Robert van Gulik


Van Gulik

Robert van Gulik (Chinese name Gao Luopei 高羅佩, 1910–67)—“diplomat, Asian scholar, calligrapher, polyglot, polymath, passionate lover of life in all its forms”—is perhaps best known for his Judge Dee detective novels set in the Tang dynasty and his writings on the qin zither, as well as on imperial Chinese painting and erotica.

A 1995 biography, now translated into English,

  • C. D. Barkman and H. de Vries-van der Hoeven, Dutch mandarin: the life and work of Robert Hans van Gulik (2018)

makes a fascinating read, at once sympathetic and dispassionate, and covering not just China and Japan but the many cultures where Van Gulik was posted during turbulent times.

And at a recent conference on the qin at SOAS, convened by the enthusiastic London Youlan qin society, I was glad to see the 2016 film

in the presence of Van Gulik’s granddaughter Marie-Anne Souloumiac. It’s far from a biopic, more a free-ranging fantasy—somewhat as imperial China was for Van Gulik and others like Arthur Waley. Here they introduce the film:

Indeed, Van Gulik was only able to make stays in China from 1936 to 1946. While his interests were broad, his character affable, and his lifestyle tactfully bohemian, he immersed himself deeply in the role of an imperial mandarin. For all his hedonism, his writings are full of meditations on impermanence.

Early life
With his parents, Van Gulik’s early life was spent mostly in Dutch East Indies. As he recalled:

Father’s main orderly and groom was a Javanese sergeant who was a lover of the wayang, the ancient Javanese shadow-play. The puppets he had hung on the wall of his room caught my fancy at once (these stylized puppets constitute as a matter of fact one of the finest expressions of Javanese artistic genius) and prompted by me he began to relate to me the stories enacted on the shadow stage. The wayang thus became the dominating passion of my childhood. My parents knew that I expected no other birthday present than a new wayang puppet, and I built up a small collection of the main characters, with which I gave performances against a bedsheet hung across the room, and under the guidance of the Javanese groom.


So precocious was the young Robert that he wrote a substantial essay on wayang in 1921, aged 11! He also attended performances at village feasts, and (like Wang Shixiang in Beijing) enjoyed martial arts, kite-flying, and football.

I can’t help thinking of the accident of birth: what a contrast Van Gulik’s blessed life makes with his Chinese peasant contemporaries like household Daoist Li Peisen—who himself was luckier than most.

Back in Holland, while Van Gulik’s interests turned towards Chinese culture, he became familiar with an array of languages—even including Blackfoot (in whose music Bruno Nettl would also specialize). Still,

Although I had a certain facility for learning languages, my aim in doing so was primarily to come to know more about the people who used these languages, and not to become an accomplished philologue.

Studying Chinese and Japanese at the universities of Leiden and later Utrecht, Van Gulik also added Tibetan and Russian to his repertoire, continuing his studies of Sanskrit. At first the reader may find all this rather overwhelming—as with other prodigies of that generation like Laurence Picken’s mentor Walter Simon, or Harold Bailey at Cambridge.

With his family background, Van Gulik now naturally gravitated towards the Foreign Service, serving as diplomat first in Japan (1935–42) and then China (1943–46)—with a typically picaresque interlude as a secret agent in east Africa.

His first experience of China was a week-long stop-off in Harbin on his train journey towards Tokyo. Though the book’s authors go on to refine it somewhat, his description encapsulates the shock of the idealistic scholar:

Harbin shocked and baffled me. It was the most dismal city in the dismal puppet-city of Manchukuo. I felt completely at a loss, also because my Chinese, Russian, and Japanese colloquial knowledge proved sadly inadequate [YAY!—SJ]. In the cavernous Hotel Modern where I was staying, suave Soviet officers (then still attached to the Chinese Eastern Railway) rubbed shoulders with grim-looking Japanese agents, in the squalid streets Chinese hooligans brawled with pauperized poor White Russians, under the indifferent eyes of slovenly clad, insolent Chinese soldiers, and smartly turned-out, contemptuous Japanese military police; the bars were crowded by blowzy Russian prostitutes, and the noisy Chinese women in the shops and in the streets were drab and ugly. Everywhere one was met with hostility and suspicion. Where were the refined Chinese scholars, writing poetry in their elegant miniature gardens, where their dainty damsels? It was a terrible disillusion.

His confusion continued on arriving in Tokyo. But amidst his busy hedonistic life there, as his spoken Japanese improved, he also took lessons in Chinese; and “every so often he would learn another language (Mongolian, Hindi, Korean)”. Perhaps we can derive very slight consolation from comments that even in later life his spoken Chinese accent was less than perfect. And I note with a certain pride that we can add Van Gulik to the list of Famous People with a Slight Speech Impediment.

Early encounters with the qin
On his first visit to Beijing in September 1936 Van Gulik purchased an antique qin zither, taking lessons with Ye Shimeng. Back in Tokyo he found another Chinese qin player to instruct him further.


Much of the repute of the qin zither outside China may be attributed to Van Gulik’s publications (even if he called it a lute, for which organologists tend to forgive him!). His two books on the “lute” were completed as early as 1940—when he still had very little practical experience of the qin community.

John Thompson, whose amazing website remains basic to qin studies, has an instructive page on Van Gulik. Indeed, John has a cameo in Rob Rombout’s film. I describe my own ambivalent relationship with the qin here.

Van Gulik’s diplomatic work in Tokyo had become even harder after the Japanese launched their full-scale invasion of China in 1937, and then in 1940 with the German occupation of Holland. He intervened to forestall an anti-semitic move in Japan—back in Holland, his brother would help Jews to escape.

In summer 1939 he was able to pursue his sinological interests in Shanghai. But in 1940 he lost his entire collection of books, paintings, and objets d’art after sending them to Batavia for safe-keeping. Like Li Shiyu and his collection of precious scrolls, he simply began again.

On a trip to Beijing in December that year, his first qin master Ye Shimeng having died in 1937, he pursued his tuition with Guan Zhonghang.

His diplomatic work became ever more urgent with the spread of the war to Indochina and the attack on Pearl Harbor. He wrote a detailed report on extreme nationalist parties in Japan. A fortnight after the surrender of Dutch East Indies, Van Gulik still managed to order qin strings from Beijing (indeed, as a baroque fiddler, strings are a topic that I take to heart). In July 1942 the legation was evacuated, sailing to Portuguese east Africa. There, apart from his energetic undercover activities, he began to learn Swahili and Arabic while continuing his library studies. Travelling widely, he found the experience (and, as ever, the women) enchanting. Meanwhile the tide in north Africa turned in favour of the Allies.

Chongqing 1943–46
With much of the heartland of China now occupied by the Japanese, intellectuals and artists flocked to Chongqing, stronghold of the Nationalists in their uneasy truce with the Communist forces based in Yan’an in Shaanbei further north. Van Gulik was now to take up a post as first secretary to the embassy in Chongqing. On his tortuous journey by way of Delhi in 1943, he became acquainted with the great Joseph Needham, then working for the British Embassy.

In between taking shelter from bombing raids, he took part keenly in the activities of the Tianfeng qin society, and sometimes played Chinese chess with the mystically-inclined John Blofeld. He met Shui Shifang, who soon became his wife; they went on to have four children.

My mentor Laurence Picken described his own first visit to China in 1944 (CHIME journal, 1991):

The very evening I arrived in Chongqing, Van Gulik and his wife had arranged a dinner-party for a number of Chinese musicians, the Needhams and myself. Liang Tsai-ping, Zha Fuxi, and Xu Yuanbai were all present…

Gulik qin Engrave and seal croppedLaurence too was immediately captivated by the sound of the qin:

There was no music like it! I bought a qin, made under the supervision of Xu Yuanbai, and began to take lessons. I played guqin every day. In England, I had always enjoyed a daily ration of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues; I felt it no loss practicing guqin instead.

Laurence also became a member of the Chongqing qin society, and bought a qin, made in 1935 by Li Shaotang under the supervision of Xu Yuanbai. He asked Van Gulik to stamp his seal on the back.

I’m honoured that Laurence bequeathed this qin to me.

And do read the CHIME story of how Van Gulik made Laurence “a sort of emissary” when he visited Pei Tiexia—and his two Tang-dynasty instruments!—in Chengdu. For an account of the tragic fates of Pei Tiexia and Pu Xuezhai, see here.

Aftermath of occupation
Van Gulik’s insights into the wartime situation in China were tempered by a colonial desire to restore Dutch power in the East Indies. And he made no efforts to engage in covert diplomacy with the Communists. He learned of the Japanese surrender while on a plane to the USA for meetings with the embassy and the State Department, and once there he advised strongly against the removal of the emperor. During his month-long trip he found time to visit libraries and museums, and to confer with scholars.

Talking of the USA, another fine contributor to Rob Rombout’s film is the New York antiquarian bookseller and litterateur Henry Wessells, also a Van Gulik aficionado (for his tribute, see here). In the film he reads from his novel A funeral procession, which features a fantasy Van Gulik—reminding me of the cortège Mahler heard in New York that inspired him to write the finale of his 10th symphony.

As the Dutch embassy relocated from Chongqing to Nanjing in 1946, Van Gulik was recalled to the Netherlands. But first he paid another visit to Beijing, at last meeting his distinguished father-in-law, as well as qin master Guan Pinghu.

An Shilin 1946

There he also visited An Shilin, errant abbot of the White Cloud Temple—shortly before irate priests burned him to death on his return from performing a yankou ritual. [1] The character of An Shilin was to become the basis for The haunted monastery in Van Gulik’s Judge Dee series (see below).

In 1946 the Van Gulik family spent two weeks in England, visiting London, Oxford, and Cambridge.

Interlude: fate and nostalgia
Once again we come up against the 1949 barrier (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.371–4): alas, neither Van Gulik nor Picken were able to continue visiting China after “Liberation”. This, of course, was a common pattern among Western sinologists right until the 1980s’ reforms.

Van Gulik was unable to serve there since Western nations like the Netherlands had only chargés d’affaires in the new PRC, a post too high-ranking for his status; later in Kuala Lumpur he even declined the Chinese ambassador’s offer of a trip as guest of the government “because he had no wish to revisit China where so many of his best friends had perished.”

And Picken too demurred from attempting to visit, since “I didn’t want to return to a country where I couldn’t move about freely. Travelling would have been possible only on a sort of Intourist basis.” His belated return in 1990 followed an interval of fifty years.

Golden-age nostalgia is a chronic conceit, that has also recently become increasingly fashionable in China. Those gatherings in the 1940s, before the convulsive change of dynasty, are now adorned by a numinous patina.

For all the tribulations of elite culture under Maoism, both of them would have been deeply impressed by all the scholarly and performance activities of the qin fraternity through the 1950s, in Beijing and around Shanghai—many of whom they already knew, like Zha Fuxi, Guan Pinghu, Wang Mengshu, Pu Xuezhai, Xu Yuanbai. How they would have loved to take part in Zha Fuxi’s project in 1956, documenting qin players (and their instruments and scores) all over China!

One curious absentee from accounts of Van Gulik’s time in Chongqing is the incomparable Yang Yinliu, who was also active there at the time. With Yang’s deep erudition on Chinese music (both elite and folk, and both history and current practice), and his own studies of the qin, they would have got on splendidly. Indeed, like Picken, Yang had a qin made by Xu Yuanbai in 1935.

Yang Dajun

In Chongqing, Van Gulik and Picken had spent time with the pipa player and artist Yang Dajun (1913–87) (see herehere, and here). Van Gulik even repaired Yang’s pipa for him. Early on my first trip to China in 1986 I visited him in Beijing, at Laurence’s suggestion; but alas even if my language skills had been up to it, I was still too callow to ask him for details on his life before and after Liberation. But such slender silken threads bind us with the past…

Yang Dajun 1986

With Yang Dajun, Beijing 1986.

Long after Van Gulik’s visit to the ill-fated abbot An Shilin, in Beijing in the early 1990s I also visited the White Cloud Temple to consult the far more upright priest Min Zhiting—great authority on Daoist ritual, and also a qin player.

And now I succumb to nostalgia myself, recalling sessions in the 1980s with qin elders like Wu Jinglue, Wu Zhaoji, Lin Youren, and Yao Gongbai. Even today grand masters continue to assemble at qin gatherings.

One may also be nostalgic for the days of the Renaissance man (even the gendered term is quaintly outmoded) and the polymath orientalist. While such enthusiasts may still be found even in this age of dour professionalized academia, there remains a gulf between the classical sinologist and the modern ethnographer.

As Li Manshan observes at the end of our film, “things ain’t what they used to be” (今非昔比). Indeed, Old Lord Li decorates coffins with images of the qin (see film, from 18.46), although he (like most rural dwellers) has only seen it on TV in the last decade. And while very remote from Van Gulik’s refined taste for the amateur art of calligraphy, Li Manshan is always busy writing characters for ritual use (film, from 10.44).

Still pursuing this unlikely link, Van Gulik, like Li Manshan, was a chain-smoker. I’m amused to learn that, not entirely bound by Confucian taboos, he was wont to allow fag-ash to drop onto his precious antique qin—like my violin teacher Hugh Maguire onto his Strad, and Irish folk musicians.

After China
From 1946, as people worldwide recovered painfully from wartime devastation, Van Gulik embarked on to a succession of posts in The Hague, Washington DC, India, the Middle East, and Malaya, as well as more extended stays in Japan—his Chinese wife gradually overcoming her understandable reluctance to live there.

Thus after the age of 36 Van Gulik never returned to China. While he had relished life there, interacting with various types of people, his main passions (like many sinologists and indeed lovers of “high art”) were always antiquarian. Notwithstanding Nigel Barley’s caveat about “being accepted” (here, under “Rapport”), Van Gulik’s insider status has long been fêted both in China and Japan. Apart from important intelligence work, his formidable reputation allowed him to privilege his scholarly pursuits over routine diplomatic chores, his eccentric lifestyle largely tolerated by his superiors.

For all his keen insights into the situation on the ground, his political horizon was limited, as the book observes. With Communist victory imminent in China, he lamented that the USA had not helped Chiang Kai-shek attack them earlier, but commented that the conflict

is not one of ideological differences, it is actually the struggle for supremacy between two rival power groups, both shaped in the same totalitarian mold and both relying on the nationalist sentiments of the Chinese people. Communism in China is not a foreign doctrine to be imposed on the people by force, it links up with how the Chinese have lived for centuries.

He also observed,

Chinese culture is in the Chinese blood and will endure for as long as there are Chinese. Whatever they may say about Communism, it is not totally new in China. Earning money for money’s sake has always been regarded with the greatest contempt in China. Down the centuries, China has offered everyone equal chances, and the important industries have been state property.

Hmm. Discuss…

In Hong Kong, and later in Kuala Lumpur, he took part in gatherings with qin players. In India he pursued his studies of Tantrism. Back in Holland he renewed his affinity with wayang and gamelan, chatting with Jaap Kunst. He continued to enjoy visits to the cinema, and (like Mozart) playing billiards. In Kuala Lumpur he developed a passion for gibbons, keeping them as pets. He relished haiku and limericks.

Meanwhile in the West, oriental mysticism was coming into vogue, as people like Gary Snyder and Alan Watts began to spread the word.

Judge Dee
Most captivating are Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries, set in the Tang dynasty and based on the real character of Di Renjie. Rob Rombout’s film includes suitably naff scenes of the Judge Dee park in Taiyuan.

Van Gulik had taken an 18th-century Chinese novel about Di Renjie with him when the Dutch legation was evacuated from Tokyo in 1942, and set to work on translating it in Washington DC in 1947, publishing this first volume in 1949. He now embarked on a whole series of beautiful novels on Judge Dee’s exploits—some written during his time in Lebanon during the civil war.


Agatha Christie praised The Chinese maze murders, and the series became popular in translation in China. For more, see here; for an internal chronology and Judge Dee’s postings around China, here.


Naturally, since Judge Dee is Van Gulik’s alter ego, he makes him a qin player.

I’m not so sure that the State Department’s erstwhile choice of the novels as “the best possible introduction to the background to Chinese life” was entirely practical—though given my own early taste for Tang culture, I’m a fine one to talk. Anyway, for what it’s worth, soon after reaching China in 1986, inspired by Van Gulik and Picken I avidly began learning the qin; but my own interests transferred to living folk traditions of music and ritual. At first, still seeking vestiges of elite culture, my rural forays were driven by the Confucian concept of “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside“.

But as studies of China continued expanding in scope beyond classical sinology (political campaigns, famine, gender studies, migration, and so on), I was soon pursuing broader ethnographic (and modern) concerns, hanging out with household ritual specialists, spirit mediums, outcast shawm players, and vagrants. Hence my gradual estrangement from the tiny, rarefied world of the qin, despite my admiration for my mentors there like Yuan Quanyou and Lin Youren.

Towards the end of his life Van Gulik was planning keenly for cartoon and puppet versions of the Judge Dee stories. Rob Rombout’s film also features a vignette from Frédéric Lenormand, author of a further series of novels focusing on Judge Dee’s wives.

Art and erotica
Van Gulik’s later life was also devoted substantially to the study of imperial Chinese art and erotica. On the latter he published two major works, Erotic colour prints of the Ming period and Sexual life in ancient China.


He had carried out impressive practical research on the “arts of clouds and rain” during his bachelor days, notably in a succession of more or less transactional liaisons with female companions in Tokyo—hinting again that Philip Larkin may not have been entirely correct to claim that sexual intercourse was invented in 1963.


Quaintly, Van Gulik wrote the more explicit passages in Latin, as they were not intended “to be read by all and sundry”—although even he couldn’t devise a system to prevent the riff-raff from enjoying the illustrations. Diligently, he also documents the array of dildos available to the ancient Chinese, a theme probed further by Li Ling in the film.

Meanwhile his health was declining. Though ever keen to explore new cultures, his last years, apart from another stay in Japan (and Korea) from 1965 to 1967, were spent mainly in the Netherlands, where he succumbed to cancer, too young, aged 57.

* * *

What an extraordinary life. While making allowances for Van Gulik’s background and tastes, his story suggests tantalising perspectives on changing strands in sinology, and how the scholar or amateur might engage with, or withdraw from, the Real World—regarding ancient and modern China, and further afield.


With thanks to Marie-Anne Souloumiac and Cheng Yu


[1] For refs., see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.226; also e.g. Vincent Goossaert, The Taoists of Peking, pp. 259–301; herehere, and here.




A rare duet for qin and erhu


Much as I love the qin zither, I still need to rehabilitate myself for daring to query its dominance in Chinese music studies—as I observed here, it is as if the whole varied spectrum of European musics were represented mainly by the clavichord (see also here).

So here’s a rare version of the qin solo piece “No ulterior motives regarding seabirds” (Oulu wangji 鷗鷺忘機: I might suggest “Seabirds: forgetting ulterior motives”) as a duet with fiddle, recorded in 1962 by the great Zha Fuxi (1895–1976) on qin and Jiang Fengzhi (1908–86) on erhu:

In the 1954 image here, left to right are: Wu Jinglue, Wu Zhenping, Zha Fuxi, Jiang Fengzhi (looking remarkably  like Yang Yinliu!), Guan Pinghu.

The qin has such an intimate solo timbre that the only other instrument usually deemed suitable to play with it is the mellifluous end-blown flute xiao; the erhu, with its modern romantic conservatoire repertoire, is generally considered quite remote from the meditative ethos of the qin. But this version of Oulu wangji shows how a simpler, restrained, selfless style of fiddle playing can blend well, enhanced by the low tuning—a model for Bach on the erhu?! It’s also effective because whereas in most qinxiao duets both instruments play throughout, here the erhu takes the main melody while Zha Fuxi accompanies selectively with pivotal notes, almost like a continuo player.

It’s all the more poignant when we think of the date of recording—during the interlude between the traumas of the Great Leap Backward and the Four Cleanups. It may seem hard to imagine how anyone can be nostalgic for the period before the Cultural Revolution—but despite their tribulations, the stellar gatherings of qin masters, and the brilliant scholars of the era, have a numinous allure.

Oulu wangji is a favourite of qin players—among many versions online are performances by Guan Pinghu and Wu Zhaoji. As ever, John Thompson’s website is a treasury of information—for Zha Fuxi, see here, and for a typically erudite discussion of the piece, here.

The story goes back to the ancient Daoist sage Liezi[1]

There was a man living by the sea-shore who loved seabirds. Every morning he went down to the sea to roam with the seabirds, and more birds came to him than you could count in hundreds.

His father said to him: “I hear the seabirds all come roaming with you. Bring me some to play with.”

Next day, when he went down to the sea, the seabirds danced above him and would not come down.

Therefore it is said: “The utmost in speech is to be rid of speech, the utmost doing is Doing Nothing.” What common knowledge knows is shallow.


[1] Liezi, BTW, deserves a bit of an image-rebrand to boost his ratings alongside Laozi and Zhuangzi! By the Tang his work was honored with the fine title True Classic of Simplicity and Vacuity (沖虛真經)—an award now reserved for TV reality shows.

Spiritual and marvellous mysteries

I recall with deep admiration the unsung scholar Yuan Quanyou 袁荃猷 (1920–2003).

Wang and Yuan
While a student in Beijing she studied with her future husband, the great Ming scholar Wang Shixiang 王世襄 (1914–2009) (see wise and affectionate tributes by Craig Clunas [1] —another great Ming scholar). After Yuan Quanyou graduated in 1943, they married in 1945.

Wedding of Yuan Quanyou and Wang Shixiang, 1945—after the defeat of the Japanese, on the eve of civil war.

Yuan Quanyou had studied the qin zither with Wang Mengshu 汪孟舒 from the age of 14 sui. Through the 1940s she took part keenly in the activities of the Beiping qin society, among a dazzling array of illustrious qin masters. She later became a disciple and colleague of the great Guan Pinghu.

Wang Shixiang soon found that his wife’s skills focused on the traditional literati accomplishments of “qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting”, to the exclusion of more mundane activities like cooking. So it was he who became a fine chef; and he considered himself her “qin servant” 琴奴. Several online pages about the couple describe their lifelong rapport by the term zhiyin 知音, a bond whose etymology derives from music.

Complementing Wang Shixiang’s refined literati tastes, through his enthusiasm for falconry, badger-hunting, cricket rearing, and pigeon fancying he had gained what Craig Clunas calls “a raffish reputation” (as you do…). I also learn that he loved football, “as anyone who has tried to make conversation while he is watching soccer on the television can confirm”—cool by me. He retained a rare passion for both elite and popular culture.

From the early 1950s Yuan Quanyou worked tirelessly in the archives of the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing, alongside the great Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe, as well as a whole host of qin masters like Guan Pinghu and Zha Fuxi, and their students—including Xu Jian 许健, and the fine female qin player and scholar Wang Di 王迪 (1926–2005). [2]

GPH and students

60th-birthday photo of Guan Pinghu with his students, 1957:
(left to right) front row Xu Jian, Guan Pinghu, Zheng Minzhong;
back row Wang Di, Shen You, Yuan Quanyou.

By 1957, while her husband was also busy publishing ground-breaking research, Yuan Quanyou’s close collaboration with Yang Yinliu resulted in the publication of the fine iconographical series Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian 中国音乐史参考图片 [Reference illustrations for Chinese music history].

CKTP best

Some treasured volumes in my library.

Yuan Quanyou 1950s lowres

All this activity took place under extremely trying conditions. As Craig notes:

The published curricula vitae of Chinese scholars often give a false idea of the continuity of their employment, and conceal the long periods of frustrating idleness caused by periodic political campaigning.

After the 1949 “Liberation”, Wang Shixiang was employed at the Palace Museum, but he was wrongly jailed for ten months and expelled from the museum in 1953. In 1957, he was branded a “rightist,” a stigma he bore for twenty-one years. Craig’s account of the couple’s enforced inactivity during the Cultural Revolution is also worth citing. Despite Wang’s undoubted sufferings after being sent down to a “Cadre school” in Hubei province, he could “make the experience sound positively bucolic”. While callow young Red Guards were duped into destroying as much of the heritage as they could find, the exiled Wang wrote poetry in the classical style (“much of it on his work as a swineherd and cowherd, which draws on deep-rooted traditions of verse by those who were out of office and out of favour at court”), and even managed to cook gourmet delicacies.

But the mental pressure cannot but have been considerable, since no term was set to the period of banishment, and little or no news was available as to the fate of family or friends.

Old portrait photos are all the moving when we consider the troubled stories behind people’s lives (intellectuals, urban and rural dwellers alike) under Maoism, as evoked by films like The blue kite and To live (see also my tribute to Li Jin). Craig’s aperçu about Wang Shixiang’s renewed energy in the 1980s, “as if making up for lost time”, also resounds in both Chinese music studies and folk culture. Meanwhile, a discreet amnesia took over.

ZGYYSTJFrom 1986 I used to visit Yuan Quanyou in her office at the dilapidated yet numinous MRI compound at Dongzhimenwai, her beaming face greeting me between high stacks of ancient documents. There, with unassuming industry she was still producing further volumes in the MRI’s wonderful annotated series of iconographical collections on Chinese music history, such as the 1988 Zhongguo yinyueshi tujian 中国音乐史图鉴 [Illustrated history of Chinese music].

Even as my interests were moving from Tang history to the modern transmission of folk culture, I relished her detailed article on the medieval konghou harp.

Remarkably, after the end of the Cultural Revolution Wang Shixiang had managed to reclaim much of their precious collection of Ming and Qing furniture and artefacts. By the 1990s he and his wife began the process of bequeathing it to the Shanghai Museum, where it now forms a major and prestigious exhibit.

With her calm acuity and beautiful accent, Yuan Quanyou exemplified the refined virtues of old Beijing. She was closely involved in the remarkable work documenting the history and changing performance practice of the qin zither—including research on the 1425 Handbook of spiritual and marvellous mysteries (Shenqi mipu, aka Wondrous and secret notation), most numinous of all tablatures for the qin, compiled by the Emaciated Immortal (as the early Ming prince Zhu Quan styled himself).

Now, this may hardly atone for my recent challenge to the mystique of the qin, but I treasure the precious copy of the 1956 reprint of the 1425 score that Yuan Quanyou inscribed to me in her elegant calligraphy in 1987, for me to “study and practise”.


BTW, having chosen that lower page rather casually (mainly for the numinous Daoist title “Zhuangzi dreams he is a butterfly”), I now find myself moved by Zhu Quan’s wisdom—in utter contrast to the “living fossils” flummery of recent years, culminating in the befuddled Intangible Cultural Heritage. The opening of his introduction reads:

The Emaciated Immortal says: “The ancient version of this piece has long since been lost.”

These days it’s all “The ancient version of this piece has been transmitted continuously for 2,000 years.” [Expletives deleted—Ed.].

Jinfeixibi 今非昔比 (“Things ain’t what they used to be”), as Li Manshan reflects at the end of our film.

Wang and Yuan later


[1] See, and Among many other reports, see e.g. and this tribute from Yuan’s granddaughter:, with further lovely old photos.

[2] For an English introduction to the (pre-ICH) Beijing Guqin Research Association, successor to the Beiping qin society, see Cheng Yu, “The precarious state of the qin in contemporary China”, CHIME 10–11 (1997). Zhang Zhentao 张振涛 has written fine tributes to Guang Pinghu and Wang Di:
“Xian’gen: Guan Pinghu yu Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo” 弦根——管平湖与中国音乐研究所, Zhongguo yinyuexue 2016.3; and
“Daihuo jiaotong yun ben bei: qinjia Wang Di xiansheng” 带火焦桐韵本悲——琴家王迪先生 Mingjia 名家 49 (2015) (on several online sites e.g. here).

More Chinese wordplay, and a poem

What’s in a name?

My Chinese name Zhong Sidi 钟思第 was given to me by the great Tang-music scholar Yin Falu 荫法鲁 (1915–2002) at my first supervision with him during my 1986 study-period at Peking University.

“Zhong” approximates to my surname Jones; while itself a common surname, for me it has nice echoes of both ritual and music, evoking both Zhong Kui 钟馗 the ugly drunken demon-queller (Ha!) and the woodcutter Zhong Ziqi 钟子期, zhiyin soul-mate of qin zither master Bo Ya in the famous ancient story. And even Zhongli Quan 鍾離權, one of the Eight Immortals—a bit of a stretch, perhaps, since Zhongli is a rare double-surname, but hey. Not to mention the huangzhong 黃鐘 and linzhong 林鐘pitches of the ancient tonal system!

“Sidi” is short for “Sidifen”, a transliteration of “Stephen”.** Professor Yin chose the characters 思第, which in classical Chinese mean something like “mindful of advancement”—which is elegant but somewhat ironic, since I’ve always had enough of the hippy in me to mitigate against any worldly success (it never occurred to me that I might ever get a job, and sure enough I never did).

Without the bamboo radical at the top, the character di 弟 following the si would be a female name: “wanting a little brother”—one that peasants, disapppointed at having a daughter (yeah I know), do indeed sometimes adopt. And one cultural official in Yanggao, moved to write an article about my fieldwork there, somehow miswrote the character as 娣, with the female radical at the side. When I showed it to Li Manshan, we had another typical exchange:

Me: “WTF?! Doesn’t he know how to write my bloody name by now?”

Li Manshan (peering pensively at the character): “Maybe he thinks you’re a hermaphrodite…”

Anyway, as my interests soon transferred from early music history to living traditions of folk music, Yin Falu was remarkably tolerant of my frequent absences to go and hang out with peasants—as was Yuan Jingfang, my supervisor at the Central Conservatoire the following year. I’m also deeply grateful that Yin Falu introduced me early on to Tian Qing (then a lowly and impoverished research student!) and the Music Research Institute, beginning a fruitful long-term collaboration.

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One of the most treasured gifts I’ve received is a scroll that the ritual association of South Gaoluo gave me in 1995 on the eve of my return to Europe (see my Plucking the winds, pp.236–8). They went to great trouble to have a piece of calligraphy made for me, which illustrates their ingenuity. First they “collectively” composed a poem, led by Cai Yurun and the urbane brothers Shan Ming and Shan Ling, most literate of the musicians. They then travelled to town to buy good-quality paper, went and found artistic Shan Fuyi (peasant xiucai litterateur, himself a great authority on the village history) in his work-unit and got him to do the calligraphy. To have the paper mounted, they then took the bus to Baoding, where they had a contact from Yongle village who had worked in the prestigious Rongbaozhai studio in Beijing. All this was a complex process, expressing their appreciation of our relationship.

GL scroll

The seven-word quatrain itself shows not only their literary flair but also their own perceptions of the significance of my fieldwork:

How rare the strains of ancient music
Gladly meeting the spring breeze, blowing is reborn
As the proper music of the ancient Chinese is transmitted beyond the seas
First to be praised is Stephen Jones

There are several charming puns here: in “blowing is reborn” (chui you sheng), “blowing” alludes to the breeze but also clearly to their wind music, and the “born” of “reborn” is homophonous with sheng 笙 the mouth-organ. The last line, impossible to translate, incorporates the device they had been seeking all along: the character di of my Chinese name Zhong Sidi is also an ordinal (as in diyi “first”, di’er “second”, and so on), so by playing with the caesura they managed to incorporate it into a meaningful phrase.

They couldn’t have thought of a better gift. I adore it, not for its flattery—foreigners in China are only too accustomed to receiving extravagant and groundless praise—but because they expressed their appreciation of our bond with such creative energy. In our everyday dealings, the musicians are all too used to me forestalling any incipient flattery by my favourite Chinese phrase, beng geiwo lai zheyitao 甭给我来这一套 “cut the crap”. This expression also comes in handy whenever someone is so sentimentally drunk that they, suddenly moved by the sheer fun of our fieldwork, rashly let out the awful Chinese cliché “international cultural exchange”.

My friends call me “Old Jonesy” (Laozhong), which is also a jocular way for Chinese people to refer to themselves (老中, for Zhongguo 中国 China) as opposed to laowai 老外 “foreigner”, even “Wog”. Laozhong then leads onto Naozhong 闹钟 “alarm clock”. (For nicknames in the music biz, see here.)


**Talking of transliterations of foreign names, “Stephen” is conventionally rendered as 斯蒂芬. That last fen character is shared with Beethoven (Beiduofen 贝多芬), whose characters, following the brilliant (if controversial) gender analysis by Susan McClary, I like instead to render as 背多粪 “shouldering a load of shit”—“but that’s not important right now”.

Dissolving boundaries

I’ve just added a page (under “Themes” in Menu) on

Folk and art music in China: qin and shawm music

Hua band 2001 edited

Far away from the pop music and cutesy erhu solos that dominate the Chinese media, I’d like to compare two melodies with the common theme of “Geese landing”: the intimate meditative solo Pingsha luoyan 平沙落雁 for the elite qin zither, and the searing folk suite Da Yanluo 大雁落 for two shawms and percussion.

Such utterly contrasting styles may seem to make an absurd comparison, and we shouldn’t suppose that any two pieces with a similar title will have anything in common. In this case it’s more of a convenient pretext to reflect on disparate genres.

One tradition is highly literate, the other non-literate. Yet the incongruous juxtaposition, however polemical, turns out to be illuminating—querying the widely-held myth that qin music, as “art music”, will be more sophisticated and complex than “folk” shawm pieces.

*** Both pieces are illustrated by recordings of master musicians!***

A slender but magical clue


Former monks of Beijing, 9/1954

The whole topic of amateur ritual associations on the Beijing plain, and indeed north Chinese ritual, was first suggested by a 1953 monograph, slim yet astounding, by the great musicologists (and musicians) Yang Yinliu and Zha Fuxi on the shengguan music of recently-laicized Buddhist monks throughout the north and east of Beijing city, commonly associated with the famous Zhihua temple—just at a time when they found themselves in difficult circumstances after the radical social transformations around Liberation, suddenly deprived of their ritual livelihood. [1]

You can hear a haunting track from Yang’s 1953 recordings in the playlist in the sidebar, #14.

One of the most moving sections of the monograph [2] is a remarkably frank and perceptive letter that Zha Fuxi wrote to the former monks, dated 30/12/1952. As a qin master and scholar, his aesthetic world was remote from theirs, but he deeply valued their music, and quite understood how disgruntled they were.

While I realize that you are trying to pursue your livelihood on the basis of your knowledge of the new society, you will try to consign your repertoire to the cultural sphere… […]

But you bitterly regret that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your youth of studying this music to the point of damaging your health and wasting your opportunities to study culture [sic]. You are particularly resentful that because you are uncultured [sic] you can’t express how these heritages of your elders in the temple—its two great arts of intangible music and material architecture—are worth preserving.

Zha goes on to itemize all the respects in which their music was such a valuable resource for musicology, partly seeking to bolster their self-esteem. He concludes by recognizing how very tough their learning process was, and suggests patience, in the hope that

even if some people in the old society despised you, their moral character has been raised in the new society and they will gradually recognize you.

But of course he was unable to suggest how their position in the new society might be practically ameliorated; the ritual business of their youth would never be restored. Under Maoism both the monks and the scholars would suffer in various ways.

Fast-forward to the reform era since the 1980s. For two decades, whenever I returned to Beijing from the countryside, I would go and visit the former monks, notably the late lamented Benxing, and by the 1990s they were training a new generation—a group of teenage boys from Qujiaying village.

But they continued to feel resentful, despite social liberalizations and the ongoing efforts of well-meaning scholars and cultural officials to reinstate the prestige of their music, with frequent conferences and TV appearances, propaganda for the whole “living fossil” “cultural heritage” shtick. Media publicity was one thing, the reduction of their busy ritual “rice-bowl” since 1949 quite another. Today the new recruits are rather good; led by the bright Hu Qingxue, they even manage to do folk rituals as well as obligatory tourist “performances” of the shengguan music at the temple.


Former monks performing a funerary yankou ritual, Beijing suburbs 1993

This film features cameos from Hu Qingxue and our revered master Benxing, but also illustrates the current media style of presenting such culture…

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Anyway, I digress. The 1953 monograph soon attained an iconic status in Chinese musicology, as indeed did Yang and Zha themselves. [3] But Beijing and the Zhihua temple are only the tip of the iceberg. In his monograph Yang Yinliu mentioned a hereditary sheng-repairer (dianshengde 點笙的) called Qi Youzhi, who used to mend and tune the instruments of the Zhihua temple. Thoughtfully, he even provided Qi’s address:


South of the capital, Baxian county east, Xin’an town, Zhongyong street.

Thirty-six years later in 1989, with my brilliant fieldwork companion Xue Yibing I began a survey of ritual associations on the plain south of Beijing. Baxian county was to be on our route, so I copied the page—just on the off-chance that anyone there might still remember him. Arriving in Xin’an town, as soon as we mentioned Qi Youzhi, the members of the ritual association exclaimed, “Sure! We’ll go and get him for you!” He was still only 70 sui, a mere youngster by the standards of many ritual specialists we were now finding everywhere. Our chats with him yielded some interesting material on the transmission of shengguan music throughout the area.

QYZ 1989.jpg

Qi Youzhi (right) with Xue Yibing, Xin’an 1989.

The Qi family was among many lineages of sheng-repairers active around Beijing and the countryside just south. According to Yang Yinliu, Qi Youzhi was the sixth or seventh generation of sheng-repairers in his lineage—though he told us he was the fourth. His grandfather Qi Baoshan had worked for the imperial palace lamas in Beijing. Before the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Qi Youzhi’s father Qi Lanpu used to play sheng in the Tianqiao district of Beijing. Later, through contacts with palace eunuchs, he learnt to repair sheng, building a reputation with temple musicians. His older brother Qi Lanting and his oldest son Qi Youcai also took up the business, and they also repaired sheng in Tianjin.

Qi Youzhi, Qi Lanpu’s second son, [4] was born in 1920. In 1929 he began to play sheng in the Shifan association in Xin’an town, and from 1931 until the Japanese invasion in 1937 he helped his older brother with his sheng business in Tianjin and Beijing. There he learned to make and repair sheng; they also made guanzi oboes, dizi flutes, and shawms (laba).

They used to go out to find work repairing sheng, making the rounds of all the Buddhist and Daoist temples. At the North Great Gate of Tianjin, Qi Youzhi recalled, the Buddhist monks at the “Buddhist temple” and the Daoist priests at the Chenghuang miao had many sheng. We asked him if nuns (called “juvenile monks”, youseng!) also played shengguan music; indeed, the Qi family used to tune sheng for the Taishan miao nunnery and the one in Xiaomalu (“Small road”). They used to go to tune sheng not only for the Tianjin and Beijing temples, but also throughout the villages, tuning and mending sheng for both types of ritual association, “northern” and “southern”—the latter also known by the fine terms qie 怯 (“rustic”) and kua 侉 (“with an outsider’s accent” or “bumpkin”), as well as for shawm bands. But after the Japanese invasion in 1937 their activities were highly restricted.

Based in Xin’an in the mid-1940s the family resumed its work, apparently even through the 1946–7 civil war. Twice a year Qi Youzhi used to go on a long trek by foot to Beijing with his uncle, staying in villages on the way and tuning sheng wherever there was work. In Beijing, he recalled that temples like the Guandi miao in Sitiao, and the Guangji an at Chaoyangmenwai dongdaqiao, used the classic “capital” (“northern”) shengguan music. But the Baita si, Huguo si, and Longfu si temples seem to have been “rustic” or “southern” in style, since they included small shawms (laba) in their shengguan ensemble. The gradual destruction of this whole landscape of old Beijing has been bulldozed most radically since the 1990s.

After the 1949 Liberation, Qi Youzhi could no longer find work in Beijing, since priests were returning to lay life and temples were now largely inactive—but significantly there was still plenty of work repairing sheng for the village ritual associations. Indeed, this work continued until the Four Cleanups in 1964. By 1980 Qi Youzhi was 61 sui, and, despite the revival, seems to have been much less active.

We went to see him again in 1993, between visits to two amazing village ritual associations near Xin’an, Gaoqiao (Buddhist—another sheng-making/repairing lineage; audio playlist track 8, and commentary) and Zhangzhuang (Daoist).

By then our team was joined by Zhang Zhentao, who has since published detailed work on the sheng and its history. Meanwhile Yuan Jingfang made detailed studies of the Zhihua temple style, further adding to the list of its clerical exponents.

Everywhere we went on the Hebei plain, we made a point of seeking out sheng-repairers—often they were themselves members of a ritual association, but anyway they always knew precisely where other groups were active in the area. We also valued sheng players, always most knowledgeable about scales and pitch systems—in Hebei, Shanxi, and throughout north China.

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I still marvel at that miraculous thread which linked us so vividly to Yang Yinliu’s time with the Zhihua temple monks, and further back to the world of palace eunuchs and the ritual life of the Qing dynasty.


[1] Yang Yinliu (1953) Zhihuasi jing yinyue caifang jilu [Record of visits to the capital music of the Zhihua temple], 3 parts, Beijing: Zhongyang yinyuexueyuan Zhongguo gudai yinyue yanjiushi, mim., now available in his complete works. This post is based on my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.146. For Buddhist and Daoist ritual life in Beijing and Tianjin, see ibid., Appendix 1, whose citations include Vincent Goossaert’s splendid 2007 book The Taoists of Peking, 1800–1949. As I note in the Appendix (p.222), only five of the nineteen former monks assembled came from the Zhihua temple. On ritual life in old Beijing I must also mention the works of Chang Renchun 常人春.
[2] Part 2, pp.40–45, signed with his other name Zha Yiping.
[3] Cf. Tian Qing, “Shijimo huimou: Zhihua si yinyue yu Zhongguo yinyuexue” [A fin-de-siecle retrospective: the music of the Zhihua temple and Chinese musicology], Zhongyang yinyuexueyuan xuebao 1998/2: 38–45.
[4] As you see from the page from Yang Yinliu’s notes, he had learned that Qi Youzhi was adopted son of Qi Fu, another distinguished sheng-repairer. We didn’t clarify this—such family relations can be hard to elicit on a brief acquaintance.
[5] See In search of the folk Daoists, pp.145–55.

Taking it on the qin

Following my tribute to Lin Youren, I should explore my ambivalent relation with the qin zither. Such a dominant image of Chinese musical culture, it is as if the whole varied spectrum of European musics were represented mainly by the clavichord.

In my first few years studying Chinese music I was obsessed with the qin, practising constantly while seeking out the Great Masters of the day—Wu Jinglue, Zhang Ziqian, Wu Zhaoji, and so on. Later I came to feel less involved with it, partly because I found less time to devote myself to playing—not exactly that I no longer felt worthy, rather that my studies of local folk culture and ethnography gradually distanced me from elite culture (see also here).

Immersing myself in the culture of shawm bands—by far the most common form of instrumental music in China for many centuries—performing for life-cycle and calendrical rituals, I found myself among poor people, many disabled and former opium smokers—virtual outcastes, like gypsies. See my

  • “Men behaving badly: shawm bands of north China”, in Rachel Harris, Rowan Pease and Shzr Ee Tan eds., Gender in Chinese Music (University of Rochester Press, 2013), 112–26.

But their music too was always played at the behest of the imperial elite, even if the latter wouldn’t dream of playing it themselves; the musicians often consider notation superfluous, but it was of great complexity, sophistication, and, well, antiquity. So too for the vocal liturgy and shengguan ensemble of ritual specialists.

In China at least, I don’t find terms like “classical” (or “art”) and “folk” very useful. “Classical” musics are somehow old and prestigious, favoured by social elites, and often handed down partly by means of notation; folk music (like herpes, as observed in Molvania) is largely handed on by oral transmission.

Our image of Asian culture is still largely based on the “art” traditions, like sitar in India—at the expense of local folk traditions. In China the qin is represented by several hundred CDs and a wealth of material online. But however wonderful we may find it, in imperial times, despite its prominence as an image for poets and painters, there were never more than a few hundred people who could play it. A solo amateur tradition, its main life, still today, is not on the concert stage but in gatherings of amateurs, called qinhuiqin meeting” (perhaps “qin wag”), and there are lively little qin communities all round the world.

Great—but in China and elsewhere a lot of music (like folk-song or ritual opera) is presumably “old” too, although it never stands still, and it’s dangerous to make assumptions about the superiority of one or the other: any music is valued, or not, within its social context. But if you think how many people there must be in China who sing folk-songs—at least a few tens of millions, at a conservative estimate. So how many CDs are there of genuine Chinese folk-singing (he asked polemically)? Putting aside vast numbers of recordings of conservatoire-trained performers on stage, and apart from several CDs of ethnic minority singing, I know of precisely two. The diverse repertoires of the shawm bands are similarly under-represented.

When we know so little about most Chinese musical cultures, it seems fair to say that the qin is one topic that is over-subscribed.

Of course, elite culture is clearly part of the whole fabric, but—until recently—it has naturally dominated the discourse of the elite. In most social groups in the West, few people have heard of Bach. And when qin scholars do study the social background of the qin, they describe not temple fairs or funerals, but poetry, painting, calligraphy—the inner life of the imperial literati and their modern evolution. But its sanitized image, and the lack of broader social context, seem to feed into the whole patriotic spiel about the glory of ancient Chinese culture.

So I now find the qin something of an autonomous zone, even a fetish. We have plenty of recordings, and its distinctive notation (a form of tablature) is of course a rich historical treasury. But I’m somewhat disturbed by the slavish adherence to the reified text. As with Daoist ritual studies, scholarship concerns texts more often than social ethnography. The process of dapu, recreating early scores whose performing tradition has long been lost, has become popular since the 1950s. The qin’s codification and fetishization of timbre, too, is overestimated; folk-singers, shawm players, and so on, are just as sensitive to timbre.

“Just saying, like…” Still, the qin is a wonderful way into the elite culture of the imperial literati, and its music is mesmerizing. I explore this issue in musical detail here.

It gets ever harder to give a succinct outline of sources, so I’ll just mention a few that I have found useful. One place to start is John Thompson’s comprehensive site, including a section on Zha Fuxi’s 1956 fieldwork and recordings, one of the most numinous resources for the sound-world of bygone generations, partly found on the 8-CD set An anthology of Chinese and traditional folk music: a collection of music played on the guqin (China Records, also reissued in Taiwan).

There are fine CD sets of archive recordings from Wind Records, ROI, and Hugo; and the qin features impressively on YouTube, under guqin.

The regular coverage in the CHIME journal is accessible.

Bell Yung writes well not only on music and notation but also on social change:

  • “Music of qin: from the scholar’s study to the concert stage”, ACMR Reports 11 (1998): 1–14
  • and his chapter in Andrew Weintraub and Bell Yung eds. Music and Cultural Rights (University of Illinois Press, 2009).

A classic is Robert van Gulik’s The lore of the Chinese lute (1940).

See also Spiritual and marvellous mysteries.