A French letter

Li Manshan doing ritual paperwork, 2003

Li Manshan doing paperwork for the Hoisting the Pennant ritual, 2003.

I wrote this jeu d’esprit for a screening of my film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist in Paris. It deserves to be read aloud—in a smug English accent, of course. French audiences may be underwhelmed, but it appeals to the English self-mockery of our pretensions to refinement.

Here’s the Stewart Lee routine (n.3 below):

Résumé for Paris première,
Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist

 Stephen Jones, March 2016

I believe the Académie Francaise has a penchant for moaning about the adulteration of the sacrosanct French language by the use of English expressions, but it’s such a banal cliché (Touché!). So since Paris is the île sacrée of Daoist studies, and we étrangers feel rather ashamed that English is the designated language for this project, a kind of hommage, even billet doux, seems à propos, as sometimes—entre nous—English just doesn’t have the mot juste[1]

As a souvenir, here is a précis of my work, which gives vignettes on folk religious life. Tout court, the Li family household Daoists are soi-disant yinyang, not savants but ritual specialists; they have a certain local cachet. The tradition is male (plus ça change); it’s quite hard to chercher la femme (vive la différence?)—I hope you enjoy the scene with Li Qing’s widow (née Xue). Their training resembles a kind of household conservatoire. There is an entente cordiale between the Daoist bands in Yanggao, but the Li band is the crème de la crème, the group par excellence. Li Qing was fêted, a sans pareil, not just an occupational yinyang but a true amateur, musician extraordinaire, a popular figure without amour propre. My bête noire is the faux term “Hengshan Daoist Music Troupe”—though to my chagrin they don’t mind the appellation at all. Since our first meeting in 1991, I’ve made reconnoitres since 2011, and I also enjoy our rendezvous on tour abroad, with the succès d’estime of their concerts.

Performing ritual is their métier, their raison-d-être. As artisans, they have a niche in the market. The rituals they performed in the milieu of the former petit-bourgeoisie, the élite of the ancien régime, were more complex—noblesse oblige, after all. The yinyang were rather cultured—Li Xianrong had a nom de plume. But the period was no belle époque. Vis-à-vis the public rituals, they can be ordered à la carte, but even their décor requires a lengthy mise en scène. Not to perform them properly would be a faux pas, a gaffe. Until the 1950s there was an embarras de richesse, but the grandeur of some rituals remains de rigueur. Unlike the bien-pensant elders, their nouveau riche clientèle today do not expect such complex rituals. Those still performed are a kind of collage, or bricolage—their manuals are not performed en bloc. Li Manshan’s charges, both for his solo work and group rituals, are flexible: there is no prix fixe. Oral transmission is important: their cache of manuals and scores (including the solfège of the suites for wind instruments) serves only as an aide mémoire. Homme moyen that he is, Li Manshan is not given to pensées, but he makes some pithy aperçus in his distinctive patois; a fine raconteur, he loves doubles entendres.

Even under Maoism the local cadres had a laissez-faire attitude—there are no clear eminences grises. After the travails of the Communist régime, notably the débacle of the Cultural Revolution (when, pour encourager les autres, Li Qing was paraded by the Red Guards, the sans culottes of their day—real enfants terribles, however insouciant), there was a volte-face upon the dismantling of the commune system. A certain liberté replaced the forced égalité of Maoism, but fraternité continues to diminish. The détente allowed them to piece together the debris of the past, faute de mieux, with Li Qing and Li Manshan setting about la recherche du temps perdu. But there was no déjà vu—despite the renaissance of the 1980s, bringing a certain social rapprochement, there has been a long-term decline.

Au contraire, for funerals the force majeure of pop music, led by a nouvelle vague of chanteuses[2] petite, chic yet outré (coquettes, not yet déshabillées or even décolletées, but hardly haute couture), is now very much à la mode—the Yanggao avant-garde, keeping au courant (quelle horreur!) Such belles make a tableau that is charmant, not at all gauche. Already a fait accompli, this may be the coup de grâce for ritual. Chacun à son trou… [I think you mean gôut—Ed.] [Oh do I?—SJ] So there is a malaise, an ennui, among the yinyang, a kind of impasse. They find themselves in a cul de sac, so this may be the dernier cri of Daoist ritual in Yanggao; it is considered rather passé, and there is a fin de siècle feeling. C’est la vie.

In some ways the yinyang are rather more blasé than before (the nonchalant way they wear their costumes is less soigné) but they still perform remarkably conscientiously, with a certain sang froid. Disciples of Li Qing (doyen of the previous generation), they have a great rapport, camaraderie, an esprit de corps; their repartee is drôle and often risqué. Li Manshan (never sans chapeau; he only removes his cap to climb into the duvet) is deeply au fait with ritual procedures, living in the village sans souci, whereas in lieu his son Li Bin is a kind of entrepreneur (pace George Bush) in the religious market; like many younger Daoists today, he has a pied à terre in town, a funeral boutique with bijou apartment upstairs. Since moving there he has become something of a bon viveur, habitué of the town restaurants, a gourmand with his demi-monde clique, coterie, or cabal. On my séjours he also acts as my chauffeur. Compared with even twenty years ago, this is la vie en rose. Yet beneath the façade, public order is rather less stable in town—the occasional fracas, contretemps, or even melée erupts.

En passant, but not too off-piste, when eating chez Li Manshan en famille, tête-à-tête, there is great rapport between them. Etiquette is minimal; the ambience is sympathique. There are no cafés in these villages, and people enjoy open-air liaisons, au soleil. Even funeral cuisine is much improved since the 1990s.

The yinyang play en route to the soul hall. The tristesse of the hymns, their main genre now, is intensified by the timbre of the ensemble, the interaction of the nasal quality of the voices with the guanzi oboe, plaintive as a cor anglais, its arabesques full of nuance, with an occasional soupçon of levité; it has a certain je ne sais quoi. Both the ritual menu and the choice of hymns in the répertoire are flexible: they have carte blanche to choose. Melodic motifs recur in what we English might call idées fixes.

By contrast, when Li Qing’s protégé the ingénu Wu Mei launches into the mélange of his matinée clowning sequence, a pot-pourri with its aperitif (canapé, or even hors-d’oeuvre) of popular pieces, he imitates the soubrette and other rôles of local drama, using all his accoutrements with the legerdemain of a jongleur, his trompe l’oeil incorporating objets trouvés like the bric-à-brac from the altar table. It is a pièce de résistance, a divertissement, performed with élan vital, joie de vivre, and panache; it’s piquant, a real tour de force. For this sequence they receive an extra pourboire.

The dénouement of the ritual soirée is the percussion coda Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body, a magnificent oeuvre with a real frisson. On the final morning, cris de coeur from the female kin accompany the cortège setting out for the burial.

All this requires great savoir-faire. As to the future, what can one say but après moi le déluge; still, even Li Manshan is no clairvoyant—so if you’re betting, then rien ne va plus.

* * *

As both sinologist manqué and ethnomusicologist manqué, I hope you approve this jeu d’esprit, and I trust all these bons mots aren’t too naïve or de trop (Poseur? Moi? Je ne regrette rien!). This page should not be used as a French letter—Please Excuse My French, which only extends to la plume de ma tante. As auteur, my cinéma vérité is neither film noir nor roman à clef, but do enjoy it, and I look forward to your critiques (RSVP). Bon appetit[3]

For related drôlerie, see my series on the Tang-dynasty faqu (“French pieces”), beginning here. And this article may inspire us lazy English.

[1] Native French speakers may find some terms here obscure. If reading aloud, please use the correct English pronunciation of these terms that you guys have so boldly appropriated—including “Paris”. Note this review.

[2] US pronunciation more effective here: shontooz (à la femme fatale from the années dorées).

[3] Cf. Stewart Lee on “the UKIPs”:

Bloody Huguenots, Coming Over Here—doubting trans-substantiation, with their famed ability to weave little jerkins out of lace… Bloody Anglo-Saxons, Coming Over Here—with their inlaid jewellery, and their ship burial traditions, and their miserable epic poetry… We need to ensure the Brightest and Best Anglo-Saxons stay in 5th-century northern continental Europe, instead of laying down the entire basis of our future language and culture…

See also They come over ‘ere…A fine riposte, and Rachel Parris’s take on immigration, as well as Art Buchwald’s Thanksgiving article.