In extreme contrast to the image of glamorous female soloists on the concert platform, male shawm bands are by far the most common form of instrumental music in China. They perform mainly for life-cycle and calendrical rituals—as you do…
Bands are widely known as “drum music bands” (guyueban 鼓乐班), the members as “blowers-and-drummers” (chuigushou 吹鼓手) or just “blowers”. In Yanggao they are called “drum artisans” (gujiang 鼓匠).
Indeed, these bands are more ubiquitous and indispensable at funeral and temple fairs than groups of ritual specialists. In Yanggao the Daoists and the shawm bands alternate, and often go on procession together.
Such groups are common throughout China—not to mention the Islamic world and early Europe (for a roundup of posts, click here). To give you an idea of just how common they are in China, take the Anthology volumes on instrumental music for Liaoning province. There are no solo pieces, nor any pieces for strings; instead it contains four wind ensemble genres:
- the music of the shawm bands (guyue 鼓乐);
- shengguan 笙管 pieces (here a subsidiary repertoire of the shawm bands)
- yangge 秧歌 pieces (again played mainly by the shawm bands); and
- “religious music” (sic), with subheads for Buddhist and Daoist music, including vocal liturgy, percussion, and shengguan pieces.
But this overview for one single province contains 1,491 pages, of which 1,113 are devoted to the shawm bands—and as ever, the material published on them was only a tiny proportion of that collected.
That’s an outline for one whole province. In 2001, within the single county of Mizhi in Shaanbei, a local band boss estimated that there were 138 bands working at least part-time there. Again, contrast the qin, with its tiny elite coterie of players, and its vast media presence.
It’s the majestic timbre, heterophony, and complex repertoire of long suites of northern bands, played on XXL shawms, that appeals to me particularly. While my main focus has always been Daoist and Buddhist ritual, its vocal liturgy accompanied by shengguan ensemble, I realised I had to give serious attention to the shawm bands too. So from 1999 to 2005 I took some lengthy time out to document them.
My two books Ritual and music of north China are largely about such bands, in north Shanxi and Shaanbei respectively; both include DVDs. 
Status and disability
Shawm bands were always at the bottom of the social pile. Virtual outcasts, they were often illiterate, bachelors, opium smokers, begging in the slack season, associated with theft and violence. Freelance like household Daoists and carpenters, they had difficulty adapting to the straightjacket of the commune system, but revived by the 1980s.
At least until recently, shawm players often had some disability, notably visual. In north Shanxi, in Yanggao town alone, blindmen Liuru (c1931–2007), Erhur (b.1946), and Yin San (b.c1947), were all fine players and delightful people (for more on blind shawm players in Yanggao, see here; for posts on blind musicians, here).
Liuru (left) and Yin San, 2003.
In China and much of the world, blind musicians are thought to have special musical gifts. Erhur learned, and loves to sing, the gongche solfeggio, but pointed out playfully, “Only a stupid musician needs notation”! Take that, qin players (see also here)!
Elderly Liuru, living in pitiful conditions, was also devoted to the gongche of the suites.
Liuru’s shack in Yanggao county-town, 2003.
I also met several stammering shawm players. Like the fraternity of one-legged men in The third policeman, as a stammerer myself I naturally identified with fellow sufferers like Yuanr, the young shawm band boss in Zhenquan township, Shaanbei—bluntly known as “The Stammerer” (Jiekazi). When I introduced myself he thought I was taking the piss. Both his colleagues and mine had a terrible time trying to conceal their mirth once we got ch-ch-chatting. Imagine the number of tapes you’d need to record the interviews.
Blind boys also often become itinerant bards. For Shaanbei, see here; for a harrowing tale of blind bards in Zuoquan, Shanxi, here; and for blind bards in Gansu, and great songs on the Coronavirus by stammering folk-singer Zhang Gasong, here.
I studied the Hua family shawm band in Yanggao county (also home of the Li family Daoists) on and off from 1991 to 2005. Over the years I got to know many other bands in Yanggao too; since 2011 it’s been a pleasure to continue meeting them at funerals. Yang Ying, a regular dep for Li Manshan’s Daoist band, is also the leader of his own family shawm band, one of the finest in the area. Shi Ming, Li Qing’s friend from their days in the regional troupe, led a great band in Wangguantun just west.
Shi Ming’s band, Wangguantun 2001.
The Hua band played magnificently, despite being totally dysfunctional as a family. Led by two senior brothers on shawm and drum who were barely on speaking terms, they played in perfect ensemble, with complex heterophonic melody, and meticulously graded tempi. I still admire their artistry as much as I admire the Li family Daoists.
We did some great tours together (Washington DC, Holland, England), and made the most spectacular CD, Walking shrill, that should be part of everyone’s collection. Go on, order it—it’ll blow your head off.
While we’re about it, I wrote a long detailed analysis:
- “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”, in Simon Mills ed., Analysing East Asian music: patterns of rhythm and melody, Musiké vol.4 (Semar, 2010), pp.25–112.
Only slightly less complex is this intriguing excursion—and there are two tracks (#5 and 11) on the audio playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here. See also these notes on our first visit.
Here the classic style consists of long suites for large shawms. But since soon after I began visiting (“Typical!”), as my books show, such majestic music has largely become a casualty of the “big band” pop style adding trumpet, sax, electronic keyboard, and drum-kit. Hey ho.
Chang Wenzhou’s big band at village funeral, Mizhi 2001.
Further west, the barren loess hills of Shaanbei, heartland of the revolution, is renowned inter alia for its shawm bands (chuishou). We met many bands there.
Shawm players from Mizhi county, assembled for a regional festival in 1981.
Scholar Huo Xianggui, who began collecting Shaanbei shawm music as early as 1971 (!), had regular contacts with some of the great players, including Jin Wenhua, Hao Yongfa, and Chang Wenzhou. In another a revealing story about status, revealing the chuishous’ own sense of inferiority, he tells of an incident with the great shawm player Li Daniu—a poor illiterate opium-addicted bachelor. The Party hoped to cultivate Li’s talent by recruiting him for a state troupe, but he found it hard to adapt. One morning Huo invited Li Daniu to his room, and wanted to take him out for breakfast, but Li wouldn’t go. As Huo was about to go off to get food to bring back, Li insisted on squatting outside to wait for him, with the room locked; only half-joking, he said, “How am I supposed to explain if something in your room goes missing?”
By the 1990s, most distinguished of shawm players in the area was Chang Wenzhou, also a fine luthier, though he could be almost as difficult as the Hua brothers. Li Qishan’s rival band was also very fine.
By contrast to the mercenary atmosphere in Mizhi county-town, I enjoyed my time in the hill village of Yangjiagou with the lowly and unsung village band there. Of no great technical distinction, they merely supplemented their livelihood by doing occasional funerals. The two leading shawm players there, Chouxiao and “Older Brother” (on the left of the photo), semi-blind, were delightful unassuming people.
The Yangjiagou band playing for a village funeral there, 1999.
The 1999 funeral sequence from Yangjiagou is one of the highlights (§B) of my DVD Notes from the yellow earth, that comes with my 2009 book.
As a kind of footnote, both to this post and to my account of our 1992 fieldwork, in summer 1992, just after our trip to Shanxi, we visited southern Liaoning province to seek shawm bands there.
Northeast China is also renowned for its majestic bands with large shawms.  The editor of the Anthology for Liaoning (see above), Yang Jiusheng 杨久盛, had a rare grasp of the material—like his fine colleague in Jilin province, Li Laizhang 李来璋.
Through Yang Jiusheng we found a wonderful young scholar in Panjin county called Li Runzhong 李润中. He was himself son of a fine shawm player—so he had already done rather well for himself.
Besides making the usual transcriptions from his recordings, he had diligently collected rich material on social contexts (including photos, maps, and diagrams), and written brief biographies of some of the leading shawm band players and ritual specialists in the county. Locally published in several thick volumes, his work, like the music of his county, is likely to remain unknown.
This was a period when the Anthology was in full swing, but it was also an insecure time after the chipped “iron rice-bowl” of the commune era. Under Maoism people, in their villages and secure work-units, knew they were screwed; now they had to go out and fend for themselves, and would probably still get screwed. But Li Runzhong, like our friends in Hebei, was passionate about doing the fieldwork.
A vast archive of precious recordings for the Anthology languishes unpublished. Perhaps it was then that I realised someone would have to document this major aspect of Chinese musical life for outsiders.
Liu Yongqing (b.1922) at funeral, Liaoyang city, 1992.
Here are two pages of images from the Anthology volume on Jilin province:
Further south many bands play a rather light repertoire, though there are some fine genres, such as the longchui 笼吹 of south Fujian (#15 on playlist in sidebar, with commentary here). The Shiyin bayue 十音八乐 of Putian, better known for its “civil” ensemble with strings, also has a ceremonial repertoire for shawms:
Using circular breathing, the two shawms play continuously in heterophony, often an octave or two apart. Home base (cf. the sheng) is the lowest note, do in the basic scale; the upper player often “walks shrill” with soaring and searing high notes. With drum, cymbals, and gong thwacking away too, the sound is deafening even from a hundred metres away, but sitting in the band is a serious yet intoxicating challenge to the ears.
Our SOAS shawm band
Now from the sublime to the ridiculous:
Having taken part occasionally, and sketchily, in the ritual associations of Hebei on yunluo gong-frame and even sheng, I eventually took the plunge with the shawm too. Shawm music is much harder to learn than either the ritual shengguan ensemble of the Daoists or their vocal liturgy; the instrument itself is a challenge (certainly for a baroque violinist…), and the wild improvised decorations can only be learned through prolonged exposure from young. But hey—I knew it would help me get a handle, however rubbish I was.
I accompany Hua band for funeral, Wangzhuang village 2001. Photo: Chen Kexiu.
At first I didn’t try taking part with the Hua band, but when I got to Shaanbei in 1999 I thought I might have a go on the shawm. Chang Wenzhou showed me the ropes, and I tried a few pieces out with Dage and Chouxiao in Yangjiagou.
With Feng Xiaoping’s band, Yulin 2001.
In 2001, after more fieldwork in Shaanbei with my Beijing colleagues, I spent some time alone in Yulin, the regional capital. Putting aside my scruples about such a culturally inappropriate context, I went for daily “lessons” several times a week, one-to-one with a younger folk player, Feng Xiaoping. He got his band together for an informal “graduation concert” in his courtyard for bemused neighbours (well, they didn’t have much choice). After getting through a little suite I was completely knackered. The place names used at the dentist sprung to mind. As in Teach yourself Japanese, I drank a little beer.
In Yanggao with the Hua band in 2003, I mainly stuck to cymbals or gong—like their sons do from aged six!
In 1999 I had come down from the mountain, like Moses (also a stammerer, I note), with a whole set of instruments made by Chang Wenzhou. At SOAS I now had a little coterie of like-minded ethnos: Rachel Harris, Simon Mills, Manuel Jimenez, and Morgan Davies, all fine musicians, experts in their own various genres (Uyghur, Korean, Indonesian, Indian), and great mates. So, just for fun and our own instruction, we boldly decided to have a go at learning a few pieces. This is not like learning the erhu in a conservatoire—they are wild complex long semi-improvised pieces.
We made enough progress to give the occasional gig for suitably uncritical audiences—at CHIME conferences in Venice and Sheffield (not Scunthorpe), at SOAS, and even on procession (aha!) at the Lord Mayor’s Parade. We strung a few pieces together in little suites, and had a lot of fun.
Later I also bought a set of instruments in Yanggao (like “the music itself”, they vary from region to region—it’s no good playing Shanxi repertoire on Shaanbei shawms, or vice versa!). We all loved the Hua band’s wild repertoire, but it was considerably more daunting than that of Shaanbei. Still, I had all my recordings and videos, and I was making transcriptions anyway, which served as a useful crutch—another compromise, since picking it up entirely by ear would have been a challenge too far for us. Rachel, Simon, and I took turns on the two shawms, and since the drum is always an anchor, we relied heavily on the intuitive brilliance of Manuel Jimenez.
Then in 2005 I managed to get the Hua band invited for a tour of England. My old friend Bureau Chief Li, from the Datong regional Bureau of Culture, who had acted as “group leader” on the band’s 2002 DC trip, came along for the ride again.
Bureau Chief Li has always been most tolerant, nay supportive, of my fascination for folk culture—like a bemused dad baffled by his son’s obsession with Aston Villa. On the National Mall in DC, taking one look at all the performance tents set up for a mind-blowing array of groups from all over the Silk Road, he exclaimed, “Hey Steve, you bring us all this way and they’re supposed to play for another bloody temple fair?!” In England our most delightful gig was in Portesham Village Hall in Devon, home to a great jazz series. This time Bureau Chief Li chuckled, “WTF?! You’ve gone and done it again, Steve—this time you’ve got us a gig in the sodding village brigade headquarters!”
Anyway, during this visit, SOAS impressively invited the Hua band for a brief residency. We solemnly assembled daily in a little recording studio in SOAS and took turns joining in with the band on all the various instruments. One evening Morgan and I took a couple of the youngsters to a blues bar—though no strangers to the considerable vices of Yanggao town, they seemed a little nonplussed.
Now that we’re dispersed to the far corners of the globe, or at least of England, we’re all deeply nostalgic about those years. It’s not that we did it at all well—it could sound excruciating—but we learnt a lot, and it was the perfect way to work up a thirst for a good session in the nearby art-deco bar of the Tavistock Hotel, not least in memory of hosting the Hua band there in 2005.
Alas, the Hua band has since gone the way of many “blower-and-drummer” families. Drummer Hua Jinshan survived a stroke onstage in Amsterdam later in 2005. Falling ill there doubtless saved his life: if it had happened back home in Yanggao, it would have been curtains. As he recovered in hospital, I could only obey his pleas to wheel him daily to the courtyard for sneaky fag along with a motley crew of inmates. But his younger brother Hua Yinshan died of cancer, and Wuge, Yinshan’s son, was stabbed to death in an unsavoury brawl.
My usual rant
(For a similar one, see here; see also this). If you’ve heard me go on about this before, then go and pour yourself a large G&T.
None of what we tried at SOAS could possibly happen in a Chinese conservatoire. Sure, plenty of folk musicians have become professors there, but once enshrined in the big city they have to develop a more, um, “scientific”, more breezy repertoire. No-one there would dream of learning long suites of up to an hour, in the style of local folk genres, or emulating a bunch of peasants.
The brief of anthropologists/ethnomusicologists is to study people in all levels of society, and to show that all kinds of music-making are valid aspects of social activity, local cultures, in constant flux. Different genres have different aesthetics, all based on social practice.
So we mustn’t assume that state education is the norm. Among all the kinds of music in the world, WAM is rather exceptional, in its notation-based classroom training system and its domination by “concerts”. But that’s the ethos of the conservatoire. All kinds of musicians learn in different ways.
Vocal music too is rarely dependent on the state educational system. In England, aspiring bluespeople, like Mick and Keef, learned their art in art schools. Jazz was only seriously institutionalized since the 1980s, though school bands were always an influence. Elsewhere traditional music may be adopted in similar fashion: there are schools for flamenco, Irish music, muqam, and so on, but often they change the flavour of folk style—and anyway they only represent a miniscule tip of the iceberg.
My old friend Matt Forney, long-term Beijing resident whose towels I have often darkened in between my trips to the countryside, is a fine old-time banjo player. How do spirit mediums in Guangxi, or indeed punks in Beijing, learn? Such folk performers have no need of notation, training classes, WAM theory, and so on. It may be a continuum, but we shouldn’t confuse one for the other.
As to instrumental music: solos are rare in China, as you can see from the Anthology. Solos for erhu, pipa, and zheng are neither a norm nor an ideal. Notable aspects of traditional music-making include oral transmission, versatility, flexibility, and not performed for “concerts”. Folk instrumental music remains male-dominated, whereas since the 1980s the conservatoires have become dominated by women.
So look at these differences between local shawm bands and conservatoire suona soloists: different society, different values, different aims, different music. Even the names of the instruments are different: the urban term suona (found in historical sources) is rarely heard in rural China: instead they use a variety of local names, like weirwa, wazi, or laba. That’s why I fall back on the English word shawm.
(chuigushou 吹鼓手, guyueban 鼓乐班)
|By far the most common form
of instrumental music in China.
|Not so numerous, even in conservatoires.
|Weddings and funerals.
||Concerts on stage; film sessions.
|(formerly) Family training, from young;
largely oral training, in course of rituals.
Some blind or disabled; they may beg
in the off season.
Partial to liquor and drugs.
|Even if from a rural background, they now learn with a “teacher” in the conservatoire.
Notation plays a role.
|(formerly) Long complex suites derived
from imperial tradition.
|Short simple pieces derived from 20th-century modern urban values.
The upwardly-mobile conservatoire suona soloist will never aspire to the social context of the blowers-and-drummers. The most one can hope is precisely what does happen: maybe the former will pick up a few techniques from the latter.
Learning in a classroom, whether in China or elsewhere, is very different from the participant observation of the ethnographer. This difference is clear in China, where the former is done in conservatoires, the latter not at all.
If we learn shawm pieces, we’re unlikely to do it for the same reasons that a young boy in a shawm band family does; his reasons are not the ideal for us—we don’t want their lives. The rural bands may be occupational, but it’s not the kind of professionalism to which conservatoire musicians aspire. Suona soloists in conservatoires learn with a view to doing concerts on stage, or making money in pop/film studio sessions, not doing weddings and funerals.
I should stress again that notation may be a badge of elites, but is not so common either in China or elsewhere, nor is it a criterion for superiority! Notation is not at all important as a learning tool in China or elsewhere, though it may be a totem/fetish for those seeking to establish a “canon”. Of course it may be a useful tool for our analyses…
Yang Der-ruey’s study of a Daoist training school in Shanghai (anyway an exceptional case: most Daoists learn through hereditary family training in the course of rituals) shows the school’s break with tradition, and its irrelevance once they begin working in the real world, collaborating with temple patrons and spirit mediums. Even for amateur genres like Shanghai silk-and-bamboo, the point of learning isn’t to win prizes or even to “perform” in stage “concerts”; it’s a social activity, not to be judged by conservatoire standards.
The kinds of music promoted in conservatoires are very selective: mainly solos that can be taught, with precise scores, one-to-one, like a Brahms concerto or a Chopin étude. The flexibility of traditional ensembles, folk-singers, or a spirit medium, is not required here. But this gives people a very narrow picture of what Chinese music is about, both musically, socially, and historically. One may attempt to create a “canon”, but within the whole field of Chinese or world music it will be no more significant than that of WAM. Such a discourse may even play into a dangerous nationalistic, patriotic, narrative.
In China some examples of the chasm between folk and conservatoire aesthetics are the rare attempts by conservatoire musicians to render traditional music; in failing to subscribe to its aesthetic, they entirely lack the “flavour” that makes it effective, as with their polished stage renditions of the shengguan music of the Zhihua temple, or silk-and-bamboo: meticulously rehearsed from fixed parts, with graded dynamics, and so on.
In general, though, conservatoire musicians neither want to nor could learn local folk traditions. They learn a fixed version of “the dots”, overlooking style, and entirely removed from the social context that nurtures it. They may consider this superior, “improved”, more “scientific”. The musical style of rural shawm bands is also ridiculously difficult—but the point is that there’s no reason at all why conservatoire students would want to learn long shawm suites like this.
In sum, the conservatoires do what they do, and that’s fine. It’s just that as ethnomusicologists we seek to offer a broader soundscape and a broader social range. And anyway, for a sensitive musician, the intensity and grandeur of the folk style will be far more rewarding than those cute little conservatoire pieces.
So after all this discussion of urban (and urbane) concert performance, we should return to the rural ceremonial setting by watching the Hua band playing their hearts out at a funeral—see my lengthy analysis here.
On shawm bands elsewhere around the world, see e.g. south Asia, Iran, and Xinjiang.
 See also my Folk music of China, ch.10, and its CD, as well as the 2-CD set China: folk instrumental traditions. In Chinese, my colleague Zhang Zhentao has also written well on them. See also my “Men behaving badly: shawm bands of north China”, in Gender in Chinese Music, pp.112–26.
 See my Folk music of China, ch.10, and §4 of the CD. Note also two CDs from François Picard: Chine, Hautbois du Nord-Est, musiques de la première lune, and Chine, Hautbois du Nord-Est, la bande de la famille Li (Buda, Musique du Monde, 1995).