Obituary of a determined village leader


From Wang Qingren’s film Sound of Laozu (2013).

Lin Zhongshu 林中树 (1940–2017), a great village leader deeply concerned, nay obsessed, with maintaining his local culture, died on 18th March, aged 78 sui.

Chinese chat-sites are already buzzing with substantial tributes (here and here), and over the coming weeks and months there will doubtless be many more. So here’s my own tribute—my thoughts here (albeit thirty years too late) may differ somewhat from the many hagiographies within China, but also derive from deep respect for him.

Right into the very end of the 20th century, Qujiaying 屈家营 village was an exceptionally  poor village in the exceptionally poor county of Gu’an, Hebei province—a short but bumpy trip south of Beijing, and a world away. It’s still nothing to write home about today. Lin Zhongshu was not himself active as a  performing member of the village’s amateur ritual association (another kind of Country music?), but he cared passionately about it. In the early 1980s, just as the liberal reforms were gradually kicking in, he became village chief, and it was entirely thanks to him that scholars became aware that there was far more to ritual culture around Beijing than the Zhihua temple.

Lin Zhongshu’s “obstinacy” (zhizhuo 执着) is legendary. He constantly besieged cultural officials and scholars in Beijing with phone-calls and visits right to the “head of the dragon”, not in the least deterred by the cultural gap. It was as if an unwashed and semi-literate chairman of the Surbiton village choral society just made up his mind to get on the phone to Roy Jenkins, or buttonhole Ted Heath, insisting that they make the journey to Surbiton to hear them performing in their grotty church hall. Actually, that’s easier to imagine.

And to the extent that Qujiaying became renowned not just among musicologists but throughout the Chinese and international media, Lin Zhongshu’s Herculean labours were fulfilled. A more subtle approach would  hardly have succeeded.

As we soon discovered, Qujiaying is one of hundreds of similar amateur village ritual associations in the region with a rich tradition of ritual performance—while their vocal liturgy seems to have long dormant, their shengguan wind ensemble, ritual percussion, and reciting of the gongche scores all amazed scholars, some time before we realized it was a widely shared heritage.

QJY 1987018

Brilliant Feng Wenci leading the magnificent percussion suite on bo cymbals, my first visit 1987. My photo.

The first, historic, visit of scholars to Qujijaying on 28th March 1986 soon became a new calendrical fixture for Qujiaying, annually celebrated with a gaggle of media pundits descending on the village. Thinking back, despite Xue Yibing and Wu Ben’s fine article, I realize the ethnography of ritual life was never on the agenda with Qujiaying; visitors came largely for an “autonomous” musical experience. But it was on my visit in 1987 that I met Xue Yibing, and with Qiao Jianzhong we hatched the scheme of a survey of ritual associations throughout the plain.

But from Wang Qinghe’s fine film (see below) we can also see that media exposure hasn’t succeeded in securing the future of the association. As with other ritual associations like that of Gaoluo, the problem was acute anyway. We advised Gaoluo against “going down the Qujiaying road” (and Lin Zhongshu really did have a road built to the village!), and his tireless initiatives (and later the Intangible Cultural Heritage project) haven’t managed to resolve the issues. But I didn’t have a better solution.

Admittedly, all the ensuing flummery—with grandiose speeches, romanticized fake-antique costumes, official funding way beyond the imagination of a poor Hebei village in the 1980s (not least the incongruous construction of a new “concert hall”), “living fossil” flapdoodle, and so on—inevitably distracted from the association’s declining role in the ritual life of local people, confirming the media reification of ritual cultures.

Meanwhile, back in the late 1980s, scholars soon became aware that beyond the Zhihua temple, and beyond Qujiaying, similar ritual associations were ubiquitous on the Hebei plain. On the whole background to our “discoveries”, apart from the various links here and in my other posts, I’ve just noticed this interesting discussion between Liu Fu, Zhang Zhentao, Qi Yi, and Yin Hubin.

We also soon learned that such identification with their ritual culture was quite standard among village leaders. We met many village cadres who not only led land reform and Maoist campaigns, but preserved and performed the ritual manuals of their village association, like Cai Fuxiang in Gaoluo. But no-one could compare with the obstinate ambition of Lin Zhongshu.

Authoritative figures like this, perceiving no contradiction between Maoism and the gods, were crucial to the maintenance of ritual culture through the commune system.

I was impressed to read young Chinese music students tweeting “yesterday Lin Zhongshu departed, today it’s Chuck Berry“. [1] Times they are a-changin—and they always have been, as any scholar of medieval Daoist ritual can tell you.

If “Without the Communist Party there would be no new China”, then without Lin Zhongshu there would be no project on the Hebei ritual associations, no new Chinese musicology. His departure is another milestone in their history.

Here are some photos from his funeral, taken by Qi Yi 齐易, who has diligently followed up our fieldwork on the Hebei associations.


2Led by Hu Qingxue, Qujiaying villagers, later trained in the Zhihua temple style, kowtowing before the soul hall at Lin Zhongshu’s funeral, and playing the classic sequence Jinzi jing, Wusheng fo, and Gandongshan.


The funeral placard

Material on Lin Zhongshu and Qujiaying is too plentiful to encapsulate here. Apart from the links above, and a plethora of journalistic articles, scholarly coverage began with a brief yet brilliant article by Xue Yibing 薛艺兵 and Wu Ben 吴奔,

  • 屈家营音乐会的调查与研究, Zhongguo yinyuexue 1987.2: 87–96,

with all the kinds of musical and social detail that we would later augment. For further sources, see my article here.

Qiao Jianzhong 乔建中, successor to Yang Yinliu as director of the Music Research Institute in Beijing and one of the great instigators of research on north Chinese music, documented Lin Zhongshu’s own account in

  • 望:一位老农在28年间守护一个民间乐社的口述史 (Beijing: Zhongyang bianyi chubanshe, 2014).

and Zhang Zhentao 张振涛 writes perceptively as ever in articles such as

  • 平原日暮——屈家营的故事, Zhongguo yinyuexue 2009.3.

His memorial to Lin Zhongshu has also just been posted by the Shanghai Centre for Ritual Music:

  • 他让乡村乐社走进国家乐史 ——祭林中树

Among many rather grandiloquent films, this leads to further links, while a more sober film by Wang Qingren 王清仁 (2013) is both fascinating and disturbing.

For a list of sources on the Zhihua temple and the current group, see here; and for a roundup of some posts under the Gaoluo tag, here.


[1] Actually, both died on 18th March, so perhaps it was a question of time zones. Anyway, this is no time for pedantry.

20 thoughts on “Obituary of a determined village leader

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  2. “If “Without the Communist Party there would be no new China”, without Lin Zhongshu there would be no project on the Hebei ritual associations, no new Chinese musicology. His departure is another milestone in their history.” – A heavy yet nice juxtaposition. Thank you Steve.


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