Ritual groups around the Baiyangdian lake

Ritual groups around the Baiyangdian lake:
the Medicine King cult

On the Hebei plain, just south of the Xiongxian region, the Baiyangdian lake, and the ritual catchment area of the pilgrimage to the Medicine King temple in Maozhou, form a somewhat distinct area for ritual practice. This is highly topical, since it is now part of the vast plan to build a megapolis there, expanding Beijing and Tianjin southwards amidst profound social and ecological change.

This was the southern boundary of our project on the Hebei plain, where we had found so many complex liturgical sequences, ritual manuals, and grand shengguan instrumental suites with scores derived from the temples of old Beijing and Tianjin. Xiongxian turned out to be the heartland of the suites and scores, but around the lake just south, despite the lively Maozhou cult, the trail was becoming somewhat diluted; nor did we find leads to the sectarian groups that were so common in Xiongxian—and I don’t believe this is merely because our visits predated more in-depth stays in the areas further north and west. Still, these associations were very much based in ritual and shengguan, and dated back to at least the 18th century.

This survey introduces ritual groups all around the lake, including villages of Anxin, Renqiu, and Gaoyang counties. The aquatic setting engenders plentiful rituals based on “releasing river [or lotus?] lanterns” (fang hedeng 放河/荷燈).

This was the first leg of our project, in summer 1993, and much of the work was done by Qiao Jianzhong, Xue Yibing, and Zhang Zhentao, on whose notes this article is mainly based. The area is also part of the recent project led by Qi Yi (leads here), which I will cite as it becomes available online, but with its narrow reified musical focus (based on the flawed ideology of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project), I see no reason to delay publishing these notes, both predating the ICH commodification and more concerned with ritual life in changing society.

1 Zhaobeikou
2 Quantou
3 Guolikou
4 Guancheng and Duancun
5 Greater Mazhuang
6 Xin’anzhuang and East Jiangcun
7 Around western Renqiu and Gaoyang
8 Maozhou

1 Zhaobeikou
At the top of the lake, the town of Zhaobeikou had a 1993 population of around 10,000, divided into north, east, south, and west “streets”—villages. The “ancient association for ritual wind ensemble” (yinyue laohui) was based on South street. The town had several other performing groups (for heavenly and earthly dragons, opera stilts, Shaolin, Five Tigers), but as ever, the yinyuehui is the “leading association” (touhui or shenghui), as it’s “civil”, whereas the others are all “martial”.

This has long been a relatively prosperous area, supplying the Beijing food markets with seafood; and apart from being a scenic spot, it had long been a significant transport hub, on the main road south to Renqiu.

The Zhaobeikou association leader Li Dehan (b. c1927) told us a local saying:

Twelve linked bridges, that’s Zhaobeikou
Greatest temple under heaven, that’s Maozhou

He related the story that the Zhaobeikou association was founded when the Qianlong emperor visited the lake, bringing his palace musicians to perform at the Fishing Platform (the site was still there); later their music was transmitted to the villagers. The emperor observed, “To this town, a thousand gold pieces a day” (Cizhen yiri qianjin 此鎮一日千金).

Remarkably, this is very close to the account in the county gazetteers. Qianlong had made a “temporary palace” (xinggong) at Zhaobeikou on his progress to perform the Confucian sacrifices at Qufu in 1748 (Qianlong 13th year); and he visited the area again five years later, following a visit to the imperial tombs at Yixian further northwest.

In 1993 the Zhaobeikou association had around thirty-five performing members, both fishermen and peasants, including some recent recruits—sixteen were below 30 sui, and ten more below 50. They considered 380 households “in the association”. The cadres were supportive, but as Li Dehan said, “We don’t rely on the brigade—the common people protect it themselves.”

Li Dehan had learned from 14 sui (1942) with a teacher in the Zancun village association (later defunct) in Rongcheng just north. Like many associations throughout the region, they claimed they were unaffected by the War against Japan or the Civil War. Li Dehan recalled that they performed at a big Peace assembly for the Nationalist–Communist collaboration in Anxin county town. This was probably early in 1946, during the short-lived agreement (mediated by the USA General Marshall) between the two sides after the defeat of the Japanese, and just before the Civil War. The Zhaobeikou association were summoned to play revolutionary pieces like The Great Rear (Da houfang), and got an award. There were many associations there: Li saw eight groups at the entrance of the government buildings alone.

He went on,

After Liberation the Bureau of Culture didn’t take any great interest in our association—we’re too far from the county-town. We went into town two or three times: for the opening ceremony of the great bridge at Anxin, and after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Once the county Office of Culture organized a festival with several other associations performing, like Guancheng and Quantou.

Li Dehan claimed a more-or-less uninterrupted transmission—“we were the only association in the area that didn’t have to disband.” Still, it was no easy ride:

We had to stop from 1959, during the three years of hardship. In 1960 we were so hungry we couldn’t move; most people were scavenging the countryside, no one had any energy to play. We stopped again in 1961, and no sooner had we restored in 1963 than there was a flood—we had to rescue the instruments by putting them in a boat. The ensuing Four Cleanups campaign was to purify cadres, not against our type of association.

In the Cultural Revolution we still observed the New Year’s rituals, playing the old pieces as well as many old revolutionary songs, adding a large wengzi [dahu large fiddle]. We could play all the songs popular around here from the War of Resistance against-Japan, like  “Join the People’s Army” (Canjia zidi bing) and Wang Erfa.

The association had twelve large pennants embroidered “Zhaobeikou yinyuehui”, several triangular pennants with yellow characters on a black background, brocade pennants given by other villages when they performed outside Zhaobeikou, and sixteen lanterns. Their large association tent was brightly decorated with flowers, birds, and animals. They had made a copy of their old score.

ZBK instr

ZBK faqi

Among their instruments were four guanzi and thirteen sheng, as well as fifteen pairs of bo and six pairs of nao large cymbals. They had bought some of the latter in Shijiazhuang at 140 yuan a pair. They invited Fan Huilai from Gegezhuang to overhaul their sheng three times a year: before the lake freezes over, again before the New Year’s rituals, and before 7th moon 15th.

From 1st moon 15th to 17th they made processions along the main road, every family having to receive them, as firecrackers were set off to receive the gods. On the 16th they held a grand banquet, at the expense of the 300 households “in the association” according to means, playing shengguan in the evening. On 4th moon 15th they went to the Great Temple at Maozhou.

The incense head (xiangtou) “transmitted the document” (chuan tie) when the association was to go on tour, to let other associations know they were coming. There were several “runners” (paodao), like the common guanshi.

Releasing the River Lanterns at Zhaobeikou
In 1993 we attended the Releasing River Lanterns (fang hedeng) observances for 7th moon 15th on the lake. The purpose is exorcistic: to avoid dead ghosts dragging people down to replace them, thereby guaranteeing well-being for the community.

Zhaobeikou procession

Xue Yibing (front, centre, in blue) joins the Zhaobeikou pilgrims.

The procession sets off from the brigade building on the main south street, parading north, playing percussion and shengguan alternately, with some rests in between. The three-cartridge cracker-firer “opens the way” (kaidao) at the front, followed by lanterns, pennants, the performers, and the painting of Dizang King of the Underworld ( looking deceptively like the female deity Guanyin!) borne aloft at the rear.

After reaching north street, they turn west to the river. To “impede the association”, tables laden with cigarettes are set out in the road as offerings to show respect; the association must stop and play a piece for them. A flotilla of punts awaits, decked with lanterns. The civil section (the shengguan wind ensemble) climbs into one punt, the martial section (percussion) into another. Candles are lit on lotus leaves and set out on the lake, protected from the wind by little lanterns made from bamboo and paper.

Zhaobeikou lake

The peace of punting through the courses of the lake, fringed by reeds, is punctuated only by the solemn refined sounds of shengguan music. This makes a lull before the orgy of firecrackers let off by households along the lakeside to welcome the association (yinghui) as we near the main pier of the southern end of the town.

Zhaobeikou painting

2 Quantou
Our team didn’t get to visit this village in the middle of the lake (properly East Street, one of five hamlets on the island), but it’s the subject of research by Zhang Boyu, [1] and has become a popular and picturesque destination for pundits seeking heritage soundbites, keeping ethnography at bay (this video is typical of the ICH style).

The Quantou association originally attended the Maozhou fair, but later observed the festival in their own village. Among many artefacts, they preserved four ceremonial candles said to date from the time of Qianlong’s visit to the lake.

3 Guolikou
Also on the north of the lake, this island village is also accessible only by boat. The population had increased from 1,000 before 1949 to around 5,000. Tourism was already thriving, with the main street full of well-stocked shops.

Guolikou chat

Xue Yibing and Zhang Zhentao chat with Guolikou elders, 1993.

As often, the association was originally called yinyue shanhui or shenghui. Once three groups were subsumed under a “Association for Common Pleasure” (Tongle hui): the yinyuehui, an opera band, and a yangge dance troupe. The latter had disbanded two generations earlier, and the opera band in 1956. The yinyuehui restored after the end of the Cultural Revolution, but disbanded again for a couple of years. Reluctant to let it be lost for ever, everyone clubbed together to buy new instruments—with a pair of large cymbals costing 100 yuan, this was no small expenditure for the time. There were now twenty-one members, mostly elderly—the youngest was 41 sui. They convened in the brigade office, but had a large tent and several pennants. No-one recalled any scores, but they learned by singing the oral gongche mnemonics.

Guolikou play

The many former village temples had been demolished as early as the Republican era, during the Nationalist campaign to release women from foot-binding. The association’s traditional contexts already seemed much attenuated, but they recalled performing at the Fire God temple (Huoshen miao) for 1st moon 1st, to avert fire. For 1st moon 15th they released the lanterns, hanging out god images and “Water and Land” (Shuilu) paintings of the Ten Yama Kings of the Underworld; on a tour of the streets the association led the way, with lanterns behind. For 7th moon 15th they released the river lanterns, touring round the whole village, praying for the dead to cross the bridge by the light of the lanterns, and for the living that their boats should stay afloat.

Nearby, recent surveys mention associations at Nilizhuang, Wangjiazhai, and North Liucun.

4 Guancheng and Duancun
Moving southwest on the lake, by 1993 the large “village” of Guancheng had a population of over 10,000.

Local legend has it that in the 18th century a villager called Wang Banxian 王半仙, known for healing illness, cured the Qianlong emperor’s daughter, so as a reward he asked the emperor to support his village ritual association, and Qianlong bestowed them with a dragon placard (longpai 龍牌) inscribed with the characters Association Facing the Sun (Chaoyang hui 朝陽會). According to another version, Wang observed the court music was great, so the emperor sent Buddhist monks to the village to teach them, staying for five years. The association still used the title; though the tablet no longer survived, senior members said they’d seen it , inscribed “Long live the emperor, Qianlong X year X moon X day”.

Among many former temples, the Taiping si (to Sakyamuni Buddha) was the main base of the association before it was destroyed in 1927; Wang Jinhe, a Buddhist monk from the temple, taught them shengguan. In 1993 the village’s recently-rebuilt Tianxian gong temple issued an invitation to the association for its inauguration on 4th moon 17th.

Guancheng invite

Our team listed forty-five members, some in their late teens, but many over 60 sui. Supporters was divided into six “groups” (ban 班), each comprising twenty to thirty households. Previously all the villagers would give a token donation over the New Year’s rituals.

Guancheng faqi

Apart from forty pennants, they had a large 3-metre cloth, and two tables each 3 metres long. An old trunk of temple scriptures, as well as paintings of the Ten Yama Kings and others, were all destroyed during land reform in the late 1940s.

Their dilapidated old score (undated, without a cover), written on xuanzhi rice paper, was said to be from the late Qing. The score they were now using, with a substantial repertoire, was copied in the 1st moon of 1986 by Jia Shiyi, who had since died. A brilliant musician, he was too versatile to conform to the association’s traditions—as ever, he was threatened with expulsion when he went on jobs with the lowly mercenary shawm bands (cf. Gaoluo, under New tensions).

Guancheng score

Remarkably, these scores used some elaborate gongche solfeggio characters, like long-form numerals, that we haven’t seen elsewhere.

Near Guancheng, we didn’t visit the Duancun association, but it later became part of the ICH flummery. It claimed a history dating back to the Kangxi emperor, having been taught by a Buddhist monk at the village’s Yongxing si temple. In the 9th moon they also made a pilgrimage quite far south to Laohetou for its temple to Ancestor Yang, god of hailstones (baoshen Yangzu雹神杨祖) —see here and here.

5 Greater Mazhuang
Also on the southwest corner of the lake, just southeast of Guancheng, this township had a 1993 population of 6,872, 70% of whom were surnamed Ma. The township was doing well; agriculture was now subsidiary, with most people involved in industry.

The last of the village’s former temples, the Pusa miao, survived the Japanese occupation, but was destroyed in 1947. The group had acquired the unusual name of National Music Research Association (guoyue yanjiuhui), reminiscent of urban educated societies since 1919 (see my Folk music of China, ch.3). They appeared to have used the name since the Republican era —it appeared on their old pennants. They had only restored in 1985. Of their fifty-six members, twelve were young men around 20 sui, recruited since 1988.

They belonged to a tradition of “Buddhist scriptures” (heshang jing). They recalled an account in their old scriptures (burned in 1976 in an accidental fire) that in the Xianfeng era (1850–61) an old Buddhist monk called Runan 入難, from the Xingfu si temple in Libao village in Mancheng, came here regularly for three years to teach them. Ma Xihong, teacher of the present generation, who died in the 1950s, could recall four generations before him. Before 1949 they took part in the 4th-moon Maozhou temple fair, only stopping when the temple was destroyed. For funerals before the Cultural Revolution they used to perform Crossing the Bridges (guoqiao) and yankou rituals, their leader Ma Fuzeng donning the Five-Buddha hat.

On 1st moon 1st they did a tour of the (former) village temples, Ambulating with Incense (xingxiang), singing the Hymn to Guanyin (Guanyin zan). The main New Year’s rituals (known as Releasing the River Lanterns) took place on 1st moon 14th to 16th.

On 7th moon 15th, as at villages like Zhaobeikou, they embarked on the lake for Releasing the Lotus Lanterns (fang liandeng 放蓮燈).

They also used to take part in rain processions; the last time they did so was around 1950, on a long procession south to the Upper Laohetou temple.

Again we heard a typical phrase from senior members: “We don’t have any ambitions” (bu tu shenme), meaning that their sole aim was to do good for the community without material reward. They still had to cover their expenses, such as oil and cotton wool for the lanterns at New Year, not to mention firecrackers as well as replacing pennants. Under Maoism they got a few cartons of cigarettes for performing outside the village, taking them back to exchange at the cooperative. More recently the village brigade would approach the village industrialists to get money for the association. A pressing need now was to replace old instruments. The percussion and sheng are prone to damage; it cost 200 yuan to overhaul their many sheng. The sheng repairer usually came in the intercalary month and just before the lotus flower season; they used to call on someone from just west of Maozhou, but now they mainly used Fan Huilai from Gegezhuang further north, or from Xushui county—presumably the celebrated sheng tuners of Qingmiaoying just south of the county-town there.

All that survived an accidental fire in 1976 was a volume entitled Booklet of Hymns to the Pantheon (Quanshen zan ce)—mainly gongche solfeggio for the shengguan repertoire, with ritual texts at the back. Having first made a copy in 1985 in an account book with biro, they made a copy in 1988; and then in 1992 10th moon 20th, shortly before his death, Ma Jingliang had completed another copy on rice paper. Most members of the association could still recite the scriptures, but the new recruits weren’t learning them.

Again, before Liberation the township had several other groups, for stilts, lions, and so on; Shaolin and opera troupes persisted until the early 1960s.

Recent surveys also mention associations nearby at North Xidi, Liulizhuang, and Tongkou.

6 Xin’anzhuang and East Jiangcun
Moving to Renqiu county, Xin’anzhuang and the neighbouring village of East Jiangcun are further east, on the border with Wen’an county. Indeed, the village was called Greater Jiangcun before the 1950s; they were recognized as separate by the early 20th century.

Greater Jiangcun was founded in the Ming by migration. Their were four main lineages: Jiang, Wang, Li, and Meng. Originally the village Sanye miao temple was built and repaired by the Jiang lineage. By 1993 its population was over 1,500, in over 400 households.

The Xin’anzhuang yinyuehui had roughly thirty performers, of whom twelve were under 40 sui, the youngest 22. They met on the ground floor of the brigade office. The association is closely related to the Maozhou temple and its 4th-moon fair. They claimed that of the seventy-two associations used to assemble for the temple festival, Xin’anzhuang was the leader, having to perform before all the others. The village used to have its own temple to the Medicine Kings; from 1st moon 15th to 17th the association accompanied a tour of the gods round the village.

They claimed to be acknowledged locally as the oldest association in the area. Legend has it that the association was founded “when the Beijing walls were being repaired”—apparently referring to the early Ming reconstruction of the capital. According to an early draft for the Anthology, they had learned from the Great Temple in Zhaogezhuang in Wen’an just north. The same draft also claimed that Xin’anzhuang and East Liangdian had scores from the Ming dynasty, though these haven’t come to light.

Xin'anzhuang history

They displayed a history of the association, written on a large cloth in 1990. Now I’d like to know more— clearly composed with help from the local cultural authorities, some of it may seem fanciful, but the specific aspects presumably came from oral accounts passed down to old members.

Our association was founded in 1481 CE, Yongle 19th year [sic: Yongle 19 should be 1421; 1481 was Chenghua 18th year], giving it over five hundred years of history. In the long river of its history, the survival of the association through thick and thin is inseparable from its having received the imperial seal. Its main main [sic] characteristics are that in performance it can evoke ethereal and remote realms; each movement has its special character—simple, authentic, mournful, poetic feelings, moving people’s hearts, making later folk reflect on their history.

The first written records of our association are from 1723 CE, Qianlong 21st year . In the spring of that year, just at the heyday of the Great Temple fair of Maozhou, Qianlong came to his temporary palace on Baiyangdian lake to escape the summer heat. Learning of [the temple fair], so as not to “drag in a whole entourage”, he dressed up as a merchant to come to the Maozhou temple to present incense. Learning that all the associations and bands in the whole county were playing their favourite pieces, Qianlong found that our association was playing Guangong ci Cao, and came forward to listen closely. Realizing that our version was different from that played by the imperial orchestra, he enquired about the hows and whys, so after retiring to his temporary palace he personally wrote a text [score] and had it delivered to the association, ordering the old musicians to copy the score. This was the start of a new era for our association. From then, the piece was always the first played every year for the temple inauguration; and for all our material objects, like pennants, we used yellow, modelled on the bordered yellow banner of the Qing palace’s dragon. There have been three changes of pennant over the last two centuries and more: Daoguang 12th year [1832], Guangxu 3rd year [1877], and Republic 26th year (1937).

Since Liberation, under the concern of the Party and the support of the cultural authorities, the old musicians of our association have painstakingly edited outstanding ancient pieces lost for many years. […] Now these great ancient pieces are once again shining out among the people.

For all the flaws of this document, there does seem to be some historical basis to the association’s early ancestry—it’s just the kind of thing that they could have seen documented in an old score, as in Xiongxian.

And despite the rosy portrayal, the involvement of the village leadership had indeed continued under Maoism, with the secretary and village chief supporting the association. Following the Cultural Revolution hiatus, soon after the 3rd Party Plenum in 1978 that signaled the revival of tradition, the village authorities funded the buying of new instruments, and supporting them on ritual visits outside the village.

Xin'anzhuang play

Background: the 1937 pennants, mentioned in the document above.

They had eight old sheng, which they no longer used, although three were still playable. They had bought seven new sheng and six new dizi; they bought reeds for the guanzi from an instrument shop in Tianjin.

Xin'anzhuang feiboThe balletic cymbals of their percussion items recalls the style of several groups on the plain, and also the dharma drumming (fagu) of the Tianjin region—another rich topic. At the right of the photo, note the cymbal thrown high in the air.

Xin'anzhuang texts

Ritual texts, Xin’anzhuang.

We saw two scores: one was dated “Republic 4th year [1915], 1st moon” on the front cover, with “Republic 38th year [sic: 1949!], 1st moon 28th” on the inside cover. The other score, undated, was later.

East Jiangcun, the sister village of Xin’anzhuang, had a 1993 population of 1,646, in 472 households. The association had twenty-eight members; as in Xin’anzhuang, several members were below the age of 40 sui, having learned from 1979. But by now everyone was busy, and it was only only possible to get a full ensemble together at New Year. This was a common refrain throughout the Hebei plain.

E. Jiangcun slips

Sticks for annual banquet, East Jiangcun.

They still preserved 106 old sticks for the annual chihui association banquet on 1st moon 14th, bearing the names of each of the household heads.

E. Jiangcun flagThe association served the former Medicine King temple, with its statuette to bear by palanquin on tour. They had two decrepit old pennants said to be from the Guangxu reign (1875–1908). Among their many sheng, five old ones had wooden bowls and a full complement of seventeen reeds. They had twenty pairs of bo large cymbals, some chipped.

E. Jiangcun sheng

The village also had a lively opera group for Hebei bangzi and the local genre laodiao (sixian), with over fifty members, many of whom were also in the yinyuehui. The village leadership still felt responsible to look after both.

7 Around western Renqiu and Gaoyang
The East Liangdian village association, south of the lake (in the west of Renqiu county, on the border with Gaoyang) had learned from Buddhist monks of the Great Temple to the north of the village, which was destroyed during the Japanese occupation—in a very common folk theme of karmic retribution for impiety (see e.g. my Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi, p.77 and n.19, citing Chau and Dubois), legend goes that they couldn’t knock it down, and they were taken ill and died.

There were twenty-five performers—only three in their 30s, a few more in their 40s, but mostly elderly. They were having difficulty affording new instruments—they had bought a new pair of large cymbals, but their timbre didn’t match.

The leader Zhao Kaijia (b. c1916) told us that he had copied their score around 1940. For funerals they had performed Visiting the Soul (canling), Crossing the Bridges (duqiao) and Chasing around the Quarters (paofang) rituals, and could still play instrumental versions of hymns for Crossing the Bridges, Communicating the Lanterns (Guandeng zan), and the Three Treasures (Sanbao zan), as well as the ubiquitous Pu’an zhou. Their suite repertoire was rather classical.

Just west, North and South Longhua villages both had ritual associations. In South Longhua the tradition was said to have been founded in the Xunzhi era (1644–61) of the early Qing, but they now considered themselves the third generation. In the first generation, Shi Jianzhang (d.1933), a permanent labourer at North Longhua, had learned from a Buddhist monk in the temple there. His son Shi Jukui, who died soon after Liberation, taught them to keep the gongche solfeggio “in their bellies”. They had performed continuously except for the Japanese occupation, when they lost many instruments. There were now a dozen or so young people in the association.


Like several villages in this southern area (e.g. §3 above), South Longhua also had a “Shared Pleasures Association” for popular genres like Dragon Lanterns and Boat on Dry Land (hanchuan), their membership overlapping with that of the yinyuehui. They were among many associations taking part in secular parades in the county town over New Year.

Of their scores, one, entitled “Volunteer People (yimin 意民) yinyuehui”, was copied on xuanzhi rice paper in autumn 1963—a period when many village associations enjoyed a brief revival after the famine.

At North Longhua we saw two scores. The preface to their 1963 (7th moon) volume states that the association was founded in the Shunzhi reign—“over 200 years ago” (sic!).

N. Longhua xu

Some instruments were lost during the chaos of the Japanese occupation, and there was only one score. In the 1st moon this year (1963) we mimeographed twenty volumes for members to read and sing. In these peaceful conditions, the people’s hearts are tranquil (sic!); though we haven’t got together to practice for over ten years, now we have taken a group of new recruits…

The preface to the other volume (completed on 1980, 8th moon 1st) is more detailed—and gets the Shunzhi (1644–61) dates right. Even in desperate times, they had recorded two pieces for the Gaoyang county radio station in the 11th moon of 1959, and in the 12th moon they took part in an arts festival in Baoding, playing on a truck in the snow.

On the second recent revival, the score comments:

Now we have peace and social cohesion, our music has been restored for two winters…

They had absorbed a group of new students to learn old and new pieces, with over forty members from 81 to 17 sui old.

The final paragraph is a touching justification of their role in the new society:

With the guidance of the Party, our music is now displaying a glorious prospect, and there gush forth outstanding compositions, enriching the people’s cultural life, providing exalted and exquisite artistic enjoyment. It can make people both happy and sad, and make them firm in their resolve, instilling heroic spirit.

As with the Xin’anzhuang history (§6), such conscious pride is evident from such prefaces, but such sonorous modern expressions are never heard on the lips of folk performers. But it’s also a reminder that the recent clichés of the ICH did not spring up overnight: even folk performing groups have long had a relationship with official sloganeering. It’s just that in most of the villages we visited this was still very rare. And of course it goes back to the imperial period, from the protestations of “precious scrolls” cunningly proclaiming loyalty to the emperor, to the Confucian texts like the Sacred Edict in the scores of Xiongxian.

Further southwest, south of Gaoyang county-town, the Yanfutun association had around sixteen members. Xue Yibing and Zhang Zhentao chatted with the old leader Qian Fuyou (b. c1911) and the present leader Guo Hongtu (b. c1927). Qian said that a priest at the village Zhenwu miao temple taught the village (when?); he says it’s been going since the Ming.

Qian Fuyou had copied their old score in 1961. His rather literate preface opens with approximate citations from the Book of Odes and Confucius. Unusually, he appended programmatic glosses to many of the pieces, mostly concerning the Three Kingdoms. He even discussed the pros and cons of gongche solfeggio notation.

Yanfutun xu 1

Yanfutun xu 2He also wrote an earnest and modest postface in classical Chinese (verso below):

Yanfutun score end.jpg

From here one should also explore the villages of Wen’an and Dacheng counties further east. For instance, in Dacheng our team found active “Daoist associations” (laodaohui) at South Xifu and Hancun. Both went back several generations; though they no longer performed for calendrical rituals, they had once made the pilgrimage to the Maozhou temple—a whole day’s procession, stopping off for water at “water posts” (shuizhan).

8 The Maozhou temple
Whereas further north from Yixian to Tianjin,  temples to the Medicine King were in a minority, many villages around the Baiyandian lake region have (or had until the 1940s) such temples—and their hub was the Great Temple at Maozhou, just east of the lake, in Renqiu county on the main road south. All these village associations belong to the ritual catchment area of its Medicine King (Yaowang) cult.

The Maozhou temple is formally called Bian Que ci 扁鵲祠. So the Medicine King of Maozhou and the Baiyangdian region is commonly identified as the 4th-century BCE physician Bian Que, but in some places (e.g. North Hancun and Quanli) he is Sun Simiao, from the Tang. Whichever he may be, he is actually the leader of a whole group—we’ve already encountered the Ten Great Physicians (shi da mingyi) in Xiongxian county just north. In Quanli (Jinghai) southeast of Maozhou, the Yaowang miao temple fair—for Sun Simiao—was reviving in 1994. To the southwest, Anguo county also has a renowned Yaowang temple, to a local Medicine King.

In Zhaobeikou the legend goes that a Ming prince built the Maozhou temple as his palace in preparation for a rebellion. When the plot was betrayed the emperor sent his troops to investigate, so the prince got craftsmen to work day and night to make god images to turn it into a temple—that’s why it’s so large, like the Forbidden City itself.

Sure enough, in his book Ting Hsien: A North China Rural Community (pp.435–6) Sidney Gamble describes the major resistance at Maozhou to the attempted usurpation of the throne by Zhu Di, prince of the northern kingdom of Yan based in Beiping (modern Beijing), soon to become the Yongle emperor. In 1399 he rebelled against his nephew, recently proclaimed as the Jianwen emperor; with the troops in Maozhou loyal to the latter, there was fierce fighting on the plain south of Beijing. After Zhu Di capturing the southern capital Nanjing, “on his return to the north the new emperor made a special point of capturing Maozhou and taking it to pieces brick by brick.” This fighting, indeed, was responsible for the depopulation of Hebei which led to the founding of so many new villages in the early 15th century, populated by forced relocations of people assembled in Shanxi.

After successive assaults on the temple in the Republican era, reconstruction began again only in the late 1980s, and it was formally inaugurated on 31st December 1993. As we saw in Xiongxian, the incentive of attending the fair again was one of the main stimuli for the revival of the Kaikou association. Chinese reports often focus on temple destruction before Liberation, but the Maoist regime certainly discouraged rebuilding, even if they couldn’t always prevent worship.

Here, and in my earlier article on Xiongxian, I’ve only listed a few of the many village ritual associations that used to make the 4th-moon pilgrimage to Maozhou.

As ever, this article merely scratches the surface of our fieldnotes—themselves just a superficial survey of some village associations that came to our attention. There may be many more, and certainly were until the 1950s. Any one of these groups (and indeed the Maozhou temple) could, and should, form the subject of a detailed diachronic ethnography such as I did for Gaoluo.

Around the Baiyangdian lake we found further evidence for the connection not only with Buddhist monks and Daoist priests but also with the ritual and musical cultures of the Qing imperial palace in Beijing—a link that appears occasionally throught the Hebei plain, such as Yixian, and strongly suggested in Xiongxian just north. But here, in a tendency similar to that of Xiongxian, the shengguan wind ensemble was gradually becoming the main performative aspect. Some associations on the Hebei plain had a rather small group of performers—often among the most outstanding, like Gaoqiao in Bazhou—but many others were large, as here.

It is striking how very poor these groups were in the early 1990s, having great difficulty in affording new instruments. Fast-forward twenty years and money is plentiful—but demand has continued to shrink.

Back in the mists of time, long before the internet, or even usable landlines—the 1990s—this ritual system still comprised the main cultural network of such regions. Having survived Maoism remarkably unscathed, there are complex reasons for the long-term decline of these associations—including not so much the recent urban development plan for the region, but migration, the whole commodification of society, and the secularizing pressures of the ICH. These notes are valuable for documenting local ritual life at a time when such transformations were still in their early days.


[1] Hebei Anxin xian Quantou cun yinyuehui kaocha 河北安新县圈头村“音乐会”考察 (2005), and a long article in English, “Traditional Chinese music in a changing contemporary society: a field report of the Quantou village Music Association, Baiyangdian lake region, Hebei province”, Asian music 38.2 (2007), based on fieldwork since 2001—strangely not citing our project in the region.