An unsung local hero


I mentioned the splendid Li Jin 李金 briefly in my book (p.20):

I also made a couple of brief trips doing a reccy of Daoists in the nearby counties, assisted by my saintlike old friend Li Jin, bright young scholar Liu Yan, and feisty Driver Ma, all delightful company. No-one will ever accept any reward for all their work as my amanuensis. Elif Batuman’s fine adage about her time in Samarkand rings true: “We were either trying not to give money to people who were trying to take it, or trying to give money to people who were trying to refuse it.”

Pufo tang

Li Jin (right), with Jiao Lizhong (centre) and driver (and polymath!) Ma Hongqi,
Hunyuan county-town 2011.

Li Jin is indeed a treasure. I only realized quite recently that he was once a celebrated performer—but it’s his infinitely generous sincerity that strikes all who meet him. In this he resembles the great Li Qing, but his story differs in that the Li family Daoists always strived to keep under the radar, maintaining their independence from official control, whereas Li Jin’s life has been shaped more directly by the vicissitudes of the Party. In many ways his story is unexceptional, but while my accounts of Yanggao generally concern folk more than state, [1] it reminds us of the presence of the latter—and the presence of Good People within it.

A year older than Li Manshan (but not related to the Li family Daoists), Li Jin was born in 1945 in the poor village of East Shahe just southwest of Tianzhen county-town. He had two older brothers, and at first his family thought to give him away to a close friend, a childless local doctor, but in the end they kept him. Their grandfather was the patriarch. He had gradually accumulated over 30 mou of land, and with the three brothers helping in the fields, their life was quite comfortable until “Liberation”. In the land reform of 1947–48 they were classified as middle peasants (cf. my book pp.95–9); in the 1964 Four Cleanups campaign they were stigmatized as “rich peasants”, and only rehabilitated in 1982—not unlike the Li family Daoists.

When a basic primary school system was established, Li Jin went to school in the converted Dragon King temple. He recalls the fine opera stage opposite it, where an opera troupe would perform for the gods on the 18th of the 6th moon. The stage remained intact—young Li Jin himself remembers performing the item “Playing the flower drum” (Da huagu 打花鼓) there when he was 10 sui.

By the time he graduated from six years of primary school he was a favourite of the teacher. He became prominent in school performances; what he calls his “silly look” was popular. In 1959 he passed the exam to enter secondary school in Tianzhen county-town—no easy feat. It was life-changing for him. On his very first day there, he was thrilled by the flag-raising ceremony in the school’s huge exercise ground. He began learning Russian enthusiastically, dreaming of becoming a translator. But he was soon chosen to do an audition in Yanggao county for a new state-run troupe that was to perform the popular skittish local duet “little opera” errentai.

So in the 2nd moon of 1960, when only 16 sui, he was chosen to join the new county folk opera troupe (Yanggao xianzhi p.468). This, indeed, was soon after Li Qing was chosen for the regional arts-work troupe in Datong (my book pp.113–118), and at the height of the famine.

Later Li Jin heard that he had nearly got the county mayor into trouble. None other than Jing Ziru, head of the Bureau of Culture and the (only) brilliant local historian of Yanggao (my book p.50), told him that at his audition, the mayor had taken exception to his two “wolf-teeth”, but the others pointed out they could be taken out—indeed, in 1962 he had them extracted by a quack dentist while they were performing in Zuoyun county. Rather him than me.

Li Jin soon went on to become a celebrated performer. The troupe’s expenses were to be footed by all the people’s communes in the county, so it was ponderously named Shanxi sheng Yanggao xian renmin gongshe lianshe minjian gejutuan 阳高县人民公社联社民间歌舞团. If there was a sign at the gate of the compound, it must have collapsed under the weight of its own lettering

Li Jin remembers those early days in the troupe fondly, with its twelve performers and six musicians. Of course it was a terribly tough time, but the troupe was doing well, and led a somewhat less tenuous existence than the common folk, “like being in kindergarten”. Still, he only earned 18 kuai a month.

The leadership praised their first hastily-rehearsed programmes of Da jinqian 打金钱, Zou xikou 走西口, Gua hongdeng 挂红灯, and Gusao tiaocai 姑嫂挑菜. At first Li Jin was chosen to specialize in the handsome sheng roles, but with his “silly look” he found it too much of a challenge, and he soon gravitated to the chou clown role.


The character is meant to make people laugh, but once he made himself corpse. Playing the role of a clown county official, one day he got the words wrong and couldn’t help bursting out laughing. The troupe leaders gave him a kicking backstage but he still couldn’t stop laughing. At the next meeting he was criticized and his 3 mao supplement for the day was withheld. This is the kind of story that musos delight in.

They were on tour all year round. I was surprised to learn that tickets were for sale—so they had to try and control villagers without tickets trying to sneak a look, no simple task.


Following the mood of the times, the troupe soon began performing modern items instead of their original classical stories, so Li Jin’s clown roles were now mainly “negative” characters like spies or traitors, not the more sympathetic (or at least neutral) roles of old. Despite the troupe’s popularity with audiences, and Li Jin’s own reputation, in the Lesser Four Cleanups campaign of 1963 they were banished to the countryside for “tempering through manual labour” (laodong duanlian). As the campaign intensified, they were active in Tianzhen county as a Four Cleanups work troupe. At first Li Jin was excluded from taking part in such “battle teams” (zhandoudui) by his bad class background, but soon the order came down that everyone had to join in, so for the next two years he was part of a group of a dozen or so “Red Flag warriors”.

By 1967 a new directive descended on them, warning them that their performances since the formation of the troupe, glorifying “ox demons and snake spirits, scholars and beauties”, contradicted the agenda of the Party. The leadership decided to amalgamate the troupe with the county’s other opera troupe (for the classical opera Jinju), at the same time reducing the personnel. By 1968 even this new combined troupe was abolished. Li Jin was assigned to work as a cook. His wife was sent to work in a troupe in Xinzhou, rather far south—so even his family was being broken up. He’s grateful that she managed to return after some time.

In 1970 the county established a Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team. All the recruits had to do was to be able to hum a few phrases and not be too ugly, and they were in. But the authorities soon realized the standard wouldn’t do, and had recourse to the disgraced former troupe members. So Li Jin now found himself taking part in simple cheerleading performances, trapped in “a bottleneck of monotony”. But they did raise standards, and their performances enjoyed a certain popularity.

The scene changed quickly from 1976, with more traditional genres regaining a position among modern styles. In 1979 the county “folk opera troupe” (minjian gejutuan, later called Errentai jutuan) was restored, with both new and old styles reflected. Supported by the county leadership, their reputation again spread. Li Jin, still only in his mid-30s, got back to work conscientiously, going on to become Director of the troupe. In 1988, as “popular voting” came into vogue, he stepped down after a close-fought election.

In 1989 he moved to the county Bureau of Culture, a radical change in work style—and a challenge upon which he embarked with typical enthusiasm. He was glad to broaden his experience of local culture. Since then, privately-run errentai groups have bloomed in the countryside, taking a major role at weddings and funerals. I don’t suppose Li Jin is always impressed by the pop style that now dominates there, but he is proud of playing a role in the recognition of the Li family Daoists and the Hua family shawm band in the Intangible Cultural Heritage roster. Despite my reservations about the ICH, I can appreciate his satisfaction.

In a climate since the 1990s whereby most cadres seem to spend their time staggering around pissed from one state-funded banquet to the next, [2] Li Jin seemed to be the only one who ever got any real work done. And he at once understood that I was there to work too, inconspicuously doing all he could to help me—like biking through the snow to convey an obscure foreign message on my first trip.

In recent years, while staying with Li Manshan and following him round funerals, I make occasional visits back to the town for a shower and a nice quiet informal meal with Li Jin. Since his retirement, though not in great health, he has returned to his beloved errentai, taking place in regular amateur meetings.

He is affable and generous with everyone, and accepts people (even me) as he finds them—embodying the noble virtues that the system often trampled on. He has always believed in humanity, social justice, and the aims of the Party.

* * *

This is the kind of life that books like those of Dikötter, single-mindedly focused on tragedy, cannot reflect. Whereas the more focused ethnography of Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden is also unflinching, it is based on fieldwork, and so can’t help showing a certain empathy. But more general trawls through the archives like those of Dikötter can only be partial, another kind of propaganda. One can hardly challenge his details—indeed, the tragedy lies precisely in the way that sincerity was repressed, and it does need documenting—but one needs a more nuanced, perspective.

My account may make Li Jin sound a little like one of those selfless cadres of yore, by contrast with the self-serving crew that holds sway today. But there really were, and are, people like that… See also Yanggao personalities.

There is nothing like a quiet chat over a simple bowl of noodles with Li Manshan and Li Jin.

[1] In my 2004 book on the Gaoluo ritual association, one finds a closer relationship between folk consciousness and local cadres.

[2] Though in my book (p.314) I note recent sumptuary laws, and a jolly good thing too.

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