle. Their repertoire is based on the Peng baban 碰八板 form—baban variants are common in various coastal chamber genres from Shanghai down to Guangzhou, if not nearly so widespread as scholarly attention may lead us to suppose. The Shandong style has much in common with the adjacent province of Henan, where zheng masters like Cao Dongfu 曹东扶 (1898–1970) were much admired. (Click here for bowed zithers in Shandong and Henan.)

In the cause of forging a new style of “national music”, through the 1950s many folk masters were enlisted to the new conservatoires and state troupes. Solo instruments like the zheng were more easily incorporated into the conservatoire system than ensembles that relied on folk ceremonial; players took readily to adapting their repertoire for the new demands of the new ethos. [2] In 1955 Zhao Yuzhai was recruited to the Shenyang conservatoire (where one of his colleagues was the qin player Ling Qizhen—see Musicking at the Qing court 1, n.3). The traditional zheng had 16 (or fewer) strings; in 1957, responding to the call to “improve” Chinese instruments, Zhao Yuzhai created an enlarged 21-string version. Meanwhile the lofty qin also found a place in the conservatoires; but while players took part in the major shift from silk to metal strings, they remained largely unscathed by “development”.

n 1955 Zhao Yuzhai was exposed to the rigours of rural collectivisation when a troupe from the conservatoire was sent on a tour of rural south Liaoning to “experience life” (tiyan shenghuo 体验生活), as the glib slogan went (cf. Daoist Li Qing’s stint in the Datong troupe). This resulted in his florid composition “Celebrating a bumper year” (Qing fengnian 庆丰年)—irony not supplied:

By 1958 even qin master Zha Fuxi was reduced to composing a piece in praise of the Great Leap Backward. for whose hyperbole click here.

In 1956 Zhao Yuzhai was part of a troupe performing at the Prague Spring festival, and in October he toured north Europe; his career continued to thrive until 1963. I can never get used to the blatant lacunae for the years of Maoism that are so universal in PRC biographies (cf. Craig Clunas’s remarks); like countless others, Zhao Yuzhai was assaulted at the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, condemned to labour camp until his release in 1978.

Zhao Yuzhai was one of three zheng players, along with Gao Zicheng and Luo Jiuxiang, who appeared in illustrious company on the 2-CD set of archive recordings from the Music Research institute. In 2000 a CD was devoted to his playing. He appears on film in “Autumn moon over Han palace” (Hangong qiuyue 汉宫秋月):

and “Four folds of brocade” (Siduan jin 四段锦):

Among other celebrated Shandong zheng masters were Han Tinggui 韩庭贵 (1929–2016) and Gao Zicheng 高自成 (1918–2010). Like Zhao Yuzhai, Gao Zicheng found a long-term position away from his Shandong home, teaching at the Xi’an conservatoire from 1957 (for the Shaanxi zheng style, see here)—here’s a short documentary in Chinese:

Apart from such masters who were selected for national celebrity, it may be hard to find ethnographic material on how folk chamber ensembles in rural Shandong adapted to successive social transformations—first to collectivisation, and then to the 1980s’ revival of tradition, soon challenged by the tide of capitalism and pop culture.

Meanwhile in a separate milieu, the concert platform made a more natural progression for the zheng than for the qin. Hitherto largely the preserve of men, since the 1980s’ reform era the zheng (like other stringed instruments in the conservatoire) has been dominated by female soloists. At the same time, concert performances for the qin on stage have come to enjoy a higher profile than the “refined gatherings” where its soul resides; but in the end, the qin still occupies its own world, at a tangent from the conservatoire.

 


[1] For Chinese sources on Zhao Yuzhai, see e.g.
https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E8%B5%B5%E7%8E%89%E6%96%8B/5776019
https://www.sohu.com/a/386245358_684953
https://www.factpedia.org/index.php?title=%E8%B5%B5%E7%8E%89%E6%96%8B&variant=zh
http://info.guqu.net/guzhenwenxue/29411.html
http://www.yueqiziliao.com/guzheng/202047250.html
https://www.yueqiquan.com/a39423.html

[2] In English, see e.g. Han Mei, The emergence of the Chinese zheng: traditional context, contemporary evolution, and cultural identity (2013); Sun Zhuo, The Chinese zheng zither: contemporary transformations (2015)

Wild Swans revisited

Wild Swans cover

When Jung Chang’s Wild swans: three daughters of China was first published in 1991 (quite soon after the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations), curiosity in the West about people’s lives under Maoism ensured it huge popular success. This was soon followed by a tide of condescension from sinologists and China-watchers, understandably envious at the eclipse of their own more careful, measured research on the period. Still, rather few of them seem to have aired their reservations publicly (see e.g. Lin Chun, and Harriet Evans, “Hot-house history”, in TLS 1992).

While the way that Jung Chang (pinyin: Zhang Rong) enmeshes the personal and the political is a strength, her general slant may read like simplistic Commie-bashing, lacking in empathy—treating the development of the regime as alien (cf. Dikötter, “The tragedy of Liberation”).

It was hardly new to expose the iniquities of the Maoist system, and they do indeed need to be exposed. But surely they deserved a wide audience outside academia—not just the famine and the Cultural Revolution, but the whole catalogue of abuses before and after the 1949 “Liberation”. And personal accounts make a fine way of communicating such stories.

I found the chapters on the Great Leap Backward and the famine particularly revealing. At a time when the detailed scholarship on the latter was only just taking off, when such details were still not common knowledge, Jung Chang’s readings of the political tides are mostly sound. While she portrays her father, a high-ranking cadre in Chengdu, as a righteous official, and she herself was largely cocooned from the extreme sufferings of the time, she evokes the plight of the desperate peasants and political machinations among the leadership, combining her own memories with her later understandings.

I had little idea that famine was raging all around me. One day on my way to school, as I was eating a small steamed roll, someone rushed up and snatched it from my hands. As I was recovering from the shock, I caught a glimpse of a very thin, dark back in shorts and bare feet, running down the mud alley with his hand to his mouth, devouring the roll. When I told my parents what had happened, my father’s eyes were terribly sad. He stroked my head and said, “You are lucky. Other children like you are starving.” […]

These people with edema were mostly peasants. Starvation was much worse in the countryside because there were no guaranteed rations. Government policy was to provide food for the cities first, and commune officials were having to seize grain from the peasants by force. In many areas, peasants who tried to hide food were arrested, or beaten and tortured. Commune officials who were reluctant to take food from the hungry peasants were themselves dismissed, and some were physically maltreated. As a result, the peasants who had actually grown the food died in the millions all over China.

The way Jung Chang relates her early memories reveal the texture of daily life amidst upheavals—my doubts about how much a six-year-old can recall of their youth are largely assuaged by the author’s in-depth conversations with her mother. Indeed, much of the success of Wild swans was in its focus on three generations of women. It was “joined by a clutch of cygnets” (in Julia Lovell’s phrase) in similar vein, such as Anchee Min (Red azalea), Gao Anhua (To the edge of the sky), and Mu Aiping (The Vermilion Gate).

I first read Wild swans as part of my general education on the Maoist era, as I was striving to build up a picture of the modern history of the village of Gaoluo just south of Beijing—a very different world. Meanwhile the rural picture was being amplified by scholarly works like those of Chan, Madsen, and Unger on Chen village and Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden on Wugong. Such studies inspired me seek ever greater detail from my friends in Gaoluo about their experiences, year by year, month by month—which bore fruit in my own book Plucking the winds, and later in my work on the Li family Daoists.

Now that I come to re-read Wild swans in the light of all my fieldwork, I still find myself impressed by Jung Chang’s attention to both the personal stories of her family and the wider picture. I’m sorry some academics can’t see the merits of this.

With her husband Jon Halliday, Jung Chang followed up Wild swans with Mao: the unknown story (2005)—which sinologists didn’t refrain from criticising (e.g. Gregor Benton and Lin Chun, eds, Was Mao really a monster?, and Andrew Nathan in the LRB, complete with spat).

For later revelations on the Maoist era, see e.g. Guo Yuhua on a Shaanbei village; the documentaries of China: commemorating trauma, and Kang Zhengguo’s Confessions: an innocent life in Communist China. See also Maoism tag.

The qin zither under Maoism: five vignettes

This is how I opened my series on the qin zither scene in Beijing under Maoism:

I’m still seeking in vain to atone for my reservations about the dominance of the elite qin zither in Chinese music studies, where it’s “as if the whole varied spectrum of European musics were represented mainly by the clavichord”. The qin has always been the tip of the iceberg—its players were, and are, far outnumbered by folk-singersshawm bands, and spirit mediums, for instance.

However, this doesn’t make the rarefied world of the qin any less notable. By contrast with the ocean of folk traditions, its whole long history is extensively documented. And between the ancient sages and the modern scene, a remarkable flowering of the qin took place over the fifteen years following the 1949 “Liberation” (for the period in wider society, see here)—another illustration of the resilience of traditional culture in the PRC.

The scene was still largely amateur, with aficionados of qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting (qinqishuhua 琴棋書畫) taking part in “refined gatherings”. The stories of some of the leading characters are interwoven with those of the Music Research Institute, the Beijing Qin Research Association, the 1956 national project (with its definitive recordings), and political movements. This is a monument to an aesthetic world that since the 1980s’ reform era has been eclipsed by glossy conservatoire professionalism.

Always trying to move beyond disembodied sound-objects, I seek to evoke the place of musicking in the lives of qin players through the first fifteen years after Liberation, punctuated and eventually engulfed by campaigns—click on the links below for essays on

  • Guan Pinghu (1897–1967): an otherworldly figure, revered not least for his dapu recreations of early tablatures, an activity that thrived in the 1950s
  • Wang Di (1923–2005), Guan Pinghu’s devoted disciple, making a bridge both to the reform era and to
  • Zha Fuxi (1895–1976): his role in the 1949 Uprising of the Two Airlines, his remarkable 1956 survey with its numinous recordings—and NB this qin-erhu duet from 1962
  • Pu Xuezhai (1893–1966), descendant of the Manchu imperial clan: more classic recordings, and his disappearance in 1966
  • Yue Ying (1904–74): an affluent youth, motherhood, and her moving 1972 recordings—perhaps the only audible remains of the qin in the PRC for the whole period from 1963 to 1978.

Women constituted a significant minority among qin players, as illustrated in the posts on Wang Di and Yue Ying, as well as Yuan Quanyou. The story of Yue Ying makes a poignant coda to the series.

Yue Ying 1972

See also qin tag. For a stellar gathering of masters of qin and zheng zithers, click here.

Liu Sola, voice of alternative China

Ever since the 1980s, Liu Sola (刘索拉, b.1955) has remained an invigorating alternative voice in both Chinese music and literature.

The main websites are here (with this fine survey of her ouevre, cited below) and here.

Sola and motherSola is one of three children of Liu Jingfan, younger brother of Liu Zhidan (1903–36), a guerrilla hero in Shaanbei whose career as Red Army commander was cut short by the arrival of Mao Zedong’s Long March forces. After the story of Liu Zhidan’s fate was exposed in a historical novel by Sola’s mother Li Jiantong, in 1962 Mao not only banned the book (declaring “Using novels to engage in anti-Party activities is a great invention”), but had all those involved in its publication ruthlessly persecuted (see David Holm, “The strange case of Liu Zhidan”, 1992). Even after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Li Jiantong continued to struggle against censorship as she compiled sequels.

Sola CCM 1978 for blog
Composition students at the Central Conservatoire, 1978.
Left to right: Liu Sola, Ai Liqun, Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Sun Yi, Zhang Lida, Zhang Xiaofu.
More images in this short documentary.

In 1977–78, as the Central Conservatoire in Beijing reopened after the death of Mao and the overthrow of the Gang of Four, Sola—already seriously cool—gained admission to the composition department, along with bright young students like Qu Xiaosong, Tan Dun, Guo Wenjing, and Ye Xiaogang. Having only recently been liberated from punishing stints of rural labour as “sent-down youth”, their studies were punctuated by fieldtrips to collect folk-song in the remote countryside of south China—an experience that now felt more revelatory (cf. Fieldworkers, Chinese and foreign).

Sola popAfter graduating, partly in rebellion against the establishment that contemporary Western Art Music seemed to represent, Sola chose to become a pop musician, giving concerts and composing for film soundtracks, TV, and theatre. At the same time she made a great impression with her 1985 novellas Ni biewu xuanze 你别无选择 (You have no choice), Lantian lühai 蓝天绿海 (Blue sky green sea), and Xunzhao gewang 寻找歌王 (In search of the king of singers). Her voice was

irreverent and honest, blasé and innocent, light and serious, negative and positive all at once; a voice marked by a characteristic humour that manages to be dark and yet not cynical.

By now she was the life and soul of a lively artistic scene in Beijing.

London and New York
In 1987 the US News Agency invited Sola on a visit to the States—where, igniting her early interest in blues, the “King of Singers” turned out to be Junior Wells. In 1988 she came to live in London, “a challenging and precarious time”, furthering her studies without the celebrity status of her time in Beijing.

Sola Vini
With Vini Reilly, 1988.

Working with British musicians like Justin Adams, Clive Bell, and the Durutti Column, she tasted WOMAD, performing with Mari Boine, though dissatisfied with the exotic pigeonholing of “world music”.

In summer 1989—as she witnessed the horrifying events of Tiananmen from afar—Sola deepened her devotion to blues on a trip working with musicians in Memphis (Memphis diary, 1993). Her experience of blues is a major theme of the wide-ranging, richly illustrated collection of conversations Xingzoude Liu Suola 行走的刘索拉 (Liu Suola on the move, 2001). Meanwhile she composed for Zuni Theatre in Hong Kong, and for Chiang Ching’s dance drama June snow.

Sola Chaos

Among writings from her London period is Hundun jia ligelong 混沌加哩格楞 (Chaos and all that, 1991), a novel that “both acknowledges cultural diversity and provides a darkly comic critique of it”. I’m also very fond of her paintings, like this from June 1990 (signed “Chegong”, Sola’s name in traditional Chinese gongche notation!):

Sola painting

After taking part in the Iowa Writers’ Program in 1992, Sola moved to New York in 1993. Immersing herself in the avant-garde scene there, she relished collaborations with musicians like Bill Laswell, Fernando Saunders, and Ornette Coleman, enjoying a freedom that had been elusive in London. This bore fruit in her wonderful 1995 album Blues in the East.

Sola Blues CD

In her following New York albums such as China collage (1996) she took a rather different path. She later reinvented her exhilarating song Festival as A chicken at the country fair:

In this period she also wrote Da Jijiade xiao gushi 大继家的小故事 (Little tales of the great Ji family, 2000), perhaps her finest novel (translated into Italian and French, still not available in English), a historical fantasy based on the tribulations of her family—“part Virgil, part Monty Python”.

Back in the PRC
After fifteen years abroad, by 2003 the cultural scene in China seemed promising, far from the mood when Sola had left in 1988. Still, she

cannot be associated with the many haigui’s or “sea-faring turtles” who return after working or studying abroad to flaunt their “international credentials”. Nor is working in China with Chinese music a form of cultural nationalism; such nationalism is especially easy to profess at a moment when Chinese music will sound less marginal now that China has become a dominant world power. Rather […] her work in China undertakes the almost Sisyphean task of overcoming clichéd ideas of Chinese music and the use of such clichés for propaganda.

In 2005 she appeared in Ning Ying’s film Wuqiongdong (Perpetual motion, 2005), for which she also wrote the music. Notable compositions include two chamber operas, both international collaborations. Fantasy of the Red Queen (Jingmeng 惊梦, 2006) is “a woman’s tragedy about the power of illusion and the illusion of power”, told through through the devilish persona of Jiang Qing. It draws on Berg, Schoenberg, the qin zither, Beijing opera, Kunqu, revolutionary and folk opera, and 1930s’ Shanghai pop, with snatches of jazz, tango, and hip hop. Here’s an excerpt:

The afterlife of Li Jiantong (Zizai hun 自在魂, 2009) is a deeply personal drama in which Sola receives a visitation from her mother, who takes her on a journey to the spirit world to meet her late father. Using a complex compositional scheme, Sola makes use of the kuqiang “weeping melody” style of Chinese opera, with a baroque group led by Paul Hillier among the accompanying ensemble.

Sola operaFrom The afterlife of Li Jiantong.

Always relishing live performance, she went on to form the Liu Sola and Friends ensemble with select Chinese musicians, building on her grounding in jazz to overcome conservatoire and ideological training. And she has continued to publish, with the essay collection Kouhong ji 口红集 (Lipstick talk, 2009) and the novel Milian zhou 迷恋咒 (Lost in fascination, 2011); a new novel is on the way.

Here’s a short CCTV documentary:

* * *

Amidst the ever-changing scene in China (see e.g. New musics in Beijing, and Rock it, mom), Liu Sola’s constantly innovative mix of music, fiction, and drama is utterly distinctive; her musical and literary works, both early and later, have a cult following. She remains vivacious and young at heart, always exploring.

The qin zither under Maoism, 5: Yue Ying

*For a roundup of the whole series, click here!*

In my introduction to Wang Di, I mentioned the changing gender profile of Chinese musicians and scholars through the 20th century. Among the female qin players in Beijing who weathered the transition from the Republican era to Maoism was Yue Ying 乐瑛 (1904–74).

The most useful material is an article by Guo Peng 国鹏, compiler of the most comprehensive anthology of classic qin recordings, Juexiang 绝响; for more on Yue Ying, see also Chinese wiki.

YY young

Yue Ying practising the qin in her youth.
Photos here from Guo Peng’s article.

Yue Ying came from an affluent family, the only daughter of the boss of the famous Tongren tang 同仁堂 pharmacy in Beijing. From young she studied painting, calligraphy, and Kunqu; she enjoyed playing pipa (against the wishes of her father, who considered it too low-class!) but came to concentrate on the qin, taking lessons (like Pu Xuezhai) from Jia Kuofeng 贾阔峰.

YY pipa

After a Western-style wedding in 1928 she went on to bear seven children, but managed to practise the qin at home between her motherly duties.

YY wedding

Adapting to the 1949 “Liberation”, from 1954 Yue Ying joined the Beijing Guqin Research Association, with the encouragement of Yuan Quanyou’s husband Wang Shixiang. She was one of several women studying with Guan Pinghu, including Wang Di, Shen You, and Yuan Quanyou.

female qin players

Female qin players.
From right: Yue Ying’s younger stepsister Yue Xiangyan, [unidentified], Wang Di, Yue Ying.
Do let me know if you can identify any of the others!

Repairing qin

The important task of repairing qin:
left to right Pu Xuezhai, Wang Di, Wang Mengshu, Zha Fuxi, Yue Ying, Yue Xiangyan.

Around 1958, amidst a frenzy of campaigns, Yue Ying took part in the association’s performance for the leaders in Zhongnanhai. As we saw, she invited Guan Pinghu to stay at her courtyard home during the “three years of hardship”. But worse was to come.

Recordings
Yue Ying remained active until the eve of the Cultural Revolution. But in 1966 her house was ransacked by a group of Red Guards, who took away her precious antiques and a dozen fine old instruments. Her children only managed to rescue a few family photographs from the rubble.

YY late

Yue Ying, 1971.

Whereas a few qin scholars, including Zha Fuxi, were permitted to continue their research behind closed doors once the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution were brought to an end, by 1972 Yue Ying had moved out of the old family home; besides being in poor health, she no longer had an instrument, and had been unable to play for several years.

Yue Ying 1972

But that year, as political tensions seemed to be easing somewhat, her daughter Guo Shunlong managed to buy a precious antique qin for 45 yuan (!!!); getting hold of a set of strings and a recording machine, she recorded her ailing mother playing four pieces—perhaps the only extant recordings of qin (or any other traditional music) in the PRC for the whole period roughly from 1963 to 1978. Yue Ying’s rendition that day of Pingsha luoyan (cf. Guan Pinghu’s version) can be heard here; we can also admire her earlier version from the happier times of 1956.

On CD 6 of the classic 1950s’ recordings, Yue Ying is heard in four pieces:

Canghai score

Opening of Yue Ying’s rendition of Canghai longyin as transcribed by Wang Di
(Guqin quji vol.1, pp. 211–15).

  • Liezi Rides the Wind (Liezi yufeng 列子御風, further material for my promotional campaign to boost the image of Liezi, n.1 here):

Yue Ying died of heart failure from lung disease in December 1974, before she could witness the revival of tradition. Her story makes a poignant coda to this series on the Beijing qin scene under Maoism.

The qin zither under Maoism, 4: Pu Xuezhai

On 30th August 1966, as agitated young Red Guards milled around on the streets of Beijing, a short, elderly gentleman, his wispy beard now shorn off, went for a walk with his daughter. He was never seen again.

Continuing my series on the qin zither scene in Beijing under Maoism (roundup here), I’ve been considering the life of Pu Xuezhai 溥雪斋 (1893–1966). Note this eloquent personal tribute by the great Wang Shixiang. [1]

A descendant of the Aixin Gioro Manchu imperial clan (cf. Aixin Gioro Yuhuan), Pu Xuezhai was a great-grandson of the Qing emperor Daoguang, and cousin of the “last emperor” Pu Yi. He exemplified the literati versatility of qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting (qinqishuhua 琴棋書畫). Before the 1949 “Liberation” he made his main living from painting (see e.g. here), teaching at Fu Jen University from 1942. He studied the qin with Jia Kuofeng 贾闊峰, successor to Huang Mianzhi 黃勉之.

MRI 1954The golden age of the MRI, 1954:
right to left Guan Pinghu, Yang Yinliu, Pu Xuezhai, Zha Fuxi, Li Yuanqing.

While leading MRI scholars like Yang Yinliu and Zha Fuxi, just at ease in a Western suit or a Mao jacket, adapted more comfortably to the role that the new regime demanded of them, Pu Xuezhai, like Guan Pinghu, represented the imperial culture of yore, living by sufferance under the socialist system. Still, the new leadership valued him, and he was able to thrive. In 1952 he was employed at the Beijing Hall of Cultural History, holding several posts in the new cultural administration, gaining the approval of Zhou Enlai. Meanwhile he joined the qin scholars at the Music Research Institute, and was a core member of the Beijing Qin Research Association during its heyday. Wang Shixiang recalls gatherings of amateurs where he would exclaim “Du 独!”, an antecedent of ku 酷, “cool”!

ZFX PXZ
Duet with Zha Fuxi, 1958.

While many qin masters also played the pipa, Pu Xuezhai liked to play the repertoire of the Manchu-Mongol elite on sanxian plucked lute—do click on that link for a precious audio recording.

Recordings
On CD 5 of the numinous “old eight discs” from the 1950s Pu Xuezhai is heard in three pieces:

  • Peaceful Evening Prelude (Liangxiao yin 良宵引):

  • Seabirds: Forgetting Ulterior Motives (Oulu wangji 鷗鷺忘機):

(cf. the wonderful duet with Zha Fuxi on qin and Jiang Fengzhi on erhu).

  • The Incantation of Pu’an (Pu’an zhou 普安咒)—much recorded in versions for both qin and pipa, though it is most widespread as an item of vocal liturgy among folk ritual groups, notably among the Hebei ritual associations:

  • A fourth piece attributed to him on the CD, Three Variations on Plum Blossom (Meihua sannong 梅花三弄), seems rather to be played by Wu Jinglue—but we can hear it played in duet by Pu Xuezhai on xiao end-blown flute with Zha Fuxi on qin:

which is part of a YouTube playlist for Pu Xuezhai (apart from the first track by Wu Jinglue):

Disc 8 of the 74-CD collection Juexiang (2016) further includes three versions of Meihua sannong, as well as Jiu kuang.

The end
In 1963 the Party leadership invited Pu Xuezhai to Zhongnanhai to celebrate his 70th birthday. But while such representatives of the “Four Olds” had weathered successive campaigns, the tide was already turning fatefully, rendering them vulnerable—particularly members of the old imperial clan. Pu Xuezhai soon became another casualty of the Cultural Revolution (the most detailed account of his last days is here).

PXZ 1960sPu Xuezhai, early 1960s.

In 1966, witnessing the humiliation of his colleagues, he was already traumatised by raids and struggle sessions, when Red Guards cut off his beard. The last person known to have seen him alive was his old qin-playing friend Guan Zhonghang.

His disappearance caused no comment. Just trying to survive, people had too much to worry about themselves. As with so many other senseless casualties of Maoism, his loss could only be lamented at a memorial service after the end of the Cultural Revolution.


[1] Other articles include
http://www.yuncunzhai.com/article/257845.jhtml
http://m.zwbk.org/lemma/227007
http://www.qinxuecn.org/ArticleDetail.aspx?Id=2141&classId=38https://torguqin.wordpress.com/2012/06/03/death-of-pei-tiexia/

In memoriam Dan Overmyer

Dan x2

A sad recent loss is Daniel Overmyer (1935–2021), who devoted his career to the study of Chinese popular thought, religion, and culture (see this UBC tribute).

His work on the history of Chinese sects and “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷) since the Ming dynasty was further informed by fieldwork, first in Taiwan and later in mainland China. His early books include

    • Folk Buddhist religion: dissenting sects in late traditional China (1976)
    • The flying phoenix: aspects of chinese sectarianism in Taiwan (1986, with David K. Jordan
    • Precious volumes: an introduction to Chinese sectarian scriptures from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (1999).

Concerned to view the wider picture, in 2003 he edited a special issue of the China Quarterly entitled Religion in China, with articles by Ken Dean, Fan Lizhu, Paul Katz, Lai Chi-tim, Raoul Birnbaum, Dru Gladney, Richard Madsen, and others. Other useful surveys are

    • Local religion in north China in the twentieth century: the structure and organization of community rituals and beliefs (2009), with chapters on rain rituals, history and government, leadership and organisation, temple festivals, gods and temples, beliefs and values
    • Ethnography in China today: a critical assessment of methods and results (2009, with Shin-yi Chao), with thoughtful reviews of volumes in the series Studies in Chinese ritual and folklore and the ever-growing corpus of regional studies (see e.g. Dong Xiaoping’s review of field reports on west Fujian).

With Fan Lizhu 范丽珠, he was editor-in-chief of a useful four-volume series in Chinese on folk culture in rural Hebei, Huabei nongcun minjian wenhua yanjiu congshu 华北农村民间文化研究丛书 (2006–7).

In 2009 Philip Clart and Paul Crowe edited a festschrift:

  • The people and the Dao: new studies in Chinese religions in honour of Daniel L. Overmyer (introduction here).

* * *

Dan’s memoir, written for his grandchildren in 2010, is fascinating, full of detail—so please forgive me this brief summary, focusing on his engagement with China.

His father Elmer was an Evangelical missionary, assigned to China in 1940; so Dan’s first stay there began at the age of 5, when his parents took him to Hunan with his baby sister Mary Beth. They reached Changsha by a tortuous route. Vulnerable to Japanese raids, they had to flee, first to Hengyang and then to the smaller town of Youxian, where they visited Mount Nanyue.

Hunan 1943

Hunan, 1943.

They had to leave in a hurry in 1944, reaching India by plane via Kunming, and then by ship back to the USA; Elmer stayed behind for another year. Eventually they were reunited, setting up home in Hartford, Connecticut.

After the end of the war, they returned to Changsha in 1946, spending more time on Nanyue. By 1948 Dan was at boarding school in Hong Kong, where the rest of the family joined him in 1949 before travelling to Manila. By 1952 they were back in the States, ending up in Princeton; while the rest of the family embarked on another term in Manila, Dan attended college in Iowa.

Despite never having been inclined to follow in his father’s footsteps, he now felt drawn to religion, becoming a pastor in Chicago, engaging with social issues. As his interest turned towards the history of religions, he studied at the University of Chicago—the start of his work on Chinese religion. He married Estella in 1965.

In 1968 they went with their baby to Taipei, where Dan studied Chinese language, somewhat helped by his childhood memories of Hunan. The next year he resumed work for his PhD on “heretical” sects. Having conceived it as a historical subject, while in Taipei he happened to hear a group of Hall of Compassion sectarians (who venerate the creator goddess Wusheng laomu) performing a ritual—a formative experience that began leading him to enrich his library studies with fieldwork. With Estella Dan returned to the States in 1969, where he soon found a post at Oberlin. They returned to Taiwan in the summer of 1973, before Dan took up a position at UBC in Vancouver.

His first trip back to mainland China since his childhood came in 1978. In 1981 he went in search of sectarian manuscripts in Nanjing, Suzhou, and Shanghai, also returning to Nanyue. By this time scholars were just becoming aware that the PRC was not only accessible again but a rich field for the study of local ritual cultures (see e.g. here). While teaching in Hong Kong in 1997 he met John Lagerwey, who soon took him on a trip to Fujian to give him a glimpse of the vibrant ritual scene there. This inspired him to see if there was similar work being done in north China—a path he pursued after retiring in 2000, working with Chinese colleagues. Meanwhile his environmental concerns were reflected in his involvement with nature conservation projects in Vancouver.

I do recommend this warm, humane memoir.

* * *

Among other great sinologists who died this year are Kristofer Schipper and Jacques Pimpaneau.

The qin zither under Maoism, 3: Zha Fuxi

*For a roundup of the whole series, click here!*

Zha Fuxi

Zha Fuxi in 1974 or 1975, shortly before his death.

For this third post in my series on qin zither players in Beijing under Maoism, I’ve been learning more about the great Zha Fuxi 查阜西 (also known as Zha Yiping 查夷平, 1895–1976). A forthcoming article in Zhang Zhentao’s own series on the Beijing qin scene will doubtless provide valuable insights, but I’ll go ahead and offer my own preliminary thoughts, consciou