Women of Yanggao 3/3: singers

At a tangent from female members of Daoist families, or sectarians and spirit mediums, are the female vocalists who serve weddings, funerals, and celebrations—now mainly singing pop. As ethnographers we can no more ignore this than we can neglect pop music in our own cultures.

First I should give a little overview of gender roles in Chinese performance. [1] In their worthy goal of reinstating women into the story of Chinese music, the two articles by Cynthia P. Wong and Su Zheng in The Garland Encyclopaedia of Music: East Asia volume leave no space to spell out women’s historical and ongoing submission in society.

Though I’m happy to accept Zheng’s portrayal of Confucian culture as misogynistic, her “radical view” shouldn’t mean airbrushing the evidence of the submission of women. This is as serious as (and not unrelated to) ignoring the ever-backward supply of water, healthcare, electricity, literacy, and transport available to much of the population. Along with celebrating women’s musical contributions, and for all the complexities of women’s ongoing struggle, it is worth stressing their ongoing exclusion from power and choice in public society, underlining the persistence of patriarchal tradition and the limited scope of modern progress.

Both Wong and Zheng illustrate women’s contributions to early Chinese music history by referring to archeological excavations that show that female musicians were buried alive along with their dead master. A disturbing (if remote) echo of this is in posthumous marriage, which has been reviving in northwest China since the 1980s.

When women were allowed to survive their masters, they often worked as prostitutes. Zheng goes on to observe that, in ancient China, women could also be bestowed as a gift, and bought and sold—another enduring tradition today. What a lot of categories of prostitute upright Confucian men had to choose from—and some were even chosen to be concubines! We should indeed incorporate all this into our account of Chinese music history, but I struggle to see what there is to celebrate here.

Wong and Zheng briefly point out women’s progress in the twentieth century. To be sure, foot-binding was successfully stamped out, and arranged marriages became exceptional; female education was no longer limited to a tiny elite.

Yet despite government campaigns, female babies are still routinely murdered or abandoned. Under siege from the draconian birth-control policy, women and men alike attend rituals to pray to the gods to be granted a healthy son. Girls are a burden: since upon marriage they will be lost to another family, rural parents invest mainly in the welfare and education of sons. Economic progress has been uneven since the reform period. Scholars note many instances of regression in women’s status: decollectivization and urban migration have been a mixed blessing. Women are still abducted and sold to poor older disabled men in less impoverished provinces; they continue to be subject to domestic abuse and are largely barred from public roles. Female leaders remain rare—at village, township, county, provincial, and national levels. Prostitution is rampant, though some women now rise to the artistic heights of working as karaoke hostesses.

Our accounts of women’s roles in Chinese music cannot assume that readers know all this. Any study of gender and music in China must include a broad assessment of women’s progress, or regression, and this must be based on detailed local ethnography (both for expressive culture and the society that nourishes it), rather than plucking out instances of female stars. In my chapter (n.1) I further outlined some issues of gender and class, violence and power.

Rural performance: overview
As in all areas of study, we should beware describing gender in performance mainly through the prism of urban state troupes.

At the bottom of the social pile, opera performers (xizi), like shawm bands (chuishou), were traditionally part of a litany of outcasts, and also in most places all-male until the 1930s. Along with other low-status men like grave-diggers, coffin-bearers, and cooks, they all play essential roles at life-cycle and calendrical events.

Since at least the 1930s women have gradually played a larger role in opera for life-cycle and calendrical rituals, though they have still little power within the troupe—the troupe bosses are male, making the arrangements with the male temple committee and controlling the fees. And by displaying themselves thus in public women are always vulnerable to moralistic criticism.

The vast majority of narrative-singing genres in the countryside, given their public nature (not to mention their primary ritual function of invoking blessings from the gods), are still performed by men. Bards in Shaanbei, for example, are traditionally blind and male (see my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2). For Shanxi, Liu Hongqing’s harrowing tale of the dysfunctional families of blind itinerant performing groups in Zuoquan county is revealing of the wretched fate of poor people generally and the burden of care on women. [2]

At weddings and funerals, though laments sung by the female kin (once a means of venting frustration against the Confucian system, however impotently) have become rarer, women are often among small itinerant groups of beggars performing songs, accompanying themselves on clappers and erhu fiddle.

beggars

A group of beggars sing auspicious songs facing the coffin before offerings of sheep heads, 2001.

XX: a piece of (field)work
Most visible, vulnerable, and innovative on the public stage are the pop singers who perform on a truck outside the gate of the mortuary home (my film, from 30.32 and 1.07.32). These singers, both male and female, have become increasingly accomplished since the 1990s, performing arrangements of local vocal music and pan-Chinese pop as well as sophisticated skits. [3]

pop better

Pop outside the mortuary home, 2011.

Pop duo

The evening session, 2015.

On one of my occasional excursions into town, Li Bin has arranged for us to meet up for supper with young star gujiang shawm-player Bobo. I first met him way back in 2003 when he was a teenage pupil of a wonderful cultured gujiang shawm player. Then, he seemed shy and I could never find a way of chatting with him, but now, once we realize we can chat together, he is sweet, relaxed, and funny.

Then femme fatale singer XX shows up, all glammed up. So a Daoist, a shawm player, a pop singer, and a WAM muso take a convivial meal together. Endless joking, largely revolving around the theme of the local beauty (meinü) and the foreigner (laowai). While XX is adept at orchestrating the flirting, she is intelligent, sincere, clearly aware of the delicacy of her public position as a singer, yet not afraid to be seen in our company. Accomplished at presentation—outfit, make-up, hair, perfume—she acts the part, but behind it all there is an alert woman, strong by necessity. Allergic as I am to the word “feisty”, here it is the mot juste: she has to be considered a kind of feminist.

She enjoys showing me the vast library of photos on her smartphone, mostly but not all glam.

XX and friend

The selfie mania: two popular Yanggao singers.

I’m not quite understanding the rules here. My attitude to XX is different from that of my Yanggao friends, who see her at funerals all the time. They’re used to the local language of flirting: she can read their signs and knows how to handle them. Sure, I enjoy it—I can’t shake off my ethnographic instincts, but the context isn’t conducive to getting to know people better, so I go with the flow. My best chat-up line:

You’re nearly as beautiful as Li Manshan!

Knowing my devotion to Li Bin’s father, she takes this in good spirit.

While XX and I enjoy the banter, we’re both a bit wary since we realise our signs may differ. So she backs off—as even I do; as we stagger out of the restaurant I kiss her hand in farewell, which even after all the backchat still takes her aback.

On my next trip into town we all meet up again for supper. One reason for my visits to town is to take a shower at Li Bin’s place—much needed after ten days traipsing round village funerals. XX turns up in her posh black car—“I didn’t even have time to wash my face, only the car!” Still, she’s pretty dolled-up (tiny hot pants, black tights, heels, red coat), yet enigmatic as ever. Other diners come over to our table to share a toast, musicians who know all about me—people still thanking me for introducing Yanggao culture to the world. The son-in-law of a revered Daoist, whom alas I never even met, discreetly pays our bill and goes off before we can protest.

XX is even busier than Li Bin and Bobo, since she does weddings too, as well as acting as hostess for various gigs like yuansuo coming of age parties (see my film, from 5.26). So she drives off to get some sleep before embarking on a heavy series of three days of back-to-back wedding gigs.

By 2017 she had remarried, was pregnant, and no longer singing.

Pop at Yanggao life-cycle events continues to evolve, with both male and female performers constantly innovating; singers like XX are at the vanguard of local modernity, forging a role, negotiating old values.

Conclusion
The tiny corner of China that is Yanggao county reminds us that we need grass-roots study, beyond simple images of educated urban milieux. As long as we remain mesmerized by urban stage performances, and by Confucian and Communist propaganda, we will never comprehend gender roles in the expressive cultures of the myriad local communities. But one point is clear: however much we unearth women’s varied roles in local cultures, and for all their “subversive strategies”, as long as girl babies are murdered or abandoned, as long as women are kidnapped from poorer provinces and sold to older (sometimes disabled) men unable to afford a local bride, and as long as women remain excluded from public power, their ability to contribute to expressive culture in the public sphere is likely to remain limited.

 

[1] Again, much of this is adapted from my “Gender and music in local communities”.

[2] Liu Hongqing, Xiang tian er ge: Taihang mangyiren de gushi (Beijing chubanshe, 2004). Still, the role of women is clearly increasing: see e.g. Zhang Yanqin, “Zhangzi shuoshu jiqi xijuhua qingxiang,” Minsu quyi 151 (2006), on narrative singers in a county in southeast Shanxi.

[3] See also the stimulating article by Zhang Zhentao, “Nü yueshou yu nü changjia,” Xinghai yinyuexueyuan xuebao 2009/3, pp.43–9.

2 thoughts on “Women of Yanggao 3/3: singers

  1. Pingback: Women of Yanggao 1/3: Daoist families | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. Pingback: Yet more heritage flapdoodle: Hongtong | Stephen Jones: a blog

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