Pigeon Whistles

Many years ago I watched movies set in Beijing intrigued to what sounded like faint, distant whistles as hawkers sold their wares in old winding alleyways. I only learnt later that these faint sounds were pigeons with whistles attached to their tails. As a child, the scholar Wang Shixiang raised crickets, trained falcons to catch rabbits and dogs to catch badgers. He especially loved pigeons because it was a pastime he could pursue all year long, not restricted by the change of seasons. Wang bought hundreds of gourds on which he engraved designs with a hot needle and also engraved designs on pigeon whistles.

The earliest textual sources on pigeon whistles (geshao) are found in the standard history of the Song where they were used in military operations. During a military campaign in the northern Song to quash the kingdom of Western Xia in the northwest, pigeons with whistles attached to their tails ultimately guided Xia troops to surround and annihilate the Song general and his army. The pigeons were released from large silver-guilded lacquer boxes found along a roadside by the Song general's commander-in-chief Ren Fu.

Pigeon whistles became widespread by the southern Song dynasty (1127-1278 A.D.), but it is not until the late Qing that we find detailed accounts of pigeon whistles in the imperial capital. In the Yanjing Suishiji by Fucha Dunchong, written during the reign of the Emperor Guangxu (1875-1904), it is recorded: 'When it is time to release pigeons from captivity, bamboo whistles must be attached to their tails. These whistles are called gourd or hulu (gourd) or shaozi. The sweet, melodious sounds permeate the heavens when the pigeons encircle the sky and make you feel happy and content.' Foreign observers also wrote on the subject. An article 'Chinese Pigeon Whistles' appeared in National Geographic in June 1913 and H.P. Hoose published his book Peking Pigeons and Pigeon Flutes in 1938.

There are two distinct types of whistles: those consisting of bamboo tubes placed side by side and tubes attached to a gourd. The bamboo tubular whistles have two, three or five tubes arranged in a row of ascending height. Some of these bamboo tubular whistles are also raised on a platform. They are extremely light, each weighing only a few grams and are tied to the tails of young pigeons (pigeons usually have twelve quills in their tails) with fine copper wire or good quality cotton or silk thread. In Beijing slang this is referred to as 'sewing on the tail' (feng shaoyi). When the pigeons fly in a flock (either long distance flights referred to as 'straight flying' (zou tangzi), or flocks flying in circles above residential apartments and houses, referred to as 'encircling the flock' (feipan), wind flows through the apertures tuned to various pitches. 'As the flock soar and swoop, they meet the wind's resistance at different angles, and thus produce pitches that distinctly change in tone and volume.' One of the most well-known collectors of pigeon whistles, Wang Xixian (1899-1986), owned a pair of gourds with three-partitioned slits that could produce the shang, gong and jiao pitches from the left, centre and right chambers respectively.

Raising pigeons and attaching whistles to their tails is not the kind of hobby or pastime that readily comes to mind, but it's certainly a hobby that is pursued and cultivated with a passion among many elderly men in the capital and reminds us that hobbies, customs and habits accumulated in daily life are perhaps the last to vanish by the trends of change.

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