Some great Chinese stammerers


As a card-carrying stammerer, I’m always on the lookout for fellow-sufferers—not least in China.*

I’ve already described my encounter with a stammering shawm player in Shaanbei (here, under “Status and disability”), and suggested a motto for the Chinese Stammerers’ Association, as well as noting an entertainingly crap Chinese therapy. I’ve noted how the public nature of Chinese life may force the stammerer to confront the issue.

Now (thanks to NBL on languagelog) I learn of the illustrious stammerer Deng Ai 鄧艾 (197–264 CE), a military general in the Romance of the three kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi 三國演義).**

On further study, this clue leads to a whole world of Sanguo nerds, largely through the medium of video gaming…

Chapter 107 of the Romance of the three kingdoms reads:

The other man is presently a lower official. His name is Deng Ai […]. He lost his father when he was young, but he always harbored great ambitions. Whenever he saw mountains or valleys, he would instinctively point out the best places to station troops, store grain, or stage an ambush. Everyone else laughed at him, but Sima Yi appreciated his talent and came to include him when discussing military strategy. Deng Ai has a speech defect. He always stutters when he’s trying to speak, so that whenever he had to make a report he couldn’t help saying ‘Ai Ai…’.*** Sima Yi once teased him about it, asking him, “You’re always saying ‘Ai Ai’. How many Ai’s are there?”

But Deng Ai immediately replied, “They say O Phoenix, O Phoenix, when there’s only one phoenix.” From this, you can see that he has a quick and alert mind. You must watch out for these two people.


Putting down a heckler with a quote from the Analects of Confucius—now that’s niche! Beat that, Stewart Lee. Later, as Deng Ai rose to power, he mastered his stammer, addressing his troops—another tough gig.

Here’s a typically cute Chinese video!

Actually, this illustrates how a certain insider knowledge on a seemingly technical topic may illuminate our studies—such as geographical and topographic features in early literature, or the availability of materials for painting or sculpture; or for Daoist ritual, how participant observation, an understanding of vocal, percussive, and instrumental melody in performance, should be a basic aspect of research. “Yeah?”

* * *

Some useful Chinese sites (like this) list many other illustrious Chinese stammerers, ancient and modern. Starting with the early legalist philosopher Hanfeizi 韓非子, and the poet Sima Xiangru 司馬相如, there’s a g-glut [measure word] from the pre-Tang era. For the aficionado of Tang poetry we have Meng Jiao 孟郊, writing (and stammering) in the aftermath of the cataclysmic An Lushan rebellion. Celebrated 20th-century stammerers (putting aside Wang Guowei, who seems to belong in Confucius’s “deliberate” category) include the philosopher Feng Youlan 馮友蘭, influential both within and beyond China.


Gu Jiegang and his family, 1954.

Most notable for my tastes is the folklorist Gu Jiegang 顾颉刚 (1893–1980), to whose 1925 fieldwork on Miaofengshan one often refers [Innit though—Ed.]. He might have made a drôle companion to interpret my own questions in the field. Lu Xun abruptly goes right down in my estimation as I learn that in their literary feud he uncharitably took the piss out of Gu’s impediment (B-b-bastard).

So we can add such luminaries to the list of historical stammerers like Moses and Demosthenes, and later Marilyn Monroe and Ed Balls. One of those niche pub-quiz topics, like left-handed calligraphers, or Norman Wisdom and Albania.

But what about the suffering workers, eh?!


* BTW, more colloquial than the standard kouchi 口吃 is jieba 结巴 (jiejiebaba!), but still more common in north China is jieka 结卡.

** See, I Have No Kulture (paltry excuse: I’ve been busy with Tang poetry and Daoist ritual under Maoism).

*** Call me a pedant, but while it’s perfectly possible to stammer on a vowel (and a diphthong), written Chinese doesn’t capture the likely nature of the impediment here. Repeating whole syllables or words is less common than repeating initial c-c-consonants.

Musicking at the Qing court 1: suite plucking

On the folk–art continuum in culture

XS early

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Illustration from the “72 trades of old Beijing”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jixian chengyun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ling Qizhen (1911–84) was a qin player, originally from Shanghai, later professor at the Shenyang Conservatoire, where he founded the Liaoning qin research association. For his useful 1958 article on “Buddhist music”, see here.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Moon river

This is just an alert to a substantial update on my post Moon river, featuring—in addition to Audrey Hepburn, Amy Winehouse, and Stacey Dooley, the gorgeous major-7th leap, as well as the dodgy language of “femme fatale” and “elfin waif”—thoughts on Truman Capote’s novella, stammering, and fado…



Killing Eve: notes and queries


I entirely share the widespread adulation for Killing Eve. Just in case you’ve been holed up in your ivory tower studying medieval Daoist manuscripts or suchlike, neglecting to delight in all manifestations of the Terpischorean muse, here’s a tribute—and a query.


The brilliant Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer are inspired by Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s script, which wears its feminist credentials lightly. You can take your pick of a plethora of rave reviews, but I like this. And this. And indeed this New Yorker review (you may already have noted that I tend not to favour the Ku Klux Klan Gazette as the ultimate source of critical wisdom).

While Luke Jennings’ novel Codename Villanelle can hardly compete, one location that sinophiles will enjoy there (not used in the TV version) is an ever-sleazy Shanghai, scene of one of the most grisly murders—with its references to Moon river and the 1930s’ silent-film actress Ruan Lingyu.

For astute comments from Unloved on how they created the soundtrack for the series, see here.

OK, here’s just one among many favourite scenes, “Are you upset?”:

Which I suppose leads me to just one niggling doubt, encapsulated long ago by Mark in Peep Show, visiting a student he fancies:

Mark: Love your room.
April: Thanks. It’s your basic undergraduate lunge for individuality.
[nods to a Betty Blue poster]
April: I’ve not even seen Betty Blue. Have you?
Mark: Oh yeah. Great sex-and-suicide flick—turned a whole generation of men onto girls with mental illness.

So now for the chic assassin (for terms like femme fatale, see here). It can hardly be much consolation that whole generations of women are also subscribing to the image. I’m sure there’s a sound feminist response to this. Discuss

Will there be redemption for Villanelle/Oxana in the next series? Would that be too neat?

Moon river


À propos my Daoist ritual spinoff of Strictly, the brilliant (ethnographer!) Stacey Dooley‘s recent waltz reminds me what a brilliant song is Moon river:

Pace Andy Williams, the classic sung version is that of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961):

Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, “a love song to wanderlust” (cf. Roaming the clouds), are complemented by Henry Mancini’s melody.  I just love the leap of a major seventh:

I’m crossing you in style some day / There’s such a lot of world to see,

always effective—as in the finale of Mahler 9 (introduced by quintuplets!) and, um, Raindrops keep falling on your head! Indeed, there’s another brilliant touch: following “We’re after the same rainbow’s end“, when that sequence returns with

Waiting round the bend, My huckleberry friend,

for the first phrase the melody omits the low tonic, making us nostalgic for the missing major-7th leap (waiting, indeed), until it returns for the second phrase.

So Moon river (nearly cut from the film, PAH!) makes a perfect expression of Holly’s persona—and indeed that of Stacey Dooley, with her documentaries from around the world.

The dominant interpretation currently seems to be that Hepburn’s screen characters make her some kind of feminist role model. But “it’s complicated”—certainly in this film, which largely replaces the edgy feel of Truman Capote’s novella (1958, set in 1943) with a “sugar and spice confection”; indeed, Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part! I tend to side with more critical reviews, such as this, this, and this. After I cited some dodgy sexist terms to describe talented female performersgamine and ingénue are among those for which there are both male and female equivalents, but the latter are far more commonly used, and flawed. Oh, and how ahout “elfin waif”…

* * *

Capote describes Holly as an American geisha—rural child bride Lulamae, reinventing herself in New York. Film adaptations can be effective, but in this case the novella portrays her with more nuance and depth. So—not least because I’m so averse to Hepburn’s “elfin waif” shtick—I find Capote’s silent invisible original far more moving, and Holly herself far more poignant and (as she would say) sympatique.

Inevitably, at the end of the film the narrator and Holly fall in love and stay together, whereas in the novella their relationship remains platonic, and Holly disappears.

Lending significance to Moon river, the name-slot for Holly’s mail-box reads:

Miss Holiday Golightly, travelling

She reflects on how she demurred from a break in the movies offered by a Hollywood agent:

But he’s got a point, I should feel guilty. Not because they would have given me the part or because I would have been good: they wouldn’t and I wouldn’t. If I do feel guilty, I guess it’s because I let him goon dreaming when I wasn’t dreaming a bit. I was just vamping for time to make a few self-improvements: I knew damn well I’d never be a movie star. It’s too hard; and if you’re intelligent, it’s too embarrassing. My complexes aren’t inferior enough: being a movie star and having a big fat ego are supposed to go hand-in-hand; actually, it’s essential not to have any ego at all. I don’t mean I mind being rich and famous. That’s very much on my schedule, and some day I’ll try to get around to it; but if it happens, I’d like to have my ego tagging along. I want to still be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffany’s.

And Holly does indeed sing and play guitar:

Don’t wanna sleep, don’t wanna die, just wanna go a’travellin’ through the pastures of the sky

With a Brazilian suitor in tow, she takes to Linguaphone:

Oh screw it, cookie—hand me my guitar and I’ll sing you a fado in the most perfect Portuguese.

That would surely have rivalled Carminho’s exquisite song.

In the novella, I note with proprietoral pride that Holly’s fellow-geisha Mag Wildwood (intriguingly, Capote gave her the full name of Miss Margaret Thatcher Fitzhue Wildwood)—as if being a redhead over six feet tall isn’t enough—is a stammerer (Marilyn Monroe might have resented the competition):

Even the stutter, certainly genuine but still a bit laid on, had been turned to advantage. It was the master stroke, that stutter: for it contrived to make her banalities sound somehow original, and secondly, despite her tallness, her assurance, it served to inspire in male listeners a protective feeling.

* * *

Amy Winehouse (see my tribute here) may seem an unlikely exponent of Moon river, but she was grounded in ballads, as we can hear in her “late” sessions with Tony Bennett. Here she is, subverting the waltz, making the song sugar-free—maybe it doesn’t quite work, but even at the age of 16 she was always exploring, discovering new personal connections:

Click here for a discussion of the song in the BBC Radio 4 Soul music series.

From my playlist of songs, it’s clear that, with some noble exceptions, I find female voices more moving than male ones—and I’m right!!! And don’t forget to keep voting for Stacey on Strictly

Just another reminder that a global view of musicking invites us to delight in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse!

The conformist

Conformist 1

The conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970), based on the 1951 novel by Alberto Moravia, is a most captivating film, visually sumptuous—with the gorgeous Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, and Dominique Sanda bringing out the interplay of political and sexual themes.

For my generation it recalls late-night screenings in art cinemas (along with ParajanovMarx brothers marathons, Five easy pieces and Performance (also 1970), Céline et Julie (1974), and so on—what an eclectic education; see also here). Revisiting it now, alarmingly, makes a timely reminder: until recently the dangers of fascism may have seemed quite remote.

As with Bertolucci’s other films like Last tango in Paris, music and dance play a crucial role.

Conformist 2

The soundtrack (by Georges Delerue) has the ambivalence of Cinema paradiso and Twin peaks. As with all the best film music, just the opening theme transports us instantly into the story’s troubled world. And the female band (from 4.12 in Part One) reminds me of Franco Cerri’s recollections in my post on Chet in Italy.

By way of comparison with the final dance, here’s the equivalent scene in Last Tango:

—just as iconic as Jack Nicholson’s scene in Five easy pieces where he erupts in the diner, and reminiscent of Alexei Sayle’s critique of ballroom.

Bertolucci died in November 2018 (see also here), soon after Nic Roeg (for an assessment of both together, see here). Many more films to revisit, not least The sheltering sky (based, indeed, on the great novel by Paul Bowles, though he was less than keen on the result), The dreamers, and the epic 1900.



With the character of Bunny Warren in Captain Corelli’s mandolin (1994), Louis de Bernières brilliantly echoes the experiences of the bewildered young sinologist arriving in China, who having spent many years reading classical texts with their arcane zhihuzheye 之乎者也 particles, has entirely overlooked the modern language, like van Gulik—or indeed (from the sublime to the ridiculous) me.

De Bernières hits upon an ingenious transliteration device. In the mountains of Nazi-occupied Kefalonia, Alekos the shepherd rescues a British paratrooper who has floated down from the skies beneath a silken mushroom. Taking “it” for a very red-faced angel,

The trouble was that he could not make head or tail of what it was saying. He did recognize some of the words, but the rhythm of angel-speech was quite foreign to him, the words did not seem to fit together, and it spoke as if it had a pebble in its throat and a bee up its nose. The angel was obviously very annoyed and frustrated at not being understood, and it made Alekos feel fearful and guilty even though it was not his fault. They had to resort to communicating by means of signs and facial expressions.

Alekos realizes that the only person capable of understanding angel-speech will be Dr Iannis. After a long and stealthy trek they arrive at his house at dead of night:

The angel smiled and held out its hand, “Bunnios,” he said, “I cleped am.”

The doctor shook the proffered hand through the window, and said, “Dr Iannis.”

“Sire, of youre gentilesse, by the leve of yow wol I speke in pryvetee of certeyn thyng.”

The doctor knitted his brows in bewilderment, “What?”

His daughter Pelagia comes in to find

a man dressed in the tasselled cap, the white kilt and hose, the embroidered waistcoat, and the slippers with pompoms that was the festival dress of some people on the mainland. It was very grubby, but unmistakably new. She looked up at him in amazement, and put her hand over her mouth.

Wide-eyed, she demanded of her father, “Who’s this?”

“Who’s this?” repeated the doctor. “How am I supposed to know? Alekos said it was an angel and then ran off. He says he’s called Bunnios, and he speaks Greek like a Spanish cow.”

The outlandish man bowed politely and shook Pelagia’s hand. She let it go limp in his, and could not conceal her astonishment. He smiled charmingly and said, “I preise wel thy fresshe beautee and age tendre, I trow.”

“I am Pelagia,” she said, and then she asked her father, “What is he speaking? It’s not Katharevousa.”

“Of course it isn’t. And it certainly isn’t Romaic.”

“Do you think it’s Bulgarian or Turkish or something?”

“Greek of th’olde dayes,” said the man, adding, “Pericles. Demosthenes. Homer.”

“Ancient Greek?” exclaimed Pelagia disbelievingly. She stepped back for fear of being in the company of a ghost.
The doctor tapped his forefinger to his forehead, and looked up triumphantly.

“English?” he asked.

“Engelonde,” agreed the man. “Natheless, I prithee, by thy trouthe…”

“Of course we won’t tell anyone. Please may we speak English? Your pronunciation is truly terrible. It hurts my head, Pelagia, bring a glass of water and some spoon sweets.”

The Englishman smiled with what was obviously an enormous relief; it had been an awful burden to be speaking the finest public school Greek, and not be understood. He had been told that he was the nearest thing to a real Graecophone that could be found under the circumstances, and he knew perfectly well that modern Greek was not quite the same as the Greek of Eton, but he had had no idea that he would be found quite so incomprehensible. It was also very clear that someone in Intelligence had contrived a completely aberrant notion of what was worn in Cephallonia.

As the novel progresses, Bunny’s communication skills improve. As to mine in China (e.g. here and here), there’s always room for further progress… For a handy avowal of classical erudition, see here. And for the influence of the novel on life in Kefalonia, see

  • M. Crang and P. Travlou (2009) “The island that was not there: producing Corelli’s island, staging Kefalonia”, in Cultures of mass tourism: doing the Mediterranean in the age of banal mobilities (Ashgate, 2009).