Following the flummery of the Coronation, I keep finding myself perplexed by the ways in which elites dominate images of society.
The new exhibition at the British Museum, China’s hidden century, is a splendid idea. If the Qing dynasty is a poor cousin of the Ming, the 19th century has suffered by comparison with the long and glorious early-Qing reigns of the Kangxi (1661–1722) and Qianlong (1736–95) emperors. So it’s a worthy mission to reinstate the period, “often defined—and dismissed—as an era of cultural decline”, amidst economic crisis, uprisings, and foreign invasion. The Opium Wars of the 1840s marked the beginning of a “century of humiliation”, the late Qing making one of several instances of hitherto thriving empires that now suffered in turn at the hands of foreign imperialism (cf. Pankaj Mishra on the wider context of Ottoman modernization, at end of this post).
Attending a preview of the BM exhibition, I’m reminded that museums and art galleries, and indeed libraries, depend largely on material that reflects the values of a tiny minority of urban educated people (mainly men). This approach was long standard for most societies, but it’s clearly one that more recent historians have been seeking to refine. And of course, like books, artefacts are silent and immobile. Now I don’t mean to give you another of my “What About the Workers?” rants; I quite understand the brief of museums, and the culture of elite minorities has a rightful place alongside those of other social groups. But as anthropologists and ethnomusicologists seek to engage fully with the “red and fiery” nature of performance in local society, the limitations of both museums and elites soon become apparent (see e.g. Society and soundscape, and What is serious music?!).
So I’m grateful to the exhibition for stimulating me to revisit some of my own material from the field. In this I’m always in awe of the incomparable erudition of Yang Yinliu (1899–1984). Brought up in Wuxi during the final years of the Qing dynasty, Yang learned instruments from Daoist priests from the age of six, going on to join the refined Tianyun she society and to become a fine exponent of qin zither, pipa and sanxian plucked lutes, while supplementing his training with an education in Western culture.
In his research he had a rare grasp of both early and later imperial history, and at the helm of the Music Research Institute in Beijing after the 1949 “Liberation” he embodied continuity with Qing traditions of performance and scholarship, as well as directing major fieldwork projects.
I’m used to people (often local officials, indeed) citing this saying to explain
the inability of Communist policies to penetrate the countryside (an instance here),
but of course its original usage referred to imperial society.
In her online essay, exhibition curator Jessica Harrison-Hall asks,
How did Chinese cultural creativity demonstrate resilience in the face of unprecedented levels of violence in the long 19th century?
In the countryside some ritual and other performing groups suffered interruptions from warfare. Around Jiangsu, the Taiping rebellion must have disrupted some groups; but rather few local traditions were affected by military conflict, and those that were, recovered quite soon. The ritual association of Hejiaying village just south of Xi’an was caught up in conflict soon after the outbreak of the Hui rebellion in 1862, with instruments and scores destroyed and performers killed. The association was only able to relearn much of its repertoire in 1915 from the nearby village of South Jixian; both groups are still active today. I’d like to learn more about reasons for this remarkably long period of inactivity—much longer, for instance, than that between the 1949 Communist takeover and the 1980s’ reforms.
Xi’an village festival, 1950s.
Through the 19th century a major change in local societies was the arrival of Christian missionaries, vividly documented for Shanxi by Henrietta Harrison. By 1900, as the Qing regime went into terminal decline, tensions with traditional religious communities led to the Boxer uprising, when Catholics around Beijing and Tianjin were massacred (as in Gaoluo)—with village ritual associations supporting the Boxers against the Allied armies. Senior villagers whom we met in the 1990s had heard many stories about the events from their parents.
The exhibition has five main themes: court, military, artists, urban life, and “global Qing”. As the online introduction explains,
The show illuminates the lives of individuals—an empress, a dancer, a soldier, an artist, a housewife, a merchant and a diplomat.
Visitors will glimpse the textures of life in 19th-century China through art, fashion, newspapers, furniture—even soup ingredients. Many people not only survived but thrived in this tumultuous world. New art forms, such as photography and lithographic printing, flourished while technology and transport—the telegraph, electricity, railways—transformed society.
This makes sense as far as it goes; but while seeking to reach beyond the elite, whose culture is only the tip of the iceberg in any era, it can hardly address the poor rural areas where the vast majority of the population lived—so any attempt to broaden the topic rather depends on “going down” to the countryside. The evidence for material and expressive cultures may also invite significantly different perspectives. When Dr Harrison-Hall writes “Representing the millions of people who were not wealthy is a challenge as so little survives”, she refers to the material culture preserved in museums. Among the folk, local traditions of ritual and music that endured throughout the troubled 20th century go back multiple generations; many groups preserve early artefacts such as instruments, scores, ritual paintings, and pennants, but more importantly they transmit life-cycle and calendrical rituals that were being modified in ways that can rarely be glimpsed—even in the wealth of field reports for Hebei, Shanxi, and elsewhere in my series on Local ritual.
This reflects another common difficulty: we often seek to document history through major, exceptional events, whereas for peasants customary life is more routine. And apart from artefacts, much of the history of this (or any) period lies in oral tradition—which doesn’t lend itself so well to exhibitions.
Nor do women play a greater role in the traditions I’m about to outline; while we regularly came across elderly women with bound feet, they had hardly been exposed to the public activities of the village with which we were concerned (for posts on gender in China and elsewhere, click here; right, women of Gaoluo).
Even the rubric of “Qing court music” is already broad.
From Qinxue rumen (1864), with the innovation of gongche solfeggio
added besides the tablature.
The elite solo art of the qin zither is a close ally of museums, having an intrinsic bond with calligraphy, painting, and poetry. Again, qin scholars tend to focus on tablatures from the Ming and early Qing, but John Thompson’s definitive site lists around fifty such volumes from the 19th century. Within this tiny coterie, collections like the 1864 Qinxue rumen 琴學入門 and the 1876 Tianwen’ge qinpu 天聞閣琴譜 must have been in more common circulation than were early manuscripts.
Xiansuo beikao score, copied by Rong Zhai in 1814.
It’s also worth observing that there was constant interplay between folk and elite traditions. In Beijing the Manchu-Mongol court elite, such as prince Rong Zhai, were patrons of lowly blind itinerant street performers, with whom they performed a recreational chamber repertoire. For the 19th century we have names (and not much else) of musicians like the blind sanxian player Zhao Debi, and Wang Xianchen, a protégé of the empress Cixi.
“Musiciens Chinois. légation a Pékin”, Paul Champion, 1865/1866.
In 19th-century Shanghai, the paraliturgical instrumental ensemble of Daoist temples gave rise to the new secular style of silk-and-bamboo, with amateur clubs thriving right down to today. And we can even listen to recordings of music from the late Qing, such as those made by Berthold Laufer in Beijing and Shanghai. Even later releases (e.g. here) reflect an tradition that was unbroken from those times.
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Former Buddhist monks from Wutaishan with the exquisite arhat at the British Museum, 1992.
As to local temples, again we tend to focus on early dates when they were founded rather than on their social life thereafter, with steles commemorating their periodic renovation. In the temple network of imperial Beijing, traditions of shengguan ensemble which served ritual were inter-related. The Zhihua temple, built in 1443 as the private temple of a Ming eunuch, is famed for not only for its architecture but for its shengguan music, for which we have a precious gongche score from 1694.
Here it’s worth clarifying a significant misapprehension. As with notations for other genres (for the qin zither, the Beijing entertainment repertoire, or the village ritual groups we meet below), the date of copying was always long after the pieces came into currency. Scores were not consulted during performance, but constituted a prestigious artefact for their custodians. So the 1694 score of the Zhihua temple was not “composed” then; moreover, through the 19th century, long after the temple had lost its imperial prestige, the musical monks (yiseng 藝僧) of a network of Beijing temples continued to exchange and recopy scores—an energy that we can only imagine (I eagerly await the publication of Ju Xi‘s research on the evolution of the temple, in the next volume of the major EFEO series Epigraphy and oral sources of Peking temples). Meanwhile, temples in not so distant towns like Chengde and Shenyang were also acquiring new ritual repertoires.
South of Beijing, most village ritual associations on the Hebei plain seem to have been attracted by the same myths as the elite, tracing their history back to the Kangxi and Qianlong eras, or even the Ming—mostly on the basis of long oral tradition or early artefacts. While fieldworkers tend to dismiss the Chinese scholarly fashion for seeking “living fossils” in local traditions, when we extend our enquiries beyond contemporary observation to the past, perhaps we too are guilty of focusing on such early clues, rather downplaying references to 19th-century reign-periods:
Yet despite the successive upheavals of the 20th century, visiting such groups in the 1990s we gained an impression of remarkable continuity.
Recopyings of shengguan scores transmitted by Miaoyin,
including Tongzhi 13th year (1874). Hanzhuang village, Xiongxian, 1920. Photo: 1993.
Mostly we have to imagine Buddhist and Daoist priests arriving in rural temples to invigorate village ritual associations. In villages around Xiongxian county, the Buddhist monk Miaoyin transmitted a magnificent repertoire of shengguan suites in 1787, whose gongche scores were periodically recopied over the following 150 years.
Base of yunluo gong-frame with a Guangxu-era date equivalent to 1903,
South Shilipu ritual association.
Around the Baiyangdian lake, members of the Buddhist-transmitted association of Greater Mazhuang recalled an account in their old scriptures that in the Xianfeng era (1850–61) an elderly monk called Runan, from the Xingfu si temple in Libao village in Mancheng, came here regularly for three years to teach them. Nearby in Xin’anzhuang, a 1990 history of the association lists three changes of pennant over the previous two centuries and more: Daoguang 12th year , Guangxu 3rd year , and Republic 26th year (1937).
Ritual artefacts, South Gaoluo:
left, dragon placard, Guangxu reign 1st year  3rd moon 15th day,
at the behest of ritual leaders Heng Yun and Shan Wenrong;
right, ritual curtain, 1892.
In the village of Gaoluo, my main fieldsite through the 1990s, a new temple built in 1844 proclaimed the identity of a separate south village. In 1875 a “dragon placard” asserted allegiance to the new emperor, and a ritual curtain from 1892 was still displayed in the lantern tent for the New Year’s rituals in the 1990s (see early history, and ritual images).
Among ritual associations in this region the popular “southern music” that competed with the “classical” shengguan instrumental ensemble is commonly dated to the early 20th century, but Qianminzhuang in Xushui county (later famed during the Great Leap Forward) was among several village associations said to have learned in the Xianfeng era (1850–61) when the Daoist priest Wang Leyun came from Nangong county to transmit the style.
Genealogy of the Li family Daoists, from Li Fu, first in the lineage to learn Daoist ritual
in the 18th century (see also Customs of naming).
Our perspectives change once we engage with living traditions. By the 1990s, when we met senior ritual specialists born around the 1920s, they could often list the names of their forebears back five or more generations. Even if we can rarely do more than document their names, they would naturally feel more of a connection with their grandfathers than with earlier ancestors. For Shanxi, I think of hereditary household Daoist traditions like that of the Li family Daoists in their home village of Upper Liangyuan; if only we could learn more about the life of Li Qing‘s great-grandfather Li Xianrong (c1851–1920s), some of whose ritual manuals the family still preserves.
Left: manual for Presenting the Memorial ritual, copied by Li Xianrong.
Right: Li Manshan discovers temple steles.
Temples continued to be restored throughout the late Qing. The village’s Temple of the God Palace (Fodian miao) fell into disuse after Liberation (see our film, from 08.25), but we found a stele composed in Guangxu 6th year (1880), the year after the villagers completed a new bell tower and four priests’ rooms in gratitude for the end of a drought following a rain procession in Tongzhi 6th year (1867). But severe droughts again afflicted Shanxi from 1876 to 1879, so perhaps the stele further offered gratitude for this second recovery.
Another instance from Shanxi: we can trace the hereditary transmission of the Zhou lineage of Complete Perfection household Daoists in Shuozhou county. Of the third generation, probably active from the late 18th century, Zhou Laifeng was a temple Daoist, his younger brother Zhou Lailong a household Daoist.
Their descendant Zhou Erdan showed us a manuscript Yuhuang shangdi beiji (above, probably copied by his uncle Zhou Fusheng), that reproduces an 1813 stele of the Yuhuang miao temple in Shuozhou town, mentioning the brothers’ fine calligraphy.
From Qing-dynasty Tianjin Tianhou gong xinghui tu 天津天后宫行會圖.
Yet another instance of a tradition maintained through from the 18th to the 20th centuries is the “imperial assembly” of Tianjin, in this case among folk dharma-drumming associations.
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Wanhe tang musicians, 1993, heirs to an illustrious tradition.
As to local traditions of narrative singing and opera, the respective provincial monographs of the great Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples (Zhongguo quyi zhi, Zhongguo xiqu zhi) contain much evidence for both material artefacts and oral tradition (e.g n.2 here; further citations in posts under Chinoperl). Near Suzhou, the Wanhe tang Kunqu association was founded in the second half of the 19th century, performing largely for life-cycle ceremonies.
In Shaanbei, the Yulin “little pieces” are said to have been transmitted outside the regional court in the Daoguang era (1821–50) by Li Diankui and his son Li Fang—and the brief biographies throughout the volumes of the Anthology introduce many locally-renowned 19th-century performers. The style of the “little pieces” is thought to be influenced by opera troupes brought by Qing-dynasty regional governors from the Jiangnan region; some local scholars claim that it was based on the opera of Hunan, which may have been brought during the Tongzhi reign (1862–74) by a company attached to a division of Zuo Zongtang’s Hunan army on campaign in the region.
Nanyin in Quanzhou, 1986.
Further evidence is to be found in the riches of Hokkien culture of south Fujian, such as the exquisite nanguan (nanyin) ballads—the study of which is again rooted in the search for early origins rather than its vibrant later life. Similarly, scholars of Daoist ritual set their sights firmly on Tang and Song texts, but monographs on local household altars around south China also contain material on 19th century transmissions, including particularly rich collections of ritual paintings and manuals.
Mural (detail), Shrine to Lord Guan, Huapen village, Yanqing, Beijing suburbs, ~1809.
And to return to rural north China, Hannibal Taubes’ extraordinary fieldwork reveals that painters of temple murals were just as creative through the 19th century as in earlier and later periods. As he notes,
Late Qing murals are characterised by strong use of blue and white. While all of the old themes continued to be painted, a variety of new types of painting appeared in this period, some of them seemingly unrelated to anything which had come before. Important new developments include: new genres of opera-stage murals, often incorporating Western architecture, figures, or text; paintings connected to the Yellow River Formation 黃河陣 ritual; and a large number of rather eccentric Buddhist murals commissioned by charismatic wandering monks.
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Given its parameters, the BM exhibition is very fine; here I’ve just offered a few suggestive instances of the potential for documenting grass-roots history through local fieldwork. Much as we may hope to broaden the social base of our enquiries, it’s often hard to say much more than this: despite growing challenges, rural and urban ritual and performing groups, founded in the 18th century or earlier, maintained activity not only through the late Qing and Republican eras, but even after the 1949 “Liberation” and the convulsive campaigns of Maoism. Still, as the exhibition reminds us, it’s important to join up the dots between the late Ming/early Qing and the 20th century; and whether or not we spell it out, the late imperial period makes a constant backdrop to our fieldwork.