The resilience of tradition

Yongfu

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):

瘦死的駱駝比馬大

—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.

For representations of Tibetan culture within the PRC and in exile, see here.

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

  • Monica Furlong, Zen effects: the life of Alan Wattsand
  • 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.

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, and Christmas Humphreys (another challenging dinner party), all of whom I admired in turn. For Steinbeck’s and Salinger’s absorption in oriental mysticism, see here.

* * *

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! His later membership of the Nazi party is less advertised (see here); see also The Celibidache mystique.

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 http://www.alanwatts.com
[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.

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 86

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 611 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 and ritual 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!

For a broader introduction to expressive cultures around Fujian, see here.

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.

ZHS BM

Courtesy British Museum, 2014.

HQX BM

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.

Lieder

Apart from the Matthew Passion and Nina Hagen (yet more unlikely bedfellows), here are further compelling reasons to learn German. While I’ve never been drawn to the mainstream lieder scene, yet again I owe my enchantment by these song cycles to Boulez (cf. Mahler’s Rückert lieder, and Ravel’s Shéhérazade).

First Wagner—the Wesendonck lieder. Christa Ludwig, with Klemperer, 1962:

or the wonderful Anne Sofie von Otter:

Then Berg, exploring a path opened up by his mentor Mahler. The Seven early songs (which I got to love at our 1971 NYO Prom):

(or a live version here, with helpful Japanese subtitles);

and the (five, nearly as early) Altenberg lieder—to picture-postcard texts (Ansichtskartentexte, another entry in our lexicon of German mouthfuls. Fin-de-siècle Viennese haiku?):

The third song is haunting:

Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus
Hattest nie Sorge um Hof und Haus
Leben und Traum von Leben—plötzlich ist alles aus!
Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus

Berg

After the menacing whisper of “plötzlich ist alles aus!” (plötzlich is officially my favourite word), find me a singer who can diminuendo from pp up to that final top C—Nina Hagen, perhaps?!

See also Strauss’s Four last songs. For a spellbinding recent addition to the canon, see here. Sgt Pepper and Abbey road also rank alongside these orchestral song-cycles.

Vesna Goldsworthy

I was drawn to Vesna Goldsworthy’s 2005 memoir Chernobyl Strawberries by her wonderful contribution to Private passions—a valuable companion to the book (Hold the front page! Books are silent! For Serbian soundscapes, see here).

Originating as a record for her young son through the trauma of her cancer treatment, the memoir is whimsical and full of insight—both about her early life in Yugoslavia before it was torn apart (she wonders if it was an accident that her country and her own body were disfigured so soon after each other) and her identity in her adopted home in England since 1986, caught between cultures.

As usual, I read the book partly with the experiences of Chinese people in mind. Goldsworthy’s description of her father’s attitude to her youthful flirtation with palaeography reminds me of the Chinese retreat into history:

Only my father saw some consolation in the fact that it was the kind of work which was unlikely to lead to imprisonment. There seemed to be nothing remotely political in transcribing thousand-year-old prayers, whereas as a media star I was likely to shoot my mouth off sooner or later.

Even so,

In fact, while it was highly unlikely that a palaeographer would end up in prison or without a job, as had been known to happen to the critics of contemporary literature, my father was wrong in thinking that the vellum-bound world was apolitical. You could say, for example, that a manuscript was “probably Bulgarian” or “possibly twelfth-century” and cause an international dispute of major proportions…

Among vignettes on the fates of her forebears, Goldsworthy gives fine insights into the society of Belgrade through her youth (when she was “optimistic, ambitious, invulnerable, and in some ways insufferable”), the nuances of class in a classless society—not least the three rings of schools (her own lycée “educated some of the most intelligent and most fashion-conscious young people east of the Iron Curtain”):

In our senior common room new members of the Communist Party represented a more raggle-taggle selection than before. Some were visibly keen, some rather diffident, some were obvious (clever-clogs, careerist with a bad sense of timing, those who carried a briefcase to school, prominent members of youth organizations, children of well-known communists who could hardly refuse to join), some rather less so (ditzy girls from old families who had fallen for the old hammer-‘n’-sickle chic, the school poet, the fourth-grade hunk, a good third of the school basketball team, encouraged to join as role models and highly visible because they were all six foot six and chewing gum). Working out which members of the teaching staff belonged to the party, information you wouldn’t normally have been privy to as a student, was part of the privilege conferred by this particular entry into the adult world.

The heightened sensibility towards dress-sense also reminds me of Maoism:

Many of our professors addressed us with “Colleague”. Others used “Comrade” or “Miss”, according to whether they were communists or bourgeois recidivists. Forms of address provided an easy way of knowing individual political allegiances. It was useful to be able to distinguish Comrade Professors from Mr or Mrs Professors in order to know whether to cite Lukacs or T.S. Eliot. Although one could often tell the two groups apart simply by the clothes, it was not always safe to make hasty assumptions. Suits, ties and moccasins mostly belonged to comrades; tweed jackets, turtle necks and shoelaces to Mr and Mrs, but safari suits could go both ways, and were surprisingly popular in the early eighties.

And even furniture:

I felt that, through furniture, I had a special path to understanding the world I came from. Whereas in the West the inexhaustible variety of interior design often manages to obscure surprising degrees of conformity, the enforced conformity of the society I grew up in concealed a bunch of eccentrics and sometimes downright madness. While the wives were crocheting, madmen were busy plotting Armageddon.

Goldsworthy describes the schism (and occasional blurring) in poetic circles between bohos and suits, and her own youthful “Penelope poems” about the female who waits ( the waitress) for an absent male, often with pseudo-religious powers.

During the endless family debates over her choice of outfit for a major poetry-reading in honour of Tito (“a strange form of necrophilia”), her sister mumbles “peasant”:

She used the feminine form of the noun. There was no doubt that she had me in mind. Only peasants wrote poetry anyway. (The word peasant, with its full power of character assassination, is not readily translatable into English. It was neither here nor there as far as the real peasantry were concerned, but a poisoned dart if directed at a Belgrade student of letters).

She goes on to reflect on the Tito cult:

The longer it was since his demise, the more there was to celebrate. Like the widow of a murdered Sicilian Mafia don, the country clung to his memory in an incongruous mixture of mourning and décolletage, as if knowing that a collective nervous breakdown would follow once the ritual was no longer observed.

Meeting her future husband, “I was ready to follow the boy to the end of the world, to England itself if need be.” * After reaching Heathrow,

Only minutes later, I was on the Piccadilly line—the Ellis Island of London’s huddled masses—with a copy of the London Review of Books.

In Private Passions Goldsworthy recalls the abundance of classical (and other) music in the Yugoslavia of her youth. And when she moved to England, her friends and family were horrified, asking, “How could you move to a country where there is no music“? So it’s suitable that her Slavic-tinged playlist ends with Purcell’s When I am laid in earth.

As befits an erstwhile poet, her use of English (her third language) is delightful. Like many foreign authors (from Conrad and Nabokov to Elif Şafak, or for China, Yi-yun Li and Xiaolu Guo), she finds that writing in English affords psychological space:

I have fewer inhibitions in English—perhaps because for me it doesn’t quite carry subcutaneous layers of pain. In fact, I sense—however irrational this may seem—that the I who speaks English is a very subtly different person from the I who speaks Serbian and the I who speaks French. That, perhaps, has something to do with the old chameleon tricks or the nature of the language itself. At any rate, the English speaker is a bit more more blunt and a bit more direct than the other two. She is and isn’t myself. She takes risks and admits to loss.

In Chapter 4 she reflects on the hereditary aptitude of her homeland for poetry:

In the four years between my move to London and her death, Granny wrote to me only once. It was a short letter, penciled in a deliberate hand clearly unused to writing. She reminded me to visit my parents regularly and urged me to behave in a way which would not dishonour my lineage; no laughing in public places, no loud conversation, modesty in dress and in everything else. Granny wrote as though she was worried that, away from my father and my tribe, I might be in danger of succumbing to some ungodly excess. In her world, Montenegrins who lived apart from their tribes were notoriously prone to prodigal or licentious behaviour. Her prompting came not because she lacked confidence in me, but because she clearly believed that this was what a letter from a grandmother to her granddaughter should be like. It wasn’t the place for frivolities of any kind. Although written in continuous lines, her latter was—from the first word to the last—a string of rhythmic pentameters, the verse of Serbian epic poetry.

As she calls her sister’s answering machine in Toronto to leave messages in “Granny”, adopting an asthmatic wheeze to let flow a torrent of alternating complaints and endearments, she reflects,

The language of my dead grandmother brings to life all our lost homelands, yet no book has ever been written in it. This is the language I lost when I chose to write in English.

Always reflecting on the subjectivity of memory, she has drôle comments on her new jobs in London.

I loved the prospect of boredom. Growing up in Eastern Europe was a powerful vaccine. I had gone through eighteen years of socialist education, learning when to say yes and when to keep quiet, in preparation for a job in which I’d be underpaid and under-employed. Where I came from, such jobs—usually in very nice places—were often described as “ideal for women”.

Reading news bulletins at the Serbian section of the BBC World Service through the traumas of war, she observes how her “RP” broadcasting voice differed from her “real” Serbian (inner suburban stresses, corrupted English slang), ** which had itself become a museum-piece:

My mother-tongue, meanwhile, remained firmly locked in its mid-eighties Serbo-Croat time-capsule, a language which officially doesn’t even exist any more.

 And then the straitened conditions of academic life:

Daughter of a self-managed workers’ paradise, I excel at my job. I criticize and self-criticize, I censor and self-censor, I compose self-assessment sheets about self-managed time, I sit on teaching and research committees, I attend meetings and take notes, I know that literature has hidden and insidious meanings. […] My communist upbringing, my upbringing in communism—to be able to live with myself without believing in anything I say, to be able to accept things without asking too many questions—has certainly stood me in good stead throughout my working life.

In the art of the long meeting, British university workers easily outdid anything I’d encountered in my socialist upbringing. The sessions were often longer than the communist plenaries, the acronyms just as plentiful, the put-downs just as complicatedly veiled in oblique metaphor, the passions just as high, even if the stakes were often infinitesimal.

None of the terms for her status quite fit:

Unlike my ancestral matriarch and so many others in the part of the world where I came from, I have never been a refugee. I am not an exile. Not quite an expatriate either: that term seems to be reserved for those coming from lands which are more fortunate than mine. A migrant, perhaps? That sounds too Mexican. An emigrée? Too Russian.

Getting to know her father-in-law,

I suddenly grasped the sheer luxury of being a British male in the twentieth century. Every conceivable counter-argument notwithstanding—and I know there are many—the picnic rug on the moral high ground still came in khaki and red, the colours of his beloved regiment. My father-in-law stood on the high ground, wielding a pair of secateurs, chopping, felling and dead-heading, without a care in the world.

Yet she notes parallels between his nostalgia for a vanished Indian colonial past and her own experiences, “linked by a homesickness which doesn’t make sense”. At his funeral she reflects:

I can’t bring myself to sing at an Anglican funeral, just as I couldn’t—were it an Orthodox one—wail as my female ancestors were expected to. In Serbia old women were sometimes even paid to mourn. They walked behind the coffin in the funeral procession and celebrated the dead in wailing laments delivered in rhythmic, haunting pentameters. I am stuck somewhere between the singing and the wailing, speechless.

And this isn’t the end of the book, but it could be:

I wish I could say—as people sometimes expect of cancer survivors and immigrants alike—that I am grateful for each and every new day on this green island. Ask me how I am today and chances are that I will respond with that very English “Mustn’t grumble”. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t. Which doesn’t mean that I am not grateful.

 

* Cf. The life of Brian, where Brian’s mother Mandy recalls a youthful fling with a centurion: “Nortius Maximus his name was. Promised me the Known World he did…”

** “fensi” meaning pretentious rather than just “fancy”, cf. the recent Chinese zhuang B.

 

The great Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder, Japan 1963.

One of my great inspirations via teenage excursions to oriental bookshops was the great Gary Snyder (b.1930). Though his path puts me to shame, he was a great hero of mine (along with Pierre Boulez—looking back, I see this was not entirely normal in suburban London, however experimental the age).

Snyder was always more serious than most of his beat contemporaries. Studying anthropology, he developed an affinity for Native American cultures. As he became immersed in Zen, he began learning Chinese and Japanese (indeed, just at the right moment to benefit from the disturbing Teach yourself Japanese!).

All the while he was writing poetry, part of the beat generation with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, and Jack Kerouac, taking part in the seminal 1955 reading at Six Gallery in San Francisco. That year he made the first of several study periods in Japan over the next fourteen years, living as a “de facto monk”.

HS and GS
In 1958 and 1959 he made (almost) the first translations of the Cold Mountain poems by the numinous 8th-century Zen recluse Hanshan (see his reflections here). At the other end of his life, his poem Go now is an unflinching tribute to his wife in her final days.

 

He has deepened his early studies by going on to lead a whole life unobtrusively based on Zen, without parading it or getting hung up on, well, anything. Living in harmony with nature in a series of hermitages, his environmental activism has complemented his occasional jobs as seaman, firewatcher, and logger (among a wealth of articles on him, I like this, and this). Now I come to think of it, I’d like to introduce him to Li Manshan—they’re both conscientious, unfussy, living on and with the land.

2002.

Snyder made a suitable paragon for Alan Watts (another guru of the age) in his 1959 pamphlet Beat Zen square Zen and Zen, a generous critique of both the Western craze for Zen of the 1950s and the ascetic rule-bound tradition in Japan. Citing Jack Kerouac’s portrayal of him (as “Japhy Ryder”) in The dharma bums, Watts’s warmest words are for Snyder; despite his rigorous training in Japan, he transcended both the “spiritual snobbism and artistic preciousness” of square Zen and the spaced-out bohemian scene of beat Zen. Watts’ tributes in his autobiography In my own way also hit the nail on the head:

Gary is tougher, more disciplined, more physically competent than I, but he embodies those virtues without rubbing them in. (p.309)

He is like a wiry Chinese sage with high cheekbones, twinkling eyes, and a thin beard, and the recipe for his character requires a mixture of Oregon woodsman, seaman, Amerindian shaman, Oriental scholar, San Francisco hippie, and swinging monk, who takes tough discipline with a light heart. (p.439)

From Snyder’s Cold Mountain poems:

#2
In a tangle of cliffs, I chose a place—
Bird paths, but no trails for me.
What’s beyond the yard?
White clouds clinging to vague rocks.
Now I’ve lived here —how many years—
Again and again, spring and winter pass.
Go tell families with silverware and cars
“What’s the use of all that noise and money?”

#8
Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the word’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?

 

The magic of the Zen bookshop


Back in the 60s, with my schooling in classics (alas, long before I might have learned from the wisdom of Mary Beard) and my growing immersion in the violin, the popular culture of the time virtually passed me by. But I found myself on the margins of hippiedom largely through regular visits to the oriental bookshops like Probsthains before the British Museum, and notably Watkins in Cecil court. Watkins was like our version of City Lights in San Francisco—to which I only got to make my first pilgrimage some three decades later.

Apart from the usual suspects like the Bhagavad gita, Eliade, Castaneda, Jung, Krishnamurti, Blofeld, and The cloud of unknowing, this was the genesis of my initiation into Zen, courtesy of Christmas Humphreys, D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, R.H. Blyth, Gary Snyder, Eugen Herrigel, and so on—these were my bibles!

This was perhaps a not uncommon pattern for wannabe hippies, as well as future scholars of Asian culture. My own later ethnographic path, progressing by way of Tang history to documenting the tribulations of local society under Maoism and the mobiles and motor-bikes of household Daoists, may now seem almost a reproach to the lofty mysticism of those years. While I thus came to replace the romantic search for oriental spirituality (that still persists even in some areas of scholarship) with an approach more based on socio-political history and the lives of Chinese people, somehow the background of that quest also formed an enduring foundation.

Perhaps what I’m suggesting here is that a predilection for mysticism needn’t mitigate against more dispassionate ethnography…

 

 

Funerals in Hebei

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GL procession 95

Many descriptions of Chinese ritual sequences appear somewhat timeless, blurring variation and change. But generally I like to keep my accounts either descriptive, based on observed performances, or prescriptive, an ideal sequence recounted by elderly performers. Where I become familiar enough with the local scene I sometimes try to collate the two, as in this composite funeral sequence for one part of the Yixian–Laishui region south of Beijing.

Based on talks with senior ritual specialists there, it’s illuminated by attending (and taking part in) many funerals in this area over more than a decade. While we always seek to copy the diverse funeral manuals of each village, they can’t offer the kind of detail provided by observation of practice and the accounts of the ritual specialists themselves. In particular, my constant refrain: ritual is performance, and is expressed largely through sound—the items of vocal, percussion, and melodic instrumental music that permeate the sequence.

A gradual dilution of ritual practice has  undoubtedly occurred since the 1950s, but it’s never so simple as seeking to “restore” some notional ideal sequence from before Liberation on the basis of ritual manuals alone.

Hidden histories

The current BBC Radio 4 series

hosted by the engaging Clarke Peters, introduces a treasury of recordings illuminating the social history of Europe.

The first series covers the period from 1900 to 1930—notably Black Europe, a richly-documented 44-CD set from Box Family Records.

From the series website:

Received wisdom has it that black popular music arrived in Europe with the Empire Windrush in 1948, but Clarke brings us black sounds recorded in Europe from as far back as 1900.

Programme 1: Focusing on early commercial discs made in the recording studios of London, Paris and Berlin, we hear from dozens of different performers, including African American travelling entertainers, traditional African musicians, black British classical composers and more.

Clarke discovers a huge variety of black music recorded in Europe at the start of the 20th century, including very early examples of blues harmonica, scat singing and stride piano. The programme also includes some of the earliest African music ever recorded, from Senegalese war songs captured at the Paris World Fair in 1900 to the music of a troupe of Congolese pygmies who toured Britain in 1905-07.

Programme 2: Clarke explores the music of black Europe at the time of the First World War. The sounds of what would become jazz start to emerge, including African American banjo bands who entertained London high society, and the military music of Harlem bandleader James Reese Europe which enthralled France. The programme also includes music by captured African Prisoners of War, recorded in camps across Germany.

Programme 3: Clarke explores the sounds of Zonophone records, a pioneering label that recorded a huge amount of early African popular music. Many of these discs were made in London for export to West Africa, including several Nigerian hymns recorded in 1922 by Fela Kuti’s grandfather. The programme also includes the sounds of African American jazz in 1920s Paris, especially the work of Josephine Baker, the world’s first black superstar.

For James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters, see also

and this short Channel 4 feature.

Series 2 and 3 are now available, taking the story through World War Two, the 60s, and the 70s—antecedents of what even then was still not called “world music”. These programmes too are full of gems, such as hot jazz in Weimar Berlin, calypso in Cardiff Bay; underground bands in Hitler’s Germany, black American trumpet stars in occupied Paris, Caribbean swing bands playing through the Blitz in London; and in the post-colonial era, on to Ambrose Campbell and his West African Rhythm Brothers, Sterling Bettancourt, Lord Kitchener, and the emergence of the Notting Hill Carnival sound; Ghanaian highlife, Congolese rumba from Brussels, Algerian chaabi in Paris, Surinamese jazz from Holland, the songs of Cape Verde—and black flamenco. To Name But A Few…

Here’s Sam Wooding’s Orchestra playing Shanghai shuffle in 1925 Berlin:

For Algerian chaabi, here’s Dahmane El Harrachi’s Ya rayah:

And here’s Ronald Snijders live:

All these diverse cultures have made up a major part of European social history over the last century. It’s a really ear-opening series, providing many leads to explore.

Daoist ritual in south China

Yongfu

From 2011 Hong Kong conference volume.

I go to some lengths to show how Daoist ritual and religious practice are important topics in the local cultures of north as well as south China (for a succinct encapsulation of the chasm, see here). But every time I feel I’m establishing some kind of parity for the north (heartland of ancient Chinese culture!), yet more research materializes to remind us just how amazing local ritual traditions are in the south—in terms of both the range and complexity of rituals performed, and the sheer volume of artefacts preserved there.

As I commented in Appendix 1 of my book Daoist priests of the Li family (where you can find further references),

With the noble exception of studies by Chinese music scholars from the 1930s, fieldwork on local Daoist ritual began in earnest in the 1960s with Kristofer Schipper’s groundbreaking studies in Taiwan. As mainland China began opening up in the 1980s, such work was able to expand first into Fujian and then further afield in south China—Jiangxi, Guangdong, Sichuan, Hunan, Zhejiang, and so on. Major projects (largely in Chinese), led by the indefatigable holy trinity of C.K. Wang, John Lagerwey, and latterly Lü Pengzhi, recruited local cultural workers who went on to develop considerable familiarity with the ritual specialists who were their subjects.

  • Wang, C.K. [Wang Ch’iu-kuei 王秋貴] ed., Minsu quyi congshu 民俗曲藝叢書. Taipei: Shi Ho-cheng Folk Culture Foundation, 86 vols (building on an extensive series of articles in the journal Minsu quyi).
    See also “The collecting and editing of Taoist ritual texts.” Chinoperl Papers 23 (2000), pp.1–32, and Studies in Chinese ritual, theatre and folklore series: abstracts of the first sixty volumes (1997).
  • Wang, C.K. ed., Zhongguo chuantong keyiben huibian 中國傳統科儀本彙編 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng), 17 vols.

For useful reviews in English of the early projects, see

  • Daniel L. Overmyer, ed., with the assistance of Shin-Yi Chao, Ethnography in China today: a critical assessment of achievements and results. Taipei: Yuan-Liou Publishing Company (2002),

and for a fine overview of such work within the wider context of Daoist studies,

  • Vincent Goossaert, “L’histoire moderne du taoïsme: État des lieux et perspectives.” Études chinoises XXXII-2 (2013), pp.7–40.

These vast series continue to yield further discoveries. The latest project, from Xinwenfeng in Taiwan (long an industrious publisher of major works on Daoism) is initially (!) planned to comprise fifteen lengthy monographs:

The southern bias of Daoist studies has a long ancestry: from very early in Chinese history, southern Daoists have dominated the picture. The ritual vocabulary that I provide in my writings on north China is partly an attempt to rebalance a picture largely conditioned by southern Daoism (see also my In search of the folk Daoists, pp. 15–21, 211–213). As I note there,

It is rather as if our knowledge of Christianity in the whole of Europe were based almost entirely on Sicily and Puglia, with the odd footnote on the Vatican and Westminster Abbey. We may like what we find in those places, perhaps considering it more exalted, mystical, and ancient—but that is another issue.

Still, the material here is overwhelming. So far three volumes (each consisting of around 1,500 pages!) have been published in this new series, on local Daoist altars in Jiangxi, Hunan, and Fujian respectively:

  • Dai Lihui 戴禮輝 and Lan Songyan 藍松炎, Jiangxi sheng Tonggu xian Qiping zhen Xianyingtan daojiao keyi 江西省銅鼓縣棋坪鎮顯應雷壇道教科儀
  • Lü Yongsheng 呂永昇and Li Xinwu 李新吾, Shidao heyi: Xiangzhong Meishan Yangyuan Zhangtande keyi yu chuancheng 師道合一:湘中梅山楊源張壇的科儀與傳承 (for Hunan Daoism, see my overview here)
  • Ye Mingsheng 葉明生, Minxinan Yongfu Lüshanjiao chuandu yishi yanjiu 閩西南永福閭山教傳度儀式研究

Ye Mingsheng is one of the most distinguished collaborators of the project, having worked for decades on Lüshan household Daoists of Fujian. This new publication focuses on the ordination rituals in Yongfu in the southwest of the province. As John Lagerwey writes in his Abstract:

The present book begins with an investigation of the histories of the Daoist altars of four lineages […] in Yongfu. It systematically examines the origins of the local Lüshan school, the structures of their altars, and their rituals, manuscripts, talismans, and registers. It also describes in detail two actual Flag-Raising Transmissions in the years 1999 and 2011, discussing all aspects of the transmission ritual from a variety of disciplinary angles so as to provide students of religion with as complete an understanding as possible.

Volume 2 provides a wealth of ritual texts. Among the many photos is a substantial section in colour, including beautiful god paintings.

Yongfu picsStill, even photos of ritual practice remain silent and immobile. Given that ritual is noisy and vibrant, part of “red-hot” social performance, the whole project seems to cry out to be accompanied by films. Since the scholars working on these projects have rich archives of fieldwork videos, how very valuable it would be to accompany each topic with an edited film of, say, two or three hours, with voiceovers and/or captions.

As I observed here, all these series (like the “music-genre” system of Yuan Jingfang), while documenting particular rituals in detail, focus on the salvage of texts—at the expense of ethnographic study, performance practice, and social change. Now, faced by such a wealth of precious manuscripts it’s no simple task to incorporate the topic into wider discourses on a society in constant change. But many students of religion, for whom social and political changes over the past century are a major topic, may find that “variety of disciplinary angles” elusive. They may miss even succinct discussion of how local ritual traditions have been affected by such mundane issues as migration, successive political campaigns, and changing economic circumstances—all the more since the subject of this new volume is transmission, utilizing field material from 1999 and 2011, through yet another period of change. [1]

Still, none of this detracts from the value of the project. This vast body of work on local ritual in south China continues to form the vanguard of Daoist ritual studies—essential material on Chinese religion.

For a broad introduction to expressive cultures around Fujian—based on ritual—see here, including references to the fine writings and film of Ken Dean, one of few scholars of Daoist ritual to encompass modern social change. See also Religious life in 1930s’ Fujian.

 

[1] For basic biographical accounts of the Yongfu Daoists, see pp.79–103.

Critics rebuked

Apart from John Cleese’s main ouevre, he  can be entertaining on the page too. This article, reflecting on four decades of “mixed (in the technical theatrical sense of ‘extremely bad’)” reviews from The Spectator, is a fine rebuke to his critics. Just as yet another well-deserved tribute to Michael Palin (new patron saint of stammering) comes on BBC TV, Cleese’s self-review is fun:

John Cleese is a remarkably talented individual, of an admirably humble disposition, and a rare sweetness of temperament, who continues to tower over his contemporaries, especially Michael Palin.

I’m also most enamoured of “The Zagreb Bugle”, and I eagerly await a review of my own film in this illustrious fantasy organ. Cleese’s comments on cultural pundits remind me of the biting satire of Stella Gibbons, in works like Conference at Cold comfort farm—not least her brilliant “Em creeps in with a pie“.

A brief guide to Chinese fiddles

Further to the delights of Indian and world fiddles, I write this partly as a reminder to myself, while I enjoy an unlikely renaissance in my playing of the “mellifluous” erhu fiddle (see also here).

For Chinese instrumental music, I’ve showed how the conservatoire solos are merely the tip of the iceberg. The great majority of instruments are played not solo but as part of ensembles, not on the concert platform but as part of social life. Bowed strings mainly accompany vocal music—the ritual genres that I study in north China are dominated by wind and percussion ensembles (the playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here, making a useful introduction).

So ironically, the four solo instruments (pipa, zheng, qin, and erhu) that dominate the popular image of “national music” are rather rare in the countryside. But even if it’s bowed fiddles (“friction chordophones”, ha) you’re after, don’t limit yourselves to the erhu. Much as I love fine renditions like this, there’s a wide range, to rank alongside all the variety of world fiddles.

One guide, mainly useful for historical sources on early fiddles (huqin, xiqin, and so on), is the 1999 book

  • Xiang Yang 项阳, Zhongguo gongxian yueqi shi 中国弓弦乐器史 [A history of Chinese bowed string instruments].

For illustrated introductions, see e.g. Zhongguo yueqi tujian 中国乐器图鉴, pp.236–73. For folk practice in modern times one should look to field reports on local traditions, setting forth from the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples (for leads, see my book Folk music of China).

Suzhou Daoist Zhou Zufu on tiqin and banhu fiddles, UK 1994.

On a journey south, passing the tiqin of Kunqu and Daoist groups of south Jiangsu, regional traditions along the southeast coast have several types. The nanyin of south Fujian and the ensembles of Chaozhou (areas that are nearby yet culturally very different) use distinct fiddles (both written as erxian 二弦).

Wang Axin 1990

Nanyin ensemble, Wang Axin on erxian. Quanzhou 1990.

The exquisite Hokkien tradition of nanyin (nanguan) of south Fujian and Taiwan uses a core chamber ensemble of pipa and sanxian plucked lutes, xiao, end-blown flute, and erxian fiddle—all regionally distinctive versions. The large repertoire of long slow sustained ballads somewhat resembles the last page of Mahler 9 elevated into a whole genre. The pipa and xiao are focal to the group, but the erxian is also amazing, demanding extraordinary bow control, full of inflection. For an introduction to expressive cultures around Fujian, see here.

Putian 1990

Fiddles in Shiyin 十音 ensemble. Puxi village, Quanzhou 1990.

Chaozhou blind

Blind instrument-maker Cai Qiuzong (b.1947) on touxian, Dahao town, Shantou 1990.

Guangdong province has several other fiddle types, such as the yehu, and the Cantonese gaohu.

If strings are better known in south China, note that wind and percussion ensembles are just as common there. But northern fiddles are also varied, such as the banhu, huhu (some played with metal rings on the left finger, as in the photos below) and sihu, the Beijing-opera fiddle jinghu, and zhuihu and ruyigou in Henan and Shandong. What most of these fiddles have in common is a gritty timbre, quite far from the suave polished ideal of the conservatoire erhu.

WWQ 2001

yingxian 硬弦 fiddle from Xi’an puppet ensemble: Huang Yuying (b.1932), Xi’an 2001.

XJY 2003

Fiddles accompanying opera, Xujiayuan temple fair, Yanggao 2003. Dodgy screenshot from my film Doing Things, with 2007 book Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi.

An honorable mention too for bowed zithers (zhaqin and so on) played in various traditions north and south. Not to mention all the diverse fiddles among the ethnic minorities— Mongolian morin khuur, Uyghur satar and ghijak, and so on.

Of course, one may end up specializing, but musicians are versatile: they pick up various instruments in order to learn how to take part in the social activity of musicking. The repertoires of such regional traditions took shape long before the modern standardizations of “national music”.

Indeed, outside the conservatoires and apart from the children of the urban bourgeoisie, the only bowed fiddle that’s not at all popular is the erhu! It has commonly been added to ensembles accompanying regional vocal genres since around the 1920s, but remains subsidiary. As always, we should rejoice in regional diversity.

Zooming out, see here for an introduction to the sidebar tag fiddles.

 

Sects in north China

Shanxi sect

In Chinese religious studies, fieldwork and historical study of texts should be complementary. While the changing ritual scene in rural north China over the past century has largely been left to musicologists, Cao Xinyu 曹新宇 (People’s University, Beijing) continues his fine work on the imperial ancestry of sectarian groups, setting forth from the seminal research of the great Li Shiyu, and studies like those of Ma Xisha and Han Bingfang (see here, in a useful site for Qing history)—all similarly utilizing fieldwork.

Sects are a poor cousin to research on more open forms of institutional religion, but—like spirit mediums—an important part of the picture. While I constantly stress the sectarian connections of ritual associations on the Hebei plain, as a counterbalance to the current secular image portrayed by the Intangible Cultural Heritage, highly worthy of study is Cao Xinyu’s recent book

This continues his voluminous work on the Way of Yellow Heaven.

It’s high time to bring into contact the two strands of historical research and fieldwork on the modern fortunes of the bewildering variety of groups that we find around north China—such as Hunyuan, Hongyang, Huangtian dao, and Laofomen. This is a major task for fieldworkers, including music scholars. [1]

 

[1] For now I’ll leave you to compile your own lists for Western-language studies, such as Weller, Ownby, Overmyer, Palmer, ter Haar, DuBois, and so on—a valuable resource is the rubric in Philip Clart’s essential bibliography.

Changing language

Caonima

Language is always in flux, over the dead bodies of fusty conservatives. English isn’t alone in changing under the stimulus of social media and popular culture.

Since my Chinese vocabulary incongruously lurched from the Tang dynasty to the clichés of Maoism (see also here), where it remained impaled, I’m happy to make some modest updates, partly courtesy of websites like Sixth Tone (e.g. herehere, and here), and Magpie digest—as well as this article, including a recap on the viral caonima “grass-mud-horse” trope. As elsewhere, much of the linguistic innovation is driven by online usage. I’m very keen on the term

To zhuāng bì 装 B is to put on airs — worldly, moneyed, educated, eccentric, or any other combination thereof. In other words: to be a fucking poser.* B is shorthand for níubì ( lit. “cow’s cunt”: see here, with instructive links), meaning “awesome” or “badass”—the English letter “B” being easier to find than the character for cunt (for shabi “fuckwit” and the somewhat less shocking nature of bi in Chinese, see here).

The article describes zhuang B as “a light, often self-deprecating insult”, “sign of healthy subcultural growth”—“by-product of all the new possibilities for young, middle-class Chinese people, a way for millennials to practise defining their way of life.” So it’s a pretentious wanker or tosser—cf. Poseur, moi?”.

I also like galiao 尬聊 “awkward chat”, inevitable chats with boring people—when the person you are talking with lacks communication skills, or when your mind wanders off and the talk reaches a dead end.

Even for those seeking to limit their studies to a bygone age, a basic grasp of how living people communicate (even village ritual specialists) is valuable…

* Private Eye’Pseuds’ corner polices English excesses with regular entries—like this, from an old programme note of a London Pro Musica concert, penned with tongue in cheek by the splendid Bernard Thomas:

The title of this concert means “a piece of cake”; it comes from the popular song Damene un poco di quella mazacrocha, “give me a piece of that cake (crumpet?)”. The process of baking a cake might be taken a central metaphor for Renaissance musical culture, for the special synthesis of northern polyphony and rhythmic subtlety with the poetry and expressive melody of indigenous Italian music. Florence, together with Siena and Bologna, were, and still are, traditional centres of cake baking. One can only guess at the repeated and prolonged biting into cakes on the creative processes of Heinrich Isaacs during his long stay in Florence.

Ritual groups around the Baiyangdian lake

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Ritual groups around the Baiyangdian lake:
the Medicine King cult

Zhaobeikou lake

On the Hebei plain, just south of the Xiongxian region, the Baiyangdian lake, and the ritual catchment area of the pilgrimage to the Medicine King temple in Maozhou, form a somewhat distinct area for ritual practice. This is highly topical since it is now part of the vast plan to build a megapolis there, expanding Beijing and Tianjin southwards amidst profound social and ecological change.

This was the southern boundary of our project on the Hebei plain, where we had found so many complex liturgical sequences, ritual manuals, and grand shengguan instrumental suites with scores derived from the temples of old Beijing and Tianjin. Xiongxian turned out to be the heartland of the suites and scores, but around the lake just south, despite the lively Maozhou cult, the trail was becoming somewhat diluted—and I don’t believe this is merely because our visits predated more in-depth stays in the areas further north and west. Still, these associations were very much based in ritual and shengguan, and dated back to at least the 18th century.

This survey introduces ritual groups all around the lake, including villages of Anxin, Renqiu, and Gaoyang counties. The aquatic setting engenders plentiful rituals based on “releasing river [or lotus?] lanterns” (fang hedeng 放河/荷燈).

As ever, this article merely scratches the surface of our fieldnotes—themselves just a superficial survey of some village associations that came to our attention. There may be many more, and certainly were until the 1950s. Any one of these groups (and indeed the Maozhou temple) could, and should, form the subject of a detailed diachronic ethnography such as I did for Gaoluo.

Around the Baiyangdian lake we found further evidence for the connection not only with Buddhist monks and Daoist priests but also with the ritual and musical cultures of the Qing emperors in Beijing—a link that appears occasionally throught the Hebei plain, such as Yixian, and strongly suggested in Xiongxian just north.

Back in the mists of time, long before the internet, or even usable landlines—the 1990s—this ritual system still comprised the main cultural network of such regions. Having survived Maoism remarkably unscathed, there are complex reasons for the long-term decline of these associations—including not so much the recent urban development plan for the region, but migration, the whole commodification of society, and the secularizing pressures of the ICH. These notes are valuable for documenting local ritual life at a time when such transformations were still in their early days.