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Daoist Droning

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Published at 23:05:36-0700 Updated
Tags: chinese

I recently read Finding Them Gone, Red Pine's book combining a contemporary Chinese travelogue with an introduction to ancient Chinese poetry. Through this book, I learned about chang2xiao4 长啸, an ancient Daoist spiritual exercise. It is known in English as "transcendental whistling" -- or, in Red Pine's translation, "droning."

pg 47

I discovered that in the mouths of Daoists, changxiao had a very different meaning, and involved breathing out in a way that could be heard for miles. Such droning was done from the top of a hill or a raised platform. None of the Daoists I've spoken with, however, have been able to tell me how to do it. Either the regimen behind such a skill has died out, or such knowledge is transmitted in secret.

Now, I'm not telling you about droning just because it's crazy cool. Using Google's new website Teachable Machine, it took me just fifteen minutes to create a neural network that recognizes droning-like noises in the browser.

After clicking the button, allow 3-5 seconds for the scripts to load. You'll know it's working if your browser asks to use the microphone. To trigger the network, make a high-pitched "eeeee" noise, or a low pitched "uhhhhh" noise.

EDIT: this doesn't work on all mobile devices. Try your desktop browser if you can.

High detected.
Low detected.

An 8th-century Daoist manual, the Xiao4zhi3 啸旨 (Principles of Droning), describes about ten methods of droning. Though some sections have been translated, to my knowledge nobody has translated the whole manual. In the future, I'd like to thoroughly translate the droning methods given in the Principles of Droning, then retrain this network to recognize the authentic sounds.

Last but not least, here are the remaining quotes on droning from Finding Them Gone.

pg 48

In Juan Chi's day, droning was considered an art worthy of any gentlemen interested in a life beyond the crowd. Juan's contemporary, Ch'eng Tzu-an (231-273), wrote a long poem about it titled "Ode to Droning" 啸赋, which was later collected in the 6th-century literary anthology known as the Wen Xuan. Ch'eng began by describing how practitioners climb to a height and focus their thoughts on what is subtle and distant, with such intensity that they become oblivious of themselves. Once this was achieved, they gave rise to

A sound not dependent on an instrument
A technique free of tools
Using what one has at hand
Focusing the mind and controlling the breath
You move your lips and a tune appears
You open your mouth and a sound comes forth
Whatever you meet or encounter
Inspires a response in song
It isn't discordant when it's loud
It doesn't sound weak when it's faint
It's purer and more piercing than a flute
Softer and more refined than a zither
Ethereal enough to reach the realm of spirits
Subtle enough to probe the deepest depths
Creatures all dance and tap their feet
Phoenixes prance and flap their wings
........................
Know then the wonder of droning
Is the pinnacle of sounds

pg 85

In addition to cultivating forms of meditation that turned their minds into ashes and their bodies into wizened trees, they [the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove] also droned.

I had also hoped to climb to a promontory known as Sun Deng's Droning Tower. Sun Deng was a long-haired Daoist hermit, who played a one-string zither, and who served as the group's mentor in Daoist matters, which, of course, included droning.

pg 94

Another poem on the scroll was [Wang Wei's] Bamboo Retreat 竹里馆:

Sitting alone amid dense bamboo
Playing my zither and droning
Deep in the forest no one else knows
Until the bright moon looks down

Like Juan Chi, Wang Wei was both a musician and a cultivator of spiritual arts. He, too, could drone.

pg 120

I could see why Li Bai chose this location. It was flat, and would have been perfect for martial arts exercises. At the far end of the summit, there was a new shrine hall where Li Bai's reading terrace stood. At some point, droning towers were replaced by reading terraces among Chinese intelligentsia. Droning, I'm guessing, didn't do as much for a person's resume or help with passing the exams. Still, it's not surprising that so many of China's great poets had some sort of elevated place where they could be closer to celestial and atmospheric influences.

pg 85

We asked directions only twice. Sun's tower was just north of Huihsien, inside Paichuan Park, a park of a hundred springs dominated by a small lake with a zigzagging bridge across the middle. I walked to the north end of the lake then follow the trail up a small hill known as Sumenshan. Then, minutes later, I arrived at the place where Sun droned.

Huihsien had changed since then, but the mountain was still a mountain. The view was expansive, and it would have been a fine place to drone.