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 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.

One thought on “The Hall of Myriad Harmonies

  1. Pingback: A Daoist ritual, Suzhou 1956 | Stephen Jones: a blog

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