Ancient Chinese humour—with a moral

rabbit

In The joys of indexing I essayed a rough classification of the many Chinese jokes on this blog; with this one I can now add the subhead “ancient”.

The man of Song (a kingdom during the Warring States era, equivalent to modern Henan) is a niche early butt of many stories, recalling similar jokes around the world targetting out-groups such as the Irish.

A story from chapter 49 of the Hanfeizi tells how a man of Song, tilling his fields, sees a rabbit hurtle into a tree-stump and break its neck; whereupon he gives up farming and waits for more rabbits to suffer a similar fate. LOL 😀

With this early experiment in the “Man walks into a bar” trope, it’s no wonder that Hanfeizi was in such demand as a standup on the Warring States Comedy Club circuit. Of course, audience response varied by kingdom, as Ken Dodd later found:

You can tell a joke in Liverpool and they won’t laugh in London… they can’t hear it.

But wait, there’s more! Hanfeizi’s story has a moral, à la Stewart Lee: it’s a metaphor for “those who attempt to rule people of the current era with the governance of previous kings”:

宋人有耕者。田中有株,兔走觸株,折頸而死。因釋其耒而守株,冀复得兔。兔不可复得,而身为宋國笑。今欲以先王之政,治當世之民,皆守株之類也。

Jacob Rees-Mogg (“Minister for the 18th century”) take note.

The story gave rise to the popular proverb

shouzhu daitu 守株待兔
guarding the stump, waiting for rabbits

Chinese kids’ cartoons are so cute (cf. No silver here, a rather similar theme):

See also A feminist Chinese proverb. For more from Hanfeizi, click here.

 

Big red joke book

Red joke book

Before Hammer and Tickle came

  • Greg Benton and Graham Loomes, Big red joke book (1976).

The jokes come from a wide range of countries, including the USA and Britain, with the Soviet bloc playing a major role. Again there are sadly few from China (see my Chinese jokes tag); still, since it’s not a big book, they might as well have called it The Little red joke book.

We might pair this one with Woody Allen’s Hassidic tales:

“Rabbi,” asks a young Jew, “can you build socialism in one country?”

“You can,” says the rabbi, “but then it’s best to live in another country.”

There are some goodies from the GDR, like

Q. Is it true that Walter Ulbricht collects political jokes?

A. No, but he collects people who tell them.

as well as a version of the Li Peng story I told here, with Ulbricht as the subject.

Here’s another story from Prague (cf. many posts under Czech tag):

A restaurant in Prague started up a strip-tease show. To everyone’s surprise, the public appeared to shun in totally. The Prague authorities, concerned at the loss of takings, summoned the restaurant’s manager and asked him some questions.

“Is there something the matter with the seating arrangements?”

“No”, said the manager, “they’re very comfortable.”

“The lighting?”

“No, the lighting is perfect.”

“In that case, it must have something to do with the women who perform there.”

“Out of the question!” assured the manager. “We hire no-one unless they have been at least thirty years in the Party.”

Of course, many such stories, like folk-songs, travel widely in variant forms.

 

 

 

More Chinese clichés: art

*Guest post!*

Ni Zan

Further to my Chinese clichés (inspired by Flann O’Brien), a young scholar—whose own enterprising fieldwork suggests a radical reassessment of Chinese temple murals—has sent me this telling critique (“On visiting the Asian Art Museum but finding the Indo-Tibetan section closed for renovation“):

New AAM Exhibition Reveals How “Chinese People Used to Like Porcelain Pots that were Glazed mostly White but sometimes Other Colors, and Paintings of Water and Mountains, And Stuff”

April 12, 2019 / Khanat Beg

SAN FRANCISCO
“A lot of people think they know Chinese art,” says curator Adreanne Chao. Slim and straight-backed in a black turtleneck by Japanese designer Yu Amatsu, Chao is sitting on a bench in the second-floor gallery, unrecognized by the stream of museum-goers around us. Together, we watch two women speaking Mandarin pose with a selfie-stick in front of a painting by the 14th-century Chinese artist Ni Zan.

Chao says, “People come in here, and they think they’re going to see monochrome ink-paintings of mountains, water, clouds. Sometimes there’ll be a lonely fisherman out poling across the lake, or a scholar-recluse composing poetry in an old pavilion.”

But Chao’s new exhibition, which opened April 1st at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, has sent ripples of surprise through the art world. Chao leads me over to inspect a scroll painting, twelve feet long and one wide, by the 15th-century Chinese literatus-painter Wu Liao. “But these artists are really toying with convention. Here you can see the painter has used monochrome ink and brushwork to create the impression of clouds, water, and mountains.” Chao laughs puckishly, “And yes, I’ll admit it—there’s also a fisherman poling a skiff past an old pavilion!”

We haven’t even got to the room with all the little porcelain pots and pans, glazed mostly white but sometimes beige or off-green. […]

 

I may add that the solitary boatman is not to be confused with this tribute to Uncle Xi:

See here for spoof Tang poems that I composed in my own Yoof (“precocious signs of the pointless inanity that was to distinguish my later writings”). Among posts under the art tag, try this, and this.

And for Chinese music clichés, see here.

A diary clash

huiyishi

Now for another linguistic interlude. I’ve already cited several stories from our fieldworkers’ joke manual (note the Chinese jokes tag; and for a roundup, see here). This old one further illustrates the riches of Chinese punning, and has a hint of the underdog vanquishing pompous male privilege…

It thrives on the homophonous pronunciation of the acronyms for Journalists’ Association (jixie 记协) and Sex-Workers’ Association (jixie 妓协), suggesting parallels with our own airline acronyms.

The verbal creativity may work better in Chinese than in English, but here I loosely adapt a version that I found online (see—the riches of the Chinese web aren’t limited to The Thoughts of Uncle Xi):

The Journalists’ Association and the Sex-Workers’ Association are both staying in the same hotel for their respective meetings. Both groups need to use the conference room at the same time. The hotel manager initially suggests they combine their meetings into one, but they argue their cases before him.

The Secretary-General of the Journalists’ Association observes proudly, “We journalists are uncrowned kings—how can a gang of women dependent on men compare with us?”

But the Secretary-General of the Sex-Workers’ Association retorts, “What’s the big deal about you journalists? A gang of guys sneaking in to see us—you’re all talk! How can you compete with us? Huh!”

The journalist goes on, “So we’re adversaries with different weapons, eh? We use the pen (bi), and we’re looking for manuscripts (gao).”

The sex worker points out, “Well, we use pussy (bi), and we’re looking for a shag (gao)!”

“We welcome both long and short manuscripts.”

“We’re fine turning both long and short tricks too.”

“We offer preferential rates for our manuscripts.”

“And so do we for tricks.”

In the end the hotel manager can only allow the Sex-Workers’ Association to use the conference room.

记者协会与妓女协会同在一个宾馆召开会议,同样要用会议室。记协秘书长联系会议室,妓协秘书长也在联系会议室。宾馆老板一听,都是开会,也都是叫一个名字,也不管是妓协和记协,对两位秘书长说:《干脆把两个会议合在一起开吧。》

记协秘书长坚决不答应说:《我们记协的记者是无冕之王。你们妓协是什么,你们是一帮女人,靠男人生活,能和我们比?》

妓协秘书长不服气地说:《你们记协有什么了不起。你们的记们,那个暗地里不来找我们的妓,一帮男人光是嘴上的劲。怎能是我们的对手。哼!》

记协秘书长说:《是不是对手,武器不一样,我们用的是笔,要的是稿。》

妓协秘书长说:《我们用的也是×,要的是搞。》

记协秘书长说:《我们长稿短稿都欢迎。》

妓协秘书长说:《我们长搞短搞都能行。》

记协秘书长说:《我们稿费从优。》

妓协秘书长说:《我们搞费也优。》

年轻漂亮的妓协副秘书长在一旁帮腔说:《我们怎样搞都适应,反正比你们强。》

这话气得记协秘书长《唉唉》直叹息。看来记协还得归妓协领导。因而再不言语。宾馆老板一看没法,只得把会议室让给妓协先开会了。

I note en passant that the present incumbent of the White House seems to have more time for sex workers than for journalists.

Classical erudition

baozi jiaozi

On the “Four Classics and Five Scriptures” (sishu wujing 四书五经), I’ve already quoted the fine saying (At home with a master Daoist, n.1)

孔子孟子包子饺子,都学过了!
“Confucius, Mencius, various dumpling shapes, I’ve studied them all!”

So it’s good to see another old favourite at the end of a conversation between Ai Weiwei and Liao Yiwu, no less:

老装孙子 laozhuang sunzi,

which is a common expression for “always playing the fool” (cf. the more recent, and rather different, zhuang B). But it can also be handily pressed into service when satirizing one’s supposed education in the classics, subtly revising the zhuang character to 庄—the Daoist sages Laozi and Zhuangzi (Lao–Zhuang), followed by the ancient military strategist Sunzi.

Breaks the ice at parties, in the words of Monty Python.

 

Bonking in Chinese

or
Tut-tut, a boo-boo

Victor Mair’s posts on the languagelog site are always worth reading. He’s just done a wonderful one on seemingly impenetrable Chinese sentences with the same character repeated numerous times—not unlike our own “Buffalo buffalo…” and “had had had had…” constructions.

This reminds me of a similar anecdote from rural Shaanxi, where the word bu is used to mean “bonk”, along with the duplicated form bubu “bonkety-bonk”. * It remains to be seen if the character 不 (“not”) is correct—the written forms of such dialectal terms are often hard to ascertain—but I’ll give the story in the version transcribed by my Beijing colleague.

This doesn’t quite work in English, but from a rough translation you can appreciate the linguistic beauty of the original (I’ve underlined the pinyin where they’re using bu in the, um, technical sense):

A woman wonders why his brother’s wife still hasn’t got pregnant two years after their marriage. She doesn’t quite know how to ask, so one day while they’re sewing in the courtyard, she asks her sister-in-law:

嫂,你跟俺哥不吗
Sao, ni gen an ge bu ma?
Sister-in-law, do you do it with my bro?

不不
Bubu!
Sure, all the time!

不不咋还不呢
Bubu, za haibu ne?
If you’re at it all the time, how come there’s nothing?

不不还不呢,不不不不就更不了吗
Bubu hai bu ne, bububu bujiu geng bulema?
We’re at it all the time, again and again—bonking away, that means we go at it even more, innit!

I think I’ve got that right—in that last line she bangs on with the form bububu. Hmm, there may be room for alternative interpretations, as in the Confucian classics. Of course, to avoid boo-boos, much is clarified by hearing it aloud, with suitable stresses.

Indeed, reduplication, as in Rossini’s “stupefaction ensembles“, has all the more resonance for stammerers like me.

I like the personal reception histories of jokes. Just as I remember Pete McCarthy telling me his jazz bass solo joke on tour in the USA c2001, my Chinese fieldwork companions told me this one in Yanggao (north Shanxi, not Shaanxi!) back in 1991, as we were on the way to Greater Antan village to find the great Li Qing performing the Pardon ritual!

 

* The expression is not included in this fine list of terms and pronunciations in Shaanxi dialect—which also has some jokes.
I choose “bonk” both for its initial consonant and its relative gentility; this quaint UK usage enjoyed a rather brief heyday in my youth, supplanted in popular affection by “shag” and then…
For any “non-nationals” (as Myles had it) unfamiliar with these terms, Barry Humphries helpfully provides a wealth of colourful (if reprehensibly phallocentric—tut tut, one might say) Oz synonyms, also of their time, in the glossaries of his Barry Mackenzie books—such as “dip the wick”, “bury the pork sword”, and “exercise the ferret”.

 

 

 

 

No silver here

Cidi wuyin

Sinologists will know this one, but it’s rather fine, and can come in handy every so often.

Zhang the Third is worried someone will steal his hard-earned 300 taels of silver, so he puts it in a box and buries it in the earth near his house. But he’s still worried someone might dig it up—so just to be sure, he writes a note on the nearby wall:

此地无银三百两 Cidi wuyin sanbailiang
Here there is no silver, 300 taels

His neighbour Wang the Second comes along and sees the note. As he digs up the silver and takes it off, worried that Zhang might suspect him, he too writes a note:

隔壁王二不曾偷
It wasn’t Wang the Second next door that nicked it

Time for a cute kids’ cartoon (cf. here):

Forms of address

*Not suitable for those of a sensitive disposition!*
[Red rag to a bull—Ed.]

This is one of the classic stories in our Fieldworkers’ joke manual, always coming to mind whenever some formal meeting prompts Chinese people to address me with the honorific nin 您 for “you” rather than the standard ni 你 (for a fine discussion, see here).

Dating from 1980s’ Beijing, the crucial pronouns of the story translate much less naturally into English than into other European languages, which still preserve the distinction between informal singular and honorific plural forms of the word for “you”:

So there’s this factory worker riding his rusty old bike home after his shift, trundling along in a daze. All of a sudden a big shiny Mercedes casually turns right just in front of him [as they do], and with no time to screech to a halt, the worker’s bike bumps into the gleaming car. As the chauffeur stops to inspect the damage, the furious worker leans over into the car and shouts,

“Your mother’s cunt!”
[Ni malegebi!]*

On behalf of the high-ranking Party apparatchik seated in the back, the chauffeur comes back with,

“Hey, comrade! How dare you speak so disrespectfully—don’t you realize there’s a VIP National Leader sitting in the back?”

Feigning an apology, the worker exclaims politely,

“Oh, I’m sooo sorry— I should have said, ‘Your esteemed… mother’s cunt!’
[Nin malegebi!]”

In Italian the variants might go “La fica di tua madre” and “La fica di vostra madre” (cf. the vocabulary of Burlesque-only—Oh, and La vaca t’ha fat, also featuring posh car…).

On an Academy of Ancient Music tour of the States around 2002, a couple of my mates enjoyed the story, and wanted to hear me telling it in the original Chinese. Rodolfo, amazing fiddle player from Brazil, thought it would work well in Brazilian-Portuguese, so I talked him through it in English, and one evening after a gig in Nebraska, as the band was gathered in an unsalubrious pub, he did a near-simultaneous Brazilian-Portuguese translation while I told the Chinese version—which, beautifully, had ’em rolling in the aisles. It’s not the joke, it’s the way you tell it.

Among my Chinese mates this story is such a classic topos that now if I want to swear at one of them, all I have to do is mutter, “NIN…”

 

*For Miles, Keef, and Listen with motherfucker, see here. For some reason, Chinese bi is a tad less offensive than its English equivalent: see here. For the c-word in English, click here.

 

At home with a master Daoist

As weird holidays go, this is pretty weird…

To supplement my various articles on particular themes (a ghost village, a funeral, the murals of Artisan the Sixth, Elder Hu, and so on), this diary records the more domestic side of my recent trip chez Li Manshan—like my notes on our French tour last May, the kind of thing one hardly finds in inscrutable accounts of hallowed Daoist ritual.

As I land in Beijing, pausing only to catch up with my wonderful hosts Matt and Dom and to buy a SIM card, I take the midnight train to Yanggao—smashing my personal best time for Fastest Ever Escape From Beijing. Perhaps first you can read my updated description of my first couple of days there.

Catching up
Despite improved transport and smartphones, progress seems superficial. This is still another world from the skyscrapers and Party congresses touted by the international media. Like anywhere else in the world, indeed. And it’s hard to see evidence of greater repression—people are well used to it.

Li Manshan’s home village of Upper Liangyuan still has some over six hundred dwellers, which counts as a lot round here; but it seems forlorn, stagnant. It’s ever clearer that the rural population is “left behind”—elderly people sitting outside awaiting their turn. Litter remains an intractable problem, blighting what might almost be an idyllic landscape.

Having been worked off his feet for many years, now that Li Manshan is in his 70s he’s giving way to Li Bin, who’s busier than ever. Li Bin has three funerals to do today, one a solo attendance at the grave (“smashing the bowl”, “without scriptures”) for a Catholic family, who still need the procedures for the date and siting of the burial. On the 17th (or rather the 2nd, chu’er—I soon get used to the lunar calendar) he has to smash two more bowls.

So now Li Manshan only works nearby—decorating coffins, doing grave-sitings and visits to determine the date for burials, as well as the occasional funeral. Soon after I arrive he zooms off on his motor-bike to Yangguantun to decorate a coffin. I’m happy to try and sleep off my journey from London.

doggie

Visitors are always announced by a barking dog, like a doorbell. The Lis have a new doggie, rarely off its tether by its kennel in the courtyard. It’s frozen. When I tell Li Manshan’s wife (busy making funerary headgear) about our poncey UK winter gilets for dogs, she shrugs, “He’s fine, he’s got fur ain’t ‘e?!”

LMS wife sewing

Li Manshan’s (only) disciple Wang Ding returns from a funeral to unload the decorations for the soul hall, now improved and more convenient. Renting out this equipment to funeral families is another source of income for Li Manshan. Giving Wang Ding a hand, I tell him I wrote a little post about him after our little French tour last year; he hasn’t got internet, so he will look at my blog at Golden Noble’s place. He can speak pretty good Yangpu, but even after all these years I find their dialect as tough as ever.

I hardly bother to wear my glasses any more—like clarinetist Jack Brymer, who when rehearsing a contemporary piece would wear his for the first five minutes, and then only keep them on if he thought it was worth it…

The domestic routine
Li Manshan’s first tasks on rising are to fold the bedding, take out the chamber pot, fetch kindling for the kitchen stove and our little stove in the west room, and boil water. He does his bit with the housework: sweeping, mopping, stoking the stove, preparing water—though he leaves most of the cooking to his wife. The little coal stove is cute and effective, but mafan. At last I learn that the central foyer is called tangdi 堂地. Both living rooms are equipped with a low wooden table, actually rather handsome but covered in plastic, to place on the kang, used for meals and writing. Plastic rules OK—and a jolly good thing too.

meal

Our diet consists mainly of baozi dumplings, [1] noodles, crêpes, mushrooms, eggs, bits of meat, meatballs, doufu, cabbage, nuts. Sometimes our meals evoke the classic film Yellow Earth—indelible image of the fieldworker overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of poverty and traditional culture. But we giggle a lot too.

Again Li Manshan stresses how much he prefers country life. I soon get used again to its basic routines, not least visits to the latrine in the southwest corner of the courtyard—taking paper (The Thoughts of Uncle Xi would be useful, but it’s not to hand/arse), and a torch if dark, to balance on a ledge; adjusting trousers, squatting (not getting any easier)…

Amazingly, for my visit in autumn 2013 Li Manshan modified his old latrine, building a little roofed pier (so to speak) over a floor on pillars projecting from the spacious pit. Like the world, it was built in seven days. After designing it on paper, he borrowed 230 bricks, as well as stone slabs, tiles, and so on, from neighbours; then he got down and dirty over a week at the height of summer. I felt embarrassed, but he pointed out that it would be good for them too.

We refer to it as The London Embassy (Lundun dashiguan, pronounced like “Taking turns to squat in the big shithouse”). The great Beijing cultural pundit Tian Qing even bestowed his illustrious calligraphy on Li Manshan, albeit in the more polite version.

So (thanks to me) the latrine is pretty comfortable, but it makes a suitable image to imagine the poverty of the olden days (including the Maoist era—a sobering contrast with the bright propaganda posters of the time): the old and infirm trudging to an open pit in the snow, with no paper, no sanitary products, no torches in the dark.

I’m so pampered, compared to Li Manshan’s lifetime “enduring suffering” (shouku 受苦). From my book (pp.132–3):

Shoulders unable to carry, hands unable to grasp, soft and sensitive skin…

Coming across this phrase in 2013 as I made inept attempts to help Li Manshan with the autumn harvest, I thought it might have been coined to parody my efforts. Rather, it’s a standard expression used to describe the travails of urban “educated youth” in performing physical labour after being sent down from the cities to the countryside in the Cultural Revolution to “learn from the peasants”. The experience was a rude shock for such groups all over China; brought up in relatively comfortable urban schools to believe in the benefits of socialism, and often protected from understanding the tribulations of their own parents, they were now confronted not just by the harshness of physical labour, but by medieval poverty.

Li Manshan is thrilled with my little gift of a set of UK coins, working out which is which. He proudly offers me a black banana, white and tasty on the inside, but decides to eat it himself; we have a giggle over glossy modernized bananas (cf. “banana republic, but minus the bananas”). His wife passes the time by playing “matching pairs”, a kind of dominoes. A female friend of hers drops by for a chat. They’re all very humorous, beneath a somewhat dour exterior. Li Manshan and his wife seem like counsellors.

In reply to villagers’ curious enquiries about how many kids I have, Li Manshan is now in the habit of replying wu, which they hear as “five” 五 but in his creative head means “none” 无. This surprisingly shuts them up—I worry about having to embroider stories about their careers, my numerous grandkids, and so on, but no. Anyway, Li Manshan would be up for this. He observes that since my surname is Zhong 钟 (Clock), my son might be named Biao 表 (watch).

We share a nice supper of noodles, and more dumplings. The CCTV evening news is on as wallpaper [Breaking news! CCP holds meeting! Xi Jinping still in power! Old gits in suits dead bored!]. It’s ignored until the weather forecast comes on, but Li Manshan loves the nature programmes.

“Wotcha doing when you get back to Beijing?”, he goes.
“I’m going to be giving lectures (jiangke)…”
His local dialect, or his lively mind, instantly converts this to jiekastammering”:
“Old Jonesy, you don’t have to go back to Beijing to stammer—you can just keep on stammering away here!”

I manage both.

Writing
Though Li Manshan is doing fewer funerals these days, he has always got ritual paperwork to do—whether it’s writing talismans, shaping paper for funerary artefacts, or writing mottos for the soul hall (my book, pp.194–200).

He’s bought big reams of thick paper from Yangyuan county. He recalls that when Li Qing recopied the ritual manuals in the early 1980s, mazhi hemp paper was available from the Supply and Marketing Co-op.

One day our siesta is disturbed by a group coming to ask Li Manshan to “determine the date”. After seeing them off he spends the rest of the afternoon writing several dozen sets of four-character funerary diaolian mottos for the soul hall (my film, from 10.43)—enough for a couple of months. Again he recalls how Li Qing used to write them in the scripture hall for each particular funeral. I devise a new game: arranging the squares in a different order to make a popular phrase or saying. For starters, how about 東方妙,西方福 (“oriental mysticism is all very well, but things are kinda cushy over here”).

A trip into town
One morning we call up the wonderful Li Jin to arrange a nice quiet lunch in town, just the three of us. Li Manshan’s wife chooses a posh shirt and jacket for him.

In 1953, when he was 8 sui, Li Manshan walked into town with his auntie to see the big xiangong parade there. Now we walk up to the main road to catch the No.2 bus into town; it arrives soon, a mere 3 kuai each, taking under half an hour—fun, and good to be independent. I go to have my head shaved at my favourite barbershop, and we meet up with Li Jin at Li Bin’s funeral shop. But then Li Manshan’s (much) younger brother Third Tiger shows up too, and he drives us in his posh car to a posh restaurant (attached to a posh hotel) up a little hutong, with no sign (which is always a good, um, sign)—we’re the only customers. But then entrepreneur Ye Lin (another old mate, formerly head of the Bureau of Culture) arrives too, and Li Bin; so altogether it’s less of a quiet meal than I hoped.

lunch LJ LB LMS

lunch Sanhu

Third Tiger has brought a case of Chilean 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon from Central Valley, a gift from a friend. We polish it off, though later the ganbei toasting seems a bit unsuitable…

Third Tiger had been looking forward to early retirement from his important state job—even claiming in my film (from 55.23) that he’d like to get back to Daoist ritual—but it won’t be happening any time soon. He’s done well as a Party cadre, his only flaw being that he can’t really hold his drink—this should surely be the first question on the application form:

How much baijiu liquor can you knock back before you fall over?

Inevitably Third Tiger foots the bill. I remind my companions of the donkey joke—I’m inadvertently “cadging a free meal wherever I go” again…

After lunch, Li Bin takes us on a fruitless visit to the Cultural Preservation Bureau to learn that the compilation of Yanggao temple steles is still not published. Then we drop in on a shop up the road to sort out a standoff between my camera and my Mac; the guy is even more pissed than me, but does a fine job. We exchange cigarettes, and he refuses any money.

Li Bin is happy to take us home to Upper Liangyuan, and on the way we drop in on the grandson of the great Li Peisen at his funeral shop, to see if he can show us the three manuals not in Li Qing’s collection, which I didn’t copy. He and his wife seem affable, but he can’t find them. It’s hard to know if he’s being cagey: he does show Li Manshan Li Peisen’s thick Yuqie yankou volume, so maybe he really can’t find the others. I ask him, without much hope, to call Li Bin if he does find them. Li Manshan cares more about this than I do.

I’ve also been wondering if the related Wang lineage in Baideng has any ritual manuals we haven’t seen, but when Li Manshan calls up Wang Fei there, he says they have no more than him.

More Heritage flapdoodle
Next to the main sign above his funerary shop, Li Bin has optimistically put up a new sign: “Hengshan Daoist Music, Training Base”.

HSDYT shop placard

This pie-in-the-sky still has precisely no takers, but Li Bin remains involved in a mysterious project with the county Bureau of Culture. We all laugh at the emptiness of the title—but it acts like a protective talisman, a kind of insurance policy.

Pacing the Void: Old Lord Li gets online
Like me, Li Manshan got his first smartphone after returning from France last year. He can read WeChat messages, but hasn’t cared to try and get online—yet. I think he can do it. Actually, WeChat doesn’t seem such a big deal here—sure, the younger people are on it, but the main way of communicating is just phoning. So there.

Getting online with my Mac thanks to the wifi of Li Manshan’s cool shepherd neighbour, I show him the charming TV version of The Dream of the Red Chamber with child actors. He loved reading the novel in the 1980s.

I give him a guided tour of my blog, starting with the posts I wrote about our French tour last year (e.g. here), my tribute to his carpentry skills, and the trio on Women of Yanggao (starting here). We look further at the ritual paintings in Li Peisen’s collection, which leads us to seek murals by Artisan the Sixth.

Then I introduce him to my other world, telling him about Yuan QuanyouHildi, and the 80th-birthday party for the great Stephan Feuchtwang where Rowan and I played Bach on erhu and sanxian—after listening to the recording there (now also sounding crap), I try to attone by playing him Sun Huang’s astounding Saint-Saens (or Sage Mulberry, as he’s known in China), but he’s underwhelmed—the conservatoire erhu is of even less relevance to him than to me. And he’s none too clear about the qin zither, despite painting it regularly on coffins (my film, from 18.30).

LMS huacai

Li Manshan decorates a coffin, 2013. Top: qin zither.

I tell him again about the adorable crazy Natasha, showing him my tribute to her—it was he who helped me regain the will to live after her death in 2013.

Over the next few days Old Lord Li becomes ever more scholarly, devouring the new book on the modern history of the county (only up to 1949, alas!), the gazetteer, and all the online stuff I show him. (You may note that he has reverted to his old hat—was the baseball cap he wore in France a haute-couture choice to impress the laowai?!)

He gets into Ming reign-periods online. I show him the Baidu article on the 1449 Tumu incident (very near Yanggao), making the link with the disgraced palace eunuch Wang Zhen and the Zhihua temple. As he gets hooked on some pre-Tang story in the county gazetteer, I turn the tables on him, commenting “I dunno about that, I wasn’t even born then!”

As he gets used to scrolling on my Mac keypad, I show him the blurb for the Chinese introduction to the already-voluminous Daojiao yishi congshu series, which he reads carefully. When I show him Hannibal Taubes’ amazing site, he thinks that Yanggao temple murals are not so well preserved as those of Yuxian—but I suspect it could also be that Hannibal is really on the case.

I tell Li Manshan of the useful saying “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”, which is always a succinct way of explaining what we’re doing traipsing around poor villages.

On my blog he’s interested to pore over ritual manuals from other areas. I find an online text for the pseudo-Sanskrit mantra Pu’an zhou, which they never sang, only played on shengguan. When we listen to my recording of Ma yulang with the Gaoluo ritual association (playlist, track 10, with commentary here), he’s shocked at how crap they are! I explain that they’re an amateur group, not like our occupational Daoists working together daily. But he’s curious to learn if the melody is similar to their version, a question I haven’t yet addressed.

We discuss the Kangxi yun section in the hymn volume that Li Qing recopied in 1980—I’ve often wondered what it’s doing there, as part of a series of shuowen solo recitations formerly used for the shanggong Presenting Offerings ritual segment. It was actually written not by the Kangxi emperor but by his father Shunzhi. The version copied by Li Qing is a variant.

Kangxi yunAs we read up further, we now speculate that since Kangxi saw the poem on a visit to Wutaishan, and as Buddhist ritual manuals do contain poems, it could have got into one such manual there; spreading further north, it might thence have got into Daoist manuals too—which, after all, contain plenty of Buddhist elements (my book, e.g. p.226).

I wonder if the title Kangxi yun is distinctive to the Li family. If Li Fu copied it from the manuals of his master in Jinjiazhuang, it wouldn’t have been at all old when it was copied by the Zhang family Daoists there. More work for a historian there… Li Manshan buries himself in the Baidu articles on Shunzhi’s mother and Nurhaci.

He knows nothing of Trump, Syria, or the Ukraine famine. While envying him his blissful ignorance, I embark on a political education session; he reads avidly when I show him the relevant Baidu articles. The article on the Ukraine famine looks rather good—though one can hardly expect Baidu to compare it to the Chinese famine following the Great Leap Backward.

After returning from a brief trip to Waterdrop 滴滴水 village with Li Bin, I check the 1948 and 1990 population statistics (first two columns below) in the county gazetteer, but they seem incongruous. Old Lord Li inspects the table for the whole of Zhangguantun district and deftly corrects them. Clever guy!

renkou edits

Born at a different time in another place, Li Manshan might have become a university professor.

2nd moon 28th
As yet another idée fixe in Airplane goes, “Looks like I picked the wrong day to” get my head shaved—it’s really rather cold. Li Manshan kept reading till late last night. We stay home for a study day. He does another prescription by phone.

Before midday a couple comes for a prescription about her illness. They’ve come all the way from Datong county, learning of his reputation on the grapevine. Sure, people may also consult mediums, and of course hospitals—the latter terribly expensive, but as Li Manshan observes, their best bet.

LMS krz

The mood is serious as ever when the wife throws the coins and Li Manshan writes down the results. They watch him work it all out, in silence; then she asks questions, the conversation deepening. Li Manshan feels his role (often) is to console them, to lend moral support. As he later tells me, in fact the prescription looks ominous, and mostly he trusts the coins, but he can’t tell them “You’ve had it”, can he? They persuade the couple to stay for lunch (baozi dumplings, cabbage and doufu, onions), washed down at the end with water from the pot. It’s a friendly and sincere scene. They only paid him with five cigarettes, and Li Manshan was fine with that.

Li Manshan’s siesta is devoted to further reading, and he’s only just nodded off when another guy comes for a prescription.

Another great supper—thick-sliced noodles with eggs, dunking meatballs in the broth. Li Manshan glances over at the news, nudging me. Some Party bigwig is being interviewed, the caption reading:

中国人大代表 Zhongguo Renda daibiao
Representative of the Chinese People’s Congress,

which he brilliantly converts from three binomes into

中国人,大代表 Zhongguoren dadabiao
Chinese bloke, big cheese.

We fall about laughing. I just love the way this man’s mind works! The following week I’m showing my film at People’s University in Beijing, which is also abbreviated as Renda—so I manage to press the expression into service there.

I clean my teeth in the courtyard, enjoying using my fancy electric Rabbits Don’t Shit, sorry I mean toothbrush (its first outing in China). Since Li Manshan always shoves a fag in my gob as soon as I get back anyway, I beat him to the draw. Whenever I spot an unfamiliar brand, I ask him, “Landlord? Poor peasant?”

3rd moon 1st (chuyi)—which, I note guiltily, is Saturday.

courtyard in snow

Right: sunflower stalks stored for use in making funerary treasuries.

OOH it’s snowing! I’ve been hoping to go in search of more Daoists to Yingxian county with Li Bin and bright young Taiyuan ethnographer Liu Yan, but my carefully laid plans come to nought; the motorways are closed. Li Manshan sweeps the pathway to the latrine, then zooms off back to Yangguantun to smash the bowl in a simple burial for the poor family there. When he decorated the coffin on 2nd moon 25th it was the fourth (not third) day after the death. He explains that there’s no difference between rich and poor in determining the date: it may turn out that poor families also have to store the coffin for over twenty days.

I discreetly perform much-needed ablutions. Li Manshan comes home frozen, unable to see through the snowstorm on his motor-bike. Gradually it eases up.

I show him my photos of the funeral I attended yesterday. He’s always been a laissez-faire leader, but even he draws the line at Wu Mei playing drum while on his mobile. We get a riff going:

“Maybe he was following the drum patterns online?!” he jokes.
“Oh yeah, right—I always felt sorry the so-called Hengshan Daoist Music Ensemble because they were too poor to afford music stands, but now they can read from their mobiles! You’re dead keen on ‘development’, aren’t you?!”—referencing the rose-tinted cliché common in online articles about him.
“Naughty disciple!”
“Naughty master! 青出于蓝。。。”

Wang Ding turns up on his dinky sanlun truck and we help him unload more altar decorations into the south room of the courtyard, redecorated as the village Training Base of the so-called Hengshan Daoist Music Ensemble—and thus, like its town counterpart, entirely unused.

3rd moon 2nd (Sunday, known as libai ba, eighth day of the week, as on their electronic wall-clock)
Foggy at first, gradually the sun comes out. For the first time Li Manshan worries about his cough, and resolves to quit smoking—which, impressively, he manages for nearly a whole hour. Actually he’s not smoking as much as in the old days when he was busy doing funerals with the band.

Having taken a siesta after our fascinating excursion to find murals by Artisan the Sixth, I go outside to clean my teeth, but yet again my oral hygiene is thwarted by the arrival of “Fag Devil” Li Sheng, who insistently shoves a fag in my gob. Typical

I keep up with Tweety McTangerine’s latest lunacies by consulting the Guardian online. But I dissolve in fits of laughter at Stewart Lee’s latest offering there.

3rd moon 3rd
At 7am a guy comes to discuss some work. At 8.20 the formidable wife of an old friend of Li Qing’s comes to moan about her son’s marital problems. Li Manshan is courteous, but considers her “crazy”. I understand virtually nothing, but eventually she makes an effort with me as she pours out her grievances, slapping me regularly on the arm. Village poverty and problems seem intractable, despite advances and propaganda. The only solution touted is thorough urbanization, bringing its own worrying prospects.

Li Manshan isn’t feeling too well, but he takes a break from making paper artefacts to accompany me on a visit to the temple to Elder Hu in the Lower village (post coming up soon!).

3rd moon 4th
On our last day together, after returning from an intriguing trip to Jinjiazhuang, Old Lord Li suddenly thinks of the slow hymn Eternal Homage (Yong guiyi 永皈依), and we have a nice session on it. It’s one of his favourites, but they rarely use it, and now he can’t remember the opening. He can’t read cipher notation, only gongche solfeggio, so he gets me to sing it from Li Qing’s cipher-notation score. Their more recent green volume has gongche solfeggio underneath too, so he can just about follow it once I get him going.

Yong guiyi textSo Li Manshan gets to record me singing a piece I barely know, but I never get to record him. Anyway he always sets off from a really low pitch, so the result tends to sound a bit like Tibetan chanting. When the band sings a cappella hymns for funerals, Golden Noble has a good ear for starting off on a pitch suitable for the range.

In the version they learned, the first section ends after Fo you Niepan shi 佛有涅槃时. Li Qing’s cipher-notation score isn’t divided into sections, but their more recent green volume is. The latter uses the degree shang 上 as do—including the shengguan suites, which I find strange. Li Manshan is fine once he gets through the opening phrase.

Yong guiyi jianpu

We take a siesta before my journey back to Beijing, but soon wake up. Absurdly, he now asks me to transpose Li Qing’s cipher-notation score of the major shengguan melody Yaozhang into gongche solfeggio. Without thinking to consult the precious photos of Li Derong’s old score (which Li Manshan no longer has) I wrongly assume that it would use the early shengguan system with he 合 as do, but hey. After singing it for him as he records it on his phone, I explain to him that he’ll need earphones to play it back…

Li Bin has another busy day today, having to do two reburials as well as decorating a coffin, so I’ll take a cab to the station. This no longer feels so distant. Li Manshan insists on coming along to see me off, and we leave before 4, dropping his wife off at Baideng township for a hairdo. He refuses to let me pay for the cab. My total expenses for nine inspiring days in Yanggao came to 24 kuai—just over £2.

We take the ring road, passing loads of new high-rises, and bid each other a fond farewell. The station is virtually empty, and the train isn’t busy either.

Back in Beijing, I feel like a country bumpkin. Showing my film three times over the next week, I’m happy to make Li Manshan a big star there. After the last screening I call him up to report, and to wish him well before I go back to London.

 

[1] As in the celebrated line (Fieldworkers’ joke manual No.37):
“I learned the Four Classics and Five Scriptures—Confucius, Mencius, various dumpling shapes, I’ve studied them all!”
Wo xuedeshi sishu wujing—Kongzi Mengzi baozi jiaozi, dou xueguole!
我学的是四书五经。孔子孟子包子饺子,都学过了!
Oh well, it’s funny in Chinese—Trust Me I’m a Doctor (there goes another 200 kuai).

Changing language

Caonima

Language is always in flux, over the dead bodies of fusty conservatives. English isn’t alone in changing under the stimulus of social media and popular culture.

Since my Chinese vocabulary incongruously lurched from the Tang dynasty to the clichés of Maoism (see also here), where it remained impaled, I’m happy to make some modest updates, partly courtesy of websites like Sixth Tone (e.g. herehere, and here), and Magpie digest—as well as this article, including a recap on the viral caonima “grass-mud-horse” trope. As elsewhere, much of the linguistic innovation is driven by online usage. I’m very keen on the term

To zhuāng bì 装 B is to put on airs — worldly, moneyed, educated, eccentric, or any other combination thereof. In other words: to be a fucking poser.* B is shorthand for níubì ( lit. “cow’s cunt”: see here, with instructive links), meaning “awesome” or “badass”—the English letter “B” being easier to find than the character for cunt (for shabi “fuckwit” and the somewhat less shocking nature of bi in Chinese, see here).

The article describes zhuang B as “a light, often self-deprecating insult”, “sign of healthy subcultural growth”—“by-product of all the new possibilities for young, middle-class Chinese people, a way for millennials to practise defining their way of life.” So it’s a pretentious wanker or tosser—cf. Poseur, moi?”.

I also like galiao 尬聊 “awkward chat”, inevitable chats with boring people—when the person you are talking with lacks communication skills, or when your mind wanders off and the talk reaches a dead end.

Even for those seeking to limit their studies to a bygone age, a basic grasp of how living people communicate (even village ritual specialists) is valuable…

* Private Eye’Pseuds’ corner polices English excesses with regular entries—like this, from an old programme note of a London Pro Musica concert, penned with tongue in cheek by the splendid Bernard Thomas:

The title of this concert means “a piece of cake”; it comes from the popular song Damene un poco di quella mazacrocha, “give me a piece of that cake (crumpet?)”. The process of baking a cake might be taken a central metaphor for Renaissance musical culture, for the special synthesis of northern polyphony and rhythmic subtlety with the poetry and expressive melody of indigenous Italian music. Florence, together with Siena and Bologna, were, and still are, traditional centres of cake baking. One can only guess at the repeated and prolonged biting into cakes on the creative processes of Heinrich Isaacs during his long stay in Florence.

Jeux d’esprit

Here’s a little popery, I mean potpourri—a resumé of some of my more wacky linguistic fantasies:

Among many fine Chinese jokes, my piques du jour* are

 

* Rather than piqes-niques.

Regional cultures

An ethnologist rarely noted is Ken Dodd, who commented profoundly on variations in regional cultures—as in the Chinese “customs differ ever 10 li” (shili butong su 十里不同俗):

You can tell a joke in Liverpool and they won’t laugh in London… they can’t hear it.

Michael Billington reflects:

It strikes me I’ve been lucky enough in my lifetime to see two performers kissed with genius. One was Laurence Olivier, who could enthral an audience with his animalistic power and interpretative originality. The other is Ken Dodd, who has the capacity to take a roomful of strangers and, through a fusillade of verbal and visual gags that never lets up, induce in them a spirit of collective ecstasy.

Ken is renowned for the length of his shows. Lord Grade has suggested that Xi Jinping’s recent interminable address to the Chinese party faithful was secretly scripted by Ken. If only…

You don’t have to be mad to work here but…

XJP

Amidst all the current razzmatazz over the Joyous Tidings of the 19th Party Congress and the mighty Uncle Xi, a tweet from a fine Chinese scholar notes the dazzling series of media eulogies from babies, kindergartens, primary schools, secondary schools, universities, the elderly, the religious, the sick, and criminals [sic], asking

“Whatever next? Series of eulogies from animals, toys, and coffee?”

Good old social media…

So, in the spirit of the Anthology of folk tales of the Chinese peoples (Zhongguo minjian gushi jicheng), this is as good a time as any to tell another classic story (somewhat in the vein of the old Brezhnev joke) about the hapless former leader whom I shall call “Lee Beng”:

Lee Beng is paying an official courtesy visit to a hospital for the criminally insane. All the inmates are gathered together in the hall and Lee climbs onto the platform, announcing grandiosely:

“Comrades! On behalf of the Politburo of the Central Chinese Communist Party and the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, I would like to sincerely extend my warmest greetings!”

One loony leans over to the guy sitting next to him and goes,

“So we’ve got a new arrival then…”

No less prescient is this Marx brothers scene.

The joys of indexing

LB joke

In the sidebar I’ve just added a handy tag for Chinese jokes, that transpires to comprise a majority of my posts—hours of harmless fun for all the family.

I can’t yet work out how to introduce sub-headings into such tags, but here’s a simple list of how they might look for this one, with just a few instances. Many would deserve cross-references…

screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-10-35-10

* * *

Call me a nerd [You’re a nerd—Ed.], but I’ve always loved indexing. After graduating—just as orchestras were mysteriously beginning to consider paying me to play the violin—I indexed books for Cambridge UP (notably for the Tang volumes of The Cambridge history of China), relishing the task of compiling hand-written index-cards (imagine that). Since I began writing my own books, I’ve always enjoyed indexing them too—it’s so good if authors can compile their own indexes, as detailed knowledge of your text can produce a much more instructive result, highlighting themes that may not always reveal themselves through a simple search for particular words. And they can give a real flavour of the subject. Again we return to taxonomy.

Pedantry and frivolity can go hand in hand. With sub-editors either indulgent or distracted, I’ve generally managed to sneak in a few entertaining entries. Alphabetical order can further create random and stimulating associations. I made an early foray in my index for Folk music of China:

temples (Fujian, Hebei, Shanxi; see also temple music)
Temple, Shirley

A couple of nice sequences in Plucking the winds:

Beatles
Beethoven: author despairingly sings gongche mnemonics to
bicycles
birth-control policy
blind musicians
[…]

vagrancy
Valerio, Father
Verona, missionary base
video-CDs
viola jokes
Vivaldi, disparaged

In Ritual and music of north China:

clothing
coal mining
commune system
concert performances
conch
contests, official
cremation
crime
Cui Jian
cultural authorities
Cultural Revolution
cymbals

In Daoist priests of the Li family I like the sequences

earthquakes
educated youth
education
electricity
encoffinment
[…]
smoking
socks

and

Venice
violence
vocal liturgy
walking

One entry that I inexplicably omitted to include is

  • Scunthorpe, Messiah in; compares poorly with Daoist gig in Venice, 337

For more on that story, see here.

Nicolas Slonimsky’s brilliant A Lexicon of musical invective (a genuinely instructive caveat to our contingent aesthetic judgments) has a hilarious index (“Invecticon”)—here’s a sample:

invecticon
For further scurrilous reviews, see Mahler 5. And Slonimsky‘s life deserves to be celebrated too.

While we’re on the subject of research (um) tools, the glossaries of the Barry Mackenzie cartoon books are masterpieces of indiscreet linguistic erudition:

Bazza

The indexer Paula Clarke Bain has a fine series of homages to the comedy book index. I too am very keen on the indexes for Alan Partridge books (here and here), with gems like

Cherubs

physical strength 231
aeronautic capability 232

Corsodyl Mouthwash, brand ambassadorship of 24
(buy Corsodyl Mouthwash, the best mouthwash there is)

Countryfile, that woman who sued 10

and

Norfolk

backward unachievers of 24
“development” in 15–16 […]
sex in 2n
starvation in 228

Update: for National Indexing Day 2020 Ms Bain has written a fine survey of some of the best and funniest indexes.

I keep trying to encourage Chinese publishers to include indexes—they would make a really valuable resource.

For more on wacky indexing, see here; and for some unlikely place-names to find on a blog about Daoist ritual, here. For the imaginary index as an art form, see here.

While I’m here, it’s great to be able to cross-reference and give links online (as you can see in this very post)—which in a work published on paper would have to be a tedious footnote or a laborious URL. Not to mention publishing colour photos and maps. AND what’s more, unlike traditional publishing, we can continue editing them. Hooray for modern life!

Anyway, enjoy all the Chinese jokes.

Interpreting pinyin

Shabi Dingxing 1995

Another irreverent exploration of the wonders of the Chinese language:

At least until it caught on as an input method for texting, the pinyin system of transliteration was slow to catch on in China, at least in the countryside. I took this mystifying picture of a shopfront in Dingxing county (Hebei) in 1995, as a little interlude between hanging out with ritual specialists, filming rituals, and photographing—aww, you guessed it—ritual manuals.

It’s actually an electrical and lighting store—the relevance of this only transpires gradually, since such tenuous relations as the notional pinyin may bear to the Chinese characters above it are only intermittent and haphazard. On closer inspection, some of the letters (indeed, a couple of characters too) have dropped off (as in the classic “His R’s fell off”).

Interpreting ancient literature can be like that—I think, for instance, of the labours of Sir Harold Bailey in deciphering fragmentary medieval texts excavated from Khotan. So perhaps this is where a certain sinological training comes in handy.

The cryptic motto begins to make more sense when we add speculative punctuation—evoking two aspiring young Cali actors (let’s dispense with “actresses“) embarking on a Bollywood-themed club night (a text alerting the paparazzi, perhaps):

Jan ‘n’ Dia—L.A. den “Bhabi!”

Or is it even an invitation to anagrams?

Dahlia nabbed ninja
A banal jihad binned
Albania Hadj bin-end

I should’ve gone to Specsavers, but as I pondered the sign in a desperate search for meaning, the reason I took the photo was that I misread the final word as SHABI, “fuckwit”—actually a very popular expression that is considerably less shocking in Chinese than its literal meaning of “stupid cunt”. Anyway, I still like to think that SHABI is what it says.*

 

* Upon mature [sic] reflection, I strongly suspect that was indeed closer to the effect they were aiming for. If we posit a missing final character dian 店, then the last two words would be SHANG DIAN (“shop”), but either they couldn’t tell the difference between their stock of S, B, and D letters, or they just didn’t have enough of them—you know, the old fridge-magnet dilemma. Anyway, with superfluous letters suitably discarded, it really could emerge triumphantly as SHABI.

More Hammer and Tickle

À propos humour under state socialism, and further to my irreverent Chinese lesson, I dare say this joke is in Hammer and Tickle, but I found it in Anne Applebaum’s (also excellent) discussion of various types of subversive manoeuvres in Eastern Europe (Iron curtain, pp.446–51).

I’m going to adapt it for China:

Two friends are walking down the street. One asks the other, “What do you think of Li Peng?” “I can’t tell you here,” he replies. “Follow me”.
They disappear down a narrow hutong. “Now tell me what you think of Li Peng,” says the friend. “No, not here,” says the other, leading him into the hallway of an apartment block.
“OK, here then.” “No, not here. It’s not safe.” They walk down the stairs into the deserted basement.
“OK, now you can tell me what you think of Li Peng.”

“Well,” he says, looking around nervously, “actually I rather like him.”

And here are some jokes from Hungary.

 

Yet more Chinese wordplay

*UPDATED!*

Time for another irreverent Chinese lesson (Yeah I Know—blind leading the blind: try this).

Two classic stories (favorite entries in our Fieldworkers’ joke manual) illustrate the dangers of misconstruing the division of polysyllables—as well as the endless humour and creativity of the Labouring Masses in adversity:

  • The postfix xing 性 makes the previous term adjectival (even sometimes before an adjective); but xing also means “sex”. At our thankfully rare encounters with upright apparatchiks, they may be perplexed to find us corpsing as they make some grandiose toast to “international cultural exchange” (guojixing wenhua jiaoliu 国际性文化交流). Just the slightest hesitation between guoji and xing converts the fine phrase into
    guoji xingwenhua jiaoliu “international exchanges in sexual culture”.
    It’s just as good without the wenhua:
    “international sexual exchanges”.
    For SPICE, the Society for the Promotion Prevention of International Cultural Exchange, see here.
  • After that gentle introduction, this one works on the same principle:

Under the commune system in the 1950s, before New Year the Party Secretary makes an announcement in front of his sullen and freezing villagers. The commune, which as we all know is deeply concerned for the welfare of its poor peasants, has decided to give them all a one-off cash payment.
Not highly literate, the Secretary peers anxiously at the directive. Faltering, he announces, “In recognition of the New Year’s holiday, the Party has generously decided to give everyone…

yicixing shenghuo buzhu 一次性生活补助
of 5 kuai.”

Yici means “once”, so yicixing— all in one breath—means “one-off”: so the directive actually means
a one-off living supplement.

But the Party Secretary, struggling with the characters, hesitates fatally before “xing”, and not enough after it—so that what the villagers actually hear him saying is

yici xingshenghuo buzhu
“just the once, a supplement for sex life”.

Excited, the villagers clamour to clarify the directive. One old codger sticks his hand up and goes,
“Secretary—supposing I do ‘er twice, do I get 10 kuai?”
Another, a poor bachelor, asks,
“Wot about if I do it on me own—do I still get me 5 kuai?”

So similarly, now whenever anyone says “one-off” in Chinese, in any context at all, we all fall about laughing. I remember when disposable chopsticks first became common in Hebei in the 1990s. They’re called yicixing kuaizi, “one-off chopsticks”—or if you’re not careful, “one-off sex chopsticks”.

And here’s a fine example spotted by David Cowhig—not only Party sex 党性 and Advanced sex 先进性 (popular college modules that come with a heavy course load), but a revealing rendition of “Serve the People” as “Behave the People”:

xing

  • This story (my book, pp.118–19) isn’t about linguistics, but it’s also about the communes, so it makes a fitting interlude:

During the Great Leap Forward (or Backward) the village cadres had no choice but to go along with pressure to report ridiculously exaggerated harvest yields. Li Manshan chuckles over a bitter joke that I adapted from the Soviet Union:

A delegation comes down from the commune to inspect the harvest. The village brigade chief blurts out nervously,
“Oh yeah, we’ve had the most amazing harvest! If we piled up all our potatoes, they’d reach all the way up to the feet of Old Buddha in Heaven!”
The chief of the commune Propaganda Bureau takes him off to one side and whispers:
“Hey, don’t you realize? This is a socialist country now, we’re all atheists here—there is no Old Buddha, there is no Heaven!”
“So?” shrugs the brigade chief. “There ain’t no potatoes…”

Sihanouk

  • An only slightly more decorous set of misconstruings (in Chinese, best found here) is among several celebrated stories about Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia. I’ll need a few more large gins before I’m prepared to share one of them (not to mention the Shakespeare story…), but this one (among the very first with which my esteemed mentors at the Music Research Institute regaled me in 1986) is just about repeatable:

Late in the Cultural Revolution, one Mr Jia was head of the Forestry Commission in Linze county of Gansu. He had to assemble his employees daily at 8am for study sessions, at which he read out the latest official news to them.

The major report that morning concerned the visit to Beijing of Prince Sihanouk, known in Chinese as Xihanuke qinwang 西哈努克亲王 (for wacky transliterations, see here). Innocuously, the report read

西哈努克亲王八日到京, 外交部长姬鹏飞到机场迎接, or
King Sihanouk arrived in Beijing on the 8th. The Foreign Affairs Minister Ji Pengfei went to the airport to meet him.

But our Mr Jia, somewhat challenged in the literacy department, was confused by the strange names and the telegraphic style of the communiqué, and again he misconstrued the punctuation. Instead of “Xihanuke qinwang, bari daojing”, he read “Xihanuke, qin wangba* ridao jing”; and, unfamiliar with the illustrious name Ji Pengfei (whose last character means “to fly”), he read “chang jipeng, feidao jichang…”
So alas it came out as:

西哈努克, 王八, 日到京,外交部长姬鹏到机迎接, which means
Sihanouk, consorting with bastards, shagged his way to Beijing.** The Minister for Foreign Affairs Ji Peng flew to the airport to meet him.

This had the assembled forestry workers, and future generations, rolling in the aisles. It may further serve as a caveat for sinologists attempting to decipher unpunctuated ancient texts.**

Such are the stories that punctuate our earnest collection of data on rural ritual life… Pace Hammer and Tickle, this is but the tip of the iceberg of jokes about the Maoist era. And while it’s not the same at all as my choice phrases from Teach yourself Japanese, if you missed that post, do read it too.

For an almost related sequel on pinyin, see here; for more International Cultural Exchange, here.

 

* The traditional term wangba, of course, features in the traditional litany of social outcasts wangba, xizi, chuigushou 王八戏子吹鼓手 bastards, opera performers, and blowers-and-drummers—which appears in The dream of the red chamber, no less. So there.

** Call me innocent, but only recently has a still more filthy reading occurred to me. Some might even hear ridaojing 日到京 (“shagged his way to Beijing”) as 日到精, “shagged away till he came”. With both jing characters being pronounced in the high 1st tone, this is a common pun in several other stories. For ri as a colloquial term for “shagging”… you can do your own online research. Nor do Chinese sources pick up on the use of qin as a verb (“consorting with”), so again I may be over-elaborating.

*** I’m sure there are plenty of similar instances of mis-punctuation in English. The only one that occurs to me right now is the repunctuated placard of the embittered diminutive job-seeker:

NO JOB. TOO SMALL.

For a headline desperately in need of punctuation, see here.

More Chinese wordplay, and a poem

or
What’s in a name?

My Chinese name Zhong Sidi 鍾思第 was given to me by the great Tang-music scholar Yin Falu 荫法鲁 (1915–2002) at my first supervision with him during my 1986 study-period at Peking University.

“Zhong” approximates to my surname Jones; while itself a common surname, for me it has nice echoes of both ritual and music, evoking both Zhong Kui 鍾馗 the ugly drunken demon-queller (Ha!) and the woodcutter Zhong Ziqi 鍾子期, zhiyin soul-mate of qin zither master Bo Ya in the famous ancient story. And even Zhongli Quan 鍾離權, one of the Eight Immortals—a bit of a stretch, perhaps, since Zhongli is a rare double-surname (see here), but hey. Not to mention the huangzhong 黃鍾 and linzhong 林鍾 pitches of the ancient tonal system!

“Sidi” is short for “Sidifen”, a transliteration of “Stephen”.** Professor Yin chose the characters 思第, which in classical Chinese mean something like “mindful of advancement”—which is elegant but somewhat ironic, since I’ve always had enough of the hippy in me to mitigate against any worldly success (it never occurred to me that I might ever get a job, and sure enough I never did).

Without the bamboo radical at the top, the character di 弟 following the si would be a female name: “wanting a little brother”—one that peasants, disapppointed at having a daughter (yeah I know), do indeed sometimes adopt. And one cultural official in Yanggao, moved to write an article about my fieldwork there, somehow miswrote the character as 娣, with the female radical at the side. When I showed it to Li Manshan, we had another typical exchange:

Me: “WTF?! Doesn’t he know how to write my bloody name by now?”

Li Manshan (peering pensively at the character): “Maybe he thinks you’re a hermaphrodite…”

Anyway, as my interests soon transferred from early music history to living traditions of folk music, Yin Falu was remarkably tolerant of my frequent absences to go and hang out with peasants—as was Yuan Jingfang, my supervisor at the Central Conservatoire the following year. I’m also deeply grateful that Yin Falu introduced me early on to Tian Qing (then a lowly and impoverished research student!) and the Music Research Institute, beginning a fruitful long-term collaboration.

* * *

One of the most treasured gifts I’ve received is a scroll that the ritual association of South Gaoluo gave me in 1995 on the eve of my return to Europe (see my Plucking the winds, pp.236–8). They went to great trouble to have a piece of calligraphy made for me, which illustrates their ingenuity. First they “collectively” composed a poem, led by Cai Yurun and the urbane brothers Shan Ming and Shan Ling, most literate of the musicians. They then travelled to town to buy good-quality paper, went and found artistic Shan Fuyi (peasant xiucai litterateur, himself a great authority on the village history) in his work-unit and got him to do the calligraphy. To have the paper mounted, they then took the bus to Baoding, where they had a contact from Yongle village who had worked in the prestigious Rongbaozhai studio in Beijing. All this was a complex process, expressing their appreciation of our relationship.

GL scroll

The seven-word quatrain itself shows not only their literary flair but also their own perceptions of the significance of my fieldwork:

How rare the strains of ancient music
Gladly meeting the spring breeze, blowing is reborn
As the proper music of the ancient Chinese is transmitted beyond the seas
First to be praised is Stephen Jones

There are several charming puns here: in “blowing is reborn” (chui you sheng), “blowing” alludes to the breeze but also clearly to their wind music, and the “born” of “reborn” is homophonous with sheng 笙 the mouth-organ. The last line, impossible to translate, incorporates the device they had been seeking all along: the character di of my Chinese name Zhong Sidi is also an ordinal (as in diyi “first”, di’er “second”, and so on), so by playing with the caesura they managed to incorporate it into a meaningful phrase.

They couldn’t have thought of a better gift. I adore it, not for its flattery—foreigners in China are only too accustomed to receiving extravagant and groundless praise—but because they expressed their appreciation of our bond with such creative energy. In our everyday dealings, the musicians are all too used to me forestalling any incipient flattery by my favourite Chinese phrase, beng geiwo lai zheyitao 甭给我来这一套 “cut the crap”. This expression also comes in handy whenever someone is so sentimentally drunk that they, suddenly moved by the sheer fun of our fieldwork, rashly let out the awful Chinese cliché “international cultural exchange“.

My friends call me “Old Jonesy” (Laozhong 老钟), which is also a jocular way for Chinese people to refer to themselves (老中, for Zhongguo 中国 China) as opposed to laowai 老外 “foreigner”, even “Wog”. Laozhong then leads onto Naozhong 闹钟 “alarm clock”. (For nicknames in the music biz, see here.)

For Craig Clunas’s Chinese name, click here.

 

**Talking of transliterations of foreign names (see here and here), “Stephen” is conventionally rendered as 斯蒂芬. That last fen character is shared with Beethoven (Beiduofen 贝多芬), whose characters, following the brilliant (if controversial) gender analysis by Susan McClary, I like instead to render as 背多粪 “shouldering a load of shit”—“but that’s not important right now”.

Kulture

 

joke

As I snap remorselessy at the heels of the heritage shtick, my cavils revolve around the Chinese concept of mei(you) wenhua 没(有)文化 “lacking in culture”. It’s a cliché referring to people’s degree of modern state education. Even peasants deprecate themselves with the term, though it is precisely the riches of their quite separate culture that “educated” urban pundits purport to admire—before trying to shoehorn it into their own.

LB joke

Li Bin’s brilliant joke (keep watching after the final credits of my film) subtly satirizes the gulf between peasants and intellectuals. Here’s a fuller English version (my book, p.ix):

So there’s this Ph.D. student on a long-distance train journey, sitting in the same compartment as a peasant.

He’s dead bored, so to pass the time, he says to the peasant,

“I know, let’s play a game. We both ask each other one question. If you can’t answer my question, you have to give me 100 kuai; if I can’t answer yours, then I have to give you 200—because I have a Higher Level of Culture, don’t you know?”

The peasant goes, “Oh right—umm, OK then.”

The student says smugly, “You can start, because I have a Higher Level of Culture!” So the peasant thinks for a bit and asks,

“OK then, I got one—so…
What is the animal with three legs that flies in the sky?”

The student racks his brains. “Huh?? An animal with three legs that flies in the sky? Hey, there isn’t one, surely… Ahem… Crikey—you’ve got me there. OK, I give up, I guess I have to pay you 200 kuai.” He hands the cash over to the peasant.

The student, still bemused, goes on, “An animal with three legs that flies in the sky… Go on then, you tell me, what is this animal?”

The peasant scratches his head and goes,

“Hmm… nope, I dunno. OK then, I can’t answer your question either—here’s 100 kuai!”

LMS Rome

It’s even better in Yanggao dialect—Li Manshan tells it hilariously too.

As local traditions continue to be distorted, large areas of the world are in danger of being turned into a kitsch Disneyland theme park. A certain amount depends on the “level of culture” of state bureaucrats all along the chain; in China the central ICH authorities do indeed organize “training sessions” for regional cultural cadres, with limited success.

The whole system seems inherently flawed. Local, um, heritage bearers have their own ideas about what to do with their traditions—and given the dubious benefits and evident dangers of the state system, with its own “lack of culture”, people like me might hope they could be left alone to do so. But beguiled by the chimera of fame and fortune, locals—in China and elsewhere—are all too easily hijacked by the power of state machinery and tourism.

More Daoist wordplay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dialect: Yangpu and Lunpu

Yangpu

County gazetteers are often a useful source for local dialect. Source: Yanggao xianzhi 阳高县志 (1993).

On behalf of “cultured” outsiders (see this joke), the Li family Daoists sometimes make an effort to speak the Yanggao version of putonghua Standard Chinese, whose acronym is Yangpu. It doesn’t bear much more resemblance to the standard language than my own crap Chinese—which by the same process I call Lunpu, short for Lundun putonghua (London Standard Chinese). When meeting Confucius Institutes, I boldly seek to upgrade this to Lunyu, “The Confucian Analects”. Hey ho.

For the secret language of blind shawm players around Yanggao, see here.

Daoists and Confucians

Jpeg

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

子在齊闻韶,三月不知肉味,曰: 不图為樂之至于斯也。
《論語·述而》

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

My comment, precisely 2,534 years later:

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

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

For more from Confucius, see here.

 

* The Analects doesn’t appear to contain his later comment, “Stuff this for a lark, anyone fancy a burger?”

 

[1] 巴: short for Paris 巴黎, not 巴蜀 Sichuan. Or Bali, for that matter. Note how I replace Shao by Dao.

The Li band in France: notes

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

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

I take Li Bin, Golden Noble, Erqing, and Wang Ding round the corner to Rue de Rome, helping spendthrift Li Bin buy a preliminary round of gifts for his guanxi network back home: he asks me to help him choose four bottles of olive oil and ten bottles of vin rouge. Confessing my ignorance, I try to muster a little bon goût. He wants to splash out on more posh bottles, but I choose vin pretty ordinaire, trying vainly to control his reckless spending. A friend of Erqing has even asked him to buy him a particular vintage of Château Lafite. I tell him to forget it. Still, imagine—twenty years ago the average annual income for a Yanggao peasant was still only around £100.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

53 GN and WM amused cropped

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

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

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

edf

La ferme du bonheur. Photo: Hélène Bloch.

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

The hall is small, but the gig is amazing, as always. Our encore of the Mantra to the Three Generations, with me joining in, goes well (playlist, #3, with commentary here).

Nanterre encore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lunch-pack of Notre Dame

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

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

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

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

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

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Nanterre. Photo: Nathalie Béchet.

CF congratulations

Congratulations from the Chinese Consulate General in Lyon.

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

CF group

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

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

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

murals CF.jpg

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

CF posts

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

Jpeg

The touring life. Photo: Wu Yunfeng.

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

Jpeg

Valérie sees us off on the train.

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

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

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

Deviation

The state stance on “heterodox cults”? My photo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laofoye

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

We store our luggage and go for lunch, washed down by Leffe. Old Lord Li is drumming on his chopsticks again. Delightful mood over lunch, as always—everyone chipping in with stories, jokes, reflections. Over delicious yuxiang qiezi, I ask Li Manshan if he has an aubergine tree. Often the subject turns to their hymns, as well as the Zouma suite (playlist #4, commentary here) and funky Yellow Dragon percussion piece, and the whole calibration of the trick sequence—how to improve them, tempi, and so on.

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

Notre Dame

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

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

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

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

After Daoist music in France, try Andean music in Japan

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

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

Wordplay with Daoists

Sometimes when I’m with the Li family Daoists I wear my SOAS T-shirt, which bears the name “SOAS, London University” in most of the Oriental and African languages taught there. The Chinese version, on the back, reads

伦大亚非学院         Lunda YaFei xueyuan,

Lunda being short for Lundun daxue (London University),* Yafei short for Yazhou (Asia) and Feizhou (African), and xueyuan meaning academy.

One day in Italy the ever-lively Third Tiger, Li Manshan’s younger brother, frowning as he tried to interpret these six arcane characters, asked me,

What’s Lundaya feixueyuan supposed to mean?

We all burst out laughing, as usual. He was reading it not as three binomes (Lunda—YaFei—xueyuan), but as Lundaya—some weird transliteration of a foreign name, perhaps?—and feixueyuan, “anti-academy”. But his interpretation has stuck; it has a further resonance when adorning my own back, since with my championing of more earthy folk sounds I’m (ever-so-slightly simplistically) notorious for my anti-conservatoire stance… On my next visit to Yanggao I just had to bring a SOAS T-shirt to give him.

In similar vein (my book, pp.331—2), Li Manshan and I have a lot of fun with the name Intangible Cultural Heritage. The Chinese translation Feiwuzhi wenhua yichan is itself flagrantly at odds with, um, the Chinese heritage. I set the ball rolling by wilfully getting the name wrong, calling it Feiwenhua wuzhi yichan, “Anti-cultural materialistic heritage.” Li Manshan, now designated as a Transmitter of the ICH, takes up the riff: when I joke with him, “You’re an Intangible (feiwuzhi)!”, he comes back with: “Ha, I’m a Waste of Space (feiwu 废物), more like!” This becomes our regular name for the project.

For more T-shirts, see here—oh, and here. And for more wordplay with Daoists, here.

 

*Another regular sources of giggles on visits to rural latrines is the common re-formation of Lundun with the characters 轮蹲, “taking turns to squat”, further elaborated in our revision of Lundun dashiguan 伦敦大使馆 “London embassy” to  轮蹲大屎馆  or “Taking turns to squat in the big London shithouse”…

Poetic satire

Of a different type of ingenuity from more literary wordplay is a couplet pasted up at people’s doorways in the Cultural Revolution (my book, p.131).

In one of few ways that peasants could ridicule the rigid political system, some satirized the deprivation of their conditions. A couplet commonly pasted up at the time ran succinctly:

Two three four five, six seven eight nine.

This may not seem like the most inspired piece of poetry, but Chinese is so ingenious—everyone knew that the lack of the numbers one and ten meant that people had no yi (“one,” also clothing) or shi (“ten,” also food).

One of the Daoists pasted the couplet up and was ticked off by the village cadres. Like naughty schoolboys, villagers joked that so-and-so may have written it but someone else had thought it up. But it was engraved in the sullen sardonic hearts of many peasants.

Still, their impotence reminds me of Peter Cook’s comment:

“those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War”.

As today, satirists’ gain is society’s loss…

Dire straits

Shuishen huore

Source here.

In China my vocabulary—acquired at a time when the commune system was still a recent memory—is absurdly peppered with classic expressions from the Maoist era, like “not taking a single needle or thread from the masses”. My Chinese colleagues have been known to exclaim, “Steve, you sound like a bloody village Party Secretary from the 1950s!”

Of course my usage (like much convoluted Oxbridge-speak) is partly satirical—but only partly.

One handy phrase is actually ancient, going right back to Mencius:

shuishen huore 水深火热
“waters deep, fires raging”—or simply “in desperate straits”

Used in imperial times to describe the abysmal sufferings of the common people, it was applied under Maoism [by Mao? source?] to the plight of populations under capitalism, in need of rescue. Elaborating on the motto, here’s an instance of the lively critiques going on these days (this is from a US-based site, but it’s no longer unimaginable within China):

During the Cultural Revolution there was a famous slogan, “The happy Chinese people are deeply solicitous for the American people, who live in desperate plight”. Experience tells us that the standard of living of the American people living in desperate plight far exceeded that of the happy Chinese people, and that the American people living in desperate plight didn’t seem to need the concern of the happy Chinese people. Under the theory of the great class struggle, tens of millions of happy Chinese people starved to death.

Again, when I use the phrase “waters deep, fires raging” about life in the UK or the West, I’m not being entirely satirical. It partly ties in with that “typical” English self-deprecation, and as the above quote shows, the irony of applying it to the USA can have been lost on few Chinese, even under Maoism. But the expression can be genuinely useful—it is worth reminding some Chinese people (who may still have a rose-tinted view of life in the “Western paradise”) about homelessness, alienation, strains on social care, and so on. If we can be honest about our problems, perhaps China can be too—let’s dispense with the platitudes.

Anyway, “waters deep, fires raging” never came in so handy as now—to describe the current turmoil amidst environmental degradation and moral turpitude, with civilized values widely threatened. Finally its time has come.

The Catechism of Chinese Cliché

li-band-venice

Following the Li family Daoists‘ 2012 tour of Italy, praise within China came in a report published online in the regional capital Datong. Written in bold red characters in the style of a report on a bumper harvest in the Great Leap Forward, here’s an excerpt:

cliché

Recalling Myles and my very own Catechism of Orchestral Cliché, this inspires me to pen a Catechism of Chinese Cliché:

What kind of response did they evince in their audience? Would it have been sullen and apathetic, by any chance?
No. It was warm and enthusiastic, Begob.

What did the performances achieve?
They consolidated the friendship between the Chinese and Italian Peoples.

Surely they did more than consolidate it?
OK, they developed it too.

And what was the art of Chinese Daoist culture able to do where?
Be magnified 弘扬 and promoted 宣传 in a foreign country.

Just in a foreign country?
Oh all right then, you win—on the soil of a foreign country.

So what did the performances receive from the Italian people?
A good assessment and high praise.

And what did the tour do for the entire group?
Um, it encouraged and stimulated their trust and determination to revive our Chinese Daoism.

So since their return, what are they now doing?
They are gradually perfecting and elevating their art.

Is that all?
[grits teethThey are developing and strengthening it too. Do give it a rest.

The report also contains a resounding clarion call:

This is the pride of us Chinese People! The pride of the Chinese Nationality! It is the pride of us Shanxi people! The pride of Datong people! More precisely, it is the pride of our 300,000 People of Yanggao!

I’m not entirely taking the piss. A report like that, however comical and cliché-ridden it may seem, evinces genuine feelings. Even if such terms are alien to peasants like Li Manshan, some people do use them, and most can; and it’s a useful skill for us outsiders to deploy them in suitable contexts.

Also, such coverage subtly, um, Consolidates the reputation of the Li family and Daoist ritual in north Shanxi. What it doesn’t do is make local patrons and audiences value their rituals as much as pop music.

BTW, the article is quite right to observe that “More precisely, it is the pride of our 300,000 People of Yanggao”. Still, it uses the duplicitous Chinese media title for the Li band, “Hengshan Daoist Music Troupe”—which I take to the cleaners here.

Still on the theme of International Cultural Exchange (grrr) between China and Italy, I penned the party game The Silk Road (“hours of harmless fun for all the family!”).

While we’re about it,

What is the Venice of the East?
Suzhou, if you must. Like Balham is gateway to the south.

Note also clichés of Chinese art and music, as well as the fine parody Eat, pray, self-love: my lyrical journey through the heart of genocide country.

Take a flying jump

A glowing paean from one Führer to another—Tweety McTangerine (yes, the Mango Trumpolini himself) on another Great Helmsman:

You have to give him credit. How many young guys—he was like 26 or 25 when his father died—take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden… he goes in, he takes over, he’s the boss… It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one. This guy doesn’t play games.

That’s how it’s often cited, but in the interests of scrupulous balance, the fuller transcript puts it in context:

If you look at North Korea—this guy, he’s like a maniac, OK? And you have to give him credit. How many young guys—he was like 26 or 25 when his father died—take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden—you know, it’s pretty amazing when you think of it. How does he do that? Even though it is a culture and it’s a cultural thing, he goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss… It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn’t play games. And we can’t play games with him. Because he really does have missiles. And he really does have nukes.

“It is a culture and it’s a cultural thing” (like the KKK and NRA, eh?)—there, who says he doesn’t do eloquent anthropological refection? Eat your heart out, Bourdieu. This guy, he’s like a maniac, OK?

kim

This photo reminds me of a classic story, perhaps originally from the USSR, but widely shared in this Chinese adaptation (Fieldworkers’ joke manual no.23). Diplomatic as ever, I shall cunningly disguise the identity of the butt of the joke, notoriously dim, by calling him Lee Beng.

Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Lee Beng are taking a flight together with a group of schoolkids when the plane develops a fault and begins an alarming descent.

There are only three parachutes on board, so Deng Xiaoping grabs one, straps it on his back, and loftily declaring “The People need me!” he leaps out; soon his parachute unfurls and he glides down to earth. Jiang Zemin follows suit.

Lee Beng gets the idea, so he too grabs a bundle, straps it on his back, and exclaiming “The People need me!” he throws himself out after them.

One of the schoolkids looks down as he hurtles earthwards and cries out, “Waah! Uncle Lee’s got my satchel!”

Coming back to the leaders who inspired this post, one can but dream.

A tongue-twister for the household Daoist

57 shengguan trio

Yang Ying (right) and Li Bin (left) accompanyWu Mei before the coffin, 2011.

A popular dep in Li Manshan’s band is Yang Ying, who studied briefly with Li Qing not long before his stroke in 1996, but as boss of a busy shawm band has to juggle his ritual work (my book pp.319–21).

Since household Daoists like this are known here as yinyang, and since (like the “non-national” Euripides, to cite Myles yet again) Yang is partial to “smoking substances”, one day while we were all relaxing in the scripture hall I composed a suitable epithet for him, on a par with my headline for Švejk and Saint-Saëns:

阴阳杨英饮洋烟
Yinyang Yang Ying yin yangyan

The yinyang Yang Ying smokes foreign tobacco with a water-pipe.

 

Note: 饮 “drinks” is a little obscure (“eats” chi  is more idiomatic, but that doesn’t work, of course), but evidently refers to a water-pipe. We’re always joking about “foreign tobacco“, which has long suggested opium.

The definitive transliteration

Svejk

I just can’t resist constructing a headline to incorporate some of my favourite Chinese transliterations (for more, see here, with thread):

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.

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, Andrew Lawrence 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.

Reading Chinese: a caveat

Not unlike the order of spoken binomes, temple placards can be confusing to read. Written horizontally, they usually read from right to left; but sometimes, as when an emperor bestows a placard on a temple, they may read from left to right. This can even be an issue in reading secular slogans, which now almost always read from left to right.

Among the numerous stories of Tian Qing, eminent pundit of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, this is one of few that I dare publish…

A distinguished elderly Buddhist monk from mainland China was visiting Taiwan. Above a little restaurant opposite the temple that was hosting him, he was alarmed to see a sign:

heshang

EAT A YOUNG MONK

It took him a while to work out that hopefully it might read in the other direction:

尚和小吃

SNACKS OF ESTEEMED HARMONY

For another fine instance, see here. For more Chinese character-play, see under the Chinese jokes tag—this one is particularly charming. OK then, here’s another story from Tian Qing—again on a Buddhist theme.

Laowai

This story from 1999, in my Shaanbei book, already describes a bygone age:

One afternoon, after a couple of weeks in the countryside unable to get in touch with my partner in London, I decide to try and find a phone from where I can make an international call. Yangjiagou still has no phone [like Li Manshan’s village at the time!], certainly not one connected to the international network, so with my colleague Guo Yuhua we set off by foot down the hill towards the district township, almost an hour’s walk.

We find a phone in the post office and, miraculously, I get through. As I pay the sullen assistant, she makes out a receipt, asking what name she should fill in. I tell her not to bother, but as we come out onto the street, I take a look at the receipt: she has made it out to “WOG” (laowai).

laowai

After returning home to London I framed it.

 

Periodizing modern China

slogan

Satirical Chinese saying, c2010.

In my book Daoist priests of the Li family I stress the importance of fieldwork on the modern period, not just attempting to imagine the rosy distant past. Talking of the modern period (p.141):

Just as historians document ritual change throughout the medieval and late imperial periods, we find constant adaptation in the years before and after the Communist revolution of 1949. Similarly, a detailed account of over three decades of ritual practice since the liberalizing reforms of the early 1980s reveals continuing changes.

Chinese peasants have a different conception of time from the periodization we find in official history. Li Manshan described his wedding in 1971 as “after the end of the Cultural Revolution”; “land reform” is often used to mean the privatization around 1980; and now when people mention “liberation” they often mean after the end of the commune system in the 1980s. Now that the Maoist era is a rather distant memory, it may seem like a blip in the long sweep of history—but it has left deep scars.

Similarly, while in the official story the term “three years of difficulty” (1959–61) makes a veiled recognition of the devasting famine, it means little to many peasants, since they suffered from severe food shortages right through from the early years of collectivization until the collapse of the commune system.

Faqu tu 2, or tutu

At Cambridge, Paul Kratochvil was not alone in enjoying a bit of drôlerie.

Here’s another jeu d’esprit on the faqu 法曲, from a precious old letter that I just found from my teacher Denis Twitchett, sent (by post!) from Princeton in 1986. A tad more wacky than his magnum opus Financial administration under the T’ang dynasty, it deserves to take its place among his magisterial writings on Tang history:

Dear Steve,
Some further ruminations on that mysterious term faqu. I am reminded of the hypothesis (first adumbrated in my alas-as-yet-unfinished “Preliminary proleptical remarks proving beyond Reasonable Doubt that Li Bai [aka Patrick O’Leary] was the earliest Irish poet”) that faqu is a rough-and-ready transliteration of the greeting shouted at tax-collectors in the medieval Irish countryside, and also commonly exchanged by rival drivers of donkey carts involved traffic accidents. The etymology of its common form in Chinese is obscure; under the Liao dynasty a folk etymology suggested that it meant “May the Law twist [your private parts]!” It should not be confused with the alternative writing (found in non-Buddhist contexts) fa-k’iu 發具 (explained by Karlgren as “Get out your [ritual] implement!”). This is quite distinct from the forms fakefu 法可夫 or 伏軻䮛 (the latter writing mistranslated by Legge as “Kneel by the hubcap of the Prince Consort”), meaning, according to Admiral Ting (first Chinese to be trained in the Royal Navy), “Be on your way, Jack!”

“French pieces” were surely more normally written in Tang Chinese as faji 法伎 or more colloquially as fashi 法式 “French models”. The title of the well-known Song-dynasty work Yingzao fashi 營造法式 is now attached to a rather boring work on architecture which explains how to construct yourself a baroque dog-kennel without mod cons. This work, however, is clearly a forgery by a Ming author, horrified to the depths of his neo-Confucian sensibilities by the original contents of the book, originally a Song DIY handbook “Make yourself a French model”.

The French presence long predates the Tang, and surely explains Zhuangzi’s Frog in the Well (a fine metaphor for the petty self-interest of the French). This also explains the title of the Tang Li Wa zhuan 李蛙傳, “The story of Froggy Li [the French model]”, and how the word wa “frog” came to have its other meaning “lascivious” or wanton”.

Empirical language acquisition

Pilsen

Frances Wood, a distinguished former student of the late great Paul Kratochvil, reminds me of another of his stories.

Paul liked to tell us this as we grappled with the use of classifiers (measure words) for Chinese nouns. The nearest equivalent in English is for collective nouns. In Chinese a basic all-purpose one is ge (“a person” is not yiren but yige ren), but one needs to use all kinds of classifiers before different types of nouns, like ben for a book (not yishu but yiben shu), or (if you wanna get pleasantly obscure—as I do) zuan for a sheng mouth-organ (yizuan sheng).

Anyway, Paul was just a kid when American GIs liberated his home village in Czechoslovakia in May 1945. They were kind of heroes, and he began hanging out at their barracks, gradually picking up English—entirely through daily aural experience.

After some time a grammatical rule subliminally formulated in his young mind: English nouns must invariably be preceded by the classifier fuckin’. No-one ever said “Gimme a beer!”, it was always “Gimme a fuckin’ beer!”; never “Open the window!”, always ““Open the fuckin’ window!”

Paul’s spoken English came along rapidly, and his father, realizing he had a real gift for language learning, somehow managed to arrange for him to go up to Prague to take an English oral proficiency test.

Paul knocks on the door. Commanding English military type shouts out, “Come in!”, and finding a scruffy kid in short trousers standing before him, barks,

“Yes boy, what do you want?”

Paul, hesitantly:

“Hey bud, I come to take ze fuckin’ exam in fuckin’ English.”

Such stories made a change from my encounters with scholars of a more classical bent, like Laurence Picken and Sir Harold Bailey. See also Language learning: a roundup.

 

Yet more French letters

Female musicians, Tang Dynasty. Note konghou harpist, rear right.

Further evidence that my taste for drôlerie chinoise is far from recent: a spoof I wrote while helping Laurence Picken with his extraordinary research on Tang music—which I elaborated with another Cambridge mentor, the great Tang historian Denis Twitchett. The genre of faqu 法曲 (“dharma pieces”) has indeed been the (serious) object of scholarly attention. Reading this now, I find the fluency of my affectionate pastiche of academic style somewhat disturbing…

Informal communication with Dr T.H. Barrett [1] has suggested the possibility that faqu may actually mean “French pieces”. Study of a recently discovered and as-yet-untranscribed score from Dunhuang for “hand-wind instrument” (perhaps a kind of manually operated keyed chordophone) entitled Dunhuang shoufeng qinpu 敦煌手風琴譜 reveals a colophon dated 1st April 895 (lunar calendar) which contains references to a certain “Master Ma” (Mashi 馬師), or as we might say, “Chevalier”. The authenticity of this score is no longer in doubt. It includes many faqu, besides one title, Zhena legelede li’a 柘拿樂葛樂德篥阿, [2] evidently a transliteration from a language of the Western Regions (xiyu 西域), but otherwise unattested in Tang sources.

The contacts between the Tang court and the Western world are by now well documented. We find frequent references in Tang anecdotal sources to “strings of onions” (congchuan 蔥串), [3] often in connection with men with a certain type of moustache that became highly fashionable under the emperor Xuanzong, riding carts described as “self-propelling” (zixingche 自行車), [4] and clad in close-fitting garments with black and white stripes (a variant of the yinyang symbol?), as well as floppy caps known as beilei 鞞儡.

The French letter: a rejoinder
Further evidence of the Gallic influence on early Chinese musical culture is to be found in the ancient institution of the fashu 法書 (more recently faxin 法信) or “French letter”, a kind of prophylactic talisman deployed in ancient Chinese households in the hope of avoiding unfavorable consequences.

Traditionalists [5] might evoke the sacred power of music and the jiefa 節法 or “rhythm method”, [6] but more pragmatic counsel, favouring foreign and commercial expansion, and under the influence of Buddhist philosophy, gave rise to the “French letter”.

This popular device was available as early as the Tang dynasty in the form still to be found in temples today, the fawu liutong chu 法物流通處 or “Durex machine”. Although nowadays more innocuous material has replaced the original merchandise, the original meaning of “French thingies” (fawu) is clear. The phrase liutong is somewhat arcane: liu implies dissemination, and tong some kind of intercourse, so one might expect tongliu as an early form of resultative verb—thus, perhaps, “French thingies for penetration and ejaculation”.

Faqu tu
Yet another Gallic connection appears in the instrument fajue 法角 “French horn”, often supposed to refer to a kind of conch sounded in ritual. [7] Recent scholarship suggests that jue was often used metaphorically in the Tang, having once been associated with the debauchery of the notorious Zheng and Wei 鄭魏 kingdoms—the latter also known as “Wei-Hei”. Thus it had the connotation of “horny” or “lascivious” music, as in the term jueshi 爵士, once “gentleman of rank” but by the Tang, “jazz” or “jazzer”. The term dejue 得角 “obtain the horn” is also found in the Dunhuang MSS, apparently referring to a desire for imminent fulfillment; not can this be limited to exclusively religious fervour.

The well-known notational technique of denoting rhythm by means of dots to the right-hand side of the note (again referring to the above jiefa “rhythm method”) is also found as early as the Dunhuang pipa score. Known as pangdian 旁點 “a bit on the side”, this practice is thought to have been inspired by the ancient French penchant for extra-curricular activities, or gewai shi 格外事.

Moreover, the ambiguity in Tang scores between jue 角 and yu 羽 modes (Aeolian and Dorian respectively, differing only in the sixth degree of the scale) may also be traced to the innovative cultural influence of the French. The term yu is in fact an abbreviation of yulong 羽龍 or “feathered dragon”, a mythical beast said to appear upon rendition of this mode (cf. Hanfeizi), and this was soon formalized into what we now know as the “feather boa”, and used in the celebrated Huntuo 褌脫 or “Removing the Drawers” dance, itself remarkable for its ambiguity between jue and yu modes. Thus the apparel used in this ancient French ritual dance gave its name to the mode most often used to accompany it.

For a sequel, see here; and for more Tang drolerie, here.

 

[1] In the Aardvark and Climbing Boot, 14th October 1985. Just before closing time.
[2] For the reconstructed Tang pronunciation of this enigmatic title, see Karlgren, Grammata Serica Recensa. Can the resemblance to Je ne regrette rien be fortuitous?
[3] Alternatively, some commentators have construed this phrase as indicating the Congling 蔥嶺 range in Central Asia. Indeed, the recent excavation of a large hoard of 7th-century snail shells from this very region makes the siting of a French colony there highly plausible.
[4] Thought to refer to a mystical “journey of the spirit”: see H. Maspero, “Le voyage dans le monde intérieur et la difficulté de trouver un endroit pour le parking”, T’oung Pao 27 (1913), pp. 856–979. For a similar view of the spiritual propensities of this means of conveyance, see Flann O’Brien, The third policeman.
[5] On the conflict between rival factions under Xuanzong, see The Cambridge history of China, vol.3.
[6] See Jones, “Time gentlemen please: the bell as colotomic indicator in Chinese ritual music” (for further articles I haven’t really written, see here).
[7] Cf. the hujia 胡笳 “barbarian pipes”, another import from the Western regions. 2019 update: in an apparent nod to Goodness Gracious Me, it has recently been “proved” that the ancient Gauls came from Hunan—where Daoists still use both a conch and a curved ox-horn 牛角 (popularly known as kaluosa 咔螺薩, a more durable form of the French croissant) to great effect in their rituals. Indeed, will Chinese scholars now “prove” that Charlemagne 沙了蠻 was a Tang vassal?

1990 Daoist

 

Literary wordplay

One for readers of Chinese!

Among the ritual manuals of the Li family Daoists, the final page of Li Qing’s Xiewu ke gives this ingenious poem about the Eight Immortals, each pair of “characters” making up a seven-word line (4 +3):

This has nothing to do with their ritual practice. Though the composite characters may look at first sight like talismans, any cultured reader would enjoy reading (and deciphering) the poem.

Li Manshan enjoys such word games, and puts me onto others like this:

screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-10-35-10

to be read thus:

半夜三更門半開
小姐等到*月西斜
山高路遠無口信
哭斷肝腸少人来
* 到 to be substituted for the implied 倒: “an upturned 等 turned back upright”.

Indeed, as Sven Osterkamp eruditely tells me, Robert Morrison remarked on a very similar poem in an entry “Enigma” in his A dictionary of the Chinese language (1822), Part III, p.142—expanded upon by Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat in his “Explication d’une énigme chinoise”, in vol.2 of his Mélanges asiatiques (1826), pp.266–8:

Meanwhile over lunch at a transport caff (“Greasy Chopstick”) between visits to Daoists in Shuozhou, our wonderful and erudite driver Ma Hongqi wrote this elegant poem into my notebook, said to have been composed by Yingying on her first meeting with Scholar Zhang in the Romance of the Western Chamber:

Ma poem

which, as the young scholar soon discerned, is to be read first vertically, all the way down; then back upwards, turning left at 花; then all the way back to the right; and finally back to the left, turning upwards at 花—creating this four-line verse:

九月九花金顶头
头顶金花好风流
流风好花头上戴
戴上头花九月九

Variant versions of these can be found online.

Writing English: the etic view

Further to It’s the only language they understand, we often cite another quote from a Hebei village. Watching me writing in English in my notebook, a  peasant described what I was doing as

二十几个字来回倒

It’s not easy to translate nicely—something like

messing around with a couple of dozen letters

Or even

arbitrarily jumbling up a couple of dozen letters.

This is clearly a common sentiment among those unfamiliar with the process—it always gets a laugh.

53 GN and WM amused cropped

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

Actually, my notes would be pretty incomprehensible to most English people too, with all my personal acronyms, abbreviations, and pinyin—like

LMS: HL at end of ZX; + for FS, on shang fatai.

which tells me (and only me):

Li Manshan says: the percussion item Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body (Huanglong san zhuanshen) is played at the end of the Transferring Offerings (zhuanxian) ritual, and also for the Pardon (fangshe), on ascending the ritual platform.

I often marvel when fieldworkers quote from their apparently perfectly formulated notebooks, full of theoretical reflections. Gregory Barz (Shadows in the Field, p.45–62) explores this issue well. For me, an idiolect of shorthand is vital—in the middle of chasing round trying to keep up with Li Manshan, offering round cigarettes in a noisy crowded room, snatched moments between ritual segments to document what I’ve just learned, and further seeking his guidance…

Eating lions

The English language may have a propensity for wordplay (cf. Headline punning, and Myles), but you can’t beat Chinese. This poem (“The story of Mr Shi eating lions”), composed in the 1930s by Yuen Ren Chao (Zhao Yuanren), plays solely on different meanings of characters pronounced shi:

施氏食狮史
石室诗士施氏,嗜狮,誓食十狮。施氏时时适市视狮。十时,适十狮市。是时,适施氏适市。
施氏视十狮,恃矢势,使是十狮逝世。氏拾是十狮尸,适石室。石室湿,施氏使侍拭石室。
石室拭,施氏始试食十狮尸。食时,始识十狮实十石狮尸。试释是事。

For what it’s worth, you can read about the Li family’s shishi Bestowing Food ritual in my book

For further wonderful wordplay from the Li family, see here.

New definitions

In the spirit of I’m sorry I haven’t a clue

Further to Speaking from the heart, where I noted the somewhat elaborate definition of the term dundian, here’s another fine definition—ironically, from the Chinese-Chinese dictionary of Li Manshan, no less, which we consulted when I mentioned the term lu, Daoist “registers” (lengthy hereditary titles bestowing the authority to conduct rituals), unfamiliar to him:

lu

a superstitious thing that Daoists use to trick people
(my translation)

Hmm. Li Manshan shrugs, and we both giggle.

Transliteration

Talking of Chinese versions of foreign names, I like

  • Andeli Poliwen: André Previn
  • Laweier: Ravel
  • Chake Beili (pronounced Charcur Bailey): Chuck Berry
  • Ao Shaliwen (Ao as in “Ow!”): O’Sullivan.

I also like

  • Dingding: Tintin.

Not to mention the Chinese transliteration of the word toothbrush:

  • tuzibulashi—“rabbits don’t shit”, which inspired me to this fine headline.

For my Chinese name, and that of Beethoven, see here.

In memory of Paul Kratochvil

Paul 1976

Wedding party, Cambridge 1976.

At Cambridge during the Cultural Revolution, immersed as I was in the Tang dynasty, my only clues to the funkiness of contemporary Chinese culture came from my teacher the fine linguist Paul Kratochvil (a surname that suitably means “fun”). Born in 1933, he had somehow became an expert on the phonetics of modern Chinese, fleeing Czechoslavakia in 1968 to take up a post at Cambridge with the help of the Oxford sinologist Piet van der Loon. He features in this impressive introduction to Prague sinologists (for whom, see here).

Recommending to me a book called Current Trends in Linguistics, Paul looked bemused when I asked him what I should look it up in the library under—like an editor’s name or something:

“Well, Steve, try ‘C’—if that doesn’t work, I guess you could try ‘K’…”

While he was still in Prague, a friend in China addressed the envelope of a letter to him with great economy:

Paul

(“Czechoslavakia, Comrade Paul”). Sure enough, he received it.

spectacles

Over copious beer in the pub where he used to take me for what were euphemistically described as “supervisions”, Paul recalled this story:

While still in Czechoslovakia he had served as interpreter for the Czech army, and at one high-level conference in Prague receiving a Chinese military delegation, he found himself interpreting for a Czech general at one end of the table and a Chinese general at the other.

The talks had gone well, and the Czech general was winding up with the customary sonorous platitudes.

“I hope both sides will be able to exchange experiences!” he declared majestically.

My friend Paul was already a fine linguist, and he knew there were some binomes in Chinese which you could say in the order either A-B or B-A, but alas he thought jingyan, “experience”, was one of these. So he blithely translated, “Wo xiwang shuangfang nenggou jiaohuan yanjing”, which unfortunately comes out only as

“I hope both sides will be able to exchange spectacles.”

This puts the Chinese general in a spot; the TV cameras are trained on him, and he mustn’t make a faux pas. Can this be some weird Czech custom denoting fraternal solidarity? As luck would have it, both generals are wearing spectacles. The Chinese general hesitantly takes off his glasses and holds them out over the table towards his Czech counterpart.

This, of course, presents no less of a challenge for the Czech general; having said nothing at all about spectacles, he is mystified to see this Chinese geezer holding out his spectacles across the table, and he too has to think quickly. Can this be some ancient Confucian ritual denoting fraternal solidarity? He too hesitantly takes off his glasses and offers them across the table.

My chastened mentor later switched on the Prague TV news to see a report, the newsreader announcing solemnly, “And at the end of the conference the two sides exchanged spectacles in the ancient Chinese gesture of comradeship”—as the two generals groped their way to the door.

For a suitable fanfare for the event, see here. Among several more fine stories from Paul, I like this, and indeed this. See also Czech tag.

Confession

I truly believe that one day there will be a telephone in every town in America—Alexander Graham Bell

phone

The date of the first landline phone in Li Manshan’s village is another of our standing jokes.

This is really embarrassing to admit, but when I asked him about it in 2011, I heard his reply as ‘sisannian’, so I unquestioningly wrote ‘1943’ in my notebook, I mean how mindless was that of me… Only later, writing up my notes back home, did I smell a rat, and it finally dawned on me that he must have said shisannian (qian), ‘thirteen years ago’! (The difficulty of distinguishing shi and si was only part of my howler; and actually, he would never say sisannian for 1943—even if he knew such a date he could only say “32nd year of the Republican era”, cf.my book pp.37-8). So the first landline was only installed in 1998, just a few years before mobile phones swept the board.

Now, whenever we misunderstand each other, we just say “sisannian” and fall about laughing. For more on our relationship, see here; and for a classic joke, here. For early linguistic escapades in Hebei, see here.

A meeting with Teacher Wang

lms-and-me-in-hk

With Li Manshan in Hong Kong, 2011

Chinese peasants tend to “eat” cigarettes (chiyan) rather than the standard “take a drag on” them (chouyan)—yet another instance of the practical blunt charm of their language.

Timothy Mo alludes to this locution in Sour Sweet:

“Eat things, eat things,” he said aloud, gesturing to the smoking plates in front of everyone but only lighting a cigarette for himself.
“You don’t eat things yourself, Grandpa?” This was Mui.
“I eat smoke,” he quipped, laughing immoderately at his own wit.

In Hong Kong (my book pp.333–4) I was delighted to introduce Li Manshan to the illustrious Taiwanese scholar C.K. Wang. Apart from his indefatigable energy in opening up the vast field of ritual studies in mainland China, he has a remarkable gift for finding a place for a surreptitious smoke (cf. the first poem in Homage to Tang poetry). In Hong Kong, where smoking laws are draconian, he would regularly lead us through labyrinthine corridors to some corner of an underground car park for a quick fag.

This soon became part of my secret language with Li Manshan. Back in Yanggao, he was careful not to smoke in the presence of his baby grandson—so sometimes when I felt he needed a fag-break, I would suggest to him, “Shall we go and hold a meeting with Teacher Wang?”

Fun with anachronisms

And the roar of Moses’ Triumph is heard in the hills

Without even knowing how I feel about the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, my adorable cat Kali (R.I.P.) threw up over my copy of the Jade Pivot Scripture, which I had bought in an edition printed at the temple.

One ritual title that the Li family manuals feature only fleetingly is Thunder Lord of Three-Five Chariot of Fire (Sanwu huoche leigong). This is among the attributes of the deity Wang Lingguan, and a trace of the thunder rituals of Divine Empyrean Daoism. [1] In the Li family manuals it appears only in the Mantra to Lingguan and in the Xijing zayi manual, no longer performed and thus no longer familiar to them:[2]

huoche

From Xijing zayi manual (Sanwu huoche Lingguan on line 3), copied by Li Qing

So my excuse to discuss it here is flimsy as ever, but we all need a bit of light relief every so often. This also relates tenuously to my comments on hearing Bach with modern ears.

Huoche “chariot of fire” (glossed as “fireball”) may prompt titters at the back, since in common modern parlance it means “train”. Whereas “And the roar of Moses’ Triumph is heard in the hills” is a translation that has been inadvertently amusing only since the spread of the automobile [mental note: must get that exhaust fixed], [3] huoche is an ancient original which could have been affording chuckles to Daoist scholars since the term became common usage for “train” in the late 19th century. When you’re immersing yourself in the abstruse mysteries of the Daoist Canon, you have to take such diversion where you can find it.

What’s more, we may giggle impertinently at another of Lingguan’s attributes, Sanwu (Three-Five)—erstwhile a brand of cigarette that Chinese people associate with Englishness (much to my perplexity, since I’ve never heard of them outside China) just as much as London fog. (For “the smoking substances of non-nationals”, see More from Myles).

So here we appear to find Lingguan smoking a posh foreign cigarette on a train journey through his spiritual domain—being a high-ranking Daoist cadre, he would get to travel soft-sleeper (cf. Fieldwork and textual exegesis).

 

[1] The appellation may commonly be found in the Daoist Canon, but, more relevant to “texts in general circulation” (my book p.218–24) and the practices of the Li family may be its appearances in Xuanmen risong: Xuanmen risong zaowan gongke jingzhu 玄門日誦早晚功課經注, chief editor Min Zhiting (Beijing: Zongjiao wenhua chubanshe, 2000) 166–7, 244–5.
[2] My book p.376, cf. p.381; for the Divine Empyrean, see also pp.219–20.
[3] A substantial irreverent online industry in such Biblical quotes has arisen.

Lost in translation

Two gems I found on a room service menu in Beijing, 2015: 

Fuck to fry the cow

Discredited mandarin fish of Mount Huang

Translations on menus provide rich entertainment, of course. For East Asia, Victor Mair gets to grips with some on languagelog (some links here), and that site has many more Silly signs.  See also my Temple Chinglish.

For a menu pun, I’m most taken by this—as if inviting a Chinese franchise of Flann O’Brien:

Times

which indeed leads nicely into Lyrics for theme tunes

Homage to Tang poetry

Lest anyone suppose I frittered away my time studying classical Chinese at Cambridge, here are some poems I composed then in the style of the great Tang masters (though even Bai Juyi’s ouevre was variable). I think they display precocious signs of the pointless inanity that was to distinguish my later writings. OK, the finer rules of prosody have always eluded me, but I took most of the phrases from original Tang poems, giving them what I believe is known as a contemporary twist.

A smoke behind the cricket pavilion
This was prompted by the pun on chan: “Zen”, and “cricket” in the sense of cicada; from there I punned with another kind of cricket. “Smoke”, of course, is what you see wafting from a rural hamlet at sundown.

独坐蝉亭后                      Sitting alone behind the cricket pavilion
轻闻白衣玩                      Hearing vaguely the cricketers playing
忽然含烟气                      Suddenly I retain the smoke vapour
畏有蝉师来                      What if the cricket master should come?

On receiving a visit in late spring from Mr Yan and his friends
This is the title of a poem by Wang Wei, which conjured up sinister images of the mafia in a B-movie (“We wouldn’t want this vase to get broken, would we? Oh dear me, how clumsy…”).

贵居来人少                    Your esteemed abode has few visitors
黄发君已老                     You are old now, with your grey hair
一时破此瓶                      Just suppose this vase got broken
惆怅悲无际                      Such sadness, limitless grief!

At the pictures
Inspired by the original phrase “old overcoat”, and the common occurrence of the term “washerwoman”, this poem charmingly describes an indecent exposure at the cinema.

春寒著弊袍                 The spring is cold—I put on an old overcoat
上堂来人少                 The cinema has few visitors
静坐依浣女                 Quietly sitting, I nudge a washerwoman
一闪啼连天                 One flash, and the howls reach to the heavens!

Mind your language

I can’t resist citing a charming story from a Chinese anthropologist documenting a village in Shaanxi province: [1]

One sunny afternoon in February 1992, I went to the main village by myself. Since it was not long after the Chinese New Year’s day, everyone in the village was still in new dresses. When I was walking around, trying to talk to people, I met an old woman who carried her little grandson whose age was no more than three or four. The little boy was dressed up in a new green suit designed like the People’s Liberation Army uniform, and he was wearing a brand new green hat with a red star in the middle. He looked so pretty that I bent over to say “hello” to him. To my surprise, the little prince quietly said to me, “Fuck your mother”. I was so embarrassed that I did not know if I had done anything improper. The old woman slapped her grandson and told him, “No, you little fucking bastard! Don’t say that to Teacher Liu. He is a fucking nice person.”

 

[1] Liu Xin, Zhao villagers: everyday practices in a post-reform Chinese village, PhD (Dept of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS, 1995), p.183—cruelly censored from the published version In one’s own shadow (2000)!

It’s the only language they understand

In the early 1990s, arriving with my long-suffering friend and colleague Xue Yibing in a typically bare and grimy office of the Bureau of Culture in a county south of Beijing, we settle down to courtesies with the Bureau chief, to clear our way to go down to the villages. I launch into my routine again—delighted to be in this fine county, heard so much about your wonderful music, blah-blah, most grateful for your support, international cultural exchange blah-blah.

The Bureau chief is looking even more nonplussed by all these pathetic clichés than one would expect, and eventually, as I flounder around searching for yet more sonorous bullshit with which to impress him, Xue Yibing interjects,

“Do you understand what he’s saying, Bureau chief?”

He replies earnestly,
“Well, if Mr Jones could speak Chinese, I might understand a bit!”

OK, my accent may not be perfect, but really! Xue diplomatically explains,
“Mr Jones doesn’t speak Chinese so well…” which prompts me to joke with him,
“My Chinese is a lot better than your fucking English, mate—wodya mean, motherfucker?” Needless to say, these choice expressions come out in perfect Chinese readily understood by all. The assembled cronies are bemused.

This story soon became part of our Fieldworkers’ joke manual (cf. Writing English: the etic view), and has even been immortalized, if somewhat modified, in a little article I published in a Chinese conference volume. [1]

* * *

Gao Liwang 1993

My confidence was restored soon after, when we visited an old-people’s home where we were told a fine former Daoist priest was living. We find him, and are soon chatting in the sunny courtyard with a crowd of lovely old geezers assembled. They haven’t had such fun since the Red Star Chairman Mao Thought Propaganda Troupe arrived to perform classic hits like We are little screws in the revolutionary machine and Thrust into the Enemy Rear. As I explain to the old Daoist,

“Old Wang in your home village told us we might find you here, he said you used to do some great rituals…”,

one old guy bursts out,

“Hey, this is amazing—their language is the same as ours!”

His ears were more finely tuned than those of the Bureau chief.

For challenges to communication in “English”, see here.

 

[1] “Cong ‘Jiaru Zhong xiansheng neng shuo Hanyu dehua’ shuoqi”  从《假如钟先生能说汉语的话》说起, in Qiao Jianzhong 乔建中 and Xue Yibing 薛艺兵 eds., Minjian guchuiyue yanjiu 民间鼓吹乐研究 (Shandong youyi cbs, 1999), pp.407–13.