Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing


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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shuilu details

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The genius of Abbey road

Abbey road

Abbey road album cover: no title, band unnamed.

You can go for ages without paying attention to some of the most iconic works of music, while they lie dormant in the soul. Or, as a counterpart to my more obscure posts, we may just consider this the latest in my extensive series “Pieces that everyone knows are totally brilliant—that I now find are totally brilliant”. So it may be an instance of “selling the Three-character scripture at the door of Confucius” (cf. here), but hey.

I can’t quite work out when I became devoted to Sgt Pepper and Abbey road. Through my teens, though quite immune to a lot of pop music, I avidly bought the early Beatles singles and EPs. In my book Plucking the winds I reflected on the stark contrast between the lives of my village friends under Maoism and my own tranquil upbringing:

Meanwhile Gaoluo villagers were starving. I began to learn the violin in a polite suburb south of London, under very different conditions from those in which Cai An had learned music. By 1963 I was doing quite well, and won a local contest, though I was less keen on Handel sonatas than on the new songs from the Beatles, whose photo I kept in my violin case. My awareness of issues in defining classical and popular musics was still very basic.

At some stage I acquired the LPs of Rubber soulThe white album and Revolver—all of them brilliant. But I don’t recall becoming hooked on Sgt Pepper and Abbey road until after 1972 at Cambridge, when they were party regulars: I trust I didn’t attempt to dance.

Abbey road (1969) was the Beatles’ final masterpiece, created (like Sgt Pepper) in the recording studio as they took refuge from the frenetic touring life. Given my constant stress on musicking as a social activity, I’m aware of the irony of paying tribute to such disembodied creations (see also n.1).

The album resembles an unstaged opera, or an orchestral song-cycle (for wonderful examples of which, see here). Just in case you’re on another planet, here it is as a playlist, with the songs individually—it’s far better just to put on the LP (or CD), listening to the two sides whole, with the original transitions (and silences) between tracks. [1] You can find the lyrics on site such as this.

In my post on Sgt Pepper I observed how Wilfrid Mellers was among the pioneers of taking pop music seriously, with his book Twilight of the gods: the Beatles in retrospect (1973, published quite soon after they had disbanded). At the same time, for old-school musicologists still seeking to reserve the concept of “serious music” to the WAM canon, the Beatles seemed more palatable candidates for admission to the elite club than many popular and folk genres.

Actually, neither popular nor folk and art musics are dependent on such complex skills for their efficacity: many songs (e.g. Country: “three chords and the truth”), making use of a more limited technical palette, can make a deep effect individually, without the verbose sanction of the metropolitan elite and all our fancy analytical vocabulary. In the Preface Mellers qualifies his approach:

Music quotation, even in reference to literate “art” music, can never be adequate; in reference to Beatle music (and to most pop, jazz, folk, and non-Western music) it may be not only inadequate but also misleading; for written notation can represent neither the improvised elements nor the immediate distortions of pitch and flexibilities of rhythm which are the essence (not a decoration) of a music orally and aurally conceived. […]

To those who still found it “inherently risible” that pop music should be discussed in technical terms at all, his reply suggests an ethnomusicological grounding:

There is no valid way of talking about the experiential “effects” of music except by starting from an account of what actually happens in musical technique, the terminology of which has been evolved by professional musicians over some centuries. The fact that a Beatle—or a jazzman or a peasant singer or a perhaps highly sophisticated oriental musician [sic!]—has never heard of a dominant seventh or a mediant relationship or whatever, is neither here nor there; people who live and work in “oral” traditions have no need critically to rationalise about what they are doing. Of course it is possible to argue that all discussion and writing about music is a waste of time; I’ve occasionally come near to saying this myself. However, if this is true, it applies to all discussion of all music equally; analysis of Beethoven is no less irrelevant than analysis of Beatles.

This chimes in with Allan Marett’s point, inspired by Susan McClary, on Aboriginal dream songs—which indeed are among the exhibits in Mellers’ “Prologue and initiation”, whose opening section explores general themes in the Beatle world. Pursuing the mission to treat all musickings around the world on an equal footing, he ponders music as a way of life:

It is not an embellishment of living which one can take or leave; it does something, being music of necessity in somewhat the same sense as this phrase is applied to the musics of primitive peoples [sic].

After considering childhood games and ritual, he moves on to the evolution of musicking in European cultures; the “mythological” significance of popular lyrics; the origins of pop melody, and vocal and instrumental style, in blues and folk; the role of harmony and metre; and the narcotic loss of identity in the communal act. He goes on to explore the Beatles’ development of their cosmopolitan Liverpool background, quoting John:

I heard Country and Western music in Liverpool before I heard rock and roll. The people there—the Irish in Ireland are the same—take their Country and Western music very seriously.

Far more all-embracing than other pop music of the time, the Beatles (and we should also bear in mind George Martin’s input as producer) would refine elements from blues, Country, folk, rock, music-hall, children’s games, and psychedelia into their unique “Edenic dream”.

Some may still find it redundant to analyse such works that are so widely appreciated on an intuitive level, but For What It’s Worth, Mellers’ analysis reveals the great artistry of the Beatles. Actually, such are the riches of their creativity that his discussion could be far more extensive—covering their whole ouevre, Twilight of the gods only has space for eleven pages on Abbey road. Indeed, several other scholars, such as Allan Pollack, have since provided detailed analyses.

Like Sgt Pepper, Abbey road is full of extraordinary variety, nuance, and (even within single songs) contrast, with multiple layers and homages to the whole gamut of popular culture. Even the lighter, seemingly jocular songs contribute to the panorama. Side 2 is described as a song cycle, but the whole album makes a cogent sequence.

  • In the opening song Come together, “a portrait of a kind of hobo-outcast messiah”,

the screwed up vocal line […] attains a near-miraculous release in the refrain, when the reiterated minor third suddenly swings up a fifth, then down to the major third—harmonised, however, with the submediant triad.

  • The exquisite, soaring Something (George’s composition—Alan Pollack’s analysis worth reading as always, suggesting parallels with Beethoven), punctuated by the intoxicating key shift of the hook, and a gorgeous guitar break;
  • Maxwell’s silver hammer, an unsettling black comedy;
  • Oh! darling, with Paul’s amazing gutsy vocals, the song’s “passionate intensity undimmed by its parodistic elements”. (On another autobiographical note, such was my classical snobbery in the 60s that the concurrent explosion of blues and soul was lost on me; so they could only tinge my consciousness through the benign filter of the Beatles, rather than through the hardcore medium of the Stones);
  • Octopus’s garden (Ringo!), “a child’s dream-song”, though I don’t pick up on Mellers’ “hiding something blackly nasty in the woodshed“—far more applicable to the dark comic songs of Side 2;
  • In I want you (she’s so heavy), Mellers notes how the the zany vocal melisma modifies our response to the hammered dominant ninths that create the frenzy; and the refrain, “apparently in D minor but with dominant ninths of A (changing to German sixths on B flat), so that the A major triads are uncertain of their identity, wobbling between dominants of D and tonics of A”, becomes a long (over 3 minutes!) relentless 10-beat ostinato for the coda, “on the threshold of a scream”—ending the track, and Side 1, with an abrupt cut-off.

If these six songs of Side 1 themselves constitute a cohesive thread, the fragments assembled for Side 2 are still more of a continuous suite (see e.g. this thorough discussion)—starting again on an innocent note after the preceding menace:

  • Here comes the sun (George again), its phrases linked by additive rhythms (3+3+3+3+2+2), leading into
  • Because, inspired by the Moonlight sonata, is entrancing, “runic” (again reminding me that I didn’t do nearly enough drugs—just couldn’t seem to find the time…). Beneath the spacy, soaring choral harmonies, suspended in the void, the keyboard arpeggios (the intro—George Martin on harpsichord!—seemingly continuing the 3+3+2 rhythm), are “like a lulling of the cradle or even a swaying of the amniotic waters”. To cite Mellers at length:

The eight-bar first strain rocks slowly in dotted rhythm through its minor triad (“Because the world is round it turns me on”), dropping rather than drooping on to the subdominant triad, and dreamily fading in a melisma. The effect of this sudominant is unexpectedly emotive, perhaps because the triadic harmony has been so static. The answering strain extends and deepens the feeling, since the melody is protracted into dotted minims, and instead of the subdominant we have a submediant chord of the ninth, the melismas wafting longer and more hazily. The resolution of this ninth chord on to the supertonic is delayed because we shift abruptly back to C sharp minor for the second stanza, which tells us that “because the wind is high it blows my mind“. When, after the second stanza, the dominant ninth does resolve on to a D major triad, it’s hardly a real modulation establishing a new, and remote, key. Its harmonic function is “Neapolitan” but the triad, on the exclamation “Ah“, immediately pivots back from D not to the dominant but to F sharp, C sharp’s subdominant. This initiates the middle section which, changing the subdominant minor to major, creates with inspired simplicity the newness and all-embracingness of love. This middle contains four bars only; after which the envloping arpeggios return and the haunting melody sings da capo,  finally floating away in extended melismata, but without harmonic resolution. Indeed, although that flattened supertonic opens heavenly vistas, the song is virtually without harmonic progression, the only significant dominant–tonic cadence in the piece being the one that returns us to our source, and to the da capo of the melody. […] In the coda the upward leaping sixth—traditionally an interval of aspiration—is pentatonically suspended on the word “Because“; indeed the arpeggiated swaying is replaced intermittently by silence—in the use of which the Beatles betray something like genius.


Slightly skewed screenshot—not the result of the intake of medicinal substances, honest guv.

  • You never give me your money opens wistfully, but successively ramps up the mood, segueing into Out of college (its introductory boogie-woogie only fleeting), an exhilarating guitar modulation into One sweet dream (“tonally rootless, rhythmically exuberant”), before merging into the hazy nursery-rhyme paradise of One two three four five six seven, all good children go to heaven—HOWEVER DID THEY DO ALL THIS?!;
  • Sun king, whose trippy feel develops out of Here comes the sun and Because;
  • Mean Mr Mustard, abruptly changing the mood—its brief refrain oscillating between E and C major, leading into a plagal cadence approached by way of the flattened seventh (more additive rhythms at the end!);
  • Polythene Pam (“a mythical Liverpool scrubber”, apud John) and
  • She came in through the bathroom windowboth songs “comically scary portraits, at once within the dream and part of the crazy-kinky scene that passes for today’s reality”, before the brilliant final sequence:
  • Golden slumbers, “an ironic title to an ironic song”, with “Sleep, pretty darling, do not cry, and I will sing a lullaby“, with soothing strings, contrasting with the raucous refrain, leading into
  • Boy you’re gonna carry that weight—savage, grim, with a memory of You never give me your money, segeuing into
  • The End “abandons words for a furious hammering of percussion, which leads into a long instrumental section, all dominant sevenths in rumba rhythm, but rocking a tone lower than the starting point, getting nowhere. Suddenly the hubbub stops; there’s a tinkling of A major triads on a tinny piano; and Paul’s voice returns to sing ‘in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make’. The phrase descends scalewise, harmonised in parallel triads that fall from F major, to E minor, to D minor, to A minor, and so to C major.” And then, just when you think it’s all over,
  • Her Majesty (an unlisted “hidden track”), sung by Paul—a perfect little throwaway fragment, a nonchalant farewell to Beatledom.

Mellers observes that

The seraphic vision of Because was momentary, and the rest of the disc trips away from vision and from Pepper‘s awareness of human relationships into a magical mystery tour that, if it’s a dream, is a bad one, and no escape.

Still, the cumulative effect, with its multiple layers, is supremely life-enhancing.


As with all musics, you can zone out or zoom in—or both; anyway, focusing on compositional artistry can enhance our appreciation just as much for the Beatles as for Mahler, the Uyghur muqam, or Chinese shawm suites.

Though my later path has intersected but rarely with these albums, I take impertinent pride in belonging to a generation capable of producing such genius. Personal reception histories are a significant aspect of our cultural appreciation, but at whatever point in Life you engage with the Beatles, their work is astounding.


[1] I trust you won’t be thrown off the scent by the many cover versions masquerading online (to me they sound awful, almost sacrilegious). That’s not to belittle cover versions generally—they’re part of music’s whole creative social afterlife—but they can make us appreciate the craft of the original all the more. By contrast, I want every single guitar break, every tiny vocal inflection, to be faithfully reproduced and worshipped come sta for eternity, preserved in aspic—gleefully aware that this contradicts just about everything I’ve ever written (e.g. under Unpacking “improvisation”). Indeed, the release of the original sessions (with alternative tracks and running orders), and the remixes, remind us that even a studio recording is a living organism, subject to variation: what I regard here as so sacrosanct is just one possible realisation. The songs were recorded individually, and only later arranged into the sequence that we now found so cohesive and definitive.


Transmission and change: Noh drama



Further to my post on contemporary Noh drama, I’m grateful to Allan Marett for drawing my attention to

the lucid text well rendered in fluent translation by Edgar W. Pope—no easy feat.

I introduce this lengthy article here not just for its insights on Noh, but because it bears more widely on the transmission of traditional genres—including the WAM canon. Indeed, it often reminds me of debates over rubato in romantic piano music.

Bruno Nettl has suggested parameters for change in musickings around the world; Noh would seem to belong to his rubric of “gradual, normal change” (“An absolutely static musical culture is actually inconceivable”; for Daoist ritual, see e.g. here), and the concept of “isolated preservation”. Fujita’s article also bears on Nettl’s discussion of flexibility and improvisation.

Within the conservative goal of preservation, Fujita seeks to reconcile apparently conflicting emic and etic viewpoints, and the tensions between ideal and real performance—common concerns of those analysing world music. He wisely considers the whole Noh community, and addresses both the nuts and bolts of performance and the mystical underpinnings of the tradition. As Pope summarizes:

A puzzling situation defines the contemporary transmission of Noh. On one hand, the genre’s community of practice is governed by strict orders to preserve musical sound through repeated imitation and to avoid change at all costs. On the other hand, the community discourages explicit dialogue between teachers and learners concerning what exactly constitutes those ideal musical sounds as well as the extent to which those sonic ideals are being faithfully maintained across performances. With a focus on the transmission of hiranori vocal rhythms, Fujita explores the ambivalent strategies with which participants navigate this conundrum and discovers a paradoxical process by which Noh’s so-called “preservation imperative” actually encourages musical change.

Pope also highlights the relationship between ideal models and actual performance, discourses of continuity and authenticity, and the sometimes-frustrating ambiguities of self-consciously “traditional” arts.

The article also demonstrates Fujita’s characteristic methodological approach: combining close musical analysis with perspectives gained from extensive ethnographic experience, and using critical historical insights to complicate his own ethnographic observations and challenge common scholarly assumptions.

As Fujita explains:

According to the theorists cited above, the place of performance is precisely where creativity happens. But in reality, do the spectators gathered in that place of performance always expect creativity or novelty from the performing art? At each and every performance, do they always focus their attention on how much creativity is being exhibited? One cannot necessarily say so. Depending on time and circumstance, many spectators are likely to expect not something new, but rather a past performance repeated in the same way, here and now. A performance that makes use of bodily movement and sound occurs only once, and then immediately vanishes. The desire to try repeating it again the next day often arises; but can we say conclusively that creative processes and interpretive variation exist there as well? […]

Classical music is like an antique, in the sense that as times change it does not necessarily adapt itself to the changing tastes of its audience. In order to transmit this antique from generation to generation, the community itself has taken on the distinctive form of the iemoto system, in which the iemoto and their branch families are at the apex, and beneath those, in the form of a tree, are positioned their disciples and the disciples of disciples (cf. my image of the iceberg). The focus of this essay is the acquisition by low-level members (disciples) of the techniques held by high-level members (teachers).

Performing artists must be sensitive to the changing demands of changing times if they always construct their performances on the basis of unchanging prescriptions, it is likely that audiences will eventually grow tired of them, and the art itself will become extinct. [….]

This high-pressure imperative takes the form: “Even if it’s boring, don’t ask why—just preserve!” […] Suppose, hypothetically, that you were to find yourself a member of such a community. You yourself have no clue as to what the purpose of preservation might be. And yet you are compelled to participate in preservation. You think to yourself “What’s the use of this? It’s boring. I want to quit!” But you are unable to defy the preservation imperative, and as your participation immerses you completely in the various mutually contradictory rules of practice that fall under the preservation imperative, you experience, at some times and in some cases, a joy in the very practice of preservation itself. Once you have had this sort of experience a number of times, you reach a state where you suddenly think to yourself “I’m glad I’m doing this.” Even though you are repeating (or being made to repeat) over and over again things that have been determined in advance, one day a feeling even comes over you that some realm of freedom is finding expression here—a world in which you feel that a kind of richness that surpasses the merely technical has been secured. The community that provides this strange experience is the community of classical music transmission in Japan.

Fujita suggests the enduring basis of this conservatism in the vestiges of Confucian ideology, with instances from Buddhist chant and biwa music (and of course around the world other ideologies impose limiting effects on creativity in varying ways and degrees), and a brief aside on the aesthetics of calligraphy. He goes on to observe that the community’s emphasis on preservation is modified in actual practice, adroitly suggesting why my suggestion of punk versions of Noh was so impertinent (not to mention this).

Notation is always an imperfect tool. Analysing the rhythmic structure of Noh, Fujita uses tradional graphical representations, largely to reveal their inadequacy. Indeed, he notes that in the past, they “were considered an impediment to learning and were apparently kept hidden”; that they have never come to be used as standards; and that the actual sound of Noh deviates greatly from such schemas.

A stable flow of sound that could appropriately be called a pulse never reaches your ear. You hear a series of terrible arrhythmias, so to speak. As a result, it is generally difficult to perceive an eight-beat meter [2] from the actual sound, that is, to reconstruct the graphical representation from the sound.

Fujita explains in detail the vital roles of the kotsuzumi and ōtsuzumi drums. Commenting on the great flexibility of the pulse, he gives a magnificent analogy:

For the reader who is unfamiliar with the sound of Noh, please envision, for example, a scene in which a drunk person is singing a song with a great deal of emotional expression. Large changes in the pulse will often occur. If a sober listener who knows the song well tries to clap along with the performance, it will become clear that there are large expansions and contractions in the intervals between pulses, of the kind we have described here.

On singing, Fujita observes:

Scholars who try to explain the rhythm of Noh singing usually abandon from the beginning any attempt to explain this phenomenon of elasticity of the aural pulse. Many of them, when explaining rhythm, begin by introducing a graphical representation (such as Figure 1) that shows twelve syllables arranged over eight beats. After that they add some such commentary as the following:

In transcription it appears as shown above, but in actual performance the rhythm is transformed, through various techniques, to the point that this basic meter can barely be perceived. When watching Noh, the parts where one cannot follow the beat in relation to the performance on stage are mostly these hiranori parts, which are constructed through an extremely complex and subtle rhythmic sense. One might call it a rhythm that does not show its rhythmic sense on the surface.

This is clearly a declaration that the writer has given up on explanation. But why does he arrive at this kind of impasse? The problem is that with no detailed observation or description of contemporary practice, he has developed an explanation that depends from the outset on graphical representations, which are not actively used as models within the community. We have seen that the rhythm of Noh, when compared to its graphical representation, involves large tempo changes and is greatly “distorted” in performance. We must not, however, take such “distortion” [henkei] to mean literal distortion. The “distortion” of Noh rhythm is systematic and has been thoroughly drilled into the performer in the course of practice. To that extent, rather than being the result of individual contrivance, it is more accurate to think of it as something that has been habitualized.

He then identifies the set of norms that produce such “distortion”: the way that the drummers memorize sequences, with mnemonics for timings (komi, the preparations for producing sounds) and timbre, and the haunting kakegoe vocal cries (mostly in the intervals between pulses, and a major element in Noh’s rhythmic elasticity). The interplay of the two drummers is crucial. We may be only mildly reassured by the conclusion of this section:

The form of explanation that begins with something like “Noh rhythm is based on an eight-beat meter”, although not at all incorrect as a historical explanation, turns out to be completely meaningless as a description of current practice. In reality, as we have seen, the lengths of drum syllable sequences used by ōtsuzumi and kotsuzumi players do not necessarily fill up a span of eight beats; and performance proceeds from a consciousness centered on those drum syllables. During a performance, moreover, many performers have no idea where they are (i.e., which beat they are on) in terms of pulse numbers. In actual practice, this is no longer eight-beat music. It is quite natural, then, that the sound produced by the performers does not sound like eight-beat music.

While he points out that performers are not entirely oblivious to graphical schema, they may adopt some principles and regularities that they perceive therein for the purposes of their own performance.

Principles discovered by performers for themselves are not used as oral explanations in education. Moreover, graphical representations of those principles have never come to the forefront and circulated as a primary means or as standards for learning. This has been especially true in the study of Noh singing.

In §3 Fujita takes a historical approach to komi. While the concept has long existed, it has only been emphasized more recently. Identifying “surreptitious” change below the preservation imperative, he astutely unpacks emic and etic approaches:

When scholars accept without question the ideology of the preservation imperative, thinking that the practices of traditional music transmit the forms of ancient sounds mechanically like a tape recorder, and repeating like parrots the community’s assertions that they “do it exactly the way it was taught,” it is evident that we have a problem. On the other hand, a standpoint that assumes people in the community are simply lying when they say “we do it exactly the way it was taught”, that focuses only on empirically tracking down changes in actual sound and seeking to discover in those the creativity of performers, could be seen as rushing to conclusions and distorting the object of research. What we need, then, is to look carefully at how the ideology actually operates.

So he goes on to discuss the language used since the late Meiji period to inhibit undue reliance on graphical rhythmic schema—particularly with regard to singing, the most popular activity within the amateur community.

With regard to singing practice, sound itself is excessively emphasized [!]. Everyone in the community is expected to imitate faithfully the sound of Noh singing. From the beginning, they must not rely on schemas that serve as frameworks. They must not look at graphical representations. They must not have any interest in theory. This sort of thing is hammered into their heads.

Fujita cites a passage from 1943 [his italics]:

At first there is no need to think about the logic of jibyōshi [the eight beat meter]. One simply has to swallow as a whole the actual way of singing with the meter, and pound it into one’s memory until it becomes a habit. Regardless of any theory about meter, its actual use is nothing other than a focusing of the spirit [kiai], and so the best way to give life to the meter is to grasp the focusing of spirit that appears in your teacher’s singing. In short, the fundamental problem must be to build a foundation from which you can sing more or less together with the meter, even if you don’t know how to keep the meter. You can try to study meter on the basis of Noh singing, with its uncertain pulse, but all you will get is a logical understanding, which you will not necessarily be able to use in the actual practice of singing. Even worse, you may well end up with meter for the sake of meter, not meter for the sake of singing.

He explores the learning process, and the interaction of singers and drummers:

Of course, the singer’s memory of the sound is not perfect. The singer, furthermore, has no understanding of the schema. It is therefore entirely possible that discrepancies will arise between the singer and the drummers in some places. For example, it must frequently happen that a singer starts one pulse too early, or one pulse too late. Those who do so are instructed to practice that part over and over, and as a result of this repeated practice acquire a feeling of “falling into the meter”, even in that part.

§4 goes on to discuss the mysticization of identity: the realm of kokoro (heart/mind)—”the place for secret manouevring”. Here he turns to the flute:

In the following episode, a teacher of Noh singing critiques the flute-playing of one of his students. Unlike the drums discussed in §2, the flute is an instrument with a low degree of structure in the realm of articulation, and in that sense we could say that it is similar to vocal performance. On one occasion, a flute performance was critiqued in the following way. Kaneuchi Yoshihira was the youngest Noh flute player during the time my teacher was alive, and he also had a weak physical constitution. One time when he was playing flute for the otokomai dance in “Atsumori” he noticed that his teacher was looking at him; apparently he froze, and the sound of his flute abruptly stopped. Nevertheless out of fear of his teacher he tried even harder to play, while taking kurai, but finally he lost his composure and was unable to produce a sound. He continued on like a madman, puffing away at his flute without making a sound, until the piece ended. He then went back to the musicians’ room, cringing at the thought of the scolding he would get. But he found his teacher to be in an extremely good mood. “It was fine, it was fine. Your iki [spirit] and your kuraidori [taking kurai] were very good today.” Kaneuchi spoke of how happy he was when he heard those words of praise, and said that for the first time he felt self-confidence in his flute playing.

Noting a further tendency: “an irresistible turning toward the enjoyment of unrepeatable immediacy”, he ponders the apparent conflict between emic (“we always do it the same”)  and etic (“these details are completely different”) views (again, cf. Nettl), and lists significant emic terms that appear to resolve them.

Observing that

in spite of its rigid, closed, and conservative appearance, there actually do exist “free” and “creative” processes,

Fujita concludes by discussing the recent influence of audio-visual techology on the learning process, which was slow to gain acceptance but is now compressing the space for the preservation imperative.

Such thoughtful, detailed analysis is a valuable contribution to studies of change in musickings around the world.


[1] For this post I silently [sic] convert the “nō “of the text to “Noh”. For more in English, see e.g. here.

[2] For the very different (and more audible) eight-beat structure of Chinese shawm bands and Daoist groups, see here. For official attempts to replace ritual skills with discursive knowledge, see Training Daoists in Shanghai.


Temple murals: a new website

HT site

For aficionados of Chinese art and religion, to complement the fine website of Hannibal Taubes on north Chinese temple murals http://twosmall.ipower.com/blog/ (see my post here), we now have a related (and still evolving) site Temple Trash—the drôle title taken from the description of the murals by an unnamed professor! http://twosmall.ipower.com/murals/

Both websites are vast, and still only a selection from the archive deriving from his fieldwork. It’s a Herculean (or in this case Hannibalesque) task, that invites us to reassess the whole history of religious art—commonly assumed to have entered terminal decline since the Ming dynasty. Unlike the many glossy compendia of early temple murals and architecture protected by the state, these murals come mainly from minor village temples, and often suffer from neglect and pillage. And given the southern focus of religious studies, the focus on north China (mainly for Hebei, Shanxi, and Shaanbei), is itself original.


The wealth of images is meticulously documented. As Hannibal explains, the image scroll on the main page is in chronological order from c1500 to the present day, top to bottom. Click on the little squares to see the galleries. You can browse the images according to type by clicking on the “Categories” menu at the upper left—select the dropdown menu for a quick-list of categories (deities, genres and topics, locations, venues, periods, and so on, all extensively subdivided), or scroll down for more info. The murals are shown in context, with details of temple architecture and village topography.

To give a few examples of the wealth of the new site: apart from the temple focus, some interesting galleries show images depicted since the 1949 founding of the PRC. Some living traditions of ritual paintings are also included (cf. my modest contributions on this blog under Ritual paintings), such as pantheon scrolls for spirit mediums (Shaanbei, and Wutai in Shanxi). Among many topics, the theme of Women in murals supplements the Goddesses listed under the Deity category.

Of course (as I would say), like ritual manuals, material culture is both silent and immobile: temples are not mere repositories of artefacts, but sites for social activity. All such documentation should complement studies on religious life in north China; and (as I would say) funerals too have remained vibrant occasions for ritual life.

Exploring these sites is an edifying, eye-opening pleasure.

Bach gravy

I’ve already mused on the list of countries that the Stats for this blog provide for me. For some obscure reason, the Stats also include a list of Search Terms that have somehow led readers to my site. This can be entertaining—recently I found

Bach gravy

It sounds like a hazily membered dream in that common category of impossible tasks:

“We need to serve the Bach gravy without further ado, Algernon! You’re keeping the guests waiting—we can’t afford another scandal.”

Or perhaps it’s hipster slang:

“Man, that cat was off his tits on the ol’ Bach gravy!”

Or is it an arcane allusion to the mondegreen (or rather soramimi) Ate, in terror, Paxo minibus from the B Minor Mass?

I wonder if the curious seeker found a satisfying answer—I do hope so. I was so intrigued that I had to Google it myself, to little avail.

Now I love Bach, and gravy, but as Philomena Cunk observed wisely to Jay Rayner,

bread, and sauce, are two completely different things, aren’t they?

Still, now I’m keen to try some, liberally poured over my sausages. And like Haydn’s prophetic symphony (see link here), it deserves its own hashtag (#Bachgravy™)—could be the culinary hit of the new decade.

A 2019 retrospective

For my sake as much as yours, I’m rounding up some themes from the last year (cf. my post for 2018)—do click on the links, both below and in the posts themselves! There’s plenty more to explore under the monthly archives as you scroll down in the sidebar.

I continue to add vignettes on the Li family Daoists (always bearing in mind my film and book!):

and I augment my post Walking Shrill with

On my other main fieldsite of Gaoluo (summary here),

Bearing on both the Li family and Gaoluo is

And under the main menu, it’s always worth exploring the many fieldnotes under Local ritual, and the various pages under the Themes sub-menu.

Among many posts on the great Yang Yinliu are

For links to ritual life around south Jiangsu, see

and for the rich cultures of Fujian,

Note also

For more on China, see

The plight of the Uyghurs is a pressing concern (see also Uyghur tag):

Note also

Further afield, see

The category of “world music“, or rather musicking in societies around the world, continues to grow. For salient perspectives on musical cultures worldwide (notably the brilliant, accessible work of Bruno Nettl), see

For diverse regional genres, see e.g.

For the musics of Iran, see

Pursuing my shawm theme. see

Among several posts on Italian folk culture are

See also

Note also new posts on flamenco.

On English culture (roundup here):

and having given Alan Bennett time off for good behaviour, he stars in several recent posts, notably

Under the WAM category, posts include

and recent additions to the Mozart tag, like

Under the Messiaen tag, major new posts are

On a lighter note are two classics on rubber chicken:

In my Must-Listen Playlist of songs (complementing the sidebar playlist for local Chinese traditions, with commentary here), most spellbinding is

And I continue the theme of stammering:

Also well worth a read is

And don’t forget the *MUST READ* category—among which my personal choice remains

Norman Wisdom big in Albania



Oops, sorry—this statue in Tirana is to Mother Teresa. Same difference… For a less flattering portayal by Christopher Hitchens, see Dragging the icon to the trash.

In this thrilling new fantasy world of unfettered (unfetta-ed) opportunity that Brexit promises for “Great” “Britain”, perhaps we can now look forward to a lucrative trade deal with Albania, inspired by Norman Wisdom (and note the cameo from Tony Hawks):

For more, see here. A wacky instance of International Cultural Exchange, eh.

For other cute vignettes from Albania, see here and here. On a more serious note, do explore the wonders of Albanian folk music. For the earlier conjunction of Alexei Sayle with culture behind the Iron Curtain, see here.