Yet more heritage flapdoodle: Hongtong

Further fodder for my distaste of the heritage shtick—thanks again to Helen Rees, my Word on the Street, I’ve been reading an interesting article by Ziying You,

  • “Shifting actors and power relations: contentious local responses to the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in contemporary China”, Journal of folklore research 52.2/3 (2015).

Hongtong county, in south Shanxi, is always cropping up in studies of local culture in north China—notably since it was used as a huge migration transfer centre to areas further north and northeast that had been depopulated by the appalling dynastic warfare of the early Ming. Like many villages on the plain south of Beijing, Gaoluo, subject of my book Plucking the winds, is said to have been founded as a result of this migration; and Li Manshan’s lineage moved north to Yanggao just around this time. [1]

It’s a long time since we’ve featured The China Daily, so I’m delighted to cite a 2012 article here:

A step into Hongtong county in southern Shanxi province and I found myself transported into a land filled with fairy tales.

YAY! The paper hasn’t lost its old magic, then. It does provide a couple of charming pieces of folklore:

The Chinese term used today to mean “go to toilet” or jie shou is also linked to the legend.
The migrants had their hands tied behind their backs when they migrated. They were only allowed to untie their hands when they needed to relieve themselves. Jie shou, which literally means to untie the hands, gradually became the term used for “go to toilet”. The expression spread widely to the provinces where the Shanxi migrants were sent.

Another interesting tale on Hongtong involves a woman by the name of Su San in the Ming Dynasty, who became probably one of the most well-known prostitutes in Chinese history.
Su met young scholar Wang Jinglong at her brothel. The two fell in love and Wang stayed with Su for a whole year but was later chased out of the brothel because he ran out of money. Su was then sold to another man as concubine. She was framed for murdering the man, imprisoned and was sentenced to death.
Meanwhile, Wang who attempted the imperial examination, did well and was appointed governor of Shanxi. He heard about Su’s case and helped with the investigation to deliver her from death row.
The lovers eventually got married and as how all fairy tales end, they lived together happily ever after.
The story has been adapted as a Peking Opera play The Story of Su San (Yu Tang Chun) and became one of the best-known Peking Opera plays in China. Hongtong county where Su San was imprisoned became well-known through the play.
Although the original prison was severely damaged during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), the present one restored in 1984 retains all its original features. For example, there is a cave used for dead bodies, and a well with very small mouth to prevent prisoners from jumping in to kill themselves.
Su San’s story has brought fame to the prison, making it a must-see in Hongtong. Today the site is renamed as “Su San Prison”, and her story is presented by a series of wax statues within the site.

Damn, I’m trying to write about the ICH here… Led astray by The China Daily“typical!”

Anyway, Ziying You’s article concerns Hongtong as the site of an enduring cult to the ancient sage-kings Yao and Shun, in which several villages form a she parish, with temple fairs and processions. [2] For ICH purposes it is nominated as Hongtong zouqin xisu “the custom of visiting sacred relatives in Hongtong” [3] — and yes, sure enough the term “living fossil” rears its ugly head again. Though not currently on the UNESCO “Representative list” for the ICH, it has been inscribed on the provincial and then national lists since 2006. With typical official razzmatazz, local cultural cadres set up a “Hongtong Centre for the safeguarding of ICH”, niftily bypassing the temple committees which are the lifeblood of the whole tradition.

BTW, as at many such festivals, I see no signs here of liturgical sequences of ritual specialists—only large groups of gong-and-drum ensembles.

By contrast with the alacrity of cadres,

For most ordinary people, ICH was a foreign term remote from their knowledge and discourse.
[…]

Those who were mobilized to assist in the ICH application expected to receive a large amount of money from the central government to do whatever they wished within their local communities.

Not only has this expectation been unfulfilled—the Yangxie temple committee spent a substantial amount in the extended process of preparing the application. Moreover, the Centre, jockeying for favour with ICH bodies higher up the chain, monopolizes as-yet elusive state funding. And while the local conflicts between the villages did not originate with the ICH application, they were exacerbated in the process. Anyway, the temple committees, true “bearers of the heritage”, have been disempowered.

The ICH project thus became a means for the local ICH centre to exploit the local population and harvest the profits from the state.

Citing Chiara de Cesari, the author comments:

UNESCO frequently ends up reinforcing the power and reach of the nation-state and its bureaucracy, which is contradictory to its own principle of involving local communities and “grassroots”.

Yet again, the ICH machinery appears not to be safeguarding local cultures so much as safeguarding itself.

My encounters over the years with groups earmarked for ICH status—such as the village ritual associations of Qujiaying and Gaoluo, as well as the Li family Daoists—only confirm such findings. But the juggernaut rolls on.

As I write, Haitink’s recent Prom is on the radio, with the Prague symphony. No Mozart balls, just boundless energy and creativity!

 

[1] For the migrations to Yanggao, see Jing Ziru’s article in Yanggao wenshi ziliao 阳高文史资料 2: 216–228 and 206.
[2] Note also Anning Jing, The Water God’s Temple of the Guangsheng Monastery: Cosmic Function of Art, Ritual, and Theater (Brill, 2001)—albeit more historical iconography than contemporary ritual ethnography.
[3] These photos are among many from http://photo.xinzhou.org/2010/0717/picture_1826.html

We have ways of making you talk

I have already mentioned my encounter with a stammering shawm player in Shaanbei.

As a stammerer, I’m all for a good stammering joke. Now as a limerick this is no big deal:

But sung as a round, in the fine melody to which it was set, it can be brilliant, with its syncops and manic pile-ups of unconnected final words.

I say “can be”… It sounds great sung in the gentle polished affectionate tones of my Oxbridge chums, one to a part. But for us stammerers, the regimented impersonal nature of such a rendition by a large school choir may seem mesmerizingly traumatic. One imagines poor stammering schoolkids cowering red-eyed with fear in the corner, their anxious parents in the audience. Anyway, let’s just imagine it sung kindly with humour… As usual, it’s all about context, and the intentions of performers and audiences.

It’s easy for you to say that, Steve…

It’s well known that stammerers can sing fluently—indeed, most can do silly voices too, although that’s hardly a long-term solution. I note too that stammering is predominantly male; and that it is also common in Japan, another highly pressurized island culture.

“Stammer” or “stutter” is another instance of US/UK English variation.

For a more avant-garde take on stammering, see here.

And further to the collation of Daoist texts, a note on textual variation: some versions open “There was an old man from Calcutta”. Stammering tends to decline with age. One wonders whether the old man was an expat, or native to Calcutta; if the latter, his fondness for dairy products may be merely an Raj-esque affectation, or else it may indicate a predilection for paneer and ghee—but that would scupper the p-p-poem.

You’ll be glad to know that our encyclopaedic resident publication The China Daily covers stammering too:

Feng Kezhi, a 24-year-old garage worker, suffered stammering so much that he once stood in the pouring rain and kept slapping his face but this didn’t cure him. It was Wang’s clinic that brought back his confidence. “There are many people like Feng who need a helping hand and I must try my best to help them”, Wang said.

China presents a fine challenge for stammerers like me.  When the English are confronted by a ferocious bout of stammering, polite embarrassed sympathetic reactions are de rigueur—immortalized by the finely-observed scene in A Fish called Wanda:

Conversely, the Chinese just tend to burst out laughing, a nice honest response.

What’s more, whereas in England we fiendishly covert stammerers can usually get away with limiting our conversations to one or two people, in China one is rarely in a group of less than a dozen; so short of feigning dumbness or unconsciousness, it’s not really possible to avoid public talking. It’s rather good shock therapy: “We have ways of making you talk”—which was of course the motto of the S-S-Stammering Association (hence also the name SS). Progress is only possible once one begins to stammer openly.

It’s good to hear Ed Balls talking (openly, and fluently) about his stammer:

He joins the ranks of distinguished stammerers like Moses, Demosthenes, Wittgenstein, Marilyn Monroe, and Kylie Minogue. There’s another fantasy dinner party, hosted by Michael Palin—a notable advocate for stammering, and the greatest ambassador anyone could ever have for anything.

The excellent British Stammering Association used to run a cartoon series called Stammering Stan, which was somewhat controversial. But this will be evocative for stammerers:

stammering stan

Li Manshan has a brilliant stammering joke, which he loves telling me—but it’s best if you hear him tell it himself…

The definitive transliteration

I just can’t resist constructing a headline to incorporate some of my favourite Chinese transliterations:

帅克耍耍圣桑的兔子不拉屎
Shuaike shuashua Shengsangde tuzibulashi

or

Conquering General plays with the Rabbits-don’t-shit of Sage Mulberry.

Or, if you insist,

Švejk plays with the toothbrush of Saint-Saëns.

What kind of language do you call that, ask the Plain People of Ireland. Beat that, China Daily.

Svejk

Among several references to the toothbrush in The good soldier Švejk, try this:

Then she took out of the hamper three bottles of wine for the convalescent and two boxes of cigarettes. She set out everything elegantly on the empty bed next to Švejk’s, where she also put a beautifully bound book, Stories from the life of our Monarch, which had been written by the present meritorious chief editor of our official Czechoslovak Republic who doted on old Franz. Packets of chocolate with the same inscription, “Gott strafe England,” and again with pictures of the Austrian and German emperors, found their way to the bed. On the chocolate they were no longer clasping hands; each was acting on his own and turning his back to the other. There was a beautiful toothbrush with two rows of bristles and the inscription “Viribus unitis,” so that anyone who cleaned his teeth should remember Austria.

The latest research, however, suggests that Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) once carelessly left his toothbrush behind at his hotel while on tour in Prague—he was indeed a keen traveller, but his biographies are curiously silent about this incident. Later the Good Soldier came across it by chance while rummaging in a junk shop, and proceeded to toy with it.

Still, we cannot dismiss the possibility that the toothbrush may be employed here in its popular Slovakian metaphorical sense. In a comment suggestive of Molvania, Roberts (From Good King Wenceslas to the Good Soldier Švejk: A Dictionary of Czech Popular Culture) notes:

Slovácko is best-known for its traditional culture: distinctive national costumes are still occasionally worn, folk traditions like The Ride of the Kings [a major theme of Kundera’s The joke—SJ] still celebrated yearly. The largely rural residents of Slovácko are known as well for their love of slivovice, which they refer to as their morning toothbrush.

So have I been barking up the wrong tree? In this case, one wonders further: just what kind of liqueur was Saint-Saëns’ so-called “toothbrush”? In our headline, perhaps we may now interpret the verb shuashua “fooling around with” as referring to a tasting session—given Švejk’s Bacchic propensities, surely an epic event, at which Flann O’Brien would have been more than welcome.

Social survey

China’s prostitutes were better-trusted than its politicians and scientists, according to a 2009 online survey published by Insight China magazine. The survey found that 7.9% of respondents considered sex workers to be trustworthy, placing them third behind farmers and religious workers. “A list like this is at the same time surprising and embarrassing,” said an editorial in the state-run China Daily.

Politicians were far down the list, closer to scientists and teachers. Insight China polled 3,376 Chinese citizens in June and July this year. “The sex workers’ unexpected prominence on this list of honour… is indeed unusual,” said the China Daily editorial. “At least [the scientists and officials] have not slid into the least credible category which consists of real estate developers, secretaries, agents, entertainers and directors”, the editorial said. Soldiers came in fourth place.