The temple of memories

Jing Jun cover

Along with my common themes of religion, Maoism, and famine, I plead for more studies of ritual life in Gansu (see e.g. Maoist worship in Gansu, and Chinese shadows). So I’ve been re-reading the ethnographic classic

  • Jun JING, The temple of memories: history, power, and morality in a Chinese village (1996).

The opening of the book is compelling:

The Kongs of Dachuan cannot forget that winter, more than three decades ago, when their village was effaced and life as they had known it had ended. For much of 1960 they had ignored, then resisted, the government’s declaration that their homes lay in the path of one of the more ambitious projects of the Great Leap Forward, and that by autumn’s end they would have to make way for a hydroelectric dam and reservoir. […]

So months lapsed, the deadline passed, and still the Kongs stayed on. And then, on a chill December night, the militia entered, shock troops of eviction, targeting first households without strong young men. Old women screamed and clung to their beds, refusing to leave. They were carried out bodily. The supporting pillars of the houses were roped to mules and pulled down. As dawn broke, the frightened villagers began dismantling their own houses in a scramble to salvage what they could to build shelter elsewhere. They hastily dug up the graves of immediate ancestors and close relatives, and, in violation of all tradition, unceremoniously threw bones in cement sacks or whatever other containers they could find for reburial on higher ground. “It was no time for being proper about such things,” an elderly villager recalled years later. Nor did they have the physical strength to save older graves; the trauma of dislocation was exacerbated by a debilitating famine, the worst in modern Chinese history.

While still a student in the Sociology department of Peking University, Jing Jun began fieldwork in Dachuan in 1989, prudently absenting himself from the tense atmosphere of the capital in the aftermath of the 4th June massacre (cf. Liao Yiwu). He is among several fine Chinese anthropologists and folklorists such as Guo Yuhua, Wang Mingming, Yue Yongyi, and Ju Xi.

Apart from fieldwork with villagers, he also unearthed material by consulting the county archives.

* * *

For some scholars such a topic might be a disembodied paean to the resilience of imperial grandeur, but for an ethnographer like Jing Jun it makes a telling prism on the traumas of the Maoist era. Noting the background of serious poverty, he goes on to detail the fate of the “community of suffering” (cf. Guo Yuhua) after the 1949 revolution.

Jing’s study makes a worthy complement to detailed accounts of turbulent events in individual villages under MaoismHe explores two main themes: suffering (both individual and communal), and means of recovery from political persecution, economic deprivation, and cultural disruption. Amidst state attempts to dictate and manipulate remembrance and forgetting, he focuses on the politics of social memory, suggesting three main topics: collective, official, and popular memory.

Stylistically, whereas obligatory academic citations of broader theoretical perspectives may be formulaic, Jing Jun has a rare gift for making such comparisons revealing.

* * *

In Dachuan village in Yongjing county southwest of the provincial capital Lanzhou, 85% of the villagers belonged to the Kong lineage, considering themselves to be descended from Confucius. Dachuan was the centre for an ancestral cult of many villages in the county.

The earlier history of the temple was not untroubled: it had been destroyed in 1785, rebuilt in 1792, looted and burned during the major Muslim rebellion in 1864, but only restored in 1934—it seems curious if the cult remained inactive over this long period. It was just at this time that the Kongs of Dachuan contributed to the compilation of a major genealogy documenting the nationwide lineage; Confucius and the major ritual site for his worship at Qufu in Shandong play a major role in villagers’ historical imaginations (cf. the fate of the Confucian ritual in Hunan).

After “Liberation”

The destruction of their village was the central event in a long procession of tragedies for the Kongs under the new Communist regime.

Following the Communist takeover in 1948, the prelude to a long period of state-organised violence was the siege of Dachuan by the PLA in December 1950 in response to reports that a rebellion was being organised by “secret societies” led by the Kongs.

All exits from the village were sealed off as soldiers went from one compound to the next, searching for weapons. After a full cartload of daggers, spears, swords, hunting guns, and old muskets were hauled away, a mass rally was staged and about fifty local people were paraded onto an improvised stage. These villagers, whom the government accused of being affiliated with “reactionary religious associations” (fandong hui dao men), were warned by military and government officials that any misconduct on their part would meet with severe penalties. Three Kongs, key members of a semi-religious and highly militant group known as the Big Sword Society (da dao hui), were escorted out of Dachuan, and beheaded.

The search for weapons and the executions at Dachuan heralded the new government’s crackdown on religious societies. Five months later, an “investigation-and-registration” campaign identified more than 11,500 people in Yongjing county as members of “reactionary religious associations”.

The divisive land reform campaign was implemented from 1951 to 1953. Under the commune system the system of lineage elders was destroyed. Even as the Kong lineage was being persecuted, they continued to provide the village leadership.

In the early years of Communist rule, many of those not targeted

engaged in clandestine activities in smaller religious groups attached to temples honouring various deities and community patron gods. […]
Geomancy and shamanistic healing were still secretly practised until at least the early 1960s.

But during the 1958 Great Leap Backward, police and militia forces rounded up 855 people in Yongjing county; temples were dismantled, and religious implements destroyed. The Confucius temple at Dachuan was sealed off. In August an armed uprising was quelled in nearby Dongxiang county. As famine escalated from late 1959, the villagers were relocated in 1960, as the temple lay decrepit and abandoned.

Large-scale hydraulic projects were a major part of the state’s efforts to generate electricity by creating reservoirs, despite the great suffering they caused—and their social disruption continues to concern anthropologists. On 31st March 1961, as the floodgate of the Yanguoxia dam was lowered, Dachuan was among many villages flooded. Though there was considerable resistance, most villagers were forcibly relocated, while some remained on higher ground there. One of the most traumatic violations of tradition was the loss of gravelands.

Such stories are also submerged under the “master narrative” of rosy state propaganda, seeking to legitimise painful experiences.

The remains of the temple, empty and waterlogged, were still standing until 1974, when it was destroyed in the anti-Lin Biao and Confucius campaign.

The 1980s’ revival
Such a history of Maoism at the grassroots needs telling anyway, but it’s also essential background to the revival since the 1980s after the collapse of the commune system. Jing Jun observes:

These ideas and practices are not mechanically retrieved from the past; they are blended with cultural inventions, shaped by the local experience of Maoism, and permeated with contemporary concerns.

In a similar pattern to that taking place throughout China, as the villagers began to retrieve what had survived of the temple artefacts, rituals were held at a provisional ancestral shrine from 1984. The Confucius temple was rebuilt in 1991.

Dachuan 1

Jing explores the backgrounds and moral authority of the new temple leaders, and reflects on the whole process of cultural invention.

In a situation in which the administrative power of Dachuan’s village cares was rapidly shrinking, leadership in ancestral worship could be a key step toward winning respect, popularity, and even trust.

But power structures were in flux, as grievances from the Maoist era became public, with petition drives and demonstrations common.

Since the surviving lisheng ritual performers had only distant memories of how to perform the ceremony, they gradually recreated its liturgical structure, actions, and vocal style, culminating with the compilation of a ritual handbook in 1991 (this is not quite a typical case, I’d say: in many regions of China under Maoism, household ritual specialists had managed to transmit a more substantial corpus of their ritual expertise.) As Jing notes, there were certain models for the literary style of the written texts in the fragments of wider religious life. And I might suggest that even the rhythms and high-pitched style of the chanted elegies were not recreated in a vacuum: the traditional soundscapes of folk-song, local opera and shadow-puppetry, and so on—which had persisted to some extent under Maoism (for Hunan, see e.g. here)—might offer piecemeal clues.

Jing addresses the complex issues in studying genealogies, again focusing on social memory.

Dachuan 2

In 1992 the nearby village of Xiaochuan restablished its own Confucian temple. From 1958 it had suffered a similar fate to that of Dachuan. In both villages the ceremonies were now opened to outsiders beyond the immediate lineage. Jing distinguishes “dominant” and “variant” ritual structures.

In the latter, women played a major role (again, this is typical of temple fairs more generally)—including a spirit medium who brought over thirty female followers from her nearby village. Women were particularly devout in making vows, burning paper offerings, and singing songs of lamentation.

An older woman whose vivid renditions of songs from qinqiang, or Shaanxi opera, attracted a thick circle of spectators was led away by men in charge of the festival’s security. Another circle formed around a middle-aged woman whose body jerked spasmodically and who mubled what sounded like poems as if in a trance. She was carried away by the security guards, who were young men from Xiaochuan. After these women clamed down, they were sternly lectured by the festival organisers for having performed “superstitious” acts that could draw unwelcome attention from the local government to Xiaochuan’s festival.

Jing notes hierarchies among those attending the festival, and in the food provided. He goes on,

The woman’s eviction displeased some visitors, since singing is perfectly acceptable at many temple activities. This incident thus indicates a clash between two different perceptions of the festival.

While the Kongs were as fond as anyone of combining the singing of local opera with the worship of local deities, they rejected it as a proper form during a service for ancestor worship. Jing suggests that their antipathy went back to an incident in the early 1940s, when community leaders had objected to the staging of an opera inside the Xiaochuan temple to celebrate a bumper harvest—their resentments partly based on a rich man treating the occasion as a self-serving display of wealth and generosity. But as he says, few would have been aware of that. Such incidents mainly illustrate multivocal interpretations:

Such negotations were precipitated by variations in historical experience, personal memory, understanding of religious symbols, and concepts of ritual propriety.

Jing opens the impressive final chapter, “Finding memories in Gansu”, by encapsulating the tension between ethnography and history:

In an ethnography of the Kongs, one could take a synchronic approach, a type of analysis typical of the structural functionalists and French structuralists, that treats a society as if it were “outside of time”, that is, without reference to historical context.

Indeed, as I have noted, it’s more complex: in many field reports on local Chinese ritual, the fieldwork makes a pretext for timeless depictions that are dominated by early historical context while glossing over the current social picture.

Anyway, Jing gives ample reasons for placing the Dachuan rituals in their modern setting. He goes on to give instances of accounts of the memory of suffering in other societies, including Alan Mintz and Lucette Valensi on the Holocaust, and Anastasia Shkinlyk’s devastating study of the despair and agony of a relocated Ojibwa community (see here). He also cites Arthur Kleinman’s work on illness narratives among Chinese patients. And we can now add Stephan Feuchtwang’s study After the event (cf. China: commemorating trauma, including Wu Wenguang’s memory project).

He is right to note the official conformity of depictions in county gazetteers compiled since the 1980s—although in the accounts of Maoist campaigns and famine for some counties like Yanggao in north Shanxi (see e.g. my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.122–3) one may discern a subtle resistance to state propaganda. He also sets forth from Frances Yates’s 1966 The art of memory to explore the historical memory embodied in religious artefacts.

As Jing Jun observes, the reinstated worship of Confucius in the Dachuan area is not an isolated case of religious revival in a rather remote part of China. He places it in the broad context of the religious revival in China, if not in Yongjing county. Thus while we find vignettes on other forms of religious expression (mediums, sectarian groups), his coverage might have benefitted from an outline of the broader fortunes of ritual life in the area through the 1950s, such as the fate of other temples in Dachuan and nearby, funerals and temple fairs, and the activities of household Daoists and bards. The story of the Dachuan temple make a particular but revealing case. [1]



[1] Though focusing on ritual life before and since the Maoist era rather than on state initiatives under Maoism, a project on cults in Shaanxi and Shanxi led by Christian Lamouroux and Marianne Bujard, with Qin Jianming, Dong Xiaoping, and Patrice Fava, is also relevant. See e.g.

  • Marianne Bujard, with Dong Xiaoping, “Hydraulique et société en Chine du Nord: une coopération franco-chinoise en sciences sociales”, BEFEO 2001, notably the Yaoshan shengmu cult in Pucheng, Shaanxi:
  • Qin Jianming 秦建明 and Lü Min吕敏 [Marianne Bujard], Yaoshan shengmu miao yu shenshe 堯山聖母廟與神社 [The sacred mother temple and holy parishes of Yaoshan] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2003).


6 thoughts on “The temple of memories

  1. Pingback: Maoist worship in Gansu | Stephen Jones: a blog

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  3. Pingback: China: commemorating trauma | Stephen Jones: a blog

  4. Pingback: Guo Yuhua: Notes from Beijing, 3 | Stephen Jones: a blog

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