June 9th, 2007

Ther love songs start at dusk, at first drifting across from the other side of the river. The bamboo groves on the mountain opposite are bathed in the gold of the lingering rays of the sun while this side of the river is already cloaked in night. Young women in groups of five or six come to the river bank, some standing in a circle and others calling their lovers. Melodious singing rapidly fills the vast night. Young women are everywhere, still with their parasols up and holding a handkercheif or a fan. There are also some thirteen- or fourteen year old girls who are just becoming aware of boys.
In each group one girl leads the singing and the other girls harmonize. I observe that the lead singer is invariably the prettiest of the group, I suppose choice by beauty is a fairly natural principle.
The voice of the lead singer rises in the air and I can’t help noticing her utter sincerity. The correct word is perhaps not “sing”, for the clear shrill sounds come from deep within so that body and heart respond. The sounds seem to travel from the soles of the feet then shoot up between the eyes and the forehead before they are produced – no wonder they’re called “flying songs”. It is totally instinctive, uncontrived, unrestrained and unembellished, and certainly devoid of what might be called embarrasment. Each woman exerts herself, body and heart, to draw her man to her.


So-called civilisation in later ages separated sexual impulse from love and created the concepts of status, wealth, religion, ethics and cultural responsibility. Such is the stupidity of human beings.

Gao Xingjian on Miao courting.


Our singer is called Josephine. Anyone who has not heard her does not know the power of song. There is no one but is carried away by her singing, a tribute all the greater as we are not in general a music-loving race. Tranquil peace is the music we love best; our life is hard, we are no longer able, even on occasions when we have tried to shake off the cares of daily life, to rise to anything so high and remote from our usual routine as music. But we do not much lament that; we do not get even so far; a certain practical cunning, which admittedly we stand greatly in need of, we hold to be our greatest distinction, and with a smile born of such cunning we are wont to console ourselves for all shortcomings, even supposing—only it does not happen that we were to yearn once in a way for the kind of bliss which music may provide. Josephine is the sole exception; she has a love for music and knows too how to transmit it; she is the only one; when she dies, music—who knows for how long—will vanish from our lives.

I have often thought about what this music of hers really means. For we are quite unmusical; how is it that we understand Josephine’s singing or, since Josephine denies that, at least think we can understand it. The simplest answer would be that the beauty of her singing is so great that even the most insensitive cannot be deaf to it, but this answer is not satisfactory. If it were really so, her singing would have to give one an immediate and lasting feeling of being something out of the ordinary, a feeling that from her throat something is sounding which we have never heard before and which we are not even capable of hearing, something that Josephine alone and no one else can enable us to hear. But in my opinion that is just what does not happen, I do not feel this and have never observed that others feel anything of the kind. Among intimates we admit freely to one another that Josephine’s singing, as singing, is nothing out of the ordinary.


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