Worldwide, biography makes a fruitful complement to social history. Fieldwork reports on religious life in rural China don’t necessarily focus on personalities at all—with some noble exceptions (such as the book of Stephan Feuchtwang and Wang Mingming on charisma, or Antoinet Schimmelpenninck‘s work on folk singers), they’re often more concerned with silent, inanimate artefacts like ritual manuals or temple murals.
When we do discuss the lives of Real People, our work often focuses on particular “bearers of tradition”. Even then, Chinese biographies often seem to take their cue from the hagiographies of Lei Feng (all the more so since the contagious ideology of the Intangible Cultural Heritage); and even Western descriptions tend to portray their Daoist masters as paragons nobly aloof from any engagement with social and political change. But we also need to document the complexities of their lives within changing society; over a long period I’ve come to engage with many other local figures too. Writing history clearly involves looking beyond kings and queens.
My first long-term field site of Gaoluo, where the village’s amateur ritual association represented the whole village, made a good education: while I focused on ritual specialists like He Qing and Cai An, the cast was diverse. This trained me to integrate my accounts of ritual in changing society with people’s lives—a theme that I continued with my work on bards and shawm players in Shaanbei.
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In Yanggao county of north Shanxi, my primary mentors were again outstanding ritual performers—first the Hua family shawm band, and then Daoist masters Li Qing and his son Li Manshan (see also here). But again I began to spread the net wider.
Li Manshan’s wife Yao Xiulian, and his mother Xue Yumei.
First, a reminder of the women of Yanggao, whose various roles I’ve described in three posts—the female relatives of Daoists, sectarians and mediums, and singers. Anthropologists like Guo Yuhua also stress the importance of studying women’s experiences under Maoism.
Li Xu with Li Manshan, 2013; right, Li Xu’s coffin, 2015.
In the Li family’s home village of Upper Liangyuan, I met poor peasant Li Xu (1926–2015) all too briefly. Though illiterate, he seemed to be the only villager who knew of the precious early steles of the village’s two main temples (my book, pp.46–9). If only I had been in time to learn more from him—he was a living library of local customs.
In 2011 Li Manshan took me to meet the oldest person in the village, born in 1915. Just south of the site of the Temple of the God Palace, opposite the house of senior Daoist Kang Ren (1925–2010: photos here and here, with playlist #2; more in my book), he lived in a humble cave-dwelling with his (somewhat younger) wife. Being poor and childless, the couple had played no active role in major events in the village. That didn’t mean they couldn’t have valuable insights; they were friendly and articulate, and we had a long chat about life before and after Liberation (temples, rain processions, campaigns against sects, and so on); but even Li Manshan found them quite hard to follow, and I learned less than I had hoped.
Nearby in Yangguantun, the energetic Shi Shengbao (b.1948) has fulfilled the role of ritual director there since 1981. One of the Li family’s most trusted collaborators, he’s the subject of a nice vignette in Ian Johnson’s book (pp.373–4).
North of the county-town everyone admired the kindly and devout ritual specialist Wang Ji (1950–2017, photo at head of article), local leader of an amateur sect that performs “precious scrolls” as part of their rituals (for an update, see here).
In another instance of the tacit maintenance of ritual traditions during the Cultural Revolution (see e.g. under “Other coverage of liturgy” in my post on Ningxia), Wang Ji studied from 1967 with his father and another sectarian master in the village. They were all disciples of a former abbot at Wutaishan, whom they looked after in this period. They also studied with a liturgist in a nearby village. Wang Ji was formally admitted to the sect in 1970. Though it was formally proscribed after Liberation, they were clearly active throughout the period, and he and his father had no problems as long as they didn’t cause trouble for the village cadres by practising too openly. In some memorable sessions in 2003 Wang Ji patiently explained to us the complex practice of singing the scrolls, as well as inviting us to the sect’s imposing rituals.
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As to the lowly shawm players who also accompany life-cycle and calendrical rituals, I endured some challenging times over the years with the brilliant yet dysfunctional Hua family, both in Yanggao and on foreign tours. Most bands have long abandoned the complexity of the former long suites for a pop repertoire, but Yang Ying still leads a fine band, as well as depping with the Li family Daoists.
But it was two senior blind players who made a deep impression on both Wu Fan and me (For blind shawm players, see also here). Liuru’s circumstances had been desperate both under Maoism and since the reforms; Erhur at least had children to help him out. Their spellbound reciting of the gongche mnenomics of the shawm melodies gave us an entry into their world.
Left: Liuru, with Yinsan, another blind shawm player. Right: Erhur. Photos 2003.
In recent years I’ve always been delighted to meet up with the sweet semi-blind shawm player Zhang Quan in Pansi village—this time he was helping me with my search for the kang murals of Artisan the Sixth!
I should also consult some of the other still more lowly helpers, like coffin-bearers and grave-diggers. One character whom I’ve seen countless times at funerals over the years is a bearded, itinerant helper with ragged clothes. Despite impaired use of his limbs he accompanies the kin, helping out with various duties like carrying props for the Invitation procession.
I’ve never managed to chat (guada 呱嗒) with him, but the trusty Li Bin has just given me some background on his story, which—in utter contrast to the long hereditary solidity and repute of the Li family—evokes chronic rural poverty and family vulnerability:
He’s known by his nickname Yanjun. Born in Liujiaquan village in the mid-1980s, his mother came from Sichuan, from where poor village men often buy wives. But she soon returned there, leaving him behind. Again, such bartered brides often sought to flee their unwanted new homes, and the unfamiliar northern climate and dialect, though many too resigned themselves to their fate—I’ve met several of them. Even in those days transport was still primitive, and there were no telephones.
But Yanjun’s maternal grandmother stayed on to look after him—he had severe physical problems, and if it hadn’t been for her care he might never have learned to walk. But later she too returned to Sichuan, while Yanjun’s father found another wife and set up a family in Inner Mongolia just north (again, a common refuge of Yanggao people since imperial times). Yanjun now moved in with his poor bachelor uncle.
An only child, Yanjun never went to school, and he has no prospect of finding a wife. As a vagrant, he’s quite aware of his outcaste status. He knows his place—I’ve never seen him chatting with anyone at funerals, and of course he doesn’t eat with the guests, just hanging around outside the field kitchen. I can’t even recall seeing him indoors. But he’s alert and trustworthy, and the host families take pity on him, giving him cigarettes and liquor, as well as (these last few years) quite a bit of cash—most of which he spends on buying cigarettes for the funeral director. Charity isn’t always evident in rural society, but inconspicuously it operates its own safety net. Now Yanjun also gets a little dibao allowance from the local government.
Meanwhile on a trip into town, Li Manshan’s younger brother, a successful cadre, invites me with a group of friends to a sumptuous banquet in a posh restaurant, washed down with a case of 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon. The gulf between rich and poor in China is staggering.
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At the other end of the social scale from Yanjun, by comparison with areas like Fujian in south China, cultural scholars in north Shanxi are thin on the ground. But in Yanggao the affable Jing Ziru (b.1926) is a local historian whose erudition is alas displayed only in a few brief articles. Also widely admired—truly an unsung local hero—is Li Jin (b.1945), successively opera performer, trusted cadre, and retired amateur Errentai instrumentalist, to whom I wrote a heartfelt tribute. But like their rural counterparts, they too suffered under Maoism.
Alongside all the necessary work documenting material artefacts like temple steles, ritual manuals, and so on, it’s only through such wide-ranging personal accounts—the tribulations of people’s lives—that we can evoke a vivid picture of changing rural society.