Li family Daoists, Beijing 1990

BJ 1990

The recent Beijing visit of a sectarian group from north Shanxi reminds me of the Li family Daoists’ performance at the 1990 Festival of religious music (for such festivals, see here)—the occasion that gave rise to their misleading media title (“calling Li Manshan’s band the Hengshan Daoist Music Troupe is like calling a group of Calabrian folk exorcists the Sistine Chapel Choral Society”).

I discussed here the gradual revival of Daoist ritual (now mainly funerals) in Yanggao after the collapse of the commune system; even by 1990, rural conditions there were still terribly poor, and memories of the Maoist era still fresh. For the dubious concept of “religious music”, see here.

Here’s how I described the festival in my Daoist priests of the Li family (pp.175–6):

Meanwhile my friend Tian Qing, later to become the pre-eminent pundit on Chinese music, was planning a major festival of Buddhist and Daoist music in Beijing for June that year, with groups from all over China invited to perform on stage. This was unfortunate timing, as everything was disrupted by the student demonstrations and their subsequent suppression, so the festival had to be postponed. With Tian Qing now indisposed, his colleagues at the Music Research Institute managed to put on the festival the following June—not in public, but with considerable publicity in the musicological world. To hold a festival of religious music was still controversial: some apparatchiks were opposed, but influential senior ideologues like He Jingzhi and Zhao Puchu supported it.

Li Qing had a difficult task to perform when it came to choosing the personnel to go to Beijing. Of his three Daoist sons, he ended up taking not Li Manshan or Yushan, but his third son Yunshan (Third Tiger), then 22 sui. Though Third Tiger was soon to take a different path, he remains nostalgic about his teenage years studying and the trip to Beijing with the great masters. Nine Daoists made the trip: the trusty core group of seniors Li Qing, Li Yuanmao, Kang Ren, Liu Zhong, Li Zengguang, and Wang Xide, along with Li Yunshan, Li Peisen’s son Li Hua, and Li Yuanmao’s son Li Hou. They stayed in the White Cloud Temple (Baiyunguan) along with several other Daoist groups from elsewhere in China invited for the festival, doing five performances (not rituals) for privately invited audiences over fifteen days in the temple and at the Heavenly Altar. The Music Research Institute also made studio recordings—which now sound rather harsh to me.

informal session

Informal session at Li Qing’s house, 1991. Left to right: Li Qing (sheng), his second son Yushan (yunluo), Liu Zhong (guanzi), Li Zengguang (drum), Kang Ren (sheng), Wu Mei.

The 1993 Yanggao county gazetteer includes a proud mention of the Beijing trip in its brief account of the Li family band. Valuable as the gazetteer is otherwise, Daoism is not its strong suit. Li Manshan and I giggle over its quaint description:

the average age of the members is 62.5. The instruments are even older than the people.

Still, even now, religious groups that have been legitimized by official recognition are in a tiny minority compared to all those that have never been “discovered”. Even in Yanggao and nearby, many other groups are active that have never enjoyed even such minor celebrity. And while it lent Li Qing’s group confidence, offering a potential buffer against any future ill winds, it brought them no tangible benefit, and no new audiences—at least until 2005 when I began taking them on foreign tours. They continued to scrape a living by performing for local funerals, and they still do.


For Third Tiger’s fine interpretation of my SOAS T-shirt, see here.

Shanxi sect performs in Beijing


Last week, through the auspices of the dynamic Professor Cao Xinyu of People’s University, the Department of Religious Studies at Peking University managed to invite a ritual group from north Shanxi to perform for a symposium.

Mingzong 2

Cao Xinyu explains the sect’s background.

Moreover, this is no orthodox troupe of temple monks, but a pious amateur sectarian group of ordinary villagers. They belong to the extensive network of the Mingzong sect, whose history and texts Cao Xinyu has ably documented. With a membership of both men and women, they perform a cappella vocal liturgy as part of long complex ritual sequences for their local devotees—notably the sect’s distinctive “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷), with their complex performing structures (see e.g. here, and here, under “The scrolls in performance”).

The sect maintained activity even after Liberation, and with their virtuous reputation they have long been tolerated by the local authorities. Alas, their venerable leader Wang Ji (1950–2017), who steered the group through the reform era, didn’t live to take part in this trip; but Cao Xinyu has now been able to realize Wang’s wish for the group to visit Beijing, with his disciples including his widow and sister.

Wang Ji 2003

Wang Ji (right) explains the structure of a “precious scroll” to Shanxi scholar Jing Weigang, My photo, Yanggao 2003.

All over China, devotional sects are a major aspect of folk religious life (cf. this recent film on a Hakka sect). While their vicissitudes since 1949 remain a sensitive topic, such groups offer important material to document local histories and regional transmissions since the Ming dynasty—for historians, ethnographers, and scholars of “music”.

It’s also good to see the culture of this unassuming corner of north Shanxi recognized further, following visits of the Li family Daoists to Beijing in 1990 and 2013 (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.175, 340–41) and their foreign tours—as well as those of the Hua family shawm band.

Of course, the event wasn’t a religious ritual but a low-profile symposium, in a literary historical context. While it’s no substitute for attending their observances in local context, it’s impressive not only that ritual life continues but that scholars of folk religion, alongside all their fine academic studies, can still “get things done” and bring life to silent immobile textual research.


Gushan sect 2003.2

Between ritual segments, 2003. My photo.


New tag: south China

FWIW, some more housekeeping.

I’ve just added a new tag to the sidebar, for south China, in addition to the “south China” subhead of the ritual category! This also picks up various posts on Hakka and Hokkien soundscapes.

My main topic is north China, to which (apart from its subhead under the ritual category; see also under Local ritual) I also give tags for Beijing, Hebei, Gaoluo, Shanxi (other) (supplementing the extensive category Li family), and Shaanbei. Ah, the joys of indexing

A Hakka nun


The ever-vibrant religious life of southeast China has been the subject of considerable research. Among the voluminous monographs on Buddhist and Daoist ritual of the Hakka people in east Guangdong (see also here, under “Keep calm and carry on”), women feature but rarely; but they play a major role in folk religious life—as mediums, sectarians, organizers, and worshippers (among many posts, mainly for north China, see e.g. here, and the trilogy starting here).

I now learn of a fine 92-minute film

  • Under goddesses’ shelter (姑婆, Yang Yufei, 2016).

Like my own Li Manshan, and Adeline Herrou’s Maître Feng, it’s a portrait film, about the daily life of the 80-year-old nun (“vegetarian woman”) Liu Yunxiang and the temple-based observances of her Hakka community in Meizhou, adherents of the Xiantian jiao 先天教 sect. You can watch it via this site, by clicking on “Website”—here’s the link:

zhaipo 2

I’ve noted the tensions between historical and ethnographic approaches to fieldwork. No mere paean to timeless oriental spirituality, the film has rich detail on changing social life.

Tastefully used on the soundtrack is the qin piece Remembering an old friend.

Taco taco taco burrito


Wondering how to get to grips with additive metres?
Awed by the complexities of flamenco palmas?
Despair not, help is at hand!

As a prelude to aksak “limping” metres, we might start with quintuple metres, which go far back, even in WAM. By the baroque period there are niche examples by composers such as Schmelzer, and they feature in 19th-century Russian music—a most popular instance being the “limping waltz” of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony (2+3) (which, like the 2nd movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, is a kaleidoscopic WAM subversion of the waltz, before Ravel‘s disturbing vision).

Quintuplets, of course, are something else altogether; as are the creative use of additive rhythms in minimalism (see also examples from Reich and Meredith).

From Tchaikovsky we might graduate to the Pearl and Dean theme (which we may hear as two groups of 3+3+2), Un homme et une femme (3+3+2+2), and Lalo Schifrin’s theme to Mission impossible (5/4, with a duplet over the first 2 beats). If you can hum along to such easy examples, then that’s a good start in mastering the intricacies of so-called aksak metres around east Europe and the Middle East…

Indeed, Take five was inspired by hearing Turkish musicians. Rather more challenging is the opening section of Blue Rondo à la Turk (2+2+2+3):

Note the helpful BTL comment there (only without the punctuation!):

Taco, taco, taco, burrito. Taco, taco, taco, burrito. Taco, taco, taco, burrito. Burrito, burrito, burrito… [SJ: not to be confused with potato, potato]

Still, that’s a rather crude, mechanical usage, the melody merely marking out the metre in regular quavers—whereas further east, melodic rhythms are infinitely varied within the basic metre.

Admittedly, the additive patterns of the Rite of spring have been transcribed in 4/4—was it really Boulez who had this drôle idea?! Cf. Slonimsky‘s help for Koussevitzky, here). Indeed, the scores for both the Pearl and Dean and Un homme et une femme tunes were written in duple metres.

And Max Richter’s welcome recomposition of the Four Seasons mixes in some great limping 7/8 bars (2+2+3—just the two tacos before the burrito today, thanks waiter) (from 1.14):

An intriguing instance is I say a little prayer, with its quirky insertion of a triple-time bar in the chorus—which no-one apparently even has to think about.

* * *

But all this is mere child’s play compared to folk music. Though such metres are quite widespread, Bartók, Brailiou et al. coined the term “Bulgarian rhythm”.


Some instances of “Bulgarian rhythm”, found here.

A classic essay is

  • Constantin Brăiloiu, “Aksak rhythm” (in Brăiloiu, Problems of ethnomusicology, 133–67, based on a 1951 lecture),

which contains far more detailed schemata. His work followed that of

  • Bela Bartók, “The so-called Bulgarian rhythm” (1938).

A transcription by Bartók, of a Turkish zurna–davul shawm band, shows how, over the basic metre, melodic and percussion rhythms seriously thicken the plot:

aksak 2

Further east, an example from the muqam of the beleaguered Uyghurs of Xinjiang is sadly topical (see this useful site). A common metre consists of one long beat divided into two equal stresses, followed by two regular beats—which we might notate cumbersomely as


with the initial duplet over a notional 3/8 unit:

Some sections add another duple unit, like this dastan from Chebiyat muqam (actually a duplet over 3/8,  followed by 3/4):


And some muqam have still more metrically complex segments to explore.

As with many world genres, the Uyghurs have no tradition of notation, and seem to have no terminology for such metres (though see Rachel Harris’s chapter in Harris and Stokes (eds.), Theory and Practice in the Music of the Islamic World). As with flamenco, this kind of thing is only an issue for those (like me) hampered by a visual classical education. The trick is to internalize it in the body—and to dispense with notation. Let’s remember that much of this music accompanies dance.

Uyghur musical traditions are part of the rich culture that is currently being systematically erased in Xinjiang.



New tag: Iron Curtain


To accompany a growing list of posts, I’ve now added a rough-and-ready tag Iron Curtain to the sidebar. For want of a more succinct handle, it includes posts on the region both before and since 1989.

Most of these posts suggest Chinese parallels—including various essays on the GDR (here and here, as well as a two-part biography here and here), Serbia, and Bulgaria. There are yet more links under the tag German too. Under the separate tag Czech are several (mercifully lighter) stories, notably from Švejk and my mentor Paul Kratochvil.

Notably I include the “bloodlands” of Timothy Snyder’s book, a vast region not easily characterized. In my post on his book, i wonder what would it take for the region to be recognized as the physical and moral graveyard of the 20th century—shifting our balance from the Western to the Eastern Front.


Setting forth from A Nazi legacy and Anne Applebaum’s Between East and West, I described the blind minstrels of Ukraine, leading to posts on the famine and the intrepid journalist Gareth Jones.

I’ve included my posts on Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen, since so many people from the region ended up at such camps.

Doubtless more to follow.



Following my posts on the work of Philippe Sands, on blind minstrels in the Ukraine, [1] and on the famines in Ukraine and China, I’ve been belatedly educating myself on the appalling history of the vast region introduced in Between East and West by reading

The region where some 14 million people (mostly civilians) were killed from 1930 to 1945, largely east of the Molotov–Ribbentrop line, includes Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states. Victims were Jews, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, and Balts. And it was to the bloodlands that most Jewish victims from west and south Europe, Hungary, Romania, and so on, were transported to die.

Growing up in post-war Britain, perhaps my ignorance isn’t so unusual—but it’s disturbing, and needs rectifying. As Anne Applebaum comments in her review,

If we are American, we think “the war” was something that started with Pearl Harbor in 1941 and ended with the atomic bomb in 1945. If we are British, we remember the Blitz of 1940 […] and the liberation of Belsen. If we are French, we remember Vichy and the Resistance. If we are Dutch we think of Anne Frank. Even if we are German we know only a part of the story.

My own belated awareness is partly prompted by my studies of the fates of Chinese people whom I’ve met in the course of fieldwork. Indeed, it’s worth re-reading Ian Johnson’s article “Who killed more, Hitler, Stalin or Mao?”, itself a companion to an article by Snyder.

I wonder what would it take for this vast region of the bloodlands to be recognized as the central physical and moral graveyard of the 20th century—shifting our balance from the Western to the Eastern Front. And as Snyder says, the mass killing of the 20th century is of the greatest moral significance for the 21st.

One might even begin by reading his brilliant “Conclusion: humanity”. And apart from reading static silent texts, there’s a wealth of documentary footage online—which you can choose to explore, or not.

Snyder corrects many widespread misconceptions [here I combine his text and Ascherson’s review]. The western public still tends to associate mass killing with “Nazi concentration camps” (cf. my posts on Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen), and with Auschwitz in particular; and Stalin is thought to have killed far more people than the Nazis by consigning millions to the gulag. But neither assumption is accurate.

  • In the Soviet Union, although about a million men and women perished in the labour camps, 90% of gulag prisoners survived. Stalin’s great killing took place not in Siberia, but in the western Soviet republics, above all in 1930s’ Ukraine where at least four million people died in man-made famines and in the slaughter of the “kulak” peasantry.
  • In the Third Reich concentration camps, a million prisoners died miserable deaths during the Nazi period. US and British troops liberated some of those camps, but none of the major death camps, which were further east. And 10 million others who never entered any of the camps were shot (mostly Jews), deliberately starved to death (mostly Soviet prisoners of war), or gassed in special “killing centres” which were not holding camps at all. Auschwitz, terrible as it was, formed a sort of coda to the Jewish Holocaust. By the time the main gas chambers came on line in 1943, most of Europe’s Jewish victims were already dead. Some—Polish Jews especially—had been gassed in the three killing centres set up on Polish territory: Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.
  • So more common methods of killing than gassing were starvation and shooting. Most of those Jewish victims had been shot and pitched into mass graves by German Einsatzgruppen operating far to the east in Ukraine, the Baltics and Belarus, moving from village to village behind the front lines of war.

In a matter of a given few days in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews in the east than they had inmates in all of their concentration camps. […] The vast majority of Jews killed in the Holocaust never saw a concentration camp.

The American and British soldiers who liberated the dying inmates from camps in Germany believed that they had discovered the horrors of Nazism. The images their photographers and cameramen captured of the corpses and the living skeletons at Bergen–Belsen and Buchenwald seemed to convey the worst crimes of Hitler. As the Jews and Poles of Warsaw knew, and as Vasily Grossman and the Red Army knew, this was far from the truth. The worst was in the ruins of Warsaw, or the fields of Treblinka, or the marshes of Belarus, or the pits of Babi Yar.

  • Nor is it widely understood that Jews were fewer than 1% of the German population when Hitler came to power in 1933, and about one quarter of 1% by the beginning of World War Two. The great majority of murders of Jews took place in occupied Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Soviet Union. The murder of 165,000 German Jews was a ghastly crime in and of itself, but […] fewer than 3% of the deaths of the Holocaust. The Nazis murdered about as many non-Jews as Jews during the war, chiefly by starving Soviet prisoners of war (over 3 million) and residents of besieged cities (over a million), or by shooting civilians in “reprisals” (nearly a million).
    And until 1939 Stalin, later credited with defeating Hitler (if not in British public opinion), had a still worse record of mass killings—of his own civilians, moreover. Until then, Soviet terror (against both class and national enemies) was not only far greater in scale, it was incomparably more lethal—and largely unnoticed. By the end of 1938, the USSR had killed about a thousand times more people on ethnic grounds than had Nazi Germany, and far more Jews.

Poland, fatally partitioned between Hitler and Stalin in 1939, suffered terribly—with Warsaw subjected to brutal successive destructions. In western Europe this period was known as “the phony war”: nothing seemed to be happening. But on 22nd June 1941 (“one of the most significant days in the history of Europe”) Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, while sealing the fate of the Reich, was a further disaster for the civilian inhabitants of the whole region. It was only with these incursions that Hitler’s territory came to include large numbers of Jews to be (literally) disposed of. And

As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians.

As to Ukraine, already decimated by Stalin,

Hitler dreamed of the endlessly fertile Ukrainian soil, assuming that Germans would extract more from the terrain than the Soviets.

The Germans implemented mass starvation in POW camps:

As many Soviet prisoners-of-war died on a single given day in autumn 1941 as did British and American prisoners of war over the entire course of the Second World War.
The Germans shot, on a conservative estimate, half a million Soviet prisoners of war. By way of starvation or mistreatment during transit, they killed about 2.6 million more.

This had the effect of strengthening Soviet resistance; and while local populations had already suffered terribly under Soviet rule, many now wondered if it might be a lesser evil. Still, in desperation many Soviet citizens were recruited for duties with the German army and police.

Thus some of the survivors of one German killing policy became accomplices in another, as a war to destroy the Soviet Union became a war to murder the Jews.

In the first lands that German soldiers reached in Operation Barbarossa, they were the war’s second occupier. […] The double occupation, first Soviet, then German, made the experience of the inhabitants of these lands all the more complicated and dangerous. […] They had to deal with the consequences of their own previous commitments under one occupier when the next one came; or make choices under one occupation while anticipating another.

When the Germans conquered an area they often found that the NKVD had shot prisoners. In 1943 they seized on their discovery of the 1940 massacre by the NKVD of over 20,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia in the forests of Katyn. But on 29th–30th September 1941 near Kiev, the Germans had murdered 33,761 Jews at Babi Yar; between 100,000 and 150,000 people were killed there during the German occupation.

Local militias also took part in pogroms:

Political calculation and local suffering do not entirely explain the participation in these pogroms. Violence against Jews served to bring the Germans and elements of the local non-Jewish population closer together. Anger was directed, as the Germans wished, toward the Jews, rather than against collaborators with the Soviet regime as such. […] Violence against Jews also allowed local Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Poles who had themselves collaborated with the Soviet regime to escape any such taint.
Yet this psychic nazification would have been much more difficult without the palpable evidence of Soviet atrocities. The pogroms took place where the Soviets had recently arrived and where Soviet power was recently installed, where for the previous months Soviet organs of coercion had organized arrests, executions, and deportations. They were a joint production, a Nazi edition of a Soviet text.

Snyder details the fates of urban centres like Lviv, Łódź, Riga, Vilnius, and Minsk, giving background to Applebaum’s visits in Between East and West. By the end of the war, half the population of Belarus had either been killed or deported.


Warsaw, 1944.

His story returns to Poland and the unimaginable final agony of Warsaw. As the Red Army advanced on Berlin, their revenge was horrific.

* * *

And thence to continuing sufferings after the formal end of war, with Germans now among the main victims of ethnic cleansing and transports (for an overview of the aftermath across Europe, see Keith Lowe, Savage continent). Through the war the Soviets had continued sending their own citizens to the Soviet gulag (not least the peoples of the Caucasus and Crimea; entire populations of Karachai, Kalmyks, Chechen, Ingush, Balkar, Tatar, Meshketian Turks, and so on, still less known in the West than the bloodlands), and in the post-war years deportations only increased.

As Stalin fabricated his own unblemished legend of the Soviet Union and its role in the war, belittling that of Soviet citizens in the Holocaust, he now engaged in his own anti-semitic purges. Although mass terror was no longer pursued after Stalin’s death, repression continued throughout the Soviet bloc, and the fates of the real victims were concealed.

The communists’ hesitation to distinguish and define Hitler’s major crime tended, as the decades passed, to confirm an aspect of Hitler’s worldview.
Communist leaders, beginning with Stalin and continuing to the end, could rightly say that few people in the West appreciated the role of the Red Army in the defeat of the Wehrmacht, and the suffering that the peoples of eastern Europe endured under German occupation. […] During the Cold War, the natural response in the West was to emphasize the enormous suffering that Stalinism had brought to the citizens of the Soviet Union. This, too, was true; but like the Soviet accounts it was not the only truth, or the whole truth.

In his “Conclusion: Humanity”, Snyder explores the complexities of collaboration and victimhood—even now a pressing issue for all these traumatized nations. Most peoples suffered double or triple occupations, trapped helplessly between evil regimes, forced into agonizing dilemmas with a view to mere survival. In a telling passage, Snyder reflects on choices:

At a great distance in time, we can choose to compare the Nazi and Soviet systems, or not. The hundreds of millions of Europeans who were touched by both regimes did not have this luxury.

The comparisons between leaders and systems began the moment that Hitler came to power. From 1933 through 1945 hundreds of millions of Europeans had to weigh what they knew about National Socialism and Stalinism as they made the decisions that would, all too often, determine their fate. This was true of unemployed German workers in early 1933, who had to decide whether they would vote for social democrats, communists, or Nazis. It was true, at the same moment, of Ukrainian peasants, some of whom hoped for a German invasion that would rescue them from the plight. It held for European politicians of the second half of the 1930s, who had to decide whether or not to enter Stalin’s Popular Fronts. The dilemma was felt sharply in Warsaw in these years, as Polish diplomats sought to keep an equal distance between their powerful German and Soviet neighbors in the hope of avoiding war.

When both the Germans and the Soviets invaded Poland in 1939, Polish officers had to decide to whom they should surrender, and Polish Jews (and other Polish citizens besides) whether to flee to the other occupation zone. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, some Soviet prisoners of war weighed the risks of collaboration with the Germans against the likelihood of starving to death in prisoner-of-war camps. Belarusian youth had to decide whether to join the Soviet Partisans or the German police—before they were press-ganged into one or the other. Jews in Minsk in 1942 had to choose between remaining in the ghetto or fleeing to the forest to seek Soviet partisans. Polish Home Army commanders in 1944 had to decide whether or not to try to liberate Warsaw for themselves, or to wait for the Soviets. Most survivors of the Ukrainian famine of 1933 later experienced German occupation; most survivors of the German starvation camps of 1941 returned to Stalin’s Soviet Union; most survivors of the Holocaust who remained in Europe also experienced communism.

These Europeans, who inhabited the crucial part of Europe at the crucial time, were condemned to compare.
In the decades since Europe’s era of mass killing came to an end, much of the responsibility has been placed at the feet of “collaborators”. The classic example of collaboration is that of the Soviet citizens who served the Germans as policemen or guards during the Second World War, among whose duties was the killing of Jews. Almost none of these people collaborated for ideological reasons, and only a small minority had political motives of any discernible sort. […] In eastern Europe, it is hard to find political collaboration with the Germans that is not related to a previous experience of Soviet rule.

Snyder goes on:

In the 21st century, we see a second wave of aggressive wars with victim claims, in which leaders not only present their peoples as victims but make explicit reference to the mass murders of the 20th century. The human capacity for subjective victimhood is apparently limitless, and people who believe that they are victims can be motivated to perform acts of great violence.

And he reflects on the purpose of history, describing all kinds of later nationalist agendas, highly relevant today:

Our contemporary culture of commemoration takes for granted that memory prevents murder. […] Without history, the memories become private, which today means national; and the numbers become public, which is to say an instrument in the international competition for martyrdom.

Snyder’s detailed breakdown of figures is numbing (note also his Appendix “Numbers and terms”). [2]

In policies that were meant to kill civilians or prisoners of war, Nazi Germany murdered about ten million people in the bloodlands (and perhaps eleven million total), the Soviet Union under Stalin over four million in the bloodlands (and about six million total). If foreseeable deaths resulting from famine, ethnic cleansing, and long stays in camps are added, the Stalinist total rises to perhaps nine million and the Nazi to perhaps twelve. These larger numbers can never be precise, not least because millions of people who died as an indirect result of the Second World War were victims, in one way or another, of both systems.

But as he concludes, such statistics still have to be converted back into the stories of individuals: not the abstraction of 5.7 million Jewish dead, but 5.7 million times one.

It is perhaps easier to think of 780,863 individual people at Treblinka: where the three at the end might be Tamara and Itta Willenburg, whose clothes clung together as they were gassed, and Ruth Dorfmann, who was able to cry with the man who cut her hair before she entered the gas chamber.

As the Jews of Minsk were liquidated in 1942,

The girls and boys knew what would happen to them if they were caught. They would ask for a tattered bit of dignity as they walked up the ramp to their death: “Please sirs,” they would say to the Germans, “do not hit us. We can get to the trucks on our own.”

* * *

Apart from providing us with essential basic education, such work, both detailed and humane, should inform our historiography generally—all the more with the current worldwide fomenting of ugly xenophobia.

For China, despite all the noble work on the famine and laogai camps, truth remains to be publicly told. In the official myth, the concession of Cultural Revolution “mistakes” conspires to sweep under the carpet the earlier successive terrors of land reform and campaigns throughout the 1950s, as well as long-term hunger. Even studies of expressive culture and ritual need to take all this into account.


[1] In such posts I mention the painful maintenance of expressive culture through times of trauma (and indeed the theme of the music of the camps is both macabre and inspiring), but here it seems unthinkable even to try and do so. It does, however, put into even starker perspective both regimes’ showcasing of Great Works of National Art directed by Great Conductors (see e.g. here). See also e.g. Institute of Musicology, University of Warsaw (ed.), Music traditions in totalitarian systems (Musicology Today, 2010).

[2] Statistics are always problematical. In China, as Ian Johnson observes, famine deaths alone over a mere four years seem to far outnumber the combined totals for killings under Stalin and Hitler from 1930 to 1945. But for the latter, if one includes “foreseeable” deaths caused by deportation, starvation, and incarceration, as well as combatant deaths and those due to war-related famine and disease, the numbers shoot up astronomically. Slowly, Hitler’s numbers approach Mao’s.
Issues with statistics are illustrated by the conclusion of Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature: a history of violence and humanity (esp. ch.5), based on detailed yet unpalatable arguments, that the 20th century was probably not the bloodiest in history. His diachronic table (pp.235–6), adjusted to give mid-20th-century population equivalents, shows death tolls from many other conflicts worldwide outranking those discussed here. Highest on the list is the 8th-century An Lushan rebellion (said to have killed up to 5% of the world population, though even a substantially lower revised estimate seems exaggerated), followed by the Mongol conquests; global deaths for World War Two surpass those of Mao’s famine, but even they only come in 9th and 11th respectively—with the Taiping rebellion in between. See here for Pinker’s responses to some inevitable questions.

But again, we should return to Snyder’s Conclusion.