Left: Mei Lengsheng, 1950s;
right, yankou ritual, Baiyun guan temple, Wenzhou, 2015.
Further to research under Maoism on ritual life in China, I appreciate
- Paul Katz, “Writing a place for rites: the value of “old customs” in modern Wenzhou”, Journal of Chinese Religions, 2015.
The work of local scholars in China striving over this difficult period to legitimize their religious cultures continues to impress me.* Katz’s article astutely discusses the
- Wenzhou jiusu shiliao 溫州舊俗史料 [Historical materials on Wenzhou’s old customs]
on ritual life in the late Qing and Republican periods, a report of over 100,000 words compiled in 1960.
Katz traces the identities of the elites who composed the monograph, as well as their agendas in doing so (such as the new dichotomies promoted since the late 19th century, particularly that of “religion” and “superstition”).
Among the main compilers of the 1960 study was Mei Lengsheng (1895–1976), whose fortunes Katz describes. He notes study sessions apparently linked to the 1956 Hundred Flowers Movement, euphemistically known as “immortals’ gatherings” (shenxianhui 神仙會), when elders and other elites were encouraged to reminisce freely about the past, including local culture and customs—information that often ended up being used against them during the following “anti-rightist”movements, and then the Cultural Revolution, when Mei and others were punished. Still,
China’s elites did what they could to create at least some room for creative accommodation in which they could preserve valued facets of local culture. Intellectuals and other elites strove to the utmost to survive in this tricky environment; including (like Mei) performing acts of self criticism when necessary, but also relying on personal connections while attempting to use state rhetoric to their own advantage.
Noting that such works exploited CCP rhetoric against local customs to serve the cause of preserving them, Katz reads between the lines of the Preface. The main contents that follow are subdivided thus:
- 1) Annual ritual calendar (suishi 歲 時)
- 2) Peasant proverbs (nongyan 農諺)
- 3) Birth (shengzi 生子)
- 4) Marriage (hunjia 婚嫁)
- 5) Birthdays, anniversaries (shengri, zhushi he zhushou 生日、祝十和祝壽)
- 6) Mortuary rituals (sangzang 喪葬)
- 7) Prayers (qidao 祈禱)
- 8) Miscellany (zazu 雜俎),
with temples and their festivals included in categories 1 and 7. Indeed, the “prayers” rubric subsumes rituals performed by Daoist and other ritual specialists, such as rituals for rain and to repay vows. Katz goes on to discuss some of these in detail, such as the plague expulsion rituals of Marshal Wen (on which he has written extensively), noting the continuity of the compilers’ disparaging language (however obligatory) with that of their elite imperial forebears as shown in county gazetteers.
But what we can hardly expect of such material under Maoism is a detailed account of religious life at the time of writing. Though the work is inevitably framed as “historical”, with current practices downplayed, Katz considers change over the period, outlining the relatively laissez-faire approach of the Communist authorities towards folk religious life from 1949 until the 1958 Great Leap Backward; and he cites a 1957 survey by the Rui’an county  Buddhist Studies Association of some 340 temples, and ritual specialists, there.
As he notes, while some of these traditions have disappeared, many others have revived since the liberalisations of the late 1970s—one starting point might be the Anthology for Zhejiang province, notably the lengthy section on “religious music” in the instrumental music volumes.  Katz concludes by suggesting that the delicate accommodation since the late 1970s with the power of the state may partly be traced back to such writings from the 1950s.
* I’ve always been most partial to such research—see my Folk music of China, pp.52–4; for more, see e.g.
- Yang Yinliu and projects of the Music Research Institute in Beijing (also here), including ritual traditions of Beijing, Shanxi (here, here), Shaanxi, Hunan (here, here and here), and Fujian
- A Daoist ritual, Suzhou 1956
- Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing
- A 1958 article on the Buddhist ritual music of Shenyang.
- Doing fieldwork in China.
A further perspective is that of fictional films like The blue kite, evoking the personal stories behind the tensions of the era.
 On Rui’an county, I look forward to reading Xiaoxuan Wang, Maoism and grassroots religion: the Communist revolution and the reinvention of religious life in China (2020).
 Further to Mayfair Yang’s article “Shamanism & Spirit Possession in Chinese Modernity”, I also look forward to reading her Re-enchanting modernity (2020).