Robert van Gulik

 

Van Gulik

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

A 1995 biography, now translated into English,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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 scores) all over China!

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

Yang Dajun

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

Yang Dajun 1986

With Yang Dajun, Beijing 1986.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He also observed,

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

Hmm. Discuss…

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

* * *

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

 

With thanks to Marie-Anne Souloumiac and Cheng Yu

 

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

 

.

 

On visiting a hermit

Hermit

In the preface to my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China I updated an ancient topos:

The “search” of my title is partly inspired by a popular genre of Tang-dynasty poetry, wherein the poet embarks on an arduous climb in search of the abstruse wisdom of a mountain recluse—only he isn’t in. Typical Tang titles include “On seeking the hermit of West Mountain and not finding him” 尋西山隱者不遇 [English version here].

Now mountain recluses, with their archetypal long white beards, are definitely not the type of Daoist I am looking for here—”pacing the void” that is rural north China, my search is for ordinary peasants who perform rituals among the people; and the arduousness of the journey is more likely to entail getting stuck in endless traffic jams behind coal-lorries, and enduring banquets with cadres in unsightly modern county-towns apparently bereft of all tradition. So the concept still has a certain resonance; in the immortal words of Alan Bennett’s clergyman, “Some of us think life’s a little bit like that, don’t we?”

Talking of seeking Tang hermits, I think of Gary Snyder‘s translations of the Cold Mountain poems.

In a fine post on “the Facebook of the 7th century”, the splendidly named Randi Hacker sparks classroom engagement by introducing his students to Tang poems written by men who had come to visit other men who were not, alas, at home—status updates, indeed:

Some of the more convoluted and humorous titles of Tang occasional poems from the “Sorry to Have Missed You” category:

  • Going to Visit Censor Wang on My Day Off and Not Finding Him Home
  • Walking in the Hills and Looking for the Recluse, But Finding Him Not In
  • Spending the Night in Reverend Ye’s Mountain Chamber. I was expecting the senior Mr Ding, but he did not come
  • Answering the Poem Left by Mr Su, Nominally of the Bureau of Forestry, When He Stopped by My Villa at Lan-tian.

I love the “Nominally” in that last one. I might add my own yet-unpublished

  • On Visiting the Hunyuan Bureau of Culture, Only to Find a Bunch of Sozzled Apparatchiks who wouldn’t know what Culture was if it Bit them on the Bum.

This will also chime in with the intrepid explorations of Hannibal Taubes in search of decrepit village temples—often either locked, or their precious Ming-dynasty murals plundered or covered over in cement.

Then there are my own Tang pastiches, as well as Faqu 2 and Faqu tutu

At least on our recent fruitless search for the Dragon King temple in Jinjiazhuang we were compensated by a chat with the splendid hereditary yinyang Zhang Nan.

They come over ‘ere…

Central Asian musicians, Tang dynasty.

Here’s a companion piece to my post on foreigners during the Cultural Revolution, where I acknowledged my anachronistic use of the epithet laowai 老外.

I read that indeed the term didn’t become common until the 1980s—just in time to greet me on my late arrival (for some words that Shakespeare may not have invented, see here). The Chinese wiki article on laowai makes a useful succinct introduction, explaining its interplay of respect and xenophobia. I’m still curious to learn how the winning combo of lao and wai suddenly caught on. A detailed forum on the nuances of this and related terms has been initiated by the erudite Victor Mair, so here I’ll just add a few personal reflections.

A still more blunt term is dabizi 大鼻子 “big nose”; foreigners in China have to get used to frequent appraisals of their physiognomy, but as an autonym, at least, the term can be drôle. I’m also fond of the more quaintly retro yang guizi 洋鬼子 (“foreign devil”), which a senior Taiwanese mentor—and, crucially, friend!—likes to call me. As ever, such terms are context-sensitive; they may even confirm guanxi (“You’re my mate—we can take the piss together”).

At a tangent, in Shaanbei a fine shawm-band leader is widely known as Jiekazi “The Stammerer”—in rural China, attitudes towards stammering are both less po-faced and less courteous.

Craig and Ming

Waiguoren!” (not yet “Laowai!”). Craig Clunas, Ming tombs 1975.

Staying with China (derogatory terms for foreigners are of course a rich topic worldwide), apart from the various historical terms (hu 胡, fan 番, yi 夷, man 蠻, and so on—mostly with a strong suggestion of “barbarian”), I’m now curious to learn how the Labouring Masses of the Tang dynasty would have hailed the substantial number of laowai on the streets of 8th-century Xi’an in the popular argot of the day.

We may now regard the Tang as the first great world-music boom, but as musical nationalists of the day (like the poet Bai Juyi and his mate Yuan Zhen) might have said,

“They come over ‘ere, with their fancy bili and pipa…”

Or their Qing-dynasty counterparts (so does building walls work, then? Eh??):

“They come over ‘ere, with their fancy erhu and suona and yangqin…”

OK, I made those up, but this is a genuine Tang quote (adding impertinent male judgment on female attire to the heady xenophobic mix): [1]

Our women are acting like foreigners’ wives, studying foreign make-up;
Entertainers present foreign sounds, servants to foreign music!

Straight out of the Daily Mail, that. With the current surge in “patriotism”, a new campaign to purge corrupting foreign influence from the Chinese instrumentarium would be left mainly with the xun ocarina and the sheng mouth-organ—which might fail to excite even Uncle Xi. It’s ironic that after successive waves, it was the Model Operas of the Cultural Revolution that were largely responsible for a renewed vogue for the instruments of the Western Art Music tradition.

Closer to home (yet equally apposite), a classic rebuke to xenophobia is the great Stewart Lee’s UKIP routine (“Bloody Huguenots, Coming Over Here—doubting trans-substantiation, with their famed ability to weave little jerkins out of lace…”). And to supplement his fantasy chat down the UKIP pub:

“Apparently the guitar is descended from the oud—that’s bloody Moorish, mate! What’s wrong with Morris dancing, that’s wot I say!”

[Inconvenient footnote: an inconclusive etymology suggests that “Morris” is itself derived from “Moorish”…]

As simplistic nationalist agendas rear their ugly orange heads yet again, it’s always worth unpacking language. See also A fine riposte.

 

[1] See e.g. Suzanne E. Cahill, “Our women are acting like foreigners’ wives! Western influences of Tang dynasty women’s fashion”, in Steele and Major (eds), China Chic: East Meets West. Among many works, see also Marc S. Abramson (ed.), Ethnic Identity in Tang China. The works of Edward Schafer (notably The golden peaches of Samarkand and The vermilion bird, written at a time when such study was neither profitable nor popular) have long been an inspiration for those studying Central Asian culture in the Tang.

 

Revolution and laowai

liuxuesheng

Acting the part: new UK students from class of 1975, Foreign Languages Institute, Beijing.
Robin Needham (R.I.P.), Andrew Seaton, Howard Nightingale;
Frances Wood, Derek Gillman, Richard King, Steve Crabbe;
Harriet Evans, Pippa Jones, Beth McKillop, Rose Kerr, Sarah Garbutt.
Photo taken at Wudaokou photo shop and hand-tinted there, autumn 1975.
Courtesy Beth McKillop.

In the light of later exposés of the Cultural Revolution, the acquaintance with Chinese society of laowai (“Wogs”)* from my generation, idealistic students at Cambridge, now inevitably seems somewhat less than well-informed.

The great Frances Wood, long-term curator of the Chinese collection of the British Library, and whose insights and mellifluous voice regularly inform BBC Radio 4’s series In our time, evokes that generation’s experience of revolutionary China in her brilliant memoir Hand-grenade practice in Peking: my part in the Cultural Revolution. The blurb makes a good summary (extra points too for eschewing the standard “smorgasbord” and “picaresque swathe”):

In 1975 I went to Peking for a year, together with nine other British students who had been exchanged by the British Council for ten Chinese students.** The latter knew exactly what they were doing: learning English in order to further the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. We were less sure.
From 1966, China had been turned upside down by young Red Guards who were encouraged to “Bombard the Headquarters”. Professors, surgeons, artists, pianists, novelists and film directors were attacked for their bourgeois pursuit of excellence or their attachment to decadent Western ideas.
Though by 1975 there were no longer violent street battles or badly beaten bodies floating down the Pearl River, we found Peking University governed by a Revolutionary Committee of workers, peasants and Party members determined that we should not learn too much and become experts divorced from the masses.
With our Chinese classmates, we spent half our time in factories, getting in the way of workers making railway engines, or in the fields, learning from peasants how to bundle cabbage or plant rice seedlings in muddy water. Heroically, we stayed up half the night to dig rather shallow underground shelters in case of nuclear attack. Much of the rest of the time was spent in class, with two compulsory hours of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought every Saturday morning and compulsory sport, which included hand-grenade throwing. I studied Chinese history which had to be revised overnight when Deng Xiaoping was criticized for the second time and erased from the record. The constant hammering of political rhetoric, broadcast from tannoys hidden in every tree, and the endless expositions of Marxist-Leninist dialectic were only interrupted by funeral announcements as yet another ancient revolutionary went to join Karl Marx.
Just after I returned home, the Great Helmsman himself, Chairman Mao, died. Within weeks, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was not only over but renamed “The Ten Disastrous Years”. The reinstated Deng Xiaoping bounced back and declared that it was glorious to be rich: all my helpful digging and enginemaking had been a mistake.

To some, the book may seem to make light of what was a distressing period for Chinese people, but as Frances notes:

To all those in China who suffered terribly at the time I apologize for my determination to amuse myself and be amused by what I found. I only began to discover what was happening to China’s intellectuals [not just them, I might add—SJ] when I got home.

With quaint stoicism Frances and her fellow-students learn the arts of aimlessly moving rubble, the “ceremony of entering into traffic” (as a Chinese student interpreted the phrase rite de passage) on rickety bikes, and the labyrinthine system of coupons, chits, and travel permits. Cabbages play a major role. Her description of the dangers of eating the baozi dumplings of unheated restaurants in winter brought memories flooding back (also evoking Bill Bailey’s “soaking in the hoisin of your lies“):

They were difficult to pick up and dip in soy sauce at the best of times, even if you had all your fingers free to manipulate the chopsticks. Eating them in in an outer coat and padded cotton mittens was a very messy business, and it didn’t take long for the front and cuffs of our coats to become stiff with soy sauce and bits of baozi.

Frances relishes her excursions in search of imperial architecture—which, distressingly, even in those revolutionary times (despite the best efforts of the Red Guards) was much more abundant than today.

With vital government departments depleted, and “so-called experts” dismissed, in favour of glib and dangerous populist slogans (now where have we heard that recently?), Frances reflects on the weird campaign extolling Lei Feng, with its classic song

I would like to be a tiny screw… Put me in place and screw me tight.

Meanwhile, pressed into finding a party-piece to compete with their North Korean and Albanian counterparts, the UK students soon become adept at trotting out “the British national songOld MacDonald had a farm. On other occasions, wheeled out for visits of foreign dignitaries, they feel like model prisoners.

As she devours “negative teaching material“, Frances identifies many experiences familiar to foreigners in China, like holding a fluent conversation in Chinese with a local, who then suddenly interjects, “Can you understand Chinese?” Even her final chapters on the culture-shock of returning to Blighty, bewildered by excessive choice, rank alongside the dénouement of Nigel Barley’s The Innocent anthropologist after his stay in Cameroon.

In his introduction, Oliver Pritchett regards Frances as part of the great tradition of intrepid British women explorers—reminding me of Ronnie Ancona’s spoof. The book is perceptive, hilarious, and warm-hearted, and you must read it at once!

Cambridge 1974

Partying at the Oriental faculty, Cambridge 1974. Beth McKillop, Carol Murray, Catharine Saunders, Tim Wright, Hisako Tottori (later Princess Takamado), a fragmentary bearded Paul Kratochvil, Nick Menzies, Craig Clunas with hair, Evelyn X, me with even more hair, André (then “Al”) de Vries.

All the while, amidst the deep waters and raging fire, I was granted a welcome dispensation to remain safe in the ivory towers of Cambridge. When I wasn’t drunk in charge of a string quartet (with grateful thanks to Adnams and Bartók), my own naïveté focused on obstinately reading Tang poetry and Huineng’s Platform Sūtra, inspired as I was by fine scholars like Denis Twitchett and David McMullen—as well as Laurence Picken‘s work on Tang music, and Michael Loewe’s training in Han-dynasty texts. As Frances observes,

Learning Chinese then was like learning a dead language: there seemed no hope of ever using it in China.

For me (rather like the attitude of the LA Phil board towards composers) it wasn’t so much a case of “no hope of using it in China” as “no danger of having to use it there”. My classical bent went along with my stammer—reluctant even to speak English, I couldn’t imagine ever trying to communicate with foreigners. Quelle horreur!

For the early inspirations that drew me to Chinese studies, I wrote a series beginning here.

The fusty pursuits of Tang history were already somewhat antiquarian in an increasingly leftie Cambridge, and hardly appealed (then) to my fellow students. Apart from Frances and Craig, others like Beth McKillop and Nick Menzies, as well as students from other UK universities, were plunging into the fray and Becoming At One with the Masses with extended stays in China as part of their course. Some were rather keen on the revolutionary baptism; the tastes of others were more historical (in China, as Frances notes, “History was regarded as a very dangerous weapon which could not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands”). More than flared trousers, history—which had then seemed like, well, history—soon came back into fashion, and many of my fellow-students later became distinguished sinologists of imperial China; but unlike me, they had already noticed that one’s studies needed to be grounded in some kind of current reality.

Still, I suspect few of us were at all clear by this stage that the Labouring Masses were in a depression that must have seemed terminal, bitterly disillusioned with constant lurches in central policy, and suffering from constant hunger; or that this was already prompting a “silent revolution” in private enterprise, some years before decollectivization became an official policy.

Another 1975 photo [1] of the great Craig Clunas makes an evocative image:

Craig
Craig’s own caption:
Shock and awe on childish faces as Foreign Friend massacres the greatest hits of revolutionary modern Peking opera, Yan’an, 1975.
My take:
Becoming At One with the Masses: revenge for Langlang. “Wow—Taking tiger mountain by strategy! Don’t get to hear that much—just what we need!”

Back at Cambridge my only compromise to modern China (indeed, anything after the 9th century) was taking supervisions with Paul Kratochvil, although his expert guidance consisted mainly of plying me with beer and jokes in the pub—for which I’m eternally grateful. But in the vein of Arthur Waley, cocooned in a disembodied dream of ancient oriental wisdom, I only began spending time in the Real China a decade after my fellow-students; whereas they had evidently got time off for good behaviour, I’ve since made up for my insouciance by spending the last three decades traipsing around dusty Chinese villages trying to document the fortunes of ritual culture under Maoism, learning to read between the lines of the arcane socialist vocabulary that Frances explores so tellingly.

Still, my first trip in 1986 was hardly prompted by any desire to engage with modern China: I went in search to clues to Tang-dynasty performance practice in living genres. It was only when I found folk culture a vibrant and fascinating theme that I switched my focus to modern society and the ethnography of local religion.

Since 1993 my lengthy stays Becoming At One with the Masses as guest of the Gaoluo ritual association, and later the Li family Daoists, belong under the heading of dundian, “squatting”, or more elegantly “making a base”. I was never dragooned into moving rubble, but in Gaoluo I did spill the occasional bucket of water from the well—and in 2013 I managed quite effectively to get in Li Manshan’s way (my book, pp.132–3):

Coming across the phrase Shoulders unable to carry, hands unable to grasp, soft and sensitive skin… as I made inept attempts to help him with the autumn harvest, I thought it might have been coined to parody my efforts. Rather, it is a standard expression used to describe the travails of urban “educated youth” in performing physical labour after being sent down from the cities to the countryside in the Cultural Revolution to “learn from the peasants.” The experience was a rude shock for such groups all over China; brought up in relatively comfortable urban schools to believe in the benefits of socialism, and often protected from understanding the tribulations of their own parents, they were now confronted not just by the harshness of physical labour, but by medieval poverty.

For my counter-productive work on the harvest we reached a deal whereby Li Manshan would pay me at the rate of 1950s’ work-points. As I suggested that he might extend this arrangement to my sessions depping in his band for funeral rituals, that month I must have earned several pence—almost enough to buy a dough-stick back in Beijing.

How I envy Frances’s early excursion to Datong and its temples, the Yungang grottoes, and even a nearby coal mine. From the train she observed the very villages where I was later to immerse myself in household Daoist ritual groups like the Li family—then nearing the end of over a decade of forced inactivity. In 1974 Li Manshan and his wife had their second daughter, Li Min; their son Li Bin, later to become the ninth generation of Daoists in the lineage, was born in 1977.

The innocence of us laowai at the time is all the more reason why we need to continue our quest to understand the period—and those before and since.

In a topical—somewhat older but no less relevant—kind of remembrance, Frances features in the new Channel 4 documentary Britain’s forgotten army. Meanwhile our teacher Michael Loewe is still going strong at the age of 95. Craig couldn’t attend his lecture at SOAS recently, since he was himself giving a talk on Freud and China—one of those niche Mastermind topics like Norman Wisdom and Albania (I know which I’d choose).

 

* If the more polite term waiguoren (“foreigner”) was in use in the 1970s, then by the time I arrived in 1986 the more informal, and less diplomatic, laowai was often heard as we walked the streets. Or at least that’s what they always shouted at me… See sequel here.

**For the British Council to send ten UK students to Beijing in exchange for ten Chinese students sounds like a hostage deal gone wrong. Maybe bumbling Boris has this up his sleeve?

[1] Among many great sites for photos of the Cultural Revolution, see here. For another account, leading on into the reform era, see here. For a major survey, see Beverley Hooper, Foreigners Under Mao: Western lives in China, 1949-1976.

More Chinese wordplay, and a poem

or
What’s in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

GL scroll

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Mahler in Chinatown

It’s always worth tuning in to Donald Macleod’s Composer of the week on BBC Radio 3.

Even for a Mahler fanatic like me, last week’s programmes (based on the well-trodden theme of his years with Alma) were instructive.

I suppose this story belongs to the cliché of “international cultural exchange” (guoji wenhua jiaoliu 国际文化交流, which deserves an entry in my Catechism of Chinese cliché):

We all know (don’t we) about Mahler’s settings of Hans Bethge’s embroidered translations of Tang poems for Das lied von der erde (composed in 1909 but only performed after his death in 1911). In 1910, as he was fêted in New York, the Schirmers [some sources say the Roosevelts] took him and Alma on a visit to an opium den in Chinatown. Long before the stereotypes of Fu Manchu and Anna May Wong, this could have been an intriguing encounter.

Their visit to the “teeming” Lower East Side Jewish quarter must have been more conflicted (among myriad discussions of Mahler and Judaism, Norman Lebrecht, Why Mahler? is accessible). Alma’s portrayals are not always reliable, but here it’s worth citing her account (Gustav Mahler: memories and letters (pp.161–2)—more prurient than ethnographic:

We were invited by the music publisher, Schirmer, and his wife to dine with them one day and drive with them afterwards “down town”, into China town. The indispensable detective sat beside the chauffeur. We turned out of the busy streets into narrower ones which became by degrees quieter, narrower, darker and more uncanny. We got out, accompanied by the detective with a loaded revolver in his pocket, and went into an opium den. A creature with a sickeningly womanish face received us in an ante-room, where we had to put down a sum of money. He began at once to give us a long list of his successes with white ladies, and told us he acted female parts in the Chinese Theatre. A Chinese woman, of course, may not either act or look on in a theatre. He showed it in his face—it was the most degenerate man-woman face you could imagine. He showed us numerous photographs of American women he had—and he said the rest by gestures. Then he conducted us into several small but high rooms, empty in the middle but furnished with bunks along the sides, each of which contained a stretcher; and on each stretcher lay a doped Chinese with his head lolling into the room. Some of them raised their heads heavily as we approached, but at once let them sink again. It was a gruesomely horrible sight. They were simply dumped there to sleep off their intoxication. They might be robbed or murdered while they were in this state and know nothing about it. The whole scene resembled a baker’s shop with human loaves.

On now to a house of cards higher and higher, up into a room luxuriously furnished for strangers, cushions everywhere, and beside each cushion an opium pipe. And a Chinese, for payment, was ready to smoke a pipe on the spot while we watched him slowly succumb, rolling his eyes and twisting his limbs about. We were invited to smoke too but declined with horror. Next the theatre. Charming, but no play was being given. If it had been, no European would have been allowed among the audience. On again. Rats with long pigtails slunk nimbly and rapidly along the walls of the stinking street. Mahler said: “I can hardly believe that these are my brothers.”

On again. Small shops, small hotels, all silent. Finally, on the outskirts of this district we came on the habitat of a religious sect. There was a large hall at the far end of which sat a man with the face of a fanatic playing hymns on a harmonium in a pronouncedly whining style. The benches were occupied by a starving congregation. We were given the explanation. For listening to those hymns and joining in—a cup of coffee and a roll. What wretchedness in those faces! We pushed our way out, followed by hostile eyes, and for long afterwards we could still hear the flat notes of the hungry singers.

On again, and now the Jewish quarter. It was dark by this time. But here all was life and bustle, chaffering and shouting. The racial difference was staggering, but it was because the Jews worked day and night shifts to lose no time. The whole street was full from end to end of old clothes and rags. The air was heavy with the smell of food. I asked Mahler softly in his own words, “Are these our brothers?” He shook his head in despair.

With a sigh of relief we at last turned a corner and found ourselves in a well-lighted street among our own sort of people. Can it be that there are only class and not race distinctions?

Mahler’s music is so full of what would be known as folk and world music that his consternation is startling; can his success have made him so oblivious to his own background? And as ever, while trying to visualize the ethos of the time, we can only read this with later history in mind.

For Der abschied, see also here.

 

A tribute to Laurence Picken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And his language was charming, with formulations like

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

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

***

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

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

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

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 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 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…

[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.