An Irish music medley

Irish session 2

Adding to my handy roundup of roundups, as the Irish tag has become unwieldy, here’s a selection of my dabblings in Irish music, which feature some exhilarating tracks that will brighten your days.

lnfCiaran Carson’s exquisite Last night’s fun has inspired several posts, including

And this charming recollection, told to me at a session in an Armagh pub, has a Carsonesque lilt to it.

i got further into the swing with

To whet your appetite, here’s an irresistible playlist:

See also under Indian and world fiddles. And while I’m here, may I remind you of the great Flann O’Brian (more under Myles tag), and various fine Irish jokes such as these.

A roundup of roundups!

Apart from my annual surveys (2021 here), I’ve added a tag in the sidebar for roundups, where I group together posts on a particular theme. Whether or not you share my fetish for taxonomy (see e.g. here) and the joys of Indexing, as long as you start clicking away on the links (and the links within them…) then this could be a really useful navigational aid!

I could have sworn I published this roundup of such roundups before, but it seems to have disappeared. Note especially


and surveys of my series on

I essayed an inventory of Chinese jokes under

Further global surveys:

Some other themes:

Western Art Music:

—a theme that also makes appearances under World musicking and ethnography:

Popular culture:


Mahler: a roundup!!!

Mahler 1907

Mahler is such an important figure on this blog (and indeed in “Western civilisation”!) * that I thought I should offer a roundup of posts—my The art of conducting links to many of these, but it’s always good to remind ourselves of his astounding body of work.

Mahler cartoon

Note the definitive four-volume study by Henry-Louis de La Grange—and online, his series here, with essays on all the symphonies (cf. conductors’ ideas). Norman Lebrecht, Why Mahler? (2010) is engaging and instructive. For recording guides, see here.

I began writing about Mahler with a post musing on performance practice, vibrato, and Daoism, and went on to offer reflections on the individual symphonies, all overwhelming in their different ways—with plentiful A/V embeds of some of the great interpreters like Bruno Walter, Bernstein, Tennstedt, Abbado, and Rattle:

Urlicht from the 2nd, and the Adagio of the 4th.

Here’s my detailed “programme” for the apocalyptic passage in the first movement of the 10th, with the “Scream”:

Now I don’t generally go in for this kind of thing, but after my recent visit to Sachsenhausen one might hear that short episode (under two minutes) as a graphic condensed soundscape foretelling the torments of Europe from c1930 to 1945—like deathbed episodes flashing past (timings as on the 1980 audio recording):

  • 16.15 the descent into hell begins
  • 16.44 rise of Nazism
  • 17.06 brief moment of false hope (Weimar cabaret): desperate “Maybe we’ll be all right”
  • 17.25 Kristallnacht; invasions of Poland and Russia
  • 17.37 the concentration camp system
  • 17.50 the horrors of the camps are finally revealed.

Mahler 10 scream

And most essential is the heart-rending song

Amidst all the pain and ecstasy of his searing vision, Mahler incorporates the sounds of popular, folk, and world musics.

Other posts of note include

Ending of the 9th, and Anna.

Of no consequence whatsoever is Mahan Esfahani’s mystifying incomprehension

* The quotes there alluding, you gather, to the much-cited but elusive Gandhi story: when asked “What do you think of Western civilisation?”, he is said to have replied, “I think it would be a good idea”.

Some posts on Ukraine

Here are some of the main posts in which I learn from the work of distinguished scholars on the troubled 20th-century history of Ukraine:

Another fine perspective on the modern history of Ukraine through its soundscape is

See also

Note also Parajanov‘s Ukrainian film Shadows of forgotten ancestors.

Wacky headlines: a roundup

Bake Off

With the headlines tag in the sidebar already so voluminous, here’s a handy roundup of some of my favourite posts there. After we’ve digested Kate Fox’s insights on headline punning, I propose


From the Mystic East:


Others from my own “pen”:


There are also hours of harmless fun in the “crash blossoms” archive of languagelog.

And I can now offer a recent headline from the Istanbul Bugle, of which I am proprietor and sole contributor—describing the confusion of the Orthodox priest responsible for throwing the Epiphany cross into the Bosphorus, yet unable to locate the incense for the thurifer:

Cross Toss Boss Joss Loss

New tag: West/Central Asia

In the sidebar I recently added a new tag for West/Central Asia.

Turkey is a growing presence among my posts, so far including

with more to follow…

Some posts on Kurdish culture:

For a wide-ranging journey, see

Elsewhere, by way of

I may list

Click here for Fatima Manji’s fine book on Britain’s historical affinity with west and south Asia—and the current xenophobia. Posts on Uyghur culture (with separate tag) are rounded up here.

Roundup for 2021!

Emma Leylah

As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.

Some essential posts:

I’m going to emulate Stella Gibbons and award *** to some other *MUST READ!* posts too…

China: on the Li family Daoists, recent and older posts are collected in

and it’s always worth reminding you to watch our film


Tributes to three great sinologists:

The beleaguered cultures of the

  • Uyghurs (posts collected here) and
  • Tibetans (posts collected here), including

I’ve begun a growing series on Turkey (with a new tag for west/Central Asia):

Among this year’s additions to the jazz, pop, punk tags are


Bach (added to the roundup A Bach retrospective):

as well as

On “world music” and anthropology:

On gender (category here, with basic subheads):



Britain (see also The English, home and abroad), and the USA:

More on stammering:

On a lighter note:

Even just for this last year, I realise there’s a lot to read there, but do click away on all the links! And I can’t resist reminding you of some of my earlier favourites, notably

Ma Yuan

A mélange of playlists

Still delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, by now I’ve compiled several playlists for diverse genres, mostly containing listening guides with Society and soundscape in mind:


  • Chinese folk music (in the sidebar, scrolling down below the image gallery—with commentary here) including the Li family Daoists, the Gaoluo ritual association, searing shawm bands, and numinous recordings from the Zhihua temple (1953) and Xi’an (1961)
  • An eclectic Playlist of songs, with Billie Holiday, fado, Bach, Amy Winehouse, Purcell, Michel Legrand, Mahler, Nina Hagen, Ravel, Aretha Franklin, Barbara Hannigan, and more
  • Links to a varied selection of north Indian ragas, including “diatonic” (Yaman), “minor” (Kafi Zila), pentatonic (Malkauns), with augmented intervals (Bhairav), the beguiling Marwa (“A major over a C drone”)…

  • A series on the great Beatles albums, with the aid of Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack
  • Feminist songs, including You don’t own me and I will survive
  • see also Punk: a roundup

There must be well over a hundred posts there for you to relish—do click away on all the links!

A cappella singing

WD 2011

In China, the “orthodox” vocal liturgy of both Buddhist and Daoist temples has been thought to be properly accompanied only by ritual percussion (see e.g. here, and here)—just as in Islam and Christianity.

Although many temple and household ritual groups further incorporate melodic instrumental ensemble, the core practice among household ritual specialists is vocal liturgy with percussion.

For the Li family Daoists in north Shanxi, see my film, and e.g. The Invitation ritual, Pacing the Void 2, and audio tracks ##1–3 on the playlist (in the sidebar, with commentary here). Other instances of vocal liturgy with percussion include the Daoists of Changwu (Shaanxi), the performance of “precious scrolls” in Hebei (playlist #7), as well as ritual groups in Jiangsu and all around south China. So in order to understand religious practice in China, we must take into account how ritual texts are performed—through singing.


Further west, note Byzantine and Gregorian chant cultures, and examples from Eritrea and Athos, as well as Ukraine. Around the world, a cappella singing (both liturgical and secular) is perhaps the dominant means of expression; see e.g. Sardinia, and Albania.

Byrd score

Some of these styles even dispense with percussion, and a cappella singing is a notable feature of religious-inspired WAM —some instances:

Some of these were composed for church services (and I haven’t even begun to broach the riches of Bach motets…); but as we move through the 19th century, pieces also began to be written for the quasi-secular setting of the concert stage.

Posts on Uyghur culture


Rahilä Dawut.

Tarred as I am by the brush of specialising in China, my interest in Tibetan and Uyghur cultures is merely that of an outsider. But having written a series of posts on Tibet, it seems suitable to round up my readings on Uyghur culture—and its recent decimation—with a selection from the Uyghur tag in the sidebar.

I began by reviewing

For the fine publications of Rachel Harris, see

See also

which leads us to the outstanding work of anthropologist Rahilä Dawut, who was disappeared in 2017:

On the work of Mukaddas Mijit, see

Two more posts feature the wonders of Uyghur music, as they were until recently:

See also

A garland of ragas

As my coverage of north Indian ragas grows, this may be a good moment for an overview. [1]

To guard against any timeless image, divorced from social change, it’s good to start with Daniel Neuman’s fine book:

In my post on Noor Inayat Khan I referred to her father Inayat Khan’s 1921 classic The mysticism and sound of music, along with his 1909 recordings.

I illustrate most of these posts with 17th-century ragamala (“garland of ragas”) paintings reproduced in The raga guide.

* * *

In my Beatles roundup I wrote:

As with all musics, you can zone out or zoom in—or both; anyway, focusing on compositional artistry can enhance our appreciation just as much for the Beatles as for Mahler, the Uyghur muqam, or Chinese shawm suites.

See also Analysing world music.

To immerse ourselves in the melodic soundscape, note The raga guide (Nimbus, 1999, with 4 CDs), and (among a wealth of online material) this site by Patrick Moutal, including audio and video archives for both vocal and instrumental renditions (cf. his 2012 book Hindustani Raga Sangita). Also worth consulting is my post Unpacking “improvisation”.

To help us focus on the infinite riches of raga, it’s illuminating to anchor ourselves in the sargam solfeggio that expresses the pitch relationships. [2] Here are the basic pitches of the heptatonic scale:


In this series I use upper-case initials to denote higher degrees (e.g. Ma, sharp fa), lower-case for their lower degrees (ma, natural fa); Sa and Pa (do and so) are invariable.

Always relishing long alap preludes, I marvel at the constant variations of the master musicians, as they explore new connections between pitches and motifs—stages on their lifelong devotion to riaz practice (“scars, scorpions, and sleepless nights”, as characterised by Neuman).

It’s worth trying to sing along, anchoring ourselves with the Sa-Pa tonic-dominant drone, and registering stressed and cadential pitches. As middle, low, and high registers are covered in turn, short motifs develop into longer ascending and descending phrases.

What’s great about the whole progression of an extended alap is that we are gradually coaxed into learning the melodic building blocks, so that by the time the faster, more ornate patterns begin unfolding we’re just about familiar with the scalar language. Recalling the Growing into music films, wouldn’t it be great if our kids could grow up learning to sing and create with this fluency in pitch relationships?! (Cf. flamenco palmas).

Armed with the introduction of The raga guide (pp.1–13), we can consult the basic ascending and descending patterns of particular ragas. In these posts I content myself with offering a few signposts, with very rough outlines based on prominent cadences, leaving you to zoom in on all the detail in between. For dhrupad, my star exhibit, the signposts include the mukhṛā “refrains” of rhythmic repeated notes in a firm pulse. But the microstructure and ornamental detail is always to be savoured, with gamak embellishments and mīnd glides—as well as techniques (explained by Richard Widdess) [3] such as āghāt, “the onset of a pitch, whether by direct attack, or by indirect approach”, and anuraṇana, “resonance”, its prolongation and/or inflection up or down:

The raga guide introduces 74 ragas—like the repertoire of Chinese qin players (see my comments on Chapter 6 of Neuman’s book), few individual musicians perform more than a couple of dozen ragas, and some concentrate intensively on a handful. So here’s my series so far:

Besides vocal renditions, these are illustrated with instrumental versions on the plucked lutes rudra vina, [4] sitar, and sarod, as well as the bowed sarangi; so in a further post,

  • Raga for winds, I feature further instances on bansuri flute and shehnai shawm, featuring some of the above ragas as well as rāgs Desh, Lalit, and Puriya.

Even this modest selection displays great scalar variety: some ragas are largely “diatonic” (Yaman, Maru Bihag, Kedar), some “minor” (Kafi Zila, Bhairavi, and the anhemitonic pentatonic Malkauns, with Chandrakauns a revision of Malkauns with a semitone from Ni to Sa); others showcase augmented intervals (Bhairav, Shri); and Marwa is a challenging yet beguiling “A major over a C drone”.

As a non-specialist, I can only scratch the surface of all this, and that’s kinda the point: if I can begin picking up these clues, then so can you. Anyway, these performances, all very different, make a great introduction to the infinite art of raga.

To draw you into the individual posts, in the playlist below I choose one rendition of each of the ragas I’ve discussed so far, highlighting alap, dhrupad (the Dagar lineage, and Uday Bhawalkar), and Nikhil Banerjee.

  • Kafi Zila:

  • Yaman:

  • Maru Bihag:

  • Bhairav:

  • Bhairavi:

  • Malkauns:

  • Shri:

  • Chandrakauns:

  • Kedar:

And on a meretricious yet entertaining note, a spoof (with a serious bonus of rāg Madhuvanti on rudra vina):

Two more posts derive from concerts I attended at the Bhavan Centre in west London:

See also

I’ll add to this list as I explore further… In other fields, see A playlist of songs, and the Chinese selections in the playlist as you scroll down in the sidebar, with commentary here.

In the words of a Classic FM presenter,

It doesn’t get much better than that. Or does it? Give us a call.

With thanks to Richard Widdess, Morgan Davies, and Daniel Neuman.

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

[2] Indeed, focusing on the pitch relationships of sargam is a good way of listening to traditional Chinese melody—albeit a very different process of composition, with a far more limited tonal palette. Neither of these systems, nor that of WAM, is “superior”: they are all valid means of organising sound (cf. What is serious music?!).

Some might date the “decline” of “Western music” from later Miles, or from the Second Viennese School; one might playfully suggest (pace Bach and Mahler!!!) that it began a millenium or so earlier, with the spread of harmony, or even the invention of graphic notation

[3] As a taster for the definitive study Dhrupad: tradition and performance in Indian music (2004) by Ritwik Sanyal and Richard Widdess, the latter’s “Involving the performers in transcription and analysis: a collaborative approach to dhrupad” (Ethnomusicology 38.1, 1994) takes rāg Multani to illustrate the rich fruits of analysing alap, with detailed attention to the performer’s vocabulary (e.g. the instructive transcription on p.63).

[4] The timbre of the rudra vina rather reminds me of the Chinese qin zither, almost making me wonder if the lost art of improvisation therein might have sounded like this—all the more in view of the scalar variety of Chinese music before the Song dynasty… “But that’s not important right now“.

China: memory, music, society


The Great Leap. Source: China Daily!

This year’s CHIME conference (details here), with the broad theme of “Chinese music and memory”, is to be held remotely from Prague in two instalments on 1st–3rd and 8th–10th September.

Among the contributors—from both within and outside China—some will address notation (generally an over-subscribed topic) and early history (a rather safe theme, although currently being subjected to the ideology of the PRC). Also featured are folk-song, the qin zither (another niche scene rarely considered in the light of the social traumas of Maoism), the music of the Cultural Revolution, and the inescapable Intangible Cultural Heritage. More promising are Zhu Chuyi’s “ ‘Mother, I am sorry I was born a girl’: sonic, somatic, and traumatic memories in Tujia bridal laments”, and Liu Chang’s “Dakou cassettes, scar literature, and the memory of a traumatic past” (the latter proposal no longer appearing).

Here I’d like to broaden the topic in ways that may appear to be outside the remit of the conference, gathering together several of my blog posts. But we might start with a reminder of aperçus by two weighty pundits:

Music! Music! Is it nothing but the sound of bells and drums?—Confucius

There is no such thing as art that is detached from or independent of politics—Mao Zedong

Soundscape is never autonomous: it’s a window on society (see posts under Society and soundscape). Yet by comparison with countries where regime change has enabled necessary commemoration of painful episodes (see e.g. Sachsenhausen), within China acknowledgement and public scrutiny of the crimes of Maoism are notably absent. For references to some fine work, see Cultural Revolutions, including Jing Jun’s The temple of memories and Erik Mueggler’s The age of wild ghosts; among much discussion (at least outside China), two works on remembering and forgetting the traumatic past are reviewed here. For the dissimulation and duplicity inculcated in the USSR, see e.g. The whisperers.


Hilltop burial, Shaanbei 1999. My photo.

A major theme in people’s lives is suffering—as highlighted by Guo Yuhua in her fine ethnography of a poor Shaanbei hill village Shoukurende jiangshu 受苦人的講述 [Narratives of the sufferers], where she managed to elicit the peasants’ own painful memories of the whole Maoist era.

Particularly harrowing cases are the Anti-Rightist campaign and the Great Leap Backward, and the concurrent famines. The horrors of the Jiabiangou labour camp in Gansu have been exposed in long documentaries, Wang Bing’s Dead Souls and Ai Xiaoming’s Jiabiangou elegy.

My film Notes from the yellow earth (DVD with Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei) contains a lengthy sequence (§B) from a similar funeral—filmed in a village with its own traumatic memories. One might hear the playing of such shawm bands as merely “mournful”—indeed, that’s why younger urban dwellers are reluctant to hear them, associating the sound with death. And of course the style and repertoire of these bands took shape long before Maoism, based on earlier historical suffering. But we can only hear “early music” with our own modern ears.

Within the context of Dead souls the bleakness of the soundscape really hits home, suggesting how very visceral is the way that the style evokes the trauma of ruined lives and painful memory—slow, with wailing timbre and the “blue” scale of jiadiao, the two shawms in stark unison occasionally splintering into octave heterophony. Wang Bing’s scene should be compulsory viewing for anyone still struggling (despite my best efforts) to comprehend the relevance of shawm bands. Similarly, since I often note the importance of Daoist ritual in Gansu, its labour camps might form one aspect of our accounts of ritual life there.

The people shown in these documentaries are just those who anyone doing research in China will encounter—whether working on social or cultural life. This is just the kind of memory that the rosy patriotic nostalgia and reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project are designed to erase.

Like the German and Russian “soul”, suffering in China isn’t timeless: it is embodied in the lives and deaths of real people in real time. People dying since I began fieldwork in the 1980s all had traumatic histories; at the grave their memories, and those of their families, are covered over merely in dry earth, ritual specialists only performing a token exorcism that doesn’t obviate the need for a deeper accommodation with the past.

Unfolding along with the Anti-Rightist campaign and the Great Leap was the great famine; under the famine tag, I’ve grouped the main posts here, noting Wu Wenguang’s remarkable Memory Project, as well as Ukraine and Kazakhstan (see also under Life behind the Iron Curtain).

Ritual studies too are often perceived as a society-free zone, retreating into early history without reference to modern tribulations. As I showed in my post Ritual studies mildly censored, anxiety over documenting the Maoist past continues. As we submitted a translation of Appendix 1 of my Daoist priests of the Li family to a Chinese publisher, one sentence proved tricky:

… religious practice since 1949—whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue.

Precisely by modifying it they proved my point—by feeling it’d be rash to admit that it was a sensitive issue, they revealingly confirmed that it was!

Gaoluo 1989

New Year’s rituals, Gaoluo 1989.

Thus south of Beijing in the ritual association of Gaoluo village by the 1990s, it was easy to air publicly the vocal liturgy and instrumental melodies that young recruits like Cai An had learned on the eve of the Great Leap, and during the brief revival between the famine and the Four Cleanups; but traumatic memories of the campaigns themselves remained unvoiced.

Cui JianEven for the period since the 1980s’ reforms there is plenty of folk memory for the Party-State to repress (see e.g. Tiananmen: bullets and opium). Long March veteran Wang Zhen’s classic retort to Cui Jian was inadvertently drôle: “What do you mean, you’ve got nothing to your name? You’ve got the Communist Party haven’t you?” The nuances of the indie scene are explored by Jeroen de Kloet. And in my series on Coronavirus in China, a song by a blind bard made a medium to express support for whistleblower Li Wenliang (cf. the satirical songs of Zhang Gasong).

Left: Tibetan monks laying down their arms, 1959.
Right: Rahilä Dawut.

Tibet makes another flagrant case of coercive amnesia; in this roundup of posts, note e.g. Forbidden memory, Conflicting memories, Eat the Buddha, and How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet. Song often helps articulate the sense of loss and grievance. In 2009 the popular Amdo singer Tashi Dondhup was sentenced to fifteen months’ imprisonment after distributing songs critical of the occupation—notably 1958–2008, evoking two terrifying periods:

And documenting the past and present of Xinjiang is ever more severely out of bounds (from the Uyghur tag, see e.g. Uyghur culture in crisis, and Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam).

Arguments for maintaining the stability of the state, avoiding “chaos”, are paltry compared to the duty to commemorate, to learn from history—for Europe, UK, the USA, all around the world. Elsewhere too we find belated recognition of the sufferings of Indigenous peoples around the world, and the legacy of colonialism and genocide.

All this may remind us how important it is to seek beyond sanitised representations of “Chinese music”, or indeed of Daoist ritual, both in China and abroad. However distressing, the stories of suffering—though ever more out of bounds within the PRC—need to be told.

Anyway, FWIW, these are the kinds of thorny issues that come to my mind as I consult the CHIME conference website—do consider taking part!

Shawms around the world

ordam 1

From Rahile Dawut and Aynur Kadir, Music of the Ordam shrine festival.

Shawm bands, accompanied by percussion, are an essential—and seriously loud—feature in the soundscapes of life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies in many parts of the world, appearing often on this blog. So in lieu of an unwieldy tag, here’s a roundup of some of the main posts.

Shawms (with a wooden body and a flared bell, small unlipped double reed enclosed in the mouth, and a pirouette, overblowing at the octave) are more common than oboes (like Chinese guanzi and Armenian duduk), although the distinction is complex, also involving cylindrical or conical bores (zzzzz)—see here.

Names for shawms are often variants of zurna, but there’s a wealth of local terms. The musicians are low in social status.

For China, large shawms are particularly imposing in the north, as shown in my two books Ritual and music of north China. The starter post is

I analyse the complex melodies of the Hua family band in

See also

and, observing a certain scholarly reluctance to countenance such orally-transmitted cultures,

The Shaanbei bands feature in my post on the great

and, adding nearby Gansu, cf.

See also

and for trouble in Shandong,

Shawm bands are common in south China too, such as in Fujian and Hunan.

Some of these styles also appear on the Playlist in the sidebar (##5, 6, 11, and 15, with commentary here).

For Xinjiang, see

and for Tibet, as well as the monastic shawms and long trumpets (still only featured at the end of this post), the courtly gar features in

Elsewhere, most traditions have spread with Islam from the Middle East. See

Among a wealth of audio-video tracks on the playlist of

is a fine taksim on the Turkish zurna.

Additive shawm metres from Turkey and east Europe feature in

For Azerbaijan, see under

and for Morocco, under

In Europe, Spain features in

And for Italian shawms (not least the 1963–64 recordings from the USA!):

See also

And cf. the extensive trumpet tag.

Ritual change in north Shanxi

tray 91

By contrast with most research on Daoist ritual, change over the three modern eras (before Liberation, under Maoism, and since the 1980s’ reforms) is a constant theme of my work. These recent posts, elaborating on my film and book on the Li family Daoists, make a useful series:

Ritual business

See also e.g.

You can search further under the sub-heads of the Li family category in the sidebar.

Li category

Ritual change has become a significant theme within ritual studies; in Chinese, a classic on ritual and social change is the 1999 volume Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁 edited by Guo Yuhua.


SB covers

The northwestern province of Shaanbei (see sidebar tag) is a popular venue for the discussion of the interplay of politics and traditional culture, its iconic image as “a revolutionary mecca of modern China with colourful folk cultural traditions and scenic landscape” contrasting with the changing complexities of local reality.

Just in case you haven’t noticed, the top menu (under the Other publications sub-menu!) has a page on Shaanbei-ology, introducing splendid studies by David Holm, Adam Yuet Chau, and Ka-ming Wu;

GYH cover

and most notably, the ethnography of Guo Yuhua (must-read page here) on the hill village of Yangjiagou, detailing the peasant’s own views of the periods before, during, and since the coercive Maoist era.

My own work on Shaanbei is mainly presented in my 2009 book, leading to a series of posts on this site, including

For yet more, see Shaanbei tag in the sidebar.

A Mozart medley


Source here.

Whereas my Mahler series is rather detailed, the appearances of Mozart on this blog are often en passant. But exquisite. Here’s a little roundup.

Opera—notably our wonderful tours in the 1990s:

And three remarkable anagram tales by Nicolas Robertson:

The piano concertos:

See also

And the Sinfonia concertante may have been the inspiration for

Lastly, can the woman on the far left here really be


The liberation of US culture

By coincidence, I began composing this blog in late 2016—just as the poor ol’ USA was descending into a deep abyss, “waters deep, fires raging”. So it’s a great relief to be able to write free of that dark shadow, as sanity makes a welcome come-back gig after a four-year vacation, and grown-up-sounding comments re-emerge from the White House. Anyway, here I break the champagne over the bows of a new USA tag in the sidebar (these tags are useful, BTW, however rough and ready! Do consult them!).

It seems suitable to start with the series that I wrote on

Among numerous posts under the jazz tag (to which I’ve only awarded the USA tag sparingly), which I’ve rounded up here, see e.g.

Bearing in mind the scars of genocide and slavery, conflict has never been absent; but many such posts pay homage to boundless creativity and energy. Some more examples:

On film,

On music, musicology, and fieldwork:

Note also

Other posts take the story on, such as

Considering daily language, some usages are charming:

So while one always wants to rejoice in all this, somehow such posts were always blemished by the Putrid Tang emanating from the White House; but now, with the renaissance following these traumatic four years, it finally seems suitable to celebrate again—even if the battle for social justice continues.

Roundup for 2020!

Since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual roundup (cf. 2018, 2019) is an occasion to group together some major themes from the last year (see also the tags and categories in the sidebar). This is just a selection (with apologies to the posts I’ve missed—do seek them out!):

For China, note

A substantial addition to my series on the ritual associations of Gaoluo:

Also new to the extensive Local ritual menu:

and on folk culture around Tianjin:

See also

Book reviews, mostly on religion and politics:

as well as

On modern Tibetan cultures, I’ve added a whole series, listed here:

—complementing my series on Uyghur culture in crisis, also with new input:


* * *

For fieldwork and cultures elsewhere around the world—bearing in mind the important perspectives of

This year’s new posts on Indian raga, including some divine dhrupad singing:

* * *

On the travails of the 20th century:

* * *

On jazz:

and WAM:

On TV, film, popular culture:

* * *

Thanksgivings for liberation from tyranny:

And another sign of hope:

More jocular items include

as well as additions to The English, home and abroad:

and new entries under the headlines tag:

Further roundups:

And much much more, As They Say. Having grouped them together like this, I hope readers will scramble them all up again like a jigsaw, rather than retreating into their own little boxes… And do click on all the links within these posts! Happy, Happier New Year!

Recent posts on Tibet


Amidst outcry over China’s recent assault on the Uyghurs, I’m finally giving equal coverage to the plight of the Tibetans. My comments set forth not from any knowledge of the societies in question, but from my interest in local communities and lives under the CCP, both during the Maoist era and since the 1980s’ reforms. So these posts cover social change, political upheavals, and expressive culture.

and necessary corrections to misguided views:

On the ritual cultures of ethnic groups around Amdo, see

A conspicuous absentee from my coverage so far is monastic ritual, a major part of the Tibetan soundscape that has been much studied, even at the expense of other genres. And as many Western studies turn to the lively scene of Tibetan pop, I tend to seek the changing fortunes of traditional culture.

See also Tibet tag.

Native American cultures: a roundup

Recent posts on Native American cultures—relevant to ritual and China—include

This led me to Tony Hillerman’s fictional treatments of the Navajo:

My interest was initially prompted by the tragic story of

See also

On a lighter yet trenchant note, see

A Beatles roundup


Under the Beatles tag in the sidebar are several posts on particular albums, based on the insightful comments of Wilfred Mellers (Twilight of the gods) and Alan W. Pollack (online: see his guide to the whole series, as well as a useful overview by Ger Tillekens). I began writing what turned into a series in non-chronological order, so now I’ve tried to re-edit them more logically, with this as the introductory post.

From the age of ten—though with my sheltered, genteel, classical upbringing I was quite immune to a lot of pop music—I avidly spent my pocket-money on the early Beatles singles and EPs. In my book Plucking the winds I reflected on the stark contrast between the lives of my village friends under Maoism and my own tranquil upbringing:

Meanwhile Gaoluo villagers were starving. I began to learn the violin in a polite suburb south of London, under very different conditions from those in which Cai An had learned music. By 1963 I was doing quite well, and won a local contest, though I was less keen on Handel sonatas than on the new songs from the Beatles, whose photo I kept in my violin case. My awareness of issues in defining classical and popular musics was still very basic.

At some stage I acquired the LPs of Rubber soulThe white album, and Revolver—all of them brilliant. But I don’t recall becoming hooked on Sgt Pepper and Abbey road until after 1972 at Cambridge, when they were party regulars. I trust I didn’t attempt to dance.

* * *

Wilfrid Mellers’ tenure at York was formative for innovations in new composition and early music. And with his book Twilight of the gods: the Beatles in retrospect, published in 1973, quite soon after the Beatles had disbanded, he was among the pioneers of taking pop music seriously. It was work like this that opened the floodgates, to the consternation of old-school musicologists still seeking to reserve the concept of “serious music” to the WAM canon—as some, indeed, still do, although for them the Beatles  seemed more palatable candidates for admission to the elite club than many popular and folk genres.

Clearly, popular music is not dependent on such complex skills for its efficacity; but neither are folk or art musics. Many, even most, popular songs (e.g. Country: “three chords and the truth”), making use of a more limited technical palette, can make a deep effect individually, without the verbose sanction of the metropolitan elite and all our fancy analytical vocabulary. Pollack, in a dense passage on one section of John’s exquisite song Julia, reflects:

Yes, I know that there’s no way that John Lennon (or any other songwriter, for that matter) would compose the above thirteen measures with much, if any, of what I’ve analysed in mind. But still, I stand by my conviction that what I’ve analysed is part of what you react to in listening thoughtfully and sensitively to the music, whether you can articulate it or not. Part of the music’s charm is the extremely rapid pace and multiple layers on which all these details hit you; even if you can articulate it, it happens in real time, much faster than you could keep up with if you tried; kind of like sex in that way 😊

In Mellers’ Preface he qualifies his approach:

Music quotation, even in reference to literate “art” music, can never be adequate; in reference to Beatle music (and to most pop, jazz, folk, and non-Western music) it may be not only inadequate but also misleading; for written notation can represent neither the improvised elements nor the immediate distortions of pitch and flexibilities of rhythm which are the essence (not a decoration) of a music orally and aurally conceived. […]

To those who still found it “inherently risible” that pop music should be discussed in technical terms at all, his reply suggests an ethnomusicological grounding:

There is no valid way of talking about the experiential “effects” of music except by starting from an account of what actually happens in musical technique, the terminology of which has been evolved by professional musicians over some centuries. The fact that a Beatle—or a jazzman or a peasant singer or a perhaps highly sophisticated oriental musician [sic!]—has never heard of a dominant seventh or a mediant relationship or whatever, is neither here nor there; people who live and work in “oral” traditions have no need critically to rationalise about what they are doing. Of course it is possible to argue that all discussion and writing about music is a waste of time; I’ve occasionally come near to saying this myself. However, if this is true, it applies to all discussion of all music equally; analysis of Beethoven is no less irrelevant than analysis of Beatles.

This chimes in with Allan Marett’s point, inspired by Susan McClary, on Aboriginal dream songs—which indeed are among the exhibits in Mellers’ “Prologue and initiation”, whose opening section explores general themes in the Beatle world. Pursuing the mission to treat all musickings around the world on an equal footing, he ponders music as a way of life:

It is not an embellishment of living which one can take or leave; it does something, being music of necessity in somewhat the same sense as this phrase is applied to the musics of primitive peoples [sic].

After considering childhood games and ritual, Mellers moves on to the evolution of musicking in European cultures; the “mythological” significance of popular lyrics; the origins of pop melody, and vocal and instrumental style, in blues and folk; the role of harmony and metre; and the narcotic loss of identity in the communal act. He goes on to explore the Beatles’ development of their cosmopolitan Liverpool background, quoting John:

I heard Country and Western music in Liverpool before I heard rock and roll. The people there—the Irish in Ireland are the same—take their Country and Western music very seriously.

However fond you are of a particular colour, a lot of bands succeed through establishing and persisting in a particular monochromatic mood. The sound-world of the Beatles (and we should also bear in mind George Martin’s input as producer) is far more all-embracing than other pop music of the time: while maintaining a unique identity, their songs have extraordinary variety, refining elements from blues, Country, folk, rock, ballads, music-hall, children’s games, and psychedelia into their unique “Edenic dream”.

So some may still find it redundant to analyse such works that are so widely appreciated on an intuitive level, but For What It’s Worth, Mellers’ analysis reveals the great artistry of the Beatles. Actually, such are the riches of their creativity that his discussion could be far more extensive—covering their whole ouevre, Twilight of the gods only has space for eleven pages on Abbey road, for instance. Others, notably Pollack, have taken analysis further.

On wiki, both the entries on the albums and their individual songs are full of detail.

Great as the songs on the other albums are (and Revolver has been much praised), I still find Sgt Pepper and Abbey road most cohesive as orchestral song-cycles (for wonderful examples of which, see here), like unstaged operas—whether or not they were designed as such. So whereas I can select some individual songs in the earlier LPs, in discussing these final masterpieces I have to give them all equal weight in the total effect.

* * *

So here’s a roundup of my main posts:

In his page on Here, there, and everywhere Pollack makes a wonderful observation:

I save my favourite free association, this time, for last. Now, this song is characterised by the following gesture that opens each verse: a declarative word, followed by a pause, and then rhythmically active ascent in the tune, as in—”Here (pause) making each day of the year …”

He lists other songs by Paul that share this feature:

  • Listen (pause) do you want to know a secret
  • Eleanor Rigby (pause) picks up the rice
  • Day after day (pause) alone on a hill
  • Hey Jude (pause) don’t make it bad
  • Hold me tight (pause) tell me I’m the only one
  • Honey pie (pause) you are making me crazy
  • The long and winding road (pause) that leads to your door
  • Michelle (pause) ma belle
  • Oh darling (pause) please believe me
  • Try to see it my way (pause) do I have to keep on talking
  • Look (pause) what you’re doing
  • When I call you up (pause) your line’s engaged
  • Yesterday (pause) all my troubles seemed so far away.

The vocal melodies and harmonies of the Beatles, and their technological innovations, are so entrancing that one may underestimate their instrumental skills. So I may also mention pleasingly technical discussions of their guitar technique, such as this and this.

* * *

In his final chapter, “Elegy on a mythology”, Mellers reflects on the whole trajectory of Beatle music, pondering on the relationship between music and myth.

As pop musicians they are simultaneously magicians (dream-weavers), priests (ritual celebrants), entertainers (whiling away empty time), and artists (incarnating and reflecting the feelings—rather than thoughts—and perhaps the conscience of a generation). If this multiplicity of function is a source of much semantic confusion, both on the part of the Beatles themselves and of those who comment on them, it is also a source of their strength.

He observes

Only in a very partial sense can we dismiss the teenager’s orgiastic dancing as a tipsy escape from the hard realities of life. On the contrary, as compared with the romantic unreality of the previous generation’s ballroom dancing (which is in turn related to the fairy-tale myth of classical ballet), one might rather describe teenage dance as practical and functional in Collingwood’s sense: an inchoate attempt to rediscover the springs of being.

On revivalist movements he cites Mary Douglas, who notes that

it is not quite true that effervescence must either be routinised or fizzle out. It is possible for it to be sustained indefinitely as a normal form of worship.

Mellers goes on,

The magical-religious and the art-entertainment functions of Beatle music don’t cancel each other out; they do, however, in their interrelationship, contain an element of equivocation: which is part of the Beatles’ “representative” fascination.

He returns to Collingwood, citing his distinction between hedonistic amusement (entertainment) and utilitarian magic. And he disposes of red herring of the profit-motive. He stresses:

To deplore the illiteracy of the Beatles—or of any pop or jazz group—is nonsensical: for the essence of their achievement is that it is a return from literate and visual to aural and oral culture.

Mellers considers their creative process (cf. Unpacking “improvisation”); George Martin recognised himself as an intermediary, however important his contribution. And

if [the Beatles] guffaw at intellectuals (like me) who discover “hidden meanings” in their songs, they’ve given plenty of evidence that these meanings are not hidden at all but merely, like 80% of the meaning in all art, in part unconscious.

As with all musics, you can zone out or zoom in—or both; anyway, focusing on compositional artistry can enhance our appreciation just as much for the Beatles as for Mahler, the Uyghur muqam, or Chinese shawm suites.

Though my later path intersected but rarely with these albums, I take impertinent pride in belonging to a generation capable of producing such genius. Personal reception histories are a significant aspect of our cultural appreciation, but at whatever point in Life you engage with the Beatles, their work is astounding.

Like the audiences of Bach and Mahler, we didn’t know how lucky we were… But beyond any personal identification with the zeitgeist that the Beatles express, all this is significant not only because of the Beatles’ iconic place in modern Western culture, but in view of the whole incorporation of popular culture into our perspectives on musicking around the world

Given my whole argument about society and soundscape, I’m aware of the irony of my celebrating “great works” mostly created in the recording studio without an audience. So I’d like to stress again that stunning as all this artistry is, efficacity—generally—doesn’t depend on complexity, or on narrative development. Not only does the logical flow of Indian raga or Messiaen work within very different parameters, but more static sound-worlds are also valid—such as punk, Northern soul, Aboriginal songsNote also What is serious music?!

A sporting medley: ritual and gender

After all these sacrifices (see note here), it transpires that what the plucky Brits really care about is not so much creating a fairer society, but playing golf and visiting garden centres. FFS. I give up. As Ian Rush is said to have commented about, um, living in Italy, it’s “like living in a foreign country”.

Anyway, following the recent moratorium (welcome to many, no doubt), as sport furtively reappears like a cockroach from behind the fridge, here’s a little roundup of some highlights from the sport tag—not least, connections with ritual, and with feminism.

Snooker—starting with 5’20” of inspired fluency from the great Ronnie:

Football: among many posts,



Not forgetting

Punk: a roundup


I may be an unlikely chronicler of punk, but it seems an important theme. Here’s a selection from the punk tag—starting with the great Viv Albertine:

moving on to

and by way of Nina Hagen, I explore punk under state socialism:

as well as

Madrid punk

Blind musicians in China and elsewhere

Blind musicians have long been major transmitters of traditional culture: do click away on this list of some posts featuring them.

For China—mainly shawm players and bards (passing quickly over the “usual suspects”, the ancient Master Kuang and the ubiquitous Abing):

as well as my first two posts on Coronavirus:

For blind musicians elsewhere:

Indeed, one could greatly augment the list for many other cultures around the world. See also the celebrated blind musician Ajo Namgyal (1894–1942) in pre-occupation Tibet.

Ajo Namgyal

A 2019 retrospective

For my sake as much as yours, I’m rounding up some themes from the last year (cf. my post for 2018)—do click on the links, both below and in the posts themselves! There’s plenty more to explore under the monthly archives as you scroll down in the sidebar.

I continue to add vignettes on the Li family Daoists (always bearing in mind my film and book!):

and I augment my post Walking Shrill with

On my other main fieldsite of Gaoluo (summary here),

Bearing on both the Li family and Gaoluo is

And under the main menu, it’s always worth exploring the many fieldnotes under Local ritual, and the various pages under the Themes sub-menu.

Among many posts on the great Yang Yinliu are

For links to ritual life around south Jiangsu, see

and for the rich cultures of Fujian,

Note also

For more on China, see

The plight of the Uyghurs is a pressing concern (see also Uyghur tag):

Note also

Further afield, see

The category of “world music“, or rather musicking in societies around the world, continues to grow. For salient perspectives on musical cultures worldwide (notably the brilliant, accessible work of Bruno Nettl), see

For diverse regional genres, see e.g.

For the musics of Iran, see

Pursuing my shawm theme. see

Among several posts on Italian folk culture are

See also

Note also new posts on flamenco.

On English culture (roundup here):

and having given Alan Bennett time off for good behaviour, he stars in several recent posts, notably

Under the WAM category, posts include

and recent additions to the Mozart tag, like

Under the Messiaen tag, major new posts are

On a lighter note are two classics on rubber chicken:

In my Must-Listen Playlist of songs (complementing the sidebar playlist for local Chinese traditions, with commentary here), most spellbinding is

And I continue the theme of stammering:

Also well worth a read is

And don’t forget the *MUST READ* category—among which my personal choice remains

Life behind the Iron Curtain: a roundup


There’s been some fine media coverage to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall. So apart from my numerous posts under the Maoism tag, here’s a roundup of some of my posts on life, and death, behind the Iron Curtain—always bearing Chinese connections in mind.

On the GDR (for which note the useful Twitter # @DDROnline):

On the USSR:


For the wider picture, see

And for bitter jokes from behind the Iron Curtain:

See also various posts under the Czech tag, notably

All this complements posts on Nazism, such as

See also Timothy Snyder on tyranny.

Language learning: a roundup

I find that I’ve written quite a few jocular posts about language learning—here are some faves.

Most remarkably, how not to learn Japanese:

Ma Yuan

On Chinese:

On French:

See also

On the importance of placeholders in achieving fluency:

When watching a film in English, the strange compulsion to follow the subtitles in a foreign language that you barely know:

And here David Sedaris covers various languages, including Japanese and German:

Society and soundscape

While I always gravitate towards the ethnographic nitty-gritty of local fieldwork, it seems time for a succinct roundup for some general posts on society and soundscape—a theme pervading this blog, for China (see below), sundry world music traditions, and WAM alike (see world music category, under “general“).

Most authoritative and accessible are the works of Bruno Nettl—essential reading:

Susan McClary is another influential author:

And Christopher Small gives important perspectives, placing WAM within the broader picture:

Later ethnographic perspectives on WAM include

On a visit to the Proms I couldn’t help noticing the contrast between WAM concerts and musicking in folk societies:

And articles by Michelle Bigenho and Henry Stobart are most instructive:

In similar vein is

Classics on society and soundscape include

as well as the recent book

Also worth consulting is

And among many fine chapters in the stimulating 1997 volume Shadows in the field: new perspectives for fieldwork in ethnomusicology, I’d recommend those by Nicole Beaudry (on fieldwork among the Inuit) and William Noll (on fieldwork in the Ukrainian past). For a wise discussion of fieldwork in contested sites for Tibetan culture, see

For China, I also outlined issues in

I was also reminded of the integrative brief of ethnomusicology by

* * *

All this informs my work on local ritual traditions in China. As I commented in my post on Bigenho,

Here’s the deal: if we come to your party, you have to come to ours too:

Just as “music scholars” have learned to consider all kinds of social elements as they study performance, so scholars of ritual too must include in their brief all kinds of issues arising from soundscape, rather than coyly farming it out to musicologists.

As Adam Yuet Chau observes, this is related to the whole scholarly bias towards discursive, scriptural analysis. Indeed, within China studies more generally, expressive culture, and musicking as a vital aspect of social activity, still seem to be considered marginal themes, with research dominated by silent written texts and immobile visual culture. It’s as if sinologists only consider music as a legitimate part of culture when it’s dead and mute, imprisoned in a museum or text. The ethnomusicological mindset should offer us valuable perspectives on Chinese studies.

Czech stories: a roundup

Here’s a handy roundup of some posts under the Czech tag—many of which have a Chinese connection.

This post makes an introduction to Czech and Chinese lives before, during, and since the years of state socialism:

Svejk Chinese

Hašek and The good soldier Švejk make several appearances, notably:


See also

as well as

And my Cambridge mentor Paul Kratochvil is the source of some fine stories, including:

See also under Life behind the Iron Curtain.

The art of conducting: a roundup

Here’s a little roundup of some of the main posts under the conducting tag so far (see also Conducting from memory).

Bernstein features in several posts, notably under Mahler:

and while we’re with Abbado, do also admire his rapport in accompanying

The great Rozhdestvensky:

This post features Mravinsky as well as Rozhdestvensky and Bernstein:

The contrasting fortunes of Fürtwangler and Schwarz under Nazism:

Pierre Monteux features under

Most magical is

See also


S-S-Simon Rattle (for this rendition of the name, constantly on the t-t-tip of my tongue, see here):

Barbara Hannigan:

Among many others featured under the conducting tag are Boulez, Gardiner, and Salonen (and this story about the latter is one of many drôle items).

But “No [survey of the art of conducting] is Complete Without” this exhilarating clip of a Mexican school band—this conductor, Oxana Thaili, could go far… (for more, click here):

Heritage: a roundup


This recent Guardian headline encapsulates my feelings about the whole heritage shtick. The heritage tag on this blog is voluminous, covering many local genres in China and elsewhere.


The starter, citing thoughtful research on the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) system around the world, is

John Butt offers useful perspectives in

For China, also basic is this page on the Li family Daoists:

Another relevant post is

More broadly, here I list some posts on the friction between traditional and conservatoire styles. The ICH also crops up in several field reports under local ritual, including

While some scholars observe how local dwellers mould the state programme to their own agendas, I often note that its effects are either negative or inconsequential. And I’m not alone.

For UNESCO in Turkey, see here. And for Fatima Manji’s fine contribution to the current debate about heritage sites in Britain, click here.

Roundup of posts on south Jiangsu


Here’s a roundup of a series of posts on ritual life and musicking in south Jiangsu.

For vignettes from before Liberation:

In this post I reflect on amateur entertainment and ritual connections in urban and rural Shanghai:

And here I introduce the fine work of Yang Der-ruey on the conflict in Shanghai of the state programme for training Daoists with the traditional values of their masters and the real world of the ritual economy:

See also

ritual 2

On Daoism around Suzhou, following this introduction to a remarkable project under Maoism

I surveyed the broad field of research in

And to illustrate the challenges of adapting ritual to the concert stage:

XMG 93

For a very different take on musicking in Shanghai, see

Flamenco: a recap

flamenco tree

Attending another flamenco gig at Chiswick last weekend (a vain attempt to kick-start the “summer”) reminds me of the riches of the genre.

I wrote a series of posts with the aid of the remarkable documentary series Rito y geografïa del cante. As I observed, flamenco is about as far as you could possibly get from its cosy tourist image—Torremolinos, castanets, rose between the teeth, and all that.


flamenco: gender and politics

  • Flamenco, 3: the soul of cante jondo: based on the work of Timothy Mitchell, this post includes the most intensely moving solo sung genres (or “self-pity, posturing machismo, hypersensitive adolescent egos, and a defensive flight into narcissistic ethnicity”) like saetas, martinetes, and seguiriyas, with singers including Niña de los Peines, Agujetas, Terremoto, and Camarón.

For yet more wonderful programmes from the Rito series, see

For other regional styles around Spain, see Songs of Valencia and Festive soundscapes of the Rioja. For more, including Portuguese fado, see Iberia tag.

New tag: famine


Liu Shaoqi visits Hunan, 1961.

Since the food shortages caused by the 1958 Great Leap Backward were such a major trauma for the people we meet during fieldwork, I’ve just added a tag in the sidebar for famine. See also the Maoism tag.

Indeed, this was no mere “three years of difficulty”: food shortages began even before the Leap, and continued throughout the Cultural Revolution right until the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s.

Among the main articles are:

The famine also features in many of the pages under Local ritual; it’s a theme of my work on Gaoluo (see e.g. A tribute to two local ritual leaders) and the Li family Daoists. Indeed, while there are many fine studies dedicated to the subject, it should be a recurring theme in coverage of local society, expressive culture, and people’s lives.

North Xinzhuang 1959

North Xinzhuang, Beijing suburbs 1959.

A taxonomy of taxonomies


One of the challenges of maintaining this blog is to overhaul all the categories and tags in the sidebar, although they remain rough and ready. After all, Life Itself is about classifying, organizing—plastic toys, musical instruments (indeed both), bookshelves, shopping lists, concepts, and so on. Here are a few headings:

Indexing is an under-estimated pleasure:

On slicing the pie of music, and religion:

Scholars’ attempts to classify expressive culture in China illustrate how we need a fluid concept of genres, constantly intersecting and crossing borders, as I outlined in my review of the great Anthology. Ethnography is the key.

Organology is a fascinating topic, with the endlessly fascinating Sachs–Hornbostel system:

And, definitively, an early Stewart Lee sketch clearing up a flawed interpretation of the Lord’s Creation:

Far from validating narrow discrimination, all this demands a nuanced, flexible view of human culture…

Gender: a roundup


“Daughters are also descendants”: village slogan, Hebei, 1990s. My photo.

For International Women’s Day, here’s a varied roundup of some highlights from the gender category in the sidebar.

For China, posts on the lives of rural women include

and on urban women:

See also

For Europe, posts include:

Some thoughts on sexist language:

as well as a paean to AOC and Katelyn Ohashi:

and the furore over Sanna Marin dancing:

Note also

In music, gender studies have become a major theme, besides female musicians generally:

and many more. Indeed, my varied Playlist of songs is dominated by female singers. Oh, and don’t forget The T-shirt of female composers—constantly in need of new additions!


Among humorists, Stella GibbonsBridget Christie, and Philomena Cunk have their own tags in the sidebar, among which some favourites are

Relevant posts on film include

Anyway, that’s just a selection from an ever-growing list…

The English, home and abroad

Fond as I am of making connections, here’s an extensive series of posts on various aspects of being English:

Some bygone sounds:


I also note this group of posts on intrepid British explorers:

—and, with serious respect,

You can find more from Messrs Bennett, Lee, and Cunk under their respective tags in the sidebar.

Musical cultures of imperial north China

Navigational aid for fans of late imperial Chinese history: here’s a roundup of posts on musicking in the Qing—not only at the Beijing court but further afield, looking beneath the tip of the iceberg.

But of course, we shouldn’t focus narrowly on defunct genres, or cling to simplistic notions of  “art” and “court” cultures. Notwithstanding social change, all the living local ritual traditions I study have been transmitted virtually continuously since the Ming and Qing among folk groups (“When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside“). This doesn’t mean that we can neatly relegate them to “history”: the study of all kinds of expressive cultures also involves fieldwork on their fortunes since the collapse of the imperial system, with ethnography and oral history becoming more fruitful than library study.

Still, Like Life, one thing leads to another. More generally, early Western contacts with Chinese music are the subject of a wider range of research from scholars both in China and abroad (see comment below).

New tag: fiddles!

At last I’ve added a tag in the sidebar for fiddles, embracing all kinds of bowed lutes (or even, um, friction chordophones) around the world, including folk fiddles, ghijak and satar, sarangi and kamancha, violins in WAM, and so on.

It’s a typically extensive list, and I’m sorry I can’t subhead tags, yet. If I could, the entries might include

and so on.

A stimulating comparative post is

with the amazing Transylvanian fiddling there pursued further in Musical cultures of East Europe. See also Some jazz fiddling.

Do also explore the tags for Irish and the brilliant Ciaran Carson—some highlights include

One quirk of the blog format I use here is that I can only give categories and tags to posts, not pages. So I’d add other pages like

and so on.

For another instrument tag, see trumpet—giving links to many world traditions of wind and brass playing.

Guide to another year’s blogging


Struggling to encompass all this? I know I am. While we inevitably specialize in particular topics, it’s important to build bridges. I guess it’s that time of year when another guide to my diverse posts may come in handy—this is worth reading in conjunction with the homepage and my roundup this time last year.

I’ve added more entries to many of the sidebar categories and tags mentioned in that summary. I’ve now subheaded many of the categories; it’d be useful for the tags too, but it seems I can’t do that on my current WP plan. Of course, many of these headings overlap—fruitfully.

Notably, I keep updating and refecting on my film and book on the Li family Daoists. I wrote a whole series resulting from my March trip to Yanggao (helpfully collected here) and Beijing (starting here, also including the indie/punk scene). Other 2018 posts on the Li family include Yanggao personalities and Recopying ritual manuals (a sequel to Testing the waters).

To accompany the visit of the Zhihua temple group to the British Museum in April, I also did a roundup of sources on the temple in the wider context of ritual in Beijing and further afield, including several posts on this site.

I’ve posted some more introductions to Local ritual, including

Gender (now also with basic subheads) is a constant theme, including female spirit mediums—to follow the series on women of Yanggao, starting here. Or nearer home, Moon river, complementing Ute Lemper.

Sinologists—indeed aficionados of the qin, crime fiction, and erotica—may also like my post on Robert van Gulik (and note the link to Bunnios!).

I’ve added a few more categories and tags, notably

The film tag is developing, with a side order of soundtracks—for some links, see here.

I’ve given basic subheads to the language category (note this post on censorship), which also contains much drôlerie in both English and Chinese. Issues with speech and fluency (see stammering tag) continue to concern me, such as

Following Daoist football, the sport tag is worth consulting, such as The haka, and a series on the genius of Ronnie.

Some posts are instructively linked in chains:

More favourites may be found in the *MUST READ* category. Among other drôlerie, try this updated post, one of several on indexing and taxonomy; and more from the great Philomena Cunk.

Most satisfying is this collection of great songs—still not as eclectic as it might become:

Do keep exploring the sidebar categories and tags!



The Li family Daoists: a roundup

Li category


After the latest screening of my film, perhaps it’s worth giving links to some of the major posts (so far!) on the Li family Daoists—even with the subheads in my category for them (film, on tour, rituals, updates, vignettes) it’s easy to get lost…

The basic material is

On ritual, see e.g.

Among the vignettes: for Yanggao, try

and a whole series of updates from March–April 2018 (see archives in the sidebar), led by

and including

as well as their continuing activities while under lockdown earlier this year:

Other posts (reflecting material from my book) include

On tour, you can start with

part of a whole series from May 2017, hotly followed by

Also useful are articles on other characters in Yanggao, such as

And there’s much, much more to explore if you use those subheads, and keep clicking away on the links within the posts…

Europe: cultures and politics


While the main theme of my blog is the maintenance of local Chinese ritual life (before, during, and since Maoism), it’s worth providing a roundup of recent posts on European cultures and politics—most of which have ramifications for, and links to, China.

Moving east, try the West/Central Asia tag. And in the sidebar, do use the tags, categories, and search box!

Three baldies and a mouth-organ

*UPDATED with links to posts on the Zhihua temple and related topics!*


Early in 1986, only a couple of days after my first arrival in Beijing, hearing the former monks of the Zhihua temple on a cold but beautifully sunny winter’s day was an experience that changed my life—and their ritual soundscape still entrances me:

Musicologist He Changlin astutely took me to a Buddhist temple to ask a group of elderly former monks to play their shengguan music for us. That sound will always stay with me. The soulful guanzi, the darting dizi, the sturdy sheng, the halo of the yunluo piercing the bright Beijing sky above the green-and-yellow roof-tiles of the temple. […] It was only hearing the temple musicians that directed me irresistibly to living traditions. I began to neglect ancient history…
[adapted from my Plucking the winds, p.185]

While I go to great lengths to stress that the Zhihua temple is only the tip of the iceberg—for ritual life both within Beijing and all over north China—the soundscape of its shengguan remains a classic source. There are no “living fossils”, and the temple itself has long ceased to function as a ritual site; but the present group performs with majestic authority, led by Hu Qingxue, about whom I must write in more detail—he’s not only an amazing guanzi player, but a fine vocal liturgist, and he’s just as hooked on exploring ritual groups in the countryside as I am.

In the photo above, the reason our demeanour is somewhat less solemn than that of the transcendent arhat is because Hu Qingxue had just suggested the caption which forms the title of this post—and, incidentally, of my latest Hollywood blockbuster. ** The old sheng mouth-organ was my gift to him: it had been a gift to me in the early 1990s from a village ritual association that no longer used it, and since he’s an avid hoarder and repairer of sheng, it surely belongs in his fantastic collection.

chat with HQX

There’s always so much to learn from Hu Qingxue.

It was delightful to present the group at the British Museum again on Monday. In our pre-concert discussion (with subtle prompting from Jessica Harrison-Hall, curator of the BM’s Chinese collection) I was glad to introduce the social background and wider ritual context, as well as research by a succession of fine Chinese scholars; and with the musicians, to illustrate how the skeletal notes of the gongche solfeggio score are progressively ornamented, first by singing the score in unison and then by taking up the instruments to further decorate that version in heterophony.

For someone who was brought up in a poor Hebei village, Hu Qingxue has learned to recopy the temple’s old scores rather finely:

Qingjiang yin score

Qingjiang yin, copied by Hu Qingxue.

Having learned from my tours with the Li family Daoists, I’ve now worked out a much-improved programme with the Zhihua temple too. While the shengguan ensemble is always most captivating for audiences, we now include all three elements in the ritual soundscape, chui-da-nian—in reverse order of importance: wind ensemble, percussion, and vocal liturgy.

Thus the programme began with Cymbals to Open the Altar (Kaitan bo 開壇鈸), featuring the hocketing alternation of the nao and bo large cymbals that you can explore in my film on Li Manshan. It continues with the vocal hymn Yangzhi jingshui 楊枝淨水 in praise of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, also used near the beginning of a ritual—here accompanied by the melodic instruments. Then they demonstrate the process of ornamenting the skeletal notes of the score with the melody Qingjiang yin 清江引 (see photo above). After the captivating suite Jin–Wu–Shan (Jinzi jing 金字經—Wusheng fo 五聲佛—Gandongshan 感動山!) and Haiqing na tian’e 海青拿天鵝, the programme ends by reminding us of the primacy of vocal liturgy, with the a cappella hymn Qingjing fashen fo 清靜法身佛, accompanied only by the percussion.

As I am wont to observe, the blend of timbres of the shengguan instrumentation is the most perfect combo ever, alongside the jazz quintet… And the free-tempo alap-like introductions are just magical.

This overlaps with my blogposts, but here’s the full version of my programme notes:

Music of the Zhihua temple
Stephen Jones

A world away from the modern conservatoire style that now dominates the media, this music belongs as a kind of aural filigree interlaced within the vocal liturgy and percussion of lengthy rituals for funerals and temple fairs among local communities. To experience it in the concert hall or museum is a compromise, of course. It is one of many genres still performed today in a continuous tradition since the Ming—several types of regional opera, the nanguan ballads of Fujian, the music of the ubiquitous rural shawm bands, the elite qin zither.

The Zhihua temple has become a byword for the melodic instrumental music used until the 1950s as part of rituals in Beijing—mainly funerals, notably the nocturnal yankou ritual to feed the hungry ghosts. The monks of many minor temples in the hutong alleys of north and east Beijing, both Buddhist and Daoist, were available to come together to perform this music.

Built as the private temple of the court eunuch Wang Zhen in 1443, the Zhihua temple is one of the only wooden structures from the Ming dynasty to remain intact in Beijing.  After Wang Zhen was executed in 1449, the monks became part of the ritual life of the wider community, with twenty-six generations down to the 1940s.

Since then the tradition has struggled to survive. After 1949 the monks were laicised, so by 1953 when the Zhihua temple music first gained its reputation among music scholars, with influential studies from the qin zither master Zha Fuxi and the great musicologist Yang Yinliu, the monks were no longer performing rituals. Through the 1980s, as ritual life was restoring throughout the countryside, and even in cities like Shanghai, scholars like Ling Haicheng and Yuan Jingfang began attempts to revive the Beijing style, collecting the surviving former monks together.

Though the style remains the most exquisite rendition of a widespread repertoire, it is now mainly further afield that we can hear it in its ritual context—in the countryside south of the capital among amateur associations that learnt from temple monks, and among household ritual groups all over north China. The present performers hail from the poor village of Qujiaying, whose ritual association was first discovered in 1986. They were recruited while in their teens to study in the Zhihua temple with the elderly former monks, notably Benxing (1923–2009). But worthy attempts by cultural cadres have proved unable to maintain the classic Beijing style without the firm ritual base of local community support that remains common elsewhere in China.

While the more elite temple rituals use only vocal liturgy accompanied by ritual percussion, melodic instrumental music has long been commonly added for rituals among the folk. Throughout north China this takes the form of the exquisite shengguan chamber ensemble, which coalesced around the Ming. The instruments play in heterophony, each decorating the bare bones of the nuclear melody differently; the plaintive guanzi oboe leads, the sheng mouth-organ maintaining a continuous wall of sound, decorated by the halo of the yunluo (ten pitched gongs mounted in a frame) and darting ornaments from the dizi flute.

The repertoire of classic labeled melodies, combined in strict sequences in lengthy suites, was also coming together in the Ming. Since then, a kind of solfeggio called gongche has been commonly used to notate the outlines of the melodies of instrumental ensembles. Scores from several Beijing temples, of which the earliest now preserved is the 1694 score of the Zhihua temple, use a rare antique script that resembles those known from Tang and Song sources. But the bare bones of the score give few clues to the magic of performance; having learnt to sing in unison an already highly ornamented version of the nuclear melody, the performers then further decorate it in mesmerising heterophony on the instruments. The style is exceptionally slow and solemn, the free-tempo preludes especially magical. But we have to imagine it as a decoration within the whole liturgy of the complex rituals that are still common elsewhere in China.

Further reading

  • Stephen Jones, Folk music of China: living instrumental traditions, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995 (paperback edition with CD, 1998).
  • Stephen Jones, Plucking the winds: lives of village musicians in old and new China, Leiden: CHIME Foundation, 2004 (with CD).
  • Stephen Jones, In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010 (Appendix 1).
  • Yuan Jingfang, Zhongguo fojiao jing yinyue yanjiu [The Buddhist capital music of China], Beijing: Zongjiao wenhua chubanshe, 2012.
  • Chang Renchun, Hongbai xishi: jiujing hunsang lisu [Wedding and funeral customs of old Beijing], Beijing: Beijing Yanshan chubanshe, 1993.

Other articles on this blog:

And for conceptual backgound,

On the Qujiaying connection:

which leads onto the Hebei village associations and further afield (under Local ritual, including Ritual groups of suburban Beijing and Tianjin: a folk Buddhist group).

See also Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing.

* * *

The Zhihua temple events were part of a fine ongoing series at the British Museum (see also here) that also included flamenco (cf. my series starting here), Indian music, Japanese gagaku, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Cage, and the overwhelming Metamorphosen.

And what should await me on my return home than a live broadcast of Mahler 10 with S-Simon Rattle. Without this lying xenophobic government, London could be wonderful.

** Cf. the alternative title for my film on Li Manshan: Four funerals and a funeral.

A Bach retrospective

Some might say that the only good thing about Christmas is that one can bask in BachWhatever your reasons for exploring this blog, I can’t help regarding his music as an essential basis of our cultural experience!

Apart from all the musical riches to be found elsewhere online (not lest Radio 3, like here), I’m revisiting my blogposts, so here are some highlights from the extensive Bach tag in the sidebar—mediated by my, um, eccentric take:

But as with Indian raga or Daoist vocal liturgy and shengguan suites, Bach’s ouevre is an inexhaustible treasury… For us now, I mean—not that’s it’s “universal” or “eternal”…