A Shakespeare mélange


I won’t go so far as to create a “Shakespeare” tag, but I discover there’s a pleasant chain of related stories on this blog:

  • The fine programme by Philomena Cunk (now she does have her own tag…), complete with quiz on words invented by Shakespeare, or not (cuckoo? ukulele? sushi? titwank?).
  • Arthur Smith’s Hamlet story
  • Shakespeare bettered by D.H. Lawrence;

and by extension—thinking of cultural gulfs:

Some silly signs

Of course there are many many compendia of silly signs in Chinglish,* but as a break from Daoist ritual, here are some cute pieces of advice spotted on my recent sojourn in Beijing (for previous sitings, see here):

carefully slide clearer

Charge on bed

lift lowres

In that last sign, may I draw your attention (m’lud) to item 2. I suppose “gamboling” (嬉戏) might be rendered less poetically as “rowdy behaviour”. But now, like a red rag to a bull, whenever I find myself in a Chinese elevator (as one does, more and more), it’s hard to resist a bit of subtle gamboling. So far I’ve managed to avoid scratching on the walls, though (§3)—good basis for a Japanese horror film, methinks. Also note §6: Please do not bang on (and on).

My own written Chinese must be full of such subtly unsuitable usages; I just hope it provides similar harmless entertainment.

Cf. China Daily tag, starting here.


*Just a few random examples: http://www.engrish.comhttp://www.ferretingoutthefun.com/2013/12/04/best-chinglish-signs/https://internchina.com/chinglish-the-weird-and-wonderful-world-of-chinese-english/. OK, we’ve all got better things to do…

A feminist Chinese proverb

Jiuzhan quechao

Occupying the male stronghold: Li Min (left), her sister, and their children, 2013.

Further to proverbs like “No silver here” and, um, “Confucius, “Mencius…“, the thought-provoking Appendix of Guo Yuhua‘s definitive book on Maoism in a Shaanbei village is titled

鸠占鹊巢 jiu zhan quechao
doves occupying the magpie’s nest

This may sound rather like our dog in the manger, and while there doesn’t seem to be a suggestion that the doves are being pointlessly selfish, in imperial times it did acquire a derogatory sense of usurpation.

Guo Yuhua used it to evoke the stubborn resistance of a somewhat down-and-out villager in refusing to move out of the cave-dwellings that had become incorporated into the village’s glossy new Commemorative hall to the revolution. Indeed, the Party leadership had itself requisitioned the former landlord complex when they moved into the village in the 1940s.

Further east in north Shanxi, whenever I come to Upper Liangyuan village to stay with Li Manshan, his wife and any visiting female relatives use the east room—by the kitchen—while Li Manshan and I sleep in the west room, which becomes our male domain for chatting amidst a fug of cigarette smoke.

I mentioned Li Manshan’s brilliant second daughter Li Min in the first of three posts attempting to redress the flagrant gender imbalance of my fieldwork on ritual life in Yanggao. Li Min maintains a healthy scepticism about my visits—my outsider status and general ineptitude in facing the challenges of village life—and with her quiet yet fierce intelligence she’s always ready with an astute quip, like the way she pithily unpacked the ethnographic time-frame for me.

While the proverb had long acquired a pejorative tone, Li Min herself usurped it with a wry feminist slant one afternoon when Li Manshan and I returned home to find her, her sister, and their young children availing themselves of “our” west room, taking their due—doves occupying the magpie’s nest, as she observed.

In fact their visits enliven the general mood at home, and Li Manshan and his wife make wonderful grandparents… For my gifts to Li Min’s son, do click here!

Like the BBC of Lord Reith’s mission statement (cf. Philomena Cunk‘s aperçu “The show got a record audience of 400—the sort of viewing figures BBC4 still dreams of”), Li Min always informs, educates and entertains me; she’s a star. As I tell her, she may never have got on the official payroll, but she should be made Director of the Datong Bureau of Culture forthwith. And jiu zhan quechao might make a suitable motto for the Chinese feminist movement.

Li Min reading

Li Min reads a passage on women’s status in Yanggao ritual life from Wu Fan’s fine book.



Further to mondegreens, the Mountweazel is also a fine creation—a bogus entry deliberately inserted in a reference work.

While I was editing the “China” entries for the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, I tried in vain to persuade the powers-that-be that a vast civilization with a continuous history of thousands of years might just deserve as much coverage as a composer who lived for thirty-five years (Mozart). Anyway, what with all the labrynthine complexities of the Grove style “Bible”, one needs the occasional light relief (cf. the popular “composer or pasta?” quiz); and Grove now has a competition for spoof entries.

The 2016 winner was Caroline Potter:

Musical Cheesegrater
(Fr. râpe à fromage musicale; It. grattugia musicale)
A percussion instrument that enjoyed a brief vogue in Rome and Paris in the 1910s and early 1920s. In the Hornbostel-Sachs classification the instrument is reckoned as a friction idiophone. Of metal construction, it typically has four sides, each with raised perforations of a particular size. The player strokes one or more of the sides with a metal implement, producing a distinctive rasping sound. A rare rotating variant, where a perforated barrel is turned using a crankhandle to create friction against metal tangents, survives in the Musée de la Musique in Paris. The musical cheesegrater is cited in a posthumously published appendix to Luigi Russolo’s celebrated manifesto L’Arte dei rumori in the fourth category of his sound classification (screeches, creaks, rumbles, buzzes, crackles, scrapes). Its best-known use is in Maurice Ravel’s opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (1924), where it is rubbed with a triangle beater.

The musical cheesegrater was employed by Italian Futurist composers and associates of the Dada movement in Paris, and its popularity and decline mirrors the fortunes of these artistic groupings. The manuscript of Erik Satie’s Rabelais-themed Trois petites pièces montées (1919) features the instrument rubbed with a hard cheese, though scholars disagree whether Satie intended this to be a percussion instrument or part of a projected staging. Edgard Varèse showed enthusiasm for the musical cheesegrater during a dinner with Russolo; it appears in sketches for Amériques (1918-21), but not in the final version. Recent academic research in gastromusicology has revived interest in the instrument.

I’m gratified by the reference to the numinous Sachs–Hornbostel organological taxonomy, even if a whole host of stranger instruments appear there. So it’s of little consequence that just such an instrument is indeed used in several world traditions, such as the guiro/güira of merengue. Indeed, it brings to mind “our” very own washboard.

If it’s pithy organology you need, there’s also the vuvuzela.


Deviating from behavioural norms


In Paris with the Li family Daoists, 2017.

Under my fetish for taxonomy, the new subhead for humour under the WAM category contains many orchestral stories.

As Stephen Cottrell observes, they may often be subsumed under what Merriam calls the musician’s “licence to depart from behavioural norms”.

Many, indeed, relate to maestro-baiting (see also conducting tag), like John Wilbraham‘s celebrated comments.

Several stories go in pairs, like

And there’s an indecent wealth of Matthew Passion stories, such as Mein Gott.

Spreading the net wider, for instances of deviant behaviour in Iberian folk traditions, see here and here; and for jazz, e.g. Chet Baker (here and here).

Of course, it’s not only musicians who may have license to depart from behavioural norms, as is clear from the career of Bumbling Boris.

Wacky indexing, continued


The erudite Hannibal Taubes has taken time out from his intrepid explorations of Chinese village temples to alert me to the fine subject index of A Stuffed owl: an anthology of bad verse, edited by D.B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee (1930).

It’s a fine collection anyway, from which few major British poets are exempt:

 He suddenly dropt dead of heart-disease—Tennyson

 Forgive my transports on a theme like this
I cannot bear a French metropolis—Johnson

 Salubrious hinds the festive dance explore—John Nichols

This piteous news so much it shocked her
She quite forgot to send the doctor—Wordsworth

If there is no such anthology for Tang poetry, then someone should compile one forthwith.

Indexes for such works, like The Lexicon of musical invective or, um, Bazza pulls it off, can take on a life of their own:

Beethoven, light thrown on his ancestry, xv; his shaky octave-playing, 6

Byron, believed to be a poet, 235; his low character, 236; his career sketched in a few bold strokes 236–7

England, small but well-known, 200; emphatically undegenerate, 202

Italy, not recommended to tourists, 125; examples of what goes on there, 204, 219, 221

Liverpool, rapture experienced at, 196