Following in the footsteps of Kristofer Schipper, John Lagerwey has taken research on living Daoist ritual into new territory, expanding the field for scholars in mainland China. A new volume, published in Hong Kong and edited by Lin Chenyuan and Pan Junliang,
Wandering on the way of history and fieldwork: an anthology of essays by Professor John Lagerwey translated in commemoration of his retirement 優遊於歷史與田野之道：勞格文教授榮休紀念譯集,
consists of Chinese translations of some of the seminal works in his voluminous ouevre, made by many of the scholars whom he has inspired to do their own fieldwork (cf. Daoist ritual in south China, with links), including (besides the editors) Lü Pengzhi, Tam Wai Lun, and Wu Nengchang. David Faure pays tribute to John in a preface.
Left, Lagerwey with Master Chen Rongsheng, 1975.
Right, with students and colleagues, 2001.
In his own introduction, John expresses his gratitude to his Chinese students, first in Paris and then in Hong Kong, “who gave new meaning to the work of recovery”:
If what I thought to have found in their culture made sense to them, then perhaps what I had found was truly theirs and not some foreigner’s projections or idealisations.
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).
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’geqinpu 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 Anthologyof 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 tangKunqu 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.
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.
My book Daoist priests of the Li family, and the film that complements it, mainly document the maintenance of their ritual tradition in the countryside of Yanggao county (for a roundup of posts on the Li family Daoists, click here). But Chapter 18 of the book makes an interlude discussing their recent wider exposure, “marching towards the world”.
Taking the Li family Daoists on tour between 2005 and 2018 was both delightful and instructive. Our first forays to perform abroad were to Amsterdam in 2005 and the USA in 2009. After I began visiting the Li family Daoists again in Yanggao in 2011, the following year we visited Italy in the first of three tours sponsored by local Confucius Institutes (CI) (see also here, and here).
* * *
In 2013, after a year of constant emailing with the various German CIs, we’re on the road again at last.
This time on gongs we have Guicheng instead of Third Tiger, who is busy organising a campaign in his work-unit. I meet up with the band at Hamburg airport on 5th April. At our hotel the Daoists get back in practice with the coffee machine, and we catch up. Next afternoon we walk over to the CI, impressive with its elegant new repro Yuyuan pavilion teahouse modelled on the one in Shanghai. They rehearse and discuss the new item I have suggested, an a cappella sequence based on the Invitation ritual at the edge of the village. At first they were reluctant, worried that performing an item so explicitly funerary might be unsuitable. I point out that some of the greatest music in the Western concert tradition is for the dead. Apart from requiems, I go onto YouTube to play them the Buxtehude Klaglied (do you know that piece? It’s amazing!). The Invitation turns out a great success in the program, a moving tranquil interlude between the uproar of “catching the tiger” and the wild percussion of Yellow Dragon.
Next morning we just make our connection to Geneva, first of several fraught changes at the labyrinthine Frankfurt airport. On the plane, without any encouragement from me, the Daoists soon realise the beer is free—touring musos after my heart. Wu Mei listens to Chinese pop on his headphones. At Geneva we are received splendidly by the CI and Xavier Bouvier, enthusiastic head of the Geneva Conservatoire. Apart from the concert I give a lecture and show my film. As in Italy, I am happy to introduce the Daoists to old friends. Before rehearsing in the fine conservatoire hall we take some fun photos, with Li Manshan seated at the grand piano.
At Leipzig airport we are met by Thomas Rötting, indefatigable CI fixer all these months. Leipzig is wonderful. Our hotel is right opposite the Nikolaikirche—not only Bach’s church but the starting point of the 1989 Montag protests, only a few months after the Tiananmen demos. If the date means anything to the Daoists, they would recall how they were learning to do rituals with Li Qing. Apart from the GDR legacy (see under Life behind the Iron Curtain), I feel as if I am taking the Daoists to a holy site (cf. Bach—and Daoist ritual). I have played Bach here myself, even before the fall of the Wall, and have been banging on about him to the Daoists for years. On our visit to the fine new Bach museum they are as spellbound as I am, finally getting what I have been on about all this time. As I stand with Li Manshan at the urinals in the posh new loo there, he muses, “Wow, so this is where old Bach used to take a piss, eh!”.
Next day in our lecture-workshop at the CI I observe, “Now that the Li family know about Bach and have heard his music, I wish I could invite him to hear them!” Bach would have adored Wu Mei’s guanzi playing (cf. Bach and the oboe).
The gig is magnificent. The audience goes wild, their faces rapt; I love the feeling of turning on audiences to this music that has enchanted me for so many years. By now all the CIs are latching onto how very special this tour is.
Heidelberg concert, April 2013.
Happily, our last two concerts are in churches, the two sheng mouth-organs filling the building with a majestic sound just like Bach on a huge organ with all the stops out; indeed, it is the same instrument. Heidelberg is charming, if overrun with tourists (again mostly Chinese), whereas Erlangen, our final stop, is more tranquil. There, leaving Li Manshan to rest at the hotel, we are given a guided tour of the local brewery, where the Daoists imbibe the beer tastings keenly—so we can organise a piss-up in a brewery, then. The final concert is majestic. Meanwhile I’ve had plenty of opportunity to keep consulting Li Manshan and Golden Noble about the finer details of funeral segments, both on the road and while resting at hotels.
By now most of the Daoists are miraculously speaking standard Chinese—more, I hope, from talking with educated urban Chinese helpers and other laowai than from being with me. Next day we take the train from Nürnberg to Frankfurt airport. The Daoists get tax refunds on their gifts, which they promptly spend on duty-free. We bid fond farewells, their plane arrives on time for the train back to Yanggao, and next morning they’re ready to Open Scriptures for yet another funeral—hitting the ground running, just as on later tours (cf. Li Bin’s 2017 diary). For all the ephemeral pleasures of touring, the basic context for their performance, their daily “food-bowl”, remains the local funerary business.
For our 2017 mini-tour of France, click here, leading to a series of related posts.
While it makes sense within the trilogy, I’m not sure that the contrast between the nightmare of Ravensbrück and the couple’s later carefree life in Caracas quite works. Of course, it was a common reaction for survivors to remain silent about their hellish experiences; for Nadine and Nelly this was compounded by the double burden of their sexuality. In the film, recreating the story in rural France features too prominently, with little context about either the resistance, the camp system, or the Swedish rescue missions. It works better as a love story, in particular that of two brave women.
The story of Nadine asking Nelly to sing an aria from Madam Butterfly on Christmas Eve in Ravensbrück might lead us to the remarkable story of M. Butterfly.
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The story of Ravensbrück and Nadine’s later ménage with Nelly tends to overshadow her earlier life—note articles here and here, the latter with a documentary:
Nadine was born in Madrid of a Belgian mother and a Chinese father, both Catholics. Her father was a diplomat; transferred back to Beijing in 1913 after the collapse of the Qing dynasty, the family moved in high circles.
Nadine Hwang in the late 1920s. These and other images here from the articles cited above.
Nadine resisted conventional gender roles from young, learning to drive a car and fly planes, and wearing men’s clothes. She became a honorary colonel in the Air Force of Shandong warlord Zhang Zongchang and later a lieutenant in Chang Hsueh-liang’s army. By the age of 25 she was working for the Beiyang government as adviser to Prime Minister Pan Fu. As a 1928 German report described,
She changes her personality with her costume and appears in the twelve hours of the day as a tomboy par excellence, a dashing officer, a politician, a young society girl and an accomplished world lady. In the morning she is seen riding, fencing or playing tennis in a correct man’s suit, until she goes to her office punctually at 8 o’clock, at the flounce of her own car, with a chauffeur-soldier behind her.
But by 1933 unrest and Japanese incursions prompted her to move to Paris, giving lectures around Europe and the USA while leading a bohemian life. She became chauffeur and soon lover of the socialite Natalie Clifford Barney, taking part in lively artistic salons. Under Nazi occupation Nadine seems to have worked as a spy for the French Resistance. She was deported to Ravensbrück in May 1944.
Kerchief embroidered with names of Ravensbrück inmates.
Filmed around the very regions where I’ve done my long-term fieldwork on ritual life in north China, the documentaries of Xu Tong 徐童 (b.1965) make deeply uncomfortable yet necessary watching. *
His work explores aspects of subaltern people’s lives of which I’ve only been peripherally aware. I’ve never wished to filter them out: unlike most portrayals of religious activity in China, my films show glimpses of itinerant performers, grave-diggers, beggars, pop music, smoking, joking… But my focus has made it hard for me to do these people justice.
As peasants migrate to urban areas in search of labour, choosing urban squalor over rural poverty, the depletion of the villages continues. In Xu Tong’s films, the scenery alone challenges our image of China’s rapid economic progress; the values of the pre-Liberation and Maoist eras (whether traditional, religious, or socialist) are almost entirely absent, yet one catches hints of a different kind of morality. As I observed in my post on Guo Yuhua, under Maoism the Chinese Masses were thoroughly exploited even while they received empty praise as salt-of-the-earth laobaixing, but since the 1980s’ reforms, state media have serially demonised them with the taints of “low quality” and “low-end population”.
Cut out the eyes (Wa yanjing, 挖眼睛, 2014) is a most striking documentary (substantial review in Chinese here), in which Xu Tong follows round an itinerant blind errentai singer in rural Inner Mongolia—just north of my fieldsite in north Shanxi.
However, the way I’ve delineated my topic has never afforded me time to immerse myself in this world—mercifully, one might say; so Xu Tong’s ethnography of their lives, “warts and all”, is most welcome. It all feels so familiar: gambling, dysfunctional families, pimps, dope-smoking, overturned lorries by the roadside… And hearing the dialectal expression bulei (“great”) again, which would be bulai in putonghua, is music to my ears.
Here’s the blurb for Cut out the eyes from a recent festival:
At once piercingly observant and intimately complicit in his approach, director Xu Tong trains his mobile, intimacy-generating camera on unique real-life characters in order to explore the ongoing clash of rural traditions with China’s rush to modernity.
In Cut out the eyes, Xu follows Er Housheng, a blind musician who travels Inner Mongolia with his lover/partner Liu Lanlan performing the saucy, sensationally bawdy form of musical duet comedy called errentai. Er Housheng’s female audiences are particularly enthralled with his combination of sensuality, Rabelaisian earthiness, and socially subversive lyrics.
Er Housheng is a charismatic, mesmerising narrative-generating machine, singing of his own incredibly fascinating, violently tumultuous life, and of the (mostly) sex lives of the people who form his community, grass roots down-to-earth folk whose lives haven’t changed much in decades, in rural Chinese Inner Mongolia.
Live performance, in Er Housheng’s hands (and in his and Liu Lanlan’s voices) is something both enthrallingly surreal and earthily commonplace: his audiences hear him boast about his prowess, his courage, his creativity, his trouble with women, not unlike a 1930s American blues singer, or even a 21st-century Chinese rural Kanye West!
The commonplace becomes spectacle, reality shines like magical fables, but there is darkness, danger, and unspeakable violence in Er Housheng’s life, love, and lyrics.
While the film is on one level an enthralling ethnographic showpiece, at its core Cut Out the Eyes is a passionate, frenzied psychodrama of lust, violence, and genius.
At last in a long scene on a visit home, Er Housheng tells how his lover’s husband cut out his eyes when he was 29; later (1.02.13) his graphic retelling of the lurid true crime story in song (and even the sexist denouement) has a painful authenticity which, just as much as his bawdy lyrics, explains his popularity. His songs contrast with much of the music in Xu Tong’s films, where the brash propriety of revolutionary songs and the saccharine pop from recent times express the degradation of people’s lives in a different way.
Here’s the film, with subtitles in Chinese and English:
Guo Youshan, senior master of “east-road” (donglu) errentai, recalls the perils of singing “unhealthy songs” after Liberation.
He and cultural pundits may deplore the “unhealthy” downward spiral represented by performers like Er Housheng and Lanlan, but men and women, old and young, gobble it all up (and I suspect that’s a more subtle pun than you’ll find in the songs!).
Cut out the eyes gives an unflinching portrait of grass-roots errentai, utterly remote from the sanitised image of state troupes (cf. my vignette on attending a “concert” in Shaanbei) and the razzmatazz of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Unsettling as it is, this film should be compulsory viewing for anyone interested in Chinese society and its expressive culture.
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The sense of voyeurism in viewing such harrowing scenes is accentuated when watching the “Vagabonds trilogy” (Youmin sanbuqu 游民三部曲) with which Xu Tong made his name—films on subaltern lives around Beijing that are also most revealing:
Wheat harvest (Maishou 麦收, 2008). The protagonist Hongmiao is a sex worker at a brothel in Fengtai district of south Beijing. Her home village is in Dingxing county, where I found ritual groups through the 1990s (see under Local ritual, notably The Houshan Daoists), very near Gaoluo. This world of migrants drawn to Beijing—construction jobs, rudimentary health care, brothel workers and clients, seedy karaoke bars—is one that I only glimpsed. The benefits of modernization look most elusive; contrary to Partyspeak, there’s nothing noble about the plight of “the masses”. But the characters consider “culture”, “moral quality”, and “respect”.
You can watch the film complete in three parts, which should follow on from here; or, on YouTube, here’s the first 68’ (missing the last 31′) (this and the following videos with Chinese subtitles only):
Fortune teller (Suanming 算命, 2009; see here, wiki, and this critical review on the “Screening China” site). Caring for a mentally and physically handicapped partner, the disabled Li Baicheng moves round Hebei province offering his services as a fortune teller (his story far from those of the prestigious hereditary Daoist lineage of Li Manshan in Shanxi). The stories his clients tell him are distressing too—sexual violence, self-harm, prison, begging. Here it is, punctuated by Xu Tong’s instructive commentary:
One of Li Baichang’s clients in Fortune teller became the protagonist of
Shattered (Lao Tangtou 老唐头, 2011; see e.g. here and here), uploaded in three parts, which should follow on from here. After her release from prison, the tough brothel owner Tang Caifeng returns home to visit her family in rural Heilongjiang in northeast China. Her father Old Man Tang recalls how he joined the Party in 1948 but withdrew in 1958, disgusted by the farcical, and tragic, steel campaign; still, like many veterans, he deplores the decline since the 1980s’ reforms. Dysfunctional family dynamics are paraded on camera again. Caifeng is impressed by Brother Wu, owner of an illegal coal mine (cf. Platform); in the final scene, captions reveal that she has hired thugs to beat up the man who reported the mine to get it closed down.
Around this time she changed her name to Tang Xiaoyan, and began working with Xu Tong on his projects (Cut out the eyes was among the films on which she helped him—see e.g. here); in 2023 they married.
Xu must be aware how these scenes will look to his audience—who like him are mainly urban, educated and relatively well off compared to the people on screen. By constantly homing in on aspects of rural life that he knows will likely make this audience squirm, I feel like Xu is—perhaps unconsciously—pandering to the disparaging view of rural life commonly held by Chinese urbanites. […]
I always end up feeling uncomfortable with Xu’s films because I feel like he looks at his subjects with the detached ethnographic gaze of an educated, middle class urbanite fascinated with the “primitive” life of China’s poor—a perspective that can’t help but end up being condescending towards his subjects.
Even if the results may sometimes seem invasive rather than empathetic, with some scenes extended gratuitously, I still admire not just Xu Tong’s choice of subaltern subjects, but the way he masters the considerable challenge of filming them unobtrusively. And his attention to the accounts of older people recalling the Maoist era adds a valuable historical dimension.
All these films are seriously challenging to watch. My focus on ritual performance has to a large extent insulated me from confronting many of these issues; and it reminds me how equivocal my Chinese colleagues must have been when they realised my enthusiasm to get to grips with grass-roots life. Yet the desperation of people cast adrift, the utter inadequacy of the state’s response, and the clash of values, need to be revealed.
On the written page, I value exposés of subaltern China such as Liu Hongqing’s harrowing book on blind bards and their families, Kang Zhengguo’s Confessions, and Liao Yiwu’s vignettes (here and here). And for the “dark underbelly” of Lhasa society before the Chinese occupation, click here.
* Since I began working on this post, this and other links to yimovi.com have become temporarily unavailable, but do check back, as it’s a useful site!
Destroyed by grief at the loss of their son Xingxing, Yaojun and Liyun (the brilliant Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei) relocate to coastal Fujian, their pain compounded when their relationship with the boy they have adopted breaks down. Common themes of the early reform years—falling foul of the 1983 Anti Spiritual Pollution campaign, and a degrading scene illustrating the one-child policy—follow on from the depiction of Maoist-era family dramas such as To live and The blue kite (a particular favourite of mine) (see Chinese film classics of the early reform era). But just as startling is the bewildering pace of more recent change since the reforms began to bite, with factory workers laid off and dramatic changes in the physical and moral landscape—alongside “the terrible burden of grief, rage and guilt, and the greater burden of forgiveness”. The final sequence makes a harrowing yet compassionate denouement.
For comments on other recent movies from China (my “entirely futile effort to keep my finger on the pulse of Chinese popular culture”), see One second, and Return to dust, as well as the TV series Rock it, Mom.
As the scope for debate in China shrinks, the recent sentencing of human rights lawyers Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi for “subversion of state power” has drawn much media attention (e.g. here; for Xu, see translations and interviews by David Ownby, Geremie Barmé, and Ian Johnson).
I gave some links to the work of other righteous dissenting scholars in my lengthy post on Guo Yuhua, who gave me such a valuable education in rural Shaanbei as she collected material for her brilliant book Shoukurende jiangshu [Narratives of the sufferers].
As I suggested, one might expect that exposure to the lives and cultures of poor rural dwellers would prompt us to ponder their situation and stimulate a social conscience. Even if it rarely surfaces clearly in fieldwork on China, perhaps that’s why authoritarian governments are likely to be wary not just of human rights lawyers but of anthropologists and “experts” in general.
The twin disciplines of anthropology and ethnomusicology (see Society and soundscape, and the canonical work of Clifford Geertz and Bruno Nettl, with a roundup of posts on the latter here) seek to study all of human behaviour (not only elites, but including them too, as well as popular genres such as karaoke and Eurovision); still, the lives of the under-represented subaltern poor, women, and minorities emerge as major themes (see also The reinvention of humanity). So perhaps ethnographers make natural allies with the righteous activists.
Thus “world music” should be more than just a fashion accessory. Even Songlines features articles on groups promoting the cause of liberation from oppressive regimes.
With my experience of China, I’ve long been curious about people’s lives under state socialism behind the Iron Curtain, particularly in the GDR (links here), and the potential for expressing alternative viewpoints under such regimes.
In China political and artistic dissent had already been severely punished in the Communist Base Area at Yan’an from the 1930s, and during the Maoist era after the 1949 “Liberation” the scope for variant stances was highly circumscribed, with only a few bold authors like Ding Ling, Wang Meng, and Liu Binyan daring to publicly query the Party line (see e.g. here); the brief Hundred Flowers campaign of 1956–57 was soon regarded as a trap to expose subversion.
As to the GDR, the new translation by Lucy Jones of Brigitte Reimann’s novelSiblings (DieGeschwister, 1963) has prompted a spate of perceptive reviews. *
New German and English editions of DieGeschwister/Siblings, the latter with well-chosen cover artwork by Walter Womacka (1925–2010) (full mural here).
Rejecting the “boy-meets-girl-meets-tractor” tenets of socialist realism, Brigitte Reimann (1933–73; Foundation; wiki) was an idealistic yet conflicted writer. Besides her diaries (citations below from this article),
Her most famous novel, Franziska Linkerhand, which Jones describes as “German history fed through the form of a love letter”, was incomplete when she died, but became a bestseller when it was published in 1974. […]
Her books’ unusually open depictions of day-to-day life in the GDR, told through the particular viewpoint of a woman, led to them playing an important role in the country, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s as East German citizens sought to critically examine the rationale behind a land that either cosseted them or locked them in, depending on your viewpoint. In the post-communist era they have also offered an insight for younger generations keen to understand their own mothers’ attitudes towards the socialist state in which they grew up.
For Elisabeth, a young painter, the GDR is her generation’s chance to build a glorious, egalitarian socialist future. For her brother Uli, it is a place of stricture and oppression. Separating them is the ever-wider chasm of the Party line; over them loom the twin spectres of opportunity and fear, and the shadow of their defector brother Konrad. In prose as bold as a scarlet paint stroke, Brigitte Reimann battles with the clash of idealism and suppression, familial loyalty, and desire. The result is this ground-breaking classic of post-war East German literature.
Charting the reality of the everyday in socialist Germany, she details her time spent as a state-sponsored artist at an industrial plant in the new town of Hoyerswerda where she ran writing classes for the workers. Her stints on the factory floor, during which she sucked in the black sooty air which likely contributed to the cancer that ended her life, also informs her gritty descriptions of industrial life and quotidian challenges of a socialist state, from supply chain issues, to the scorn she attracted for wearing lipstick at work.
Like Reimann herself, Elisabeth “strains against the artistic and political orthodoxies of old party comrades who refuse to listen to young people, especially women, with fresh ideas”.
It wasn’t blind confidence we were after. It was trust. My generation had designed new machines, cleared forests and built power plants. We’d drained swamplands and manned border posts. We’d painted pictures and written books. We had a right to be trusted. We had a right to ask questions if something seemed shady, if a verdict was disputable, or an authority questionable.
The shadows of Nazism and the war are sketched only briefly; and when Elisabeth is visited by a “nice young man” from the Stasi, she is startled but unscarred. Her brother Konrad has already defected; visiting him in the Western sector, she feels out of place:
Even though I heard German words, I felt like a stranger in a foreign country. I’d thought: When I went to Prague last year, I felt at home, and no matter where I went, I heard Czech being spoken, but never once, not for a minute, did I feel like a foreigner.
The translation comes with useful endnotes. Among the attributes of this short-lived lost civilisation, Michael Hofmann notes
the distressing ugliness of the official jargon, the Kaderwelsch, a play on the words Kader (a party cadre) and Kauderwelsch, meaning “gobbledygook’”.
Elisabeth’s feelings towards seniority—as I think Reimann’s were too—are informed by expectant obedience, a sort of eroticised respect. […] All the men in Siblings seem to be the same man, and the woman seems to be equally drawn to all of them.
While soul-searching became common—almost de rigueur—in Germany after the fall of the Wall, it’s impressive that writers such as Reimann could represent such nuance amidst the high tide of state socialism.
For a compelling biography of a GDR family over three generations, do read Maxim Leo’s Red love.
In China after the 1949 “Liberation”, all kinds of religious activities persisted, with difficulty, at local level under Maoism—even during the Cultural Revolution—until they could be observed more openly since the 1980s’ reforms, as shown in numerous posts on this blog. Among the diverse cast of practitioners in local communities are spirit mediums, who constitute an important resource consulted by those seeking to resolve various physical, psychological, and practical afflictions (see this roundup of posts).
From Manshin: ten thousand spirits (see below).
In Korea (where they are mostly women), there’s a range of terms, among which mudang and manshin are commonly heard; in English they are widely, if controversially, known as “shamans” (see the useful discussion in wiki). While their practices in the south are well documented, they have clearly also maintained clandestine activity under the severely impoverished conditions of the DPRK in North Korea—a regime often likened to an ongoing Cultural Revolution. 
So I write these notes mainly out of curiosity; for whereas scholars who were previously limited to fieldwork in Taiwan have been able since the 1980s to turn their attention to religious life under state socialism in mainland China (see e.g. The resilience of tradition, Kristofer Schipper, Ken Dean), no such thaw has occurred in the DPRK, so clues to their activities there, gleaned mainly from defectors, remain highly elusive.
Two jangseung tutelary deities outside a Korean village, 1903. Source.
After the Korean war, the ecstatic shamanic tradition of the Hwanghae region (now the southwest of the DPRK) was introduced by many shamans taking refuge in the south. It seems important to distinguish the large-scale kut rituals performed by the mudang and the less public divination sessions of jeomjaengi fortune-tellers. An NPR article from 2021 provides some clues to the recent situation:
In South Korea, shamanistic rituals are visually flashy and involve a lot of sound, whereas in the North, from what I’ve heard, they are very small-scale and quieter. […] Practitioners can be jailed, sent to reeducation and labour camps, or executed for taking part in what’s considered an illegal superstition.
As in China, where religious activity increased in response to periods of extreme deprivation (such as in Hunan), an article on North Korea from 2015 suggests that consulting shamans (or at least the jeomjaengi fortune-tellers) has surged in popularity since the 1990s’ famine. As one defector commented:
North Koreans widely believe in shamanism. Before marriage they check their marital compatibility, when moving houses they check the site of their future home, and before they leave for business people used to ask me whether the journey would be comfortable or not.
an apparent continued increase in shamanistic practices, including in Pyongyang. […] Authorities continued to react by taking measures against the practice of shamanism. […] Defector reports cited an increase in Party members consulting fortune-tellers in order to gauge the best time to defect.
A South Korean scholar consulted for the 2021 article commented:
Because North Korean shamans who hold rituals risk being discovered and arrested, some shamans there simply do fortune-telling, which can still be effective in explaining the reasons for clients’ problems.
The article goes on:
Lee Ye-joo told fortunes in North Korea before defecting to the South in 2006 at age 33. She now lives in Chungnam province, south of Seoul. When she was 12, Lee began studying a book of divination called the Four Pillars of Destiny, based on the Chinese calendar system. She began telling fortunes eight years later. “All people who came to me were officials”, she recalls. Because ordinary North Koreans “don’t even have enough to eat, the only people who seek out fortune-tellers are those with money, like big-name officials. They usually ask when they might lose their job or who their children should marry.” Lee built up her clientele surreptitiously, by word of mouth. She had to be careful not to get caught, she says—but then again, so did her clients. “They were all linked to other officials who introduced me to them”, she says. “So if one of them got me into trouble, I could tell on all the others.” Telling fortunes didn’t pay well, so she turned to trading. She says she bought and smuggled goods out of a special trade zone to sell, often making a perilous trek through the mountains to evade authorities.
In the late 1950s, the state began to conduct campaigns against “superstitions”—a term that often included more institutionalized forms of religion as well. Since women made up the majority of fortune-tellers’ customers, the Women’s Union carried out most of these actions. […]
There are even reports about shamanistic rituals occasionally being performed in the countryside in the 1960s and 1970s—but a limited number of participants carried out such rites quietly, without music or singing, to avoid discovery. […]
The situation began to change in the early 1990s. Economic crisis and famine seriously damaged the once hyper-efficient surveillance system, and poorly-paid enforcers lost much of their erstwhile zeal. Simultaneously, the new world of trade, starvation, opportunities, and dangers made all kinds of superstitions far more popular. Amid capitalist uncertainties, it was too tempting to believe that a skilful shaman would persuade spirits to guide the newly established venture to prosperity. […]
Though sacrificial offerings, called jaesa, remained banned for a few decades, the state partially permitted some graveside rites from 1972. […]
As to geomancy and physiognomy, palm reading and dream interpretation,
North Korean refugees report that during the “Arduous March” famine it became common to consult with kunghap specialists about a would-be spouse.
Just as in China, assaults on custom are often made in the name of anti-extravagance campaigns:
In April 2007, Choseon Yeoseong (Korean Woman) magazine criticised large celebrations for the “four family events” of coming of age, weddings, funerals, and ancestral worship. “This extravagance leads to the waste of grain which was harvested with such great labour, and creates conditions for drunkenness.”
* * *
In South Korea, besides having to adapt to commercial pressures and competition from Christianity (the latter also a significant underground presence in the DPRK), shamans have also experienced periods of state repression. A celebrated figure since the 1980s, when the mudang first came to wider attention and were documented by scholars and the media, is Kim Keum-hwa (1931–2019).  The vicissitudes of her life are brilliantly depicted in the splendid Manshin: ten thousand spirits (Park Chan-kyong, 2013), both documentary and biopic, a must-watch (here) even without English subtitles—which are at least provided in this trailer: 
Born in Hwanghae province—now part of North Korea, and then under Japanese occupation—Kim was subject to disturbing sinbyeong visions in her youth (such psychic crises commonly indicate that one is “chosen” to become a medium, in China and elsewhere); by the time she was 17, her parents could no longer resist, and her grandmother (who was also a mudang) initiated her with the naerim-gut ritual.
After the outbreak of the Korean War, Kim Keum-hwa’s “superstitious” practices came under attack from troops of both sides. For this turbulent period, the film (from 23.44) has some intriguing detail, which Simon Mills has kindly summarised:
During the war, Kim recalls seeing someone’s head explode and their guts fly up into the branches of a tree—she still feels disturbed when she thinks of it. One day a man wearing a communist-style cap and trousers said “You! Come out here!” As she came out, he said “So you’re a mudang, eh? Bring out all your things and we’ll burn them!” So she has nothing remaining from that period. At the time it was a case of do or die.
[Recreation] A woman asks Kim: “Could you help us? I hear that you’re a new mudang! Please do a kut just this once for us, to save my son-in-law Mr Park!” Kim replied: “I sense that his fortune is good. Let’s figure out a suitable date for the kut.”
(Still, as she recalls: “When the Communists retreated, the home guard treated us even worse—thinking that mudang were corrupting people’s minds and spying for the communists [presumably because they held discussions with many people and travelled around to see clients—SM]. In that period, we never thought we’d be able to hold rituals, but even people in the army would come to me for help.”)
So Kim makes the risky decision to head out to heal Mr Park—a spy from the South. During the ritual, she declares “He’ll get better” but in her head she’s hearing “He’s going to die”—and as she sings, her unconscious thoughts come out. A man points a gun at Kim and says “an unskilful novice just kills people; you should die right now!”, but both the woman who invited her and the afflicted man intervene. Kim comments: “That kind of thing happened all the time—people saying that it was all superstition and illusion… When they accused me, I just said: “My only sin was being born as a mudang…”
“As it turned out Mr Park returned to full health, but as the war situation became worse I escaped, fleeing from island to island in the West before arriving in Incheon.” She almost died in a sea storm, clinging onto some cymbals for protection, and hearing others speak of the River Jordan, wondering what they meant…
Ritual specialist attacked in anti-superstition campaign, South Korea 1972. Still from Manshin: ten thousand spirits.
Kim Keum-hwa eventually managed to relocate to Seoul, going on to master major rituals from great shamans. She started promoting the artistic features of shamanic rituals to the public, going on to win an award at the National Folk Art Competition in 1974.
Anything that hinted at superstition was frowned upon. I was persecuted day and night. I detested that I couldn’t be a normal housewife, raising a family that loves me. I loathed my fate for that. As I encountered one obstacle after another and saw how happy other people were, I was envious. Then I told myself off for coveting things that weren’t mine. My path was clearly in front of me, and I made up my mind to live it the best I could. After 40, I stopped envying the lives of others.
By the 1980s shamanism began to enjoy a vogue, and Kim Keum-hwa received the title of Living National Treasure in recognition of her work in preserving rituals, notably the baeyeonshin-gut fishing-boat blessing.
The film also shows a ritual for unification that Kim performed in 1998 near the demilitarized zone, during which she became possessed by the spirit of DPRK leader Kim Il-sung, behaving exactly as he did, to everyone’s amazement.
Still in South Korea, several other renowned mudang have perpetuated the northern Hwanghae style (see e.g. this 1988 article, and here on Yi Hae-gyŏng). Here’s a short film on the younger shaman Seo Gyunguk:
Back in the DPRK [unreleased Beatles track?], under the state ideology of juche “self-reliance”, the intense fervour for the Supreme Leader that is demanded at public demonstrations has led scholars to suggest influences from traditional Korean religions, such as the ecstasy of shamanic ritual. I would need to read up more on this before being convinced, since such politically-induced veneration appears across diverse cultures.
If grass-roots religious practices in China like those of spirit mediums have become a sub-theme of research alongside the formal institutions of Daoism, Buddhism, and Christianity, it remains impossible to conduct such ethnographic fieldwork in North Korea. Still, it’s clearly not a religious void, even if tantalising clues from defectors suggest that “shamans” there mainly practise surreptitious divination, rather than the grand public rituals of the south. If only we could somehow gain access to internal reports from local Public Security and Cultural bureaus on the continuing need to suppress “superstitious practices” among the people, such as we have for Maoist China (see e.g. under Hunan).
With thanks to Simon Mills.
 For the opaque society of the DPRK, note Barbara Demick’s fine book Nothing to envy: ordinary lives in North Korea (2010); and the Inspector O crime novels of James Church are both imaginative and well-informed. For divided Germany after the war, see links here, under the GDR.
 For the story of the goddess Houtu rescuing a Chinese brigade during the Korean war, see The Houshan Daoists, under “Houshan before and after Liberation”—another article that shows the tenacity of religious faith under Maoism. Cf. the deified young soldier shown on the pantheon of a Shanxi medium,(here, under “Dongye township”).
Journalists in search of a soundbite sometimes claim rashly to have discovered “the last” exponent of some precious ancient genre; even ethnomusicologists may be prone to this faux pas (e.g. Balkan bards; the lama mani of Tibet; cf. Ishi, “the last wild Indian”).  There may be some cases of this, but it seems to misinterpret constant change in folk cultures.
I was reminded of the hallowed clickbait by a recent article on zhuizi shu 坠子书 narrative-singing of Henan province in central China. Despite the title “The last blind folk storytellers”, it’s an interesting piece. As it points out, narrative-singing, along with fortune-telling and massage, remains the most reliable means for blindmen to make a living, a traditional form of “poverty alleviation” not just in Henan but throughout China (e.g. Shaanbei, and note Liu Hongqing’s book on blind bards in Shanxi, which makes an even more harrowing version of the story told in the article on Henan).
The blind female performer Zheng Yurong 郑玉荣 (b.1985) was taken in by a poor couple after being abandoned as a baby. She took up zhuizi shu in the hope of making a living after losing both her foster-parents when she was young. As I learn from a 2022 article, after befriending another blind performer in 2011, they felt such an affinity that, utterly unlikely as it sounds, DNA tests determined that he was in fact her younger brother—though he too had been abandoned, his foster parents had survived to bring him up well. As Zheng Yurong made a name for herself, they sought their birth parents through the auspices of Zhengzhou TV, but without success. She had gone on to marry her accompanist Feng Guoying 冯国营 (43), also blind, and they raised two sighted children in a flat provided by the government in Lushan county-town.
Blind performers are no longer considered so auspicious—and then came Covid. Faced by rising household bills and the cost of their children’s education, Feng has had to take up fortune-telling again, from a rented flat.
The economic climate since the 1980s’ reforms has certainly affected the livelihoods of folk performers. Still, unlike narrative-singing in regions such as Shaanbei, zhuizi shu as never been limited to blind people (for posts on blind musicians in China and elsewhere, click here). And none of this justifies portraying them as “the last” bearers of the tradition. It feeds into the widespread yet powerless laments of well-meaning pundits about the decline of traditional culture—laments that, again, have a long history.
* * *
Henan has long been poor; but the most desperate famine there came in the “three years of hardship” following the Great Leap Backward. In recent decades the province has been hard hit by the HIV/AIDS scandal (see.e.g. here, and here).
I’ve mentioned Henan in posts on the zheng plucked zither (cf. the yaqinbowed zither) and spirit mediums (including refs. in n.3). Without the benefit of fieldwork, I thought I’d seek a basic acquaintance with the zhuizi shu, equipped with the great Anthology (click here, leading to my review “Reading between the lines”), whose monographs on narrative-singing Zhongguo quyi zhi 中国曲艺志, province by province, are among the most impressive of the whole vast project—further complemented by the Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng 中国曲艺音乐集成 volumes on narrative-singing music (for the folk-song volumes, see also here).
Despite the poverty of the region, one of the most notable survivals of its literati heritage is to be found in its folk narrative-singing. As shown in the Henan volume (1995), the genre known as zhuizi shu (named for its distinctive bowed fiddle zhuizi) is just one of thirty-five genres of narrative-singing identified around the province, including guzi qu 鼓子曲, dadiao quzi 大调曲子, sanxian shu 三弦书, pingshu 评书, dagu shu 大鼓书, daoqing 道情, shanshu 善书 morality tales (pp.93–4), and lianhualao 莲花落.
As always with these monographs, one has to piece together material distributed around various rubrics. The framework for zhuizi shu is presented in a brief overview (pp.65–70), which packs in some impressive historical documentation, supplemented by sections on performance contexts (pp.373–4) and venues (pp.456–497). Defined by the zhuizi fiddle, it emerged in the 19th century on the basis of other genres, notably sanxian shu and daoqing, spreading from Kaifeng to the southwest of the province and beyond. In its early days stories were delivered by one or two itinerant performers, invited for the redeeming of vows huanyuan shu 还原书, a common context in Henan (pp.498–9) and elsewhere, and for temple fairs (again, cf. Shaanbei).
Traditionally a solo male performer accompanied his own singing on fiddle, but by the early 20th century the roles of fiddle player (waikou 外口) and vocalist (likou 里口) were sometimes separate, and soon afterwards female vocalists began to emerge on the little stages of tea-houses, with simple props. By the 1920s (in a typical process) some groups featured both male and female vocalists, emulating the style of “little opera”, further enshrined by professional troupes after the 1949 Liberation.
The genre was performed as far afield as Tianjin and Beijing. The first recordings seems to date from 1928, and by the 1930s several companies were issuing 78s; click here for one of several recordings online of the influential singer Qiao Qingxiu 乔清秀 (1910–44). Another section of the Anthology volume documenting various types of organisation features zhuizi shu groups active in the Republican era: those of Wang Yulan 王玉兰, Lu Yuancheng 鲁元臣, Liu Weiran 刘蔚然, and the Fan 范 family (pp.418–20).
But it is rare for new styles to simply replace the old (note the wise words of Bruno Nettl): the itinerant, unstaged format persisted in the countryside. As the Anthology notes, while the state troupes came to be dominated by short excerpts from female vocalists, in the countryside itinerant male artists prevailed for much longer, performing lengthy stories (whose plots, related to other genres of narrative-singing and opera, are outlined in a separate section, pp.128–200). I’d be keen to document the enduring activities of story-tellers performing for poor rural families redeeming vows, and at temple fairs (you know me…).
The New Year’s narrative-singing at the Horse Street festival in Baofeng county.
Before we consult the Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, the Zhongguo quyi zhi has a succinct outline of musical features (pp.205–21), identifying melodic and metrical aspects of eastern, western, and northern styles, with transcriptions.
As well as a detailed chronology for genres, the material I enriched by biographies of celebrated zhuizi shu performers.  It introduces a wealth of studies over the decades preceding publication, such as the 1951 book Henan zhuizi shu (quyi zhi, p.531) by Zhang Changgong 张长弓 (1905–54; quyi zhi, pp.638–9), as well as official documents (pp.665–701) for imperial, republican, and Communist eras—the latter in particular offering illuminating vignettes on social change (cf. Hunan).
* * *
More recently, click here for lengthy footage from Baofeng county from 2022, and here for a documentary on the life of Xia Lingshan 夏玲珊, reflecting changing styles of presentation. And here’s a busker. For the same genre in nearby Shandong, there is film footage online of blindman Guo Yongzhang 郭永章 (b.1945), such as: 
Long before the Intangible Cultural Heritage sank its fangs into zhuizi shu, performance on the concert stage has become common—as usual, supplementing rather than replacing traditional folk contexts.
Even if we can’t refine the picture through our own fieldwork, the Anthology confounds the simplistic, reified image of the whole range of Chinese performance arts, showing the wealth of activity before, during, and since Maoism—supplemented by articles suggesting the precarious survival of poor families through all three periods.
For more on narrative singing in China, see under my post on Chinoperl.
 Ishi’s songs were wisely studied by Bruno Nettl in “The songs of Ishi: musical style of the Yahi Indians” (1965).
 Including (I’ve marked female performers—who emerged only later—with *): Liu Weiran (1878–1956), Li Mingyi (1888–1979), Gao Liankui (1889–1956), Zhang Zhikun (1889–1975), Liu Zhongtang (1890–1955), Zhao Yanxiang (1891–1963), Chen Yongqing (1891–1971), Chen Zhikui (1893–1939), Hou Wenming (1894–1942), Zhang Hongyu (1894–1947), Zhao Cuiting* (1897–1960), Gao Xuebin (1898–1945), Meng Zhifa (1899–1974), Fan Mingyan (1898–1980), Cheng Liyan (1900–1975), Li Zhibang (1901–83), Bi Liduan (1903–43), Zhu Yuanli (1907–76), Wang Gancheng (1908–60), Zhang Quanyou (1909–77), Zhang Yuqing (1914–79), Zhang Xiushan (1914–69), Wang Shuangqi (1914–85), Chen Fuzeng (1917–85), Liu Mingzhi* (1920–77), Zhao Yuqin* (1921–81), Zhao Yuanxiu (1923–84), and Ma Yanqiu* (1933–77). And that’s just the more celebrated names for whom the edited publication found space…
Just in case any confused football aficionados have wandered in here by mistake, my title refers, of course, to Sally and Elena, rather than Wayne and, um, Marco…
I was heartened by a recent Guardian article on the popularity of translations of Sally Rooney novels among Chinese feminists, despite the recent clampdown on the movement there. Considering the suffering that China’s male dictatorship continues to inflict on the population, and its enduring suppression of women, this is a tiny bit of good news. Foreign fiction, apparently safe in refraining from explicit political points, slips through the net.
While I usually home in on issues of gender, somehow I never made an explicit link between Normal people and feminism. ** Indeed, that may be one reason why the book and TV series have enjoyed such success.
In The sceptical feminist (1980), Janet Radcliffe Richards defined feminism as a movement for the elimination of sex-based injustice (which also allows men to count as feminists; as she stresses, feminism is important for everybody). And she tackled the resistance of some British women (then, at least) to embrace the label (a similar image problem, I think, to that of “socialism”—with conservatives fiendishly distorting what should be a self-evident agenda for social justice and basic moral decency). Now it’s quite right to bang the drum for feminism, as do plenty of fine younger authors (Laura Bates, Natasha Walter, and so on), and while evidence is ambivalent, it seems that British women, at least, are no longer so swayed by recurring negative media portrayal,
Anyway, Sally Rooney does that thing that young people can do, thanks to previous generations: while deeply conscious of gender issues, she doesn’t alienate those who for some reason balk at the term feminism. She shows deep empathy for the fucked-up worlds of both women and men; “normal people” indeed.
I’m also pleased to learn from the Guardian article that translations of Elena Ferrante’s novels have become popular in China.
All this may be largely irrelevant to people still stuck in the poor Chinese countryside, but reading of the translations gave me a sudden burst of optimism.
As I struggle to declutter my library, many books were easy enough to hand over to a new home within the CHIME collection in Heidelberg, but I was reluctant to part with a set of nine mimeographed volumes which Li Shigen 李石根 (1919–2010) gave me on my first fieldtrip to China, entitled Xi’an guyue quji 西安鼓乐曲集. So they too make up part of the bulky haul that I’ve just shipped off to Germany.
in advance of my first stay in China, Raffaella Gallio had given me clues to Li Shigen’s work (as I explained in my page on ritual life around Xi’an); and so early in 1986, soon after arriving in Beijing, I took the train to Xi’an to consult him. He made a hospitable, generous teacher, giving me daily seminars as well as taking me to visit and record groups in the city and countryside—my first glimpse of the fabled workers and peasants.
Li Shigen (2nd left) with Yang Yinliu (2nd right), 1953.
Li Shigen had devoted himself to the ritual music of Xi’an and its environs since the 1950s, under the testing conditions of Maoist campaigns. After the end of the Cultural Revolution he was able to salvage his work, while furthering his studies by visiting the urban and rural groups that had revived after the collapse of the commune system.
These volumes, which later formed the core of Li Shigen’s magnum opus Xi’an guyue quanshu (2009), consist largely of cipher-notation transcriptions of the scores in gongche notation handed down in the various groups of the city and surrounding countryside—with social and ritual context a sensitive topic until the 1980s, transcription was the main agenda of early fieldwork. But Li Shigen and others now began publishing articles to augment the purely musical documentation.
Mimeographed on flimsy paper like a more legitimate kind of samizdat, suggesting the tenuity of both folk activity and research, the set has a particular sentimental attachment for me—and I think it makes a valuable addition to the CHIME library, reflecting the resolve of Chinese scholars in the early days of the revival.
On my travels in the days before the monumental Anthology began to be published, province by province, I soon began acquiring many other mimeographed drafts that wouldn’t necessarily make it to the edited volumes. Another one, for the instrumental music of Laishui county in Hebei, would lead me to the ritual associations of Gaoluo village.
Meanwhile as the Music Research Institute in Beijing took me under its wing, at the archive there (cf. Li Wenru) I discovered a wealth of early field-reports from before the hiatus of the Cultural Revolution (Hequ 1953, Suzhou 1956, Hunan 1956, Fujian 1961, and so on), revealing the tenacity of folk music research through the first fifteen years after Liberation.
The authors note the “heavy securitization, mass incarcerations, and attacks on local languages and other aspects of cultural identity” since 2014, with detainees in the camp system “subjected to systematic torture and rape, cultural and political indoctrination, and forced labor. Outside the detention facilities Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples are subject to a pervasive system of mass surveillance, controls on movement, forced sterilization, and family separation”. […] Regional authorities have destroyed large swathes of built heritage, including mosques, shrines and graveyards; destroyed Uyghur language books and restricted the use of Uyghur and other indigenous Turkic languages; and imprisoned hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz intellectuals and cultural leaders”.
As acknowledged in the 2021 International Criminal Court framework on cultural heritage, acts of dispossession and destruction of cultural heritage are often inseparable from—or the precursor to—acts of genocide.
Yet despite international condemnation,
UNESCO continues to acknowledge China as a protector of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz heritage in the Uyghur region through the inclusion of several items on its lists.
With “heritage” widely exploited as a tool of governance, the Chinese regime regards the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) system as
a resource to develop the tourism industry, and a propaganda tool used to present heavily stage-managed images of normality in the region. […] In the same way that mosques and shrines are closed to local communities but open for tourist business, community gatherings are transformed into glamorous stage shows purveying messages of interethnic harmony within the framework of Chinese nationhood, while local communities are terrorized and torn apart.
The report criticises UNESCO’s continuing recognition of several genres.
The Uyghur muqam The Chinese authorities supported muqam from the 1950s, and by the late 1990s there were several institutions in Ürümchi dedicated to its study, performance, and promotion. But
since 2017, several well-known professional muqam performers employed in government-supported troupes have been arbitrarily detained, along with unknown numbers of Sufi followers who performed muqam in religious contexts. The regional authorities have closed institutions previously tasked with researching the tradition, and introduced radical changes to the teaching and performance of the muqam in order to align with Xi Jinping’s policy of promoting a “pluralistic-unified” Chinese nation.
One informant stated that around 30–40% of the employees of the Xinjiang Arts Centre were sent to the camps, including celebrated performers such as Shireli Eltekin, Abduqadir Yarel, Aytulla Ela, and Sanubar Tursun. By 2022 the Xinjiang Muqam Research Office was among 160 organizations devoted to researching traditional Uyghur culture that were closed, with those remaining being used as a propaganda tool for government policy. UNESCO-inscribed heritage was now “deliberately manipulated and staged as part of a wide-ranging disinformation campaign to deny crimes against humanity in the Uyghur region”.
The performance of muqam played a role in the religious context of Sufi gatherings, which had previously survived but were now attacked, as was informal secular music-making. Whereas performers have often been released on condition that they sing songs in public praising Xi Jinping, scholars have been sentenced to longer imprisonment or “disappeared”—notably Rahile Dawut, a fine ethnographer whose work had previously gained official support.
UNESCO has supported rival programmes in both China and Kyrgystan for the Kyrgyz vocal epic manas. But in Xinjiang, again, performers and researchers have been coerced and detained, and the genre has been exploited by the Chinese regime.
The meshrep A most incisive section of the report concerns the meshrep, “an umbrella term for Uyghur community gatherings that typically include food, music, joking, and storytelling, and an informal community court”. *
Meshrep: left, singing the Dolan muqam; right, village dancing. Images courtesy of Rahile Dawut. Source.
Both before and after the nomination, grassroots community meshrep gatherings have been designated by the Chinese authorities as criminal activities, meshrep leaders and participants have been arbitrarily detained, and Uyghur communities which formerly nurtured meshrep have been uprooted. In their place, staged meshrep shows have been used as tourist entertainment and for cultural diplomacy.
As one interviewee explained,
We don’t regard meshrep as just for playing music, singing and dancing, community entertainment. It is an unofficial form of self-government, a core social structure for the Uyghur community. Meshrep helps the community to take care of its social issues. It’s an essential social gathering to preserve Uyghurs’ cultural and social existence and development.
The authors comment,
These are core values in UNESCO’s heritage framework and they are also the direct reason why the Chinese authorities have consistently and sometimes violently suppressed the grassroots practice of meshrep over the past thirty years.
They remind us of the suppression of a grassroots meshrep movement in the northern city of Gulja in the 1990s, part of the backdrop to a massacre in 1997. Still, in 2010 UNESCO ratified China’s nomination of meshrep for the ICH—which led to draconian restrictions, denying local communities the right to organise their own gatherings. And in 2014 meshrep was co-opted for “anti-religious extremism” campaigns in Aqsu prefecture (see Rachel Harris, “A weekly mäshräp to tackle religious extremism: music-making in Uyghur communities and Intangible Cultural Heritage in China”). Meshrep participants are among innumerable performers and scholars who have been detained since 2017 .
The “natural heritage” is also exploited and implicated in human rights violations. The Chinese nomination of the Tianshan (Tengritagh) mountain range as “an area of outstanding natural beauty and ecological diversity” was ratified by UNESCO in 2014. Forced relocations and suppression of protests had already begun by 2005, leading to “forcible displacement of indigenous Kazakh communities and the sale of their ancestral lands to Chinese tourist companies for commercial development”. The Uyghur karez irrigation system met a similar fate, formerly “an integral part of an ecosystem, providing water for domestic use, farm irrigation, native plants and wildlife habitats”—yet another aspect of Uyghur culture that has fallen foul of Chinese development projects. At the same time, history was being rewritten, just as with the intangible heritage.
The report’s Conclusion is devastating:
Heritage management is not an innocent celebration of culture, but a selective process that leads to hierarchies and exclusion. […] When the management of heritage is used in tandem with the hard modes of governance currently in play in the Uyghur region—ones that states and international bodies have designated a form of genocide—then the heritage system is complicit in those acts of genocide. […] China’s approach to heritage in the Uyghur region takes the heritage out of the hands of its rightful owners, by expelling communities from their ancestral lands and polluting the environment, by destroying built heritage and de-sacralizing religious traditions, and by criminalizing grassroots cultural practices, while using their staged representations to promote new political narratives. Culture bearers are dispossessed and imprisoned while their history is rewritten, and the economic benefits of heritage accrue in the hands of the ethnic majority and flow back to eastern China.
The authors list points requiring urgent intervention by the international community—including a request for the removal of muqam, meshrep, and manas from the UNESCO lists, “given the serious and substantiated evidence set out in this report that the elements no longer satisfy the criteria for inscription on those lists”.
Despite numerous instances of co-option and suppression since 1949, it’s disturbing to think that Uyghur culture somehow coexisted with Party rule for many decades before the clampdown escalated. And while Xinjiang makes a particularly shocking instance, I have always felt uncomfortable with the ICH system as applied to Han Chinese communities, promoting reified, staged performances rather than providing genuine support for cultural activity among local communities.
Mukaddas Mijit’s The Thirty Boys (Ottuz Oghul, 2022) is a fine film on Uyghur meshrep gatherings in Kazakhstan, “occupying an uneasy space, one eye towards the growing ethnic nationalism of their host country, one eye towards China’s ongoing policies of securitisation, incarceration and cultural erasure in their homeland”:
countries with high levels of support for populist, radical right parties voted more for songs from other countries that featured what the authors call “ethno-traditional” cues.
At first this may confuse the “Guardian-reading tofu-eating wokerati”, many of whom are doubtless devotees of “world music” in some form. But while traditional cultures, the world music scene, and Eurovision may not always be clearly distinguishable, they are not congruent; moreover, the agendas of ethnomusicologists may differ from those of performers and audiences in the societies concerned—among whom there’s a wide spectrum of tastes, amidst widely differing political contexts.
The music of “the folk” has long been regarded as a counterpart to elite culture. As Bruno Nettl observes (The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, p.406, under “Diversity and difference”), academic research tends to champion diversity, speaking out for neglected minorities. But one finds an overlap between nationalism and liberation from empires on one hand, and regional pride or Kumbaya-esque world music fusion on the other, with the lines often blurred. Nettl (p.435, under “Trying to make peace”) also observes the role of music in national and ethnic conflicts for contexts such as sporting events, political rallies, and wars.
Michael Church’s Musics lost and found makes a convenient survey. In the early days of collection, folklore was often conscripted to nationalist goals, as in east Europe (see e.g Fiddles and racism). In Franco’s Spain (Musics lost and found, pp.124–5), the culture of sub-groups (Galician, Catalonian, Basque) was downplayed; while flamenco seems to have been largely exempt, in Portugal fado was linked to fascism.
While the political allegiances of local communities may be hard to discern, in the USA and Britain the folk scene has long been associated with the left. In England, the “Christian socialist” Cecil Sharp was followed by a succession of left-leaning collectors and performers. But quite apart from the socialist heritage of British folk music, the Last Night of the Proms has become a focus of Brexit nostalgia. In the States, the Lomaxes were joined by singers like Woody Guthrie and Peggy Seeger; folk was the soundtrack for post-war protests. (In rock music, also commonly assumed to be anti-establishment, there’s a similar unease when ageing rock stars turn out reactionary—see e.g. here).
Modern nation-states have adopted a prescriptive, and proscriptive, stance towards their indigenous peoples. A classic case is the Chinese regime’s portrayals of its ethnic minorities, notably the Uyghurs (e.g. here) and Tibetans (e.g. Sister drum, and How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet). Within the socialist bloc around east Europe, whose heirs are perhaps the main breeding-ground for the ethno-trad movement, there was considerable resistance to state fakelore (tellingly evoked by Milan Kundera in The joke).
So besides the winning Eurovision entries of Ukraine, we can’t celebrate the Buranovo Babushki so innocently:
On one hand, the Eurovision voting blocs may regard each other as allies; on the other, beyond the media bubble, Brexiteers are not renowned for their enthusiasm for Balkan turbo-funk; and Greek-Turkish fusion is unlikely to feature on playlists of the far-right denizens of those countries. The Guardian article comments:
The populist radical right tends to be associated with very national narratives, a kind of inward-looking, nativist defence of domestic cultural traditions against the modernising, homogenising influence of globalisation.
This seems a worthy agenda—but Nettl’s comment that “ethnomusicology values a cultural mosaic, rather than forcing everyone into a melting pot” needs unpacking too. While regional diversity indeed tends to undermine narrow nationalist agendas, whatever one feels about the world-music fusion scene, it can lead to another kind of homogenizing grey-out (cf. the “Rough Guides phenomenon”, and Songlines).
However inconclusive, the Eurovision analysis makes a reminder that different performers and audiences will attribute different meanings to music (see e.g. Terylene).
If the heroic war movie is no longer so ubiquitous on British TV, in mainland China the War of Resistance against Japan and the early strivings of the Communist Party remain perennial, unavoidable themes of big-budget TV series.
The “Anti-Japanese oratorio” (kangri shenju 看日神剧, subject of an interesting article on Chinese Free Wiki—shenju literally meaning “holy drama”) is a satirical internet term for wartime dramas that incorporate tropes from imperial culture such as martial arts, romance, and miracle tales. Instances from the wiki entry include using a rifle to shoot down a plane, tearing the enemy in half with one’s bare hands, and kicking away incoming grenades. Such tropes recall the supposed invulnerability of the righteous—as in the 1900 Boxer uprising, another popular topic in Chinese film. An early instance of the genre was the 1989 movie Rennai mochao人奶魔巢 (watch here). CCP ideologues have criticised such dramas as vulgar.
Recently on Twitter Yang Han relayed a short scene from WeChat, showing the divine intervention of Thunder Lord and Lightning Mother (leigong dianmu 雷公电母) from the clouds on behalf of the heroic Communist troops—a deus ex machina device, we might say. But Yang’s comment “I don’t know how this anti-Japanese drama passed the political censors? Communist Party members are clearly atheists” was premature. It transpires to be an ingenious spoof, * part of a mini-genre, with clips such as this.
And in this one it’s none other than the Buddha who intervenes—rebuking the Japanese for their barbarity as they sought to create a Buddhist empire. Indeed, villagers prayed to their temple gods for protection from the Japanese, as in north Shanxi; there too, household Daoist Li Qing recalled:
Our ritual business didn’t suffer during the occupation—the troops, themselves devout, even made donations when they came across us doing Thanking the Earth rituals!
Japanese troops entered the village on 3rd moon 15th just as the ritual association was leading the annual ritual for the goddess Houtu in the ritual tent. But the invaders merely entered the tent respectfully and kowtowed before the ritual paintings (my Plucking the Winds, p.92).
What Party ideologues oppose in those spoof clips is not the vulgarisation of religion but the offence to wartime Communist heroes. Still, the regime’s relation with religion has never been simple. When pressure from central ideology has allowed, grassroots cadres have long showed a certain laissez-faire. Despite periodic campaigns, ritual life persisted through the 1950s (see e.g. my work on Gaoluo, the Li family Daoists, and under Local ritual).
Left, Houtu painting, N. Qiaotou, Hebei; right, detail of pantheon, Wutai county, Shanxi.
And stories of divine intervention during times of war are common in the local folk cultures where the PLA recruited its cannon-fodder. In Hebei we heard accounts of how the female deity Houtu rescued a Chinese brigade during the Korean War; and in a Shanxi village, spirit mediums showed us a handsome ritual pantheon featuring a deified PLA soldier. Indeed, if those online clips came from real movies, they might speak to audiences who have heard such tales from their grandparents. Temples often have images venerating Mao and other national leaders (e.g. in Gansu).
But more often, religious groups mobilised to resist the social disruption of CCP campaigns. Throughout the high tide of Maoism in the 1950s and 60s, local sects rose up “under the cloak of religion” (as Party propaganda has it) in protest against coercive collectivisation, seeking divine protection just as they had done during the Japanese occupation. In Tibet too, as the Cultural Revolution caused extreme social and psychological breakdown, a divinely-inspired revolt against the Party broke out in Nyemo, with warrior-heroes again rashly claiming immunity from bullets. In Tibet since the 1980s’ reforms, the monasteries have been a focus for resistance to Chinese policies (see e.g. Eat the Buddha). And scholars have noted the irony of the atheist CCP claiming authority over the reincarnation of high Lamas.
Among the numerous topics that have since amplified my blog, it’s always worth bearing in mind that its original raison d’être was to advertise my film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist (watch here!!!). It complements my book on the Li family, and numerous vignettes and updates on the blog (roundup here).
An initial round of screenings was followed by a lull during Covid, so I was happy to introduce it the other day for the Music Department of Bristol University, at the enterprising initiative of Michael Ellison, a composer with a strong focus on transcultural performance, in particular Turkish music (see e.g. here).
It was good to watch my film in company again. In my intro I observe that this kind of subject can’t be addressed only by reading old books in libraries: books are silent and immobile—fieldwork is the key! As I like to say, it’s not only about Daoism, it’s an everyday story of country folk—a bit like The Archers. So this isn’t some obscure academic subject, or some exotic remnant of ancient oriental wisdom—it evokes the basic concerns of local communities, and how they handle life and death.
Audiences will approach the film from different backgrounds: Daoist ritual (often with an emphasis on “salvage“), ethnomusicology, sinology, modern China, and so on. In my book (and on this blog) I try to show that all these strands have to be integrated. Students studying ethnomusicology (rather than “music”) will find it easier to grasp my comment that the film can’t be neatly pigeonholed under music; conversely, for students of Daoism (and even Daoist ritual) I stress that sound is the vehicle through which ritual texts are conveyed and animated; it should go without saying that soundscape must always be a major element in our study of ritual.
Watching the film again at a certain distance from my initial flurry of work, I worry that it may be somewhat tough going (Like, Hello?). For those eagerly awaiting the “red and fiery” bustle of ritual (Chau, Chapter 3), the opening sequence that sets the scene before we get to the funeral makes quite a lengthy prelude, and once the ritual begins the opening hymns (even abbreviated) are slow and a tad arcane for the uninitiated.
The pace gathers as we follow the sequence of funeral segments; the scenes with pop music, and the afternoon clowning, make suitable interludes; and viewers are reminded of the human personalities who have maintained the tradition through thick and thin, with vignettes on the great Li Qing (including his 1991 Pardon ritual) and the reminiscences of his widow being particularly moving. Li Manshan’s own voiceover is illuminating. So I still feel this is the way the film has to be…
Again, watching it at a certain remove, I recall with a certain amazement all the work involved in providing the translations for the vocal liturgy (with original texts shown on screen), and karaoke-style captions for the mnemonics illuminating the percussion patterns—culminating in the exhilarating Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body, coda to the Transferring Offerings ritual (from 1.07.55). And I constantly admire Michele Banal’s fine editing.
While I point out that compared to some such groups in the south, the ritual practice of groups like the Li family band is quite simple, I still find it remarkable that they still do so much, even if it’s still a pale reflection of what they did 80 or even 20 years ago. Audiences tend to be interested in the future of the tradition, which I address in The life of the household Daoist. Other relevant posts from my roundup include
In an entirely futile effort to keep my finger on the pulse of Chinese popular culture, I’ve been watching the current TV hit series Rock it, mom (Yaogun kuanghua 摇滚狂花, directed by Li Jun 李骏 and Jing Lipeng 荆丽鹏). It’s well contextualised in a China Project article (cf. this review).
Rock It, Mom tells the story of Peng Lai [played by Yao Chen 姚晨], an over-the-hill, middle-aged rock singer. A run of disappointing relationships caused her to move to the US, where her music career never took off, leading her to return to China. As she tries to put her troubled life back together in her home country, she reconnects with her long-lost teenage daughter Baitian [Zhuang Dafei 庄达菲], whose passion for rock music inspires her to restart her career.
The mother-daughter dynamic, competing in their destructiveness, makes a refreshing study in alienation. Once again I am reminded of Long March veteran Wang Zhen’s classic riposte to Cui Jian’s Nothing to my name:
What do you mean, you’ve got nothing to your name? You’ve got the Communist Party haven’t you?
You can watch all twelve episodes as a YouTube playlist, currently without English subtitles:
Further to my post on Muzak, at a certain remove from traditional scholarship on the Great Composers or Daoist ritual, a couple of examples of how ethnomusicology “delights in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”, in the immortal words of John Cleese.
Back in the heady days of the SOAS shawm band, my mate Simon (not to be confused with Philomena Cunk’s mate Paul, bane of many a hapless expert interviewee) took time out from his research on percussion in Korean shaman rituals to undertake a fieldwork project about the music of British ice-cream vans. Like Liu Kuang’s Wall inscription for the Director of the Imperial Music Office in the Tang dynasty, the loss of this work is to be lamented, but Simon recalls driving around in his parents’ Morris Minor with the window down in the peak of summer, listening out for ice-cream chimes:
After picking up the tell-tale sounds, I’d pursue the van until it stopped (if it wasn’t already stationary), park nearby, buy an ice-cream, and hover around until the queue had disappeared. Then I’d approach, briefly summarise my project, and conduct my semi-structured interview—designed to elicit all the van owner’s experiences and thoughts regarding chimes. Only a small minority of owners declined. Most were eager to talk. I remember a couple of responses especially clearly: a huge Italian man threw up his arms and said “Of course I like the music. If you don’t like-a da music you don’t like-a da ice-cream”; another guy said something along the lines of “Honestly, it’s a nightmare. I get home and the tune is still going round and round in my head—sometimes I can’t sleep”. Someone else had removed the usual tinkly ice-cream chime and had rigged up a huge stereo system blaring out jungle music. Nowadays, it seems that the chimes are UK-made [see below], but back then, I remember people telling me that they typically bought Swiss-made music boxes. One man did things rather differently, having a special box made for his fleet of vans that played a Welsh hymn in a computer game beeping kind of style (he was servicing a patriotic rural area in the valleys). The van owners made some interesting comments about territory too—how they would listen out for others’ chimes as they drove around, making sure not to get too close.
AGuardian article by Laura Barton from 2013 reminds us of the distinctive sounds of the British summer, like the low, sweet call of the wood-pigeon and the distant sound of leather on willow. Some history:
The earliest chimes were operated like a music box and fitted with a magnetic pickup and amplifier. It wasn’t until 1958 that transistors transformed the van chime, along with amplifiers that could be fitted to the vehicle’s battery. Traditional British ice-cream vans have tended to use Grampian Horn loudspeakers, angled downwards, towards the road, to diffuse the sound, and though the technology has improved sound quality, the distinctive tinniness of the ice-cream van’s call is largely regarded with affection.
This sounds like a candidate for the nostalgia of Memory Lane UK. Now, indeed,
in a move that has brought jubilation to the ice-cream industry, chimes can play for up to twelve seconds rather than four; and once every two minutes, instead of three. Vans may also now chime while stationary.
As to repertoire, a representative of MicroMiniatures, leading company for the manufacture of the chimes, explained that among the most popular tunes are O sole mio, Greensleeves, and Match of the day, as well as Jerusalem, The stripper (um…), Nessun dorma, Cherry ripe, and Waltzing Matilda (the BTL comments to this 22-minute (!) YouTube compilation open with a list; for further detail, click here).
John Bonar of Piccadilly Whip [Ah, the coy innuendo of British punning!] commented, “We’ve just always used the Pied Piper since the start, so all the vans we order come with that tune. You get pretty sick of it. But whatever tune you’d have you’d get pretty tired of it.”
If you find 22 minutes a tad excessive, there’s quite an array of more succinct medleys on YouTube, such as this:
The sonority makes me wonder if Indonesian ice-cream vans borrow from the gamelan…
* * *
For Taiwan, in a refreshing change from studies of ancient nanguan ballads, another recent Guardian article explores the island’s musical garbage trucks. Recycling (sic) research dating back many years, a recent article by Chinese-music scholar
Garbage in Taiwan is at the centre of a musical assemblage that resonates beyond the confines of the nightly waste collection soundscape. Garbage trucks in Taiwan are musical: Beethoven’s Für Elise or Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska’s Maiden’s Prayer announce the garbage truck brigade’s arrival at designated times and places throughout urban Taipei. Neighbours stream into the street for a turn at depositing their pre-sorted waste into the proper receptacles. Taiwan’s semi-tropical climate, combined with a densely situated human population and the presence of well established rat and cockroach populations, makes garbage management a matter of daily urgency.
Guy traced Taiwan’s pop music “from the early 1980s through to the present as evidence of ways in which everyday habits and practices of reckoning with waste have seeped into a wide range of sensibilities”.
Despite efforts to diversify the repertoire, it has remained far more limited than that of British ice-cream vans. A maiden’s prayer was preloaded onto trucks bought from Japan in the 1960s, and has remained strangely tenacious. The other dominant tune is Beethoven’s Für Elise, apparently preloaded onto trucks bought from Germany. Now embedded in the Taiwanese psyche, the sound of the garbage trucks has been incorporated into modern Taiwanese culture:
Nothing says it’s Pride weekend in Taipei more than a drag queen death dropping to a club remix of Taiwan’s bin collection song. pic.twitter.com/vUVnnKVuoC
“Whenever I hear Für Elise, I feel like I need to take out the garbage as well.”
To my ears the stark monophony of this limited repertoire sounds more alien, even sinister, than our jovial ice-cream-van jingles—but I quite recognise that they serve different contexts, so maybe I’m just orientalising… And while these instances may be considered muzak in the broad sense of manipulating behaviour, they serve to alert the community—closer to the use of muzak in 1950s’ factories than to the subliminal aural conditioning that anaesthetises us in elevators or shopping malls.
Like a suburban Sisyphus doing and undoing a jigsaw, having gone to great lengths to mix up the daily sequence of my diverse topics in a stimulating fashion, it’s that time of year when I try and reassemble them into some kind of thematic order (cf. 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021). In September I essayed a handy roundup of roundups, covering some of this ground; and in November I listed Some recent *MUST READ* posts. As ever, in the sidebar you can consult the tags and categories, and even the monthly archive (scrolling waaay down); the homepage still provides useful orientation.
Disturbingly, the items featured below are just a selection, but do click away on all the links…
Perhaps I can begin with a story that combines several of my interests:
Well, that’ll keep you busy—as a reward, in future perhaps I’ll try posting every three days, rather than every other day, and I might even reblog earlier posts a tad less avidly—not wishing to try your patience (“You must come over and try mine sometime”—Groucho).
The prime of CHIME, the European Foundation for Chinese Music Research, coincided with a heyday for Chinese music studies, encompassing a range of historical topics, regional traditions of ritual, opera, narrative-singing, folk-song, and instrumental music, as well as pop and avant-garde music. The CHIME journal is full of valuable information—articles, field reports, and reviews of books, CDs, films, and concerts—for the PRC, Taiwan, and the diaspora.
1989 seminar at Kingston, London, hatching the idea of CHIME.
A recent discussion of the board, when we hinted at an issue that I’m only just beginning to see more clearly, is doubtless relevant not only to China but further afield. From around 1985 to 2010 there was a remarkable energy in fieldwork, research, and pooling information. In the PRC after the collapse of the commune system from the late 1970s, along with the vast revival of traditional culture (see e.g. Testing the waters, and Ken Dean: discovering Fujian ritual life in the early reform era) came a renewed vigour in fieldwork and research. The work of the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, along with the major institutes in Beijing and Shanghai, open to new ideas (notably from anthropology), all rippled out to the provinces, counties, and villages. At the same time, Chinese and foreign researchers were able to collaborate on fruitful fieldwork and research projects. Outside China, apart from CHIME, ACMR in the USA made a useful forum (cf. Chinoperl); funding for tours was available, and recording companies like Ocora and Pan were keen to release CDs.
Antoinet Schimmelpenninck in Amdo-Tibetan area, south Gansu, 2001 (photo: Frank Kouwenhoven).
But as China has changed, so have we; much of that energy has since been deflected. CHIME was based in Leiden, where Antoinet Schimmelpenninck and Frank Kouwenhoven devoted a charming old house to a growing archive, where they hosted lively gatherings. Since the sad loss of Antoinet in 2012, the bulk of the collection has been moved to Heidelberg, the instruments to Lisbon (both major tasks); meanwhile leading lights on the committee had found academic jobs, developing their own projects.
The CHIME journal: first (1990) and most recent (2019) volumes.
Of course, political constraints always had to be negotiated in the PRC, but the scene there was now deteriorating, first under the stultifying reification of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project (from around 2005), and then (since Xi Jinping came to power) with increasing limitations on research and publishing. Today, our research in the humanities is inevitably coloured by the spectre of Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong; state surveillance is ever more extensive.
Apart from CHIME’s annual conferences, I keep hoping that its online Newsletter can be maintained—but now I finally realise that it’s hard to do so. All the diverse material was relatively simple to collate when we were all going to China regularly, and when there was a wealth of stimulating activity to document. Despite the shrinking scope within the PRC, there must still be plenty to report, but one would now need to find other people to draw attention to it. While in the early days CHIME could serve as a clearing house for such information, one wonders who might be able or willing to do so now: various names have been mentioned, mainly younger European scholars currently based in China.
But another crucial factor in CHIME’s changing dynamics is the internet revolution, wondrous yet indigestible, with WeChat, Facebook, Instagram, and so on creating new, more immediate forums, as material (both textual and A/V) has become available online in China. Even so, outside China, if someone could take on the task, a comprehensive index would still be useful: a revamped CHIME website could make a useful focus for all the diverse information that emerges. Hopefully it will also include A/V material uploaded from the archive—working with Heidelberg, now its home. Apart from inclination, time and money are inevitable hurdles. Like Life.
In 1950, soon after “Liberation”, the great Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe invited a wind band from Ziwei village (in what later became Dingxian county, Hebei) to record in Tianjin, coining the term “Songs-for-winds” (chuige 吹歌), which soon became a standard—and misleading—image for wind bands in Hebei (click here). But they never managed to go to Ziwei, and Yang soon began work on the ritual music of the Zhihua temple in Beijing.
By the late 1980s, as fieldwork resumed after the hiatus of the Cultural Revolution, Yang Yinliu’s successors in Beijing were clarifying the “northern” and “southern” styles of wind ensemble serving amateur ritual associations on the Hebei plain. The “northern” music accompanying ritual referred to the solemn classical style of temple ensemble (led by small guanzi oboe), and this was to be our main focus in the villages. The more popular repertoire of the “southern” style (with large guanzi) sounded more secular, and was more readily recruited to political campaigns—but as we later learned, it too served funerals and temple fairs. Both styles had been used in the temples of Beijing, Tianjin, and the Hebei plain (see e.g. A slender but magical clue, and under Festivals) since the early in the 20th century.
Stimulated by the 1986 “discovery” of the Qujiaying village ritual association, I began working with the Music Research Institute in Beijing to document the similar groups all around the Hebei plain just south. Our fieldwork began to develop with a reccy over the New Year period in 1989, before the Tiananmen protests got under way.
By the early 1950s Ziwei was a large village with over a thousand households; by the time of our visit it had doubled. The origins of its wind ensemble were in the classical style. Even before Liberation they had been providing wind players for professional troupes in Beijing, Tianjin, and elsewhere in the region, and they kept doing so through the Cultural Revolution.
We accompanied them on a trip to perform for a wedding at a township in nearby Lixian county, and on our return to Ziwei we held a recording session. Whereas the membership of most ritual associations is male, here unmarried women also play the wind instruments. The association’s repertoire included breakdancing (piliwu 霹雳舞), recalling Taiji, and a pop singer—both highly serious in demeanour (cf. rebetiko). After decades of isolation, pop had spread from south China as the commune system disintegrated (see Platform), along with a major restoration of ritual life.
We got another glimpse of the secular end of the continuum on a 1991 trip to Langfang city. And during our fieldwork around Xushui county in 1993 and 1995, where the temple connection was evident yet again, we found more material on the “southern” style. Some villages like Gaoluo had both northern and southern ritual associations.
The Qianminzhuang association, Xushui 1959.
Still, the southern style was always subsidiary, both in the villages and in our fieldwork—see our reports, county by county, under Local ritual.
In 1993, as I plunged deeper into fieldwork on ritual associations in rural Hebei, while staying at a dingy hostel in Laishui county-town I was struck by this graphic public information poster from the local Public Security Bureau:
This detail is particularly fine:
Caption: Don’t casually drop cigarette-butts or rubbish, and don’t spit all over the place; maintain cleanliness inside and outside the dwelling.
More precisely, and indecorously, I may add that tutan 吐痰 encompasses the staggeringly common habit of emptying one’s throat via the nose onto the ground, generally with a loud and dramatic flourish—a sound that accompanies some of my finest recordings of ritual performance. At the time it didn’t look as if campaigns against the tradition would have much effect.
Moving swiftly on, political posters have long been a popular topic, but travelling down to the countryside, some intrepid art historian might care to make a diachronic and regional survey of pinups adorning the otherwise bare homes of poor peasants since the 1980s’ reforms, which cheerfully rub shoulders with family photos, posters of Party leaders, and images of deities like Guanyin. I found this montage on the wall of a home in Gaoluo village around 1993:
Pinups often make a drôle backdrop to our portraits of wise old folk musicians, like this 1995 image of vocal liturgist Li Yongshu in Yixian county nearby:
Here’s a selection from Shaanbei, heartland of the Chinese revolution, in 1999:
For more recent Uncle Xi pinups, and incentives to display them, see God images old and new, 2—sequel to an article that features murals adorning kang brick-beds dating from just after the reforms of the late 1970s.
The Silk Road has long been an alluring marketing slogan, but it made a spectacular pretext to gather musicians and craftspeople from all along the route—a remarkable feat of organisation, particularly only a few months after 9/11.
In tents set up on the National Mall (Xi’an Tower, Kashgar Teahouse, Nara Gate, Samarkand Square, Istanbul Crossroads, Venice Piazza…), a wealth of groups performed daily over ten hot summer days. To name but a few: Turkmen, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Uzbek, Mongolian, Afghan;  Bukharan Jewish traditions from the USA; Peking opera, narrative-singing from Beijing and Suzhou; Indian folk, notably Kathputli string puppets and Manganiyar musicians from Rajasthan; Persian classical, Khakasian, Armenian, Azeri, Turkish, Uyghurmuqam… And for sacred cultures, besides Tibetan monks from Drepung monastery in exile (cf. The Cup), Bauls from Bengal, and Syrian Christians, a group of Alevis from Turkey performed their sema ritual. Also featured were martial arts and wrestling from Mongolia, India, and Iran, as well as a range of craft and food traditions.
Here’s the thing: I hardly managed to catch any of these performances!!! My role was to look after the Hua family shawm band (2004 CD Walking shrill, my 2007 book, and Dissolving boundaries)—the shawm (suona/zurna) having reached China via the Silk Road, you dig. Having visited them at home in Yanggao county, north Shanxi, in 1991 and 1992, I had returned there in 2001 with a view to inviting them for the festival, and I then focused on Yanggao shawm bands for some time—only managing to devote my attention fully to the Li family Daoists from 2011. Anyway, I had to be constantly at the service of the band as minder and roadie, both on the Mall and at our hotel—handling their Byzantine (sic) family dynamics, keeping them happy, varying and refining the repertoire for two gigs of 30’ or 45’ each day, while augmenting my notes on their part in the ceremonial life of Yanggao. The Hua band were accompanied by the genial Li Hengrui from the county Bureau of Culture, who occasionally made himself useful—though I didn’t have the foresight to veto the yellow silk pyjamas that the bureau had designed for them.
Bureau Chief Li teased me for bringing them all this way just to play for “another bloody temple fair”, but the band found it a rather familiar setting. They also played on parade, with Yoyo Ma (figurehead of the festival) making a valiant effort to count to 4 on the gong—the band worked out that he was a Big Cheese, but couldn’t imagine that he would ever make it as a musician.
All the participants stayed at the same hotel, where our meals were provided; during the day on the Mall we rested in the performers’ area, where we were fed.
With able organiser Shuni, herself a gifted musician.
Impressive as the daytime gigs were, most delightful were the nightly parties back at the hotel, with everyone dancing to the Indian singers, Turks on zurna, Armenians on duduk, and so on. I did a routine with Indian juggler Kishan while Hua Yun did his amazing tricks on wind instruments.
On their first trip outside Shanxi, the Hua brothers were remarkably sociable. They particularly enjoyed hanging out with the Rajasthani musicians—significantly, both came from peasant backgrounds, whereas some of the other groups had rather more conservatoire training. Perhaps some of the musicians who shared an overarching tradition, like the various maqam groups or Central Asian bards, were able to forge more meaningful relationships. Any political tensions were swept under the (brightly decorated) carpet. I’m wary of the modern cliché “International Cultural Exchange” (click here, and here), even if the Silk Road embodies the idea—but the main point was simply for audiences to be able to hear all this wonderful unfamiliar music, as a gateway to further explorations.
The Hua brothers also met up with Zhang Fengxue, a paper maker from a village in Chang’an county south of Xi’an—their dialects made it hard for them to communicate, so sometimes I had to try and interpret (Yeah Right). Zhang recalled going on rain processions with the village “water association” (shuihui) to Taibaishan in 1952, 1976, 1979, and 1992.
Left, Kathputli puppets; right, Hua Yun with Drepung monk.
In the hotel’s outdoor pool, the Tibetan monks practised underwater meditation, their swimwear matching the colours of their robes. They offered me a Mañjuśrī mantra that they suggested could cure stammering:
OM A RA PA CA NA DHI
Left, blues; right, with Roksonaki.
I took the younger members of the Hua band out to hear blues at Bar Lautrec; everyone met up in the hotel bar early in the morning to cheer on Brazil for the World Cup final. At the 4th July party we admired the fireworks; a nice Turkish volunteer shaved my head, long before I became a regular with my Kurdish barber in Chiswick (cf. At the barbers). The Hua band did an impromptu gig with the Kazakh folk-rock band Roksonaki. Finally we admired a Silk Road fashion show, and Yoyo played a moving Bach solo alap in gratitude to the legion of helpers.
It was the most exhilarating time. There I was, rubbing shoulders daily with a wealth of musicians with whom I would now love to hang out; but there was nothing to be done—I gladly devoted myself to the Hua band.
So far, my dabblings in the ritual traditions of Istanbul have consisted mainly of exploring the cem ceremony of the Alevis—itself a substantial topic, both in the city (here, with sequel) and around Anatolia. In its values, gender inclusiveness, and ritual style, Alevism is closely related to Bektashi beliefs, but is quite distinct from other Sufi orders (tariqa) active in Turkey.
Naqshbandi traditions Like other tariqat, the Naqshbandi order has a wide presence around west, central, and south Asia.  It is influential in Turkey, where it is largely urban, supported by literati, bureaucrats, and merchants.There its pronouncements evince a less than liberal strain, vocally opposing perceived social decadence; opposing Westernising reforms, its leaders are critical of “heterodoxy”.
Hakan Yavuz, in his chapter “The matrix of modern Turkish Islamic movements: the Naqshbandi Sufi order”, observes that “the Sufi orders have turned out to be the major institutions for the aggregation of economic and political interests”. Focusing on Istanbul, he considers the Naqshbandis under the rubrics of inner cultivation and religious salvation, a tool for upward mobility, a network for social and political services, and a model for a community—headings that one might well apply to other orders too.
As to the Ottoman background, Sultan Mahmud II (1808–37), suspicious of charismatic popular leaders and competing loyalties within the state, banned the Naqshbandiyya-Khalidiyya order in Istanbul, as well as the Bektashis. But under later Sultans the Naqshbandis expanded their influence, often taking over Bektashi lodges, becoming “one of the most important forces between ruled and ruler”.
In the early years of the Republic, despite their support for Atatürk’s War of Liberation, the Naqshbandi and other Sufi lodges were banned. Still, their
ability to adjust to new situations and to develop new arguments neutralises the hostile propaganda of opponents who seek to identify the movement as fundamentalist or an “enemy” of modernity. For example, the Naqshbandis fully supported the Turkish War of Independence but protested against the radical and authoritarian secular transformation of the system by Mustafa Kemal.
Most of the eighteen rebellions against state policies between 1924 and 1938 were led by the Naqshbandiyya. But they were better able to survive persecution than some other orders.
In response to repression, most of these orders gradually transformed from strictly religious associations into competing educational and cultural informal associations with religious underpinnings. They gathered support from sections of traditional society, which regarded the Kemalist variant of secularisation as too radical and destructive for Turkey’s social fabric.
Indeed, “the post-Republican elite, which shaped the opinion and identity of the leading Muslim movements, evolved among local Naqshbandi groups in Istanbul and Anatolia”, and “the Turkish Muslim understanding of Islam is very much filtered through Naqshbandi concepts and institutions”. In modern Turkey, Naqshbandi is the most politically active of the Sufi orders; like others, they are closely involved in education, healthcare, commerce, and media promotion. Of the four main branches in Istanbul, most wealthy and influential is the lskenderpaşa, based at their Mosque in Fatih. But Hakan Yavuz argues that the remarkable adaptive powers and pragmatism of the Naqshbandi
may lead to decline, not so much because of state suppression or rivalry from other orders, but because of its smooth adaptation to capitalism and its integral involvement in Turkish politics, both of which may undermine the spiritual and cultural aspects of the order.
As he suggests, along with a reduction in the mystical and heterodox features of Islam and Sufism, Islam has been delocalised and a new, abstract, highly centralised and economically conscious faith created to cater for the modern urban population.
Dhikr On the Asian side of Istanbul, we visited the village of Beylerbeyi, just along the Bosphorus from Üsküdar and Kuzguncuk, to attend the Thursday evening dhikr (zikr) ritual at a Naqshbandi dergah (see here, and wiki), where Sheikh Mesud Efendi (d.1908) was influential. Set in a picturesque old quarter up the hill, the wooden building is just as fine.
The practice of collective dhikr (zikr) is intense. Among the Naqshbandiyya it is traditionally classified as either khafi “silent” or jahri “loud”; they seem to find both acceptable—see e.g. Isenbike Togan’s chapter on the historical controversy between them in Central Asia, n.1 below.
Glimpses from the women’s gallery.
Directing prostrations in a packed hall, the sheikh chanted a series of invocations, with occasional simple group responses. As the lights were switched off, the worshippers turned to sit in a circle facing the sheikh, the repetitive group invocations becoming more intense. In a segregated area on the upper floor a substantial group of women was also deeply devout, as my companions reported.
* * *
With such a very basic grounding in live ritual, I turned to YouTube for the wider picture, where several videos suggest the deeply immersive somatic experience of Naqshbandi dhikr. In her Introduction (n.1 below), Elisabeth Özdalga observes:
Many Sufi orders practice the dhikr collectively, with intensive and emotion-laden expressions, where the partakers move their bodies rhythmically as they loudly pronounce the names of Allah. The Naqshbandis are traditionally known for greater self-restraint. […] [They] have generally been regarded as more sober and orderly in their religious practices than other Sufis.
I can’t assess this as a general characterisation, but from the clips below it seems to need modifying. This substantial excerpt from a haḍra ritual in Bosnia is well annotated, featuring both Arabic qasidahs and Turkish ilahis:
Still more imbued with emotive expression are the rituals of Uyghur Naqshbandis, in a region of Central Asia that was invaded by the Chinese Communists in 1949. In retrospect, the Chinese state’s approach towards Islam in the decades before the clampdown under Xi Jinping may now appear relatively benign (see here). This zikr was recorded by Jean During in southwest Xinjiang in 1988, during a period when Uyghur traditions were enjoying an impressive revival after the end of the Cultural Revolution:
And the remarkable excerpts below show Uyghur Naqshbandis performing zikr in south Xinjiang on the eve of the Chinese campaign to obliterate Uyghur culture:
As to the Western diaspora, Naqshbandi groups meet in Europe and north America (cf. Alevi ritual), such as the Osmanli Dergahi in New York, transmitting the teachings of Shaykh Nazim Al-Haqqani (1922–2014), who moved from Istanbul to Syria, while also based in his native Cyprus (cf. wiki)—this 2017 video is among many on their YouTube site:
* * *
I’m acutely aware that outsiders like me cannot even begin to comprehend Sufi ritual. But my visit to the Naqshbandi lodge in Beylerbeyi reminded me again that (as in much Daoist and Buddhist temple ritual) the heart of ritual performance lies in The Divine Word, embodied through the pure a cappella vocal liturgy of the mosques and Sufi orders. In this case, the observance is unmediated even by percussion.
With “mistakes” (closely followed by denials—notably Brexit) having become routine under this evil Tory regime, I’m reminded that I’ve always been fond of the Italian sbaglio (verb sbagliare), with the appealingly economical negative prefix s- creating an expressive diphthong. Admittedly in this case a positive version baglio/bagliare is elusive, but it reminds me of other words equivalent to English dis-, such as
Returning to “mistakes”: in British politics, “misjudgements” that have appalling social and economic consequences can now be casually brushed aside with a patrician air of disdain. In China, however (as throughout the socialist bloc), “making a mistake” (fan cuowu 犯错误), a catch-all for political, sexual, and indeed clerical misdemeanours, is now used humorously—despite (or because of) its Maoist heritage, with the disastrous personal and familial consequences that could ensue from innocent infringements against the fluctuating political orthodoxy of the day, or entirely innocuous casual remarks—cf. Goulash deviationism, China: commemorating trauma, and movies such as Blue kite and Living. In documents from the Maoist era the term is a sparse hint of such faux pas, as under The Houshan Daoists, requiring us to read between the lines (see my review of the Anthology of the folk music of the Chinese peoples).
The independent scholar Jianglin Li—evidently no longer based in China—has a useful website War on Tibet, working with Matthew Akester. I’ve been reading her book
When the iron bird flies: China’s secret war in Tibet
(Chinese original, Taiwan 2012; English translation by Stacy Mosher of the revised version, 2022, 550 pages).
After her 2010 book Tibet in agony: Lhasa 1959 (English version 2016), When the iron bird flies describes the brutal military conflict in Tibetan regions from 1956 to 1962, which has long remained a closely guarded secret. It supplements chapters in Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snows (1999) (see his review of Li’s book) and vols 3 and 4 of Melvyn Goldstein’s magnum opus A history of modern Tibet (2013, 2019), as well as recent volumes like Conflicting memories.
The main focus of When the iron bird flies is the regions of Kham and Amdo (for some sources on the latter, click here), whose chiefdoms had always been resistant to external political power. Li’s account is based both on Tibetan accounts and classified Chinese documents within the PRC, as well as interviews with Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal.
Traditional Tibet, comprised of the three provinces of Kham, Ü-Tsang, and Amdo,
in current Chinese administrative divisions. Source: Marvin Cao.
For several years after occupying minority regions the Communists moved slowly; but the trigger for the convulsions of the late 1950s was “democratic reform”—their euphemism for coercive land reform and expropriations. It was launched over several stages in different provinces: in Yunnan in 1955, Sichuan in 1956, Gansu and Qinghai in 1958, and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) in 1959. Revolts broke out widely as the reforms were being imposed. Li introduces the system that soon became routine: work teams, struggle sessions, the fixing of class statuses, taxation, confiscation of grain and guns, assaults on monasteries. Even Tibetan activists groomed to the Communist cause were shocked to see the disastrous effects of reform when they returned to their localities.
The “first shot in the Khampa armed rebellion” came at Sertar county in Garzê. In response the Sichuan Party bosses only escalated the situation.
By the end of March 1956, eighteen of Garzê Prefecture’s twenty counties and forty-five of its seventy-seven townships had experienced full-scale or localised insurrections involving a total of 16,000 people and more than 8,000 firearms. During this time, fourteen land reform work teams came under attack, and ten county seats were besieged or encircled. More than 200 land reform cadres were killed, and the PLA suffered more than 300 casualties.
Reform was not invariably met by resistance:
In Middle Village and Lower Village in Ngawa’s Trokyab county, land reform was completed in about three months without conflict. But when the work team proceeded under order to Upper Village to launch land reform, it came under attack, and almost all of the thirty land reform work team members were killed.
But heavy taxation and grain confiscations led to food shortages.
Resistance by the Hor Drango (Shouling) monastery in Drango county was suppressed in March 1956. After Communist troops “annihilated more than 700 people,” “the Shouling temple’s eighty-member council sent representatives to the county’s Work Committee to deliver a written assurance that they would not resist taxation again”. This indicates that taxation was the direct reason for the Drango monks’ resistance.
As both Chinese and Tibetan sources show, with many of the most influential monks and laypeople having been recruited to official positions in the CCP system, resistance came mainly from the lower middle classes, including farmers, herders, monks, and traders. Li studies the class composition of areas, with tralpa (who leased land and cultivated their own crops) and gepa (who cultivated land or worked as servants for landowners, headmen, or monasteries):
The vast majority of peasants in these regions cultivated their own fields. Tralpa were not necessarily poor, and families with surplus labourers could engage in trade or hire themselves out. As a result, when the Tibetan regions were divided into class categories, the landlords, rich peasants, and middle peasants were mainly tralpa, whom the CCP classified as “serfs.”
As in Han Chinese regions, class classification was arbitrary and variable by locality. With land that had previously been communally owned now becoming state property,
a district designating 10 to 20% of its people as “landlords and rich peasants” meant that a relatively large portion of the middle stratum had their assets confiscated; this caused many of them to join in uprisings. [….]
Every stage of the land reform process in Kham, from its preparations to its implementation, demonstrated the arrogance and high-handedness of the CCP regime, as well as the ignorance and brutality of its cadres.
Numerous problems in the “redistribution” of resources were intractable. Resistance to land reform was inevitable. In response the Party requested military reinforcements while mobilising Tibetans into the army—who, hastily trained, suffered the heaviest casualties. The first battle, over nine days in March 1956, was in Lithang in southwest Garzê (cf. this post).
In a series of battles, both sides suffered heavy casualties. Determined to crush all resistance, on 29th March the air force dispatched two Tupolev Tu-4 aircrafts (a gift from Stalin to Mao) to strafe and bomb the monastery. Next day the PLA made their final assault.
This battle being the PLA’s first major military operation in the Tibetan region, its shock wave was felt by both the Chinese and the Tibetans. Tibetans were shocked by the “iron bird,” a powerful modern weapon they had never before seen or heard of, while the Chinese commanders were surprised by the willpower of the Tibetan resistance. In the following years, Tibetan willpower and Chinese modern weaponry would clash over and over again.
Southwest of Lithang, the people of Chatreng were also fiercely independent. Again, the early years of Chinese occupation were relatively mild, but in mid-February 1956,
Chatreng’s two main monasteries received a document from the work team. As Tibetans recall it, the document included seven points:
1) Lamas and monks have to be eliminated; 2) monasteries and their contents have to be eliminated; 3) worship and ritual are prohibited; 4) the wealthy and eminent members of the community have to be eliminated; 5) all land will be appropriated by the state; 6) all property will be appropriated by the state; 7) everyone has to obey the Liberation Army and serve them. If you do not agree to this, we will bomb you from the air and send troops on the ground and wipe you out. […]
The Tibetan leaders of Chatreng secretly held a meeting to discuss the document and then sent a messenger to deliver a strongly worded reply:
You officers, district heads, and soldiers are here in our land without the slightest justification, and have no business imposing these seven points, which are completely unacceptable. You had better leave immediately, otherwise we have also made our war preparations, and there is no doubt that we will fight.
From 20th March county government bases were besieged by the local Tibetans. When the surrounded Chinese finally managed to send word to Zhou Enlai, reinforcements were dispatched. On 2nd April bombers were again deployed, destroying large areas of Sampeling monastery and killing over two hundred monks and laypeople. Three monasteries in the region were bombed over nearly a month. Chatreng was destroyed.
Among the land reform work teams were many Tibetan activists trained by the Chinese. In Nyarong (yet another region long resistant to external power), 185 out of 257 members were Tibetan. The rebellion there began in February 1956, as land reform teams came under attack, with insurrections breaking out in 78% of rural townships. Again, PLA reinforcements were sent. Coercive reforms continued throughout the year.
In Ngawa prefecture, Sichuan province (focus of Barbara Demick’s Eat the Buddha), uprisings broke out from March 1956, again prompting Chinese military intervention. As elsewhere, “goodwill troupes” occasionally sought (vainly and cynically) to mollify a furious population even while persisting in reforms.
The following chapters turn to what became the TAR, where reforms were delayed, with a useful survey of the early years under occupation. But by 1956 news of the violence in Kham was causing great alarm in Lhasa among the Tibetan leadership and public. Li describes the intense diplomatic intrigue in 1956–57 surrounding the Dalai Lama’s visit to India, involving Zhou Enlai, Nehru, and the USA—as Zhou emptily promised the Dalai Lama that there would be no reforms for six years. The Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa on 1st April to find the situation increasingly tense. Meanwhile the CIA-trained Chushi Gangdruk (“Four Rivers and Six Ranges”) volunteer army prepared to resist Chinese occupation.
The “socialist transformation” continued, with forced collectivization around Golok Prefecture in 1958, as the Great Leap Backward (my apt term) caused untold suffering right across China. By August,
resistance among the Qinghai Tibetans had spread to five autonomous prefectures, 24 counties, 240 tribes, and 307 monasteries, involving more than 90,000 people. The Chinese government sent in five army divisions and 30 regiments of various kinds, plus 25 companies of armed police and local militia, for a total armed force of more than 50,000, including air force, artillery, infantry, cavalry, armoured troops, and others. […]
In Chikdril County, 1,050 people, nearly 10% of its total population, were arrested within three years. More than half of these captives died in prison over the next five years, and some were in jail until the early 1980s. Of the hundreds of herdsmen arrested from the Khangsar clan, only about twenty of them ever made it home again.
At least 9,262 people were arrested in Golok Prefecture, the vast majority of them males in the prime of life; in some places the proportion of young men to young women was one to ten.
As the military campaign shifted north from Sichuan and Yunnan to Qinghai and Gansu, Li documents the horrific “Yellow River massacre” at what later became Khosin Township (Yulgen county) on 1st June 1958—as ever, carefully assessing the conflicting sources.
After a Chinese convoy was ambushed in Yulshul, rebellions broke out at monasteries, with bombers again deployed. Over a third of the population of Yulshul died in these years. Many survivors were imprisoned in labour reform camps, where they died or suffered for long years. With food shortages worsening, in May 1958 the PLA murdered monks at the Drakar Drelzong monastery in Tsikorthang, Tsolho Prefecture; in September there was a bloodbath at Drongthil Gulch. A second wave of assaults took place from June to September 1959.
As the Chinese military administration was convulsed by Rectification and Anti-rightist campaigns, Tibetan resistance to reform was widespread—though what Chinese sources portray as rebellion (thus creating a pretext for massacres) was sometimes a mere exodus of herders fleeing collectivization. Refugees were described as “bandits” if they were killed, or “liberated masses” if they were captured. Resistance continued in 1959, met by massive troop deployments, with further major battles.
In 1958 a major arrest and denunciation rally took place at Kumbum monastery in Rusar county, Qinghai. The monastery then has 1,615 monks—remarkable in itself, we might suppose. Tibetan Buddhist life had been relatively unscathed through the early years of occupation; but now the CCP initiated a secret “religious reform movement”, in which Buddhist activity was specifically targeted, notably the monasteries. A document from the period noted the scale of the issue:
more than 5,000 monasteries of various sizes, and 450,000 religious personnel, among which there are more than 3,000 lamaist temples and 250,000 lamas in Tibet; 20,000 lamas in Mongolia and Xinjiang; and a total of 2,000–3,000 lama temples and more than 170,000 lamas in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, and other provinces.
Apart from ideology, the monasteries possessed substantial assets, in land and precious material artefacts—Li gives regional instances of the assets confiscated, metal statues and religious implements. Labrang monastery (in Gansu), with its 4,000 monks, was surrounded in April 1958; after “reform” began in June, over 1,600 people there were arrested, imprisoned, or executed. Many monasteries were now destroyed. In Qinghai province,
223 monasteries in the pastoral areas have been disbanded, 51.98% of the total, and 17,685 religious personnel have returned to secular life, composing 36.56% of the total. Among these, 97.5% of the monasteries in Huangnan prefecture have been disbanded, and 55.1% of religious personnel have returned to secular life; adding in those arrested or sent to group training brings it to around 95% of the total. In Hainan prefecture, 91.8% of the monasteries have been disbanded, and 87.9% of religious personnel have returned to secular life. In Haibei and Haixi prefectures, more than 80% of the monasteries have been disbanded, and more than 70% of the religious personnel have returned to secular life. The emergence of these new scenarios shows that religion is on the brink of total collapse.
The Anti-rightist campaign gave another pretext to denounce religious figures. As a Qinghai document declared:
After a large number of religious monasteries have been destroyed and a large number of religious personnel have returned to secular life, all localities must rapidly launch religious systemic reform work in the monasteries that have been purposely retained. […] The monasteries that remain must be controlled by progressive elements and must be completely controlled under the party’s leadership.
Another Party document explained:
In order to look after the religious beliefs of the masses, block rumours and provocations by counterrevolutionaries inside and outside of China, and facilitate the centralised management of lamas who have not returned to secular life, preserving some temples is essential. As to the appropriate number to retain, this should be according to the influence of the temple and the views of the masses. Rank the temples; in principle it is undesirable to retain too few. […] In terms of retaining temples, it is advantageous at present to retain more rather than less.
By the beginning of 1959, the vast majority of monasteries in Amdo and Kham had been closed down, occupied, or destroyed. I note that whereas in post-reform China the Cultural Revolution makes a scapegoat for a far more protracted range of abuses, in the vast heartland of the Han Chinese, the Communists began destroying temples from the early 1950s—in some areas as soon as they took power, even before the national “Liberation”. I’m also reminded that food shortages there predated the 1959–61 famine by several years, following collectivization. Yet Tibetan religious faith was not extinguished: it went underground.
Struggle meeting against monk officials in Sera monastery.
Struggle meeting against a Tibetan government official in Lhasa.
Lhasa was “the last hope”, where activists and ordinary people from Kham sought refuge in ever larger numbers. Li surveys the fateful events leading to the Dalai Lama’s escape to India—described in greater detail elsewhere, including her own earlier book. But as resistance continued, fierce battles took place in Lhoka, Namtso, and Mitikha. 1960 saw further campaigns. She looks in more detail at the covert activities of the CIA Tibet Task Force. The extended resistance in Chamdo from 1959 to 1962 was yet again ruthlessly suppressed with annihilation campaigns and aerial bombing.
Finally Li attempts to collate the conflicting statistics over the whole region—deaths in conflict, arrests, Chinese troop numbers, confiscated assets, and so on. Just the figures suggesting population decrease are staggering.
From 1956 to 1962, the iron horse galloped wildly across the plateau. Wherever its iron heels trod, the flames of war were ignited, monasteries collapsed, scriptures were burned, people were killed, and leaders fled into exile. The political system, economy, military, culture, and society of the Tibetan people were completely destroyed.
And again she reminds us of the tragic personal experiences buried beneath such statistics.
In an Afterword, Li considers the “rehabilitation” of the early 1980s, further evidence of the grievous losses of the secret war. She notes the Panchen Lama’s 1962 petition; and she hints at the further wave of destruction that was to follow with the Cultural Revolution, observing the ironic fates of some of the worst central and regional Chinese masterminds of the holocaust, purged and humiliated.
After the individual memoirs that I reviewed recently (here and here), the broader canvas and more dispassionate tone of this volume are no less affecting; Tibetan and Chinese documents are interwoven with personal stories, some recounted by ageing exiles in India. Whereas in the 1950s the Chinese presence in Tibet was novel and tenuous, by the 1970s, following the violence of the Cultural Revolution there, it became a fait accompli, with the suppression of public memory seeking to bury the story of the appalling brutality of the late 1950s. But the imprint of the period clearly remains deep in people’s hearts, making a backdrop to the sporadic unrest that continues to erupt around Amdo, Kham, and the TAR.
For those studying expressive culture, all this makes an important reminder that the much-vaunted “singing and dancing of minority peoples” could hardly be maintained during such a traumatic period of social disruption. Yet, remarkably, after the downfall of Maoism in the 1980s, people pieced together the fragments of cultural life with alacrity, while adapting to new social changes (see e.g. Some folk ritual performers).
Apart from feeling mildly guilty at defecting from Tang history, another spinoff of my current decluttering is rediscovering random notes from my time editing and indexing volumes of The Cambridge History of China. I’ve already listed some jocular citations from Han and Tang history, so here’s a sequel with gems that I may not have sneaked into the indexes.
An Lushan the Man
beauty, no harem
Liang, Later dynasty; Liang, Even Later dynasty
wife, monopoly tax
* * *
Meanwhile, here are some out-takes from my index to the 1981 English translation of Henri Maspero’s Taoism and Chinese religion:
Eating Filthy Things
forgetting the body
heavy breathing ho-ho hot breath
sitting down and losing consciousness
vermin, buried in
* * *
I also discovered some more drôle pronouncements on Tang music—we can probably hazard a guess at their author:
“Secular, amnesic, notational dyslexia in the reading of post-13th century flute notations of Tōgaku pieces”
—apparently “people forgetting how to play old scores”:
Perhaps this was a piece in which interest was quickly lost, a piece picked up as an item of temporary fashionable interest, but for which no interest remained after the Chinese court itself had lost interest following the An Lushan rebellion.
The *MUST READ* category in the sidebar directs you to some of my more worthwhile posts whose topics deserve to be savoured and shared.
Here’s a selection from recent entries, on a variety of themes:
The sceptical feminist, Janet Radcliffe Richards’ 1980 masterpiece, argued with dispassionate philosophical clarity, and still highly relevant despite some period features
Some Kurdish bards: politics, gender, and heritagification—epic tales of love and war, plangent kilam laments, with some fine recordings, archive and recent
Ogonek and Til—for fans of language, tennis, and fado! Wacky diacritics and nasal vowels in Polish and Portuguese—with matching limericks, and a bonus entry for Gran visits York….
Bach in an empty forest: a mesmerising mile-long xylophone in a Japanese forest, the wonders of a Bach cantata, Myra Hess’s wartime National Gallery concerts, and Takemitsu’s early alienation from Japanese musical traditions
Dream a little dream: interesting as it is to listen to earlier and later renditions, Cass Elliott’s 1968 version is enthralling—with the most radiant modulation ever!
The kiosk in Turkey and Europe: late-Ottoman mansions in Istanbul—the ancien régime, a haunted house, women’s changing status under the Republic, and shanty-town migrants; followed by some European kiosks, with cameos from The fast show and The third man
Mahler: a roundup!!! The definitive voice of our age—the symphonies, as well as chamber versions, and piano rolls; quintuplets and major 7ths; Alma and Anna
In the course of decluttering my groaning bookshelves, I find I’m not ready to part with my little collection of the ouevre of the great
Ren Erbei 任二北, also known as Ren Bantang 任半塘 (1897–1991), 
who over his long career shone a light on sources for song, dance, and drama in the Tang dynasty (618–907) through the prism of the literature of the day (for a roundup of my posts on the Tang, click here).
At Cambridge I was introduced to his early writings by Laurence Picken and Denis Twitchett. Laurence was keen to explore such sources, but it was mainly Denis who led me deeper into the complex process of compilation of the musical material in the official Old Tang history (Jiu Tang shu 舊唐書)—notably the now-lost Taiyueling biji 太樂令壁記 [Wall inscription for the Director of the Imperial Music Office] by Liu Kuang 劉眖, a work from the early part of Xuanzong’s reign, before the An Lushan rebellion (755–63).
Almost forty years ago, when I was beginning work on my PhD dissertation, I spent many enjoyable evenings reading through the “Monograph on Finance” of the Jiu Tang shu with Piet van der Loon, attempting to relate its text with other Tang period sources, and to see what is possible to deduce about the way Jiu Tang shu was put together over a period of more than two centuries.
YAY, party time indeed! After moving to Princeton in 1980, Denis gave me occasional updates on his work by postcard:
Meanwhile, scholars were studying an extant work from the heyday of Xuanzong’s court, the Jiaofang ji教坊記 by Cui Lingqin 崔令钦, edited by Ren Bantang in Jiaofang ji jianding敎坊記箋訂 (1962). Such sources made important material for Laurence’s recreations of Tang court music.
I now look on all this impressive research with a mixture of deep admiration, nostalgia, and relief that I went on to find a very different kind of party. By the early 1980s I realised how the study of Tang music had long been a hot topic in mainland China, and was now reviving vigorously there.  So it was Tang music that made the stimulus for my first visit to China in 1986 to study at Peking University under the great Yin Falu; but as I discovered the riches of living folk ritual culture on regular forays to the countryside, I was already in the process of defecting from the silent sources of early history. Though I picked up my own copies of Ren Erbei’s books in Beijing, I soon became a Tang manqué. Still, I continued visiting Laurence to update him on my fieldwork, and Denis kept in touch so we could meet up on his occasional return visits to Blighty.
* * *
Ren Erbei was prolific; most of his later publications were based on research he began before Liberation and pursued under Maoism. Two major books (albeit far from easy reading even for the heavy-duty sinologist):
On Tang drama: Ren Bantang, Tang xi nong 唐戏弄 (2 vols, 1958/1982)
On Tang sung poems: Ren Bantang, Tang sheng shi 唐聲詩 (2 vols, 1982; see e.g. here and here).
After the end of the Cultural Revolution he finally published his book on Chinese jesters,
Yet another interrupted career Whereas before I began spending time in China I had regarded such scholarship as belonging safely in libraries, once I began visiting senior intellectuals I couldn’t help becoming engaged with their life stories and tribulations under the decades of Maoism (see e.g. Craig Clunas on Wang Shixiang, in my post on his wife Yuan Quanyou; cf. Yang Yinliu, and Li Shiyu).
Brought up in Yangzhou, Ren Erbei gained admission to Peking University at the age of 18, embarking on the study of early ci and qu lyrics. After graduating he took up posts in his home province of Jiangsu.
Teachers at Yangzhou 5th Secondary School, 1921; Ren Erbei back row, centre.
Following the 1949 “Liberation”, he became professor at Sichuan University in 1951. While constantly beset by political problems, particularly after being branded a “rightist” and “historical counter-revolutionary” in 1957, he still managed to persist in his research despite spending extended periods in detention.
Rehabilitated following the downfall of the Gang of Four, after all his ordeals in Chengdu he was helped to return to his native Yangzhou, taking up a position at the Normal University there in his eighties.
Ren Erbei with his wife after their return to Yangzhou, 1984.
He now trained a bright young disciple, Wang Xiaodun 王小盾 (Wang Kunwu 王昆吾, b.1951) (see his tribute, and here), who went on to publish works such as Tangdai jiuling yishu 唐代酒令艺术 (1995) and Sui Tang Wudai yanyue zayan geci yanjiu 隋唐五代宴乐杂言歌辞研究 (1996, following the 1990 Sui Tang Wudai yanyue zayan geci ji 集, co-edited with Ren Erbei). 
Ren Erbei’s tribulations under Maoism were no less distressing for being so common, making his scholarship all the more impressive.
Having been impressed by Epiphany at the Greek church near the iskele ferry in Kuzguncuk, recently we got to attend Sunday service at the main Greek church further up the main street (for a fine study of the mahalle‘s multi-ethnic past, see Nostalgia for cosmopolitanism).
The Greek population of Istanbul (like other ethnic groups there) having progressively dwindled since the early 20th century, only special feast days attract more than a very few worshippers from around the city.
One might just find the service a sad illustration of the decline of Greek culture in Istanbul, but it made me think. While I’ve long been alienated from prissy, drab Anglican worship, turning as an outsider to Orthodox liturgy (or to any ritual and musical tradition) I’m not in search of the exotic, but I’m drawn to it as if it’s a mystery, not in the sublime sense but like a thriller—trying to work out what’s going on, to decipher its rules.
The distinction between emic and etic perceptions comes into play. Rather than the more spectacular rituals that often attract scholars and visitors, stimulating their mystical romanticism, it’s good to attend normal services to get an impression of ritual as routine. As with the rituals I’ve frequented with Li Manshan’s Daoist band in rural China, one begins to perceive that for those attending it’s partly an obligation, and that for the ritual specialists, to some extent “it’s just a job” (more radically, Frits Staal described ritual as “meaningless”; cf. Catherine Bell). Of course, in both cases there are elements of duty to tradition, even faith; but any “meaning” we impute must be broader than mere doctrine, involving changing social perceptions.
In church the liturgists and assistants do their job unfussily; as in Britain, the little congregation goes through the motions with greater or lesser commitment—it’s a weekly duty. Devout spiritual feelings can’t be taken for granted.
In China, conversely, where the Gaoluo village Daoist/Buddhist ritual association often seemed to be going through the motions, attending vespers in the house church of the Catholic minority there I was struck by their intensity and solidarity, apparently a result of their outlaw status since the 1949 revolution. But whereas the Chinese village Catholics maintain their faith tenaciously, the Greek urban Catholics are a tiny minority overwhelmed in a sea of Islam.
And without being at all hung up on “living fossils” or Ancient Wisdom, I am somehow inspired by being reminded of a world beyond the dominance of the three-minute pop song, just as the sound of the Muslim call to prayer does more insistently, more publicly (and also routinely). Whereas the silences between phrases of the call to prayer are part of its magic (again, a magic that is not necessarily experienced), in church the liturgy is more continuous; even in melodic material, it reveals a different world from that of the call to prayer or ilahi hymns, though the latter are largely diatonic too.
translated by Hannibal Taubes in the promising new journal of Tibetan studies Waxing Moon, makes a significant addition to our understanding of Tibetan people’s lives.
It’s the “auto-narrative”  of Shawo Tsering (1932–2015), a high-ranking regional leader from the Tu (Monguor) minority in the Repkong (Chinese Tongren) district of Qinghai province—part of the greater region of Amdo, an increasingly prominent focus of Tibetan studies (cf. Conflicting memories; for further leads, see under Labrang 1; see also When the iron bird flies). Written in Chinese, it was edited by local historian Zhao Qingyang and published in 2010.
Benno Weiner provides an Introduction, noting ways in which authoritarian states manage memory and history, and the various forms of “unofficial memory” circulating just below the surface of state historiography (cf. my China: memory, music, society). He unpacks the agendas of the series of local “cultural and historical materials” (wenshi ziliao, where Shawo Tsering’s account was published) that thrived irregularly in the PRC (cf. Paul Katz on Wenzhou).
The translator’s own introduction is lucid. Tibetans who have fled into exile have written numerous accounts of the iniquities of Chinese rule, but while publication is far more strictly controlled within the PRC, as Hannibal observes,
Students in a class on Chinese or Tibetan history should be exposed to the forms of moral-historical discourse produced by the CPC for and about itself, and have an understanding of how those Chinese, Tibetans, and others who serve the PRC justify themselves as ethical actors. For better or for worse, people like Shawo Tsering made China and Tibet what they are today, and they will shape these nations’ futures; their experiences are correspondingly important. Students should be schooled in the “hermeneutics of suspicion” necessary to read such texts, including the ways that subtle forms of criticism and dissent are coded within the “public transcript” of authoritarian states. In point of fact, Shawo Tsering himself explicitly warns us to read his own words critically. Of a speech he was forced to make in 1978, he comments: “In fact human affairs are always like this. You can’t say what you want to say, and you must say what you don’t want to say—this is what’s called ‘words that violate the heart’ (Ch. wei xin zhi yan).”
Despite Shawo Tsering’s frank account of the Maoist cataclysms between 1958 and 1978, “the fundamental legitimacy of PRC rule on the Tibetan plateau is never questioned”. Still, scholars of the PRC are used to reading between the lines (see my review of the Anthology of folk music of the Chinesepeoples, and under Yang Yinliu). Shawo Tsering’s account of his life from the 1930s to the 1990s subtly challenges “some of the fundamental discursive pillars upon which the post-Mao narrative of Amdo’s incorporation into China rests”.
Hannibal provides most useful summaries before each chapter.
Chapter 1, “A childhood of many difficulties”, covers the period from the early 20th century to the 1949 Communist victory in China, with complex power relationships. Major figures include the controversial Muslim leader Ma Bufang, and the Tibetan monk, reformist educator, and modernist politician Sherap Gyatso.
In Chapter 2, “Setting out on the revolutionary road”, Shawo Tsering recalls the early years of Chinese occupation until 1958, when he became a prominent cadre under the new regime, serving as a “crucial linguistic and cultural bridge to the complex societies of Tongren”. He married with a grand ceremony, headed educational work in the county, and became vice-director of the prefectural Bureau of Culture and Public Health.
As Hannibal writes,
Shawo Tsering’s narrative journey towards “liberation” climaxes in his 1956 interview with premier Zhou Enlai, a scene that perfectly encapsulates the mixture of cult of personality, religious fervor, patronising cultural essentialism, Marxist developmentalism, resource-colonialism, and rhetorical CPC assumption of the imperial mantle that characterises the Chinese Communists and their relationship with Tibet.
Nevertheless, Shawo Tsering’s account is not entirely sycophantic. As is typical in such PRC publications, he refers to negative or politically sensitive events obliquely, and criticises state actions by praising people or policies that he feels resolved such problems.
Chapter 3 relates his bitter experiences of the “leftist storm” between 1958 and the end of the Cultural Revolution. As monasteries were closed, revolts broke out and labour camps were filled; Shawo Tsering’s assessment “is given force by the fact that, while imprisoned himself, he was given the task of reading out the verdicts and sentences”. Amidst heavy loss of life, the Great Leap Forward led to severe famine. He recalls that during his imprisonment from 1958 to 1962,
my family had experienced unimaginable change. In 1959, my three sons all contracted infectious measles. They were not able to see a doctor. One after another they were carried away by the god of death. In 1960 a natural disaster occurred. There was no grain harvest. During the hardships of that time, my mother, wife, and little brother all left this world. Another younger brother had only been able to escape starvation because he was studying at the prefectural teachers’ college. My little sister recalled to me the scene of my mother’s death: When my mother died, my sister was laying in her arms, but how my mother died, how her body was carried away, these things my sister was unable to remember. After my mother’s death, my sister had become an orphan, begging for food every day at the doors of village houses.When I heard how each member of my family had cruelly perished, when I saw the scene of cold desolation before me, all of my spirit collapsed. It was as if I’d suddenly lost consciousness, and become a man made from wood. I spent over a month at home. Many people from the village came to see me, telling me how my family had died, as well as who else in the village had passed away, so and so, and so and so, and on and on.
Further campaigns culminated in the mass hysteria of the early Cultural Revolution, whose vicissitudes he also recalls in detail.
Chapter 4 describes Shawo Tsering’s later career, from being rehabilitated in 1979 to his retirement in 1995. Charged, “quite simply”, with the rebuilding of Amdo, he became “an indispensable figure in restoring some legitimacy” to the Party’s attempts at post-Mao good governance. As the monasteries began to re-open, he hosted the 1980 visit of the Panchen Lama, and confronted practical problems. He led a Tibetan opera troupe on a tour of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
In Chapter 5 he reflects on his life after retirement, and outlines the fortunes of his family. Again, Hannibal provides useful context.
By its final pages, the book has revealed itself as an extended plea to a Sinophone audience not to allow the catastrophes of Mao’s reign to happen again—in this moment, the composite narrator Shawo Tsering speaks with a moral and historical authority that is both Tu, Tibetan, and Chinese.
Two years before the account was published in 2010, new protests had erupted in Lhasa and throughout the Tibetan plateau. Tibetan-language education had already begun to be replaced by Chinese. Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, the climate has deteriorated drastically. As Hannibal concludes,
The Tibetan regions generally have seen growing surveillance, militarization, media censorship, and arrest and intimidation of activists. It is unlikely that Shawo Tsering’s frank discussion of his experiences between 1958 and 1978 would be published in the PRC today.
With his detailed footnotes, Hannibal’s translation contains a useful glossary and bibliography. It’s a fascinating story that requires us to abandon simplistic views of Tibet’s modern history.
 I note that the Chinese zishu (“auto-narrative”) often has an element of “confession” from the Maoist era—cf. Kang Zhengguo.
I’m probably not alone in harking back to the early films of Zhang Yimou, rather neglecting his ouevre since then. While he later turned to glossy big-budget blockbusters, he still made more affecting films like Not one less (1999), The road home (1999), and Coming home (2014).
Set in the sand dunes of the barren northwest during the later years of the Cultural Revolution, it was filmed in Dunhuang (for Li Ruijun’s movies set in Gansu, see Fly with the crane and Return to dust, the latter post suggesting further links on life there).
Described as Zhang’s “personal love-letter to cinema”, One second has thus been likened to Cinema paradiso, but while both are set against the backdrop of a repressive regime, Zhang’s film is more permeated by pain. The main character is a fugitive from a state labour camp, desperate to catch a tiny glimpse of his long-lost daughter in a newsreel. His quest is hindered and helped by a young orphan urchin girl and “Mr Movie”, the projectionist responsible for the mobile cinema touring the desert towns; after the rather farcical mood of the opening sequence, their changing relationships become quite affecting. Most poetic are scenes of the villagers mobilised to clean and restore the damaged celluloid—a metaphor both for individual striving and for the herculean yet largely futile mass projects of Maoism.
Like Return to dust, the film has also fallen foul of the censors, despite international acclaim. Sensitivities perhaps concerned the Uyghur issue, as well as renewed caution about exposing the indignities of the Cultural Revolution. However the film has been re-edited, it looks to navigate political anxieties rather cleverly—the ending, as hope dawns with the collapse of Maoism, is almost saccharine. But as Cath Clarke observes in her review,
With all the tinkering and tweaks, what censors haven’t been able to expunge is the torment and suffering on the face of Zhang Yi’s political prisoner; this is a deeply felt film, grief and pain go to the bone.
Having revisited Keila Diehl’s study of the soundscapes of Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, I’ve also learned from re-reading an imaginative evocation of the focus of their longing:
Robert Barnett, Lhasa: streets with memories (2006).
Just as Lhasa can’t stand for the whole of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), the latter doesn’t represent the whole of “Greater Tibet”, with the majority of Tibetan people within the PRC living in the extensive regions of Amdo and Kham to the north and east, comprising large areas of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. Along with fine scholars such as Tsering Shakya and Melvyn Goldstein, Robbie has documented the modern history of Tibet in detail—the 1950 invasion, the 1959 uprising, the Cultural Revolution; the early 1980s’ reforms, protests from 1987, the tightened security from 1993 as Chinese (both migrant workers and tourists) began to flood the city, and renewed unrest since 2008.
The book is a sophisticated and personal affective history of a city, revolving around memory (cf. more recent volumes edited by Robbie, Forbidden memory and Conflictingmemories). He eschews simplistic stereotypes: both nostalgia for an “unspoilt” mystical paradise before the 1950 invasion, and horror at the garish modern architecture that bludgeons dwellers with the inescapable Chinese presence. The main text, interspersed with notes on his visits to the city, is quite succinct, with substantial endnotes not cued in the main text but offered as further reading—it’s a blessing that one’s reading is uninterrupted by in-text references.
He opens the Preface with some broad context:
Returning to London after some years away, I am struck by the way each street evokes specific memories and sometimes poignant feelings. I sit on the upper deck of the No.55 bus and look over the iron railings and the walls that shield Gray’s Inn Fields. I see the windows of an office once occupied by a leading politician, and the blue plaque that marks the house in Doughty Street where Dickens lived…
Some of these associations mark moments that are significant only to me, while others might be relevant to a larger community. Some derive their potency from something I have read or heard, a film I have seen, or scraps of conversation that I cannot quite recall. They are triggered by the sight of memorable buildings and places that I pass.
Cities can be illegible to foreign visitors; as Robbie excavates the multiple stories of Lhasa, he finds that
some of the elements that I will find will turn out in time to be my own invention, or to be irrelevant to the web of associations most valued by the inhabitants or even damaging to their interests.
In the following Note on history, he traces inhabitants’ reserve about speaking with foreign visitors back to the British military expedition led by Younghusband in 1903–4. This was followed in 1910 by another invasion, this time from the East, as a Chinese military force occupied Lhasa; but the 13th Dalai Lama soon declared his country fully independent. Robbie gives a lucid, nuanced account of the debates over the status of Tibet, ably rebutting Chinese claims.
Chapter 1, “The unitary view”, critiques the rosy views of pre-occupation Lhasa by both outside observers and refugees—the “easygoing and carefree life” of religious festivals, picnics, and parties. Such accounts from exile represent
not naïveté or a desire to mislead, but a natural flattening of memory, an understandable form of evocation by people forced to abandon their homeland, and a counter to overstated, opposing claims by those who had usurped their positions and ridiculed their legacy.
Robbie reveals a more complex picture—not only theft and monkish misbehaviour, but incidents like the 1912 sacking of Tengyeling monastery, the blinding of Lungshar in the 1930s, and the prison death of the former regent Retring. Complementing such accounts is Jamyang Norbu’s article on the “dark underbelly” of Lhasa before the 1950 invasion.
A contrasting kind of one-dimensionality that mirrors nostalgic exile accounts is the typical Chinese view of the Tibetans as “enthusiastic and open-minded and good at singing and dancing”. The latter is a trusty cliché, dutifully parroted (even by a young Chinese musicologist trying to do fieldwork in Lhasa in 1956—though he wasn’t so naïve as to dispense with a revolver).
Besides, pre-1950 Lhasa was politically diverse, modernising, with an international presence. As early as 1904 Younghusband had been offered Huntley & Palmers biscuits in the Lhasa Yamen by amban commissioners—perhaps the inspiration for Jamyang Norbu’s vignette in The mandala of Sherlock Holmes.
Such reflections are juxtaposed with Robbie’s notes on the trauma of his first visit in 1987, which coincided with a major demonstration against Chinese repression—first of a series of protests over the following years. He also uses these notes to suggest the partiality of his own impressions.
Chapter 2, “Foreign visitors, oscillations, and extremes”, continues the story of early portrayals of Lhasa. The golden roofs of the temples and the splendour of the Potala are staples in the accounts of visitors that yet accompany a contrasting image of dirt, both physical and moral. Not just Chinese but many Western observers too found the images of Tibetan Buddhism to reveal “bigotry, cruelty, and slavery”. Such visitors were at once entranced and repelled. Among the latter were Christian missionaries; Robbie cites a leaflet from as late as 1990:
Is there no light that cuts through the demonic darkness in Tibet, a nation long steeped in demonism and Tibetan Buddhism called Lamaism? … Satan has enslaved the people to a lifetime pre-occupation with right words and works. “Om mani padme hum” and other phrases are chanted repeatedly to false gods.
Such views can easily “mutate into engines of persecution”. I might add that while being a missionary would seem to be a serious handicap when seeking to understand a non-Christian culture, it has been noted that some of them have shown a remarkably enlightened view, favouring description rather than prescription.
Lhasa, late 1950s.
Meanwhile Robbie continues to unpack the Chinese attempt to rewrite history in Tibet. Most Chinese statistics and descriptions now use 1980 as the date
to mark the beginning of Chinese modernization in Tibet, much as if China had not been in control for the previous thirty years. […] Had the previous decades not been excised from the Chinese calculations, the overall achievement in Tibet, at least, might have seemed marginal.
Chapter 3 considers topography as a window on the Tibetans’ own moral world-view, with illustrations from early history, including the place of Buddhism. While they always conceived Lhasa as Ü, the “centre” of a square, later they depicted themselves as belonging to the northern, barren region—a different concept from the vain Chinese claim of occupying the “central kingdom”. Robbie gives a cogent account of debates over the “civilising” influence of the 7th-century Chinese princess Wencheng.
Chapter 4 looks at the spiritual geography of Lhasa, including the Potala, the Jokhang temple, the Barkor, and the Norbulingka. He notes that tranquility was not a fitting attribute to describe the city or its teeming monasteries; the Barkor was not only a pilgrimage site but a thriving market. The layout of the city was shaped not [only] by its religious edifices, but by the market squares and aristocratic mansions.
As elsewhere, there was no sense of contradiction between commerce and religion: for both Tibetans and foreign visitors,
the excitement of Lhasa was as much about shopping as about prayer—
until the Chinese occupation, when commerce and supplies abruptly disappeared.
It is one of the great tragicomic ironies of the Chinese presence that since the new transition point of 1980, Beijing’s main claim to legitimacy in Tibet has been the fact that it has brought consumer commodities to Tibet; until the Chinese arrived, the shops had been full of them.
Chapter 5 considers the 1980s’ reforms, when the Chinese began initiating grandiose construction projects—hotels, hospitals, squares, danwei work units, long broad thoroughfares. As the city expanded hugely, formerly isolated settlements on the outskirts became part of an unbroken urban sprawl. Around the Barkor some noble mansions remained intact, but many old houses had been so neglected for decades that demolition seemed inevitable. New buildings before the late 1980s were “large, symmetrical, and regular, […] statements of the solidity and purposiveness of the new regime”.
À propos foreign rulers making a statement by reshaping the streets of another nation’s capital, Robbie offers an aside on the Hanoverian project in Edinburgh,
the capital of a mountain territory with a strong and traditional religious culture scorned by the new rulers; it had also been annexed, through a claimed but disputed legal process, by a neighbouring state. In both cases the new rulers belonged to an aspirant dynasty that had foreign, protestant, progressivist, and puritanical ideas. Both dynasties were capable of immense feats of organisation, rapid technological advancement, and inordinate cruelty.
In 1995 a new set of construction projects for Lhasa was unveiled, among which the most grandiose was the vast military parade ground of the New Potala Palace Square—nicknamed Kalachakra Square by the locals in subtle homage to the exiled Dalai Lama.
I reflect that just as in Beijing, it seems absurd that one can now be nostalgic for the old architecture not only of the 1950s, but even of the 1980s.
Chapter 6 continues the story with the vogue for geometric structures in glass and chrome, replacing the former concrete. Until then,
building primarily in cement offered the advantage that fewer trees would need to be cut down in Tibet. This rationale was largely theoretical, because the Tibetan forests were anyway then being cleared to supply the market for timber in inland China.
From 1992, as petty commerce was encouraged, box-shaped, one-room shops proliferated in central Lhasa. Karaoke bars also became highly popular. In 1996 the official Party newspaper in Tibet published a letter from an unnamed reader:
On a recent stroll through the streets of Lhasa, this writer discovered that the shop signs of several stores, restaurants, and karaoke dance halls showed extremely poor taste. Their display is strongly coloured by feudal superstitions, low and vulgar, of mean style, with some even making indiscriminate use of foreign names…
By 1997, while the city covered an area seventeen times that of 1950, the Tibetan quarter was shrinking fast. With the rise of (largely Chinese) tourism, some efforts were made to create new buildings that blended with the Jokhang in style, if only cosmetically.
Late in the 20th century the Tibetan quarter of Lhasa was thus a confusion of religiosity, decaying mansions, feverish construction, half-planned amenities, and demolition sites as it faced the onward rush of rapid modernization.
Chapter 7 takes us into the 21st century. At last, private houses were built in a hybrid Tibetan style. As wages of government employees rose, partly in compensation for restrictions on their behaviour and to mollify them for the influx of Chinese workers, some built new Simsha homes on the outskirts: “a new style of Tibetan housing, living, and class division had finally emerged”. Parks too, rendered soulless under Maoism, became Tibetanized. Still, casual visitors were unlikely to notice such changes amidst the hypermarkets and giant housing developments.
Western journalists and writers like myself found that our stories of five or ten years earlier had to be rewritten. Like our predecessors who had come with the British invasion a century before, we arrived prepared to write about the iniquities of the system and departed somewhat in awe of its achievements. This time the achievements were economic rather than spiritual, the system was Chinese rather than Tibetan, and the change was effected by major alterations in local policies more than by the exigencies of foreign outlook or temperament. Those who had created narratives after 1987 that focused on dissent, protest, and their suppression by the state found themselves wandering down streets where there were fewer police visible and far less crime than in the cities from which they had come. Those streets were now lined with arcades, malls, and shops advertising the same cornucopia of endlessly available commodity goods we were accustomed from our own histories to see as the goal of social progress.
Some writers even began to tone down their criticisms of the regime. While “the modern mechanisms of discreet control still abounded”, open demonstrations had ceased—for now.
Robbie also notes the “Tibet chic” craze among the Chinese middle classes, with a new respect for Tibetan Buddhism, seeking spiritual enlightenment in a way not unlike that long pursued by Western pilgrims. This craze was not matched by greater state tolerance, as monasteries were controlled even more strictly.
Meanwhile Robbie was changing too; by now he was Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, spending summers in Lhasa as a visiting teacher at the university there; as he became accustomed to modernization, it lost the ability to shock him. He finds his vision becoming blurred:
As my life in Lhasa filled with the momentary excitements and quotidian disappointments of work, relationships, food, and sleep, the streets I had studied became ways to get to a meeting or a meal, and buildings whose history I had once dreamed of understanding became permeable exteriors of which only the contents mattered: they became unnoticed extensions of the people I knew and the ways in which they lived, talked, and slept. Any clarity of vision that I had once thought I had on arrival became obscured, and the lines that Italo Calvino had said were written in the corners of city streets and the gratings of windows became invisible. They could not be deciphered. They were no longer available as the distinct elements that the foreign writer wishes for, to control, describe, and play with according to his or her dreams.
As to interactions with Lhasa dwellers, as he has already noted, where the line lies that Tibetans cannot safely cross in conversations with others
is a matter of contention, and it changes from time to time, according to political conditions, the temperament of certain leaders, individual interpretations, and, most dangerously, erroneous calculation of risk.
Visitors may not know when they have caused harm. He and his students
mainly inferred the rules that limited us through a vague sense of recent history or from collective fears. These last were more effective than explicit prohibitions.
In Chapter 8 he talks with a Chinese friend who confides, in a rare moment of candour:
“I do not like what we have done to this city. We have not treated these Tibetans as well as they deserve. The buildings are too low. What this place needs is tower blocks like we have in Chengdu.”
And he visits a student in his class, a stern-faced Chinese cadre who was part-owner of a high-class nightclub. Locals would describe her as gya ma bod, neither Chinese nor Tibetan, a mestizo. Her Tibetan mother, born to a poor rural family, had become a leading official.
The half-goat, half-sheep grazes both the pastureland and the mountainsides; she doesn’t run away to sea. The pure-breed lives only in the imagination, and finally migrates in search of dreams; the hybrid buys shares in nightclubs, reads books in foreign languages, and adapts. The one enchants, the other discards outward charms. With her the future lies.
In the brief concluding Chapter 9 Robbie recaps the diverse architectural styles and the world-views they represent, reminding us of earlier historical themes.
Within the walled and unwalled compounds of the city formed by these streets and buildings live people the archaeology of whose lives can scarcely be read from their exteriors, and whose present surroundings may speak nothing of their histories and desires.
While interrogating silent buildings may seem a poor substitute for meaningful interaction with people, Robbie stresses the dangers of claiming “knowledge” of such a culture, and gives revealing notes on necessarily guarded encounters with Tibetan (and Chinese) Lhasa dwellers. He has led the way in detailing the indignities and abuses from which Tibetans continue to suffer under Chinese rule, but here they are hinted at rather than spelled out. In similar vein, the book is illustrated with line drawings—again, of buildings rather than people; and again, whereas one might suppose that photos would have reminded us better that Lhasa is a Real Place (for remarkable photos from the Cultural Revolution there, note Woeser’s book on the topic), instead the drawings underline Robbie’s focus on the elusive, fuzzy nature of memory.
Since the book was published in 2006, the relative standoff that had prevailed in Lhasa and further afield at the turn of the new century has again been shattered by yet another cycle of protest and repression (for Robbie’s analysis of the 2008 protests, see e.g. here). Surveillance has become ever more high-tech, with police cameras and checkpoints prominent.
Alongside documentation that is rarely so qualified by doubts about subjectivity, Lhasa: streets with memories is a most welcome study. For updates, see e.g. posts (in Chinese) by Tsering Woeser (blog; Twitter), such as this (translated) from 2013.
It is most important to keep the travails of the Tibetans in the public eye alongside those of the Uyghurs.
Apart from my annual surveys (2021 here), I’ve added a tag in the sidebar for roundups, where I group together posts on a particular theme. Whether or not you share my fetish for taxonomy (see e.g. here) and the joys of Indexing, as long as you start clicking away on the links (and the links within them…) then this could be a really useful navigational aid!
I could have sworn I published this roundup of such roundups before, but it seems to have disappeared. Note especially
1966 was the major cut-off point, but research (and ritual practice) was highly constrained after the Socialist Education campaigns began in 1963; and already by 1957–58 the Anti-Rightist campaign and Great Leap Backward had disastrous consequences (see Cultural Revolutions). We can find several more signs of life on the eve of the Leap, such as the Xi’an scholar Li Shigen’s 1959 report on his 1957 visit to the White Cloud Mountain in Shaanbei. And I just recalled another one,
Yangzhou daojiao yinyue jieshao揚州道教音乐介绍 [Introduction to the Daoist music of Yangzhou], edited by the Yangzhou Cultural Association (Wenlian). 
This slim mimeograph of 37 pages, compiled in 1957 and published in 1958, consists mainly of cipher-notation transcriptions of the Qingchui dipu Shifan gu 清吹笛譜十番鼓 gongche solfeggio score for dizi flute of (paraliturgical) melodies for Shifan ensemble, a score which is said to have been handed down in the Chenghuang miao temple since the Ming dynasty.
By contrast with the outstanding work of Yang Yinliu, the pamphlet is entirely reified, with no social context at all on the severely-reduced conditions of ritual activity in the urban temples or the surrounding countryside—but at least it suggests a concern for ritual music at the time, that was only able to get into full swing as traditions and scholarship revived after the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s.
After a nugatory, formulaic introduction, the transcriptions are in three sections: qingchui dipu 清吹笛譜 solo flute scores, daoqing 道情 popular vocal melodies, with texts, and—most interestingly—twelve zanjing 讚經 hymns, again with texts:
Since the 1980s, the Anthology (see my “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3, 2003) sometimes affords valuable prospects of local ritual traditions—such as the household Daoists of Changwu, subject of a substantial section in the narrative-singing volumes for Shaanxi. Otherwise, “religious music” mostly appears under the “instrumental music” volumes—supplementing recent fieldwork with studies from the 1950s. For Jiangsu province the coverage of “Daoist music” gives pride of place to Suzhou, Wuxi, and Maoshan; Yangzhou is absent.
Perhaps there has been further study, but Zhu Ruiyun 朱瑞云 (b.1929), the main author of the 1958 mimeograph, finally published a much expanded revision in 2007, Yangzhou daojiao yinyue kao 揚州道教音乐考. Despite all the advances in China in the ethnography of religion since the 1980s, its 366 pages are still largely limited to hackneyed musicological concerns. Zhu had no training in Daoism, but since the 1980s many other cultural workers around China managed to educate themselves about their local Daoist ritual traditions—some (as in Fujian, Jiangxi, and Hunan) becoming considerable authorities, producing a wealth of fine ethnographic work.
The introductory material, including a brief account of ritual practice, consists largely of generic citations from early history; Zhu spectacularly avoids even the briefest reference to any modern ritual activity in Yangzhou. In the transcriptions (now in Western stave notation), the brief section of hymns, after the opening Kaijing zan, even dispenses with the ritual texts that he provided in the 1958 mimeograph.
At least we now learn that the Qingchui dipu Shifan gu score was provided by Sun Guiyuan 孙归源, fourth-generation abbot of the Chenghuang miao temple, to whom Zhu was introduced while he was working the Bureau of Culture in 1957. And the brief account by Sun Guiyuan’s son, written in 1991, tells us that the temple was demolished in 1950 and the score destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.
Alas, this is one book we can well do without. So Daoist ritual around Yangzhou still cries out for detailed research—not only on imperial history, but fieldwork on current activity (both temple and folk),  and studies of change from the Republican to Maoist eras. We may find the 1958 mimeograph meretricious (and a Happy New Year), but I still admire the work of scholars through all the travails of Maoism. Meanwhile, it’s a reminder to return to the splendid work on Daoist ritual around Suzhou and Wuxi.
 In Yangzhou, a more popular topic has been the lively (secular) folk traditions of qingqu 清曲 narrative-singing, which are the subject of many dedicated studies since the Yangzhou qingqu caifang baogao 揚州清曲采访报告 of 1962 (yet another impressive monograph from the Chinese Music Research Institute, in the lull between the famine and the Socialist Education campaigns), and the genre features prominently in the narrative-singing volumes of the Anthology.
 As usual, the most promising approach will be simply to spend time there “among the people”, chatting with locals and perhaps hanging out at funeral shops. Almost wherever one goes, household Daoist (and Buddhist) groups are in demand to provide services for mortuary rituals—as shown even by a popular article like this from 2016, in which the author, on a visit home to Yangzhou, is surprised to find that his father has taken up the Daoist trade late in life. For temple Buddhism, see e.g. this announcement for the Water-and-Land ritual as performed at the Daming si temple.
The Chinese novelist Jia Pingwa 贾平凹 (贾平娃, b.1952) maintains his reputation despite often falling foul of the censors—a pattern all too familiar to other artists such as film-makers.
Brought up in southeast Shaanxi in a village in the Shangluo region, Jia Pingwa studied at the provincial capital Xi’an from 1971. His novels exemplify “native-place fiction” and the blending of traditional story-telling and modern verismo. For useful introductions to his work, click here and here.
I’m particularly keen to read
Feidu 废都 (“Ruined city” or “Abandoned capital”, 1993; translation by Howard Goldblatt, 2016), and
Qinqiang 秦腔, 2005; (forthcoming translation “The Shaanxi opera” by Dylan Levi King and Nicky Harman—see here, and here).
King introduces both novels in an evocative account of a trip on which he and Harman followed Jia back to his home village, now converted into a theme park…
“Native-place” writing has a clear affinity with the movies of Jia Zhangke (no relation!). Indeed, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and the female writer Liang Hong are the subjects of Jia’s 2019 documentary Yizhi dao haishui bianlan 一直游到海水变蓝 (“Swimming out till the sea turns blue”)—characterised by Liu Qing, in her critical review from a gender perspective, as “fixated on the self-mythologising of ordinary men”. Here’s a trailer:
Between The horse thief (1986) and The blue kite (1993), Tian Zhuangzhuang‘s movie Gushu yiren鼓书艺人 (“The drum singers” or “The street players”) was released in 1987. It’s adapted from the last novel of Lao She—written in New York in 1948–49 before he made the fateful decision to return to serve the Chinese revolution (for Mr Ma and son, click here).
The movie is set during the War of Resistance against Japan in the urban metropolis of Chongqing, where the Beijing drum-singer Fang Baoqing has sought refuge from the invaders with his family and opens a thriving tea-house with Tang Shaoye, another refugee story-teller. When Baoqing’s dream of setting up a school to ameliorate the lowly status of performers is shattered by a Japanese bombing raid, he sets up a little tea-house in the suburbs. There, as he makes friends with the progressive writer Mengliang, Baoqing and his daughter Xiulian soon do well from performing Anti-Japanese stories.
But devastated by the loss of his “older brother”, Baoqing wants to give up his project. Mengliang encourages him to send Xiulian to school, but with her lowly background she is driven out by her well-to-do schoolmates. Xiulian, abused, abducted, and then abandoned by a ruffian entrusted to look after her, returns pregnant. As victory over the Japanese is declared, the film ends with the distressed family setting sail to an uncertain future (as did Lao She).
Here’s the film—sorry, no subtitles:
By comparison with Tian Zhuangzhuang’s other work (in particular The blue kite , a most outstanding film) and that of other members of the “fifth generation” (cf. composers), I find The street players somewhat conventional and melodramatic. Under my post on Chinese film classics, far more creative and realistic is To live (Zhang Yimou, 1994), which sets forth from the travails of a shadow-puppet troupe in Beijing during the civil war; and for a (more magical than realist) movie on a rural bard, see Life on a string. For narrative-singing in Beijing and Tianjin, click here and here.
Baidu Maps show that there are 38 Shandong dumpling restaurants and 67 Shanxi noodle restaurants in Taipei. Palates don't cheat. #Taiwan has always been a part of China. The long lost child will eventually return home. pic.twitter.com/p50RXund9T
Further to the Pelosi Imbroglio [1970s’ Manchester prog-rock band—Ed.], the brazen fatuity of the Chinese Foreign Ministry evincing the “38 Shandong dumpling restaurants and 67 Shanxi noodle restaurants in Taipei” to prove that “Taiwan has always been part of China” (“The long lost* child will eventually return home”) has been gleefully ridiculed on Twitter (I’m so gobsmacked that I’m not even going to bother inserting a hyphen in “long lost”). Twitter promptly became full of such logic as
The meme also gave rise to “Paris has always been part of Tibet”:
Les cartes Google map montrent qu'il y a des dizaines de restaurants tibétains à Paris. ça nous montre que le Paris a toujours fait partie du Tibet et le palais tibétains. 😂🤣 pic.twitter.com/iGyWrtY465
I have to say, there are some fine historians in China—but the apparatchiks at the Foreign Ministry are clearly not the sharpest tools in the box. On the other hand, they can spew their idiocies with impunity to a captive audience—autocracies didn’t get where they are today by being rational (cf. Stewart Lee’s taxi driver). Did you know that the word gullible is not in the Chinese dictionary?
Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week for an audience with President Tsai Ing-wen was both bold and costly. As she tweeted,
America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.
But at such a highly sensitive moment in world affairs, her trip has inflamed relations with the PRC, prompting much ominous sabre-rattling from them; and according to many China-watchers, and indeed the US government, it was ill-advised. So far not only has the PRC regime escalated the war of words, but it is retaliating seriously by launching live-fire military drills.
Pelosi’s visit was illustrated by this striking image that has been making the rounds on social media:
The transliteration Nanxi Peiluoxi 南西 佩洛西 is felicitous (cf. Shuaike 帥克 for Švejk). Her Italian parents migrated west (xi 西), and her mother came from the south (nan 南); more to the point, in the image above the final xi character has been elided into the popular deity Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu 西王母). * It illustrates the, um, nexus between sacred and secular power that one finds so often in Chinese religion, both before and since the 1949 “Liberation” (such as the ritual associations of Hebei; see e.g. my Plucking the winds). And on opulent processions in both Taiwan and Fujian across the strait, such god images are borne aloft on palanquins to re-assert territorial boundaries.
Still, by contrast with Pelosi’s excursion, pilgrimages for the seafarers’ goddess Mazu 媽祖 have been a major factor since the 1980s in the political, economic, and cultural rapprochement of people on both sides of the strait (see e.g. here).
While the T-shirts made a popular kitsch image in Beijing, adroitly combining enthusiasm for a foreign icon with misplaced nostalgia for Mao, in the USA they were soon in demand among Obama’s opponents, who fatuously compared his health-care reform with the Holocaust.
The world is a complicated place (You Heard It Here First).
I suppose most people read it simply as “Nanxi Peiluoxi wangmu niangniang” rather than “Nanxi Peiluo Xiwangmu niangniang”, but it’s a nice ambiguity—cf. the classic story of the hilarious misconstruing of a report on Prince Sihanouk’s visit to China!
The ancient fortress, monastery of St Anthony, Egypt.
Travel writing takes many forms, fromEvliyâ Çelebi to Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, and Bruce Chatwin (for a wise survey of the genre through changing times, see this article by Barnaby Rogerson). Female authors like Dervla Murphy and Sarah Wheeler are in a minority. With added focus, generally sacrificing a certain readability, travel writing may shade into anthropology.
William Dalrymple (website; wiki) may seem like a natural successor to his travel-writing guru Patrick Leigh Fermor (see e.g. his tribute to Mani: travels in the southernPeloponnese). But whereas I find Leigh Fermor’s confident purple prose irksome, as he zigags “between sleeping on peasants’ mud floors and bursting into consular drawing-rooms or baronial halls with his letter of introduction: ‘Oh, good, there you are, just in time for the brandy’ ” (I concur with Neil Ascherson, who cites Vesna Goldsworthy‘s book Inventing Ruritania), Dalrymple’s own work is more endearing. Before going on to write distinguished scholarly tomes on Indian art and history, he hit on a winning formula with several popular travel books—including
soon became a bestseller. It describes his four-month journey along the Silk Road over the summer of 1986, before his final year as a Cambridge undergraduate—just as I was returning from my first stay in China.
In Xanadu records the impressions, prejudices, and enthusiasms of a very young, naïve and deeply Anglocentric undergraduate. Indeed my 21 year old self—bumptious, cocky, and self-confident, quick to judge and embarrassingly slow to hesitate before stereotyping entire nations—is a person I now feel mildly disapproving of: like some smugly self-important but charming nephew who you can’t quite disown, but feel like giving a good tight slap to, or at least cutting down to size, for his own good.
Indeed, “gazing at flowers from horseback” can produce trite generalisations (“Dogubayazit was full of sinister, swarthy Turks”), but his jovial tone makes for good reading.
His journey makes a cultured latter-day variant of the hippy trail that had borne fruit in leading Veronica Doubleday and John Baily to Afghanistan, where they made a base in Herat on the eve of the Russian invasion. With Dalrymple’s historical bent he reads up on early travellers’ accounts rather than on modern ethnography.
He begins at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where, having noted the sectarian divide, he takes some holy oil (which, as he notes wryly, he pours not into a goatskin flask but into a plastic phial from the Body Shop) to deliver to the site of Xanadu, the summer capital of Kublai Khan, just as Marco Polo had done in the 13th century. Following in Polo’s footsteps, * he embarks on an ambitious trek east, with two intrepid female companions in relay.
At my primary school we knew all about Marco Polo. He wore a turban, a stripy robe a bit like a dressing gown, and he rode a camel with only one hump. The Ladybird book which had this picture on the cover was the most heavily thumbed book on the school bookshelf. One day, my friends and I put some biscuits in a handkerchief, tied the handkerchief to a stick, and set off to China. It was an exhausting walk as there were no camels in Scotland, and by teatime we had eaten all our biscuits. There was also the problem that we were not absolutely sure where China was. It was beyond England, of that we were certain, but then we were not absolutely sure where England was either. Nonetheless we strode off manfully towards Haddington where there was a shop. We could ask there, we said. But when it began to get dark we turned around and went home for supper. After consultation we decided to put the plan on the shelf for a while. China could wait.
The trip, long unfeasible, at last looked more promising with the opening of the Karakorum Highway in 1986. In Jerusalem
the streets were filled with elderly Saga pensioners on pilgrimage from Preston; in the Via Dolorosa weeping Evangelicals sung “Kum-ba-ya” against the background of wailing muezzin. There were a few miserable-looking Presbyterians, some rotund Eastern European widows, and an Ethiopian cleric in his flowing cassock of grey serge.Pallid, short-sighted Orthodox Jews shuffled past clutching Uzi sub-machine guns. The Arabs—wearing pin-stripe for practicality, and keffiyeh to attract the tourists—had taken up station outside their shops: Rainbow Bazaar, The Omar Khayyam Souvenir Museum, Magic Coffee House, The Al-Haj Carpentry Store.
But as he notes,
This pantomime of subservience had gone on day after day for centuries. Jerusalem has always been a tourist town. The pilgrims have changed, religions have come and gone and empires with them; only the knickknack sellers remain.
Travelling through Israel by bus, he notes
the shoddy sprawl of supermarkets, warehouses, drive-in cinemas, factories, and military installations—all imposed over the old Palestinian villages, bulldozed after their inhabitants were evicted in 1948.
In Syria they go in search of traces of the Assassins, a militant wing of the heterodox Isma’ili sect in medieval times. In Aleppo he tuts at child slavery in a shoe factory, visits a nightclub (Django Reinhardt songs played by an Armenian band), and admires the architecture, commenting on the city’s long history of massacres and sieges.
They move on to Turkey, travelling northeast from Ayas to Sivas and Erzurum. His companion Laura tempers his romanticism:
“We could be the first people to see this view for hundreds of years,” I said, moved to unusual lyricism.
“Balls,” said Laura. “People come up here all the time.”
In Sivas he contrasts the styles of the Ulu Cami mosque and (above) the nearby Gök medresse. With the medieval Armenian connection looming large, they also get a lesson on the 1915 genocide.
As they near the border with revolutionary Iran, logistical challenges become ever more daunting, with Laura now equipped with a full-length black chador and headscarf. They are underwhelmed by Tabriz:
The atmosphere of Tabriz on our arrival exactly paralleled that at the time of Polo. The oil wealth of the 60s and early 70s had financed a population explosion in the town, and if the town had ever had an old-fashioned, Russian flavour [as their guidebook claimed] it had certainly lost it by the time we visited. Like any other rapidly developing town in the Third World, Tabriz was surrounded by miles of ugly urban sprawl.
They get another lesson on politics from an Armenian priest. At Sultaniya and Saveh they ponder the story of the Three Wise Men and Zoroastrianism.
Unable to attempt the northern route through Afghanistan, they keep moving southeast, cadging lifts with groups of devout Afghans until they reach Baluchi Pakistan, a welcome relief. They move on to Quetta, where Dalrymple’s great-aunt had lived as the wife of the Commander of the Western Command, India.
They recover from the ordeal of the train to Lahore by enjoying the luxurious hospitality of a Pakistani friend from Cambridge—air conditioning, baths, clean clothes, a swimming pool, and Mozart, all making a well-deserved interlude between their travails (cf. Nigel Barley on the veranda). As he bids farewell to his brisk companion Laura—a cross between Boudicea and Joyce Grenfell—his fragrant accomplice Louisa arrives for the latter leg of the journey, “dressed as if for the King’s Road”. His love for Lahore has remained a major theme of his ouevre.
Having faced more Kafkaesque bureaucracy to gain permits to enter China, they set off again. With an interlude on Alexander the Great, they cross the border into Xinjiang, rejoining the trail of Marco Polo at Tashkurgan, yet another drab border town. More ingenuity is required in order to keep moving north towards Kashgar.
There they stay at Chini Bagh, residence of George Macartney for twenty-eight years around the turn of the 20th century as the Great Game was being waged, now converted into a dowdy hotel—offering yet another illustration of decline. Kashgar in the 1980s might now seem an unspoilt paradise, but it was already the object of modernisation with Chinese characteristics, its old city walls being demolished over a long period, like those of Chinese cities such as Beijing. Still, as yet there were no cars, and few bicycles; no police surveillance on every corner or labour camps. Venturing behind the façade, they are shown the sights by Mick, a genuine 60s’ hippy who has moved on from Kabul and Goa. They find a world of bazaars and craftsmen, and admire the Id Kah mosque; they even glean further clues to the Nestorians.
Uyghur children, Keriya.
In retrospect this seems like a happy period for the Uyghurs, when despite the scars of the Cultural Revolution, cultural and religious traditions were reviving on a large scale. Along with local scholars, Sabine Trebinjac and Jean During were just starting to document the riches of Uyghur musical life.
Wedding band, Kashgar 1988, from booklet with 2-CD set Turkestan chinois/Xinjiang: musiques Ouïghoures.
Having spent ten days in Kashgar they negotiate a series of lifts to skirt the desert by the southern route via Khotan and Keriya. In Keriya they gatecrash a drunken banquet for German geologists hosted by effusive Chinese apparatchiks—which unexpectedly eases their onward progress in the company of a busload of stoned Uyghurs (hash “is to the Sinkiang People’s Autobus Company what McEwan’s Export is to British Rail”). In Charchan, exhausted, they are finally apprehended by the Public Security Bureau, who deport them by sending them by train all the way to Beijing, away from what they realise is the Lop Nor nuclear testing ground peopled by mutants.
By way of the Gansu corridor and Shaanxi, the train to Beijing takes six days, so they’re happy to graduate from Hard Seat to the luxury of Soft Sleeper.
I vowed never again to travel on a heap of coal slag, never again to stay in a hotel that smelled like a morgue, never again to use a squatter that belched up its contents over the user. I had done all that. If something needed to be proved it was proved. From now it would be a holiday cottage by the seaside, a rocking chair and some new, relaxing hobby, perhaps knitting or crochet.
After exploring Beijing by bike, and eating fourteen chocolate eclairs in three hours, they set off on one last mission north to the site of Kublai Khan’s summer capital Shangdu (Xanadu), on the steppe of what is now Inner Mongolia. Taking the train as far north as Chengde, summer palace of the Qing Manchu emperors, they again dodge the Public Security Bureau to take the bus to Duolun. Although the cops catch up with them, they finally reach their goal, where Dalrymple pours the oil from the Holy Sepulchre into the earth.
Then, rather as in the dénouement of Teddy bears’ picnic, they have to hurry back to take the plane home for the start of term.
Back at Cambridge with Louisa, “looking smug”.
* * *
While In Xanadu makes some telling observations on the societies he travels through, the people whom Dalrymple encounters often seem merely a drôle backdrop.
Far from dropping out, his youthful Long March was the start of an illustrious career. Following City of Djinns (1994), I’ve been re-reading his third book,
It’s already in a different league. By now his blend of early history and contemporary observation is more assured and thoughtful. He’s no longer a backpacking student but an accredited journalist and author, and his budget is less constrained. The people he gets to meet are more informed, and at 454 pages the book is considerably longer than In Xanadu, allowing for more detail.
Dalrymple follows the path of the 6th-century monk John Moschos, guided by his book The spiritual meadow, a diary of his travels around the Eastern Byzantine world. He embarks on a six-month journey in search of the modern descendants of the Christian Levant—different political exigencies often making a dangerous trek.
In the popular imagination, the Levant passes from a classical past to an Islamic present with hardly a break.
Yet for over three hundred years before the rise of Islam in the 7th century the Eastern Mediterranean was almost entirely Christian. The spiritual meadow
could be read less as a dead history book than as the prologue to an unfolding tragedy whose final chapter is still being written. […]
Today the West often views Islam as a civilisation very different from and indeed innately hostile to Christianity. Only when you travel in Christianity’s Eastern homelands do you realise how closely the two religions are really linked. For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now lost in Christianity’s modern Western incarnation.
In the Middle East, the reality of continuity has always been masked by a surface impression of cataclysm.
Dalrymple had already mastered the art of the short suggestive opening sentence with In Xanadu:
It was still dark when I left Sheikh Jarrah.
And the following chapter opens:
Latakia is a filthy hole. I had forgotten how bad it was.
He opens From the holy mountain at the Orthodox monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos—with another winning opening sentence:
My cell is bare and austere. **
Moving on to Istanbul, his vignette of the Pera Palace Hotel makes an extreme contrast with Athos. He reflects on the multi-ethnic Byzantine history of Constantinople, and the gradual erosion of tolerance since the late Ottoman era. Greek and Armenian priests give him a gloomy picture of the severely reduced current circumstances of their flocks. He visits the nearby Princes’ Islands, where Greeks were in a majority until the early 20th century.
But his quest is only just beginning.
As the physical world fell into decay, thousands left their families, intent […] on becoming monks and hermits in the desert.
He moves on to Antakya (Antioch) in southeast Anatolia, going in search of clues to the early stylites. From Moschos he gathers that
visiting these pillar saints was a popular afternoon’s outing for the pious ladies of Antioch’s more fashionable suburbs. […]
It was strange: a ragged illiterate hermit being fawned over by the rich and highly educated Greco-Roman aristocracy; yet odder still was the idea of a hermit famed for his ascetic simplicity punishing himself in the finest setting money could buy. It was like holding a hunger strike in the Ritz. […]
They were men who were thought to have crossed the boundary of reality and gained direct access to the divine. It is easy to dismiss the eccentricities of Byzantine hermits as little more than bizarre circus acts, but to do so is to miss the point that man’s deepest hopes and convictions are often quite inexplicable in narrow terms of logic or reason. At the base of a stylite’s pillar one is confronted with the awkward truth that what has most moved past generations can today only sometimes be only tentatively glimpsed with the eye of faith, while remaining quite inexplicable and absurd when seen under the harsh distorting microscope of sceptical Western rationality.
Next he visits the frontier town of Urfa, site of ancient Edessa, another crucible of diverse faiths (including Manicheans, Zoroastrians, and Nestorians), where
Orthodoxy was only one among a considerable number of options available to the inquiring believer. […] Doctrine was still in a state of continual flux, and no one interpretation of the Christian message and no single set of gospels had yet achieved dominance over any others.
In modern times, after waves of incidents, the whole region had been purged of Armenians in 1915 (though for a detailed recent ethnography, note Avedis Hadjian, Secret nation). He learns of the ongoing neglect of Armenian monuments, and the political constraints on archaeology.
Suriani woman at the fortress church of Ein Wardo.
Diyarbakir, Dalrymple’s next stop, was now the centre of the Turkish army’s struggle with the PKK (cf. Some Kurdish bards). Braving a succession of checkpoints, Dalrymple manages to reach the ancient Suriani Orthodox monastery of Mar Gabriel, now much reduced but still functioning, as well as the fortified village of Ein Wardo, stronghold of Suriani defence against the Ottoman and Kurdish troops in 1915—an Assyrian genocide was under way at the same time as that of the Armenians.
“I believe there is a very large Nestorian community in … is there somewhere in London called Ealing?”
“Yes, I think that’s right,” said George. “It was in Ealing that the current Nestorian Patriarch was crowned. There should be far more Nestorians in London than here. Ealing has the largest Nestorian community in Europe.”
Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late 20th century: go in search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find that they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street in London.
After another fraught journey into Syria, then a relatively safe haven for Christians, he reaches Aleppo, with notes on another faded grand hotel that appealed to a former generation of English travellers:
The inexplicably horrible food, the decaying neo-Gothic architecture, the deep baths and the uncomfortable beds: no wonder Lawrence and his contemporaries felt so much at home here—the Baron is a perfect replica of some particularly Spartan English public school strangely displaced to the deserts of the Middle East.
Exploring the countryside, he notes the role of monks and holy men in quelling evil spirits, a tradition that still continues. He visits the convent of Seidnaya (previously visited by Colin Thubron), with Muslims praying together with Christians.
Back in Aleppo, he finds a church where the monks still sing Urfalee chant, “apparently the most ancient form of Christian music still being sung anywhere in the world” (cf. Chant and beyond). As Dalrymple fishes for a simple, exotic soundbite on the style, the Italian scholar Gianmaria Malacrida offers careful caveats—which I admire as much as I admire Dalrymple for citing them.
Click here for his update on the cultural damage in the early days of the Syrian civil war.
En route to Lebanon, he is struck by the surreal roadside artwork:
Perhaps strangest of all were the unlikely lines of hoardings that rose above the forbidding ruins lining the highway:a smiling Claudia Schiffer stretched out leopard-like in Salvatore Ferragamo next to a yellow sandstone French colonial villa so riddled with great round shrapnel-holes it resembled an outsize slice of Emmental; the Marlboro cowboy with his ten-gallon hat and herd of steers beaming out over an apocalyptic wasteland of shattered tower blocks; a metal tube of Bodymist—un beau corps sans effort—set against a carbon-black skeleton of twisted metal that had once been a filling station. […]
It was like a morality tale, spiralling downwards through one of the world’s greatest monuments to human frailty, a huge vortex of greed and envy, resentment and intolerance, hatred and materialism, a five-mile-long slalom of shellholes and designer labels, heavy artillery and glossy boutiques.
In Beirut he gains insights from the historian Kemal Salibi, who directs him to Leila Badr, an archaeologist who gives him leads to Byzantine remnants around the city. And he consults the journalist Robert Fisk, “a chronic war junkie” who gives him some valuable, if dodgy, contacts. He learns more of the Maronites, Christian supremacists who emerged from the civil war “with their reputation for ruthlessness, barbarity, and political incompetence enormously enhanced”. The trail leads him to the Maronite town of Bsharri, once famed for its saints, now for its warlords. It was soon to become a scenic tourist destination, not least as the birthplace of Khalil Gibran—whose bequest of the royalties from The prophet had led to a bitter war between rival Maronite clans. Back in Beirut, Dalrymple visits a camp for Christian refugees from Palestine.
Continuing south by a tortuous route into Israel, he gives a succinct introduction to the modern history of the occupation of the West Bank. He delves further into the Armenian history of Jerusalem, and (as in Turkey) learns more about the highly politicised world of archaeology in Israel. He expounds the history of St George, on whom the English have no monopoly.
As the various Christian populations of the Middle East seek sanctuary abroad, without them
the most important shrines in the Christian world will be left as museum pieces, preserved only for the curiosity of tourists. Christianity will no longer exist in the Holy Land as a living faith; a vast vacuum will exist in the very heart of Christendom. As the Archbishop of Canterbury recently warned, the area, “once centre of a strong Christian presence,” risks becoming “a theme park”, devoid of Christians “within fifteen years”.
The monastery of Mar Saba.
Dalrymple enters the desert of the West Bank—once a rather densely populated terrain of monks and monasteries. Staying at Mar Saba, the only living monastery there, he admires their austere regime, but is less impressed by the inedible food. Again recalling Mount Athos, his descriptions of monastic rituals are always evocative (see below).
Ever the historian, he visits the chapel of St John Damascene, whose refutation of heresies The Fount of knowledge makes a critique of Islam—as a new, if heretical, form of Christianity:
What Damascene wrote in this cave was largely responsible for saving Byzantium from the ban against sacred art that has always been part of Islam and Judaism. Without Damascene’s work, Byzantine ars sacra would never again have been permitted, Greek painters might never have been able to pass on their secrets to Giotto and the Siennese, and the course of the Renaissance, if it had happened at all, would have been very different.
And he draws our attention to the prayer niche, “another of those features of the early Christian world which has been lost to modern Western Christianity, yet which is still preserved in Islam”.
His explorations of Egypt start in Alexandria, long deserted by its Greek, Jewish, and Armenian entrepreneurs. Dalrymple visits an abandoned synagogue, and finds the gathering place of the city’s last Greeks.
He offers a vignette on the 1895 discovery of ancient papyrus fragments at Oxyrhynchus by the British archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt, remarkable not just for their classical texts but for their rich archive of Byzantine correspondence and administrative documents, revealing the lives of ordinary people.
In the desert southeast of Cairo he reaches the Coptic Orthodox monastery of St Anthony, still flourishing. Again, the 3rd-century hermit monk was pursued by a fan club of fashionable intelligentsia. By the early 5th century some seven hundred monasteries filled the desert between Jerusalem and the southern border of the Byzantine Empire.
In contrast to medieval Western monks, the Egyptian desert fathers also tended to reject the concept of learning, the worship of knowledge for its own sake. St Anthony was particularly scathing about books, proclaiming that “in the person whose mind is sound there is no need for letters”. […] Many of St Anthony’s Coptic followers emulated his example, preferring a life of hard manual labour and long hours of prayer to one of study.
Unlike the other monasteries on Dalrymple’s journey, St Anthony’s continues to attract young monks—literate, often university graduates, and keen students of arid farming techniques. Dalyrymple finds them “kind, gentle men, much more modest and reasonable than the bristling Greek brigands of Mar Saba or their sometimes fanatical brethren on Mount Athos”. He gives another vivid depiction of vespers:
Now, as if from nowhere, at least sixty monks had materialised in the nave and all were chanting loudly in a deep, rumbling plainchant quite different from the elusive, bitterwseet melodies of Gregorian chant or the angular, quickfire vespers of the Greeks. Individually the gentlest of men, the Copts at prayer made a massive, dense, booming sound, each stanza sung by the monastic cantor echoed by a thundering barrage of massed male voices. The wall of sound reverberated around the church, bouncing off the squinches of the dome, crashing onto the mud-brick roof then down again like a lead weight into the nave. Yet despite its heaviness, there was nothing harsh or brutal about the Coptic chant, the swelling notes of the refrain resolving to give the whole threnody a tragic, desolate air, as if all the distilled deprivations of generations of monks were being enunciated and offered up, at once an agonised atonement for the sins of mankind and exorcism foretelling the terrors of the night to come. […]
There was a moment of silence as the monks marched from the middle of the nave, through the swirling incense, to a long lectern near the sanctuary where a line of ancient bound vellum lectionaries lay open. There the brethren split into groups. Quietly at first, those on the north began singing a verse of the psalm of the day, those to the south answering them, the volume gradually rising, the stiff, illuminated pages of the service books all turning together as the chant thundered on into the late evening, accompanied now by an occasional clash of cymbals or an ecstatic ringing of triangles. As the service progressed and the tempo of the singing rose, novices swung their thuribles and the great cumulus clouds of frankincense coagulated into a thick white fog in the body of the nave…
I’d love to find videos of such rituals.
After five days in the seclusion of St Anthony’s, he is horrified by the mundane chaos of Cairo, and soon moves on in search of more desert monasteries. He eventually gains permission to visit the province of Asyut, centre of Egypt’s Coptic population, but closed to foreigners since the Islamist insurgency. The prospects seem gloomy, with Copts migrating, first to the anonymity of the cities, and then abroad. With an armed guard he reaches the fortified Coptic Abbey of Deir al-Muharraq, which had recently been attacked. As the convoy moves on to Kharga, an even more remote area, he reflects on the different problems confronting Christians around the Middle East:
In southeast Turkey the Syrian Christians were caught in the crossfire of a civil war, a distinct ethnic group trodden underfoot in the scrummage between two rival nationalisms, one Kurdish, the other Turkish. Here it was their ethnicity as much as their religion which counted against the Christians; they were not Kurds and not Turks, therefore they did not fit in. In Lebanon, the Maronites had reaped a bitter harvest of their own sowing: their failure to compromise with the country’s Muslim majority had led to a destructive civil war that ended in a mass emigration of Christians and a proportional diminution of Maronite power. The dilemma of the Palestinian Christians was quite different again. Their problem was that, like their Muslim compatriots, they were Arabs in a Jewish state, and as such suffered as second-class citizens in their own country, regarded with a mixture of suspicion and contempt by their Israeli masters. However, unlike most of the Muslims, they were educated professionals and found it relatively easy to emigrate, which they did, en masse. Very few were now left. Only in Egypt was the Christian population unambiguously threatened by a straightforward resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, and even there such violent fundamentalism was strictly limited to specific Cairo suburbs and a number of towns and villages in Upper Egypt, even if some degree of discrimination was evident across the country.
* * *
Dalrymple’s work exemplifies why many foreigners are attracted to the Mystic East, in search of grand architecture and the vestiges of ancient civilisations. Sometimes his work reads like a more dependable modern rebranding of Gurdjeff and the Truth Seekers; but his highly readable blending of early history, spiritual quest, and current affairs is really most impressive.
FWIW, all this reminds me why I really don’t like travelling. It’s not really that I have any sense of “belonging” in London; but I’m averse to being a stranger, an ignorant foreigner unable to communicate. If I’m going to go somewhere, I want to stay there a bit, and get to know at least the basics of what makes the society tick. In China, “hit-and-run” missions can be useful, such as Yang Yinliu’s Hunan survey in 1956, or our reccies of south Fujian (1986/1990), north Shanxi (1992), and the plain south of Beijing; but I’ve relished making a base in one village, and with one family. Indeed, Dalrymple perhaps reached a similar conclusion, having made his home in Delhi since 1989, producing erudite (and always accessible) studies on the art and history of the Indian subcontinent.
* * *
Dalrymple has also written and presented several TV series. In From the holy mountain he himself exposed the long history of bitter conflict in the region (Moschos makes clear “the horrifying, almost apocalyptic nature of the destruction he witnessed around him”), exacerbated in a polarised modern world; so while he might have chosen to join the media in focusing on the gloomy outlook, with all the irreconcilable schisms, instead he prefers to preach a contrasting gospel—the shared roots, diversity, and historical tolerance of Christianity and Islam.
The exigencies of commercial TV suggest that I shouldn’t mark them down too much for including some of the Usual Suspects like the Whirling Dervishes (cf. Bektashi–Alevi ritual, 1). But hey, I continue to churn out armchair vignettes of world music—so “I can’t talk”…
Though I’ve never ventured as far as Gansu, I’m always keen to include it in our picture of the culture of northwest China. *
Among the talented younger generation of Chinese film-makers is Li Ruijun李睿珺 (b.1983). A native of Gaotai county of Zhangye prefecture in Gansu, his style is based on the challenges faced by the dwindling populations of his poor rural home.
For more northwestern verismo, Jia Zhangke continues to bear the torch for rural Shanxi; and for Shaanbei, I’m still enamoured with The story of Qiu Ju, among the movies featured in Chinese film classics of the early reform era. Further south in rural Hunan, note the documentaries of Jiang Nengjie. Given the ongoing repression of the cultural scene, young directors are showing remarkable creativity in negotiating the shifting sands of censorship. Cf. the “native-place fiction” of Jia Pingwa and others.
In the same vein as Li Qing’s poem to the Eight Immortals (Literary wordplay), his grandson Li Bin has just sent me this image of a cute New Year’s duilian couplet that he spotted, pasted up at a gateway in Anjiazao village in Gucheng district, south of the Daoists’ base at Upper Liangyuan.
At least, it looks like a duilian, with upper (right) and lower (left) columns both apparently comprising seven characters. Actually it’s another of those series of composite characters, each one containing four characters within it. The deciphered text is a fairly standard auspicious New Year’s wish for prosperity, but the visual effect is striking. As you will soon discern, the motto at the top reads
In a poor county where literacy levels were low right until the 1990s, I’m impressed by this creativity with the script.
The shengguan group, 2011: left to right Li Bin, Wu Mei, Yang Ying.
Meanwhile, as the world lurches from one crisis to the next, Li Bin and the Yanggao Daoists are busy as ever providing ritual services to their local community. During the pandemic, while he couldn’t lead a ritual band for funerals, he was still in demand to determine the date, site the grave, supervise the encoffinment, and so on; and now that the initial alarm has receded in Yanggao, he again leads his band for the rituals culminating in the burial.
Storytelling is always an oral repository of a people’s history and culture—as, for instance, in the Balkans (here, under “Bards”), Ukraine, Central Asia, and China. Now I’ve been trying to learn a bit about the dengbêj bards of Kurdistan.
There are majority Kurdish populations in regions of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, * all of whom have vexed relations with the relevant state authorities. Repressed in varying degrees of severity under different regimes, many have gone into exile. **
Dengbêj Among the variety of genres, here I’ll focus on Kurdish dengbêj storytellers within the borders of modern Turkey. In English, I look forward to reading
Ulaş Özdemir, Wendelmoet Hamelink, and Martin Greve (eds), Diversity and contact among singer-poet traditions in eastern Anatolia (2018; contents here), with its evocative cover image:
Musicians during the Festival of Folk Poets in Sivas, 1931.
Wendelmoet Hamelink, The sung home: narrative, morality, and the Kurdish nation (2014) (revised excerpt here, on politics and song texts).
Traditional settings included şevbihêrk evening gatherings, urban cafés, and weddings. For later generations the dengbêj came to be associated with poverty and dependency, working for a beğ or an ağa. Their broad repertoire comprises epic tales of love and war, recited solo, fast and loud; some distinct mournful songs (kilam, stran) may be heard with instrumental accompaniment. Waves of conflict and repression have impacted the dengbêj; and it soon becomes apparent that change over the past century has resulted in reification.
I was drawn to the bards by the enthusiasm of popular singer Aynur for the great dengbêj of yesteryear, such as Dengbêj Şakiro (1936–96):
As in many traditional societies, women’s voices are heard
mainly in domestic, private and all-female spheres to which outsider and/or male ears are rarely admitted. The impression that Kurdish women lack voice is hence a result less of the actual absence of voice than of the way in which public and private spaces are differently valued. The general devaluation of the private (and female) sphere means that voices whose range is limited to the private become considered as insignificant. What counts, in our modern age, is public voice—precisely that which women have frequently been denied.
The women dengbêj are known especially for their kilam laments, expressions of pain and suffering, “closely related to epic songs (destan), funeral lamentations (şîn), and lullabies (lorî)”. While the kilam may be sung solo, they also match the mournful quality of the qernête (duduk, balaban) double-reed pipe, as we have already heard.
Renowned female singers included Meryem Xan (1904–49) (wiki, and here):
Schäfers also cites a kilam by Dengbêj Gazîn (1959–2018) from Van, with a play of words on gazîn, which is both the singer’s stage name and means “cry” or “shout”:
I am Gazîn, I am a dengbej, I am neither deaf, nor am I mad My eyes are shedding tears I tell the sorrows of my heart Nobody hears my voice I tell the sorrows of my heart Nobody hears my voice.
I am the heart-broken Gazîn My insides are full of blood I am like Xeçê, like Zîn In the face of the enemies of tyranny There remains no place for me to go In the face of the enemies of tyranny I turn towards the struggle.
I am Gazîn amidst the villagers I am a milkmaid on the pastures I cry out like a crane In the face of the enemies of tyranny I have become a captive in the mountains In the face of the enemies of tyranny I turn toward the desert and the mountains.
and in many hauntingly plangent audio recordings, such as in this playlist, and:
Dengbêj Gazîn was sentenced to one year in prison for singing Kurdish songs in 2010, deemed by the state prosecution to constitute “propaganda for an illegal organisation”, though she was acquitted in 2013.
In her chapter in Diversity and contact among singer-poet traditions in eastern Anatolia, Schäfers cites Gazîn’s kilam on the subject of the Van earthquake in 2011, making further acute observations on the topic of the “ownership” of orally-transmitted songs.
The dengbêj “tradition” as it exists today is the result of a several-decades-long process of negotiation between different Kurdish individual and collective actors, between different parts of Kurdish society, and between these Kurdish actors and representatives of the state. It shows that both the state and the Kurdist movement(s) have demonstrated contradictory attitudes toward dengbêj, ranging from protection to disinterest and repression, and that the practice of the dengbêj as well as the definition of the “tradition” have been profoundly shaped by this process. […]
Even though there is no longer a ban, auto-censorship is still in force and the dengbêjs are represented as “innocent relics” who portray the Kurdish part of the “Anatolian mosaic” promoted by official narratives in the 2000s.
The first part of the paper examines the survival of a certain way of dengbêjîin in spite of repression by state institutions, wider social changes, and a rather disinterested Kurdish movement. The second section looks at the revival of the dengbêj practice and at a renewed interest among some Kurdish activists, looking specifically at the municipality-led project.
Following the partitioning of Kurdish territory with the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, under the Turkish Republic the dengbêj have been subject to sporadic repression since the 1930s, most severely in the 1980s.
But dengbêjî was not only repressed by the state. It was also impeded by a Kurdish population that was both worried about persecution and had to some degree lost interest due to wider social changes (urbanisation, the arrival of television, and the development of new, “modern”, musical forms), and because of the attitudes of some within the Kurdish movement.
Scalbert-Yücel notes the change of context to performance at the official Houses of Dengbêj, for festivals, and on TV.
First, the songs performed today are shorter. […] Firstly, lack of practice, sometimes for a couple of decades, led to a loss of memory and shortening of the songs. The second reason is directly linked to the issue of the performance and the audience. The contemporary audience does not necessarily appreciate long epic stories, nor do they always understand them. This is reflected in the way in which people visit the House: they come for a little while, sit in the room with the dengbêj, and listen for them for a few minutes. They also often record the songs with their mobile phones, like they would shoot a photo souvenir. For the festivals and the television, the long epic songs are also largely shortened and cut.
Abbreviation had a longer history dating back to the early recording industry, to which the shorter kilams were better suited.
Economic and symbolic stakes also pushed people toward the use of instrumentation: adding instruments makes the dengbêj easier to listen to, more attractive, and potentially more famous. This changed the form of the music. […]
Political and guerrilla songs are also censored by the associations or TV channels. This means that an important part of the repertoire remains “in the chest” of the dengbêj and may eventually be forgotten. This can also halt the creative process and lead to a fixation of the dengbêj in the past, or give new directions to the creative process. Also, “old” songs seem to be given more value than the new ones as representing the “tradition”, the real “culture”.
As learning from tapes became common, the chain of transmission has been transformed.
Dengbêjs have become symbolic; they have become a heritage [mîras], as said one of the music professionals interviewed, who compared them to swords in a museum: before they were used daily by everyone; now they stand on a shelf.
Given a longstanding and engrained history of systematic and violent persecution, repression, denial, and assimilation of all matters Kurdish by the Turkish state, Kurdishness has effectively been rendered an inherently and inescapably political subject position in Turkey today.
She seeks an understanding that
allows for a continual slippage between cultural heritage understood as, on the one hand, marking the essence of the Kurdish nation and being therefore of an inherently political nature and, on the other hand, constituting a non- or pre-political realm of folkloric engagement with ethnic traditions.
And she notes Nathalie Heinich’s felicitous term “the administration of authenticity”.
As critics of liberal multiculturalism have repeatedly noticed, tolerance is extended only on the condition that the object to be tolerated remains within boundaries determined by the tolerant majority itself.
The dengbêj of Van are briefly introduced here, with this film:
Even those pushing for cultural preservation concede that the dengbêj is now a somewhat nostalgic embodiment of Kurdish identity. Movies and pop music are more influential than their laments, and the form’s rural strongholds are declining as young people move to cities. Whereas performers were once honoured guests at private houses and weddings, they now sing mainly for television, tourists, and folkloristic recordings. Their stories are shorter these days, in accommodation to both modern audiences and their own dwindling abilities.
** I think of the Tibetans, also stateless—their homes (within the People’s Republic of China) in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Amdo, and Kham, as well as Nepal, Ladakh, Bhutan, India, and the diaspora; for some Tibetan bards, click here and here.
We impertinent laowai are used to descending on a Chinese community to interpret its customs, but it’s less common to find Chinese ethnographies of religious life in Western societies.
Li Shiyu 李世瑜 (1922–2010) was a leading authority on Chinese sectarian religion and its “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷). Alongside his historical research, he was concerned to document religious life in current society—although it was hard to broach the latter in China after the 1949 revolution. In his work on the precious scrolls, I have also been impressed by his attention to performance practice. When I met him in the early 1990s he was still going strong, and still doing fieldwork.
Li Shiyu with his wife, 1993. My photo.
Li Shiyu undertook his early field training in rural north China in 1947–48, on the eve of the Communist revolution, assisting his teacher, the Belgian Catholic missionary Willem Grootaers, in documenting village temples around the regions of Wanquan, Xuanhua, and Datong.  Whereas Grootaers was mainly concerned with listing the material evidence of “cultic units”, Li went further in describing sectarian activity. His resulting thesis Xianzai Huabei mimi zongjiao 现在华北秘密宗教 [Secret religions in China today], was published promptly in 1948, focusing on four sects including the Way of Yellow Heaven (also active in north Shanxi in counties such as Yanggao and Tianzhen, and later documented by scholars such as Cao Xinyu and Liang Jingzhi).
After the 1949 “Liberation” Li’s research was highly circumscribed (like that of countless other scholars such as Wang Shixiang), though he managed to continue his study of the precious scrolls, publishing a major catalogue in 1961. It was only after the liberalisations of the late 1970s following the collapse of the commune system that was he able to resume his work in earnest.
And in that early reform era, from 1984 to 1986 he also spent eighteen months as a Luce Scholar at Pennsylvania University. Hannibal Taubes (always ready to supply a stimulating lead: e.g. here, and here) alerts me to a chapter in Li Shiyu’s memoirs (Li Shiyu huiyilu 李世瑜回憶錄 , pp.296–311) in which he attempted to apply the kind of field methods that he had acquired under Grootaers (described in pp.267–70) to the “folk religions” of the USA, with vignettes of the diverse Christian life of urban Philadelphia.
In his last six months there Li Shiyu made an ethnographic survey of church activity in the university district—an area of twenty streets and some 8,000 inhabitants. The 160 churches there might be large or small, with some shared by more than one denomination; seventeen were established Catholic and Protestant churches, while the others belonged to over seventy different groups that had mostly been formed since World War Two, some of them just small “house churches”.
With the Mayor of Philadelphia.
My eyebrows were raised to read of Li Shiyu’s first port of call: in search of statistics, he began by consulting the very people he would never dream of going anywhere near in China—the Police Chiefs 公安局局长 (!) of the district and city. In China, local police archives (see Liu Shigu’s chapter for Fieldwork in modern Chinese history) would make most instructive sources on religious activity for the whole era of Maoist campaigns, but attempting access would be rash. Indeed, to Li Shiyu’s lasting anguish, his 1948 thesis had been used by the Public Security Bureau to suppress the very sectarian groups he had respectfully documented.
Anyway, when the Philadelphia police chiefs were unable to help, the City Council introduced him to the Mayor, who asked, “Why do you wanna know? You been sent by your government? Are you gonna give your report to them when you go back?”.  Li Shiyu replied that he was just doing academic research, nothing to do with the government—just as we might have to explain in China (cf. Nigel Barley in Cameroon, cited at the end of my post on The brief of ethnography).
In answer to Li Shiyu’s query whether churches needed to register when they opened, the Mayor explained how “freedom of religious belief” worked in the States; all people had to do was to find a property, ideally one bequeathed in someone’s will, tax-free and rent-free. He went on, “Some pastors are pitiable—unable to find a site, they have to rent one temporarily, paid by donations from the congregation or from their subsidiary occupation. Spreading the teachings is a good thing, it’s good for society, there’s no need to register with the police—so I dunno how many churches there are in Philly.”
Next Li Shiyu visited the Westminster Theological Seminary. But as one has to do in China, he soon gave up on officialdom, “going down” to the churches themselves, one by one. As he notes, in an unstable, even dangerous, American society, parents sought to prevent their children getting into trouble by introducing them to the spiritual power of the church (rather like the elders of Hebei ritual associations, as recalled by many villagers such as Cai An). Li absorbed himself in the intensity of sermons and choirs, getting to know congregation members. But rather than observing the mainstream churches, his experience in China doubtless prompted him to seek out some of the more less orthodox, charismatic groups—some of which forbade marriage or the owning of property.
To imbue us with the holy spirit, here’s a musical interlude from 1976 (which will get you in the mood for Aretha’s ecstatic Amazing Grace):
Li Shiyu’s survey makes fascinating reading in Chinese, bearing in mind his particular concerns, suggesting parallels with religious life in China. A case in point is the first, and most remarkable, of his nineteen vignettes, “The Holy Mother descends from the mountain” (Shengmu xiashan 圣母下山).
I doubt if Li Shiyu quite knew what he was getting into  when he stayed for ten days in a hostel on 36th Street, whose basement was the meeting place of the International Peace Mission. The mission was founded by the controversial African-American preacher Father Divine—here’s a short documentary:
After his death in 1965 the organisation was led by his white wife Edna Rose Ritchings, known as “Sweet Angel”, “Mother Divine”.
Mother Divine signs her book for Li Shiyu.
In March 1986 Li Shiyu witnessed Mother Divine’s annual “descent from the mountain” (the “mountain” of her estate at Woodmont in the suburbs), and even made a speech as guest of honour at the banquet. But he can’t have been privy to Father Divine’s turbulent story or the Peace Mission’s intrigues. From 1971 Mother Divine was engaged in a dispute with cult leader Jim Jones, until he fled to Guyana in 1978 and instigated his followers to commit a horrific mass suicide there (subject of several documentaries, e.g. here)—alas, just the kind of cult that the Chinese state seizes on as a pretext to suppress peaceful gatherings of believers.
Li Shiyu goes on to introduce the Miracle Temple of Christ; he takes part in a “qigong” healing session, and a service involving “wild kissing”; he is struck by the silence of prayer at a Quaker (Kuike! 魁克) meeting (evidently “unprogrammed worship“), discovers Sister Tina’s lucrative psychic fortune-telling business, and observes a rather stressful immersive baptism. In an experiment that only the most intrepid fieldworker will care to contemplate, he confuses a couple of what sounds like Jehovah’s Witnesses by showing a genuine interest in their teachings, asking them etic questions like why there were so many denominations in Philadelphia, and their economic circumstances. And he describes the only occasion in visiting over a hundred churches when he was met by a hostile reception.
Of course, Chinese scholars have long sought to understand “Western culture”; one might even see it as the mainstream of Chinese intellectual life since at least the May Fourth era (for science, philosophy, fiction, music, and so on)—I think, for example, of Fou Ts’ong’s father Fu Lei. Though Western culture didn’t reside solely in advanced technology or reified masterpieces of high art, it was rare for Chinese scholars to have the curiosity (or means) to contemplate the ethnography of living Western societies.
Even making the transition from rural to urban ethnography is rather rare, let alone shifting one’s sights from rural China to urban America. Just as Western fieldworkers in China build on a considerable body of research by local scholars, within the USA such charismatic traditions attract much study. And like Western scholars making an initial survey in China, during Li Shiyu’s time in Philadelphia he could hardly engage with the complexities involved in documenting religious life, or address issues such as race, gender, poverty, migration, and social change.
Still, he clearly found the encounter most fruitful and suggestive. For Chinese readers, potentially, such studies might suggest that “superstitious” practices were not unique to a “backward” China, that they have their own social logic. Li Shiyu’s non-judgmental, etic viewpoint is refreshing.
Though he gives Christian Science an easy ride, when interviewed by a representative he encapsulates a significant issue: asked, “Why do you want to come to the States to study our folk religion?”, Li Shiyu replies feistily, “That’s a question I’d ask your scholars—why do you come to China to study our folk religion?!”, citing the Chinese proverb Lai er bu wang fei li ye 來而不往非禮也 “Not to reciprocate is against etiquette”. Click here for the more elaborate interview in The Christian Science Monitor.
Despite his somewhat testy initial encounter with the Mayor, Li Shiyu clearly relished the ease of doing fieldwork in the States, without the fear of consequences that bedevilled research under Maoism in China. His sojourn in Philly must have made a welcome relief before he plunged back into the fray of fieldwork in China, as academic pursuits there became more free—if never free enough.
 The Mayor was apparently Wilson Goode—who might well have been feeling sensitive since he was under the shadow of an investigation into the police’s botched attempt the previous year to clear the building occupied by the radical anarcho-primitivist cult MOVE, when a police helicopter had dropped a bomb that led to a fire destroying four city blocks, killing eleven (including five children) and leaving 240 people homeless (documentary here). Goode himself later went on to become a minister of religion.
 Rather as I had no idea in 1989 when I first witnessed the New Year’s rituals in Gaoluo that the village had been the scene of a major massacre in the 1900 Boxer uprising, and that the Catholics there had later been evangelised by Bishop Martina, who was accused of plotting to blow up the Communist leadership at the 1949 victory celebrations in Tiananmen: click here.
Returning to Üsküdar the other afternoon, as landmarks gradually became visible I was trying to recognise its mosques from afar. I was on the lookout for the Yeni Valide Camii (1703)—where we had previously admired a double ezan call to prayer—and the charming little Şemsi Paşa Camii (1581) on the coast; perhaps even the Atik Valide Külliyesi (1583) further up the hill. But at first I couldn’t quite make out any of them.
I made some fatuous remark like “The big mosque looks very small”, whereupon my Wise Companion Augusta patiently offered me a lesson in perspective not unlike that of Father Ted to Dougall:
Augusta promised me the mosques would soon look bigger—and as if by magic…
In art, the development of perspective is commonly associated with Renaissance Italy (Brunelleschi, Piero della Francesca, and so on). BTW, for China, do read the fascinating article by Hannibal Taubes on the use of perspective on temple murals and opera stages in rural north China since the 19th century!
OK, we’re not talking Art here, more the disconnect between my eyes and brain. Like hello?
Images from 1968 (left) and 1980 (right); see here.
In north China the white cloth that male peasants tie around their heads became an emblem of the revolution. The custom long predated the 1949 Liberation, but was another casualty of the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s.
While the headgear was common throughout the north Chinese countryside, it is often associated with Shaanbei, revolutionary base from the 1930s. In this 1981 group photo from Yulin, only a couple of shawm players were wearing them (see Walking shrill), outnumbered by the peaked caps which were a more modern image of the revolution:
In the hill village of Yangjiagou, here’s the shawm player Chang Bingyou (1916–98), father of our friend Older Brother:
Though fashion moved slowly in the countryside, by the time I visited Shaanbei in 1999 headscarves were already rare. Here’s the Yangjiagou band at a funeral in 1999:
So it was purely in a spirit of nostalgia that we took this photo with Older Brother and Chouxiao in 1999:
But some older people in the region were still wearing the headscarf—here’s a band from Linxian (across the river in Shanxi) at the Baiyunshan temple fair in 2001:
Here’s Guo Yuhua with the last Yangjiagou villager still wearing it in 2005:
In the countryside south of Beijing, headscarves were also rare in Gaoluo by the 1990s. The wonderful He Yi was virtually the only villager who still wore one:
The fine line between irony and Looking a Complete Twat is lost on the repugnant Minister for the 18th Century, “eternally trapped in the ridiculous fancy-dress outfit that he once wore for a laugh at a school party” (oh, I said that):
Irony was also in full flow during the recent Opening of Parliament, with a crown worth billions of pounds, delivered in a gilded carriage, on display during a speech that neatly sidestepped the cost-of-living crisis (government advice: “Why not try earning more money?”):
As to clothing, one might note that men are not only free to choose for themselves, but that they are also kind enough to decide on behalf of women.
It’s hard to keep up with publications on the Uyghur genocide. James Millward offers a useful selection of readings, leading to this bibliography.
Among several fine scholars is the anthropologist Darren Byler, who has recently published several works. His Terror capitalism: Uyghur dispossession and masculinity in a Chinese city (2022; interview here) is a major study. A more succinct account, but just as incisive, is
In the camps: life in China’s high-tech penal colony (2022).
Detailed case studies of the nightmares endured by innocent people illustrate the web of checkpoints, digital surveillance, and facial recognition, operated by private technology companies and police contractors; and the mass internment projects that are aimed not at a small number of criminals but at the entire Muslim population.
The surveillance system itself produced assumptions of guilt, of pre-criminality. As the system manufactured these claims, many Muslims were made to hide their moral objections by wearing masks of loyalty to the state programme. Those who lacked these masks were dehumanised under the lights and cameras of the camps. They were transformed by plastic stools, electric batons, and automated cruelty. They were trained to sit still, cower when appropriate, to accept beatings silently, to sing loudly, to always smile, and to say “Yes!” to every command. They were conditioned not to register the smell of excrement, fear, and sweat that came with the open buckets used as toilets, the crush of unwashed bodies in cramped space, and their terror of the guards. They stopped noticing the glare of bright lights in the middle of the night. They stopped feeling their constant hunger. They stopped thinking about the distant future or the past.
Smartphones, which became common from 2005, seemed a blessing, allowing people to share information widely—all the more once WeChat became popular from 2010. Sharing knowledge with Islamic communities abroad was just one aspect of this. This soon turned into a “phone disaster”, as state scrutiny of the device became a major tool in its “War on Terror”.
As Byler discovers, the chain of guilt leads to tech companies in the USA, and within the PRC to the forced labour of factories both in Xinjiang and in the Chinese heartland. Meanwhile camp guards, technicians, and “teachers”—Han Chinese, Uyghur, and Kazakh—were also desensitised, although many were deeply traumatised. A Muslim women, conscripted from her primary school job to teach Chinese to camp inmates, soon realised that this assignment was no ordinary “training centre”. Finding her first “pupils” were handcuffed elderly men with beards, without thinking, she used the traditional greeting “Assalamu alaykum”.
When she said this, the students froze. “They looked terrified. I realised I had said something wrong. I introduced myself and started the class. I just stared at the blackboard, and didn’t turn back to look at their faces. I couldn’t turn around because some detainees were sobbing. Some of the old men’s beards were wet from crying. I tried to compose myself. I didn’t look back at all during the class. I just kept writing and erasing the characters on the blackboard.
Gradually she acclimatises to the performance demanded of her. The staff too are under constant scrutiny, their every movement recorded on camera, their own phones monitored.
The violence of functioning within the camp system wore her down. Violating the personhood of others resulted in a violation of her own sense of dignity and self-worth.
Relatives of the disappeared lived in fear too. Family separation has become endemic; “in some Uyghur-majority areas, as many as 70% of children up through age five are now held in Mandarin-medium ‘Kindness Kindergartens’ while their parents are in prisons, camps, or factories“. On the rare occasions when inmates were permitted supervised family visits, it was even more painful to have to go through the charade of pretending that everything was fine.
Those who are eventually released from the camps, cowed into subservience, often find themselves coerced into forced labour as factory workers for Han Chinese companies. The fruits of their labour are sold around the world. Propaganda praises such enterprise as “poverty alleviation” for a backward people, whereby they acquire “life skills”, workers are entirely deprived of legal protections, forming a captive underclass.
One camp survivor observed,
We often became hopeless. Sometimes we really felt hatred towards the Chinese people, to the point where I would catch myself thinking that I could kill Chinese government workers just to feel something. But then I think about all the Han Chinese people I’ve met who also criticise Xi Jinping, who curse him. So I can’t blame the Chinese people for this; they are victims too.
Finally Byler turns to the global picture. He notes that the surveillance system of Xinjiang is an extreme, “perfected” instance of those deployed around the world, and developed in the West at companies such as at his own base in Seattle, with Microsoft, IBM, Amazon, Google, Adobe all deeply implicated.
The management of Covid is also implicated in such systems:
The ability of Seattle, Kansas City, and Seoul to respond as rapidly as they have to the pandemic relies in part on the way systems of oppression in Northwest China have opened up a space to train biometric surveillance algorithms. The protection of others depends on […] ignoring the dehumanisation of thousands of detainees and unfree workers.
Byler notes the potential of such technology to further entrench racialization in the USA.
The algorithms make it appear normal that black men or Uyghurs are disproportionately detected by these systems. They stop the police, and those they protect, from recognising that surveillance is always about controlling and disciplining people that do not fit into the vision of those in power. The world, not China alone, has a problem with surveillance.
For Michael Dillon’s LRB review of In the camps and other recent works, click here.
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A more wide-ranging study is
Darren Byler, Ivan Franceschini, and Nicholas Loubere (eds), Xinjiang Year Zero(2022; free download here).
The volume is an outgrowth of the Made in China Journal, where several of the essays were originally published. The Preface by Andrea Pitzer, and the editors’ Introduction, spell out some of the main themes: camps, surveillance, technology, labour exploitation, and global connections. Aimed at the whole society, ethnic cleansing criminalises the everyday lives of Muslims in Xinjiang.
The book is in three broad sections. Part One, “Discursive roots”, traces historical factors.Ye Hui, “Nation building as epistemic violence”, situates the repression of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang in the history of global imperialism, outlining how the dispossession of populations in Xinjiang today is an effect of secular nation-building. Zenab Ahmed, “Revolution and state formation as oasis storytelling in Xinjiang”, analyses assimilationist policies targeting Uyghur spirituality and mythic storytelling. Guldana Salimjan, “Blood lineage”, traces how conceptions of racial purity and authenticity have shaped national consciousness throughout the history of the PRC. David Brophy, “Good and bad Muslims in Xinjiang”, examines how Beijing taps into global discourses of counter-radicalisation emerging from the US-led War on Terror. In “Imprisoning the open air: preventive policing as community detention in northwestern China”, Darren Byler digs into how counterinsurgency strategies developed in the USA, Israel, and Europe have been adapted for “community policing” in Xinjiang.
Part Two, “Settler colonialism”, situates the case of contemporary Xinjiang in a longer-run history of Han settler colonialism. Tom Cliff’s photo essay “Oil and water” depicts the lives of Han Chinese settlers in Xinjiang. Guldana Salimjan, “Recruiting loyal stabilisers: on the banality of carceral colonialism in Xinjiang”, details the ongoing human transfer project in Xinjiang through the banal language of recruitment and employment. In “Triple dispossession in northwestern China”, Sam Tynen explores multiple forms of everyday dispossession and displacement of Uyghurs outside the camps. Timothy Grose, “Replace and rebuild: Chinese colonial housing in Uyghur communities”, outlines the ways in which Uyghur spaces are being reorganised, resulting in the disruption of conceptions of home; as in other colonial projects, “civilising” the indigenous population entails destroying their tradition. Rian Thum, “The spatial cleansing of Xinjiang: Mazar desecration in context”, details the meaning and implications of the destruction of three of the most revered sacred and historical sites in Xinjiang (see also Shrine festivals of the Uyghurs), as well as the desecration of graveyards. Guldana Salimjan, “Camp land: settler ecotourism and Kazakh removal in contemporary Xinjiang”, explains how the discourses and practices of ecotourism are used to justify the removal of Kazakh communities. Darren Byler, “Factories of Turkic Muslim internment”, shows how the internment camps are producing cheap labour for the factories moving to Xinjiang to take advantage of the situation.
Tourists entering the new Kashgar Old City, 2015.
Part Three, “Global connections”, concerns the global nature of mass detention and the emergence of a high-tech surveillance state in Xinjiang. Nicholas Loubere and Stefan Brehm, “The global age of the algorithm: social credit, Xinjiang, and the financialisation of governance in China”, draw connections between experiments with “social credit” and broader global processes of financialised inclusion, reflecting on what this means for social control. Darren Byler, “Surveillance, data police, and digital enclosure in Xinjiang’s ‘Safe Cities’ ” explores how Xinjiang’s “Safe Cities” are facilitating forms of surveillance and digital enclosure. Gerald Roche, “Transnational carceral capitalism and private paramilitaries in Xinjiang and beyond” examines the role of an international private security firm in Xinjiang, considering how the global security industry precipitates the circulation of methods and technologies of control in China and beyond. Séagh Kehoe, “Chinese feminism, Tibet, and Xinjiang”, looks at the plight of women and ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang from the perspective of the Chinese and international feminist movements. Nitasha Kaul, “China: Xinjiang; India: Kashmir”, compares China and India in their treatment of “othered” populations in Xinjiang and Kashmir (which share a border).
In the Conclusion, the editors update the story and note important issues that the international community needs to address. An Appendix gives a detailed timeline since 2009.
Scholarship on the PRC can no longer ignore such impressive research on the repression in Xinjiang and elsewhere—which must continue to be highlighted among the many current alarms around the world.
This is the latest in my series on Uyghur culture, with posts listed here.
The Harvard Library has a new bilingual exhibition (until the end of August) on the life and work of Rulan Chao Pian 卞趙如蘭(1922–2013; here, and wiki), with rare books, original field recordings, and other material from her research and teaching.
Daughter of the linguist Yuen Ren Chao, Rulan Chao Pian was a leading scholar of the performing arts and music history of China, teaching at Harvard from 1947 until her retirement in 1992. She was one of the founders of CHINOPERL. In 1974 she became the first Chinese American woman professor at Harvard. Soon after mainland China opened up with the liberalisations of the late 1970s she was active in researching and lecturing there, while spreading word abroad of the revival in performance traditions and scholarship.
In her bibliography, note the wealth of articles on Peking opera and narrative singing. On early history, her 1969 book Sonq dynasty musical sources and their interpretation explored material that was already being interpreted by scholars like Yang Yinliu in China and Laurence Picken in England. See also the festschrift Themes and variations: essays in honor of Rulan Chao Pian, ed. Bell Yung and Joseph Lam (1994).
It hasn’t worked for months, even when I imaginatively changed the batteries; so in the absence of a sturdy knocker (cf. Horatio E. Brown, Some Venetian knockers), my rare visitors have been reduced to beating vigorously on my door. Now, working diligently with a fine array of tools, my fine neighbourhood handyman has managed to reinstate the ding, but I still find myself without dong. It makes me feel better that it wasn’t just that I put the batteries in the wrong way round.
Conditioned by long experience, on hearing the ding one’s ears eagerly anticipate the dong. Thus I can’t help hearing the first pitch as a mi, looking forward to a resolution on do (“do, a note to follow mi“—see Solfeggio). If the first note were a single pitch devoid of social history, one could perfectly hear it as a do, or indeed any other pitch degree.
The two-note motif could be any major third, actually: I doubt if anyone hears it as ti–so or la–fa, or even the fifth and third of a minor triad, as at the opening of Brahms 4—but once my second note is restored, I’m going to have a jolly good try to hear it that way. Were I an Inuit hunter (yeah right), the motif would have its own associations (looks around for doorbell on igloo).
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If you’re really at a loose end (and currently for me this serves as a welcome distraction from trying to get to grips with ritual theory, with all its “redemptive hegemony“flapdoodle), the doorbell has an interesting history. Or at least a history. As Wiki helpfully explains, it’s
a signalling device typically placed near a door to a building’s entrance. When a visitor presses a button the bell rings inside the building, alerting the occupant to the presence of the visitor.
Thanks for that, wiki (it’s even funnier, with a link defining the word “door”—”a hinged or otherwise movable barrier that allows ingress [entry] into and egress [exit] from an enclosure”). The article goes on:
William Murdoch, a Scottish inventor, installed a number of his own innovations in his house, built in Birmingham in 1817; one of these was a loud doorbell, that worked using a piped system of compressed air. A precursor to the electric doorbell, specifically a bell that could be rung at a distance via an electric wire, was invented by Joseph Henry around 1831. By the early 1900s, electric doorbells had become commonplace.
Before electrical doorbells, large houses and estates often had complicated mechanical systems to allow occupants of any room to pull a bell pull and ring a bell at a central bell panel in the staff quarters, to summon a servant.
Indeed, you may recall that I rejoice in the sonorous Chinese surname of Zhong 鐘, “Bell”. Picture a domestic scene in Hubei in the 5th century BCE: whenever someone popped in for a chat with the Marquis Yi of Zeng over a pot of tea and a macaroon, a slave had to notify his master by striking the relevant bell of his immense set of bianzhong with a wooden mallet. Fortunately, of the sixty-four bells, only one is required to create the ding-dong, as each was ingeniously designed to sound two notes a third apart!!!
While there’s an abundance of collections of satirical stories from around the Soviet bloc (see Hammer and tickle, with further links), I’ve noted the general neglect of the rich seam of subversive Chinese jokes debunking the Maoist decades, and indeed the following reform era. Serving as an outlet to defuse genuine distress, they constitute a major resource for understanding the “sentiments of the people” (minqing 民情).
Admittedly, some of the stories are for the specialist and are hard to translate effectively, hinging on arcane Chinese puns. This one is worth bringing out when adopting the popular slogan jinburuxi 今不如昔 “things ain’t what they used to be” (as does Li Manshan at the end of my portrait film, from 1.19.20):
One evening the production team held a general meeting, and according to the instructions of the county committee and the commune, the old production-team leader expected the members to severely criticise the reactionary fallacy that “the present [jin] is not as good as the past [xi]”. But all evening no-one spoke up, because everyone felt that the present was indeed not as good as the past, so what was there to criticise? The old team leader had no choice but to prompt everyone: “How can the present be worse than the past? How much does gold [jin] cost a catty? How much does tin [xi] cost a catty?” So commune members came out with their criticism: “What a load of bollocks—of course gold is more expensive than tin!”
There used to be a famous restaurant called Da Sanyuan in Changdi, Guangzhou. During the Cultural Revolution, it was ordered to change its name to Jin sheng xi 今胜昔 [The Present Beats the Past]. When Hong Kong or overseas compatriots came back to Guangzhou, reading from right to left in the traditional manner, they read the name as “The Past Beats the Present” (昔胜今). So they didn’t know whether they should enter the restaurant.
During the Cultural Revolution, there were often mass criticism meetings. One day someone’s father was dragged up on stage and criticised. At the end of the meeting, he was asked to shout slogans to make a clean break with his father and draw a clear line between the two of them. He rushed to the front of the stage and shouted with his arms held high: “Down with my father! Down with my father!” At this point the crowd joined in, jumping up and raising their hands, yelling : “Down with my father! Down with my father!”
The work unit held a meeting to criticise Lin Biao and Confucius. A tenor and a soprano got on stage to lead the audience in chanting slogans: (leader) “Down with Lin Biao!” (crowd) “Down with Lin Biao!” (leader) “Down with Confucius!” (crowd) “Down with Confucius!” (leader) “Harshly criticise ourselves and restore propriety!” (Crowd) “Harshly criticise ourselves and restore propriety!” After the slogans, there was a brief moment of silence before the leaders spoke. Just then, old Zhang from the communications office rushed out backstage and shouted to the leaders seated on the podium: “Phone call for Director Wang!” So the whole crowd followed him by chanting: “Phone call for Director Wang!”