Householders Shen Yunsheng, Tan Rongguang, Lin Zhongfu and group – Sanskrit Mantra of Scattering Flowers, Pts 1 & 2
July 29, 2014
Alright, well, it’s been a while. It’s no secret that I sometimes take extended breaks. That doesn’t mean the collecting stops. Over the past few months I’ve had all manner of guests make a pit stop at Excavated Shellac headquarters to share sounds, from super-collectors to researchers to designers to dear friends. Amanda Petrusich’s book was released, in which I play a really small part, but was surprisingly quoted (almost at my most sarcastic – hey, I was on a roll) in the Wall Street Journal and LA Times. And I’ve also done a lot of work on projects that should see the light of day in the next year if I can swing it. My point is, sometimes it’s good for me to just take a break, take stock of why the hell I’m doing this, collect without that obsessive “need” and without impending, unwieldy projects looming overhead (real or imagined), and just listen to music for a while.
Well, it was fun while it lasted!
I’d realized it’s been about five years since I’d posted music from China. This disc, recorded ca. mid- to late 1928, is an unusual example as it does not feature a type of Chinese opera or popular music, probably the most overwhelmingly common types of music recorded in China at the time. Instead, it’s a recording that features chanting from a Buddhist sutra – specifically from the Vimalakirti Sutra.
I make no claims to scholarship in Buddhism. It seems to be well-documented, however, that the Vimalakirti Sutra has a lengthy history of reverence and popularity in China, having first been translated into Chinese from Sanskrit in 188 CE. In a 2014 paper on the Vimalakirti by Professor Jonathan A. Silk, he quotes Sinologist Erik Zürcher in his book The Buddhist Conquest of China as stating that “this scripture may be regarded…as a real compendium of Mahayana doctrine,” and “one of the most venerated and influential works of the Buddhist canon in the Far East.”
In the sutra, a goddess visits the room of the layperson Vimalakirti and proceeds to scatter flowers over both enlightened bodhisattvas and disciples, all gathered in the room. The flowers immediately fall off the bodhisattvas, yet they stick to the disciples. The goddess explains (quoting one easily obtainable English translation): “It is only because the latent influences [of your afflictions] are not yet exhausted that the flowers stick to your bodies. For those in whom the latent influences are exhausted, the flowers do not stick.” This seems to be the precise reference in the title to this piece, the “mantra” sung by three “householders” (laypersons, or “retired scholars” per Prof. Silk).
The Victor Talking Machine Company was one of the most prominent companies recording in parts of China in the early part of the 20th century, although all major labels were quite active. Their first one-sided recordings of Chinese music, on their Monarch label, were made ca. 1902, likely in San Francisco, and are quite rare and in demand. They eventually began recording onsite in China in 1905. In the meantime, they continued their trading arrangement with their “sister” company in Great Britain, the Gramophone Company, who had recorded in China before Victor, in 1903, by repressing some of those earliest recordings on their own Victor label. By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Victor was recording Chinese music in all manner of dialects and styles including Amoy, Mandarin, Fuzhou, Shantou, Teochew, and especially Cantonese. Victor recorded thousands of Chinese discs before World War II. I’ve broadly and extensively documented Victor’s activity in a paper that will soon be published online, which I will eventually provide a link to.
I’ve included both sides of this record. For help with all our “latent influences.” Enjoy.
Issue Numbers: 42742 A1/B2
Matrix Numbers: n/a
Thank you to Sun and the research of Du Jun Min.
January 12, 2009
My friend Dave at Haji Maji posts the best vintage Chinese opera in town, but I thought I’d present another from my own collection. Before I prepped this track, of course I went to Dave and his helpful translators for assistance, and they came through with even more information than I had hoped for.
There are always some barriers when trying to find out information on old records besides what might seem the most obvious barrier: language. There is no giant resource in a library somewhere that contains everything you’d need to know about record label activity in all the continents, dates of releases, or perhaps more importantly, the style and history of some of the music itself. A huge portion is a secret history. In the case of the rich and long history of Chinese opera, about which I know only a smattering, I am grateful for any information anyone can give me, or directions to be pointed in.
This is an example of Wai Jiang Opera (also known as Gua Gang, or Goa-Kang as it’s spelled on the label), which is related to Teochew Opera, popular in Southeastern China. Wai Jiang was popular with elites apparently, and generally tends to be about heroes, battles, and the like. This piece seems to be Part 1 of a finale in a 13-part opera translated as “The Execution of Wei Hu.” The Wei Hu of the story is the second brother-in-law of the famed Tang Dynasty general Xue Ren Gui. In short, Wei Hu tried to sabotage his brother-in-law’s rule, and this excerpt is the confrontation and subsequent killing of Wei Hu, at the hands of Xue Ren Gui.
It’s a wild and wonderful piece, apparently typical of Wai Jiang opera, with classic examples of blood-curdling screams, the everpresent clashing gongs, and soft, delicate interludes. Thanks to reader ChrisZ, we know it was recorded ca. 1926-1927 by engineer Max Birckhahn, likely in Singapore. Xin Tian Cai Ban, the troupe performing the opera, was from Chaozhou (aka Teochew) in Guangdong Province, and was popular during the very early part of the 20th century.
Many thanks to Dave Murray and Ms. Javier Li Yong-En of the Thau Yong Amatuer Musical Society.
Issue Number: 17-1 (6)
Matrix Number: 26371