The Golden Age of Whistling

Third century advice for surviving pandemics and murderous autocrats

This morning, while waiting for my hard-boiled egg to be ready, I read a poem that ruined my day.


I sent out invitations

To summon guests.

I collected together

All my friends.

Loud talk

And simple feasting:

Discussion of philosophy,

Investigation of subtleties.

Tongues loosened

And minds at one.

Hearts refreshed

By discharge of emotion!

My pandemic comrades will appreciate how this invocation of simple feasting and the summoning of guests was a punch to the gut. I am all about the feasting. My Sichuan path leads from bbq to banquet and back again; my research project is in fact a dinner party. Even as I felt solidarity with this third century author, Chengong Sui, invoking the heart-refreshing power of loosened tongues across the millennia, I was overcome by wistful melancholy.

Eager to ruin everyone else's day, I shared the poem on social media and then prepared to get back to work on the second installment of The Chronicles of Salt and Sichuan (Part I is here.) But I found I could not shake the power of the poem. I had never previously encountered Chenggong Sui. I needed to know more about his gatherings. I did a little Googling.

Oh my. Chenggong Sui was an expert in "transcendental whistling" who lived during the "Golden Age of Whistling" and is the author of the magnificent Rhapsody on Whistling.

An excerpt, translated from the Wenxuan by David Knechtges:

A young gentleman, aloof from the crowd,

Eccentric in manner, fond of the strange,

Scornful of the world, oblivious of honor,

Abandons all worldly affairs.

He admires the lofty minded, yearns for the ancients,

Thinks of the distant, ponders the far away.

He will ascend Mount Ji to ennoble his character,

Or float the azure sea to let his mind wander free.

And then, he invites good friends,

Gathers about him like-minded companions.

He has mastered the supreme subtleties of life and fate,

Discerned the dark secrets of the Way and Virtue.

He grieves that the profane world is unenlightened,

And that he alone, transcending all care, was the first to awaken.

Stinted by the narrowness of the mundane road,

He gazes on the concourse of Heaven and treads on high.

Removing himself from pomp and vulgarity, he becomes oblivious of self,

And with strong feeling makes a long-drawn whistle.

Discerning readers will note the similarities in the second section of the passage quoted here to elements of Inviting Guests, to which all I can say is that, as I propelled myself at high speed down the transcendental Daoist whistling rabbit hole, Chenggong Sui's dinner parties became more and more alluring. I have already made my vow: at my next bbq, we will be whistling the dark secrets of the Way.

Because of course the Confucians were anti-whistling, as we learn from Su Juilong's "Whistling and its Magico-Religious Tradition: a Comparative Perspective." Confucianists tended to find "excessive emotional outbursts" off-putting, writes Su, while making the hard-to-disagree assertion that "sharp, piercing whistling must be offensive to Confucian ritualists."

Which is why the era of the Six Dynasties, that chaotic interregnum between the Han and Tang dynasties, merits Su's description as "the golden age of whistling."

"In pre-Qin literature, whistlers include women, children, shaman, and a theriomorophic goddess. However, by the Han, Wei and Jin Dynasties, the practitioners came to include persons from almost all walks of life: recluses, hermit-scholars, generals, Buddhist monks, non-Chinese foreigners, women, high society elite, some believers in the Sect of Celestial Masters, and Daoist priests. Xiao [whistling] seems to have permeated all strata of Six Dynasties society, which was truly the golden age of xiao."

(I'll save you the Google: theriomorphic means "having an animal form," and refers in this case to the Queen Mother of the West, often depicted with the body of a tiger, and apparently a legendary whistler.)

The collapse of the Han was followed by the chaotic rise and fall of the Wei, Jin and the rest of the Six Dynasties. After centuries of relative peace, it was an era of great disorder, the essence of which was memorably captured by the French Sinologist Etienne Balacz in his essay, Nihilistic Revolt or Mystical Escapism: Currents of Thought in China During the Third Century A.D.

"China at this stage in her history presented a picture of total desolation. Everything was in ruins: the towns destroyed, the countryside devastated, the population pillaged and massacred, their homes burnt down. In the vast disorder created by brigands and soldiers, by victims of disaster and refugees, there was a general atmosphere of panic, and everyone lived in a constant state of anxiety about what the morrow might bring."

(Can you dig it, 2020?)

With the reputation of Confucian authority in shattered disarray, the Chinese looked elsewhere for lessons in how to live. This is the era when so-called Neo-Daoist xuanxue (deep, or dark, learning) flourished, when the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove eschewed politics to gather in the woods, play their zithers, recite poetry, drink wine, and imbibe the deadly alchemical concoction  of five-stone powder for hallucinogenic purposes. This is when Buddhism first started to gain real traction in China.

This is when Chenggong Sui flourished. This is when he hosted his dinner parties. This is when he whistled.

Thus, to make this sound one needs no instrument,

To effect it one requires no other thing.

He takes it near at hand from his own body,

And does it by using his mind and controlling his breath.

He simply moves his lips and there is a tune,

He opens his mouth and creates a sound.

Moved by whatever he encounters,

He responds in kind, sings forth accordingly.

The sound is loud but never boisterous,

It is faint but never inaudible.

In clarity and intensity it matches syrinx and mouth organ,

In richness and smoothness it equals lute and zither.

Its mysterious wonder is sufficient to commune with gods and awaken spirits;

Its refined subtlety is sufficient to explore the hidden and fathom the deep.

I feel better now, panic and anxiety and the lack of dinner parties notwithstanding. Whistling in the face of madness makes tremendous sense. I will practice, as I wait for the day when party invites can go out again.

After all, how hard can it be?