Officials without culture

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.

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. 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.

One thought on “Officials without culture

  1. Pingback: Folk ritual: testing the waters | Stephen Jones: a blog

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