World music: a new tag

I sniff at the trendy commercial usage of the term “world music”, but at least it’s a shorthand for all the musical cultures of the world. So I’ve now added a new tag in the sidebar for world music, collating various dilettante excursions into the musical cultures of India, Ireland, the Mediterranean, the Uyghurs, and so on. Doubtless more to come…

cascais-singer

Dona Rosa, Cascais 1993.

 

Dressing modestly

Fan
The splendid Jiayang Fan recently found her thoughtful TV interview on the flapdoodle over the 19th Party Congress and Uncle Xi subjected to an impertinent appraisal from an unreconstructed commentator on Chinese Twitter. As she comments,

My fav Chinese social media criticism: I can’t trust anything Jiayang Fan says or writes due to the ugliness of her necklace collection.

Fan Tweet

Perhaps the Twitter pundit might consider this entirely representative sample of the Chinese population more trustworthy, with their tasteful neckwear:

CCP

Of course, this photo doesn’t tell the whole story, since also modestly “holding up half the sky” are a charming and tastefully attired Red Detachment of Women silently and obligingly serving tea—so that’s all right then.

tea ladies

While one hopes there was an element of tongue-in-cheek about the Chinese comment, it evokes the fatuous appraisals of female politicians’ accessorising favoured by the Daily Mail. Perhaps Ms Fan might try wearing a full burqa next time, to further obviate any criticism of the shade of her eye-liner—even if it arouses the ire of Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson. Gah, choices…

komuso
Another option might be to adopt the old ruse of Japanese komusō 虛無僧 monks playing the shakuhachi end-blown flute—which they might also use as a weapon. I note that many komusō were spies for the Shogunate, and some were merely disguised as priests; and they were abolished in 1871 for “meddling in earthly affairs and not the emptiness of being”. Anyway, it beats me how wearing a basket on your head might be considered an effective disguise, but hey, maybe I should stick to Chinese culture.

A judgement such as the Twitter comment may seem to be based merely on grounds of taste, but it shades into still more fatuous opinions on decency. Since we’re not holding our breaths for wise guidance on dress-codes from the Chinese or US leaderships, study sessions may be in order—based on the Everyday Sexism project, Hadley Freeman (note her fine article “Why not just ban women?”; Hell, Tweety McTangerine could have worn a mankini for his inauguration—we couldn’t possibly think less of him), perennial discussions on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s hour, and comedians like the great Bridget Christie. That’s just a random sample of UK media—not to mention a wealth of research and websites on the beleaguered status of women in China.

Like I’d know.

Stammering games

stammering stan
John Cleese’s feigned patience with Michael Palin’s imp-p-pediment in A fish called Wanda reminds me that it’s hard for people to know how to react to a stammerer.

Stammering is stressful for both sufferers and their audience, meriting understanding and ongoing research; but alleviating all-round embarrassment, humour can help defuse tension. The experts’ advice to friends is not to try and supply the word for the stammerer, but sometimes when people can’t resist, I may find they’ve suggested a more interesting word than the trite predictable one that I’m actually wrestling with. So I go with it, following their word up with a revised phrase that seems to work—until I meet my next block; when they supply another promising word, I keep going with a further logical sequence… Thus I become a kind of puppet, almost a psychiatrist, for my interlocutor’s free-floating word associations.

Here’s another fun party game to while away those longueurs while I’m stuck on a knotty c-c-consonant. I arrange in advance with my friends that they should choose a special subject—French baroque composers, feminist thinkers 1900–1960, Premier League football teams, take your pick.* This works best in a group, where everyone has their own subject. When I’m floundering on a difficult w-w-word, if they can think of one within their subject before I get my word out, then they win a p-p-point. Thus:

When I’m floundering on a difficult w-w-
West Ham!
if they can think of one within their subject before I get my word out, then they win a p-p-
Pankhurst!

Indeed, if you see potential in an initial consonant on which you don’t necessarily feel an impending block, you can even manufacture one—experimenting with deliberate stammering is one tool that therapists use to help stammerers experience control over their voice. Since we spend our whole lives desperately trying to avoid stammering, to allow ourselves to do so (and then modify it) can come as an amazing relief—though it’s not a panacea.

Like my fantasy Daoist ritual game, hours of fun for all the family. For more on humour and stammering, see here.

 

*This is somewhat different from the old party game of “Name three 19th-century composers who didn’t die of syphilis.”

Deep in a dream

Chet
Delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, in my little sample of jazz biographies, I didn’t mention

  • James Gavin, Deep in a dream: the long night of Chet Baker, [1]

which goes well with Bruce Weber’s remarkable film Let’s get lost (for the making of which, do read Deep in a dream, pp.328–42):

Born in 1929, Chet somehow managed to live to the ripe old age of 58—this quote seems tailor-made for him:

If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself!

(Like Daoist ritual texts, this has been diversely attributed—to Eubie Blake, Mae West, Adolph Zukor, and so on.)

We don’t expect any artist to be a paragon of moral virtue—and in jazz, there were few angels. The “straight” WAM scene also had its bad boys—not least, trumpeters.

Before we get onto Chet’s iconic slow ballads, I like his early bebop playing:

And here he is with Charlie Parker in 1952:

I often wish someone would do a study of the styles of Chinese shawm players or Daoist guanzi masters like that of Paul Berliner on instrumentalists in Thinking in jazz. He cites John McNeil’s impressive genealogy (more taxonomy!) of jazz trumpeters (p.137):
Trumpet chart
But whereas most of the jazz greats (Billie, BirdMiles, Trane, Bill Evans, and so on), through their similar struggles with addiction, were constantly learning, honing their craft, Chet seems to have been gifted with his dreamy cool style very early, and then traded on his angelic image (largely for substances) for the rest of his surprisingly long life, settling for melancholy—without the constant explorations of the other great jazzers.

Donald Byrd, 1959.

Still, taken individually, ignoring the degradation of Chet’s life, his songs are captivating. Apart from his trumpet playing, Chet is one of few male jazz singers I can relate to (that’s my own weakness—the late great Amy Winehouse was devoted to Tony Bennett, for instance); maybe what distinguishes his singing is the way he dispenses with masculine bravado. But the critics are divided: while Chet’s followers revered him as a god, regarding his solos as “models of heartfelt expression, as graceful as a poem”, others were less enchanted, describing him as “a singing corpse”, “a withered goat”, “a hollow-cheeked, toothless, mumbling, all but brain-dead relic”, and “a drug-ravaged ghost” (Deep in a dream, p.5).

But let’s just forget the film, and the book, and wallow. These songs almost add up to a potted biography in themselves:

As with My favorite things, everyone has their favourite versions of My funny Valentine, but this one (live from Turin in 1959 [1] —at the height of Chet’s celebrity in Italy, and just as his substance-abuse was rocketing) is heart-rending:

Another lesson from jazzers in how to use vibrato. And let’s hear it for Lars Gullin on sax…

This next recording (evidently achieved through some editorial sleight-of-hand) contrasts with Bille Holiday’s You’re my thrill—which Chet also sang:

For a sequel, with a yet more informed playlist, see here.

 

[1] I also look forward to reading Jeroen de Valk, Chet Baker: his life and music.
[2] Short of undertaking a global survey, 1959 is widely known as the year of Kind of blue; and in China, for the escalation of famine—still not widely enough known.

 

One belt, one road

In the CCP’s latest claim to end poverty, the title of the enigmatically-named One Belt, One Road (yidai yilu 一带一路) policy may sound to some more like a critique of Maoism—perhaps a succinct postcard home from Shaanbei written by an Educated Youth sent down in the Cultural Revolution:

One belt [per family], one road [in the whole county].

And it wasn’t a Gucci belt, either.

Stories are common of families who only had one pair of trousers between them, to be worn by whoever had to go out. Like the traveller’s tale of fieldworkers finding villagers who hadn’t even heard of Chairman Mao, this sounds far-fetched. There’s a celebrated critique of such inflated poverty stories in At last the 1948 show  (“You try telling that to the young people of today—will they believe you?!”):

But in this case there’s plenty of evidence. Among many such accounts, the story of Wang Xiangrong (b.1952), “king of Shaanbei folk-song”, is interesting. He fought his way up from grinding poverty to become a major folk-song star, and his story has become part of the romantic official myth of Shaanbei (note also Levi Gibbs, Song king: connecting people, places, and past in contemporary China, 2018). For 1953 fieldwork documenting the folk-song repertoire just east in Hequ, see here.

You can see that in this documentary, but it’s still a good ethnography of his changing life, with some precious old footage, and relatively free of the usual hagiographic style of such programmes:

Of course, such superstars are merely the glossy tip of the iceberg, but I enjoyed hanging out with Wang Xiangrong in Yulin in 2001, finding him engaging and unpretentious. I did a little sketch of him in my Shaanbei book (pp.210–12) [1] —a rare excursion for me into the world of both folk singing and mediated urban performance (for the former, do read the works of the late lamented Antoinet Schimmelpenninck):

Wang Xiangrong was brought up in a poor desert village with a population of only a few dozen, 45 kilometres from Fugu county-town to the northeast of Yulin. He recalls, I fear not fancifully, that he had no clothes of his own till going to school at the age of 8. The youngest of four surviving children out of nine, he was 13 when his father died. In the Cultural Revolution he managed to graduate from senior secondary. From 1971 he worked as a schoolteacher; in 1975 he toured Inner Mongolia with a band performing errentai. In 1977 he took part in the county band, in 1979 he was spotted by Yulin cultural cadres at a training session in Fugu county, winning a prize in a festival in 1980 and joining the Yulin Folk Arts Troupe by 1983. He has recorded for many films and TV programmes, and since 1988 has made several foreign tours, including a highly successful tour of Japan in 1999.

The kind of singing paraded by the troupe is mostly heavily mediated with kitsch orchestral accompaniment. Wang Xiangrong is perfectly aware that it is a manufactured style, attuned to the rosy official Communist image of Shaanbei. In between the extremes of that style and folk-singers performing in village life, even the few unaccompanied recordings of Wang and others show a certain refinement of rural style, such as a studied vibrato and the dramatic holding of high notes.

Wang makes something of a play of his “shaman songs” (shenguan diao), learnt when he was young from two shaman uncles; he is familiar with the “precious sword” (baojian) and the sheepskin drum struck with a stick. Similarly, he learnt rain songs by participation in rain ceremonies in his youth, for which a group of six villages regularly formed a “parish” (she) from 1957 to 1962, and even—still more secretively—through the Cultural Revolution.

I get to meet the jovial Wang Xiangrong, and with the help of a friendly cadre in the troupe who is a neighbour of the Qiao family, I am surreptitiously invited to the troupe’s evening concert, to be held in the great hall of the fancy hotel that I can’t afford to stay in.

It’s a private invitation concert for a high-ranking deputy of Li Peng, and I am not officially invited, but my new friends smuggle me in backstage to watch from the wings. If I attend formally in the audience, the bigwig will have to meet me, which would cause complications; he is happy to pretend I’m not there, and I’m happy not to get involved in courtesies. So, after all this time openly attending village rituals that some cadres might consider sensitively backward or superstitious, now that I finally find a concert showcasing the official image, I am forced to attend it in secret!

From the wings I watch the troupe go through their programme, announced suavely by a glamorous female MC in qipao costume speaking standard Mandarin, which I haven’t heard for ages, even from local cadres. Wang Xiangrong isn’t singing this evening, but there are two solo singers, accompanied by a full orchestra in the pit. Introduced by the MC, a plump female singer does two sets, changing from a red ballgown with a magnificent ruff to a pink ballgown—hardly outfits that reflect the dress of the Shaanbei countryside. With the aid of a mike, she milks the songs, using all the studied hand gestures of conservatory style, backed by the orchestra in national silk-and-bamboo style, with dizi flute solos and pipa lute tremolos to the fore. A male singer in elegant white silk costume also performs a set, his songs introduced by a mellifluous dizi solo. The singers’ facial expressions range from the smile of contentment to the longing gaze afar.

Illuminated by fancy lighting, male and female dancers wear a variety of glitzy costumes, wielding props such as fans, umbrellas, and handkerchiefs, stock props of national dance. For one dance the girls perform acrobatics while holding aloft lotus lanterns, kitted out in green trousers, skimpy tops with fishnet midriffs, and little red floral headpieces. From my forays to the villages I have always been mystified why Mizhi county is nationally famed for its beautiful women. Now I realize they have evidently all been poached for the Folk Arts Troupe; I am reminded of the palace girls of imperial times, slave-girls at the mercy of predatory officials.

Having failed to witness shamans practising in the countryside, it is ironic to see the troupe performing a so-called “shaman dance” for the Party bigwig, the male dancers wielding cute papier-maché tridents, accompanied by the orchestra in pompous martial vein. In another dance the men wield cymbals, lighting effects adding to the drama.

Anyway, you get the idea: such staged performances are a world away from those I had been witnessing in the countryside. I won’t go into detail, as you can see this kind of thing daily on Chinese TV; but the links with local culture are tenuous.

Whereas rural music-making depends on family and community solidarity in ceremonial traditions stretching back to imperial times, I can detect no social base for the stage performances of the official troupe, and its kitsch versions of Shaanbei culture are utterly diluted; it is contextually, historically, and musically light. I can’t see whom this kind of thing satisfies; but of course one could say, as I would for the music of the chuishou shawm bands, that this too is ritual, not “merely” music; the official culture sanctioned by the state serves a need for “civilization”, for modern “national” values on a token base of traditional local culture, on behalf of a segment of the population. And I realize there is fieldwork potential here too: these performers have lives too, doubtless a lot less glamorous than their stage personas. But if this style is part of the overall picture, it’s a very small one; no-one in the countryside seems to be emulating it.

 A few days later Wang Xiangrong takes me for a song-session in a fancy Mongolian yurt restaurant in town. His best buddy Li Yu, the charming and portly boss of the Puhui liquor factory, arrives late, having already got a considerable head start in the evening’s drinking activities. Brought up in Yulin, Li recalls his time doing army service in the Cultural Revolution mainly for picking up a repertory of dirty songs, which were then all the rage—a lot of that generation will give you a similar alternative view of the period. Now doing a roaring trade with his liquor business, Li is a model capitalist, with rather good taste in music. In 2000 he organized a contest for drinking songs (jiuqu dasai) at his liquor factory, which was apparently a great success.

Li and Wang, veteran drinking artists, are the stars of the banter over supper; other guests (including a nice academic from Yan’an, two young and distinctly nervous women, and me) are in their thrall. Wang holds court with his songs while Li Yu keeps his glass topped up with fiery baijiu liquor. The colorfully-costumed waitress is expected to sing for guests, and doesn’t expect to be forced to drink, but with Wang Xiangrong she has bitten off more than she can chew: she is expertly, ritually, cajoled into joining in a toast after repeated verses. Wang is enjoying singing, but the fun is as much in the ritual badinage.

Wang is a real character, but I’m not in my element. One of those pathetic English men who has never sung a song on his own in his life, in 1999 I had managed, virtually at gunpoint, to sing Do, a deeand Rule Britannia at a banquet in a Shaanbei temple, which still haunts me—the sacrifices we make for our art! I got away without singing that evening in the restaurant—thankfully, Wang Xiangrong had my number. Indeed, apart from rural contexts for singing, such restaurant settings may be becoming a common context for singing among the urban petty-bourgeoisie.

Wang’s accounts of his poor childhood might seem suitable material for work-teams encouraging people to “speak bitterness” about the “old society” before Liberation—only they refer to the period long after the arrival of the Communists, as many work-teams discovered to their consternation. For Shanxi peasants’ discontent at their inability to clothe or feed themselves under the commune system, see here.

Talking of “liquor songs”, here’s a related passage from my Shaanbei book (pp.13–14):

Though the Communist myth of Shaanbei has ingeniously, or ingenuously, portrayed it as an archetypical paradise of industrious peasants, a rose-tinted homeland for both traditional and revolutionary folk-song, it is no simple task today to get a handle on the life of singing in society there. In view of the continuing vitality of social folk-song culture in Gansu and Qinghai provinces to the west, the lack of local folk-song festivals in Shaanbei (either now or before Communism) is curious. And if the romantic depiction in the film Yellow Earth of a shepherd declaiming a song from a mountainside was once true to life, it appears to be rare now. Also largely absent from social life today are “revolutionary songs”; even during the commune period, renditions were largely limited to (albeit frequent) political meetings. Change is hard to assess—if only one could eavesdrop on daily life in 1934, 1964, and 1994, for instance—but recollections of senior villagers suggest that singing is heard less often today than earlier in the 20th century.

Since the 1990s, record shops, both locally and throughout China, have sold highly mediated CDs of “Shaanbei folk-songs”, including some revolutionary songs. Shaanbei folk-song now has a rich virtual life in many Chinese websites. Indeed, peasants seem to be aware of the label “Shaanbei folk-songs” when talking to outsiders, even if their own terms for the songs they sing in daily contexts are more nuanced. The gulf between such mediated, commodified versions, with their polished singing style and smoochy or disco accompaniment, and singing in social life, sung in a rougher voice and usually without accompaniment, is easily heard.

“Famous singers” highlighted by Chinese scholars often come from strong family and village traditions, but tend to tailor their style to the demands of the state troupes to which they graduated. However close such singers remained to the folk style, or however far they departed from it, their stage performances accompanied by new-style “folk ensembles” have remained the tip of the iceberg. All music is worthy of study, but it is a less mediated style that dominates singing in daily life in the poor countryside of Shaanbei.

Thus under the broad umbrella of “folk-song” are singers performing for drinking parties, the consecration of a new cave-dwelling, calendrical and life-cycle ceremonies, rain processions, and shamanistic exorcisms. Beggars doing the rounds of weddings and funerals now appear to be among the most common exponents of song (also featured on the DVD with my Shaanbei book).

Otherwise the nearest I got to hearing singing in context was when I visited a villager at his cave-dwelling during a lunchtime drinking session with a group of his male friends (DVD, C2). The singers were perhaps mediocre even without the prodigious amounts of baijiu liquor they were knocking back; with empty bottles strewn about the floor, one of the singers passed out on the kang brick-bed. Even if I could stomach the liquor, I realized how hard it would be for me to participate meaningfully in their world. Where opportunities to hear impromptu singing are few, asking singers to perform their repertory is sometimes a necessary expedient. I have attempted to get a few song sessions going, but have never overcome the artificiality of the occasion.

So much for “One Belt”—as to “One Road”, even in the 1990s when we went in search of village ritual groups, whenever someone gave us a lead to a village worth visiting our first question was always “Is the road OK?” (lu haozou ma 路好走吗?). We lost count of the times our jeep got stuck in mud or found the track impassable. This became known as “travelling the socialist road”. Indeed, it can still happen today, although the transport network has improved significantly since around 2000.

XYB despairs

The ever good-humoured Xue Yibing feigns despair, Xinzhou 1992.

For Chinese fieldworkers’ mixed feelings about rural China, see here. Note also songs on the Coronavirus from Shanxi and Gansu.

 

[1] Whose footnotes give further leads—though Shaanbei bibliography, discography, and filmography all need constant updating.

Another fine slogan

Reid cover

Further to my post on ill-advised slogans for advertising campaigns…

In Anna Reid‘s Borderland, I read that in the 1994 parliamentary elections, the neo-Nazi paramilitary group Ukrainian National Assembly campaigned under the slogan

Vote for us and you’ll never have to vote again

New Bach for fiddlers!

Mama’s got a brand new bag yeah
She’s gonna groove it the whole night long baby

I’ve noted instrumental versatility in Bach’s day, and my own delight in playing the cello suites on violin—when some of the solo violin suites and partitas are either over-familiar or lastingly and ridiculously unplayable, unless you’re Andrew Manze or Rachel Podger. Which I’m not.

While Bach didn’t specify the solo instrument for the Benedictus of the B minor mass, it’s more often played on flute than on violin. Anyway, I’m thrilled to find a new Bach solo piece to play on violin—the exquisite flute partita, whose original function (despite the usual splendid musicological sleuthing—good old watermarks, eh!) seems unclear (like I care). Its opening Allemande [note to self: blimey, “Allemande seems to subsume a range of styles?] seems rather similar to the final movement of the A minor violin sonata, which I’ve been playing with varying degrees of ineptitude for fifty years. Whereas some pieces have a lasting association with the ideals of our teenage years, novelty can also go a long way: never mind ridding ourselves of the patina of romantic performance practice, it’s hard enough divesting myself of my own personal history of playing Bach as a teenager.

So up to now, whenever I need a preludial solo in A minor (and let’s face it, who doesn’t, sometimes?), then I love playing the opening of the second cello suite—which comes out in A minor on the fiddle. I even played it for my father’s funeral, which was virtually the only thing I ever did for him [bit late—Ed.].

Such instrumental borrowings would have been routine in Bach’s time, but I haven’t heard any fiddlers trying it out. This version on archlute eschews the usual virtuosity of flautists for an introspection more typical of the Allemande:

Yes, that’s how I like it—emboldened by the Feuchtwang variations, I’m learning it on erhu, whose timbre is also suitably other-worldly.*

*Subject to usual Terms and Conditions. Management accepts no responsibility etc. Intonation, rhythm, string-crossings not included etc.

Cultural revolutions

17 troupe 1959

North Shanxi Arts Work Troupe, 1959. Li Qing front row, far right. His four years there (1958–62) were a brief interlude within a lifetime of ritual practice.

For some reason, I found Frank Dikötter’s book The Cultural Revolution far more rewarding than the two previous volumes in his popular trilogy on the Maoist era, The tragedy of Liberation and Mao’s great famine.

Ritual and religious life under Maoism
From the perspective of my own fieldwork on local ritual, there has been no single decade in history where culture has been independent of society— as observed by none other than Confucius and Chairman Mao (see the Coda to my book Plucking the winds), in what may seem like reproaches to the “living fossils” fallacy.  To be sure, Gaoluo villagers themselves failed to admit a connection between their ritual association and society:

“The association has nothing to do with politics”
“The association has nothing to do with the Boxers
“The association has nothing to do with the history of the revolution“.

But all the while they were providing rich material that contradicted their assumptions.

So I would hope that ritual studies can fit into our picture of social change. As I suggest in Appendix 1 of my recent book, scholars of Tang Daoism expect to relate it to the wider history of the period; so why would we who document local ritual groups, whose material derives largely from contemporary fieldwork, not also do so? However deep we probe, the social, economic, and political history of the past century is the air that ritual specialists and their patrons breathe—so what kind of air might scholars breath by downplaying it?

By failing to study the nuances of the period through which we and our Daoist masters have lived, we ignore precisely the kind of material that historians of earlier periods would die for. Sometimes we fall back on facile clichés about the eternal nature of tradition until the 1940s, and the subsequent destruction of cultural practices (after 1937? 1949? 1966?). All, supposedly, before the untrammelled restoration since the 1980s ushered in an equally timeless and transcendent new Golden Age—unless urban migration and the new pop culture have rendered further study superfluous by destroying tradition further?!

And vice versa, work like this on the changing lives of local communities should also be a contribution to modern historiography—a convenient prism through which to view the “negotation of identity” (a hoary cliché that I generally avoid!).

With some noble exceptions (such as ter Haar, Ruizendaal and Mueggler), religious life under Maoism is not the strong suit of scholars of religion, but I find it crucial. So I write this partly with a view to reminding those documenting folk ritual in China—and even those who do fieldwork mainly in order to reconstruct the culture of previous ages—that the whole Maoist era is an indispensable part of our background reading and enquiries in the field.

Religion features in many accounts mainly as protest against campaigns (for the 1950s, see The tragedy of Liberation, pp.196–206; Mao’s great famine, pp.227–8), but it’s also worth documenting the “obstinacy” of everyday practice (e.g. The Cultural Revolution, pp.294–6; see also the revival on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, pp.31–2). I belatedly note incidents in places where I did fieldwork innocently in the 1990s, such as the 1966 massacre in Daxing county outside Beijing (p.78).

Maoism
As Dikötter observes (p.119),

Many ordinary people had accepted liberation with a mixture of fear, hope, and resignation. There was widespread relief that the civil war had come to an end. The proclaimed values of the regime, including equality, justice and freedom, were genuinely appealing, and the Part tirelessly trumpeted the New Democracy, a slogan promising the inclusion of all but the most hardened enemies of the regime. Above all, the communists promised each disaffected group what it wanted most: land for the farmers, independence for all minorities, freedom for intellectuals, protection of private property for businessmen, higher living standards for the workers.

Classic studies of local life through the whole Maoist period, a model for detailed local fieldwork, are

  • Chan, Madsen, and Unger, Chen village under Mao and Deng (1992) (see also the works of Jonathan Unger, here) and
  • the two volume study by Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Chinese village, socialist state (1991) and Revolution, resistance, and reform in village China (2005).

I think also of biographical accounts like Huang Shu-min, The spiral road (1989) and Peter Seybolt, Throwing the emperor from his horse (1996), as well as Jing Jun’s The temple of memories. But on the Maoist period perhaps the most important work of all is that of Guo Yuhua, with her detailed ethnography and critique of “Communist civilisation”.

As a counterbalance to such authors, I like to cite William Hinton (whose Through a glass darkly grinds a leftist axe against the latter), as well as Mobo Gao’s fine ethnography Gao village.

Short of expecting ourselves to read detailed scholarly accounts of the period, such works are important preparation. For our own local studies, apart from works in Western languages, the modern county gazetteers (xianzhi 县志) are an indispensible resource; and I’ve discussed documents on expressive culture here. Note also

  • Sebastian Veg (ed.), Popular memories of the Mao era: from critical debate to reassessing history (2019).

A lot has been written about the Cultural Revolution; the period often stands as a simple and misleading soundbite for the whole three decades of Maoism—indeed, ironically, as a shorthand for the first couple of years of extreme violence up to 1968. So since the details of the first seventeen years of the People’s Republic are less well known outside academia, Dikötter’s first two volumes should be more illuminating; in Mao’s great famine individual chapters focusing on topics like agriculture, women, and accidents are well chosen and revealing. But for all the undoubted iniquities that he gruellingly parades, I found the first two books inevitably impersonal, suggesting a lack of empathy that may seem merely to follow a wider pattern in foreign studies of simplistic Commie-bashing.

Dikötter’s study of the famine years around 1960 is part of a growing body of material from both foreign and (laudably) Chinese scholars, on a par with other state-engineered famines like that of Ukraine in the 1930s—as Anne Applebaum’s recent study reminds us. Basic sources include

  • Jasper Becker: Hungry ghosts: China’s secret famine (1996)
  • Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: the great Chinese famine, 1958–1962 (English translation 2012)
  • Wu Wenguang’s memory project
  • the works of Xun Zhou
  • Ralph A. Thaxton, Catastrophe and contention in rural China: Mao’s Great Leap Forward famine and the origins of righteous resistance in Da Fo village (2008)
  • Erik Mueggler, The age of wild ghosts: memory, violence and place in southwest China (2001)
  • websites such as China famine 1959–61.

See also under China: commemorating trauma, and comparative sources under Famine: Ukraine and China.

But the whole period preceding the Chinese “years of difficulty”, to adopt a bitter metaphor, was no picnic either.

The Cultural Revolution
Conversely, we already know more about the Cultural Revolution, but Dikötter explores and augments such material in a communicative way. The Cultural Revolution seems to me less plainly propagandistic. It’s not that the insanities he documents are any more flagrant; rather, perhaps, the account seems more personal. Dikötter effectively meshes central and local perspectives, while showing clearly how the period, often dismissed as a “ten-year disaster” was not one undifferentiated black hole. But as we break up the whole Maoist era into manageable chunks, they bleed into each other—a sadly apt metaphor.

Despite revolutionary fervour being whipped up among naïve youths, cynicism, boredom, and lethargy had set in as early as 1967 (p.165). Any idealism among those students sent down to the countryside to learn from the peasants was short-lived, as they encountered the sheer destitution there (ch.15). As I also learned in Yanggao, severe food shortages continued right until the 1980s.

In the countryside, as organizational chaos spread, market enterprise—which had previously revived in the wake of the famine—also persisted early in the Cultural Revolution; despite a re-imposition of collectivization in 1968, private initiatives were increasingly widespread (pp.225–8). By the “grey years” from 1971, private trade began to expand further. Still many regions were mired in desperate poverty, like Ziyang in south Shaanxi (pp.262–5).

Notwithstanding a late rearguard action (ch.23), Dikötter describes the “silent revolution” in the final years of the Cultural Revolution (chs.21–22) that continued the process of abandonment of the commune system which had come in waves ever since the early 60s. In Henan (pp.274–5) blockades to prevent the private sale of grain were easily evaded:

A weakened state was no longer any match for determined individuals who had honed their skills over many years of hardship. Villagers who had survived the horrors of Mao’s Great Famine were not about to be intimidated by a tax officer hanging about at a roadblock in a conspicuous uniform.

Urban migration, too (a crucial social factor under the 1980s’ reforms), began early. Dikötter even shows an early revival of traditional culture (opera, poetry, story-telling, and so on: p.276).

As in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, a hidden, underground, largely invisible society lived in the shadow of the former political system. (p.287)

Still, it’s always worth consulting Mobo Gao’s book Gao village, where with personal experience he gives a more positive, less adversarial picture of Maoism.

Anyway, when the commune system was officially dismantled from 1982, it was largely a fait accompli.

For the Cultural Revolution in Tibet, see here and here; and for a comparison with the Soviet Union under Stalin, see The whisperers.

A case-study
I discussed the whole Maoist era in some detail in both Plucking the winds and Daoist priests of the Li family. In the former, since Gaoluo village lies rather near Beijing and Baoding, the members of its ritual association, themselves active participants, were able to give a rather detailed account of factional warfare and people’s lives through the Cultural Revolution (Plucking the winds, ch.6). But here I’ll just give a few vignettes from my work on the Li family Daoists in Yanggao county of north Shanxi (from my book, ch.6)—who were less actively involved in wider events.

With hindsight, surveying the apparent thriving of religious activities today, the Cultural Revolution period—perhaps even Maoism as a whole—may seem like a blip; but both are crucial elements in the transformation of peoples’ mindsets under the more liberal religious landscape since the reforms of the 1980s.

Household Daoist families in Yanggao had continued performing their liturgy for funerals intermittently for the first fifteen years after Liberation, although the domestic ritual Thanking the Earth was rendered largely obsolete by escalating collectivization from 1953, and temple fairs were silenced.

The immediate precursor of the Cultural Revolution was the Four Cleanups campaign. In many areas of China, “superstitious” artefacts had already been taken off and destroyed in the 1940s as the Communists came to power, but in Yanggao villages Daoist families seem to have kept most of their old ritual manuals until the mid-1960s. Meanwhile Yanggao was still in the grip of ongoing natural disasters.

The Four Cleanups must have come as a real shock for kindly Li Qing; having weathered the tribulations of the early 1950s, and then landed a prestigious and secure job in Datong (see photo above), he was even more revered after his return in 1962, and able to practice his beloved ritual again. But so it went for innumerable victims of the “class struggle” system. After the respite of the early 1960s, the mood was now to be grim right until the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966. Li Qing’s rich-peasant “hat,” though enforced as early as 1948, hadn’t had any great effect until now—not even disqualifying him from joining the prestigious arts-work troupe. But early in the Cultural Revolution he was again classified as a rich peasant.

The Smash the Four Olds campaign from 1966 was the culmination of two decades of measures to limit religious practice. At the same time, campaigns were sporadic.

Following a Four Cleanups re-inspection, late one night in 1966 Li Qing sneaked out to bury his most precious ritual manuals in the sorghum fields just east. Next day, to allay the suspicions of the Red Guards, he burned a large pile of other volumes in his courtyard—he had a large collection of printed volumes and almanacs, not necessarily ritual manuals.

The callow Red Guards paraded Li Qing a few times in a high white dunce’s hat with the characters “ox demon and snake spirit” written on it. But, just like hapless village cadres all over China who were now victimized too, the degree of punishment of so-called landlords and rich peasants depended a lot on their character and reputation. While privately retaining their sympathy for Li Qing, villagers had no choice but to go through the motions of “struggle meetings” dictated from above. Li Qing and his wife bore their sufferings with dignified silence throughout.

When Li Qing’s sensitive sheng mouth-organs were confiscated and deposited in the brigade office, kids messed around with them. Poor peasant Kang Ren was not under suspicion, so he managed to keep his sheng. But here no-one dared ask friends or family to help hide suspect items for them.

Meanwhile in Yang Pagoda, Li Peisen continued to weather the storm. The son of his wife’s younger sister was a Red Guard chief, so they discreetly agreed he would just take off a few scriptures for show—Li Peisen would have chosen decrepit or duplicate volumes that he considered less important.

Li Qing’s son Li Manshan, twenty-one sui in 1966, had gained an impression of the liturgy before his father left for Datong in 1958, and after he returned in 1962 he had nearly two years of relative freedom to continue learning. After the Four Cleanups campaign of late 1964, though there was no pressure on the children of bad elements to “draw the class line” from their fathers, he felt seriously depressed. At least he didn’t have to join the Red Guards—his status as son of a “black” family disqualified him. One day in 1966, just as the Cultural Revolution was breaking out, Li Manshan found himself in the county-town, and had his photo taken there. He hinted to me that it was virtually designed as a farewell to the world; exhausted by constant labor on the reservoir, with his family’s so-called “rich peasant” status boding ill as an ominous new campaign was brewing up, he could see no future.

In 1960, when Li Manshan was fifteen sui, he had “studied Russian for two whole days” at school. Later, when the Red Guards found his notebook with a few Russian words written in it, they confiscated it and cursed him for being a spy. In many parts of China, the innocent possession of a mere scrap of supposedly reactionary material, or a careless comment, could condemn people to long spells in labor camp.

Whereas the neighbouring county of Tianzhen was described as more “barbaric”, the relative peace in Yanggao didn’t mean that Daoists there somehow had any latitude to keep practising. In some parts of rural China traditions were maintained more or less furtively even through the Cultural Revolution, but here the Daoists were forced into total inactivity from 1964 to 1978. Daoist arts went into hibernation. Li Qing’s family, with their black class label, suffered more than other Daoists, but everyone was pretty desperate.

Villagers weren’t becoming any less “superstitious”. Public rituals might be impossible, but there was still a clandestine demand for determining the date, under cover of darkness. For a daring couplet pasted up in the period to satirize the poverty of their conditions, see here.

In 1967 Li Manshan was among a group of Upper Liangyuan team members who had to walk to the commune seat of Greater Quanshan, in the hills to the west, to take part in one of a series of huge public criticism meetings of the disgraced Party Secretary of Yanggao county before his incarceration. By now this model commune had been eclipsed by Dazhai further south in Shanxi, but it still had to host visiting delegations and mass meetings. Ten thousand people from five communes attended the struggle session, all arriving on foot. Although Li Manshan was a “rich peasant,” he had no choice but to go, or else people would accuse him of being counter-revolutionary.

The Sojourn of Educated Youth

Shoulders unable to carry, hands unable to grasp, soft and sensitive skin…

Coming across this phrase in 2013 as I made inept attempts to help Li Manshan with the autumn harvest, I thought it might have been coined to parody my efforts. Rather, it is a standard expression used to describe the travails of urban “educated youth” in performing physical labour after being sent down from the cities to the countryside in the Cultural Revolution to “learn from the peasants.” The experience was a rude shock for such groups all over China; brought up in relatively comfortable urban schools to believe in the benefits of socialism, and often protected from understanding the tribulations of their own parents, they were now confronted not just by the harshness of physical labour, but by medieval poverty (see also my Shaanbei book, p.9).

From 1967, large groups of secondary school students were sent down to live in many Yanggao villages. Over thirty stayed in Upper Liangyuan for a year or so, but Li Manshan had no contact with them. A group from one Beijing school descended on Golden Noble’s village of Houying in 1967, then another batch the following year; most managed to leave around 1972. Golden Noble’s cousin married one of them in 1971, condemning her to rural life; desperate to escape, she eventually divorced him, getting back to Beijing around 1980.

These groups of students brought their musical and acting skills to some villages where they were based, performing revolutionary songs and model operas to dour bemused peasants. Li Manshan never heard them sing or play, but in nearby Shizitun Older Li Bin learned the modern system of cipher notation from educated youth billeted there.

Just when convulsions seemed to have eased, Li Qing’s rich-peasant status was re-imposed in the Cleanse the Class Ranks campaign of 1968. If there had been a certain basis for the original classification around 1949, by now—in a ravaged countryside where everyone was virtually destitute—the label caused his fellow villagers bitter mirth, who ribbed him, “Call yourself a rich peasant?!” After the chaotic first couple of years, things quietened down by around 1969, but there was always tension. As Li Manshan recalls, “We just sat around at home, but we could never feel at peace”—always fearing a knock at the door.

Life Goes On
Even then, life was not entirely about campaigns. Having had four children by 1954, Li Qing and his wife had been separated for four years while Li Qing was in the Datong troupe, but in 1967 they had a third daughter, and then in 1969 a third son, Li Yunshan (known as Third Tiger), twenty-three years Li Manshan’s junior. For the lovely little wooden folding stool that Li Manshan made in the late 1960s, see here.

Then, in the winter cold late in 1971, Li Manshan married, aged twenty-six sui. The new couple lived in Li Qing’s courtyard complex, part of which had been allocated to another family after land reform. In the Cultural Revolution Li Qing “bought” it back, but village cadres accused him of illegal trading, and confiscated it again. Anyway, from 1948 right through till 1980 their conditions were cramped. In 1972 Li Manshan had to spend another six months away laboring on the reservoir project, only returning for the autumn harvest. The couple’s oldest daughter was born in 1973. That year Li Qing and his wife took their youngest son Third Tiger, five sui, into town for a group photo—now nowhere to be found. Around that time Li Qing managed to get his mother’s ashes back from Inner Mongolia, reburying her with his father’s coffin in the family graves outside Upper Liangyuan—though without any ceremony, of course.

All this was around the time of the campaigns to Study Lei Feng and Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius. The latter, prompted by the mysterious 1971 death of Lin Biao in a plane crash in Mongolia, caused major convulsions in Party and army ranks, but Li Manshan has only the vaguest memories of these campaigns.

Whereas through the 1950s and 60s the Party had somehow managed to whip up enthusiasm for further campaigns despite constant abuses, by the 1970s people had thoroughly lost their appetite for the constantly changing directions of policy. Indeed, in Yanggao people were largely unaware of the machinations at the heart of the Party in distant Beijing.

I would gladly qualify all this gloom with reminders of the benefits of Maoism such as are offered by apologists like Bill Hinton and Mobo Gao. But I can find no-one in Yanggao who can think of any. There were some harbingers of reform, like a certain freeing up of markets in 1972. Education too was expanding again. A sporadic supply of electricity eventually reached villages like Upper Liangyuan by the mid-1970s. Before that people used kerosene lamps, but they slept soon after it got dark—except, of course, when there were rituals to perform. The electricity supply in the countryside remains unreliable.

By the 1970s the national population was increasing rapidly, but that of villages like Upper Liangyuan grew little. Under Maoism there was hardly any new house building in Yanggao; by the 1970s, over ninety percent of houses in the county had been built before 1937. By the mid-1970s a few villagers managed to buy watches; even by the end of the decade only a few cadres enjoyed the luxury of riding bicycles.

Traditional culture was still on hold. Without the benefit of hindsight, there was no end in sight to the depression of the commune system. And people—not just the Li family, but the whole population—were still seriously hungry.

* * *

For local Daoist ritual, I must stress that none of this obviates the need for the study of early textual history of ritual manuals, which should continue to play a major role. However, the life stories of Daoists (and all kinds of religious practitioners) are just as important for the modern era as for the imperial period—but with careful and sensitive fieldwork they are much more available. And they can not only clarify aspects of textual transmission, but also (more crucially?) illuminate the changing performance of ritual. So it seems to me that whether sinologists and ethnographers like it or not, our subject has to embrace both early and contemporary periods. At the same time, modern historians may even find our discussions of ritual life in living times to be of some relevance to wider histories.

Another anagram

Following the magnificent Gran visits York (my personal fave among the musical anagrams by the Monteverdi choir) and my mélange of anagrams, here’s Angela Barnes:

I grew up in Maidstone. It’s no coincidence that an anagram of Maidstone is “I am stoned”. There’s nothing else to do. Just anagrams.

Reminiscent of the Great Plain in Molvania,

recently granted UNESCO World Heritage status as a “site of significant monotony”.

Folk ritual: testing the waters

As I observed, the recent confiscation of instruments in Pingyi county was only one aspect of the directive aimed at decimating funerary traditions there. It reminds me of an early incident during the revival of Daoist ritual in Yanggao (my book, ch.7; cf. my film), illustrating constant nuances in local relations as people explore ritual boundaries through changing times. So here’s a kind of prequel to my post on the Pingyi flapdoodle.

By 1979, as the commune system began to crumble, the great Li Qing (1926–99) and his colleagues in Upper Liangyuan, along with other Daoist groups in the county, were clandestinely performing Daoist rituals again, testing the waters. There was now demand again; as soon as villagers were once again able to stage proper funerals, they sought to invite Daoists. Seeing other households beginning to make money outside the collective, Li Qing would soon have realized this was a chance for him to feed his family too (they had been hungry throughout the Maoist era, not just around 1960). Most simply, Daoist ritual was in his blood: it was what the family had always done. A major stimulus for Li Qing’s band was the return in 1977 of his uncle Li Peisen (1910–85) from Yang Pagoda, where he had laid low throughout the Maoist period, preserving ritual instruments, costumes, paintings, and manuals.

Over a long period from 1979 to 1984 the Daoists performed for funerals at first furtively and gradually more openly. In those early days they didn’t stand directly in front of the coffin, just playing “little pieces” on the shengguan instruments without any vocal liturgy. And they wore their ordinary clothes; before 1981 a host wanting them to wear their ritual costumes had to pay danger money. As anxieties dwindled, they first donned their black costumes without hats, then the red costumes with hats.

One early occasion when they dared perform vocal liturgy, however clandestinely, was for the funeral of Li Peiye (another Daoist uncle of Li Qing) in the 2nd moon of 1980. Born in 1892, Li Peiye had learned Daoist ritual under the Qing dynasty, living just long enough to witness hope of a revival of tradition. Li Manshan recalls Li Yuanmao (1919–92), then with a long white beard) leading the reciting of the scriptures for the funeral.

Soon after Li Peiye’s funeral, a great burden was lifted for Li Qing. The county authorities sent official letters to all the village brigades listing the rehabilitation (pingfan) of people whose “black” class label of “rich peasant” was now to be removed. Li Qing was among thousands in Yanggao alone who were reprieved. The family no longer bore any stigma; at last there seemed some hope for both them and the wider society.

One of the first funerals for which the Daoists wore their full costumes was for Golden Noble’s grandmother in Houying in 1982. She died on the 6th of the 2nd moon, and the date of the burial was determined for the 19th.

But on the first day of the Houying rituals, someone returned from the county-town with the news that the Wangzhuang Daoists had been arrested while doing a funeral there. Senior Daoist Yan Mei—one of many Daoists who had served as brigade accountants under Maoism—was band boss; Liu Zhong (1930–96), soon to be a regular member of Li Qing’s band, was taking part. As luck would have it, the house where the funeral was held happened to be right opposite the police station. They managed to perform the rituals all day, but then two cops turned up, detained two of the Daoists, took mugshots, and confiscated their instruments.

As the liberalizations gathered pace, the incident soon became something of a local joke; people take such minor reverses in their stride. Naively, the Wangzhuang Daoists had supposed the climate to be relaxed enough now that Deng Xiaoping was in power—but surely they could have seen this coming. Things were indeed easing up in the countryside, and after a few weeks the Daoists reclaimed their instruments and got back to work, but official attitudes in the county-town were always more sensitive.

Even when I attended funerals in the town in 1991, it was still only possible to hire gujiang shawm bands, not Daoists. And still today it remains rare for town-dwellers to use Daoists; and since there are groups nearer whom patrons can invite, the Li family seldom performs there. But ever since the revival, and all the more since around 2009, they and other groups in the area have been worked off their feet performing rituals throughout the villages—despite urban migration and the “left-behind” patrons’ preference for the glossy pop shows outside the gate of the soul hall.

Ever since those early days of the revival, I occasionally hear of transitory campaigns against mediums or sects, but funeral practice has remained largely untouched—so the “Keep Calm and Carry On” message still seems fair.

informal session
Informal session at Li Qing’s house, 1991. Left to right: Li Qing (sheng), his second son Yushan (yunluo), Liu Zhong (guanzi), Li Zengguang (drum), Kang Ren (sheng), Wu Mei.

For the concurrent process of recopying the ritual manuals, and a caveat, see here.

 

Schubert

The Schubert string quintet is one of those pieces that is always there when you need it. The slow movement in particular is deep in the heart of many musicians (and gratifyingly, its also one of those pieces that recurs on Desert Island Discs), but it’s all amazing.*

I’ve been appreciating the 1941 studio performance by the Budapest Quartet with Benar Heifetz—part of their amazingly busy recording schedule, and just as bebop was evolving:

Indeed, the group’s history makes a fascinating history of the metamorphoses of a string quartet under the conditions of the 20th century.

Benar Heifetz was the older brother of Jascha—who is quoted as saying:

One Russian is an anarchist. Two Russians are a chess game. Three Russians are a revolution. Four Russians are the Budapest String Quartet.

Which reminds me of the old Cold War joke:

What’s the definition of a string quartet?
A Russian symphony orchestra after a tour of the West.

For viola jokes, see here.

BTW, the long eclipse of WAM in Desert Island Discs since 1942, while not a sample of the general population, makes an interesting window on changing tastes.

More Schubert here!

 

*PS Anyone got a good fingering for the ending of the Scherzo?

Schubert

I’ve got a sneaky one, but hey—what do I know? Available on request… The last note may be “hit and hope”; Hugh Maguire said he had about a 70% strike rate—better than in football, where the long high ball upfield in the direction of Peter Crouch’s head is even less reliable. But how to negotiate the preceding run is debatable too.

Officials without culture

*UPDATED!*

Strange—not to say fatuous—goings-on in Pingyi county in Shandong.

I generally give Short Shrift to horror stories in the Western media about new clampdowns on “superstitious practices” in China, finding that they rarely have any perceptible long-term effect at local level. Indeed, I have it on good authority that this latest instance of interference from local government is only a blip, going against the current tide in these more laissez-faire times—but it’s still rather interesting.

A fine article “The endangered sound of suona” by Fu Danni, on the Sixth Tone website, reports on the recent ban on shawm bands at funerals in Pingyi county. But the official directive looks far more disturbing than that—it’s just one aspect of a far more ambitious attempt to limit the length of life-cycle ceremonies and extravagant spending therein. The Pingyi measures even castigate the zacai decorations at the funeral altar as a “corrupt feudal practice”. Similar leftist campaigns, effectively seeking to deprive villagers of their traditional funerary observances, have occasionally been touted ever since traditional life-cycle events revived in the 1980s—a related article makes an ominous comparison with the “Destroy the Four Olds” campaign that accompanied the Cultural Revolution.

But there’s both more and less to this story than meets the eye. Campaigns aimed at enforcing frugality at life-cycle ceremonies have a long and mostly futile history, long before funeral strippers became a routine and salacious media topic (as a quick Google search will reveal). So it’s good to see twenty-one noted Chinese academics protesting at the fatuous recent official directive in a detailed open letter (Chinese text here). Note how adroitly it adopts the language of both Confucian and current CCP values—reminiscent of the recent online rebuffs to the Chinese FA over their attempt to ban Daoist ritual at a football match. The open letter has stimulated much online discussion, in which voices in support of the restrictions are largely drowned out.

Still, however isolated and fleeting such instances of local implementation may be, it’s remarkable that even in 2017 the Pingyi county government announced that it would confiscate musical instruments played at funerals. Sure, this kind of thing has happened occasionally since the 1980s’ revival; generally, as here, the musicians manage to get them back after a while.

Wang Ruiyong’s shawm band in Pingyi, suffering from the recent directive. From Sixth Tone article.

It may be that in Pingyi the shawm bands have unfairly taken the blame; some scholars too have reservations about “other, more vulgar, funeral practices” (like stripping, perhaps), though it’s unclear how a criterion for vulgarity might be policed, short of inculcating norms of public decency—for which cadres are not renowned.

Xingyuan 2011
Burning paper ritual money for the deceased before the coffin—village funeral, Yanggao 2011. My photo.

The article on the Pingyi nonsense observes the flagrant irony of the simultaneous [albeit formalistic and superficial, I should add!] brief of the cultural authorities to document such bands as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project—whose agenda has anyway never been exactly ethnographic. But by contrast with the project’s kitsch nostalgic dreams, shawm bands all over China are far from a bastion of tradition. They’re always innovative: for several decades, they have themselves been spontaneously adapting to the times by replacing their traditional repertoire with popular melodies and supplementing their instrumentation with trumpet, electronic keyboard, and drum-kit. You can read all about shawm bands in my post Walking Shrill, and in my books on Yanggao and Shaanbei (both with DVDs); there I documented the rapid substitution of the majestic old suite repertoires with pop music before my very eyes and ears. There are tracks on the playlist too, with notes here.

Were I just a tad cynical [surely not—Ed.], I might say that the Chinese are perfectly capable of diluting their own local traditions without government assistance. This cultural shift has been taking place ever since the early 1980s, as a result not of state interference but of changing popular tastes. And when the article comments that “most suona players have started to take on other jobs”, such as in factories and construction, this too is part of a much wider and longer trend, not some sudden response to the directive—as I noted for the Li family Daoists, the choice to abandon a hereditary tradition is complex.

Though the Sixth Tone article uses the nationally standard term suona for the shawm, it’s good to see the local term wulawa—one of many such names by which this most ubiquitous instrument is known (hence my adoption of the English term shawm, avoiding official vocabulary). And I was glad to see a reminder of the technique of blowing through a hollow reed into a basin of water—standard device for teaching circular breathing to young students.

The article doesn’t mention liturgical performance (such as household Daoists) at funerals, which generally alternates with that of the “secular” shawm bands, but it’s quite possible that there aren’t any ritual groups in this area. Anyway, hiring such bands is only a minor item in the total budget for the funeral family.

Keep calm and carry onMeixian funeral
Back in 1990 I attended an impressive funeral in Meixian county-town in Guangdong province, with accomplished young xianghua household Buddhist ritual specialists presiding. Above the road outside (where they performed many of their rituals) was draped a slogan advertising a campaign against spirit mediums (cf. my unpublished article “Striking a happy medium”). Of course mediums and liturgical specialists (not to mention shawm bands) provide very different services, but one might suppose that there’s a risk that blanket directives may throw out the baby with the bathwater.slogan Meixian 1990So while there are complex issues at work here, the recent directive illustrates a common befuddled knee-jerk response from local government. If they’re so keen on harking back to Maoist values, they might instead consider a re-education campaign for cadres—it is they who now lead the way in “vulgarity” and “lack of culture”.

Still, I can’t quite join in the general moral outrage over the Pingyi campaign. While it is quite right for scholars (both Chinese and foreign) to protest, at the same time we shouldn’t overestimate the long-term effect of such fatuous official measures. Observers have been lamenting “cultural impoverishment” in China for many decades—indeed, further afield, nay worldwide, the call to “rescue endangered traditions” went out a nanosecond after the birth of anthropology. But change is a constant. As is clear from my recent film and book, since the 1980s’ revival—in both ritual and music—any dilution takes place not so much as a direct result of sporadic leftist campaigns, but under more pervasive socio-economic pressures (to be sure, related to wider political currents) such as urban migration, modern secular education, and the changing tastes of rural patrons as they aspire to the modernity of pop and media culture. Since these are trends with which few seekers of hallowed Chinese traditions tend to engage, the state may seem to make an easier scapegoat.

For a prequel to this story, see here.

Update
Local relations have only deteriorated following the interference of the radical cadres of Pingyi in funeral customs. A recent article on Chinese Twitter tells how irate musicians have ceremoniously burned their instruments in protest. The only good news is that public criticism of the directive forbidding “extravagant” funeral observances is ever-more widespread, both from local villagers and from higher-ranking officials and pundits further afield—again adroitly (indeed convincingly) adducing “cultural heritage” and the good old Confucian values touted by Uncle Xi.

One old musician observes that neither the Allied forces suppressing the Boxers, nor the Japanese invaders, nor even the Four Cleanups campaign had ever managed to silence such bands:

“自打西太后还活着那会儿,咱家就吹;八国联军来了怎么样?照样没碍着,那帮蓝眼珠子都觉得咱这牛逼;后来小日本来了,在他们枪口底下,挺直了腰杆吹,也没人禁过;破四旧那会儿,打和尚烧庙,也都没碰过咱这喇叭。”

Do watch the video in the article.

From London, or even Beijing, it’s hard to judge what’s going on. The focus on shawm bands still seems something of a red herring. As locals observe, “extravagance is something for people with money—what have the common people got to waste?” The shawm bands are not only inexpensive but utterly “secular”—and again, we’re not being told about the wider restrictions on funeral observances.

This still seems to me like an isolated blip—has anyone heard of serious instances anywhere else recently? It’s all the more curious when funeral customs continue to be observed grandly throughout China—see this recent report on a six-day Daoist funeral in Hunan.

The radical stance of the Pingyi cadres seems deranged. Usually such campaigns blow over (an apt metaphor), or at worst cadres adopt the age-old practice of “one eye open, one eye closed”, or “there’s a policy, but it isn’t implemented”; but here they haven’t backed down, and the musicians’ astute demonstration has gained widespread publicity.

burning shawms

For more background, see here; and for a related debate, here.

Further update
I can’t keep up with all such cases, but this one caught my eye.

Chinese media (in English, see e.g. here, and this article with further background) are in uproar over a draconian policy in 2018 to destroy coffins in rural Jiangxi province—which one might suppose less vulnerable to radical directives. It’s a misguided attempt both to save land and to discourage extravagant burial rituals.

Jiangxi

Again, campaigns to enforce cremation have a long history, but have been largely ineffective outside the towns.

In this case the protest doesn’t even need righteous netizens—it’s led by the state-run media:

Chinese state media editorials on Monday slammed the policy as “barbaric and unpopular”. Articles in both People’s Daily and Guangming Daily urged the Jiangxi government to rethink its funeral reform.

“Is there any reason to carry out such a rough and even barbaric move?” the editorial in People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party, said. “Even if the funeral reforms are effectively carried out, the hearts of the people are hurt and [the administration’s] credibility is lost … [and] built-up resentment triggers instability.”

Even Jiangxi’s department of civil affairs issued a notice saying a number of county-level officials had taken “simplistic and extreme” actions that had “hurt the feelings” of local residents.

Again, it looks like a conflict between particular trigger-happy extremist local governments, with central authorities on the side of the local population.

None of these stories is so simple as blanket state repression: conflicting forces operate.

 

You don’t have to be mad to work here but…

XJP

Amidst all the current razzmatazz over the Joyous Tidings of the 19th Party Congress and the mighty Uncle Xi, a tweet from a fine Chinese scholar notes the dazzling series of media eulogies from babies, kindergartens, primary schools, secondary schools, universities, the elderly, the religious, the sick, and criminals [sic], asking

“Whatever next? Series of eulogies from animals, toys, and coffee?”

Good old social media…

So, in the spirit of the Anthology of folk tales of the Chinese peoples (Zhongguo minjian gushi jicheng), this is as good a time as any to tell another classic story (somewhat in the vein of the old Brezhnev joke) about the hapless former leader whom I shall call “Lee Beng”:

Lee Beng is paying an official courtesy visit to a hospital for the criminally insane. All the inmates are gathered together in the hall and Lee climbs onto the platform, announcing grandiosely:

“Comrades! On behalf of the Politburo of the Central Chinese Communist Party and the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, I would like to sincerely extend my warmest greetings!”

One loony leans over to the guy sitting next to him and goes,

“So we’ve got a new arrival then…”

No less prescient is this Marx brothers scene.

The psychology of evil

Still thinking about fieldwork, I’ve cited an extreme instance of “participant observation” in the work of Germaine Tillion in Ravensbrück concentration camp, as well as the ethical quandaries of Sudhir Venkatesh in Gang leader for a day.

Among all the literature on the psychology of evil, as a chilling instance of fieldwork interviewing, Gitta Sereny held lengthy talks with Franz Stangl over three weeks in 1971, after he was belatedly sentenced to life imprisonment for co-responsibility in the murder of 900,000 people at the Sobibór and Treblinka extermination camps. [1] Stangl died of heart failure nineteen hours after Sereny’s last visit.

As she observes (The German trauma, pp.88–9),

I decided to find one perpetrator if possible less primitive and with at least a semblance of moral awareness, who, if approached not as a monster but as a human being, might be able to explain his own catastrophic moral failure. […] I found Stangl more complex, more open, serious and even sad than any of the others I had observed; the only man with such a horrific record who appeared to manifest a semblance of conscience.

Within the extraordinary circumstances of these prison interviews, Sereny’s account is a model of detailed and sensitive work, reflection, and even empathy; as she carefully elicits as much candour as can be expected, she meticulously documents both his self-delusion and her own feelings.

Also importantly, her interviews are founded on much research and personal authority—experience of the period in question, in-depth study of the material, and discussions with people who worked under Stangl, witnesses, and survivors. All such background is important for fieldworkers, enabling them to ask apposite and probing questions sensitively.

Equally sobering is Sereny’s discussion of her meetings with Albert Speer—which indeed he initiated after reading her book about Stangl. [2] She unpacks the different and complex feelings of the generations since the war, notably in “Children of the Reich” (including their early worries about right-wing sentiments in the east after reunification).

I can’t think of a close parallel for other societies lastingly afflicted by the ghosts of unspeakable evils—certainly not for China, where what little we know of the “catastrophic moral failure” under Maoism (which was very far from being limited to the “usual suspect” of the Cultural Revolution) tends to be through the accounts of with victims rather than perpetrators—and it’s just as important to explore the mass of cases along the spectrum between those extremes. And of course, whereas such exposés depend on free media, for China such first-person reflections might only ever be muffled at best—since despite a change of direction, the same Party remains in power. Anyway, Gitta Sereny’s interviews are a model.

 

[1] “Colloquy with a conscience”, in her brilliant book The German trauma; more detailed is her book Into that darkness.
[2] The German trauma, pp.266–85, based on another of her books, Albert Speer: his battle with truth.

In memoriam Sean Hughes

Sean Hughes

Source here.

With tributes to Sean Hughes pouring in, I really shouldn’t try and encapsulate such a brilliant narrative comedian through pithy one-liners, but:

What the fuck do gardeners do when they retire?

and

I failed my driving test for stalling. The instructor said: “Just get into the fucking car.”

Also fine is his 1993 poem for his ideal funeral.

Useful putdowns

As Clive Anderson remarked to Jeffrey Archer,

Is there no beginning to your talents?

Linda Smith had a good line about Archer too. When someone said they’d like to deprive him of the oxygen of publicity, she observed tartly, “I’d like to deprive him of the oxygen of oxygen.”

And there must be an earlier source for this one, but I heard it from Jack Dee on I’m sorry I haven’t a clue:

Once heard, forgotten.

A review of one of my gigs, surely. For the niche genre of conductors’ inadvertent self-putdowns, see here—and then my elegant trio of variations punctuating my Visual culture post.

Documenting religion in China

Gansu miaohui FK

Temple procession, Xincheng, south Gansu, June 1997. Photo: Frank Kouwenhoven. © CHIME, all rights reserved.

Ian Johnson’s recent book The souls of China is just as fine as its many reviews say. I’ve praised it in some detail in several posts (notably here and here), so here I’d like to discuss responses to it; my comments here also relate to my article on the brief of ethnography.

The religious revival in China since the late 1970s is hardly news: it has long been a major topic within the confines of academia. Scholars like Ken Dean have described local temple organizations as “China’s second government”. But by contrast with most studies within a narrow scholarly milieu, the great strength of Ian’s book is that he engagingly places religious practice within the changing context of Chinese society, blending the personal and the political with rare insights into the lives of Real People.

The souls of China has already been reviewed by some noted scholars of Chinese religion (such as here and here), but given that it laudably reaches out to a wider audience, some reviews have come from more general observers of contemporary China and the modern world. While this is clearly A Good Thing, amidst some fine reviews I find others that tend to somewhat misrepresent the book.

Preaching to the converted?
A comment in the publisher’s blurb gives me pause:

This entrancing and engaging book challenges the modern assumption that religion is a thing of the past; on the contrary, the dramatic resurgence of spirituality in China, after a century of violent persecution, suggests that it is an irrepressible force that may in some sense be essential to humanity.

Such an evangelical tendency may be Buddhist or Daoist (or indeed Islamic—Ian’s book wisely focuses on the Han Chinese), but it will often be Christian commentators who see the revival simply as “an astounding miracle”. Even less doctrinal readers may read The souls of China as a mere paean to “freedom” and some abstract “spirituality”—as if the Chinese revival represents some great victory for Western liberal values. This constitutes a handy stick with which to beat the Communist Party, quite lacking the nuance of Ian’s writing. Would pundits latch with such enthusiasm onto a notional (and unlikely) resurgence of religious faith in north Europe? It seems unlikely too that a study on the growth of atheism in China would be so enthusiastically received abroad.

To be sure, religious groups in China have often taken a stance against the regime, notably at times of extreme pressure, like collectivization, famine, and the Cultural Revolution—well, that just about covers the whole Maoist period. And more recently too, religion may indeed—in particular cases—act as an alternative sphere upholding moral values in public life, as is clear from Ian’s chapters on the Early Rain Christians of Chengdu.

His fieldwork sometimes blends with his own personal search for some kind of purpose—engaging in fine “participant observation” through involvement in meditational retreats and qigong (which indeed the CCP leadership first seized on with enthusiasm and then sought to suppress; note also Ian’s book Wild grass). But The souls of China manages to be both involved and dispassionate—covering a range of behaviours within what several scholars have called the “religious market”, with rich ethnographic detail on the diverse, messy, and inconvenient grass-roots situation.

Excesses
Religion can be a lucrative business. And—just like the Communist Party—it may sometimes serve as a cloak for highly reprehensible behaviour. The Party pounces on (and sometimes fabricates) instances of financial scams and sexual crimes among religious groups, although Party members themselves are renowned for such abuses. But they’re covered by the criminal code—even if it may be easier for Party members to escape the long arm of the law; so it makes no more sense to ban sectarian groups than it does to outlaw the CCP (now there’s a thought).

Religion may serve as spiritual inspiration, or to spur social action; but (as we can see in “democratic” societies like the USA or India) it can also be a socially conservative force—which is why in China (and Russia) the Party now co-opts its “traditional values”. During fieldwork in China, like De Martino in post-war Italy, I’ve sometimes been shocked at the delusions of religion, observing cripplingly poor rural familes unable to afford even basic healthcare yet spending vast amounts over New Year on a barrage of deafening and evanescent firecrackers. Or a vignette from my book on Shaanbei (p.86):

Back in the county-town, returning to our hostel one evening, we switch on the TV to find a documentary about coal-mining accidents, which are reported nightly. There are some rather fine investigative programmes on TV these days, and the main theme of this one is how the response of the village Communist Party leadership to the disaster, rather than considering improving safety measures, has been to give funds to construct a new village temple in the hope of divine protection. OK, in this case the programme happens to fit into an agenda of rationalism against superstition, a view we sometimes feel inclined to challenge, but tonight I can only go along with the presenter’s lament.

Only later did I put together further pieces of a grisly jigsaw. Under the tradition of posthumous marriage (minghun), revived in northwest China, within five years after the death of an unmarried male over the age of 15 sui, a suitable dead unmarried female is found. Indeed, shawm bands often perform, and a Daoist may officiate. The unnatural deaths of many men in unregulated mines were bad enough, but newspaper reports in 2007 revealed that women (often disabled, or from poorer provinces) were being murdered to cater for this market.

The souls of China does indeed document some of the less noble aspects of religious practice in China. Few commentators would regard the sectarian groups (including many Christian sects, indeed) like Eastern Lightning (ch.25, citing the work of Emily Dunn) as a paragon; some of them are no less weird and worrying than they are elsewhere in the world. We do indeed need to describe them, but not necessarily to praise them; Ian’s account is admirably balanced.

Christians

Catholic vespers

Gender-segregated Catholic Vespers  in a Hebei village house-church, 2001.

Permeating Plucking the Winds, my history of the ritual association of a Hebei village (see also Gaoluo tag), is the intriguing sub-theme of the underground Catholic community there. I note the complexities of their troubled relations with both the village association (whose conflict goes back to a massacre in the Boxer uprising) and the local state:

Their presence might be seen as somewhat akin to that of a Hindu temple in an English village, which has also created frictions.

One might both admire them for their obstinacy and worry at their intransigence.

Household Daoists
All this puts in perspective my work on the Li family Daoist band (as in my recent book and film). Ian’s splendid vignettes in The souls of China (cf. also his own video clips) focus on the life of Li Bin (b.1977), who is gradually taking over the leadership of the band from his wonderful father Li Manshan (b.1946); apart from all the material in my book and film, I’ve updated the story here, as well as explaining how unlikely it is that there will be a tenth generation of Daoists in the family.

Inasmuch as they are hereditary occupational ritual specialists, they don’t quite fit into the “faith” picture—although such groups are an ubiquitous part of the religious scene throughout China. They have been doing good business since the 1980s’ revival, and particularly since around 2009—not due to any resurgence of faith, but mainly, as Li Manshan sagely told me, because the demographic is such that it’s been a busy few years for funerals. Li Manshan still needs to choose the correct date and site for the burial; for the funeral proper, his band is invited more as a duty towards ancestral tradition (“the old rules” lao guiju) than as a sign of any resurgence of “spirituality”—funeral audiences now pay scant attention to their liturgy, only crowding round for the “red-hot sociality” of the (few) entertainment interludes over the day. When the kin are required to kneel and kowtow for the Daoists’ rituals at the “soul hall”, they are reluctant to drag themselves away from the pop routine outside the gate (do watch the eloquent vignette in my film, from 30.32!). Often I am the only audience for the magnificent vocal liturgy before the coffin.

But scholars of Daoism are unlikely to rejoice in this, since it’s “the wrong kind of Daoism”; nor does this quite fit into the kind of spiritual devotion sought by other foreign aficionados of religion. The current vibrancy of the band takes place amidst the depletion of the countryside and the discrediting of traditional rural values. I can see that Li Manshan’s services have considerable value for those “left behind” in such declining village communities, but that doesn’t mean that I wish to parade them as some kind of model for Chinese society.

Following Geertz, I described a “flawed funeral” I attended with the Li band:

The idea of a failed ritual tacitly accepts that the aim of the proceedings is to confirm and celebrate community solidarity—and indeed that there is such a thing. That Geertz and others don’t always find this may reflect on a supposed loss of such harmony under complex post-colonial (or whatever) social tensions; perhaps by contrast with an imagined earlier ideal age, a notion that we may obviously challenge too.

Funerals in China do indeed seem to me to represent something valuable, for both kin and community. But the family is subject to scrutiny; the event is an opportunity to confirm status within the family and community, but also a moment when underlying animosities may be entrenched. And this applies to other rituals too, like the vast territorial processions of southeast China. The conditions of the 20th century have doubtless created many dislocations in thinking; and we should recognize conflicts in imperial China, between classes and lineages, different aspirations, and so on.

What we might call the “hippy tendency” has a foothold in Daoist studies too, from Bill Porter’s intriguing work to more scholarly quests for the timeless wisdom of white-bearded temple-dwelling sages (and again, Ian well describes the solitary truth-seekers). The gritty realities of rural society, and household ritual specialists like Li Manshan, don’t quite mesh with such a picture. To use Ian’s book to “celebrate” religious faith ignores the serious social problems he notes, that such fervour won’t solve.

One can still be amazed at the vibrancy of temple festivals in areas like south Fujian or Gansu, but the religious “revival” of the last four decades has been taking place in the context of the depletion of the countryside and rapid urbanization, along with the pervasive spread of pop and consumer culture. So while many rural dwellers have used the liberalizations to reinvent their local traditions (not necessarily “faith”), those traditions are threatened by the migrations that liberalization also engendered. Ian covers both rural and urban pictures, but the “hope” of the faithful may reside more in the latter, with their wider online networks and more “modern” discursive modalities.

Let’s hear it for secular humanism
While freedom of religion may be a good principle, it’s not the same as extolling all its manifestations. Today, vapid materialism and blind faith in the supernatural are not the only choices; religion is not the only remedy for moral decay. As I observed in my book,

By comparison with the years of Maoism, people now have more decisions to make, choosing from a range of options. They may have rituals performed and seek consultations to determine the date and select auspicious sites, but they are not entirely fatalistic. They tend their fields, save money, gamble, watch TV, play video games online, eat out in restaurants, establish guanxi networks, set up businesses, deplore and exploit corruption. State education here may lag far behind the big cities, but it has become ever more important since the 1950s.

Whether or not people engage in meditation, prayer, or charitable projects for the common good, they can and do lead ethical lives, taking part in their communities and finding meaning without creating imaginary supernatural beings. It would take courage to argue with the long-term and ongoing humanist secularization of north Europe—a choice that has followed many centuries of violent religious persecution like that lamented in the blurb I cited above. People’s faith in imagined beings (Richard Dawkins’s “flying spaghetti monster”) needs to be documented, all over the world, but evangelism is best excluded—all the more on the part of romantic outsiders.

The purpose of ethnographies of religious practice, for any society, is not to Praise the Lord; scholarship like this shouldn’t be exploited by adherents of Western religious faith. Such faith is by no means universally admired—observers like Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens (whose work may be disputed, but can’t be dismissed as merely eccentric) might be shocked by any such revival of delusion and superstition.

I’d like to see a review of The souls of China from a committed secularist like the anthropologist Mobo Gao. In his fine book on his home village where he grew up, he comments approvingly on the hygiene and healthcare campaigns under Maoism that sought to lessen popular belief in mediums, noting the 1980s’ religious revival in measured tones (Gao village, pp.77–8, 89–90, 227–31). In similarly leftist vein, on William Hinton’s return to Longbow village, where he had documented the 1940s’ land reform in rich detail, he was disturbed by many social consequences of the 1980s’ liberalizations—not least the major Catholic revival there (see also his Through a glass darkly, pp.180–82, 209). While some anthropologists may dispute such views, they are valid and quite widely held—both in China and the West.

Many will feel that religious freedom is only a minor aspect of the freedoms that China needs—basic human rights, control over corruption, freedom of the press and the judiciary, and so on. Indeed, Ian is a leading observer of these movements, as is also clear in The souls of China. In some cases religion may contribute to such freedoms, but in others it is irrelevant or even obstructive. Given the diverse social problems of Chinese people today, it may seem whimsical to trust in gods to rescue them from adversity. And such issues are far from unique to China: the current persecution of atheism in Russia is worrying.

Ian’s book is exemplary in its rapport with religious practitioners, its ethnographic detail, and its involved yet dispassionate stance—that readers would do well to note.

 

In the kitchen

Nearly related to my post on advertising slogans, how about

Prick with a fork

Prick

Scholarly rigour obliges me to observe that this may have been concocted from an old line of the late great Humphrey Lyttleton on I’m sorry I haven’t a clueits target then (yet more suitably) being Antony Worrall Thompson.

Strictly in the interests of gender equality, I believe the female version goes

Fluff with a wooden spoon

Again, take your pick—Nigella? or the numinous Fanny Cradock?

Cf. “May contain nuts”.

Early Woody Allen

In those heady days when Woody Allen was known mainly as a humorist (cf. Sleeper), how we chuckled at his early books (cf. “late Beethoven“) like Without feathers and Getting even. In the latter, here are a few highlights from Spring Bulletin—”an imaginary, handsomely printed course bulletin more or less typical of all the college bulletins and adult-education come-ons” that kept turning up in his mailbox, convincing him that he “must be on a special mailing list for dropouts”:

History of European civilization: […] Also studied in the course is the decision to hold the Renaissance in Italy.

Fundamental astronomy: students are taught to identify various constellations, such as the Big Dipper, Cygnus the Swan, Sagittarius the Archer, and the twelve stars that form Lumides the Pants Salesman.

Modern biology: How the body functions, and where it can usually be found. Blood is analyzed, and it is learned why it is the best possible thing to have coursing through one’s veins. A frog is dissected by students and its digestive tract is compared with man’s, with the frog giving a good account of itself except on curries.

Introduction to social work: How to organize street gangs into basketball teams, and vice versa.

Tambourin chinois

In my teens, as a fiddler and budding aficionado of Chinese culture, I couldn’t help practising Fritz Kreisler’s Tambourin chinois. You can explore various brilliant later versions, but here’s Kreisler himself playing it in 1936: 

I relished getting my fingers round all the funky pentatonic runs and double-stops in fifths and fourths—and the whimsical middle section is great too.

Much as I admire Kreisler and Co., don’t miss Sun Huang‘s exquisite playing—and do click on the link to Saint-Saens and the toothbrush

In those days, deprived as I was of “real” Chinese musical culture (as indeed were the Chinese, then—With All Due Respect to The Red Detachment of Women), chinoiserie was still attractive. It was to be a long time before I came across The Real Thing in rural China. OK, Tambourin chinois isn’t entirely similar to Li Manshan’s funky drumming in Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body (coda to the Transferring Offerings ritual—my film, from 1.11.07), or the amazing tracks on the playlist in the sidebar. But I still like it…

LMS drumming

For more on drumming in Yanggao ritual, see here; and for an instance of the importance of drumming in south Jiangsu Daoism, here.

The art of the voiceover

Talking of media voices, how David Tennant must delight in doing his deadpan voiceovers for BBC TV’s brilliant spoof W1A, successor to the equally fine Twenty Twelve.

My current favourite line (here, from 3.58) is

… the Department of Culture, Media, And Also For Some Reason Sport…

which cracks me up every time he says it, even in the more subtle version

Department of Culture, Media, And Also Sport.

He slips in gems like

Reaction on social media has been almost universally divided.

The choice of theme tune is perfect too.

Further to my paltry comments on filming techniques, I did the voiceovers for my first two films (DVDs with my books Ritual and music of north China) myself, much to the amusement of my friends—who, used to my imp–p-pediment, couldn’t imagine a budget vast enough to allow for all the editing. In the end I recorded both voiceovers over a single morning, doing only a few retakes, and it didn’t take the editors too long.

Still, for my portrait film about Li Manshan, it was much more personal for him to do the voiceovers himself, with English subtitles. After lengthy discussion of the script, we eventually recorded them deep in the night at his home—Chinese villages can be noisy places, with dogs barking, donkeys braying, and tractors making those tractor noises…

The joys of indexing

LB joke

In the sidebar I’ve just added a handy tag for Chinese jokes, that transpires to comprise a majority of my posts—hours of harmless fun for all the family.

I can’t yet work out how to introduce sub-headings into such tags, but here’s a simple list of how they might look for this one, with just a few instances. Many would deserve cross-references…

screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-10-35-10

* * *

Call me a nerd [You’re a nerd—Ed.], but I’ve always loved indexing. After graduating—just as orchestras were mysteriously beginning to consider paying me to play the violin—I indexed books for Cambridge UP (notably for the Tang volumes of The Cambridge history of China), relishing the task of compiling hand-written index-cards (imagine that). Since I began writing my own books, I’ve always enjoyed indexing them too—it’s so good if authors can compile their own indexes, as detailed knowledge of your text can produce a much more instructive result, highlighting themes that may not always reveal themselves through a simple search for particular words. And they can give a real flavour of the subject. Again we return to taxonomy.

Pedantry and frivolity can go hand in hand. With sub-editors either indulgent or distracted, I’ve generally managed to sneak in a few entertaining entries. Alphabetical order can further create random and stimulating associations. I made an early foray in my index for Folk music of China:

temples (Fujian, Hebei, Shanxi; see also temple music)
Temple, Shirley

A couple of nice sequences in Plucking the winds:

Beatles
Beethoven: author despairingly sings gongche mnemonics to
bicycles
birth-control policy
blind musicians
[…]

vagrancy
Valerio, Father
Verona, missionary base
video-CDs
viola jokes
Vivaldi, disparaged

In Ritual and music of north China:

clothing
coal mining
commune system
concert performances
conch
contests, official
cremation
crime
Cui Jian
cultural authorities
Cultural Revolution
cymbals

In Daoist priests of the Li family I like the sequences

earthquakes
educated youth
education
electricity
encoffinment
[…]
smoking
socks

and

Venice
violence
vocal liturgy
walking

One entry that I inexplicably omitted to include is

  • Scunthorpe, Messiah in; compares poorly with Daoist gig in Venice, 337

For more on that story, see here.

Nicolas Slonimsky’s brilliant A Lexicon of musical invective (a genuinely instructive caveat to our contingent aesthetic judgments) has a hilarious index (“Invecticon”)—here’s a sample:

invecticon
For further scurrilous reviews, see Mahler 5. And Slonimsky‘s life deserves to be celebrated too.

While we’re on the subject of research (um) tools, the glossaries of the Barry Mackenzie cartoon books are masterpieces of indiscreet linguistic erudition:

Bazza

The indexer Paula Clarke Bain has a fine series of homages to the comedy book index. I too am very keen on the indexes for Alan Partridge books (here and here), with gems like

Cherubs

physical strength 231
aeronautic capability 232

Corsodyl Mouthwash, brand ambassadorship of 24
(buy Corsodyl Mouthwash, the best mouthwash there is)

Countryfile, that woman who sued 10

and

Norfolk

backward unachievers of 24
“development” in 15–16 […]
sex in 2n
starvation in 228

Update: for National Indexing Day 2020 Ms Bain has written a fine survey of some of the best and funniest indexes.

I keep trying to encourage Chinese publishers to include indexes—they would make a really valuable resource.

For more on wacky indexing, see here; and for some unlikely place-names to find on a blog about Daoist ritual, here. For the imaginary index as an art form, see here.

While I’m here, it’s great to be able to cross-reference and give links online (as you can see in this very post)—which in a work published on paper would have to be a tedious footnote or a laborious URL. Not to mention publishing colour photos and maps. AND what’s more, unlike traditional publishing, we can continue editing them. Hooray for modern life!

Anyway, enjoy all the Chinese jokes.

The Buddhists of Ekou, Shanxi

***Link to this page!***

In my post on our 1992 trip through north Shanxi I mentioned our brief visit to the household Buddhist ritual specialists of Ekou township in Daixian, near Wutaishan. The new page provides some further notes, which though sketchy may augment our understanding of ritual and society in the region.

Following the 1992 UK tour of the so-called “Wutaishan Buddhist music troupe”, I gained clues to the rituals of household Buddhist groups in central Shanxi, supplementing the list under the heading of Local ritual.

RL and CD.

More French opera

Since I mentioned Messiaen’s extraordinary Saint François, another deeply serious French opera about religious devotion that I’ve only just registered (and am keen to see live) is Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (1956), with its chilling final scene where the nuns climb in turn to the guillotine while chanting the Salve regina.

Just in case we forget, China didn’t invent religious persecution… Unlike Messiaen, whose work seems oblivious of the secular world, Poulenc’s work inevitably evokes the more recent agonies of France, and Europe.

Daoists of Xinzhou, Shanxi

***Link to this page!***

Continuing my series on local ritual traditions in north Shanxi, this new page is about the Daoists of Xinzhou. While this region is further south from the counties that I have introduced so far, and perhaps part of a somewhat different ritual zone, it seems worth including in my surveys the Complete Perfection household Daoists, from a former temple background, active near Xinzhou county-town. Differences (in ritual segments and vocabulary) between both Complete Perfection and Orthodox Unity Daoists elsewhere in Shanxi are largely based on geography.

Xinzhou 1992.1

 

Daoists of Hunyuan, Shanxi

***Link to this page!***

The connection of our Li family Daoists with the temple Daoism of Hengshan may be spurious, but household Daoists in Hunyuan county-town at the foot of the mountain have their own traditions. Our visits in 1992 and 2011 showed a considerable change over the intervening years.

For some time I have been finding the distinction between Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection somewhat academic with regard to ritual practice. For what it’s worth, so far in north Shanxi I have found the distribution of the two branches roughly following county boundaries, with household Orthodox Unity Daoists in Yanggao and Datong counties, and Complete Perfection Daoists (also household, but more clearly derived from temple traditions) in Tianzhen, Guangling, and Shuozhou.

But the case of Hunyuan town is particular, and that of its most distinguished ritual specialist Jiao Lizhong even more so. It seems to be a case of recent conversion from a local household Orthodox Unity tradition to a national temple Complete Perfection one, but there is more to it than meets the eye (and ear).

Hunyuan yankou 1

A sporting headline

While we’re on football, in the notorious and grandly-named Saipan incident in the run-up to the 2002 World Cup, Roy Keane’s spat with the Republic of Ireland team manager Mick McCarthy evokes the principled hauteur of an illustrious Ming-dynasty court official going into voluntary exile rather than serving under the new Manchu regime.

The confrontation between player and manager allegedly culminated in this fine rant from Keane:

“Mick, you’re a liar… you’re a fucking wanker. I didn’t rate you as a player, I don’t rate you as a manager, and I don’t rate you as a person. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are manager of my country and you’re not even Irish, you English cunt. You can stick the World Cup up your bollocks.”

Reporting the story, the Guardian came out with the magnificent headline

Keane Displays Tenuous Grasp Of Anatomy

Ritual traditions of Zuoyun, Shanxi

***Link to this page!***

Our material on ritual groups in north Shanxi relates mainly to the area east and south of Datong city. But Zuoyun county, just west, has potential—indeed, the whole area west of Datong would be worth exploring.

What little material we have so far suggests a Buddhist temple tradition, but it is too early to assess the scene around Zuoyun. Typically, the material focuses on a single temple, the Lengyan si, conveniently packaging its rituals merely as “temple music”. So my brief article becomes another critique of the cultural heritage flummery.

Where there are temple groups, I expect there to be household groups too; and where there are Buddhist bands, there are likely to be Daoist ones too.

Lengyan si