Blind musicians in China and elsewhere

Blind musicians have long been major transmitters of traditional culture: do click away on this list of some posts featuring them.

For China—mainly shawm players and bards (passing quickly over the “usual suspects”, the ancient Master Kuang and the ubiquitous Abing):

as well as my first two posts on Coronavirus:

For blind musicians elsewhere:

—indeed, one could greatly augment the list for many other cultures around the world.


Compound surnames in Chinese and English

Left: Sima Qian; right: Zhuge Liang.

For China, besides my post on alternating single and double given names by generation, there are also some intriguing double surnames, often deriving from northern ethnic minorities.

Of the many that were used in early history, some have fallen out of use, with clans often adopting single surnames—a process that took place over a long period, unlike the rapidly changing fashions in given names. Double surnames still quite common are Ouyang 歐陽, Shangguan 上官, Sima 司馬 and Situ 司徒; less so are Zhuge 諸葛, Xiahou 夏侯, Huangfu 皇甫, Huyan 呼延, and Zhongli 鍾離.

Left: Ouyang Xiu; right: Zhongli Quan.

Among ethnic minorities, longer compound surnames are still common, adapted to Chinese style, such as the Manchu Qing imperial clan Aisin Gioro. But with the Han chauvinism of the current CCP this is changing too—for Uyghur names under the current clampdown in Xinjiang, see e.g. this article.

* * *

For the Han Chinese double-barrelled surnames I can’t discern potential for satire, as we class-conscious English like to do for Posh Upper-Class Twits—whether fictional characters like Gussie Fink-Nottle and Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, and Monty Python’s Vivian Smith-Smythe-Smith, Simon Zinc-Trumpet-Harris, Nigel Incubator-Jones, Gervaise Brook-Hampster, and Oliver St. John-Mollusc:

or real people who really should be fictional, like Jacob Rees-Mogg. There is latitude in the use of the hyphen. Indeed, why stop at two surnames? This wiki article also considers international naming practices, including Germany and Iberia. As Silly Names go, it’s hard to beat Leone Sextus Denys Oswolf Fraudatifilius Tollemache-Tollemache de Orellana Plantagenet Tollemache-Tollemache, British captain who died in World War One. 

Now the Riff-Raff [sic] are getting in on the act too, with young sporting luminaries such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and the wonderful Katarina Johnson-Thompson, who soars high above the recumbent Tree-Frog.

In a rather different category is the litany of middle names for Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson as documented by Stewart Lee, which grows almost weekly.

See here for more on How to be English.



Enough already


Coco Naomi

In the opening salvos of what will be a wonderful long tennis rivalry, first Naomi Osaka beat the astounding Coco Gauff in the 2019 US Open (and in that post, do watch their beautiful on-court interview!); and now Coco has taken her revenge in the 3rd round of this year’s Australian Open.

But here I have a linguistic point in mind. Commenting on her 2nd-round match, Osaka described her rocky path to victory:

I was like, “Can I just hit a winner already?”

This led me to explore discussions of the usage of “already” as an intensifier to express impatience or exasperation (see e.g. here). It still seems more common in American English than in the UK, but I like it.

Some suggest that it was adapted in the States early in the 20th century from the Yiddish shoyn (genug, shoyn! “Enough already!”). cf. gut shoyn, ”All right already!” in the sense of ”Stop bugging me,” and (one calibration more irritated) shvayg shtil shoyn, ”Shut up already!”. But, thickening the plot, it’s also common in other languages, such as French déjà and Spanish ya. It also rather recalls the emphatic use of the particle le 了 and its expressive variant la 啦 in Chinese.

Doubtless people have been slaving away at erudite PhDs on the subject (“When are you gonna finish your goddam thesis already?”, or perhaps “When are you gonna finish your goddam thesis ‘Already’ already?”).

Anyway, both Coco and Naomi are inspiring. Already.


The c-word

also starring fatuous asterisks, bendy bananas, and the b-word (bi)


How is the poor reader expected to differentiate between b******* and b*******?

Talking of The end of the f***ing world, the prissy prurience of the tabloids’ use of asterisks is brilliantly demolished by David Marsh in this article from the fine Guardian series Mind your language, prompted by the John Terry trial—citing a reader:

 I never cease to be amazed by newspapers which shyly make him say “f***ing black c***”, leaving intact the one word which aroused Mr Ferdinand’s wrath,

and calling on the unlikely couple of Charlotte Brontë and Ken Loach. See also this LRB review of a book on a 1923 trial revolving around women’s use of “foul language”, class, and the uses and abuses of literacy—with a pre-echo of Paul Kratochvil’s splendid story in a quote from 1930: “soldiers used the word ‘fucking’ so often that it was merely a warning that ‘a noun is coming’ “.

Moreover, reclaiming “the c-word (cunt)” has been a concern of feminists—as discussed in this post (from another useful site), citing authors from Germaine Greer to Laurie Penny. See also this article from Rachel Braier; the wiki article is useful too.

In Stewart Lee‘s latest book March of the lemmings (2019—not aka The bumper book of  Stewart Lee jokes: jolly japes for all the family) he pursues the style of How I escaped my certain fate with typically expansive Teutonic footnotes to the script of his show Content provider [or should that be C***ent provider?]. In one of these, warming to several topics, he reflects on the efficacity of his “so-called comedy” with purposeful, insistent use of “the c-word (cunt)”—which I hereby feel obliged to emulate.

First we should hear him doing the live version that prompted this tirade, since it gains so much from his masterly inflection, timbre, timing, and delivery. See this charming little clip—or, with more context (from around 7.46):

And it isn’t, to be fair, you know, and I think—look, we’re gonna leave the EU, that is happening, and I think people have gotta put their differences behind them now and try and make it work. And I—I don’t know if you can make massive generalisations about people that voted to leave Europe anyway, because people voted to leave Europe for all sorts of different reasons, you know, and it wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe. Cunts did as well, didn’t they? Stupid fucking cunts. Racists, and cunts, and people with legitimate anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe.*

So here’s the footnote:

* How does this joke, which drew tears and cheers, even though I say it myself, night after night for the best part of two years, work? (1) Firstly, shock. I rarely swear on stage, and compared to most edgelord stand-ups, my swears count is probably only one level up from the sort of acts who market themselves as “clean” to get gigs at hospices run by born-again Christians. So it is a funny shock to hear me abandon my usual vocabulary and say the c-word (cunt). The c-word (cunt) is probably a way-too-heavy word to use here, and the deployment of such a disproportionately heavy weapon is part of what makes choosing to do [it] so funny. (2) The structure of the bit has a relationship with the much-touted idea that liberal Remainers should look outside their bubble and seek to understand the fears and concerns that drove 17.4 million people to vote Leave (“People voted to leave Europe for all sorts of different reasons, and it wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe…”), but then subverts the progression of thought by just calling them the c-word (cunts). To quote an old Lee and Herring routine, or possibly Viz’s Mr Logic, “Our expectations were subverted, from whence the humour arose”. (3) This second idea is then given what we in the trade call a “topper” by doubling back on the original premise and conceding that some Leave voters may also have “legitimate anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe”. There is then a second topper, in the form of a letter from a punter [“Dear Palace Theatre, Southend, please inform the “comedian”, and I use that word advisedly, Stewart Lee, who I had the misfortune of being taken along by friends to see last night, that I actually voted to leave Europe and I am neither a racist nor a cunt. Merely someone with genuine anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe. Yours, A. Cunt, Burnham-on-Crouch.”], which is a real letter (with the name changed) received during an early stage of the show at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe try-outs, which just replays the joke again but in a funny voice and with more swearing, and with the town the complainer comes from changed to some local place every night—in this case, Burnham-on-Crouch.

By now the c-word (cunt) has long become a veritable mantra. The ever-expanding footnote goes on to do battle with Lee’s critics, with a plea for context:

The Tory Brexiteer and Sun columnist Tony Parson, in the February 2019 edition of GQ, the sort of style and status bible Patrick Bateman in American Psycho would read in between dismembering prostitutes in a penthouse apartment, wrote, on the subject of the c-word (cunt):

In the little corner of Essex where I grew up,”c***” was practically a punctuation mark among men and boys [see above—SJ]. It was in the foul air we breathed. But it grates now. It feels like the rancid tip of a cesspit that is the modern male attitude to women. And what I find bewildering is that it is not just thick ignorant oafs who use the c-word with such abandon. It is the woke. It is the enlightened. It is the professionally sensitive. It is the Guardian columnist, the BBC-approved comedian who can be guaranteed to dress to the left. “It wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe,” Stewart Lee recently quipped, “C***s did as well. Stupid fucking [sic!] c***s.” Does Lee’s use of the word sound rational or healthy? Does it provoke tears of mirth? Do you think it might persuade the 17.4m who voted to leave the European Union—the largest vote for anything in the history of this country—they were wrong? Some of my best friends are Remainers, but such spittle-flecked fury when using the word “c***s” makes Brexit sound like the very least of Lee’s problems.

Obviously, like Julia Hartley-Brewer and other Conservative Twitter types who alighted on the Brexit bit, Parson removed the qualifying section that followed it, where I acknowledge the out-of-touch nature of the so-called liberal elite in London, which in turn buys me some leeway, and also makes the subsequent attack on the so-called non-liberal non-elite more of a surprise; and Parson, presumably knowing little of my work, doesn’t appreciate that the use of the c-word (cunt) reads to my audience here in a comical way precisely because using it is so out of character. It is not the swear word in and of itself that brought the house down nightly. It has to have context.

And of course, the word isn’t delivered with “relish”, and it isn’t “spittle-flecked” either. The c-word (cunt) is delivered here with a kind of despairing calm, as if the cuntishness of the Brexit c-words (cunts) was just a sad matter of fact. When I was directing Richard Thomas’s Jerry Springer: the opera at the National Theatre in 2003 (as I am sure I have written before), we were given the benefit of the theatre’s voice coach for one session, who took the singers aside to teach them to enunciate all the libretto’s swear words and curses, to spit them out with relish. I waited for the session to subside, respectfully, and then had to unravel the work that had been done. The swear words weren’t necessarily to be sung in that spirit at all. For the most part, they represented the disenfranchised Americans working, in heightened emotional states, at the edges of the limited vocabulary that was available to them, and had to be used to convey not simply hate and venom, but also love, hope, despair and longing, the feelings expressed in Richard’s music. If I’d really wanted this particular c-word (cunt) to read with spittle-flecked relish, you’d have known about it. There’d have been spittle on the lens. I’m not averse to spitting on stage (on an imaginary Graham Norton, for example), so a lens would hold no terrors for me. To me, the c-word (cunt) here was mainly about how utter despair drove the beaten and frustrated Remainer character on stage (me) to the outer limits of his inarticulacy, painstakingly logical arguments against Brexit having broken down into mere swears.

And I didn’t “quip” the line either. One thing you will never see me doing is quipping. My work is too laborious and self-aware to ever include a comic device as light-hearted as a “quip”, and if I see one, I usually have it surgically removed from my script, or at least quarantined between ironic inverted commas (“Oh yeah, I can do jokes”). [Here’s a rare, and sadly very funny, example—SJ] And obviously, the bit was not in any way intended to “persuade the 17.4m who voted to leave the European Union—the largest vote for anything in the history of this country—they were wrong”, so it is stupid to criticise it for failing to achieve something it never set out to do. That’s like saying that Fawlty towers, for example, was written to encourage hoteliers to control their tempers; or that the very funny playground joke that ends with the line “Lemon entry, my dear Watson” was written to encourage Sherlock Holmes to keep suitable anal-sex lubricants close to hand for his congress with Watson, rather than relying on whatever out-of-date fruit preserves he could find in his larder.

Maybe I came onto Parson’s radar of late because I talked about Brexit, which he and his employer the Sun support, or because I am now one of those “cultural figures” that informed commentators like him are supposed to know about (“God! Haven’t you heard of Stewart Lee, Tony? I can’t believe it!”), who get praised in the London Review of Books, and get called the greatest living stand-ups in The Times, irrespective of their perceived market penetration or popularity. For Parson I am a “woke… enlightened… professionally sensitive… BBC-approved comedian who can be guaranteed to dress to the left”, which is hardly news, as it’s essentially what I describe myself as on stage, having done lazy Parson’s work for him.

Nonetheless, it’s odd to be called out as evidence of “the rancid tip of a cesspit that is the modern male attitude to women” in a magazine whose website has a “Hottest Woman of the Week” feature. It’s such an odd phrase, “the rancid tip of a cesspit”, that I had to go online and google pictures of cesspits to make sure I had understood what one was.

In my newspaper columns, I deliberately try to mangle my metaphors, writing in character as a man with imposter syndrome who is out of his depth in a posh newspaper and is trying to overcompensate with complex language that is beyond him. But Parson’s incoherence, as brilliantly parodied each month in Viz, is effortless. A cesspit is, literally, a pit full of cess. It can’t have a tip as it is not a conical solid. The only way a cesspit could have a tip is if it were somehow upended and its contents swiftly hardened in some kind of large-scale commercial drying unit, and the remaining cylinder or cuboid (depending on the shape of the pit that had moulded the cess within it) then sharpened at one end, perhaps using an enormous pencil sharpener rotated by shire horses on some kind of mill harness, or by Parson himself, until it formed the rancid tip Parson described. The only way a cesspit could have a natural tip would be if the body of the cesspit itself were conical, which perhaps they were “in the little corner of Essex where Parson grew up.

In fact, there is an Essex folk-song, collected by the archivist Shirley Collins inthe ’50s from the old traveller singer Gonad Bushell, that goes:

I’m a Billericay gypsy, Billericay is my home,
My house it is a caravan, my cesspit is a cone,
And if I want to see the cess become a rancid tip,
I tip the cesspit upside down, then dry and sharpen it!
And the curlew is a-calling in the morning.
[This is worthy of Stella Gibbons—e.g. Cold Comfort Farm, or her brilliant Britten pastiche—SJ]

Parson may have a point about the c-word (cunt), though I don’t really think my Brexit bit is hugely relevant to his discussion, and seems to be cranked in as part of some kind of twisted vengeance. Out of academic curiosity, I wondered what the dictionary definition of the c-word (cunt) was, and to my surprise, when I turned to it, there was just a massive picture of Tony Parson’s face. And it had all arrows pointing towards it as well.

Imagine writing the sort of space-filling shit Parson does, day after day. At least my columns are supposed to be stupid.


Back at the routine, Lee moves on ineluctably to the Brexiteers’ fatuous topos of bendy bananas (demolished e.g. here; also a theme of his columns, such as here and here, the latter included in March of the lemmings):

People did vote to leave Europe for all different sorts of—they did, don’t snigger away down there—they voted for all, you know, not everyone that voted to leave Europe wanted to see Britain immediately descend into being an unaccountable single-party state, exploiting people’s worst prejudices to maintain power indefinitely. Some people just wanted bendy bananas, didn’t they? “Oh no, I only wanted bendy bananas, and now there’s this chaotic inferno of hate.” “Oh well, never mind, at least the bananas are all bendy again, aren’t they?” Like they always fucking were.

In the second half of the show he adapts the Brexit material into an “I don’t know if you can make massive generalisations about Americans who voted for Trump…” routine:

Not all Americans who voted for Trump wanted to see America immediately descend into being an unaccountable single-party state, exploiting people’s worst prejudices to maintain power indefinitely. Some Americans just wanted to be allowed to wear their Ku Klux Klan outfits to church, didn’t they?

And still the footnotes to the script persist. Like How I escaped my certain fate, Lee’s comments are worth reading in full.

For more, see numerous posts under the Lee tag—and Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! For lying xenophobic misogynistic politicians, see also under Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson, with his sinister henchman The Haunted Pencil (e.g. here and here), as well as the Tweety tag. Click here for two erudite literary jokes; and for what in Chinese, charmingly, is “the b-word (bi)”, see Forms of addressInterpreting pinyin, and Changing language.

Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing


Mural, Lord Guan Hall, Huapen village, Yanqing district, Beijing, c1809.

Quite beyond my area of expertise, I was inspired by reading the brief yet suggestive article

  • Liu Lingcang 劉淩滄, [1] “Minjian bihuade zhizuo fangfa” 民間壁畫的製作方法 [Techniques of making folk murals], Yishu yanjiu 1958.2, pp.52–6.

As Hannibal Taubes divined when he sent it to me, slight as it is, it links up nicely with my taste for scholarship under Maoism documenting the customs of old Beijing just as they were being dismantled. It’s not so much the quality of the research that attracts me here—rather, the delicate nature of studying the topic just as collectivisation was escalating, painfully evoked in films like The blue kite. As ever, we need to read between the lines. Moreover, we can always learn from accounts of the nuts and bolts of creativity.

I’ve already introduced the work of the great Yang Yinliu at the helm of the Music Research Institute, along with the ritual traditions of old Beijing represented by the Zhihua temple. For more on old Beijing, see also Li Wenru, Wang ShixiangChang Renchun, and narrative-singing (here and here)—and in recent years a major project on the social history of imperial and Republican Beijing temples through epigraphy and oral sources.

* * *

From November 1955 to the autumn of 1956, the Central Academy of Fine Arts carried out a project documenting the work of ritual painters in Beijing. Rather than Liu’s gloss huagong 画工, the common folk term was huajiang 画匠 “artisan painter”, as in Yanggao, referring to artisans working for what had always been largely a ritual market—part of the whole network of ritual service providers upon whom Chang Renchun‘s work opens a window. They were apprenticed from young, often within the family.

Themes of their murals and paintings included the Seventy-two Courts (qisier si 七十二司) (cf. here, under “Buddhist-transmitted groups”) and the Ten Kings of the Underworld, depictions of Guanyin, the life of the Buddha, Yaowang Medicine King, and Water and Land rituals; and scenes from popular fiction such as the Three Kingdoms and the Water Margin. The article also hints at the market in the surrounding countryside for New Year’s lanterns and diaogua hangings, such as our own team found in Hebei (cf. the story of itinerant Qi Youzhi and his forebears, maintaining sheng mouth-organs for temples and village ritual associations). The themes of such hangings were closely related to historical subjects embodied in opera and story-telling.

Diaogua hangings adorning the alleys of Gaoluo village, 1989. My photos.

Just as our understanding of ritual is enriched by zooming in on the nuts and bolts of its vocal and instrumental soundscape, we can learn much by unpacking the techniques and vocabulary of religious painting. [2] In the end, ritual performers and ritual artisans are closely related.

The whole process of creating murals consisted of three stages (yixiu erluo sancheng 一朽二落三成):

  • xiu “draft”, known as tanhuo 擹活, creating a draft outline, drawn in charcoal
  • luo (lao, perhaps), “setting down”, known as laomo 落墨 “setting down the ink”
  • cheng “completion” (cheng guanhuo 成管活).

As with Renaissance artists in Europe, the laborious final stages depended on a division of labour, with the assistance of disciples.

Liu goes on to discuss elements in turn, with details on materials and tools, including this marvellous summary of the technicalities of preparing Water and Land paintings:

Shuilu details

Citing examples as far back as the Tang dynasty to illustrate techniques still in use, Liu goes on to discuss applying ground layers to the wall, templates (fenben 粉本), traditional methods of mixing and adjusting mineral pigments, the use of glues and alum, creating 3-D effects, and colour gradation. For pigments, while Liu notes the incursion of Western materials since the 1920s, among the team’s informants for traditional painting techniques was none other than Guan Pinghu, master of the qin zither! And in a detailed section on depicting gold, Liu consulted Wang Dingli 王定理 and Shen Yucheng 申玉成, working on the statuary of Tibetan temples in Beijing, as the best artisans then working in the medium.

An intriguing part of the final stages of mural painting is the addition of colours according to the master craftsman’s indications in charcoal, such as gong 工 for red and ba 八 for yellow—economical versions of the characters hong 红 and huang 黄, or liu 六, whose pronunciation stood for  绿 green. They even found such indications visible in the Ming-dynasty murals of the Dahui si 大慧寺 temple in Beijing. Liu notes that the custom was already dying out in Beijing, [3] but the shorthand reminds me, not quite gratuitously, of the secret language of blind shawm players in north Shanxi, and (less directly) the characters of gongche notation, which persisted.

Though again the ancient tradition of oral formulas (koujue 口诀) was dying out (at least in Beijing), Liu lists those that they could recover—just the kind of vocabulary that we seek from ritual performers, going beyond airy doctrinal theorising to gain insights into the practical and aesthetic world of folk society:


Just as the ritual soundscape still heard throughout the countryside in the 1950s (and today) contrasted starkly with the official diet of revolutionary songs, these traditions occupy an utterly different world from our image of propaganda posters of the time.

But—not unlike all the 1950s’ fieldwork on regional musical traditions (links here)— what the article could hardly broach was how the lives and livelihoods of such ritual service providers were progressively impoverished after Liberation, as their whole market came under assault and temples were demolished or left to fall into ruin. Even in the previous decade, through the Japanese occupation and civil war, the maintenance of temples can hardly have been a priority; new creation of murals was clearly on hold, and one wonders how much, if any, maintenance and restoration these artisans were still doing when Liu’s team visited them. Some of the artisans were doubtless already seeking alternative employment such as factory work or petty trade. We get but rare glimpses of this story, such as Zha Fuxi’s 1952 frank letter to the former monks of the Zhihua temple tradition. Later in the 1950s some official documents inadvertently provide further material on the period.

Of course, irrespective of their current circumstances, asking people to recall their previous practices is always an aspect of fieldwork, while one seeks to clarify the time-frame of their observations.


[1] Liu LingcangBy this time Liu Lingcang (1908–89) was already a distinguished artist and educator; but his early life qualified him well for the project discussed here. A native of a poor village in Gu’an county, Hebei, as a teenager he worked as an apprentice folk ritual artisan in nearby Bazhou before finding work as a restorer of temple murals in Beijing—so the 1955–6 project was based on his own former experience as a participant. Becoming a member of the Research Association for Chinese Painting in 1926, he went on to study at the Beiping National School of Art (precursor of the Central Academy of Fine Arts), taking up senior official posts after the 1949 Liberation. Some of his later paintings addressed religious themes: like Yang Yinliu over at the Music Research Institute, he clearly remained attached to his early background, despite his elevation. Again I think of Craig Clunas’s comment “The published curricula vitae of Chinese scholars often give a false idea of the continuity of their employment, and conceal the long periods of frustrating idleness caused by periodic political campaigning.”

[2] Craig Clunas kindly offers some further leads to “technical art history” in China, such as John Winter, East Asian paintings (2008), and (for the medieval period, notably for Dunhuang) Sarah Fraser, Performing the visual: the practice of Buddhist wall painting in China and Central Asia, 618-960 (2004). For technical details in the world of literati painting (such as mounting), see Robert van Gulik, Chinese pictorial art as viewed by the connoisseur (1981).

[3] As Hannibal tells me, a variant of this system is still used by folk ritual artisans in rural Shaanbei. For the anthropology of folk ritual art there he also directs us to a wealth of research, notably the insightful work of Huyan Sheng 呼延胜, such as his PhD on Water and Land paintings (Shaanbei tudishangde shuilu yishu 陕北土地上的水陆画艺术), and the article “Yishu renleixue shiyexiade Shaanbei minjian simiao huihua he kaiguang yishi” 艺术人类学视域下的陕北民间寺庙绘画和开光仪式, Minyi 民艺 2019.3; as well as a detailed article on painter-artisans in nearby Gansu by Niu Le 牛乐, “Duoyuan wenhuade yinxing chuancheng celue yu wenhua luoji” 多元文化的隐性传承策略与文化逻辑, Qinghai minzu yanjiu 2018.3.

Gosh—for such remarkable continuity in Chinese culture, despite all its tribulations, yet another reminder that “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”, and that “a starved camel is bigger than a fat horse”.

Criticizing Confucius

Given that this is no time for blind kowtowing before authority—anywhere:

Just as Tang poetry isn’t immune from doggerel, maybe we might unfurl a new, more decorous campaign to debunk the uncritical veneration of Confucius (cf. Alan Bennett).

Noting that “Confucius He Say” 子曰 might be rendered as “So the kid goes…” (“I’m like, whatever”; see also OMG), one could regard the Analects an early pilot for Kids say the cutest things 子曰乖事, or an anthology of pithy bumper-stickers (cf. Gary Larson’s cartoon Confucius at the office—”Looks like we’re in for some rain”).

Here’s one gnomic maxim that does rather appeal to me:

The gentleman is not a vessel.

Typically, it’s been subjected to a vast apparatus of scholarly exegesis; I like to take it as a critique of reification, one of the banes of studying music (see musicking), religion (see “doing religion“), and indeed Life… Indeed, maybe the qi 器 there is even verbal: “The gentleman doesn’t reify”? * I would like the quote even more if he had said that women weren’t vessels either—but despite recent defences of Confucian sexism, he didn’t (surprise surprise).

As Confucius said when his disciple Yan Hui ** told him he was taking up stamp collecting,

Philately will get you nowhere

(an old joke that goes back at least to Jennings).

As ever, The life of Brian has salient critiques. Here’s one of the Boring Prophets:

There shall, in that time, be rumors of things going astray, erm, and there shall be a great confusion as to where things really are, and nobody will really know where lieth those little things wi- with the sort of … raffia-work base that has an attachment. At this time, a friend shall lose his friend’s hammer and the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers, that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o’clock.

And indeed the rebuke to exegesis in the Sermon on the Mount scene that opens the film:

I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.
Ahh, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?
Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

See also Alan Bennett’s classic sermon on “My brother Esau is an hairy man…”


* Cf. “Gentlemen lift the seat”—as Jonathan Miller observed in Beyond the fringe, “What exactly does this mean? Is it a sociological description—a definition of a gentleman which I can either take or leave? Or perhaps it’s a Loyal Toast? It could be a blunt military order, or an invitation to upper-class larceny.”

** My penchant for Yan Hui derives from the ritual shengguan suite Qi Yan Hui 泣颜回,  a title that alludes to Confucius bewailing his early death (for a gongche score, see here, under West An’gezhuang).

A secret language in north Shanxi


Blind shawm players Liuru (left) and Yinsan, Yanggao town 2003.

The use of Verlan backslang in Engrenages/Spiral reminded me of a fascinating secret oral language in north Shanxi. I’ve mentioned it en passant in my writings, but since I can’t seriously expect readers to follow up such links, it deserves a post to itself.

Known as “black talk” (heihua), it belongs to the wider family of insiders’ languages used by marginal social groups and tradespeople. [1] In north Shanxi it was spoken mainly by the members of outcast shawm bands (here called gujiang 鼓匠 rather than the common chuigushou), illiterate and often blind—mainly, but not entirely, for secrecy. Here I cite the section in

  • Wu Fan 吴凡, Yinyang, gujiang 阴阳鼓匠 (2007),
    Yuebande heihua” 乐班的黑话, pp.119–25.

During her fieldwork in Yanggao county Wu Fan—a native of Wuhan in Hubei—latched onto this arcane vocabulary with amazing alacrity (for her own skills in punning with Daoists, see here). Meanwhile, local scholar Chen Kexiu (to whom we may credit the “discovery” of the Yanggao Daoists and shawm bands), brought up in Yanggao, published an article incorporating the wider region of north Shanxi:

  • Chen Kexiu 陈克秀, “Yanbei guchuiyue yirende heihua” 雁北鼓吹乐艺人的黑话, Zhongguo yinyuexue 2007.4.

The terms for numbers (used mainly to discuss money and fees: Table 2–5 below) were still common until recently. They describe verbally the components of a character, just as Chinese people do routinely when explaining in conversation which character to use, like koutian wu 口天吴 for the surname Wu 吴, or wenwu bin 文武斌 for the given name Bin 斌.


Above: numbers; below: instruments.

To explain a few instances:

  •  1:  yi 一 becomes dinggai 丁盖, “the cover of the character ding 丁”
  •  2:  er 二 becomes konggong 空工, “the character gong 工 emptied”
  •  3: san 三 becomes chuan 川, rotating the character 90 degrees
  •  7:  qi 七 becomes zaodi 皂底, “the base of the character zao 皂”
  •  8:  ba 八 becomes fengai 分盖 “the cover of the character fen 分”
  • 10: shi 十 becomes tianxin 田心, “the heart of the character tian 田”.

What is remarkable here is that this style is used by illiterate, often blind, shawm players. The theory is that blind men, unable to see who might be listening to their conversation, needed a language where they needn’t fear saying something indiscreet, such as offending their patrons. Yet it’s a highly visual language; I wondered how it came into being. After all, even illiterate blindmen could be told how some characters were written; but you don’t have to know the etymology of words in order to use them!

One might suppose that these terms would be more widespread, but I haven’t found other instances yet. At the same time, another vocabulary for numbers (in various written forms) was in common use here—as around Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
刘 (流) 王 (汪) 挠 (神) 斜 (心) 内 (爱)

Throughout China, folk musicians commonly use local terms for their instruments (Table 2–6 above); such names are still used in Yanggao and elsewhere (cf. other areas such as Shaanbei). The derivation of the insiders’ terms for repertoire (Table 2–7 below) is obscure; again, the stimulus was perhaps secrecy—to avoid their choices being understood by their patrons. But these terms seem to have become largely obsolete, along with the repertoire itself (for the searing complexity of which, see here).

heihua 2

Above: titles of shawm suites; below: terms in daily life.

Expressions for daily life (Table 2–8 above) include huoyin 火因 for yan 烟 “smoke” (again splitting up left and right elements of the character); tiaoma 条码 “hottie”; dianyou 点油 (“lighting oil”) for hejiu 喝酒 “drinking liquor”; and kou 口 (prounounced kio) for chi 吃 “eat”. Some of these are dialectal, heard in more general parlance. Chen Kexiu gives an extensive list—and his examples of conversations are daunting:


As you can see there, even the local term gujiang for the members of shawm bands becomes pijia 皮家 (“skins”) in their own parlance.

Thickening the plot, Chen Kexiu goes on to introduce a separate style of black talk used by shawm bands, one that incorporates the ancient fanqie 反切 phonetic system into speech (qiekou 切口) (cf. the blind bards of Zuoquan county). For instance, while the term xunmenshi (or xingmenshi 行门事, yingmenshi 应门事, with shi pronounced si!) is standard local parlance for performing a ritual, one shawm player might ask another (cf. the simpler but no more intelligible 去哪儿贬皮呀? above):

呆劳乃拉许论没人是哩? (到哪儿寻门事?)—“Where are you going to do the ritual?”

Unlike the specialized secret vocabulary that we noted above, once you grasp the principle you can apply it to any words—and it doesn’t require literacy. But the shawm bands among whom Chen Kexiu collected this qiekou style of speech don’t seem to use the specialized vocabulary like the numerical terms; he attributes the qiekou style in particular to the lowly hereditary families of ritual specialists known as “music households” (yuehu), who were descended from banished imperial officials. While there is plenty of evidence for the yuehu further south in Shanxi [1] and elsewhere, I’ve never been very convinced by the piecemeal clues to their presence in north Shanxi. All this is tenuous, but perhaps the supposed yuehu connection for this particular style might just go towards explaining the literate, visual basis of the numerical terms, which otherwise seems so mysterious.

* * *

Much of this vocabulary of the shawm bands was adopted by folk opera groups, also lowly in status; and through constant interaction at rituals household Daoists like the Li family, while somewhat more esteemed, used it to some extent. Of course, all these expressions are pronounced in Yanggao dialect, itself none too easy for the outsider to understand; heihua (“black talk”) itself is pronounced hehua!

The language was still commonly used in the 1990s, but senior blind shawm players were giving way to younger players who no longer suffered such social stigma, and their traditional repertoire was largely replaced by pop. Still, it reminds us what a daunting task it can be for fieldworkers to enter into the aesthetic world of folk performers.

Let’s recite the numbers 1 to 10—altogether now:


For some erudite literary wordplay from household Daoists in Yanggao, see here.


[1] Note Qu Yanbin 曲彦斌, Zhongguo miyu hanghua cidian 中国秘语行话词典 (1994). 

[2] For links to the major studies of Xiang Yang and Qiao Jian on the yuehu in the Shangdang region, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.86–7.