Calligraphy of a Manchu imperial scion

Aixin shufa

In my post on Robert van Gulik I mentioned my 1986 encounter with the painter and pipa-player Yang Dajun (1913–87), who was in wartime Chongqing with van Gulik and my mentor Laurence Picken. Another illustrious heir to traditional culture whom I visited in Beijing in 2001 was Aisin Gioro Yuhuan 愛新覺羅毓峘 (1930–2003), great-great grandson of the Daoguang emperor.


As we saw in my post on the “suite plucking” of old Beijing, apart from his distinguished painting, Aisin Gioro Yuhuan had learned the sanxian plucked lute from the age of 8 with a former palace eunuch, and then with blind folk musicians; from 1985 he mentored conservatoire students as they recreated the repertoire once played by Manchu–Mongolian nobles along with lowly itinerant blind performers.

My visit was rather belated, perhaps because whereas I was aware of the genre, by the 1980s it was long been obsolete in social practice. In Beijing I’d been spending more time with elderly former monks; and the village ritual associations in which I was immersed were still active, their shengguan wind ensemble repertoires still forming richer repository of early melody. Still, meeting Aixin Gioro Yuhuan, a living descendant of the Qing imperial family, made an apt reminder of Granny Liu’s epithet in The dream of the red chamber on the continuity of tradition despite all its tribulations.

In the calligraphy that he wrote for me, we can discount its typical flattery of the foreigner, attributing to me a deep empathy with Chinese music (for a more humble yet heartfelt example from my Gaoluo friends, see here; and for the calligraphy of Tian Qing, here). But it makes a precious souvenir.

Musicking at the Qing court 1: suite plucking

On the folk–art continuum in culture

XS early

“Musiciens Chinois. légation a Pékin”, Paul Champion, 1865/1866, with sanxian plucked lute, xiao end-blown flute, yangqin dulcimer, and sihu fiddle.

Inspired in 2017 by Stephan Feuchtwang’s 80th birthday to essay a fantasia on Bach at the court of the Qianlong emperor, I’ve been meaning to give a little introduction to the court music of the Qing dynasty (for another vignette, see here).

First we need to unpack the wafty term “court music”, subsuming all kinds of activities (for an early study from the Forbidden City, see e.g. Wan Yi and Huang Haitao, Qingdai gongting yinyue, 1985). It includes the large-scale yayue, ceremonial groups of both Inner and Outer courts, Daoist, Buddhist, and shamanistic observances, various genres of opera—and recreational chamber ensembles for life-cycle celebrations.

Most of the groups that I study in rural China serve the ritual needs of their local communities—whether occupational or (as in the case of sectarian associations) devotional. Amateur musicking for recreation or entertainment is less common. Even vocal genres like opera and narrative-singing are often occupational, largely serving ritual; but we do find some recreational groups, mainly in urban areas. And even here, the ceremonial–entertainment dichotomy is not clear-cut: recreational genres too were often performed for life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies.

Suite plucking
After Liberation, cultural cadres gave misleading names to many folk genres (cf. here, and for the “songs-for-winds”, here). The recreational chamber repertoire known since the 1950s as the “thirteen suites for strings” (xiansuo shisan tao 弦索十三套) was simply known as “suite plucking” (tantao 彈套). [1]

Often valorized by a narrow association with the Manchu court elite, it turns out to belong to a wider circle of folk activity (and here we may detect echoes of the hype surrounding the Zhihua temple). Indeed, it’s not useful to draw a clear line between folk and elite musical cultures in China—for a detailed instance, see this comparison of a qin piece and a shawm suite.

The social and cultural life of the late Qing is a rich topic, little explored in relation to these suites. I learn much from a 2013 article by Zhang Weidong 张卫东, stalwart of the amateur narrative-singing clubs around Beijing. Among many sources, he cites Jin Shoushen 金受申, Lao Beijingde shenghuo 老北京的生活—just the fascinating kind of social detail also found in the work of Chang Renchun on the customary and ritual life of old Beijing.

As part of his broad cultural education Aisin Gioro Yuhuan 爱新觉罗毓峘 (1930–2003), descendant of the Qing imperial family, learned the sanxian plucked lute from the age of 8 in Japanese-occupied Beijing with the former palace eunuch Luo Defu 羅德福, and later with blind musicians Wang Xianchen 王宪臣 and Zhang Songshan 张松山. He expanded on this background in several interviews, including articles in Renmin yinyue 1988.9 and 1990.6. For my visit to him, see here.

Like most musicking in China and worldwide, the genre wasn’t dependent on notation: indeed, it was largely an oral tradition. And again it illustrates the continuum between folk and art musics: it now tends to be associated with the Manchu–Mongolian nobility, but they learned this repertoire as patrons of lowly blind itinerant street performers (menxianr 門先 or gumu 瞽目) whom they invited to their mansions. Blind musicians are important in local social life, such as shawm players and bards (and, further afield, in Ukraine—formerly), and the menxianr were major players in the Beijing narrative-singing scene.


Illustration from the “72 trades of old Beijing”.

In the mid-19th century [2] a blind sanxian player called Zhao Debi 趙德壁 was renowned for his rendition of the suites. His pupil Yue Fengting 岳鳳亭 was an influential transmitter of the repertoire. And Wang Xianchen, a protegé of the empress Cixi, served the inner court.

Instruments included the plucked lutes sanxian and pipa; a bowed lute tiqin or sihu; and the zheng zither—which, despite its rippling ubiquity in the conservatoires, is rarely used in folk ensembles in north or even south China. A xiao end-blown flute, dizi transverse flute, or small sheng mouth-organ might also take part, but were already less often used by the early 20th century.

In the early 19th century the Mongolian nobleman Rong Zhai (Ming Yi 明誼) learned the repertoire along with four other princes (gong 公), and in 1814 he compiled a gongche score in his Xiansuo beikao 弦索備考.

By the 1940s, this and several related scores kept in private hands had reached Beijing music scholars (cf. this post), Later Cao Anhe thickened the plot with a discussion of these versions, including forgeries, showing the importance of textual research:

  • Cao Anhe, “Xiansuo shisan tao paishengchulaide jizhong wei yuepu” 弦索十三套派生出来的几种伪乐谱, Wenyi yanjiu 1981.4.

This resulted in yet another project from the brilliant Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing under the aegis of Yang Yinliu, largely consisting of transnotations. It was first published in three slim volumes in 1955 and 1962, and then reprinted in 1985:

  • Cao Anhe 曹安和 and Jian Qihua 简其华 (eds.), Xiansuo shisan tao 弦索十三套.

Yet again I marvel at the energy and discrimination of the Beijing scholars before and after Liberation, also including Wang Shixiang, the great painter and qin player Pu Xuezhai雪齋 (1893–1966, also a scion of the Aixin Gioro imperial family—see below), and Ling Qizhen 凌其阵. [3]

In 1963 Aisin Gioro Yuhuan was invited to teach at the Beijing conservatoires, but this was soon interrupted by the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution (cf. Daoust drum master Zhu Qinfu: my Folk music of China, pp.255–6). By 1985 he had hardly played sanxian for over thirty years, but he now worked closely with Tan Longjian to recreate the style of the Xiansuo beikao suites. She went on to publish separately the results of their work on the sanxian parts:

  • Tan Longjian 谈龙建, Qing gu gongwangfu yinyue: Aisin Gioro Yuhuan sanxian chuanpu 清故恭王府音乐: 爱新觉罗·毓峘三弦传谱 (1988), with a useful introduction by Yuan Jingfang 袁静芳.

Rong Zhai had given individual parts for each instrument, spelling out their heterophony. By contrast, when melodies of instrumental ensembles were notated, it was invariably in a single gongche skeletal outline, with the realizations on particular instruments left to the taste and experience of the musicians. This was evidently so for these suites too: the score was an isolated instance of documentation in what remained an oral tradition.

In one case Rong Zhai even gave a “full score” with all the parts aligned—perhaps a unique instance in traditional notation:


Xiansuo beikao, opening of Shiliuban. From Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian, vol.4 (1955).

Still, as in all traditions of musicking around the world, performance requires practical experience of learning with a master; and this applies even when notation is available.

The suites consist of sequences of melodies, though titles within the suites are not always given. The repertoire overlaps with that of shengguan ritual wind ensembles such as Haiqing 海青 and Pu’an zhou 普安咒, widely performed both in the temples of old Beijing and among amateur ritual associations in the countryside nearby and further afield. It was on these rural groups, still active, that I came to focus; and here too, I learned that one’s field of study must be far broader than “instrumental music“.

Changing society
As I often note for ritual studies too, scholars tend to favour reified documents, at the expense of changing social context.

Well before the Communist revolution of 1949, the social system had been changing along with the demise of the imperial system in 1911. But when musicologists began transnotating the suites in the early 1950s, there were still some musicians who recalled playing them—like Aisin Gioro Yuhuan, indeed. How I wish Yang Yinliu and his colleagues had managed to record them then, like their 1953 Zhihua temple recordings (playlist #14, with commentary here). According to Cao Anhe (1981) the MRI did indeed record four or five suites played by the great blind sanxian player Wang Xianchen (for whom, see again Zhang Weidong’s article). By 1950 Wang must have been at least 80 years old, but alas these recordings appear to have been lost. I’ll save another surviving recording for further below.

QYDWhat did persist in Beijing, both before and since the Cultural Revolution, was the amateur narrative-singing scene—a must for any aficionados of The dream of the red chamber, by the way. Some instrumental pieces are still played there as preludes or interludes, but the suite repertoire didn’t survive. Anyway, it’s another of the pleasures of Beijing musical life, less well publicized than the indie/punk scene there.

In the 1990s, between fieldtrips in Hebei, I enjoyed visits to a little hutong in Xinjiekou for the weekly gatherings at the house of the late great Qian Yadong 钱亚东 (right, in 1995—then aged 85!).

Jixian chengyun

Sihu, pipa and sanxian players (the latter blind—long rare at such gatherings) at Qian Yadong’s house, 1995.

Belated recordings
With the renewed vigour of the 1980s, the Central Conservatoire in Beijing organized students to perform the suites on the basis of the 1950s’ transnotations, consulting Aisin Gioro Yuhuan and Cao Anhe.

I’ve given some instances of the aesthetic gulf between folk and conservatoire, and here’s another. While well-intentioned, these reified conservatoire recordings can hardly capture the more traditional mood of the earlier masters. Of course, young conservatoire students were not only learning from prescriptive modern notation, but belonged to another aesthetic world to that of the itinerant blind performers and the Qing nobility—and even to that of their own conservatoire teachers, many of whom (including masters like Yang Yinliu, Cao Anhe, Yang Dajun, Cao Zheng) had been brought up in a traditional aesthetic. Even the instruments, and their strings, would have been different.

You can find the conservatoire recordings in a YouTube playlist from David Badagnini (note also the Chinese documentary to which he refers):

So just like my own humble rendition of Bach on the erhu,

After intensive research on Qing-dynasty performance practice, I can now say with some certainty that…  it wouldn’t have sounded like this.

We can get more of a flavour of a convincing style for “suite plucking” from early recordings of narrative-singing in old Beijing. And thanks to Yuan Jingfang I learn of a 1950s’ recording of (a variant of) the “plucking suites” piece Hehuan ling 合歡令 on sanxian by none other than Pu Xuezhai (see above)! Indeed, whereas Pu quite Correctly regarded the qin as merely part of the whole “qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting” amateur literati culture, he seems to have been more adept as a sanxian player. Gratifyingly, the recording has been reissued:

* * *

Such genres in China, largely performed by amateurs for entertainment, are commonly grouped under the umbrella term of “silk-and-bamboo” (sizhu). Some are mainly for instrumental ensemble (as in Shanghai or Chaozhou); in others (such as the nanyin of south Fujian) the ensemble mainly accompanies a solo singer, and genres may be classified under narrative-singing. They are often linked to a literate elite background, later becoming popular among ordinary people.

These groups have survived well along the southeastern coast. Nanyin continues to enjoy wide popularity, not just in the main urban centres like Quanzhou and Xiamen but throughout the surrounding countryside. Some genres are nationally renowned, and a common topic of music scholars; but my reading of the fine ethnographic reports around the region suggests that they are only a minor part of expressive culture there—with Daoists and mediums, opera troupes and puppeteers, shawm bands and percussion ensembles dominating the rich ritual culture of the area. Many more genres, little-known outside their catchment area, can be found in the instrumental and narrative-singing volumes, by province, of the Anthology (see e.g. the “silk-strings” of Wugang in Hunan, mentioned in my “Reading between the lines”, pp.327–8).

In the north, most string ensembles with substantial separate repertoires seem to have declined since the 1950s, suffering from a decline in both recreational activities and patronage. As for the south, I introduced some groups briefly in my Folk music of China, and again you can pursue them further in the Anthology—such as in Chengde northeast of Beijing; various types of Shifan 十番 ensemble; Henan bantou 板頭 and Shandong peng baban 碰八板 repertoires. And in ch.12 of my 2009 book Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei I introduced the “little pieces” of Yulin city—amateur groups that survived Maoism but became moribund since the reforms, with the kiss of death bestowed by the reforming zeal of cultural officials.

The question remains, why amateur folk activity in those chamber genres along the southeastern coast has remained strong through the Maoist and reform eras, with a spectrum of traditional and official styles, whereas in the north most amateur string ensembles seem to have become musical casualties of the revolution.

* * *

So while a narrow musicological approach tends to encourage reification, the study of “suite plucking” should lead us to the cultures of late imperial Beijing, both folk and elite; and to the voluminous sources on the whole history of vocal music.

What such research doesn’t spell out is that entertainment has moved on: the social milieu in which the plucking suites were performed before 1911 has long ceased to exist. The current Beijing elites no longer play along with itinerant blind musicians! Of course, the 1980s’ project on the suites was not seeking to reinvigorate them as a form of social life; they came to form part of the nostalgic re-imagining of the imperial past, quite removed from society. So this yet again confirms my reservations about recreating early music for genres whose performing traditions have been lost. As with any musicking worldwide (including WAM, such as Bach or Haydn), we need to study changing performance practice in social context, and reception history.

Ritual activity, however, persists in China. The rosy reification of imperial culture may distract us from the ethnography of groups that have remained active through the tribulations of the 20th century, and from the enduring importance of living soundscapes as part of changing social activity.

Lastly, even where we can distinguish between folk and elite cultures, there is nothing “superior” about the latter, either in China or elsewhere!


[1] Here I’ve expanded modestly on my brief introduction in Folk music of China, pp.208–12.

[2] Cao Anhe and Jian Qihua give Qianlong–Jiaqing eras, but Zhang Weidong’s later dates of Daoguang–Xianfeng (1820–61) seem more reliable.

[3] Ling Qizhen (1911–84) was a qin player, originally from Shanghai, later professor at the Shenyang Conservatoire, where he founded the Liaoning qin research association. One day I’ll write about his useful 1958 article on “Buddhist music” there.

Berlioz and the not-so-mystic East


The unflattering views on Chinese music expressed by Berlioz have been much cited. He may have been an iconoclast within his own culture, but it would be asking too much to expect his horizons to transcend the limited aesthetics of his day.

In The Cambridge companion to Ravel, Robert Orledge cites Berlioz’s comments on hearing Chinese musicians at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London in 1851—only a few years after the Opium Wars:

The melody, which was altogether grotesque and atrocious, finished on the tonic, like our most undistinguished sentimental songs [!]; it never moved out of the original tonality or mode. […] Nevertheless, the ludicrous melody was quite discernible, and one could have written it down in case of real need [!].

And as Orledge comments, his conclusion, after listening to a wider range of exotic musicians, was that

Chinese and Indian music would be similar to ours if it existed [WTF]; but that, musically speaking, these nations are still plunged in a state of benighted barbarianism and childish ignorance where only a few vague and feeble instincts are dimly discernible; that, moreover, the Orientals call music what we should style cacophony, and that for them, as for Macbeth’s witches, foul is fair.

Another passage has been translated thus:

As for the Chinaman’s voice, I have never heard anything so strange in my life—hideous snorts, and groans, very much like the sounds dogs make, when they wake up, stretch their paws and yawn with an effort.


More sympathetic is this report from the Illustrated London News:

A PLEASING addition has been made to the Chinese Collection, consisting of a Chinese Lady, named Pwan-ye-Koo, with small lotus-feet only 2½ inches in length, a Chinese professor of music, his two children (a boy and a girl), the femme de chambre of the lady, and an interpreter. The children are gay, lively, and intelligent, the lady herself agreeable and interesting, and the gentleman civil and obliging. A Chinese concert forms part of the entertainment: the lady Pwan-ye-Koo singing a Chinese air or two, accompanied by the professor, who likewise treats the public with an exhibition of his vocal powers. The group is one that has much to commend it: it is picturesque and peculiar, and presents an image in high relief of the native manners of a Chinese family. The conduct of the domestic blended the humble and the familiar in a significant manner; and there was an air of freedom, and a sense of mutual obligation manifested in the whole party, calculated to make a favourable impression on the spectator.

They even had an audience with Queen Victoria at her summer retreat of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

Still, if we read the full passage, Berlioz did at least make an effort. Further to A French letter, here’s some more language practice [sections between asterisks translated above]:

A propos de cantatrice, j’ai enfin satisfait le désir que j’avais d’entendre la fameuse Chinoise, the small-footed lady (la dame au petit pied), comme l’appelaient les affiches et les réclames anglaises. L’intérêt de cette audition était pour moi dans la question relative aux divisions de la gamme et à la tonalité des Chinois. Je voulais savoir si, comme tant de gens l’on dit et écrit, elles sont différentes des nôtres. Or, d’après l’expérience assez concluante que je viens de faire, selon moi, il n’en est rien. Voici ce que j’ai entendu. La famille chinoise, composée de deux femmes, deux hommes et deux enfans, était assise immobile sur un petit théâtre dans le salon de la Chinese house, à Albert gate. La séance s’est ouverte par une chanson en dix ou douze couplets, chantée par le maître de musique, avec accompagnement d’un petit instrument à quatre cordes de métal, du genre de nos guitares, et dont il jouait avec un bout de cuir ou de bois, remplaçant le bec de plumes dont on se sert en Europe pour attaquer les cordes de la mandoline. Le manche de l’instrument est divisé en compartimens, marqués par des sillets de plus en plus rapprochés au fur et à mesure qu’ils se rapprochent de la caisse sonore, absolument comme le manche de nos guitares. L’un des derniers sillets, par l’inhabileté du facteur, a été mal posé, et donne un son un peu trop haut, toujours comme sur nos guitares quand elles sont mal faites. Mais cette division n’en produit pas moins des résultats entièrement conformes à ceux de notre gamme. Quant à l’union du chant et de l’accompagnement, elle est de telle nature, qu’on en doit conclure que ce Chinois-là du moins n’a pas la plus légère idée de l’harmonie. *L’air (grotesque et abominable de tout point) finit sur la tonique, ainsi que la plus vulgaire de nos romances, et ne module pas, c’est-à-dire (car ce mot est généralement mal compris des personnes qui ne savent pas la musique) ne sort pas de la tonalité ni du mode indiqués dès le commencement.* L’accompagnement consiste en un dessin rhythmique assez vif et toujours le même, exécuté par la mandoline, et qui s’accorde fort peu ou pas du tout avec les notes de la voix. Le plus atroce de la chose, c’est que la jeune femme (la [small-]footed lady), pour accroître le charme de cet étrange concert, et sans tenir compte le moins du monde de ce que fait entendre son savant maître, s’obstine à gratter avec ses ongles les cordes d’un autre instrument de la même nature, mais au manche plus long, sans jouer quoi que ce soit de mélodieux ou d’harmonieux. Elle imite ainsi un enfant qui, placé dans un salon où l’on exécute un morceau de musique, s’amuserait à frapper à tort et à travers sur le clavier d’un piano sans en savoir jouer. C’est, en un mot, une chanson accompagnée d’un petit charivari instrumental. Pour la voix du chanteur, rien d’aussi étrange n’avait encore frappé mon oreille: *figurez-vous des notes nasales, gutturales, gémissantes, hideuses, que je comparerai, sans trop d’exagération, aux sons que laissent échapper les chiens quand, après un long sommeil, ils bâillent avec effort en étendant leurs membres.* Néanmoins, la burlesque mélodie était fort perceptible, et je porterai un jour du papier réglé chez les Chinois pour la noter et en enrichir votre album. Telle était la première partie du concert.

A la seconde, les rôles ont été intervertis ; la jeune femme a chanté, et son maître l’a accompagnée sur la flûte. Cette fois l’accompagnement ne produisait aucune discordance; la flûte suivait la voix à l’unisson tout simplement. Cette flûte, à peu près semblable à la nôtre, n’en diffère que par sa plus grande longueur, par son bout supérieur qui reste ouvert, et par l’embouchure qui se trouve percée à peu près vers le milieu du tube, au lieu d’être située, comme chez nous, vers le haut de l’instrument. Du reste, le son en est assez doux, passablement juste, c’est-à-dire passablement faux, et l’exécutant n’a rien fait entendre qui n’appartînt entièrement au système tonal et à la gamme que nous employons. La jeune femme est douée d’une voix céleste, si on la compare à celle de son maître. C’est un mezzo soprano, assez semblable par le timbre au contralto d’un jeune garçon dont l’âge approche de l’adolescence et dont la voix va muer. Elle chante assez bien, toujours comparativement. On croit entendre une de nos cuisinières de province chantant: «Pierre! mon ami Pierre», en lavant sa vaisselle. Sa mélodie, dont la tonalité est bien déterminée, je le répète, et ne contient ni quarts ni demi-quarts de ton, mais les plus simples de nos successions diatoniques, est un peu moins extravagante que la romance du chanteur. C’est tellement tricornu néanmoins, d’un rhythme si insaisissable par son étrangeté, qu’elle me donnera sans doute beaucoup de peine à la fixer exactement sur le papier pour vous en faire hommage. Mais j’y mettrai le temps, et, en profitant bien des leçons que me donnera le chien d’un boulanger voisin de ma demeure, je veux, à mon retour à Paris, vous régaler d’un concert chinois de premier ordre. Bien entendu que je ne prends point cette exhibition pour un exemple de l’état réel du chant dans l’Empire Céleste, malgré la qualité de la jeune femme, qualité des plus excellentes, à en croire l’orateur directeur de la troupe, parlant passablement l’anglais. Les dames de qualité de Canton ou de Pékin, qui se contentent de chanter chez elles et ne viennent point chez nous se montrer en public pour un shilling, doivent, je le suppose, être supérieures à celle-ci presque autant que Mme la comtesse Rossi est supérieure à nos Esmeralda de carrefours.

D’autant plus que la jeune lady n’est peut-être point si small-footed qu’elle veut bien le faire croire, et que son pied, marque distinctive des femmes des hautes classes, pourrait bien être un pied naturel, très plébéien, à en juger par le soin qu’elle mettait à n’en laisser voir que la pointe.

Mais je penche fort à regarder cette épreuve comme décisive en ce qui concerne la division de la gamme et le sentiment de la tonalité chez les Orientaux. Je croirai, seulement quand je l’aurai entendu, que des êtres humains puissent, sur une gamme divisée par quarts de ton, produire autre chose que des gémissemens dignes des concerts nocturnes des chats amoureux. Les Arabes y sont parvenus, au dire de quelques savans; ils ont pour cet art inqualifiable une théorie complète. Je parie que les savans qui ont écrit ces belles choses ne savent rien de notre musique, ou du moins n’en ont qu’un sentiment confus et peu développé. Que la théorie des Arabes existe, cela est fort possible, mais elle n’ôte rien à l’horreur de ce qu’ils font en la mettant en pratique.

La musique des Indiens de l’Orient doit fort peu différer de celle des Chinois, si l’on en juge par les instrumens envoyés par l’Inde à l’Exposition universelle de Londres. Cette collection se compose, 10 d’un grand nombre de mandolines à quatre et à trois cordes, quelques unes même n’en ont qu’une; leur manche est divisé par des sillets comme chez les Chinois; les unes sont de petite dimension, d’autres ont une longueur démesurée; 2d’une multitude de gros et de petits tambours en forme de tonnelets, et dont le son ressemble à celui qu’on produit en frappant avec les doigts sur la calotte d’un chapeau; 30 d’un instrument à vent à anche double, de l’espèce de nos hautbois; 40 de flûtes traversières exactement semblables à celles du musicien chinois; 50 d’une trompette énorme et grossièrement exécutée sur un patron qui n’offre avec celui des trompettes européennes que d’insignifiantes différences; 60 de plusieurs petits instrumens à archet, dont le son aigre et faible doit rappeler les petits violons de sapin qu’on fait chez nous pour les enfans; 70 d’une espèce de tympanon dont les cordes tendues sur une longue caisse paraissent devoir être frappées par des baguettes; 80 d’une petite harpe à dix ou douze cordes, assez semblables aux harpes thébaines dont les bas-reliefs égyptiens nous ont fait connaître la forme, et enfin d’une grande roue chargée de gongs ou tamtams de petites dimensions, dont le bruit, quand elle est mise en mouvement, a le même charme que celui des gros grelots attachés sur le cou et la tête des chevaux de routiers. Je conclus, pour finir, que *les Chinois et les Indiens auraient une musique semblable à la nôtre, s’ils en avaient une; mais qu’ils sont encore à cet égard plongés dans les ténèbres les plus profondes de la barbarie ou dans une ignorance enfantine où se décèlent à peine quelques vagues et impuissans instincts.*

Hee Sing

Detail: Hee Sing.

Also part of the Great Exhibition was a Chinese junk moored on the Thames—occasion for the curious case of the “fake Chinese mandarin” Hee Sing, who appears in a painting depicting the retinue of the royal family. In Berlioz’s Les soirées de l’orchestre (21st evening, including a variant of the above) he was even more underwhelmed by the soirées musicales et dansantes given onboard by the sailors:

Maintenant écoutez, messieurs, la description des soirées musicales et dansantes que donnent les matelots chinois sur la jonque qu’ils ont amenée dans la Tamise; et croyez-moi si vous le pouvez.

Ici, après le premier mouvement d’horreur dont on ne peut se défendre, l’hilarité vous gagne, et il faut rire, mais rire à se tordre, à en perdre le sens. J’ai vu les dames anglaises finir par tomber pâmées sur le pont du navire céleste ; telle est la force irrésistible de cet art oriental. L’orchestre se compose d’un grand tam-tam, d’un petit tam-tam, d’une paire de cymbales, d’une espèce de calotte de bois ou de grande sébile placée sur un trépied et que l’on frappe avec deux baguettes, d’un instrument à vent assez semblable à une noix de coco, dans lequel on souffle tout simplement, et qui fait : Hou ! hou ! en hurlant ; et enfin d’un violon chinois. Mais quel violon ! C’est un tube de gros bambou long de six pouces, dans lequel est planté une tige de bois très-mince et long d’un pied et demi à peu près, de manière à figurer assez bien un marteau creux dont le manche serait fiché près de la tête du maillet au lieu de l’être au milieu de sa masse. Deux fines cordes de soie sont tendues, n’importe comment, du bout supérieur du manche à la tête du maillet. Entre ces deux cordes, légèrement tordues l’une sur l’autre, passent les crins d’un fabuleux archet qui est ainsi forcé, quand on le pousse ou le tire, de faire vibrer les deux cordes à la fois [sic]. Ces deux cordes sont discordantes entre elles, et le son qui en résulte est affreux. Néanmoins, le Paganini chinois, avec un sérieux digne du succès qu’il obtient, tenant son instrument appuyé sur le genou, emploie les doigts de la main gauche sur le haut de la double corde à en varier les intonations, ainsi que cela se pratique pour jouer du violoncelle, mais sans observer toutefois aucune division relative aux tons, demi-tons, ou à quelque intervalle que ce soit. Il produit ainsi une série continue de grincements, de miaulements faibles, qui donnent l’idée des vagissements de l’enfant nouveau-né d’une goule et d’un vampire.

Dans les tutti, le charivari des tam-tams, des cymbales, du violon et de la noix de coco est plus ou moins furieux, selon que l’homme à la sébile (qui du reste ferait un excellent timbalier), accélère ou ralentit le roulement de ses baguettes sur la calotte de bois. Quelquefois même, à un signe de ce virtuose remplissant à la fois les fonctions de chef d’orchestre, de timbalier et de chanteur, l’orchestre s’arrête un instant, et, après un court silence, frappe bien d’aplomb un seul coup. Le violon seul vagit toujours. Le chant passe successivement du chef d’orchestre à l’un de ses musiciens, en forme de dialogue; ces deux hommes employant la voix de tête, entremêlée de quelques notes de la voix de poitrine ou plutôt de la voix d’estomac, semblent réciter quelque légende célèbre de leur pays. Peut-être chantent-ils un hymne à leur dieu Bouddah, d’ont la statue aux quatorze bras orne l’intérieur de la grand’chambre du navire.

Je n’essaierai pas de vous dépeindre ces cris de chacal, ces râles d’agonisant, ces gloussements de dindon, au milieu lesquels malgré mon extrême attention, il ne m’a été possible de découvrir que quatre notes appréciables (ré, mi, si, sol). Je dirai seulement qu’il faut reconnaître la supériorité de la small-footed Lady et de son maître de musique. Evidemment les chanteurs de la maison chinoise sont des artistes, et ceux de la jonque ne sont que des mauvais amateurs. Quant à la danse de ces hommes étranges, elle est digne de leur musique. Jamais d’aussi hideuses contorsions n’avaient frappé mes regards. On croit voir une troupe de diables se tordant, grimaçant, bondissant, au sifflement de tous les reptiles, au mugissement de tous les monstres, au fracas métallique de tous les tridents et de toutes les chaudières de l’enfer… On me persuadera difficilement que le peuple chinois ne soit pas fou…
[For a fine English version, see Berlioz, translated Barzun, Evenings with the orchestra (Chicago, 1956/1999 edition), pp.246–250.]

Here the Illustrated London News acquits itself no better:

At the evening performance the queer old craft is lighted up with festoons of coloured lamps—a sort of miniature [missing] hall, and in the midst stands an open orchestra, in which four or five instrumentalists (“barbarians,” not Chinese) prepare the ear for the extraordinary combination of sounds which is to follow. Nothing can exceed the gravity of the “celestials,” as they take their position in the midst of the assembly on the main-deck, and proceed to fright the ear with gong and drum, and cymbal and agonizing cat-gut: the leader beating time with a stake upon a sort of tin saucepan-lid supported on three legs. Then the vocalization! The extraordinary squeaking duet, half plaintive, half comic, between the said leader (who is a sort of Costa and Mario rolled into one) and a younger aspirant in the background—what can possibly exceed its harrowing and ludicrous effect? Nothing except that impromptu feline discourse which we sometimes hear on house-tops at the dead of night.

The concert being concluded amidst the breathless silence of an astonished auditory, the war demonstrations and feats of arms then commence and these are certainly no less extraordinary than what has gone before. The first set consists of a set of grotesque posturing, in which the performers disport themselves severely one after the other, each succeeding one striving to outdo the other in the wildness and extravagance of his gesture—flying and leaping round the deck, thrusting out the arms right and left, threatening, retreating, &c. the musicians all the time keep up a terrific clang.

Next come a series of somewhat similar performances with long poles or lances, this scene closing with a set-to between two performers, which we have endeavored to embody in our engraving. Swords are also introduced and brandished about in the same manner, which, if intended to give any idea of the military science of the Chinese, shows them to be very far behind any other known nation in the world in that respect. One young hero, in the course of his “war demonstrations,” afforded great amusement every now and then, particularly after some very startling efforts at cut and thrust, by throwing himself down, and turning a somersault over his shield. When we left, the “barbarian” orchestra was about to strike up again, and dancing, it was said, was about to commence, but we did not wait for it.

For a recent French recreation, see here. Indeed, both the family and the junk had already appeared for P.T. Barnum’s Chinese museum: see Krystyn R. Moon, Yellowface: creating the Chinese in American popular music and performance, 1850s–1920s (2005), pp.62–6. For another portrait of the family, see here.

Berlioz 1851

Hector’s Napoleon impression always brought the house down.

Among composers, a broader view of musicking worldwide would have to wait for figures such as Bartók. Still, even today views like those of Berlioz remain far from obsolete. So much for music as a universal language.

* * *

Ironically, in reviews by Berlioz’s contemporaries of his own new works he was hoist on his own petard—using rather similar vocabulary, as if taking revenge on behalf of the Chinese. Here are just a few among an embarras de richesse, cited in Slominsky’s wonderful Lexicon of musical invective, pp.57–61:


His rare melodies are deprived of meter and rhythm; and his harmony, a bizare assemblage of sounds, not easily blended, does not always merit the name. I believe that what M. Berlioz writes does not belong to the art which I cusomarily regard as music, and I have the complete certainty that he lacks the prerequisites of this art.

Berlioz, musically speaking, is a lunatic; a classical composer only in Paris, the great city of quacks. His music is simply and undisguisedly nonsense.

M. Berlioz is utterly incapable of producing a complete phrase of any kind. When, on rare occasions, some glimpse of a tiune makes its appearance, it is cut off at the edges and twisted about in so unusual and unnatural a fashion as to give one the idea of a mangled and mutilated body, rather than a thing of fair proportions. Moreover, the little tune that seems to exist in M. Berlioz is of so decidely vulgar a character as to exclude the possibility of our supposing him possessed of a shadow of feeling.

I can compare Le Carneval romain by Berlioz to nothing but the caperings and gibberings of a big baboon, over-excited by a dose of alcoholic stimulus.

Dragging the icon to the trash, eh. For some Messiaen reviews that escaped Slonimsky, see here; and for astounding Saint-Saëns on the violon chinois, here.

For Berlioz’s prophetic word-painting of a 1960s’ curry-house menu, cliquez ici; and for his evocation of furniture removal, ici.

And for Mahler’s vision of the mystic East, see here.

Robert van Gulik


Van Gulik

Robert van Gulik (Chinese name Gao Luopei 高羅佩, 1910–67)—“diplomat, Asian scholar, calligrapher, polyglot, polymath, passionate lover of life in all its forms”—is perhaps best known for his Judge Dee detective novels set in the Tang dynasty and his writings on the qin zither, as well as on imperial Chinese painting and erotica.

A 1995 biography, now translated into English,

  • C. D. Barkman and H. de Vries-van der Hoeven, Dutch mandarin: the life and work of Robert Hans van Gulik (2018)

makes a fascinating read, at once sympathetic and dispassionate, and covering not just China and Japan but the many cultures where Van Gulik was posted during turbulent times.

And at a recent conference on the qin at SOAS, convened by the enthusiastic London Youlan qin society, I was glad to see the 2016 film

in the presence of Van Gulik’s granddaughter Marie-Anne Souloumiac. It’s far from a biopic, more a free-ranging fantasy—somewhat as imperial China was for Van Gulik and others like Arthur Waley. Here they introduce the film:

Indeed, Van Gulik was only able to make stays in China from 1936 to 1946. While his interests were broad, his character affable, and his lifestyle tactfully bohemian, he immersed himself deeply in the role of an imperial mandarin. For all his hedonism, his writings are full of meditations on impermanence.

Early life
With his parents, Van Gulik’s early life was spent mostly in Dutch East Indies. As he recalled:

Father’s main orderly and groom was a Javanese sergeant who was a lover of the wayang, the ancient Javanese shadow-play. The puppets he had hung on the wall of his room caught my fancy at once (these stylized puppets constitute as a matter of fact one of the finest expressions of Javanese artistic genius) and prompted by me he began to relate to me the stories enacted on the shadow stage. The wayang thus became the dominating passion of my childhood. My parents knew that I expected no other birthday present than a new wayang puppet, and I built up a small collection of the main characters, with which I gave performances against a bedsheet hung across the room, and under the guidance of the Javanese groom.

So precocious was the young Robert that he wrote a substantial essay on wayang in 1921, aged 11! He also attended performances at village feasts, and (like Wang Shixiang in Beijing) enjoyed martial arts, kite-flying, and football.

I can’t help thinking of the accident of birth: what a contrast Van Gulik’s blessed life makes with his Chinese peasant contemporaries like household Daoist Li Peisen—who himself was luckier than most.

Back in Holland, while Van Gulik’s interests turned towards Chinese culture, he became familiar with an array of languages—even including Blackfoot (in whose music Bruno Nettl would also specialize). Still,

Although I had a certain facility for learning languages, my aim in doing so was primarily to come to know more about the people who used these languages, and not to become an accomplished philologue.

Studying Chinese and Japanese at the universities of Leiden and later Utrecht, Van Gulik also added Tibetan and Russian to his repertoire, continuing his studies of Sanskrit. At first the reader may find all this rather overwhelming—as with other prodigies of that generation like Laurence Picken’s mentor Walter Simon, or Harold Bailey at Cambridge.

With his family background, Van Gulik now naturally gravitated towards the Foreign Service, serving as diplomat first in Japan (1935–42) and then China (1943–46)—with a typically picaresque interlude as a secret agent in east Africa.

His first experience of China was a week-long stop-off in Harbin on his train journey towards Tokyo—just around the time that journalist Gareth Jones was murdered by “bandits” in Manchukuo. Though the book’s authors go on to refine it somewhat, van Gulik’s description encapsulates the shock of the idealistic scholar:

Harbin shocked and baffled me. It was the most dismal city in the dismal puppet-city of Manchukuo. I felt completely at a loss, also because my Chinese, Russian, and Japanese colloquial knowledge proved sadly inadequate [YAY!—SJ]. In the cavernous Hotel Modern where I was staying, suave Soviet officers (then still attached to the Chinese Eastern Railway) rubbed shoulders with grim-looking Japanese agents, in the squalid streets Chinese hooligans brawled with pauperized poor White Russians, under the indifferent eyes of slovenly clad, insolent Chinese soldiers, and smartly turned-out, contemptuous Japanese military police; the bars were crowded by blowzy Russian prostitutes, and the noisy Chinese women in the shops and in the streets were drab and ugly. Everywhere one was met with hostility and suspicion. Where were the refined Chinese scholars, writing poetry in their elegant miniature gardens, where their dainty damsels? It was a terrible disillusion.

His confusion continued on arriving in Tokyo. But amidst his busy hedonistic life there, as his spoken Japanese improved, he also took lessons in Chinese; and “every so often he would learn another language (Mongolian, Hindi, Korean)”. Perhaps we can derive very slight consolation from comments that even in later life his spoken Chinese accent was less than perfect. And I note with a certain pride that we can add Van Gulik to the list of Famous People with a Slight Speech Impediment.

Early encounters with the qin
On his first visit to Beijing in September 1936 Van Gulik purchased an antique qin zither, taking lessons with Ye Shimeng. Back in Tokyo he found another Chinese qin player to instruct him further.

Much of the repute of the qin zither outside China may be attributed to Van Gulik’s publications (even if he called it a lute, for which organologists tend to forgive him!). His two books on the “lute” were completed as early as 1940—when he still had very little practical experience of the qin community.

John Thompson, whose amazing website remains basic to qin studies, has an instructive page on Van Gulik. Indeed, John has a cameo in Rob Rombout’s film. I describe my own ambivalent relationship with the qin here.

Van Gulik’s diplomatic work in Tokyo had become even harder after the Japanese launched their full-scale invasion of China in 1937, and then in 1940 with the German occupation of Holland. He intervened to forestall an anti-semitic move in Japan—back in Holland, his brother would help Jews to escape.

In summer 1939 he was able to pursue his sinological interests in Shanghai. But in 1940 he lost his entire collection of books, paintings, and objets d’art after sending them to Batavia for safe-keeping. Like Li Shiyu and his collection of precious scrolls, he simply began again.

On a trip to Beijing in December that year, his first qin master Ye Shimeng having died in 1937, he pursued his tuition with Guan Zhonghang.

His diplomatic work became ever more urgent with the spread of the war to Indochina and the attack on Pearl Harbor. He wrote a detailed report on extreme nationalist parties in Japan. A fortnight after the surrender of Dutch East Indies, Van Gulik still managed to order qin strings from Beijing (indeed, as a baroque fiddler, strings are a topic that I take to heart). In July 1942 the legation was evacuated, sailing to Portuguese east Africa. There, apart from his energetic undercover activities, he began to learn Swahili and Arabic while continuing his library studies. Travelling widely, he found the experience (and, as ever, the women) enchanting. Meanwhile the tide in north Africa turned in favour of the Allies.

Chongqing 1943–46
With much of the heartland of China now occupied by the Japanese, intellectuals and artists flocked to Chongqing, stronghold of the Nationalists in their uneasy truce with the Communist forces based in Yan’an in Shaanbei further north. Van Gulik was now to take up a post as first secretary to the embassy in Chongqing. On his tortuous journey by way of Delhi in 1943, he became acquainted with the great Joseph Needham, then working for the British Embassy.

In between taking shelter from bombing raids, he took part keenly in the activities of the Tianfeng qin society, and sometimes played Chinese chess with the mystically-inclined John Blofeld. He met Shui Shifang, who soon became his wife; they went on to have four children.

My mentor Laurence Picken described his own first visit to China in 1944 (CHIME journal, 1991):

The very evening I arrived in Chongqing, Van Gulik and his wife had arranged a dinner-party for a number of Chinese musicians, the Needhams and myself. Liang Tsai-ping, Zha Fuxi, and Xu Yuanbai were all present…

Gulik qin Engrave and seal croppedLaurence too was immediately captivated by the sound of the qin:

There was no music like it! I bought a qin, made under the supervision of Xu Yuanbai, and began to take lessons. I played guqin every day. In England, I had always enjoyed a daily ration of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues; I felt it no loss practicing guqin instead.

Laurence also became a member of the Chongqing qin society, and bought a qin, made in 1935 by Li Shaotang under the supervision of Xu Yuanbai. He asked Van Gulik to stamp his seal on the back.

I’m honoured that Laurence bequeathed this qin to me.

And do read the CHIME story of how Van Gulik made Laurence “a sort of emissary” when he visited Pei Tiexia—and his two Tang-dynasty instruments!—in Chengdu. For an account of the tragic fates of Pei Tiexia and Pu Xuezhai, see here.

Aftermath of occupation
Van Gulik’s insights into the wartime situation in China were tempered by a colonial desire to restore Dutch power in the East Indies. And he made no efforts to engage in covert diplomacy with the Communists. He learned of the Japanese surrender while on a plane to the USA for meetings with the embassy and the State Department, and once there he advised strongly against the removal of the emperor. During his month-long trip he found time to visit libraries and museums, and to confer with scholars.

Talking of the USA, another fine contributor to Rob Rombout’s film is the New York antiquarian bookseller and litterateur Henry Wessells, also a Van Gulik aficionado (for his tribute, see here). In the film he reads from his novel A funeral procession, which features a fantasy Van Gulik—reminding me of the cortège Mahler heard in New York that inspired him to write the finale of his 10th symphony.

As the Dutch embassy relocated from Chongqing to Nanjing in 1946, Van Gulik was recalled to the Netherlands. But first he paid another visit to Beijing, at last meeting his distinguished father-in-law, as well as qin master Guan Pinghu.

An Shilin 1946

There he also visited An Shilin, errant abbot of the White Cloud Temple—shortly before irate priests burned him to death on his return from performing a yankou ritual. [1] The character of An Shilin was to become the basis for The haunted monastery in Van Gulik’s Judge Dee series (see below).

In 1946 the Van Gulik family spent two weeks in England, visiting London, Oxford, and Cambridge.

Interlude: fate and nostalgia
Once again we come up against the 1949 barrier (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.371–4): alas, neither Van Gulik nor Picken were able to continue visiting China after “Liberation”. This, of course, was a common pattern among Western sinologists right until the 1980s’ reforms.

Van Gulik was unable to serve there since Western nations like the Netherlands had only chargés d’affaires in the new PRC, a post too high-ranking for his status; later in Kuala Lumpur he even declined the Chinese ambassador’s offer of a trip as guest of the government “because he had no wish to revisit China where so many of his best friends had perished.”

And Picken too demurred from attempting to visit, since “I didn’t want to return to a country where I couldn’t move about freely. Travelling would have been possible only on a sort of Intourist basis.” His belated return in 1990 followed an interval of fifty years.

Golden-age nostalgia is a chronic conceit, that has also recently become increasingly fashionable in China. Those gatherings in the 1940s, before the convulsive change of dynasty, are now adorned by a numinous patina.

For all the tribulations of elite culture under Maoism, both of them would have been deeply impressed by all the scholarly and performance activities of the qin fraternity through the 1950s, in Beijing and around Shanghai—many of whom they already knew, like Zha Fuxi, Guan Pinghu, Wang Mengshu, Pu Xuezhai, Xu Yuanbai. How they would have loved to take part in Zha Fuxi’s project in 1956, documenting qin players (and their instruments and scores) all over China!

One curious absentee from accounts of Van Gulik’s time in Chongqing is the incomparable Yang Yinliu, who was also active there at the time. With Yang’s deep erudition on Chinese music (both elite and folk, and both history and current practice), and his own studies of the qin, they would have got on splendidly. Indeed, like Picken, Yang had a qin made by Xu Yuanbai in 1935.

Yang Dajun

In Chongqing, Van Gulik and Picken had spent time with the pipa player and artist Yang Dajun (1913–87) (see herehere, and here). Van Gulik even repaired Yang’s pipa for him. Early on my first trip to China in 1986 I visited him in Beijing, at Laurence’s suggestion; but alas even if my language skills had been up to it, I was still too callow to ask him for details on his life before and after Liberation. But such slender silken threads bind us with the past…

Yang Dajun 1986

With Yang Dajun, Beijing 1986.

Long after Van Gulik’s visit to the ill-fated abbot An Shilin, in Beijing in the early 1990s I also visited the White Cloud Temple to consult the far more upright priest Min Zhiting—great authority on Daoist ritual, and also a qin player.

And now I succumb to nostalgia myself, recalling sessions in the 1980s with qin elders like Wu Jinglue, Wu Zhaoji, Lin Youren, and Yao Gongbai. Even today grand masters continue to assemble at qin gatherings.

One may also be nostalgic for the days of the Renaissance man (even the gendered term is quaintly outmoded) and the polymath orientalist. While such enthusiasts may still be found even in this age of dour professionalized academia, there remains a gulf between the classical sinologist and the modern ethnographer.

As Li Manshan observes at the end of our film, “things ain’t what they used to be” (今非昔比). Indeed, Old Lord Li decorates coffins with images of the qin (see film, from 18.46), although he (like most rural dwellers) has only seen it on TV in the last decade. And while very remote from Van Gulik’s refined taste for the amateur art of calligraphy, Li Manshan is always busy writing characters for ritual use (film, from 10.44).

Still pursuing this unlikely link, Van Gulik, like Li Manshan, was a chain-smoker. I’m amused to learn that, not entirely bound by Confucian taboos, he was wont to allow fag-ash to drop onto his precious antique qin—like my violin teacher Hugh Maguire onto his Strad, and Irish folk musicians.

After China
From 1946, as people worldwide recovered painfully from wartime devastation, Van Gulik embarked on to a succession of posts in The Hague, Washington DC, India, the Middle East, and Malaya, as well as more extended stays in Japan—his Chinese wife gradually overcoming her understandable reluctance to live there.

Thus after the age of 36 Van Gulik never returned to China. While he had relished life there, interacting with various types of people, his main passions (like many sinologists and indeed lovers of “high art”) were always antiquarian. Notwithstanding Nigel Barley’s caveat about “being accepted” (here, under “Rapport”), Van Gulik’s insider status has long been fêted both in China and Japan. Apart from important intelligence work, his formidable reputation allowed him to privilege his scholarly pursuits over routine diplomatic chores, his eccentric lifestyle largely tolerated by his superiors.

For all his keen insights into the situation on the ground, his political horizon was limited, as the book observes. With Communist victory imminent in China, he lamented that the USA had not helped Chiang Kai-shek attack them earlier, but commented that the conflict

is not one of ideological differences, it is actually the struggle for supremacy between two rival power groups, both shaped in the same totalitarian mold and both relying on the nationalist sentiments of the Chinese people. Communism in China is not a foreign doctrine to be imposed on the people by force, it links up with how the Chinese have lived for centuries.

He also observed,

Chinese culture is in the Chinese blood and will endure for as long as there are Chinese. Whatever they may say about Communism, it is not totally new in China. Earning money for money’s sake has always been regarded with the greatest contempt in China. Down the centuries, China has offered everyone equal chances, and the important industries have been state property.

Hmm. Discuss…

In Hong Kong, and later in Kuala Lumpur, he took part in gatherings with qin players. In India he pursued his studies of Tantrism. Back in Holland he renewed his affinity with wayang and gamelan, chatting with Jaap Kunst. He continued to enjoy visits to the cinema, and (like Mozart) playing billiards. In Kuala Lumpur he developed a passion for gibbons, keeping them as pets. He relished haiku and limericks.

Meanwhile in the West, oriental mysticism was coming into vogue, as people like Gary Snyder and Alan Watts began to spread the word.

Judge Dee
Most captivating are Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries, set in the Tang dynasty and based on the real character of Di Renjie. Rob Rombout’s film includes suitably naff scenes of the Judge Dee park in Taiyuan.

Van Gulik had taken an 18th-century Chinese novel about Di Renjie with him when the Dutch legation was evacuated from Tokyo in 1942, and set to work on translating it in Washington DC in 1947, publishing this first volume in 1949. He now embarked on a whole series of beautiful novels on Judge Dee’s exploits—some written during his time in Lebanon during the civil war.

Agatha Christie praised The Chinese maze murders, and the series became popular in translation in China. For more, see here; for an internal chronology and Judge Dee’s postings around China, here.

Naturally, since Judge Dee is Van Gulik’s alter ego, he makes him a qin player.

I’m not so sure that the State Department’s erstwhile choice of the novels as “the best possible introduction to the background to Chinese life” was entirely practical—though given my own early taste for Tang culture, I’m a fine one to talk. Anyway, for what it’s worth, soon after reaching China in 1986, inspired by Van Gulik and Picken I avidly began learning the qin; but my own interests transferred to living folk traditions of music and ritual. At first, still seeking vestiges of elite culture, my rural forays were driven by the Confucian concept of “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside“.

But as studies of China continued expanding in scope beyond classical sinology (political campaigns, famine, gender studies, migration, and so on), I was soon pursuing broader ethnographic (and modern) concerns, hanging out with household ritual specialists, spirit mediums, outcast shawm players, and vagrants. Hence my gradual estrangement from the tiny, rarefied world of the qin, despite my admiration for my mentors there like Yuan Quanyou and Lin Youren.

Towards the end of his life Van Gulik was planning keenly for cartoon and puppet versions of the Judge Dee stories. Rob Rombout’s film also features a vignette from Frédéric Lenormand, author of a further series of novels focusing on Judge Dee’s wives.

Art and erotica
Van Gulik’s later life was also devoted substantially to the study of imperial Chinese art and erotica. On the latter he published two major works, Erotic colour prints of the Ming period and Sexual life in ancient China.

He had carried out impressive practical research on the “arts of clouds and rain” during his bachelor days, notably in a succession of more or less transactional liaisons with female companions in Tokyo—hinting again that Philip Larkin may not have been entirely correct to claim that sexual intercourse was invented in 1963.

Quaintly, Van Gulik wrote the more explicit passages in Latin, as they were not intended “to be read by all and sundry”—although even he couldn’t devise a system to prevent the riff-raff from enjoying the illustrations. Diligently, he also documents the array of dildos available to the ancient Chinese, a theme probed further by Li Ling in the film.

Meanwhile his health was declining. Though ever keen to explore new cultures, his last years, apart from another stay in Japan (and Korea) from 1965 to 1967, were spent mainly in the Netherlands, where he succumbed to cancer, too young, aged 57.

* * *

What an extraordinary life. While making allowances for Van Gulik’s background and tastes, his story suggests tantalising perspectives on changing strands in sinology, and how the scholar or amateur might engage with, or withdraw from, the Real World—regarding ancient and modern China, and further afield.


With thanks to Marie-Anne Souloumiac and Cheng Yu


[1] For refs., see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.226; also e.g. Vincent Goossaert, The Taoists of Peking, pp. 259–301; herehere, and here.




More temple murals from Yanggao

Rear central hall rear wall west mural

As part of my work on the Li family Daoists (film, book, and unwieldy category), I’ve just added links to a wealth of images of temple murals (for Lower Liangyuan, Zhenmenbu, and Gushan) from the recent explorations of Hannibal Taubes around Yanggao, in my posts on

As to ritual paintings, see these posts on north Shanxi:

For the series of field reports from my recent trip to Yanggao, see links here.

And for Hebei, see

as well as many posts under

Spreading the net still wider, you might browse the art tag.

Meanwhile, do continue consulting Hannibal’s inexhaustible website!

On visiting a hermit


In the preface to my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China I updated an ancient topos:

The “search” of my title is partly inspired by a popular genre of Tang-dynasty poetry, wherein the poet embarks on an arduous climb in search of the abstruse wisdom of a mountain recluse—only he isn’t in. Typical Tang titles include “On seeking the hermit of West Mountain and not finding him” 尋西山隱者不遇 [English version here].

Now mountain recluses, with their archetypal long white beards, are definitely not the type of Daoist I am looking for here—”pacing the void” that is rural north China, my search is for ordinary peasants who perform rituals among the people; and the arduousness of the journey is more likely to entail getting stuck in endless traffic jams behind coal-lorries, and enduring banquets with cadres in unsightly modern county-towns apparently bereft of all tradition. So the concept still has a certain resonance; in the immortal words of Alan Bennett’s clergyman, “Some of us think life’s a little bit like that, don’t we?”

Talking of seeking Tang hermits, I think of Gary Snyder‘s translations of the Cold Mountain poems.

In a fine post on “the Facebook of the 7th century”, the splendidly named Randi Hacker sparks classroom engagement by introducing his students to Tang poems written by men who had come to visit other men who were not, alas, at home—status updates, indeed:

Some of the more convoluted and humorous titles of Tang occasional poems from the “Sorry to Have Missed You” category:

  • Going to Visit Censor Wang on My Day Off and Not Finding Him Home
  • Walking in the Hills and Looking for the Recluse, But Finding Him Not In
  • Spending the Night in Reverend Ye’s Mountain Chamber. I was expecting the senior Mr Ding, but he did not come
  • Answering the Poem Left by Mr Su, Nominally of the Bureau of Forestry, When He Stopped by My Villa at Lan-tian.

I love the “Nominally” in that last one. I might add my own yet-unpublished

  • On Visiting the Hunyuan Bureau of Culture, Only to Find a Bunch of Sozzled Apparatchiks who wouldn’t know what Culture was if it Bit them on the Bum.

This will also chime in with the intrepid explorations of Hannibal Taubes in search of decrepit village temples—often either locked, or their precious Ming-dynasty murals plundered or covered over in cement.

Then there are my own Tang pastiches, as well as Faqu 2 and Faqu tutu

At least on our recent fruitless search for the Dragon King temple in Jinjiazhuang we were compensated by a chat with the splendid hereditary yinyang Zhang Nan.

Armchair ethnography: Chiswick

Chiswick old map

Why bother traipsing halfway round the world to hang out in poor dusty Chinese villages, I hear you ask, when my home “village” of Chiswick offers such rich potental for local history?! OK, it’s not noted for its Daoist ritual; its cosy church fêtes can’t quite compete with the bustle of Chinese temple fairs; and doubtless any séances held there were rather different from those of the Yanggao spirit mediums—but still. For my culture shock on coming home, see here.

In that latter post I cite Nigel Barley‘s classic The innocent anthropologist, and talking of armchair ethnography, in a chapter bearing the fine title “Honi soit qui Malinowski” he has some wise words qualifying the demonology of missionaries:

It was something of a betrayal of anthropological principles even to be talking to missionaries: anthropologists have been obsessed with keeping themselves free of this taint since Malinowski, self-styled inventor of fieldwork, first issued his impassioned cry to the ethnographer to get off the mission veranda and go out into the villages. Still, I would be on my guard against the devil’s wiles and might save myself much time by talking to people who had actually lived in Dowayoland.

To my great surprise, I was received with much warmth. Far from being rampant cultural imperialists, I found the missionaries—except for one or two of the old school—to be extremely diffident about imposing their own views.

Evoking some fine work by missionaries in China such as Grootaers, he notes:

It was surprising how much work was being done on the local cultures and languages, translation work, pure linguistic research and attempts to adapt liturgy to local symbolic idiom; my own research would have been quite impossible without the mission’s support.

“Ethnomusicology at home” has an impressive tradition too: from Ruth Finnegan’s The hidden musicians (on the exotic musical rituals of the tribes of Milton Keynes) to wise analyses of WAM by Nettl, Kingsbury, and Cottrell, as well as Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the jungle.

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I’ve already noted the leaning pillarbox of Chiswick. The Chiswick timeline project provides fine material on the area’s changing topography with artwork and maps (albeit not by Artisan the Sixth or Li Manshan), also now adorning the archway by Turnham Green station. Would that such material were available for Li Manshan’s village of Upper Liangyuan! This is just the kind of community project that can be achieved in a bourgeois enclave, even as desperate families are being incinerated a mere stone’s throw away in North Kensington.

This advertisement from 1882 (“Annual death rate under 6 per thousand”) is particularly drôle, evoking flawed campaigns like that for Chumleys vinegar:

healthy Chiswick

“Come and live in Chiswick, your statistical chance of survival is relatively high”.


Peter Blake, Chiswick Empire Theatre, 2017. I hardly need point out the Sgt Pepper link.

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painting of pool

John Lavery (1856-1941), Chiswick Baths, 1929.

Even without getting onto Chiswick House, or Bedford Park and its fine architecture in the Dutch style, I’m intrigued to learn about the history of my regular swimming pool (see also here), the New Chiswick Pool—like the “old” and “new” musics of the Tang dynasty, and the stile nuovo of 17th-century Italian music, it was new when they chose the name. [1]

Chiswick Baths opened in Edensor road in 1910:

With their innovative architecture—including the double-decker changing cabins—and risqué mixed bathing sessions, this watery west London meeting place was a prototype for the classic art deco lidos, promoting freedom, frolicking and fun [a Chiswick variant on fado, football, and Fátima].

You can watch charming clips here, from 1924 and 1927 (“California hasn’t a monopoly of bathing belles or the latest in beach costumes”)—and many more on that site.

No matter what doom and gloom was going on elsewhere in the country [Phew–Ed.], the flighty, sprightly, bright young bathers of Chiswick’s “inland seaside” could be found embracing a sense of gay abandon.

Just as with Daoist ritual in Yanggao, it’s safe to say that Things ain’t what they used to be.

But by 1981, the council found the lido (as it had become known) too expensive to maintain, and it was closed, amidst considerable—if perhaps genteel—protest. Half of the site became home to the Moldovian Embassy (“Not a lot of people know that”), while by 1991 the New Chiswick Pool was opened on the other half.

So that’s the background of my regular swimming pool; it’s closed for repairs at the moment, so it’ll be even newer soon (with or without the gay abandon).

In case you haven’t spotted my fictional address at the foot of the home page, I rather like it:

Priory of the Azure Cloud Bottle* within the Belvedere of Tenuous Obscurity, Chiswick

*Azure Cloud Bottle: Bombay Sapphire


[1] See Picken and Nickson, Music from the Tang court 7, ch.3; for stile nuovo, among much analysis, I’m dead keen on Susan McClary, Feminine endings, ch.2.