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.




Lives in Stalin’s Russia


Hand-in-hand with my focus on ritual and expressive culture, I have long been concerned to document life-stories—of ordinary people, artists, and scholars, both in China (cf. my detailed work on the Gaoluo villagers and the Li family Daoists) and Europe.

Under the Iron curtain tag I’ve broached life-stories under state socialism in the GDR (here and here), Czechoslovakia, and the Ukraine (blind minstrels, and the famine)—and tribulations under the Soviet regime were the context for this post on ethnic minorities there. But now, reading

  • Orlando Figes, The whisperers: private lives in Stalin’s Russia (2007)

makes an accessible single-volume study to begin shedding light on my ignorance of ordinary lives in the Soviet Union. Apart from the importance of the topic in itself, I muse (as ever) on the similarities and differences with Maoist—and post-Maoist—China.

Many books describe the externals of the Terror—the arrests and trials, enslavements and killings of the Gulag—but The whisperers is the first to explore in depth its influence on personal and family life.

The oral history of family memory makes a counterweight to the official narrative. Figes interrogates the issues in interpreting such sources. His website, following on from his oral history project, is a treasury of related material. For significant caveats on the book, see here (with further links).

As the regime sought to erase the distinction between public and private life, Figes describes both the effectiveness of the Soviet indoctrination of children and the internal conflict with messages they gleaned from their families. The system taught dissimulation, producing duplicity and lifelong fear. As a survival strategy, people learned to wear a mask, going into “internal emigration”, leading double lives; they had to adjust to the system merely in order to survive. They learned not to talk: “whisperers” were both those who whispered out of fear of being overheard, and those who informed.

Figes details the effects of successive waves of repression, before, during, and after the Stalin regime from 1928 to 1953, interweaving many family histories throughout the book. The case of its central figure Konstantin Simonov, who “embodied all the moral conflicts and dilemmas of his generation”, though revealing in its complexity, is exceptional in his high profile as cultural cadre. The index, and the website, can be used to follow the stories of individual families throughout the book. The cast includes both cadres and the catch-all of “kulaks”, but seems more urban than rural—whereas China was more predominantly rural as late as the 1970s. Even early images of “kulaks” being expelled, and photos from the Gulag (however manufactured), suggest that China was still more backward—and repressed—in the 1950s than Russia in the 1920s.

Exiles gulag Siberia 1933 101Exiles in a “special settlement” in western Siberia, 1933.

For Maoist China too, diverse sources can be assembled to modify and counter the official narrative, including memoirs, family photos and documents, local archives, and so on—note Sebastian Veg, Popular memories of the Mao eraMemoirs and biographical accounts have proliferated since the liberalizations of the 1980s. In film, recent projects such as laogai documentaries and Wu Wenguang’s Caochangdi Work Station are impressive. Also revealing are fictional portrayals—not just laogai novelists like Zhang Xianliang and Yan Lianke, but films such as The blue kite that suggest the everyday tribulations of ordinary families. But while there may be a comparable wealth of material for China, it’s hard to envisage such an accessible, personal, wide-ranging and diachronic account as The whisperers.

Illuminating his sources perceptively, Figes identifies clear periods in people’s fates under the Soviet regime. The repression took place over a longer period than that of Maoism, and may seem to have been even more terrifying. The Gulag—among the extensive literature on which, see e.g. Anne Applebaum, Gulag (2003)—looms larger in the public (and private) image of the USSR than the laogai system in China, although the latter has also become the subject of brave research. Executions, and the all-pervading NKVD, also seem to play a more common role in Soviet history.

Below I can only list some of the main themes of the book, rather than citing the many personal life-stories that illustrate them—which is actually its outstanding strength.

* * *

Figes opens with Children of 1917, on the early years of the revolution, and the beginnings of state indoctrination and the war on religion. In 1926 the peasantry represented 82% of the Soviet population—cf. China, where the rural population peaked at 84% in 1963. But urban populations grew rapidly. Families were dislocated; millions of children were abandoned, having to fend for themselves. Figes describes life at the camps. Some “kulaks” managed to flee from the camps, living on the run.

Young people renounced their relatives, for various motives.

As millions of people left their homes, changed their jobs, or moved around the country, it was relatively easy to change or reinvent one’s social class. People learned to fashion for themselves a class identity that would help them advance. They became clever at concealing or disguising impure social origins, and at dressing up their own biographies to make them seem more “proletarian”.

But they were haunted by the constant threat of exposure—many concealed their secrets right until the 1990s.

In The great break (1928–32) Figes describes the temporary relaxation in the assault against religion between 1924 and 1928:

On 2 August 1930, the villagers of Obukhovo celebrated Ilin Day, an old religious holiday to mark the end of the high summer when Russian peasants held a feast and said their prayers for a good harvest. After a service in the church, the villagers assembled at the Golovins, the biggest family in Obukhovo, where they were given home-made pies and beer inside the house while their children played outside. As evening approached, the village dance (gulian’e) began. Led by a band of balalaika players and accordionists, two separate rows of boys and girls, dressed in festive cottons, set off from the house, singing as they danced down the village street.

Thereafter, while clandestine belief may have persisted, I find rather few clues to any public religious (or even customary) activity—by contrast with Maoist China, where it kept resurfacing despite constant campaigns. Am I wrong to see local Chinese populations as more resilient in maintaining their expressive culture under Maoism? Still in Obukhovo:

That year the holiday was overshadowed by violent arguments. The villagers were bitterly divided about whether they should form a collective farm (kolkhoz), as they had been ordered by the Soviet government. […] There were terrifying tales of soldiers forcing peasants into the kolkhoz, of mass arrests and deportations, of houses being burned and people killed, and of peasants fleeing from their villages and slaughtering their cattle to avoid collectivization.

Kulaks exiled 1930s 89“Kulaks” exiled from the village of Udachne, Khryshyne (Ukraine), early 1930s.

As Figes explains:

During just the first two months of 1930, half the Soviet peasantry (about 60 million people in over 100,000 villages) was herded into the collective farms. […] Peasants who spoke out against collectivization were beaten, tortured, threatened, and harassed, until they agreed to join the collective farm. Many were expelled as “kulaks” from their homes and driven out of the village. The herding of the peasants into the collective farms was accompanied by a violent assault against the Church, the focal point of the old way of life of the village, which was regarded by the Bolsheviks as a source of potential opposition to collectivization. Thousands of priests were arrested and churches were looted and destroyed, forcing millions of believers to maintain their faith in the secrecy of their own homes. […]
There was surprisingly little peasant opposition to the persecution of the “kulaks”. […] The majority of the peasantry reacted to the sudden disappearance of their fellow villagers with passive resignation born of fear.

Golovins 1940s 78Yevdokiia and Nikolai with their son Aleksei Golovin (1940s).

In Obukhovo the Golovins were deported on 4th May 1930:

I recall the faces of the people standing there. They were our friends and neighbours—the people I had grown up with. No-one approached us. No-one said farewell. They stood there silently, like soldiers in a line. They were afraid.


There was widespread resistance to collectivization, even though most villagers acquiesced in the repression of “kulaks”. In 1929–30, the police registered 44,779 “serious disturbances”. Communists and rural activists were killed in their hundreds, and thousands more attacked. There were peasant demonstrations and riots, assaults against Soviet institutions, acts of arson and attacks on kolkhoz property, protests against closures of churches.

Figes unpacks the motives of those responsible for enforcing the brutal war against the peasantry.

Under The pursuit of happiness (1932–36), while observing brief concessions to consumer culture (promoting perfume, cosmetics, fun), he evokes urban projects like the construction of the Moscow metro from 1932, using peasant immigrants and Gulag prisoners:

The splendour of these proletarian palaces, which stood in such stark contrast to the cramped and squalid private spaces in which the majority of people lived, played an important moral role (not unlike the role played by the Church in earlier states).

But popular unrest continued. The rise of a new bureaucratic elite also caused discontent:

In 1932, a manager at Transmashtekh, a vast industrial conglomerate, wrote to the Soviet President Mikhail Kalinin:

The problem with Soviet power is the fact that it gives rise to the vilest type of official—one that scrupulously carries out the general designs of the supreme authority… This official never tells the truth, because he doesn’t want to distress the leadership. He gloats about famine and pestilence in the district or ward controlled by his rival. He won’t lift a finger to help his neighbour… All I see around me is loathsome politicizing, dirty tricks, and people being destroyed for slips of the tongue. There’s no end to the denunciations. You can’t spit without hitting some revolting denouncer or liar. What have we come to? It’s impossible to breathe. The less gifted a bastard, the meaner his slander. Of course the purge of your Party is none of my business, but I think that as a result of it, decent elements still remaining will be cleaned out.

Figes notes the “hierarchy of poverty”. And meanwhile the lives of women failed to improve:

For women nothing changed in the 1930s—they worked long hours at a factory and then did a second shift at home, cooking, cleaning, caring for the children on average for five hours every night—whereas men were liberated from most of their traditional domestic duties (chopping wood, carrying water, preparing the stove) by the modernization of workers’ housing, which increased the provision of running water, gas, and electricity, leaving them more time for cultural pursuits and politics.

Trotsky had trenchant views on sexual politics:

One of the dramatic chapters in the great book of the Soviets will be the tale of the disintegration and breaking up of those Soviet families where the husband as a Party member, trade unionist, military commander or administrator, grew and developed and acquired new tastes in life, and the wife, crushed by the family, remained on the old level. The road of the two generations of Soviet bureaucracy is sown thick with the tragedies of wives rejected and left behind. The same phenomenon is now to be observed in the new generation. The greatest of all crudities and cruelties are to be met perhaps in the very heights of the bureaucracy, where a very large percentage are parvenus of little culture, who consider that everything is permitted to them. Archives and memoirs will some day expose downright crimes in relation to wives, and to women in general, on the part of those evangelists of family morals and the compulsory “joys of motherhood”, who are, owing to their position, immune from prosecution.

Figes documents the constrained domestic spaces of urban dwellers, and the tensions caused by lack of privacy, with some fine room plans.

Above, left: Khaneyevsky household, Moscow; right: Reifshnieders’ room, Moscow.
Below, left: Nikitin and Turkin apartments, Perm; right: Bushuev “corner” room, Perm.

In later years many people felt a rose-tinted nostalgia for the pre-war years, when

Everybody helped one another, and there were no arguments. No-one was stingy with their money—they spent their wages as soon as they were paid. It was fun to live then. Not like after the war, when people kept their money to themselves, and closed their doors.

But, as in China (where many peasants felt an equally perplexing nostalgia for the commune system), there’s ample evidence for the contrary view of communal life:

It was a different feeling of repression from arrest, imprisonment, and exile, which I’ve also experienced, but in some ways it was worse. In exile one preserved a sense of one’s self, but the repression I felt in the communal apartment was the repression of my inner freedom and individuality. I felt this repression, this need for self-control, every time I went into the kitchen, where I was always scrutinized by the little crowd that gathered there. It was impossible to be oneself.

Still, millions of people were taught to believe that

hard work today would be rewarded tomorrow, when the “good life” would be enjoyed by all.

Though the mid-1930s have been regarded as the calm before the storm,

for millions of people whose families were scattered in the Gulag’s labour camps and colonies, these years were as bad as any other.

Kondratiev 1938 226Nikolai Kondratiev’s last letter to his daughter, 1938.

In The great fear (1937–38), Figes explains that the Terror was not a routine wave of mass arrest, but a calculated policy of mass murder. Among the complex reasons prompting Stalin’s purge was the imminent threat of war. Not just the direct “offenders” but also their kin were hunted down. The motives of the informers, often themselves under extreme pressure, were also complex.

In 1938, the NKVD chief Yezhov was deposed. “The real reason for Yezhov’s fall was Stalin’s growing sense that mass arrests were no longer a workable strategy. At the rate the arrests were going, it would not be long before the entire Soviet population was in jail.” Under his successor Beria the purge was scaled down.

Fear brought out the worst in people. Yet there was also acts of extraordinary kindness by colleagues, friends, and neighbours, sometimes even strangers, who took enormous risks to help the families of “enemies of the people”. […]
The disappearance of a father and a husband placed enormous strain on families. Wives renounced husbands who had been arrested, not necessarily because they thought their spouses might be “enemies of the people”, although they may have had that thought, but because it made survival easier and gave protection to their families (many husbands for this reason advised wives to renounce them). […] It took extraordinary resilience, and not a little bravery, for women to resist these pressures and stand by their husbands.

There is scant consolation in Remnants of terror (1938–41) on the eve of the German invasion. Figes praises the untold acts of heroism of grandmothers striving to keep together the scattered remains of repressed families.

Lebeva 1940 322Elena Lebedeva with her granddaughters, Natalia (left) and Elena Konstantinova,
Ak-Bulak, 1940.

But many children ended up in orphanages, roamed the streets begging, joined street gangs, or were themselves sent to children’s labour colonies.

Meanwhile, in a Nazi–Soviet pact that alarmed faithful Communists, both Germany and the Red Army invaded Poland, and the USSR pressurized the Baltic states to accept pacts of “defence and mutual assistance”, extending the reach of their reign of terror.

The theme of Wait for me (1941–45) is the social consequences of the sudden German invasion of the USSR in 1941. Apart from its global significance, it was also crucial for the maintenance of the Soviet regime. Stalin now had no choice but to call for unity, setting aside class struggle and ideology. Many saw that the whole climate of the Terror had played a major role in the USSR’s initial inability to resist the invasion; criticism became open (some even welcomed the prospect of a German victory), and arrests continued.

But the desperate need for self-defence did indeed foster a spirit of national unity. The horrors of war against a brutal external enemy helped people forget, for now, the misery of their situation during “peacetime”. Patriotic morale even produced a new merging of the public sphere and the intimate world of personal relationships.

As the tide turned, the Red Army chased the Germans back. Convinced by the courageous determination of the Soviet forces, Figes seeks to explain it. Terror and coercion played a role, but

Appeals to the patriotism of the Soviet people were more successful. The vast majority of Soviet soldiers were peasant sons; their loyalty was not to Stalin or the Party, which had brought ruin to the countryside, but to their homes and families, to their own vision of the “motherland”.

The image of Mother Russia was promoted; controls over religion were temporarily relaxed. Hatred of the enemy was also an important element. But most significant, Figes suggests, was the cult of personal sacrifice:

As Simonov remarked, the people were prepared for the privations of the war—the sharp decline in living standards, the breaking up of families, the disruption of ordinary life—because they had already been through much the same in the name of the Five Year Plans.


Contrary to the Soviet myth of wartime national unity, Soviet society was more fractured during the war than at any previous time since the Civil War. Ethnic divisions had been exacerbated by the Soviet state, which scapegoated certain national minorities, such as the Crimean Tatars, the Chechens, and the Volga Germans, and exiled them to regions where they were not welcomed by the local populace. Anti-Semitism, which had been largely dormant in Soviet society before the war, now became widespread. It flourished especially in areas occupied by Hitler’s troops, where a large section of the Soviet population was directly influenced by the Nazis’ racist propaganda, but similar ideas were imported to places as remote as Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and Siberia by Soviet soldiers and evacuees from the western regions near the front.

Even so, people united for the defence of their local communities. And soldiers found camaraderie:

Veterans recall the intimacy of these wartime friendships with idealism and nostalgia. They claim that people then had “bigger hearts” and “acted from the soul”, and that they themselves were somehow “better human beings”, as if the comradeship of the small collective unit was a cleaner sphere of ethical relationships and principles than the Communist system, with all its compromises and contingencies. They often talk as if they found in the collectivism of these groups of fellow soldiers a type of “family” that was missing from the lives before the war (and would be missing afterwards).

Zinaida 1942 357Left: Zinaida Bushueva with her brothers, 1936.
Right: Zinaida (centre) in ALZhIR, 1942. A rare private photograph of Gulag prisoners, it was taken to send to relatives. The three women were photographed together to reduce the costs.

During the war the exploitation of the Gulag labour force intensified—in 1942 one in four Gulag workers died.

As Pasternak would write in the epilogue of Doctor Zhivago (1957), “When the war broke out, its menace of real death, were a blessing compared to the inhuman power of the lie, a relief because it broke the spell of the dead letter.” The relief was palpable. People were allowed to act in ways that would have been unthinkable before the war. By necessity, they were thrown back on their own initiative—they spoke to one another and helped each other without thinking of the political dangers to themselves, and from this spontaneous activity a new sense of nationhood emerged. The war years, for this reason, would come to be recalled with nostalgia.

The years 1941 to 1943 were described as a period of “spontaneous de-Stalinization”. People were empowered to think critically; a new freedom of expression even included political debate. The revival of religious activity continued through to 1948. Still, over the whole period cultural and religious life at a distance from urban centres remains somewhat obscure.

All this marked the beginning of a fundamental change of values. Towards the end of the war, as the Red Army entered Europe, their encounter with conditions there—clearly superior even amidst its desperately ravaged state, to which indeed they contributed further—also allowed them to question Soviet propaganda. And like the British, their experiences gave them ideals of building a better society—in their case, dismantling the collective farms, establishing democracy and religious freedoms. “Party leaders were understandably anxious about the return of all these men with their reformist ideas.” Such liberal notions were anyway spreading among civilians, not least as a result of the alliance with Britain and the USA.

As Ilia Ehrenburg wrote,

Everybody expected that once victory had been won, people would know real happiness. We realized, of course, that the country had been devastated, impoverished, that we would have to work hard, and we did not have fantasies about mountains of gold. But we believed that victory would bring justice, that human dignity would triumph.

Their hopes were soon dashed.

The ending of the war coincided with the first mass release of prisoners from the Gulag. […] Families began to piece themselves together again. Women took the lead in this recovery, sometimes travelling across the country in search of husbands and children. There were tight restrictions on where former prisoners could live. Most of them were banned from residing in the major towns. So families who wanted to be together often had to move to remote corners of the Soviet Union. Sometimes the only place they could find to settle was in the Gulag zone.

But the Gulag population actually expanded in the years after the war, with forced labour making a significant element in the economy.

People were damaged; fear, and silence, still reigned. All this also makes even more remarkable the widespread telling of political jokes, throughout the whole period.

The post-war period is the subject of Ordinary Stalinists (1945–53).

No other country suffered more from the Second World War than the Soviet Union. According to the most reliable estimates, 26 million Soviet citizens lost their lives (two-thirds of them civilians) […] and 4 million disappeared between 1941 and 1945. […] The demographic consequences of the war were catastrophic. Soviet agriculture never really recovered from this demographic loss. The kolkhoz became a place for women, children, and old men.

The material devastation was grievous too. Another famine occurred from 1946 to 1948. The brief improvement in the supply of consumer goods before the war was a distant memory. With people no longer afraid to express their discontent, strikes and demonstrations broke out. But as the new threat posed by the Cold War developed, Stalin moved promptly to purge the army and Party leadership, and to rule out any idea of political reform. Censorship was tightened; the new wave of dissent had to continue underground.

Left: Inna Gaister (aged 13) with her sisters Valeriia (3) and Natalia (8), Moscow, 1939. The photograph was taken to send to their mother in the Akmolinsk labour camp (ALZhIR).
Right: Inna Gaister (centre) with two friends at Moscow University, 1947.

But a new type of middle class now emerged, better educated and less ideological in outlook—though they had to conform, at least outwardly, to the demands of the regime, perfecting the art of wearing masks. Figes gives more stories of informants. Valentina Kropotina made her whole career by informing. With her “kulak” background,

I was basically a street-child, dressed in rags, barefoot… All my childhood memories are dominated by the feeling of hunger… I was afraid of hunger, and even more, of poverty. And I was corrupted by this fear.

She felt no remorse for what she did. Still,

The “little terror” of the post-war years was very different from the Great Terror of 1937–8. It took place, not against the backdrop of apocalypse, when frightened people agreed to betrayals and denunciations in the desperate struggle to save their lives and families, but against the background of a relatively mundane and stable existence, when fear no longer deprived people of their moral sensibility.

Anti-Semitism, always latent, escalated along with the “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign. When Stalin died in 1953, even some victims of the Terror felt genuine sorrow, but

The mourning ceremonies in Krasnodar were more like a holiday. They put on a mournful face, but there was a sparkle in their eyes, the hint of a smile beneath their greeting, that made it clear that they were pleased.

Even so, there was still no release from fear—indeed, people were anxious for the future. Beria played a role in allaying such fears, though he was soon executed in a Kremlin coup organized by Kruschev. Hopes were high among Gulag inmates; new demonstrations broke out, which helped bring about the abolition of the system. About 40% of the Gulag population were released in an amnesty on 27th March 1953—though they returned to their families physically and mentally broken. The climate in the Soviet Union also led to the serious demonstrations that erupted in the GDR.

The story continues in Return (1953–56).

The family emerged from the years of terror as the one stable institution in a society where virtually all the mainstays of human existence—the neighbourhood community, the village and the church—had been weakened or destroyed. For many people the family represented the only relationship they could trust, the only place they felt a sense of belonging, and they went to extraordinary lengths to reunite with relatives.

But former prisoners found it hard to build relationships, to find jobs and places to live. They still had to confront those who had betrayed them, although they also understood the extreme pressures that had led them to do so. The process of rehabilitation was laborious. And millions never returned from the camps.

Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 made a decisive break, the beginnings of the reformist thaw. Still, Stalin, rather than the whole system, was the scapegoat. But it also had consequences for the countries of east Europe, notably with the Hungarian uprising that year.

And just as the worst was over in the USSR, China systematically repeated its deadly mistakes. Dikötter outlines many of the same features of life under Maoism, but his treatment is less personal.

As Figes describes in the final chapter, Memory (1956–2006), even after 1956, the vast majority of ordinary people were still too cowed and frightened by the memory of the Stalinist regime to speak out openly. The thaw ended when Brezhnev replaced Kruschev in 1964; as dissidents were persecuted, people again suppressed their traumatic memories. Stoicism and passivity became enduring social norms.

But nostalgia for the war persisted, even overriding other assessments of the system. Viacheslav Kondratiev recalled:

For our generation the war was the most important event in our lives, the most important. This is what we think today. So we are not prepared to belittle in any way the great achievement of our people in those terrifying, difficult, and unforgettable years. The memory of our fallen soldiers is too sacred, our patriotic feelings are too pure and deep for that.

Eventually more candid memories of the war surfaced, such as the 1975 film A soldier went. A whole Gulag literature emerged.

Unlike the victims of the Nazi war against the Jews, for whom there could be no redeeming narrative, the victims of Stalinist repression had two main collective narratives in which to place their own life-stories and find some sort of meaning for their ordeals: the survival narrative, as told in the memoir literature of former Gulag prisoners, in which their suffering was transcended by the human spirit of the survivor; and the Soviet narrative, in which that suffering was redeemed by the Communist ideal, the winning of the Great Patriotic War, or the achievements of the Soviet Union.

Figes reflects on the startling paradox in the later myth of Norilsk,

a large industrial city built and populated by Gulag prisoners, whose civic pride is rooted in their own slave labour for the Stalinist regime,

as well as the popular nostalgia for Stalin (and again we might compare the Chinese nostalgia for Mao—see also here), which

reflects the uncertainty of their lives as pensioners, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991; the rising prices that put many good beyond their means; the destruction of their savings by inflation; and the rampant criminality that frightened old people in their homes.


nostalgia notwithstanding, the ruinous legacies of the Stalinist regime continued to be felt by the descendants of Stalin’s victims many decades after the dictator’s death. It was not only a question of lost relationships, damaged lives and families, but of traumas passed from one generation to the next. […]
Even in the last years of the Soviet regime, in the liberal climate of glasnost, the vast majority of Soviet families did not talk about their histories, or pass down stories of repression to their children. […] Fifteen years after the collapse of the regime, there are still people in the provinces who are afraid to talk about their past, even to their own children.

Again, the Chinese parallel is interesting: whereas the Soviet “liberation” occurred after over seventy years of repression, in China “reform and opening” not only happened earlier, following the collapse of Maoism in the late 1970s, but came after a mere thirty years of state repression. Both Russia and China suffered grievously under invasion and warfare; and for both, the hard-earned victory came to form a cornerstone of the national image. But whereas in China the war set the scene for the Communist takeover and the people finally “standing up”, in Russia it made an interlude within a system in which repression was already deeply entrenched; it seemed to offer hopes for reform, which were soon thwarted. In China too the lid on popular expression of trauma remained quite tightly sealed, though as Sebastian Veg notes, “after a period of post-traumatic outpour, followed by commodified nostalgia, popular memory in recent years has shown signs of moving towards more critical discussions.” But both Chinese and Russian regimes continue to devise new forms of repression.

* * *

In my post on Bloodlands (n.2) I mentioned attempts to compare death tolls under Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—in ascending order, it seems. As Timothy Snyder wrote,

it turns out that, with the exception of the war years, a very large majority of people who entered the Gulag left alive. Judging from the Soviet records we now have, the number of people who died in the Gulag between 1933 and 1945, while both Stalin and Hitler were in power, was on the order of a million, perhaps a bit more. The total figure for the entire Stalinist period is likely between two million and three million. The Great Terror and other shooting actions killed no more than a million people, probably a bit fewer. The largest human catastrophe of Stalinism was the famine of 1930–1933, in which more than five million people died.

But appalling are the death tolls, they are far from the whole story. Now that I read Figes’s account, it seems callous and irrelevant to dwell on such statistics.

With my classical, mystical background, it took me a long time to appreciate the importance of all this—and it may still elude younger people in the UK, Russia, and China. But having long focused on the life-stories of Chinese ritual specialists and their patrons, I continue to find such accounts an illuminating perspective on modern history, for China and elsewhere.

Update to A Czech couple in 1950s’ Tianqiao

I’ve just done a major update to A Czech couple in 1950s’ Tianqiao. Even if you have already read my original post, do take another look—I’ve added considerable further material, courtesy of the couple’s grandson (also Zdeněk).

New content includes more vignettes on their early life; a 1968 letter from the son of Robert van Gulik to Ambassador Hrdlička; more on the tribulations of Czechoslovak scholars; and under post-1968 “normalization”, Věna’s wry gratitude to the authorities for improving their health by depriving them of employment…

Note also Czech tag, including appearances from Švejk and Alexei Sayle…

Alexei Sayle: an Iron curtain update

*See here, Good as New!*


As my coverage of east Europe grows (e.g. Musical cultures of east Europe and A Czech couple in 1950s’ Tianqiao), I’ve just made a substantial update to my post on Alexei Saylewith some vignettes from his insightful memoirs in which he recalls the family’s post-war holidays behind the Iron curtain—setting the tone for his later surreal world, both idealistic and cynical.

So following a reshuffle (in the circumstances, perhaps suggesting that of a 1950s’ Politburo), the post now becomes my main coverage of Alexei’s diverse and wondrous talents—with What’s on in Stoke Newington devoted to some of his pithy later aperçus.


A Czech couple in 1950s’ Tianqiao

Věna Hrdličková, Zdeněk Hrdlička,
and narrative-singing in 1950s’ Beijing

with qi baishi

Věna Hrdličková and Zdeněk Hrdlička with Qi Baishi, Beijing 1952.

This article is based on material kindly provided by Lucie Olivová (former student of Věna Hrdličková) and the couple’s grandson Zdeněk.

My brief mention of narrative-singing in 1950s’ Beijing leads me to a remarkable Czech couple, and thence to the Prague sinologists, prompting me to consider the work of Chinese and Czechoslovak scholars—and their tribulations.

The Prague sinologistsPrusek
The Prague school of sinology became widely admired for its achievements in the realms of modern and traditional Chinese literature, linguistics, history, and philosophy. It was led by the great Jaroslav Průšek (1906–80), who became head of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Charles University.

Do read Marián Gálik’s useful introduction to their work up to the demise of state socialism. [1] It both attests to their remarkable energy and gives glimpses of careers and lives (both Czech and Chinese) frustrated by political currents—among countless instances, we might compare the vicissitudes of the great Ming scholar Wang Shixiang.

Věna Hrdličková and Zdeněk Hrdlička
For Věna Hrdličková (1925–2016) and her husband Zdeněk Hrdlička (1919–99), useful introductions are

  • Lucie Olivová, “Chinese and Japanese storytelling: selected topical bibliography of the works of Věna Hrdličková and Zdeněk Hrdlička”, CHINOPERL papers 25 (2004), pp.87–97 [2]
  • Vibeke Børdahl, “In memory of Věna Hrdličková, 1925–2016”, CHINOPERL papers 35.1 (2016), pp.83–8 (here).

Among their own articles are

  • Zdeněk Hrdlička, “Old Chinese ballads to the accompaniment of the big drum,”Archiv orientální 25.1 (1957), pp. 83–145
  • Věna and Zdeněk Hrdlička, “Lianhua lao and its traditions”, in Vibeke Børdahl (ed.), The eternal storyteller: oral literature in modern China (1999), pp.71–7.

I am also most grateful to the Hrdlickas’ grandson Zdeněk for sharing further material—including a draft translation (awaiting publication) of an eloquent series of interviews in Czech with Věna by Ivana Bakešová (Czech Chinese Society, Prague, 2016). Below, apart from direct citations (indented), I have collated and adapted text from all these sources.

Early years
Under the Nazi occupation, universities were closed and most Czech books were forbidden. Věna came from a schoolmaster’s family, whose classroom was a hut with an earthen floor. Teachers now had to say Heil Hitler! as they entered the classroom—though, as Věna recalled, they did it carelessly, just waving their hand at most.

Managing to avoid being sent to work in Germany, at high school Věna studied English, when most schools were teaching French and German. Meanwhile she attended dance school—where she met her future husband Zdeněk. His father, a widowed railwayman, was also a bandmaster.

The couple became interested in China—Věna inspired by early poetry, Zdeněk with a view to contemporary prospects. They discovered that they could study Chinese with Průšek at the Oriental Institute. In 1945 Zdeněk, together with other colleagues, founded the journal Nový Orient [New Orient]—still being published.

In 1946, at Průšek’s recommendation, they received scholarships from the Ministry of Education to study in the USA. They travelled by train to Paris, where a sailors’ strike compelled them to spend a month, and then took the ship to New York. Since term hadn’t yet begun, they used the interlude to get married. They spent two years studying in the USA (Věna at Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Zdeněk at Harvard), attending lectures and seminars by John Fairbank, Edwin Reischauer, and others. Following the war, Harvard was now favouring modern spoken Chinese above classical studies.

In 1948 they returned to Europe by ship from Québec. Back in Czechoslovakia the Communists, under Soviet domination, were tightening their grip. As I remind myself, Prague was still recovering from the trauma of long Nazi occupation, the devastation caused in the 1945 uprising and Soviet “liberation”, and the ensuing expulsions of (and vengeance upon) the German population. [3]

As Czech universities reopened, the couple enrolled in Sinology and Religious Studies at Charles University; Věna also studied Japanese. Zdeněk graduated in 1949 with a thesis on the Daoist concept of immortality; the next year Věna graduated with her thesis on the author Ki no Tsurayuki in Heian Japan.

1950s’ China
Meanwhile in 1949 the People’s Republic of China was founded. That year a Chinese Peace Delegation visited Czechoslovakia, led by Guo Moruo, soon to be president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences; Zdeněk was chosen to attend. From 1950 he was employed at the Oriental Department of the Ministry of Information and Culture, and that winter the couple joined the first Czechoslovak cultural delegation to the PRC, led by Průšek.

They took the Trans-Siberian train, stopping off in Moscow for a couple of days. There Věna recalled the perils of crossing chaotic roads with crazy drivers, and admired the palatial metro system. And then they took the train through Siberia. In the dining carriage, as Švejk connoisseurs they shared their enthusiasm with an elderly gentleman. After spending the night in a little hotel at the border in Manzhouli, they changed to a Chinese train. Průšek, cracking sunflower seeds, was full of expectation. They arrived in Beijing in beautiful sunny weather, the sky clear above the glistening rooftops of the Forbidden City near the embassy. Their affable hosts had new winter coats made for them.

Still, returning to Beijing after an absence of around ten years, Průšek was disappointed, exclaiming “This is not the China I knew.” And while Prague in the late 1940s, recovering from war, must have been devastated, Věna’s strongest initial impression of Beijing was the poverty. When they arrived in the winter cold, she stood through the night at her window in the Beijing Hotel watching rickshaws trudging through the snow. She was also shocked by the lines of blind people walking the streets. She admired the Chinese for the speed with which they were able to fall asleep, no matter where they were. But as she became acquainted with the society, she appreciated the urge of the Chinese to improve their conditions.

In 1951 Zdeněk was appointed the first Czechoslovak cultural attaché to the PRC. Wanting to live among the Chinese rather than in an expat bubble, they rented a modest siheyuan courtyard house, living beside poor neigbours in Zhong Shicao hutong alley just west of the Zhihua temple—just as Yang Yinliu and his colleagues were discovering the Beijing temple traditions there.

Lao Zui lowres

With Lao Zui. Photo: courtesy of Zdeněk Junior.

Their cook Lao Zui served as a general fixer for them, finding them books and arranging for a lianhualao troupe to perform at their house. Their first son, also called Zdeněk, was born in Beijing in 1952; their teacher (a Manchu) gave him the Chinese name Huasheng 华生 “born in China”, soon adapted by their nanny to Huashengmi (Peanut). Their second son Stanislav was born in 1957.

During a period of remarkably good relations between the two countries, the couple got to know leading cultural figures—including academician Guo Moruo, painters Qi Baishi and Xu Beihong, Slavic scholar Ge Baoquan 戈宝权 (1913–2000), authors Mao Dun, Ding Ling, and Lao She, Indeed, Lao She had also been studying in the USA, but had made the fateful decision to return to the New China out of patriotic idealism.

As secretary the Hrdličkas were happy to find Yang Leyun 杨乐云 (1919-2009). Among her later translations into Chinese were the works of Bohumil Hrabal—another Czech author hardly suited to state socialism.

By contrast with most pampered Western academics, the couple had in common with Chinese scholars a legacy of occupation and a tacit awareness of the constraints of the new society.

During their mission they negotiated an official gift of Chinese books to the Oriental Institute, which became the core of the Lu Xun Library in Prague, and the purchase of Chinese antiquities for the National Gallery.

Meanwhile in 1953 a Czechoslovak team was filming a documentary about the construction of the Sichuan–Tibet highway—including rare glimpses of a landscape of daily Tibetan life and traditional ritual that was soon to be erased. Premiered in 1955, the film won awards at the film festivals in Venice and Karlovy Vary. It was screened in Czechoslovak cinemas in 1956, but it was later banned by the Communist authorities, right until its recent rediscovery and showing in Prague.

After the 1949 “Liberation” these early years of the PRC were a relatively optimistic period, before collectivization and campaigns intensified. By contrast with residents from the Western bloc, [4] not renowned for their devotion to Chinese expressive culture, the Hrdlička couple were exceptionally interested in the performing arts, immersing themselves in the narrative-singing scene.

Narrative-singing in early 1950s’ Beijing
Sinology has traditionally been concerned mainly with silent written texts, and remains so in many branches of the field. As Věna later recalled, they were now drawn to oral performance culture because with some 80% of the population illiterate, it was largely thus that they transmitted their history and culture. They were also aware that oral traditions would be threatened by the modern media.

In China there was little ethnographic discussion of the changing conditions of narrative-singing between the 1940s and the Cultural Revolution, but the couple provide some glimpses. Following in the footsteps of Průšek in the 1930s, they often visited the Tianqiao quarter. In an article published in 1968 Věna evoked their explorations:

The T’ien-ch’iao, Peking’s Heavenly Bridge, was one of the most colourful places of this kind, where not only storytellers but also other entertainers regularly competed for attention. Despite its exalted name, it was an unpretentious marketplace with simple earthen arenas, small crude huts and humble teahouses, but it offered much enjoyment for modest sums. We spent there many unforgettable hours enthralled by the mastery of puppeteers, the deftness of magicians, the incredible skill of acrobats, and of course the art of the storytellers. They often commented on our presence with improvised verses, which, though not complimentary, were witty and never really offensive. Eventually, when we became more familiar with fairly frequent attendance, they treated us in the same way as they did the Chinese in their audiences.
We used to invite itinerant storytellers and ballad-singers to our residence in Peking. Though their dress made it obvious that they were poor, their professional pride gave them great dignity. After singing, they were served tea. They then would bow and leave quietly. Some of them in time became our friends, divulging the secrets of their art and helping us to collect handwritten and printed texts of various forms of shuo-shu.

In their article on lianhua lao they recalled:

In the early 1950s we had occasion to watch a group performing caichang lianhua lao in the Tianqiao market, while we were studying shuochang in the field. Thus we made their acquaintance and they consented to give us a performance in our home, in a typical hutong [lane], Zhongshi caor in the eastern part of the capital. These performers from the marketplace presented their act in the courtyard, surrounded by a wall. In addition to the principal of the troupe, Wang Pingtan, there were two women singers, a comic actor, and a musician [on sanxian]; they were typical folk performers, and obviously of low social standing. They had not yet been brought under the aegis of any of the professional organizations then being set up to reform the narrative arts by purging their repertoire of elements of feudalism, as the phrase was, and replacing this with texts that could serve political ends, and help in the struggle against illiteracy, corruption, or for equality of the sexes.

Of course, despite the formation of such troupes, only a few performers were ever recruited to this cause, and only sporadically—as we can see in my notes from Shaanbei. In the cities (such as Yulin), change would have been caused as much by the evolving control of public space as by political elements.


Teahouse in Tianqiao, 1987. My photos.

After I began working in China from 1986, I only dabbled in the narrative-singing scene in Beijing. Whereas many amateur clubs remained active after reviving, the Tianqiao scene enjoyed but a brief revival in the 80s before the area was irretrievably glamourized. Though narrative-singing moved to more salubrious fake-antique venues, some charming amateur clubs have persisted.

Prague and Japan
Their time in China was interrupted when Zdeněk was recalled to Prague in 1954, where he now taught Asian history at Charles University. When they returned to Prague, Věna completed her doctoral thesis on storytelling, based on her fieldwork in China. She defended it in 1959.

The 1956 revolts in Hungary and Poland had ramifications in China—where the short-lived Hundred Flowers movement soon led to the Anti-Rightist campaign, condemning many to tragic fates. Meanwhile Hungarian and Chinese musicologists met in Beijing.

When the Czechoslovak diplomatic mission in Tokyo reopened belatedly in 1957, Zdeněk was appointed chargé d’affaires there (1957–61), later serving as Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador (1964–69). They decided to live in a Japanese-style house.

They were on good terms with the Soviet ambassador Nikolai Fedorenko (1912–2000), “an elegant, handsome man” with a wealth of international experience, who served as Soviet representative at the UN from 1963 to 1968. Over at the American embassy were their former teachers John Fairbank and Serge Elisséeff.

They could only take the boys to Tokyo under the condition that they would attend Russian school, but when circumstances became a bit more relaxed they transferred them to Japanese school, where they were taught in Japanese in the mornings and in English in the afternoons; the children were happy there, and apart from speaking Czech at home and learning Russian they became fluent in Japanese and English. Their grandchildren too followed in the family footsteps.

Despite the intensive workload in these posts, the couple continued to pursue their cultural interests enthusiastically. Věna continued to explore folk story-telling. Each tea-house had a banner saying which story-teller was going to perform that day. They were pleasantly surprised to find small story-telling theatres in the Ueno quarter, including one for rakugo 落語. They were enchanted by Japanese folk ceramics, travelling throughout Japan to collect them, and later presenting them in exhibitions and writings. They studied the tea ceremony, cuisine, gardens and bonsai.

I note superfluously that during their interlude in Prague they do not seem to have met the young Alexei Sayle, later himself to become a folk storyteller…

The Prague Spring and “normalization”
Amidst diverse global revolutions, the couple was spared the Cultural Revolution in China. Their old acquaintance the great author Lao She, himself an aficionado of narrative-singing, was hounded to death in 1966.

But in August 1968 the Prague Spring was brutally crushed when the Warsaw Pact armies occupied Czechoslovakia. The family were on holiday in Prague. It was night-time, and still jet-lagged, they didn’t hear the airplanes with their transports of tanks—they were only woken by the sound of someone shouting: “The Russians have invaded!” Věna thought it was nonsense until she switched on the radio. Zdeněk immediately set off for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where a lot of employees had already gathered, moving to safety some documents that might be of potential interest to the invaders.

He was ordered to return immediately to Japan. Not knowing what was awaiting them, or even if they would ever be able to return, they only took bare necessities in their rucksacks. A friend drove them to the Austrian border, and they flew Swiss Air to Tokyo. At the airport they were met by embassy employees and Japanese reporters; Zdeněk made it clear that the country had been brutally invaded. The newspapers published photographs of him and Dubček. The Czechoslovak flag was flown at half-staff on the embassy building.

As Věna recalled, the Japanese were supportive, but diplomats behaved according to their political affiliations; among the east Europeans, only the Romanians could offer any support. At first, embassy employees unequivocally condemned the occupation, but then gradually things became blurred. As it became clear how the situation was going to evolve, some started distancing themselves.

The couple’s postings to China and Japan evoke the career of Robert van Gulik, who served in China before the Communist takeover, going on to successive postings in Japan. Of course, they moved in different circles: the only contacts between diplomats of the Western and Soviet allies occurred at formal receptions. Still, in Tokyo the couple did indeed meet van Gulik. His third posting there from 1965 had to be interrupted in June 1967 so he could return to the Netherlands for medical treatment, where he died in September. But after the Prague coup the following year van Gulik’s son Pieter sent Zdeněk this letter of sympathy:

Gulik letter lowres

Courtesy of Zdeněk Junior.

Meanwhile, with murky realpolitik, the Chinese leadership also denounced the Soviet-led intervention—ironically, given their support for the quelling of the 1956 Budapest uprising (not to mention later events in Beijing).

Jan Palach’s self-immolation in 1969 predated the common resort of Tibetans protesting occupation.

The couple remained in Tokyo for around a year, but they took recall as a matter of course; they knew what awaited them, and never considered emigration. As soon as they arrived back in Prague, Zdeněk was sacked from the ministry. He briefly became research fellow at the Oriental Institute, but during the so-called “period of normalization” [5] that followed the repression he lost his new post—he wasn’t even admitted to the Oriental Institute library.

While his was a high-profile demotion, he was not alone: as Gálik shows, several other Czech sinologists, including the great Průšek, were expelled from the Academy of Sciences, and the Party, over these years. No-one was immune, neither academics nor ordinary workers.

The Hrdličkas had to go to some lengths to secure the children’s progress in education, with help from their neighbour Jiří Marek (1914–94), author of the script for the 1968 TV series Sinful people of the city of Prague. Věna was pressured into taking early retirement, and Zdeněk too received a small allowance. They took their fate stoically.

Wine-Press Manor
In 1976 Zdeněk and Věna retreated into idyllic rural seclusion—emulating principled ancient Chinese literati like the poet Tao Yuanming (never an option, alas, for their counterparts in Maoist China). In the tiny village of Brzánky on the river Elbe the couple cultivated their Wine-Press Manor (Na Lisu); visitors delighted in the magical atmosphere there, discussing poetry and the arts in the garden over wine with their hosts.

Their bucolic retreat, though dilapidated, had a large plot of land. Without electricity, they had no fridge, but they did have a cold cellar. They grew garlic, kept bees, harvested fruit, and made their own wine—which though ordinaire, they relished because of the work and joy that went into it. In a way it was a beautiful life, giving them time to read and study. Věna later reflected wryly that by depriving them of employment the regime improved their health.

They liked to have guests, such as the renowned art historian František Dvořák with his wife Nataša, and their friends like the artists Jan Zrzavý (1890-1977) and Kamil Lhoták (1812-1990). Denied passports, the couple weren’t allowed to travel abroad; but over the years their foreign friends managed to visit them at the cottage. They maintained contacts with Russian friends who had denounced the occupation. In April 1989 their old friend Ge Baoquan visited them there:

with GBQ lowres

Photo courtesy of Zdeněk Junior.

Through the oppressive years of Soviet occupation, Věna managed to keep her post of lecturer at the Department of Asian and African studies of Charles University—still, she was only belatedly awarded the full dozent professorial qualification in 1990. In the Department she mainly taught Chinese literature, training a number of students—including Lucie Olivová. Věna’s textbooks The history of Chinese classical literature, vol.1 (1980), and An introduction to sinology (with Jaromír Vochala, 1985) are still valued.

Most of the studies that Věna and Zdeněk wrote jointly during the 1970s and 80s could only be published under her name. A couple of journals were bold enough to publish his papers, but Nový Orient, the popular journal for Asia—which Zdeněk had created—remained closed to him.

Meanwhile, of course, many of their friends, both at home and in China, were punished in many ways from the mid-50s until the early 80s. Both peoples had suffered under wartime occupation and had to adapt to one-party rule; both had seen brief liberalizations ruthlessly crushed.

A certain rehabilitation came when Zdeněk, with other enthusiasts, was able to found the first ever Bonsai club in Prague, which later became the Prague Bonsai Society. They published a quarterly newsletter from 1981; from 1990 it became a journal in successive incarnations. As well as organizing activities, exhibitions, and lectures, here it was possible for Zdeněk to publish. The couple designed several Chinese and Japanese gardens in Czechoslovakia, receiving a gold medal for the design of a Japanese garden at the Flora Olomouc Exhibition in 1983.

Since 1989

Vena 2004

Věna in China, 2004.

After the Velvet revolution of 1989, new freedoms opened a sudden range of possibilities. The couple once again traveled to the USA, Japan, and China.

In the new Czech Republic, they participated in the re-establishment of the Czech-Chinese Society and the Czech-Japanese Society. They organized projects such as an exhibition of paintings by Qi Baishi at the National Gallery at Prague, and the publications of miscellanies, including the often-reprinted Èajová zastavení [Tea stations] (Prague, 1997). Věna published literary translations of contemporary Chinese novels, and Chinese and Japanese folk tales, which appeared in splendid Czech and foreign editions. She translated over a hundred films, mainly from Japanese, for Czech TV and other distributors. She was much decorated.

So at last they were able to publish under their own names. After working together at the tranquil cottage, the couple published the popular book Emperor Shenzong’s China (Čína císaře Šen-cunga) and books about Japanese and Chinese gardens.

Zdeněk’s sudden death in March 1999 came as a painful shock to all his friends and acquaintances; however, Věna continued her activities and research with commitment and perseverance.

Chinese studies of narrative-singing
After 1949, although the Hrdlička couple explored the narrative-singing scene on their own initiative rather than in collaboration with Chinese scholars, the latter too were busy studying and promoting the diverse genres along the middle of the vocal spectrum from folk-song to opera.

Of course, the big cities were only the tip of the iceberg. Later studies tended to focus on the Jiangnan region, but genres still common around Beijing and Tianjin include Jingyun dagu 京韻大鼓, Meihua dagu 梅花大鼓, and Xihe dagu 西河大鼓. Yang Yinliu himself began studying the danxian 单弦 melodies of Beijing as early as 1950, soon after arriving there.
Shuochang yinyue

For a nationwide inventory, see

  • Shuochang yinyue 说唱音乐 (ed. Zhongyang yinyuexueyuan Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo, 1961).

While its 589 pages consist almost entirely of transcriptions, it includes a useful bibliography. Many festivals were also held through the 1950s.


National festival of narrative-singing, August 1958.

1954Above: danxian performer Rong Jianchen (front, 4th from left) with disciples, 1954.
Below: Founding of drum-singing guild, Tianqiao, 1940s.
Source: Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Beijing juan.

LHLLarge-format lianhualao led by Rong Jianchen and Wang Wanfang (6th and 5th from right), 1950s.
Source: Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Beijing juan.

Though the work of the Chinese scholars was constrained and reified, it laid the foundations for later studies, notably the Anthology—for which note the provincial volumes of both the Zhongguo quyi zhi 中国曲艺志 and the Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng 中国曲艺音乐集成—see my “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003).

JYDGJingyun dagu masters. Above: Liu Baoquan, 1920s. Middle: left, Liu Baoquan, 1936; right, Bai Yunpeng. Below: Bai Fengming.
Source: Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Beijing juan.

Ma Zengfen Xihe daguMa Zengfen 馬增芬 performing Xihe dagu, 1950s.
Source: Zhongguo quyi zhi, Beijing juan.

Some fine archive recordings are included in the 2-CD set

  • Shibaduan quyi 十八段曲藝 [English title Shuochang: the ultimate art of Chinese storytelling] (1998).

Many clips are also now available online, from both before and after Liberation. Here’s Bai Fengming:

Meanwhile it became apparent that alongside entertainment genres, the ritual component of narrative-singing was also widespread and important in local cultures throughout China. The Czech couple’s explorations could hardly extend to the countryside—even just a few hours south of Beijing, narrative-singers continued to perform through the 1950s, alongside ritual groups.

Back in Czechoslovakia, ethnographic study of regional folk traditions was also circumscribed after the Communist takeover—as earlier in Ukraine.

* * *

In what may sometimes appear as a Western-dominated field, all this serves as a reminder of the wider world of scholarship and the international situation in the years following the revolutions of the late 1940s, as well as the achievements and vicissitudes of scholars and artists both in China and in Soviet-dominated countries.

With many thanks to Lucie Olivová and Zdeněk the younger! 


[1] The list of twenty-two scholars includes my own mentor Paul Kratochvil; note also Dana Kalvodová (1928-2003), scholar of Chinese opera.

[2] Lucie Olivová, Věna Hrdličková–Zdeněk Hrdlička: A list of published works and oral presentations 1945/46–2002 (Prague: Oriental Institute, 2002, bilingual) lists almost a thousand bibliographical entries under headings including storytelling, Chinese and Japanese gardens, Japanese pottery, and Chinese literature.

[3] See e.g. Keith Lowe, Savage continent: Europe in the aftermath of World War II, pp. 126–35; for background on the early Communist period, see Anne Applebaum, Iron curtain: the crushing of eastern Europe.

[4] from journalists like Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley to politically-engaged residents like the Hintons and the Crooks: see Beverley Hooper, Foreigners under Mao: Western lives in China, 1949–1976 (2016).

[5] As I write this, I’m reading Christopher Hitchens’ remarkable memoir Hitch-22, where he describes it as “one of the most casually ugly phrases of the whole 20th century”—but then, if anyone is equipped to demolish such insidious language, it’s the Czechs themselves.

Fiddles and racism


My bold recording of Bach on erhu reminds me of two casual, worrying, yet entertaining reviews from the early 1990s—suggesting that Berlioz‘s failure to appreciate the beauties of world music hasn’t been erased.

First, a blurb for a festival of new Chinese music on BBC Radio 3:

New music for old instruments—such as the er-hu and the gu-quin [sic] (Chinese for “finger-nail-down-the-blackboard” and “moggie-in-the-mangle”), Marvellous ear-scouring stuff.

And this review of a controversial BBC2 Bookmark programme is reminiscent of Molvania:

billed as a celebration of the epic tradition in Serbian poetry and a homage to Dr Radovan Karadzic, described in the subtitles as “poet and psychiatrist”. Many of those who heard Dr Karadzic explaining on Monday morning that Serbian forces were not casually shelling Sarajevo for the hell of it but responding to Muslim artillery fire would have added “mass-murderer” to the list of his qualifications.
It undermined the Serbian case more effectively than a dozen polemics. Karadzic was shown to be a rambling, inconsistent, sentimental bouffanted crook. His countrymen came over as a gang of brutal yokels with a cultural life marginally richer than that of Neanderthal man.  Their favourite musical instrument is a single-string violin, which they scratch interminably while boasting tunelessly about their achievements against the Turks. After they have wiped out the Bosnian Muslims they will doubtless apply for a grant from the BC Cultural Harmonization Fund to put a second string on their wretched instruments.

However well-meaning and colorful the review may be, it’s just as about as racist as the mindset it criticizes; one might wish for a more thorough ethnography. But I digress. Doubtless the gusle singers are heartfelt, but perhaps the best thing that can be said for my erhu performance is that it doesn’t legimitize genocide. So much for music as the universal language of peace and love.

See also fiddles tag.

Janáček and Moravian folk


Leoš Janáček‘s Sinfonietta (1926) may be a great orchestral showpiece, but it’s complex and stimulating. It also links nicely to several of my themes:

  • His music is another reminder of the centrifugal variety around the peripheries of European art music
  • Since Janâček dedicated the piece to the “Czechoslovak Armed Forces”, this classic story from my mentor Paul Kratochvil is highly apposite
  • It makes a fine addition to the variety of posts grouped under the trumpet tag
  • It further illustrates the use of additive rhythms
  • And the timpani part, like the snare-drum in Nielsen 5, is another that I have earmarked to be played by Li Manshan
  • See also my post on Hašek and Kundera (and for yet more, including more Švejk, the Czech tag).

Tom Service always makes a good guide (and do watch his link to Jakub Hrůša’s musical tour of Brno).

This is music that Janâček wanted ideally to be played by a military band like the one he’d heard a few years prior to the composition of Sinfonietta, and whose music he wrote down in the composing notebook he took everywhere with him. If you had to perform the Sinfonietta without a military ensemble, Janâček said (as it almost always is in concert halls these days), make sure the brass players sound as rough, brash, and bright as an army band.
On one hand, the jump-cuts and juxtapositions of Janâček’s music, the way he repeats little cells of music and then without warning moves to a new idea, means that you experience a continuous sense of surprise and suspense when you hear this piece. That kind of cinematic editing and shuffling of musical time seems to be the opposite of the conventional symphonic principle, substituting a logic of surreal colours, unpredictable textures and even less predictable timing for the development, argument, and discourse of proper symphonic behaviour.

Among a host of spectacular recordings of the Sinfonietta we could go with S-Simon yet again, like this 2018 concert with the LSO:

Since Charles Mackerras was a great champion of Janáček’s music, I was going to suggest his version (not least to remind you his wonderful anagram, Slasher M. Earcrack); but for some historical depth how about this one, with Czech performers—just after the war and Communist takeover, as musicians and audiences must have been anxiously awaiting life-changing measures wrought by their new leaders:

And here’s a 1961 recording with Karel Ančerl, who had survived Terezin and Auschwitz:

The Sinfonietta makes a glorious prelude to exploring the riches of Janáček’s music—operas, chamber music, and so on.

* * *

Please excuse me for returning to folk music, but it was a major inspiration for composers throughout central and east Europe, like Bartók. Along with pioneers like František Sušil and František Bartoš, Janáček collected Moravian folk culture keenly, long before Kundera dissected the way it was distorted under Communist rule.


Janáček collecting folksongs on 19th August 1906 in Strání.

In my overview of musical cultures of east Europe I neglected Polish, Czech, and Slovak traditions—projects for another time. Many of those features that Service notes—the use of cells, jump-cuts, shuffling—must relate to Janáček’s background exploring the rhythms and textures of peasant life.

Again, the Rough Guide to world music makes a starting point, under “Czech and Slovak republics”. Janáček’s own recordings have been reissued on the CD

  • The oldest recordings of folk-singing from Moravia and Slovakia, 1909–1912 (Gnosis, Brno).

See also

  • Barbara Krader, “Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia”, in Helen Myers (ed.), Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies, pp.178–85


  • Magda Ferl Zelinská and Edward J.P. O’Connor, “Czech Republic and Slovakia”, in The Garland encylopedia of world music, vol.8: Europe.