The recent reforms are not the first time the suona has been subject to the twists and turns of public policy. In the early days after the Communist victory in 1949, Wang’s family band played the suona not only at weddings and funerals but also at state ceremonies for sending recruits off to military service or starting construction on reservoir projects. Suona music was the soundtrack to every important moment. But during the Great Chinese Famine, no one could afford to hire musicians, and the suona was later blacklisted as part of Cultural Revolution campaigns against Confucian heritage. It wasn’t until the reform and opening-up era in the ’80s that the suona was restored to its central role in northeastern culture.
SHANDONG, East China — The unmistakable wail of the suona pierces the dusk in the village as Wang Ruiyong plays a traditional tune on the double-reed instrument. The elderly funeral attendees approve, recognizing the melody. Yet for nearly five years now, Wang and other suona masters have been recording their repertoire in the fear that the songs could soon be forgotten as their tradition increasingly comes under threat.
Most languages fall somewhere in between the extremes. Many European countries went through a period of linguistic nationalism in the 19th century and continue to regulate loans today. The Language Council of Norway, for example, has created official “Norwegian” spellings for English loanwords since 1996—although some, like “pøbb” (pub), were apparently rejected by the Norwegian people. Finland, fairly open to loans, has the Kielitoimisto, the Finnish Language Office, which helps create neologisms like “pehmelö” (“smoothie”) and advises on how to adapt foreign words into Finnish. Smaller European languages like Czech, Slovenian, and Croatian (with its “džez,” or jazz, and “hardver”), have traditionally been more resistant than larger ones.
The suona is a traditional Chinese wind instrument similar to the oboe that is customarily played alongside gongs, drums, and the sheng mouth organ at weddings and funerals in rural northeastern China. In Shandong province, where the suona is sometimes known by the onomatopoeic name “wulawa,” the instrument is an integral part of traditional culture. But in Shandong’s Pingyi County, where Wang hails from, suona performances have been banned from funerals since October 2016 as part of local government reforms aiming to curb lavish, showy ceremonies.
Several weeks prior to the announcement of the investigation, Ling continued to make appearances on state television in his positions of CPPCC Vice Chairman and United Front chief. On December 15 Ling had penned an article on the Communist theory publication Qiushi brimming with praise for the signature political philosophies of Xi Jinping such as the "Chinese Dream". This was seen by observers as a 'last-ditch' declaration of fealty to the new Chinese leader with whom Ling was thought to have lost favour.
In December 2014, Ling was placed under investigation by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (party's anti-graft agency) and removed from office. He was expelled from the Communist Party and tried on charges of corruption, illegal possession of state secrets, and abuse of power, and was sentenced to life imprisonment in July 2016.
THERE’S NOTHING LIKE visiting Finland to make an English-speaker appreciate the value of words borrowed from other languages. Finnish, as I learned during a trip earlier this month, is an agglutinative language, in which parts of words stay distinct instead of fusing together. This makes for very long words, like “kahdenneksikymmenenneksiyhdeksänneksi” (one way to say “29,” according to my guidebook), and considerable bewilderment for a visitor. To me, it might as well have been Klingon, only with more umlauts. Every now and then, though, a light would shine through the darkness: I’d catch something like “hot jooga” or “muffensi” or “grill maisteri,” and sigh with relief.