Beijing airport, November 1977:

The custom officers are the nicest we have ever encountered. They welcome us with wide smiles, and actually wave us in. Searching our bags would seemingly be a great offence which they would not dare impose on us.

There is no need to be frightened, though: “the good musician does not fear the critic, just as the honest man does not fear the police,” as Segovia remarked one day. However, one never knows.

 But why the flowers? The only potential source of difficulty lies silently in the Lancel bag my wife is quietly swinging on her arm: our little monkey, who has travelled with us all over the world. So why inspect the peduncles, sniff the corollas, feel the sepals?

We feel better when the Air France representative provides us with the answer: these young people have simply never seen natural flowers before, emblems of an elitist culture, disserving the interest of the Cultural Revolution in urban China…

How could I ever imagine that five years later I shall bring back to Paris the magnificent carnations given to me by a fascinating young lady at the end of my recital in the same city?


Same place, March 1983:

Smiles, affability, encouraging welcomes are still the rule. I don’t have, alas, a little monkey to hide any longer, or flowers to worry about. Custom formalities are still non-existent. Within a few minutes, I meet with the welcoming committee: the vice-president of the Association for Friendship with Foreign People (who initiated the tour), the director of the Beijing Guitar School, a representative of our embassy, some young people, and Guo-Ping, who will very quickly lose his title of interpreter to that of a true friend.

Introductions, smiles, presentation of immediate plans and, above all, settling the misunderstanding we have had about dates: my sponsors have forced me to modify my itinerary by changing the timing, causing me great headaches about rescheduling “Unfortunately, we found out that you were about to come during the festivities of the Chinese New Year!”

The Chinese New Year? The musician’s nightmare. That was a close call! At the Taipei Festival Ravi Shankar and pianist Bernard Ringeissen had shared with me the agony of deafening firecracker explosions, fired nonstop and preventing any idea of sleep or rest, not to mention concentration. The Chinese invented gun powder: I can attest to that. They have even refined it to such a degree of perfection that no ear can resist. The Hong Kong government has simply prohibited its use in that co1ony’s territory.

“You did absolutely right in rescheduling.” Better a headache than an earache!

As I am told, the next day is going to be busy: master class at the Beijing Guitar School from 9 to 12; lunch with the President of the Association for Friendship (together with our Cultural Attaché, whom I knew from Tehran–before, of course, the prohibition of guitars: “devil’s instruments” and the jai1ing of their possessors); then, at 4:00p.m., a concert for 500 musicians. This scares me a little; I know the tradition of Chinese banquets: exquisite dishes, but numerous, and toasts–just as numerous. Shall I have enough stamina left to hold an audience–one comprised of musicians at that-­ breathless for two hours? I do not carry a “little red book” to help me overcome this kind of obstacle.

“Would you be so kind as to state your exact program for the concert?”

The request makes me shiver.

Back in 1977 the negotiations on the content of the program had been arduous. The name of each composer I proposed had been carefully written down and then checked against an official list: Debussy (but not Ravel), Granados (but not Albeniz), and so on. Naturally, none of the composers I submitted was even mentioned of the official list, since there had never been a guitar recital before in Communist China. What to do? The only arrangement we could find was to classify the composers by nationality and conduct an inquest at each embassy concerned. It sounded simple enough and agreeable to everybody.

Yes, but when you are in Communist China in 1977, a knot comes to your throat when you come to tell the good news that you want to play for a Chinese audience pieces by a Cuban (Leo Brouwer) and a Russian {Piotr Panin), not any longer friendly nations: how does one conciliate art and political touchiness? Should I confront my interlocutors with the truth? Or maneuver for reciprocal well-being?

I felt sure that the French Embassy would not deny my friend Leo Brouwer a temporary (fictitious, but salutary) Cuban citizenship, solving one aspect of the problem, but how was one to deal with Panin? My line, in doubtful cases (as in others, needless to say), is to tell the truth. Piotr Panin lives in Moscow, true, but he is an Eskimo. As a matter of fact, I even play pieces by him that testify to this. Everyone will tell you that race supersedes nationality. Thus, Panin is an Eskimo composer.

The following day we had had a meeting before the private recital I was to give prior to the great event.

“Monsieur Jumez, the program you are to play appears to be very interesting. However, we are sorry to say that we could not locate the Eskimo Embassy. What should we do?”

We called it quit, since we still had the evening test to settle the matter. For the occasion, I selected a quick panorama of our repertoire: Bach (German), Sor and Tarrega (Catalans both: another tricky one), Vi11a-Lobos (Brazilian), Albeniz, Poulenc. The work by “French” composer Leo Brouwer had an intriguing reaction: “Espiral Eterna” deals with the shape of the chromosome: three notes seem to chase one another in space a1ong an a11egorica1 spira1.

No problem with the preview recital; everyone appeared satisfied. But next morning one of the officials dealing with the matter had rushed into my room: “Monsieur Jumez! This work by the French composer Leon Brouwer!”

Oh, no…

“Vou mentioned a chromosome?”


“Three notes?”


Well, I’m sorry to say that I just came from the Beijing Biology Institute where I was told there are 23 pairs of chromosomes. So why only three notes?”

The reaction during the concert itse1f had been a bit odd, too, as each work seemed to get the same response. App1ause as warm, but uniform. I had been a bit concerned about the reaction on “Tribute to Pink Floyd” by the (genuinely) French composer Jacques Castérède, but my explanation proved satisfactory: “This piece deals with pop music, which means music from the people; it was written by a collective of composers.”

Today, then, I feel I have to try a prudent approach to satisfy the legitimate curiosity of my sponsors.

“I suggest an eclectic program; a sort of tour around the world via the guitar.”

“That would be excellent!”

A room is booked for me at the hotel “Min-Zu” probably built with the help of the Russians during happier days. The setting is rather quaint, but spacious. And at least the bathtub is sufficient for a guitarist of average proportions.

The following morning my Chinese 1imousine takes me to the conference hall. A large number of young people are waiting for me as well as a row of officials. The ambiance is pompous. Emphatic speeches are made marking the important event that is expected to follow. Tea is served while young musicians give me a demonstration of their talent.

 The result is quite stunning. Technique is already advanced. I am wel1 aware of the Asians’ work capacity in the field of music (recently the North Korea Symphony has toured Eastern Europe with two programs including the major works of Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn playing the entire thing, believe it or not, from memory!). However, this school, in spite of having 800 students, only been in existence for one year. The level seems just incredible for such a short time.

Much later on, I shal1 learn the story behind this great leap forward.

The very concept of this school is intriguing to me: a private institution in today’s Communist China? The explanation, however, is quite simple: its founder is a very charming teacher from Hong Kong who defected to Mainland China (as have many). He outlined his project to the authorities and, for financial support, to Chinese from the world over. The students pay a modest tuition. A few teachers are assisting the director, and the business runs smoothly. As simple as that! This is the beginning of privatizations in China.

Recalling the impressions I gathered during my first visit, I am flabbergasted by such a scheme.

But this is only the first in a long series of surprises. A guitar quartet is playing a transcription of some of Bach’s works. They use Chinese built guitars of poor quality. The best players have Japanese guitars. The class itself is a marvellous experience. We obviously are on the same wave 1ength. For one thing, not on1y through the instrument, but also through the natural affinity that I think links the people of North China to the French (I am not familiar with other regions of China). Musical sensitivity is very much related, and I feel no superiority in this field. (Little by little, I shall realize that there are few domains in which one can risk feeling superior to a Chinese.)

In both directions enthusiasm is building. I give and reveal all I know. And the satisfaction of having these young people devouring my words won’t be, as I shall later find out, my only reward. We have to leave at noon, for I would not think of being late for the banquet!

I won’t attempt to give a detailed account of a Chinese banquet; others have done it better than I could. Just remember that a Peking duck cannot be exported or substituted: it must be brought up and sacrificed under special conditions (not always the most pleasant). But it has an unmatched taste. My hosts are kind enough not to insist on the “kampe” (toasts), traditionally abundant, and don’t force me to drink the sinister “mao-tai,” a kind of rice spirit flavoured with snake gall.

This, in spite of all the respect you will realize I bear to China by now, is the most repulsive beverage I have ever tasted (ex-aequo: American root beer).

However, while swallowing the one glass I feel compelled to drink (out of courtesy), I cannot help but remembering the Taipei market: Chinese men ordering a drink, then selecting one of the exposed snakes. The animal is then hung on a line while, with a sharp knife, the tenant cuts through its bowels, searching for its gall, and quickly pouring it into the glass. Consumed in this fashion, the potion is considered a potent aphrodisiac, indispensable for taking the maximum benefit of the “hot” quarter close by. In the meantime, the shopkeeper-peels off the skin from the live serpent for other useful purposes.

And while going through my abject liquid, I keep simmering a cold-blooded revenge in the shape of a ripe camembert cheese. To the Chinese, camembert represents the supremacy of the execrable (Even advertised as an aphrodisiac, I feel sure they wouldn’t eat it.)

There is a certain so1emnity to the conversation, but the atmosphere is, as ever, there is little room for chit-chat. I must admit that, in a certain way, the presence of an interpreter adds another dimension to a conversation: one has to present compact arguments to save time and, whi1e the translation is being given, one can think of the proper way to make the conversation progress.

Unfortunately, we cannot prolong the lunch any further, for I must get ready for the concert. My first contact with the hall actually takes place only as I get to the stage to start the performance, which I don’t particularly appreciate. I try to see my audience through the forest of phones, which I don’t feel energetic enough to fight off. At the Taipei Festival, I had asked my impresario the meaning of all these microphones.

“It is for the radio!”

“I do not recal1 having signed a contract with the radio?”

“No, but this is nit a commercial radio; it is a spec1al broadcast towards Communist China”

“Thank you very much; this is going to cut me from a billion potential listeners!”

“Not at al1. They wi11 be jealous and will l want to have you themselves!”

Not so unrealistic…

All along, I shall feel in a zoo cage, rather than on a stage: cameras flash as soon as I use a spectacular effect; the bottom rows stand up when they want to watch a specific point; and, worst of all, the cassette recorder operators move in closer when I play pianissimo passages. (What a calamity, these machines are! How to make the fans understand that the concert technique is not at all the same as the recording one. In concert, you must do anything to create an illusion that will start the musical line the listener will want to build for himself. On a recording, you must offer a straight reality; therefore, in fact, play more coarsely, whilst          being more precise.

Magic and illusion versus notes and reality.

Incidentally I would very much like to know how an actor wou1d fee1 if the audience brought in video equipment to the theatre.)

The audience, as compared to that of 1977, is more spontaneous, even though as I just described, there is at least as much pure curiosity as sheer enjoyment. I have to answer many questions: the nationality of Piotr Panin, the composer of those marvellous “Pictures?”

“But he is Russian!”

My frankness is once more demonstrated. “Undoubtedly my preferred work,” comments the radio producer.

Times have changed.

We have an early start the next morning: we must catch a f1ight to Changsha, the capital city of the province of Hunan, in the southern part of the country. It was also the birthplace of Mao Zedong and is the center of several important archeological sites.

At the hotel Xiangshiang, clean and modern, the reception is, as usual, warm and cordial. An artistic sticker is stuck on my guitar case. The concert will take place the following day at the main City Hal1. Therefore, I have the entire day for myself. I feel like relaxing and strolling along the historical path used by the Great Helmsman. Easy task: the way is scattered with monuments displaying some of the great man’s striking thoughts.

The banquet wil1 be held in the evening in a private room, a tradition respected in most parts of the Far East. The gastronomical art of Hunan is very different from that of Canton, Beijing, Shanghai or SzeuChouan (the latter offering exquisite spicy dishes–my favorite). The eighteen courses that are served are as many discoveries and delights. I am particularly attracted by a strange meat: it turns out to be a sort of shell-less river tortoise. I am not restricting myself on the “kampe,” particularly since the local liquors are succulent, and do not induce moderation. Simultaneously, my hosts keep pouring me wine and beer.

This mea1 will mark my first contact with the “real” China, that is to say the rural part of it. The Western press essentially seems interested only in the urban events. But to ignore the fact that85% of the Chinese population lives in the countryside, even if the arable land only accounts for 15% of the total territory. The Cultural Revolution is, therefore, less significant than the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s which mainly affected the peasants. Every one of them, women, and children included, was suddenly put to work in light industry and required to turn in all the metallic objects in their possession to the local mill. The crops were put in the hands of the elderly, with an inevitable result: a huge famine, killing millions and ruining entire families. The great irrigation works remain the positive trace of the disaster. The mills have long since disappeared.

Al1 the same, the problems implied by the birth control measures (one child per couple, no derogations except for minorities like Uighurs)) do not seem to be perceived at their ful1 value: 900,000,000 people living exclusively off their fields (since the very recent liberalization, the peasant perceives directly – and exclusively – the product of this hypothetical sale, which make most of them living close to cities wealthy), will find themselves without resources when they are too old to work, especially if their child is a daughter (according to the tradition, the revenue produced by a daughter go to the step-family). The blow to the family structures (no brother or sister, no aunt or uncle…), the risk of the name disappearing, and so forth, does not affect anybody’s sleep in the West.

Yet, the moral problems posed by these measures are considerable. When in the 1970s, under the influence of the Soviets, an important birth program is undertaken; when, still in the 70s, the President decides that more people mean more power; and then when suddenly the exact opposite is imposed, one could imagine how the people concerned wi11 be, to say the least, puzz1ed. And one can wonder if that much centralized power will not, in the long run, be pernicious.

The appl1cat1on, manu militari, of the rule is quite simple: in urban districts professional promotion and the attainment of an apartment depends on the behaviour of the couple in question. Social pressure is a further discouragement to large fami1lies. In rura1 districts ad hoc committees keep, to prospective infringers, memories alive. Periodic controls, stricto sensu, are no unusual. Sterilization of both sexes is done on a large scale (10 million in the province of Szeu-Chouang alone). In some provinces a heavy fine is the price to pay for as second child. Contraceptive information is widel1y publicized. The pill, as well as classic means, is available free of charge. Abortion is cost-free and entitles one to a ten-day holiday (quite a treat in a country where only 20-day vacations are granted… every four years!

Naturally, the morbid lottery on the sex of the child to be born is hard to accept since, according to the tradition, one cannot leave this world without leaving behind a mal heir. I have no special information to confirm the sacrifice of baby girls, but the data available is unquestionably disturbing: official figures show that in 1979, 51.5% of the babies born were male; in 1981, this figure was 58%! One thing is sure: perpetuating the family has always been an almost sacred duty for the Chinese. The trauma thus engendered is unfathomable.

The meal lingers on pleasantly. The criteria for table manners are almost opposite to ours: what is permitted there would be unthinkable here. I am used to it and do not pay attention. The only incommodating thing is the habit of spitting, still very much alive as demonstrated by the numerous spittoons lying around, and this despite a prohibition from the central government.

The next morning breakfast is served in a special room for foreigners (or Chinese from overseas). Six tables are occupied by six Europeans who watch one another silently. I take a seat beside a German who turns out to be negotiating the importation of canned fruit. He is depressed by the lack of entertainment.

“But you are obviously not the only businessman around. I’m sure it must be fun telling one another story!”

“Are you joking? We don’t mix for fear of revealing our contacts in the Chinese administration. So difficult to locate! It sometimes takes years before you pin down THE one in charge of the type of file you submit. No, we prefer to ignore one another. Business first!”

The next morning I shall have breakfast with an American who will confirm this attitude. He has founded a garment factory here (Chang-Sha is also a si1k center). They deliver 65,000 dresses a month directly to New York. As a local manager, he employs a Hong Kong Chinese who, unlike his local counterparts, speaks English. (The business flair is common to all Chinese; no need to find people in Hong Kong for that.)

So stunning are its contents that the visit to the museum wi11 fi11 the full morning. Back in 1973 the body of Queen Tsen Ho-Ji was exhumed. She was buried in 50 B.C. a few miles away from Chang-Sha. Three hills (for the king, the queen, and the prince) have the same structure: sixteen yards of soil cover an immense sphere made out of clay, which, in turn, covers a second sphere one and a half yards thick made of charcoal. Inside is an outer sarcophagus the size of a house containing a second tomb of painted wood. The final bier is inside this, beautifully decorated with lacquer. The corpse is covered with a silk shroud.

Now, when the tomb was opened, the corpse was found to be absolutely intact as if 1ife had just left it. It even stil1 had a pink complexion in spite of the fact it had not been embalmed. But within hours the colours disappeared and signs of decay became obvious leaving the archeologists defenceless. The bodies had to be quickly plunged into formal dehyde, and this is the way the queen is shown today with, on one side, her uterus showing some pathological growths and, on the other, her intestines carrying mummified worms.

But the most extraordinary contents of the museum are the 1300-odd objects found in the tomb. One cannot actually speak of treasure, since the most precious objects have been replaced by imitations (you don’t waste your money in tombs; there is gambling for that). But the collections of porcelains, bronzes, musical instruments {zithers, harps, lutes, but no guitars), as well as all kinds of documents and everyday tools, plus seeds, spices, and jams are admirable and an incredible source of information about a civilization that our education has usually simply ignored. _

The afternoon will be dedicated to a visit to a silk factory. It is clear that no political system can alter the ancestral art of embroidery a whole chain that starts with the canvas painter and ends with the embroideresses, who work in a light-flooded room, stitch, sometimes so minute that it is invisible. The results are masterpieces, chiefly the 1arge ones where the refinement is immediately perceptible. Some are double-s1ded: I sti11 do not understand, even though it was explained to me, how the same stitch can bring_a different design on each side. Also, they can, if I desire, have my wife’s portrait embroidered: the cost will be about US $2000, but it will take six months to achieve. Much to the surprise of the director, I express the desire to acquire a painted canvas that I greatly admire. Quite easy: I just have to negotiate with the painter. Exquisite work of art!

The theatre is packed with 1800 people curious to attend the first guitar concert given in their town. Again there is a hedge of microphones, plus TV cameras. Spontaneous audience, very warm. However, the numerous recorded tapes will demonstrate the incompatibility between the delicate notes of the guitar and sonorous expectorations…

At the exit a group of young guitarist tries to approach me, not only to express admiration, but also to seek a connection with the world of the guitar, new to them. Some play the electric guitar: We are not far from Hong Kong. In any case, I feel happy that, even in a remote town in China, the guitar is very much alive.

The foreigners I had met for breakfast have attended the concert. The American gives me a nice silk dress as a present to my wife. In return I offer him one of my albums, even though I do not produce 65,000 of them each month.

We have a little musical encounter the next day in another museum, where some employees have formed a small group. A serenade of popular and classical songs is offered. The feminine voice always sounds very sharp to our ear, almost nasal. But these young girls are also well aware of the Western technique. (Carmen was produced in Beijing last year, for example. Also, the French conservatories have many brilliant Chinese students in their voice classes.) Male voices are much closer to ours. Incidentally, I have always wondered how the Chinese can reconcile a melodic phrase with the obligatory inflections of their language: can they sing an upward inflection on a melody that descends?

The museum is interesting in itself: huge collections of porcelains (Chang-Sha is a capital in this field as well), both ancient and contemporary. I get a “coup de foudre” for the gilded reproduction of a supremely refined alcohol service that was in the Queen’s tomb. I try my luck:

“Would there be a way to buy it?”

“Strangely, a Japanese recently wanted to take it at any price. We have since then fixed a price. If you have the money, it is yours!”

I rush to the bank, barely missing 20 cyclists on the way. The bank hallway is itself a huge bicycle park. My money is taken, a few beads are moved on an abacus, I am given the equivalent in yuans (in the special notes reserved for foreigners), I now possess the set for eternity.

The painting gallery is amazingly wel1 furnished.

It is difficult for us to apprehend an art based on tradition. One would be tempted, when looking around, to think that all are alike. But not so: the master is so much easier to spot even when the subject is identical. (Perhaps a great guitarist can be spotted when grinding out the “Romance Jeux Interdits chorus”.)

Right away I am magnetized by a Guiling landscape: a rock and a tree. I cannot te11 why this particular one is a masterpiece next to the others. The mystery of artistic emotion, transcending our analysis or that of the machines (just as in the art of instrument making or that achieved in a hall with good acoustics).

“You are not mistaken: this is a work by Giang-Fon.” Intuitively, the director adds: “$4000.”

A second painting would also have fascinated me, but there are two small figurines that, to me, spoil a bit of the otherwise magnificent rustic charm of the work.

“Strangely, the curator of the Pompidou Museum who was here recently, had the same reaction. But l can assure you that, to us, these figurines, far from disturbing the general landscape, would rather enhance it!”

The eternal problem of art and education. I am always doubtful when I hear the sempiternal apposition: “Music is the universal language.”  How to perceive an improvisation of the ‘ud, for example, unless one is aware of the 40 or so modes in classical Arabic music?

How to appreciate an Indian raga, if one is not able to follow its ritual development: the conditioning of each note that is to constitute the selected scale: the exploration of the scale itself; the announcement of the theme; the rhythmic projection of the theme by the introduction of the tabla; apprehension of the measure, generally complex, which will remain the pillar of the raga; emotional development; paroxysm and decompression… ? On1y a minority of the Indian audience is educationally prepared to follow these curves and receive the emotional grace consequent1y.

And what embarrassment for me to attend a setar (4-stringed instrument) concert at the Tehran court, and not understanding what to me sounded like minor thirds, when all the Iranians were ovating the artist, hot with emotion and enthusiasm! 

I ask whether Guo-Ping and I might take a train to the next city, Guiling, instead of going by plane. I recall wonderful memories of our last ride between Beijing and Hong Kong, a well as other happy experience on trains around the world: Antofagasta to La Paz in Peru, 36 hours on the highest rai1road in the world (my wife and I had to buy an enormous fuel stove so that our pet monkey would not die of cold.)30-odd hours between Karachi and Lahore, in 3rd class B, with over 30 riders in a compartment for eight (thus getting to know some of the nicest peop1e on earth}; Phnom-Pehn to Siem-Reap on the roof of the car. And our honeymoon between Moscow and Minsk (there had been nothing else to do — we had hired the full compartment). And the marvellous landscapes of Australia discovered from the window. Not to mention the night train between Nongkai and Bangkok where, for one dollar more, a single man would see his berth pleasantly furnished (at least in 1966; beware of inflation).

The local branch of the Association gets us a booking in “soft” class without difficulty.

Guiling is the legendary wonder of China. Most of the painters were inspired by its landscapes. Great poets and philosophers have meditated there. The hotel is located right in the middle of the expected marvels: sugarloaf mountains reflected by emerald lakes and rivers, on which bamboo rafts are silently riding. The entire scene is covered with multicoloured blossoming trees.

There is a proliferation of tourists (but a pill won’t prevent that): Hong Kong Chinese (reconnoitring?), Australians, Japanese, Germans, and French. Alas, the fauna that usually haunts a tourist resort has also appeared. You are sold anything at any price. This evolution makes me a bit sad.

The points of interest are numerous: landscapes with their traditional meditation spots decorated with historical graffiti, caves, a zoo with giant pandas, but also the regular model — much more attractive with its reddish fur and its clever look. And, of course, le must: going down the river on a “Bateau-mouche.” While you are being described the shape and name given by mi11enniums of touristic visits to each rock or sugarloaf with its own mystical meaning, you are being served delicious specialties from the province. The weather turns stormy, and I fail to see the famous custom of fishing with pelicans whose throats have been tied securely so they will bring back their catch.

The Guiling concert takes place in a ha11 with satisfactory acoustics. There are many musicians, who invite me to a performance of their own the next day. I also, of course, meet many guitarists, who are quite advanced. They are in want of information and material. I tell them about our association: “LA GUITAROTHEQUE” which wil1 send them what they need from France.

While having a last stroll before bed, I meet with a group of very nice young people. They take me around town. And this is how I got to attend a traditional Chinese opera, a completely unexpected sight for me, because a few years back, such an event would have been unthinkable (decadent and counter-revolutionary).

The next evening, as agreed, I attend the performance of music and dance in which my new acquaintances are cast. The hall is packed, and again I am amazed by the sight, since both traditional dances and classical music were outlawed not so long ago. I get carried away by the de1ightful

musical moments I am treated to. Chinese music is much more accessible to our taste than others, for it often has a tendency to be descriptive. The titles prepare the ear. One could find an analogy with the symphonic tone poems in our own music.

Actually, I am always confronted with the problem of titles: in my opinion, music is the most abstract of arts. Entitling a work is, in a way, demystifying it, bringing it down to a 1ower level. But so practical! You impose a set of guidelines for your audience, forcing it into our game. I have succumbed to the temptation by giving titles, for example, to studies (with the composers’ consent, natura11y). And, more often than not, I have been taken in by my own game: giving different interpretation that the one suggested by the score.

Unforgettable moments, those brought by the k’in (lying harps) players, the Hou-Kin (a mal1 violin), Che (cithern), cheng (mouth-organs played in ensembles by hundreds of Han peasants, as well as the people of Lao), and, not least, the p’i-p’a, which I find the most profound and noble. Strangely enough, it is also the closest to the guitar…

The dances are marvellous, the choreography dazzling, the costumes amazingly rich and varied. The audience is very warm and very much involved. They burst into laughter when the marvellous dancer with a flags raises a big dust cloud when starting her legendary act, and quickly quiets down, so overwhelming is the enchantment conveyed by her grace, even though furtive circumvolutions.

The young boys I had met the previous day are waiting for me at the hotel when we get back. My hosts give them a dirty look: “These young men don’t work, yet they speak good English. They should find a job in tourism, for instance.” Conflict of generations or an unemployment problem?

Due to the weather, I suggest that we avoid taking a chance on the plane (the frequency is only one a week, since Guiling, as with most Chinese airports, is not equipped with an a11 weather guiding system). Instead, we could take the train (6 hours) so as to be sure I can be back in time for my next performance.

It turns out that no reservation can be secured either soft or hard sleeping class. Guo-Ping is far from enthusiastic at such a prospect: during the Cultural Revolution, he had been exposed to a trip in the sitting class, and clearly indicates that a few days’ rest will be necessary upon arrival. It is not so much the wooden seats (we could not be guaranteed, anyway) nor the crowds; but the Chinese like to enjoy their trip: lights are never switched off, so that they can go on eating, drinking, playing mah-jong, talking day and night (and two nights are involved). The train’s loud radio is never switched off either.

[I can very well understand his hesitation. Professional travelling implies being cautious as to comfort. But, on the other hand, I have never refused an engagement for I know only too well what enormous amount of work is necessary to organize a concert. Furthermore, between us, knowing the rural kindness of the Chinese towards the visitor, I feel sure that, if there is a space available, it will be given to us.

“But if we don’t find a seat, you will be dead with fatigue!”

“Yes, but if we miss the plane, we wi11 be stuck here for three days. And I would be curious to be exposed to another side of China this way.”

All right. We shall give it a try, but we’ll check in the luggage. Just too heavy for moving them.” (I had to cross tropical and polar climates during this tour, and I also carried a bunch of guitars.)

At midnight the magnificent brass locomotive is shining with its red-painted wheels. Anxious, Guo-Ping and I negotiate our future with the conductor. Thank God, two people agree to move so that we have the only two berths left next to each other.

The next morning we have our breakfast in the dining car: succulent dishes are made out of fresh farm products loaded at each station. I am interested to see that this time, Chinese and foreigners can mix.            This had not been the case back in 1977. The chef comes to our table to ask what particular dishes we wish him to prepare for us during the morning. It takes us quite a1ong t1me to d1scuss such an important and delicate matter. Since he is a native of Yunnan, I suggest that we start with specialties from his province.

This reminds me to give you this important advice: if you ever decide to experience a trip on the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian Railroad, take it from Beijing. You will benefit from the Chinese cuisine. On the train it is incomparable. Whereas if you use the other direction…

The rest of the day will be spent chatting with our neighbours and watching the serene Chinese landscape; but mainly Guo-Ping has time to tell his own story:

He was born in the 40s (forgive me, Guo-Ping, for this speculation!) in a small village about 80 miles from Xiang, the old capital where the thou­ sands of soldier effigies were recently discovered. His parents are modest peasant1, and his mother til1 has bandaged feet (the prohibition came in 1949).

“She does not really suffer,” Guo-Ping tel1s me, “but, obviously, she cannot walk properly since the atrophied part of the metatarsus is gnarled under her foot. The muti1ation process started when she was about 7. It takes about three years before the deformity is irreversible. At the time of the interdict, there was a period of hesitation. For instance, my aunt, who was younger, had managed to escape the torture, but one day she came into the house with dirty feet, which infuriated her parents. She was 12 at the time. They took her to one of the doors that had an opening at the bottom, put her on one side, pushed her feet through, and crushed them in the door. As an adult she had an operation to try and recover the norma1 use of her feet, but it never really worked.”

“But what is the orig1n of this custom of binding feet?” I ask. I clearly remember the mummy of the queen in Chang-Sha had normal feet.

“No, this custom is only a thousand years and no one can actually explain it. Some ta1k on an erotic limping due to the condition, but there are other theories. No one actually knows.”

I find one thing intriguing: in the train stations, the names of the towns are always written in Roman letters rather than in pictographs. “Yes,11 Guo-Ping tells me, “this is part of an old plan to Latinize our writing in order to fight illiteracy, still very high in China.” Of course, this has succeeded in Viet-Nam, although it wouldn’t work in Thailand since its leader, Pibun Songkhram, has changed the original name “Siam” to the present one to indicate that his country was the land of the Thai language. Therefore, by nature and by right, it should include the neighbouring countries. But France did not follow that theory and kept an eye on Cambodia and Laos.

An icy wind sweeps the Beijing station as we arrive. Our we1coming committee is frozen. “We really appreciated your first performance. So we would like you to stay in the ‘Peking’ hotel.”

Truly the “Peking” is of a better class than my previous dwelling, but what should I play to have the honour of the “Jing-Jiang,” which is the latest 1uxury hotel managed by a Hong Kong firm (the Peninsula, if I’m not mistaken)? Managing such a five-star hotel has not been without its unexpected problems. Here, a problem arose with the gates. Since only foreigners are allowed in, these are closely watched by security guards, and only Chinese men who obviously have a justified mission are a11owed inside. But no women.

Now, a hotel of the Peninsula class should not present such an anachronic image and, after a 1ong debate, it was decided that the security guards would be more discreetly stationed. One night an American visitor managed to bring to his room a beautiful Chinese girl. The floor boy, whose function was precisely that, a security guard, saw them and gave the alarm. Ten minutes later the room door was shaken by violent knocks: “Police, open, please!”

After a while the American, a bit vaporous, opened the door, and the police seized the girl in spite of her shouts to the officers in her native tongue, which was without effect. Her mother tongue was… English; she was born, and resides in Vancouver, British Columbia! By the time the authorities realized the mistake, it was too late to make excuses. To have done so at his stage would have meant losing face. So the girl was given a fine for being in another room after l0p.m.

Another hotel episode is very famous: A French minister in the lift touched the braids of the pretty elevator girl to tease her. She stopped her machine at the next floor and shouted for help. In spite of the fact that the minister was on an official visit, he has been taken into custody on the grounds of attempted rape. It took all the efforts of the embassy to get him out of the mess.

Yes, people in Beijing are very chaste. puritanical, and reserved; yet passionate. One of my friends has had many satisfactory adventures, but never in the open. I once kissed the pretty girl who was bringing me flowers on stage at the end of a performance and thought she would die of embarrassment and shame! But, strangely enough, this sense of modesty does not apply in other domains: for instance, in the public toilets, two rows of cabinets are frequently facing each other… without doors.

I have just enough time to drop my gear at the hotel and come back to the station where I shal1 catch a train for Tien-Tsing for an evening performance. This city, four hours away from Beijing by train, was the epicentre of the disastrous earthquake that destroyed the area in 1976. 1976 was also the year of Mao Zedong’s death; but this was hardly considered a disaster, in spite of the gigantic funeral given him. To the average Chinese, it meant the end of the lengthy indoctrination sessions held up to four times a week, sometimes far away from home by bicycle, in whatever weather. Mass meeting were seldom, if ever, improvised. Instructions were given in the factories and offices to go to Tung-an-men Avenue where 200,000 to 300,000 people would thus “demonstrate,” not too sure as for what. This was nerve-breaking for the journalists, who used to gather every evening in order to decide on what interpretation to give the events so a not to produce contradictory cab1es.

This reminds me that the methods used to induce insolent opulence, drinking as they do at home, and using the firecrackers they are denied there. In other words, they paint the town red.

 Many Chinese, even the fortunate ones, return to live on the Mainland. Millions of them go there as visitors. The usual “grand tour” goes through Hong Kong and Macao for gambling. The casino in Hotel Lisboa is full 24 hours a day. Here is a useful tip: on the second floor there is·a room where chips run from US $2000 to $10,000 a piece. A Chinese lost one high-rise building the evening I was there (as a spectator).

A memorable feast follows the concert offered by the Guitar School (Sichuan cuisine).

The next morning will be dedicated to a meeting with the greatest p’i-p’a players in the country. Much to my surprise, some of my guitarists are there carrying this time, a p’i-p’a. The pretty one, who had played the Fernando Sor’s “Mozart Variations” so well on a guitar that was bigger than she was, installs on her knees a beautiful old instrument of a smal1er size.

The instrument’s appearance alone prepares you for great art: a wel1-balanced shape; a smooth, delicate and refined profile; a harmonious combination of wood and ivory; sober, but elegant, decorations. This is the result, I am told, of a lengthy evolution: it was introduced into China by the Mongols in the first century B.C. Indeed, the guitar was already well known in the Middle East.

The p’i-p’a then spread to the whole subcontinent until 586 A.D., when Emperor Su Chi-Po married a Turkish princess, who enticed poets and musicians to use it preferably. One cannot actually say that from then on the instrument became “classical,” since there is more than the Western alternative in Chinese music. Basically, there are five main trends: ritual music, chamber music, drama, then that of the minstrels, and finally popular music.

The position is very different from ours: the instrument rests almost vertically on the artist’s knees. Trying it myse1f, I understand the reason: its heavy weight, which would prevent the guitar resting obliquely.

The right hand takes a position familiar to us, but transposed. Plucking is done, as on the guitar, with the nails. However, the newest schools, estimating that nails were problem-ridden (I can vouch for that}, have recommended that artificial ones be used. These are mounted prior to p1aying, fixed by adhesive tape.

A linear development that started 1500 years ago is the main justification for the present technique. I cannot help but think that our guitar never benefited from more than 200 years of continuity. The methods used are, therefore, quite distinct from ours. For instance, instead of plucking the string in one direction, as we restrain ourselves in doing, the p’i-p’a player will use each fingernail twice: up {p’i) and down {p’a) getting a slightly different sound respectively. Thus a variety of timbres doubled up, as compared to ours.

A wide modulation can be obtained, even if the general effect differs from the guitar, primarily because of the compactness of the instrument.

Furthermore, when going through Iran 2000 years ago the instrument gained another feature: the fretboard, instead of being flat, is convexed between each fret (the first four frets are the ivory neck itself; the following ones are pieces of hard wood glued to the table). The rest is that each note can be augmented up to a tone and a half by lateral distortion (as on the sitar), thus a11 owing for effects that are unknown to guitarists. The basic tuning is E A B E. The octave is divided in 12 halftones evoking the signs of the zodiac, and 12 allegorical animals.

Before serenading me, the young girl gives me a lengthy description of the poem that will be depicted in the piece. The reduced size of the instrument serves only better the race and femininity of the entity: music-interpreter.

I am immediately fascinated by this beautiful artist:


Xin-Liang’s p’i-p’a meets Jumez’ guitar

I am so tall, she is so small!
My voice is monotonous. Hers is a melody.
But her voice can be a caress… or a sword.

The rhythm or her words (incomprehensible to me) is relevant: I cherish her waltz, but, boy, do I fear her march!

In her single language (Chinese) she seems to express much more than I do with six or seven tongues.

Her whole body can be in turn sweetness or madness, vulnerable or armoured, whereas I always keep calm.

 She plays on four strings. I play on six strings.

 She the p’i-p’a.

 I the guitar.

Our currents are opposite, and create a magnet-like attraction.

She is in full harmony with her instrument. By the vertical position of the p’i-p’a on her lap, she keeps the neck of the instrument close to her own neck; under her hair-bun, her vertebrae make a delicate curvy line, with a few straight hairs falling down, thus marking so much the more the ridge of her slenderness. Next to it is the slender neck of her p’i-p’a, with the convex spaces between the frets — which she calls the xiang.

The strings and the keyboard, the hair and the neck… only a painter could depict this similarity.

By delicately pushing a p’i-p’a string down, she gets sensuous variations in tones, just as if these carvings were centres of pleasure…


Chinese microtones


This unlimited division marks the unlimited multiplication of sensations. She can subdivide the scale to the most minute microtones.

Next to her, I feel clumsy with my straight halftones.

But since I cannot divide the tones, my only option is to multiply them. I play two. three or even four parts together.

Her fingers. as thin and white as ivory sticks are very free to evolve between the strings. She can use the necessary space to prepare the actual plucking of the string. She can concentrate on the angle of attack that her hand is willing to select. She can impulse wide movements that won’t be affected by the strings next to it. She benefits from the greatest freedom, the one that allows her to throw all of her emotions into the smallest possible particle of musical expression: the tone colour.

My fingers are very busy trying to avoid all those strings so close together, and strike them with less preparation to extract the sound nuances.

 It’s not what she says that’s important. It’s the way she says it.

Beijing 1981: Xin-Liang and Jean-Pierre

My mind is elsewhere: I am issued from a culture which worships quantity. MORE power, MORE money, MORE houses, MORE cars, MORE strings, MORE notes… For the sake of this compulsion, we have even denatured many of our instruments! The hunting horn had an incomparable brightness and depth of tone, a sound that could be perceived through one’s guts rather than through one’s ears! Well, they decided that, by adding a few keys, more notes than the simple harmonics could be produced. Too bad if the sound was not exactly the same and became “sterilized”! Today, in the orchestras, it is that modified instrument that is used under the name of “French horn”, that instrument that can produce MORE notes, no matter if the tone loses its depth and nobility.

Other instruments have been affected. The harp? Such a fascinating celestial sound. Let’s do MORE on it: we’ll add some complicated mechanics, activated by some brass pedals. True, the sound is not the same. It is much more tenuous. But what is the importance, as long as we can do MORE with it? Nowadays, to hear the real sound of a harp, one has to listen to so-called “folk” instruments: Paraguayan, Venezuelan, Celtic… And a Westerner has to go “folk” again to listen to the real sound of a flute: the Bengali bamboo flute, for instance. But watch out: pretty soon, they are going to insert screws, mechanics and what more into the noble wood… What they want is to extend the surface, at the price of depth. Fortunately, our violin has escaped this tendency (for the time being!)




Through the guitar and the lute, I have been torn between the MORE and the BETTER. I have played instruments with 5 to 16 strings. The guitar, today, is divided into two streams:

The 10-string instrument is not exactly driven by the MORE plague, but rather by an intellectual search for perfection: with an appropriate tuning, each note that is played will start at least one harmonic reaction from a lower string, which means a more balanced sound.

Whereas in the 6-string version, some notes are “deaf” (have no harmonica! support): D#, C#… Yet, the structural modifications required for the increased tension imply a loss of sound quality.

Better balance, indeed, but at the cost of sensuality…

Cultural exchange!


But even if I have settled for six strings, my mind is nevertheless concentrating on the polyphonic aspect of music.

Her p’i-p’a has four strings, even though she tells me that in the past there has been an attempt to add a fifth string. All the construction of the instrument is dedicated to this essential element: the sound quality.

With my six strings. it is true that I can multiply the combination of harmonic lines to the infinite. I won’t be satisfied with just one melody: I shall add a bass line, plus an accompaniment. I shall try to play counterpoint or fugues, just as if I had MORE instruments than a guitar.

What I get from my audiences is admiration.

When she is playing the p’i-p’a. she is not interested in the temptation of polyphony. The developments of her music are not numerical. What she is looking for is the adequation of each note in the emotional pattern she is willing to convey.

What she gets from her audience is gratitude.

In my culture, I have been trained to respect each note that has been written by a composer one year or five centuries before me. Playing those very same notes today implies that times have not changed in between. That the ear and the perception are exactly the same today, which is, of course, not true.

Music or museum?

Instead of a piece of music, I sometimes have the impression of playing a piece of a museum.

She, on the contrary, is inspired by a gongche, which reminds her the essence of a work. But her role is to adapt it to time and place. She is constantly actualizing the composition, making it adequate, consistent with her audience. Even if a gongche gives a precise indication of the piece, she has complete liberty to fill in what’s between the notes, especially in terms of micro tones, which she can mould as she feels. In the xiang part of her p’i-p’a neck. She can use the tui technique to upgrade a note to the superior tone…

I am a scholar, I can dismantle. Analyze, put an incredible number of lines together. I have learned how to master my instrument.

She, with a few notes, can make a thousand hearts vibrate. One single beautiful note she plays can replace all of my technique. But she needs more than my technique to play that single note!

I am embarrassed in my polyphonic pattern.

She finds her fulfilment in polychromy.

When I engage in the process of studying and performing a great work, I make sure that all the rules are respected, that it has the best possible construction, the most adequate transitions, the purest developments, the most logical conclusion.

But I have also learned to know that those mechanical patterns often take out a lot of spontaneity. Automatic developments often replace the actual ideas.

But she tells me: “A great work is the one that is not accomplished!”.

She is right. The world is too complex to have a descriptive approach. The only way not to be mistaken and not to mislead others is to have an elliptical approach. This way, there is involvement, but no restrictions.

I will do just like her on the p’i-p’a: say less, imply more. I shall not describe any longer: I shall understate.

And I tell her: “Like a bee, the artist must gather pollen from many flowers.” Learn from me just as I have learned from you, and let’s bring back the new substances to our own beehive. I shall still play the guitar, enriched by new notions. You will still play the p’i-p’a, perhaps having polyphony in mind. But please remain as you are today: dense. Exempt from any verbalism.

She has found density on her p’i-p’a.

I have looked for diversity on my guitar.

Density and diversity finally met on a harmonious musical score. One on each stave:


The great Chinese master Liu De-Hui has been struck by the span of sound colours that endeavour to use on the guitar. He is interested in the challenge and will attempt to give me a demonstration of his capacities in the field. Everything I know is obviously known to him as well: he uses drum effects, flutes sounds, harmonics, metallic nuances…and many other striking elements.

The tremolos are particularly impressive due to the “return” technique. Why not use them on the guitar?

On the train back to the capital the next day, time passes quickly in spite of the fact hat I am standing up.            (I have declined the kind offer of the conductor to occupy his private compartment.) Only hard class is available. A group of peasants, exposed for the first time to a foreigner, keep wondering at my French watch, my Havana cigar, my magazines, my shoes. Every time they make a new discovery, they burst into laughter. I am offered numerous cups of tea. We sympathize so much the more since we communicate without the intermediary of that heavy tool: spoken language — Guo-Ping has stayed in Beijing.

My committee takes me to the hotel. I suggest that they come to my room so that I can give them a few presents before I leave: strings, scores, books. But the hotel “watchdog” has spotted the pretty guitarist who is in the group (so have I, to be honest). He refuses her access to the 1obby. I get angry. We cal1 in a director and end up getting the compulsory authorization. Her beautiful clothes show how much this aspect of life has changed since 1976.         And, when they are not bundled in a Mao uniform, the girls of Beijing are, to say the least, quite competitive.

After a quick glance at the theatre, I have time to have a duck sacrificed in the hotel restaurant. Prices are unbelievably low, and a good thing is that you are not susceptible to be “taken.”: I hate to argue at the end of a good meal. In Florence recently, when I called the waiter’s attention to the fact that the tab was double that indicated on the menu, he answered: “These are the prices we pay, but we have to make a little benefit, a piccolo beneficio!”

However, even in China things seem to be changing as well. A friend has been burgled twice. Also, the official tariff on trains and planes show two prices: one for Chinese, the other for foreigners. The ratio is about one to two.

Before retiring, I place a call to my wife.

Rates are exceptionally high. I call collect, as a11 foreigners do.

The concert hal1 is jammed with guitar fans.

Since 1ast there has been considerable publicity: a one-hour interview I had recorded has been broadcast nationwide (one billion listeners?}.

There have been numerous feature articles in the newspapers. And the official news agency, New China, has published an international release on my concert, considered as a political event.

My program will be different: Bach’s Chaconne, Giuliani’s delicious descriptive music La Chasse, Charles Camilleri ‘s “Four African Sketches,” and a second part made of French music.

The acoustics are very good. The audience is breathless (no one spits). We obviously feel “good vibes.” There is thunderous app1ause. I a1most want to say “unfortunate1y,” because find a strong discrepancy between the tenuous sound of the guitar and the deafening sound of clapping palms; this, in my opinion, creates a rupture of the atmosphere and does not serve the musica1 continuity, so much the more since so many of the pieces we select are short (and yet, our repertoire is vast: according to musicologist Matanya Ophee, 20,000 origina1 solo works, plus 250 concertos).

The concert is my final one in China. Soon it wi11 be time to 1eave. It wi11 turn out to be a memorable separation.

I refrain from kissing the stunning young girl who delivers me the carnations. She wears beautiful jewels and is particularly elegant in her traditiona1 1ong dress. Un1ike other regions of the world, the West is not considered as a model of civilization nor of fashion here. It is we11 known and respected, but for a Chinese, without doubt, his own culture is older, more refined and in many ways, incomparable.

This probably explains the frankness, this affability from which condescension is absent. A serene mora1 strength. 1 This loftiness frequent1y makes the Chinese express a certain disdain towards “renegades,” that is to say, the Chinese expatriates. As I mentioned earlier, many Hong Kong Chinese come to Guiling on holiday. You can feel this mood here. For instance, on the “bateau-mouche,” my hosts sent to perdition (in a refined way, of course) some Hong Kong Chinese who were trying to engage me in conversation: “This gentleman only speaks Mandarin!” they were told. The lie was doubly effective: Cantonese, considered by the Beijing people as a low-class dialect, is the language of Hong Kong. In return, the visitors display their guitar! With our six strings so close together, it would be difficult to achieve a Chinese score. Come to think of it, I have always wondered whether in music, breadth did not affect depth: all of Arab classical music, for instance, is contained in practically one octave without any polyphonic pretension: but what richness one discovers when the subtle subdivisions (unlimited) are perceived and identified!

And how mediocre does it get when accompaniments are added in the Western fashion!      And how fascinating is the sound of a solo violin, be it in the West or in India! And how dare one compare the arpeggios of a diatonic harp — Paraguayan or Celtic — to those, more complex, indeed, of its chromatic equivalent, all laden with mechanisms? And what about the burst of a hunting horn next to the stere1ized sound of the harmony horn?

If you add four strings to the guitar (to get a ten-string guitar), you wi11 obtain a better balance, no doubt and increased possibilities, I wi11 not contest that. But the soul is just not the same. Has anybody thought of adding a couple of strings to the violin? I actually would not be surprised if the popularity of the guitar is partly the result of a desire to hear music of more human dimension.

Other young people delight me with works full of delicacy and virtuosity. A real conspiracy made up to impress me! As the demonstration continues,

my breath grows shorter, and I realize how wel1 inspired I had been in not expressing any condescension towards my admirers.

Unfortunately, time is up. We have to separate. Liu De-Hui presents me with his recording of a p’i­ p’a concerto he had played with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Seiji Ozawa (who was born in China).

Guo-Ping sweats with the translation of a11 the aesthetic comments we exchange before reluctantly leaving. I am given a magnificent old painting of course, a lady p’i-p’a player. The charming young guitarist (and p’i-p’a player) bestows on me a fan chiselled in fragrant sandal wood.

We drop by the Peking Hotel where Guo-Ping, f1oored by my clumsiness in packing, fishes a musical score from under the bed and a shoe from the tub and manages to shut my suitcases.

We 1unch with the French Cultura1 Counse1or, fruitful conversation: my experiences “in situ,” versus his official contacts, not less relevant.

Beijing airport, 18 March 1983:


A 1arge committee has taken the trouble to accompany me to the airport for the last farewells: guitarists, p’i-p’a players, officials, journalists, and, of course, Guo-Ping, who desperately tries to spare me the cruel verdict of the airline as to my excess (but no excessive) 1uggage.

And, while crossing to the transit lounge, cheered by everybody including the custom officers and the policemen, I sadly realize that the trip back will seem long without the fascinating stories of my traveling companion.  

Irkutsk, May 1987:

Over the phone, Catherine, my secretary in Paris sounds very exciting. “I have an urgent telex from Beijing: you are invited to participate in a big festival in your honour”.


“In three weeks’ time”

“Let me check”.

The Trans-Siberian operates once a week, and I would miss it by one day. In any case, in that direction (West to East), food would be a discouragement in itself…

I call back Catherine: “Telex them back that it is impossible”.

Next day: “They answered that you absolutely have to be in Zhuhai as there will be 3,000 guitarists from all over China, all that in your honour. Furthermore, you will record an album, the fist so ever done in China. Of course, they pay the ticket”.

An album in China? Let’s have a second look. I would have to go back to Moscow (and ask for a special visa, as this was not planned in my tour). Then fly back to Paris. Then fly to Hong Kong. Then take a first ferry to Macao. Then take a second ferry to Zhuhai.

Did anyone tell you that the secret of success is health and optimism?

The ferry approaches Zhuhai. I can distinguish an immense crowd on the wharf. Thousands of cameras aim at me. I look back: who are they welcoming?

No one in my back.

“Guitar is now the most popular instrument in China. But the Chinese TV had only one document: your recording! Therefore, since 1983, they have played it once a month. You are more popular than Mao Zedong!”

I won’t elaborate on the pains of popularity. Stay obscure, that’s my advice.

A French petroleum company heard about my presence. They had already invited be in every corner of the world, including high-sea platforms.

OK, I will perform in their Henan base before recording my album in Zhuhai. This will bring me some pocket money since my Chinese hosts never talked about it.

Just one hour away by Russian-made Ilyushin.

No problem for the concert, but, since it was raining, no flight back to Zhuhai!

“We’ll give you a car and a driver, don’t worry.”

At 3a.m., the car is there, and we start moving on roads that are submerged with cattle, carts, geese and trucks.

At about 10a.m., the rain is so strong that the road is totally inundated. Peasants make signs to the driver to stop. He optimistically drives on; water reached the wheels, the bonnet and suddenly, a truck going in the other direction created a huge wave that submerged our car. My guitar case is floating. And the car stops in the middle of the river.

Peasants come by, laughing. They dive in the water, fix a rope around the front bumper, and take us out of the water with their small tractors with aerial exhaust pipes.

We reach the other shore and the peasants leave us there. Except that the car does not work any more.

To sum it up, I am stuck in the middle of nowhere, I don’t have a cent, I don’t have an interpreter (the driver does not speak a word of English), and I don’t even have the address of the hotel I am supposed to reach.

I am trying to stop buses which managed to cross the river. Thy make me understand that they go to Canton.

Finally, a small bus overloaded with passengers and poultry stops; it is going to Zhuhai, but it is totally full! Spontaneously, two passengers disembark to make me room. Thank God, no one asks me for money.

At noon, lunch stop. Absolutely necessary in China, where food is anything but a joke. I am staying on the bus, since I don’t have any money. The driver comes and fetches me. I show him my empty pockets. No way, he drags me out, and leads me to the “first class” part of the restaurant. He orders a full meal – delicious –; we communicate with signs and smiles. He drags me back to the bus and we pursue our journey, struggling through an indescribable road mess.

We finally reach Zhuhai in the evening (18 hours for about 350 km).

The driver interrogates me about my hotel. I show him that I don’t know, but that I can recognize it. No problem, he drops all passengers and explores Zhuhai, street by street, until I say “stop!”.

The hotel’s staff recognize me and show me to my suite on top of the hotel. From my huge transparent bathtub, I contemplate the magnificent bay, covered with small fishing boats with lamps. Contrasts are the key to emotion…


I toured China every year until June 1989: students on Tiananmen were armed with guitars…


In winter 2019, a big tour was organized in the main concert halls of Beijing and Shanghai. Covid epidemics decided otherwise.