Ritual in The dream of the red chamber

Citing Cao Xueqin’s entrancing novel The story of the stone recently, I was reminded that among the many virtues of the epic tale is its detailed depiction of rituals in 18th-century Beijing[1]

A work of fiction it may be, but what I admire here is the ethnographic thick description—a model for modern fieldworkers. Prompting us to experience such rituals within the far wider context of social life and personal experience, the author not only evokes all the human detail of the family’s behaviour and emotional world, including the priests’ relations with their patrons, but depicts the whole physical setting and itemizes expenses.

Chapters 13 and 14 describe a 49-day observance for the funeral of the family matriarch, with several groups of ritual specialists performing. Chapter 13 gives the text of the placard—similar in style to those used in modern times. [2] In David Hawkes’s brilliant translation (for the whole passage, see vol.1, pp. 255–87):

He also instructed someone to invite an expert from the Board of Astronomy to select dates for the funeral and the ceremonies preceeding it. With the approval of this official it was decided that the lying in state should be for forty-nine days and that the notification of bereavement indicating the family’s readiness to receive official visits of condolence should be made in three days’ time.

A hundred and eight Buddhist monks were engaged to perform a Grand Misericordia for the salvation of all departed souls in the main reception hall of the mansion during these forty-nine days, while at the same time ninety-nine Taoist priests of the Quanzhen sect were to perform ceremonies of purification and absolution at a separate altar in the Celestial Fragrance pavilion. These arrangements having been made, the body was moved to a temporary shrine in another pavilion of the All-scents Garden. Fifty high-ranking Buddhist monks and fifty high-ranking Taoist priests took turns in chanting and intoning before it on every seventh day.
Inside the gateway, facing the street, a high staging was constructed on which Buddhist monks and Daoist priests sat on opposite sides of an altar intoning their sacred texts. In front of the staging was a notice on which was written in large characters:

The very Reverend Wan-xu, Co-President of the Board of Commissioners having authority over all monks and clergy of the Incorporeal, Ever-tranquil Church of the Lord Buddha,

the Venerable Ye-sheng, Co-President of the Board of Commissioners having authority over all priests and practitioners of the Primordial, All-unifying church of the Heavenly Tao,

with all due reverence and care, prepared offices for the salvation of all departed souls, supplicating Heaven and calling upon the name of the Lord Buddha

earnestly praying and beseeching the Eighteen Guardians of the Sangha, the Warlike Guardians of the Law, and the Twelve Guardians of the Months mercifully to extend their holy compassion towards us, but terribly to blaze forth in divine majesty against the powers of evil, we do solemnly perform for nine and forty days the Great Mass for the purification, deliverance and salvation of all souls on land and on sea…

—and a great deal more on those lines which it would be tedious to repeat [Cao Xueqin’s comment, not mine!].

Chapter 14 goes on to list some of the major ritual segments and activities. The Buddhist Water and Land (shuilu 水陸) ritual included Opening the Quarters (kaifang 開方), Smashing the Hells (poyu 破狱), Transmitting the Lanterns (chuandeng 傳燈), Illuminating the Deceased (zhaowang 照亡), Opening the Golden Bridge (kai jinqiao 開金橋), and Leading the Panoplied Pennant (yin chuangfan 引幢幡. [3]

Daoists performed the Presenting the Memorial (shen biao 申表) ritual before the Three Pure Ones and the Jade Emperor; Chan Buddhist monks performed Ambulating Incense (xingxiang 行香), Flaming Mouth (yankou 焰口), and Worshipfully Presenting the Water Litanies (bai shuichan 拜水懺); and thirteen young Buddhist nuns recited mantras.


Rendering the fantastical vocabulary of Daoist ritual into English is always a challenge—also well met by Ken Dean and John Lagerwey. Again, Hawkes makes a brilliant attempt at this passage—with occasional elaborations, and a quite understandable, even attractive, “translation” of titles for ritual segments into specific actions (which, of course, they are!):

The Thirty-fifth had now arrived—an important day in the penitential cycle of seven times seven days preceding the funeral—and the monks in the main hall had reached a particularly dramatic part of their ceremonies. Having opened up a way for the imprisoned souls, the chief celebrant had succeeded by means of spells and incantations in breaking open the gates of hell. He had shone his light (a little hand-mirror) for the souls in darkness. He had confronted Yama, the Judge of the Dead. He had seized the demon torturers who resisted his progress. He had invoked Kṣitigarbha, the Saviour King, to aid him. He had raised up a golden bridge, and now, by means of a little flag which he held aloft in one hand, was conducting over it those souls from the very deepest pit of hell who still remained undelivered.

Meanwhile the ninety-nine Taoists in the Celestial Fragrance Pavilion were on their knees offering up a written petition to the Three Pure Ones and the Jade Emperor himself in his heavenly palace. Outside, on their high staging, with swinging of censers and scattering of little cakes for the hungry ghosts to feed on, Zen monks were performing the great Water Penitential. And in the shrine where the coffin stood, six young monks and six young nuns, magnificently attired in scarlet slippers and embroidered copes, sat before the spirit tablet quietly murmuring the dharani that would assist the soul of the dead woman on the most difficult part of its journey into the underworld. Everywhere there was a hum of activity.

Not wishing to quibble over details, my only little comment there would be that the (thirteen!) niseng refers to nuns. And that final comment “Everywhere there was a hum of activity” (re’nao “exciting”, “bustling”, lit. “hot and noisy”, cf. Chau, Miraculous response, pp.147–68) is ironic after the silent mantras of the nuns. (BTW, I almost like the rendition of shifen as “everywhere”, but I’m still inclined to think it carries the modern colloquial sense of “really”—thus “it was really boisterous”.)

Chapter 102 gives a detailed account of a one-day exorcism performed by forty-nine Daoist priests, with god paintings hung out, performing Ambulating Incense, Fetching Water (qushui 取水), Worshipfully Presenting the Memorial (baibiao 拜表) and Inviting the Sages (qingsheng 請聖) rituals, and reciting the Dongyuan jing 洞元經 scripture throughout the day. Three chief liturgists, donning seven-star hats, wielded precious swords, flags, and a whip, as a placard was displayed and exorcistic talismans depicted.

In chapters  28 and 29 (Hawkes vol.2, pp.41–92) the family commissions a three-day Daoist Offering for well-being (ping’an jiao 平安醮) at the Qingxu guan 清虚观 temple:

Aroma continued:
“Her Grace sent that Mr Xia of the Imperial Bedchamber yesterday with a hundred and twenty taels of silver to pay for a three-day Pro Viventibus by the Taoists of the Lunar Queen temple starting on the first of next month. There are to be plays performed as part of the Offering, and Mr Zhen and all the other gentlemen are to go there to offer incense. Oh, and Her Grace’s presents for the Double Fifth have arrived.”

This section offers far less detail on ritual, the opera being the main attraction. We tend to assume that in the Good Old Days people gladly respected the “rules” (guiju 規矩), but like that intriguing re’nao of chapter 14, there is clearly a long ancestry to the common lament since the 1980s that audiences care more about ostentation than correct ritual performance. The account uncannily reflects my observations at Yanggao funerals since 2001 (Daoist priests of the Li family, p.356):

Daoists still have to be invited, almost routinely; but by now they are used to not being appreciated. Since the 1990s no-one pays much attention when they arrive at the soul hall; only the kin reluctantly abandon their places watching the pop music outside the gate to go and kneel before the soul hall.

Imagine if Bach had taken that sabbatical in Beijing, then he might have had patrons like the Jia clan in The dream of the red chamber… They could hardly have appreciated Bach’s genius any less than the Margrave of Brandenburg (“what does that even mean?”).

JPM Daoist painting

Perfected Man Huang sends forth an official document recommending the deceased, c1700: Daoists presiding over the liandu funerary ritual of chapter 66 of the Jin ping mei. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; see Little and Eichman, Taoism and the arts of China, pp.192–3. Note typical northern shengguan ensemble of guanzi oboe, sheng mouth-organ, dizi flute, and yunluo gong-frame, with large cymbals nao and bo.

Earlier still, the Ming novel Jin ping mei offers just as wonderful ethnographic material for rather less elite social strata—set in Shandong, ostensibly in the 12th century, but clearly based on the milieu of the author’s own day. Here too are many vignettes on minor domestic rituals and major exorcistic and mortuary rituals, as well as on the lives of Daoist priests and Buddhist monks.

Of course, these are just two of the most celebrated works of Ming–Qing fiction wherein we can seek such depictions. Just as with contemporary fieldwork, my first thought is to situate such rituals in space and time, rather than giving generic accounts. Thus one would seek to understand the rituals of the Jin ping mei in the context of 16th-century Shandong, and those of The story of the stone in that of 18th-century Beijing—just as we should be clear if our accounts of modern rituals refer specifically to north Shanxi in the 1930s, west Fujian in the 1990s, and so on.

Despite monumental social transformations since imperial times, all the rituals described in these early novels are still performed today—always varying by region and circumstances. [4]

Still, I need hardly reiterate that both texts (novels, ritual manuals, field reports) and images (paintings, photos) are silent and immobile: what we really need is films—which are in short supply even for current ritual practice, and an even taller order for the imperial era (though dramatized adaptations of The story of the stone may be quite educative!). [5]


[1] Within the vast literature on Hongxue 红学 (“Redology”—Dream of the red chamber studies), there are many Chinese studies of its religious and indeed musical components, searchable on databases. A considerable body of research is also available for Jin ping mei.
[2] For a couple of examples in English (for different kinds of rituals), see Dean, Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China, pp.53–8, and my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.230–31.
[3] For “panoplied pennant” in a funerary hymn, cf. my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.262, and film, from 24.39.
[4] For leads, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, and index.
[5] Perhaps I digress, but given the stylized acting culture of China, the “Star of Tomorrow” company’s recent nine-part TV version (beginning with the episode below), using child actors, has been highly praised for its naturalism and conviction—far from merely cute.


Love, Nina


Quite possibly a more plausible Christmas gift than my own books, Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina: despatches from family life (2013) is hilarious, warm, and perceptive.

In letters to her sister she evokes her life after coming to London to work as nanny to the drôle Mary-Kay Wilmers (of the LRB) and her engaging and challenging kids, in leafy literary Gloucester Crescent in the 1980s.

Anyone taking it at face value may miss its genius. Forgive me if her original letters really had all the book’s subtleties of phrasing, but it seems to me that a lot of subtle mature editing was involved. Anyway, it’s an observational account of a niche tribe, full of linguistic delights—every page has a turn of phrase that leaves me helpless with laughter.

I apologize too for the things I got a bit wrong. Alan Bennett was never in Coronation Street for instance.

She doesn’t take her cultural education lying down:

PS Chaucer. Have you ever read it? Fuck. It’s a whole other language and meant to be hilarious, but it’s grim and annoying.

Later at the library:

… borrowed a recording of a bloke reading Chaucer in the Old English. Nearly wet myself listening.


Exams soon-ish. Here is a summary:
R&J: Romeo and Juliet hardly know each other, but they think they’re in love and both kill themselves. The nurse is an irresponsible idiot. The Friar is a moron. It’s a ludicrous story.
Winter’s Tale: King is mentally ill. Queen is a fool.
Chaucer: W of Bath is an unreliable old bag, but not a hypocrite. Marries for money but likes shagging, thinks women should be in charge.

 Another leitmotif is Nina’s grappling with the baffling poncey new cuisine that was coming into vogue.

Tarragon: the cookbook says tarragon is “misunderstood”. Not by me. I understand it. It’s horrible.

Later she comments,

It’s all pasta and couscous nowadays, in London anyway.

Further fine observation:

MK does the big shopping—a mixed blessing—she buys stuff without a plan (I think she copies other people who know what they’re doing). This is the kind of stuff that comes back [list abbreviated here—SJ]:
quark (German style liquid cheese)
rye bread with seeds
balsamic vinegar of Modena (black vinegar)
fresh lychees
And other mysterious things that add up to nothing much when it comes to making meals. It’s like living in another country.

Which reminds me of Ian Rush’s (disappointingly spurious) comment on his struggle to adapt to Italian life during his one season at Juventus in 1987-88:

I couldn’t settle in Italy—it was like living in a foreign country.

Critics haven’t always appreciated what a fine comic creation is her stolidly mundane portrayal of their neighbour Alan Bennett.

Me: You’re good with appliances.
AB: (proud) Well, I don’t know about that.
Me: You sorted out the car, the fridge, the phone, bike tyres and now the washing machine.
AB: I don’t think I am particularly good.
MK: But it’s nice to know you’ve got something to fall back on.


AB not around. In Yorkshire or New York. I prefer him being around… God knows what he does in NY (if it is NY), can’t imagine him there, being shouted at by taxi drivers and prostitutes. Though his coat would work.

AB himself took issue with Stibbe’s portrayal of him as “solid, dependable and dull”; but while finding some “misrememberings”, he understood—as well he might—that “such is art”.

The TV version worked remarkably well too (like Cold comfort farm—I now realize the ingénue Nina has a distant affinity with confident Flora):

You can even brush up on your Italian with the subtitles.

As usual when watching, you just have to refrain from clinging onto your own image of the book.


I’ve only recently clocked the useful expression “Is that a thing?” (discussed here, and here), entertainingly used by the great Zoe Williams. A fine discussion on the ever-stimulating languagelog blog seems to date it only to 1995, though comments there hint at earlier variants. Since it makes some clear appearances in Love, Nina (assuming they’re not from a later edit), then we can take it back to the 1980s—e.g. p.132:

He picked up a raw burger and ate it. I was appalled but acted normal. Told MK later and she said it’s a thing (eating raw beef).

[another trademark of Stibbe’s style there—giving pedantic parentheses redundantly clarifying her previous comment].

Or p.136:

Mary-Kay has started wearing two shirts at once. I don’t know where she’s picked it up, but it’s a thing, apparently.

Indeed, I guess Love, Nina is basically about striving to define the rules of an alien culture to whose values one aspires—though I can’t be Saussure [cf. my Foucault pun under Visual culture].



BBC4 has just reshown an interesting diachronic trawl through the archives in Classic quartets at the BBC (available online until 2nd January; see also Schubert and the Budapest quartet).

Apart from the inevitable Amadeus quartet, it features the Allegri under Eli Goren, predecessor of Hugh Maguire. Here one can’t help noticing James Barton, left-handed fiddle-player—part of a small group that notably includes Charlie Chaplin:

And among hours of harmless fun on youtube:

How can I resist reminding you that the divine Ronnie O’Sullivan is ambidextrous—though I’m not sure he stretches to Bach.

Of course, the life of a quartet (actually, any performing group that works together regularly—few are so constantly in each other’s pockets as Li Manshan‘s band) resembles that of a marriage, or (still more thornily) a ménage a quattre—that too is a topic for elsewhere (see also here).

But I digress. In the film, I love the quaint early vignettes, as if the swinging 60s never happened—the clipped tones of announcers, and musicians gamely clambering into their dinky little cars to play for expectant audiences keen to worship at the altar of High Culture after the tribulations of the war…*

And before long we will all look quaint. Closer to our times, there are vignettes from groups like the Borodin, Lindsay, Arditti, and Kronos quartets, as well as the Smith quartet playing Steve Reich’s extraordinary Different trains, and the Brodsky quartet’s work with Elvis Costello.


* But what of the thankyou letter to the Martin string quartet, I hear you ask?!

Philomena Cunk

As another cautionary tale for fieldwork interviewers, how delightful to find Diane Morgan back on our screens, after her deadpan incarnation as “professional TV dimwit” Philomena Cunk.

Among innumerable aperçus, here’s her exegesis of Benefits Street:

They weren’t claiming benefits like MPs do, but a different type of benefits that they weren’t entitled to, because they were poor.

Her Moments of wonder series contains some classics, like her potted history of “femininism”:

—not least her helpful comment on Emily Davison throwing herself in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913:

They [women] did this partly to highlight how unfair it was that women didn’t have a vote but horses did. And also because, being women, they really liked ponies.

On Shakespeare (“Did Shakespeare write boring gibberish with no relevance to our world of Tinder and peri-peri fries—or does it just look, sound and feel that way?”):

Among her hapless interviewees (watch from 24.19), she consults the valiant Ben Crystal, co-author of the Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary, testing him on a list of words that Shakespeare, er, might or might not have made up:

[fumbles ineptly with script]

—a list surely on a par with the names in Rowan Atkinson’s roll-call.

Diane Morgan now has a hilarious role in the new TV series Motherland, written by the equally brilliant Graham Linehan and Sharon Horgan. I’m reliably informed that it’s horribly well observed:

I really want the children to be brought up like I was—by my mother.

It looks as if a Chinese version might be in order, though I’m not holding my breath.


Yet more jazz

Still exploring the trumpet genealogy, another fine player, influenced by Fats Navarro, was Clifford Brown (1930–56):

And the only known film footage of him:

Here’s a tribute from Ken Clarke.


I also have to single out the most stunning solo from Roy Eldridge (following a plaintive one from a dying Lester Young) inspired by a spellbound Billie Holiday on their utterly gorgeous 1957 TV session.

That’s in a class of its own, but other early videos (despite the arid studio setting) give a feeling of jazzers relishing each other’s creativity, like this clip of Bird with Coleman Hawkins (and later, with Buddy Rich on drums):

I’ll leave Bird, Dizzy, and Miles for another time—so much material…

As I keep saying, if only we had such a wealth of video footage for Yanggao shawm bands and Daoists in the 1940s—or Bach’s band in the 1720s, for that matter.

Faux nostalgia

In Alan Bennett’s parody The pith and its pitfalls (Writing Home, pp.383–6—”taking the pith”, of course) on the writer and his [sic] roots, he writes thoughtfully of the perennial English fashion for the nostalgia of childhood deprivation—whose Chinese parallel reminded me of The four Yorkshiremen sketch.

Can there be a slag-heap north of the Trent up which ardent young directors from Omnibus, Aquarius, or 2nd house have not flogged their disgruntled camera-crews in pursuit of that forward-retreating figure, the artist?
What I do recall of my childhood was that it was boring. I have no nostalgia for it. I do not long for the world as it was when I was a child. I do not long for the person I was in that world. I do not want to be the person I am now in that world then. None of the forms nostalgia can take fits. I found childhood boring. I was glad it was over.

There are fashions in childhood as in anything else. A nice, middle-class background was no longer in vogue by the time I started to write. No longer in Vogue, either. Early in 1960, when my colleagues and I were writing the revue that was to end up as Beyond the fringe, we were photographed for that magazine. We sped in a large Daimler to North Acton, where the photographer spent some time finding a setting appropriately stark and gritty for the enterprise on which we were to embark. We ended up gloomy and purposeful against a background of cooling-towers and derelict factories.

I have never done any of those filmed portraits I started off by parodying, though the urge is strong. It is always gratifying to be asked to explain yourself, if only because it makes you feel there is, perhaps, something to explain. I admit, too, that from time to time I catch myself slightly overstating my working-class origins, taking my background down the social scale a peg or two. It is a mild form of inverted snobbery, which Richard Hoggart might dignify by calling it “groping for the remnants of a tradition”. As the man says in the sketch, it is a question of belonging. You would like to think you belong somewhere distinctive, whether it is a place or a class, but you know you are kidding yourself. However, I see that opens up another vast area of humbug and self-indulgence, namely, the writer as rootless man, so I think I had better stop and go home—wherever that is.

Deep in a dream

Delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, in my little sample of jazz biographies, I didn’t mention

  • James Gavin, Deep in a dream: the long night of Chet Baker, [1]

which goes well with Bruce Weber’s remarkable film Let’s get lost (for the making of which, do read Deep in a dream, pp.328–42):

Born in 1929, Chet somehow managed to live to the ripe old age of 58—this quote seems tailor-made for him:

If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself!

(Like Daoist ritual texts, this has been diversely attributed—to Eubie Blake, Mae West, Adolph Zukor, and so on.)

We don’t expect any artist to be a paragon of moral virtue—and in jazz, there were few angels. The “straight” WAM scene also had its bad boys—not least, trumpeters.

Before we get onto Chet’s iconic slow ballads, I like his early bebop playing:

And here he is with Charlie Parker in 1952:

I often wish someone would do a study of the styles of Chinese shawm players or Daoist guanzi masters like that of Paul Berliner on instrumentalists in Thinking in jazz. He cites John McNeil’s impressive genealogy (more taxonomy!) of jazz trumpeters (p.137):
Trumpet chart
But whereas most of the jazz greats (Billie, BirdMiles, Trane, Bill Evans, and so), through their similar struggles with addiction, were constantly learning, honing their craft, Chet seems to have been gifted with his dreamy cool style very early, and then traded on his angelic image (largely for substances) for the rest of his surprisingly long life, settling for melancholy—without the constant explorations of the other great jazzers.

Donald Byrd, 1959.

Still, taken individually, ignoring the degradation of Chet’s life, his songs are captivating. Apart from his trumpet playing, Chet is one of few male jazz singers I can relate to (that’s my own weakness—the late great Amy Winehouse was devoted to Tony Bennett, for instance); maybe what distinguishes his singing is the way he dispenses with masculine bravado. But the critics are divided: while Chet’s followers revered him as a god, regarding his solos as “models of heartfelt expression, as graceful as a poem”, others were less enchanted, describing him as “a singing corpse”, “a withered goat”, “a hollow-cheeked, toothless, mumbling, all but brain-dead relic”, and “a drug-ravaged ghost” (Deep in a dream, p.5).

But let’s just forget the film, and the book, and wallow. These songs almost add up to a potted biography in themselves:

As with My favorite things, everyone has their favourite versions of My funny Valentine, but this one (live from Turin in 1959 [1] —at the height of Chet’s celebrity in Italy, and just as his substance-abuse was rocketing) is heart-rending:

Another lesson from jazzers in how to use vibrato. And let’s hear it for Lars Gullin on sax…

This next recording (evidently achieved through some editorial sleight-of-hand) contrasts with Bille Holiday’s You’re my thrill—which Chet also sang:


[1] I also look forward to reading Jeroen de Valk, Chet Baker: his life and music.
[2] Short of undertaking a global survey, 1959 is widely known as the year of A kind of blue; and in China, for the escalation of famine—still not widely enough known.