Chinese and Bagpipe Music

As many who know me will be aware, I’ve spent a good deal of the last three or four years trying to make some inroads into the Chinese language. This is, in part, related to my various research interests, and in part related to the book I’ve been working on exploring the Yijing, or Chinese Book of Changes, as a kind of Calvino-style literature machine. And although progress has been perhaps a little slow, Chinese being—as China scholar David Moser once famously pointed out—damn hard, I’m fairly happy overall with how it has all been going. I’m terribly rusty on conversation, to be sure—living here in the UK, I don’t have as much practice as I would like—and my reading ability goes up and down, but I can pick my way through academic articles in Chinese, at least on a good day, or if I do it in the morning when my mind is fresh; and I’m finding the experience of getting to grips with Chinese immensely fruitful. And, more to the point, fun.

I’ve been thinking a bit about the processes of moving between languages recently, in part because I am deeply immersed at the moment in Douglas Hofstadter’s wonderful book on language, music, translation, learning, cognition and—well, and almost everything else—[amazon_link id=”0465086454″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language[/amazon_link] (a book where the above-mentioned David Moser makes several appearances, incidentally). Hofstadter—a polyglot who claims, however, to only speak around π languages, which is to say, 3.14159 or so—is wonderful on the complexities and puzzles presented by the notion of translation, by the attempt to move from one language to another. And it struck me reading this book on the music of language that my Chinese has perhaps always been lacking in that distinctive ‘music’ of Chinese-ness. As the Chinese friend who I meet up with weekly, and who patiently corrects my mistakes, said some time ago, there has always been something weirdly non-natural, something weirdly foreign-sounding about the way I was speaking: the tones may have been right (more or less), the sounds may have been right (give or take a bit), but the music has always been somehow lacking.

Part of the problem here, perhaps, is that I’ve learned Chinese really rather systematically, character-by-character, memorising tones, spending hours on end just doing the ground-work: and there’s a huge amount of work to be done, after all, before a page of Hanzi doesn’t fill you with a trembling anticipatory of terror. I’ve done OK in this respect; but there is something about learning in this way that has made my ex per i ence of the Chi nese lan guage some what dis join ted.

Thinking about all this, I remembered a wonderful book I read several years ago, by Timothy Rice, about Bulgarian Music called [amazon_link id=”0226711226″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]May It Fill Your Soul: Experiencing Bulgarian Music[/amazon_link], in which he talks about the process of learning to play the gaida, the Bulgarian bagpipes. Now the thing about the gaida for a musicologist raised in the Western European tradition is that all those ornaments are really rather hard to notate on the stave. Rice notes that he began learning about Bulgarian music by ‘refining concepts from my training in Western music in order to explain what I heard and saw in Bulgarian music and dance’: but something essential about Bulgarian music remained out of reach (he refers to it as ‘le mystère des doigts bulgares‘), and he remained incapable of playing the typically burbling gaida ornamentation at the kind of speed that was required. How, he wondered, could anybody’s fingers work so fast?

The breakthrough came when he realised that his Western European concepts of ‘melody’ and ‘ornamentation’ (perhaps mirroring the old philosophical distinction between ‘substance’ and ‘accident’…? But that’s a discussion for another day!), that these analytical categories, would not cut it, when he started to just ‘play around’ physically with the instrument, copying the way that he saw Bulgarian musicians playing around, moving his fingers the way Bulgarian players did; and when he did, these concepts of ‘melody’ and ‘ornamentation’ fused into ‘a single concept expressed most vividly in the hands, not in musical notation.’

A concept expressed in the hands? What could this mean? Here Rice draws a connection with how children learn to play music in Bulgaria, which is largely by listening and by physical imitation. A concept expressed in the hands is a way of moving, a way of embodying music, born out of a close attention to what other, better players do. If you listen enough, watch closely enough, and move your fingers in imitation of what you see, then something happens. And this is what:

The effect of this conceptual shift from notated ideas to movement ideas astonished me. I went from tense, slow playing to relaxed, fast playing in the blink of a concept. Without further practice, I doubled my playing speed, relaxed my hands, and emitted more ornaments than ever before. Without had found the elusive ‘gaida player’s fingers’ and solved le mystère des doigts bulgares. (84)

What does all this have to do with Chinese? Well, remembering Rice’s account of his Bulgarian music experience, and thinking about the music of language, I’ve had a small insight into how to improve my Chinese. The other day I realised I realised that the concepts that I had been labouring under—the concepts of ‘initials’ and ‘finals’ and ‘tones’ and so forth, concepts of ‘characters’ and ‘words’, even—could be blended into something else: a physical, embodied concept that was, for want of a better way of putting it, the concept ‘speaking Chinese‘. And so I got up from my desk where I was studying, and started to declaim the dialogue I was working on, with gestures, watching the way my mouth moved in the mirror, turning myself bodily into a Chinese speaker. And, as with Rice’s experience, something changed. Within ‘the blink of a concept’, I was speaking with a kind of ease that I have hitherto never managed. Later on, when I met up with my Chinese friend, she was astonished. ‘Your Chinese sounds like Chinese, she said.’

Of course, there’s a long way to go, and I’m not expecting anything like fluency any time soon; but I feel that here I’ve turned at least one corner in this twisting path towards something like eventual competence in the damnably hard language that is Chinese. And this says something, I think, more generally about what it is to learn, about how learning is not just an acquisition of further bits of information, but is also a refashioning of the body and what we do with it. But that, too, is perhaps something for another day.

P.S. If you were disappointed that this post wasn’t about Louis MacNeice, then click here.



Maybe a tangent, maybe not, but your thoughts triggered connections to my understanding of how Confucius could see ritual practice as ultimately leading to “harmonious ease,” in Slingerland’s translation–but only after years of physical practice combined with an aesthetic appreciation for the spirit of the rites.

It’s late here and I may be unclear, but two great reads that point in this direction are Fingarette’s Confucius: The Secular as Sacred and Eno’s The Confucian Creation of Heaven: Philosophy and the Defense of Ritual Mastery. If you haven’t read them, I think you’ll enjoy them immensely.


Fascinating stuff… to me “learning Chinese” is still a dream.


Yes, I think you are right, @cbruell. Poor old Kongzi gets a rough deal for being stiff and inflexible; whilst I think there’s probably something in this idea of ritual as leading to ease and freedom. There’s a nice Buddhist story in the Pāli texts about a horse that does all kinds of tricks (“the royal acrobatic feat” was my favourite!), but only because of long training. I’ll track down the Eno and Fingarette. Thanks for the tips!

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