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…”

The joys of indexing

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’m not going to try and work out how to introduce sub-headings into such tags, but here’s a simple list of how they might look for this one:

  • puns
  • Daoist
  • grammar
  • pinyin
  • poetry
  • Maoist
  • heritage
  • names
  • visual
  • Tang
  • urban–rural

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

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

[…]

and

  • Venice
  • violence
  • vocal liturgy
  • walking

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:

invecticonWhile we’re on the subject of research (um) tools, the glossaries of the Barry Mackenzie cartoon books are masterpieces of indiscreet linguistic erudition:
Bazza
I keep trying to encourage Chinese publishers to include indexes—they would make a really valuable resource.

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.”

 

Yet more Chinese wordplay

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

Three classic stories (favorite entries in our Fieldworkers’ joke book) 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”.
  • 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”.

  • 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…”

  • A somewhat 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 whacky 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 somewhat 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 “Ji Peng 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 himself—the bastard—shagged his way to Beijing.** The Foreign Affairs Minister 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.

 

* 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.

*** 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.

More Chinese wordplay, and a poem

or
What’s in a name?

My Chinese name Zhong Sidi 钟思第 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 Beijing 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 钟馗 the ugly drunken demon-queller (Ha!) and the woodcutter Zhong Ziqi 钟子期, 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, but hey.

“Sidi” is short for “Sidifen” (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).

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”, dier “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), 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”.

 

**Talking of transliterations of foreign names, “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”.