Calendrical rituals

Further to my thoughts on festivals, today is the focus of the round of Bach Passion performances, now a kind of secular pilgrimage very different from its original liturgical context—not just of Good Friday but the whole calendar. Different too are our ears, bodies, world-views, experiences, sanitation

Mark Padmore, incomparable Evangelist in the Passions, has made some thoughtful points.

One of Bach’s most moving arias is Zerfließe, mein Herze in the John Passion:

Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears
Dem Höchsten zu Ehren! to honour the Almighty!
Erzähle der Welt und dem Himmel die Not: Tell the world and heaven your distress:
Dein Jesus ist tot! your Jesus is dead!

 More performative tears—like north Chinese Daoist ritual, the aria is also accompanied by anguished wind ensemble, almost evoking (for modern ears) French film music.

While Protestants do their thing, let’s not forget Holy Week in Spain, with solemn hooded processions, soaring trumpets, and saeta devotional songs for the images of Christ and the Virgin.

Indeed, among the benefits of being a touring muso was being able to combine both Bach Passions and flamenco. In southern Spain flamenco only tends to get going in the small hours, but concerts also begin at 10pm or later. So by the time we had played the final chorus of the Matthew Passion in Seville, there was plenty of time to stroll over the bridge to the wonderful Anselmos bar in Triana, downing a few G&Ts before the flamenco began to get in the groove.

***

But I digress. It’s a busy period in the Chinese ritual year too. [1] On the Hebei plain, apart from taking part in the lineage observances for the Qingming festival, Catholics are busy holding Masses and making pilgrimages—not least evading police road-blocks. It is also the time of the 3rd-moon festival for the goddess Empress Houtu, when many villagers go on pilgrimage to the Houshan mountain temples to revere her.

The Houshan pilgrimage, which had been observed only by a tenacious minority through the 1960s and 70s, began reviving in the 1980s; by the 1990s it was attracting around 100,000 pilgrims for its 3rd-moon temple fair. We met several village ritual associations on the mountain for the festival in 1995, though Gaoluo no longer organizes a group; in recent years “people’s hearts are in discord”, as He Qing lamented. In some places the Houtu festival has been revived within the village: for the 3rd-moon festival in 1996, for instance, we visited Shenshizhuang, south of Yixian county-town, whose four ritual associations all celebrate the Houtu festival in their separate ritual buildings in the village.

Many villagers make the pilgrimage in small groups on their own initiative. Their vows are pledged to Houtu. One can climb to the Houshan temples to offer incense and pledge a vow, or just make it at home; the vow often used to include a promise to “look after a banquet” for the ritual association.

So the red flag which one often sees adorning truckloads of villagers in the 3rd moon now heralds a group of pilgrims rather than any political campaign—another sign of the changing times. But despite the lengthy impoverishment of ritual and faith, the power of Houtu is still strong: even in 1997 Gaoluo friends reminded me “Here we believe in the Empress Houtu, so a lot of people offer incense”.

***

For the dispassionate (sic) observer, some photos may distinctly suggest a stress on masochism in Easter observances around the world. Meanwhile on a visit to the Saudis, celebrated defenders of religious values, our Prime Minister gets herself embroiled in a futile dispute about Easter eggs with the notoriously subversive National Trust. Hey-ho.

[1] These notes are revised from my Plucking the winds.

12 thoughts on “Calendrical rituals

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