Spirit mediums in Henan

Ng cover

The grassroots ubiquity of spirit mediums (often female) in Chinese religious life is increasingly recognised (see here, with many links). I often plea for them to be recognised as among the most important practitioners “doing religion” in China—and now, as if in divine response to my entreaties, a welcome addition to our knowledge is

  • Emily Ng, A time of lost gods: mediumship, madness, and the ghost after Mao (2020),

on spirit mediums in a county of central Henan province. [1] Here’s the blurb:

Traversing visible and invisible realms, A time of lost gods attends
to profound re-readings of politics, religion, and madness in the
cosmic accounts of spirit mediumship. Drawing on research across a
temple, a psychiatric unit, and the home altars of spirit mediums in a
rural county of China’s Central Plain, it asks: What ghostly forms
emerge after the death of Mao and the so-called end of history?
The story of religion in China since the market reforms of the late
1970s is often told through its destruction under Mao and relative
flourishing thereafter. Here, those who engage in mediumship offer a
different history of the present. They approach Mao’s reign not simply
as an earthly secular rule, but an exceptional interval of divine
sovereignty, after which the cosmos collapsed into chaos. Caught
between a fading era and an ever-receding horizon, those “left behind”
by labour outmigration refigure the evacuated hometown as an
ethical-spiritual centre to come, amidst a proliferation of
madness-inducing spirits. Following pronouncements of China’s rise,
and in the wake of what Chinese intellectuals termed semicolonialism,
the stories here tell of spirit mediums, patients, and psychiatrists
caught in a shared dilemma, in a time when gods have lost their way.

Ng begins by reflecting on her initial confrontational encounter with the medium Zheng Yulan, who soon moved from indifference towards her guest to rejecting any further engagement, a telling story that rings true—the perceived dangers of transmitting messages “across what the mediums deem enemy lines”. [2]

Henan [3] 
Ng notes the “demonising” of Henan, in Ma Shuo’s term “a symbolic place of stagnation”:

Now, in place of a civilisational centre, Henan is more potent in the national imaginary as a land of poverty, backwardness, charlatans, and thieves, evocative of the famines of the 1940s and 1950s under Nationalist and Maoist rule, and of the HIV scandal of the 1990s, when villagers contracted the virus from blood plasma sales for cash.

Indeed, Henan suffered particularly grievously from the famine during the drive to communisation in the late 1950s. Citing Ann Anagnost on the “spectralisation of the rural” since the reform era, Ng evokes a society in which “ghostly presences swirl amid the hollow of an emptied centre”.

Mediums and vocabulary
Rather like Henan itself, mediums have been written out of the official history. They themselves have an alternative view of the Maoist and reform eras:

The purportedly antireligious campaigns of the socialist state, for the mediums, constitute cryptic acts of divine intervention—acts inaugurated by otherworldy forces that allowed the earthly state to misrecognise itself as secular.

Ng unpacks the local vocabulary for mediums and possession. The verb kan 看 is used, which she translates as “see”, as in kanxiangde 看香的 “one who sees incense”; as with the kanrizi “determining the date” among household Daoists, I’d suggest the more active rendition “looking with incense”, with the further implication of “taking care of through incense”. Mediums are also described as “those who walk/run/stand guard for spiritual power” (zougongde 走功的, paogongde 跑功的, shougongde 守功的). [4] Ng defines mediums broadly, as “those who regularly receive supplicants at an altar and those who regularly undergo possession at temples without necessarily receiving supplicants”, “lending their bodies” to spirits—as opposed to (usually male) diviners and fortune-tellers. Again like household Daoists, their domains are the yin and yang realms. The common term for the deities who possess mediums is xian 仙 “immortal”—who may also be ghosts.

Ng’s host quips with her by using the standard term shenpo 神婆 “witch”,

a term […] that I had brought to the scene, one intelligible to her while marking my externality to local articulations. It was a phrase more common with urban friends with less familiarity with such matters and carried a slight air of modern accusation. The term is rarely used in Hexian without either a note of disdain from those who denounce so-called superstitions or a knowing emphasis from those who do engage with such practices.

The aftermath of Maoism
Ng notes how the Cultural Revolution (and indeed, its first two years) often stands misleadingly as a condensed image of the Maoist era in its entirety. At a certain remove from Jing Jun’s study of the revival of a Confucian temple in Gansu, Ng approaches evocations of culture in a shifting moral landscape “not as a straightforward continuation but as painful enunciations and wounded reworkings after the cultural as such has been rendered petrified and petrifying”.

Despite variations on divine details, spirit mediums who frequented Fuxi temple in Hexian agreed: it was upon Chairman Mao’s death that the ghosts returned to haunt. Just across the road, in the psychiatric unit of the People’s Hospital,  patients lament accursed lives, tracing etiological paths through tales of dispossession, kinship, and betrayal. South from the hospital, a Sinopec gas station sits atop what was once known as the “ten-thousand-man pit” (wanrenkeng), where bodies of the poor and treacherous were flung, throughout decades of famine and revolution.

Ng describes “a set of tensions, between a reconstituted rurality and an ambivalent urbanity, a mournful psychiatry and a shaken cosmology.” She evokes “culture as aftermath”: “the time when Chairman Mao reigned” (dangjia 当家, “in charge”, an ubiquitous term for both secular and sacred leaders, as we heard constantly in rural Hebei) is recalled as an interval of divine sovereignty, after which the cosmos collapsed into chaos.

Recognising a painful rupture to traditions of thought, in this sense, is not antithetical to taking seriously ongoing engagements with a cultural repertoire, as the cultural is loosened from assumptions of its qualities as an immobile, unbroken, closed system, and fragmentation is no longer assumed to be characteristic only of the modern or postmodern. Instead, attention to the aftermath of culture allows us to address how “culture” in the historical present  is not simply an anachronistic concept but seethes in its simultaneous transmission of efficacious potential and tormenting attacks—from within and without.

At the temple square
Chapter 2 opens at the gate of the Fuxi temple in the county-town, as a man recites a Mao poem in a voice “from above”. For many mediums the journey consists in “walking Chairman Mao’s path”, and this is the focus of Ng’s study. But almost in passing she makes an important qualification:

Not all [mediums] centre their practices on Mao. They might be chosen by a number of tutelary deities from Buddhist, Daoist, and local pantheons to join their spiritual family and work in their service, or they might simply be vulnerable to possession by ghosts and spirits without an allocation of a divine task. But those who walk Chairman Mao’s path have a continual and notable presence at the temple square, on and beyond common ritual days, and even those who dedicate their ritual labour to other deities acknowledge Mao’s position in the cosmology.

So Ng surveys work on the Mao cult in the religious sphere—the study of Mao worship has become something of an industry (cf. this post on Gansu). As she notes, while commentators such as Geremie Barmé have described the “new Mao cult” as offering an implicit counterpoint to official portrayals, almost entirely divested of its original class, ethical, and political dimensions, her own work in Henan shows Mao still serving as ethopolitical and even cosmological figure.

In an inversion of the state’s ritual displacement of popular religion, the potency produced through Maoist-era political rituals is reactivated in post-Mao mediumship. Sharing a symbolic repertoire with the earthly state, the spectral polity speaks to the sense of a morally hollowed present and a revolution incomplete.

At the square she observes the scene acutely:

The air is dense with anticipation. Those who do not otherwise frequent the temple rush toward the gate, jostling their way through the crowds to burn the last batch of incense for the year. Making my way across the square, I am drawn toward a rumbling drum beat, steady and declarative, in sets of three. A large circle of onlookers gather around six women and two men, middle aged, as they prepare for ritual. They don matching and seemingly brand-new green Mao-era army coats, topped with brown Soviet-style fur hats, a single red star at the centre. One woman at the inner edge of the crowd holds a tall pole, topped with a large yellow flag with the word ling (lit. “command, order, or decree”; in this context meaning “divine command”) etched in red.

Ayahao!” Another woman, in a red parka and a red embroidered dress reminiscent of old Shanghai, traces the edges of the encirclement with her steps, passing at its northernmost point. Facing the heavens, hands outstretched, her arms slowly lift toward the sky. She is receiving not only lingqi from above but also divine command for the opening of the ritual. “Ayahao!” she cries again—an interjection confirming an otherworldly presence or signal, often one’s own possession or infusion by spiritual personae or airs. “Ayahao! Ayahao! Ayahao!” echo several spectators in the crowd—a signal that they too acknowledge and experience the presence and signals of the spirits. While some rituals on the square involve particular appeals to the powers above, rituals such as this are often considered a mode of acknowledgement and oblation for the gods as well as a means of gathering spiritual force.

Inside the circle eighteen sheets of yellow fabric—used commonly in local rituals and often considered, on the temple square, the colour of the emperor—have been laid out in the shape of a fan, flanked by a head of cabbage and two large stalks of scallions. Agricultural goods are often incorporated into ritual spreads at the temple square, sealing within them symbolic meanings and forces both shared and esoteric. […] North of this more yellow fabric, this time in a row of five, every other sheet topped with a bamboo platter […] is covered by paper cutting of four concentric red stars, one embedded in another, the emblem of the Communist Party.

On the central bamboo platter, three cigarettes point northward, an offering to the gods, I am told. A common offering in Hexian in ritual and mediumship, cigarettes are often smoked by mediums and at times are burned in an upright position in place of or in conjunction with incense on the temple square. Some say the use of cigarettes was a carryover from the Cultural Revolution, when incense sales were banned and visits to mediums were held covertly behind closed doors in the night. Above the cigarettes four sticks of incense burn in a golden urn—three for humans, four for ghosts, as the saying went—aside a row of plastic-wrapped sausages, “because gods like to eat too”.

At the very top, farthest north, thus of highest position in the cosmic-symbolic geography, is a large poster of Mao in a red-collared shirt, seated and flanked by his generals in blue uniform. Placed on the poster are three mandarin oranges and three slices of metallic-gold ritual paper—two covered in looping spirit writing, the third with the words “Through virtue, one gains all under heaven” (de de tianxia).

Fifty or so onlookers have gathered around by now; men smoking, women bundled in scarves, several in their teens and twenties peering on, gawking, giggling. A man, perhaps in his late thirties, cigarette dangling from his lips, begins swinging a three-feet-long necklace of Buddhist beads above his head. After a minute or so, he meticulously lowers the necklace atop the poster of Mao and the generals. The two men in Maoist army coats begin striking a gong and cymbals, tracing deliberate steps across the spread of ritual offerings. Others—mostly those I have seen frequenting the square before—join to walk the perimeter of the encirclement, some singing, some dancing, some plucking offerings off the spread, brandishing them toward the heavens. The percussion gains speed. The cries intensify. “Ayahao! Ayahao! Ayahao!”A woman walks to the centre of the circle and closes her eyes. Another twirls, palms up highto collect spiritual airs from above. A voice bellows amid the drum and song.

“Wansui! Wansui! Mao zhuxi wansui!” Ten thousand years! Ten thousand years! Ten thousand years for Chairman Mao! A woman, standing beneath the yellow flag of divine command, howls at the top of her lungs. “Wansui! Wansui!” she calls out again and again, until her voice grows hoarse. In an adjacent ritual circle, the drumming also reaches its peak. “Shenglile! Victory! Dajia shenglile! Victory to all! Shijie dapingle! The world has reached supreme peace! Zhongguo shenglile! China has reached victory! “Wansui! Wansui! Wanwansuiiiii!” Ten thousand years! Ten thousand years! Tens of thousands of years!

Probably out of discretion, the book only includes two photos:

Left: drawing of Mao on yellow fabric, with characters on watermelon reading junling “military [divine] command”. Right: “Cartography of loss”, showing stitching with neon yellow thread on red fabric, with character zhong “middle” in centre.

Ng points out that while corruption is a common lament, it is deeply embedded at all levels of society. She adduces the common issue of exorbitant entrance fees to temples (cf. Houshan). With the world of deities also tainted, the image of Chairman Mao has remained virtuous; many associate him, and the campaigns he led, with a kind of spiritual rectification.

In what is a widespread karmic trope, Ng notes that several Red Guards who took part in destroying the temple artefacts fell prey to strange illnesses or died bad deaths.

Acutely aware of fakery throughout reform-era society, local people struggle to distinguish fake mediums, and indeed fake deities who may possess them.

With the Chairman’s withdrawal back to the heavens postreform, an epidemic of brazen charlatanism and greed was unleashed across human and spiritual worlds.

So even if the “Mao shamans” are only one part of the picture, Ng contributes nuance to the discussion.

Consulting a medium at home
By contrast with the more performative public spectacle at the square, in Chapter 3, “Spectral collision”, Ng accompanies her host Cai Huiqing as she takes the bus to consult a medium at her village house, noting its unobtrusive “minimalist” nature, in Adam Yuet Chau’s term. As was common at the houses of mediums whom Ng visited, her altar had its own dedicated wing in the house complex, with its own entrance.

At the altar we take a seat across from Zheng Yulan on the west side of the square ritual table—the spiritually and symbolically less powerful side of the arrangement, in contrast to the east. In front of the altar, sitting between Zheng Yulan and us, is a large metal wash bin filled with incense from previous sessions. North of us all, thus at the top of the cosmic hierarchy, is the altar lined with several icons flanked by guardian lions, with Queen Mother of the West (Xiwang mu) at the centre. Cai Huiqing places a five renminbi note on the table as incense money (xiangqian)—a gesture that initiates the ritual exchange. *

* (Ng’s note:) In Hexian incense money is always laid on the table before a session begins. The amount given is usually volunteered rather than specified and often ranges from 10 to 50 renminbi at the village home altar session I saw. Compensation in gratitude for the completion of ritual assistance (huanyuan) is more likely to be specified and is higher than the initial incense money, ranging from the low to high hundreds of renminbi. More elaborate rituals or ones that require a medium to visit one’s home may reach into the thousands.

Zheng Yulan unwraps a a new batch of rusty-gold incense, lighting it slowly, attentively, squinting to determine whether the batch was properly lit before finally planting it into the large metal bin. […]

Zheng Yulan closes her eyes and begins yawning. In Hexian, as in many regions of China, yawning is a sign that the spirits had arrived and were entering the medium’s body, given the airy, pneumatic quality of other-worldly presences. “What is the name?” she asks.

Cai Huiqing responds with [her husband] Li Hanwei’s name, on whose behalf she is consulting the deities. As is often the case, the main supplicant of a session is not assumed to be the person who arrived at the altar; consultations are often initiated for others in the family. The reading of one’s own cosmic circumstances is not uncommonly left until last, after having inquired for others.

Zheng Yulan asks of Li Hanwei’s whereabouts. In an era of rural outmigration, family members are not always assumed to reside locally. Cai Huiqing replies that he is away, on the road, driving a large truck, delivering goods.

“Where does he drive?”

“From here to other counties, at times much farther, via the highway, to make deliveries.” Zheng Yulan contemplates this; then her right hand begins shaking as she whispers rapidly under her breath, conversing with her tutelary spirit. Another yawn hits her, and her eyes snap open. “He hit someone while he was driving.”

When it transpires that it was not a mortal but a xian ghost whom he had hit,

After enquiring about Li Hanwei’s local truck route, Zheng Yulan chuckles knowingly. “That corner—don’t you know it’s the ten-thousand-man pit, the wanrenkeng?” She is speaking of a major intersection, which for decades prior to the reform era was known locally as the site of a mass grave. During the famines of the 1940s and 1950s, it is said that those who simply collapsed of cold and hunger and died in the street or those whose families did not have the land to bury them in were simply tossed into the pit. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, it also served as resting place to those accused of political dissent—they were killed point-blank at the edge, I was told.

Now the ten-thousand-man pit lies beneath a Sinopec gas station. It is no longer so actively feared as it once was yet still houses countless hungry, wandering ghosts from decades past. […]

The ten-thousand-man pit is but one among many sites for spectral collisions in Hexian. Ghosts are also said to be common at intersections where their souls had been released during mortuary ritual; their personal gravesites; homes of women who recently miscarried; sites of past wrongs, reminiscences, and ghostly sociality […]; and simply arbitrary places along their driftings.

Ng goes on to illustrate such collisions through the history of the ten-thousand-man pit, and the famine of the 1940s and 50s. While she mentions in passing the terrible famine that followed the 1958 Great Leap Backward, I wonder if this is also a common theme of spectral encounters; rather,

in Hexian recollections of the pre-Maoist Old Society, transmitted through oral accounts and corroborated in national media, together with the sense of precarity and moral collapse in the post-Mao present, heightened the sense of safety and exceptionality of Maoist times.

As the consultation continues, Cai Huiqing rushes to the kneeling mat south of the altar and begins to kowtow northward, but the gesture seems insufficient. “Seeing with incense”, the medium gives a spoken exegesis, instructing Cai to burn six hundred ingots folded from gold spirit money to placate the ghost and ten reams of yellow spirit money to show gratitude to the deities. She correctly foretells that her client will have revealing dreams, which she describes on their next visit some days later. As Zheng Yulan requests clarifications, she concludes that a ghost is trapped and choked beneath “ a certain arc-shaped object, stuck beneath Cai Huiqing’s home, in the southwest corner”.

On her return, Cai indeed excavates an old, rusted pipe clamp from her yard, which she must get rid of. Such concealed artefacts may indeed be deemed malignant: in my book on a Hebei village I noted a story of villagers consulting a medium to locate a trowel accidentally buried in a wall as they were building a house.

Even if her husband and children disparage her recourse to mediums as a superstitious squandering of time and money, Cai Huiqing regards it as a way of mitigating danger for her family.

Ng notes that such spectral collisions may overlap with the potential natal calamity of one’s horoscope.

On the psychiatric ward
With striking, cinematic abruptness, Chapter 4, “A soul adrift”, transports us to the psychiatric unit of the county People’s Hospital, which indeed is across the road from the Fuxi temple—there’s even an advertisement for it on the big screen in the temple square.

In a highly original and insightful juxtaposition, Ng spends time with several patients whose crises seem to call for such a modern form of intervention, considering medical anthropology, madness, and the divided self, and again drawing on much research. She had already worked among psychiatric patients in Shenzhen, where she found that “the post-Mao generation increasingly individualised and psychologised their illness, with a heavy sense of self-blame, in contrast to the political, sociomoral, and situational accounts from those who came of age in the Maoist era”. Indeed, this perspective first came to my attention with an article on psychiatric patients in Hebei (n.2 here).

Ng also refers to Arthur Kleinman’s study of neurasthenia, which he found to provide a somatised, medically legitimised, and politically tolerable idiom through which to articulate otherwise punishable laments during the Cultural Revolution.

Many of the problems that people experienced stemmed from the pressures created since 2005 by the state’s New Socialist Countryside project (the object of several trenchant critiques by fine scholars such as Guo Yuhua)—people’s precarious economic prospects associated with migration and return, and familial tensions. At the same time,

many patients and families speak of the illness for which they come to seek treatment in terms of possession, soul loss, and ghost encounters or as the blurred boundary between madness and otherworldly happenings.

For some, social disintegration and crisis in filial relations are a manifestation of cosmic chaos.

The hospital might serve, modestly, as a “tentative site of retreat” from such pressures.

Save weddings, birth celebrations, and funerals, hospitalisation—psychiatric or otherwise—seems to be one of the few occasions in Hexian that draws local extended family and immediate family near and far, along with select friends and neighbours, into a circuit of visitations.

Ng meets a withdrawn, wandering mother, whose few utterances often reference the commune era; her crises have not been mediated by spirit mediums. Her worried daughters take turns attending to her, returning from Beijing.

Next Ng meets a female student, disturbed by the pressures of education and her impasse with her migrant father, who only thinks about money yet whom she describes critically as an “honest” (laoshi 老实) type. She reflects well on that common yet ambivalent term:

Until the early 1980s honesty connoted a good person, hardworking and trustworthy, the ideal marriage partner, particularly when describing men. With the turn toward market competition and growing disparity in the reform era, the same term began morphing in connotation, pointing to a naÏveté vulnerable to exploitation and duping, which would not fare well in the new moment and risks falling short of supporting a family amid the social games of the privatised world. Honesty also came to mark a caricature of the rural, of peasants too simpleminded for complicated times. As Yunxiang Yan writes of young women he encountered in rural Heilongjiang in the 1990s, “a number of them maintained that that [honest] young men had difficulty expressing themselves emotionally, and lacked attractive manners”. By contrast, articulate speech, emotional expression, ambition, and a capacity for advancing one’s social and economic position had come to be valued, reversing the previous connotations of similar traits as unsavoury signs of empty words, lasciviousness, and aggression.

I’m sure this is right, though I haven’t picked up so much on it. Often when I’ve heard the term used, I’ve felt that it was not only an implied rebuke to the widespread current avarice and duplicity, but also a tribute to those who had managed to maintain a moral core under Maoism, resisting fickle political pressures—like the much-admired Li Jin in Yanggao.

The patient’s mother has visited various “superstitious” guides on her behalf, both mediums and fortune tellers—“those who ask for directions for you” (gei ni wenwenlu nazhong, another formulation likely to serve fieldworkers better than alien, judgmental terms like shenpo “witch”). Like Ng’s host, the mother engages with the spirit world on behalf of her kin, “in search of otherworldly forces shaping the predicaments of the present”. While the student herself seems indifferent to all this, she doesn’t think the various drugs she has been prescribed (olanzapine, alprazolam, paroxetine) will suffice to help her, though she feels comforted by the IV drip. She places greater faith in counselling, but it’s available only in the major cities.

Next comes an injured former miner diagnosed with acute psychosis. Ng gains background from his wife. His frustration at his loss of earning power and, again, tensions with his father clearly play a role in his disorder. A female relative had consulted a medium on his behalf, who again diagnosed a spectral collision, but a “soul-calling” session was unsuccessful.

Here Ng reflects on what Yan Yunxiang described as the crisis of filial piety, “a deep shift in notions of intergenerational reciprocity”.

Across my conversations with patients and families, the language of psychiatry is present but, to some extent, sidelined. For most the psychiatric ward is one stop in a broader search for healing, and psychopharmaceutical cures are one hope among many.

Chapter 5 goes on to describe another patient, Xu Liying, herself a medium “summoned to the revolution” eighteen years previously by a vision of Chairman Mao and the Ten Great Marshals, struggling against evil spirits—a mission that torments her.

Brought to the ward by her husband and son, she is the only patient there diagnosed with “culture-bound syndrome”, but remains devoted to her divine task. Several fellow mediums come to visit her, trying in vain to convince the doctors to release her so that she can continue her work.

Again, much of Xu Liying’s task consists in discriminating fakery and corruption. Her cosmos depends heavily on the ledgers of the courts of hell. Among her few trusted deities is none other than the Eternal Mother (Wusheng laomu), the central figure of “White Lotus” eschatology. For her and other mediums in Hexian,

the historical arrival of Mao is at times linked with the arrival of the Maitreya Buddha, in a moment when China had reached the brink of ruin and calamity.

Ng notes that

The spatial face-off of the temple and the hospital follows a series of encounters between health and religiosity throughout the 20th century.

She makes another important qualification:

To be sure, psychiatry and mediumship do not always overlap in Hexian. Plenty of those in Hexian who have experienced possession by deities or ghosts do not wind up at the psychiatric ward, and many at the ward do not describe their ailment in terms of the invisible yin world. At the same time languages of madness pervade contemporary mediumship, and talk of possession is very much familiar to psychiatrists and patients at the ward.

In the Coda Ng observes

The mediums, having been written out of modern religious and medical legitimacy, continue to address madness in their consultations and ritual repertoires. Symptoms, for the mediums, are not merely representations of biological truth or psychiatric reason but signs of cosmopolitical disarray. Possessed bodies and disturbed dreams link the present with its hauntings, reinvesting the most local of geographies with significance across national, world-historical, and cosmic scales.

The mediums of China today are not those of the imagined past.

* * *

Now I’d like to read more about other local temples, further sessions, the role of gender (Ng notes that more women than men become mediums, but doesn’t go into detail), economic aspects, and the part mediums may play in any sectarian activity. I also find Xiao Mei’s diary of a busy medium in Guangxi makes an instructive template. Mediums have domestic altars, but Ng doesn’t mention any painted pantheons such as we find in parts of Shanxi and Shaanbei. As to performance, her comments don’t go much beyond “the song and drums reverberating from the proliferation of ritual across the temple square”. I wonder if the Hexian mediums perform group sessions in domestic settings as well as in the temple square. In some regions (such as Yanggao), they may speak and sing in dialects of which they have no knowledge in their mundane life.

XLY mediums

Mediums at temple fair, Yanggao 2011. My photo.

Ng does both descriptive ethnographic detail and broader theory very well, but I often found the former getting buried beneath her impressive array of theoretical citations and reflections. We can always consult Foucault and Derrida, but the grassroots detail of ritual life in rural China need to be evoked. Since Ng met many mediums, I kept wanting more thick descriptions of what they actually do.

It’s often a challenge to balance ethnography and theory, but to my taste I’d sacrifice some of the latter for more of the former. Still, A time of lost gods is a most original portrait of an important topic, sympathetic and non-judgmental.

 

[1] Ng uses pseudonyms both for the location and for personal names.

[2] For Navajo ceremonies for protection against baleful ghosts amidst modern traumas, see here—including Barre Toelken’s cautionary tales (n.5 there), evoking Ng’s initial encounter in Henan.

[3] For Henan, Peter Seybolt, Throwing the emperor from his horse (1996), a biography of a village leader through three eras, remains useful. Note also sectarian groups such as Eastern Lightning (see e.g. Ian Johnson, The souls of China, chapter 25). I really should get a grasp on ritual life and expressive culture in Henan—perhaps setting forth from the relevant volumes of the Anthology.

[4] Among many local terms for mediums, see e.g. HebeiShaanbei (Chau, Miraculous response, pp.54–8, Religion in China, pp.117–21, and forthcoming), and south Jiangsu. For educated and local vocabularies more generally, click here.

Rubber soul

Rubber soul

As the Beatles grew rapidly, after A hard day’s night came Rubber soul (1965).

Here’s the 2009 remastered version as a playlist:

Again I’ll cite the analyses of Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack (and as ever, do bear in mind these reflections on the merits of analysis). Mellers wonders if the prevalence of “anti” songs on the disc may be an inverted positive—a move towards self-reliance. Below I’ll focus on the ballads:

  • Norwegian Wood, unusually using triple metre, was George’s first venture on sitar. Mellers:

The girl in her elegantly-wooded apartment is strong on social, weak on sexual, intercourse; her polished archness is satirised in an arching waltz tune wearily fey, yet mildly surprising because in the mixolydian mode. Here the flat seventh gives to the comedy an undercurrent of wistfulness, and this embraces both John’s frustration and the girl’s pretentiousness—which is pointed by George’s playing the sitar, not in emulation of Indian styles, but as an exotic guitar. The middle section brings us to the crux of the situation (which is, for John, a night spent in the bath) with a stern intrusion of the tonic minor triad and a tune descending, with drooping appoggiatura, to the subdominant with flattened seventh. After this middle the lyricism of the waltz da capo suggests not so much plaintiveness as a comic dismay. The effect of the flattened seventh, followed by a rise through a fifth and a fall through a sixth, pendulum-like, even seems a trifle sinister in context; as perhaps it is, if “I lit a fire, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood” implies a slight case of arson.

For Pollack’s comments see here.

  • Nowhere Man (Mellers: a satire on “the socialite or all-too-civil servant who’s afraid of emotional commitment”), with its unprecedented a cappella opening, and a little guitar riff trailing each verse. Pollack:

Superficially, the melodic material of the song is straight away in the major mode. However, one’s interest in the tune is piqued on a more subtle level by a combination of the large number of appoggiaturas, the pseudo-pentatonic nature of the bridge, and the prominent role given to the flat sixth degree (C♮) in the backing vocals.

  • Michelle, [Mellers:] “harmonically sophisticated […], with tender chromatic sequences and tritonal inclusions”, and the pure pentatonic love call of the refrain. “The subtlety of the song lies in the contrast between chromatic sophistication and pentatonic innocence”, a duality already hinted at in the false relations of the F major and D♭ triads of the first two bars, giving “a tentative, exploratory quality to the tenderness, hinting that the barrier isn’t just one of language, but is inherent in the separateness of each individual, however loving”.

Pollack makes detailed comparisons with Yesterday. More whimsically, he muses

How can anyone be as desperately in love with someone with whom they cannot hold a decent conversation, no less an email correspondence?

Discuss

  • Girl, largely acoustic, is another instance of [Mellers:] “the interdependence of ‘reality’ and wit”, its tune “in an aeolian-sounding C minor, […] with an almost-comic pentatonic refrain sighfully and unexpectedly drooping to E♭ major. The middle section “veers abruptly to the minor of the supertonic of E♭ (or the subdominant of C minor), the fetching tune abandoned in favour of regularly repeated quavers on the syllable tit-tit (which sometimes sounds like tut-tut!).”

As the lyricism is banished, so the girl is deflated: from being a girl in a storybook she’s become a flesh-and-blood, immensely desirable young woman. […] The melismata are “cool”, the sighs verge on the ludicrous; yet this paradoxically intensifies the loving pathos of the lyrical tune when it’s sung da capo, since life is a tangled mesh of hopes and disappointments. […] The hurt inherent in living, as well as loving, is accepted without pretention, yet without rancour.

Pollack’s comments are here.

  • In my lifePollack notes the balance between intimacy and unease; and George Martin’s pseudo-baroque keyboard solo contrasts with the mood of the rest of the song.

And then came Revolver

Some pupils of Nadia Boulanger—real and alleged

Boulanger with Stravinsky

With Igor Stravinsky (“Gran visits York“), 1937.

Just in time before it was deleted, I viewed a suggestive wiki page listing well over two hundred distinguished pupils of the great pedagogue Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979; cf. my post on her sister Lili). The wiki editors may have decided it would be shorter to compile a list of musicians who didn’t study with her.

Sure, one might suspect that some of them just popped in for a pot of tea and a macaroon, à la Alan Bennett. The allure of Paris may have played a certain role in Mademoiselle’s popularity—dare I surmise that her wisdom might not have been in quite such demand had she been based in Scunthorpe.

Prominent in the populous Boulangerie were renowned WAM composers and performers—such as Walter Piston, Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, Philip Glass (cf. Ned Rorem, “Am I the only living expatriate American composer who never studied with Nadia Boulanger?”); Darius Milhaud, Jean Françaix; Thea Musgrave, Lennox Berkeley; Shanghai composer Ding Shande; [1] Igor Markevitch, Dinu Lipatti, Idil Biret, Joseph Horovitz, Daniel Barenboim, Clifford Curzon, Kenneth Gilbert, John Kirkpatrick, Kathleen Ferrier…

As would be the case later (see here, under “Performance practice”), new composition and early music went hand in hand. Boulanger’s performances of Monteverdi and Bach were legendary—At A Time When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular. In the later HIP scene, she was a formative influence on performers such as John Eliot Gardiner and Robert Levin.

I like this story from Philip Glass’s memoirs:

After proffering his 20-page manuscript, Mademoiselle (as she was known) placed it on the piano’s music rack and cast her eyes over the densely written pages. At a certain point she paused, drew breath and enquired after his health.

“Not sick, no headache, no problems at home?”

“No, Mlle Boulanger, I am really fine.”

“Would you like to see a physician or a psychiatrist? It can be arranged very confidentially.”

“No, Mlle Boulanger.”

She wheeled her chair around and screamed “Then how do you explain this?”

She had found “hidden fifths” between an alto and bass part—a heinous crime, if ever there were one. After upbraiding him for his slackness and lack of commitment he was dismissed and the lesson was over.

Boulanger with Piazzolla 1955

With Astor Piazzolla, 1955.

Intriguing too are those names outside the world of WAM, notably jazzers—Donald Byrd, Quincy Jones, Astor Piazzolla, Michel Legrand, and so on. Most poignantly, Noor Inayat Khan and her siblings—on whom, do please read this moving post.

Here’s a precious 1977 film by Bruno Monsaingeon (cf. his films on Rozhdestvensky), showing evocative vignettes from her salon:

* * *

Descending into fantasy, I only began to wonder about some of these names when I switched on Football focus to hear Wayne Rooney claiming to be a disciple:

Emm… yeah Gary, me legendary hunger for the ball round the edge of the box—that’s all down to Mademoiselle, like… She taught me everything I know about Renaissance polyphony—[2] mind you, I taught ‘er everything she knows about dribbling, fair dos like. [3]

Perhaps it goes back to the popularity of a CV-writing manual that states “most importantly, always claim to be a pupil of Nadia Boulanger”.

This trend has also influenced historians, such as recent biographers of Genghis Khan (“under her tutelage, he became almost docile”) and Jane Austen—citing a recently-discovered early draft of Pride and Prejudice:

But I was not to be deterred by Mademoiselle’s stern rebukes pertaining to the supposed clumsiness of my chordal voicing on the pianoforte.

(Seriously though folks, do read this interesting article on music and class in Austen’s works).

YAY! Wayne Rooney, Genghis Khan, and Jane Austen—now there’s another great guest-list for a fantasy dinner-party. For some unlikely reviews of my own ouevre, click here.

Left, 1910; right, 1925.

 

[1] Meanwhile, other students were beating a path to the door of Olivier Messiaen, including the great Chinese composer Chen Qigang.

[2] See his little-known thesis: Wayne Mark Rooney, The art of counterpoint in the late Masses of Josquin des Prez, with special reference to penalty-taking, like (PhD, Université Paris-Sorbonne/Birkenhead Polytechnic, nd).
Note also the (real!) Improvisation for Michael Owen on the qin zither.

[3] Cf. the Harry and Paul spoof interview with S-Simon Rattle, introducing a fascinating (and otherwise earnest) post on Conducting from memory.

Whistled languages, mundane and transcendental

whistle

Among the many endangered languages of the world, whistled languages have long been remarkably widespread (see the impressive wiki page).

Used mainly by pastoralists for long-distance communication, their vocabularies remained tied to rural tasks, and so they became more rare with the decline of agriculture, migration, and the advent of the telephone (a cue for “tweeting” jokes in the media). Inevitably, they have come to the attention of UNESCO “safeguarding” projects.

The wiki page gives a comprehensive list of locations around the world, Whistled languages are (were?) common in West Africa; in South America and Mexico; and they’ve been reported among the Taos Pueblo of New Mexico, the Yupik people of St Lawrence island west of mainland Alaska, and the Hmong in Vietnam; in India and Nepal, and New Guinea.

The videos I’ve been watching come from Europe and Turkey:

  • The silbo of La Gomera in the Canary Islands can be found online, such as this documentary by Francesca Phillips. It may also be used in the local bajadas religious processions—though this clip (see also here) doesn’t feature silbo, I can never resist a calendrical ritual:

  • In the village of Aas in the French Pyrenees it is largely defunct:

  • The sfyria of Antia on the Greek island of Evia:
  • The village of Kuşköy in Turkey is another focus of media attention:

Musical whistling is quite another topic, but I can’t resist featuring Tamás Hacki:

For vaguely related posts, see Music and the potato, and Cowbells

* * *

China: transcendental whistling
At a tangent from the mundane communication of whistled languages, one aid to Daoist transcendence in ancient China was what Victor Mair has called “transcendental whistling”—see the detailed wiki article, and a paper by Su-rui Lung, using research by Sawada Mizuho and Li Fengmao.

ZLQX

The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Source: wiki.

Having previously been used to summon the soul, whistling became a means to summon animals, communicate with supernatural beings, and control weather phenomena—and indeed to “express disdain for the vulgar world”. Using the power of qi “breath”, it was all the rage in the 3rd-century CE—noted exponents including Ruan Ji and Xi Kang, [1] qin-zither-playing frontmen of the iconoclastic early punk band Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove 竹林七賢 [Behave yourself, Dr Jones—Ed.]. Su-rui Lung comments:

Xiao [whistling] seems to have permeated all strata of Six Dynasties society, and practitioners included persons from almost all walks of life: recluses, hermit-scholars, generals, Buddhist monks, non-Chinese foreigners, women, high society elite, and Daoist priests. In general, poets, hermits, and people of all types in the Six Dynasties utilised whistling to express a sense of untrammeled individual freedom, or an attitude of disobedience to authority or traditional ceremony, or to dispel suppressed feelings and indignation.

Chenggong Sui 成公綏 (231–73; ha, another compound surname!) composed a wonderful Rhapsody on whistling (Xiaofu 嘯賦), which the devotee of early Daoist mysticism will find rewarding (without seeking a reward, of course). As translated by Douglas White (1996), it opens:

The secluded gentleman
In sympathy with the extraordinary
And in love with the strange
Scorns the world and is unmindful of prestige
He breaks away from human endeavour and leaves it behind
He gazes up at the lofty, longing for the days of old
He ponders lengthily, his thoughts wandering afar
He would Climb Mount Chi, in order to maintain his moral integrity
Or float on the blue sea to wander with his ambition
So he invites his trusted friends
Gathering about himself a group of like-minded
He gets at the essence of the ultimate secret of life
He researches the subtle mysteries of Tao and Te
He regrets that the common people are not yet enlightened
He alone, transcending all, has prior awakening
He finds constraining the narrow road of the world
He gazes up at the concourse of heaven, and treads the high vastness
Distancing himself from the exquisite and the common, he abandons his personal concerns
Then, filled with noble emotion, he gives a long-drawn whistle

At this point even I can see that a perky rendition of Always look on the bright side of life (“When you’re chewing on life’s gristle, Don’t grumble—give a whistle”) may not be quite suitable. While that song doesn’t necessarily encapsulate the spiritual values of the modern West, it does at least make a nice contrast with those of ancient China.

Wiki cites further classics such as Ge Hong’s Shenxian zhuan 神仙傳, as well as the 5th-century Shishuo xinyu 世說新語, referring to Ruan Ji’s meeting with the aged hermit Sun Deng 孫登—a story taken up in the 1990s by avant-garde novelist Ge Fei. Whistling is a common topos in Tang poetry, and is described in some technical detail in the 8th-century Xiaozhi 嘯旨; but thereafter it seems to have gone rather quiet, at least in literary representation—does anyone know if it has persisted as a secret mystical technique down to today?

And all this is a far cry, or whistle, from the more mundane communicative functions that mainly concerned us above. An online mention of the Bai minority in Yunnan is elusive—I don’t want to tempt fate, but can it be that the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage juggernaut is missing a trick here?

With thanks to Alan Kagan for putting me up to this

[1] For Xi Kang, note the great Robert van Gulik’s Hsi K’ang and his poetical essay on the lute (1941). Note also François Picard, “Chine: le xiao, ou souffle sonorisé”, Cahiers d’ethnomusicologie 4 (1991)—thickening the plot by considering the xiao 蕭 end-blown flute, which remains almost the only instrument deemed suitable to play with the qin.

A hard day’s night

Following my tributes to Sgt Pepper and Abbey road, the earlier work of the Beatles deserves celebrating too (cf. Yesterday…). For an introduction to the series, see here.

Setting aside my personal attachment to the soundtrack of my youth, their 1964 LP A hard day’s night remains moving. Here it is as a playlist:

Again, Wilfred Mellers (Twilight of the Gods) and Alan W. Pollack (online) make perceptive guides for those who care to supplement sensuous experience with discursive analysis. Both writers combine technical analysis with thoughtful comments on the Beatles’ emotional world. For all the sophistication of the Beatles’ later albums, the equivocal roles of innocence and experience are clear in their early years too.

The album—like the film—opens with the most recognisable opening chord in all the world’s music! It’s been much analysed—e.g. wiki, and here’s Alan W. Pollack:

I’ve seen better people than myself argue (and in public, no less) about the exact guitar voicing of this chord and I’ll stay out of that question for now (what a cop-out, Alan!), and merely state that its sonority is akin to a superimposition of the chords of D minor, F major, and G major; i.e. it contains the notes D, F, A, C, and G — to my ears, only the B is missing. Even if you don’t know a thing about harmony or musical dictation, you can at least hear the G as a suspended fourth over the D on the bottom. Hullaballoo aside, this chord functions as a surrogate dominant (i.e. V) with respect to the chord on G which begins the first verse.

As often, it’s the ballads that continue to entrance, such as

  • If I fell in love with you, tinged with pain: after the complex chromatic intro, harmonic variety continues to decorate the melody, like the surprise of the 9th chord in the second verse at “Don’t hurt my pride like her“. With the elliptical, ambiguous word play of the lyrics, Pollack observes:

beneath the mere cleverness of it all, what makes this song so potent is the desperate vulnerability it manifests; a veritable obsession with the subjunctive “iffy-ness” of love, described as a state in which people might run and hide and pride be hurt. For me though, the greatest ambiguity of all here is in the tension between the hero’s begging for love’s being requited on the one hand, while at the same time holding back from freely offering it for fear of being rejected. Is this ingenuous realism, such a lot of chutzpah, or likely a bit of both?

  • And I love her, with characteristic ambiguity between major and minor, and the half-step modulation for the guitar break. Pollack notes the similar tonal design of the opening song of Schumann’s Dichterliebe.
  • Things we said today—for Mellers, their most beautiful and deep song up to this point. Again it’s enriched by subtle harmonic language.

The rhythm is grave, the percussion almost minatory, the vocal tessitura restricted, while the harmony oscillates between triads of G minor and D minor. The flavour is incantatory, even liturgical, a moment outside Time. The second strain hints at the possibility of loss, with a weeping chromatic descent in triplet rhythm, and with rapid but dreamy tonal movement flowing from B♭ by way of a rich dominant 9th to E♭: the subdominant triad of which then serves as a kind of Neapolitan cadence drooping back (without the linking dominant) to the grave pentatonic G minor. […]

Whether or not you’re aware of such harmonic language, it registers with the listener.

The film is also wonderful. And so, by way of Rubber soul and Revolver, to the genius of Sgt Pepper, The white album, and Abbey road. Incredible…

* * *

Meanwhile, in the great tradition of English satire, here’s the priceless narration of the great Peter Sellers reciting the lyrics of the title song in the Shakespearean style of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III:

Cf. Balham—gateway to the south, Alan Bennett’s Sermon, and Marty Feldman’s chanson to the HP sauce label. And don’t miss Cunk on Shakespeare!

Unpromising chromaticisms

Anglo-American popular music—like most music in the world—is so firmly based on the anhemitonic pentatonic (or at least diatonic) scale that it’s intriguing to note how successful songs can be despite unobtrusively break the rules.

Putting familiarity aside, few listeners even pause to reflect that the remarkably similar chromatic opening phrases of these two melodies from 1939 and 1942 are highly implausible:

We'll meet again

I'm dreaming

Hey, no-one’s ever going to listen to songs beginning like that—surely they could never catch on?! (For scathing reviews of Great Works, see Slonimsky’s Lexicon of musical invective.) Without context, you might suppose them to come from soundtracks for horror movies. OK, here’s a clue: like oxygen, it’s something to do with harmony (although no-one needs to know that)… Anyway, the composers soon realised that such slithery meanderings just weren’t going to work—but it was precisely those opening phrases that would become universal earworms. So here they are in context:

We’ll meet again, by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles, sung by Vera Lynn, R.I.P. (for reflections on the predicament of “our” current nostalgia, also unpacked by Stewart Lee, see here):

and (serving a similar role, for GIs spending their first Christmas away from home after entering the war) Bing Crosby with Irving Berlin’s I’m dreaming of a white Christmas * (“Dream on”—Greta Thunberg):

Who’d have thought it, eh? For a melodically less challenging early-music song, see Edouard Ibert’s Pique-nique. And listeners can get used to additive metres as well.

All this is yet more proof that I am O’Fay with the latest developments of these New-Fangled Popular Beat Combos (see also stile nuovo). See also When I’m sixty-four.

* With my ears attuned to Mahler, I can’t help hearing echoes of the motif in the third movement of the 9th symphony, which returns in the finale—its rhythmically related melody also opening on mi, but less chromatic:

Mahler 9.3

Normal people

Now that the initial frenzy over Normal people has subsided a little, I must say that I’m overwhelmed by both Sally Rooney’s book and the TV series.

For all the general critical excitement, I’m perturbed to find that that many people, of all ages, don’t get it (e.g. here). Having already read the book, I found myself watching an episode and then going back to the relevant chapters; they complement each other (for the differences, see here). So FWIW, both film and book move me immeasurably.

Daisy Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal as Marianne and Connell are astounding—as well as Sarah Greene playing Connell’s wonderful mum. The story is informed by a great playlist too, I might add.

Now, I’m not saying that Great Art is Universal!, but the Irish setting is finely observed, transcending time and place, like Romeo and Juliet… The S&M subplot (“Fifty shades of Sligo”) is precisely that—a subplot; Marianne may be damaged, but both she and Connell are vulnerable, fragile. It’s sobering to learn of Irish conservatives’ view that the “sex scenes” “promote fornication”—interviews with Daisy and Paul should dispel such medieval nonsense:

Tellingly described by Sally Rooney as “just another form of dialogue”, those scenes, with all their integrity (see e.g. here and here), are surely the most wonderful since the previously unmatched Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don’t look now.

All this serves to underline the sheer intensity of Marianne and Connell’s bond as soulmates—their understated expressions and tiny phrases, as their relationship is constantly derailed by agonising misunderstandings. Now I can hardly bear to watch a single scene.

Glimpses of Hunan

map

The route of Yang Yinliu’s survey in summer 1956.

This series of posts suggests varying perspectives on changing society and expressive culture in Hunan province:

The extensive field survey led by the great Yang Yinliu over summer 1956:

Hunan 1

Major fieldwork since the 1980s on local Daoist ritual:

Migration and cultural responses to the famine that followed the Great Leap Backward:

mine

The documentaries of Jiang Nengjie on left-behind children and the perils of mining:

As ever, I’d love to see all these perspectives integrated.

Verboten: GDR film, 1965

Left, Karla; right, Hands up or I’ll shoot!

My acquaintance with alternative culture behind the Iron Curtain was once largely limited to the flowering of Czech films during the Prague Spring (see also Life behind the Iron Curtain: a roundup). But now, having broached various subversive expressions under the GDR regime (e.g. here), I’m glad to learn of challenges to state orthodoxy in 1960s’ films there too, courtesy of the DEFA archive—which, along with eastgermancinema.com, has copious information on films for the whole period.

As this introduction comments,

These films were planned and legally produced with the authorisation of the German Democratic Republic, but banned shortly before or after being released. One may wonder: why didn’t this censorship occur earlier in the production process?

GDR DVDs

A DVD box set contains ten films from the period:

  • The rabbit is me (1965), made to encourage discussion of the democratisation of East German society
  • Just don’t think I’ll cry (1965): high-school senior Peter gets suspended for writing an essay that his teachers consider to be a challenge to the state
  • Spring takes time (1965): the non-party engineer Heinz Solter is suddenly arrested and accused of approving a defective pipeline
  • The lost angel (1966): August 24, 1937—a day in the life of expressionist sculptor and author Ernst Barlach
  • Karla (1965): romance about a non-conformist young school teacher and a disenchanted journalist turned fisherman.
  • When you grow up, dear Adam (1990): Adam receives a flashlight with special powers: every liar it shines on flies into the air.
  • Trace of stones (1966): a film about living and working conditions in 1960s’ GDR.
  • Hands up or I’ll shoot (1966): living in a small town, Investigator Holms is stuck looking for a stolen pet rabbit even as he dreams of cracking a big case
  • Born in ’45 (1966), telling the story of Al and Li, a married couple living in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin, who have decided to get a divorce
  • Berlin through our eyes (1965): skilled workers confront hostile older colleagues who value experience over education.

Comments from the censors are revealing, such as:

  • spreads skepticism
  • questions young people’s socialist education and character
  • the buildings look sad, inhospitable, dirty, and unkempt [Tripadvisor review for Tory Britain?—Ed.]
  • propagates false ideals
  • provides a distorted picture of our socialist reality
  • anti-socialist, harmfully critical attitude.

Here’s a trailer for The rabbit is me:

And a clip from Born in ’45:

Here I suggested some parallels between depictions “after the event” of life under Chinese Maoism and the GDR.

 

How to bible

I don’t wanna get into specifics

—Jacques Derrida, oh no wait, it was none other than Tweety McTangerine

Bible

From Twitter.

Struggling to meet the challenge of identifying particular texts that you consider to encapsulate the deepest Ancient Wisdom of the Daoist and Buddhist canons? Well, doughty sinologists can just take their lead from the Orange Baby-in-Chief (for the brilliant Sarah Cooper, see note here):

I note that the attempt in the late Qing dynasty to condense the cavernous Ming Daoist Canon into the Daozang jiyao, a snappy version containing a mere 218 volumes, was even less succinct than the Bolton Choral Society’s failed fugal contribution to the Summarise Proust competition.

Returning neatly to our opening theme, a fugue well worth practising together is the splendid Handelian pastiche Donald Trump is a wanker.

Native American cultures 2: the Navajo

Was advised to stay in the car.

—David McAllester, 22nd September 1950.

Squaw dance

The Squaw dance: undated early photo by Joseph Howard McGibbeny (1891–1970).

With Bruno Nettl’s wise reflections on Native American musical cultures in mind, among the many groups that he and others have studied, I’ve been trying to get a basic grasp of the ceremonies of the Navajo (Diné) [1]—most populous among the indigenous peoples in the southwestern USA (Hopi, Pueblo, Apache, Yuma, Pima, and so on).

Again, apart from the intrinsic merits of such research, the topic suggests fruitful perspectives for our studies of Chinese folk ritual and the sacred–secular continuum.

Here’s a basic map:

map SW

and a map of the Navajo territories:

map

From Titon (ed.), Worlds of music.

Modern Navajo history is just as troubled as that of other indigenous peoples—savage army repression from the 1840s leading to the Long Walk of 1864, followed by containment on reservations, assimilation in boarding schools, and the relocations and environmental degradation wrought by the mining industry since the 1960s. Yet their ceremonial life has remained lively. The Navajo language is still widely spoken (note this fine riposte); the wartime code talkers make an absorbing theme.

First I’ll give an outline of Navajo ceremonies, and then get to grips with a classic study of the Enemy Way, its soundscape and cultural values. Last But Not Least, for those of us unable to attend such rituals in person, I’ll offer a few audio and visual materials, which make an essential complement to silent, immobile text!

Ritual
While many general themes in ritual are widespread (see e.g. Catherine Bell and Frits Staal), societies around the world slice their ritual pies in different ways. Many rituals, or segments, are multi-purpose (on a jocular note, do enjoy Stewart Lee’s youthful illustration of ritual redundancy).

In China, beyond the ancient binary classification of Daoist rituals as zhai Fasts and jiao Offerings, later we find yin and yang rituals for the dead and the living (more broadly, red rituals for the living, white for the dead), or a tripartite taxonomy such as funerary, earth, and temple scriptures, and so on (see In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.15–20). Even a list of different types of jiao Offering is extensive. And scholars may adopt their own categories, such as exorcism, healing, pestilence rituals, rites of affliction, and rituals for domestic blessing.

Kinaalda

Kinaalda ceremony. Source here.

Navajo ceremonies may last for up to nine days and nights. Among several sites, the focus of healing rituals is the circular log hogan (by the mid-20th century, often a specially-constructed edifice rather than an everyday dwelling), inside which the medicine man (the Navajo term hatali “singer” isn’t gender-specific, though most are indeed male) deploys his jish bundle and depicts sand paintings [2] (see films below). Altars are also constructed outside the hogan.

Again the ritual taxonomy is complex. Among a wide range of Navajo ceremonies (Night Chant Way, Mountain Chant Way, and so on), some have become obsolete—their ritual activities have long been changing, albeit more subtly than other areas of their life such as material culture. But the Blessing Way (Hózhójí), the core ritual, is frequently held; it may be performed for expectant mothers shortly before birth, for young men leaving for the armed forces, and for kinaalda puberty rituals for girls (for which, see films below); moreover, parts of the Blessing Way feature within most other Navajo ceremonies. [3]

The Enemy Way
On the Enemy Way (Anaa’jí), a ceremony for countering the harmful effects of ghosts, I gladly turn to a monograph that Nettl cites often—an early classic of ethnomusicology:

(cf. later influential classics of ethnomusicology relating musicking to culture, such as Neuman, The life of music in north India, and accessible books like Lortat-Jacob, Sardinian chonicles, and indeed Proulx, Accordion crimes).

Navajo cover

McAllester’s study is based on fieldwork in the Rimrock area of Arizona over four and a half months from 1950 to 1951. Utilising an already substantial body of anthropological studies, in a mere 96 densely-packed pages—many of which are devoted to transcriptions and musical analysis—he manages to provide a wealth of information on the relation of sound to ritual culture and aesthetic values.

Apart from making formal recordings, McAllester lists the public Enemy Way ceremonies that he attended in September 1950—including one of my favourite fieldwork tips ever, which heads this post (cf. More fieldwork tips).

diary 1

diary 2As Nettl went on to observe, the very term for “music” is far from universal—an issue that McAllester addresses in his Introduction. Distinguishing existential and normative values, he notes:

There was no general word for “musical instrument” or even for “music”. A face-finding question such as “What kinds of musical instruments do you use?” (really intended to start the informant thinking and talking about music) had to be phrased, “Some people beat a drum when they sing; what other things are used like that?”. A “fact” in the Navajo [4] universe is that music is not a general category of activity but has to be divided into specific aspects of kinds of music. I learned, moreover, that beating a drum to accompany oneself in song was not a matter of esthetic choice but a rigid requirement for a particular ceremony, and a discussion of musical instruments was not an esthetic discussion for the Navajos but was, by definition, a discussion of ceremonial esoterica.

Similarly, the question “How do you feel when you hear a drum?” was intended to evoke an esthetic response. But the Navajo “fact” is that a drum accompaniment is rarely heard except with the public songs of the Enemy Way, and if you feel queer, especially dizzy, at the ceremonial, it is a clear indication that you, too, need to be a patient at this particular kind of “sing”. What I took to be a somewhat general esthetic question was, for the Navajos, a most specific ceremonial question and was interpreted by the average informant as an enquiry into his state of health.

At the beginning of my work I intended to limit my investigation to secular music, reserving any considerable study in the tremendous field of Navajo religious music for a later time. I soon discovered the Navajo “fact” that all music is religious and that the most nearly secular songs in melody, in textual content, and in the attitudes of the performers were derived from the Enemy Way chant mentioned above, a religious ceremony designed to protect the Navajos from the influence of the ghosts of slain outsiders. The dancing which accompanies certain parts of this rite is widely known as the Navajo Squaw Dance, and it is the singing which accompanies this dance, together with certain other kinds of public songs of the Enemy Way, to which I refer.

It was possible, eventually, to construct a hierarchy of different kinds of music according to the degree of secular emphasis. In the value-orientations of the Navajos I could find no music that was believed to be purely secular, but the public Enemy Way songs and certain songs of the Blessing Way were secular as well as religious and could be used in secular contexts.

It was necessary, of course, to try to ascertain, for music, the Navajo definition of “religious”. Questioning revealed little or no native preoccupation with a differentiation between that which is religious and that which is secular. The Navajo has not compartmentalised his life in this respect. […]

When a traditional Navajo is asked how he likes a song, he does not consider the question “How does it sound?” but “What is it for?”. […]

The social aspect of Navajo singing is another important part of the desired. Here too, a change from traditional values is taking place, and a conflict between younger and older generations may be seen. The question, “What do we want?” is in a state of flux, and the question, “What ought we to want?” has come very much to the fore. Sex roles and age roles emerge as important factors in Navajo normative values as regards music. Here too, significant changes are taking place due to the encroachment of white American culture and new religious ideas.

Thus it may take one a while to grasp McAllester’s distinction between “sacred” and “secular” forms—an etic problem that he created for himself. He explains his focus on the public songs, but (as often) our binary concepts may obstruct understanding.

Uses and functions
As we saw above, ritual taxonomy is complex. The Enemy Way is remarkably versatile, its purposes diverse. While it has “martial” origins in alluding to the two great wars in Navajo mythology, its formal intention is

to protect the Navajos from the influence of the ghost of an outsider; that of a white man or some other other non-Navajo such as a European, an Asiatic, or a member of some other Asian tribe.

And though McAllester claims that

most of the Enemy Ways performed in the last few years for young men have been directed against the ghosts of enemies slain in World War Two,

he goes on:

But numerous situations in everyday life may expose one to the attentions of an “enemy” ghost: being too near the scene of a fatal automobile accident was cited by one informant. Intimate contact with a non-Navajo who may have died subsequently is another possibility. Women as well as men may be pursued by these ghosts and require the performance of the Enemy Way.

Another instance is when girls coming into contact with white men’s clothes at school. And an Enemy Way may also be performed for someone returning home after a stay in hospital, where they will inevitably have been exposed to the spirits of non-Navajo who have died there. So the ceremony subsumes all kinds of healing.

The ways in which one can tell when the ceremony is needed range from the general, such as a vague feeling that it would be a good thing, to the highly specific, such as a dream that recalled an encounter with the body of a dead outsider. It is frequently used as a last resort when other ceremonies have failed.[…]

One sure symptom is a feeling of faintness or dizziness when one attends an Enemy Way which is being held for someone else.

This was a common occurrence, requiring a further Enemy Way ceremony.

McAllester also notes more mundane underlying motives, such as “the urge to keep up with the neighbours […] and the feeling among poorer families that wealthy families should provide more than the average number of these entertainments” (a rare suggestion of social stratification among the Navajo, generally downplayed); as in Chinese ritual, public reputation matters. Another important function is the “bringing out” of young girls who have reached marriageable age.

The ritual sequence
McAllester goes on to outline the ritual sequence over three days and nights (pp.8–14):

  • the decision: preparatory stages—including the construction of a hogan and cooking arbour, and seeking materials such as herbs, yarn for the rattle [stick], an enemy trophy (scalp or bone) and so on
  • duties of the stick receiver, possessed with some esoteric knowledge
  • ritual preparation of the drum, with singing
  • the journey to stick receiver’s camp, and facial decoration of the patient
  • first night of public singing and dancing, at the patient’s camp
  • gift singing before the stick receiver’s camp (early morning of the second day)
  • return of the patient’s party
  • the moving of the stick receiver’s camp
  • second night of public singing and dancing, at the new camp
  • the move to the patient’s camp soon after dawn, with a sham battle on arrival
  • the return gift singing, after breakfast
  • the Enemy Way rites, to treat the patient, whose face and body are decorated, led by the medicine man. The enemy ghost is slain by strewing ashes on the trophy.
  • third night of public singing, with circle dancing, and walking songs from the stick receiver’s camp to that of the patient, followed by sway songs
  • conclusion, at dawn, with more ceremonial songs and prayers.

Here McAllester notes (cf. the flawed Chinese funeral that I describe here):

When the ceremony had been concluded on the second and third nights of the Pine Valley Enemy Way, September 27 and 28, there were long announcements made by very drunk Navajos. The burden was similar to those of the other announcements mentioned but also included reproaches for the diminished energy of the singing group as the night wore on and for the drinking that had taken place. […] A group of Salcedanos […] said that they used to enjoy coming to the Squaw Dances for the social occasion, the refreshments, and the girls, and they used to feel that it helped to bring rain. Now, they said, they did not enjoy it and they did not feel that the occasion had been holy. They added that their governors (one of whom was present) did not get drunk, and they were sorry to see the Navajo leaders set such a bad example for their young men. The announcer translated this, and the Navajos seemed to take the reproach seriously.

The adverse effects of alcohol features in several of McAllester’s vignettes. In a section on the dangers of misuse, he observes exceptions to the generally muted quality of Navajo public gatherings (p.66),

when formally organized singing takes place, as at Yeibichai Dances, Squaw Dances, or when there has been a great deal of drinking. When fights begin to break out there may be some shouting, but even this is very different from drunken brawling in white-American culture. Much of the kicking and punching is done with silent intensity. The shouting is not prolonged or repetitive, but consists of a few short cries that seem to be forced out. Even in this extreme situation, there is very little sustained noise, nor do the onlooker shout censure or encouragement.

And on p.77 he comments:

Open expressions of hostility are a commonplace at Navajo gatherings if any considerable drinking has gone on.

McAllester suggests in particular that inhibitions may be released in the public singing of the Enemy Way, which provides an outlet for “self-expression, teasing, competition, and even aggression”.

“Music”
As he explains at the outset,

Of all the arts, perhaps music has seemed the hardest to study as social behaviour. Aside from the accompanying poetry in the song texts, the actual substance of the music appears forbiddingly abstract. Melodic line and phrasing, metre, pitch, and scale have been reserved for highly trained musicologists, few of whom have been interested in cultural applications. The unfortunate result of this specialisation and the feeling that one must have “talent” to study music has been a general abdication from this field by social scientists, even to the extent that the most elementary questions about attitudes towards music have remained unasked.

While musicologists soon learned to incorporate culture into their sphere, the social scientists rarely reciprocated; we still find the same “abdication” among scholars of Daoist ritual, for instance. As McAllester wrote, even very modest attention to performance and performers will bear fruit. This applies both to social matters (How are you fed during the ritual? How do you get paid? Where do you find reed to make your oboe mouthpieces?) and to registering basic features of sound (Is this text sung slow or fast? Loud? In unison? What percussion instruments accompany?); even a little more detail is easily learned (Is the text sung with melisma? Is the melody pentatonic? Do you always sing it the same? Did your granddad sing it like that?).

For the musical aspect of his fieldwork, McAllester appends a questionnaire (pp.91–2)—which, as he explains, should be used sensitively (cf. Jackson, Schimmelpenninck):Qs 1Qs 2Transcriptions may look forbidding to the outsider, but audio samples of such songs might be a good test for scholars who disclaim musical expertise: they too should be able to make such simple and useful observations.

Having outlined the overall ceremony, he goes on to focus on the “secular” songs; but he opens this section by discussing songs more generally, listing them in more or less chronological sequence—and again it transpires that most of them (apart from the “secular” items marked with asterisks) are “sacred” (p.15):

  • Bear and snake songs (for protection against danger)
  • Songs used in preparation of the drum
  • Songs used in preparation of the rattle stick
  • The Coyote songs (sung by the medicine man to inaugurate each night of public singing)
  • The Sway songs*
  • The Dance songs* (trotting, skipping, signal for end of dancing)
  • The Gift songs* [the following four items are for the patient:]
  • Emetic songs
  • Unraveling songs
  • Medicine songs (for medicine in gourd, for application of pollen)
  • Blackening songs (referring to the enemy’s country, and to the Navajo country)
  • Circle dance songs* (as the evening of the third day approaches)
  • Walking songs (secret songs sung on the ceremonial walk to the patient’s hogan)
  • Songs to the patient
  • Concluding songs of the ceremonial (Blessing Way songs sung to the patient at dawn, Coyote songs)
  • Songs for depositing the rattle stick (including Twelve-word Blessing Way song),

as well as additional sequences for the longer version of the ceremony (songs of the Tail Dancers and the Black Dancers, songs at the meal of the no-cedar mush).

Ritual events around the world commonly display a sacred–secular continuum. While such an “etic” distinction appears questionable among the Navajo, we should pay just as much attention to the “highly formalized chant-like music of the sacred healing ceremonies”, containing “magical phrases and long, full repetitive lists of Holy People, sacred places, and parts of the body or of plants”—mostly performed solo by the medicine man, I gather, sometimes supported by a group of men. McAllester naturally recognised the importance of studying this art, but postponed it—though his work on the Navajo, later enhanced by his student Charlotte Frisbie, continued (see n.3 below). Anyway, here his focus on melody tends to detract somewhat from the more esoteric, even central, aspect of Navajo ritual (see also under “Changing values” below).

Again, this reminds me of issues in studying Chinese ritual. McAllester’s choice of the secular songs rather resembles that of most Chinese musicologists, who have focused too narrowly on the melodic instrumental component of Daoist and Buddhist ritual. By contrast, scholars of “classical” religion are drawn to the esoteric parts of the ritual (secret formulas, mudras, talismans, and so on), neglecting a more normative ethnography of everything that is going on during the event.

The secular songs
Anyway, it is these secular, public songs (collectively known as Squaw Dance) that McAllester analyses: the sway songs, dance songs, gift songs, and circle dance songs. They are more readily subjected to musical analysis, and “less freighted with the overtones of magic”.

For sonic material he practises the fieldworker’s typical combination of observing ritual performance and recording on request, noting the differences (“Once when I asked an informant why he was not singing ‘naturally’ (loud and high), he replied that he was afraid that my recording machine could not stand it”). He gives brief sketches of his main informants (pp.25–6).

The recording situation was almost always a stimulus to discussions of various aspects of music in Navajo life, and those in turn led to talk in many other fields, particularly that of religion.

So their comments on the songs that he discusses are interesting, such as:

Enemyway 27

I found this approach useful in working on Daoist hymns with Li Manshan too.

score 1

Sway songs (cf. comments above).

score

Circle dance songs sung to vocables—showing exceptional triple metre, with some irregular beats.

Along with his transcriptions of the songs, McAllester analyses each genre—adopting etic concepts while bearing in mind the Navajos’ own ethos, under the headings of

  • texts: meaningful, and vocables (the gift and circle dance songs are usually sung to vocables only)
  • vocal style: “nasal, high, with a wide vibrato and an ornamental use of the falsetto”
  • metre (and rhythm): mostly duple and in even rhythms, with occasional extra beats (largely attributable to the requirements of textual phrasing)—with some exceptions such as frequent triple metre in circle dance songs—e.g. §2 and 16 on the playlist below
  • tempo (quite fast!)
  • pitch
  • melodic line
  • phrasing
  • scales and tonality (mostly pentatonic, to which we should now add “anhemitonic”—as in China and much of the world…).

He concludes this section with a useful summary of musical features of all the public song genres (pp.55–9).

One basic feature of the group songs (not mentioned by McAllester) is that they are monophonic, and sung in unison. Of course, where (as often) his transcriptions are of recordings made with a solo singer on demand, rather than during a live ceremony, naturally the songs look monophonic; one needs to listen attentively to recordings of group singing to try and characterise what McAllester describes as its free, loose nature. Yet the recordings I’ve heard do indeed sound quite close to unison.

For a well-annotated audio survey of global singing styles, see Voices of the world. It might make a good exercise to listen to the dance songs among Paul Bowles’s recordings in Morocco, comparing all these musical parameters.

As fieldworkers know well, by contrast with the individual songs that they have to present on disc, rituals often string them together in lengthy song cycles (cf. Allan Marett’s analyses of Australian Aboriginal dream songs; see also Analysing world music).

Changing values
Part Two, “Values in the study of music as social behaviour”, opens with a discussion of the nature of taboo. Here McAllester has more to say on the sacred songs:

On my first day of recording Navajo songs, I learned that some may be sung by anybody and discussed freely, but that others may be sung only with circumspection, with the right preparation, at the right time, and by the right people. Indeed, some of the latter songs may not be heard except by those who have been properly protected by initiation.

For the dangers of doing fieldwork on Navajo magic, note the disturbing articles of Barre Toelken. [5] McAllester discovers a kind of “scale of danger”. Still, he reminds us:

It is hard to discuss with a Navajo what music is “holy” and what music is not. The first reaction of nearly all of my informants was that all of their songs were sacred. Nor did they respond with categories to such questions as “Are some songs more holy than others?” [cf. Nigel Barley!].

No such hierarchies seem to exist ready-made in the Navajo scheme of values. But when asked directly, nearly every Navajo feels that songs from the great ceremonial chants are more sacred than gambling songs such as those sung with the Gambling Game. The parts of the Night Chant and the Enemy Way Chant which are chanted by the ceremonial practitioner are recognised by everyone as being more sacred than the Yeibichai songs of the masked dancers in the former and the Squaw Dance songs performed in the latter.

He continues by compiling his own list of songs along the “scale of danger”:

  • Prayer ceremonials
  • Songs used in witchcraft, and deer hunting songs
  • Songs from non-Navajo ceremonials. I know that Peyote songs are considered highly dangerous and believe that this may be true for some of the other ceremonials performed by other Indian groups
  • The longer chants: Night Way, Shooting Way, etc. The Evil Way chants are considered more dangerous than the Holy Way chants
  • Chanted parts of the Enemy Way: the four starting songs, the walking songs, the blackening songs, etc., are all very secret
  • Moccasin Game, and perhaps Stick Dance songs, which must be used only in the right season of the year
  • Work songs such as weaving, spinning, and corn grinding songs. Much more needs to be known about these songs. They do not seem to be particularly taboo but they have, nevertheless, become extremely rare
  • Circle dance songs from the Enemy Way
  • Yeibichai songs from Night Way, should only be sung in the winter
  • Dawn songs and other songs from the latter part of the Blessing Way may be used in some social contexts, but still with religious overtones of bringing good luck
  • Sway songs, gift songs, and dance songs from the Enemy Way can be sung at any time.

McAllester continues with a section on the dangers of misuse and forms of protection: through initiation, through timing, and training for a particular singing event, by running hard, fasting, and purification by vomiting—one informant explained the declining quality of the songs of young men by their reluctance to make such preparations. Young men also found the old ceremonial chants “too hard” to learn; yet (again echoing China) while the diminution of expertise that McAllester noted has continued (e.g. this interview with a medicine man—with a comment on treating soldiers returning from Vietnam with PTSD), scholars commonly note that ceremonies are still thriving.

So while McAllester and others were interested in uncovering archaic layers, he was far from merely seeking “living fossils”; and while the Navajo were quite insistent on performing “correctly”, they frequently offered instructive comments on change.

The following section, “Religions from outside”, outlines the Peyote cult and the Galilean mission. The Navajos seem to have learned the Peyote cult, a new religion, from the Utes. They even remained faithful to the less nasal singing style of the latter. But like other outside influences, the cult was considered dangerous. McAllester notes a marked preponderance of women in the Galilean congregation—including the singers—by contrast with their more passive role in Navajo ceremonies.

Under Esthetic values, he reminds us that the Navajos consider music inseparable from function—though again he finds a shift in the values of some younger men. Two contrasting illustrations that he managed to elicit:

I like it better when it goes along level, then I know it’s a holy song. (Helen Chamiso)

Yes, they sing more fancy now. If you use only one tone it sounds kind of plain. (Nat Nez)

This generation gap applies both to choice of songs and to vocal technique.

McAllester ends this section with a brief extrapolation of musical esthetics: tonality, voice production, group singing, rhythm, tempo, and melodic line. He notes the tendency of some singers to cup a hand over their ear—just like Sardinian tenores.

Under “Other cultural values” he outlines features such as competition, self-expression, “Navajo quiet” (a promising theme), the prestige of musical knowledge (which, again, will be in flux); and he notes humour in the songs (punning, an unusual grammatical usage, ribaldry, and so on). In a brief section on the role of women in religion he notes their general exclusion—though here, as other scholars have gone on to observe, they surely play a greater part than the general taboo would suggest (cf. China).

He illustrates individualism, provincialism (the Navajos were “very curious to hear ‘foreign’ music”—of other Indian tribes, Mexican music, “white” music brought home by returning soldiers, and so on—though they were soon forgotten), and formalism; and he ends (with what I consider a *** passage à la Stella Gibbons) by discussing music as an aid to rapport in fieldwork:

There seems to be something more acceptable about a stranger who wants to learn songs than about one who wants to know how long babies are nursed. Among the Navajos, I was accused, jokingly, of wanting to become a ceremonial practitioner, the usual goal of learning songs. [cf. Wei Guoliang at Houshan (here, under “The local ritual network)!]

It seemed to work in my favour that I was there to learn, that I respected an aspect of Navajo life usually ignored or laughed at, and was willing to teach songs in return. […]

From a discussion of music one can move by easy stages into almost any area of cultural investigation. Almost any area of human behaviour is crossed at some point by music. With the Navajos, such seemingly remote subjects as attitudes towards property, propagation of livestock, and the nature of taboo came to the fore in connection with music; sometimes I found informants who were so reserved that it seemed as though no interview at all were going to take place, but who became interested and accessible when the topic was music.

Music has been made unnecessarily a specialist’s field in ethnology. A few songs from almost any culture can be learned by the ethnologist even if he is not a musician [sic]; even very imperfect renderings of native music can do much in establishing rapport.

The monograph ends with a succinct summary of existential and normative values.

* * *

Audio recordings
It’s a shame we can’t follow the songs that McAllester transcribed with specific sound examples, but the stylistic features he analyses can be perceived in many other early recordings.

Following on from the incomprehension of the Navajo themselves that there is something called “music” that can be extracted from ritual (or indeed life), audio compilations of short songs, valuable as they may be to us, may seem incongruous. As scholar-recordists would be the first to recognise, such songs aren’t mere reified sound objects: they can hardly suggest, let alone capture, the living experience of ritual. Yet at the same time it is useful to be able to focus on their sound with McAllester’s guides in mind. Film is not living ritual either, but is a major advance over audio recordings—let alone silent, dry texts (my constant refrain: see e.g. here, §6).

My examples below may seem to suggest nostalgia, but the transformation effected by modern life has long been an important theme: as with Chinese ritual, we should seek to document both early tradition and more visible contemporary manifestations.

A wealth of recordings has been released on disc, such as:

Recorded by Laura Boulton:

  • Navajo Songs, recorded in 1933 and 1940, annotated by Charlotte J. Frisbie and David McAllester (1992)
  • Indian music of the southwest (1957)

And Willard Rhodes issued ten LPs of the recordings that he had made from 1940 to 1952, such as

  • Music of the Sioux and the Navajo (1949)  (liner notes here)
  • Music of the American Indians of the southwest (1951)
  • Music of the American Indian: Sioux (1954) (liner notes here)

Here’s a good introductory playlist, with tracks from the 1992 Navajo Songs album with Laura Boulton’s early recordings, as well as excerpts from 1975 recordings by Charlotte Heth (more here, including liner notes) and from a Canyon Records album recorded 1952–1963 (for whose own notes, see here, on the useful drumhop site):

Here’s Music of the American Indians of the southwest (for notes, see drumhop again).:

Among the Navajo tracks is a highly distinctive falsetto night chant/Yeibichai dance:

On film
Again I’ll start with early footage. Valuable as it is, many scenes are clearly posed; voiceovers are often patronising and mendacious (“visitors are always welcome”; the paeans to residential schools; copious Injun cultural clichés); and dodgy musical soundtracks evoke Hollywood Westerns. For all these fatal flaws, and more, see e.g. Jacquelyn Kilpatrick, Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and film (1999)—note also the BTL comments that appear when you click on “YouTube” for the pages below. Bearing all that in mind…

This quaintly-choreographed short film from 1939 includes a public dance and “wedding ceremony” (from 5.39):

In this 1945 film (from 32.24) a medicine man presides over a healing ritual, including the creation of a sand painting in the hogan, with ritual paraphernalia such as the rattle stick and trophy bundle (and for all the limitations of these films, they do feature the sacred chanting style that McAllester outlines, not heard on the audio recordings above):

Navajo night dances (1957), from the nine-day Mountain Chant Way:

Also from the 1950s (with a kinaalda ceremony from 11.31, including more sand painting—and yet another classic use of the incongruous Hollywoodesque soundtrack!):

A more recent introduction to kinaalda:

And an excerpt from Kinaalda: a Navajo rite of passage (Lena Carr, 2000):

Starting again, here’s Between two worlds (1958)—shamelessly whitewashing the impact of government intrusion:

But breaking the mold of happy smiling natives grateful to be admitted to the benefits of civilisation is the documentary Broken rainbow (Maria Florio and Victoria Mudd, 1985)—though not without its critics, it soberingly relates the plight of both Navajo and Hopi, subjected to forced relocation and environmental pollution (cf. Grassy Narrows):

Lastly, following successive historical epidemics visited on Native American peoples by white contact, the Navajo are suffering severely from Coronavirus (yet another danger from outside—see e.g. herehere, here, and here)—here’s a song from quarantine:

* * *

While taking modern change into account, the complex ritual sequences and symbolism of the Navajo remain deeply impressive. And I now see why ethnomusicologists recognise McAllester’s monograph as an important pioneer of the concern to integrate music and culture. As he observes, the public dance songs that are his subject here are only a small part of the overall ceremonial performance, but he makes a compelling case for including their soundscape in ethnographies of ritual.

Of course, change has continued to escalate since the 1950s, inviting both continuing fieldwork and further study of earlier periods. At last I understand why scholars find such rich inspiration in Native American cultures.

My third post in this series is on the Ghost Dance. See also the Leaphorn and Chee novels of Tony Hillerman.

[1] The anthropology of the Navajo began early, and continues to be a vast field. On Navajo history, see e.g. Peter Iverson and Monty Roessel, Diné: a history of the Navajos (2002); or for a simpler overview, wiki.
In an engaging recent introduction to all kinds of Native American musicking, the Navajo feature prominently in Chapter 2 of Worlds of music: an introduction to the music of the world’s peoples (see here, n.1); again, the wiki entry for Navajo music makes a succinct hors d’ouevre.

[2] Cf. Tibetan and Han-Chinese mandalas (e.g. Shanghai, Hunyuan); and for various ways of consecrating the sacred space, click here.

[3] On the Blessing Way, see e.g. Leland C. Wyman, Blessingway (1970); and note Charlotte Frisbie and David McAllester (eds), Navajo Blessingway singer: the autobiography of Frank Mitchell, 1881–1967 (1st edition 1978, updated paperback 2003), complemented by the story of his wife: Rose Mitchell, Tall woman: the life story of Rose Mitchell, a Navajo woman, c1874–1977 (2001)—both works voluminous, with many useful further references. Indeed, life stories make an illuminating approach—see Nettl, The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, ch.13, and for China, e.g. Helen Rees (ed.), Lives in Chinese music (2009) and my work on the Li family Daoists.

For kinaalda, see e.g. Charlotte Frisbie, Kinaalda: a study of the Navaho girl’s puberty ceremony (1967/1993), and Joanne McCloskey, Living through the generations: continuity and change in Navajo women’s lives (2007). Female puberty ceremonies are widely performed by Native American groups: see e.g. Carol A. Markstrom, Empowerment of North American Indian girls: ritual expressions at puberty (2008). Here’s an Apache version:

For the major role of Navajo women during the pandemic, see here.

[4] McAllester uses the spelling “Navaho”; in direct quotes within this post I convert it to the form Navajo, which has since come to predominate—rather as I convert American to English spellings throughout my site.

[5] Notably “Life and death in the Navajo Coyote tales”, in Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat (eds), Recovering the word: essays on Native American literature (1987), and “From entertainment to realization in Navajo fieldwork”, in Bruce Jackson and Edward D. Ives (eds), The world observed: reflections on the fieldwork process (1996).

Resumé of Daoist film!

Just a reminder:

I trust this trailer for my documentary Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist will entice you to watch the whole film:

While you watch it—as you MUST!—do consult this drôle Franglais resumé (“Poseur? Moi? Je ne regrette rien!”). While meant as a jeu d’esprit for a screening in Paris (“île sacrée of Daoist studies”), I’ve added handy links to posts on particular themes. Click here:

A French letter

Bon appetit!

My work on the Li family Daoists (including the book, complementing the film) was the whole initial raison d’être for this increasingly diverse blog, and I continue to add updates and vignettes. The sidebar category Li family being so very voluminous even with subheads, I compiled a more manageable roundup of some major posts here.

Gender in changing Chinese religious life

In my second post on Women of Yanggao I gave a brief introduction to studies of gender in Chinese religious life. Within this ever-growing scholarly field, here I’d like to introduce two substantial recent discussions, by Kang Xiaofei and Elena Valussi.

Focusing on prescriptive tracts by educated commentators, both authors highlight the “double blindness” between women’s studies and religious studies, revisiting the elite dichotomy between religious reformists and “superstition” in the first half of the 20th century, the influence of Christianity, the May Fourth movement, and Communist rhetoric. Kang further pursues the story into the Maoist and reform eras.

Throughout Chinese history until the 1950s, the vast majority of women were illiterate; the reliance of our portrayals on elite perspectives is an unfortunate limitation in historical scholarship generally, all the more so when we consider gender. While much research focuses on the discursive aspect of religion (canonical texts, and so on), among the fruits of fieldwork since the 1980s is that it reveals the importance of women’s religious activities—a view that appears only dimly for earlier periods.

* * *

As she observes:

Until quite recently, histories of the May Fourth movement (1919) and of the Republican period (1912–1949) generally did not include women/gender issues. More recent histories which include a gender perspective do not discuss religion. There has been substantial research on the birth of feminism in China, on the rise of a female collective consciousness and of the “new woman” and discussion of the methodological hurdles in integrating a gender perspective into the study of the Republican period. However, scholarship about women and modernity does not generally include the powerful connection between women and religion, and certainly not the connection between women and superstition.

Thus

Religion in 20th-century China was reorganised according to new, modern, and scientific paradigms; in this novel definition, which excluded many communal experiences deemed superstitious, religion came to be identified more with personal practice and individual beliefs, understood as self-strengthening and self-improvement, and was to be one of the responses against Western Imperialism and Japanese occupation. Women had always been seen as closely involved with religious practices, but at this time they were identified as intrinsically and powerfully superstitious, and their religiosity was used as a necessary site of symbolic transformation for the nation. Numerous examples of the deleterious effect of superstition on women, their children, the family, and society were described, and modern and scientific education was seen as the antidote to this seemingly intractable problem.

The noble, elusive goal of reformists was to eliminate male Confucian power over women as part of a general attack on religion. Valussi introduces The Woman’s Bell (Nüjie zhong 女界鐘, 1903), an early “feminist manifesto” by the male author Jin Tianhe 金天翮advocating the liberation of women by eliminating “the four great obstructions” for women: foot-binding, decorative clothing, superstition, and restrictions on movement.

But such pundits often gendered “religion” as male and “superstition” as female. As Jin Tianhe commented:

Superstition is an inauspicious thing. Nuns, witches, geomancers, and astrologers are inauspicious people.

Indeed, more generally one finds a similar dilemma facing pundits writing about the reform of (mostly male) folk musical groups: while admiring their music, they fretted that their performing contexts were inseparable from “superstition”.

Valussi goes on to cite newspapers, magazines, gazetteers, and novels from the Republican era—such as Hu Ruilan 胡瑞蘭, a writer from the Gansu female teachers’ academy:

Gentlemen have refined their bodies and corrected their minds, they are intelligent and honest, and cannot be deluded by ghosts and spirits [Yeah, right—SJ]. My female compatriots are ignorant folk. They should strive to be like gentlemen, respect morals, be upright in character and diligent in self-cultivation, establish their hearts on behalf of heaven and earth, set their destiny in service of people and things. (In this way) they would not be deluded by evil talk that would make them lose their true nature.

As Valussi observes:

Younger and more educated women, seeing themselves as part of a modern collective identity, are urging older, rural, and uneducated women to also join this “imagined sisterhood.” Narratives imply or state clearly that peasant/uneducated women are more likely to be superstitious and in need of rescuing. […] However, we do not often hear the voices of the older and rural women, we only see their actions described.

So such lofty exhortations effectively penalised women’s behaviour.

Canons, liturgy, and hierarchical structures, described by Katz as acceptable and non-superstitious elements of religion, as well as Confucian philosophy, also acceptable if not linked to oppressive and restrictive practices, were typically the purview of males. […]

What is progress, modernity, and a secular religiosity is often attached to male behaviours, and what is excluded from it, superstition, often is more directly and strongly attached to women’s own nature, beliefs, spaces, and practices.

But as Chau suggests, this speaks to the dominance of elite perspectives in the discourse, not to the situation on the ground.

Valussi discusses women’s activities in temples (including burning incense, and the harmful economic costs of women’s religious practices), in the family, and in urban and rural religious organisations. Female spirit mediums, often described as tricksters swindling other women, are particular objects of criticism from the reformists. Now, since male and female mediums coexist in some regions (cf. the self-mortifying male mediums of south Fujian and Amdo), while one gender predominates in others, I’d like to learn more about how they are treated differently, then and now—in the literature, by the authorities, and by their local clientele.

In her Conclusion Valussi comments astutely:

But is there an actual shift in the position and role of women? A question that arose in the context of critically engaging with these sources was: are we actually talking about women here? Or rather, are women’s religious practices used, in popular newspapers, as a foil that stands in for the inability of the government and of intellectuals to eradicate practices deemed backwards? Are women, perceived as particularly superstitious because of their lack of education and access to the outside world, only a symbol of the inability of China to rid itself of these practices? A symbol of China’s backwardness and inability to move forward? There is a remarkable continuity in the period that goes from the early to mid-twentieth century in terms of the calls against female superstition. However, nothing much seems to change, except a certain heightened force and violence in the message, inspired by the increase in the forcefulness of the anti-superstition campaigns in general. […]

The calls for change, often from young educated women, could be seen as a genuine attempt at changing women’s lives. On a more metaphorical level, however, we see both male and female educated intellectuals inveighing against practices that mar China’s very essence and its ability to move forward.

While Valussi only takes the story as far as the eve of the Communist revolution, even during the Maoist era the manifestations of “superstition” (both male and female) that had so concerned intellectuals became muted, but were not erased. And from the perspective of women since the 1980s’ reforms, modern education and “superstition” don’t entirely seem mutually exclusive. For both men and women, opportunities are always greater in urban areas; for both, religious (and superstitious) activities remain popular in the countryside. Of course such discourses are never gender-neutral; but while we should detail all the kinds of religious behaviour of both men and women, and refrain from belittling female activity, the rhetoric of idealistic pundits, as Valussi observes, doesn’t tally with grass-roots practice.

* * *

Among the extensive literature that Valussi cites is

which further pursues the story after 1949. Kang’s nine sections examine the challenges and changes brought by the arrival of Christianity the May Fourth movement; rural and urban women, and the early role of left-wing feminists; political uses of religion, women, and gender in the Communist revolution; women and religion in the religious revival since the collapse of Maoism; and thoughts on further integrating women, gender, and religion in a globalizing era.

Like Valussi, Kang notes that

intrinsic elements of Chinese religious practices and rituals, such as incense burning, paper offerings, communal worship, ghost pacification, demon exorcism, fortune-telling and spirit possession, were all denounced as “superstition” and hence a hindrance to modernity.

But as she explains, rejection and suppression don’t tell the whole story.

The century-long mass mobilisation for gender equality and women’s liberation has also brought women out of domestic confinement and empowered women in various realms, including that of religion. Since Republican times, women have participated in public religious life and have assumed leadership in different religious organisations. At times they have also used religion to defy officially-prescribed gender roles, to negotiate with state authorities, and to create social spaces of their own.

Still, the participation of women that we can now find through fieldwork can’t be attributed solely to such official “mobilisation”; rather, it may seem like a belated revelation of a longer-term involvement that was previously hidden to us.

Female mediums https://stephenjones.blog/2018/10/06/lives-of-female-mediums/

Female mediums, Guangxi. Photo: Xiao Mei.

Kang pays attention to women’s role in both institutional and folk religious activity, including the ubiquitous spirit mediums—on whom, apart from the sources that Kang cites (notably, for the Hakka, Xu Xiaoying 徐霄鹰, Gechang yu jingshen 歌唱与敬神, 2006), I’d also mention fine ethnographers such as Xiao Mei and Mayfair Yang.

Indeed, the very informality of the status of such women may have helped them to keep practising under Maoism, as Kang suggests:

First, compared to the male dominated textual and institutional traditions of religion, women’s religious practices are more personal, oral, and informal. This lack of institutional and doctrinal attachment has been a main reason that women’s religious activities have often been condemned as superstition, but it has also made them less threatening targets and more resilient in the Maoist campaigns against religion. “A few old women” here and there kept religions and ritual traditions alive in one way or another during the oppressive years of the Cultural Revolution. Second, the revolution’s advocacy of economic contribution to society has had the effect of bringing women out of domestic confinement. As women’s employment outside the home in both urban and rural settings has become widely accepted, women face much less constraint and prejudice than their late imperial counterparts did when venturing into the public space of religion. […]Third, the revolution has also effectively destroyed the traditional power structure in local society and eliminated the Confucian gentry elite who once collaborated with state officials and monopolised the ritual life of local communities.

Discussing the age-range of religious women, she observes:

Either as lay believers or spirit mediums, the middle aged and elder women are neither victims of superstition nor obstacles to modernity. For many, religious practices are not simply to revive the pre-revolutionary past. They ingeniously construct female religiosity with the traditional and modern resources—including Maoist teachings—at their disposal. They are well aware of the social and political stigma [risks, I might say] of conducting “superstitious” activities, and they adopt different strategies to legitimise their activities.

Their religious authority is defined by “social skills, marketing strategies, moral qualities, and in certain cases female charisma”.

* * *

Plunging into rural fieldwork as I did in the 1980s without being conditioned by elite discourses, I found the simple public–private dichotomy in religious activity revealed in the male domination among public performers such as ritual specialists and shawm bands; yet I came to realise that while women rarely occupy such formal roles, they do play a major part in religious life—notably as mediums and sectarians. The background provided by Valussi and Kang makes valuable preparation for fieldworkers.

FWIW, among my own sketches of the lives of rural women, see Women of Gaoluo; nuns of rural Hebei; and my series on Women of Yanggao, starting here. In my survey of ethnographic films I cite the documentary Under goddesses’ shelter, about a Hakka nun. These, along with some of my other posts on gender in China and elsewhere, are listed here.

Lastly, a bold, nay revolutionary, idea: I wonder how long it might take for us to totally reverse our perspectives on “doing religion” in China—privileging oral, largely non-literate practices and relegating elite discourse (including the whole vast repository of early canonical texts) and temple-dwelling clerics to a subsidiary place?! Notwithstanding the role of women in the latter manifestations, such a reversal would also entail a far greater recognition of their fundamental importance in Chinese religious life. One can but dream…

For an important book on mediums in Henan, see here.

 

Bomba: resistance and celebration

Bomba

Scene from La bomba.

AOCThe wise, principled Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) is always an inspiration.

Combining politics with culture, AOC recently tweeted clips of Puerto Rican bomba from the protests ignited by the police murder of George Floyd: *

So I’m prompted to do a very basic reccy on the genre. In Puerto Rico the effects of the devastating hurricane in 2017 have been compounded by the paltry US government response. Among various performance genres there, bomba (“barrel”) is not only a celebration but, developed by slaves on the sugar plantations, has a long history of expressing dissent—a call to resistance. Yet another instance of “serious music“!

This documentary highlights the political functions of bomba:

Like the related development plena, it’s based on the interplay between drummers and dancers, the latter leading, with topical improvised sung verses and choruses. And like flamenco, it’s based on family traditions. The piquetes dance figures are mainly in duple metres, such as Sicá, Cuembé, and Holandés, as well as the triple Yubá—all with derivatives.

See also here.

* Brief resumé for any visiting Martians: Police Departments mount novel defence against accusations of gross brutality by providing copious new evidence of gross brutality; and just when you thought he couldn’t possibly get any more offensive, destructive, morally deficient, and infantile, the Orange Baby-in-Chief continues to surpass himself with callous divisive inarticulate rants, providing the wonderful Sarah Cooper (MUST WATCH!) with endless material, such as this.

Guest post: Handing over the Ming baton

From Wang Shixiang to Craig Clunas

BM1

Photo (as below): Kossen Ho.

Having featured both Ming Maestros in my tribute to Wang Shixiang’s wife Yuan Quanyou, here’s Craig with a charming reminiscence:

Random Gatherings of the Era of Lockdown 鎖閉野獲 , or

Collected Discourses from the Potato-Planting Studio 種薯齋叢說: An Extract

BM2In 1983 I organised a visit to London by the great art historian and Chinese furniture scholar Wang Shixiang 王世襄 (1914–2009); I had translated a piece by him. and we had first met in Beijing in the early 1980s. The trip was done on a shoestring, and it pains me to think how spartan was the Imperial College London student hostel I booked him into, though he would never have complained—he had after all done years and years in cadre school. One of the grandest of London’s dealers in Chinese art took us to a posh lunch; it was a measure of Mr Wang’s cosmopolitan youth that he ordered cheese for afters. He ate half, and asked the waiter to wrap the rest (presumably for his breakfast, which I had not provided). As the beginnings of a sneer formed on the waiter’s face, it being that kind of restaurant, one of the grandest of London’s dealers in Chinese art gave him a very ferocious look that eloquently said, “This gentleman is my guest. I eat here often. Wrap his cheese”.

One night Mr Wang came for supper to our North London house, where our extremely skittish and semi-feral cat Lexham went straight towards him (Lexham usually shunned strangers) and settled purring in his lap; that was when I learned that “to purr” in Chinese is nianjing 念经, literally “recite the sutras”. Mr Wang also took me with him one Sunday afternoon to visit Ling Shuhua 凌叔华 (1904–90), by then an elderly lady; my memory is of a very small flat, perhaps even a basement, in somewhere like Swiss Cottage. They practised calligraphy together, and I still have the bucolic poem he wrote for me on that occasion, one of a set of verses on pig-rearing he had composed in the cadre school; it has subsequently been to Beijing and back for an exhibition of his much-admired hand. I quite failed to realise at the time just how significant a figure in modern Chinese culture Ling Shuhua was—”modernist writer and painter”, lover of Julian Bell (1908–37), correspondent of Virginia Woolf (1882–1941).

I have many things to thank Mr Wang for, including my name. We were never—unlike many people I know who studied elsewhere—given “proper” Chinese names by our teachers at the Cambridge Faculty of Oriental Studies. At Beijing Languages Institute in 1974–5 I had been Keliege (可列格 , occasionally 克列格) a simple attempt at a phonologically Chinese transcription of “Craig”. Returning to Cambridge I made myself into Ke Liege 柯列格, substituting a character that was at least a viable Chinese surname. When Wang Shixiang saw this, he said “Huh, Too ugly!” (嗯! 太难看!) and made me into Ke Lüge 柯律格, which is who I have been ever since, and what it says on the covers of the Chinese translations of my books. I can invoke Mr Wang’s authority when people query it. (It was Steve Jones who once pointed out to me that one plausible implication of the meaning of Lüge 律格 was “Tight-arsed”, which we both agreed was about right.) [1]

[1] Note from SJ: see here for the diverse ramifications of my own Chinese name. For our time at Cambridge, and Craig’s early studies in China, click here. In 2014, he worked on the splendid British Museum exhibition “Ming: 50 years that changed China” (see his co-authored catalogue, and the conference proceedings), giving us the pretext to invite the musicians of the Zhihua temple for the first of two visits.

Craig’s embarrassment about the spartan conditions deemed acceptable by British hosts may strike a chord with other academics. I recall with chagrin the visit of two eminent colleagues from the Beijing Music Research Institute to the National Sound Archive in 1993 on a project to copy the precious early recordings by Yang Yinliu that they had managed to bring with them.

Like Wang Shixiang, my Chinese friends were billeted in a meagre student hostel; but surely our first lunch on this illustrious International Cultural Exchange required some kind of banquet. Instead our hosts sent out for miserable supermarket sandwiches (one each), which we munched absent-mindedly as we continued working. Again, my Chinese colleagues took such privations in good part, as I joked shamefacedly about the “waters deep, fires raging” (shuishen huore 水深火热) of the capitalist world.

News desk

 

Mash

Characteristically changing the mood after Bruno Nettl’s perspectives on Native American cultures (which you must read!):

Nish Kumar’s The Mash report (BBC) seems to work well with the current remote format, and continues to prompt entertaining harrumphs from the likes of Brigadier General Gervaise Brook-Hamster and Retired of Tunbridge Wells.

From the heady days when human interaction was still sanctioned, and when there were things called “audiences”,* I’m very keen on Rachel Parris:

A lesson doggedly ignored by Priti “I’m sorry if people feel that there have been failings—”I’ll be very very clear about that [I’m a heartless cynical monster]” Patel, not to mention Dominic “Specsavers” Cummings

Here Ms Parris considers immigration (cf. Stewart Lee and the UKIPs):

For her introduction to The Haunted Pencil (Minister for the 18th Century), see here.

And the news bulletins are always delightful:

Ellie Taylor is in fine form here too:

Another drôle headline:

Plans grow to re-open the economy, so we can enjoy it one last time before Brexit

Satire is All Very Well, but we should bear in mind Peter Cook’s caveat.

On a lighter note, to complement

Bake Off Winner Discovers You Can Buy Cake From Shops

the opening collage has some gems, like

Cat Desperate To Go Outside Until Door Opened

 

* Cf. my helpful explanation of the obscure term “pillarbox”.