The resilience of tradition


If you want to study Chinese culture, China’s a good place to do it

Heritage” pundit Tian Qing has a good story for every occasion (such as this, and this). On the resilience of traditional culture under all kinds of assaults (notably in the hands of “obstinatezhizhuo 执着 peasants, as they’re often described) , he likes to cite Granny Liu’s epithet in chapter 6 of Cao Xueqin’s epic 18th-century novel The story of the stone (The dream of the red chamber):


—in Hawkes’s translation,

a starved camel is bigger than a fat horse.

It’s commonly used to show that families fallen on hard times will still manage better than the chronic poor. But in the wake of all the assaults from Maoism in the PRC—when “authentic” Chinese culture on the mainland was apparently a poor relative to the overseas communities where transmission was supposed to have been maintained untainted—it made an apt metaphor as field reports since the 1980s on local ritual began to reveal the sheer enormity of tradition. Of course, as with research on southeastern Daoist ritual on both sides of the strait, we should learn by collating all such material.

Among many further instances are the rich material on baojuan “precious scrolls”, and the ongoing projects of Hannibal Taubes and UCL on Shanxi temple murals.

More East–West gurus

Besides Gary Snyder, another hero of mine in the 60s was Alan Watts (1915–73).

His 1972 autobiography In my own way is complemented by


  • David Stuart, Alan Watts: the rise and decline of the ordained shaman of the counterculture. [1]

Watts was blessed with extraordinary mentors throughout his youth. His accounts of drab suburbia in the early chapters of In my own way are worthy of Betjeman. In the distinguished British tradition of alienation,  he reflects on his early exposure to Christianity: “on the whole I am ashamed of this culture”, and “I could not make out why such pleasant people espoused such a fearsome and boring religion”. Yet while deploring the “asinine poems set to indifferent tunes”, “wretched bombastic, moralistic and maudlin nursery rhymes”, he goes on to appreciate their charm. He would have loved Dud’s Psalm.

And—long before Alan Bennett’s Sermon:

“the sermons of the clergy—bleated or sonorously boomed […]—conveyed nothing beyond the emotional energies of their funny voices, which all of us used to mock and mimic”. [2]

Still, he did well to note:

Strangely enough, young people in Japan have the same feeling about the atmosphere of their parents’ Buddhism—the atmosphere which is, to me, enchanting and magical with booming gong-bells and deep-throated and unintelligible sutrachanting. To them all this is kurai—a word which means deep, dark, dank musty, gloomy, and sad. (p.46; cf. pp.421–22)

Such dispassionate observation needs taking on board while observing Chinese rituals (cf. my post on Geertz).

Watts made trenchant comments on the “ritualized brutality” of British education and the teaching of history (“propaganda for the British Empire and the Protestant religion”). His view of schools and universities as “production lines turning out stereotyped personnel and consumers for the industrial machine” may be par for the anti-establishment course of the time, but In This Day and Age his mission to retune values is worth revisiting.

Railing against God and his [sic] role in Europe’s bloody history, he  had to escape, taking refuge in the more “amiable” tradition of Buddhism, seeking a mystical depth his guilt-ridden religious upbringing couldn’t offer. Through Christmas Humphreys he became immersed in the Zen of D.T. Suzuki. His early fascination with the Mystic East was nurtured both by his mother’s “oriental treasures” (he relished the clarity, transparency, and spaciousness of landscape paintings), and—plausibly—with Fu Manchu (for me it was The inn of the sixth happiness!). He got to know Nigel Watkins, whose bookshop he relished long before me (In my own way, pp.123–4)—aware that a lot of such literature was “superstitious trash”, he appreciated Watkins’s “perfect discrimination”. He wrote his first pamphlet, An outline of Zen Buddhism, while still a pupil at King’s School, Canterbury. Among many meetings with remarkable men [sic, as ever], he was first introduced to Krishnamurti in 1936. In 1937 he met Eleanor Everett, daughter of Ruth Fuller Everett (herself later married to the Zen priest Sokei-an Sasaki before his death in 1945); they married the following year, moving to the USA as war loomed.

Without any contradiction, Watts’s escape from the grey conformity of suburban Kent also made him “an unrepentant sensualist”. It’s all the more remarkable that he went on to train as an Episcopal priest, becoming ordained in 1945; at the time “it seemed to be the most appropriate context for doing what was in me to do, in Western society”. But unable to reconcile this “ill-fitting suit of clothes” with his inner beliefs, he withdrew from the church in 1950, and after a divorce he moved on to California. Of course, deploring missionary zeal, he was always free-floating—the ultimate trendy vicar, eagerly imbibing all the psychedelic trappings the burgeoning alternative scene had to offer from the prime position of his Cali refuge. Never one for institutions, he had an on-off relationship with academia, becoming what he called a “philosophical entertainer”—guru to the counterculture.

Watts’s 1957 book The way of Zen (1957) is a remarkable introduction to the whole subject. As he notes there:

During the past twenty years there has been an extraordinary growth of interest in Zen Buddhism.

So—just like sexual intercourse (on which he would also have much to say, based on avid participant observation—see e.g. Nature, Man and Woman [1958])—we clearly have to backdate the Western craze for Zen rather before 1963.

In parallel with Gary Snyder, Watts trod his own path, but his admiration for Snyder is clear, evinced in his writings such as the 1959 Beat Zen square Zen and Zen. And for all their discipline, they shared a delight in language and humour:

The task and delight of poetry is […] to eff the ineffable, to screw the inscrutable.

And he even relished Brazil’s balletic “gaieté d’esprit” in the 1970 World Cup! He also left a rich archive of audio recordings—many of them are on youtube, even if some tip over into self-help or Thought for the day. Here’s one worthwhile talk:

Also in England (and with a similar background in his Anglican church choir), the translator John Minford became hooked on Laozi, The Dharma bums, and later the work of van Gulik on the qin zither, as he recounts in this fine zeitgeist article. His early fascination with Chinese mysticism was less challenged than mine was to be, as I came to experience the spit-and-sawdust of folk Daoist ritual practice.

* * *

If the hippies were predated by the beats, then before them both came R.H. Blyth (1898–1964, when authors might still have unscrewable initials rather than personal forenames; see also here), to whose work I was drawn by Alan Watts. Blyth completed his Zen in English literature and oriental classics while interned in Japan in 1941.

I was far more amenable to the oriental classics (notably haiku, his main exhibit) than to all the Shakespeare and Wordsworth, but I got the point that enlightenment didn’t necessarily have to be sought in remote oriental mountain hermitages—as the Daoist and Zen masters indeed remind us. Blyth was also a great Bach lover.

He wrote a whole further series of books on haiku, as well as on humour in Asian and English literature—main exhibit for the former being senryū, humorous counterpart to haiku. He would have enjoyed “the first English haiku”, not to mention this limerick.

Apart from Alan Watts, other devotees of Blyth’s work included Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, J.D. Salinger, and Christmas Humphreys (another challenging dinner party), all of whom I admired in turn. For Salinger‘s absorption in oriental mysticism, see for example Seymour: an introduction (Penguin edn), pp.90–102. Indeed, the companion Raise high the roof beam, carpenters [3] opens with the narrator Buddy’s 17-year-old brother Seymour reading a Daoist story to their ten-month old sister Franny. [4] Call me old-fashioned, but these books just get better and better. OK, I’ll leave Salinger and Steinbeck for another day…

* * *

And before Blyth… there was Eugen Herrigel, whose 1948 book Zen in the art of archery was based on his studies in Japan in the 1920s!

Zen archer

Zen archer, Kyoto. ©Timothy Kraemer, on tour with English Concert, 1990s.

Apart from this whole fascination with Zen and Daoism, it was the characters provided in The way of Zen and Zen in English literature and oriental classics that led me to study Chinese at Cambridge, and eventually to read between the lines of dour field reports on local Chinese folk ritual, as well as seeking the unassuming wisdom of Li Manshan. As I became involved with such grass-roots religious activity among poor rural Chinese communities, documenting their fortunes under Maoism, I came to feel somewhat uncharitable towards traces of lofty New-Age hippy-style abstraction in studies of Chinese religion; but now that I revisit the work of such trail-blazing sages, I’m not just nostalgic, I sincerely find much to admire.


[1] Among many online sites, note
[2] He also had a fine line in limericks, often religious—work this one out, a footnote to the Salisbury (Sarum) rite (In my own way, p.67), rather in the vein of Myles’s tribute to Ezra £ (and there’s another early orientalist!):

There was a young fellow of Salisbury
A notorious halisbury-scalisbury
He went about Hampshire
Without any pampshire
Till the vicar compelled him to walisbury.

[3] A Sappho quote, for aficionados of the female composers T-shirt.
[4] Some further links:, and

Hokkien culture: nanyin

Nanyin 1986

Nanyin, Quanzhou 1986.

In my little introduction to Chinese bowed fiddles, I mentioned the wonderful chamber genre nanyin 南音 (aka nanguan 南管), one of the most refined social activities in the Hokkien culture of south Fujian and Taiwan, complementing the riches of Daoist ritual there. The slow tempi, instrumentation, and the restrained passion of its singing style may remind us of the more plangent of medieval European ballads.

Nanyin 1986:2

Nanyin, Quanzhou 1986.

At some remove from research on performance genres in north China, this is a clear case of long-term and deep fieldwork from local scholars. I still find rather apposite my 1993 review of a wonderful Ocora CD-set of the Nansheng she group from Tainan (CHIME 7, pp.114–20), and chapter 14 of my book Folk music of China, where I gave a brief overview of the (then) state of the field. (Click here for one of several online tributes to Ts’ai Hsiao-yueh, leader of the Nansheng she group on the Ocora recordings.)

Apart from its reification for the concert stage, nanyin is deeply embedded in community life—amateur clubs, temple fairs, opera, puppetry, Daoist ritual—all within the special circumstances of rapprochement with overseas Hokkien communities, cross-strait diplomacy, and vast social and economic transformations.

Wonderful as nanyin is, alas the idea of “living fossils” has still not been erased—anyway, it’s far from alone in China in preserving an ancient tradition. And it’s worth reminding ourselves that it’s only one of a glorious profusion of performance genres even in Fujian—it occupies a mere 22 of 610 pages in the 1986 Fujian minjian yinyue jianlun by Liu Chunshu and Wang Yaohua, themselves leading proponents of the genre.

This UNESCO introduction is almost bearable, covering some of the main bases:

And among many online videos, this documentary also suggests the broader social context:

One little caveat: like a recent article on shadow puppetry (“How a bunch of Americans preserved a dying Chinese tradition”!), it’s worth registering the contributions of laowai without getting an inflated notion of their importance. Scholars like Kristoffer Schipper, leading light in producing the Ocora CDs, are justly admired in China and Taiwan, but genres like nanyin are never dependent on such a deus ex machina.

Even in 1982, or 1993, it was far from true that nanyin was “almost forgotten in its own country”! As I commented, the statement “the positive reception of the European public led to regained esteem in China. Nan-kuan was authorized on the continent once more” is worthy of Tintin. Are we to believe that the 139 village nanguan societies in 1986 in the single county of Nan’an (to give just one example) were spurred into action by a single concert in Paris?! Folk activity (for nanyin and other genres) had even persisted throughout the years of Maoism. Meanwhile activity has continued to thrive, and research, already extensive by the early 1990s, has kept pace. A wealth of recordings is now available on CD and online. It’s exquisite music—do keep exploring!

Ritual groups of Xushui

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

QMZ 1958

While ritual groups all around the Hebei plain survived Maoism to revive under the reform era since 1978, the county of Xushui makes a particularly intriguing case, notable both for its ephemeral fame with the razzmatazz of the 1958 Great Leap Forward and for its more long-lived ritual groups.

Despite its revolutionary image, Xushui county has remained a hotbed for religious activity, notably the cults of the sectarian creator-goddess Wusheng laomu and Auntie Silkworm Granny (Cangu nainai 蚕姑奶奶)—the latter a popular deity in this area, rarely featuring prominently elsewhere on the plain. Associations commonly display ritual paintings, like the Ten Kings and the Water and Land series, and perform vocal liturgy. They too are within the catchment area of Houtu worship—they used to make the rather distant pilgrimage to Houshan, though they more commonly visit the nearer Western Summit (Xiding 西頂) on Langyashan further southwest from Houshan. Again we found a rather complex overlap between the village-wide ritual associations, sects, and yinyuehui.

Further to my brief introduction in my post on Festivals, here I introduce some of the groups we visited from 1993 to 1996. Mao was impressively modest about his limited success when he admitted to Nixon in 1972: “I haven’t been able to change [China]—I’ve only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Beijing.” But he wasn’t modest enough: in some ways even a county so near Beijing, such a focus of the revolution, has remained resistant to Maoist ideology, predating and outliving it.


A transcendent arhat

WTS monks and luohan

Former monks from Shanxi pose with arhat, 1992. Photo: SJ.

On visits to the British Museum in my teens, as interludes between basking in the treasures of nearby oriental bookshops, I would sit for hours before the tranquil sculpture of the arhat (luohan 羅漢) there, thought to date from the Liao dynasty (907–1125). I can’t believe I had such good taste—this and others in the set (dispersed in museums around the world), with their sancai tricolour glazing in the Tang tradition,  are highly admired by art scholars.

Basking as I was then in a romantic image of ancient China remote from any real physical locations or human beings, it was to be several decades before the statue’s little caption made any tangible sense to me. The arhat comes from Yixian county south of Beijing, one of the most fertile sites in our fieldwork project on amateur ritual associations on the Hebei plain, whose elders had learned their liturgy with temple monks. It was part of a set* bought by the German sinologist Friedrich Perzynski around 1913, after they were discovered in a cave in the west of the county, probably having been relocated there from a temple (see here—note this lecture). Serially displaced, it has long been uprooted from its religious context, as is the way with artefacts; but the rituals of Yixian persist in local society there, changing subtly over time.

My later encounters with the arhat have been sporadic but delightful. In 1992 I took a group of former monks from Shanxi around the museum. In 2014, and again in 2018 (NB new photo!), it was wonderful to assist in the performance of the Zhihua temple before the sculpture—linking up my fieldwork to my misspent youth.


Courtesy British Museum, 2014.


Hu Qingxue, accomplished leader of the Zhihua temple group, a fine liturgist and guanzi master. Photo: courtesy British Museum, 2014.

For a sequel, see here.


* Not yet “Buy one, get one free” (BOGOF)

Tibetan jokes

Courtesy of the fine High Peaks Pure Earth site, it’s high time for some Tibetan jokes—a most welcome addition to Hammer and Tickle and my Chinese jokes series, and similarly educative.

Beyond the usual socialist jokes, this strand has all the complex nuances of minorities wrestling with modern identities.

As with all jokes, they can reveal something about society while simultaneously being either politically incorrect, culturally and contextually specific, lost in translation or just not that funny.

Can you speak Chinese?
How could I? I have not been in the army and I have never been to jail!

“An American, a Japanese and a Tibetan…” jokes make a niche variant to the “an Englishman, a Scotsman, and an Irishman…” topos, or three leaders jokes. Here we even get “Three Tibetans, one from U-Tsang, one from Amdo and one from Kham”:

The Qinghai-Tibet railway reached Tibet. Three Tibetans from different provinces were in the same passenger car, one from U-Tsang, one from Amdo and one from Kham.
The train suddenly stopped on the way. The short-tempered Khampa immediately jumped up, yelling: “Why did the train suddenly stop? I swear to Buddha I will teach the train conductor a lesson!”
The Amdo Tibetan tried to stop him by persuading: “Aro, let’s wait. It does not help to threaten the train conductor.” Meanwhile, he sighed and said with great regret, shaking his head: “What a shame that we Tibetans do not know how to drive a train!”
The Tibetan from U-Tsang responded: “Come on brothers! It is not a big deal. Look! Isn’t it fine as long as we close our eyes and pretend the train is still running?”

I look forward eagerly to further contributions on the site.