A Daoist ritual, Suzhou 1956


SZ 1956

The Daoists who took part in the jiao ritual, with the study team. Suzhou, August 1956.

From the early 1950s to the eve of the Cultural Revolution, notwithstanding constant political campaigns, the fieldwork of Yang Yinliu and the Music Research Institute in Beijing was largely based on ritual traditions. The grandeur of religious life around south Jiangsu was, and is, comparable with that of southeast China and Hunan. Yang Yinliu had long experience of Daoist ritual in Wuxi; but another definitive project in Suzhou in August 1956, while Yang was leading a survey in Hunan, was quite separate:

  • Suzhou daojiao yishu ji 苏州道教艺术集 [Daoist arts of Suzhou], Zhongguo wudao yishu yanjiuhui yanjiuzu 中国舞蹈艺术研究会研究组 (mimeograph 1957, reprint Shanghai shehui kexueyuan, 2009)

Daoism in the whole Suzhou region has an illustrious history. And by the 1950s, by contrast with most other regions of China, the city already had a history of research and training institutions. In the Republican era and even in the troubled 1940s, several such groups were formed, such as the Shouxuan xiejilu 守玄褉集庐 and its short-lived successors Yixuan yanlu 亦玄研庐, Yunji she 雲笈社, and Ziyun daoxue yanjiushe 紫雲道學研究社. After the 1949 revolution, under the watchful eyes of Party officials, the Suzhou Daoist Music Research Group was formed in winter 1952, recruiting many distinguished Daoists.

Under the PRC, despite my reservations about the term “religious music”, a focus on music served to distract from the taint of religion: while Daoist ritual might be suspect, study under the guise of “Daoist music”—particularly its instrumental component—was more palatable to the authorities. Indeed, this was still true when I began my fieldwork in the late 1980s.

In August 1956, Wu Xiaobang 吴晓邦, head of the Chinese Dance Research Association in Beijing, brought a team to Suzhou, where with the assistance of the Bureau of Culture they worked with the Suzhou Daoist Music Research Group to organize a complete large-scale jiao 醮 Offering ritual.

This was a major undertaking. Far from reducing the topic to a simple commodified programme of instrumental melodies (as was still common in the 1990s), they documented the ritual in detail, both in the 330-page book and in a complete documentary film. This was all the more remarkable considering the escalating political campaigns, with people increasingly anxious as the commune system was enforced ever more rigorously. Later, alas, the film seems to have been destroyed, though the editors of the 2009 reprint of the book claim that it was preserved at the Dance Association in Beijing.

Of course, it was a work of salvage. While minimal Daoist rituals were still performed around the region, this was a rare opportunity to assemble leading Daoists to perform a complete jiao—perhaps the grandest religious ritual held in China from 1949 to 1979. Indeed, since the 1990s similar digital salvage projects have been initiated, involving a core of senior Daoists—some of whom had taken part of the 1956 project. But documenting routine ritual practice in socal life, in the 1950s or today, is a separate topic.

XMG 1956

The Xuanmiao guan temple, 1956.

The ritual was held at the Wanshou gong 萬壽宮 temple just south of Suzhou’s main temple the Xuanmiao guan 玄妙觀, which was being restored at the time. The Wanshou gong was itself in disrepair by 1949 but had been converted to a People’s Cultural Palace in 1951, so it was now requisitioned for the ritual.

The book contains three main parts:

  • The segments of the jiao, with its three overarching ritual sections Quanfu 全符, Quanbiao 全表, and Huosi chao 火司朝 (pp.1–61), including diagrams of “dance” postures; followed by long lists of performers and their division of responsibilities, including fashi 法師 ritual masters, instrumentalists, and helpers (pp.62–70).
  • Detailed transcriptions of the vocal and instrumental music in ritual sequence (see below)
  • Plates (pp.276–330), including the jiao itself and its ritual equipment, as well as statues and ritual paintings (with some from other Suzhou temples).

Jifu guan

ritual pics

ritual 2

placard 1placard 2Placards proclaiming the Offering ritual.

Such photos make suitably surprising additions to my post Images from the Maoist era.

The main editors of the volume were Jin Zhongying 金中英 and Yu Shangqing 余尚清. Jin Zhongying (1925–96), a hereditary household Daoist from Suzhou city, headed the official Daoist Music Research Group from 1953. With his extensive personal collection of ritual manuals, he provided the Juntian miaoyue 鈞天妙樂, an important compilation of gongche scores of Daoist instrumental melodies, compiled by Wu Ding’an 吾定庵 and edited by Cao Xisheng 曹希聖 in the late 18th century. Meanwhile many other experienced Daoists were recruited to the Research Group.

SZ daoshi

Zhao Houfu, Cao Yuanxi, Zhou Zufu, and Mao Zhongqing in later years.
Source: Suzhou Daojiao yinyue gaishu.

The Daoists who were assembled in 1956 to perform the jiao came from hereditary backgrounds; until the 1950s, some had been temple clerics, while others had served as freelance household Daoists. Despite the forming of the research group, the authors note a certain depletion of personnel as outstanding Daoist instrumentalists were recruited to state performing troupes. Still, it was a stellar cast of Daoists who took part in the 1956 ritual—including Zhao Houfu 趙厚福 (1908–?), Cao Yuanxi 曹元希 (1913–89, descended from Cao Xisheng!), Mao Zhongqing 毛仲青 (b.1915), Zhou Zufu 周祖馥 (b.1915), and Jin Zhongying himself. Indeed, some of them were recalled for the occasion from their jobs in the troupes. And apart from the instrumentalists, note also the list of eminent fashi 法師 masters (pp.63 and 64) who presided over the liturgy—I would love to learn more about their backgrounds and fortunes under Maoism.

The introduction to the history of “Daoist music” in Suzhou (pp.71–87; note pp.79–80) makes an impressive early account of the subject. The long following section (pp.88–275) provides gongche solfeggio notation for the different ritual segments, showing the whole unfolding sequence of the sung hymns of the vocal liturgy (with their texts shown alongside the melody) and the chuida (Shifan) instrumental items that punctuate the ritual (also a speciality of the former tangming bands). Indeed, even for scholars of Daoist ritual who prefer to study texts in isolation from their performance, volumes like this, and the later Anthology, provide a wealth of ritual texts. Note that traditionally only the instrumental melodies were notated, not the vocal items; and of course, gongche is anyway only an aid to memory.

The authors’ choice of gongche, rather than the cipher notation that was already commonly used in Chinese musicology, is interesting. It may derive from the Daoists’ own familiarity with it—though they made a fine innovation by adding detailed rhythmic markers in the style of cipher notation, which they also used alongside mnemonic characters to notate the complex drum sections.

This is a rare insider’s account of the building blocks of Daoist ritual, thoughtfully annotated. Wonderful as it is, to most scholars of Daoism it will be even less intelligible than cipher notation—even conservatoire students are unfamiliar with gongche.

Songjing gongde gongcheOpening of Songjing gongde, a widely used hymn in both temple and household Daoist groups.

Tianshi hymn gongcheOpening of Quanbiao ritual: instrumental Yifeng shu leading into Tianshi song hymn, whose text is the generational poem for the priestly lineage.

For the vocal liturgy, somewhat more accessible (if only somewhat) are later transcriptions into cipher notation such as the Anthology (Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Jiangsu juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 江苏卷, pp.1473–1645):

Songjing gongde JCOpening of Songjing gongde hymn, transcribed by Anthology collectors from a 1990s’ rendition, also showing percussion accompaniment.

Tianshi hymn JCTianshi song hymn as transcribed by Anthology collectors.

and other modern studies like Liu Hong 刘红, Suzhou daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu 苏州道教科仪音乐研究 (1999)—here’s his transcription of the Buxu hymn Taiji fen gaohou, another commonly performed item throughout China sung to differing melodies by region (see e.g. Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.273–4, and my film, from 45.20 and 1.14.38):


Taiji JCOpening of Taiji fen gaohou hymn as transcribed in the Anthology.

The 1957 volume’s extensive transcriptions are deeply impressive, clearly a labour of love on the part of Jin Zhongying and Yu Shangqing—even recently, scholars of Daoism are often content to reproduce lengthy ritual manuals with scant explanation of how they are performed. So it would be churlish of me to note that this long section (apart from the brief chanted introits to the hymns) provides only the melodic sections, not including the many recited texts which are also a vital aspect of the ritual. It is best read in tandem with the summary of ritual segments on pp.57–61.

Despite the laudable (and rare) focus on soundscape, the volume still falls short of being a complete account of the Suzhou jiao. It would be over thirty years before scholars like Yuan Jingfang began documenting the texts and music of complex rituals still more systematically (see e.g. her volumes on the Beijing yankou and the jiao of household Daoists in south Hebei).

But of course, nothing is so valuable as film, and I still gnash my teeth (a Daoist practice of cosmic visualization, by the way!) over the loss of the 1956 documentary. In its absence, major projects to document Suzhou Daoist ritual on film have resumed in recent years. We can gain a flavour by watching a 2011 excerpt from the Dispatching the Talismans (fafu 发符) ritual segment:

What was not on the agenda in 1956 was a description of ritual activities in the wider society around Suzhou at the time—more on that story later. Meanwhile, let’s pause again to marvel at the energy of ritual research under the taxing conditions of Maoism.


With many thanks to Tao Jin






The Hall of Myriad Harmonies

WHTThe Wanhe tang:
Above left: scores; above right (indirectly related): Juntian miaoyue score, 1799.
Middle: remaining performers assembled in 1993. Below: trunks with instruments.
Source: Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Jiangsu juan.

I often sing qualified praises of the monumental Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples (starting here). Most of my posts on local ritual derive from my own studies in the field, but I also sometimes give surveys based on the Anthology—as here. The main lesson from this post is to illustrate the pitfalls of trying to interpret its material without more detailed fieldwork.

Having mentioned the illustrious Tianyun she society in Wuxi, I should also introduce the Wanhe tang 萬和堂 (“Hall of Myriad Harmonies”) in Huangdai town in Wuxian county north of Suzhou. This leads me to consider the whole rich culture of tangming ban 堂名班 groups (some sources give the form 堂鳴) before the 1949 Liberation, amongst whom there were many Daoist ritual specialists; their repertoire included both Kunqu vocal music and the Shifan instrumental ensembles that accompanied rituals (cf. my Folk music of China, pp.252–69).

I began by consulting the Anthology volumes for instrumental music in Jiangsu province:

  • Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Jiangsu juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 江苏卷, pp.1777–79, and p.102.

The Wanhe tang was founded by Cai Jinxiu 蔡錦綉 in the second half of the 19th century, when he was 20 sui. He was himself the third generation of Kunqu amateurs in his family; and he was an accomplished performer of Shifan. The hall he founded was now occupational. They were active performing for temple fairs and celebratory occasions for the local gentry around Suzhou, Wuxi, Changshu, and Kunshan.

By the 1920s Cai Jinxiu had handed over the leadership to his oldest son Cai Meiqing 蔡梅卿; his second and third sons Cai Zhuqing 蔡竹卿 and Cai Chengqing 蔡成卿 went on to lead the group. In the late 1920s there was such demand that they split into northern and southern halls. The main figures of the latter were the three Cai brothers and Cai Zhuqing’s son Cai Huiquan 蔡惠泉, as well as Wang Borong 王伯榮. Leading lights in the northern branch were Xu Jinru 許錦如, Xu Junru 許均如, Gu Yewan 顧葉萬, and Gu Yusheng 顧鈺生. The two groups often combined, but also competed at the same events.

They also absorbed elements from the popular tanhuang vocal style. By the 1930s and 1940s they had a close relationship with temples like the Xuanmiao guan in Suzhou. Other tangming groups formed under their influence included the Xuanhe tang 宣和堂, Chunhe tang 春和堂, Hehe tang 合和堂, Wenhe tang 文和堂, Honghe tang 鴻和堂, and the Lesser Wanhe tang 小萬和堂.

These groups had to cease activity on the eve of Liberation, “as a result of warfare, and so on”. But there was no revival in the early 1950s, and the scores, instruments, trunks, and equipment of the Wanhe tang were gradually “lost”.

Many of its members were now recruited to the new regional state opera troupes. Of Cai Meiqing’s sons, the oldest Cai Rongbing 蔡榮炳 had accompanied the great Peking opera singer Zhou Xinfang before Liberation, and went on to take up a post in the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe. The second son Cai Rongbiao 蔡榮標 was chosen for the Yangzhou Peking Opera Troupe. Another member of the Cai family became deputy director of the provincial Daoist Association.

The biographical sketch of Cai Zhuqing’s son Cai Huiquan 蔡惠泉 (b.1925) in the Anthology (pp.1775–76) is no more enlightening. Again, it’s a story of two halves. He began studying at private school at the age of 5 sui, and learned Kunqu with his father from 7 sui. By the age of 16 sui he was an accomplished member of the Wanhe tang.

After Liberation, with his traditional livelihood apparently curtailed rather abruptly, Cai Huiquan took part in an official festival at the Xuanmiao guan temple in November 1951, for which tangming performers were assembled to perform. In the audience was Peng Xiuwen, director of the Central Chinese Broadcasting Orchestra in Beijing, who invited him to join them as percussionist in 1954. Cai now became a model member of the state troupe, arranging several pieces of his traditional repertoire to the demands of the new style, and over the next thirty years he created many compositions based on other regional genres. From 1958 he adapted a new paigu set of tuned drums, which was soon widely adopted by state troupes.

This trajectory was not uncommon. Throughout China, outstanding instrumentalists among local ritual groups, including many Daoists, were often recruited to the new state troupes. At least Cai found long-term employment—unlike household Daoist Li Qing in Shanxi, who was among many folk artists whose recruitment to state troupes was curtailed by the cuts of the early 1960s. However, the Anthology account doesn’t begin to describe the fates of those performers who remained in local society amidst campaigns and collectivization.

All this looks like a thriving scene abruptly erased after Liberation. In official accounts the troubled conditions of the 1940s make a convenient scapegoat. But there’s a lot here that isn’t spelled out. How severely did the Japanese occupation and civil war disrupt ceremonial life in the region? When many ritual groups elsewhere in China (both occupational and devotional) remained active in the early 1950s and still later, were these groups really unable to perform? Elements to unpack here include the class status of the performers and their patrons, and the state’s escalating war on traditional contexts.

So in the case of the Wanhe tang, the enticing Anthology photos above are misleading: they merely show the brief reunion of nine senior performers in 1993. Still, it’s clear that not all their scores and instruments had been lost. And while this group was long defunct, as ritual life revived strongly from the 1980s, perhaps the many Daoist groups and chuida bands around the region are the modern heirs to the tradition.

Other tangming groups
The Wanhe tang was just one among a dazzling array of tangming groups throughout the wider region before Liberation. The Anthology introduction to chuida wind-and-percussion bands provides further leads (pp.97–105). Such sources provide considerable material for the Qing dynasty, but here I’ll focus on the transition from the Republican era to Maoism.

Locals distinguished shenjia chuida 神家吹打 and daojia chuida 道家吹打 groups. The shenjia (“holy”) chuida groups performed for life-cycle and calendrical observances, with Kunqu and other vocal music a major part of their repertoire. Before 1949, apart from the Wanhe tang, there were around 150 groups in the Suzhou region alone.

In the city, major groups included the Duofu tang 多福堂, Ronghe tang 榮和堂, Baohe tang 保和堂, Fugui tang 富貴堂, Yonghe tang 永和堂, and Juhe tang 聚和堂. Similar groups around the region included the Hehe tang 合和堂, Hongru tang 鴻如堂, and Shide tang 世德堂 in Wuxian county; in Changshu, the Chunhe tang 春和堂, Quanfu tang 全福堂, Zhonghe tang 中和堂, and Hongfu tang 洪福堂; in Taicang, the Qingxiu tang 慶修堂, Yuqing tang 餘慶堂, Duanhe tang 端和堂, Duanai tang 端靄堂, and Yongle tang 永樂堂; in Wujiang, the Jinyu tang 金玉堂, Dayue tang 大樂堂, and Daxi tang 大喜堂; in Tangkou, Wuxi, the Xinji Wanhe tang 新記萬和堂 and Dongting yaji 動亭雅集; and in Kunshan, the Yongni tang 永霓堂.

Daoist ritual specialists were often core members of the tangming groups, and the daojia chuida groups mainly accompanied Daoist ritual (for a major ritual in 1956 Suzhou, see here). The great Yang Yinliu was brought up in the environment of Kunqu and the tangming, studying the Wuxi Daoists and their Shifan repertoires from the 1930s. Here’s a reminder of the distinctions between local Daoists that he astutely observed (Sunan chuidaqu 蘇南吹打曲, with Cao Anhe, 1957 edition, pp.11–13):

A minority of abbots possessed ritual titles of the Zhang Heavenly Masters, like “Master who Guard the Way” (daoweishi) or “Ritual Master” (fashi), and mostly owned land. They didn’t take part in production. They interacted with landlords and the bourgeoisie in the cities and villages, taking ritual work and contacting and hiring the common village Daoists to take part in major rituals (daochang fashi).

These common Daoists mostly took part in agricultural production, being hired ad hoc: performing for rituals was an auxiliary occupation for them. In both agriculture and Daoism, they were an exploited class. These common Daoists—even the indispensable drummers and flute players, with their excellent musical technique—only got a tiny wage for a whole day’s work.

Conversely, the “Masters who Guard the Way” and “Ritual Masters”, having only taken responsibility for quite brief ritual segments of a few hours like Issuing the Talismans (fafu), Reporting the Memorial (zoubiao), and Flaming Mouth (yankou), claimed a reward many times higher than that of the others. Those who played music were mostly the common semi-peasant Daoists; very few of the “Masters who Guard the Way” and “Ritual Masters” could do so.

For tangming bands around Jiading and Chuansha counties near Shanghai,

  • Zhu Jianming 朱建明, Tan Jingde 谈敬德, and Chen Zhengsheng 陈正生,Shanghai jiaoqu daojiao jiqi yinyue yanjiu 上海郊区道教及其音乐研究 [Daoism and its music in the Shanghai suburbs] (2001)

provides further material in a useful section (pp.29–48). The authors list bands like the Chunhe tang 春和堂, Hexing tang 合興堂, Sanqing tang 三興堂, Xinxi tang 新喜堂, Xianjing tang 仙經堂, Quanfu tang 全福堂, Minle tang 民樂堂, Hehe tang 合和堂, and Hongqing tang 鴻慶堂. They suggest that activity resumed after the disruption of the Japanese occupation, with over thirty bands active in Jiading alone.

For the period after Liberation, the Anthology morphs disingenuously into an account of research, drawing a veil over what became of this rich culture. While even an official survey from 1953 lists 28 tangming groups with 272 performers around Jiading county, the culture was severely reduced after Liberation. As Qi Kun also suggests, major factors in the decline were the disappearance of former elite patrons, and campaigns against religion. Since the reforms, though the term tangming is no longer used, the tradition continues in various genres such as Daoist and qingyin groups, and shawm bands.

* * *

For “folk artists” Chinese sources always find it easier to list exceptional instances of official fame than to document the complexities of grassroots activities. In the case of many performers like Cai Huiquan, recruitment to state troupes was indeed an abrupt metamorphosis. Still, few would have been reluctant to take up such employment. They had to work out how to survive under the new regime; such posts offered them a reliable “food-bowl” and seemed to promise them a certain protection from accusations of “feudal superstition”, blunting the stigma of any dubious class background.

But many others “left behind” had to struggle to adapt to the new society. I have refined the official image in my work on north China, and Qi Kun has provided similar nuance for the Shanghai suburbs. Commonly across China in the early 1950s, ordinary people filled the gap in patronage left by the now-discredited—and impoverished—former elite by inviting such bands for their own more more modest rituals. But as collectivization intensified, many folk performers would have had to change trades, eking out a living from the land or taking up factory jobs.

Here I can’t broach the riches of Daoist ritual activity around Suzhou before Liberation or its changing later fortunes; but the Anthology biographies for Jiangsu also feature several of the most eminent “Daoist musicians”—a misnomer with which I often take issue. This reveals a further issue with the Anthology coverage, which I hope to explore soon.

Images from the Maoist era

Xi'an village festival, 1950s.

Village festival near Xi’an, 1950s.

One of the main themes of this blog, and my whole work, is the tenuous maintenance of expressive culture through the decades of Maoism.

There are many sources for visual images of the period, including the site of Covell Meyskens (see this interview). But photos of folk performance activity in the countryside during the period (like the one above) are less common. One useful source is the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, under the rubrics of folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, instrumental music, and dance; indeed, the volumes have rare images from the Republican, Maoist, and reform eras.

My posts include many such photos. Here’s a sample—do click on the links for background, and get to know the soundscape through recordings.

Several precious photos derive from the definitive work of Yang Yinliu and the Music Research Institute in Beijing, such as

Zhihua temple 1954

My tribute to Yang Yinliu includes several numinous images, such as

  • Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe immersed in research at the Institute, 1961:


  • A brief excursion to Huashan amidst the gathering political clouds, May 1965:

Huashan 1965

  • Shifan groups in Jiangsu:
  • Fieldwork in Hequ, Shanxi, 1953


Confucian ritual in Hunan https://stephenjones.blog/2019/03/28/hunan-confucian-ritual/

  • Meanwhile in Suzhou, a remarkable 1956 project documented a complete Daoist jiao ritual:

LQM shiban

  • More from Xi’an: former Daoist priest An Laixu leading a 1961 visit to Beijing:

ALX group lowres

  • Recreational ensembles in Yulin, Shaanbei:
  • including this wonderful 1962 photo of the Qiao family:

Qiao family 1962

  • Images of rural narrative-singing include the model bard Han Qixiang in Shaanbei, and Xihe dagu in Hebei:

A wealth of photos of qin zither players from the period is available, such as

For the Li family Daoists in Shanxi,

LPS and wife

  • and the only early photos of the great Li Qing were taken during his brief sojourn in the secular regional troupe in 1959:

If only we had images (or films!) of them performing rituals in the period!

Still in Yanggao,

  • the wonderful Li Jin during his time as an errentai operatic clown:

Meanwhile in Hebei, photos of ritual groups from the period are again rare. Perhaps the most remarkable image of all is

  • former Buddhist monk Daguang with his disciples in North Xinzhuang village in the Beijing suburbs, 1959:

North Xinzhuang 1959

1981 photo

In addition, over the period folk ritual groups recopied many gongche scores of the wind ensemble music that accompanies ritual, many of which appear in my many notes under local ritual.

I’m still curious to learn if such images might be available for expressive culture in Stalin’s Russia. Supplementing our talks with people who recall the Maoist era, it looks as if despite their appalling sufferings, folk traditions in embattled local communities in China were maintained with more resilience, however tenously. Do read the posts in which these photos appear!



Lyrics for theme tunes


A couple of ancient musical jokes—much shared online, but hey:

What does Batman’s mum call out when she wants him to come for his supper?

Dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner Batman!


Where does the Pink Panther come from?

Durham (Durham, Durham Durham Durham Durham Durhaaaaaam)

(For UK and US variants, see comments below.)

For a more ambitious word setting for Berlioz’s March to the Scaffold, see here; and for a handy mnemonic for additive metres, here. For tributes to the artistry of theme tunes, see Pearl and Dean, Parks and recreation, Soap.

South Jiangsu: beyond silk-and-bamboo

Laoximen 2001

Qinglian street club, Old Westgate, Shanghai 2001. My photo.

The Jiangnan sizhu (“silk-and-bamboo of south Jiangsu”) instrumental ensemble has become a reified image of secular Chinese entertainment music. It’s played not only by polished professionals on stage, but by amateur groups in teahouses and leisure centres around Shanghai and the whole vicinity (for amateur chamber ensembles elsewhere, cf. suite-plucking in old Beijing, the Yulin “little pieces”, nanyin, and so on). Shanghai is a hospitable cosmopolitan urban centre, and these clubs are a popular haunt of foreign music students there.

The title was formalized only in the 1950s—one of many instances of the official renaming of genres at the time, such as Xi’an guyue or Xiansuo shisantao. Yet however one may dispute reification, Jiangnan sizhu is indeed “a thing”. Over a long period since the early 20th century we can observe a continuum from life-cycle and calendrical performances, through the amateur clubs, to professional staged performances.

In Chapter 13 of my book Folk music of China I began to put silk-and-bamboo in the wider context of musicking around south Jiangsu (Suzhou, Wuxi, Nanjing, Changshu, Yangzhou, and so on—all large regions each containing several hundred villages!). And I outlined the background of regional opera, narrative-singing, and all kinds of ritual practice, including the Shifan ensembles that accompany Daoist ritual. Indeed, Daoist ritual around Shanghai and south Jiangsu is a vast topic subsidiary only to local traditions in southeast China.

So apart from their use as entertainment in the amateur clubs, the various types of sizhu have a firm basis in life-cycle and calendrical rituals.

Folk-singing in the region is easily overlooked, but fortunately we have a wonderful detailed study by Antoinet Schimmelpenninck, who also saw the wider picture. She refers to ritual styles like xuanjuan 宣卷 performed by devotional sectarian groups, common throughout south Jiangsu. [1]

As Chinese genres go, compared with many traditions in both north and south China Jiangnan sizhu is rather youthful. As commonly with folk groups, the musicians sit around a table, an inevitable casualty of stage performance. They often take turns on various instruments over the course of an afternoon session. The personnel remains predominantly male.

Chinese studies have favoured “music” over social context, and most publications on Jiangnan sizhu are based on the “eight great pieces” (for a simple introduction, see my Folk music of China, pp.275–82). While the repertoire is not so reified as this canonization may lead us to suppose, in the teahouses of central Shanghai it remains rather limited. But local variants of the repertoire abound, as shown by the definitive 1985 collection of transcriptions (770 pages!) by Gan Tao 甘涛. As always, we should regard it not as a reified repertoire, but as a regional form of musicking, a social activity (and since the ambience and sound-world of the amateur clubs may be reminiscent of Irish pub sessions, do enjoy my posts on Cieran Carson!).

Interlude: laowai
By the 1980s the Jiangnan sizhu repertoire was already the subject of analysis from scholars like Ye Dong, Li Minxiong, and Yuan Jingfang. Meanwhile, as China opened up again after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Larry Witzleben spent extended periods based at the Shanghai Conservatoire from 1981 to 1985, resulting in the brilliant early monograph

  • J. Lawrence Witzleben, “Silk and bamboo” music in Shanghai: the Jiangnan sizhu instrumental ensemble tradition (1995),

still one of the most accomplished ethnographies of a local Chinese tradition.

With chapters on the historical background and intergenre relationships, instruments, repertory, form, variation, texture, and aesthetics, perhaps the most innovative section is Chapter 2, a nuanced ethnography of the scene from 1981 to 1985, including relations with the professional music world.

Silk-and-bamboo soon earned a significant place in Western scholarship, and images of Chinese music, also thanks to the writings of Alan Thrasher, albeit concerned more with musical structures than with ethnography.

Silk-and-bamboo clubs, Shanghai 1987. My photos.

In 1986 and 1987, based in Beijing, I used to decamp to Shanghai occasionally, taking what was then a very long train ride. According to my own apocryphal story, my main incentive was that the showers of the foreign students’ dorms there had a rather reliable supply of hot water, still rare in my student accommodation in Beijing. Anyway, even though I was already entranced by northern ritual culture, it gave me an opportunity to take part in some of the many amateur silk-and-bamboo clubs on erhu fiddle—and also to hang out with the wonderful qin-player Lin Youren and acquaint myself with the thriving Daoist ritual scene.

For foreign students, participant observation was both instructive and pleasurable. As laowai, we were more keen on visiting the teahouses than our Chinese fellow-students, who naturally focused on the polished versions of their conservatoire teachers.

In 1987 I was roped into a Jiangnan sizhu contest at the conservatoire, joining a mixed group of Chinese and foreign students—the latter including François Picard, Fred Lau, and Tony Wheeler (back row, to my right). In the front row, on the far right is Ma Xiaohui 马晓晖, who went on to a career as erhu virtuoso, and at the centre is Zhou Zhongkang 周仲康, the conservatoire teacher assigned to oversee our efforts—our programme included his luogu sizhu composition Qing:

contest 87

The competitive format was hardly my favoured method of engaging with silk-and-bamboo, but it was an interesting experience. Alongside the conservatoire-style ensembles taking part, there were also some fine senior amateur groups. As cute foreign pets we inevitably won a prize, but our sound ideal, however flawed in execution, was modelled on folk practice rather than the more polished version of the professionals. Soon after, Helen Rees also became a regular participant at Shanghai teahouse sessions, while embarking on her fine studies of ritual music in southwest China.

Thinking back, guided by mentors at the Music Research Institute and Yuan Jingfang, my Beijing base propelled me towards ritual in the countryside more inevitably than might have been the case if I had been studying in Shanghai. Rural ritual is plentiful throughout south Jiangsu too, but somehow there is more to encourage one to tarry in cosmopolitan Shanghai without venturing out to the villages and townships.

Zhang Zhengming, 2001: left, with Zhou Hao at the Xuhui club;
right, with his wife—their 1952 wedding photo in the background.

On a visit in 2001 I spent a week in Shanghai, with the wonderful Zhang Zhengming 张徵明 (b.1925) guiding me to a different club every afternoon. It was good to see the renowned erhu master Zhou Hao, then 77, taking part keenly in the amateur groups, naturally modifying his polished style to the ambience; later in a one-to-one session he gave me a fine demonstration of the difference between “folk” and “conservatoire” styles.


I was happy to be able to invite a group led by Zhang Zhengming to the 2005 Amsterdam China festival, as I scurried around hosting the Hua family shawm band and the Li family Daoists from Yanggao.

Again, there’s a continuum: official staged presentations are part of the whole fabric of silk-and-bamboo. This playlist from Jan Chmelarčík includes his videos from the amateur clubs in 2006 and 2007, showing a variety of contexts and styles:

The silk-and-bamboo scene plays a major role in Ruard Absaroka’s thesis Hidden musicians and public musicking in Shanghai, very much informed by anthropological theory. [2]

The wider context: the Anthology
It’s so easy to find activity in central Shanghai that one might not be tempted to explore the suburbs and further afield. But by the 1980s, research was also expanding significantly with the great Anthology:

  • Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ, Shanghai juan 中国民族民间器乐曲, 上海卷 (1993),

edited by the knowledgeable Li Minxiong.

Local collectors documented the wider region in the suburbs of Shanghai, with its twelve municipalities and ten counties. Apart from transcriptions, the collectors also described folk activity, with useful textual introductions as well as biographies and introductions to major groups.

Again it’s worth noting the overall Anthology coverage for Shanghai. After an opening section on solo music (pp.19–234) devoted mainly to pipa solos, there are three main rubrics: sizhu (235–930), chuida (932–1268), and “religious music” (1273–1594). There follow brief biographies and accounts of folk groups (1595–1638, illustrated descriptions of instruments (1639–58), and lengthy appendices, mainly gongche scores (1661–2087).

It may seem impressive that even by 2001 over thirty sizhu groups were still meeting amidst the glossy modernity of central Shanghai. But for the whole region, Li Minxiong gives a figure of 428 groups (!) since the early 20th century; as he explains in his introduction (JC pp.241–63), over two hundred were active on the eve of Liberation.

Following the May Fourth movement of 1919, many groups adopted the term “national music” in their titles. Indeed, such groups were the precursors of the whole “conservatoire style” that later came to represent the official image of Chinese music. The Anthology describes celebrated groups from the Republican era.


Top: Xiadiao music ensemble; middle: Qingping gathering, 1934; below: Datong music association (note music stands!). Source: Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shanghai juan.


Juntian gathering, 1917, Source: Qi Kun, Jiangnan sizhu.

After the 1949 Liberation, master musicians from the “old society” lent continuity, such as Jin Zuli, Sun Yude, Li Tingsong, Wei Zhongle, Chen Yonglu, and Lin Shicheng (for more, see Anthology, pp.1595–1722). At the same time they were responsible for certain innovations resulting from adapting the style to the concert platform. Commercial recordings were already quite common, but the carefully prescribed arrangements of Lu Chunling’s quartet with Ma Shenglong, Zhou Hao, and Zhou Hui became influential. Here’s a cassette (remember them?) of them from 1982, after the hiatus of the Cultural Revolution:


As collectivization and campaigns escalated, some folk groups had difficulty maintaining activity; but, as everywhere, the liberalizations following the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s brought a revival. In 1980 over seven hundred performers took part in a grand performance at the Shanghai conservatoire, with groups coming from Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuxi, Nanjing, and Hangzhou. But as Shanghai was transformed again, amateur clubs have somehow remained active.

Related genres
But apart from the public image of sizhu, the Anthology valuably introduces bands in the surrounding suburban regions, often serving life-cycle and calendrical rituals—in Nanhui, Fengxian, Chuansha, Jiading, Shanghai county, Baoshan, Qingpu, Songjiang, Jinshan, and Chongming island.


Undated Anthology photos: above and below: chuida bands, Chongming; middle: the Tianshan national music association.

So this involves expanding our explorations in terms of both geography and genre. While sizhu is the main theme, the plot thickens when we include related instrumental genres hardly broached by foreign scholars based in metropolitan Shanghai: the “pure tones bands” (qingyin ban 清音班) and the former tangming 堂名 groups (see also n.3 below).

Moreover, the latter are also related to the occupational “blowing and beating” bands (chuidaban 吹打班) based on shawms and percussion—another main rubric of the Anthology (see introduction, pp.932–45). Among 184 such bands for which collectors found evidence, Li Minxiong gives sketches of rural groups in Chuansha, Baoshan, Qingpu, and Jiading, all with several generations of transmission. This section also contains material on local ritual, including weddings, funerals, and longevity celebrations (qingshou 庆寿), as well as calendrical and religious rituals.

A fine case-study: Nanhui
Qi Kun 齐琨, with a firm background in music anthropology, has produced some fine ethnographic work, notably her book on the qingyin 清音 groups of Nanhui county in the southeastern suburbs [2]—itself an extensive area, with 26 districts (amalgamated in 2001 into 14 townships) and 347 villages:

  • Lishidi chanshi: Shanghai Nanhui sizhuyue qingyinde chuancheng yu bianqian yanjiu 历史地阐释: 上海南汇丝竹乐清音的传承与变迁研究 (2007).

Starting from around 1850 when such groups became common in Nanhui, she uses local gazetteers, interviews with senior performers, and fieldnotes from attendance at rituals and secular performances. She often cites the Nanhui draft for the Anthology, which looks to be among the more detailed local contributions to the Shanghai volumes.

She introduces various related genres in Nanhui, including Daoist groups [3] and their former “household kin” (menjuan 门眷) catchment-area system, occupational chuida bands, Buddhist groups, opera, and the Pudong style of pipa plucked lute.

Qi Kun musters impressive material on bands and activity in the late Qing and the Republican era (itself a period of significant change), with sections on temple fairs, weddings, and funerals.

After the Communist victory of 1949, state-sanctioned performances of Jiangnan sizhu on stage became more common alongside traditional contexts, but as always I’m keen to learn more about folk activity during the decades of Maoism, the crucial transitional period from the “old society” to the consumer culture of the reform era (cf. Yulin).

The Anthology notes in passing some basic elements in the decline of many groups over the period as a result of the state’s pervasive social remoulding, such as migration, army service, collectivization, and campaigns against superstition. But ever alert to change, Qi Kun has a detailed chapter on the Maoist era in Nanhui. She illustrates the severe reduction of the diverse local social contexts that were the basis for expressive culture before Liberation—the rich network of temple fairs, weddings and funerals. Many qingyin performers were absorbed into a scene now based on entertainment rather than ceremonial; as elsewhere, many fine folk musicians were recruited to the new state-funded opera troupes and amateur “art-work troupes”. Qi Kun notes the place of qingyin in state-sponsored events like political meetings and sending off army recruits.

However, there was a certain continuity, and amateur qingyin activity persisted. Qi Kun gives instances from nine districts. She notes the more-or-less undisturbed observance of life-cycle rituals in the early 1950s, with lengthy processions; some groups even persisted performing for these contexts into the early 1960s.

The fortunes of musicians depended largely on their “class status”, but irrespective of this many were reduced to poverty. But there were ironies—as one performer commented:

People like Wen Zhengxiu who served as Daoist priests weren’t persecuted. Almost all of those Daoists smoked opium, so they had virtually no possessions at home, they could never become wealthy. So after Liberation they were classed as poor peasants. Instead it was honest people like us, who had toiled over several generations to accumulate family property, who were targets of punishment.

Such people now became the core of many qingyin groups.

Amidst the traumas of the Cultural Revolution, Qi Kun goes on to describe the maintenance of the qingyin style (if not its former context) in the Mao Zedong Thought propaganda troupes. Some troupes even used the traditional sizhu repertoire, like Xingjie, to accompany political processions.

And even now a certain amount of furtive recreational activity continued (again, cf. Yulin)—behind closed doors, some troupe members even sometimes dared invite former “landlords” and “rich peasants” to play the traditional repertoire along with them. Performers recall both the cruelty and the nuances of the period. Many of the troupe members became core elements in the revival of tradition from the late 1970s—for which, of course, the main factor was the amazing resurgence of ritual practice. Indeed, a modest revival was already under way before the overthrow of the Gang of Four in 1976.

qingyin JC

Qingyin bands in Fengxian, Jiading, and Baoshan. Source: Anthology.

In Chapter 4 Qi Kun takes the story on into the consumer age. After detailing the gradual revival (cf. my own notes on that of the Li family Daoists in Shanxi), she surveys a scene that is still more diverse than that before 1949, with recreational groups (now under semi-official leadership, with some even adopting the title “folk music band” minyuedui 民乐队!) now able to meet regularly, overlapping with occupational bands performing for customary observances. She gives a fine diary of the varied public activities of the Zhuqiao qingyin band from 1994 to 2003, as well as detailed notes on a 2002 wedding and on the grandest of ten funerals that she attended in 2004. Indeed, while such groups traditionally performed for weddings, their participation in funerals is a recent innovation.


Still, even with the revival, fewer performers are active than before 1949. Qi Kun also illustrates changes in ritual practice over the period with graphic tables. Here she compares figures for qingyin bands active around Nanhui in 1937–49 and in 2004, by district:

QK 326

For all periods, Qi Kun constantly notes the interaction of social, economic, political, and musical change—if only Chinese musicology would learn from such an approach, rather than banging on about heritage and living fossils!


Wall advertisement for the Tongxin qingyin band, Nanhui c2004. Source: Qi Kun, Jiangnan sizhu (2009).

The advertisement above reads:

Exclusive service for wedding and funerals: destroy superstition and be frugal—stylish and trendy.

I don’t know if this was a disingenuous response to a temporary campaign, but the social mood of the time was not exactly keen on destroying superstition or enacting frugality. Discuss

And suburban regions like Nanhui are anything but a rural backwater: they are inextricably tied to the global economic market of Shanghai. But exploring the environs always reveals a diverse picture.

That’s quite enough for one sitting—but zooming out still further, the instrumental volumes of the Anthology for Jiangsu province give an impression of such bands throughout the province:

  • Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ, Jiangsu juan 中国民族民间器乐曲, 江苏卷 (1998).

Again its main rubrics are chuida, sizhu, and “religious music”.

And just south lies Zhejiang province… Aiyaa.

* * *

Shanghai silk-and-bamboo makes a comfortable repertoire that is too easily reified and detached from the wider society. Much as I have enjoyed visiting the Shanghai teahouses, there’s so much more to study, not only in the suburbs but all around south Jiangsu, where entertainment genres are always subsidiary to ritual! And the cast of ritual performers, here as elsewhere, is still more varied: Daoist ritual specialists, spirit mediums (very important in local society), devotional sectarian groups, and so on.

Like Beijing, Tianjin, Chongqing, and other municipalities, Shanghai is a vast region, the riches of whose expressive culture can hardly be encapsulated by simple labels. As usual, we have to look beyond the reified canons of idealized, “representative” “genres” (the Zhihua temple, the “eight great suites” of Shanxi, the Uyghur twelve muqam, and so on) and plunge into the complex world of changing local social activities.

[1] Among considerable research on xuanjuan, see e.g. articles in Dayin 大音 vols. 3, 4 and 5; Zhongguo quyi zhi, Jiangsu juan 中国曲艺志, 江苏卷; Qian Tiemin 钱铁民 (on Wuxi) in Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Huadong juan 中国民间仪式音乐研究, 华东卷 (2007) vol.1; Qiu Huiying 丘慧瑩, “Jiangsu Changshu Baimao diqu xuanjuan huodong diaocha baogao” 江蘇常熟白茆地區宣卷活動調查報告, Minsu quyi 169 (2010), pp.183–247; Li Shu-ju 李淑如, “Zhangjiagang diqu jianwang fahui yishi yu xuanjuan diaocha baogao” 張家港地區薦亡法會儀式與宣卷調查報告, Minsu quyi 204 (2019.6), pp.197–250. In English, see Mark Bender, “A description of ‘jiangjing’ (telling scriptures) services in Jingjiang, China”, Asian folklore studies 60 (2001), and ongoing work from Rostislav Berezkin, such as this, and an article with Vincent Goossaert.

[2] For a flavour [sic] of his recent musings, see “Timbre, taste and epistemic tasks: a cross-cultural perspective on atmosphere and vagueness”, in Friedlind Riedel and Juha Torvinen (eds), Music as atmosphere: collective feelings and affective sounds (2019), which sets forth from timbre and atmosphere in Shanghai silk-and-bamboo. While I like the title, and am happy to add the splendid acronym WEIRD (coined to describe “western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic” ethnocentrism) to my list, I may not be alone in finding some of his erudite theoretical discussion a tad arcane. That’s academia for you!

[3] Qi Kun also has related articles in Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Huadong juan (with film footage on the DVD), and the Dayin series (n.1 above).

[4] For Daoist ritual in Nanhui, see Zhu Jianming 朱建明 and Tan Jingde 谈敬德, Shanghai Nanhui xian Zhengyi pai daotan yu Dongyue miao keyiben huibian 上海南汇县正一派道坛与东岳庙科仪本汇编 (2006), and Zhu Jianming and Tan Jingde, Shanghai Nanhui xian Laogang xiang nongjia duqiao yishi yu qiao wenhua 上海南汇县老港乡农家渡桥仪式与桥文化 (1996); in Jiading and Chuansha counties, Zhu Jianming, Tan Jingde, and Chen Zhengsheng 陈正生, Shanghai jiaoqu daojiao jiqi yinyue yanjiu 上海郊区道教及其音乐研究 (2001; for the tangming groups, note pp.29–48); and in Shanghai county, Zhu Jianming, Shanghai xian Shengtang daoyuan jiqi taiping gongjiao kaocha jishi 上海县圣堂道院及其公醮考察纪实 (1993). See also a thoughtful review by Poul Andersen in Daniel Overmyer, Ethnography in China today, pp.263–83.

Big red joke book

Red joke book

Before Hammer and Tickle came

  • Greg Benton and Graham Loomes, Big red joke book (1976).

The jokes come from a wide range of countries, including the USA and Britain, with the Soviet bloc playing a major role. Again there are sadly few from China (see my Chinese jokes tag); still, since it’s not a big book, they might as well have called it The Little red joke book.

We might pair this one with Woody Allen’s Hassidic tales:

“Rabbi,” asks a young Jew, “can you build socialism in one country?”

“You can,” says the rabbi, “but then it’s best to live in another country.”

There are some goodies from the GDR, like

Q. Is it true that Walter Ulbricht collects political jokes?

A. No, but he collects people who tell them.

as well as a version of the Li Peng story I told here, with Ulbricht as the subject.

Here’s another story from Prague (cf. many posts under Czech tag):

A restaurant in Prague started up a strip-tease show. To everyone’s surprise, the public appeared to shun in totally. The Prague authorities, concerned at the loss of takings, summoned the restaurant’s manager and asked him some questions.

“Is there something the matter with the seating arrangements?”

“No”, said the manager, “they’re very comfortable.”

“The lighting?”

“No, the lighting is perfect.”

“In that case, it must have something to do with the women who perform there.”

“Out of the question!” assured the manager. “We hire no-one unless they have been at least thirty years in the Party.”

Of course, many such stories, like folk-songs, travel widely in variant forms.




Köchel numbers


Along with 1066 and all that and little-trumpeted works like The ascent of Rum Doodle and Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, another classic from my youth is the slim tome

  • Bluff your way in music (1966).

Tactfully, the name of its author Peter Gammond is not disclosed. By “music” he means WAM, of course—HIP and “world music“, then only in their infancy, are spared, though folk music and jazz get succinct tributes. There is also a drôle Glossary, forerunner to many twee tea-towels—you know the kind of thing, like

  • Chamber music—music written for a very small number of listeners.
  • Development—what composers do with the melody in order to make a composition of decent length.
  • Exposition—the popular bit of a composition while the tune is still being played [see also Francis Baines‘s definition of sonata form].
  • Harmony—a term of no meaning whatsoever. Such phrases as “rich harmony”, “stark harmony”, “satisfying harmony” can be used indiscriminately.
  • Mode—scales which sound a bit odd.
  • Portamento—the ability to move from a wrong note to a right one without anyone noticing the original mistake.
  • Recitative—when an opera singer forgets the tune.

But my enduring memory of the book is:

Mozart had the distinction, as everyone knows, of writing Koechels instead of Opuses, a thing no other composer has done before or since. Mozart’s great popularity dates from the fact that this absorbing fact was discovered, by some strange coincidence, by a man called Koechel.

Meditation: update with translation!


Hardly had I published this series of links to posts on the Shunzhi emperor’s Buddhist meditation on impermanence, and what it’s doing in the ritual manuals of the Li family Daoists, when I realized that I would be churlish not to provide a rough translation, for those readers less than fluent in classical Chinese—of whom I hope there are many!

So I’ve now added it under the original post, here. Help welcome…

A meditation on impermanence


In several posts I refer to the beautiful Buddhist meditation on impermanence Kangxi yun 康熙云, actually composed not by the Kangxi emperor but by his father the Shunzhi emperor (1638–61).

A variant of the poem forms part of the hymn volume of the Li family Daoists, the very first ritual manual that Li Qing recopied in 1980. This volume is not for one specific ritual segment, but a general-purpose collection of funerary texts—I explain in some detail the process of recopying the manuals in this post (for the hymn volume, see under “Manuals and ritual practice”).


Here I noted Li Manshan’s attachment to the text of the Kangxi yun (with a very rough translation), and began to wonder what it is doing in the hymn volume. And on my stay with Li Manshan last year (see my diary, under “Pacing the Void”) we sought further clues, speculating about how, and when, the text might have entered the Li family manuals.

But ritual manuals are never merely silent texts; it’s also important to document the function of such texts in ritual performance. The Li family Daoists no longer perform the Kangxi yun, but as Li Manshan explains, it was one of several long texts grouped together in the hymn volume that could be recited in the shuowen solo introit style used for funerary segments like shanggong 上供 Presenting Offerings—discussed here.


From my film: a shuowen introit from the shanggong ritual.

Summary: update to Other publications


FWIW, in my post Other publications I’ve just appended a very brief outline of the, um, progression of my work on China. Do take a look!

From 1986, as I converted from Tang music to fieldwork on living traditions of local ritual—groups serving life-cycle and calendrical rituals, I focused first on amateur ritual associations in Hebei villages (notably Gaoluo) and then (after an interlude on shawm bands), on hereditary occupational groups of household Daoists around north China (notably the Li family Daoists in Shanxi).

All this accompanied a shift from studying reified “music” to the ethnography of changing ritual practice in local communities, and documenting the vicissitudes of people’s lives—before, during, and since the decades of Maoism.

Lives in Stalin’s Russia


Hand-in-hand with my focus on ritual and expressive culture, I have long been concerned to document life-stories—of ordinary people, artists, and scholars, both in China (cf. my detailed work on the Gaoluo villagers and the Li family Daoists) and Europe.

Under the Iron curtain tag (see also roundup here) I’ve broached life-stories under state socialism in the GDR (here and here), Czechoslovakia, and Ukraine (blind minstrels, and the famine)—and tribulations under the Soviet regime were the context for this post on ethnic minorities there. But now, reading

  • Orlando Figes, The whisperers: private lives in Stalin’s Russia (2007)

makes an accessible single-volume study to begin shedding light on my ignorance of ordinary lives in the Soviet Union. Apart from the importance of the topic in itself, I muse (as ever) on the similarities and differences with Maoist—and post-Maoist—China.

Many books describe the externals of the Terror—the arrests and trials, enslavements and killings of the Gulag—but The whisperers is the first to explore in depth its influence on personal and family life.

The oral history of family memory makes a counterweight to the official narrative (notes also Soviet lives at war). Figes interrogates the issues in interpreting such sources. His website, following on from his oral history project, is a treasury of related material. For significant caveats on the book, see here (with further links).

As the regime sought to erase the distinction between public and private life, Figes describes both the effectiveness of the Soviet indoctrination of children and the internal conflict with messages they gleaned from their families. The system taught dissimulation, producing duplicity and lifelong fear. As a survival strategy, people learned to wear a mask, going into “internal emigration”, leading double lives; they had to adjust to the system merely in order to survive. They learned not to talk: “whisperers” were both those who whispered out of fear of being overheard, and those who informed.

Figes details the effects of successive waves of repression, before, during, and after the Stalin regime from 1928 to 1953, interweaving many family histories throughout the book. The case of its central figure Konstantin Simonov, who “embodied all the moral conflicts and dilemmas of his generation”, though revealing in its complexity, is exceptional in his high profile as cultural cadre. The index, and the website, can be used to follow the stories of individual families throughout the book. The cast includes both cadres and the catch-all of “kulaks”, but seems more urban than rural—whereas China was more predominantly rural as late as the 1970s. Even early images of “kulaks” being expelled, and photos from the gulag (however manufactured), suggest that China was still more backward—and repressed—in the 1950s than Russia in the 1920s.

Exiles gulag Siberia 1933 101Exiles in a “special settlement” in western Siberia, 1933.

For Maoist China too, diverse sources can be assembled to modify and counter the official narrative, including memoirs, family photos and documents, local archives, and so on—note Sebastian Veg, Popular memories of the Mao eraMemoirs and biographical accounts have proliferated since the liberalizations of the 1980s. In film, recent projects such as laogai documentaries and Wu Wenguang’s Caochangdi Work Station are impressive. Also revealing are fictional portrayals—not just laogai novelists like Zhang Xianliang and Yan Lianke, but films such as The blue kite that suggest the everyday tribulations of ordinary families. But while there may be a comparable wealth of material for China, it’s hard to envisage such an accessible, personal, wide-ranging and diachronic account as The whisperers.

Illuminating his sources perceptively, Figes identifies clear periods in people’s fates under the Soviet regime. The repression took place over a longer period than that of Maoism, and may seem to have been even more terrifying. The gulag—among the extensive literature on which, see e.g. Anne Applebaum, Gulag: a history (2003)—looms larger in the public (and private) image of the USSR than the laogai system in China, although the latter has also become the subject of brave research. Executions, and the all-pervading NKVD, also seem to play a more common role in Soviet history.

Below I can only list some of the main themes of the book, rather than citing the many personal life-stories that illustrate them—which is actually its outstanding strength.

* * *

Figes opens with Children of 1917, on the early years of the revolution, and the beginnings of state indoctrination and the war on religion. In 1926 the peasantry represented 82% of the Soviet population—cf. China, where the rural population peaked at 84% in 1963. But urban populations grew rapidly. Families were dislocated; millions of children were abandoned, having to fend for themselves. Figes describes life at the camps. Some “kulaks” managed to flee from the camps, living on the run.

Young people renounced their relatives, for various motives.

As millions of people left their homes, changed their jobs, or moved around the country, it was relatively easy to change or reinvent one’s social class. People learned to fashion for themselves a class identity that would help them advance. They became clever at concealing or disguising impure social origins, and at dressing up their own biographies to make them seem more “proletarian”.

But they were haunted by the constant threat of exposure—many concealed their secrets right until the 1990s.

In The great break (1928–32) Figes describes the temporary relaxation in the assault against religion between 1924 and 1928:

On 2 August 1930, the villagers of Obukhovo celebrated Ilin Day, an old religious holiday to mark the end of the high summer when Russian peasants held a feast and said their prayers for a good harvest. After a service in the church, the villagers assembled at the Golovins, the biggest family in Obukhovo, where they were given home-made pies and beer inside the house while their children played outside. As evening approached, the village dance (gulian’e) began. Led by a band of balalaika players and accordionists, two separate rows of boys and girls, dressed in festive cottons, set off from the house, singing as they danced down the village street.

Thereafter, while clandestine belief may have persisted, I find rather few clues to any public religious (or even customary) activity—by contrast with Maoist China, where it kept resurfacing despite constant campaigns. Am I wrong to see local Chinese populations as more resilient in maintaining their expressive culture under Maoism? Still in Obukhovo:

That year the holiday was overshadowed by violent arguments. The villagers were bitterly divided about whether they should form a collective farm (kolkhoz), as they had been ordered by the Soviet government. […] There were terrifying tales of soldiers forcing peasants into the kolkhoz, of mass arrests and deportations, of houses being burned and people killed, and of peasants fleeing from their villages and slaughtering their cattle to avoid collectivization.

Kulaks exiled 1930s 89“Kulaks” exiled from the village of Udachne, Khryshyne (Ukraine), early 1930s.

As Figes explains:

During just the first two months of 1930, half the Soviet peasantry (about 60 million people in over 100,000 villages) was herded into the collective farms. […] Peasants who spoke out against collectivization were beaten, tortured, threatened, and harassed, until they agreed to join the collective farm. Many were expelled as “kulaks” from their homes and driven out of the village. The herding of the peasants into the collective farms was accompanied by a violent assault against the Church, the focal point of the old way of life of the village, which was regarded by the Bolsheviks as a source of potential opposition to collectivization. Thousands of priests were arrested and churches were looted and destroyed, forcing millions of believers to maintain their faith in the secrecy of their own homes. […]
There was surprisingly little peasant opposition to the persecution of the “kulaks”. […] The majority of the peasantry reacted to the sudden disappearance of their fellow villagers with passive resignation born of fear.

Golovins 1940s 78Yevdokiia and Nikolai with their son Aleksei Golovin (1940s).

In Obukhovo the Golovins were deported on 4th May 1930:

I recall the faces of the people standing there. They were our friends and neighbours—the people I had grown up with. No-one approached us. No-one said farewell. They stood there silently, like soldiers in a line. They were afraid.


There was widespread resistance to collectivization, even though most villagers acquiesced in the repression of “kulaks”. In 1929–30, the police registered 44,779 “serious disturbances”. Communists and rural activists were killed in their hundreds, and thousands more attacked. There were peasant demonstrations and riots, assaults against Soviet institutions, acts of arson and attacks on kolkhoz property, protests against closures of churches.

Figes unpacks the motives of those responsible for enforcing the brutal war against the peasantry.

Under The pursuit of happiness (1932–36), while observing brief concessions to consumer culture (promoting perfume, cosmetics, fun), he evokes urban projects like the construction of the Moscow metro from 1932, using peasant immigrants and gulag prisoners:

The splendour of these proletarian palaces, which stood in such stark contrast to the cramped and squalid private spaces in which the majority of people lived, played an important moral role (not unlike the role played by the Church in earlier states).

But popular unrest continued. The rise of a new bureaucratic elite also caused discontent:

In 1932, a manager at Transmashtekh, a vast industrial conglomerate, wrote to the Soviet President Mikhail Kalinin:

The problem with Soviet power is the fact that it gives rise to the vilest type of official—one that scrupulously carries out the general designs of the supreme authority… This official never tells the truth, because he doesn’t want to distress the leadership. He gloats about famine and pestilence in the district or ward controlled by his rival. He won’t lift a finger to help his neighbour… All I see around me is loathsome politicizing, dirty tricks, and people being destroyed for slips of the tongue. There’s no end to the denunciations. You can’t spit without hitting some revolting denouncer or liar. What have we come to? It’s impossible to breathe. The less gifted a bastard, the meaner his slander. Of course the purge of your Party is none of my business, but I think that as a result of it, decent elements still remaining will be cleaned out.

Figes notes the “hierarchy of poverty”. And meanwhile the lives of women failed to improve:

For women nothing changed in the 1930s—they worked long hours at a factory and then did a second shift at home, cooking, cleaning, caring for the children on average for five hours every night—whereas men were liberated from most of their traditional domestic duties (chopping wood, carrying water, preparing the stove) by the modernization of workers’ housing, which increased the provision of running water, gas, and electricity, leaving them more time for cultural pursuits and politics.

Trotsky had trenchant views on sexual politics:

One of the dramatic chapters in the great book of the Soviets will be the tale of the disintegration and breaking up of those Soviet families where the husband as a Party member, trade unionist, military commander or administrator, grew and developed and acquired new tastes in life, and the wife, crushed by the family, remained on the old level. The road of the two generations of Soviet bureaucracy is sown thick with the tragedies of wives rejected and left behind. The same phenomenon is now to be observed in the new generation. The greatest of all crudities and cruelties are to be met perhaps in the very heights of the bureaucracy, where a very large percentage are parvenus of little culture, who consider that everything is permitted to them. Archives and memoirs will some day expose downright crimes in relation to wives, and to women in general, on the part of those evangelists of family morals and the compulsory “joys of motherhood”, who are, owing to their position, immune from prosecution.

Figes documents the constrained domestic spaces of urban dwellers, and the tensions caused by lack of privacy, with some fine room plans.

Above, left: Khaneyevsky household, Moscow; right: Reifshnieders’ room, Moscow.
Below, left: Nikitin and Turkin apartments, Perm; right: Bushuev “corner” room, Perm.

In later years many people felt a rose-tinted nostalgia for the pre-war years, when

Everybody helped one another, and there were no arguments. No-one was stingy with their money—they spent their wages as soon as they were paid. It was fun to live then. Not like after the war, when people kept their money to themselves, and closed their doors.

But, as in China (where many peasants felt an equally perplexing nostalgia for the commune system), there’s ample evidence for the contrary view of communal life:

It was a different feeling of repression from arrest, imprisonment, and exile, which I’ve also experienced, but in some ways it was worse. In exile one preserved a sense of one’s self, but the repression I felt in the communal apartment was the repression of my inner freedom and individuality. I felt this repression, this need for self-control, every time I went into the kitchen, where I was always scrutinized by the little crowd that gathered there. It was impossible to be oneself.

Still, millions of people were taught to believe that

hard work today would be rewarded tomorrow, when the “good life” would be enjoyed by all.

Though the mid-1930s have been regarded as the calm before the storm,

for millions of people whose families were scattered in the Gulag’s labour camps and colonies, these years were as bad as any other.

Kondratiev 1938 226Nikolai Kondratiev’s last letter to his daughter, 1938.

In The great fear (1937–38), Figes explains that the Terror was not a routine wave of mass arrest, but a calculated policy of mass murder. Among the complex reasons prompting Stalin’s purge was the imminent threat of war. Not just the direct “offenders” but also their kin were hunted down. The motives of the informers, often themselves under extreme pressure, were also complex.

In 1938, the NKVD chief Yezhov was deposed. “The real reason for Yezhov’s fall was Stalin’s growing sense that mass arrests were no longer a workable strategy. At the rate the arrests were going, it would not be long before the entire Soviet population was in jail.” Under his successor Beria the purge was scaled down.

Fear brought out the worst in people. Yet there was also acts of extraordinary kindness by colleagues, friends, and neighbours, sometimes even strangers, who took enormous risks to help the families of “enemies of the people”. […]
The disappearance of a father and a husband placed enormous strain on families. Wives renounced husbands who had been arrested, not necessarily because they thought their spouses might be “enemies of the people”, although they may have had that thought, but because it made survival easier and gave protection to their families (many husbands for this reason advised wives to renounce them). […] It took extraordinary resilience, and not a little bravery, for women to resist these pressures and stand by their husbands.

There is scant consolation in Remnants of terror (1938–41) on the eve of the German invasion. Figes praises the untold acts of heroism of grandmothers striving to keep together the scattered remains of repressed families.

Lebeva 1940 322Elena Lebedeva with her granddaughters, Natalia (left) and Elena Konstantinova,
Ak-Bulak, 1940.

But many children ended up in orphanages, roamed the streets begging, joined street gangs, or were themselves sent to children’s labour colonies.

Meanwhile, in a Nazi–Soviet pact that alarmed faithful Communists, both Germany and the Red Army invaded Poland, and the USSR pressurized the Baltic states to accept pacts of “defence and mutual assistance”, extending the reach of their reign of terror.

The theme of Wait for me (1941–45) is the social consequences of the sudden German invasion of the USSR in 1941. Apart from its global significance, it was also crucial for the maintenance of the Soviet regime. Stalin now had no choice but to call for unity, setting aside class struggle and ideology. Many saw that the whole climate of the Terror had played a major role in the USSR’s initial inability to resist the invasion; criticism became open (some even welcomed the prospect of a German victory), and arrests continued.

But the desperate need for self-defence did indeed foster a spirit of national unity. The horrors of war against a brutal external enemy helped people forget, for now, the misery of their situation during “peacetime”. Patriotic morale even produced a new merging of the public sphere and the intimate world of personal relationships.

As the tide turned, the Red Army chased the Germans back. Convinced by the courageous determination of the Soviet forces, Figes seeks to explain it. Terror and coercion played a role, but

Appeals to the patriotism of the Soviet people were more successful. The vast majority of Soviet soldiers were peasant sons; their loyalty was not to Stalin or the Party, which had brought ruin to the countryside, but to their homes and families, to their own vision of the “motherland”.

The image of Mother Russia was promoted; controls over religion were temporarily relaxed. Hatred of the enemy was also an important element. But most significant, Figes suggests, was the cult of personal sacrifice:

As Simonov remarked, the people were prepared for the privations of the war—the sharp decline in living standards, the breaking up of families, the disruption of ordinary life—because they had already been through much the same in the name of the Five Year Plans.


Contrary to the Soviet myth of wartime national unity, Soviet society was more fractured during the war than at any previous time since the Civil War. Ethnic divisions had been exacerbated by the Soviet state, which scapegoated certain national minorities, such as the Crimean Tatars, the Chechens, and the Volga Germans, and exiled them to regions where they were not welcomed by the local populace. Anti-Semitism, which had been largely dormant in Soviet society before the war, now became widespread. It flourished especially in areas occupied by Hitler’s troops, where a large section of the Soviet population was directly influenced by the Nazis’ racist propaganda, but similar ideas were imported to places as remote as Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and Siberia by Soviet soldiers and evacuees from the western regions near the front.

Even so, people united for the defence of their local communities. And soldiers found camaraderie:

Veterans recall the intimacy of these wartime friendships with idealism and nostalgia. They claim that people then had “bigger hearts” and “acted from the soul”, and that they themselves were somehow “better human beings”, as if the comradeship of the small collective unit was a cleaner sphere of ethical relationships and principles than the Communist system, with all its compromises and contingencies. They often talk as if they found in the collectivism of these groups of fellow soldiers a type of “family” that was missing from the lives before the war (and would be missing afterwards).

Zinaida 1942 357Left: Zinaida Bushueva with her brothers, 1936.
Right: Zinaida (centre) in ALZhIR, 1942. A rare private photograph of Gulag prisoners, it was taken to send to relatives. The three women were photographed together to reduce the costs.

During the war the exploitation of the Gulag labour force intensified—in 1942 one in four Gulag workers died.

As Pasternak would write in the epilogue of Doctor Zhivago (1957), “When the war broke out, its menace of real death, were a blessing compared to the inhuman power of the lie, a relief because it broke the spell of the dead letter.” The relief was palpable. People were allowed to act in ways that would have been unthinkable before the war. By necessity, they were thrown back on their own initiative—they spoke to one another and helped each other without thinking of the political dangers to themselves, and from this spontaneous activity a new sense of nationhood emerged. The war years, for this reason, would come to be recalled with nostalgia.

The years 1941 to 1943 were described as a period of “spontaneous de-Stalinization”. People were empowered to think critically; a new freedom of expression even included political debate. The revival of religious activity continued through to 1948. Still, over the whole period cultural and religious life at a distance from urban centres remains somewhat obscure.

All this marked the beginning of a fundamental change of values. Towards the end of the war, as the Red Army entered Europe, their encounter with conditions there—clearly superior even amidst its desperately ravaged state, to which indeed they contributed further—also allowed them to question Soviet propaganda. And like the British, their experiences gave them ideals of building a better society—in their case, dismantling the collective farms, establishing democracy and religious freedoms. “Party leaders were understandably anxious about the return of all these men with their reformist ideas.” Such liberal notions were anyway spreading among civilians, not least as a result of the alliance with Britain and the USA.

As Ilia Ehrenburg wrote,

Everybody expected that once victory had been won, people would know real happiness. We realized, of course, that the country had been devastated, impoverished, that we would have to work hard, and we did not have fantasies about mountains of gold. But we believed that victory would bring justice, that human dignity would triumph.

Their hopes were soon dashed.

The ending of the war coincided with the first mass release of prisoners from the Gulag. […] Families began to piece themselves together again. Women took the lead in this recovery, sometimes travelling across the country in search of husbands and children. There were tight restrictions on where former prisoners could live. Most of them were banned from residing in the major towns. So families who wanted to be together often had to move to remote corners of the Soviet Union. Sometimes the only place they could find to settle was in the Gulag zone.

But the Gulag population actually expanded in the years after the war, with forced labour making a significant element in the economy.

People were damaged; fear, and silence, still reigned. All this also makes even more remarkable the widespread telling of political jokes, throughout the whole period.

The post-war period is the subject of Ordinary Stalinists (1945–53).

No other country suffered more from the Second World War than the Soviet Union. According to the most reliable estimates, 26 million Soviet citizens lost their lives (two-thirds of them civilians) […] and 4 million disappeared between 1941 and 1945. […] The demographic consequences of the war were catastrophic. Soviet agriculture never really recovered from this demographic loss. The kolkhoz became a place for women, children, and old men.

The material devastation was grievous too. Another famine occurred from 1946 to 1948. The brief improvement in the supply of consumer goods before the war was a distant memory. With people no longer afraid to express their discontent, strikes and demonstrations broke out. But as the new threat posed by the Cold War developed, Stalin moved promptly to purge the army and Party leadership, and to rule out any idea of political reform. Censorship was tightened; the new wave of dissent had to continue underground.

Left: Inna Gaister (aged 13) with her sisters Valeriia (3) and Natalia (8), Moscow, 1939. The photograph was taken to send to their mother in the Akmolinsk labour camp (ALZhIR).
Right: Inna Gaister (centre) with two friends at Moscow University, 1947.

But a new type of middle class now emerged, better educated and less ideological in outlook—though they had to conform, at least outwardly, to the demands of the regime, perfecting the art of wearing masks. Figes gives more stories of informants. Valentina Kropotina made her whole career by informing. With her “kulak” background,

I was basically a street-child, dressed in rags, barefoot… All my childhood memories are dominated by the feeling of hunger… I was afraid of hunger, and even more, of poverty. And I was corrupted by this fear.

She felt no remorse for what she did. Still,

The “little terror” of the post-war years was very different from the Great Terror of 1937–8. It took place, not against the backdrop of apocalypse, when frightened people agreed to betrayals and denunciations in the desperate struggle to save their lives and families, but against the background of a relatively mundane and stable existence, when fear no longer deprived people of their moral sensibility.

Anti-Semitism, always latent, escalated along with the “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign. When Stalin died in 1953, even some victims of the Terror felt genuine sorrow, but

The mourning ceremonies in Krasnodar were more like a holiday. They put on a mournful face, but there was a sparkle in their eyes, the hint of a smile beneath their greeting, that made it clear that they were pleased.

Even so, there was still no release from fear—indeed, people were anxious for the future. Beria played a role in allaying such fears, though he was soon executed in a Kremlin coup organized by Kruschev. Hopes were high among Gulag inmates; new demonstrations broke out, which helped bring about the abolition of the system. About 40% of the gulag population were released in an amnesty on 27th March 1953—though they returned to their families physically and mentally broken. The climate in the Soviet Union also led to the serious demonstrations that erupted in the GDR.

The story continues in Return (1953–56).

The family emerged from the years of terror as the one stable institution in a society where virtually all the mainstays of human existence—the neighbourhood community, the village and the church—had been weakened or destroyed. For many people the family represented the only relationship they could trust, the only place they felt a sense of belonging, and they went to extraordinary lengths to reunite with relatives.

But former prisoners found it hard to build relationships, to find jobs and places to live. They still had to confront those who had betrayed them, although they also understood the extreme pressures that had led them to do so. The process of rehabilitation was laborious. And millions never returned from the camps.

Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 made a decisive break, the beginnings of the reformist thaw. Still, Stalin, rather than the whole system, was the scapegoat. But it also had consequences for the countries of east Europe, notably with the Hungarian uprising that year.

And just as the worst was over in the USSR, China systematically repeated its deadly mistakes. Dikötter outlines many of the same features of life under Maoism, but his treatment is less personal.

As Figes describes in the final chapter, Memory (1956–2006), even after 1956, the vast majority of ordinary people were still too cowed and frightened by the memory of the Stalinist regime to speak out openly. The thaw ended when Brezhnev replaced Kruschev in 1964; as dissidents were persecuted, people again suppressed their traumatic memories. Stoicism and passivity became enduring social norms.

But nostalgia for the war persisted, even overriding other assessments of the system. Viacheslav Kondratiev recalled:

For our generation the war was the most important event in our lives, the most important. This is what we think today. So we are not prepared to belittle in any way the great achievement of our people in those terrifying, difficult, and unforgettable years. The memory of our fallen soldiers is too sacred, our patriotic feelings are too pure and deep for that.

Eventually more candid memories of the war surfaced, such as the 1975 film A soldier went. A whole Gulag literature emerged.

Unlike the victims of the Nazi war against the Jews, for whom there could be no redeeming narrative, the victims of Stalinist repression had two main collective narratives in which to place their own life-stories and find some sort of meaning for their ordeals: the survival narrative, as told in the memoir literature of former Gulag prisoners, in which their suffering was transcended by the human spirit of the survivor; and the Soviet narrative, in which that suffering was redeemed by the Communist ideal, the winning of the Great Patriotic War, or the achievements of the Soviet Union.

Figes reflects on the startling paradox in the later myth of Norilsk,

a large industrial city built and populated by Gulag prisoners, whose civic pride is rooted in their own slave labour for the Stalinist regime,

as well as the popular nostalgia for Stalin (and again we might compare the Chinese nostalgia for Mao—see also here), which

reflects the uncertainty of their lives as pensioners, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991; the rising prices that put many good beyond their means; the destruction of their savings by inflation; and the rampant criminality that frightened old people in their homes.


nostalgia notwithstanding, the ruinous legacies of the Stalinist regime continued to be felt by the descendants of Stalin’s victims many decades after the dictator’s death. It was not only a question of lost relationships, damaged lives and families, but of traumas passed from one generation to the next. […]
Even in the last years of the Soviet regime, in the liberal climate of glasnost, the vast majority of Soviet families did not talk about their histories, or pass down stories of repression to their children. […] Fifteen years after the collapse of the regime, there are still people in the provinces who are afraid to talk about their past, even to their own children.

Again, the Chinese parallel is interesting: whereas the Soviet “liberation” occurred after over seventy years of repression, in China “reform and opening” not only happened earlier, following the collapse of Maoism in the late 1970s, but came after a mere thirty years of state repression. Both Russia and China suffered grievously under invasion and warfare; and for both, the hard-earned victory came to form a cornerstone of the national image. But whereas in China the war set the scene for the Communist takeover and the people finally “standing up”, in Russia it made an interlude within a system in which repression was already deeply entrenched; it seemed to offer hopes for reform, which were soon thwarted. In China too the lid on popular expression of trauma remained quite tightly sealed, though as Sebastian Veg notes, “after a period of post-traumatic outpour, followed by commodified nostalgia, popular memory in recent years has shown signs of moving towards more critical discussions.” But both Chinese and Russian regimes continue to devise new forms of repression.

* * *

In my post on Bloodlands (n.2) I mentioned attempts to compare death tolls under Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—in ascending order, it seems. As Timothy Snyder wrote,

it turns out that, with the exception of the war years, a very large majority of people who entered the Gulag left alive. Judging from the Soviet records we now have, the number of people who died in the Gulag between 1933 and 1945, while both Stalin and Hitler were in power, was on the order of a million, perhaps a bit more. The total figure for the entire Stalinist period is likely between two million and three million. The Great Terror and other shooting actions killed no more than a million people, probably a bit fewer. The largest human catastrophe of Stalinism was the famine of 1930–1933, in which more than five million people died.

But appalling are the death tolls, they are far from the whole story. Now that I read Figes’s account, it seems callous and irrelevant to dwell on such statistics.

With my classical, mystical background, it took me a long time to appreciate the importance of all this—and it may still elude younger people in the UK, Russia, and China. But having long focused on the life-stories of Chinese ritual specialists and their patrons, I continue to find such accounts an illuminating perspective on modern history, for China and elsewhere.

Ey-up! A new haiku


Further to my post on Morris dancing and the controversies it provokes, here’s a new English haiku—to follow the original one, as well as my own ode to the 94 bus and garbled reference to a popular graffiti.

It should be read in a strong Lancashire accent. The opening line (for a variant, note comments below!) would be a headline, rather in the style of “Ping-pong ding-dong“. And the “rhyme that doesn’t quite work” doubtless has one of those fancy names that they try and teach you in school:

Trouble at t’Morris
‘As PC gone mad? Ey-up—
T’Nutters of Bacup!

For Stewart Lee’s trenchant rebuke of “PC gone mad gone mad”, see here; for “Ey-up!” in Venice, here; and for another altercation, here.


Archive Chinese recordings

One essential resource for studying—and teaching—Chinese culture is an excellent series from Wind Records 風潮公司 (Taipei), based on archive recordings of the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing, many made amidst the constant campaigns of the first fifteen years of the PRC before the Cultural Revolution—the most authoritative overview of Chinese music on disc.

Four 2-CD sets (with booklets in Chinese) are devoted in turn to folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, and instrumental music:

  • Tudi yu ge 土地與歌 [English title Songs of the land in China: labor songs and love songs] (1996).
    Far from the kitsch arrangements that flood the market, these tracks—many recorded in the 1950s—are mostly unaccompanied, with work songs, songs of boatmen and foresters, love songs, wedding laments, passionate huar from Qinghai, and shan’ge from Shaanbei. Also featured are recordings from Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Yunnan.
  • Shibaduan quyi 十八段曲藝 [Shuochang: the ultimate art of Chinese storytelling] (1998).
    This collection of early recordings of narrative-singing includes drum-singing from Beijing and Tianjin, tanci from Suzhou, and less well-known examples from Henan, Gansu, Qinghai, Hubei, and Guangxi.
  • Jinye lai changxi 今夜來唱戲 [The beauty of Chinese opera] (1998).
    An overview of regional dramatic traditions, including not only Kunqu and Beijing opera (with Yu Zhenfei, Mei Lanfang, and others), but tracks from Hunan, Sichuan, northern “clapper” operas, as well as yangge opera and searing puppet drama from Shaanxi.
  • Xianguan chuanqi 弦管傳奇 [Special collection of contemporary Chinese musicians] (1996).
    Complementing my 2-CD set on AIMP (also based on early MRI recordings), this set focuses on solo instruments, with some of the great masters from the 1950s. Apart from qin and zheng zithers (Zhao Yuzhai, Gao Zicheng, Luo Jiuxiang), pipa plucked lute, and various fiddles, there are also ensemble tracks led by dizi flute and suona shawm (from southwest Shandong), and guanzi oboe (Yang Yuanheng). The set ends with a drum section from the Shifan gu repertoire played in 1962 by the great Daoist master Zhu Qinfu.

Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe at the MRI, 1961.

The series highlights the sterling work of the MRI under the great Yang Yinliu—to whom Wind Records also dedicated a 2-CD set. Of course audio recordings alone can’t encompass the complexities of changing social life, but basic familiarity with soundscape should be an essential aspect of our education in Chinese culture. For more discography, see my article in The Rough Guide to world music; for films on rural and ritual life in China, click here; and for precious recordings from 1901–2, here.


Italian cinema: a golden age


Giulietta Masina—left, La strada; right, Notti di Cabiria.

To follow folk musicking in Italy, I’m reminded again of formative film experiences from my misspent youth.

Like fiction, feature films can often suggest perspectives that more forensic academic treatments fail to evoke (cf. the GDR and China). In the post-war period, as Europe—including the east—struggled to recover, in Italy a vast migration took place from the poor south to the industrial north. Meanwhile China was in the grip of collectivization and famine.

A dominant theme of early neo-realist films was deprivation. The moving Ladri di biciclette (Vittorio De Sica, 1948) is a reminder how effective it can be to cast amateur actors:

I recalled La strada (Federico Fellini, 1954) when the Li family Daoists performed at a circus in Paris during their 2017 French tour. While Nino Rota’s score is effective, Petrushka, with its trumpet solo and drum interludes, might have made a suitable soundtrack too.

A tribute to Giulietta Masina is in order. Her persona has been likened to Charlie Chaplin, and her role in La strada as an innocent itinerant street performer is most beguiling—despite the stereotype of the “gamine” “elfin waif” (quite different from that of Audrey Hepburn). And her role as Fellini’s “muse” is another trope unpacked by feminists:

The image of the Muse as loved object who inspires the male artist, whilst she herself remains silent, is deeply engrained in contemporary culture, despite the best efforts of feminist critics to expose the implications of such imagery: man creates, woman inspires; man is the maker, woman the vehicle of male fantasy, an object created by the male imagination, incapable of any kind of agency herself. In short, this image of the Muse denies woman’s active participation in artistic creation and silences female creativity. [1]

Masina is also wonderful in Notti di Cabiria (1957)—despite again being exploited by callous men. Here’s the moving final scene:

The making of Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960) is the subject of a 2017 book. The stellar cast includes not only Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, but early roles for Nico and the divine Anouk Aimée, always captivating (cf. here). As England progressed from adversity to the drabness of the 1950s, the image of Rome rapidly became fashionable. Whereas Fellini doubtless meant La dolce vita as a critique of the vacuity of the glamorous lifestyle, “over the years, the inverted commas and irony have dropped away”, leaving only “Vespas! Bikinis! Grappa!”.


Anouk Aimée with Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni.

Long before I began to experience Italy at first hand, films like these made a deep impression, which keeps growing.


[1] Penny Murray, “Reclaiming the Muse”, in Vanda Zajko and Miriam Leonard, Laughing with Medusa: classical myth and feminist thought (2008).



Bach, um, marches towards the world

I’ve included “marching towards the world” in my catechism of Chinese music clichés. We might also set out from a different starting-point—further to my Bach chinoiserie, and in the vein of Alternative Bach (see also here).

For a long time Bach and his music hardly ventured any further than Saxony. But here’s Erbarme Dich (cf. here and here) sung by Fadia el-Hage and Sarband, from their Arabian Passion (as ever, the BTL comments are worth reading):

And here’s a live version with Fadia el-Hage:

Further to Bach on the lute (such as this), you can also find several renditions on the oud, like this:

Instances where Bach’s Lutheran world-view comes into contact with Islam may be suggestive, but his music can also be attractive on other instruments, beyond mere novelty. Here you can find a Nordic version of the prelude of the 6th cello suite. Meanwhile, the sheng-player Wu Wei has ventured into baroque, as here:

Evidently I welcome all kinds of new versions of Bach, but perhaps here my Chinese snobbery comes into play. I just can’t hear the benefit of playing Bach on the sheng; the ethnic frisson seems spurious, as if mutual bandwagons are being jumped on. I can’t get used to the modern sheng used as a monophonic instrument, but I must be wrong about this. Just because an instrument has the capability of playing chords (traditionally in this case, fifths and octaves), it doesn’t always have to be, any more than the organ; but to me it deprives the sheng of its essential character. So however tasteful the playing, it seems kitsch, reminding me of Gheorghe Zamfir, yesteryear’s flavour of the month—although for some reason I don’t quite mind this:

Just be grateful we didn’t record our rendition on erhu and saz… See also the comment below this post, with the Polis ensemble playing the Air on instruments of the eastern Mediterranean. While the arrangement is beautiful and the playing sensitive, I wonder if it they might transform it more by relishing the ethnic timbres, rather than conforming too reverently to Bach’s sound-world. I can imagine it being most moving within a concert of their core repertoire—just as it is most spellbinding in the context of the 3rd suite itself.

There’s lots of Bach on sax online. Some is rather straight, but I like this—live from Leipzig (just like Bach was!), what’s more:

I welcome further links to ethnic Bach—obviously we’re looking for genuine explorations here, rather than mere exotic orientalizing.

All this contributes to my fantasy of a world-music version of the Matthew Passion, on which more anon.


With thanks to Fanny Paccoud and David Badagnani

Popular culture in early modern Europe


We often study Chinese culture (both expressive and material) rather in isolation, but many parallels are suggested in

  • Peter Burke, Popular culture in early modern Europe (1978, thoughtfully updated in 2009 edition),

a lucidly-written single-volume work on the period 1500 to 1800. Of course it’s a vast field, but Burke’s broad coverage is enriched by illuminating detail.

Think away television, radio, and cinema, which have standardized the vernaculars of Europe within living memory, not to mention changes which are less obvious but may be more profound. Think away the railways, which probably did even more than conscription and government propaganda to erode the culture peculiar to each province and to turn regions into nations. Think away universal education and literacy, class consciousness and nationalism. Think away the modern confidence (however shaken) in progress, science, and technology, and the secular modes in which hopes and fears are expressed.

Indeed, many in Europe had little access to these features well into the 20th century—and many Chinese still later. So the historical coverage not only makes a useful perspective on popular traditions enduring today (e.g. Italy or east Europe), but is also full of lessons for our studies of popular culture in modern China.

Many (not least in China) tend to visualize Europe as a monolithic, reified, “developed” (and largely secular) modern bourgeois society, whose music (for instance) is represented by the “classical” canon. In the wake of the industrial revolution, change in the popular cultures of Europe was already a complex issue by the early 1900s, when study began to take off in earnest; but in China, for all its own revolution, many of Burke’s perspectives still seem relevant in the late 20th century. So it may be easier to see the parallels here than it would be with a study of modern Europe.

In Chapter 1 he discusses “The discovery of the people” by early-19th-century intellectuals, just as traditional culture seemed threatened—of which he gives some fine examples, long predating 20th-century concerns. Already before the industrial revolution, with the growth of towns, the improvement of roads, and the spread of literacy, the centre was invading the periphery.

Burke adduces early collections of folk-songs from Germany, Russia, Sweden, Serbia, Hungary, and Finland. The intellectuals also discovered popular religion and festivals (cf. Zhao Shiyu‘s work on Chinese temple fairs), along with folk music. Burke discusses aesthetic, intellectual, and political reasons for this interest. Along with the reaction against the Enlightenment, and the growth of nationalism,

the discovery of the people was part of a movement of cultural primitivism in which the ancient, the distant, and the popular were all equated.

In Chinese discourse on folk culture, terms like “simple” and “primitive” were still common in the late 20th century.

At the same time, Burke unpacks problems with studying the subject through the work of early European folklorists: distortion, creative bias, and the notion of “improvement”. Just like the CCP in China,

it is all to easy to continue to see popular culture through the romantic, nationalist spectacles of the intellectuals of the early 19th century.

On “restoration” he observes:

To read the text of a ballad, a folktale, or even a tune in a collection of this period is much like looking at a Gothic church which was “restored” at much the same time. One cannot be sure whether one is looking at what was originally there, at what the restorer thought was originally there, at what he thought ought to have been there, or at what he thought should be there now. Not only texts and buildings were subject to “restoration”, but even festivals.

Burke criticizes the notions of primitivism, communalism, and purism, stressing that “popular culture does have a history”.

In Chapter 2, “Unity and variety in popular culture”, Burke notes pockets where there was still a shared culture on the lines of the (dodgy) model of tribal societies, but observes that the broad picture was not monolithic or homogeneous: social stratification was widespread. He refines the model of interdependent great and little traditions, both urban and rural, that Robert Redfield suggested in the 1930s:

There were two cultural traditions in early modern Europe, but they did not correspond symmetrically to the two main social groups, the elite and the common people. The elite participated in the little traditions, but the common people did not participate in the great tradition. The great tradition was transmitted formally at grammar schools and at universities. It was a closed tradition in the sense that people who had not attended such institutions, which were not open to all, were excluded. […] The little tradition, on the other hand, was transmitted informally. It was open to all, like the church and the market-place, where so many of the performances occurred.

So in the early period the elite, the nobility, local literati, and the clergy had access to and participated in both cultures.

In the Cracow area about 1565, more than 80% of the poor nobles were illiterate. The style of life of some rural nobles and parish priests was not so different from that of the peasants around them.
But this situation did not remain static throughout the period. The upper classes gradually withdrew from participation in the little tradition in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Following Kodály and Gramsci, Burke also notes that “the people” were not a homogeneous group. As in 20th-century China, the peasants formed 80–90% of the population. But apart from peasants and craftsmen, women, children, shepherds, sailors, beggars, and so on, all had important sub-cultures. The diversity of occupations makes a useful reminder for China, both in imperial and modern times; the peasantry was itself stratified, as the CCP would observe. Burke cites Kodaly again:

Many traditional folksongs are appropriate only for one social group, like the Scandinavian drängvisor, or farm-hands’ song, and the pigvisor, the “complaints” of ill–treated maidservants.

He notes ecological differences:

Leaping dances seem to be associated with mountainous regions, in the Basque country, in Norway, in the highlands of Bavaria, Poland, and Scotland, because this was an old form of dance which did not survive in the plains.

In the countryside farmers, herdsmen, and shepherds also had different cultures, as did blacksmiths, carpenters, woodsmen, miners, and bandits. Similar stratification was notable in the towns: guilds, craftsmen (weavers, tailors, shoemakers, journeymen, apprentices, and so on), and shopkeepers.

Burke notes religion and ethnic minorities as markers of cultural difference—not only Catholics and Protestants, but Jews and Muslims. And he discusses the male category of “wanderers”—soldiers, sailors, beggars, and thieves. He notes variation by gender and region, coexisting with other types of variation. Excluded from most of the categories, “women’s culture is to popular culture what popular culture is to culture as a whole.” Other potential elements in a cultural geography of Europe would include architecture, literacy, and topography. He observes interaction between great and little traditions, finding traffic in both directions, with creative transformations.

In Chapter 3, “An elusive quarry”, Burke interrogates the sources, their literati bias and unreliability:

We want to know about performances, but what have survived are texts; we want to see these performances through the eyes of the craftsmen and peasants themselves, but we are forced to see them through the eyes of literate outsiders.

The attitudes and values of craftsmen and peasants

were expressed in activities and performances, but these activities and performances were only documented when the literate upper classes took an interest in them.

And when, as often, festivities were described by foreign visitors, they

are likely to miss all sorts of local or topical allusions and may misunderstand what the festivities mean to the participants.

Or (as in China) popular activities may be recorded simply because the authorities were trying to suppress them. And of course

A text cannot record a performance adequately, whether it is a clown’s or a preacher’s. The tone of voice is missing, so are the facial expressions, the gestures, the acrobatics.

Further, Burke notes that printed texts (including sermons) are likely to vary from the texts performed. Print not only recorded popular culture but undermined it. He lists six kinds of mediator, and explores oblique approaches to popular culture, adducing witch trials and “iconology”. And he notes the useful perspective of rebellion, also fruitful for China.

Discussing folk-songs and epics “collected” in the 20th century, he comments:

Historians whose sources consist of fragmentary texts have a lot to learn from folklorists whose sources are living people, who can be observed at work and even questioned. What I am advocating is a rather more indirect use of the modern material, to criticize or interpret the documentary sources.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me say at once what the regressive method is not. It does not consist of relatively recent situations and cheerfully assuming that they apply equally well to earlier periods.

He notes the potential for historians to learn from anthropologists.

Part Two, “Structures of popular culture”, opens with Chapter 4, “The transmission of popular culture”, focusing on the “active bearers of culture”. While observing that

Shepherds made their own bagpipes as well as playing them. The men of the household made the furniture, and the women made the clothes. […] Anyone who fell ill or had an accident would be treated at home,

he stresses that

Neither the household nor the village was culturally autonomous.

Semi-professional healers, traveling pedlars, and wandering minstrels [a term, I note, encrusted with romantic flapdoodle] were also part of the picture. He unpacks the notion of “popular artist” (one who works mainly for a public of craftsmen and peasants), and the spectrum of professionals and amateurs. I like his list of occupational performers for England:

Ballad-singers, bear-wards, buffoons, charlatans, clowns, comedians, fencers, fools, hocus-pocus men, jugglers, merry-andrews, minstrels, mountebanks, players, puppet-masters, quacks, rope-dancers, showmen, tooth-drawers and tumblers. [1]

(For instances of the evocative use of lists, see Last night’s fun and Accordion crimes.)

But again there were gradations, as with shawm bands in China today. Like tinkers and pedlars, many performing groups were itinerant. The Russian skomorokhi (interestingly seen as antecedents of Pussy Riot here) travelled in bands of up to one hundred men. Burke’s description of “strolling players” in 18th-century England reminds me of Chinese opera troupes today:

Two actors would be sent ahead of the rest to get permission to play in the towns and villages on their route. Their properties and costumes would be secondhand, even dilapidated, and they would perform in inns or barns.

la Tour

Georges La Tour, The hurdy-gurdy man. Cf. the lirniky of modern Ukraine.

Several more features suggest China. Solo bards were also common—as in Spain, France, Serbia, and Russia. Whether solo or in a group, they were often equated with beggars; and many “vagabond-entertainers” were blind. Itinerant preachers were also widespread. Besides human opera, ritual puppet plays may remind us of groups still performing in regions like Fujian and Gansu.

Less well documented were the amateur performers, and semi-professionals (as in China), “part-time specialists who had another occupation but might derive a supplementary income from their singing, playing, or healing.” Performers of plays and other festivities were often organized into guilds. Funeral wailers were hired, as in Britain, Italy, and Russia. Popular healers and diviners are listed for England, Sweden, Poland, Spain.

Burke explores the physical setting, noting that it is easier to document public performances (church, tavern, market-place) than domestic occasions. He outlines the balance of folk tradition and individual innovation, refuting the “collective creation” myth.

Chapter 5, “Traditional forms”, explores genres, discussing the variety of dance and song forms; themes and variations; and the process of composition—all recurring issues in ethnomusicology. He includes preaching and material culture, seeking not only formulas and motifs but structures.

Chapter 6, “Heroes, villains, and fools” goes on to look at stock characters, probing the attitudes and values of craftsmen and peasants. In popular culture the images of rulers, the clergy and saints, the nobility and knights, the middle class and officials, are sometimes ambivalent, but the lower classes seem “conservative”, accepting them and structuring their world through the models provided by the dominant group. Conversely, craftsmen and peasants also saw society in terms not of harmony but of conflict, complaining of poverty and injustice. Here Burke lists five points along a spectrum of responses: fatalist, moralist, traditionalist, radical, and millenarian.

The Chinese peasantry since the 1940s have also clung to such heroic figures from the imperial past, remaining quite resistant to the cultural values of the CCP while absorbing new elements (like the PLA soldier in the medium’s pantheon here).

Under “ordinary people”, Burke notes that craftsmens’ image of the peasant was unflattering. Nor, in the male-dominated sources, do women emerge well:

Most popular heroines were objects, admired not so much for what they did but what they suffered. For women, martyrdom was virtually the only route to sanctity.

More common are images of deceitful and malicious women.

Under “outsiders”, outlaws (another popular theme in China) are usually, though not always, portrayed as heroic, “enabling ordinary people to take imaginative revenge on the authorities to whom they were usually obedient in real life”. Negative instances are those of the Turk and the Jew (both “scarcely human”), as well as the witch; and the stereotypes of Catholics and Protestants about each other.

Hatred of outsiders was so common as to make one wonder whether most ordinary people of the period were not what psychologists sometimes call “authoritarian personalities”, combining submissiveness to authority with aggressiveness towards people outside their group.


Breughel, The combat between Carnival and Lent.

in Chapter 7, “The world of Carnival”, Burke pursues the theme of relieving tensions, putting myths and rituals in the physical context of festivals, both Carnival itself and “carnivalesque” activities. Here he explores ritual—always a prominent theme—in greater detail, and ritual reversal, “the world upside down”. Carnival was both a holiday, a game, and a time of ecstasy and liberation, with food, sex, and violence. He subsumes public executions and mocking ceremonies like the charivari, and explores the tensions between social control and social protest. He cites Victor Turner:

By making the low high and the high low, they reaffirm the hierarchical principle.

But the “safety-valve” of ritual was not always able to contain popular dissent. Riots and rebellions made more direct forms of action. Popular rebellions, of course, are a major theme in Chinese history—studied selectively in the PRC.

The concern of the upper classes that popular festivals might pose a threat to the status quo leads to Chapter 8, “The triumph of Lent: the reform of popular culture”. Always alert to change, Burke describes the attempts of the educated (“the reformers, or the godly”), notably the clergy, to “improve” popular mores, on both theological and moral grounds. Again (as in imperial and modern China) folk religion was a principle target—miracle and mystery plays, popular sermons, and religious festivals such as saints’ days and pilgrimages.

He suggest two main periods, the first until around 1650 led by the clergy, the second in which the laity took the initiative, adding secular arguments. He outlines the “culture of the godly” that they hoped would replace the old pagan ways (more echoes of modern China). Battles were waged not only over rituals but over images and texts. One important weapon was the dissemination of vernacular Bibles. Burke is sensitive to changes in the meaning of words, such as the ever-thorny “superstition”.

One major result of this reformist zeal, unevenly achieved, was the widening of the gulf between great and little traditions, discussed in the final Chapter 9, “Popular culture and social change”. Over the whole period popular culture changed in ways that no-one could have foreseen. Burke lists population growth and urbanization, the rise of “commercial capitalism” with increasing division of labour, and the communications revolution. Though he warns against exaggerating the impact of such changes, by the 18th century the peasantry were coming to own more material objects, and better ones—although east Europe remained relatively poor. A gradual shift was under way “from the more spontaneous and participatory forms of entertainment towards more formally-organised and commercialized spectator sports.” Although he also shows that it was often in the outlying regions that traditional culture was best maintained,

In the larger towns, the process of social change seems to have enriched popular culture. In the countryside, particularly in outlying regions, the same process led to cultural impoverishment.

This topical comment from the Highlands of Scotland comes from the late 18th century:

The noblest virtues have been ruined, or driven into exile, since the love of money has crept in among us; and since deceit and hypocrisy have carried mercenary policy and slavish, sordid avarice into our land.

Under “the uses of literacy” Burke stresses the influence of the printed book, and then the press. He explains methods for assessing literacy rates around Europe, with partial evidence suggesting that “more people could read in 1800 than in 1500, that craftsmen were generally much more literate than peasants, men than women, Protestants than Catholics, and Western European than Eastern Europeans”.

Whereas some secular reformers feared that popular literacy would make the poor discontented with their lot, the godly saw it as a step to salvation. Again Burke unpacks the idea of “access” to books, with some fine examples under physical, economic, and linguistic access. He takes a nuanced approach to how all this affected popular performances, although “the book was both a dangerous competitor and a treacherous ally”.

The spread of literacy and the decline of the epic occurred together in Western Europe, while illiteracy and the epic survived together in Sicily, in Bosnia, in Russia.

I note that even the lowest literacy rates around Europe surpassed those of China in the mid-20th century; and even in the early 1990s I found few books in peasant homes there.

Burke cites the work of a sociologist working on the modern Middle East, where print is among factors said to engender “a high capacity for empathy, a willingness to accept change, to move from one place to another, or to express their own opinions about society; in a word, modernity.” However, in early modern Europe such changes were less spectacular. Old themes did not go out, but new themes did come in: as in modern China, cultural changes were not so much “substitutive” as “additive”.

He moves on to unpack the concepts of secularisation and politicisation:

Hopes and fears which had traditionally been expressed in religious terms now needed another mode of expression and increasingly found it in the political.

Despite the problems in assessing piecemeal material, and always sensitive to differing social strata, he finds an increasing sense of involvement with politics, at least in Western Europe.

Craftsmen and peasants had good reason to be more aware of the state by the end of the 18th century than they had been three hundred years before.

Burke notes the gradual withdrawal of the upper classes from the popular culture that they had previously shared—as in China. But as ever he asks probing questions:

Who withdrew? From what did they withdraw? In what parts of Europe? And why? The clergy, the nobility, and the bourgeoisie had their own reasons for abandoning popular culture.

In many regions the upper classes literally spoke a different language from ordinary people. But—at different times in different parts of Europe—they came to reject their whole culture.

And it was this gap that led to “discovery”: only when folk traditions became “alien” to the elite did they provoke curiosity, leading to the rise of folklore studies.

Looking back over the whole period,

The change in the attitudes of educated men seems truly remarkable. In 1500, they despised the common people, but shared their culture. By 1800 their descendants had ceased to participate spontaneously in popular culture, but they were in the process of rediscovering it as something exotic and therefore interesting. They were even beginning to admire “the people” from whom this alien culture had sprung.

After 1800 factors like urbanization, education, printing, and railway transport were to transform culture still more radically.

* * *

Houshan 1995

Medicine-pouch vendor, Houshan temple fair 1995.

While Burke’s study is based on the period before 1800, and has been amply supplemented since, it offers thoughtful perspectives on the diverse little traditions that still persist today, and were even more widespread alongside the great traditions of Renaissance and baroque. Relevant to our studies of imperial and modern China are not only the many commonalities they share—recurring themes like ritual, reform, and so on—but ways of studying and unpacking the sources. I do recommend the book, not least to Chinese students: here’s a Chinese edition.

China–Italy: International Cultural Exchange zzzzz


In Yet more Chinese wordplay, retelling some splendid subversive jokes from the commune era (cf. Hammer and Tickle, and the Chinese jokes tag), I explained the pleasure of creatively misinterpreting phrases that use the innocent postfix xing 性 (“sex”). Among them is the tired Chinese cliché “International Cultural Exchange“—Grist to Flann O’Brien‘s Mill.

So now here’s a party game that I devised as a spinoff from my recent post on Italian folk musicking—a kind of Snakes and Ladders:

The Silk Road
hours of harmless fun for all the family!

©SJ 2019

Players can advance along the caravan route by naming cultural features that Italy shares with China (and I couldn’t write the clichés better than this article). Go right back to square one for any mention of:

Left: spirit mediums, Guangxi. Right: taranta exorcism, Salento.

But make progress by scoring points for

(leap forward 1,000 leagues:)

(advance 500 leagues:)

(advance 200 leagues:)

As usual, the winner will be awarded a small pocket aquarium.

For more party games, see the Oxford comma and Fantasy Daoist ritual; and for another enterprise, here. For more Chinese clichés, see herehere, and here. And for the 2002 Smithsonian Festival of the Silk Road, see here.