Lin Zhongshu: a sequel

QZJ with LZS 2013 low-res

Qiao Jianzhong (left) and Lin Zhongshu (2nd left) documenting three decades of tireless work in 2013.

Still thinking about Lin Zhongshu—further stimulated by chats this week with Chinese friends. Again, my overview of the Hebei ritual associations may come in handy.

However impressive, and amusing, his tenacity in buttonholing the leadership, the outpouring of grief at his loss among the Chinese musical community is remarkable. The Chinese have long surpassed us laowai in their filial piety.

Lin Zhongshu was just an ordinary poor peasant, and we met many other village ritual specialists and local leaders who were also determined to transmit their local ritual culture. By contrast with the actors in the better-known (and apparently better-preserved) ritual cultures of south China, we came to regard such “obstinacy” as a characteristic of the northern peasant, so little esteemed.

Similar tenacity is also etched on the face of Shanxi household Daoist Li Manshan. Small groups of occupational household Daoists are a rather different case from large amateur ritual groups like the Hebei associations. Whereas the latter perform as a duty mainly for their home village (only occasionally, and without reward), household Daoists like the Li band are in constant demand, eking a living for their families. But again, such unsung local heroes embody the “obstinacy” of peasants maintaining their ritual cultures all over north China.

Perhaps it represents, in part, an attempt to rebalance our whole view of China, dominated for so many centuries by the shift to the south. But aside from all the grandiloquent speeches and official meetings, all who met Lin Zhongshu (even otherwise-dispassionate academics) were moved by his determination.

His efforts in those early days were beset by residual anxiety that such activity might still be considered “feudal superstition”—as we saw in the comments of Liu Fu. Doggedly pursuing “the whole dragon” of official connections, Lin was now seeking to establish a role, a “value”, for folk culture, legitimizing his association within the official discourse—but the price was to marginalize its ritual functions.

My mentor Qiao Jianzhong, the very first to take Lin Zhongshu’s own passion to heart, maintained constant contact with him ever since that historic first visit to Qujiaying in 1986. This culminated in his 2014 book

  • Wang: yiwei laonong zai 28 nianjian shouhu yige minjian yueshede koutoushi 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),

a beautiful piece of meticulously documented oral history of three decades of striving, with Qiao’s own perceptive comments, all completed in a labour of love. [1] Even his catalogue of Lin’s huge archive is astounding. Apart from the details on the village association, I am impressed by Lin’s reminiscences of his experiences before the Cultural Revolution, and Qiao’s analysis. The training of a group of Qujiaying youngsters at the Zhihua temple in the 1990s, who went on to become the heirs to its shengguan tradition, is also described in detail with help from Hu Qingxue, leader of the temple group.

It’s not exactly narcissistic of me to quote one tiny exchange between Lin and Qiao; rather, it hints succinctly that their chats were not only detailed but also pleasingly informal.

[They’re recalling a 1995 conference for which I submitted an article. Knowing that I had also written for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Lin reflected,]

“Old Jonesy’s a stutterer!”
Qiao: “Old Jonesy’s a great bloke.”

Over the years our colleagues Xue Yibing and Zhang Zhentao also took part gladly in the developing topic. More recently Qi Yi, based at Hebei University in the provincial capital Shijiazhuang, has been no less energetic—I’ve posted on his new project on the Hebei associations, which is an expanded restudy of our own in the 1990s.

Many other eminent musicologists, such as Xiang Yang and Zhang Boyu, were also impressed by Lin Zhongshu’s efforts on behalf of his village culture. You couldn’t not be. He was an unstoppable juggernaut.

Perhaps the Hebei associations needed a figurehead. Qujiaying immediately dominated, and despite all the fieldwork we would soon do in other villages, it has maintained this position in the media throughout. Over the following years all the Great and the Good in Chinese culture were cajoled into making the trek to Qujiaying.

It may be seen as a model for the Intangible Cultural Heritage, but a more detached observer might regard it as a negative example. Just as the Zhihua temple monks came singly to represent a far more complex ritual scene in the Beijing temples of yore, this was unfortunate. While there was already less to explore in the traditional social contexts of Qujiaying than in almost any of the other villages, vestiges of such contexts were inevitable casualties of the new reified brand-marketing.

So virtually the only ethnographic study now possible there was the ethnography of official commodification. Even that would have been difficult at the time, since scholars weren’t invited there to stand back and make detached analyses—all were expected to play their own active role in the propaganda drama. Such events may seem like more glamorous recreations of the secular official festivals of the 1950s.

Only recently have the thoughtful reflections of Qiao Jianzhong and Zhang Zhentao provided this kind of picture. Zhang points out the “presence of the state” (guojia zaichang 国家在场), which has been a fine topic of Chinese anthropologists of religion at least since the volume edited by Guo Yuhua 郭于华, Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁. In This Day and Age, such analysis must replace the old “living fossil” clichés.

One thoughtful early article on Lin Zhongshu came from Xiao Mei萧梅, most distinguished of musical anthropologists in China:

  • “Shouwang qingshazhang” 守望青纱帐, Renmin yinyue 1997/7, reproduced in her book Tianye pingzong 田野萍踪 (Shanghai yinyuexueyuan chubanshe, 2004), pp.80–85. The book makes an instructive read altogether.

So for lionized groups like Qujiaying, and indeed later South Gaoluo, fame has come at a cost—both to them and us. With only finite energy available, research was distracted by all the ritualised visits, homages, and posed group photos. Not only did all this flummery take time, but it also tended to ossify concepts. And as Zhang Zhentao observes, one may react to the host of laudatory inscriptions on display there (at the forlorn “concert hall” that Lin somehow got built) rather as people do to the Wailing Wall—Wang Qinghe’s film also hints at this mood.

Lin Zhongshu’s only goal was the success of the association. He achieved widespread personal recognition belatedly in 2012 when—along with Ravi Shankar and Bruno Nettl, no less—he received the inaugural Taichi [sic] Traditional Music Award in Beijing. Perhaps he set no great store by it—he never had selfish motives in mind—but it can’t have been unwelcome; anyway, his peasant world-view never changed.

In recent years, younger recruits to the amateur associations are both drawn away from the tradition by migration, pop music, and so on, and are also eagerly availing themselves of new technology. There are several Weixin online groups on which they enthusiastically discuss their village traditions, doing all the things that the internet can do. Such connections were unimaginable to all of us until recently, but in the case of poor isolated north Chinese villages, where few even travelled further than a day’s walk away until the late 1980s, it is mind-blowing.

My own hippy resistance to grand formal occasions has long been an amusement and a headache for my dear colleagues, to whom I hereby kowtow in belated apology. Over the years I have managed (mostly) not to bite too fiercely the hand that feeds me, but really all I want to do is hang out with ritual specialists informally, and at funerals and temple fairs—and we’ve actually had great success in bypassing the vacuous platitudes of official encounters. It is to my own cost that I would have been more able to enjoy the company of Lin Zhongshu and others at Qujiaying if the village hadn’t become caught up so soon in the media circus.

One further hope of mine is that the study of the Hebei associations should be incorporated far more fully into that of ritual and religion. To be sure, even apart from the reified commodification of the media and Intangible Cultural Heritage, many such groups have indeed been moving further towards the secular end of the spectrum, but I still see them as part of a network of sectarian associations, so they deserve study way beyond the narrow confines of musicology. The topic should encompass the diachronic study of diverse kinds of religious activity, including recent change. [2]


[1] The brief notice in CHIME 20 (2015, p.208), though suitably enthusiastic, lacks any wider background—thus portraying Qujiaying, not untypically, as some unique miraculous phenomenon.
[2] E.g. for a broader coverage for Gu’an county (where Qujiaying is situated), we have a volume of articles by local scholar Zhao Fuxing, in Daniel L. Overmyer [Ou Danian] and Fan Lizhu (eds), Huabei nongcun minjian wenhua yanjiu congshu: Gu’an diqu minsu jilu [Studies of the popular culture of north China villages: folklore records of the Gu’an region] (Tianjin: Tianjin guji chubanshe, 2006).

7 thoughts on “Lin Zhongshu: a sequel

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