Women of Yanggao 1/3: Daoist families

In China, as in most societies, public performance—of all kinds, including ritual—is still largely a male monopoly. In the course of thirty years of documenting ritual groups in the countryside, it has been distressingly possible for me not to meet any women at all; from local cadres to temple committees, from shawm bands to ritual specialists, public roles remain largely monopolized by men. As until very recently in the Vienna Phil, women are invisible. Their absence from our accounts of household Daoist ritual is understandable, yet partial.

It’s not easy for male fieldworkers to engage with rural women. In Yanggao the potential for such study was suggested by the easy rapport (with both genders) of female scholar Wu Fan, whose fine book Yinyang gujiang led the way in incorporating women into the picture of Yanggao ritual life.

Even before we consider public roles (see the two following posts, about sacred and secular performers respectively), the female members of Daoist households play a significant role. Just as Daoists are Real People, not mere Faceless Paragons of Ancient Wisdom, I’d like to give a face and personality to these fine people.

So in this first of three posts I’d like to introduce Li Qing’s wife Xue Yumei, Li Peisen’s wife Yang Qinghua, Li Manshan’s wife Yao Xiulian and their second daughter Li Min, as well as Li Bin’s wife Jin Hua. I give the formal names of women in an egalitarian spirit that is quite misplaced—married women’s formal names are hardly heard.

That I can provide such little sketches is thanks to the wonderful hospitality of Li Manshan’s family since 2011.

***

In the “old society” (as in Europe until quite recently) women had many children, of whom rather few might survive. Childbirth was itself dangerous for the mother; many Daoists took successive wives after the early deaths of previous partners. In education, attending sishu private school was costly; only a tiny minority of the more affluent villagers could afford to send their sons to school. In Yanggao until the 1950s only very few males were literate—but no females were.

In 1953, at the same time as he was beginning to learn Daoist ritual with his brilliant father Li Qing, Li Manshan, aged eight sui, also began attending school, then still in the decrepit Palace of the Three Pure Ones. The village of Upper Liangyuan set up a lower primary school, for years one to four. This was the official requisite age to attend lower primary after Liberation, but he was one of few children in the village who went so young—most of his classmates were four or five years older. Impressively, girls now began to attend too, though boys outnumbered them by two to one. In Year One there were around forty pupils, but as they dropped out after failing exams, by Year Four Li Manshan was in a class of only a dozen. Still, the school had around a hundred pupils in all, the beginnings of a modern education system.

If rural girls seldom advanced far in education under Maoism, they made rapid progress since the 1990s. An utterly unscientific survey among the grandchildren at Yanggao funerals suggests that girls are now going on to tertiary education at least as much as boys.

Xue Yumei
From 2013 I finally paid visits to Li Qing’s wonderful widow Xue Yumei (1925–2016; see my film, from 36.46).

LQ widow

Early in 1945, with Yanggao still under Japanese occupation, Li Qing was married, at the age of twenty sui. His bride Xue Yumei, one year older (brides were commonly a year or two older than grooms) came from a common family in Houguantun just west. As usual until at least the 1970s, they were introduced by a matchmaker. Like all village girls, she was illiterate; she had bound feet, again like all girls before the 1930s when warlord Yan Xishan’s campaign had some influence in Shanxi. But she was tall, with poise—a local beauty.

The wedding was one of the last grand events of the old society. Wearing a “python costume” (mangpao) with phoenix headgear, the bride was carried in a sedan—by then, sedan weddings were none too common.

The new couple’s first child, our very own Li Manshan, was born in the first moon of 1946. They went on to have three more sons and three daughters: the second son, Yushan (b.1954) later also become a Daoist. They had another son in 1956, but as Li Qing’s wife had no more milk, after three days they had to give him away to a family living opposite; and then having done so, they had no money to buy him back (he now lives in town, and does well—they sometimes see him). After long years of separation and trauma, the couple would have two more children—the youngest son Yunshan (Third Tiger, b.1969) training as a Daoist too. Xue Yumei had to labour in the production team too, despite her bound feet and the burden of childcare—not alleviated (in Yanggao at least) by notional crèches.

Traditionally only sons, not daughters, learn to perform ritual. Like most Daoists, indeed like most rural Chinese, Li Manshan doesn’t approve of girls learning. In recent years, a few Daoists in the area just northeast of the county-town have taught their daughters, but it remains a curiosity, and they never continue after marriage (Wu Fan 2007: 262–7). Li Manshan’s own second daughter Li Min (see below) is highly intelligent, and graduated from senior secondary—not such a common feat in rural Yanggao. She appreciates the Daoist rituals, but it was inconceivable that she might learn.

During the Cultural Revolution she and Li Qing bore their sufferings with dignity. On his deathbed in 1999, recalling their tribulations under Maoism, he was wise and benevolent as ever, enjoining his children: “After I die, you mustn’t curse the village cadres or bear grudges!” When in 2015 I went with Third Tiger and Li Bin to visit Li Qing’s widow in her 90th year, she was clearly still moved to remind them of his entreaty, her own moral compass shining through.

LQ widow, SH, LB

In her old age, like many of the older generation, she preferred to stay on the land, living on a farm estate that Third Tiger runs in the rural southern suburb of town, where his staff could look after her. Though hard of hearing, she chatted with Li Bin as she sat outside on the ground, trimming green vegetables.

widow with veg

Yang Qinghua

LPS and wife

Li Peisen and Yang Qinghua, late 1940s?

Alas I never observed Xue Yumei’s activities in support of Li Qing, but Yang Qinghua, wife of his Daoist uncle Li Peisen (also known as Li Peisheng, 1910–85) was a respected local personality (for more, see my book, and film from 38.44).

Li Peisen had served as village chief under the Japanese occupation. Like his Daoist cousins, he owned surplus land. But in 1947, towards the end of the civil war, perhaps realizing land reform was imminent, he quietly moved his family to his wife’s natal village of Yang Pagoda in the hills just south, taking his sets of ritual instruments and costumes, as well as two trunks full of scriptures handed down in his branch of the lineage.

Moving to the wife’s village was quite a common expedient when her family lacked male relatives. But more significantly, people from “black” families tended to encounter less scrutiny outside their home village. The family of Li Peisen’s wife were well-off and well connected; both he and his wife are remembered as highly intelligent. Their move was clearly an astute way of sidestepping any investigations into his background—his economic standing, and his connections with the vilified Japanese and Nationalists. Yang Pagoda might make a safer base from which to survey the lie of the land under the new regime—the potential sensitivity of practicing ritual would have been a minor issue.

Anyway, Li Peisen wasted no time in displaying his political correctness. Amazingly, he now gains an honorable mention in the county gazetteer. In March 1949—just as family members back in Upper Liangyuan were being stigmatized with a “rich peasant” label—he was the very first in the whole county to organize a mutual aid co-op, consisting of three households. This is the only tiny glimpse of him in the official account, but with his prior experience as village chief in Upper Liangyuan, and as one of very few literate villagers, he went on to serve as brigade accountant in Yang Pagoda right until the Four Cleanups campaign in 1964. And meanwhile, when conditions allowed, he continued to lead a Daoist band. His wife helped him organize his schedule. Li Peisen’s move to this tranquil village, and his wife’s careful assertion of local status, were to play a major role in enabling the lineage to preserve its Daoist traditions.

In 2014 the couple’s children erected a stele to their parents.

LPS stele

Yao Xiulian
It took me quite a long time to appreciate Li Manshan’s wife Yao Xiulian. Even if we managed to understand each other’s dialects, she wasn’t used to conversing with a foreigner, and I couldn’t break the ice.

They were married in the winter cold late in 1971, when he was twenty-six sui, with Li Manshan’s family and the whole society under a cloud. Still bearing the hat of “rich peasant,” he had little choice of bride, despite Li Qing’s repute. Li Manshan’s uncle Li Tao lived in Yaozhuang further north, and his bride came from there. She never went to school, but over the years she has gradually picked up a few characters like their names. It was a very simple wedding—in this period even the shawm bands were only able to accompany life-cycle rituals in the more remote hill villages. Li Manshan remains eternally grateful to an uncle who came from Inner Mongolia for his wedding with a sack of white flour to make the prized gao paste for the wedding meal. The new couple lived in Li Qing’s courtyard complex, part of which had been allocated to another family after land reform.

Staying with them since 2011, I came to admire her unassuming hosting skills— not just with me, but her natural rapport with both female and male guests who constantly arrived for a “determining the date” prescription with Li Manshan—putting them at ease, exchanging local gossip, sympathetic. Though not a smoker, she is always ready to offer a cigarette to male visitors.

LMS wife

Yao Xiulian mending Daoist hats, 2015.

While not in great health, she washes and mends the Daoists’ costumes, and helps out with making the paper artefacts for funerals too. Without making a fuss over me, she worked out what kind of food I like, and prepared a range of delicious meals for the family. We eat meat sparingly; the basis is noodles and mostly home-grown vegetables—potatoes, beans, mushrooms, greens, as well as fresh eggs and succulent tomatoes. Actually, Li Manshan is on the road so much that his wife’s cooking duties are usually modest—though his patriarchal background obliges him to disparage her cooking, even with me (I resist the temptation to ask him, “Why don’t you cook for me, then?”).

Li Min

Li Min and baobao 2013

Li Min with Baobao, 2013.

Apart from Li Bin (Daoist son of Li Manshan and his wife), their three daughters are all highly intelligent too. In growing to appreciate Li Manshan’s wife, their second daughter Li Min (b.1975) served as a bridge when she brought her young son to stay with us, in an astute move to make my visits more pleasurable for all; she not only interpreted for us, but at informal family meals I relished their thoughtful and humorous exchanges.

Jin Hua

Jin Hua

Li Bin’s affable wife Jin Hua is an equal partner in running their busy funeral shop in town. With Li Bin constantly away doing prescriptions, decorating coffins, performing rituals, and networking, she is often left to fend alone with the shop; this is a largely female-driven cottage industry. Along with her own chain of female supporters, they provide all the paper artefacts that will escort the deceased to heaven—houses, carts, treasuries, floral decorations, wreaths, “banner to lead the soul”, and so on. Though these artefacts are less elaborate than in south China, the whole process of making them is complex and skillful. I keep them company as they make the two treasuries, using sunflower stalks to make the frames.

As Jin Hua observes, it takes two people a whole day to make the two treasuries, but only one minute to burn them to ashes. I ask her why patrons still demand such complex structures that will go up in smoke, when they are otherwise so lukewarm about ritual. She explains astutely that the hosts have money and can afford to pay people to spend the time making them—but they themselves can’t be bothered to do all the work that is involved in organizing long complex rituals.

***

I’m aware that so far we have mainly found such women assuming domestic and supportive tasks, but their contributions should not be neglected. And in the following two posts (here and here) we will observe women taking more independent roles.

More Daoist wordplay

I’ve already given some examples of the lighter side of fieldwork with my Chinese colleagues and the Li family Daoists.

Wu Fan has not only become a brilliant fieldworker, but (sure, this would be related) has a lively mind, with an inexhaustible supply of jokes. Setting off from some casual phrase in conversation, she links stories up in a long chain. Her book is a valuable companion to my publications on Yanggao. As a prelude to one of her classic lines, here I adapt part of my Introduction to her book.

When my trusted long-standing fieldwork companion Zhang Zhentao brought along a young female student on our 2003 trip to Yanggao, I was none too pleased. I had a tried-and-tested routine of fieldwork with Zhang, and was afraid that Wu Fan’s lack of experience would get in the way. Coming from a comfortable urban background, she confesses that the conditions of rural Shanxi were a bit of a shock.

But she soon proved well able to endure the tribulations of fieldwork. After a few days staying at the bustling Xujiayuan temple fair—trudging through the mud, trying to handle complicated guanxi among the gujiang shawm bands, chasing around taking in all the diverse festive behaviour while finding time to talk to all kinds of people, after late nights recording the yankou ritual, sleep interrupted by bits of roof falling on our heads and huge moths practising their kamikaze bombing routine on us helpless victims on the kang brick-bed—she was in her element. Shock and novelty give way to familiarity, and soon she was feeling at ease.

It had been a bold move for her to abandon the security of a good job in Wuhan to embark on the dubious rewards of ethnomusicology—I hope she doesn’t regret it! If her background of “Western food” in a large city didn’t prepare her for fieldwork, her experience working in TV did perhaps give her one advantage: she has a natural ease when talking with people, making friends, earning respect, crucial skills that aren’t so easy to learn from a manual on fieldwork technique. Her rapport with people comes into its own when she visits poor blind musicians. Like her elder teachers, she really cares about these disadvantaged people. Apart from all the hard grind, it’s useful if fieldwork can also be fun, and moving. With her, it is—but it never stops her from analysing objectively.

I have always been immensely fortunate in my Chinese fieldwork colleagues, but before my very eyes Wu Fan transformed from a timid pupil into someone whom I could trust to ask all the questions on my mind, and more—to the point that I quickly became even more superfluous than usual, and I now feel I can look forward to an early retirement. Rolling her eyes every time she realized I was about to try and interrupt the natural flow of conversation to suggest an avenue that she already had on her agenda—all in good time, Zhong laoshi… Behind a demure exterior lurks a ferocious intellectual appetite.

I won’t dwell on the difficulties faced by a female fieldworker in a male-dominated society: the scholarly field looks increasingly dominated by women, and Wu Fan has some astute comments on gender issues. One of my most precious videos is of her comical early attempts to forge a bond with a group of tough young gujiang by perching insecurely behind their drum-kit to accompany them in a pop music medley—a sobering instance of participant observation for our times.

If we ever get round to making any useful general observations about Chinese culture, or even north Chinese ritual culture, it will need an awareness of all the local historical, economic, political, and personal factors that make up the experiences of millions of overlapping communities, and will require a whole new army of scholars with Wu Fan’s determination and aptitude.

So on that first trip of hers to Yanggao in 2003, there we were with the Li band at the Lower Liangyuan temple fair, filming the whole sequence of rituals throughout the day and taking the opportunity between them to seek Li Manshan’s wisdom. It had been a long day, but now we were looking forward to the evening Communicating the Lanterns (guandeng 觀燈) ritual. The writing of this term varies: in many ritual manuals it appears as “Closing the Lanterns” (guandeng 關燈)—which in colloquial Chinese means “switch off the light”.

After supper we all retired to the scripture hall to rest, as Li Manshan prepared while Golden Noble adjusted the tuning of their sheng and Wu Mei checked his reeds. We were all tired, but as time went by there was still no sign when the ritual might begin.

Li Manshan’s son Li Bin, always most solicitous for his visitors, asked Wu Fan:
“Aren’t you tired? Wouldn’t you like to go back and get some sleep?”

Wu Fan came out with the classic line, punning on the double meaning of guandeng:

“你不关灯,我怎么睡觉?!”
“How can I get to sleep if you don’t switch out the light?!”

Michelle Obama

Meanwhile (see my previous post), the passionate engagement, dignity, and basic human decency of Michelle Obama are desperately needed in these disturbing times.

We may indeed have reservations about her husband’s legacy, and his current conformity to the distressing rule of enrichment (a trail blazed more predictably by our own former “socialist” leader), but if only we had appreciated him more at the time—all the more so, given the dangerous pompous immoral self-serving infantile sulky posturings of his successor.

Even as an orator, while her hubby is no slouch himself, Michelle is in another league. Her passion was movingly evinced in her speeches to schoolgirls on her visits to Britain since 2009:

Now I realize all this is a clichéd bleeding-heart liberal do-gooder Guardian reader’s take, and I quite get the surly defensiveness of the fusty conservative stuck in the 1950s, before their birthright was threatened by uppity women and foreigners, when (or so they thought) the unwashed classes still knew their place. For a fine article on the antithesis to inspirational women like Michelle, see here—and note several BTL comments that throw out the baby with the bathwater by “refusing to be told what to think”.

Anyone unmoved by Michelle’s speeches has a heart of stone. Her inspiration is already bearing fruit here. Still,

Daoists and Confucians

In France, spellbound yet again by the Daoists’ performances under the august aegis of the Confucius Institute, who better to cite than the Grand Maître himself:

子在齊闻韶,三月不知肉味,曰:不图為樂之至于斯也。
—《論語·述而》

After Confucius heard the Shao music in the kingdom of Qi, he didn’t notice the taste of meat for three months. He said, “I had no idea that music-making could reach such heights!”
— Analects 7.14.

My comment, precisely 2,534 years later:

鐘注:小子在巴闻道亦是也!
Jones notes: Lil Ol’ Me feels the same on hearing the Way in Paris! [1]

I feel blessed to have found this subject—fieldwork, inspiration, ritual, laughter. And now to take a rocking sextet on tour, all at ease with each other, great mates.

 

[1] 巴: short for Paris 巴黎, not 巴蜀 Sichuan. Or Bali, for that matter.

The whole long dragon 一条龙

To bring this little French tour to fruition has involved a lot of work. A long chain of people has made it possible, from the Cini people in Venice (2012) and Thomas Roetting in Leipzig (2013) to Adeline Herrou and Hélène Bloch at Nanterre, the brilliant Yan Lu of the Nanterre Confucius Institute, Kersten Zhang our able fixer in Beijing, the Clermont-Ferrand CI team, Nicolas Prevot, the Centre Mandapa, and Li Bin in Yanggao.

Indeed, the roots of our tours, and my whole project on the Li family, go right back to Chen Kexiu’s early research and the 1990 trip to Beijing led by Li Qing.

Again, with the Li band we riff on “Without the Communist Party there would be no new China”:

(me:) Without Chen Kexiu there would be no Steve-and-the-Li-band
(Li Bin:) Without Steve  there would be no Li band tours
(me:) Without the Li band there would be no Steve

As I observed (my book, p.339):

The audiences go wild, their faces rapt; I love the feeling of turning on audiences to this music that has enchanted me for so many years. Our hosts always latch onto how very special this tour is.

Yan Lu prepared one of the most detailed schedules I’ve ever had in four decades of orchestral touring. And I love it when we’ve done all possible preparation, and then just naturally come together in haste, improvising to make the little details work, carried along on a wave of enthusiasm.

The Daoists fit into it all and always put on an amazing show night after night, so that we and everyone, dazzled by their brilliance, see that it’s all been worthwhile.

Still, all this is merely an occasional interlude for them: their daily “rice-bowl” remains performing rituals for their local community in the Yanggao countryside.

The Li band in France: notes

It’s worth rounding off these vignettes of the Li family on tour with some of my daily notes, as a little contribution to the ethnography of one, um, caravanserai on the global bazaar—and also as a further illustration that Daoists are Real People, not mere Faceless Paragons of Ancient Wisdom.

18th May
After a long journey from Yanggao via Beijing, the Daoists reach our hotel at 7.30am. Alas, despite my blandishments at the desk, they have to wait all morning for their rooms to become available, but I catch up with them as they rest on sofas in the foyer, letting Li Manshan sleep in my little room.

I take Li Bin, Golden Noble, Erqing, and Wang Ding round the corner to Rue de Rome, helping spendthrift Li Bin buy a preliminary round of gifts for his guanxi network back home: he asks me to help him choose four bottles of olive oil and ten bottles of vin rouge. Confessing my ignorance, I try to muster a little bon goût. He wants to splash out on more posh bottles, but I choose vin pretty ordinaire, trying vainly to control his reckless spending.

A friend of Erqing has even asked him to buy him a particular vintage of Château Lafite. I tell him to forget it. Still, imagine—twenty years ago the average annual income for a Yanggao peasant was still only around £100.

We do splash out on an adapter, though. This has become a touring ritual, since they never bring the ones we have bought on previous trips. They keep it very busy with recharging their mobiles and i-pods.

At midday we go round the corner to Rue Budapest for Sichuan noodles. They drink Erguotou liquor. We chuckle over our hosts’ quirky arrangement over expenses: 20 kuai each per meal for them, a mere 15 kuai for me. This causes much mirth: do I get less because I’m too fat?! After lunch, after a meeting with Teacher Wang, now abbreviated to “hold meeting” (kaihui), their rooms are available—three doubles (sociable types that they are, they wouldn’t even want singles).

It’s so great to be on tour with a brilliant sextet who have been doing rituals together for thirty years, and who are now in the rhythm of touring abroad too. Li Manshan is a wise laissez-faire (wuwei?!) leader, Li Bin an able fixer, Golden Noble and Wu Mei best mates, and Erqing and Wang Ding are cool too. We slot into our secret language, always laughing, dusting off old stories, devising new takes.

At 6pm our hosts Adeline Herrou and Yan Lu, with her assistant Alessandra, come to our hotel to guide us to the conference banquet. Arriving a bit late in a downpour, we are fortunately siphoned off to another quieter restaurant nearby so we can get to know our hosts in peace. Yan Lu is géniale, petite, full of joi de vivre. We give her our favourite ritual couplet written by Li Manshan, and local dried apricots from Yanggao. It’s been a long first day (and their travel from Yanggao itself took nearly 24 hours before that), but after taking the metro home, Li Manshan and I have our usual sweet chat outside the hotel.

19th May
We have a good breakfast; they eat plenty of everything, with lashings of coffee. I no longer have to help—they’re even experts with the egg-boiling contraption.

I end up in Golden Noble and Wu Mei’s room, where we have a nice chat. I mention the Wang family Daoists of Shuozhou just southwest of Yanggao. Wu Mei knows Wang Junxi’s guanzi-playing and likes it, having seen his videos online; he has appeared in a secular show with them, but there was nothing much for them to talk about!

Now that my film and book are out, we can relax without my constant pedantic questions. But I’m always in fieldwork mode—I just can’t help taking notes. Li Manshan tells me more about the Temple of the God Palace in the southeast of his village—site of the original settlement Dazhaizhai 大寨寨.

53 GN and WM amused cropped

Relaxing in the scripture hall between rituals, Golden Noble and Wu Mei amused by my notebook, 2011.

The Daoists busy themselves preparing for our first gig at the Nanterre conference: while Li Bin packs all the stuff to take, Golden Noble checks their sheng mouth-organs, Wu Mei works on his reeds. Their rooms are scattered with the debris of touring: shavers, battery chargers, mobiles, i-pods, cymbals, a solder (to tune their sheng), fags, pot noodles just in case, gifts of dried apricots…

We take the train to Nanterre, and after a canteen lunch the splendid Hélène Bloch takes us on a reccy of our pre-concert route to and through La ferme du bonheur circus on campus—it’s just like being back in Yanggao, as it really is a farm, with sheep, a peacock, and lovely laidback warm people. I dream of running away to join the circus; there’s a new release of La strada just out. The peacock displays for Li Manshan but not for me, a typical show of xenophilia (chongyang meiwai)!

edf

La ferme du bonheur. Photo: Hélène Bloch.

After my film screening, the Daoists are waiting outside to lead the audience through the campus to the farm, where we all take a tea-break, and then to the concert hall.

The hall is small, but the gig is amazing, as always. Our encore of the Mantra to the Three Generations, with me joining in, goes well.

As Ian Johnson observes in his book The souls of China (pp.37–40), the progression of the Li band to minor international celebrity has been a gradual process, from Chen Kexiu’s research to the 1990 Beijing festival, through to our foreign tours (cf. my book, ch.18).

For what it’s worth, such northern ritual styles do perhaps lend themselves better to the concert format than many southern Daoist groups, the entrancing wind ensemble supplementing the vocal liturgy and percussion.

We take the train back to our hotel, then go for supper. Li Manshan has given me two bottles of lethal Fenjiu white spirit from Shanxi, which we (all except him—he’s not a drinker) polish off with our meal. I’m TP again. I stagger back to my room to take stock, then around midnight Li Manshan knocks on my door for another “meeting” outside. First we gravitate to my bathroom for me to explain how the taps work, and he tells me his story about a Chinese guy who brought back the hotel soap as a present, and his mate says “Uurgh, this foreign white chocolate tastes disgusting!”.

We adjourn outside for more jokes, and fond reminiscences of Li Qing. As always, our most intimate moments are late at night, tranquil, alone together. These tours just get better and better. Yan Lu and all our hosts love this, and so do we.

My two rules for when the time has come to leave China:
1) when I begin to enjoy drinking baijiu white spirit;
2) when I begin to like Chinese pop.

In the old days such tours were inevitably accompanied by a gaggle of superfluous apparatchiks on a freebie trip abroad. Now the Daoists have their own private passports, and I look after them on my own.

It’s also amazing how much Chinese food abroad has improved over the last couple of decades. “Long gone are the days when” we have to endure sweet-and-sour pork—though even that has a certain nostalgia for me. With a busy schedule, and several good Chinese restaurants on our doorstep, I feel no great need to educate the Daoists in the richesses of French cuisine.

20th May Saturday
By 5am I’m chatting with Li Manshan again outside the hotel over a fag. After a quick breakfast we all take the new line 14 to Gare de Lyon. Streetwise Erqing is useful on the metro, noticing our route, watching out for signs—I no longer need to marshall them so closely, but the spectre of losing a national treasure in New York in 2009 still haunts me.

SanskritWe’re in plenty of time for the 8.59 to Clermont-Ferrand—whose Chinese name Kelaimeng Feilang, preceded by Aofoni (Auvergne) reminds me of one of the Li band’s pseudo-Sanskrit codas, such as the one at the end of the hymn Diverse and Nameless!

I go off with Li Bin to buy lunch for the band to eat on the train.

The lunch-pack of Notre Dame

(How could I resist? Just in case you’re not familiar with this one, it’s the answer to “What’s wrapped in cellophane and goes DONG?”)

Wu Mei and Li Manshan soon nod off, the latter tapping out drum rhythms even in his sleep. Later as I try to photo him chatting with Golden Noble, he tries to mess up my photo with his smelly sock.

They get excited seeing a field. To me it’s just a field. Wisely, they’ve long given up asking me technical questions about European agriculture. Golden Noble and Wu Mei have a beautiful chat—relaxed, thoughtful.

Our train is late, but hey. Valérie Bey-Smith and Wu Yunfeng, our keen Confucian hosts, meet us on the platform. Clermont-Ferrand feels pleasantly remote and eccentric—a bit like one of those Hunan mountain towns (where I’ve never been, BTW). We make hasty preparations for the gig in the conservatoire. After intros from the Confucius Institute and the Chinese consul in Lyon, my talk goes fine, with Valérie translating for me. I’m getting better at this. The gig is great—the audience goes wild.

The concerts only last an hour, but the Daoists are soaked in sweat. Still, it’s no big deal compared to their long rituals in Yanggao. The two sheng players, little trumpeted, have to work especially hard. In the trick sequence, even the way Erqing stays still for Wu Mei to slot the bell of his curved trumpet onto the pipe and then at once starts twirling it, playing all the while, is virtuosic. Wu Mei sometimes gets in a bit of trouble balancing the cymbal on his head, or the false eyes (walnut shells) coming loose, which all adds to the excitement—I observe to him that such little hitches should be a deliberate part of his routine, so as to show the audience how difficult it is, and keep them on edge.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Nanterre. Photo: Nathalie Béchet.

CF congratulations

Congratulations from the Chinese Consulate General in Lyon.

I get the usual erroneous compliments from the Chinese about me “discovering” them, and about the Chinese not knowing their own culture. OK, urban educated Chinese may not (I’m no great authority on Morris dancing either), but there has long been a wealth of research from native scholars, which is ongoing; and The Plain People of Yanggao have always been perfectly clear about their local Daoist culture.

CF group

After a nice meal with our hosts and innocent young students, they take us for a little tour of town, but we’re all completely knackered, and soon retire to our quaint hotel—next to the Hotel Ravel, I note.

Valérie, like our other hosts, is understandably ému (not Emu, or Rod Hull).

21st May Sunday
Up again by 5, I take a little walk near our hotel with the band, admiring the market, and the murals on the wall next door.

murals CF.jpg

In a nearby square we find five little posts, correctly arranged for a bonsai Hoisting the Pennant ritual (my film, from 44.21) on a future fantasy visit of Li Manshan’s 5-year-old grandson and his schoolmates.

CF posts

Doing daily travel with a gig is tough—but like my former orchestral life, it incites camaraderie. Our previous tours have been less frantic, but this one is pleasantly condensed.

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The touring life. Photo: Wu Yunfeng.

Valérie and Teacher Wu take us to the station, with thoughtful gifts of Gitanes (!) and food for the train. We were also happy to receive Clermont-Ferrand Confucius Institute umbrellas.

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Valérie sees us off on the train.

The train ride is fun again. It’s much faster today, so we arrive early at midday, and take the metro to find the Centre Mandapa, a splendid venue for world music since 1978, led by the splendid Milena Salvini.

With Mandapa technician Milou we try out my film for a most successful screening; my intro goes well, and at the end Li Manshan and I take a bow. The Daoists love watching our film too.

It’s a lovely little area, so we have plenty of time to relax. They find the amazing antique emporium over the road. A succession of beggars ask us for fags, which they give gladly. Intriguingly, the Centre Mandapa is also right opposite the 1913 church of the Antoinist cult:

Deviation

The state stance on “heterodox cults”? Photo: Stephen Jones.

We set up the stage during a tea-break for the audience, then the Daoists do yet another amazing gig. Though it’s a small room, my fears that the concert will be deafening turn out to be unjustified—it’s a great acoustic. I join them again for the encore.

It’s always good to see friends at our concerts. Several Shanxi people introduce themselves, excited to find the band performing in France; and today fine scholars like Jacques Pimpaneau, Robin Ruizendaal, François Picard, and Nicolas Prevot come along too.

One cultural difference: after a gig, sure we all want to get away, but the Daoists only drink with food, not before or after (usually), whereas we WAM musos make a beeline for the pub as soon as we have taken our final bow.

Our secret language (“black talk” heihua) is as arcane as ever, with all our inside jokes. Recalling a filthy joke that Guicheng told at a hotel party in Leipzig, I only have to say “Can you sew this up for me?” for Li Bin to burst out laughing (I can’t possibly tell you that one). We giggle again at Tian Qing’s “Eat a young monk” joke.

22nd May
We have a free day at last before the Daoists’ evening flight home. Last night Old Lord Li had a bath, slept till 1am, watched TV, slept again, and got a call from a family in Pansi village to determine the date for a funeral, so he was up before 4. Meeting up at 5 yet again, I take him to the bar down the road, where Tweety McTangerine comes on TV—Li Manshan hasn’t even heard of him, how enviable! Back to my room together to read Yan Lu’s draft article on the Nanterre events.

Li Manshan calls the Pansi family again at 6am. It’s a village that he likes best, and they most trust him. Then we have a good breakfast.

We stroll down together past the Opéra to the amazing Chinese department of Galeries Lafayette, brilliantly rendered as Laofoye (“Old Buddha Elder”). Li Bin and Erqing buy loads of perfume (“Hey guys, how many lovers have you got?!”)

Laofoye

Later Li Manshan and I buy toys for his young grandson: a trumpet and maracas, to go with the, um, Ming-dynasty instruments I bought him before.

We store our luggage and go for lunch, washed down by Leffe. Old Lord Li is drumming on his chopsticks again. Delightful mood over lunch, as always—everyone chipping in with stories, jokes, reflections. Over delicious Yuxiang qiezi, I ask Li Manshan if he has an aubergine tree. Often the subject turns to their hymns, as well as the Zouma suite and funky Yellow Dragon percussion piece, and the whole calibration of the trick sequence—how to improve them, tempi, and so on.

They rest on sofas at the hotel, and I film Li Manshan telling another sh-sh-sh-shikuaiqian joke.

Notre Dame

Later we take line 14 to Châtelet, and wander round the little islands. I choose different flavours of Bertillon ice-cream on Île de la Cité for them. After a little guided tour of Notre Dame, we return home for a quick supper of  noodles and beer before Adeline and Yan Lu arrive, Lu thoughtfully giving them posh French chocolates. I have to go off to catch the last train back to London, but their taxi for the airport arrives early, so I can wave them off after all, but it’s a hasty parting.

If it’s a quick hop back home to London for me, their journey was not so simple:

22nd: 23.20 flight from CDG to Beijing,
23rd landing at 15.20, 21.40 train from Beijing station,
24th arriving in Yanggao at 03.44! But both Li Manshan and Li Bin had to rush off almost immediately to attend to village clients.

I’ve been out of love with Paris for a while; the romantic image is hard to square with its gritty realities (rather like China, perhaps?). But this trip with the Li band naturally made me fall in love with it again. In this supposedly homogenised age—as with other cities like Leipzig, VeniceSeville, or Lisbon—we must delight in Parisian culture too!

As I write these notes up, Haitink conducting Mahler 9 comes on Radio 3, live from the Barbican; and then next evening, another live broadcast of Turangalîla! Perfect. I hear echoes of the Li family rituals in both: all the contrasts of monumental tutti and intimate chamber styles that we find in a Daoist ritual. But that’s just me… If only Messaien were still around to hear the Li family in Paris!

Posted at 5am to commemorate daily sessions with Old Lord Li.