On my recent trip to China, I was having such a great time with Li Manshan in rural Yanggao  that I was somewhat reluctant to take the train back to Beijing—but thanks to encounters with some fine scholars (and home-made Italian cakes) I soon acclimatized. For me to observe
may not be quite as fatuous as it sounds—given the hangover from the old image of Red Guards and the new one of a cultural desert watered only by Xi Jinping Thought, both perpetuated by Western sinologists.
I’ll outline the work of these scholars in turn, beginning with my main host, the ethnographer Ju Xi 鞠熙 (b.1981), of the Department of Anthropology and Ethnology at Beishida—or Beijing Normal University, as it is quaintly known (now, to invite me to talk at an Abnormal university, that I might understand). With great imagination, she invited me to show my film as part of a series of talks in which I could reflect on fieldwork and rural ritual amidst social change, focusing on my two long-term projects: the Li family Daoists and the ritual association of South Gaoluo.
Quite apart from making an articulate and supportive moderator to my talks, Ju Xi’s own research is distinguished. With Marianne Bujard, she has long been involved in a major collaborative project with the EFEO in Paris (four of eleven volumes published so far! And a fifth here, new in 2020):
- Epigraphy and oral sources of Peking temples: a social history of an imperial capital.
Ju Xi’s wisdom was encapsulated at an unpromising one-day conference in March, which she transformed with a succinct and brilliant speech explaining the significance of local religion in current rural China—that should be compulsory reading for cultural pundits and cadres at all levels:
Criticizing the recent interpretations of “secularization” (compared with imperial China) and “revival” (compared with the Maoist era), both of which portray Chinese religion as somewhat isolated from society, Ju Xi observed that local religion is not merely a “spiritual creation” or “cultural heritage”—it’s a kind of cultural resource and social power which can play active roles in contemporary rural society.
She outlined the role of local religion in ecological conservation, building techniques, and handicraft taboos, and pointed out its tight social structure, close interpersonal and reciprocal relationships—a valuable resource for today’s poorly-organized rural society. She stressed the importance of temple fairs, pilgrimages, ancestor worship, ritual associations, and clan organizations, noting the “grassroots charisma” of ritual specialists. She explained local religion as practical strategy, and observes how peasants are now availing themselves of the mask of “intangible heritage” to express their own requirements and views, making local religion a new pivot of cultural identity.
Thus local religion should be seen as an important basis upon which the peasants can construct their social order, organize their social relationships, take part in social practices, and articulate their own life styles. It makes an essential pattern through which multiple actors in rural society can express their own requirements.
Ju Xi’s students are most fortunate.
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- Tianye minsuzhi 田野民俗志 [Folklore ethnography] (Beijing Shifan daxue cbs, 2003),
and a slim but useful tome with David Arkush (欧达伟),
- Huabei minjian wenhua 华北民间文化 [Folk culture of north China] (Hebei jiaoyu cbs, 1995).
In English Dong Xiaoping’s acuity may be admired in a short review in Overmyer, Ethnography in China today, pp.343–67.
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At Beishida I was also delighted to meet Chen Zi’ai 陈子艾 (b.1933), part of an illustrious generation of scholars whose academic careers might have been more fruitful but for the vagaries of Maoism. A native of Hunan, her experience of local Daoism there and in Jiangxi has left her with a deep impression. She is a contributor to the lengthy series of publications on Hunan Daoism edited by Alain Arrault.
In a lengthy and mesmerizing impromptu speech after my second presentation, Chen Zi’ai touched candidly on crucial aspects of research on religious behaviour in the PRC, observing the riches of the topic as a window on folk culture, by contrast with the incongruity of her generation’s ideological indoctrination; and the more recent benefits of Chinese–foreign collaboration on such projects.
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Such research on folk religion and temple fairs builds on an influential volume edited by
- Guo Yuhua 郭于华, Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁 [Ritual and social change] (2000),
and the work of Zhao Shiyu 赵世瑜, notably his 2002 book
- Kuanghuan yu richang: Ming–Qing shiqide miaohui yu minjian wenhua 狂欢与日常——明清时期的庙会与民间文化 (2002).
Another Beishida scholar is Xiao Fang 萧放, co-editor with Zhang Bo 张勃 of another book discussing temple fairs around Beijing, including Miaofengshan:
- Chengshi, wenben, shenghuo: Beijing suishi wenxian yu suishi jieri yanjiu 城市，文本，生活: 北京岁时文献与岁时节日研究 (Zhongguo shehui kexue cbs, 2017),
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Yet another brilliant fieldworker and ethnographer at Beishida is Yue Yongyi 岳永逸 (b.1972), who has a prolific list of publications based on his fieldwork in rural Hebei.
His detailed work on the Miaofengshan temple fair
- Zhongguo jieri zhi: Miaofengshan miaohui 中国节日志: 妙峰山庙会 (Beijing: Guangming ribao cbs, 2012)
Other Hebei temple fairs on which Yue Yongyi has published include two in Zhaoxian county—on the Dragon Placard Association (longpaihui) of Fanzhuang village: 
- “Xiangcun miaohuide duochong xushi: dui Huabei Fanzhuang longpaihuide minsuxuezhuyi yanjiu” 乡村庙会的多重叙事: 对华北范庄龙牌会的民俗学主义研究 [Multivocal discourses in a rural temple fair: a folkloristic study of the Dragon Placard Association in Fanzhuang, north China], Minsu quyi 147 (2005), pp.101–60;
- (with Cai Jiaqi 蔡加琪) “Miaohuide feiyihua, xuejie shuxie ji zhongguo minsuxue: longpaihui yanjiu sanshinian” 庙会的非遗化、学界书写及中国民俗学: 龙牌会研究三十年 [The heritage-ization of temple fairs, academic writing and Chinese ethnography: thirty years of research on the Dragon Placard Association], Minzu wenxue yanjiu 35 (2017.6), pp.36–52;
and on the temple fair to the Water temple goddess in Changxin village:
- “Dui shenghuo kongjiande guishu yu chongzheng: Changxin Shuici niangniang miaohui” 对生活空间的规束与重整: 常新水祠娘娘庙会 [Restriction and regeneration of living space: the festival of the Water temple goddess in Changxin village], Minsu quyi 143 (2004).
Most notable is his detailed work on the temple fair of Cangyanshan in Jingxing county—which we may add to our bibliography on south Hebei:
- Zhongguo jieri zhi: Cangyanshan miaohui 中国节日志: 苍岩山庙会 (Beijing: Guangming ribao cbs, 2016).
Like Yue’s book on Miaofengshan, it contains detailed subheadings on temples, gods, ritual associations and other performers, activities, and artefacts, with rich material on spirit mediums (xiangtou, cf. north Shanxi) as well as on the sectarian creator goddess Wusheng laomu (widely found in Hebei, e.g. in Xushui and Yixian counties) and (in the case of Cangyanshan) Third Princess (sanhuang gu 三黄姑).
In English, note his
- “The nation-state, the contract responsibility system, and the economy of temple incense: the politics and economics of a temple festival on a landscaped holy mountain”, Rural China 13 (2016), pp.240–87,
which also includes a useful bibliography. More general, but no less thoughtful, are his books
- Xinghao: xiangtude luoji yu miaohui 行好: 乡土的逻辑与庙会 (Hangzhou: Zhejiang daxue cbs, 2014)
- Chaoshan: miaohuide ju yu san, yingshechu minjiande shenghuo yu xinyang 朝山: 庙会的聚与散, 映射出民间的生活与信仰 (Beijing daxue cbs, 2017).
- Jutou sanchi you shenming: manbu xiangye miaohui 举头三尺有神明——漫步乡野庙会 (Shandong wenyi cbs, 2018).
With his rich experience, Yue Yongyi made a fine discussant in our unlikely one-day panel at Beishida.
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All these fieldsites provide rich material for ethnographers, even if they share a paucity of complex liturgical sequences such as those I generally find. My encounters with these scholars make a welcome change from the insidious infiltration of romanticized “living fossil” ICH flummery into music studies. Given the understandable dominance of research on religious activity in south China, they also form a community of scholars working on changing ritual life in north China (see also Goossaert article cited here).
While I entirely recognize the ongoing erosion of rights under the current regime, the current Chinese academic scene is far from emasculated. Fine scholars like these, undaunted, continue to seek the truth about modern history, at a great remove from the supposed brainwashing from Xi Jinping Thought trumpeted in the Chinese and foreign media. This theme continues in my following posts on the Beijing scene (here and here).
 Another recent book on the incense associations of Beijing is Zhang Qingren 张青仁, Xingxiang zouhui: Beijing xianghuide puxi yu shengtai 行香走会: 北京香会的谱系与生态 (Beijing: Zhongyang minzu daxue cbs, 2016).
 For earlier refs., see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.8 n.14.