Pigeon culture could yet be China’s greatest soft power. If you’ve ever heard a flock of pigeons swirl overhead in Beijing somehow sounding like a UFO coming in to land, then you’ve already been exposed to the magical effect of strapping bamboo whistles to the back of a bird.
After meeting Master He Yongjiang while he was displaying his whistles at a temple fair, we arranged for me to come and learn about his whistle making, though I wasn’t aware that he’d arranged for the leading lights in pigeon culture to also be there, including other whistlers, fanciers and the editor of Fans of Ornamental Pigeons.
I begin the day with a tour of the pigeons (who knew that some have curly feathers?) and then of a selection of Master He’s whistles. They’re true works of art and unlike anything I’d ever seen. They’re multi-chamber, multi-note instruments made of bamboo, dry gourds, oranges, lotus seeds, lychees and even ivory ('Government-approved ivory'’ his wife points out, 'and rhino horn in the past, but we use bamboo for those bits now').
For each whistle I’m given a rundown of how many days it took, based on an eight-hour shift, culminating in a gourd-based whistle bigger than any pigeon. This 36-day, bright yellow wonder has 56 valves to represent the ethnic minorities of China. It’s just a model and 'represents, as do all pigeon whistles, Chinese peace to the world,' says Mu Tong, editor of Fans.
The next part of my induction is a group assessment of the status of Beijing pigeon whistle culture worldwide: it’s doing okay in the UK and is really big in Germany, where they even have a museum. There’s a huge demand for Chinese pigeons, they say, but they cannot be exported. All are hoping for updated regulations soon.
By this point I’m raring to go, but it’s lunchtime (11.25am). Unfortunately for me this involves two full-to-the brim beer glasses of Mongol King baijiu, drunk in toasts to intangible cultural heritage and the promotion of pigeon whistle culture worldwide. By the time I’m back in the workshop I can’t even draw around the end of a length of bamboo.
Master He soon has a round valve top cut out of bamboo and chips away at half of the disc, hammering through the valve opening before glueing it onto the bamboo chamber, slapping it against his inner thigh to knock it all into place. He sets it upside down on a windowsill to dry. My turn.
'Why is that when I do it it’s really easy, but when you do it you do everything wrong?' Master He, who began making whistles in 1963 just before such traditions fell sharply from favour, wonders aloud. Thankfully, he adopts a hands-on approach to my instruction and no people or birds are harmed. I learn how to attach a whistle to a string on a handle and swing it whooshing overhead to test the sound. 'Though the whistle has to be attached to a pigeon’s body to get the true note,' says Master He as he sews one in place through a pigeon’s tail feathers.
Only now do I get a more personal answer to my main question about pigeon whistles: why? 'For me,' says fellow fancier Mr Hou, 'it’s all about mood. If I’m feeling down then I’ll attach two specific notes to my pigeons and set the flock off. The harmony created really cheers me up. And if I’m already in a good mood, I choose different notes to keep me there.'