Spiritual and marvellous mysteries

I recall with deep admiration the unsung scholar Yuan Quanyou 袁荃猷 (1920–2003).

Wang and Yuan
While a student in Beijing she studied with her future husband, the great Ming scholar Wang Shixiang 王世襄 (1914–2009) (see wise and affectionate tributes by Craig Clunas [1] —another great Ming scholar). After Yuan Quanyou graduated in 1943, they married in 1945.

Wedding of Yuan Quanyou and Wang Shixiang, 1945—after the defeat of the Japanese, on the eve of civil war.

Yuan Quanyou had studied the qin zither with Wang Mengshu 汪孟舒 from the age of 14 sui. Through the 1940s she took part keenly in the activities of the Beiping qin society, among a dazzling array of illustrious qin masters. She later became a disciple and colleague of the great Guan Pinghu.

Wang Shixiang soon found that his wife’s skills focused on the traditional literati accomplishments of “qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting”, to the exclusion of more mundane activities like cooking. So it was he who became a fine chef; and he considered himself her “qin servant” 琴奴. Several online pages about the couple describe their lifelong rapport by the term zhiyin 知音, a bond whose etymology derives from music.

Complementing Wang Shixiang’s refined literati tastes, through his enthusiasm for falconry, badger-hunting, cricket rearing, and pigeon fancying he had gained what Craig Clunas calls “a raffish reputation” (as you do…). I also learn that he loved football, “as anyone who has tried to make conversation while he is watching soccer on the television can confirm”—cool by me. He retained a rare passion for both elite and popular culture.

From the early 1950s Yuan Quanyou worked tirelessly in the archives of the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing, alongside the great Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe, as well as a whole host of qin masters like Guan Pinghu and Zha Fuxi, and their students—including the fine female qin player and scholar Wang Di 王迪 (1926–2005). [2]

GPH and students

60th-birthday photo of Guan Pinghu with his students, 1957:
(left to right) front row Xu Jian, Guan Pinghu, Zheng Minzhong;
back row Wang Di, Shen You, Yuan Quanyou.

By 1957, while her husband was also busy publishing ground-breaking research, Yuan Quanyou’s close collaboration with Yang Yinliu resulted in the publication of the fine iconographical series Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian 中国音乐史参考图片 [Reference illustrations for Chinese music history].

CKTP best

Some treasured volumes in my library.

All this activity took place under extremely trying conditions. As Craig notes:

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.

After the 1949 “Liberation”, Wang Shixiang was employed at the Palace Museum, but he was wrongly jailed for ten months and expelled from the museum in 1953. In 1957, he was branded a “rightist,” a stigma he bore for twenty-one years. Craig’s account of the couple’s enforced inactivity during the Cultural Revolution is also worth citing. Despite Wang’s undoubted sufferings after being sent down to a “Cadre school” in Hubei province, he could “make the experience sound positively bucolic”. While callow young Red Guards were duped into destroying as much of the heritage as they could find, the exiled Wang wrote poetry in the classical style (“much of it on his work as a swineherd and cowherd, which draws on deep-rooted traditions of verse by those who were out of office and out of favour at court”), and even managed to cook gourmet delicacies.

But the mental pressure cannot but have been considerable, since no term was set to the period of banishment, and little or no news was available as to the fate of family or friends.

Old portrait photos are all the moving when we consider the troubled stories behind people’s lives (intellectuals, urban and rural dwellers alike) under Maoism, as evoked by films like The blue kite and To live (see also my tribute to Li Jin). Craig’s aperçu about Wang Shixiang’s renewed energy in the 1980s, “as if making up for lost time”, also resounds in both Chinese music studies and folk culture. Meanwhile, a discreet amnesia took over.

ZGYYSTJFrom 1986 I used to visit Yuan Quanyou in her office at the dilapidated yet numinous MRI compound at Dongzhimenwai, her beaming face greeting me between high stacks of ancient documents. There, with unassuming industry she was still producing further volumes in the MRI’s wonderful annotated series of iconographical collections on Chinese music history, such as the 1988 Zhongguo yinyueshi tujian 中国音乐史图鉴 [Illustrated history of Chinese music].

Even as my interests were moving from Tang history to the modern transmission of folk culture, I relished her detailed article on the medieval konghou harp.

Remarkably, after the end of the Cultural Revolution Wang Shixiang had managed to reclaim much of their precious collection of Ming and Qing furniture and artefacts. By the 1990s he and his wife began the process of bequeathing it to the Shanghai Museum, where it now forms a major and prestigious exhibit.

With her calm acuity and beautiful accent, Yuan Quanyou exemplified the refined virtues of old Beijing. She was closely involved in the remarkable work documenting the history and changing performance practice of the qin zither—including research on the 1425 Handbook of spiritual and marvellous mysteries (Shenqi mipu, aka Wondrous and secret notation), most numinous of all tablatures for the qin, compiled by the Emaciated Immortal (as the early Ming prince Zhu Quan styled himself).

Now, this may hardly atone for my recent challenge to the mystique of the qin, but I treasure the precious copy of the 1956 reprint of the 1425 score that Yuan Quanyou inscribed to me in her elegant calligraphy in 1987, for me to “study and practise”.

SQMP

BTW, having chosen that lower page rather casually (mainly for the numinous Daoist title “Zhuangzi dreams he is a butterfly”), I now find myself moved by Zhu Quan’s wisdom—in utter contrast to the “living fossils” flummery of recent years, culminating in the befuddled Intangible Cultural Heritage. The opening of his introduction reads:

The Emaciated Immortal says: “The ancient version of this piece has long since been lost.”

These days it’s all “The ancient version of this piece has been transmitted continuously for 2,000 years.” [Expletives deleted—Ed.].

Jinfeixibi 今非昔比 (“Things ain’t what they used to be”), as Li Manshan reflects at the end of our film.

Wang and Yuan later

 

[1] See https://www.academia.edu/34156645/The_Apollo_Portrait_Wang_Shixiang_Apollo_127_November_1987_pp._350-1, and https://www.academia.edu/34156683/_Wang_Shixiang_Spiritual_Resonance_and_the_Ten_Thousand_Things_in_Fariba_de_Bruin-Derakhshani_and_Barbara_Murray_eds._The_2003_Prince_Claus_Fund_Awards_The_Hague_2003_pp._17-23. Among many other reports, see e.g. http://www.china.org.cn/english/NM-e/170145.htm and this tribute from Yuan’s granddaughter: https://kknews.cc/culture/2ao24jz.html, with further lovely old photos.

[2] For an English introduction to the (pre-ICH) Beijing Guqin Research Association, successor to the Beiping qin society, see Cheng Yu, “The precarious state of the qin in contemporary China”, CHIME 10–11 (1997).

In memory of Natasha

Natasha 2

This week is the fourth anniversary of the loss of my friend Natasha at the age of 34—younger than Mozart, and just less than two years after Amy Winehouse’s death.

Unable to do anything at all for months after, I thought I’d better not cancel my planned stay with Li Manshan in September, and indeed he and the other Daoists were understanding, easing me back to life. The Li family had themselves suffered a family tragedy at just the same time. The funeral rituals they perform are always moving, but now, as the sounds of shengguan blending with the vocal liturgy soared above the kowtowing kin, I felt their grief more personally.

Natasha left barely a trace on the world apart from her wonderful kids. I dearly want to write a book on her, but since I now find I know nothing about her, this tribute will have to suffice.

Natasha smile

“Troubled genius” doesn’t do Natasha justice. She deeply touched all who met her; irresistible, she could be impossible. She was the incarnation of Elena Ferrante’s Lila.

Her wild and prodigious early life was spent in Ternopil in west Ukraine. She made her home in London aged 18. Painter and composer, with her icons and Tarot, electronica, Bach, and Arvo Pärt, earth mother and sophisticated cook, femme fatale with her look of heroin chic, chunky jewelry and slinky outfits, finally holding down a mundane job for the sake of surviving as a single mum after teaching and playing in a rock band, childlike and severe, intoxicating and intoxicated, insatiable and hallucinatory, her thirst for knowledge reflected in her multi-coloured notebooks full of sketches and musings, she was on another planet. Hearing TurangalîlaragaMozart, or Naturträne through her ears, deep in her soul, was overwhelmingly intense.

Natasha painting

Natasha’s paintings were both radiant and troubled—her later works were yet darker. Klimt and Schiele would have lapped her up (and she them). It wasn’t easy for her inhabiting a world of Parajanov:

We were supposed to be going to Mahler 5 at the Proms when she had her first heart attack. This is a perfect version of her song:

 

Subtle revenge

Another Strange But True story from my mentor Paul, again bearing on the surreal Czech imagination:

In the early 1960s two players in the Prague opera orchestra were locked in a vendetta. The band used to leave their concert uniform in the green room. Every couple of weeks, one of them, coming in early and unobserved armed with needle and thread, meticulously took up the cuffs of his adversary’s concert trousers by a tiny bit.

Some Portuguese epigrams

For Nick—
i
f the reader finds this post a tad arcane, just wait till you see his WAM anagrams…

Further to my little Lisbon jaunt, I’m always disappointed at my total lack of success when I try to busk it in Spanish by randomly adapting Italian—but it’s even more futile to further modify my crap Spanish into bacalhau (sorry, I mean cod) Portuguese.

I soon dispensed with my old Portuguese phrase book (less entertaining, and less sinister, than Teach yourself Japanese)—its very opening phrase suggests a similar deep anxiety about even setting foot outside our own green and pleasant land:

There’s been an accident.

I flew TAP (Take a Parachute). Indeed, the flight prefix is further abbreviated by omitting the middle letter, so not for the only time, I found myself flying TP (Totally Pissed).

Aboard TAP flights, with impressive urbanity in the vein of Mots d’heures, the airline regales the traveller with a pithy and somewhat obscure epigram evoking the saudade of fado. It seems to recall a sad incident in the colourful past of an early Lisbon femme fatale, perhaps of French patrician stock (even a refugee from the guillotine?):

Colete Salva-Vidas sob a Cadeira [1]

I’ve added capitals for clarity, but in order to preserve the ambiguity of the original I have refrained from supplying what seems to be a missing apostrophe—indeed, could it even be an exhortation?

Either way, it is far more evocative in Portuguese than in its prosaic English rendition

Life jacket under the seat.

Cf. Airplane:

Airplane is packed with little visual detail like that, requiring as much long-term revisiting as the Ring Cycle. Even the opening sequence is a too, er, deaf ‘orse.

And I’m keen to dally with Mme (sic) Salva-Vida’s (just as sic) enticing daughters

Rolagem, Descolagem, and (black sheep of the family) Aterragem,

also commemorated in TAP’s onboard annotations. Again, their names are so much less elegant in English:

Taxi, Takeoff, and Landing.

Just had one of those whacky dreams:

In Lisbon, invited implausibly to some suspiciously traditional social event with an old friend, we make our tortuous way there by means of a badly bombed Escher staircase. Arriving unscathed, I mingle suavely with the locals. Pleased with myself for managing to utter a grammatically convincing phase, I exclaim “Progresso!” “Si,” my Portuguese friend nods, “Esta Truro.”

How pitilessly my subconscious satirizes my naïve aspirations to insider status.

 

[1] Cadeira: twinned with Madeira.

Hope for our future

Amidst all the recent plague of misogynistic claptrap—exemplified by the Neanderthal spewings from Tweety McTangerine—all is not lost.

One of the very most inspiring stories of recent months concerned the brilliant ripostes by indignant young female football players at a County Durham primary school to the Football Association’s advice (“naïve rather than sexist”???) on ways of recruiting more girls to the sport. Call me a Guardian reader if you will, but FFS, even The Sun expressed wholehearted admiration for the girls’ protests!

Their letters are just brilliant.

We aren’t brainless Barbie dolls.

Whether or not they’ve read the feminist classics yet (in pretty pink covers, perhaps, FA?), or even listened to Bridget Christie, they’re on the case, making mature cogent arguments way beyond the infantile rants of the leader of the Free World. There’s hope yet.

Kangaroo

By contrast with many stories being published today, here’s an apparently genuine story of the choir of King’s College Cambridge on a tour of Australia, probably in 1980:

On a free day, a few of the more enterprising undergraduate choristers, all dressed up in their fancy Chetwynd society blazers, hired a car and drove off into the outback. Suddenly a kangaroo leapt out in the road in front of them, and they couldn’t help hitting it. Stopping to assess the damage they found that the kangaroo, though unscathed, was dead. With typical Cambridge drôlerie, one of them took off his blazer and put it on the kangaroo so they could take a photo.

At this point, it transpired that the kangaroo wasn’t dead at all, but merely stunned [Altogether now, the parrot sketch—Ed.]. Coming round, it hopped off at high speed into the distance—with blazer, passport, and chequebook, making excellent its escape (in the words of Flann O’Brien).

It was never seen again—though one imagines it telling the tale as it sips cocktails on a Spanish beach…

If anyone can confirm or refine this story, please do!