Meanwhile the society of Hunan has seen constant change. The bleak documentary
- Miners, the horsekeeper, and pneumoconiosis 矿民, 马夫, 尘肺病 by independent director Jiang Nengjie 蒋能杰 (b.1985)
has caused a sensation, with free viewing online in China and on YouTube—further evidence of the resilience of the independent cinema movement since its 1990s’ heyday:
The documentary was filmed from 2010 to 2018 in the mountains of Hunan, where Jiang’s own family suffered from the dangers of the privately-run illegal mining industry. Under conditions that are anyway destructive to health, with lung disease rife, unauthorised explosives and mining disasters are routine. Despite local government attempts to control such mines, official corruption is chronic; and for all the general progress since the 1980s, such rural dwellers take a cynical view of the state poverty-alleviation project.
The film ends movingly with the funeral of former miner Zhao Pinfeng (1968–2018), with a band of blowers and drummers (and a brass band for the burial procession) but no Daoists. It makes a stark reminder of the human cost at stake in what ethnographers and sinologists do as they affirm the ancient grandeur of tradition—cf. my comments on a similar scene from Gansu in Wang Bing’s Dead souls, with the wailing shawm band reflecting the anguish of the kin.
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Jiang Nengjie had already made a series of documentaries on the left-behind children in his native region—including The road, Children at a village school, The ninth grade, Jiayi, and Junior Three, mostly available on Vimeo. For broader approaches to documenting the left-behind children, see e.g. here, and wiki.
It’s hard to reconcile harsh social realities like mining and migration with research on the continuing “vibrancy” of Daoist ritual in Hunan (cf. my query here about young people being keen to become household Daoists). As I’ve noted, the study of Daoist ritual may seem like an autonomous zone fated to remain adrift from wider fields of enquiry.
Since the 1980s the great majority of adult villagers in Hunan have left for migrant labour in Guangdong, and those that remain are vulnerable—surely all this should feature prominently in our discussions? The defence of sinologists might be that they focus on the culture of the pre-modern period; yet in addition to library work on ancient texts, it is precisely their own fieldwork in this changing society that has enriched the topic so greatly. Hence the shift of ethnographers like the great Guo Yuhua towards the plight of the “sufferers”. This is not to suggest that we should all become social activists: rather, as I suggested in Epidemics in a Chinese county, that cultural studies should bear social issues in mind.
 Mining is a theme in the feature films of Jia Zhangke set in central Shanxi, such as Platform—from a contract: “Life and death are a matter of fate, prosperity depends on Heaven. I am willing to work in Gaojiazhuang mine. Management accepts no blame for accidents.” Even nearer to my base in north Shanxi are the mines around Shuozhou—and Datong, subject of a recent article, with links including this documentary.
Just west of Beijing, ritual groups in the Mentougou district, within the ambit of the Miaofengshan pilgrimage, have traditionally served mining communities, which have suffered from recent closures. Meanwhile, with typical neglect of the gritty realities of changing society, village ritual groups there (such as Qianjuntai 千军台) have been conscripted into the Intangible Cultural Heritage shtick. Further to studies by Bao Shixuan 包世轩, Han Tongchun 韩同春 and others, I look forward to a detailed forthcoming book by the splendid Ju Xi 鞠熙, fully addressing the mining context—meanwhile, see this brief notice.
One might compare the fate of brass bands in the north of England as representatives of local culture since the mine closures under Thatcher.