Workgang song (haozi): shakin’ off the blues, but a little wicked too

Our previous note on vernacular minstrels as a middle stratum in the performance arena, dependent on humor, irreverance, or sheer virtuosity (Eddy Murphy would recognize them straight off) for their living, takes us to a next set of subjects. How seamlessly (or otherwise) did the “entertainer” class with its penchant for talking too much and too fast fit into the propaganda mix of the pre-“glasnost” years (1949 – +/- 1980). Or even after for that matter: surveillance continues if much more subtly, even of joint-venture film or music made for “China Inc” profits? I think the centering of this inquiry is the purpose of Zhang Yimous’s Red Sorghum biography of a kind of minstrel: a freewheeling leader or actor able to take defiant control of almost any situation. One who in particular is master of the workplace chanty or improvised “haozi” (more on which below).

Let’s begin again, but from another angle. Who is the prototype? The unofficial “boss” of the foc’sle, the yarnspinner, the guy who always has a slightly off-color doggerel on his lips – he exists everywhere, it is only the manner of his remuneration that varies. It can be only appreciative co-chuckling, or (if he is bold enough to try earning a living with it) it can be inflated tips when the hat is passed (it cannot of course be an invite to dine with the mayor….). But the personality and the art remain the same: the “ad lib” personality, the clown always delighted to find another boundary to transgress even as he pretends to pay homage…, the rapid-fire improviser, impossible to trap, agile enough to ever avoid advocacy. And of course the born mimic.

In the usual manner of things, the sensible captain will just barely tolerate him.
If the lash is (occasionally) to be applied, let it be the juniormost of his cadets that organize the job. Like for like, our Local Wit will try his best to keep his quiet, to hush down the snickering, when the cabins are under inspection. Captain Queeg only much later learned about the “Old Yellerstain” blues: characteristically it had been elaborated only late night, and by carefully covered-over resinging behind the funnel.

The above is of course merely imaginative, but why not push it one step further. Suppose there is a mutiny, and not just on board the one ship, but across the fleet, a replay of the great Spithead Mutiny of 1797 that almost put the Royal Navy out of commission; or of the whirlwind of discompliances thrown up by the French poilus in 1917, resisting by shamming of sheep and bleating noises any return to the horrors of Verdun or the Somme? Or thence (next step) what if there do indeed turn out to be outside agitators, in this for keeps? And then, further, say April 1917 on the Eastern Front, when the agitators ally with the Soviets of St. Petersburg? and, just like that, become a new class of leaders-cum-oppressors? Where does this leave our foc’sle entertainer? He is of course a natural suspect, but that can be a plus as well as minus, depending…

Fast forward then to China in the years, say, between 1940 and 1966. So-called street musicians and all other types of downmarket performers were in general successfully enrolled in performers’ cooperatives (though it is unclear if or when this occurred on any great scale along the rural perimeter). Everything looks fine in the films and documentaries. But could they stay that way? The more skillful the showman, probably the less content he/(and by now she) could be with following orders, performing other people’s scripts, no mention which (worse still) turn out to be patchworks of the stuff he and his fellow miscreants used in their own acts. There could be no true uprooting of distrust. In one form or another, there would be a “rectification”. No more singing or cavorting for YOU… time now for the “model” stage: the mechanically scripted “yangban” repertory that must either be rigidly adhered to or else. Jacobean populism. How many free spirits could weather such changes?

And finally we come to the 1980s. Deng Xiaoping’s glasnost. If, as promised, the lid was off, what was the new norm? Having once been put in straightjacket, would the performing “class” ever regain its eclat, its on-stage panache? (Guo Lanying, for example, barely did — between 1964 and 1976 she gave no preserved performances, and those coming later are subdued). If this was so at the top, it must have been even more so at the nether levels.

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