Early in 1986, only a couple of days after my first arrival in Beijing, hearing the former monks of the Zhihua temple on a cold but beautifully sunny winter’s day was an experience that changed my life—and their ritual soundscape still entrances me:
Musicologist He Changlin astutely took me to a Buddhist temple to ask a group of elderly former monks to play their shengguan music for us. That sound will always stay with me. The soulful guanzi, the darting dizi, the sturdy sheng, the halo of the yunluo piercing the bright Beijing sky above the green-and-yellow roof-tiles of the temple…
[adapted from my Plucking the winds, p.185]
While I go to great lengths to stress that the Zhihua temple is only the tip of the iceberg—for ritual life both within Beijing and all over north China—its liturgy remains a classic source, and its soundscape ever-entrancing. There are no “living fossils”, and the temple itself has long ceased to function as a ritual site; but the present group performs with majestic authority, led by Hu Qingxue, about whom I must write in more detail—he’s not only an amazing guanzi player, but a fine vocal liturgist, and he’s just as hooked on exploring ritual groups in the countryside as I am.
In the photo above, the reason our demeanour is somewhat less solemn than that of the transcendent arhat is because Hu Qingxue had just suggested the caption which forms the title of this post—and, incidentally, of my latest Hollywood blockbuster.** The old sheng mouth-organ was my gift to him: it had been a gift to me in the early 1990s from a village ritual association that no longer used it, and since he’s an avid hoarder and repairer of sheng, it surely belongs in his fantastic collection.
It was delightful to present the group at the British Museum again on Monday. In our pre-concert discussion (with subtle prompting from Jessica Harrison-Hall, curator of the BM’s Chinese collection) I was glad to introduce the social background and wider ritual context, as well as research by a succession of fine Chinese scholars; and with the musicians, to illustrate how the skeletal notes of the gongche solfeggio score are progressively ornamented, first by singing the score in unison and then by taking up the instruments to further decorate that version in heterophony.
For someone who was brought up in a poor Hebei village, Hu Qingxue has learned to recopy the temple’s old scores rather finely:
Having learned from my tours with the Li family Daoists, I’ve now worked out a much-improved programme with the Zhihua temple too. While the shengguan ensemble is always most captivating for audiences, we now include all three elements in the ritual soundscape, chui-da-nian—in reverse order of importance: wind ensemble, percussion, and vocal liturgy. Thus the programme began with Cymbals to Open the Altar (Kaitan bo 開壇鈸), featuring the hocketing alternation of the nao and bo large cymbals that you can explore in my film on Li Manshan. It continues with the vocal hymn Yangzhi jingshui 楊枝淨水 in praise of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, also used near the beginning of a ritual—here accompanied by the melodic instruments. Then they demonstrate the process of ornamenting the skeletal notes of the score with the melody Qingjiang yin 清江引 (see photo above). After the captivating suite Jin–Wu–Shan (Jinzi jing 金字經—Wusheng fo 五聲佛—Gandongshan 感動山!) and Haiqing na tian’e 海青拿天鵝, the programme ends by reminding us of the primacy of vocal liturgy, with the a cappella hymn Qingjing fashen fo 清靜法身佛, accompanied only by the percussion.
As I am wont to observe, the blend of timbres of the shengguan instrumentation is the most perfect combo ever, alongside the jazz quintet… And the free-tempo alap-like introductions are just magical.
This overlaps with my blogposts, but here’s the full version of my programme notes:
Music of the Zhihua temple
A world away from the modern conservatoire style that now dominates the media, this music belongs as a kind of aural filigree interlaced within the vocal liturgy and percussion of lengthy rituals for funerals and temple fairs among local communities. To experience it in the concert hall or museum is a compromise, of course. It is one of many genres still performed today in a continuous tradition since the Ming – several types of regional opera, the nanguan ballads of Fujian, the music of the ubiquitous rural shawm bands, the elite qin zither.
The Zhihua temple has become a byword for the melodic instrumental music used until the 1950s as part of rituals in Beijing—mainly funerals, notably the nocturnal yankou ritual to feed the hungry ghosts. The monks of many minor temples in the hutong alleys of north and east Beijing, both Buddhist and Daoist, were available to come together to perform this music.
Built as the private temple of the court eunuch Wang Zhen in 1443, the Zhihua temple is one of the only wooden structures from the Ming dynasty to remain intact in Beijing. After Wang Zhen was executed in 1449, the monks became part of the ritual life of the wider community, with twenty-six generations down to the 1940s.
Since then the tradition has struggled to survive. After 1949 the monks were laicized, so by 1953 when the Zhihua temple music first gained its reputation among music scholars, with influential studies from the qin zither master Zha Fuxi and the great musicologist Yang Yinliu, the monks were no longer performing rituals. Through the 1980s, as ritual life was restoring throughout the countryside, and even in cities like Shanghai, scholars like Ling Haicheng and Yuan Jingfang began attempts to revive the Beijing style, collecting the surviving former monks together.
Though the style remains the most exquisite rendition of a widespread repertoire, it is now mainly further afield that we can hear it in its ritual context – in the countryside south of the capital among amateur associations that learnt from temple monks, and among household ritual groups all over north China. The present performers hail from the poor village of Qujiaying, whose ritual association was first discovered in 1986. They were recruited while in their teens to study in the Zhihua temple with the elderly former monks, notably Benxing (1923–2009). But worthy attempts by cultural cadres have proved unable to maintain the classic Beijing style without the firm ritual base of local community support that remains common elsewhere in China.
While the more elite temple rituals use only vocal liturgy accompanied by ritual percussion, melodic instrumental music has long been commonly added for rituals among the folk. Throughout north China this takes the form of the exquisite shengguan chamber ensemble, which coalesced around the Ming. The instruments play in heterophony, each decorating the bare bones of the nuclear melody differently; the plaintive guanzi oboe leads, the sheng mouth-organ maintaining a continuous wall of sound, decorated by the halo of the yunluo (ten pitched gongs mounted in a frame) and darting ornaments from the dizi flute.
The repertoire of classic labeled melodies, combined in strict sequences in lengthy suites, was also coming together in the Ming. Since then, a kind of solfeggio called gongche has been commonly used to notate the outlines of the melodies of instrumental ensembles. Scores from several Beijing temples, of which the earliest now preserved is the 1694 score of the Zhihua temple, use a rare antique script that resembles those known from Tang and Song sources. But the bare bones of the score give few clues to the magic of performance; having learnt to sing in unison an already highly ornamented version of the nuclear melody, the performers then further decorate it in mesmerizing heterophony on the instruments. The style is exceptionally slow and solemn, the free-tempo preludes especially magical. But we have to imagine it as a decoration within the whole liturgy of the complex rituals that are still common elsewhere in China.
- Many articles under stephenjones.blog
- Stephen Jones, Folk Music of China: living instrumental traditions, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995 (paperback edition with CD, 1998).
- Stephen Jones, Plucking the Winds: lives of village musicians in old and new China, Leiden: CHIME Foundation, 2004 (with CD).
- Stephen Jones, In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010 (Appendix 1).
- Yuan Jingfang, Zhongguo fojiao jing yinyue yanjiu [The Buddhist capital music of China], Beijing: Zongjiao wenhua chubanshe, 2012.
- Chang Renchun, Hongbai xishi: jiujing hunsang lisu [Wedding and funeral customs of old Beijing], Beijing: Beijing Yanshan chubanshe, 1993.
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The Zhihua temple events were part of a fine ongoing series at the British Museum (see also here) that also includes flamenco, Indian music, Japanese gagaku, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Cage, and the overwhelming Metamorphosen.
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A further note for stammerers, and indeed for anyone who knows any:
“Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…”, it’s largely thanks to China that I have been gradually and belatedly chipping away at the iceberg of fear. Presenting the Li family Daoists on their foreign tours also bears fruit in my introductions to the Zhihua temple. It’s a good start to confront the event itself, but monitoring one’s speech as one goes along is another challenge: I rarely catch myself in time as I use all the habitual fruitless little avoidance techniques—backtracking, trying to get a run-up (like crashing through a hurdle), and so on. In the end, it just about works, but there’s always room for improvement: a gamut of physical and conceptual techniques is available.
**Cf. the alternative title for my film on Li Manshan: Four funerals and a funeral.