The New Year celebrations provided the old gentlemen of Likiang with an opportunity to stage several concerts of sacred music in which they were adept. Madame Lee’s husband was also a musician in his own right and heartily participated in these highbrow functions. The concerts were a unique institution and were so inspiring and interesting that I never failed to attend them. It was wonderful and extraordinary to hear the music which was played during the hey-dey of the glorious Han and Tang dynasties, and probably during the time of Confucius himself. This musical tradition was one of the most cherished among the Nakhi and was zealously transmitted from father to son. A well-to-do Nakhi in the city could only be accepted as a real gentleman if he knew this ancient music or was a fully fledged Chinese scholar. When I discovered this noble academic preoccupation of the Nakhi men, I felt a new respect for them. I forgave the Nakhi women for over-indulgence to their menfolk. They gave them leisure, and at least a part of it did not go to waste. Spoilt they were, these Nakhi men, and many smoked opium to excess, but passing years mellowed them and turned their hearts to the attainment of culture and of the understanding of beautiful things. They had time for thinking and meditation. They had time to observe and drink deeply of the beauty of their marvellous valley and this did not fail to uplift and inspire them. Without being Taoists, they absorbed much of the wisdom of Tao, not through learning perhaps, but intuitively. Their happiness was great and they did their best to express it in the elegant and classical manner of their ancestors who had drunk deeply of Confucian idealism. The old Sage had always taught that music was the greatest attainment of a civilized man: and to music they turned to express the exquisite joy of living and to enhance the serenity of their old age.
A great blow was struck to Chinese civilization with the loss of Confucius’s own Book of Music. It was probably destroyed, along with other classics, during the great burning of books undertaken by Chin Shi Hwangti, builder of the Great Wall of China. Yet it is impossible to believe that the tradition of that great music did not survive in some remote places.
The Nakhi were extremely fortunate in having had a long contact with a remarkable man and himself a musician, the great General Chukoliang of the Three Kingdoms period (c. A.D. 221—65). That was shortly after the disintegration of the Han dynasty. That cultured general spent years in and around what is now Likiang and even left, as a memorial, several huge stone drums at Laba (Shihku) only eighty It from Likiang on the Yangtze River. He spared no effort or money to implant Chinese culture among the tribes, of whom he evidently preferred the bright Nakhi. Tradition says he himself taught them sacred music as he believed firmly in its civilizing influence. He left them a legacy of the musical instruments of that period and the sacred scores, and his able students and their descendants reverently preserved them in all their purity for succeeding generations.
There is nothing improbable in this. Chukoliang was a historical figure and his campaigns in ancient Yunnan are recorded history. That he was a man of outstanding cultural attainments is also an undisputed fact. If Likiang has remained so little known and isolated, even to the Chinese, up to this, day, we can only imagine how perfect the isolation was in those days. There had been invasions and military campaigns in Yunnan, but they affected the inner life of the Nakhi very little. Likiang was not a very great prize of war, being so small, remote and difficult of access. No Chinese general or his soldiers ever wanted to stay an extra day at so barbarous a place, with the bright lights of the capital and untold refinements of the Chinese life tempting them back.
So long as the Nakhi kings accepted the nominal suzerainty of the Chinese Emperor and sent some measure of tribute, they were left alone. Even the great conqueror Kublai Khan, who invaded Yunnan in the thirteenth century, advancing through the Kingdom of Muli with 1,200 chariots, barely glanced at the valley whose Nakhi king had offered his submission in advance. He was much more interested in investing Tali, whose proud Nanchiao king defied him, sitting in his impregnable Tower of Five Glories which accommodated a garrison of 50,000 men.
Thus Likiang has ever remained peaceful and isolated, and could devote itself to the perpetuation of cherished ancient arts. Indeed, it was China that had to sacrifice the purity of her music and drama to the whims of vulgar Mongol and Manchu conquerors. She had even to sacrifice her style of coiffure and dress, such as the long queue for men and the sheath-like dress of women. The conquests did harm to Chinese civilization and culture, and music perhaps suffered most at the hands of the invaders. The present-day Chinese falsetto singing and the discordant and shallow music of Chinese theatres are no more representative of the ancient classical music of China than modern jazz is representative of classical Greek music. Some esoteric Taoist monasteries have preserved fragments of the classical music and they perform it in their ceremonies and dances, but the instruments and the score they use are far less genuine than those preserved by the Nakhi.
When I was in Likiang sacred concerts were usually held at some rich man’s house. At intervals food and drinks were served both to the participants and the guests. The musical sessions were long and arduous but everybody was happy and attentive. The instruments were carefully arranged in a long room, sometimes in the enclosed veranda, and the atmosphere was reverent and definitely religious, with the scent of incense burning in great brass burners. There were the old carved frames on which multi-toned bronze bells were hanging in rows. Another frame had rows of chromatic jade pieces in the form of lunettes. A great and sonorous gong was suspended from a tall stand. There was a long chin or the prototype of the modern piano lying on a long table. Only very few people knew how to play it. And there were huge standing guitars, smaller pipas and several kinds of long and short flutes and pipes.
The old musicians, all formally dressed in long gowns and makwas, took their seats unhurriedly, caressing their long white beards. One man acted as conductor. They peered at the score: a flute wailed and one by one other instruments joined in. Although I love music, I am not, alas, a musician and cannot describe the music that followed in technical terms. It was majestic and inspiring and proceeded in rising and falling cadences. Then, as a climax, the great gong was struck. I have never heard in China such a deep and sonorous gong: the whole house seemed to vibrate with its velvety waves. Then, rising from their chairs, the elders sang a sacred ode in a natural voice and with great reverence and feeling. Then the symphony continued, with notes of unimagined sweetness, falling like a cascade from the jade lunettes, and giving way to a golden shower of sounds from the chromatic bells. The chords from the great chin were like diamonds dropped into the golden melody, reinforced by a stopped diapason. Never was there any dissonance or retreat from harmony.
To a Western ear it might have appeared somewhat monotonous, but actually there was no repetition. It was only that the theme was unfolding in rhythmic waves of sound into which new motives were constantly introduced. It was a recital of the cosmic life as it was unfolding in its grandeur, unmarred by the discordant wails and crashes of petty human existence. It was classical, and timeless. It was the music of the gods and of a place where there is serenity, eternal peace and harmony. If it appeared monotonous to the uncomprehending people, it was because their hearts did not reach the right equilibrium and stability. They only understood the music which suited their own condition of struggle and conflict. They wanted to hear the shouts of their ephemeral victories and crashes of their defeats, the wails of their death throes and discordant screeches of their insane carnivals. The majestic rhythm of a universe left them cold. Chaos was nearer their nature and they wanted to hear the sound of explosions even in music. The ancient sages were the true children of nature and immeasurably closer to the Divine. They understood better the nature of melodies and harmonies and to them music was one of the surest means of communion with Heaven and subjugation of the animal in man. Let us hope that this treasure of music in Likiang may be secure from the ravages of the modern age.
It was not in music alone that the men of Likiang were proficient, and some of them devoted their life to painting. Flowers and birds were their favourite subjects and they decorated many ceilings and panels in the elegant homes of the wealthy. They did not paint for money or fame but simply to satisfy their craving for the expression of beauty in pictorial form.
Quite a few Nakhi became Chinese scholars and wrote elegant poetry and essays which were not disdained even in sophisticated China: and even the humble Hoyei of my Copper Mining Co-operative was a painter of talent and a poet. I still treasure a small scroll he painted and inscribed for me.
The concept of Time in Likiang was totally different from that in the West. In Europe, and especially in America, the greater part of Time is devoted to making money, not so much to sustain life in decent conditions as to accumulate more and more comforts and luxuries. The rest of Time, which remains unoccupied, is ‘killed’ in a manner which has now become routine and rigid. Because of the preoccupation with work and the ritual killing of Time, there has grown up a comparatively new concept of the man who is so busy that he has no time at all. This idea of the man who is so busy that he has not a minute to spare has been enthroned as the standard by which all humanity is judged. The normal man is now he who repeats that he is extremely busy and has no time and he is treated with great respect. Men whose time is totally or partially unoccupied are considered abnormal and inefficient and efforts are directed to make them normal, either by making them work or at least by training them to kill whatever Time is free.
This strange attitude to Time in the West is not due to an antagonism to Time itself but to the unreality of the modern world which man has created for himself. With his misdirected energy and his lack of understanding he has made his world so complex and so filled with the trivia of existence that he has lost himself in it, like a Minotaurian labyrinth, and for him it has become the only reality. True reality is thought of as a philosophical abstraction fit only for a few thinkers and not for busy men. As the true reality is the only one that gives man a full satisfaction in Time, the unreal world of activity and pointless rush can only give an illusion of life. Whenever the rush stops, Time proclaims the void, and it is to escape the void that the time must be killed. It is done by highly and systematically organized sport, radio, movies, tourism, clubs and parties — by anything that can conceal the frightening face of Time. The more the reality of life is avoided the more necessary it is to kill Time. But without reality whatever man perceives is nothing but illusion and vexation of spirit.
In the beautiful valley of Likiang, then still untouched by the complexities and hurry of modern life, Time had a different value. It was a gentle friend and a trusted teacher, possessing, there, a magical property which not only I but others had noticed. Instead of being too long it was too short; the days passed like hours and the weeks like days; a year was like a month, and my ten years spent there went by like one.
It was not true that we were so busy that we had no time to perceive all the beauty and goodness that was in that blessed valley. There was time for both. The people in the street interrupted their bargaining to admire a clump of roses or peer for a minute into the clear depths of a stream. Farmers paused in their fields to gaze at the ever-changing face of the Snow Mountain. A flight of cranes was breathlessly watched by the market crowds and the song of birds was commented upon at length by busy Minkia carpenters who leaned back from their saws and axes. The groups of apple-cheeked old men, with flowing beards, laughed and joked like children as they descended the hill, with rods in hand, for a fishing trip. A factory closed for a day or two as the workers suddenly wanted to have a picnic by a lake or on the Snow Mountain. And yet their work was done and done well.
No Nakhi ever wanted to leave the valley if he could help it. Even those who had seen the neon-lit glories of Shanghai, Hongkong and Calcutta always wanted to return to Likiang to live. The same was true of the Tibetans, Lolos and even Minkia. Those who had travelled described vividly their revulsion and horror of the great cities they visited, with their hot, treeless streets, box-like buildings, sordid and foetid slums, and soulless, rapacious people who milled through the streets in vast, drab, grey crowds. In Likiang, where every man and woman was an individual and a person, the very idea of the shuffling, anonymous multitudes of China and India made these independent people shudder. The idea of free people being shut up to work in airless rooms for hours was abhorrent to the Nakhi. Neither for love nor money, they declared, would they ever work in such factories as they had seen in Kunming and Shanghai.