The eye-opening project of Hannibal Taubes documenting village temple murals in north China is presented in his immense, ever-expanding website—material that invites us to revise the whole history of visual culture in the Ming and Qing dynasties.
His work traipsing around his main site of Yuxian, a poor county west of Beijing, is the subject of a recent documentary in Chinese, making a vivid reminder of the kind of intrepid fieldwork required for such detailed studies. The film is the fourth (!) in a CCTV series entitled Yuxian gubu 蔚县古堡 (Ancient ramparts of Yuxian):
We see Hannibal travelling round in search of temples, opera stages, village ramparts, and steles; his persistence in tracking down the custodian of the temple keys (cf. On visiting a hermit, and Alan Bennett’s sermon: “We are all of us looking for the key…”); and working with local scholars.
One common experience of foreigners in China is immortalised in a drôle vignette (from 12.30), as he converses fluently with a villager—whom he has met on previous visits, to boot—only to be asked “Can you speak Chinese?”, prompting a fine WTF response from Hannibal (cf. It’s the only language they understand, and Frances Wood’s experiences).
This is largely a historical salvage project, focusing on material culture rather than current ritual life. Indeed, while some household Daoist groups are active in Yuxian, it’s curious that this abundance of iconography seems to outrank living ritual performance there, whereas in counties of nearby north Shanxi the ratio is reversed.