Sacred and secular


Here I further explore my first post on Chinese shawm bands. This is going to be not so much a review of a review, but rather continuing reflections on taxonomy and the sacred—secular continuum.

In his 2012 review of my 2007 (!) book Ritual and Music in North China: Shawm Bands in Shanxi (BSOAS 75, pp.208–9), David Johnson (author of several fine works on north Chinese ritual) gives a good description of the book, but seems to think I shouldn’t have bothered writing it. I’ve done this kind of thing myself—wishing a book had been on another topic appealing to my own personal taste. But revealing his sinological agenda, he seems to suggest that only religious texts are important in social life—not even religious or ceremonial activity.

Some ethnographic projects attempt a rather broad overview of cultural life for their chosen fieldsite, as I went on to do in my 2009 book on Shaanbei. More common is to case the joint roughly in an introduction before focusing on one particular genre, like folk-song, or Daoists—or (as I said in my most recent book, p.363) hairdressing in Barnsley, street gangs in Chicago, shamans in Brazil, and so on.

Johnson observes that I am “deeply attached” to such rural music. Fair enough, but it’s not quite the point; “delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”, ethnographers are likely to find value in their chosen research topics, while seeking to be descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Johnson makes some interesting points about the role of shawm music in local cultures, but his deduction,

that Jones devotes an entire book to music that the villagers regard as little more than noise shows that it is really the music he is interested in, not its ritual or communal meaning,

is amply disproved throughout the book, and all my publications! Indeed, a closer reading of my pp.59 and 114 (that he cites) would show the necessity of understanding the shawm music in both its social context and musical detail. In general my work is far more focused on social change than on musical analysis, although I did go on to write a detailed analysis of the repertoire of the Hua family shawm band:

  • “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), 25–112 (with a sequel here),

My book that he reviewed did precisely what it said on the tin: I was describing ritual and music in Yanggao (funerals and temple fairs), with a focus on the shawm bands. Wu Fan later did this more thoroughly in Chinese. We were both aware that Yanggao people associate their ritual/ceremonial life with yinyang gujiang, Daoists and shawm bands: patrons require both.

So whilst I quite agree that “the Daoists are clearly the central actors in the rituals of Yanggao county”, it’s unfair to comment that I have “little to say about them”. Given that the focus of my book was the shawm bands, it already contained considerable material on the Daoists, on the basis of what I knew then, before I was able to devote a detailed study to them in turn—perhaps, again, not to Johnson’s sinological satisfaction.

It’s also a bit rich to accuse me of neglecting the Daoists when he never mentions them at all in his field sites of south Shanxi or south Hebei, which happen to be some of the richest for Daoist ritual life. But I won’t (quite) take him to task for ignoring it, since the focus of his research there was on other genres. And he reveals the paleographical blinkers of the sinologist by complaining that I hadn’t read any ritual manuals. Indeed, it’s true that, in Yanggao at least, I hadn’t—then. But nor have most of the practising Daoists there; like them, I focused on actual ritual practice. But all that’s neither here nor there; to repeat, my book wasn’t primarily about the Daoists: it was about the shawm bands!

You might as well criticise an ethnography of the Manchester Hacienda for not discussing Beethoven manuscripts and the history of the Hallé.

Otherwise, he almost had a point. Like all the Daoists in his fieldsites about whom he is silent, the Yanggao Daoists did indeed richly deserve a detailed study, and Johnson wasn’t to know that by the time his review came out (belatedly, in 2012) I was deeply engaged in precisely that work.

My two books on Shanxi (2007) and Shaanbei (2009), focusing on the shawm bands but also adducing other major genres, were indeed quite a lengthy interlude between my detailed studies of one village (2004) and then one household (2016).

And once I was able to devote my attentions to the Li family Daoists again, I made a point of first unearthing their ritual manuals (since they had no practical use for them, this meant cajoling Li Manshan into finding them, a long process over several visits); and then reading and exploring with him their relation with changing practice— their mismatch with rituals as performed. You (and Johnson) can read all about it in my recent book, and still more vividly, film.

For mature and generous pensées on recent works about religion in north China, including Johnson’s and mine, see the review essay by Vincent Goossaert,

As field reports on Daoist ritual in southeast China continue to amass, I’m all agog (a complete gog) to read studies of the innumerable local Daoist traditions of north China. These are the theme of my 2010 book In search of the folk Daoists of north China and many posts on this blog (notably those collected under Local ritual), but there is still much to explore.

6 thoughts on “Sacred and secular

  1. Pingback: The Li family Daoists: further material | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. Pingback: Ritual life in south Hebei | Stephen Jones: a blog

  3. Pingback: Walking shrill: shawm bands in China | Stephen Jones: a blog

  4. Pingback: Notes from Beijing 1: some fine ethnographers | Stephen Jones: a blog

  5. Pingback: China: commemorating trauma | Stephen Jones: a blog

  6. Pingback: Blind shawm players of Yanggao | Stephen Jones: a blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s