The Long March, Bach and Daoist style

In 1705 the 20-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach set off from his home in Arnstadt to walk 250 miles to Lübeck, there to meet his hero, the composer and organist Dietrich Buxtehude.

Bach is compulsory Radio 3 listening over Christmas, and apart from yet another excursion on Composer of the week, Horatio Clare’s series Bach walks makes fine slow listening, taking the walk in five episodes, punctuated by musical snippets that seem all the more miraculous. And it stands in tranquil contrast to the hectic claustrophic life that he was to lead through the years of his greatest creativity in Leipzig.

What makes such a modern retracing of Bach’s steps so thoughtful is all the social detail that can be incorporated, along with Clare’s reflections on the present landscape. Bach had actually walked a similar distance when he was 15 to enroll in St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg

By now you won’t be surprised to learn that this reminds me of the Li family Daoists.

Early-18th-century Germany was more advanced in transportation than rural China in the 1930s, or even the 1980s. And by contrast with many more adventurous composers of the day, Bach spent most of his career employed in a rather small radius within Thuringia and Saxony.

From my Daoist priests of the Li family (pp.12–13):

Since ancient times, elite Daoists travelled widely over China to famous temples and religious mountains, seeking the wisdom of other sages and propagating new revelations. One such master was Kou Qianzhi (365–448), who served the court of the Northern Wei dynasty at their capital Pingcheng (modern Datong), and who is often wheeled out by scholars as an instance of the illustrious ancestry of Daoist ritual in north Shanxi. Still today, temple Daoist priests commonly spend periods “cloud wandering” around the main urban and mountain temples.

By contrast, household Daoists are active within a small radius (see map here). Even those who spent their youth as priests in temples before the 1949 Liberation did so only locally—like several boys in Upper Yinshan village in nearby Tianzhen county, who learned their ritual skills in a temple just further east. Occasionally the Li band is invited to do rituals further afield—just east in Hebei or north in Inner Mongolia. Li Qing and the elders used to walk for a whole day to do Thanking the Earth rituals for patrons in Inner Mongolia, because around eighty percent of the Han Chinese population there had migrated from Yanggao, some of whom were quite affluent. But the main area of their work is defined both by walking distances and by the availability of Daoists elsewhere—north around the county-town, west in Datong county, and east in Tianzhen. So even now, with motor-bikes and cars, most of their ritual business is still in the districts of Shizitun, Houying, Baideng, and Pansi. They work quite often just further south in the districts of Gucheng and Lower Shenyu, and sometimes in Dongxiaocun district and in the west of Tianzhen county. But they rarely perform rituals in west Yanggao, or further north in North Xutun district or around the county-town where other groups of Daoists are available.


Until bicycles became generally available from around 1980, people had to walk everywhere, or go by ox-cart, equally slow. Li Manshan recalls wryly, “We didn’t even have Chinese carts (tuche), let alone foreign ones (yangche)!” Occasional visits to the county-town on foot took over three hours. Li Manshan went occasionally before the Cultural Revolution; he recalls walking there with his aunt in 1954 to watch the grand Offering Tribute (xiangong) parade on the 24th of the 6th moon, which was by then a purely secular event.


Horse-cart on the way to Gaoluo, 1989.

For a funeral twenty-five Chinese li away, walking at roughly ten li an hour, the Daoists had to set off at 4am. The hill villages to the east were not so far, but the climb took longer—when Wu Mei was learning with Li Qing in the late 1980s it took him a whole hour to walk from his home in Renjiayao, only five li away. Most gigs might be in the nearby villages, but for longer journeys the more elderly Daoists might send their fitter younger sons and disciples. When the Daoists were invited for funerals a long walk away, there was no need to get the Lis to determine the date on the death, or decorate the coffin—there were men available locally for such tasks.

Until the 1980s when there was a death, the son would walk to Li Qing’s house to invite him to do the funeral—and was then quite likely to learn that he was doing a funeral in another village and to have to make another trek by foot there. From 1980 to 1990 he could make this search by bicycle, and then perhaps by motor-bike; since around 2002 he can just call up Li Manshan on his mobile.

I was amazed to read that bicycles were already common in some central Shanxi villages by the 1930s [1] —perhaps a hint of how much poorer Yanggao was than areas further south. In the countryside here, most people only began riding bicycles around 1978; before that only some village cadres had them. Li Qing rode a Red Flag bike from around 1981. With a bike costing around 150 kuai, and a Daoist earning 6 kuai per gig, or over 70 kuai a month, one bike cost at least two months’ earnings. In Baideng town, Daoist Wang Xin set up a little stall mending bicycles.

Actually, bicycles speeded up mobility only slightly; in the countryside there was still nothing quite resembling a road, the tracks being deeply rutted until transport arteries began to improve significantly since around 2003. And neither bicycles nor motor-bikes have significantly expanded their radius of activity; they continue to work mainly within a small area.

I also reflect on walking within a funeral (pp.27–8):

In order to allow for a suitably lengthy and imposing procession, the house chosen for the scripture hall should be at a considerable distance from the soul hall where the rituals are performed. Indeed, since the scripture hall is on average around half a kilometer away, they potentially have to walk—playing all the while—seven kilometres a day for the seven routine visits alone, let alone other processions from the scripture hall to the soul hall before leading the kin to the sites for the other public rituals, and again next day for the procession towards the grave. Apart from anything else, this is good exercise.

IMG_2794 - Version 2

Over the day the Daoists make seven processions from scripture hall to soul hall and back, as well as processions to the other ritual sites.

But once at a funeral in nearby Yangyuan county I was surprised to find the scripture hall very near the soul hall—and this turns out to be an older custom, so that the Daoists would be on hand to respond promptly for the many rituals once needed. Since the 1980s there is less need for this, and Li Manshan observes that the recent distance also serves to marginalize them. But it is also welcome so they can escape from the din of pop and get some peace.


[1] Harrison, The man awakened from dreams, p.156. Cf. Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Revolution, reform, and resistance in village China, p.228; Harrison, The missionary’s curse, p.145.

Jeux d’esprit

Here’s a little popery, I mean potpourri—a resumé of some of my more wacky linguistic fantasies:

Among many fine Chinese jokes, my piques du jour* are


* Rather than piqes-niques.

Love, Nina


Quite possibly a more plausible Christmas gift than my own books, Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina: despatches from family life (2013) is hilarious, warm, and perceptive.

In letters to her sister she evokes her life after coming to London to work as nanny to the drôle Mary-Kay Wilmers (of the LRB) and her engaging and challenging kids, in leafy literary Gloucester Crescent in the 1980s.

Anyone taking it at face value may miss its genius. Forgive me if her original letters really had all the book’s subtleties of phrasing, but it seems to me that a lot of subtle mature editing was involved. Anyway, it’s an observational account of a niche tribe, full of linguistic delights—every page has a turn of phrase that leaves me helpless with laughter.

I apologize too for the things I got a bit wrong. Alan Bennett was never in Coronation Street for instance.

She doesn’t take her cultural education lying down:

PS Chaucer. Have you ever read it? Fuck. It’s a whole other language and meant to be hilarious, but it’s grim and annoying.

Later at the library:

… borrowed a recording of a bloke reading Chaucer in the Old English. Nearly wet myself listening.


Exams soon-ish. Here is a summary:
R&J: Romeo and Juliet hardly know each other, but they think they’re in love and both kill themselves. The nurse is an irresponsible idiot. The Friar is a moron. It’s a ludicrous story.
Winter’s Tale: King is mentally ill. Queen is a fool.
Chaucer: W of Bath is an unreliable old bag, but not a hypocrite. Marries for money but likes shagging, thinks women should be in charge.

 Another leitmotif is Nina’s grappling with the baffling poncey new cuisine that was coming into vogue.

Tarragon: the cookbook says tarragon is “misunderstood”. Not by me. I understand it. It’s horrible.

Later she comments,

It’s all pasta and couscous nowadays, in London anyway.

Further fine observation:

MK does the big shopping—a mixed blessing—she buys stuff without a plan (I think she copies other people who know what they’re doing). This is the kind of stuff that comes back [list abbreviated here—SJ]:
quark (German style liquid cheese)
rye bread with seeds
balsamic vinegar of Modena (black vinegar)
fresh lychees
And other mysterious things that add up to nothing much when it comes to making meals. It’s like living in another country.

Which reminds me of Ian Rush’s (disappointingly spurious) comment on his struggle to adapt to Italian life during his one season at Juventus in 1987–88:

I couldn’t settle in Italy—it was like living in a foreign country.

Critics haven’t always appreciated what a fine comic creation is her stolidly mundane portrayal of their neighbour Alan Bennett.

Me: You’re good with appliances.
AB: (proud) Well, I don’t know about that.
Me: You sorted out the car, the fridge, the phone, bike tyres and now the washing machine.
AB: I don’t think I am particularly good.
MK: But it’s nice to know you’ve got something to fall back on.


AB not around. In Yorkshire or New York. I prefer him being around… God knows what he does in NY (if it is NY), can’t imagine him there, being shouted at by taxi drivers and prostitutes. Though his coat would work.

AB himself took issue with Stibbe’s portrayal of him as “solid, dependable and dull”; but while finding some “misrememberings”, he understood—as well he might—that “such is art”.

The TV version worked remarkably well too (like Cold comfort farm—I now realize the ingénue Nina has a distant affinity with confident Flora):

You can even brush up on your Italian with the subtitles.

As usual when watching, you just have to refrain from clinging onto your own image of the book.

* * *

I’ve only recently clocked the useful expression “Is that a thing?” (discussed here, and here), entertainingly used by the great Zoe Williams. A fine discussion on the ever-stimulating languagelog blog seems to date it only to 1995, though comments there hint at earlier variants. Since it makes some clear appearances in Love, Nina (assuming they’re not from a later edit), then we can take it back to the 1980s—e.g. p.132:

He picked up a raw burger and ate it. I was appalled but acted normal. Told MK later and she said it’s a thing (eating raw beef).

[another trademark of Stibbe’s style there—giving pedantic parentheses redundantly clarifying her previous comment].

Or p.136:

Mary-Kay has started wearing two shirts at once. I don’t know where she’s picked it up, but it’s a thing, apparently.

Indeed, I guess Love, Nina is basically about striving to define the rules of an alien culture to whose values one aspires—though I can’t be Saussure [cf. my Foucault pun under Visual culture].


Oral history

Zhuanlou 1992 caifang

With oral history such a major aspect of our fieldwork, this recent conference on its role in Chinese music studies, organized by the bright scholar Qi Kun, looks interesting:

As I often observe, the experiences of peasants may be a more fruitful source of information than musty tomes in a library. From my recent article on Xiongxian:

Such local temples, and the amateur associations that perpetuated their traditions, would be unknowable without exploring the area on the ground, village by village. The project is of great significance for our understanding of local history—not just for the late imperial period, but from the Republican era through Maoism and the reforms, right down to today.

Of course, “music” being part of changing local society, this must also be a political issue, as shown by famine studies in China (e.g. Wu Wenguang’s Memory Project) and elsewhere. Here Chinese music scholars still tend to lag behind their colleagues in anthropology.

Strictly north Shanxi Daoist ritual

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glued to Strictly come dancing every week. Oh yeah, I’ve got my finger on the pulse of popular culture all right [adjusts monocle, grappling ineptly with concept of the high-five]. I was mortified in 2015 when Georgia and Giovanni (aka Joe Varney) didn’t win:

Or indeed Alexandra in 2017… But hey, “It’s not winning but taking part”, eh [zzzzz].

And now the brilliant Stacey Dooley—who did win, YAY!!! (See also Moon river.) Here’s another Charleston. Now let’s all watch her fine documentaries.

The thing about Strictly is, as with Handel opera, or a Moroccan wedding, you just have to suspend your disbelief. The dancers don’t want to go home, but for some reason they do want to go to Blackpool, which is unlikely to feature on the itinerary of perfectly innocent Russian tourists. Li Manshan hadn’t even heard of the Carnegie Hall, let alone Blackpool, but it’s clearly more appealing than doing a Messiah in Scunthorpe.

Sure, as Barbara Ellen notes in a fine reviewStrictly proved yet again

that it understood its own winning formula—drown the contestants in a vat of fake tan and what a cynic might term even faker bonhomie, and let the controversy and sequins fly. […] A sugar-rush of schmaltz combined with a brawl on the entertainment deck of a cruise ship…

But for me it’s classic BBC “educate, inform and entertain” stuff—inculcating diligence, expression, and appreciation of historical style (!), with the pros and the judges vouchsafing us little dollops of technical advice. For all the fatuous clichés of the competitive format (see also Alexei Sayle‘s pertinent critique), Strictly can be inspiring and deeply moving. So there.

Still, my question is this:

However were we all conned into thinking that a genre that seemed pathetically antiquated even in the early 1960s could possibly achieve such wild popular success in the 21st century?

This baffling device of prefixing an unlikely and outmoded format with an utterly random adverb gives me an idea whose time has surely come:

Strictly north Shanxi Daoist ritual

After all, Daoist bands have long been used to ritual competition, “facing platforms”. In my film (from 24.08) my use of karaoke captions for the percussion mnemonics makes an instructive innovation that draws us into a crucial element of ritual performance. And we’ve just had “The Reverend Richard Coles” on Strictly, so hey. My new programme concept has got everything from the original—a grand ritual arena, movement, costumes, music… And since, as Heidi Stephens notes in her drôle Guardian commentaries, what viewers really need is a Journey, what better than Pacing the Void?

Admittedly, even with a minimum of six ritual bands contesting, each performing a different ritual segment for each programme (Presenting Offerings, the InvitationBeholding the Lanterns, and so on), the weekly programme would require at least four hours—and the nocturnal yankou ritual alone takes longer than that. Still, BBC ratings will doubtless soar.

Coming up next—we’ve got Du Zhimin’s band all the way from Guangling, performing the Ambulating Incense ritual!!!

I’ll be delighted if the drôle Claudia Winkleman will host the new show. As to


the fragrant Darcey Bussell [surely an anagram, e.g. “Recall Debussy”—cf. Gran visits York and Maidstone] is always welcome. How can anyone be so elegant and savvy and still be English? Her only tiny flaw seems to be that she can’t get the hang of clapping (watch her as she applauds couples just voted off). And now that the great Li Manshan is ceding much of his ritual work to his son Li Bin, he seems the ideal choice as chair of the judges.

Some quotes from the panel:

Darcey [purring]: “Oh MY! I have to say, just make sure you grade that accelerando in Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms its Body just a bit more carefully.”

Bruno [does pirouette]: “Bellissimo! But you still need to work on your posture, dahlingg.”

Li Manshan [dragging on fag], in unison with Craig: “That was chaotic!”

And the scores are in

I look forward eagerly to discussions with the BBC. [1]

* * *

Another Daoist-ritual spin-off might be to adapt the brilliant “One song to the tune of another” from I’m sorry I haven’t a clue. One recent fave was Jan Ravens singing the words of I can’t get no satisfaction to the tune of Wouldn’t it be loverly, but here’s Barry Cryer:

The Daoist version might go something like this:

 [Jack Dee, or indeed Li Manshan, lugubriously:] “Now I’d like you to sing words of The Song of the Skeleton to the tune of Diverse and Nameless are the Bitter Roots…”*

*Tedious footnote: at least in Yanggao vocal liturgy, these two items are in fact quite closely related (my book, pp.267–8, 274–5)—so less than suitable here. Scope for exploration, though.

Such impertinent fantasies, if not for purists, are at least more frankly ironic than the kitsch commodifications from the Intangible Cultural Heritage (see under “The reform era” here).

[1] Inexplicably, I still await a reply from the BBC  to my initial pitch, Strictly Albanian Dentistry—where peasants attired in colourful traditional costumes have just a week to learn a series of intricate procedures such as implants and root-canal treatments. But following the public verdict on the moral morass of the Strictly dance/snog of shame—a quandary mercifully obviated by Strictly north Chinese Daoist ritual—there’s (allegedly) a letter in the post about this new idea:

Dear Dr Jones,
Thankyou for your recent proposal. We note that it involves a load of unknown so-called celebrities performing obscure antiquated actions in silly costumes, to be judged by desperate has-beens. Since this fits in perfectly with our mission statement, we are confident that it will be a major success, and look forward to working with you.

For another money-spinner of mine, see here.

Ritual groups of Xiongxian, Hebei

*Click here for main page!*
(under Themes > Local ritual in main menu)

GGZ xu 1

Through the 1990s, one of the most fruitful sites for our fieldwork project on the Hebei plain south of Beijing was the area around Xiongxian county, just south of Bazhou, and east of the regional capital Baoding. Recently this whole region has become the centre of a vast and radical new development project to expand metropolitan Beijing; but when we used to visit, it was still very much rural.

As throughout the region covered in this growing series on Hebei, most villages here had ritual associations until the 1950s, and we found many still active in the 1990s. But here we found less vocal liturgy than further north and west on the plain, with no foshihui groups reciting precious scrolls.

Instead, ritual services were now mainly represented by the “holy pieces” of the shengguan wind ensemble to “revere the gods”—here an exceptionally rich repertoire based on long suites related to those of the temples of old Beijing. Not all these groups were still performing, but there is rich material here, not only on the ethnography of local ritual in modern times, but for scholars of the late imperial period.

This is the latest in a series on ritual in Hebei that includes Houshan and the precious scrolls, suburban Beijing, and Bazhou.

Bazhou: an update!

Xin'an guanzi 1989

I’ve just updated my page on ritual groups in Bazhou with some more photos and subtle edits…

To remind you, this is part of a major series under local ritual where I’m moving from occupational household groups in north Shanxi to amateur (mostly village-wide) associations on the Hebei plain—so far including

The Houtu precious scroll
Ritual groups of suburban Beijing, and

all related to previous articles on temple ritual in old Beijing (including the Zhihua temple), and the village associations of Gaoluo and Qujiaying.

More coming up soon!