In my sojourns with the Li family Daoists in Yanggao I am mainly chatting with one extended family, seemingly detached from politics—not even on my early visits in 1991 and 1992 did we ever have any contact with local cadres. The headquarters of the village “brigade” have long stood derelict. Indeed, the experience of household Daoists—as freelancers, like shawm bands or carpenters—was different from that of peasants tied to the land, and they largely felt at a distance from the efforts of the leadership to rebuild society, more concerned for their own livelihood, always straining to gain some independence from the production teams. Moreover, Li Qing’s family was among the “black elements” in the village, suffering discrimination. Even if I had spent more time with the senior generation, I suspect their experiences of Maoism would have been similar: though inevitably deeply affected by political vicissitudes, they had little investment in the public affairs of the village.
By contrast, through the 1990s our team from the Music Research Institute in Beijing was doing a survey of villages on the plain south of Beijing, documenting amateur village ritual associations. These groups perform vocal liturgy, ritual percussion, and haunting shengguan wind music, mainly within their own village for funerals and calendrical festivals for the gods, so they are basically supported by the whole village.
While doing “hit-and-run” missions to several dozen villages in the area, I was increasingly attracted to one, South Gaoluo. Apart from the well-preserved condition of all aspects of the association’s ritual practice, I was drawn by the musicians’ personalities, and I ended up doing a detailed study on the fortunes of the village and its ritual association through the 20th century. What I tried, and failed, to write was a kind of cross between The Archers, Wild swans, and Philharmonia.
As I compiled the history of the association, several sources helped me to put its ritual and social culture in political context. There, many of the members of the association held positions of authority under all three periods of 20th-century history, so we naturally talked with the village leadership. With their detailed knowledge of the modern history of the village, several senior men, past and present cadres, were able to offer clear accounts of major events in the area and to connect them to the village’s ritual association.
But in both cases (occupational household Daoists and village-wide amateur ritual associations) the complexities of local relations can have a deep influence on ritual practice. Perceived cultural capital also changes. As with my work on the Li family Daoists, dry timeless disembodied lists of ritual sequences and vocal and instrumental items are far from adequate. What is fascinating is the interaction of personal biographies, the whole social and political environment, with changing ritual practice.
So on the new page I illustrate all this with the stories of two outstanding members of the South Gaoluo association, Cai Fuxiang (c1905–79) and Cai An (1942–2012). In the official discourse, Cai Fuxiang would merit a polite footnote as an “old revolutionary” who preserved the ritual manuals and the performance of the vocal liturgy under Maoism; whereas the great Cai An might hardly feature at all. For more on the liturgists, click here.