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.