Whistled languages, mundane and transcendental


Among the many endangered languages of the world, whistled languages have long been remarkably widespread (see the impressive wiki page).

Used mainly by pastoralists for long-distance communication, their vocabularies remained tied to rural tasks, and so they became more rare with the decline of agriculture, migration, and the advent of the telephone (a cue for “tweeting” jokes in the media). Inevitably, they have come to the attention of UNESCO “safeguarding” projects.

The wiki page gives a comprehensive list of locations around the world, Whistled languages are (were?) common in West Africa; in South America and Mexico; and they’ve been reported among the Taos Pueblo of New Mexico, the Yupik people of St Lawrence island west of mainland Alaska, and the Hmong in Vietnam; in India and Nepal, and New Guinea.

The videos I’ve been watching come from Europe and Turkey:

  • The silbo of La Gomera in the Canary Islands can be found online, such as this documentary by Francesca Phillips. It may also be used in the local bajadas religious processions—though this clip (see also here) doesn’t feature silbo, I can never resist a calendrical ritual:

  • In the village of Aas in the French Pyrenees it is largely defunct:

  • The sfyria of Antia on the Greek island of Evia:
  • The village of Kuşköy in Turkey is another focus of media attention:

Musical whistling is quite another topic, but I can’t resist featuring Tamás Hacki:

* * *

China: transcendental whistling
At a tangent from the mundane communication of whistled languages, one aid to Daoist transcendence in ancient China was what Victor Mair has called “transcendental whistling”—see the detailed wiki article, and a paper by Su-rui Lung, using research by Sawada Mizuho and Li Fengmao.


The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Source: wiki.

Having previously been used to summon the soul, whistling became a means to summon animals, communicate with supernatural beings, and control weather phenomena—and indeed to “express disdain for the vulgar world”. Using the power of qi “breath”, it was all the rage in the 3rd-century CE—noted exponents including Ruan Ji and Xi Kang, [1] qin-zither-playing frontmen of the iconoclastic early punk band Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove 竹林七賢 [Behave yourself, Dr Jones—Ed.]. Su-rui Lung comments:

Xiao [whistling] seems to have permeated all strata of Six Dynasties society, and practitioners included persons from almost all walks of life: recluses, hermit-scholars, generals, Buddhist monks, non-Chinese foreigners, women, high society elite, and Daoist priests. In general, poets, hermits, and people of all types in the Six Dynasties utilised whistling to express a sense of untrammeled individual freedom, or an attitude of disobedience to authority or traditional ceremony, or to dispel suppressed feelings and indignation.

Chenggong Sui 成公綏 (231–73; ha, another compound surname!) composed a wonderful Rhapsody on whistling (Xiaofu 嘯賦), which the devotee of early Daoist mysticism will find rewarding (without seeking a reward, of course). As translated by Douglas White (1996), it opens:

The secluded gentleman
In sympathy with the extraordinary
And in love with the strange
Scorns the world and is unmindful of prestige
He breaks away from human endeavour and leaves it behind
He gazes up at the lofty, longing for the days of old
He ponders lengthily, his thoughts wandering afar
He would Climb Mount Chi, in order to maintain his moral integrity
Or float on the blue sea to wander with his ambition
So he invites his trusted friends
Gathering about himself a group of like-minded
He gets at the essence of the ultimate secret of life
He researches the subtle mysteries of Tao and Te
He regrets that the common people are not yet enlightened
He alone, transcending all, has prior awakening
He finds constraining the narrow road of the world
He gazes up at the concourse of heaven, and treads the high vastness
Distancing himself from the exquisite and the common, he abandons his personal concerns
Then, filled with noble emotion, he gives a long-drawn whistle

At this point even I can see that a perky rendition of Always look on the bright side of life (“When you’re chewing on life’s gristle, Don’t grumble—give a whistle”) may not be quite suitable. While that song doesn’t necessarily encapsulate the spiritual values of the modern West, it does at least make a nice contrast with those of ancient China.

Wiki cites further classics such as Ge Hong’s Shenxian zhuan 神仙傳, as well as the 5th-century Shishuo xinyu 世說新語, referring to Ruan Ji’s meeting with the aged hermit Sun Deng 孫登—a story taken up in the 1990s by avant-garde novelist Ge Fei. Whistling is a common topos in Tang poetry, and is described in some technical detail in the 8th-century Xiaozhi 嘯旨; but thereafter it seems to have gone rather quiet, at least in literary representation—does anyone know if it has persisted as a secret mystical technique down to today?

And all this is a far cry, or whistle, from the more mundane communicative functions that mainly concerned us above. An online mention of the Bai minority in Yunnan is elusive—I don’t want to tempt fate, but can it be that the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage juggernaut is missing a trick here?

With thanks to Alan Kagan for putting me up to this


[1] For Xi Kang, note the great Robert van Gulik’s Hsi K’ang and his poetical essay on the lute (1941). Note also François Picard, “Chine: le xiao, ou souffle sonorisé”, Cahiers d’ethnomusicologie 4 (1991)—thickening the plot by considering the xiao 蕭 end-blown flute, which remains almost the only instrument deemed suitable to play with the qin.

A Tang mélange

On China, let’s face it, what people really really want to read about is the Tang dynasty. Which may be why many of my posts go down like a one-legged man at an arse-kicking party.

Regarding Chinese history, my focus is the local cultures and politics of the modern era, including both my own fieldwork since the 1980s’ reforms and Maoism. Of course, all the living ritual traditions I study are deeply rooted in the late imperial period, into whose culture I occasionally make more historically-minded excursions (such as this series).

Going further back, just in case you haven’t explored the Tang tag in the sidebar, it contains a growing number of posts. After all, that’s where I came in. So never mind the rest of Chinese history, allow me to offer a resumé of posts bearing on Tang culture—starting with my Cambridge mentor:

In the ludic tone of some of my other posts on the Tang, I was egged on by the great historian Denis Twitchett:

For Tang poetry, see

Last and decidedly least,

On Li Bai and Mahler:

See also


Still, there’s much to be said for my own eventual conversion from abstruse ancient history to living genres of Chinese culture—always relating them to imperial traditions, of course. Among many genres active today that are not a “living fossil” of Tang music:

Going back still further, try

Denis Twitchett: more Tang drôlerie



Prompted by Tang poetry, I’ve been having fun revisiting my old correspondence with the great Tang historian Denis Twitchett (1925–2006; for bibliography, see here).

At Cambridge Denis gave me a thorough training in Tang history, most of which I later forgot. After I moved to London in 1976 to eke a living as an orchestral fiddler, while I was still busy helping Laurence Picken with his magnum opus on Tang music, I was also helping Denis with editing the Tang volumes of The Cambridge history of China. After he took up a post at Princeton in 1980 he continued to guide my studies from afar, and indeed it was largely thanks to him that I gleaned clues to the potential for Tang music studies in the PRC before I finally began my explorations there in 1986. Like Laurence, Denis may just have been relieved when I jumped ship from Tang culture in old books to the grimy realities of contemporary fieldwork (for my Beijing epiphany, see here), but anyway they both looked most kindly on my apostasy.

As I reported back from my trips Denis continued to send me entertaining letters. I’ve already given some brilliant instances of his takes on Tang sources (here, and here). So here are some further gems.

After I returned from China for the second time in 1987 he wrote:

Dear Steve,
It was good to hear from you. I had thought of giving you a call while I was home during the summer, but I thought you were still in China, doing your juggling and fire-eating routine on the Bund in Shanghai, or touring Kweichow with a Jamaican steel band or something of the sort…


In 1988, having finished with the Liao dynasty (“good for many a chuckle”, although my favourite Liao statue is keeping a straight face), Denis sent me one of his more wacky fantasies, on the subject of the disastrous An Lushan rebellion in the mid-Tang (see here, n.2). Its tone suggests a medieval Private eye or The fast show; it may be a tad niche, but it’s based on his deep knowledge of the period (note the date; and I’ve converted his Wade-Giles to pinyin. “HM” is of course the emperor Xuanzong):

Report to Chang’an Control / attn. M. From Agent 0069/6/ACDC
Agent Wang, deep cover as mess waiter, NECINC Fanyang

Report of conversation in Mess, recorded 1st April 745. Speaker: Field Marshal An Lushan, Duke of Fanyang [or “Fanyang Fats”, as Denis described him elsewhere], CINC HM Forces Northeast, KCMG, VC, Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Hero of the Peoples of Bohai, etc.

Just got back from Chang’an. Shocking place nowadays, everything gone to the dogs, can’t even get a decent pink gin in the Generals’ Mess of the Palace Guard, no bloody soldiers to be seen, no backbone, no discipline, no-one salutes any more, sloppy sentries, gang of washerwomen could storm the palace, not like my day, not a decent curry to had in the whole blasted city—whole place crawling with nancy-boys and bloody priests, not a fighting man in sight—makes a fellah puke.

HM in a damn good mood when I arrived, banquet, gifts of silks and silver for the sideboard, told me a good one after the eleventh toast, about some hu 胡 and his trained rhinoceros that shat on the palace carpet—never have happened in my day, no respect, no discipline, no backbone—poor bloody animal probably frightened by all those queers around the palace. Anyway, er, what was I sayin’?  (Keep that bloody port moving, colonel, and no mentioning ladies’ names in the Mess.) Ah yes, just before I left, called me in for an extra audience—most inconvenent time, clashed with m’ tiffin, and an appointment with m’ tailors, not to speak of a special soiree for season-ticket holders at Madame Minsky’s—still, duty is duty, what.

HM in a none-too-happy frame of mind, I can tell you. One of those moods of his, strong sniff of Indian incense in the air, dilated pupils—had a horse once that looked like that, had him put down pretty smartly. “Well, An”, he says, “SMITE those bloody Turks. Thrash the sordid little buggers and their Evil Empire into submisssion. Goddam swine have been blocking the import of OUR whisky—no bloody laughing matter, An—insult to the flag—nothing like it since the Picts and Scots—make an example of them—only good Turk’s a dead Turk. Need more men? Goddam nonsense, An, who’s to pay for them? My household budget? Lend you a few drooling eunuchs if you like, bit of fresh air would do them the power of good. MORE HORSES? Doncha know how the bloody animals breed? Well, steal some from the Khitan.” I tell you, I was glad to get back to HQ.

Well, what are we to do? Turks all buggered off to Turkey years ago. Of course we in the service go on reporting about the Turkish Threat, just so He will keep the army up to strength. If he got to know that the Turks are all glasnost and stale piles of horseshit headed west, we’d all be in a fine bloody mess, civvy street, no servants, no duty-free booze, no horses, no huntin’, no rape and pillage for the other ranks, have to live with the memsahib, among all those poofters and bloody politicians and perverts at court. Far worse than fightin’ real Turks. Have to join the board of some hu company selling surplus bows-and-arrows and substandard pikes to any old wogs just to make ends meet.

So we’ve just GOT to have our Turkish war—get some medals, write off a few of our dead soldiers, get some new horses and a bit of extra cash. First of all we’ve got to hire some Turks, or hire some fuzzy-wuzzies we can pass off as Turks—all those damn foreigners look alike. Not too far away, all those baggage carts are a write-off, and we don’t want a mutiny on our hands, and not too tough, must have a few heads to send to HM and a spot of rape and looting for the other ranks. Any ideas to the Adjutant by 0700 Friday—and for God’s sake pass that bloody port.

By the way, send a runner to Geshu Han asking him to stop stealing all HM’s whisky—come to think of it, old Han’s a bloody Turk himself, but we’d better not fight him. Then HM will think Objective Achieved, and we can all settle down to a Quiet Life again.

[Recording interrupted by loud noises, breaking crockery, various grunts, groans, and imprecations]

… ‘nother thing. War House talkin’ of sendin’ us new subalterns with bloody degrees—from the Guozi jian, den of bloody iniquity, all perverts, pederasts, Russian spies—the Big Man and the Cardinal won’t give them jobs in the civil service, say those Red bloody professors have encouraged them to THINK, in between bloody rogering ’em. HM won’t have them around the palace, can’t stand their smart-arsed talk, Humanity and Righteousness and Filial Piety, God what a load of Cock, sort of poems HM likes are that Irish drunk Li Bai’s* limericks—wrote one about me, the slippery little sod, started

There was an old man from Fanyang
Who was screwing a Turk on the kang

Forget the rest, but it ended “He ruptured himself with a twang”, too bloody painful to think about. So what was I saying? Oh yes, about those damn subalterns. They’re sending ’em to us, to knock some sense into ’em—HM’s idea of a bloody good joke. Could’ve bin worse though, threatened to send us a regiment of damn eunuchs—God, it’ll be Women in the army next! Tell the RSM to make it hot for them, unlimited square-bashing, pike drill, fencing, riding, archery, cold baths, polish everything twice a day, no drink, no women, left-right left-right, lights out at 1900 hours, wake ’em up at 0100 for a medical inspection, then at 0400 for the old Assault Course on the Taihang mountains, you know the sort of thing. Make men of them, or better still, kill the little sods.

Don’t know who began this examination lark, uselss load of crap they fill their heads with, better to apprentice them with Madame Minsky if you ask me, Teach ’em What’s What, see how the world works, collect the luncheon vouchers and take the credit cards. Way it is, they write orders it takes me all day to understand. HM says “Smite the buggers”, they write “Take Pains to Extend the Benevolence of His Sacred bloody Majesty over All Lands and Peoples”. What’s a simple chap like us to make of it, eh? Only Benevolence I’m interested in is HM’s Benevolent Fund for Decayed General Officers. Not like in the Old Days…

Steward! There’s a bug in this decanter! [Recording breaks off.]

Denis was always on the case of Tang music and the Central Asian connection. Apparently unpublished (apart from a brief article in Asia Major 1990) is his lengthy, meticulous analysis of the relation between the music monographs of the “old” and “new” versions of the Tang dynastic history, tracing their origins in the Taiyueling biji 太樂令壁記 of Liu Kuang 劉贶.

He further pursued the An Lushan theme in a 1988 letter, with another agent providing background on Xuanzong’s consort the celebrated femme fatale Yang Guifei. After getting himself elected Vice-President, Cardinal Chen Xilie

got Him Indoors going on a real religious kick, gongs and incense, prostrations day and night… Then he agreed to lock up his EX-daughter-in-law in the palace as a nun. So it seems that his holy nun had ambitions to get back into showbiz; rattling the tambourine for the Cardinal in the palace chamber is as bad as being a housewife in Westchester with no company but the Avon lady and the dentist. She’s been hitting the gin bottle and she’s sick of revival meetings, so she needs some Action. So what does she need but an Agent? Solly my friend, you take her on, nice little earner, and I book her at the palace for you.

[They haggle over their percentage: “You might as well be a Sogdian!”, and the informant warns against the “casting kang“]

What’s her shtick? Well, she does a nice little number on the pipa, does that new dance the Arabs are so good at, the Syrian Twirl—and there’s this new music from Tashkent (Shiyue 石樂)… [which Denis notes is not twinned with Little Rock, Arkansas; “there is some evidence that it is still performed. The etymology also suggests why rock musicians are constantly stoned.”]

If only scholarship were always such fun… As Denis wrote, “Shame Asia major doesn’t take this sort of stuff”…


See also Tang tag. For further vignettes from Cambridge mentors, see the priceless stories of Paul Kratochvil (e.g. here, and here; more under Czech tag), and tea with Sir Harold Bailey.


* One of Denis’s recurring themes was his proposition that Li Bai was actually an Irishman called Patrick O’Leary. For Irish and Chinese music, see here; and for the limericks of Alan Watts, here.

The Confucian ritual in Hunan


Source: Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Hunan juan.

One subject of Yang Yinliu‘s 1956 ambitious survey of the diverse performing genres in Hunan province was the large-scale Confucian ritual sacrifice of Liuyang, east of Changsha. Appendix 2 of his report,

  • Kongfu dingji yinyue 孔府丁祭音乐 (1958, 78 pp.)

was discreetly tucked away in a separate mimeograph; I haven’t yet tracked down the original, but its material is included in the 2011 reprint of Yang’s Hunan volume, and cited in the Anthology section. [1]

There are all kinds of themes to unpack here. First, a confession: my own reluctance to study the topic is flawed. Cultures routinely exclude certain soundscapes from their concept of “music”, but ethnomusicology counsels a far more inclusive view. Indeed, for China I’m keen to include the songs of spirit mediums, work hollers, and vocal liturgy within our brief. I have no argument with studying elite culture, even if in most societies, including China (both historically and today), it only represents a tiny tip of the iceberg (for imperial culture, see here; and for similar reservations about the qin zither, here).

I keep stressing that our focus shouldn’t be some reified concept of “music”, but expressive culture within society; and the topic of the Confucian rituals may lead all too easily to the glorification of some notional Golden Age of Ancient Sages. So I’m wary of “recreations” claiming to preserve or salvage such glories. Such a mindset may even distract us from other forms of musicking that are far more deeply embedded in social life.

Still, like the performance of modern CCP propaganda, the Confucian sacrifice is a political subject, which of course we have to study. So it may be irrelevant that it seems to exclude most features that I (or the Chinese) can perceive as “musical”, and that (unlike folk ritual) it seems remote from the lives of ordinary people. Ritual often seems austere—we might adduce the hymns or the fast chanted scriptures of household Daoists like the Li family—but expertise, human energy, social interaction, are usually evident in performance.

The origins of the Confucian sacrifices are in the numinous ancient music of Shao, whose wonders made Confucius himself oblivious to the taste of meat, if only for three months. But I’m going to start with the Tang—not because I wish to recreate its glories, but precisely because I don’t.

Now I don’t applaud the xenophobia and moralistic snobbery of the Tang poets Bai Juyi and his friend Yuan Zhen, as society struggled to recover from the cataclysm of the An Lushan rebellion (see here, n.2). Bai’s poems like “The Standing Orchestra” and “Chime-stones from Huayuan” (which I might rename “Just Can’t Get the Staff, Nowadays”) rest on a flawed nostalgic idealization of the Wisdom of the Ancient Sages; but, with ethnographic candour, they also reveal the ineptitude of the yayue Confucian ceremonial performers of his day.

Several studies have been made of these poems, but they were a theme that my teacher the great Tang scholar Denis Twitchett approached with relish (as you may see from our irreverent correspondence on the faqu, here and here; see also my own spoof Tang poems). So below I’ve adapted his (apparently unpublished) translations from a draft that he sent me, retaining the sometimes E.J. Thribb-like character of Bai Juyi’s original, and refraining from adding the Teutonic footnotes that every phrase invites (as parodied by Flann O’Brien’s commentaries on de Selby):

The Standing Orchestra
Drums and fifes of the Standing Orchestra blare out
Dancers perform the two-bladed sword-dance, jugglers toss the seven balls
Slender maidens walk the tightrope, quivering with long pole
Among the orchestras of the Court of Sacrifices is a rigid hierarchy
Those in the upper hall sit, those in the lower hall stand
In the upper hall the mouth-organ songs of the Seated Orchestra are pure
In the lower hall the drum and fife of the Standing Orchestra resound
At the sound of a single note from the mouth-organ songs, everyone inclines their ears
But if drum and fife were to play ten thousand pieces, no-one would listen
The Standing Orchestra is base, the Seated Orchestra noble
Once rejected, a member of the Seated Orchestra joins the Standing Orchestra
Playing drum and mouth-organ to accompany circus acts
But once a member of the Standing Orchestra is rejected, where can he find a job?
First he is sent to the suspended bells and chimes to play the ritual music
The ritual music has fallen so far out of fashion
That incapable dolts like you are ordered to perform the gong and zhi modes
When at the urban sacrifice we pray to the Earth Lord at the circular altar
The claim takes this music to move the spirits of Heaven and Earth!
Hoping to make the Phoenix come and the hundred beasts dance
Is just like driving your carriage north, hoping to arrive in Chu!*
The musicians are all incompetent fools—how can I adequately describe them?
And you, the Three Ministers of the Court of Sacrifice, whatever sort of men are you?

Chime-stones from Huayuan
Chime-stones from Huayuan, chime-stones from Huayuan
Men of old didn’t listen, but men of today listen
Sonorous stones from the banks of the Si river, sonorous stones from the banks of the Si river
Men of today don’t play them, but men of old played them
How is it that men of old and men of today are so different?
Which instruments are used and which rejected depends on the musicians
Although the musicians have ears like a wall, if they’re unable to distinguish Pure from Muddy sounds then they might as well be deaf!
When the pupils of the Pear Garden adjust the temperament
They only know the new sounds, they are ignorant of the old
Of old it was said of the fouqing chime-stones from the banks of the Si
That their sound moved the listener to thoughts of those serving and risking their lives in distant places
But when once the sound of the Huayuan chime-stones had been heard at the palace
The prince’s heart straightaway forgot his subjects guarding the frontiers
And sure enough, when the barbarian brigand rose up from Yan
Few of the generals were willing to die in defence of the borders
If once one understands how music and the state of government are intertwined
How can one simply listen to the clashing and clanging of these instruments?
“Xiang, the player of the stone-chimes, withdrew to his island in the sea”, leaving never to return
And now kids from the Chang’an market-place have become Master Musicians!
Who is there to truly understand the difference between Pure and Muddy sounds
Between the chime-stones from Huayuan and the sonorous stones from the banks of the Si?

So Bai Juyi is contrasting the expertise of the Seated Orchestra with the ineptitude of the ritual musicians, but “It’s Complicated”. The two genres serve entirely separate functions, with different demands. Technical virtuosity doesn’t correlate with efficacity: a lullaby serves its purpose perfectly, whereas the years of discipline that go into mastering a Paganini Caprice hardly go beyond mere technique. And some of the finest musicians in the world come from the “market-place”… Of course, recruiting practices may have changed from Tang to Ming, but I doubt if evidence is available to suggest that later ritual musicians were of a higher standard—they hardly needed to be. Bai Juyi’s argument doesn’t invalidate the performance, but it does rather, um, chime with my own reservations about studying it.

“But that’s enough about me”. Yang Yinliu, with his historical erudition and concern for “literati music”, “palace music”, and indeed “feudal superstition” and the culture of the “exploiting classes”, was doubtless more interested in the Confucian ritual than I am. Whereas I can see the “value” of exploring the topic but prefer to focus elsewhere, for Yang and his colleagues it formed part of the rich topic of archaeology and early historical sources on which they also worked tirelessly.

The wider context
A useful introduction, for the Ming, is

  • Joseph Lam, State sacrifices and music in Ming China: orthodoxy, creativity, and expressiveness (1998).

He stresses those features, even if the latter two may seem rather remote from many people’s understanding of the topic. For dance, see also

The stimulating article

  • Sébastien Billioud and Joël Thoraval, “Lijiao: The return of ceremonies honouring Confucius in mainland China”, China perspectives 2009.4.

mainly concerns Qufu in Shandong (birthplace of Confucius, and site of the most renowned rituals) and the rehabilitation of Confucius since the 1980s.

Confucian sacrifices were performed widely throughout the empire until the collapse of the imperial system in 1911. They are not only documented in the national dynastic histories but also (at the expense of folk traditions!) often occupy an unreasonable amount of space in imperial county gazetteers, compiled according to a template. The topic, burdened by abstruse theory and false nostalgia, may seem largely to belong to the rarefied confines of early sinology. However, as always, it is no timeless “living fossil”, but was constantly remoulded and re-invented throughout the imperial era right down to today.

Through the Republican era the rituals declined. After the 1949 Communist victory they were promoted by the Nationalist regime on Taiwan, but on the mainland they fell silent—apart from a few initiatives from cultural authorities.

In late imperial times the rituals must have been common elsewhere in Hunan too (the Anthology mentions mid-19th-century accounts in the Yongzhou and Jiahe county gazetteers), but it is those of Liuyang that came to achieve national celebrity. So here I’d like to introduce the fortunes of the rituals there over their life-span of a century, from the 1840s to the 1940s.

Liuyang [2]
Confucian sacrifices may have been performed in Liuyang since ancient times, but we only find firm evidence from 1829, when the local jiansheng 監生 official Qiu Zhilu 邱之稑 (1781–1839) was commissioned to begin a lengthy investigation of how to perform the rituals, with funding to establish a Bureau for Rites and Music (Liyue ju 禮樂局). His research was based not only on early compendia (including Han sources and the Qing Lülü zhengyi) but also on a visit to Qufu.

Qiu Zhilu then had to decide on the pitch standard (itself a thorny historical issue); choose the vast instrumentarium and repertoire (indeed, he is credited with incorporating folk elements, revising the system of one note per beat, and expanding the scale); and rehearse the singers, instrumentalists, and dancers. He documented the results of his research in a series of volumes.

Though Qiu Zhilu died in 1839, the rituals he had designed were first performed in the early 1840s. Every three years over sixty youths over the age of 12 sui within the town—“from decent families” shenjia qingbai 身家清白, an assessment that would have been abruptly reversed after the 1949 Liberation!) [3]—were recruited, training for a month before the 2nd- and 8th-moon rituals.

(An aside: I can’t help comparing this to the hereditary training of shawm-band musicians in Hunan and throughout China, who would begin playing percussion in the family band from around 6 sui, moving on to shawm in their early teens, and learning daily through constant participation in life-cycle and calendrical rituals. And that is where real creativity is to be found: for more on elite and folk cultures, with a detailed analysis of a qin piece and a shawm-band suite, see here. But as in the Tang, the efficacity of the Confucian ritual depended not on the performers but on the “arrangers”…)

The Qing statesman Zeng Guofan (1811–72), himself a native of Hunan, sent envoys to Liuyang to attend the ritual, recommending it to the emperor. After the collapse of the imperial system in 1911, the Bureau was still maintained, though only the 8th-moon sacrifice was now held. Wannabe emperor Yuan Shikai (1859–1916) sent envoys, who reported it to be superior to the Qufu ritual; envoys from there and other regions of the country (including Heilongjiang, Yunnan, and Xinjiang) came to study. Apparently the genre even appeared in a feature film made in the early Republican era.

Liuyang 2
Liuyang 1

These photos of the Liuyang performers appear quite widely online, but I can’t find dates—can anyone provide them? The first seems to date from before Liberation; I surmise that the second was taken when Yang Yinliu took them to record in Changsha in 1956. [4]

As ever, I’m struck by both how much has survived and how much has been destroyed, and by the maxim “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”.

The 8th-moon ritual was held in 1937 with an ever-dwindling personnel. After Liuyang was occupied by the Japanese, activity was interrupted in 1944. [5] After Japan was defeated, the temple grounds were taken over by the Nationalist administration and a local newspaper. By the time of an October 1945 performance in the temporary provincial capital Leiyang, following social upheavals, instruments had been damaged and the (recent) tradition much reduced. In 1946 the senior Liu Puxian 劉蒲仙 led a ritual with over a hundred performers, still only a pale reflection of the previous quorum. The last ritual performance took place on 28th September 1948.

After the Communist victory, in 1951 the Liuyang Bureau of Culture retrieved the entire collection of over 350 instruments as well as the textual material, holding an exhibition; from 1953 they were stored in the Hunan provincial museum in Changsha, and some newly-reproduced instruments were made.

Such was the backdrop to Yang Yinliu’s 1956 visit. He now assembled a dozen of the senior performers to go to Changsha, recording some of the main hymns with a motley assemblage of instruments whose pitches no longer matched (a topic that he explored eruditely in his monograph). The Anthology reprints Yang’s own transcriptions of these recordings.

LY JC score

Zhaohe (Zhaoping) hymn to welcome the gods (opening), documented by Yang Yinliu. Source: Anthology.

Hunan was hit by the famine that followed the Great Leap Backward, but in 1962, in a brief lull between campaigns, the Hunan cultural authorities organized another project on the ritual. The instruments were even briefly returned to Liuyang; new performers were trained, and further recordings made. Ever since then the instruments have been kept at the Changsha museum. Meanwhile similar research was ongoing in Qufu.

From the 1980s, the resumption of research (now for the monumental Anthology) coincided with a progressive rehabilitation of Confucius and Confucianism. Indeed, Yang Yinliu’s 1956 work in Liuyang formed an important basis for the glitzy 1980s’ recreation of the most renowned Confucian ritual at Qufu, with which it had long-standing links. In recent years—inevitably—the Liuyang cult has been taken up by the Intangible Cultural Heritage (see here), although, as with many such projects, any tradition has long disappeared. The only remaining source was Qiu Shaoqiu 邱少求 (b. 1931), who had spent nearly ten years performing intermittently after training from the age of 9.

LY JC diagram

Reconstructed diagram showing deployment of instruments. Source: Anthology.

* * *

So once again, we have to unpack the thorny question “What is music?”. As Confucius himself observed,

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

Always remote from the lives of ordinary people, and performed only intermittently, the Liuyang ritual was a very minor aspect of musicking in Hunan; but it’s one that may attract sinological historians. To be sure, like folk musicking, it was in a constant process of change; and a certain creativity was involved—though far from the kind universal to most expressive culture in China and elsewhere.

With Chinese and foreign scholars alike still keen to imagine “living fossils”, such as the ritual traditions of Beijing, Xi’an, and south Fujian, reification is a dangerous theme throughout traditional culture.

Irrespective of my own ambivalence about the topic, Yang Yinliu’s work, even amidst pressure to downplay elite culture, shows his dedication to all aspects of performance and the historical background. At the same time, he wasn’t alone in studying the Liuyang ritual: the Hunan cultural authorities made efforts to document it throughout the first fifteen years after Liberation.


* Satnav on the blink again—Ed.


[1] Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Hunan juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 湖南卷, pp.2049–57, 2137, 2141, 2179–80, transcriptions 2060–85. See also Yang’s 1958 article “Kongmiao dingji yinyuede chubu yanjiu“, reprinted in Yang Yinliu yinyue lunwen xuanji 杨荫浏音乐论文选集 (1986), pp.276–97.

[2] For Liuyang, online sources I have consulted include http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_95b86dd70102xhke.html
In the Anthology, note the biography of Qiu Zhilu (p.2137) and the item on the Bureau of Rites and Music (p.2141).
See also Yu Yizhi 喻意志 and Zhang Yu 章瑜, “Liuyang jikong yinyue chutan” 浏阳祭孔音乐初探, Tianjin yinyuexueyuan xuebao 2008.2. As ever, several details remain to be clarified.
In English, an early mention of Yang Yinliu’s work on the Liuyang rituals is Rulan Chao Pian, Sonq dynasty musical sources and their interpretation (1967), pp.94–6.

[3] Having observed that many of the CCP leaders came from Hunan, I note that Liuyang was the birthplace of Hu Yaobang (1915–89), who would not have made a suitable recruit…

[4] This site, with 52 pages, contains a rich archive of visual images from Hunan, and leads to further sources showing the depth of both literati and popular culture there.

[5] An instance of my problems interpreting the material: I surmise that it continued until then even under Japanese occupation. One would like more detail on the whole period from 1937 to 1949—but please, if you go to Hunan, do look beyond the Confucian ritual!



Some great Chinese stammerers


As a card-carrying stammerer, I’m always on the lookout for fellow-sufferers—not least in China.*

I’ve already described my encounter with a stammering shawm player in Shaanbei (here, under “Status and disability”), and suggested a motto for the Chinese Stammerers’ Association, as well as noting an entertainingly crap Chinese therapy. I’ve noted how the public nature of Chinese life may force the stammerer to confront the issue.

Now (thanks to NBL on languagelog) I learn of the illustrious stammerer Deng Ai 鄧艾 (197–264 CE), a military general in the Romance of the three kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi 三國演義).**

On further study, this clue leads to a whole world of Sanguo nerds, largely through the medium of video gaming…

Chapter 107 of the Romance of the three kingdoms reads:

The other man is presently a lower official. His name is Deng Ai […]. He lost his father when he was young, but he always harbored great ambitions. Whenever he saw mountains or valleys, he would instinctively point out the best places to station troops, store grain, or stage an ambush. Everyone else laughed at him, but Sima Yi appreciated his talent and came to include him when discussing military strategy. Deng Ai has a speech defect. He always stutters when he’s trying to speak, so that whenever he had to make a report he couldn’t help saying ‘Ai Ai…’.*** Sima Yi once teased him about it, asking him, “You’re always saying ‘Ai Ai’. How many Ai’s are there?”

But Deng Ai immediately replied, “They say O Phoenix, O Phoenix, when there’s only one phoenix.” From this, you can see that he has a quick and alert mind. You must watch out for these two people.


Putting down a heckler with a quote from the Analects of Confucius—now that’s niche! Beat that, Stewart Lee. Later, as Deng Ai rose to power, he mastered his stammer, addressing his troops—another tough gig.

Here’s a typically cute Chinese video!

Actually, this illustrates how a certain insider knowledge on a seemingly technical topic may illuminate our studies—such as geographical and topographic features in early literature, or the availability of materials for painting or sculpture; or for Daoist ritual, how participant observation, an understanding of vocal, percussive, and instrumental melody in performance, should be a basic aspect of research. “Yeah?”

* * *

Some useful Chinese sites (like this) list many other illustrious Chinese stammerers, ancient and modern. Starting with the early legalist philosopher Hanfeizi 韓非子, and the poet Sima Xiangru 司馬相如, there’s a g-glut [measure word] from the pre-Tang era. For the aficionado of Tang poetry we have Meng Jiao 孟郊, writing (and stammering) in the aftermath of the cataclysmic An Lushan rebellion. (In a post on stammering songs I speculate whether there’s a link between fluency and social trauma.)

Celebrated 20th-century stammerers (putting aside Wang Guowei, who seems to belong in Confucius’s “deliberate” category) include the philosopher Feng Youlan 馮友蘭, influential both within and beyond China.


Gu Jiegang and his family, 1954.

Most notable for my tastes is the folklorist Gu Jiegang 顾颉刚 (1893–1980), to whose 1925 fieldwork on Miaofengshan one often refers [Innit though—Ed.]. He might have made a drôle companion to interpret my own questions in the field. Lu Xun abruptly goes right down in my estimation as I learn that in their literary feud he uncharitably took the piss out of Gu’s impediment (B-b-bastard).

But my favourite reference to early Chinese stammering has to be a passage from Sima Qian’s Records of the grand historian (Shiji), to which Hannibal Taubes alerted me. It appears in the biography of Chancellor Zhang 張丞相列傳, referring to the stammering minister Zhou Chang:


In Nienhauser’s 2008 translation (p.213):

When the Emperor wanted to depose the heir and install Ju-yi, the son of Beauty Ch’i, as the heir, the great ministers firmly challenged this, but none was able to win him over. The Emperor [eventually] because of the Marquis of Liu’s strategy desisted. But Chou Ch’ang having been mighty in the court disputes, the Sovereign asked him for his arguments. Ch’ang was a man with a stutter and furthermore was filled with anger. He said, “My mouth cannot speak, but surely I kn-kn-know this is not permissible! Even if Your Majesty wants to depose the Heir, your subject surely will n-n-not accept the decree!” The sovereign laughed delightedly. After [court] had been dismissed, Empress Lü, who had been eavesdropping from the chambers on the eastern side, saw Chou Ch’ang, knelt down to him, and thanked him.“Without you, Sir, the Heir would certainly have been deposed.”

More um, fluently, Joseph Needham and Christoph Harbsmeier (Science and civilisation in China, volume 7: the social background, part 1, pp. 43–4) translate the relevant passage thus:

“I cannot get the words out of my mouth.” he replied. “But I know it will n-n-n-ever do! Although Your Majesty wishes to remove the heir apparent, I shall n-n-n-ever obey such an order.”

Indeed, even for those who are otherwise fluent, having to speak truth to power before a capricious amoral emperor might bring on a speech impediment. One inevitably thinks of the current wranglings around the White House—for my Hollywood screenplay I have Michael Palin lined up as Zhou Chang, with a bit part for Stormy Daniels as Concubine Ji.

While the great Han scholar Michael Loewe was introducing me to the riches of the Shiji all those decades ago, he somehow omitted to draw my attention to this—out of tact, perhaps?!

This topos is sometimes combined with an allusion to the Deng Ai story in the phrase qiqi aiai 期期艾艾.

Note also the fine songs about the Coronavirus by the stammerer Zhang Gasong.

So we can add such luminaries to the list of historical stammerers like Moses and Demosthenes, and later Marilyn Monroe and Ed Balls. One of those niche pub-quiz topics, like left-handed calligraphers, or Norman Wisdom and Albania.

But what about the suffering workers, eh?!


* BTW, more colloquial than the standard kouchi 口吃 is jieba 结巴 (jiejiebaba!), but still more common in north China is jieka 结卡.

** See, I Have No Kulture (paltry excuse: I’ve been busy with Tang poetry and Daoist ritual under Maoism).

*** Call me a pedant, but while it’s perfectly possible to stammer on a vowel (and a diphthong), written Chinese doesn’t capture the likely nature of the impediment here. Repeating whole syllables or words is less common than repeating initial c-c-consonants.

Mahler and the mouth-organ


More on the European taste for exotic orientalism (see Berlioz, and Ravel).

Stimulated by the 1851 Great Exhibition in London and the 1889 Exposition universelle in Paris, I was interested to read

Among composers she discusses are Purcell, Debussy, Puccini, and Stravinsky; but here I’d like to continue my series on Mahler by reflecting on his possible exposure to Chinese music. While the “imitations” of Tang poems by Hans Bethge that Mahler used for Das Lied von der Erde have been much discussed, Kang discusses the oboe lines of Der Abschied (see also here):

One can ponder whether Mahler may have heard the reedy timbre of the traditional and popular Chinese instrument called the sheng on the wax cylinders given to him by his friend Paul Hammerschlag. M. De La Grange gives an account of an event which may have strongly influenced the Chinese dimension in Das Lied:

During the last fortnight [of the summer of 1908] Mahler had a visit [at Toblach] from Paul Hammerschlag and his wife. Later, the banker recalled two memories of that summer, particularly one of a lively discussion during which, to his great surprise, Mahler suddenly threw up his table napkin so that all the guests could see that he had slashed it with his knife as it was on his knees. Another, more interesting, concerned some cylinders of Chinese music, recorded in China itself, that Paul Hammerschlag had bought in Vienna in a shop near the cathedral, and that he had given to Mahler at that time. This makes it quite certain that Mahler had not only read, but actually heard music from that far- off land before composing Das Lied.

There is no evidence with regard to what types of music the cylinders contained, and whether it was instrumental, percussive, or vocal music. And one can only speculate whether it was popular, celebratory, religious, or funeral-like.

57 shengguan trio

Indeed, I don’t know why Kang chooses the sheng mouth-organ here, rather than the guanzi oboe that accompanies it in north Chinese ritual; after all, Mahler didn’t feature the organum characteristic of the sheng. Still, it makes an equally intriguing speculation. Unfortunately, neither the shengguan ensemble nor the deafening shawm bands make likely candidates: several scholars have been studying early recordings of Chinese music, but most were vocal, with chamber ensemble of plucked and bowed strings. Had Mahler heard early recordings of the solo qin zither, such as those among the wax cylinders made by Herbert Müller in China between 1903 and 1913, that meditative sound-world might have appealed more to him.

Anyway, Kang goes on:

Traditional Chinese music tended to be categorized according to social function. Aside from the possible influence of the wax cylinders, there was also research being undertaken in Vienna on non-Western techniques (as in other major centres of musical creativity). This was no doubt as a result of current fashion, thinking, and growing academic interest in sinology and ethnomusicology as we have already witnessed in France in chapter 3. Guido Adler’s article “Uber Heterophonie” (1908) is a prime example of the fascination with and thinking about non-Western traditions that was common in Vienna at that time. Adler writes:

Although there is as yet a very incomplete, and largely unreliable body of exotic music extant, it is, nevertheless, possible—thanks to reliable material on music for several voices, whether vocal or instrumental—clearly to distinguish one kind of treatment that is essentially different from both homophony and polyphony. We may then sum up the main corpus of the kind of exotic music just referred to as follows: the voices begin in unison, in harmony or in octaves, only to separate from one another subsequently. The main theme is paraphrased and distorted, so that secondary and transitional melodies arise to join the main theme, now consonantly, now dissonantly. This paraphrasing and distorting, then, lead one to suppose that the instrumentalists and singers wanted to add something of their own, whether in individual deviatory sounds or merely in grace notes. But these deviations soon give the impression that the instrumentalist or singer has only unconsciously deviated from the right path, that the deviation is merely a coincidence, either because the performers have had a mental aberration or because they do not consider these middle sections worthy of their attention. As at the beginning, the voices then approach the end almost invariably in unison, or in a regular parallel movement. This kind of movement of several voices is the main branch, even the stem, of heterophony.

Today Adler’s comments hardly stand up. Anyway, I wonder if anyone can now find further clues to those wax cylinders. Still, whatever sounds they captured, I doubt that they were the ethereal transcendent tones of Mahler’s imagination. However timeless anyone might suppose Chinese music to be, he was seeking neither to reproduce the Chinese music of his own time nor to recreate that of the Tang. So in all, any precise links with actual Chinese soundscapes remain elusive; like Bethge’s poems, his fantasy of the Mystic East is uppermost—which is fine by me.

All the same, how I wish I could have introduced Mahler, and Berlioz—not to mention Bach—to the exquisite shengguan ensemble of the Li family Daoists, who only managed to perform  in France and Germany long after they were gone.


Robert van Gulik


Van Gulik

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

A 1995 biography, now translated into English,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His first experience of China was a week-long stop-off in Harbin on his train journey towards Tokyo—just around the time that journalist Gareth Jones was murdered by “bandits” in Manchukuo. Though the book’s authors go on to refine it somewhat, van Gulik’s description encapsulates the shock of the idealistic scholar:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Shilin 1946

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yang Dajun

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

Yang Dajun 1986

With Yang Dajun, Beijing 1986.

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

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

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

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

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

After China
From 1946, as people worldwide recovered painfully from wartime devastation, Van Gulik embarked on to a succession of posts in The Hague, Washington DC, India, the Middle East, and Malaya, as well as more extended stays in Japan—his Chinese wife gradually overcoming her understandable reluctance to live there. For their son’s letter of sympathy to the Czechoslovak amassador after the crushing of the Prague Spring, see here.

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

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

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

He also observed,

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

Hmm. Discuss…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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


With thanks to Marie-Anne Souloumiac and Cheng Yu


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




On visiting a 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.

Cf. Miles Davis’s quest for Charlie Parker in 1944.

The great Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder, Japan 1963.

One of my great inspirations via teenage excursions to oriental bookshops was the great Gary Snyder (b.1930). Though his path puts me to shame, he was a great hero of mine (along with Pierre Boulez—looking back, I see this was not entirely normal in suburban London, however experimental the age).

Snyder was always more serious than most of his beat contemporaries. Studying anthropology, he developed an affinity for Native American cultures. As he became immersed in Zen, he began learning Chinese and Japanese (indeed, just at the right moment to benefit from the disturbing Teach yourself Japanese!).

All the while he was writing poetry, part of the beat generation with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, and Jack Kerouac, taking part in the seminal 1955 reading at Six Gallery in San Francisco. That year he made the first of several study periods in Japan over the next fourteen years, living as a “de facto monk”.

HS and GS
In 1958 and 1959 he made (almost) the first translations of the Cold Mountain poems by the numinous 8th-century Zen recluse Hanshan (see his reflections here). At the other end of his life, his poem Go now is an unflinching tribute to his wife in her final days.


He has deepened his early studies by going on to lead a whole life unobtrusively based on Zen, without parading it or getting hung up on, well, anything. Living in harmony with nature in a series of hermitages, his environmental activism has complemented his occasional jobs as seaman, firewatcher, and logger (among a wealth of articles on him, I like this, and this). Now I come to think of it, I’d like to introduce him to Li Manshan—they’re both conscientious, unfussy, living on and with the land.


Snyder made a suitable paragon for Alan Watts (another guru of the age) in his 1959 pamphlet Beat Zen square Zen and Zen, a generous critique of both the Western craze for Zen of the 1950s and the ascetic rule-bound tradition in Japan. Citing Jack Kerouac’s portrayal of him (as “Japhy Ryder”) in The dharma bums, Watts’s warmest words are for Snyder; despite his rigorous training in Japan, he transcended both the “spiritual snobbism and artistic preciousness” of square Zen and the spaced-out bohemian scene of beat Zen. Watts’ tributes in his autobiography In my own way also hit the nail on the head:

Gary is tougher, more disciplined, more physically competent than I, but he embodies those virtues without rubbing them in. (p.309)

He is like a wiry Chinese sage with high cheekbones, twinkling eyes, and a thin beard, and the recipe for his character requires a mixture of Oregon woodsman, seaman, Amerindian shaman, Oriental scholar, San Francisco hippie, and swinging monk, who takes tough discipline with a light heart. (p.439)

From Snyder’s Cold Mountain poems:

In a tangle of cliffs, I chose a place—
Bird paths, but no trails for me.
What’s beyond the yard?
White clouds clinging to vague rocks.
Now I’ve lived here —how many years—
Again and again, spring and winter pass.
Go tell families with silverware and cars
“What’s the use of all that noise and money?”

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the word’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?


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, and Das Land ohne Musik.

For the “Golden Age” of the Tang, Chinese scholars might learn from 17th-century Holland.


[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


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 Laing, 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’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

What’s in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

GL scroll

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

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

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

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

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

For Craig Clunas’s Chinese name, click here.


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

Ritual life around Xi’an

Xi'an miaohui lowres

A new page (under Themes in Menu) introduces changing ritual life around Xi’an, setting forth from my visits since 1986 and the work of the late great Li Shigen.

It accompanies the new track 11 on the audio playlist, with comments here.

As so often for north China, all the musicological studies are very desirable, but there should be far more to it than that. It can’t be left only to musicologists—it’s just as much a topic for historians, ethnographers, and scholars of religion.

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” (guojixing wenhua jiaoliu 国际性文化交流, 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 more on Der Abschied, see also here and here. For more on Mahler in New York, and an ominous funeral, see Mahler 10.


Country titles

Further to tune titles (from The China Daily, and in Irish music),

on the many websites devoted to drôle country song titles, I like

How can I miss you when you won’t go away?

Also of note is

Get your tongue outta my mouth, I’m kissing you goodbye. *

Many such titles, of course, are a stark record of the misogyny of the milieu, though some express mutual alienation—if that helps…

À propos, I note Nicholas Dawidoff’s splendid book title In the country of country—another piece of musical ethnography. See also the films of Ken Burns and Rich Hall.


* On a more scholarly tack, for farewell poems in the Tang dynasty, see 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 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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the work of Allan Marett, another pupil of Laurence, see here and here.

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

See also

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

[3] Ibid. p.221.

Faqu tu 2, or tutu

At Cambridge, Paul Kratochvil was not alone in enjoying a bit of drôlerie.

Here’s another jeu d’esprit on the faqu 法曲, from a precious old letter that I just found from my teacher Denis Twitchett, sent (by post!) from Princeton in 1986. A tad more wacky than his magnum opus Financial administration under the T’ang dynasty, it deserves to take its place among his magisterial writings on Tang history:

Dear Steve,
Some further ruminations on that mysterious term faqu. I am reminded of the hypothesis (first adumbrated in my alas-as-yet-unfinished “Preliminary proleptical remarks proving beyond Reasonable Doubt that Li Bai [aka Patrick O’Leary] was the earliest Irish poet”) that faqu is a rough-and-ready transliteration of the greeting shouted at tax-collectors in the medieval Irish countryside, and also commonly exchanged by rival drivers of donkey carts involved traffic accidents. The etymology of its common form in Chinese is obscure; under the Liao dynasty a folk etymology suggested that it meant “May the Law twist [your private parts]!” It should not be confused with the alternative writing (found in non-Buddhist contexts) fa-k’iu 發具 (explained by Karlgren as “Get out your [ritual] implement!”). This is quite distinct from the forms fakefu 法可夫 or 伏軻䮛 (the latter writing mistranslated by Legge as “Kneel by the hubcap of the Prince Consort”), meaning, according to Admiral Ting (first Chinese to be trained in the Royal Navy), “Be on your way, Jack!”

“French pieces” were surely more normally written in Tang Chinese as faji 法伎 or more colloquially as fashi 法式 “French models”. The title of the well-known Song-dynasty work Yingzao fashi 營造法式 is now attached to a rather boring work on architecture which explains how to construct yourself a baroque dog-kennel without mod cons. This work, however, is clearly a forgery by a Ming author, horrified to the depths of his neo-Confucian sensibilities by the original contents of the book, originally a Song DIY handbook “Make yourself a French model”.

The French presence long predates the Tang, and surely explains Zhuangzi’s Frog in the Well (a fine metaphor for the petty self-interest of the French). This also explains the title of the Tang Li Wa zhuan 李蛙傳, “The story of Froggy Li [the French model]”, and how the word wa “frog” came to have its other meaning “lascivious” or wanton”.

A funky address

To follow Five easy pieces, a very different kind of oeuvre of that époque—less verité—is Jacques Rivette’s 1974 film Céline et Julie vont en bateau.

One abiding memory is my favourite address, where much of the “action” (if that’s the mot juste) takes place:

7 bis, rue du Nadir-aux-Pommes

I often used this a forwarding address.

What an age—Rafaelson, Bertolucci, Godard, Chabrol… (more here). At the time [historical note—Ed.], the way to see all these films was to do something called “going to the cinema”. Late-night Marx brothers films at the Arts Cinema were a rite de passage too…

In my imagination I tend to reduce my student years to the Tang dynasty, violin, and Adnams, forgetting how important (and how modern) my wider education was—film, art, literature. But the lacunas were remarkable too.

Meanwhile, Li Manshan and his fellow Daoists were languishing in silence and hunger (my book, p.133):

“We just sat around at home, but we could never feel at peace”—always fearing a knock at the door.

Money money money

The term emoluments is suddenly enjoying a dubious revival with a clause in the US constitution that is among many currently battening down the hatches.

The term, while not constantly on the lips of the rap generation, evokes fond memories from my days studying Tang history.

True, this is scant consolation for the current Destruction of Civilisation As We Know It.

Another namby-pamby term used in academia that always makes me giggle is honorarium. But since I very occasionally get one, I mustn’t bite the hand that feeds me.

Musos are more straight-talking. One day our Mozart recording sessions in St John’s Smith square were interrupted by deafening building work outside. Reluctant to send us all home, the conductor discussed with the record company whether they might offer the workmen some kind of bribe to knock it off. Meanwhile the orchestra, aware that we would still have to be paid even if the session had to be called off, wondered whether we might make them a better offer to get them to keep going.

This was around the time of a dispute between a certain conductor and the brass players about overtime. A trumpet player (legendary for many touring exploits besides) put their case with the classic remark,

It’s not the principle, it’s the money!

This actually goes back at least to Eisenhower in 1959.



MYL played

Some may (wrongly) imagine folk cultures as a kind of “living fossil”, but in China, thankfully, few yet seek to recreate the performances of the past in arid concert halls. Or at least it’s still a small industry, such as attempts to recreate Tang music… And so far it’s been an exercise performed, with little or no concern for historical style, not by folk musicians but by urban educated pundits and conservatoire performers, trapped within their modern preconceptions. [1] Folk musicians, like symphony orchestras (at least until recently), are quite happy working within their evolving tradition, without agonizing over “preserving” some supposed “authenticity”.

Scholars of Daoist ritual aren’t necessarily seeking to “hear a centuries-old piece of music as it was heard when it was composed”. What they may do, though, is silently equate living performance with that of the Tang or Song dynasties. From my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.369:

While Lagerwey’s fine accounts of Daoist ritual in Taiwan occasionally suggest clues to changing ritual practice in modern times, “our primary interest […] is less to give a complete description of actual practice […] than it is to analyse the deep structure of that practice” (Lagerwey 1987: 91)—an influential perspective that tends to lead to the noble yet arcane goal of studying texts as evidence for the ritual structures of medieval times.

And Daoist scholars do sometimes seek to recreate rituals from the memory of elderly Daoists, as in Shanghai—evidently a worthy “salvage” project, albeit without reference to the changing social context since their youth.

Context and style have changed far less than with WAM—but they have changed. Apart from more general social changes, early music studies influence me in noting all kinds of changes in the Li band’s performance practice since the 1930s (my book pp.358–60):

Recently they have reduced the personnel from seven to six, discarding one guanzi, and the dizi has hardly been needed since the 1990s,

Turning to rituals, since current practice is dominated by funerals, this might at first seem to be their tradition. But they clearly recall a tripartite system of funerary, earth, and temple rituals; even if the latter two are now virtually obsolete, it is clear from their manuals. Thanking the Earth, once their most frequently performed ritual, has been lost since 1954; people can now afford to commission it again, but don’t. Though some temples have been restored, those holding fairs are fewer, and ritual sequences have been simplified along the lines of funerals. Three-day funerals are less common; and when they are held, the old sequence has become simplified and homogenized.

As to ritual segments within funerals, some were already largely obsolete by the 1940s, while others could still be performed in the 1990s but weren’t. Some, like Communicating the Lanterns and Judgment and Alms, have been radically simplified into mere symbolic tokens since the 1990s. Some—such as Dispensing Food or those from the “outer five rituals” like Crossing the Bridges—have become virtually obsolete since the 1950s; Li Qing and his colleagues could perform Opening the Quarters and the Pardon, but his disciples have hardly needed to do so. Yet others were probably rare even by the 1930s (Presenting the Memorial, Roaming the Lotuses, Smashing the Hells) or already lost by then (Offering Viands). Though segments have been adapted under Li Manshan’s leadership, his elders were already doing so long before.

As for the ritual manuals, we must take care to avoid some timeless ideal depiction. As the repertoire shrinks the manuals are not needed at all, but even before the 1950s many segments were performed without them. Li Qing probably didn’t know how to perform some of the rituals whose texts he copied in the 1980s. The lengthy chanted scriptures—around half of the total collection of manuals—were indeed placed on the table during performance, yet Li Qing and his colleagues could recite them so fluently that they barely needed to glance at them; now they are no longer expounded.

Along with the reduction in ritual repertoire, all three performance styles have been reduced—vocal liturgy, percussion items, and melodic instrumental music. The current repertoire of hymns is smaller than that in Li Qing’s score, so where there is a choice (as for Delivering the Scriptures and Transferring Offerings), that choice has become smaller. The “words of blessing” for Thanking the Earth are no longer performed, and fewer shuowen recited introits and mantras for offering paper are used. As the rituals that require them have been lost, instruments like the chaoban tablet, muyu woodblock, and qing bowl have fallen silent; and the dizi flute is no longer part of the melodic ensemble. The lengthy instrumental suites for Thanking the Earth and temple fairs are hardly performed, and the old variety of scales has been reduced. The repertoire of percussion items has also diminished.

But I don’t seek to lead the Li band towards reconstructing the practice of the 1930s, still less that of earlier ages.

Two small examples. Chatting with Li Manshan, I have mentioned how the “classic” instrumentation of the melodic ensemble that accompanies Daoist (and Buddhist) ritual around Beijing, and elsewhere in Shanxi, includes a ten-gong frame of yunluo—like Wutaishan further south, and Tianzhen (adjacent to Yanggao)—where they still use a seven-gong frame, the lowest row missing. If Li Manshan felt so inclined, he could order a ten-gong frame, and “restore” it to the ensemble.

“But we don’t know how to play it!” he comments, reasonably.

“Even I could teach you!” I point out impertinently, adducing the common folk saying,
“A thousand days for the guanzi, a hundred days for the sheng; you can learn the yunluo by the fifth watch”.

But one reason I won’t press the idea is that, despite the Tianzhen yunluo, even Li Manshan’s father Li Qing didn’t recall a ten-gong frame. I may surmise that it must surely have been part of the band at some stage before the 20th century, but I don’t interfere. Li Manshan isn’t in the business of recreation, and neither am I. I describe, not prescribe—except when I transplant them to the alien context of the concert hall, when my subliminal influence, and their own perceptions of the demands of the situation, seem to prompt them to perform with somewhat more grandeur than in the casual current conditions of rural funerals.

Another instance: in Chapter 12 of my book I note that since 1953 there have been hardly any patrons commissioning the two-day Thanking the Earth ritual. Li Qing’s colleague Kang Ren (b.1925) described its sequence to us before his death in 2010; Li Manshan and Golden Noble were interested enough to take notes, but can’t mobilize their local patrons to invite them to do it. Most of its components could be recreated, if there were demand. But there isn’t. This is the kind of thing that Daoist scholars might commission specially as a worthwhile salvage project, but my gentle suggestions lead nowhere. Some other obsolete or rarely-performed funerary rituals (my book ch.13) could also be restored, just about. But local patrons wouldn’t welcome it—it’s inconceivable, until such time as they suddenly do request them.

For thoughts on the recreations of Qing court genres, see here and here; and for John Butt’s wise words on Heritage movements, here.


[1] A rather different, if minor, case is recreations of obsolete rituals at the behest of local Bureaus of Culture. Such initiatives feel artificial, and scholars should take care both to point out the conditions under which they are made and to avoid silently equating them with some “authentic” folk practice. See e.g. Overmyer, Ethnography in China, pp.287–95.

Gems from Chinese history


Some drôle quotes from The Cambridge history of China, which even I didn’t quite dare sneak into the indexes:

What is the use of a stele? —Sui emperor Wendi (“Just call me Wendi”) (vol.3, p.62). Cf. my book p.374!

The Cheng sisters were captured and decapitated. Mopping-up operations continued till the end of 43. —(vol.1, p.271). Messy business eh.

The “director of records for the empress” may have kept a record of the emperor’s cohabitations with the empress. This cannot have been a great burden. —(vol.1, p.503).

Hierarchies are an essential part of a well-ordered society, and they must be accepted voluntarily. —(vol.1, p.705). So there.

Yet more French letters

Female musicians, Tang Dynasty. Note konghou harpist, rear right.

Further evidence that my taste for drôlerie chinoise is far from recent: a spoof I wrote while helping Laurence Picken with his extraordinary research on Tang music—which I elaborated with another Cambridge mentor, the great Tang historian Denis Twitchett. The genre of faqu 法曲 (“dharma pieces”) has indeed been the (serious) object of scholarly attention. Reading this now, I find the fluency of my affectionate pastiche of academic style somewhat disturbing…

Informal communication with Dr T.H. Barrett [1] has suggested the possibility that faqu may actually mean “French pieces”. Study of a recently discovered and as-yet-untranscribed score from Dunhuang for “hand-wind instrument” (perhaps a kind of manually operated keyed chordophone) entitled Dunhuang shoufeng qinpu 敦煌手風琴譜 reveals a colophon dated 1st April 895 (lunar calendar) which contains references to a certain “Master Ma” (Mashi 馬師), or as we might say, “Chevalier”. The authenticity of this score is no longer in doubt. It includes many faqu, besides one title, Zhena legelede li’a 柘拿樂葛樂德篥阿, [2] evidently a transliteration from a language of the Western Regions (xiyu 西域), but otherwise unattested in Tang sources.

The contacts between the Tang court and the Western world are by now well documented. We find frequent references in Tang anecdotal sources to “strings of onions” (congchuan 蔥串), [3] often in connection with men with a certain type of moustache that became highly fashionable under the emperor Xuanzong, riding carts described as “self-propelling” (zixingche 自行車), [4] and clad in close-fitting garments with black and white stripes (a variant of the yinyang symbol?), as well as floppy caps known as beilei 鞞儡.

The French letter: a rejoinder
Further evidence of the Gallic influence on early Chinese musical culture is to be found in the ancient institution of the fashu 法書 (more recently faxin 法信) or “French letter”, a kind of prophylactic talisman deployed in ancient Chinese households in the hope of avoiding unfavorable consequences.

Traditionalists [5] might evoke the sacred power of music and the jiefa 節法 or “rhythm method”, [6] but more pragmatic counsel, favouring foreign and commercial expansion, and under the influence of Buddhist philosophy, gave rise to the “French letter”.

This popular device was available as early as the Tang dynasty in the form still to be found in temples today, the fawu liutong chu 法物流通處 or “Durex machine”. Although nowadays more innocuous material has replaced the original merchandise, the original meaning of “French thingies” (fawu) is clear. The phrase liutong is somewhat arcane: liu implies dissemination, and tong some kind of intercourse, so one might expect tongliu as an early form of resultative verb—thus, perhaps, “French thingies for penetration and ejaculation”.

Faqu tu
Yet another Gallic connection appears in the instrument fajue 法角 “French horn”, often supposed to refer to a kind of conch sounded in ritual. [7] Recent scholarship suggests that jue was often used metaphorically in the Tang, having once been associated with the debauchery of the notorious Zheng and Wei 鄭魏 kingdoms—the latter also known as “Wei-Hei”. Thus it had the connotation of “horny” or “lascivious” music, as in the term jueshi 爵士, once “gentleman of rank” but by the Tang, “jazz” or “jazzer”. The term dejue 得角 “obtain the horn” is also found in the Dunhuang MSS, apparently referring to a desire for imminent fulfillment; not can this be limited to exclusively religious fervour.

The well-known notational technique of denoting rhythm by means of dots to the right-hand side of the note (again referring to the above jiefa “rhythm method”) is also found as early as the Dunhuang pipa score. Known as pangdian 旁點 “a bit on the side”, this practice is thought to have been inspired by the ancient French penchant for extra-curricular activities, or gewai shi 格外事.

Moreover, the ambiguity in Tang scores between jue 角 and yu 羽 modes (Aeolian and Dorian respectively, differing only in the sixth degree of the scale) may also be traced to the innovative cultural influence of the French. The term yu is in fact an abbreviation of yulong 羽龍 or “feathered dragon”, a mythical beast said to appear upon rendition of this mode (cf. Hanfeizi), and this was soon formalized into what we now know as the “feather boa”, and used in the celebrated Huntuo 褌脫 or “Removing the Drawers” dance, itself remarkable for its ambiguity between jue and yu modes. Thus the apparel used in this ancient French ritual dance gave its name to the mode most often used to accompany it.

For a sequel, see here; and for more Tang drolerie, here.


[1] In the Aardvark and Climbing Boot, 14th October 1985. Just before closing time.
[2] For the reconstructed Tang pronunciation of this enigmatic title, see Karlgren, Grammata Serica Recensa. Can the resemblance to Je ne regrette rien be fortuitous?
[3] Alternatively, some commentators have construed this phrase as indicating the Congling 蔥嶺 range in Central Asia. Indeed, the recent excavation of a large hoard of 7th-century snail shells from this very region makes the siting of a French colony there highly plausible.
[4] Thought to refer to a mystical “journey of the spirit”: see H. Maspero, “Le voyage dans le monde intérieur et la difficulté de trouver un endroit pour le parking”, T’oung Pao 27 (1913), pp. 856–979. For a similar view of the spiritual propensities of this means of conveyance, see Flann O’Brien, The third policeman.
[5] On the conflict between rival factions under Xuanzong, see The Cambridge history of China, vol.3.
[6] See Jones, “Time gentlemen please: the bell as colotomic indicator in Chinese ritual music” (for further articles I haven’t really written, see here).
[7] Cf. the hujia 胡笳 “barbarian pipes”, another import from the Western regions. 2019 update: in an apparent nod to Goodness Gracious Me, it has recently been “proved” that the ancient Gauls came from Hunan—where Daoists still use both a conch and a curved ox-horn 牛角 (popularly known as kaluosa 咔螺薩, a more durable form of the French croissant) to great effect in their rituals. Indeed, will Chinese scholars now “prove” that Charlemagne 沙了蠻 was a Tang vassal?

1990 Daoist


Drunken Zhong Kui

I wrote this programme note for a festival of Chinese music at the Carnegie Hall, about the plot of a Hokkien opera:

Zhong Kui is a famous classical scholar, but he is extremely ugly. The Tang emperor, judging him by his appearance, rejects him for an official post. Feeling humiliated, Zhong Kui commits suicide, whereupon the God of the Underworld gives him a job as God of Exorcism. With innumerable demons to quell, Zhong Kui is troubled. The more he drinks, the worse his problems become, but he can only focus on the endless war against demons and evil spirits.

What is the moral here? That ugliness, depression, and substance-abuse must not detract from the ongoing war on terrorism?! Discuss.

 OK, that last bit got judiciously cut, but still.