The zheng zither in Shandong

The elite, rarefied qin zither enjoyed an unlikely Golden Age during the first fifteen years of Maoism, as I show in my series of vignettes. Though it was largely self-contained in its ivory tower, in the 1950s the new energy at the Music Research Institute in Beijing to study all kinds of traditional music combined with the official populist ethos to encourage occasional exchanges—such as this illustrious gathering with masters of the zheng 筝 zither at the house of Yang Dajun:

Zhao Yuzhai at MRI

Qin and zheng exchange, mid-1950s (see e.g. here). From left,
back row: Zhao Yuzhai, Yang Dajun, Gao Zicheng, [unidentified], Cao Zheng, Wu Jinglue;
front row: Wang Jinru, Cao Dongfu (playing), Luo Jiuxiang, Zha Fuxi.

Of the zheng players there, Zhao Yuzhai and Gao Zicheng came from Shandong, Cao Zheng and Cao Dongfu from adjacent Henan; Luo Jiuxiang represented the Hakka style of east Guangdong, far south; Wang Jinru was based in Beijing.

Unlike the seven-string qin, the strings of the zheng have individual bridges. Though just as ancient as the qin, it has much more in common with local folk music; while some prominent advocates like Cao Zheng made more exalted claims for its grounding in ancient cosmology, it still feels like a poor cousin of the qin. Its regional distribution is patchy, but Zhao Yuzhai was part of a thriving zheng scene in southwest Shandong, based (as often) on the local ensemble that accompanied vocal performance; the musicians were itinerant and semi-occupational.

My sparse early clues to folk musicking in Shandong (Folk music of China, p. 209) have been much augmented by the publication of the Shandong volumes of the Anthology (see my review “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”), in this case particularly for instrumental music (Zhongguo minjian qiyuequ, Shandong juan 中国民间器乐曲, 山东卷, 1994).

Throughout the Anthology, ensemble repertoire always far eclipses solo pieces; like other volumes for north China (e.g. Liaoning), the coverage of Shandong is dominated by the shawm-band repertoire (cf. “Reading between the lines”, pp.317–18), to which the first 1,269 of 1,958 pages are devoted. Solo pieces for the zheng occupy pp.1515–1620 (among online surveys of the Shandong zheng, see e.g. here).

Zhao Yuzhai 赵玉斋 (1923–99) [1] came from the Heze region of southwest Shandong, also renowned for its shawm bands. He was a disciple of the great blind musician Wang Dianyu 王殿玉 (1899–1964).

Wang Dianyu 1943

The Dong Lu yayue she 东鲁雅乐社, led by Wang Dianyu, 1943.
Right to left Chen Baozeng 陈宝曾, Gao Zicheng 高自成, Zheng Xipei 郑西培,
Wang Dianyu 王殿玉, Han Fengtian 韩风田, Zhao Yuzhai 赵玉斋, Tan Yonghe 谭永和.

The core string ensemble is for zheng, yangqin dulcimer, pipa, and ruyigou fiddle. Their repertoire is based on the Peng baban 碰八板 form—baban variants are common in various coastal chamber genres from Shanghai down to Guangzhou, if not nearly so widespread as scholarly attention may lead us to suppose. The Shandong style has much in common with the adjacent province of Henan, where zheng masters like Cao Dongfu 曹东扶 (1898–1970) were much admired. (Click here for bowed zithers in Shandong and Henan.)

In the cause of forging a new style of “national music”, through the 1950s many folk masters were enlisted to the new conservatoires and state troupes. Solo instruments like the zheng were more easily incorporated into the conservatoire system than ensembles that relied on folk ceremonial; players took readily to adapting their repertoire for the new demands of the new ethos. [2] In 1955 Zhao Yuzhai was recruited to the Shenyang conservatoire (where one of his colleagues was the qin player Ling Qizhen—see Musicking at the Qing court 1, n.3). The traditional zheng had 16 (or fewer) strings; in 1957, responding to the call to “improve” Chinese instruments, Zhao Yuzhai created an enlarged 21-string version. Meanwhile the lofty qin also found a place in the conservatoires; but while players took part in the major shift from silk to metal strings, they remained largely unscathed by “development”.

n 1955 Zhao Yuzhai was exposed to the rigours of rural collectivisation when a troupe from the conservatoire was sent on a tour of rural south Liaoning to “experience life” (tiyan shenghuo 体验生活), as the glib slogan went (cf. Daoist Li Qing’s stint in the Datong troupe). This resulted in his florid composition “Celebrating a bumper year” (Qing fengnian 庆丰年)—irony not supplied:

By 1958 even qin master Zha Fuxi was reduced to composing a piece in praise of the Great Leap Backward. for whose hyperbole click here.

In 1956 Zhao Yuzhai was part of a troupe performing at the Prague Spring festival, and in October he toured north Europe; his career continued to thrive until 1963. I can never get used to the blatant lacunae for the years of Maoism that are so universal in PRC biographies (cf. Craig Clunas’s remarks); like countless others, Zhao Yuzhai was assaulted at the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, condemned to labour camp until his release in 1978.

Zhao Yuzhai was one of three zheng players, along with Gao Zicheng and Luo Jiuxiang, who appeared in illustrious company on the 2-CD set of archive recordings from the Music Research institute. In 2000 a CD was devoted to his playing. He appears on film in “Autumn moon over Han palace” (Hangong qiuyue 汉宫秋月):

and “Four folds of brocade” (Siduan jin 四段锦):

Among other celebrated Shandong zheng masters were Han Tinggui 韩庭贵 (1929–2016) and Gao Zicheng 高自成 (1918–2010). Like Zhao Yuzhai, Gao Zicheng found a long-term position away from his Shandong home, teaching at the Xi’an conservatoire from 1957 (for the Shaanxi zheng style, see here)—here’s a short documentary in Chinese:

Apart from such masters who were selected for national celebrity, it may be hard to find ethnographic material on how folk chamber ensembles in rural Shandong adapted to successive social transformations—first to collectivisation, and then to the 1980s’ revival of tradition, soon challenged by the tide of capitalism and pop culture.

Meanwhile in a separate milieu, the concert platform made a more natural progression for the zheng than for the qin. Hitherto largely the preserve of men, since the 1980s’ reform era the zheng (like other stringed instruments in the conservatoire) has been dominated by female soloists. At the same time, concert performances for the qin on stage have come to enjoy a higher profile than the “refined gatherings” where its soul resides; but in the end, the qin still occupies its own world, at a tangent from the conservatoire.

 


[1] For Chinese sources on Zhao Yuzhai, see e.g.
https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E8%B5%B5%E7%8E%89%E6%96%8B/5776019
https://www.sohu.com/a/386245358_684953
https://www.factpedia.org/index.php?title=%E8%B5%B5%E7%8E%89%E6%96%8B&variant=zh
http://info.guqu.net/guzhenwenxue/29411.html
http://www.yueqiziliao.com/guzheng/202047250.html
https://www.yueqiquan.com/a39423.html

[2] In English, see e.g. Han Mei, The emergence of the Chinese zheng: traditional context, contemporary evolution, and cultural identity (2013); Sun Zhuo, The Chinese zheng zither: contemporary transformations (2015)

The qin zither under Maoism: five vignettes

This is how I opened my series on the qin zither scene in Beijing under Maoism:

I’m still seeking in vain to atone for my reservations about the dominance of the elite qin zither in Chinese music studies, where it’s “as if the whole varied spectrum of European musics were represented mainly by the clavichord”. The qin has always been the tip of the iceberg—its players were, and are, far outnumbered by folk-singersshawm bands, and spirit mediums, for instance.

However, this doesn’t make the rarefied world of the qin any less notable. By contrast with the ocean of folk traditions, its whole long history is extensively documented. And between the ancient sages and the modern scene, a remarkable flowering of the qin took place over the fifteen years following the 1949 “Liberation” (for the period in wider society, see here)—another illustration of the resilience of traditional culture in the PRC.

The scene was still largely amateur, with aficionados of qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting (qinqishuhua 琴棋書畫) taking part in “refined gatherings”. The stories of some of the leading characters are interwoven with those of the Music Research Institute, the Beijing Qin Research Association, the 1956 national project (with its definitive recordings), and political movements. This is a monument to an aesthetic world that since the 1980s’ reform era has been eclipsed by glossy conservatoire professionalism.

Always trying to move beyond disembodied sound-objects, I seek to evoke the place of musicking in the lives of qin players through the first fifteen years after Liberation, punctuated and eventually engulfed by campaigns—click on the links below for essays on

  • Guan Pinghu (1897–1967): an otherworldly figure, revered not least for his dapu recreations of early tablatures, an activity that thrived in the 1950s
  • Wang Di (1923–2005), Guan Pinghu’s devoted disciple, making a bridge both to the reform era and to
  • Zha Fuxi (1895–1976): his role in the 1949 Uprising of the Two Airlines, his remarkable 1956 survey with its numinous recordings—and NB this qin-erhu duet from 1962
  • Pu Xuezhai (1893–1966), descendant of the Manchu imperial clan: more classic recordings, and his disappearance in 1966
  • Yue Ying (1904–74): an affluent youth, motherhood, and her moving 1972 recordings—perhaps the only audible remains of the qin in the PRC for the whole period from 1963 to 1978.

Women constituted a significant minority among qin players, as illustrated in the posts on Wang Di and Yue Ying, as well as Yuan Quanyou. The story of Yue Ying makes a poignant coda to the series.

Yue Ying 1972

See also qin tag. For a stellar gathering of masters of qin and zheng zithers, click here.

The qin zither under Maoism, 5: Yue Ying

*For a roundup of the whole series, click here!*

In my introduction to Wang Di, I mentioned the changing gender profile of Chinese musicians and scholars through the 20th century. Among the female qin players in Beijing who weathered the transition from the Republican era to Maoism was Yue Ying 乐瑛 (1904–74).

The most useful material is an article by Guo Peng 国鹏, compiler of the most comprehensive anthology of classic qin recordings, Juexiang 绝响; for more on Yue Ying, see also Chinese wiki.

YY young

Yue Ying practising the qin in her youth.
Photos here from Guo Peng’s article.

Yue Ying came from an affluent family, the only daughter of the boss of the famous Tongren tang 同仁堂 pharmacy in Beijing. From young she studied painting, calligraphy, and Kunqu; she enjoyed playing pipa (against the wishes of her father, who considered it too low-class!) but came to concentrate on the qin, taking lessons (like Pu Xuezhai) from Jia Kuofeng 贾阔峰.

YY pipa

After a Western-style wedding in 1928 she went on to bear seven children, but managed to practise the qin at home between her motherly duties.

YY wedding

Adapting to the 1949 “Liberation”, from 1954 Yue Ying joined the Beijing Guqin Research Association, with the encouragement of Yuan Quanyou’s husband Wang Shixiang. She was one of several women studying with Guan Pinghu, including Wang Di, Shen You, and Yuan Quanyou.

female qin players

Female qin players.
From right: Yue Ying’s younger stepsister Yue Xiangyan, [unidentified], Wang Di, Yue Ying.
Do let me know if you can identify any of the others!

Repairing qin

The important task of repairing qin:
left to right Pu Xuezhai, Wang Di, Wang Mengshu, Zha Fuxi, Yue Ying, Yue Xiangyan.

Around 1958, amidst a frenzy of campaigns, Yue Ying took part in the association’s performance for the leaders in Zhongnanhai. As we saw, she invited Guan Pinghu to stay at her courtyard home during the “three years of hardship”. But worse was to come.

Recordings
Yue Ying remained active until the eve of the Cultural Revolution. But in 1966 her house was ransacked by a group of Red Guards, who took away her precious antiques and a dozen fine old instruments. Her children only managed to rescue a few family photographs from the rubble.

YY late

Yue Ying, 1971.

Whereas a few qin scholars, including Zha Fuxi, were permitted to continue their research behind closed doors once the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution were brought to an end, by 1972 Yue Ying had moved out of the old family home; besides being in poor health, she no longer had an instrument, and had been unable to play for several years.

Yue Ying 1972

But that year, as political tensions seemed to be easing somewhat, her daughter Guo Shunlong managed to buy a precious antique qin for 45 yuan (!!!); getting hold of a set of strings and a recording machine, she recorded her ailing mother playing four pieces—perhaps the only extant recordings of qin (or any other traditional music) in the PRC for the whole period roughly from 1963 to 1978. Yue Ying’s rendition that day of Pingsha luoyan (cf. Guan Pinghu’s version) can be heard here; we can also admire her earlier version from the happier times of 1956.

On CD 6 of the classic 1950s’ recordings, Yue Ying is heard in four pieces:

Canghai score

Opening of Yue Ying’s rendition of Canghai longyin as transcribed by Wang Di
(Guqin quji vol.1, pp. 211–15).

  • Liezi Rides the Wind (Liezi yufeng 列子御風, further material for my promotional campaign to boost the image of Liezi, n.1 here):

Yue Ying died of heart failure from lung disease in December 1974, before she could witness the revival of tradition. Her story makes a poignant coda to this series on the Beijing qin scene under Maoism.

The qin zither under Maoism, 4: Pu Xuezhai

On 30th August 1966, as agitated young Red Guards milled around on the streets of Beijing, a short, elderly gentleman, his wispy beard now shorn off, went for a walk with his daughter. He was never seen again.

Continuing my series on the qin zither scene in Beijing under Maoism (roundup here), I’ve been considering the life of Pu Xuezhai 溥雪斋 (1893–1966). Note this eloquent personal tribute by the great Wang Shixiang. [1]

A descendant of the Aixin Gioro Manchu imperial clan (cf. Aixin Gioro Yuhuan), Pu Xuezhai was a great-grandson of the Qing emperor Daoguang, and cousin of the “last emperor” Pu Yi. He exemplified the literati versatility of qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting (qinqishuhua 琴棋書畫). Before the 1949 “Liberation” he made his main living from painting (see e.g. here), teaching at Fu Jen University from 1942. He studied the qin with Jia Kuofeng 贾闊峰, successor to Huang Mianzhi 黃勉之.

MRI 1954The golden age of the MRI, 1954:
right to left Guan Pinghu, Yang Yinliu, Pu Xuezhai, Zha Fuxi, Li Yuanqing.

While leading MRI scholars like Yang Yinliu and Zha Fuxi, just at ease in a Western suit or a Mao jacket, adapted more comfortably to the role that the new regime demanded of them, Pu Xuezhai, like Guan Pinghu, represented the imperial culture of yore, living by sufferance under the socialist system. Still, the new leadership valued him, and he was able to thrive. In 1952 he was employed at the Beijing Hall of Cultural History, holding several posts in the new cultural administration, gaining the approval of Zhou Enlai. Meanwhile he joined the qin scholars at the Music Research Institute, and was a core member of the Beijing Qin Research Association during its heyday. Wang Shixiang recalls gatherings of amateurs where he would exclaim “Du 独!”, an antecedent of ku 酷, “cool”!

ZFX PXZ
Duet with Zha Fuxi, 1958.

While many qin masters also played the pipa, Pu Xuezhai liked to play the repertoire of the Manchu-Mongol elite on sanxian plucked lute—do click on that link for a precious audio recording.

Recordings
On CD 5 of the numinous “old eight discs” from the 1950s Pu Xuezhai is heard in three pieces:

  • Peaceful Evening Prelude (Liangxiao yin 良宵引):

  • Seabirds: Forgetting Ulterior Motives (Oulu wangji 鷗鷺忘機):

(cf. the wonderful duet with Zha Fuxi on qin and Jiang Fengzhi on erhu).

  • The Incantation of Pu’an (Pu’an zhou 普安咒)—much recorded in versions for both qin and pipa, though it is most widespread as an item of vocal liturgy among folk ritual groups, notably among the Hebei ritual associations:

  • A fourth piece attributed to him on the CD, Three Variations on Plum Blossom (Meihua sannong 梅花三弄), seems rather to be played by Wu Jinglue—but we can hear it played in duet by Pu Xuezhai on xiao end-blown flute with Zha Fuxi on qin:

which is part of a YouTube playlist for Pu Xuezhai (apart from the first track by Wu Jinglue):

Disc 8 of the 74-CD collection Juexiang (2016) further includes three versions of Meihua sannong, as well as Jiu kuang.

The end
In 1963 the Party leadership invited Pu Xuezhai to Zhongnanhai to celebrate his 70th birthday. But while such representatives of the “Four Olds” had weathered successive campaigns, the tide was already turning fatefully, rendering them vulnerable—particularly members of the old imperial clan. Pu Xuezhai soon became another casualty of the Cultural Revolution (the most detailed account of his last days is here).

PXZ 1960sPu Xuezhai, early 1960s.

In 1966, witnessing the humiliation of his colleagues, he was already traumatised by raids and struggle sessions, when Red Guards cut off his beard. The last person known to have seen him alive was his old qin-playing friend Guan Zhonghang.

His disappearance caused no comment. Just trying to survive, people had too much to worry about themselves. As with so many other senseless casualties of Maoism, his loss could only be lamented at a memorial service after the end of the Cultural Revolution.


[1] Other articles include
http://www.yuncunzhai.com/article/257845.jhtml
http://m.zwbk.org/lemma/227007
http://www.qinxuecn.org/ArticleDetail.aspx?Id=2141&classId=38https://torguqin.wordpress.com/2012/06/03/death-of-pei-tiexia/

The qin zither under Maoism, 3: Zha Fuxi

*For a roundup of the whole series, click here!*

Zha Fuxi

Zha Fuxi in 1974 or 1975, shortly before his death.

For this third post in my series on qin zither players in Beijing under Maoism, I’ve been learning more about the great Zha Fuxi 查阜西 (also known as Zha Yiping 查夷平, 1895–1976). A forthcoming article in Zhang Zhentao’s own series on the Beijing qin scene will doubtless provide valuable insights, but I’ll go ahead and offer my own preliminary thoughts, conscious that I may need to revise them in due course.

After the Communist revolution of 1949, amidst radical social change, a constellation of master musicians and scholars gathered at the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing in an extraordinary flowering of research. Under the wise leadership of Yang Yinliu, working closely with his cousin Cao Anhe, scholars began documenting the riches of regional folk musical cultures all over China. And at the same time a distinguished group of qin players and scholars flourished—including Guan Pinghu, Pu Xuezhai, Wang Mengshu, Yuan Quanyou, Xu Jian, and Wang Di; nearby at the Central Conservatoire was Wu Jinglue.

At the forefront of this stellar group was Zha Fuxi. His own articles are collected in Zha Fuxi qinxue wencui 查阜西琴学文萃 (1995; 815 pages). On John Thompson’s website, a major resource for all aspects of the qin, his exposition of Zha Fuxi’s work (starting here) makes a valuable guide (for a basic outline, see Chinese wiki). 

Early life
What I barely realised until I read an article by Xie Xiaoming was Zha Fuxi’s youthful political activism—he joined the Communist Party as early as 1924. While he is lauded within musical circles, it’s almost as if accounts of his life gloss over this aspect of his life, which one might expect to feature quite prominently.

A native of Hunan in south China, Zha Fuxi began learning the qin in 1908. But by contrast with the other-worldly Guan Pinghu, he was fully engaged with the social trends of his youth. From 1913, in the lawless times after the fall of empire, he attended middle school in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi, becoming interested in new democratic revolutionary trends, and taking part in student movements.

After studying briefly at Peking University in 1920, Zha Fuxi was drawn back south, spending periods in Changsha, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Guangzhou while pursuing his (patriotic) interest in aviation. He joined the Communist Party in 1924 at a time when it were still collaborating with the Nationalists, but after the Mari mutiny in 1927 he was briefly imprisoned. Making his way from Hankou to Shanghai, he continued to rise through the aviation ranks.

Meanwhile he was still studying the qin. A disciple of the Hunan qin master Peng Qingshou, in Shanghai he befriended Shen Caonong, with whom he co-founded the Jin Yu qinshe 今虞琴社 society in 1936. After the Japanese invasion in 1937 Zha Fuxi and many colleagues relocated to Chongqing; he took part in activities opposing the occupation. By 1943 he was Deputy Manager of the Central Air Transport Company.

ZFX USA

Zha Fuxi spent much of 1945 and 1946 in the USA, meeting the qin community there, giving lectures, seeking early tablatures, and making recordings—some of which have been reissued on CD and online, such as Yuge, Xiao Xiang shuiyun, and Oulu wangji.

From August to November 1949, in the Uprising of the Two Airlines (subject of several documentaries, e.g. here), following Chiang Kai-shek’s demand that all commercial airplanes should be flown to Hong Kong to facilitate their transfer to Taiwan, Zhou Enlai enjoined senior airline officials—including Zha Fuxi—to refuse the order. 

Liberation
Anxious about the imminent Communist victory, many mainlanders were indeed fleeing to Taiwan, and in Zha Fuxi’s own sphere many more would have been keen to do so. Zha Fuxi spent little time in the new-look airline company before transferring to the MRI to devote himself to qin studies. I can’t quite decipher the elements in this move: perhaps his artistic leanings came to the fore under the new regime as his career progress in aviation was frustrated.

Few of his fellow qin players at the MRI can have felt much sympathy with the socialist system, even if they had to toe the line. Unlike some of the older generation, Zha Fuxi and Yang Yinliu were comfortable wearing both Western suits and Mao jackets; yet they too remained loyal to the traditional world of literati culture that now seemed threatened by Party ideology. Indeed, given the tenuous position of such an elite genre as the qin under the new populist regime, Zha Fuxi’s early support for the Party, his involvement in the airline uprising, and the connection with Zhou Enlai, must have helped protect him (and by extension, the qin) over the following years.

After Liberation, Zha Fuxi’s MRI colleagues plunged into fieldwork on regional folk genres. The culture of the “exploited labouring masses” might seem a topic that the new regime would welcome; but in practice, with such traditions embedded in local ritual life, scholars found themselves walking a tightrope of “feudal superstition”. Xie Xiaoming’s article, perhaps embroidering somewhat, also stresses Zha Fuxi’s immersion in folk music during his early years in Hunan.

In Beijing, one of his early projects in 1952–53, with Yang Yinliu, was to be influential. They visited the former monks of the Zhihua temple to document the shengguan ensemble music that accompanied their rituals. Zha Fuxi’s letter to them shows his distress at their reduced circumstances, and his exhortations turn out to based on genuine proletarian sympathies.

Meanwhile the MRI scholars also persisted in paying attention to elite genres—both historical sources and living literati traditions like the qin. And traditional “refined gatherings” of qin aficionados continued, even thrived. Meanwhile under Party guidance, public performance on stage was a price that the leading qin players of the time had to pay, trading intimacy for exposure; from 1954 to 1955 Zha Fuxi was part of an ensemble giving performances in ten major cities (see under Guan Pinghu).

The 1956 fieldwork project
Zha Fuxi was well aware that there was far more to the qin than Beijing and Shanghai. Already well-travelled, from early in 1954 he had conceived an ambitious project to document qin players all over China. This came to fruition in 1956, when Zha Fuxi formed a team with the younger MRI students Xu Jian (b.1922) and Wang Di (b.1923) (“guqin special cadres”, as his report quaintly describes them), travelling to over twenty cities over a hundred days from April to July to document the playing, instruments, and tablatures of eighty-six qin players. They also visited libraries and museums in search of instruments and early documents.

As Zhang Zhentao observes in his article on Wang Di, this was the first thorough fieldwork in China on urban ethnomusicology—admittedly focused on one small segment of the population, rather than surveying urban cultural life generally (cf. Archive Chinese recordings).

ZFX 1956
Zha Fuxi, with Wang Di and Xu Jian, interviewing a Daoist priest, Chengdu 1956.
Source: Zha Fuxi qinxue wencui.
A cryptic caption: “Interview on Daoist ritual on behalf of Cao Anhe”. Cao Anhe had done fieldwork in Sichuan before Liberation; I presume she accompanied Yang Yinliu on his visit to Qingchengshan in 1942 (Yang Yinliu [jinian ji], pp.88–93). Perhaps this was the very priest whom Yang Yinliu had visited, or perhaps Cao Anhe simply asked Zha Fuxi to document Daoist ritual while he was there. Daoist and Buddhist clerics commonly played the qin, but we don’t know if this priest was among them.

Zha Fuxi’s report, written in 1957, deploys the obligatory style of the time, with some quaintly bureaucratic, statistical language (cf. “reading between the lines” in my review of the monumental Anthology).

Zha Fuxi had already expressed his sympathy with the plight of the former monks from the Zhihua temple. Now that he had official support for the qin project (the following quotes are from John Thompson’s rough translation, with my minimal revisions),

Before setting out, the Arts Bureau had told me the government was concerned about circumstances regarding the livelihood, cultivation, and health of any old, impoverished, or sick qin players, and wanted a report of our understanding. As to the people whose qin playing was being recorded, the Musicians’ Association had instructed me that even before paying them any fees, I should actively give them financial assistance.

He goes on:

The Chinese Music Research Institute instructed us that our visits should record such materials as documents and artefacts for the qin and ancient music, and establish the necessary communications and research relations with qin players and lovers of ancient music. Thus the subject of our work became not only the recording of qin pieces …

While the ethos of the qin was still based on the amateur ideal, Zha Fuxi notes a small minority of seven “professional” players, including Guan Pinghu and Wu Jinglue. On the variable technical standards of the players recorded, he comments:

In order to understand the location of the problem, one must make a connection between the situation of qin players’ self-cultivation and their living conditions. Examining our fieldnotes on the eighty-six qin players whose playing was recorded, one can understand that most of them had neglected the qin for twenty to thirty years, and after Liberation they had not picked it up again until they received encouragement from the general and specific national policies on culture and the arts [Discuss…]. Many of them didn’t even begin to practise until after the Musicians’ Association charged me last year to go and invite them to make recordings, and thus one inevitably finds defects such as faulty intonation, rusty finger techniques, and disjointed rhythms. This is the result of a decline in national culture brought about by the social environment of the past several decades [that sentence revised by SJ].

There had indeed been a certain hiatus in activity during the troubled times after the Japanese invasion in 1937 and the following civil war. But whether consciously or not, in such passages Zha Fuxi adopts a very common sleight-of-hand in Maoist historiography, that Chinese culture has been languishing throughout the Republican era, only to be rescued by the enlightened Party—a view easily refuted by all the evidence (e.g. ritual groups in Shanghai, Xi’an, and so on—as in Stewart Lee’s taxi driver, “You can prove anything with facts“). The great loss began after the 1949 “Liberation”—one on which the 1956 project now inadvertently shone a light.

For all its patriotic clichés, this passage also contains a sincere core:

A young music worker in Xi’an, after hearing these three types of recordings of ours, said to me that in the past she had always considered national music to be inferior to Western music, and could not imagine that the motherland had such great and expansive pieces for plucked strings; when adapted into national instrumental music style this could become a distinctive symphonic music. She said that not only had she now gained interest in Chinese music and built up her faith in it, but it had further aroused her love for the motherland!

That same summer Yang Yinliu led a team on an extensive survey of folk and ritual music around Hunan.

The recordings
For Zha Fuxi’s national project, apart from the selected tracks eventually included on the celebrated 8-disc set, note also the complete recordings issued since 2016 (here and here). This playlist contains a selection of 35 pieces from the set, opening with three played by Zha Fuxi himself:

Zha’s own playing is the theme of the 3-CD collection Zha Fuxi qinxue yishu 查阜西琴学學藝術 (ROI, 2016)—again, note John Thompson’s discussion (for the publication of the recordings, see also this interview with his son). This collection on YouTube has a selection:

Apart from instrumental pieces, qin songs made a rich field for Zha Fuxi (for his own research on the topic, click here; cf. the work of Wang Di).

  • On this track Zha Fuxi sings and plays Thrice Parting for Yangguan (Yangguan sandie 陽關三疊):

(Near the end of my tribute to Yang Yinliu, do also listen to his moving arrangement of this piece as a Protestant hymn!)

  • For the qin song Sigh for Antiquity (Kaigu yin 慨古吟), click here;
  • and for a sung version of Evening Song of the Drunken Fisherman (Yuqiao wenda 漁樵問答), here.

From 1958
The 1956 fieldwork project provided further material for Zha Fuxi’s magnum opus Cunjian guqin qupu jilan 存见古琴曲谱辑览 (1958, with 1,011 pages by my reckoning!) on qin tablatures and the history of the repertoire. [1] And in 1963 he produced the first volume of the Qinqu jicheng 琴曲集成, which after resuming in 1981 became the definitive 30-volume anthology of early qin tablatures.

From January to May 1958, on the eve of the Great Leap Backward, Zha Fuxi played qin solos on tour with the China Song and Dance Ensemble in the Soviet Union and Japan. On returning he spent the next three months taking part in rectification campaigns of the Qin Association and Political Association. Once the Leap began in August, new pieces for qin and ensemble were dutifully composed—an ephemeral innovation. Zha Fuxi wrote Dayuejin gesheng zhen shanhe 大跃进歌声震山河 in praise of the Leap (among many new pieces on the theme of bountiful harvests, such as Zhao Yuzhai‘s 1955 “Celebrating a bumper year” for the zheng zither); Guan Pinghu and Wang Di arranged The East is Red. In December the Qin Association featured this new repertoire on TV.

Apart from such necessary kowtows to authority, I’m unclear how the Beijing qin community weathered the Anti-Rightist campaign and the Leap, along with the severe food shortages that ensued; they toed the line while keeping their anxieties to themselves.

BJ qin 1959 to use
Qin masters gather at a Beijing teahouse, 1959
—with no hint of the severe social crisis of the period.
At front: Zha Fuxi with Yao Bingyan;
behind, Wang Di (with braids), Chen Changlin, and a beardless Wu Zhaoji.

By 1962, during the brief lull between campaigns, Zha Fuxi recorded a numinous duet with Jiang Fengzhi on erhu fiddle.

My own qin teacher Li Xiangting (b.1940), then a rising star of the younger generation and a pupil of Zha Fuxi and Wu Jinglue, notes the gathering official suspicion of the qin from 1963. Still, the Beijing qin community still kept active until 1964, with Zha Fuxi regularly hosting gatherings. For a moving evocation of stressful conditions over the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution, I again recommend Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 1993 film The blue kite.

The Four Cleanups and the Cultural Revolution
I can find little material on Zha Fuxi’s life after the 1963 Four Cleanups campaigns and the violent eruption of society in the Cultural Revolution. Many of his colleagues suffered grievously from the assaults of revolutionaries, with qin players an inevitable target of young Red Guards.

Zha Fuxi seems to have been paraded by the Red Guards as the Cultural Revolution erupted in 1966; but even after the worst violence subsided, by 1969 most of the MRI staff were sent down to the 7th May Cadre School farm in Tuanbowa (Jinghai, Tianjin municipality) for labour reform.

I doubt if Zha Fuxi’s connection with Zhou Enlai now helped protect him to any significant extent; [2] but from at least 1973, behind closed doors, as campaigns continued to rumble, a select group of qin scholars managed to resume their research, after almost a decade of silence, with the discreet protection of the Ministry of Culture—under the unlikely patronage of the leftist Yu Huiyong, promoter of the revolutionary model operas.

And in other (literal) fields too, the regime required some of the leading MRI scholars to research the ancient instruments now being revealed at archeological sites. In 1971 Yang Yinliu was recalled to Beijing from rustic exile to document the new excavations from Hubei for the Palace Museum. In 1972 he was sent to Changsha with Li Yuanqing and Li Chunyi to study the Mawangdui site, whereafter he was officially allowed to return to Beijing. Throughout this period Yang continued working on his Draft history of ancient Chinese music. Huang Xiangpeng (b.1927), another outstanding scholar of early Chinese music, was only released from rural labour in 1975.

After the revival of traditional culture that followed the death of Mao and the downfall of the Gang of Four, both Yang Yinliu and Huang Xiangpeng resumed their work keenly, though their health had deteriorated seriously. Yang died in 1984; and Huang was fully involved in the flowering of research until he died in 1997.

Life and death are a matter of fate“. During the Cultural Revolution, distinguished masters had been driven to suicide throughout the cultural world. Of Zha Fuxi’s qin colleagues, Pu Xuezhai disappeared mysteriously in 1966, and Guan Pinghu died in 1967; others were lastingly traumatised. Zha Fuxi survived until 1976—before he could rejoice in the revival, when senior qin players such as Wu Jinglue in Beijing, Zhang Ziqian in Shanghai, and Wu Zhaoji in Suzhou emerged to renewed acclaim.

As with the whole literati class, Zha Fuxi’s accommodation with Maoism was complex. Meanwhile he compiled an extraordinary corpus of material on the history and living practice of the qin, enriched by precious recordings—a monument to an aesthetic world that has been marginalised by the glossy conservatoire professionalism of the scene since the reform era.

 


[1] Incidentally, in n.11 here, John Thompson mentions Qi Yan Hui, “apparently a 20th-century adaptation for guqin of a melody that until 1937 only existed in the oral tradition of other instruments”. I wonder if this suggests a link with the version common in the suites of shengguan ritual ensembles (see e.g. under Xiongxian).

[2] Pace Xie Xiaoming, Zha Fuxi can’t have become Deputy Chair of the Chinese Musicians’ Association in 1969, when such institutions were paralysed—John Thompson’s date of 1962 (perhaps from Xu Jian’s history of the qin) is more plausible.

Inebriation and the qin zither

Yao Shou

Yao Shou, Drinking and composing poetry, 1485. Source.

Inebriation (zui 醉) makes an intrinsic aspect of Chinese culture, even a philosophical position. It’s a major theme in poetry, best known through the Tang masters (see e.g. here, here, and here, as well as numerous discussions in Chinese, such as this).

Poets have long praised alcohol as a vehicle for transcendence. But they also evoke both the companionship of drinking and the pangs of drinking alone. For the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove sharing wine facilitated their oblivion of the mundane world; Ruan Ji also fed into the solitary ethos:

Looking down into my cup, much misery,
I think of friends in former times.
Facing the wine, I cannot speak,
Melancholy blends with bitterness.

Li Bai drinking

The Tang emperor Minghuang inviting Li Bai to drink. Ming dynasty: source.

By way of Tao Yuanming’s “Drinking wine” poems, we come to Li Bai, patron of drunken poets. Among numerous examples,

山中與幽人對酌 Drinking with a gentleman of leisure * in the mountains (in Arthur Cooper’s translation)

两人對酌山花開    We both have drunk their birth, the mountain flowers,
一杯一杯复一杯    A toast, a toast, a toast, again another;
我醉欲眠卿且去    I am drunk, long to sleep; Sir, go a little—
明朝有意抱琴來    Bring your lute ** (if you like) early tomorrow!

* youren perhaps rather “recluse”
** the rendition of qin zither as “lute” popularised by Robert van Gulik.

Gustav Mahler set a translation of Li Bai’s Chunri zui qiyan zhi 春日醉起言志 as The Drunkard in Spring, the fifth movement of Das Lied von der Erde, just before the final Abschied.

處世若大夢      胡爲勞其生
所以終日醉      頹然臥前楹
覺來眄庭前      壹鳥花間鳴
借問此何時      春風語流莺
感之欲歎息      對酒還自傾
浩歌待明月      曲盡已忘情

* * *

In the lore of the elite qin zither too, always inspired by poetry and painting, the role of alcohol is significant and well-documented—again, harking back to the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Quaintly, qin societies during the Republican era listed their (male) players’ drinking capacity, under “Refined proclivities”:

Jin Yu qinshe 1936

2nd row from foot: drinking capacities of Shanghai qin players,
from Jin Yu qinkan 今虞琴刊 (1936). Courtesy Bell Yung.

More recently, the Bacchic propensities of the late lamented Lin Youren were in line with this tradition.

Jiu kuang YBY

Wine Crazy, §1–2, a copy by Yao Bingyan of the Shenqi mipu.

Most celebrated of pieces on this theme is Wine Crazy (Jiu kuang 酒狂), attributed fancifully to Ruan Ji. John Thompson gives a typically thorough exposition (and for qin song versions, here). The piece seems to have been dormant even by the time it was included in the 1425 Shenqi mipu tablature. After many more centuries of silence, it has become firmly established in the qin repertoire since 1957 when the Shanghai qin master Yao Bingyan 姚丙炎 (1921–83) began recreating it through dapu—for Yao, note Bell Yung, “From humble beginnings to qin master: the remarkable cross-fertilisation of folk and elite cultures in Yao Bingyan’s dapu music”, in Lee Tong Soon (ed.), Routledge handbook of Asian music: cultural intersections (2021), and for his Shenqi mipu realisations, Celestial airs of antiquity (1998).

YBY 1982

Yao Bingyan, 1982 (photo: Bell Yung).

Despite the surface technique, the melody is doggedly pentatonic, ambling innocuously up and down the scale with short repeated motifs (cf. my comments on Pingsha luoyan). The originality of Yao Bingyan’s version hinges on his use of triple time, most exceptional in Han Chinese music. After the end of the Cultural Revolution he published an article as early as 1981, “in discussion with visiting student Raffaella Gallio”. Here’s his 1960 recording, included on the “Eight Great Discs”—befuddled rather than virtuosic:

The instrumental version in the Shenqi mipu has only one caption for the coda, “The immortal exhaling his wine”; but the sung version in the 1589 Taigu yiyin provides titles for the previous short sections, each with poems;

  • Enjoying wine and forgetting troubles
  • Drunkenly dancing like a flying immortal
  • Singing loudly to earth and heaven
  • Loving wine and forgetting the body
  • Dashing off calligraphy on art paper
  • Bending over to exhale wine
  • Holding up wine and feigning madness.

Jiu kuang 1

Jiu kuang 2

Yao Bingyan’s rendition of Wine Crazy, transcribed by Xu Jian in Guqin quji vol.2 (1983).

Despite Yao’s reluctance to fossilise his realisation, already by the late 1980s Jiu kuang was becoming something of a cliché on the concert stage, fixed in his triple-time realisation. So it’s worth listening to John Thompson’s duple-time version:

Other qin pieces celebrating inebriation include

* * *

Of course, beyond the confines of literati culture, and without such philosophical underpinnings, alcohol is a trusty lubricant of social singing in rural society. §C2 of the DVD Notes from the yellow earth (with my Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei) has a vignette of a lunchtime drinking session with a group of village men.

The singers were perhaps mediocre even without the prodigious amounts of baijiu liquor they were knocking back; with empty bottles strewn about the floor, one of the singers passed out on the kang brick-bed.

Opium was a vice of both shawm bands and Buddhist monks until the 1950s; shawm bands still take amphetamines as fuel for their labours during rituals. But that’s another story…

Meanwhile in Western culture, intoxicating substances are commonly associated with the heyday of jazz; and in WAM, alcohol makes a strong underground theme, part of the “deviant” pastimes of the lowly rank-and-file. Such behaviour may be an emblem of non-conformity, but it’s rather far from the lofty predilections of Chinese poets and musicians. Another sherry, vicar?

The qin zither under Maoism, 2: Wang Di

*For a roundup of the whole series, click here!*

GPH WD

Wang Di checking her transcription of Guan Pinghu’s Guangling san.

In this little series on the qin zither in Beijing under Maoism, I have introduced Guan Pinghu and Zha Fuxi. Wang Di makes a kind of bridge between those two great masters, as well as between them and the reform era since the 1980s.

Gender
In great contrast with the current scene, before the 1980s both music scholars and conservatoire performers were largely male (for the wider gender profile in Chinese musicking, see here).

As solo instrumental performers, women have come to dominate in the conservatoires since the 1990s; but in the 1950s the celebrated performers were male, with few exceptions (notably Min Huifen on erhu: e.g. the CD set of archive recordings). Even the pipa lute and zheng zither, now mainly the preserve of women, were known largely through the playing of men.

However, women have long constituted a substantial minority among qin players (see here). In modern times, they were notable in the Republican era. After the 1949 “Liberation”, Wang Di 王迪 (1923–2005) was among several female students gathering around Guan Pinghu at the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing, including Yuan Quanyou, Shen You, Yue Ying and her sister Yue Xiangyan. They all came from strong literati backgrounds. And for an iconic figure in the Hong Kong qin scene, see Bell Yung, “Tsar Teh-yun at age 100: a life of qin music, poetry, and calligraphy”, in Helen Rees (ed.), Lives in Chinese music (2009).

Wang Di’s early life
Less promoted than some of her contemporaries, Wang Di is best known as the devoted disciple of Guan Pinghu. A companion with Zhang Zhentao’s article on the latter is his

  • “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 (2013) (here, or here).

Born in Beijing in 1923, Wang Di sought out Guan Pinghu soon after hearing him on the wireless when she was 13, becoming his pupil. His living conditions were poor; she fed him when he came to her house for lessons, and helped support him.

Wang Di took part in the activities of the Beiping Qin Study Society from 1947. That year she briefly studied chemistry at the Université Franco-Chinoise in Beijing, “resolving to become a Chinese Madame Curie”, as Zhang Zhentao puts it. But illness soon made her forsake chemistry for the qin, studying from 1948 at the Guoli Beiping yishu zhuanke xuexiao 国立北平艺术专科学校, precursor of the Central Conservatoire, where she was kept on after graduating in 1953.

After Liberation
Having introduced Guan Pinghu to the MRI scholars in 1951, Wang Di was soon to serve as his assistant there. By contrast with Zha Fuxi, well-connected aviation executive, until the 1950s Guan Pinghu’s circumstances were lowly, and he now found himself with a regular salary, paid to do the work he loved.

All this was far from the peasant life now being extolled by the new regime. Alongside the groundbreaking fieldwork on regional folk traditions, somehow the MRI created a spacious ivory tower where research on elite genres (not only the qin, but early history) could be avidly pursued.

After the Beijing Guqin Research Association (Beijing guqin yanjiuhui 北京古琴研究会, see Cheng Yu’s article) was formed in 1954, a siheyuan courtyard-style dwelling in Xinghua hutong near Houhai lake made a regular home for its activities.

BJ qinhui

Pu Xuezhai, Zheng Minzhong, Wang Di, and Xu Jian
listening to Wang Mengshu playing the qin in the association’s courtyard, 1961.
Note the varied attire…
Source.

One aspect of the work of senior masters like Guan Pinghu was the process of dapu, recreating early qin tablatures; this soon became “fixed” in dingpu transcriptions of Wang Di and others, aided by recording.

In 1956 Zha Fuxi enlisted his young students Wang Di and Xu Jian to join him for an iconic survey of qin players in cities throughout China (see under Zha Fuxi). Whereas Zha Fuxi was already well travelled, this was Wang Di’s first opportunity to meet masters from all over the country.

On their return, the First National Music Week was held in Beijing, a prestigious event. Guan Pinghu and Wang Di were among the guests received by Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai at Zhongnanhai; Zhou even invited Wang Di to dance.

Through this period the association made minor concessions to the political agenda of “reform”, composing some new pieces. Most of these were transient, with the important exception of metal strings replacing silk.

Wang Di had planted a pumpkin in the association’s courtyard, which managed to grow to impressive proportions. In 1960, as food shortages were hitting hard, onlookers watched her with envy as she took it home. As Zhang Zhentao observes, women’s frugal domestic tasks like growing vegetables and needlework took on significance for the qin community; Wang Di could now relate this to the sorrows expressed in ancient melodies. In my post on Guan Pinghu I’ve described Wang Di’s successive changes of abode from the late 1950s.

A foreign pupil
After the 1949 revolution, the few Europeans studying music in China were mainly diplomats. Robert van Gulik had studied the qin profoundly before Liberation, whereafter he continued his work from afar; Věna Hrdličková researched narrative-singing in the early 1950s.

LundqvistCecilia Lindqvist studying with Wang Di, 1961. Source.

In 1961, just as society was recovering briefly from the hardships of the Great Leap Backward, Cecilia Lindqvist (林西莉, b.1932) (wiki, and Chinese version; silkqin; see also here and here) came to Beijing with her husband, cultural attaché at the Swedish embassy, and went on to become a renowned Swedish sinologist. She began studying the qin with Wang Di early in 1961. Lindqvist’s 2006 book (succinctly titled Qin; Chinese translation 2009) includes sections on her studies with Wang Di and the Beijing Guqin Research Association.

When she returned to Sweden in 1962, the association presented her with a Ming-dynasty qin (!!!) and recordings of the master players (heard on the CD with her book).

After Wang Di died in 2005, in 2010 her daughter Deng Hong 邓红 toured Sweden, making a 2-CD set of her own recordings, with notes by Lindqvist.

The Cultural Revolution
Remarkably, research on the qin managed to persist behind closed doors through the Cultural Revolution.

But by 1969 Wang Di, along with most of her colleagues at the MRI, was sent down to the May 7th Cadre School (Wuqi ganxiao 五七干校) at Tuanbowa in Jinghai, south of Tianjin (among several online accounts of conditions there, see e.g. here).

Zhang Zhentao evokes Wang Di’s life at Tuanbowa. Men and women performed the same tasks, like driving, tilling the fields, chopping firewood, mixing cement, and so on. During house-building, it was quite an art to toss adobe bricks up to the worker on the scaffolding above: the person standing below had to aim towards the receiver’s head, so that they could catch it; if they aimed for the hands, it might fall short. Wang Di excelled at this skill, and after returning to barracks she demonstrated it to her daughter, though it would soon become redundant for urban dwellers.

After the reforms
With the revival of tradition that followed the overthrow of the Gang of Four, some qin masters soon began making a reputation on the concert stage. But Wang Di remained unassuming, keeping away from the public eye; still working quietly at the MRI, she was content to continue representing the heritage of Guan Pinghu.

Following Zha Fuxi, Wang Di also became an authority on the dying art of qin songs. She began publishing her long-term research on the genre as early as 1982 (see here).

GPH CDs

From 1991 she made a few visits abroad; and from 2003 she became involved in the Intangible Cultural Heritage project on the qin. But closest to her heart was preparing the CD set of recordings of Guan Pinghu.

In this series I’m focusing on a tiny literati elite that suffered terribly under Maoism. At the same time, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the peasantry who comprised the vast majority of the population endured even worse tribulations, despite the exalted new status that ideology now bestowed upon them.

The qin zither under Maoism, 1: Guan Pinghu

*For a roundup of the whole series, click here!*

Guan Pinghu

Guan Pinghu, 1954.

I’m still seeking in vain to atone for my reservations about the dominance of the elite qin zither in Chinese music studies, where it’s “as if the whole varied spectrum of European musics were represented mainly by the clavichord”. The qin has always been the tip of the iceberg—its players were, and are, far outnumbered by folk-singers, shawm bands, and spirit mediums, for instance.

However, this doesn’t make the rarefied world of the qin any less notable. By contrast with the ocean of folk traditions, its whole long history is extensively documented. And between the ancient sages and the modern scene, a remarkable flowering of the qin took place over the fifteen years following the 1949 “Liberation” (for the period in wider society, see here)—another illustration of the resilience of traditional culture in the PRC.

So in this first post in a mini-series focusing on the Beijing scene, I look further into the life and work of the great Guan Pinghu 管平湖 (1897–1967). John Thompson’s page on his exhaustive site is based on the CD set Guan Pinghu guqin quji 管平湖古琴曲集, well annotated and handsomely illustrated—I have only the original 2-CD set (1995), but Thompson refers to the expanded 4-CD edition (2016). See also e.g. here.

Besides the rich material of Wang Di 王迪 on her master (see here), the great Wang Shixiang also wrote a fine tribute to Guan Pinghu. And my long-term fieldwork companion Zhang Zhentao 张振涛 is not just a diligent chronicler of folk genres, but has also written eloquently about the qin. His articles

  • “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 (serialised online in three parts)
  • “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 (2013),
  • as well as a forthcoming essay on Zha Fuxi,

are both detailed and stylish, reflecting on the changing times in the qin world and society at large. The stories of these great players overlap, as they will in my series.

* * *

In the aesthetic of the imperial literati, “qin, chess, calligraphy and painting” (qinqishuhua 琴棋書畫) went hand in hand. Guan Pinghu followed in the footsteps of his father Guan Nianci 管念慈 (d.1909), a renowned painter who also played qin; he was in the retinue of the Guangxu emperor.

GPH paintings

Paintings by Guan Pinghu. Source.

Guan Pinghu rose to prominence among the stellar qin zither masters who gathered in Beijing before and after the 1949 “Liberation”.  From 1912 he took part in the Jiuyi qinshe 九嶷琴社 qin society founded by Yang Zongji 楊宗稷 (Yang Shibai 楊時百, 1865–1933). In 1938 he formed the Fengsheng qinshe 風聲琴社, and in 1947 the Beiping qinxueshe 北平琴學社, whose core members included Zhang Boju, Pu Xuezhai, Yang Boyuan, Wang Mengshu, Wang Shixiang, Guan Zhonghang, Zheng Minzhong, Yue Ying, and Wang Di.

Through the 1940s, apart from teaching qin at several institutes, Guan Pinghu spent time teaching painting at the Beiping jinghua meishu zhuanke xuexiao 北平京華美術專科學校, a forerunner of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. He was among the artists consulted by a team from the academy in 1955–56 for their survey of ritual painting in Beijing.

Still, Guan Pinghu’s ethos was remote from the image of the “exploiting classes”. Oblivious of worldly cares (a theme on which Zhang Zhentao’s article is especially eloquent), he was quite at odds with the new values of both the Republican and Communist eras. His family life was inauspicious: he was apparently separated from his wife, and of his four children three died in the early 1950s, while the fourth was a wastrel. As Wang Di recalled, by the late 1940s he was living alone in a bare little apartment, scraping by on a modest income from selling his paintings and teaching his few disciples. Among these, his female pupils Wang Di, Shen You 沈幼, and Yue Ying 乐瑛—all from affluent families—took responsibility for looking after him, utterly consumed as he was by the world of qin.

After Liberation
In those early days the Music Research Institute (MRI) was part of the Central Conservatoire, then still based in Tianjin. In April 1951 Wang Di took Guan Pinghu on the train there to take part in a recording session of several qin masters on the initiative of Zha Fuxi and Yang Yinliu. Wang Di told them of his difficult circumstances; indeed, seeing his dishevelled clothing the concierge was reluctant to let him in, taking him for a beggar.

So when Guan Pinghu was recruited to the MRI the following year, he attained a much-needed security, receiving a handsome monthly salary of 177 yuan. He was given a little room that served as study and bedroom, allowing him to immerse himself in the qin along with a distinguished group of senior music scholars around Yang Yinliu, whose sense of mission he shared.

In 1953 Wang Di became his assistant. The following year they moved to Beijing with the MRI, first to a building known as the “ten rooms” (shijianfang 十间房) and then to Xinyuanli in Dongzhimenwai, which remained the MRI home until the 1990s.

GPH WD

Wang Di checking her transcription of Guan Pinghu’s
realisation of Guangling san.

We should pause to admire the remarkable energy of Yang Yinliu and his team in those early years: alongside his ongoing historical research, in addition to his 1950 return to his old home Wuxi, in north China he did seminal fieldwork on the “songs-for winds” band of Ziwei village in Hebei, the Zhihua temple in Beijing, ritual groups of Xi’an, and narrative singing, while continuing his research on Daoist ritual in Wuxi. In 1953 others at the MRI embarked on a project on folk-song in north Shanxi.

On the basis of the Beiping qinxueshe, the Beijing Guqin Research Association (Beijing guqin yanjiuhui 北京古琴研究会) was founded in 1954 (see Cheng Yu’s article); the Ministry of Culture took over a siheyuan courtyard dwelling in Xinghua hutong, near Houhai lake, to serve as the association’s tranquil base.

Guan Pinghu and Wang Shixiang shared a taste not only for antique furniture but for the rich street culture of birds and flowers in old Beijing; Wang writes eloquently of how Guan Pinghu spent money he could ill afford to rescue an injured grasshopper, likening its chirp to the lowest open string on his Tang-dynasty qin

While the soul of the qin still resided in the “refined gatherings” (yaji 雅集) of aficionados, the qin now also began to be heard on the concert platform. From October 1954 to January 1955 Guan Pinghu and Zha Fuxi, with erhu player Jiang Fengzhi and pipa player Li Tingsong, gave prestigious performances in ten major cities, before vast audiences.

Despite the unpromising conditions of the unfolding of collectivisation, socialist dogma was still not so rigid as to outlaw the former literati class. Yang Yinliu and his team were just as concerned to document elite culture. Meanwhile vocal genres remained active, such as narrative-singing and opera—still lively folk scenes apart from the new state troupes.

Dapu and transcription
While many qin players were quite content with quite a small repertoire handed down from master to pupil (cf. north Indian raga), such as Geese Landing on the Sandbank (Pingsha luoyan), some of the leading masters were keen on the process of dapu 打譜, seeking to recreate pieces from early scores that had long fallen out of common practice. Guan Pinghu was at the forefront of this movement, along with the Shanghai qin master Yao Bingyan (see Bell Yung, Celestial airs of antiquity, and here).

PSLY 1

Opening of Wang Di’s transcription of Pingsha luoyan as played by Guan Pinghu, Guqin quji vol.1 (1982).

The repertoires of qin players had always been transmitted within particular regional styles. Notation plays a very minor role in most Chinese genres—none at all in some. But for highly literate qin players, tablature is an essential part of the learning process. Throughout history, right until the 1950s, players relied on direct transmission from master to pupil, aided by the tablature, which made an ambivalent record: over-prescribed in terms of pitches and fingerings, it allowed for considerable latitude in rhythmic interpretation.

GLS qinpu

GLS WD scoreOpening of Guangling san: Shenqi mipu (1425) and Wang Di’s transcription.

But in the 1950s, along with the circulation of recordings, the process of “fixing” the performance with composite transcriptions in Western stave notation and the symbols of traditional tablature began leading to a certain standardisation. This applied even to the newly recreated dapu pieces, some of which now entered the repertoire. The 1956 fieldwork of Guan Pinghu’s MRI colleague Zha Fuxi both revealed the great regional variations in repertoire and set a standard for establishing a “national” canon. It is rather hard to think back to the 1950s, when qin players had a very different mental image of their repertoire.

qin hui 1956

Members of the Beijing Guqin Research Association
on a trip to the Yiheyuan, 1956.
Front row, from left: Wang Zhensheng, Yang Qianqi, Guan Zhonghang;
middle row, Yang Yinliu, Pu Xuezhai, Cao Anhe, Guan Pinghu;
back row: Luo Zhenyu, Zha Fuxi, Wang Mengshu.
From Yang Yinliu (jinian ji) 楊陰瀏 (紀念集) (1992).

From 1956
In the summer of 1956, while collectivisation was causing hardship and desperation in the countryside, Yang Yinliu led another field survey in Hunan (here and here). Meanwhile Zha Fuxi led a remarkable project to document qin players over the whole country (more to follow in a later post in the series!).

Urban society was still relatively unscathed. But the Anti-Rightist campaign (1957–59), along with the Great Leap Backward and the famine (from 1958), caused great suffering. While I’ve found few instances of Beijing qin players being rusticated during this period, Guan Pinghu’s close friend Wang Shixiang was branded a “rightist” in 1957, bearing the stigma for twenty-one years. And soon after starting his study of the qin at the Shanghai Conservatoire in 1958, Lin Youren was sent down to rural Anhui and Henan for periods to support the desperate peasants.

Wang Di was ever devoted to taking care of Guan Pinghu in both his artistic life and material needs. In 1957, when the MRI prompted her husband to take leave of sickness, Wang Di had moved out of the institute (then still in the “ten rooms”) with her family. At first they lived at the spacious old family home of Yue Ying in Huazhi hutong, near the base of the Beijing Guqin Research Association. Yue Ying (to whom I’ll devote a separate post) was another female disciple of Guan Pinghu, and she invited him to live there too, as the Great Leap Backward was unfolding. Though the cities were protected from the severe famine in the countryside, Beijing dwellers suffered from food shortages; well-connected Zha Fuxi had baskets of eggs delivered to Yue Ying.

Still, Guan Pinghu’s new prestige was confirmed by an invitation to perform at Zhongnanhai for Chairman Mao, Zhu De, and Chen Yi.

In the early 60s Wang Di’s family moved to the bustling trading and entertainment quarter of Dashalar just south of Tiananmen (on which, note Harriet Evans, Beijing from below). But the redevelopment of the celebrated Rongbaozhai studio forced reluctant inhabitants to move to the Hepingli district further north; since Wang Di’s Dashilan apartment was safe from the developers, she agreed with one such family to let them live there while she moved into their own new dwelling in Hepingli. There she took care of Guan Pinghu. They were like a family—her two daughters called him Grandpa Guan (Guan yeye 管爷爷).

GPH and students

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.

Here we might also appreciate the fictional treatment of family travails through these years in Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 1993 film The blue kite.

New campaigns
Traditional culture was able to revive during a brief lull in the early 60s, spurring further energy in fieldwork and publication. But then the Four Cleanups campaign from 1963 presaged the agonies of the Cultural Revolution.

Apart from all the struggle sessions, murders, and suicides when the Cultural Revolution erupted, Guan Pinghu was among many who met their deaths at the time as an indirect cause of the rampages of the Red Guards. Pu Xuezhai, who also embodied the elite values of qin and painting, disappeared mysteriously in 1966.

Even qin masters hitherto in good standing with the regime like Zha Fuxi and Wu Jinglue were assaulted. Guan Pinghu was terrified as he witnessed the public humiliation of his peers. Long partial to erguotou liquor, he now sought refuge in the bottle, lying disoriented on the bank of the old city moat. Afflicted by liver cirrhosis, his health declined severely.

When he died on the 28th March 1967 he can hardly have imagined an end to all the destructive campaigns. Yet by the 1980s folk and literati genres were thriving again, and Guan Pinghu became a legendary figure, his pupil Wang Di masterminding the CD set that was finally published in 1995.

Recordings
There’s a precious film clip here of Guan Pinghu playing Liushui in late 1956, with Wang Di looking on. In 1977, on the recommendation of Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-chung, his Liushui was to be immortalised by being sent into orbit with the US spaceship Voyager 2.

GPH CDs

The classic resource is the ROI CD set. Guan Pinghu is also well represented on YouTube. Here’s the most celebrated of the ancient pieces that he recreated from Ming-dynasty tablatures, Guangling san—whose subject (to refine the image of the qin as tranquil contemplation!) is the righteous assassination of an evil ruler (among much discussion, note silkqin, and another article by Wang Shixiang):

Thrice Drunk in Yueyang (Yueyang sanzui 岳陽三醉) is inspired by the classical theme of inebriation (now the subject of a separate post!):

For Guan Pinghu’s version of Pingsha luoyan, see here.

* * *

Unlikely as it may sound, the first fifteen years after Liberation were a Golden Age for musicological research. As to the qin, it’s not exactly that it enjoyed a renaissance: regional societies had thrived through the Republican era. But given the new ideology after Liberation, the intensity of research and gatherings under Maoism was remarkable.

We may now feel nostalgic for the old world of “qin, chess, calligraphy and painting”; but it was still embodied in the iconic masters who were active under Maoism. Like household Daoist Li Manshan (jinfei xibi 今非昔比, at the end of my portrait film, from 1.19.20), my nostalgia is not so much for distant imperial grandeur as for the 1950s.

And while countless lives, and precious old instruments, were destroyed in the 1960s, it’s remarkable how many managed to survive to lead the revival since the 1980s’ reforms (cf. The resilience of tradition).

Today, despite a broadening of the appeal of the qin deriving partly from the internet, the refined cultural backgrounds of former generations have largely been marginalised by the narrow conservatoire specialisation of younger students (see e.g. Bell Yung, cited here). Music is never just music.

Killer sounds: cadential patterns in Chinese melody

zisha

A drôle recent Languagelog post on “Pineapple suicide” somehow put me in mind of the shasheng 煞聲 in traditional Chinese music. I’m a bit like that.

A useful little item in the 1985 Zhongguo yinyue cidian 中国音乐词典 (pp.335–6) crams in considerable arcane ancient scalar theory, whose practical application remains obscure. Anyway, in the Northern Song dynasty Shen Kuo 沈括 (1031–95), in his Mengxi bitan 夢溪筆談, defined shasheng as a final cadential note (biqu suoyong zhiyin 畢曲所用之音, also glossed as jiesheng 結聲). Shen Kuo seems to use 煞 and 殺 interchangeably here, and later folk scores do indeed use homophonous characters quite freely.

Outside WAM the final cadential pitch of a melody is not a very useful guide to its melodic structure, and it’s hardly a concern of most performers. To identify the shasheng of a melody, rural musicians in modern north China sometimes name a pitch in the gongche solfeggio system (such as yi chezi sha 以尺字殺 “cadencing on the pitch che”). More illuminating for us are modern Western techniques like note-weighting, including the cadential notes of individual phrases (cf. my detailed analysis of a shawm-band suite). While neither ancient theorists or modern folk musicians shared such concerns, at least we can identify their use of the term shasheng.

As the great Yang Yinliu explains (Zhongguo  gudai yinyue shigao, pp.554–60), in the zaju drama of the Yuan dynasty the sha 煞 may be a series of final sections within a suite.

qin cadence

Qin melody Yuqiao wenda 漁樵問答, end of §4,
from Guqin quji 古琴曲集 (1982).
Among many recordings, this piece opens Lin Youren’s wonderful CD for Nimbus.

Some related topics come to mind. Decorated cadential patterns on the qin zither, with the left thumb repeatedly striking the soundboard to voice the upper note, rather remind me of early baroque cadences in Italy. In ensemble, extended ostinato cadential patterns  are used as punctuation between melodic phrases (see my Folk music of China, pp.126–9). And in the shengguan ensemble of northern temple and folk ritual (see under Three baldies and a mouth-organ), 4-bar ostinatos on two adjacent notes are common:

JZJ

Gongche score, 1947, West An’gezhuang village, Xiongxian, Hebei.

The gongche score above shows versions of Jinzi jing and Wusheng fo in fandiao scale, a whole tone below the “basic scale”. Ostinato cadential patterns appear in lines 2 (wu wu yi wu wu yi wu) and 3 (che che gong che che gong che) of Jinzi jing; and in the following Wusheng fo, in lines 1 and 2. For more, see my “The Golden-character scripture”, Asian music XX-2 (1989).

One might go on to consider the ostinato-based peiqu 配曲 “supporting pieces” of northern ritual groups, and the “tassels” (suizi 穗子), a more popular style used by northern wind bands (Folk music of China, pp.146–8; cf. #8–9 on the first CD of China: folk instrumental traditions).

suizi

A separate theme is the sha 煞 baneful influences in Daoist exorcistic ritual, which are to be exorcised by means of talismans and visualisation techniques (see e.g. here)—“but”, digressing still further from pineapples, “that’s not important right now” (see under Solfeggio, again).

Daoist sha

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, and this by Chen Guangchen).

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.

Poland
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.

London
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 tragedies were the suicide of Pei Tiexia (old friend of Robert van Gulik in 1940s’ Sichuan) and the disappearance of 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

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

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 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’ 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. 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.

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.

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 valorised 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.

menxianr

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.

Scores
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:

XSBK

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 (sidebar 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 (see What is serious music?!, and for China, Dissolving boundaries)!


[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.

Tokyo
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 tablatures) 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, here, 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 mould 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 (see my series on the qin in Beijing under Maoism).

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.

Yuan Wang wedding

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).

In 1987 Yuan Quanyou was able to devote a tenth volume of the Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian to the qin:

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 Shenqi mipu tablature (1425) that Yuan Quanyou inscribed to me in her elegant calligraphy in 1987, for me to “study and practise”.

SQMP

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

This post complements my series on the qin in Beijing under Maoism.


[1] See https://www.academia.edu/34156645/The_Apollo_Portrait_Wang_Shixiang_Apollo_127_November_1987_pp._350-1, and https://www.academia.edu/34156683/_Wang_Shixiang_Spiritual_Resonance_and_the_Ten_Thousand_Things_in_Fariba_de_Bruin-Derakhshani_and_Barbara_Murray_eds._The_2003_Prince_Claus_Fund_Awards_The_Hague_2003_pp._17-23.
Among many other reports, see e.g. http://www.china.org.cn/english/NM-e/170145.htm, https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_2580161, and this tribute from Yuan’s granddaughter: https://kknews.cc/culture/2ao24jz.html, 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 Guan 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 (2013) (on several online sites e.g. here).

More Chinese wordplay, and a poem

or
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 陰[阴]法鲁 (1915–2002) at my first supervision with him during my 1986 study-period at Peking University.

“Zhong” (Bell) 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’s history) at 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

zhs-1954

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-laicised 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 itemise all the respects in which their music was such a valuable resource for musicology, partly seeking to bolster their self-esteem. He concludes by recognising 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.

beijing-yankou

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:

yyl-1953-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; for many more links, see here.
[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.

Sources
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 bellyung.weebly.com.

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

More under the qin tag, including Spiritual and marvellous mysteries; A rare duet for qin and erhu; and my series on the fortunes of the qin in Beijing under Maoism.

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]

Picken

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; see also here) 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 realise 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.

MTC

Having assisted him with his magnum opus Music from the Tang court for many years, I finally began going to China in 1986. The reason for my first visit was to seek clues to Tang performance practice in living traditions there—how to recreate 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 historical musicology to one side 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 zither 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 his chamber music gatherings, I have another cherished memory of Laurence 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 Laurence’s memorial service:

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

lp-memorial
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. And for Laurence’s work on folk instruments of Turkey, see note under Bartók in Anatolia.


[1] Just a few partial references:
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2007/jun/06/guardianobituaries.booksobituaries
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17411910802343803
https://www.dropbox.com/sh/ybltn8wbquzycmf/AAAK8MU1jp2hk5SpTTv3QNR2a?dl=0&preview=CHIME+Journal+4+Autumn+1991.pdf
On film, a charming interview from 1983:

See also
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hr1irFTGjQk
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DWzh-1WOwc
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GV3tg3GF-Ok

[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.

lyr

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

included in 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—here’s the opening track, “Evening song of the drunken fisherman” (Zuiyu chang wan 醉漁唱晚):

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 Lin Youren 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.

lyr-and-zzq

With qin master Zhang Ziqian, 1987.

lyr-and-wzj

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

For the Beijing qin scene, see here, and my series on the fortunes of the qin under Maoism; for my own mixed feelings about the qinhere. For a meretricious speculation on the rudra vina in India, see n.2 here. See also the qin tag.