Two local cultural workers

These notes are partly stimulated by Zhang Lili, currently writing her PhD in Beijing on my relationship with the village of South Gaoluo, subject of my book Plucking the Winds.

A useful idiomatic term evoking the whole spectrum, whether of guanxi contacts or the range of funeral services, is yitiaolong “the whole dragon” (indeed, this blog may itself be considered “the whole dragon”, making links between seemingly diverse topics).

Li Bin’s first funeral shop in town.

Li Bin’s funeral shop in Yanggao county-town, Shanxi.

So having praised Yang Yinliu, shining pinnacle of Chinese musicology, I want to make a tribute to two admirable local cultural workers at the opposite end of the dragon (cf. An unsung local hero) whose work has inspired us since 1989:

Liu Fu 刘阜 and Wang Zhanlong 王占.

Their only qualification was that they were local, and came to take pride in documenting their local traditions under the stimulus of the new directive from the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, the vast project that got under way from 1979 as China began to liberalize after the collapse of Maoism.

Let me adapt a passage from my article

  • “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003), pp.287–337 (for reading between the lines of a Chinese article on 1950s’ Tibet, see here).

Antoinet Schimmelpenninck described the process of collecting folk-song in Jiangsu in the early 1990s.

The collecting of folk-songs is one task, but by no means the only or primary task of the bureaus of culture. They carry out political propaganda, make posters about family planning or about the punishment of local criminals, organize dance parties, stage plays and children’s games for local entertainment, run libraries, and execute various administrative tasks which help the provincial government. […]
It is not, at present, one of the specific tasks of the Cultural Bureaus of the Wu area to collect folk-songs. I visited one wenhua zhan (village cultural post) which was mainly engaged in printing labels for jam jars and other consumer goods.

Censorship may operate throughout the process: first, self-censorship of performers (e.g. what kind of songs singers see fit to sing for fieldworkers), and then editorial adaptation of the material collected. In Baoding, one single region of Hebei province, where ritual associations have important traditions, such fieldwork as was done on “instrumental music” took place mainly from 1983 to 1985, but in only two or three of a dozen counties we have visited did we find knowledgable cadres who had done such work.

One of the most diligent of these was Liu Fu, of the Hall of Culture in Laishui county. He acted early on the Anthology directive, printing a mimeograph (4 pp. introduction, map, list of contents, 128 pp. transcriptions, 22 pp. field report, 8 pp. diagrams of instruments) on the county’s instrumental music as early as 1983, which was an important inspiration for my own work on ritual associations there. I don’t know if the regional editors ever forwarded Liu Fu’s work, but it was entirely omitted from the final provincial publication. The following passages of his “Field report” show some of the problems faced by local collectors, here partly relating to the sensitive and secret nature of ritual music:

The work of collecting folk instrumental music is not always smooth: we have met considerable difficulties. For instance, some elderly folk musicians had been struggled against during past campaigns for this [their music/ritual], and had been labelled as “black cliques” and “ox demons and snake spirits”, so they are still anxious. When they heard that we wanted to collect pieces of music, they suspected that it was once again “luring the snake out of its hole”, and so they refused to play for us.

Some associations are very conservative in their thinking, and are concerned that their distinctive pieces will be taken off and learnt by others—in their own words “something we begged for on our knees, we can’t just throw it out now we’re on our feet”, and so they make excuses not to play for us. Some associations take the opportunity to make economic demands. Some brigade [village] cadres think this work is meaningless, and are afraid it might have side-effects, and so are unwilling to co-operate with us. And so on.

Since these are ritual associations, by “side-effects” he apparently means that the collection may be seen as encouraging feudal superstition. Liu Fu continues:

To tackle this situation, every time we arrive in a place, we explain the document “On the collection and documenting of the Chinese folk musical heritage” from the Ministry of Culture and the Musicians’ Association, and the spirit of the directive from the relevant organs of the province and regions, and we discuss the great academic value of the repertory of the ritual associations in our county, and the great significance of the work of collecting, to make the cadres and musicians have a correct understanding; we then show them that they can play whatever they have to play, they must not leave it to later musicians, but do their best to make their own page in the Anthology of instrumental music.

Poor equipment for sound recording, copying, and photography was the norm. Liu Fu goes on to discuss the problems of recording:

Although there are said to be instructions and directives from the central, provincial, and local authorities for the work of collecting instrumental pieces, no-one has given us a scrap of money, and the expenses of the county Bureau of Culture are reduced year by year. Under present conditions, where they can only guarantee annual salaries, they can’t supply any more money to support the work apart from producing a minimal sum for buying necessary goods like tape and paper. Thus, all the associations have to perform for free. This requires us to record as much as possible in a short time.

I might add that any tapes were poorly annotated if at all, and haphazardly stored. One keen cadre I know in the same area had to use a single tape over and over, transcribing a piece in one village one evening and then re-recording music in another village the next day on top of the old recording. But at least he did some work! Of course there was a lot more that local scholars could have done, given time and money—like copying gongche scores and ritual manuals, filming rituals, documenting the histories of the associations, and giving detailed descriptions of ritual sequences, as we later aspired to do in our project around several nearby counties. But Chinese fieldworkers have now overtaken us.

Central funds barely reached down to grass-roots level, and cultural cadres did what they could. On one hand, they were indigenous to the musics they were documenting, but they were rarely able to afford the time or resources, even if they had the training, to make systematic reports. Still, some of the results are impressive.

Anyway, we knew that we might learn from local cultural officials how to find ritual groups. Besides, in those early days, when the memory of the commune system was still fresh, it was a necessary first stage to go through the chain of local officialdom. Sometimes, when our preliminary research in Beijing failed to suggest any knowledgeable local officials, we simply bypassed them. A couple of times we got our fingers burnt, but the most fruitful leads to ritual groups often came just by stopping to chat to any old melon-seller by the roadside—he would generally tell us where the grand rituals were held, and which villages were worth visiting.

There were actually two types of cultural officials: those inclined towards “cultural work”, and jobsworths. The latter, once we began visiting the villages regularly, realized that we didn’t constitute an excuse to hold another vast banquet; I was clearly not an eminent foreign professor but an ill-dressed and impecunious young researcher, so they soon left us to our own devices.

Times have changed, though: now the local Bureaus of Culture are staffed by administrators, not necessarily even local, with their smartphones and spreadsheets.

Liu Fu and Gaoluo
Further to A slender but magical clue, I’ve been recalling how we found the village of Gaoluo.

Liu Fu himself came from a Laishui village, East Mingyi, with its own tradition of vocal liturgy (including baojuan “precious scrolls”) and shengguan ensemble. After the 1986 “discovery” of the Qujiaying ritual association in nearby Gu’an county, he had already approached officials in Beijing to tell them that there were plenty of similar groups in his county alone, giving them a copy of his fine 1983 mimeograph and a tinny tape he had somehow made of a few of their shengguan pieces.

In Beijing Liu Fu also met my mentor Qiao Jianzhong, Yang Yinliu’s successor as head of the Music Research Institute, who then made an exploratory trip to two other Laishui villages in 1988. It was this that prompted me and my friend Xue Yibing  (a bright musicologist from the distinguished Music Research Institute in Beijing) to visit Liu Fu in his bare dingy office in Laishui county-town as part of our first fieldwork survey in New Year in 1989.

After giving us an outline of the various ritual groups in the county, Liu Fu recommended Gaoluo, so we all sallied forth. Here I adapt from the Prelude of Plucking the Winds:

I first arrived in the village of South Gaoluo on a cold but bright winter’s afternoon, on the 14th day of the 1st moon in 1989, in the middle of the great New Year’s rituals then taking place in every village in China. This was one of many villages just south of Beijing where I was working with Xue Yibing in doing exploratory fieldwork on amateur ritual groups.

Escorted on that first visit by a well-meaning ganbu (“cadre”, as state officials are known in China) from the cultural bureau of the county-town, we made slow progress by jeep along the bumpy track to the village; though it is only nine kilometres from the dingy county-town of Laishui, the journey took over half an hour.


An encounter on the way to Gaoluo, 1989.

First we went to the house of the then village chief Cai Ran, himself a vocal liturgist in the village ritual association, and had to spend over an hour in heated debate before we could cajole him into allowing us to trudge through the alleys to the ritual building a few hundred yards away, where the association was then performing before the god paintings at the altar (photo here).


Cai Ran, 1989.


Diaogua hangings for the New Year’s rituals, 1989.


Donor’s list (1930) of the South Gaoluo association, New Year 1989.

At the time Cai Ran’s caution seemed to me excessive, since we were all clearly sympathetic, and the county cadre was taking responsibility, but in retrospect I felt rather embarrassed: maybe we should have respected his reluctance. Later, when I learned of the 1951 imprisonment of the Italian missionary Bishop Martina, apparently the last foreigner to visit the village, and as I experienced more often the sensitivity of “superstitious” practices in China, I understood his anxieties better. But later Cai Ran recalled that his hostility that day was not related to the revealing of secret rituals to foreigners, nor to fear of criticism from county cadres, but rather to the possible appropriation of his village’s ritual music by the cadre, whom he already suspected of handing on some pieces to the association in his own home village. After this strange introduction, we soon came to enjoy our sessions with Cai Ran: he has a wonderful informality, a great sense of humour, and is full of insight.

Later I liked to share with the villagers another amusing memory of that first afternoon. After finally persuading Cai Ran to escort us to the ritual building, and having gained the musicians’ approval to record and take photos (alas, I didn’t yet have a camcorder!), I had just set up my recording equipment when in walked a severe-looking policeman in uniform. Knowing the sensitivity of what the musicians were doing, and of what I was doing in watching them doing it, my heart sank: feeling irrationally as if I’d been caught in the act (fan cuowu “made a mistake”, as the eloquent Chinese expression goes), I prepared for further lengthy negotations. But the policeman, the splendid Shan Rongqing, back in the village for the New Year holiday, immediately picked up the large ritual cymbals and joined in with feeling. He later took part keenly in our studies of the village traditions; we often admired his musicianship on the ritual percussion, and later too on the “old fellow”, the bowed fiddle on which he accompanied the local opera.


Shan Rongqing, 1989.

That day we felt lucky enough to have been allowed, eventually, to witness the association’s afternoon ritual, and since we had business in the county-town that night, we agreed to return the next day to talk with the members. That next day they were friendly, as always with such amateur associations; we recorded them “singing the score” of some of their shengguan pieces for us (cf. sidebar playlist, #9), and learned the bare bones of the New Year’s rituals and the history of the association—material which later, in view of all that we would gradually learn, came to look ludicrously sparse. And again we took our leave—the time still had not come for in-depth work, since we were only making a general survey.

Somehow, that first visit to South Gaoluo left us with a deep impression: the village seemed isolated (a view we later corrected) and its ritual life intense, with all the beautiful hangings decorating the temporary temple and the alleys outside. But it was not until the summer of 1993 that we were able to go back there. By now we were engaged on a four-year project to document village ritual associations throughout the area; but while we continued to collect basic data on other villages, we naturally felt the need to dig beneath the surface, not just to “gaze at flowers from horseback”. Gaoluo became a magnet for us, and over the following years we made many stays there, having a fantastic time as we learn more about the turbulent experiences of the village and its ritual performers throughout the 20th century.

Wang Zhanlong
The very next day after those first visits to South Gaoluo at New Year 1989, in the adjacent county of Yixian, home of the Western tombs of the Qing emperors, we visited the office of the Bureau of Culture to seek clues to local ritual associations. There we found the splendid and unassuming Wang Zhanlong. Like Liu Fu, he too relished the task of collecting material, riding his bicycle through poor villages with a crummy little tape recorder and a notebook. Wang promptly took us to Liujing village, also in the midst of their New Year’s rituals.


Xue Yibing documents pantheon, Liujing, New Year 1989.

This was the start of our studies of the Houshan pilgrimage and the cult of the goddess Houtu.


Wang Zhanlong and Xue Yibing, Houshan 7th-moon temple fair, 1993.

Houshan is just one of those numerous local mountain sites attended several times each year by vast throngs of pilgrims, ritual groups, spirit mediums, and beggars, yet (unlike Miaofengshan to the northwest of Beijing), but which had never attracted the attention of outsiders.


Houshan temple fair, 7th moon 1993. Matou village ritual association (left) accompanies a spirit medium (front centre) and disciples  (whom she has healed) for boat-burning ritual as they pray.

Right through the 1990s Wang Zhanlong made a wonderful sincere companion on our regular visits to Houshan and the ritual groups of Yixian county, always in sympathy with our project. Here we are in 1995 with erudite ritual specialist Li Yongshu in Baoquan village near Houshan, learning the details of the complex performance practice of the “precious scrolls” to Houtu, the Ten Kings, and so on.

Li Yongshu, Baoquan 1995


Pantheon, Liujing, hung out for rituals on the 1st day of the 3rd moon, 1995. Right: envelope with petition, to be burned in supplication to the goddess Houtu.

For an intrepid fieldworker in Liaoning, see here.

51 thoughts on “Two local cultural workers

  1. Pingback: A new volume for a great Chinese music scholar | Stephen Jones: a blog

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