Transmission and change: Noh drama



Further to my post on contemporary Noh drama, I’m grateful to Allan Marett for drawing my attention to

the lucid text well rendered in fluent translation by Edgar W. Pope—no easy feat.

I introduce this lengthy article here not just for its insights on Noh, but because it bears more widely on the transmission of traditional genres—including the WAM canon. Indeed, it often reminds me of debates over rubato in romantic piano music.

Bruno Nettl has suggested parameters for change in musickings around the world; Noh would seem to belong to his rubric of “gradual, normal change” (“An absolutely static musical culture is actually inconceivable”; for Daoist ritual, see e.g. here), and the concept of “isolated preservation”. Fujita’s article also bears on Nettl’s discussion of flexibility and improvisation.

Within the conservative goal of preservation, Fujita seeks to reconcile apparently conflicting emic and etic viewpoints, and the tensions between ideal and real performance—common concerns of those analysing world music. He wisely considers the whole Noh community, and addresses both the nuts and bolts of performance and the mystical underpinnings of the tradition. As Pope summarizes:

A puzzling situation defines the contemporary transmission of Noh. On one hand, the genre’s community of practice is governed by strict orders to preserve musical sound through repeated imitation and to avoid change at all costs. On the other hand, the community discourages explicit dialogue between teachers and learners concerning what exactly constitutes those ideal musical sounds as well as the extent to which those sonic ideals are being faithfully maintained across performances. With a focus on the transmission of hiranori vocal rhythms, Fujita explores the ambivalent strategies with which participants navigate this conundrum and discovers a paradoxical process by which Noh’s so-called “preservation imperative” actually encourages musical change.

Pope also highlights the relationship between ideal models and actual performance, discourses of continuity and authenticity, and the sometimes-frustrating ambiguities of self-consciously “traditional” arts.

The article also demonstrates Fujita’s characteristic methodological approach: combining close musical analysis with perspectives gained from extensive ethnographic experience, and using critical historical insights to complicate his own ethnographic observations and challenge common scholarly assumptions.

As Fujita explains:

According to the theorists cited above, the place of performance is precisely where creativity happens. But in reality, do the spectators gathered in that place of performance always expect creativity or novelty from the performing art? At each and every performance, do they always focus their attention on how much creativity is being exhibited? One cannot necessarily say so. Depending on time and circumstance, many spectators are likely to expect not something new, but rather a past performance repeated in the same way, here and now. A performance that makes use of bodily movement and sound occurs only once, and then immediately vanishes. The desire to try repeating it again the next day often arises; but can we say conclusively that creative processes and interpretive variation exist there as well? […]

Classical music is like an antique, in the sense that as times change it does not necessarily adapt itself to the changing tastes of its audience. In order to transmit this antique from generation to generation, the community itself has taken on the distinctive form of the iemoto system, in which the iemoto and their branch families are at the apex, and beneath those, in the form of a tree, are positioned their disciples and the disciples of disciples (cf. my image of the iceberg). The focus of this essay is the acquisition by low-level members (disciples) of the techniques held by high-level members (teachers).

Performing artists must be sensitive to the changing demands of changing times if they always construct their performances on the basis of unchanging prescriptions, it is likely that audiences will eventually grow tired of them, and the art itself will become extinct. [….]

This high-pressure imperative takes the form: “Even if it’s boring, don’t ask why—just preserve!” […] Suppose, hypothetically, that you were to find yourself a member of such a community. You yourself have no clue as to what the purpose of preservation might be. And yet you are compelled to participate in preservation. You think to yourself “What’s the use of this? It’s boring. I want to quit!” But you are unable to defy the preservation imperative, and as your participation immerses you completely in the various mutually contradictory rules of practice that fall under the preservation imperative, you experience, at some times and in some cases, a joy in the very practice of preservation itself. Once you have had this sort of experience a number of times, you reach a state where you suddenly think to yourself “I’m glad I’m doing this.” Even though you are repeating (or being made to repeat) over and over again things that have been determined in advance, one day a feeling even comes over you that some realm of freedom is finding expression here—a world in which you feel that a kind of richness that surpasses the merely technical has been secured. The community that provides this strange experience is the community of classical music transmission in Japan.

Fujita suggests the enduring basis of this conservatism in the vestiges of Confucian ideology, with instances from Buddhist chant and biwa music (and of course around the world other ideologies impose limiting effects on creativity in varying ways and degrees), and a brief aside on the aesthetics of calligraphy. He goes on to observe that the community’s emphasis on preservation is modified in actual practice, adroitly suggesting why my suggestion of punk versions of Noh was so impertinent (not to mention this).

Notation is always an imperfect tool. Analysing the rhythmic structure of Noh, Fujita uses tradional graphical representations, largely to reveal their inadequacy. Indeed, he notes that in the past, they “were considered an impediment to learning and were apparently kept hidden”; that they have never come to be used as standards; and that the actual sound of Noh deviates greatly from such schemas.

A stable flow of sound that could appropriately be called a pulse never reaches your ear. You hear a series of terrible arrhythmias, so to speak. As a result, it is generally difficult to perceive an eight-beat meter [2] from the actual sound, that is, to reconstruct the graphical representation from the sound.

Fujita explains in detail the vital roles of the kotsuzumi and ōtsuzumi drums. Commenting on the great flexibility of the pulse, he gives a magnificent analogy:

For the reader who is unfamiliar with the sound of Noh, please envision, for example, a scene in which a drunk person is singing a song with a great deal of emotional expression. Large changes in the pulse will often occur. If a sober listener who knows the song well tries to clap along with the performance, it will become clear that there are large expansions and contractions in the intervals between pulses, of the kind we have described here.

On singing, Fujita observes:

Scholars who try to explain the rhythm of Noh singing usually abandon from the beginning any attempt to explain this phenomenon of elasticity of the aural pulse. Many of them, when explaining rhythm, begin by introducing a graphical representation (such as Figure 1) that shows twelve syllables arranged over eight beats. After that they add some such commentary as the following:

In transcription it appears as shown above, but in actual performance the rhythm is transformed, through various techniques, to the point that this basic meter can barely be perceived. When watching Noh, the parts where one cannot follow the beat in relation to the performance on stage are mostly these hiranori parts, which are constructed through an extremely complex and subtle rhythmic sense. One might call it a rhythm that does not show its rhythmic sense on the surface.

This is clearly a declaration that the writer has given up on explanation. But why does he arrive at this kind of impasse? The problem is that with no detailed observation or description of contemporary practice, he has developed an explanation that depends from the outset on graphical representations, which are not actively used as models within the community. We have seen that the rhythm of Noh, when compared to its graphical representation, involves large tempo changes and is greatly “distorted” in performance. We must not, however, take such “distortion” [henkei] to mean literal distortion. The “distortion” of Noh rhythm is systematic and has been thoroughly drilled into the performer in the course of practice. To that extent, rather than being the result of individual contrivance, it is more accurate to think of it as something that has been habitualized.

He then identifies the set of norms that produce such “distortion”: the way that the drummers memorize sequences, with mnemonics for timings (komi, the preparations for producing sounds) and timbre, and the haunting kakegoe vocal cries (mostly in the intervals between pulses, and a major element in Noh’s rhythmic elasticity). The interplay of the two drummers is crucial. We may be only mildly reassured by the conclusion of this section:

The form of explanation that begins with something like “Noh rhythm is based on an eight-beat meter”, although not at all incorrect as a historical explanation, turns out to be completely meaningless as a description of current practice. In reality, as we have seen, the lengths of drum syllable sequences used by ōtsuzumi and kotsuzumi players do not necessarily fill up a span of eight beats; and performance proceeds from a consciousness centered on those drum syllables. During a performance, moreover, many performers have no idea where they are (i.e., which beat they are on) in terms of pulse numbers. In actual practice, this is no longer eight-beat music. It is quite natural, then, that the sound produced by the performers does not sound like eight-beat music.

While he points out that performers are not entirely oblivious to graphical schema, they may adopt some principles and regularities that they perceive therein for the purposes of their own performance.

Principles discovered by performers for themselves are not used as oral explanations in education. Moreover, graphical representations of those principles have never come to the forefront and circulated as a primary means or as standards for learning. This has been especially true in the study of Noh singing.

In §3 Fujita takes a historical approach to komi. While the concept has long existed, it has only been emphasized more recently. Identifying “surreptitious” change below the preservation imperative, he astutely unpacks emic and etic approaches:

When scholars accept without question the ideology of the preservation imperative, thinking that the practices of traditional music transmit the forms of ancient sounds mechanically like a tape recorder, and repeating like parrots the community’s assertions that they “do it exactly the way it was taught,” it is evident that we have a problem. On the other hand, a standpoint that assumes people in the community are simply lying when they say “we do it exactly the way it was taught”, that focuses only on empirically tracking down changes in actual sound and seeking to discover in those the creativity of performers, could be seen as rushing to conclusions and distorting the object of research. What we need, then, is to look carefully at how the ideology actually operates.

So he goes on to discuss the language used since the late Meiji period to inhibit undue reliance on graphical rhythmic schema—particularly with regard to singing, the most popular activity within the amateur community.

With regard to singing practice, sound itself is excessively emphasized [!]. Everyone in the community is expected to imitate faithfully the sound of Noh singing. From the beginning, they must not rely on schemas that serve as frameworks. They must not look at graphical representations. They must not have any interest in theory. This sort of thing is hammered into their heads.

Fujita cites a passage from 1943 [his italics]:

At first there is no need to think about the logic of jibyōshi [the eight beat meter]. One simply has to swallow as a whole the actual way of singing with the meter, and pound it into one’s memory until it becomes a habit. Regardless of any theory about meter, its actual use is nothing other than a focusing of the spirit [kiai], and so the best way to give life to the meter is to grasp the focusing of spirit that appears in your teacher’s singing. In short, the fundamental problem must be to build a foundation from which you can sing more or less together with the meter, even if you don’t know how to keep the meter. You can try to study meter on the basis of Noh singing, with its uncertain pulse, but all you will get is a logical understanding, which you will not necessarily be able to use in the actual practice of singing. Even worse, you may well end up with meter for the sake of meter, not meter for the sake of singing.

He explores the learning process, and the interaction of singers and drummers:

Of course, the singer’s memory of the sound is not perfect. The singer, furthermore, has no understanding of the schema. It is therefore entirely possible that discrepancies will arise between the singer and the drummers in some places. For example, it must frequently happen that a singer starts one pulse too early, or one pulse too late. Those who do so are instructed to practice that part over and over, and as a result of this repeated practice acquire a feeling of “falling into the meter”, even in that part.

§4 goes on to discuss the mysticization of identity: the realm of kokoro (heart/mind)—”the place for secret manouevring”. Here he turns to the flute:

In the following episode, a teacher of Noh singing critiques the flute-playing of one of his students. Unlike the drums discussed in §2, the flute is an instrument with a low degree of structure in the realm of articulation, and in that sense we could say that it is similar to vocal performance. On one occasion, a flute performance was critiqued in the following way. Kaneuchi Yoshihira was the youngest Noh flute player during the time my teacher was alive, and he also had a weak physical constitution. One time when he was playing flute for the otokomai dance in “Atsumori” he noticed that his teacher was looking at him; apparently he froze, and the sound of his flute abruptly stopped. Nevertheless out of fear of his teacher he tried even harder to play, while taking kurai, but finally he lost his composure and was unable to produce a sound. He continued on like a madman, puffing away at his flute without making a sound, until the piece ended. He then went back to the musicians’ room, cringing at the thought of the scolding he would get. But he found his teacher to be in an extremely good mood. “It was fine, it was fine. Your iki [spirit] and your kuraidori [taking kurai] were very good today.” Kaneuchi spoke of how happy he was when he heard those words of praise, and said that for the first time he felt self-confidence in his flute playing.

Noting a further tendency: “an irresistible turning toward the enjoyment of unrepeatable immediacy”, he ponders the apparent conflict between emic (“we always do it the same”)  and etic (“these details are completely different”) views (again, cf. Nettl), and lists significant emic terms that appear to resolve them.

Observing that

in spite of its rigid, closed, and conservative appearance, there actually do exist “free” and “creative” processes,

Fujita concludes by discussing the recent influence of audio-visual techology on the learning process, which was slow to gain acceptance but is now compressing the space for the preservation imperative.

Such thoughtful, detailed analysis is a valuable contribution to studies of change in musickings around the world.


[1] For this post I silently [sic] convert the “nō “of the text to “Noh”. For more in English, see e.g. here.

[2] For the very different (and more audible) eight-beat structure of Chinese shawm bands and Daoist groups, see here. For official attempts to replace ritual skills with discursive knowledge, see Training Daoists in Shanghai.


Oh Noh!


To follow my post on Noh drama, on a lighter, nay meretricious (and a Happy New Year) note—in lieu of my fantasy article “There’s no business like Noh business: stagecraft in Japanese drama”:

While Clive James (R.I.P.) was generally admirable as well as entertaining, in chapter 12 of The blaze of obscurity he candidly describes his inability to represent traditional Japanese culture on popular TV. Coming to the topic via the unpromising genre of game shows, he concludes a passage describing the rationale behind the filming of his own discomfort (not merely physical) at a session with a samisen-playing geisha by proclaiming:

To let myself in for ridicule might mitigate any impression that I was setting out to ridicule the culture, which in fact I revered, even for its way of becoming even more incomprehensible as you focused your attention on it.

But he gave up far too easily. That comment follows a paragraph that includes a reference to Noh:

A Japanese classical sword-smith takes a long time to make a sword, you need a degree in metallurgy to appreciate what he does, and the finished product looks exactly like a stage prop from an amateur production of The Mikado. In a Noh play an actor takes half an hour to cross the stage. The special walk he is using takes a lifetime’s training, but he looks exactly like an old man with arthritis setting out to buy a newspaper. You can fall asleep while he is making his entrance and when you wake up again he is still making his entrance.

Sure, there’s no denying that Noh is short on hectic car chases and steamy love scenes. This passage is distinguished by its lazy cultural chauvinism:

In Kyoto, at the Geisha training school, the top lady was one of the greatest living players of the shami-sen, the single-stringed guitar [HEY] that has come down through the ages without acquiring any extra strings to compromise its purity by providing it with, say, the capacity to produce a chord. It goes plunk. It goes plink.

So much for ethnomusicology, and his proclaimed reverence for Japanese culture. At least he or his team of researchers might have counted the strings, FFS. At least the Serbian gusle really does only have one string, though the review featured here is no more enamoured with it.

To return to my orchestral tours, while I really shouldn’t emulate the way that James plays for laughs the culture that he professes to revere, Noh goes quite well with jet-lag—you can indeed nod off, or pop out to do a bit of shopping, and by the time you get back to the action the waki will still only have shimmied halfway across the stage. But enchantment soon takes over.

Further irreverent ideas might include a feature-length Family guy—Oh Noh!, with Brian and Stewie as an original waki–shite duo; not an entirely silly idea, as redemption (e.g. here) and time travel are common themes of the series.

And along with reading Miles Davis’s autobiography in the voice of the Queen (“Man, that cat was badder than ten bad motherfuckers”), how about a party game reciting my script for the wacky (wakiphrases from Teach yourself Japanese (a MUST READ!) in Noh style?

But enough of such levity—do follow up the wonders of Noh via my previous post, and with this post on tradition and change!

For a sequel in which Clive James extends his incomprehension to Chicago blues, see here.

Contemporary Noh drama

AM poster

Noh drama is both austere and enthralling.

Whereas gagaku traces its origins to Tang China, Noh evolved within Japan, notably with the canonical work of Zeami (c1363–1444). [1] While the local ritual dramas (often using masks) of China have been much studied (setting forth from projects led by C.K. Wang), everything about Noh seems remote from Chinese theatre.

The plots, derived from medieval literature such as the Genji and Heike monogatari, are based on the theme of exorcism; often a traveller or pilgrim (the waki role) meets a local dweller, who is later revealed as the ghost of a renowned ancient personage who died there in tragic circumstances (the role of shite).

Perpetuating the spirit of Zen in modern Japan (cf. posts on Eugen Herrigel and Gary Snyder), all the performative elements are mesmerizing—from the vocals of the solo actors and chorus, to the hayashi ensemble of piercing flute punctuated by the haunting rhythms of the three types of drums (with their otherworldly kakegoe cries), and the cathartic final dance.

Noh in Japan, 1992. My photos.

Orchestral tours always gave me an opportunity to explore local cultures (flamenco in Seville, táncház in Budapest; for a fortuitous spinoff, see here), and on tours of Japan in the 1990s local Noh theatres were always my first port of call. Here are two complete dramas:

Atsumori is a mugen ghost play by Zeami, based on the Heike monogatari:

The monk Renshō (in the waki role) arrives at Ichi-no-Tani seeking to ask forgiveness from Atsumori (the shite role) and calm his spirit. There he meets a flute-playing youth and his companions; after they briefly discuss the flute and Atsumori, the youth reveals that he has a connection to Atsumori.

In the second act, after a kyōgen interlude, the actor who played the youth in the first act has changed costume, now playing Atsumori. Along with the chorus chanting for him, he relates his tragic story from his perspective, re-enacting it in dance form. The play ends with Renshō refusing to re-enact his role in Atsumori’s death; the ghost declares that the monk is not his enemy, and asks him to pray for his release.

In Takasago, a priest travels to Takasago in pleasant spring weather. Among the beautiful pine trees, he hears a bell toll in the distance. An elderly couple arrive and begin to sweep the area under the pine bower. The old man recites from a collection of waka poetry, describing the Takasago and Sumioe wedded pine trees that, according to legend, will remain together for eternity. When he explains that the paired pines are a symbol of the marital relationship, the priest observes that all relationships, like life itself, fall short of the ideal expressed in the poem.

At this point, the old couple reveal that they are the spirits of the paired pines, and they set sail across the bay in a small boat. As the tide goes out, the priest also sets sail.

* * *

While the Noh scene in Japan has remained largely faithful to medieval plots, Allan Marett, working with Richard Emmert, has composed two remarkably imaginative new Noh dramas in English. Among the distinguished pupils of Laurence Picken working on Tang music at Cambridge in the 1970s, Allan then began devoting himself to Noh, and his drama Eliza (1985) makes a kind of bridge to his fine fieldwork on aboriginal culture in Australia:

A traveller to Fraser Island in Australia meets an old woman who tells the story of Eliza Fraser, the wife of the captain of a ship shipwrecked years ago. The woman begins to tell fantastic stories about Eliza’s experiences and how these were used to satisfy the beliefs of white society. As the traveller questions her story full of exaggeration, the woman’s true nature as the spirit of Eliza is set free. The spirit then reappears and dances in an aboriginal festival, reliving her experiences of aboriginal culture and the truth of her harmonious stay with aboriginal peoples.

No less remarkable is his 2015 drama Oppenheimer:

In Noh, agents of suffering (often warriors) first appear trapped in the form a ghost and then—in the course of the play—attain liberation; thus the drama traces the spiritual journey of Robert J. Oppenheimer from tormented ghost to agent of redemption. It makes an allegory about the tragedy of Hiroshima and how it affects us all. As Allan comments, “my play points beyond Hiroshima to all acts of violence and inhumanity.”

Oppenheimer has the structure and form of a traditional mugen Noh, where the main character is the ghost of a person who, because of some karmic hindrance, is unable to leave their human form at death. In many cases, the action of a mugen play will free the ghost from the wheel of samsara, so that they can attain liberation. In this play, the ghost is that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who, tormented by the horrible consequences of his action in fathering the atomic bomb, is condemned to return each year to Hiroshima to himself suffer the agonies that his weapon caused. Through a contemplation of the traditional Zen story of Hyakujo and the fox, the ghost of Oppenheimer is finally released from his suffering when he encounters Fudô Myô-ô within the fires of Hiroshima. Fudô gives Oppenheimer his sword and snare, so that he can dance for the liberation of all beings from suffering, and in particular the wounds and scars that we all bear as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Putting to one side experiments like traditional Noh versions of Shakespeare (such as Macbeth), and the influence on Western dramatists and composers (Yeats, Brecht, Britten, and so on), much of the impetus for innovation within Noh has come with international collaboration. Richard Emmert has long been a protagonist in developing Noh in English. Here’s his introduction to its history—citing several other productions, including Pagoda and Between the stones by Jannette Cheong, as well as Deborah Brevoort’s Blue moon over Memphis,

a stark and beautiful meditation on loneliness, with numerous textual and musical allusions to 20th-century popular song. Judy is a lonely, middle-aged woman, and a devout Elvis fan. She makes a pilgrimage to Graceland on the anniversary of Elvis’s death, but she is forced to wait outside, due to the overwhelming crowds. Her dream shattered, she is left to reflect on her life, through the verbal imagery of popular song. But then, during the candlelight vigil, a mysterious man lets her into the Meditation Garden where Elvis is buried, and there, under the light of a blue moon, she encounters a spirit.

Further productions are listed on the Theatre Nohgaku site.

Such creations feature new plots while remaining faithful both to the spirit of Noh (recognition, redemption, and so on) and to traditional performance style and staging. I wonder impertinently if there’s more radical potential for modern Noh. Bruno Nettl has suggested some parameters for change in world musicking (gradual or radical, allowable variation, isolated preservation, and so on), with varying approaches to maintaining elements considered to be core. In Europe, opera changes substantially over time. Apart from new operas, we have avant-garde productions of older operas, using the original plots but interpreting them in modern settings, often with the “original” music; and we have “rock operas”. Within Japan, might one use sax, or ondes martenot, with drum-kit, and punk vocals; skyscrapers and modern costumes? [Noooh—Ed.] For a masterly rebuttal of these meretricious ideas, see here.

Irrespective of such idle musings, works like Eliza and Oppenheimer make refreshing, stimulating innovations in the Noh repertoire.


Having enjoyed a London reunion with Allan Marett,
I much appreciate his guidance on this post.


[1] For a useful database, see here. For succinct introductions to Noh in the context of other Japanese genres, see Isabel Wong’s chapter in Bruno Nettl et al. (eds.), Excursions in world music, and David Hughes’s chapter in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics. For a meretricious footnote to this post, see here.


To complement Flann O’Brien’s multi-lingual All-Purpose Opening Speech, a passage from Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! led me to the even purer form of doubletalk:

Lenny began to rely more and more on what he could do with his voice, hands and facial expressions. […] That discovery was the first step in the direction of abstraction.

The next step was to junk speech in favor of double-talk. Here he was following the lead of Sid Caesar, the greatest double-talk artist in the history of comedy. Sid was a genius with sounds and accents. He couldn’t speak two words of any foreign language, but he would converse for hours in double-talk versions of German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Japanese—and even more exotic tongues—with such passions and such a flair for the characteristic sounds of these languages that people would swear he was actually speaking the language.

Now, as Lenny realized eventually from his prolonged study of Sid’s stage act, when you make a character speak in double-talk, you actually abstracted the essence of his vocal mannerisms. Once the words were reduced to gibberish, the whole characterization resided in the inflections and tonal peculiarities of the character’s delivery.

Indeed, beyond mere verbal fluency, hand gestures and facial expressions are important aspects of language learning (for the vocabulary of Italian hand gestures, see e.g. here).

Language Log has erudite coverage of doubletalk, with further links. Here’s the famous Sid Caesar routine, with French, German, Italian, and Japanese:

Meanwhile Dario Fo was exploring Grammelot:

By extension, here’s a classic scene from Bananas:



Ey-up! A new haiku


Further to my post on Morris dancing and the controversies it provokes, here’s a new English haiku—to follow the original one, as well as my own ode to the 94 bus and garbled reference to a popular graffiti.

It should be read in a strong Lancashire accent. The opening line (for a variant, note comments below!) would be a headline, rather in the style of “Ping-pong ding-dong“. And the “rhyme that doesn’t quite work” doubtless has one of those fancy names that they try and teach you in school:

Trouble at t’Morris
‘As PC gone mad? Ey-up—
T’Nutters of Bacup!

For Stewart Lee’s trenchant rebuke of “PC gone mad gone mad”, see here; for “Ey-up!” in Venice, here; and for another altercation, here.


Seven samurai


I was first spellbound by Seven samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954) at Cambridge in the early 1970s, among many other formative film experiences there.

Of the samurai, I was most captivated by the master-swordsman Kyūzō (a character inspired by the “sword-saint” Miyamoto Musashi), akin to the Zen archers and mystics who were then inspiring me.

While my fellow-students were attracted to contemporary China, I was still mired in silent immobile ancient texts; but though the film’s drama is set in 16th-century Japan, it must somehow have sown the seed for my later studies of Chinese peasant life…

Among several homages, never mind The magnificent seven: most subtle and perceptive is Tampopo.


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 available online, from both before and after Liberation, such as these items from Liu Baoquan, Luo Yusheng, and Bai Yunpeng.

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.