Buddhist ritual of Chengde

Chengde 4

Dilapidated grandeur (and the architecture too).

I was reminded of the Buddhist ritual of Chengde (“Jehol”), summer retreat of the Qing emperors, by a comment by Bruce Jackson, on which I elaborate below. We have found most ritual transmissions going south from Beijing, but Chengde, like Shenyang, was a major centre northeast of Beijing.

In the summer of 1987, near the end of my six-month study with Yuan Jingfang at the Central Conservatoire (see here, under “The reform era”), she took me and her student Zhang Boyu by train on a little fieldtrip to Chengde—retreating from the heat of Beijing just as the Qing emperors had done.

Our clue to “temple music” there was a slim volume by local scholars led by Wen Bing 温冰, published in 1984 following fieldwork from 1978 as an early response to calls for local scholars to submit drafts for the Anthology for Hebei province—also including material on “palace music”, another numinous topic for salvage fans:

  • Chengde bishu shanzhuang Qingdai gongting, simiao yinyue 承德避暑山庄清代宫廷, 寺庙音乐 [Qing dynasty palace and temple music from the summer retreat of Chengde], ed. Zhongguo yinyue bianjibu (1984, 96 pp.).

The title suggests the salvage nature of the project, which our visit only confirmed. The “temple music” section, after a brief introduction, has transcriptions of 48 individual instrumental melodies, four suites, and seven items for ritual percussion. As ever, the published version of the instrumental volumes of the Anthology for Hebei had space for only a selection of the pieces they documented. [1]

As a complementary capital (peidu 陪都) of the Qing emperors (for the Aisin Gioro imperial clan, see here),  Chengde and its environs had over 160 Buddhist, Daoist, and Tibeto-Mongolian lama temples. The Han-Chinese Buddhist temples could be classified as “northern” or “southern” styles, according to their vocal liturgy—alas, neither this nor their ritual percussion repertoire were part of our scope.

Wen Yong identified six styles of “music” in the many temples of old Chengde. Now I’ve also consulted

  • Song Zhanjiang 宋湛江, “Chengde simiao yinyuede liu da liupai” 承德寺庙音乐的六大流派 [The six styles of the temple music of Chengde], in Zhongguo shehui yinyue yanjiu lunwenji 中国社会音乐研究论文集 (2006).

Song adopts this classification, while showing that the terms are contingent:

  • “courtly capital” (jingchao 京朝), notable for its lengthy nocturnal yankou ritual—said to have been brought to Chengde by eunuch Ninth Palace Chen (Chen jiugong 陈九宫) when he was banished there in the reign of the 18th-century Qianlong emperor.
  • “orthodox” (zhengtong 正统), based at the Qionglan si 穹览寺 temple (see here and herewith quaintly garbled references to my visit!) in Luanhe township, 20 km west of the city, built near the “temporary palace” of the Kangxi emperor for his 50th birthday in 1703, the earliest temple in the region. Though it was originally a Tibetan Gelugpa temple, the monks incorporated the Han Chinese ritual style. After the few remaining monks left in the late 1940s, the temple fell into disrepair, only being partially restored from 2006. By 1979 Ni Yongquan 倪永泉, then nearly 80, was the main source of information on this style.
  • “local” (difang 地方), subsuming household Daoist and Buddhist ritual specialists, including the Daoist priests of the Niangniang miao temple. I’d love to know more about this. Here the 1984 volume profited from the help of Yang Liangcheng 杨连成, then 88 sui.
  • “rivers beyond” (waijiang 外江), represented by the Buddhist monks of the Jiuxian miao 九仙廟 temple, who originally came from Lingyuan county in Liaoning east of Chengde.

The last two rubrics (and again, as Song observes, the origins of the terms are unclear and misleading) belong to Tibeto-Mongolian temples:

  • the “civil lama” (wen lama 文喇嘛) style of the Shuxiang si temple north of the city, originally a “family temple” of the Qianlong emperor. Its lamas performed Manchurian vocal liturgy, with shengguan derived from the local Daoists.
  • the distinctive “martial lama” (wu lama 武喇嘛) style, centred on the Puning si temple, mainly recited Tibeto-Mongolian liturgy with their distinctive instrumentation, but also (like the Tibeto-Mongolian temples of Wutaishan, Hohhot, Labrang, Kumbum, and so on) had a shengguan ensemble for certain ritual occasions. The Puning temple was thriving until the 1940s, but ceased ritual activity upon the Communist takeover in 1948; at first some lamas continued living there, but over the course of the 1950s’ campaigns, they gradually returned to the laity, with some “dying of sickness on the streets”.

Wen Bing’s studies focused on the renowned “orthodox” style of the Qionglan temple. The Han Chinese styles of shengguan were part of a ritual network spreading northeast from Beijing to Shenyang, with the titles, and often the melodies, of their shengguan suite repertoires overlapping substantially, such as Qi Yan Hui 泣顏回, Jinzi jing 金字經, Wusheng fo 五聲佛, Haiqing 海青, and Elangzi 鵝郎子.

Ni Yongquan preserved two gongche solfeggio scores of the Qionglan temple’s shengguan repertoire copied in 1929.

Chengde scores

1929 score: opening of Yan guo nanlou and Zou xue.

* * *

What prompted me to revisit this topic was a passage from Bruce Jackson’s excellent book Fieldwork (p.91):

People don’t expect you to know everything about their subject; if you did, you wouldn’t need them. Most people are happy to know you’re interested. […]
You go into a field situation with certain background information and certain questions; but you learn from the field situation more background information and you learn to ask questions you didn’t previously think to ask.

In my experience, Chinese ritual specialists are pleased that we’re genuinely keen to learn, and that we know just enough of the subject to sustain a moderately intelligent conversation (cf. “a harmless idiot”, here under “Rapport”).

This didn’t quite seem the case on our 1987 visit to Chengde to study the temple shengguan ensemble. Unable to muster an ideal quorum of ten to perform for us, we met up with a quartet (one each of the four melodic instruments guanzi oboe, sheng mouth-organ, dizi flute, and yunluo gong-frame) led by the senior Ni Yongquan, then in his late 70s. They had been summoned to meet us in a bare dingy room in the county Bureau of Culture—just the kind of venue that I later learned to avoid. I don’t think we made any effort to enquire if they had any rituals coming up—anyway, this was just a “hit-and-run” mission. It was definitely an “interview”; I couldn’t even tell if we were doing salvage fieldwork.

Chengde 1

As Teacher Yuan’s student, I merely eavesdropped on her interview with Ni Yongquan. Apparently we weren’t there to explore the social context, certainly not any living ritual practice; for the earlier background the 1979 volume serves well, brief as it is. But with Yuan Jingfang’s rich experience (notably on the temple music of old Beijing—also largely a salvage project; see also e.g. south Hebei, where folk rituals have continued to be very much alive) she was able to get a more detailed picture of their former ritual sequences, very much in line with those that we were finding in Beijing and further south (see many refs. in my articles under local ritual):

For “inner rituals” (nei foshi 内佛事), Communicating the Lanterns was performed on the first evening (guandeng 觀燈), yankou on the second evening. The main segments of “outer rituals” (wai foshi 外佛事) were

1st day

  • Ambulating Incense (xingxiang 行香)
  • Fetching Water (qushui 取水)

2nd day

  • Crossing the Bridges (duqiao 渡橋)
  • Hoisting the Pennant (yangfan 揚幡)
  • and, less often, Chasing Round the Quarters (paofang 跑方).

Yuan Jingfang’s notes also show her diligence in documenting suite repertoire, the sequence of their yankou ritual, seatings, and scales—all important aspects of doing fieldwork on ritual in China.

Yuan Jingfang’s notes: left, seatings for guandeng and yankou rituals;
right, fingerings and scales.

So far so good. But now Yuan Jingfang consulted Ni Yongquan on the scales of their shengguan music, based on the gongche solfeggio system and the fingerings of the guanzi oboe—one of the more complex (and locally variable) technical aspects of shengguan with which we always wrestle (and another good reason to engage in participant observation, which still hasn’t caught on in China). She was already well accustomed to making these diagrams, and she now homed in pretty niftily, I thought, on the topic.

As Ni Yongquan took up his guanzi to demonstrate, he was unimpressed with her enquiries. While he didn’t actually say “Call yourself a professor?”, he now seemed to regard her as a congenital idiot. She took it very well, and patiently kept taking notes.

Chengde 3

Yuan Jingfang consults Ni Yongquan. Right: Zhang Boyu.

When she asked whether you needed a large or small reed to play in the scale of fandiao, he looked at her as if she was having him on. “Large, of course—what else could you use??” When she went on, smiling graciously, “So can you just tell me, what’s the lowest gongche note on the guanzi when you’re using the small reed for zhengdiao scale?”, he rolled his eyes.

I think Bruce Jackson was right: Yuan Jingfang knew quite enough to expect him to be happy to help her learn more. We had just come up against a musician who simply couldn’t imagine anyone not knowing all the complex technicalities that he’d spent his entire youth painstakingly learning in his temple; or at least, if we didn’t know, then how we could possibly be so stupid as to come all the way from Beijing to expose our ignorance?!

I was there to learn from her, she was there to learn from him, and he was underwhelmed. Anyway, I kept a low profile, and made audio recordings of the group performing some of their ritual repertoire for us—at that time my trusty Sony Walkperson Pro (as I now like to call it) was far superior to any equipment of Chinese scholars, so that was my main function.

For the locals, my visit to Chengde must have been quite a come-down after British ambassador George Macartney‘s audience with the Qianlong emperor there during his mission in 1793. And the explorer Sven Hedin wrote a book about his visit in 1932, when the city was already in decline.

* * *

Of course, as I now realize, Chengde city is but the hub of an extensive, populous municipality, surrounded by numerous rural communities which, one surmises, have their household groups of ritual specialists (both Buddhist and Daoist) serving calendrical and mortuary rituals. More recently, as ever, the Intangible Cultural Heritage project rests on the laurels of early fieldwork, promoting a myth of imperial grandeur at the expense of changing society.

This is all very well, but I’m mainly looking for traditions that are still alive; and I know no more about them now than I did then. It could be that little folk activity remains, but there’s yet another potential topic…

Later, graduating from such “hit-and-run” missions to more intensive long-term studies among village ritual associations south of Beijing, working with talented younger Chinese colleagues I soon learned to spread my net wider with a more anthropological perspective; but Yuan Jingfang’s training still stood us all in good stead. And when we tried to get the hang of the technicalities of shengguan scales, villagers were more patient. No-one ever rebuked me for my incomprehensible ignorance; I guess my laowai status helped, and they could tell I was at least keen to learn.


[1] Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Hebei juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 河北卷 (1997), pp.1342–4, transcriptions 1348–95.