Among the many areas of life in China that are suffering under the lockdown prompted by the Coronavirus outbreak are collective events such as life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies among rural communities.
The grand New Year’s rituals from the 12th to the 16th of the 1st moon that take place throughout villages in north China, such as those of Gaoluo village in Laishui county south of Beijing, have had to be cancelled—though their purpose is precisely to “destroy the hundred diseases” (dui baibing 丢百病).
It reminds me of a story that villagers told me about the New Year’s rituals in 1997 (Plucking the winds, pp.317–18: passages below modestly edited). After thefts of the association’s ritual paintings the previous year, the New Year’s rituals now made a focus for a cultural fight-back. In preparation they managed to retrieve some of the paintings handed over the Baoding museum during the Cultural Revolution, and had handsome new donors’ lists (also stolen) rewritten and repainted from my photos, ready to display in the lantern tent.
But just as everyone was preparing for an ostentatious New Year, the death of Premier Deng Xiaoping threatened to disrupt it. A typical bit of mental juggling was now required in order for the village rituals to continue undisturbed. Deng died on the 11th day of the 1st moon in 1997, with remarkable, if uncharacteristic, attention to the rural calendar. When his death was announced, just before the major rituals around the 15th, the “commune” (as they still call the district authorities) dutifully ordered that New Year’s celebrations should be cancelled, and the village brigade had to tell the ritual association not to perform. As one musician confided, “I turns it over in my head: when someone dies in the village, we play for them, so didn’t we oughta be able to play when Deng Xiaoping dies too? So I reckons, how about writing a motto ‘In mourning for Deng Xiaoping’, pasting it up outside the lantern tent, and playing as usual?” The village’s “southern” ritual association followed suit, and the New Year’s rituals went ahead.
I love this story: in order to make sure that Premier Deng’s death will not get in the way of their customary entertainment, they profess respect by pointing out the traditional use of ritual to venerate the dead. As with all the best scams, its sincerity is unassailable. Things had changed a lot in the two decades since Chairman Mao’s death in 1976. Then the ritual association had virtually ceased to exist, and villagers had obeyed central orders without question out of genuine, indeed almost “superstitious”, belief in the Great Helmsman. Since 1978 villagers doubtless had a lot to thank Deng for, but there were ironies. It was thanks to Deng’s liberalizations that the association had been able to revive, but it was threatened by new pressures; it was also thanks to him that people no longer placed blind faith in leadership, and were now disinclined to let his death take priority over their local culture.
Villagers regarded the 1997 New Year as the most lively in living memory, perhaps partly by necessity, to legitimize the association’s new leadership and fight back against the theft of the paintings.
In many regions “rites of affliction” have long been an important part of the repertoire of ritual specialists—serving a symbolic rather than medical function. In the current crisis, however, such large-scale gatherings are unthinkable.
1965 poster campaign combining public hygiene and eliminating superstition: “Incense ash cannot cure disease” and “Human diseases are not an offence of the gods and ghosts”—another reminder (see e.g. here, under “Expressive culture”) that even at such a revolutionary time, plenty of people still thought so.
Elaborate funeral rituals, for which among the many locals attending are kin returning from distant parts of the country, have also been put on hold. Still, in Yanggao county in Shanxi, far from both the source of the outbreak in Wuhan and major urban centres like Beijing, the Li family Daoists, individually, are still in demand to provide routine burial services, as I describe here.
On local government websites (e.g. those of Laishui and Yanggao counties) I haven’t yet found any explicit bans on collective ritual activities—only bland, formulaic warnings proclaiming the state’s resolute response to the crisis. But morbidly creative slogans everywhere hammer out the message:
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Even if folk musical activities are suspended, there are signs that local performers are reflecting the outbreak, in what Confucius would have called “popular feelings” (minqing 民情). First, some background.
I’ve already written at some length about blind bards and shawm players. The blindmens’ propaganda troupe of Zuoquan county in the Taihang mountains of east-central Shanxi has a history dating back to 1938, under Japanese occupation. One of the most illuminating and harrowing books on rural life in north China is
- Liu Hongqing 刘红庆, Xiangtian er ge: Taihang mangyirende gushi 向天而歌: 太行盲艺人的故事 [Singing to the heavens: stories of blind performers of the Taihang mountains] (2004, with VCD, and abundant photos by Wang Jingchun).
One of innumerable such groups throughout the countryside, the Zuoquan troupe has always adapted to the changing times, from the warfare of the 1940s through Maoism to the reform era. In the latter period they began to perform stories criticising corruption.
The book’s author Liu Hongqing (see e.g. this interview) is the older brother of blind performer Liu Hongquan, whose life features prominently. Though Hongqing escaped the rural life to become a journalist, he kept in regular contact with his family, providing vivid stories of the troupe’s itinerant lifestyle (cf. Li Qing’s stint in the Datong Arts-Work Troupe from 1958 to 1962) and writing with great empathy about the lives of poor peasants.
Liu Hongqing also pays great attention to the wretched fate of women in a rural area that remained chronically poor under Maoism. Two twins in the troupe had an older sister, four of whose five children were born blind. After she died in 1963 the burden of caring for the whole family fell upon the oldest daughter Chen Xizi, then 15 sui. She too was ill-fated. Her first daughter died at the age of 11 sui after going dumb the previous year; her son, born in 1968, was blind, dumb, and disabled; a second daughter died at the age of 7 sui; and a third daughter was herself left with three daughters at the age of 32 sui after her husband died. But amazingly, Chen Xizi’s youngest son endured great tribulations to become a researcher at Shanghai Communications University—the family’s only hope in an ocean of misery. Chen Xizi’s older brother Xizhao, a fine shawm player who died at the age of 55 sui in 1998, “bought” four wives, all mentally disabled.
After the death of another blind performer in the troupe, his widow had moved in with his younger brother, a common expedient (xuqin 续亲) in poor communities where early deaths were common and widows vulnerable.
Such stories, all too common in rural China (note e.g. Guo Yuhua’s ethnography of a Shaanbei village), make an important corrective to rosy state propaganda, putting into perspective scholarly accounts of machinations within the central leadership; and the fierce, anguished singing and playing of groups like this are utterly remote from the bland, cheery ditties of official troupes.
The Zuoquan performers are instrumentalists too—Liu Hongquan is a fine shawm player (for thoughts on the way shawm-band music reflects suffering, see here). Like others in the troupe, he has taken several adopted sons, forming a network of well-wishers throughout the villages where they perform. Like blind performers in north Shanxi, they had their own secret language (p.69), based on the ancient qiezi 切字 phonetic system.
The group was soon promoted by eminent cultural pundit Tian Qing (see e.g. here, and this video). Following his visit to Zuoquan they gave their first Beijing performance in 2003. From 2007 the popular TV presenter and director Yani took them to heart, engaging with their lives in a documentary filmed over ten years.
Since being enrolled under the aegis of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, while continuing their itinerant lifestyle performing for rural ceremonial, they have become media celebrities, promoted in regular TV appearances.
But even once absorbed into the state apparatus, such folk groups are not always mere mouthpieces for state propaganda. We may tend to think of folk-songs as commemorating events in the distant past—even when describing traumas such as famine, they tend to refer to early famines before the 1949 revolution. Itinerant performers like blind bards are occasionally enlisted to explain state policies among the folk, but they may also express resistance. With such topical songs hardly appearing in the collections of Chinese fieldworkers, it’s hard to judge how common they are. In Bards of Shaanbei (under “Old and new stories”) I explored the themes of AIDS, SARS, and Mo Yan’s fictional portrayal of a bard protesting at unjust local government requisitions, also linking to a protest song by Beijing blindman Zhou Yunpeng.
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And so to Coronavirus and the debate over freedom of speech. The Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliang was among the first whistleblowers (among a multitude of tributes, see e.g. here and here). Before his death on 6th February at the age of 34 he was punished for “spreading false rumours”. Though the central Party later backtracked on criticising him (and by April he was officially deemed a martyr), the widespread tributes on Chinese social media mourning his death were largely an outpouring of popular resentment against the state’s irredeemably secretive policies in reaction to the outbreak—at a time when popular resistance to state power (notably in Xinjiang and Hong Kong) is otherwise muted. But online discussions continue to be censored.
A tribute to Li Wenliang, posted on WeChat on 8th February and only deleted by the 13th, featured a folk-song movingly performed by none other than Zuoquan blindman Liu Hongquan (contrast his rosy forecast here). Do listen to the song, since you can no longer hear it on WeChat:
The lyrics were written by Peking University economist Zhang Weiying, a native of Shaanbei who in 2019 composed, and sang, a Xintianyou folk-song in defence of dissident law professor Xu Zhangrun (see this article in a lengthy series by Geremie Barmé; for his translation of Xu’s essay on the virus, see here, and here; cf. this article in Chinese by Zhang Qianfan, another righteous scholar). Zhang Weiying’s lyrics for the new song commemorating Li Wenliang adopt the distinctive idiom of Shaanbei folk-song language, hard to render in translation:
At dead of night appeared a star
The whole world weeping in unison, Oh brother, for you
Snowflakes flurrying over three thousand leagues
Sleepless for the first time, Oh brother, and who’s it for?
Semi-translucent like lighting eggshell lanterns
First they sealed your lips, Oh brother, then they sealed the city
All over the world people’s feelings are bitter
When has it become to hard to tell the truth, Oh brother, about one’s feelings?
When you blew the whistle in the twelfth moon no-one listened
Amidst the bustle of the first moon, Oh brother, the sound of your song was silenced
Lighting lanterns at New Year to see you off
But throughout the land, Oh brother, it’s like observing the Feast of the Dead
Bright blue skies of Sovereign heaven
Now that the whole nation has awakened, Oh brother, you are already far away
Now that the whole nation was awakened, Oh brother, you are already far away.
The Party has also recruited performers to play a more orthodox role in promoting public health, such as this epic singer from Inner Mongolia:
Amidst the widespread publicity on the global ramifications of the virus, it’s worth considering its effects on poor rural communities in China and their collective observances. Perhaps some of you have further instances of how folk culture is suffering, responding, resisting?
A beguiling online post from Duyi Han shows murals purporting to come from a Hubei church, paying homage to Coronavirus medical workers. On reflection it’s clearly a virtual creation, but it makes an impressive and ingenious artistic tribute:
One has to read carefully to interpret this sentence as implying that it’s a virtual project:
The project sees the walls and ceilings of a historic church in Hubei province transformed into a large mural depicting figures dressed in white decontamination suits.
It’s clarified in this interview, but if one took that literally, some doubts might soon spring to mind—I append mine below merely to show you how gullible I was initially, how little I know about logistics of life in Hubei over these weeks—and how careful we have to be about what we find online, “nowadays”:
- Where is this chapel, and how many Chinese churches have such classical architectural features?
- Did the congregation not demur at the loss of their original Christian images?
- Who is the artist, and if working alone (?), however could the murals be completed so quickly? Supposing Hubei churches have been closed since the outbreak, OK I guess the artist could get a key.
- We have to imagine them somehow finding a vast amount of paint (assuming there’s a well-stocked shop that’s open over this period), and putting up scaffolding…
- And how about all the stages of painting murals, and drying times in winter?
Still, it’s easy to take at face value. Incidentally, apart from the major Daoist temple complex of Wudangshan, I haven’t sought material on folk ritual life around Hubei (as ever, we might start with the “instrumental music” volumes of the Anthology for Hubei), though the scene is (or was, before the virus struck) doubtless more active than this report may suggest.