In memoriam Fou Ts’ong

Fu Cong Fu Lei

“Piano prodigy Fou Ts’ong tries to win the approval of his stern Francophile father,
the translator Fu Lei” (Kraus). From China reconstructs, April 1957.

In homage to the great Fou Ts’ong 傅聪 (1934–2020), who became yet another casualty of Covid last week in London, I’ve been re-reading the account of his career in Chapter 3 of Richard Kraus, Pianos and politics in China (1989). It makes a perceptive study of tensions in the Chinese artistic world before and after the 1949 revolution, rippling out to the Iron Curtain and London (note also this post by Jessica Duchen).

Fou Ts’ong’s father Fu Lei 傅雷 (1908–66), renowned Francophile translator and essayist, was a leading light in the Shanghai literary scene. Though steeped in China’s traditional literature, he was deaf to its musical culture:

These antiques are merely things for a musical museum or an opera museum; not only can they not be reformed, they ought not to be reformed.

The debate between urbane cosmopolitanism and revolutionary populism was to be played out in the sphere of traditional Chinese music (see here).

So it was through Western Art Music that Fu Lei resolved to groom his son to “fulfil his destiny” of modernising China. In recent years in China, as Kraus observes,

partly because of the family’s tragic history and partly because of the renewed influence of their class, the Fus have become a posthumous model for upright behaviour, principled integrity, and child-rearing.

 Fu Lei

may seem the image of Confucian propriety to Chinese, but to a Western reader the regime he imposed on his son seems cruel.

Indeed, Fou Ts’ong himself gave a more critical view (here, in Chinese). Latterly such “tiger parenting” has more often been associated with mothers.

Fu Lei Fu Cong

Source: this thoughtful tribute (in Chinese).

So Fou Ts’ong began learning the piano from the age of 7; the following year his father resolved to educate him from home. Among Fou Ts’ong’s early piano teachers was Mario Paci, founder of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. After Paci’s death in 1947 he mostly studied piano on his own; but when the family moved to the Nationalist base of Kunming in 1948 to escape unrest in Shanghai, he began to rebel. He was now punished by being sent to school. He remained in Kunming when the family returned to Shanghai in 1949; entering Yunnan university, he hardly played the piano. He returned to “Liberated” Shanghai in 1951, where Western music remained in vogue in bourgeois circles despite the ideology of the Yan’an populists. In 1952 he performed Beethoven’s Emperor concerto with the Shanghai Philharmonic. But by 1953 Fu Lei, disillusioned, refused to allow him to take the entrance exam for the Shanghai Conservatoire.

With bonds now severed between China and western Europe, Chinese musicians looked to the countries of the Soviet bloc. Later in 1953 Fou Ts’ong was chosen to take part in a festival in Romania—part of a Chinese delegation led by Hu Yaobang. After giving additional performances in the GDR and Poland, he was offered a scholarship to the Warsaw conservatoire in preparation for the 1955 International Chopin competition there. Poland was still recovering from the extreme devastation of the war, and this was an unstable period in the Soviet bloc: even before the 1956 crushing of protest in Budapest, discontent was revealed in the widespread GDR protests of 1953 (see also Life behind the Iron Curtain: a roundup). By 1956 the Polish regime was promoting Western Art Music at the expense of folk culture (see also Polish jazz, then and now).

Fou Ts’ong took third prize at the competition, as well as a special award for his his performances of Chopin mazurkas:

Back in China,

For urban intellectuals, Fou Ts’ong’s success was a badge of their their own ability to participate in the world culture which they held so dear. For the leaders of the Communist Party, the Chopin competition was a diplomatic encounter, in which Fou’s performance demonstrated that China could achieve great things after expelling the imperialist powers.

For Fou Ts’ong the triumph also marked a new independence from his domineering father.

Meanwhile in China political pressures were increasing. Kraus describes the 1955 campaign against Hu Feng, the Hundred Flowers movement that led insidiously to the Anti-rightist campaign, and Fu Lei’s own tribulations after being branded a rightist. Music too was becoming an increasingly perilous battleground.

Fou Ts’ong could only try to grasp these events from Warsaw. As his father’s letters veered from depression to exuberance, the political changes in China between 1954 and 1958 must have seemed both mysterious and frighteningly unstable.

Having been criticised by Chinese students in Warsaw, Fou Ts’ong was recalled to Beijing to take part in rectification. But after writing a self-criticism he soon returned to Poland, graduating from the Warsaw conservatoire in December 1958—just as the Great Leap Backward was rolled out to empty fanfare across China.

And so on Christmas Eve that year, Fou Ts’ong defected, seeking political asylum in London, still only 24. Among those helping him flee was Yehudi Menuhin’s daughter Zamira, who became his first wife in 1960. Refusing to return to China, Fou Ts’ong was escaping the dual prisons of Confucianism and Communism. From the safe haven of his London base, his international career soon thrived.

His father’s tribulations were compounded by Fou Ts’ong’s defection, but they continued corresponding. Fou Ts’ong later published a volume of his father’s letters written over the following period:

The family letters of Fu Lei are popular in China allegedly because Fu Lei is such a model of old-fashioned virtue. But one wonders if Fou Ts’ong published them to justify his defection, perhaps unconsciously letting all readers understand that he was fleeing not only China’s politics but the obsessive love of a tyrannical father.

A brief political thaw from 1961 even encouraged Fu Lei to imagine his son returning to China. But in September 1966 Fu Ts’ong’s parents, persecuted by Red Guards from the Shanghai conservatoire, became two of the most notorious suicides of the Cultural Revolution. In the elite world of the qin zither, other tragic suicides were those of Pei Tiexia (old friend of Robert van Gulik in 1940s’ Sichuan) and Pu Xuezhai.

Fou Ts’ong now went through a difficult period in both his personal and professional life.

On his first return visit to China in 1979, as old wounds began to be plastered over, he took part in a memorial service for his newly-rehabilitated parents. Hard as it is now to imagine a time when glossy Chinese piano superstars were still a rarity, he inspired a new generation with regular visits thereafter.

His reflections on Chopin convey his charm:

Though both father and son espoused a very different aesthetic from that of the qin zither, their stress on wider personal cultivation, and the refinement of Fou Ts’ong’s touch on the piano, recall the refined sensibilities of that world.

I imagine him in his Shanghai youth listening to the numinous 1927 recording of the Schubert G major piano trio by Cortot, Thibaud, and Casals on the family phonograph… By the 1960s Fou Ts’ong, my teacher Hugh Maguire, and Jacqueline du Pré relished playing piano trios together—how I wish I had heard them.

Fou Ts'ong

Updates on Chinese music

The latest newsletter from ACMR (the Association for Chinese Music Research), vol. 25.1, is now available for downloading here, along with past bulletins.

It includes news of recent publications on folk-song, opera, the qin zither, soundscapes of imperial history and the Cultural Revolution, pop music—and responses to Coronavirus, including my own posts


The changing musical life of north India: social structure, and the sarangi

Neuman cover

The photo shows a gathering of music masters in Nepal, c1900.

While immersing ourselves in the melodic and rhythmic riches of Indian raga [1] we may forget that, like any other musical culture (including WAM), it is an evolving product of a social system, and that “music isn’t a thing, but an activity“. Bruno Nettl’s imaginative citing of the north Indian gharana system in his book on the schools of WAM reminded me to re-read the important early study

  • Daniel M. Neuman, The life of music in north India: the organization of an artistic tradition (1980, with updated preface, 1990).

Nettl ranks Neuman’s work alongside other ethnographic studies of a similar vintage, such as Steven Feld’s work on the Kaluli, Paul Berliner on the mbira, and Lorraine Sakata on Afghan musicians. It also makes a good instance of Nettl’s own taxonomy of responses to change in musical traditions around the world.

Bearing particularly on traditions of “art music”, Neuman’s points may vary significantly for regional folk genres, for India (see under Indian tag, e.g. Shawm and percussion bands of south Asia) and elsewhere around the world (such as flamenco, the festivities of Morocco, or—you guessed it—Chinese shawm bands), where intensity and communication are just as relevant but depend more on constant exposure than on rigorous formal training.

From afar I was absorbed in raga long before I began visiting China. It was a pioneer on the scene later dubbed “world music”, invigorated by the hippy vibe of the 1960s. Raga (at that stage mainly considered as a solo instrumental genre) seemed a pure, spiritual art—and that is indeed part of the story. Like WAM (see links under Society and soundscape) and Chinese music (e.g. Debunking “living fossils”), it may seem timeless, autonomous; and most early studies focused on disembodied musical analysis, notably on the art of improvisation. But change, both social and musical, is a constant theme—a process going on since at least the mid-19th century and still proceeding apace. Neuman’s analysis makes an important corrective to those who still prefer to leave their orientalist fantasies of the Mystic East untrammelled.

In a preface for the 1990 paperback edition, Neuman observes change even over the years since he carried out his original fieldwork, such as the boom in institutions, festivals, and research (both in India and abroad), further technological revolutions, a broadening in class, the increasing importance of pop music—and the scene has continued to transform since. While the general sound of the tradition has proved quite resilient,

as constant as the sound itself is the persistent concern and dismay about the present state of classical music, an ever-present dismay that must be as old as the tradition.

In his Introduction, Neuman asks

how such a characteristic, yet elusive and ephemeral, cultural phenomenon continues to maintain its integrity and autonomy in a world so vastly changed from that which gave it birth.

He reminds us of the 19th-century background of elite private patronage, with musical events taking place in the noble courts and homes of the wealthy, rulers going to great lengths—as in baroque Europe—to sustain a top-ranking musical establishment. And from the 1920s, the scene was partially redefined by the tastes and economic power of the rising middle class and the search for a national identity, with musicking becoming one of the social graces of the bourgeoisie, not least among women—as in 19th-century Europe. From the 1930s new radio stations, and the film industry, played an increasing role in patronage; the culture of art music was becoming urbanized and diversified.

I like Fox Strangways’s comment (1914!):

India has had time to forget more melody than Europe has had time to learn.

Take that, Berlioz!

In Chapter 2, “Becoming a musician”, Neuman focuses on riaz “practice” and the guru–shishya relationship between master and disciple that defines the gharana stylistic “school”. Riaz is a source for many stories of extreme, ascetic devotion to practice (“scars, scorpions, and sleepless nights”), many of which have taken on a mythic air. Such tales of the moral virtues of perseverance put my tribulations with Ševčík violin studies in the shade.

Neuman gives a nice instance of participant observation:

Often when I met musicians, the very first thing they asked me was whether I had been practicing hard; and while saying this, one would take my left hand and look at my nails and cuticles for the “hard” evidence. If the cuticles were built up into a horny ridge, and if my nails had grooves at the point where the nail meets the cuticle, then the evidence was there.

He discusses the transition from the dedicated discipline of the disciple to maintenance in later years, as “the leisure of the idealized village of the past or the princely patronage system is replaced by the scramble to earn a living”. As Ram Narayan observed, an important stage is learning how to practice correctly. Again, parallels here with WAM.

Exploring the relationship between disciple and master, Neuman cites a venerable ustad on the possible demise of the surbahar bass sitar, with a simile that precisely recalls the Chinese proverb “playing the qin for an ox” 对牛弹琴:

You think that the ustads want to keep the surbahar to themselves. It is wrong to think that way. We want to teach, but who is going to learn? It is such a big science, and if anybody asks for it and we give it then it would be like playing the vīṇā [the bīn] in front of a water-buffalo, so we can only play for those who understand.

Some “secret” ragas, too, are conveyed only to exceptional disciples.

In Chapter 3, “Being a musician”, Neuman discusses music as divine expression. But

although music and God are closely related, music and religion are not.

By “music”, he’s referring to the raga tradition—the soundscape of Indian ritual practice is another subject. He mentions rāg Malkauns, considered especially attractive to jinn spirits. But the move to the concert stage has attenuated such knowledge:

Musicians are, in a sense, twice removed from the sacred and magical. They believe in the power of music, but rarely seem to experience it. Like riaz as a sacred duty and the guru-shishya system as a hallowed relationship, musicians as magical performers are becoming a thing of the past. “It is the common man,” as some musicians are fond of putting it, “who calls the tune”. The piper’s patron which has emerged is a very complex mixture of people, and musicians are now listening carefully so that they know which tune to play.

This leads Neuman to a discussion of the listening public. As audiences have become more diverse, musicians adjust their repertoire. Sometimes they perform in special mehfil gatherings for connoisseurs, including other musicians—the most intimate and satisfying context (I think of the flamenco juerga, or the qin gathering in China).

But usually in recent decades they have to perform on the concert platform for a large, unfamiliar audience, or even (as often in the case of radio) with no listeners present as they play. Neuman gives instances of audiences around India considered more and less discriminating, and discusses amplification. He mentions the verbal reactions of audiences—at prescribed junctures—such as kyā bāt! (“what a thing!”) or javāb nahī (“no answer”), yet again reminding one of the jaleo calls of flamenco (olé, agua, and so on).

The move to the concert stage has made performers tailor their repertoire, calibrating the sequence and length of more highbrow alap and vilambit, and the more virtuosic sections of the raga, including crowd-pleasing sawāl-jawāb question-and-answer exchanges.

The book wisely refrains from discussing the substantial variations in length of the preludial alap in the various vocal and instrumental genres. [2] Rather than a simple modern abbreviation of a once-grandiose form, in some cases it may be the opposite. The advent of recording, with its limited capacity, may have influenced performance practice to some extent, but doesn’t seem to correlate closely with the varying duration of alap in live performance. A major factor may be the performer’s assessment of the changing audience’s discernment.

Neuman discusses musicians’ own evaluations under the headings of competence, appropriateness, and affect. His account doesn’t quite resemble the contrast between an abstract study period and having to make a living in the real world (cf. Training Daoists in Shanghai).

In Chapter 4, “The social organization of specialist knowledge”, Neuman attempts an etic taxonomy, observing hierarchies. As in many cultures, there is no common term for “musician” (and even our term is extremely vague). Neuman unpacks the term “professional musician”—an occupational category that subsumes a variety of performing specialists from various social groups. He discusses performers by ethnic origins (based in Delhi, he found that most musicians came from hereditary Muslim families), community, caste; by gender, residence, and age; by the extent of their musical knowledge; and by the type of music that they performed.

Musicians acknowledge the distinction between soloists and accompanists: a singer with an accompanying instrument (harmonium increasingly replacing sarangi), or a melodic instrumentalist with tabla. Vocal genres (dhrupad, khyal, thumri, ghazal)—ranked on a scale of seriousness—are a constant theme.

Neuman notes that the sarangi player Ram Narayan was rare in making the transition from accompanist to soloist; and he discusses the female vocalists, formerly associated with the courtesan tradition. While most soloists still perform on sitar and sarod, performers of other instruments such as shahnai oboe, bānsrī (bansuri) flute, and violin have occasionally come to achieve celebrity (see also Indian and world fiddles).

He goes on to consider the sarangi and tabla accompanists, mostly belonging to specific occupational groups and “associated by outsiders with dancing girls, tawaifs, and brothels”. The sarangi players are mainly associated with khayal, but never accompany dhrupad. Their knowledge is different from that of soloists (“artists”): while less creativity is expected of them, they are skilled, expert craftsmen (“artisans”). The role of the tabla, previously subsidiary, has grown. Neuman unpacks their basis in the caste system, with historical leads involving rural and urban origins.

In Chapter 5, “Gharanas: the politics of pedigree”, he notes conflicting views about the value of the gharana, yet another fluid system formed with “the introduction of the railway and telegraph system in the 1850s, the great uprising of 1857 with its concomitant social dislocations, and a slow but steady increase in urbanization”.

Chapter 6 concerns adaptive strategies. He returns to the theme of changing patronage; for the former musical parties of the nobility he reminds us of Sayajit Ray’s 1958 film The music room. A fine section follows on the important role of All India Radio, which became a major employer of vocalists and instrumentalists. Neuman discusses the accompanying role of the harmonium, now standard: commonly used in India since the 19th century, it became popular with vocalists themselves. As it came to threaten the livelihood of sarangi players, its use was controversial; All India Radio banned it in the 1950s, but had to recant by the 1970s (cf. the violin in Crete).

An image of Gauhar Jan led me to this 1902 recording—with harmonium:

For another early instance to illustrate that the use of harmonium is not just a modern abomination, listen to Hazrat Inayat Khan in 1909 here.

Neuman then discusses public performances, fixing fees, “foreign returned” artists, contacts, and changing modes of tuition, including educational institutions. Against the broad and superficial teaching of such schools,

professional musicians are often heard to say that it is far better to concentrate on one or a very few rags, exploring each in depth to enable the disciple to extend his understanding of many other rags quickly. “If you practice rag Yaman intensely, and come to really know it, then the knowledge of other rags will come of itself”

Again, this reminds me of the Chinese qin zither: Wu Jinglue, one of many senior masters recruited to the conservatoire yet never wholly absorbed into its ethos, gave me just the same advice. More broadly reminiscent of Chinese music are the decline of elite patronage, and social change since the traumas surrounding independence—though the historical trajectories of China and India are utterly different.

In Chapter 7, “The ecology of Hindustani music culture”, Neuman ponders the perceived constancy amidst social change and a radically altered cultural terrain (again recalling Nettl’s parameters). On producers of music, he further ponders themes such as the increasing diversity of the scene, hereditary and non-hereditary musicians, and the growing participation of women.

Such changes are reflected in repertoires. Returning to rāg Malkauns, he comments:

When rāg Malkauns ceases to be the rāg of jinns and becomes a pentatonic scale, the music becomes something different because it means something different.

Here are two versions by Nikhil Banerjee and Vilayat Khan, both with magical long alap: [3]

As to consumers, Neuman includes advertising and sponsorship in his discussion, as well as the role of the state and audiences for live and recorded music. For modern stage performances, he distinguishes “courtly” and “devotional” models, noting stage presentation and costume. He discusses technologies of production and reproduction and their influence on performance practices—again a popular theme in studies of WAM. He suggests a decrease in the diversity of performance styles along with an increase in the variety of experiments and forms.

Chapter 8, “The cultural structure and social organization of a music tradition”, further unpacks the relationship of musicians and audiences to the imagined past. While there is not always a harmonious equilibrium between social and cultural changes, Neuman suggests that the structure

can adapt to changing social conditions because it is constructed from elements which allow both contradictory intepretations and a continuing potential for revision.

* * *

Among the accompanying instruments, the sarangi has long been prominent, though (as we saw) threatened by the harmonium. The remarkable website of Nicolas Magriel contains a wealth of information on individual players, along with a treasury of precious audio and video field recordings—made just at a time when the system was going into decline. As he comments in this interview,

“One thing that’s really unique is the amount of footage inside very traditional musicians’ homes. No one else has done this with anything in Indian music. I happen to be crazy enough to make 450 hours of video of sarangi players—I met most of them in the 1990s, in 18 cities across India. This is the real life of the musician—people practising and teaching at home, while the women are cooking vegetables, people are wheeling motorbikes in and out of the room, and the kids are going crazy. Even in India the concert-going public has no idea what this traditional life of musicians is; they know music as a packaged item that they see on the stage.” […]
“The sarangi is the black sheep of Indian music. It’s the most difficult instrument and the lowest status. It was a rural folk instrument, and in the 18th century it came into the classical world because courtesans needed it to accompany singing and dance. It was by far the most popular and widespread instrument in 19th-century India, because every brothel had sarangi players. But in the 20th century sarangi players were more and more marginalised; they were excluded from the mainstream of classical music, so they maintained their premodern way of life.”

Magriel’s Sangi Rangi website has both male and female stars—the men are sarangi players and teachers, while the women are courtesans: skilled dancers and singers who employ sarangi players as accompanists and sometimes their agents. “In the words of my dear Ustad Abdul Latif Khan,” he says, “these women kept this music alive for the last 400 years.” The site has films of them at work, and pays tribute to their role, which Magriel feels has been written out of Indian musical history. “That was the core of classical music, and it’s something that’s been whitewashed, both in the West but specially in India. Everyone wants to think of it as a kind of spiritual music that was played in the temples. There was court music, but in many cases the male musicians who were idolised, actually they existed in order to teach the women how to sing. When India moved towards independence there was a feeling that there should be a classical music tradition, and so you needed first to connect it with ancient texts. Secondly they tried to create a pure Hindu art, whereas music had been the domain of muslims in India for 400 years. Ordinances were passed which in effect gradually repressed the courtesan tradition. Muslims were discriminated against, and sarangi players were discriminated against by association.”

Still, while Magriel finds a growing shallowness in the music, along with Indian art music in general, he doesn’t entirely subscribe to the notion that the sarangi is endangered.

sarangi pics

Among the numerous masters covered in depth on Magriel’s site are Sabri Khan and Bundu Khan, who feature in Neuman’s study. The site includes much material on female musicians (such as here), as well as his films for the Growing into Music project.

One of the first sarangi players to attract attention abroad was Ram Narayan, who was largely responsible for elevating the sarangi as a solo instrument on the international concert stage, and who collaborated with Neil Sorrell in Indian music in performance: a practical introduction (1980), just as Neuman was writing. Joep Bor (compiler of the indispensable annotated CD set The raga guide) also paid great attention to sarangi players.

Having featured rāg Marwa in a previous post on Heart of glass (yeah, I know), here’s a version by Ram Narayan:

What I find so attractive about this raga is the challenge of having to struggle to keep track of the scale and its relationship with the tonic. This is always true, actually—just that in this case one is forced to engage with the pitch hierarchies.

While our interests in the diverse ways of musicking around India, and elsewhere, have broadened substantially, the northern raga tradition remains a major topic, for which Neuman’s work was an important early ethnography.

[1] Among myriad sources (from early monographs by Alain Daniélou and Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, to the New Grove and Garland encyclopedias, The Rough Guide to world music, and so on), useful references include Jairazbhoy’s chapters in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (1993) and Richard Widdess’s lucid introduction in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics (2015).

[2] For dhrupad, note Richard Widdess, Dhrupad: tradition and performance in Indian music (2004), chapters 5 and 6.

[3] NB for those who are no more expert than me in the subtleties of sargam solfeggio: taking C as the notional tonic, you may at first here the basic scale as
however, the drone strings are not the common C and G, but C and F—so it’s actually
F–A♭–B♭–C–E♭–F—or rather, rearranged with the tonic as C:
in sargam (lower-case denoting the lower degrees of pitches):
with the 5th (Pa) and 2nd (Re) degrees absent. As always, it’s a lot more complicated, and enthralling—but that’s a start…

Musicking at the Qing court 1: suite plucking

On the folk–art continuum in culture

XS early

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

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

First we need to unpack the wafty term “court music”, subsuming all kinds of activities (for an early study from the Forbidden City, see e.g. Wan Yi and Huang Haitao, Qingdai gongting yinyue, 1985; see also the succinct introduction in Yang Yinliu, Zhongguo gudai yinyue shi gao, pp.1005–1009). It includes the large-scale yayue, ceremonial groups of both Inner and Outer courts, Daoist, Buddhist, and shamanistic observances, various genres of opera—and recreational chamber ensembles for life-cycle celebrations.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Illustration from the “72 trades of old Beijing”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jixian chengyun

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

For the narrative-singing scene in early 1950s’ Beijing, the vicissitudes of Czech and Chinese scholars and artists, and the 1980s’ Anthology, see here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

[1] Here I’ve expanded modestly on my brief introduction in Folk music of China, pp.208–12. For rich material on vocal and instrumental groups in the late imperial period, note Yang Yinliu, Zhongguo gudai yinyue shi gao, vol.2.

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

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

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—just around the time that journalist Gareth Jones was murdered by “bandits” in Manchukuo. Though the book’s authors go on to refine it somewhat, van Gulik’s 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. For their son’s letter of sympathy to the Czechoslovak amassador after the crushing of the Prague Spring, see here.

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 with 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.

See also Daoist non-action and Confucius he say—slowly; and for musical style, Different values.


[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—and now here). 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 “kindred spirits”, 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] (see also here).

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. (For the concurrent tribulations of Czechoslovak scholars and artists, see here.)

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. Among several biographies and collections is Chen Zhou 晨舟 Wang Shixiang 王世襄(2002).

[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 鍾思第 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 鍾馗 the ugly drunken demon-queller (Ha!) and the woodcutter Zhong Ziqi 鍾子期, 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 (see here), but hey. Not to mention the huangzhong 黃鍾 and linzhong 林鍾 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.

* * *

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 老钟), 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.)

For Craig Clunas’s Chinese name, click here.

**Talking of transliterations of foreign names (see here and here), “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, September 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 (commentary here). For a roundup of posts on the Zhihua temple and related ritual activity, see here.

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 (for ritual artisans at the time, see here).

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…

* * *

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”); he maintained sheng for shawm bands too. 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.

* * *

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 this detailed analysis I compared a qin piece with a suite for shawm band.

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 qin 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
  • his chapter in Andrew Weintraub and Bell Yung eds. Music and cultural rights (University of Illinois Press, 2009)
  • and more on his site

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

More under the qin tag, including Spiritual and marvellous mysteries and A rare duet for qin and erhu.

A tribute to Laurence Picken

I was one of Laurence Picken’s more tangential disciples, but he remains among the great inspirations of my life. [1]


I know several of us have fond memories of turning up for lunch at his little house overflowing with books, a sherry followed by a carefully prepared meal, listening to him explaining, non-stop for four or five hours (for all his encyclopaedic erudition, he knew nothing of small-talk) how the marker to the right of the column in some 11th-century Japanese zither manuscript had been misinterpreted—with liberal asides on plainchant, birdsong, and medieval Sogdian viniculture—to which I occasionally managed to interject “I say, fancy that…” And that’s how it went, every couple of months for about twenty-five years.

Apart from his immense scholarly arsenal, he was a true amateur, an enthusiast. He maintained a network of like-minded people, communicating extraordinary enthusiasm for a topic that, even by the high standards of obscurity of those topics that many of us here today pursue, was pretty arcane. His devotion to scholarship was nothing to do with conforming to institutional demands; as a bit of a Lone Ranger myself, I now realize where I got it from.

He corresponded indefatigably with scholars all over the world (not least Eastern Europe)—he had to wait far too long for the invention of email. Though I think his influence on Western scholarship on Chinese music has been disappointingly slight, his work on Tang music had echoes in that of Chinese scholars, including He Changlin and a group of scholars in Shanghai, from Ye Dong and Chen Yingshi to a newer generation. Senior scholars like Yang Yinliu, Huang Xiangpeng, Ren Erbei, and Yin Falu were themselves engaged in similar work through the 1950s, and would have relished a chance to exchange ideas with Laurence.


Having helped him out with his magnum opus Music from the Tang court for many years, I finally began going to China in 1986. My initial reason for going was to seek clues to Tang performance practice in living traditions there—how to play his transnotations in a convincing style. Except for his early and late visits, most of his life coincided with a period when few foreigners could gain meaningful access to living traditions in the PRC. And immediately I discovered a vast unknown treasury of living folk and ritual music, soon putting to one side what we might call historical musicology in favour of contemporary ethnography (see e.g. my Plucking the Winds, pp.169, 184–5). But what I really appreciate is that Laurence entirely understood, and was immensely generous and supportive of this churlish choice of mine.

A special edition of Early Music, edited by Richard Widdess, includes my succinct thoughts on the relation between “early music” and living traditions in China, with thoughts on notation and recreation:

  • “Source and stream: early music and living traditions in China”, Early Music August 1996: 375–88.

As I published a lengthy analysis of some of the pieces from the Hua family shawm band’s suites introduced in my 2007 book (and the accompanying DVD film, and an amazing CD; cf. Dissolving boundaries), it reminded me that while Chinese and Western scholars have described the scales and macro-structure of Chinese instrumental music, few have done any serious analysis of its melodic progression—so Laurence’s project with Noel Nickson (however traditional in style) on the Tang repertoire remains a bold, comprehensive, and detailed body of work. My only reservation is that I’m not so keen on analysing old scores when we can’t hear how they actually sounded; doing fieldwork in rural China, I’m happy if we can make an educated guess— within a living tradition—about how a score no longer in use was performed 100 years ago, let alone 1,000!

A distant relative of the Cambridge early music movement (Dart, Munrow, Hogwood…), Laurence’s Tang music project was controversial, not least in Japan, where it challenged deeply-held assumptions about the sanctity of gagaku[2] Most striking is his theory that in Japan the Tang scores were gradually retarded—ending up being played up to sixteen times more slowly, robbing the melodies of their melodic coherence. Generally this remains convincing, though our later experience of living genres in China like the temple music of Beijing, or nanguan in Fujian, might prompt us to refine it.

Unlike some scholars, I quite accept that the Tōgaku scores that Laurence collected do indeed represent Tang music. But I wish I could debate with him now. His tenet that we should read the scores “with no more information than that given in the manuscripts themselves” [3] may seem at odds with his following comment, “the attempt to determine what an ancient text meant at the time when it was written”. So I think he might concur with my response:

I agree absolutely that we mustn’t assume the way a piece is performed now is the way it was performed before; this was his way of explaining an alternative to the passive acceptance of modern-day gagaku performance practice in Japan. However, one cannot possibly “use only the information contained in the scores themselves”! Recreations of European medieval music (a tradition to which Laurence belonged) always try to extract as much information as possible from early instruments, treatises, anecdotal literature, iconography, society, and so on—and also, notably, from living traditions which have remained relatively stable, as performers of European medieval music do for folk singing and instrumental heterophony in Europe and North Africa. All such material is abundant for the Tang, and Laurence would have loved to make more use of it; one cannot possibly treat the score (a skeletal outline) as if it provides all the information necessary to performance (it doesn’t even do that for Bach or Mozart!), in some kind of cultural void. Of course, we need to select judiciously which cultures we use as our material. Music is never merely notes on a page!

Laurence remained committed to the qin after his initial studies in wartime Chongqing, along with Robert van Gulik (imagine…). In the 1960s he provided notes for John Levy’s Lyrichord recordings of Daoist and Buddhist ritual in Taiwan and Hong Kong, a rare initiative for the time—Laurence would have been excited by later projects on the mainland. (I note, en passant, that one online catalogue, under Genre listing, gives “Non-music”!)

The interminably long titles of his articles were endearing—my prize goes to

“The musical implications of Chinese song-texts with unequal lines, and the significance of nonsense syllables, with special reference to the art songs of the Song dynasty”.

And his language was charming, with formulations like

In this context, sheng 聲 is to be understood as an acoustic phenomenon with extension in time—something organized so that (again in time) it may be complete or incomplete; in fact, a tune.

Apart from Laurence’s chamber music gatherings, another cherished memory is him playing Bach on the clavichord—above which a magnificently garish framed picture (gift from a friend in China) of the workers, peasants, and soldiers clutching the Little Red Book, celebrating the achievements of the Cultural Revolution.

* * *

And for what it’s worth (not, you realize, for what it’s not worth), here are my notes for the memorial service:

Music from the Tang court:
Qinghai bo (Waves of Kokonor)

Rachel Harris (dizi flute)
Stephen Jones (sheng mouth-organ)
Sun Zhuo (zheng zither)
Richard Widdess (bo cymbals)
Simon Mills (changgo drum)

Laurence worked for several decades on recreating the Tang court music of the early 8th century. His insights from deciphering scores exported from Tang China to Japan still deserve wider recognition.

We tried playing these transcriptions in the 1970s, with more enthusiasm than ideas about Tang performance practice, or indeed any Chinese performance practice—given that this was during the Cultural Revolution, when we had virtually no access to the practice of traditional music in China. I still have little idea of Tang practice, but trying to play such pieces under the influence of “ancient” genres still performed today for rituals in the north Chinese countryside—notably the shengguan wind ensemble of ritual specialists around Xi’an, Wutaishan, and Beijing—yields what I find rather attractive results.

Laurence changed the course of my life. I first went to China in 1986 in search of clues from living music there about how to perform these scores, and he was most generous, as ever, in understanding my rapid conversion to the documenting of living traditions in China, postponing historical reconstruction—well, until now.

In returning to the piece Qinghai bo (Waves of Kokonor), we ornament the simple outline of the tune, in 12 bars of 8/4, as Laurence suggested; we model our version on shengguan music, and are also influenced by our playing of Shanghai teahouse music. Whereas Laurence convincingly showed that Japanese performance practice had retarded the melody substantially, we begin with a very slow ornamented version, and gradually strip the ornaments away as we speed up, as they still do in Shanghai. I have no evidence that this practice was used in the Tang—given that the piece seems to be in 8/4, the first, slow, version is most likely to be “original”, but the faster versions are closer to the way that Laurence would have heard it, so these successive versions are more like alternatives.

Today we use dizi flute, sheng mouth-organ, and zheng zither, all of which have early scores for this melody; accompanied by a small Korean changgo drum, a rough approximation to the Tang jiegu, and a pair of small cymbals, as in north Chinese ritual music today.

Laurence didn’t allow purism to delay his exploratory renditions of these pieces: one of my enduring memories of him is his playing of the melodica, with a completely straight face—I’m sure he would have recognised that modern ritual specialists’ style on the sheng, with its addition of fifths and octaves to the melodic line, might make a more suitable model.

While this is far from a historically informed rendition, it marks an advance from our versions of the 1970s; Laurence would doubtless have many comments! The music at last sounds Chinese, if not necessarily Tang Chinese…

For the work of Allan Marett, another pupil of Laurence, click here and here. For more gagaku, see Messiaen in Japan, and Toru Takemitsu.

[1] Just a few partial references:
On film, a charming interview from 1983:

See also

[2] Among much discussion, Richard Widdess provides context: “Historical ethnomusicology”, in Helen Myers (ed.), Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The New Grove handbooks in music), pp.219–37.

[3] Ibid. p.221.

Remembering an old friend 憶故人

That’s the title of one of the most soulful, and popular, pieces in the qin zither repertoire—unusually, not documented until 1937.


You can find tributes to my mentor Lin Youren (1938–2013) online, including the delightful

and as part of the fine article

So here I’ll just add a few of my own memories of Lin Youren.screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-12-20-31

Excerpts from my liner notes with the CD:

Lin Youren is a true eccentric. [Here I’m thinking of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove]. His story contains intriguing contrasts, since he learned and taught the qin under the conservatory system, but came to find the juxtaposition incongruous, quietly subverting it from within. […]

His preferred way of playing is alone with a few friends—and, in another ancient tradition of the qin player, a bottle or two of Shaoxing wine. […]

If his playing roams the clouds of Daoist selflessness, his conversation is quirky, cryptic and full of puns.

The CD is very fine, but one unusual feature is its inclusion of his “Improvisation for Michael Owen”. More from the notes:

I’m not sure you really want to know this, but the musical germ of this fantasia was the singing of exhilarated English fans in my local pub after we relished Michael Owen’s superb goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. Lin found the famous football song reminiscent of the singing of Miao tribespeople in southwest China (“Not a lot of people know that”, I mused as we emerged from the pub), but by the time we got to the recording session he had wholly internalized it for the intimacy of the qin.

Actually, since he was staying with me, he tried it out for the first time as soon as we got back from the pub. A couple of days later we took the train for the recording session at Nimbus’s fine studio near Monmouth. To help him feel at home we plied him with Shaoxing wine; and he felt it would further help the vibe if I sat with him as he played, so he would have a real, and empathetic, audience. He improvised for much longer than the version on the CD, which is edited down—not quite to his satisfaction. Still, this CD was his favourite among all his recordings.

LYR in field

At Nimbus, 1998.


With qin master Zhang Ziqian, 1987.


Qin gathering, 1987. With beard is Suzhou qin master Wu Zhaoji.

For the Beijing qin scene, see here; and for my own mixed feelings about the qinhere. For a meretricious speculation on the rudra vina in India, see n.2 here.