China: commemorating trauma

Ditch

Just as I was lamenting the lack of public acknowledgement of the crimes of Maoism—by comparison with countries where regime change has enabled such necessary commemoration (see e.g. my posts on Ravensbrück, SachsenhausenHildiGitta Sereny, the work of Philippe Sands, the GDR, and the Salazar regime)—the new Wang Bing 王兵 documentary Dead souls, just shown at Cannes, is a timely reminder of his brave work and that of other documentarists and journalists, not to mention their interviewees, survivors of the late-1950s’ labour-camp system and the kin of its victims.

Research on the notorious Jiabiangou camp in Gansu has an estimable history. Wang Bing’s project goes back to meeting He Fengming in 1995 (herself a Gansu camp survivor), whose husband died at Jiabiangou—resulting in Wang’s 2007 film Fengming: a Chinese memoir (here, with Spanish and Italian subtitles; also interview), shown at Cannes that year. From 2003 Zhao Xu 赵旭 began publishing his research on Jiabiangou, Fengxue Jiabiangou 风雪夹边沟. From 1997 Yang Xianhui 杨显惠 was visiting former inmates, and in 2003 he published his collection Woman From Shanghai: tales of survival from a Chinese labor camp (English translation 2009). As Wang Bing began dramatizing these stories in a narrative film, he met more survivors from Jiabiangou, and The ditch was premiered in 2010—a deeply distressing watch (here with French subtitles):

And then, even before Wang’s latest documentary was released, the great activist film-maker Ai Xiaoming 艾晓明 (b.1953, another Beishida alumna later based in Guangzhou) filmed her six-hour Jiabiangou elegy: life and death of the rightists (2017)—in five parts, here:

The interviewees note the general desperation of the inmates’ families and the local population, themselves struggling to find anything edible. Yang Jisheng, whose book Tombstone is an important source on the great famine of the time, points out the political background in Gansu (for the famine and Wu Wenguang’s Memory project, see here; for the works of Frank Dikötter, here).

Wang Bing’s Dead souls is even longer, at 496 minutes—here are three clips:

* * *

That latter excerpt leads me to a subsidiary point about ritual and ritual soundscape, about suffering, and people’s lives—and in this case the suffering that we can, and must, document is that of the Maoist years.

My film Notes from the yellow earth (DVD with Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei) contains a lengthy sequence (§B) from a similar funeral—filmed in a village which indeed has its own traumatic memories. One might hear the playing of such shawm bands as merely “mournful”—indeed, that’s why younger urban dwellers are reluctant to hear them, associating the sound with death. And of course the style and repertoire of these bands took shape long before Maoism, based on earlier historical suffering. But we can only hear “early music” with our own modern ears

So in the context of Wang Bing’s film the bleakness of the soundscape really hits home, suggesting how very visceral is the way that the style evokes the trauma of ruined lives and painful memory—slow, with wailing timbre and the “blue” scale of jiadiao, the two shawms in stark unison occasionally splintering into octave heterophony. For similarly anguished shawm playing, cf. playlist, tracks 5 and 6 (commentary here). For anyone still struggling, despite my best efforts, to comprehend the relevance of shawm bands, Wang Bing’s scene should be compulsory viewing. Similarly, since I often note the importance of Daoist ritual in Gansu, the camps there might form one aspect of our accounts of ritual life there.

* * *

As a recent review notes:

It’s not as if the prisoners had been caught red-handed in plotting the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party. Nearly all of the interviewees insist they are loyal, patriotic party members, with some saying they were indicted for a small critical comment against a supervisor or splashing tears on a portrait of Mao. One interviewee recalls hearing how leading cadres were sending people off to “re-education” by random, just to prove Mao’s view that 5 percent of society is composed of “bad elements.”

Amidst a shameful wall of official silence, both Ai Xiaoming and Wang Bing, along with their interviewees, were subjected to harrassment while filming. It may seem nugatory to observe that technically the editing and structuring of their films is highly accomplished.

And these are just a few of many hundred such camps, with their countless victims. No less harrowing is a film by Xie Yihui 谢贻卉 on juvenile labourers in a Sichuan camp:

Like “the German soul”, suffering in China isn’t timeless: it is embodied in the lives and deaths of real people in real time. People dying since I began fieldwork in the 1980s all had traumatic histories; at the grave their memories, and those of their families, are covered over merely in dry earth, ritual specialists only performing a token exorcism that doesn’t obviate the need for a deeper accommodation with the past.

Arguments for maintaining the stability of the state, avoiding chaos, are paltry compared to the duty to commemorate, to learn from history—for Europe, UK, anywhere in the world. Just a couple of examples: the destruction of the Summer Palace by British troops, and the 1937 Nanjing massacre. We should all owe loyalty to truth, to people; in China it’s an ethical duty, not least in the traditions of filial piety.

And all this may remind us how important it is to seek beyond the sanitized representation of “Chinese folk music”, or indeed Daoist ritual, both in China and abroad. The people shown in these documentaries are just those who anyone doing research in China will encounter—whether working on social or cultural life. The stories of suffering, however distressing, need telling.

A Nazi legacy

EW street

While visiting Sachsenhausen recently I was reading Philippe Sands’ brilliant book East West street. In my post on Sands’ splendid Private Passions I mentioned his film What our fathers did: a Nazi legacy, based on his extraordinary journey with the sons of two Nazi criminals who took utterly different stances on their fathers—essential viewing:

East West street is a kind of detective story, as Sands breaks through the silence to unearth gripping personal accounts developing from the remarkable Lviv (Lemberg) connection of two architects of mass murder (Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter—both, ironically, lawyers); of two legal scholars who developed a means of prosecuting it (Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin); and of the author’s own decimated family. Sands’ grandfather Leon Buchholz was almost the sole survivor from his entire extended family, making his home in Paris—and since he never talked about it, Sands had to do a vast amount of research.

Leon

Leon Buchholz (1904–97).

This also makes a good way of describing the debate (formulated at the Nuremberg trials) over how to define genocide and crimes against humanity, group and individual responsibility, which Sands is exceptionally well qualified to explain.

“Social inequalities coursed through Lemberg’s streets, built on foundations of xenophobia, racism, group identity and conflict”. In Ukraine he also visits the brave display at a museum in Zólkiew, where over three thousand Jewish inhabitants were murdered; here, by contrast to the memorial sites in Germany, the complexities of history are still highly sensitive. The film broaches the 2014 Ukraine unrest, and its complex links to the Nazi background.

Sands notes Britain’s objection to US President Wilson’s 1919 proposal to protect minorities, “fearful that similar rights would then be granted to other groups, including American negroes, Southern Irish, Flemings and Catalans”.(72)

After Lauterpacht sought refuge in England, arriving in Grimsby in 1923 with his musician wife Rachel, Sands notes his conservative views on gender: “individual rights for some, but not for the mother or the wife”. (83)

The stories of other characters are moving too, like that of Elsie Tilney, who brought Sands’ mother from Vienna to Paris in summer 1939 (117–36). He visits Lauterpacht’s niece Inka Katz, who in 1942, aged 12, witnessed the arrival of Hans Frank in Lemberg, saw her parents snatched away, and survived only by going into hiding and entering a convent:

Seventy years on, she retained a sense of discomfort. One woman, coming to terms with a feeling that somehow she had abandoned her group to save herself.” (102–4)

The Matthew Passion, which Sands chose in his Private passions, was a touchstone shared, with bitter irony, by both Lauterpacht and Frank (106, 302). The words of Frank’s devoted wife are chilling:

“He is an artist, a great artist, with a pure and delicate soul. Only such an artist as he can rule over Poland.” (223)

Sands even finds lyrics to a song by Richard Strauss in honour of Frank—the score “disappeared”, no doubt for good reasons of reputation. (253)

Otto Von Wächter’s son Horst takes a similarly disturbing tack:

“My father was a good man, a liberal who did his best. Others would have been worse.” (242–6)

Conversely, Niklas Frank is justly proud of his utter repudiation of his own father (“what a beautiful castle—full of criminals”). It’s this impasse that forms the core of Sands’ film.

As Sands pores over family photo albums with Horst,

I was transported back seventy years to the heart of an appalling regime. But Horst was looking at these images with a different eye from mine. I see a man who’s probably been responsible for the killing of tens of thousands of Jews and Poles. Horst looks at the same photographs and he sees a beloved father playing with the children, and he’s thinking that  was family life.

As Sands and Niklas confront Horst—“friendly, warm, talkative”—with more and more documents proving the involvement of his father in mass extermination, their conversation deepens. In one of the most excruciating scenes in the film—in the very room where Hans Frank proudly announced the Grosse Aktion to enthusiastic applause from Horst’s father—Horst keeps wriggling out of all the evidence with which Sands confronts him. He always manages to find a way to sanitize the material, only able to describe it as “unpleasant” or “tragic”. (248–51)

Nazi legacy trio

While they all get on remarkably well, Sands can’t help revealing his exasperation:

Horst fills me with despair. I cannot accept that approach. It’s not just the lawyer in me, concerned with how one treats evidence, it’s much more personal than that: when I hear him speak of his father’s good character and actions, I hear him to be justifying the killing of my grandfather’s entire family.

Further to tourism,

In the midst of the killing, and still worrying about his marriage, Frank managed to find the time to implement another bright idea: he invited the famous Baedeker publishing company to produce a travel guide for the General Government to encourage visitors. Baedeker hoped the book might “convey” an impression of the tremendous work of organization and construction accomplished by Frank. […] The visitor would benefit from great improvements the province and cities having “acquired a different appearance”, German culture and architecture once more accessible. Maps and city plans were modernized, names Germanized, all in accordance with Frank’s decrees. […] A million or more Jews had been erased. (246–7)

Sands moves onto the capture of Frank and the Nuremberg trials, with the harrowing testimony of witnesses like Samuel Rajman (303–5). Frank appears to show more regret than most of the defendants, declaring “A thousand years will pass and still this guilt of Germany will not have been erased” (308–11); but, as with Fritz Stangl, his position remained elusive to the end (357–8).

The final section of the book discusses the judgement—indeed judgement itself. A vignette from Rebecca West, who took time off from attending the trials to visit a nearby village, meeting a German woman who

launched into a litany of complaints about the Nazis. They had posted foreign workers near the village, “two thousand wretched cannibals, scum of the earth, Russians, Balks, Balts, Slavs”. This women was interested in the trial, didn’t object to it, but she did so wish they hadn’t appointed a Jew as chief prosecutor. Pressed to explain, the woman identified David Maxwell Fyfe as the offending individual. When Rebecca West protested the error, the woman responded curtly, “Who would call his son David, but a Jew?” (367)

Niklas Frank, then 7, remembers the day his father was taken to the gallows. He finds his repentant display at the trial insincere, noting that he later recanted his “confession”.

Frank dead“I am opposed to the death penalty,” he said without emotion, “except for my father.” […] “He was a criminal.”

He takes out a faded photo of his father taken a few minutes after the hanging. “Every day I look at this. To remind me, to make sure that he is dead.”

As Sands notes, denial remains common today. In a telling scene near the end of the film, the three visit a neo-Nazi commemorative rally in Ukraine (accompanied by a folkloristic ensemble, I note), where Horst and Niklas—sons of mass murderers—are warmly welcomed. Worldwide, the need for truth remains constant, urgent.

Life in the GDR, 2

Notes from Berlin, 2

In Berlin a couple of weeks ago, apart from my visit to Sachsenhausen I was keen to explore the city’s GDR history, moving on into the 1950s and beyond—the Stasi memorial sites (as the Rough guide notes) making a potent antidote to the trendy Ostalgie of Trabi kitsch. Here my experience of China, learning to empathize with “sufferers” there (Guo Yuhua, after Bourdieu), feels all the more relevant.

To limber up I took the U-Bahn to Alex, which I can’t presume to call by such a familiar name.

 

Alexanderplatz: the Weltzeituhr and Fernsehturm (1969), with the 13th-century Marienkirche—not leaning towers, more an innocent trompe-l’oeil of my camera…

My splendid host Ian Johnson (whose own writings are a must-read on both China and Germany) made a fine guide for a trip along the remnants of the wall, Checkpoint Charlie and so on.

Berlin divided 1945

We passed the Staatsoper, where I performed Elektra in 1980. How shamefully little I knew then, and how limited was my curiosity. Throughout my recent visit to Berlin it finally hits me how very pampered our lives have been compared to the painful decisions that our German contemporaries constantly had to make.

Do click on these links, from a fine series of short films tracing the timeline of the Wall:

Meanwhile Timothy Garton Ash was beginning his long acquaintance with the regime.

Stasi memorial sites
I visited both the Stasi prison and the Stasi museum. Though they’re not so far apart in the Lichtenburg district, I wouldn’t advise trying to do both in one day—the prison tour is excellent, and even by spending the rest of the day there I still only saw a small part of its exhibits. While the museum is less taxing than the prison, its location has retained a more suitably grim, bleak, forbidding air. As in Sachsenshausen, it’s wonderful that these sites are so busy, with many school parties—though I didn’t see any Chinese tour groups among them…

1953 poster

Just a few months before I was born, the major popular uprising of 17th June 1953 throughout the GDR (wiki, and a wealth of online sites), documented in both exhibitions, is far less known abroad than Budapest 1956 and Prague 1968. Needless to say, the popular uprisings of June 1989 in China are not so called there.

Studying the exhibits of perpetrators and victims, one continues to deplore the appalling ethical morass caused by Nazism—what a terrible price to pay throughout the following decades. Again, what would we have done?

Guides

Some of the eyewitnesses guiding visitors around the site.

At the Stasi prison (Gedenkstätte memorial) of Hohenschönhausen (formerly a Soviet special camp) the team of wonderful tour guides includes many former inmates; though our guide that day wasn’t among them, he gave us passionate articulate reminders of how crucially important it is to learn lessons amidst the current erosion of crucial rights worldwide.

Klier

Freya Klier and Stephan Krawczyk.

There were many strands to the counter-culture in literature and music. Icons of the resistance in the arts became figureheads, like singer-songwriters Wolf Biermann (b.1936, exiled in 1976) and Bettina Wegner (b.1947); Bärbel Bohley (1945–2010), whose 1978 painting Nude makes a striking image in the prison; performers Freya Klier (b.1950) and Stephan Krawczyk (b.1955); and Jürgen Fuchs (1950–99).

But just as moving in the prison is the series of mugshots of ordinary people making a stand, trying to escape, or just caught up in the maelstrom.

Lives 2

Lives 5

Lives 7

Lives 1

Lives 3

Lives 4

Lives 6

However much I admire our own posturing counter-cultural heroes, all this can only make them seem bland and smug. Sure, the punk movement in London, New York, and so on was important—more so than my life in early music, anyway, though that was also new (“original”!). But apart from getting abused in the Daily Mail, the punk life in the UK hardly involved such serious risks. For the GDR punks, the “fascist regime” casually snarled by the Sex pistols would have had a far deeper resonance.

Stasi terms

who is who

The Stasi museum also has exhibits on the vast network of IM informants—including punks. The Stasi even managed to recruit two of them in the band Die Firma“it is not known whether they both knew each other’s secret”. Of course, the “decision” to inform, framed by self-preservation or desperation, and with whatever degree of apathy, was itself no simple matter.

punk straight

Die Firma, with Tatjana Besson, 1988.

Punks

wedding

Wedding at Jena, 1983: the couple’s friend was informing on them,

But the most basic routine parts of growing up were fraught with anxiety.

kindergarten

Alternative kindergarten, Prenzlauer Berg 1980–83.

school 1988

“Learning differently”, evening school 1988.

The Christian resistance was another crucial focus right through to the 1989 Montag demos that brought the whole system down. The pastor Oskar Brüsewitz burned himself to death in protest in August 1976—just as I was spending an idyllic summer after graduating (cf. Alan Bennett’s wry comment).Pastor

Also explored at the museum is the psychology of the Stasi employees.

Stasi comments

The whole second floor of the museum preserves the offices of Erich Mielke, head of this whole hideous edifice. It’s a riot of beige and formica. His diagram of the layout for his breakfast is a masterpiece of pedantry—of which, I have to say, my father would have approved.

Mielke breakfast

The diagram has now been cannily immortalized in a mouse-pad, one of the few concessions to modernity in the museum’s suitably antiquated little bookshop—Is Nothing Sacred?

As throughout the socialist bloc (including China), for bitter relief, jokes always made a subversive outlet.

The museum also tellingly depicts the race of people all over the east to limit the destruction of Stasi files after November 1989.

* * *

It’s little consolation to reflect that the GDR was surely exceptional in its degree of surveillance, even in East Europe. And in such a vast and predominantly agrarian country as China, for all the horrors of Maoism, and the current intrusive mission, “the mountains are high, the emperor is distant”.

Again it’s worth citing Timothy Garton Ash:

Precisely because German lawmakers and judges know what it was like to live in a Stasi state, and before that in a Nazi one, they have guarded these things more jealously than we, the British, who have taken them for granted. You value health more when you have been sick.
I say again: of course Britain is not a Stasi state. We have democratically elected representatives, independent judges and a free press, through whom and with whom these excesses can be rolled back. But if the Stasi now serves as a warning ghost, scaring us into action, it will have done some good after all.

And again, I both recoil at this horror that was perpetuated right through my naïve youth, and admire the German determination to document it for future generations.

Bearing witness 2: Sachsenhausen

Notes from Berlin, 1

Appell

Roll-call at Sachsenhausen, February 1941.

Screening my film in Berlin last week gave me the chance to explore a city that I hardly knew. It seems timely to negotiate a new place, a new transport network—I was beginning to feel that I can only find my way from my house to Li Manshan’s village.

Rather than some anodyne heritage flapdoodle à la chinoise, here I’ll introduce Sachsenhausen concentration camp, with a sequel on Stasi sites in Berlin itself.

* * *

Having been so moved by Sarah Helm’s harrowing book on Ravensbrück, I had hoped to get there, but with limited time Sachsenhausen (cf. wiki and many more detailed sites) is more accessible, and anyway demands a whole day (and I’m acutely aware that we can be suitably horrified by our day-trip and then come home to friends for a nice plate of pasta with wine.)

At the same time, it’s deeply inspiring to see not only how well documented such sites are (including the Stasi memorials) but also how busy they are—the grounds are constantly full of school groups receiving the most important education.

All such camps saw prolonged use, both before the war (Oranienburg concentration camp started operating in 1933, moving to Sachenhausen in 1936) but also long after, under Soviet (indeed allied) and GDR regimes.

* * *

I visited Sachenhausen last Friday—which happened to be Hitler’s birthday, occasion for a repellant Nazi festival in parts of eastern Germany.

To arrive by train at Oranienburg station is itself disturbing, thinking of how the inmates reached the camp. One of the most hideous accounts at the site tells how in September 1939 the rabid inhabitants of the town abused 534 Polish Jews as they marched to incarceration and death—though they had been duped that the arrivals were themselves murderers, one suspects this wasn’t an exceptional case (Wachsmann, KL [definitive source on the camp system], p.230).

In the barracks I was taken aback by the sitting toilets and washrooms—of course, inmates were highly vulnerable in these places, often being brutally beaten to death there, so it’s hardly relevant to contrast the primitive conditions at Chinese laogai camps, or ordinary Chinese homes.

Inmates (from all over Europe, and Russia) included political prisoners, Jews, homosexuals, and “antisocials”. In autumn 1941 alone over 10,000 Russian prisoners of war were executed at the camp. But individual lives play an important role both in the exhibitions and online, such as Dutch resistance fighter Ab Nicolaas (who later became a clown), or the German Sinto Walter Winter.

camp mouth organ

As Helm describes harrowingly for Ravensbrück, even the twice-daily Appell roll-call (see photo at head of article) was purgatory.

The infirmary exhibitions are substantial too, including sections on medical experiments on young Jews and the reunion of survivors fifty years later; and on the camp brothel.

Brothel

Among the most disturbing exhibitions is in the watch tower, on the relations of locals with the camp and the SS—“What would we have done?” again. The SS were billeted in town, with their own bands, taking part in street parties. People recalled how as kids they were handed out balloons and lollies by the SS.

Tarantella

“Tarantella for German soldiers”—SS officers attending a folklore festival on Capri, alleged to be the Blockführers of Sachsenhausen who had been shooters in the 1941 Russenaktion.

 

Death march and “Liberation”, 1945.

After the war
Then on to the display about the Soviet camp 1945–50, just as gruesome—12,000 of 60,000 prisoners died there. Here too the documenting of individuals is sobering, such as the meticulous diarist Günter Sack, and Stella Kübler-Isaakson, a Jewish spy for the Nazis who was imprisoned here from 1946 to 1956 (see Peter Wyden, Stella, reviewed here and here).

The Soviet Special Camp was closed in 1950, but not all of the prisoners were set free. The majority of the prisoners sentenced by the Soviet military tribunal were sent to East German prisons. Some of the internees were tried during the Waldheimer cases in the GDR, and Soviet prisoners were deported to camps in the USSR.

The site’s GDR history (see here, with sequel here) provokes thought too. There are exhibits, including films, of the first commemoration in 1955, with GDR citizens touring the camp; after 1961, as the memorial calendar became more busy, it became a site of “anti-fascist education” even as the repression continued. From 1976 couples even visited on their wedding day—not a simple case of indoctrination, but often related to the sufferings of their parents at the camp.At the same time (as the catalogue describes), the state appropriation of the memorial for its own purposes was gradually subverted; peace movements, church groups, citizens’ initiatives, and “excluded groups” began chipping away at the GDR’s “monopoly on heroism”.

Again, you can choose if you can bear to watch films like this:

* * *

How such catastrophic moral failure occurred remains imponderable—so much for the German Soul. As Neil MacGregor asks,

How did the great humanizing traditions of German history—Dürer, Luther’s Bible, Bach, the Enlightenment, Goethe’s Faust, the Bauhaus, and much, much more—fail to avert this total ethical collapse?

It does indeed seem a bit late for me to take all this to heart now. I can’t claim that if I’d have trodden a different path if I’d been exposed to all this history in my teens, but still. And at least now with my work on China I’m not churning out the patriotic agenda of the glories of Han­–Tang music, or merely collecting happy folk ditties: it’s all political.

Until recently it might have felt a blessing to be English, not to have been beset by such agonizing dilemmas—yet another “What would we have done?”. But how admirable the Germans have become since the 1990s: not only do they put us to shame in their response to the migration crisis, but further to have set up this network of memorial sites—whereas in Britain there are many who not only consider themselves separate from Europe but still have the hubris to protest the exposing of the crimes of our own imperialism, denying the lessons of history.

I also hope that one day in China there will be meticulously documented sites like this, to commemorate the self-inflicted disasters of its own modern history (cf. Wu Wenguang’s Memory project, and here). Mind you, talking of memorials, here’s one in the southern USA.

In all these places—Germany, China, the USA, and so on—such traumatic histories are an essential aspect of the cultural soundscapes that we so blithely celebrate. Including the Chinese ritual soundscape. And Britain?

For Mahler’s prophesy, see here.

* * *

Returning to civilization, on my walk from the S-Bahn at Jungfernheide I would pass charming door statuettes over the entrances to pre-War apartment blocks in Herschelstraße and Fabriciustraße (for shutter catches in Venice, see here; for the accordion, see here). Ordinary domestic life… I wonder what happened to the inhabitants.

 

 

At home with a master Daoist

As weird holidays go, this is pretty weird…

To supplement my various articles on particular themes (a ghost village, a funeral, the murals of Artisan the Sixth, Elder Hu, and so on), this diary records the more domestic side of my recent trip chez Li Manshan—like my notes on our French tour last May, the kind of thing one hardly finds in inscrutable accounts of hallowed Daoist ritual.

As I land in Beijing, pausing only to catch up with my wonderful hosts Matt and Dom and to buy a SIM card, I take the midnight train to Yanggao—smashing my personal best time for Fastest Ever Escape From Beijing. Perhaps first you can read my updated description of my first couple of days there.

Catching up
Despite improved transport and smartphones, progress seems superficial. This is still another world from the skyscrapers and Party congresses touted by the international media. Like anywhere else in the world, indeed. And it’s hard to see evidence of greater repression—people are well used to it.

Li Manshan’s home village of Upper Liangyuan still has some over six hundred dwellers, which counts as a lot round here; but it seems forlorn, stagnant. It’s ever clearer that the rural population is “left behind”—elderly people sitting outside awaiting their turn. Litter remains an intractable problem, blighting what might almost be an idyllic landscape.

Having been worked off his feet for many years, now that Li Manshan is in his 70s he’s giving way to Li Bin, who’s busier than ever. Li Bin has three funerals to do today, one a solo attendance at the grave (“smashing the bowl”, “without scriptures”) for a Catholic family, who still need the procedures for the date and siting of the burial. On the 17th (or rather the 2nd, chu’er—I soon get used to the lunar calendar) he has to smash two more bowls.

So now Li Manshan only works nearby—decorating coffins, doing grave-sitings and visits to determine the date for burials, as well as the occasional funeral. Soon after I arrive he zooms off on his motor-bike to Yangguantun to decorate a coffin. I’m happy to try and sleep off my journey from London.

doggie

Visitors are always announced by a barking dog, like a doorbell. The Lis have a new doggie, rarely off its tether by its kennel in the courtyard. It’s frozen. When I tell Li Manshan’s wife (busy making funerary headgear) about our poncey UK winter gilets for dogs, she shrugs, “He’s fine, he’s got fur ain’t ‘e?!”

LMS wife sewing

Li Manshan’s (only) disciple Wang Ding returns from a funeral to unload the decorations for the soul hall, now improved and more convenient. Renting out this equipment to funeral families is another source of income for Li Manshan. Giving Wang Ding a hand, I tell him I wrote a little post about him after our little French tour last year; he hasn’t got internet, so he will look at my blog at Golden Noble’s place. He can speak pretty good Yangpu, but even after all these years I find their dialect as tough as ever.

I hardly bother to wear my glasses any more—like clarinetist Jack Brymer, who when rehearsing a contemporary piece would wear his for the first five minutes, and then only keep them on if he thought it was worth it…

The domestic routine
Li Manshan’s first tasks on rising are to fold the bedding, take out the chamber pot, fetch kindling for the kitchen stove and our little stove in the west room, and boil water. He does his bit with the housework: sweeping, mopping, stoking the stove, preparing water—though he leaves most of the cooking to his wife. The little coal stove is cute and effective, but mafan. At last I learn that the central foyer is called tangdi 堂地. Both living rooms are equipped with a low wooden table, actually rather handsome but covered in plastic, to place on the kang, used for meals and writing. Plastic rules OK—and a jolly good thing too.

meal

Our diet consists mainly of baozi dumplings, [1] noodles, crêpes, mushrooms, eggs, bits of meat, meatballs, doufu, cabbage, nuts. Sometimes our meals evoke the classic film Yellow Earth—indelible image of the fieldworker overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of poverty and traditional culture. But we giggle a lot too.

Again Li Manshan stresses how much he prefers country life. I soon get used again to its basic routines, not least visits to the latrine in the southwest corner of the courtyard—taking paper (The Thoughts of Uncle Xi would be useful, but it’s not to hand/arse), and a torch if dark, to balance on a ledge; adjusting trousers, squatting (not getting any easier)…

Amazingly, for my visit in autumn 2013 Li Manshan modified his old latrine, building a little roofed pier (so to speak) over a floor on pillars projecting from the spacious pit. Like the world, it was built in seven days. After designing it on paper, he borrowed 230 bricks, as well as stone slabs, tiles, and so on, from neighbours; then he got down and dirty over a week at the height of summer. I felt embarrassed, but he pointed out that it would be good for them too.

We refer to it as The London Embassy (Lundun dashiguan, pronounced like “Taking turns to squat in the big shithouse”). The great Beijing cultural pundit Tian Qing even bestowed his illustrious calligraphy on Li Manshan, albeit in the more polite version.

So (thanks to me) the latrine is pretty comfortable, but it makes a suitable image to imagine the poverty of the olden days (including the Maoist era—a sobering contrast with the bright propaganda posters of the time): the old and infirm trudging to an open pit in the snow, with no paper, no sanitary products, no torches in the dark.

I’m so pampered, compared to Li Manshan’s lifetime “enduring suffering” (shouku 受苦). From my book (pp.132–3):

Shoulders unable to carry, hands unable to grasp, soft and sensitive skin…

Coming across this phrase in 2013 as I made inept attempts to help Li Manshan with the autumn harvest, I thought it might have been coined to parody my efforts. Rather, it’s a standard expression used to describe the travails of urban “educated youth” in performing physical labour after being sent down from the cities to the countryside in the Cultural Revolution to “learn from the peasants”. The experience was a rude shock for such groups all over China; brought up in relatively comfortable urban schools to believe in the benefits of socialism, and often protected from understanding the tribulations of their own parents, they were now confronted not just by the harshness of physical labour, but by medieval poverty.

Li Manshan is thrilled with my little gift of a set of UK coins, working out which is which. He proudly offers me a black banana, white and tasty on the inside, but decides to eat it himself; we have a giggle over glossy modernized bananas (cf. “banana republic, but minus the bananas”). His wife passes the time by playing “matching pairs”, a kind of dominoes. A female friend of hers drops by for a chat. They’re all very humorous, beneath a somewhat dour exterior. Li Manshan and his wife seem like counsellors.

In reply to villagers’ curious enquiries about how many kids I have, Li Manshan is now in the habit of replying wu, which they hear as “five” 五 but in his creative head means “none” 无. This surprisingly shuts them up—I worry about having to embroider stories about their careers, my numerous grandkids, and so on, but no. Anyway, Li Manshan would be up for this. He observes that since my surname is Zhong 钟 (Clock), my son might be named Biao 表 (watch).

We share a nice supper of noodles, and more dumplings. The CCTV evening news is on as wallpaper [Breaking news! CCP holds meeting! Xi Jinping still in power! Old gits in suits dead bored!]. It’s ignored until the weather forecast comes on, but Li Manshan loves the nature programmes.

“Wotcha doing when you get back to Beijing?”, he goes.
“I’m going to be giving lectures (jiangke)…”
His local dialect, or his lively mind, instantly converts this to jiekastammering”:
“Old Jonesy, you don’t have to go back to Beijing to stammer—you can just keep on stammering away here!”

I manage both.

Writing
Though Li Manshan is doing fewer funerals these days, he has always got ritual paperwork to do—whether it’s writing talismans, shaping paper for funerary artefacts, or writing mottos for the soul hall (my book, pp.194–200).

He’s bought big reams of thick paper from Yangyuan county. He recalls that when Li Qing recopied the ritual manuals in the early 1980s, mazhi hemp paper was available from the Supply and Marketing Co-op.

One day our siesta is disturbed by a group coming to ask Li Manshan to “determine the date”. After seeing them off he spends the rest of the afternoon writing several dozen sets of four-character funerary diaolian mottos for the soul hall (my film, from 10.43)—enough for a couple of months. Again he recalls how Li Qing used to write them in the scripture hall for each particular funeral. I devise a new game: arranging the squares in a different order to make a popular phrase or saying. For starters, how about 東方妙,西方福 (“oriental mysticism is all very well, but things are kinda cushy over here”).

A trip into town
One morning we call up the wonderful Li Jin to arrange a nice quiet lunch in town, just the three of us. Li Manshan’s wife chooses a posh shirt and jacket for him.

In 1953, when he was 8 sui, Li Manshan walked into town with his auntie to see the big xiangong parade there. Now we walk up to the main road to catch the No.2 bus into town; it arrives soon, a mere 3 kuai each, taking under half an hour—fun, and good to be independent. I go to have my head shaved at my favourite barbershop, and we meet up with Li Jin at Li Bin’s funeral shop. But then Li Manshan’s (much) younger brother Third Tiger shows up too, and he drives us in his posh car to a posh restaurant (attached to a posh hotel) up a little hutong, with no sign (which is always a good, um, sign)—we’re the only customers. But then entrepreneur Ye Lin (another old mate, formerly head of the Bureau of Culture) arrives too, and Li Bin; so altogether it’s less of a quiet meal than I hoped.

lunch LJ LB LMS

lunch Sanhu

Third Tiger has brought a case of Chilean 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon from Central Valley, a gift from a friend. We polish it off, though later the ganbei toasting seems a bit unsuitable…

Third Tiger had been looking forward to early retirement from his important state job—even claiming in my film (from 55.23) that he’d like to get back to Daoist ritual—but it won’t be happening any time soon. He’s done well as a Party cadre, his only flaw being that he can’t really hold his drink—this should surely be the first question on the application form:

How much baijiu liquor can you knock back before you fall over?

Inevitably Third Tiger foots the bill. I remind my companions of the donkey joke—I’m inadvertently “cadging a free meal wherever I go” again…

After lunch, Li Bin takes us on a fruitless visit to the Cultural Preservation Bureau to learn that the compilation of Yanggao temple steles is still not published. Then we drop in on a shop up the road to sort out a standoff between my camera and my Mac; the guy is even more pissed than me, but does a fine job. We exchange cigarettes, and he refuses any money.

Li Bin is happy to take us home to Upper Liangyuan, and on the way we drop in on the grandson of the great Li Peisen at his funeral shop, to see if he can show us the three manuals not in Li Qing’s collection, which I didn’t copy. He and his wife seem affable, but he can’t find them. It’s hard to know if he’s being cagey: he does show Li Manshan Li Peisen’s thick Yuqie yankou volume, so maybe he really can’t find the others. I ask him, without much hope, to call Li Bin if he does find them. Li Manshan cares more about this than I do.

I’ve also been wondering if the related Wang lineage in Baideng has any ritual manuals we haven’t seen, but when Li Manshan calls up Wang Fei there, he says they have no more than him.

More Heritage flapdoodle
Next to the main sign above his funerary shop, Li Bin has optimistically put up a new sign: “Hengshan Daoist Music, Training Base”.

HSDYT shop placard

This pie-in-the-sky still has precisely no takers, but Li Bin remains involved in a mysterious project with the county Bureau of Culture. We all laugh at the emptiness of the title—but it acts like a protective talisman, a kind of insurance policy.

Pacing the Void: Old Lord Li gets online
Like me, Li Manshan got his first smartphone after returning from France last year. He can read WeChat messages, but hasn’t cared to try and get online—yet. I think he can do it. Actually, WeChat doesn’t seem such a big deal here—sure, the younger people are on it, but the main way of communicating is just phoning. So there.

Getting online with my Mac thanks to the wifi of Li Manshan’s cool shepherd neighbour, I show him the charming TV version of The Dream of the Red Chamber with child actors. He loved reading the novel in the 1980s.

I give him a guided tour of my blog, starting with the posts I wrote about our French tour last year (e.g. here), my tribute to his carpentry skills, and the trio on Women of Yanggao (starting here). We look further at the ritual paintings in Li Peisen’s collection, which leads us to seek murals by Artisan the Sixth.

Then I introduce him to my other world, telling him about Yuan QuanyouHildi, and the 80th-birthday party for the great Stephan Feuchtwang where Rowan and I played Bach on erhu and sanxian—after listening to the recording there (now also sounding crap), I try to attone by playing him Sun Huang’s astounding Saint-Saens (or Sage Mulberry, as he’s known in China), but he’s underwhelmed—the conservatoire erhu is of even less relevance to him than to me. And he’s none too clear about the qin zither, despite painting it regularly on coffins (my film, from 18.30).

LMS huacai

Li Manshan decorates a coffin, 2013. Top: qin zither.

I tell him again about the adorable crazy Natasha, showing him my tribute to her—it was he who helped me regain the will to live after her death in 2013.

Over the next few days Old Lord Li becomes ever more scholarly, devouring the new book on the modern history of the county (only up to 1949, alas!), the gazetteer, and all the online stuff I show him. (You may note that he has reverted to his old hat—was the baseball cap he wore in France a haute-couture choice to impress the laowai?!)

He gets into Ming reign-periods online. I show him the Baidu article on the 1449 Tumu incident (very near Yanggao), making the link with the disgraced palace eunuch Wang Zhen and the Zhihua temple. As he gets hooked on some pre-Tang story in the county gazetteer, I turn the tables on him, commenting “I dunno about that, I wasn’t even born then!”

As he gets used to scrolling on my Mac keypad, I show him the blurb for the Chinese introduction to the already-voluminous Daojiao yishi congshu series, which he reads carefully. When I show him Hannibal Taubes’ amazing site, he thinks that Yanggao temple murals are not so well preserved as those of Yuxian—but I suspect it could also be that Hannibal is really on the case.

I tell Li Manshan of the useful saying “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”, which is always a succinct way of explaining what we’re doing traipsing around poor villages.

On my blog he’s interested to pore over ritual manuals from other areas. I find an online text for the pseudo-Sanskrit mantra Pu’an zhou, which they never sang, only played on shengguan. When we listen to my recording of Ma yulang with the Gaoluo ritual association (playlist, track 10, with commentary here), he’s shocked at how crap they are! I explain that they’re an amateur group, not like our occupational Daoists working together daily. But he’s curious to learn if the piece is similar to their version, a question I haven’t yet addressed.

We discuss the Kangxi yun section in the hymn volume that Li Qing recopied in 1980—I’ve often wondered what it’s doing there, as part of a series of shuowen solo recitations formerly used for shanggong Presenting Offerings. It was actually written not by the Kangxi emperor but by his father Shunzhi.

Kangxi yunAs we read up further, we now speculate that since Kangxi saw the poem on a visit to Wutaishan, and as Buddhist ritual manuals do contain poems, it could have got into one such manual there; spreading further north, it might thence have got into Daoist manuals too—which, after all, contain plenty of Buddhist elements (my book, e.g. p.226).

I wonder if the title Kangxi yun is distinctive to the Li family. If Li Fu copied it from the manuals of his master in Jinjiazhuang, it wouldn’t have been at all old when it was copied by the Zhang family Daoists there. More work for a historian there… Li Manshan buries himself in the Baidu articles on Shunzhi’s mother and Nurhaci.

He knows nothing of Trump, Syria, or the Ukraine famine. While envying him his blissful ignorance, I embark on a political education session; he reads avidly when I show him the relevant Baidu articles. The article on the Ukraine famine looks rather good—though one can hardly expect Baidu to compare it to the Chinese famine following the Great Leap Backward.

After returning from a brief trip to Waterdrop 滴滴水 village with Li Bin, I check the 1948 and 1990 population statistics (first two columns below) in the county gazetteer, but they seem incongruous. Old Lord Li inspects the table for the whole of Zhangguantun district and deftly corrects them. Clever guy!

renkou edits

Born at a different time in another place, Li Manshan might have become a university professor.

2nd moon 28th
As yet another idée fixe in Airplane goes, “Looks like I picked the wrong day to” get my head shaved—it’s really rather cold. Li Manshan kept reading till late last night. We stay home for a study day. He does another prescription by phone.

Before midday a couple comes for a prescription about her illness. They’ve come all the way from Datong county, learning of his reputation on the grapevine. Sure, people may also consult mediums, and of course hospitals—the latter terribly expensive, but as Li Manshan observes, their best bet.

LMS krz

The mood is serious as ever when the wife throws the coins and Li Manshan writes down the results. They watch him work it all out, in silence; then she asks questions, the conversation deepening. Li Manshan feels his role (often) is to console them, to lend moral support. As he later tells me, in fact the prescription looks ominous, and mostly he trusts the coins, but he can’t tell them “You’ve had it”, can he? They persuade the couple to stay for lunch (baozi dumplings, cabbage and doufu, onions), washed down at the end with water from the pot. It’s a friendly and sincere scene. They only paid him with five cigarettes, and Li Manshan was fine with that.

Li Manshan’s siesta is devoted to further reading, and he’s only just nodded off when another guy comes for a prescription.

Another great supper—thick-sliced noodles with eggs, dunking meatballs in the broth. Li Manshan glances over at the news, nudging me. Some Party bigwig is being interviewed, the caption reading:

中国人大代表 Zhongguo Renda daibiao
Representative of the Chinese People’s Congress,

which he brilliantly converts from three binomes into

中国人,大代表 Zhongguoren dadabiao
Chinese bloke, big cheese.

We fall about laughing. I just love the way this man’s mind works! The following week I’m showing my film at People’s University in Beijing, which is also abbreviated as Renda—so I manage to press the expression into service there.

I clean my teeth in the courtyard, enjoying using my fancy electric Rabbits Don’t Shit, sorry I mean toothbrush (its first outing in China). Since Li Manshan always shoves a fag in my gob as soon as I get back anyway, I beat him to the draw. Whenever I spot an unfamiliar brand, I ask him, “Landlord? Poor peasant?”

3rd moon 1st (chuyi)—which, I note guiltily, is Saturday.

courtyard in snow

Right: sunflower stalks stored for use in making funerary treasuries.

OOH it’s snowing! I’ve been hoping to go in search of more Daoists to Yingxian county with Li Bin and bright young Taiyuan ethnographer Liu Yan, but my carefully laid plans come to nought; the motorways are closed. Li Manshan sweeps the pathway to the latrine, then zooms off back to Yangguantun to smash the bowl in a simple burial for the poor family there. When he decorated the coffin on 2nd moon 25th it was the fourth (not third) day after the death. He explains that there’s no difference between rich and poor in determining the date: it may turn out that poor families also have to store the coffin for over twenty days.

I discreetly perform much-needed ablutions. Li Manshan comes home frozen, unable to see through the snowstorm on his motor-bike. Gradually it eases up.

I show him my photos of the funeral I attended yesterday. He’s always been a laissez-faire leader, but even he draws the line at Wu Mei playing drum while on his mobile. We get a riff going:

“Maybe he was following the drum patterns online?!” he jokes.
“Oh yeah, right—I always felt sorry the so-called Hengshan Daoist Music Ensemble because they were too poor to afford music stands, but now they can read from their mobiles! You’re dead keen on ‘development’, aren’t you?!”
—referencing the rose-tinted cliché common in online articles about him.
“Naughty disciple!”
“Naughty master! 青出于蓝。。。”

Wang Ding turns up on his dinky sanlun truck and we help him unload more altar decorations into the south room of the courtyard, redecorated as the village Training Base of the so-called Hengshan Daoist Music Ensemble—and thus, like its town counterpart, entirely unused.

3rd moon 2nd (Sunday, known as libai ba, eighth day of the week, as on their electronic wall-clock)
Foggy at first, gradually the sun comes out. For the first time Li Manshan worries about his cough, and resolves to quit smoking—which, impressively, he manages for nearly a whole hour. Actually he’s not smoking as much as in the old days when he was busy doing funerals with the band.

Having taken a siesta after our fascinating excursion to find murals by Artisan the Sixth, I go outside to clean my teeth, but yet again my oral hygiene is thwarted by the arrival of “Fag Devil” Li Sheng, who insistently shoves a fag in my gob. Typical

I keep up with Tweety McTangerine’s latest lunacies by consulting the Guardian online. But I dissolve in fits of laughter at Stewart Lee’s latest offering there.

3rd moon 3rd
At 7am a guy comes to discuss some work. At 8.20 the formidable wife of an old friend of Li Qing’s comes to moan about her son’s marital problems. Li Manshan is courteous, but considers her “crazy”. I understand virtually nothing, but eventually she makes an effort with me as she pours out her grievances, slapping me regularly on the arm. Village poverty and problems seem intractable, despite advances and propaganda. The only solution touted is thorough urbanization, bringing its own worrying prospects.

Li Manshan isn’t feeling too well, but he takes a break from making paper artefacts to accompany me on a visit to the temple to Elder Hu in the Lower village (post coming up soon!).

3rd moon 4th
On our last day together, after returning from an intriguing trip to Jinjiazhuang, Old Lord Li suddenly thinks of the slow hymn Yong guiyi 永皈依, and we have a nice session on it. It’s one of his favourites, but they rarely use it, and now he can’t remember the opening. He can’t read cipher notation, only gongche solfeggio, so he gets me to sing it from Li Qing’s cipher-notation score. Their more recent green volume has gongche solfeggio underneath too, so he can just about follow it once I get him going.

Yong guiyi textSo Li Manshan gets to record me singing a piece I barely know, but I never get to record him. Anyway he always sets off from a really low pitch, so the result tends to sound a bit like Tibetan chanting. When the band sings a cappella hymns for funerals, Golden Noble has a good ear for starting off on a pitch suitable for the range.

In the version they learned, the first section ends after Fo you Niepan shi 佛有涅槃时. Li Qing’s cipher-notation score isn’t divided into sections, but their more recent green volume is. The latter uses the degree shang 上 as do—including the shengguan suites, which I find strange. Li Manshan is fine once he gets through the opening phrase.

Yong guiyi jianpu

We take a siesta before my journey back to Beijing, but soon wake up. Absurdly, he now asks me to transpose Li Qing’s cipher-notation score of the major shengguan melody Yaozhang into gongche solfeggio. Without thinking to consult the precious photos of Li Derong’s old score (which Li Manshan no longer has) I wrongly assume that it would use the early shengguan system with he 合 as do, but hey. After singing it for him as he records it on his phone, I explain to him that he’ll need earphones to play it back…

Li Bin has another busy day today, having to do two reburials as well as decorating a coffin, so I’ll take a cab to the station. This no longer feels so distant. Li Manshan insists on coming along to see me off, and we leave before 4, dropping his wife off at Baideng township for a hairdo. He refuses to let me pay for the cab. My total expenses for nine inspiring days in Yanggao came to 24 kuai—just over £2.

We take the ring road, passing loads of new high-rises, and bid each other a fond farewell. The station is virtually empty, and the train isn’t busy either.

Back in Beijing, I feel like a country bumpkin. Showing my film three times over the next week, I’m happy to make Li Manshan a big star there. After the last screening I call him up to report, and to wish him well before I go back to London.

 

[1] As in the celebrated line (Fieldworkers’ joke manual No.37):
“I learned the Four Classics and Five Scriptures—Confucius, Mencius, various dumpling shapes, I’ve studied them all!”
Wo xuedeshi sishu wujing—Kongzi Mengzi baozi jiaozi, dou xueguole!
我学的是四书五经。孔子孟子包子饺子,都学过了!
Oh well, it’s funny in Chinese—Trust Me I’m a Doctor (there goes another 200 kuai).

Guide to a year in blogging

LMS

After a year of frenzied blogging, here’s a seasonal retrospective guide to navigating a diverse ouevre—as much for my sake as as for yours. Meretricious and Happy New Year!

Call me a nerd [You’re a nerd—Ed.], but taxonomy and indexing are so funky… As you see from the (updated) homepage, the whole site began as an introduction to my work on the Li family Daoists, and my portrait film remains one the most enchanting presences there. The Li family has its own category in the sidebar, with a plethora of articles (not least a whole series on our French tour in May 2017, and an update on Li Bin’s diary).

Other pages in the top menu also tend to be rather substantial, with

Still in the top menu, MY BLOG contains all my myriad posts (“delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse“), with helpful Categories and Tags in the sidebar, as well as a monthly archive there. Here are some of the more stimulating:

As you can see from this post alone, I just love doing internal links (in blue in the text). So whether you first came here for Daoist ritual, football (indeed, Daoist football), punk, Bach, modern China, or even just for the jokes, they’re all connected, so please do click away on the links!

Last but, um, not least, do click on the links to the relevant posts and pages in the photos in the sidebar.

The Feuchtwang Variations

The wise and infinitely supportive Stephan Feuchtwang continues to inspire generations of anthropologists in China and worldwide (see also here) with his work on Chinese popular religion. He has just celebrated his 80th birthday—and so do we all!

Stephan's invitation edited

Design: Lotte van Hulst.

For the party at the Tabernacle (a great venue, and, um, marker of the changing territorial identities of West London religious life!) his wonderful family played some popular and moving musical items, with the assembled guests on kazoos (anyone have a funky collective noun for kazoos in English, or measure word in Chinese?). And following my little foray into a world-music version of Bach earlier this year, we did a warmup act as a heartfelt tribute to Stephan, essaying a little medley from the Goldberg Variations—with me on erhu fiddle and Rowan Pease (unsung Lucy Worsley of East Asian popular culture, currently embroiled in the China Quarterly struggle for academic freedom) on sanxian banjo (or should I say friction chordophone and plucked lute?) [Nah, give it a restThe Plain People of Ireland].

Not Rowan, not playing the sanxian.
beggars BYS 2001

Neither Rowan nor me (honest), not playing Bach—beggars at Baiyunshan temple complex, Shaanbei, 4th-moon fair 2001.

That makes a total of five strings—and all without a safety net. Since Bach never wrote for either piano or sax (shades of WWJD), if his music can sound great (to us) on those instruments, then why not erhu and sanxian, eh. We haven’t tried adding a kazoo yet, though. As I said in my intro:

Just imagine that the Italian missionaries, like Pedrini[1] at the court of the Qianlong emperor in 18th-century Beijing had invited Bach for a sabbatical—and indeed Stephan, although that was perhaps a little before even his time… So we’re going to essay a little medley from what should now be known as The Feuchtwang Variations[2]

Since among Stephan’s many talents he is also a viola player (“Not a Lot of People Know That”), I can avail myself of a couple of the muso’s classic excuses:

It was in tune when I bought it…
and
I didn’t really study any place, I just sort of… picked it up..

[studiously] After intensive research on the performance practice of both Leipzig and Beijing in the 1740s, I can now say with some certainty that…  it wouldn’t have sounded like this.
[Cf. John Wilbraham’s remark.]

If you enjoy this half as much as we do, then we will have enjoyed it twice as much as you.

Framed by the Aria (itself infinitely enchanting—molten, ethereal, suspended in time), we played the first variation (blimey), then numbers 18 and 25—a perfect selection, eh. Short of recording daily until Steph’s 90th birthday, we’re never going to play it to our satisfaction (editing this is a similar challenge to editing one of my voiceovers), so meanwhile here’s an almost-recognizable attempt, just to give you a flavour—It’s the Thought that Counts. Just think yourselves lucky we didn’t do the repeats. Take It Away (and don’t bring it back):

Stephen Jones (erhu), Rowan Pease (sanxian, vocals).
Recorded in Maidenhead, 14th November 2017.

“They said it couldn’t be done”—and they were right! (Cf. Bob Monkhouse).

Just to make our chinoiserie version sound a little less banal, here’s the opening of the Aria on Lego harpischord—differently charming…

Li Qishan band 2001

Li Qishan’s family shawm band, Shaanbei 2001.

Never having played the Goldberg Variations on a keyboard, I (like millions of others) am deeply familiar with it through recordings—notably that of the iconic Glenn Gould, of course. So at the age of 286 I’m almost in the position of a young player in a Chinese family shawm band, who begins to play the melodies on shawm after many years of aural experience (and let’s just be grateful I didn’t do an arrangement for large Shaanbei shawms—yet). Similarly, I hardly needed to consult Bach’s notation, except out of curiosity. At the same time, anyone playing the piece is inevitably conditioned by the experience of hearing Glenn Gould’s version.

We played the medley in F rather than G—less as a result of all my erudite research into 1740s’ pitch standards (not), but just because I like a lower tuning on the erhu.

Bach party

Blending with invisible singers to left of picture. Stephan in red on left. Photo: Cordelia Pegge.

For the ecstatic Variation 18 we recruited a backing band consisting of Stephan’s daughters Rachel and Anna, along with Harriet Evans (outstanding scholar of the status of women in China). I arranged some personal lyrics, often in a kind of verbal hocket, incorporating (in stave 3) anthropology (with a little jest on the challenge, for some of us, of mastering the abstruse nature of Stephan’s theory!), (in stave 4) his dear wife Miranda, and his love of cycling:

Goldberg Var 18 in G

For the recording, without vocal backup, Rowan and I take the upper parts wordlessly, in more ethereal vein. Do feel free to sing along with a partner of your choice (cf. the karaoke versions of Daoist ritual percussion in my film, from 24.09).

And then the slow and intense minor-key Variation 25 is just amazing. Here Rowan’s singing supplies further harmonic intensity, evoking Glenn Gould’s own ocassional inadvertent vocals. [3] And with the sustained sound of the erhu, and all my one-finger chromatic slides (1st finger on the way up, 4th finger on the way down), it sounds even better—or rather, it could do in the right hands. Not unlike a Chinese ondes martenot—trad keyboards just can’t compete with the vocal quality of bowed instruments.

And OMG, how about this:

Sure, our version goes a tad faster—again, not resulting from any holier-than-thou baroque authenticity, but because it helps the whole harmonic logic.

Returning briefly to the modern piano—Bach was of course performing and composing modern music, and maybe what appeals to me in Joanna MacGregor’s version is that it seems tastefully rooted in her whole experience of our own contemporary piano sounds. Here’s the hallucinatory final repeat of the Aria:

Still, Bach is amazing on tuned percussion too, like this:

It can also sound wonderful as a string trio:

All this wealth of divine music I offer in tribute to the great Professor Feuchtwang!

 

[1] For Pedrini’s sonatas, click here. “They come over ‘ere, with their fancy harpsichords…” I’d better write a separate post about the court music of the Qing dynasty…
[2] Maybe I can concoct a couple of Chinese musicians in 1740s’ Leipzig from the Bach archives. If north African wind players were active at European courts of the day, then why not… International cultural exchange, eh. Note also Bach and Daoist ritual—not least Li Manshan’s classic remark.
[3] This encomium could come in handy for Rowan’s CV:
“Less irritating than Glenn Gould”—Dr S. Jones.