Smiling in China


Relaxing in the scripture hall between rituals, Yanggao. From my film.

A brief introduction to the origins and history of smiling by Antony Manstead leads me to ponder China. As even a glance at wiki tells us, it turns out to be just as complicated as all others kinds of human behaviour. Here are some preliminary, random notes, awaiting a more thorough study.

Manstead concludes:

Turning points in social practices over time, such as the emergence of dentistry in 18th-century France, the rise of the advertising industry in 20th-century America, changes in social norms regarding the appropriateness of emotional displays and changes in immigration have all contributed to observable differences in how and when we smile.

Another report comments:

One common Russian proverb translates as “smiling with no reason is a sign of stupidity”, while a government leaflet on working in Norway warns that you’ve been in the country too long if you assume smiling strangers are drunk, insane, or American.

Smiles have been classified under many headings, such as fearful, miserable, dampened, embarrassed, qualified, compliance, coordination response, listener response, contempt, angry-enjoyment, fake, flirtatious, and the famous Duchenne smile.

Laughter may seem like a more spontaneous reaction, but it too may be classified under a variety of headings (etiquette, nervous, cruel, and so on). Laughing from amusement is not the same as smiling as a habitual social lubricant, a sign of good will.

Bill Bryson notes how humour is basic to social interaction in Britain. In a passage of Notes from a small island from which I’ve already cited, he observes:

Watch any two Britons in conversation and see how long it is before they smile or laugh over some joke or pleasantry. I once shared a railway compartment between Dunkirk and Brussels with two French-speaking businessmen who were obviously old friends or colleagues. They talked genially the whole journey, but not once in over two hours did I see either of them raise a flicker of a smile. You could imagine the same thing with Germans or Swiss or Spaniards or even Italians, but with Britons—never.

This may be a pertinent comment on the British bourgeoisie, but it will only take us a moment to realize that their habits are anything but universal. We need to unpack different contexts and moments in social interaction—degrees of acquaintance, between friends and within the family; initial greetings and sustained conversation, formal situations, propaganda, and so on.

Bryson’s typical British scenario will not only involve friendly smiles upon meeting, but the whole opening exchange too is likely to take a jocular form. However, the voluntary “social” smile—a form of social signalling—is variable across cultures. Age, class, and economics are clearly important factors: even in Britain, teenagers and poor people don’t feel such a need to express friendliness thus. Smiling is by no means a simple indicator of happiness, but in much of the world—poor societies and war zones, for instance—there’s not much to be happy about. Under state socialism, propaganda only blurs the issue; it’d be interesting to explore how the experience transformed personal interaction. For the USSR, the work of Orlando Figes provides material. None of this maps precisely onto the global happiness index…

Like Bryson in Britain, among friends in China I often marvel at their humour; but even observing their social life as a fly on the wall rather than in my exchanges with them, I find much less smiling as social lubricant. Still, again, this is no simple matter.

One would seek to consider diverse social groups, both urban and rural—for the latter, peasants, cadres, entrepreneurs, teachers, traders, vagrants, and so on (for some instances from my own fieldwork, see here).

So here I’m more interested in the incidence of smiling within social groups. However, while outsiders in urban contexts may be able to observe social interaction without intruding on the scene, in smaller rural communities they—whether foreign or Chinese—may not make reliable observers. The arrival of a stranger in such a setting may cause anxiety; but even long-term acquaintance doesn’t bestow insider status. I also think of this wonderful story from Liu Xin. Maybe rural insiders like Mobo Gao would have pertinent remarks.

It will be even harder to document historical change. I look forward to an erudite tome on smiling in the late Tang dynasty. Even analyzing smiles through the 1930s, 1950s, and 1990s may prove difficult, with much of the material based on images rather than ethnography. Under Maoism, as in the Soviet bloc, humour was commonly expressed in the form of bitter jokes (e.g. here, with links; many more instances under Chinese jokes).

For rural China I noted the lack of terms like hello, thankyou, please, and sorry (Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.23–4, cf. here). By contrast with the British jocular small-talk about the weather, a common rural Chinese greeting is: “Have you eaten?”—suggesting a historical anxiety about famine.

Meanwhile the sullen, automatic, negative response “Meiyou” from shop assistants, still standard in the 1980s, began to give way to more friendly exchanges by the 1990s.

As has been well documented, smiling for portraits developed only quite recently even in the West. In China, putting on your best face for the camera has rarely been perceived as requiring a happy smile; posed photos there still typically show serious, unsmiling subjects. This used to bemuse me. While I try to take informal photos, we have also taken many posed group pictures of ritual specialists (see posts under Local ritual), which rarely show anyone smiling.

Qiao family 1962

The Qiao family, Yulin city 1962, in a lull between major social traumas. Showing a range of expressions, it hardly contributes to the discussion—I just love the image.

Photos from the Maoist era (and indeed since), showing workers and peasants smiling or engaged in their work, with no hint of conflict or coercion, are clearly flawed evidence (see e.g. this chapter by Covell Myskens). Most flagrant are images of ethnic minorities singing and dancing—not least the shameful recent CCP propaganda of Uyghurs singing “If you’re happy and you know it”, worthy of Terezin.

Happy Uyghurs

More recently photographers sometimes encourage a smile with the Chinese version of “Cheese!”: “Qiezi!” (aubergine).

Since we’re discussing social interaction here, film footage should be a major database, though again the degree of intrusion of the outsider on the scene will be an element. Apart from documentary, verité feature films are worth considering, such as The blue kite, The story of Qiuju or the work of Jia Zhangke.

Besides class, we should consider gender. Rural women tend not to interact in public, still less with men. Outside the family, smiling may be perceived as indecorous, and their behaviour is highly reserved. Again, one seeks to document their daily interactions among each other. At the same time, social media and the selfie have produced new poses.

As I said, these are just a few preliminary thoughts. Anyway, we obviously have to guard against taking traits that are familiar within the narrow confines of our own society as some kind of benchmark. As I write, the All Black haka shows a distinctive form of social greeting…




Iran: chamber music


Ostad Dariush Talai.

Following my post on shawm bands of Lorestan, I went along to a fine concert of Iranian chamber music at the Purcell Room led by the unassuming ostad Dariush Talai (b.1953).

In contrast to the loud outdoor soundscapes of rural ceremonial, which inevitably draw us towards changing local social life, outsiders are often attracted to the more “classical”, “refined” urban chamber genres. Such music is much better represented in recordings, and feeds into the WAM taste for “autonomous”, “absolute” music—a notion convincingly debunked by ethnomusicologists such as NettlMcClary, Small, and Bigenho.

Amaneh Youssefzadeh provides context:

Until the 20th century most classical music was performed in private gatherings—for small circles of connoisseurs, at Sufi brotherhoods, for family and friends, or in festivities including poetry recitation; the public concert was essentially a Western phenomenon. Moreover, apart from military music, public musical performance took place mostly in the context of religious and ceremonial rituals which are not considered musical per se; these include events in zurkāneh (Iran’s traditional fitness-clubs), the recitation of the Qur’an (tajwid), the call to prayer (‘azān), the recitation of the national epic Shāhnāmeh (naqqāli), the Shi’a passion play (ta’zieh) and the singing of laments (rowzeh-khāni) […]. Such ceremonies require singers skilled in classical music, and they have been crucial supports for classical music during. the periods of decline and discrimination. And in Iran, as in many parts of Middle East, classical singers have traditionally honed their skills in the call to prayer and the recitation of the Qur’an; many celebrated singers from the first half of the 20th century sang in the ceremonial mourning rites described above. Mohammad Reza Shadjarian was a noted qāri (reciter of the Qur’an) before gaining fame as a classical performer.    —in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics (2015).

* * *

At the Purcell Room Dariush Talai, on tar and setar plucked lutes, was supported by his younger protégés Hooshmand Ebadi (ney end-blown flute), Kaveh Mahmoudian (tombak drum), and singer Hadi Hosseini. Like the Chinese qin masters of yore, they play for their own self-cultivation—the dedicated audience in the austere Purcell Room must have felt they were eavesdropping on a private gathering.

In the first half Talai played in duo—first on tar with sensitive tombak accompaniment, and then on setar with the breathy ney. The second half consisted of one long suite, with all three musicians joined by the singer Hadi Hosseini. While the progression of such suites is more episodic than the gradual acceleration of Indian raga from alap to fast sections, it’s always engrossing to follow long sequences—by contrast with the short snappy solos of the Chinese conservatoires!

The opening duet was Dastgah Nava—here’s an earlier solo version with Talai on setar:

And here’s a track from Talai’s 1991 Ocora CD:

As a novice, while spellbound by the musicians’ artistry, it would require a thorough grounding for me to get a handle on the modal and melodic features of such pieces. Part of a widespread muqam family that also extends to the Uyghurs, each of the two hundred or so gushehs and the twelve dastgahs of the complete radif repertoire are individually named (cf. nanyin in south Fujian).

This music was one of the main focuses of the great Bruno Nettl. In chapter 7 of The study of ethnomusicology, “Contemplating musical repertories: a sampling of descriptive and analytical approaches”, he is as lucid as ever:

Iranian musicians taught the radif, the body of music that is memorized and then used as the basis for improvisation and composition. They labelled its sections (dastgahs) and their subdivisions (gushehs) clearly, although there was some disagreement on terminology and in determining which gushehs properly belonged to which dastgah. Musicians were willing to analyze certain performances, dividing them into sections and stating upon which sections of the radif each of them, in the improvised performance, is based. An ethnomusicologist who has studied with Iranian musicians can analyze such sectioned performances in this way but can’t be sure, on account of the lack of complete consensus, that the analysis will be accepted by every Persian master. This is the kind of analysis in which the ethnomusicologist does what the musicians of the culture do.

But one could go further. There are, for example, performances or sections that masters of the radif are not willing to analyze in this fashion, giving their equivalent of “he’s just improvising here”. They may say about such a performance that the musician does not know the radif, or he is purposely and expertly mixing materials from several sources, or he is simply playing avaz (nonmetric improvisation) in a dastgah in general, not taking account of the differences among the subdivisions of the dastgah that the radif provides. The first approach mentioned here would simply report these anomalies and perhaps point out the difference between the carefully sectioned and the other performances and refer to the fact that it seems to be readily recognized by Iranians. The second approach would take these unsectioned performances and, with the use of motivic analysis, determine almost moment by moment on which part of the radif each short bit of performance is based. Instead of just accepting that a particular five-minute segment is simply “avaz of the dastgah of Shur”, one could show that it is composed of materials from three gushehs (for example, salmak, golriz, and shahnaz), and makes fleeting references to three other gushehs. Now, certain Persian musicians, when confronted with analysis of this sort, pronounced it correct but found the information only mildly interesting, and not particularly relevant. It seemed that I had tried to take their way of looking at their own music further and had managed to avoid violating their way of approaching the analysis, but I had gone beyond where they were prepared to go, had divided their concepts into units smaller than those they were willing to use. I had gained some insights into how the music is put together; on the other hand, I could no longer claim simply to be presenting the system as it presents itself.

By comparison with my Chinese experience, I find it intriguing how the radif tradition in Iran seems to have been maintained more successfully under the umbrella of conservatoire training and concert performances. Again, Nettl’s templates for the various possible forms of change and responses to modernization are salient.

* * *

The concert inspired me to go back to the great senior masters like Mohammad Reza Shadjarian (to whom the suite in the Purcell Room concert was dedicated), with his ecstatic singing, and Mohammad-Reza Lotfi.


This live performance by Shadjarian is part of a playlist:

I’ve included a wonderful kemenche solo from Mohammad-Reza Lotfi under Indian and world fiddles.

For a general introduction to the musics of Iran, with discography, see Laudan Nooshin’s article in The Rough Guide to world music: Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, and chapters in The Garland encyclopedia of world music, vol. 6: The Middle East. Note also the site For the “classical” tradition, see e.g. Jean During, Jean During, Zia Mirabdolbaghi, and Dariush Safvat (eds), The art of Persian music (1991), and Amaneh Youssefzadeh’s chapter in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics (2015).

For related posts, see Performance, and Three women of Herat. For more on the folk-art dichotomy, see e.g. Italy: folk musicking, and Das Land ohne Musik, as well as Popular culture in early modern Europe.


A Shanghai Prom

SSO Prom

I’m not exactly in the mood to celebrate glossy official showpieces for Chinese modernity, but I appreciated the TV broadcast (here for a stingy month) of the recent Prom by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Long Yu.

The Beeb still can’t help going to town on the unbeatable cliché “East meets West”—as if even now all this, um, International Cultural Exchange (oops, there goes another one) is some novel discovery, some audacious, exotic experiment (cf. They come over ‘ere, and China–Italy).

One of the most readable accounts of Chinese music,

  • Richard Kraus, Pianos and politics in China (1989),

gives some leads to the chequered history of the orchestra. It originated in the Shanghai Public Band, founded back in 1879 by a German professor with six other European musicians. In 1907 it became the Shanghai Municipal Symphony Orchestra, and in 1919 they hired the Italian conductor Mario Paci (1878–1946; see also here), a graduate of the Paris Conservatoire; his orchestra included many White Russian and Italian musicians.

In 1922 the orchestra was renamed the Shanghai Municipal Council Symphony Orchestra. Under Japanese occupation it became the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra. Among the Jewish refugees from Nazism who swelled the city’s expat population from the mid-1930s were many musicians.

Some Chinese players were admitted from the late 1920s, but by 1938 there were still only four of them in the orchestra; paid less, they had no social interaction with the European musicians. The audiences too were mostly Caucasian.

Among the Russian musicians in Shanghai was the composer Alexander Tcherepnin, who promoted both Western and Chinese music in Shanghai and Beijing from 1934 to 1937. Bach’s B minor Mass was performed in Shanghai.

Paci was a leading light in the founding of the Shanghai Conservatoire in 1927. In 1935 he invited the composer Xian Xinghai to conduct the orchestra for a concert, but they refused to play under the baton of a Chinese. Paci was in charge of the orchestra from 1917 until 1942, when the orchestra had to disband, with many foreign musicians and conductors leaving. After the 1949 “Liberation” it was re-formed in 1950, becoming the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra in 1956.

One of the protagonists of Kraus’s study is the pianist Fou Ts’ong (b.1934), who studied with Paci from 1943. Seeking political asylum after the 1958 Great Leap, he made his home in London, where he became a great friend of my own violin teacher Hugh Maguire.

The orchestra inevitably suffered grievously as the Cultural Revolution exploded in 1966. Whereas Soviet orchestras had managed to maintain high standards, Chinese orchestras, even after the liberalizations from the late 1970s, took many years to develop.

I’m pretty sure most of the band would be bemused by my own tastes in musicking around ShanghaiKunqu, folk opera, silk-and-bamboo, Daoist ritual… Meanwhile the more cosmopolitan aspect of musical life in swinging Shanghai before Liberation is covered in another fine book,

  • Andrew Jones, Yellow music: media culture and colonial modernity in the Chinese jazz age (2001),

It opens with a vignette on the African-American trumpeter Buck Clayton, leader of the Harlem Gentlemen in Shanghai on the eve of the Japanese occupation. Back in the USA he worked with Count Basie; Billie Holiday, no less, described him as “the prettiest cat I ever saw”.


The Harlem Gentlemen at the Canidrome ballroom.

* * *

The Prom began with The five elements by Chen Qigang, a Messiaen pupil and one of the most meticulous and imaginative of Chinese composers. Eric Lu then played Mozart’s wonderful A major piano concerto.

And a suitable choice, reminding us of Shanghai’s Russian heritage, was Rachmaninoff’s final work, the Symphonic dances (1941). I’ve only been getting know the piece quite recently, but it already ranks with the 2nd symphony in my affections. Among noted recordings are those of Golovanov, Svetlanov, and Kondrashin; but given that the piece was composed in American exile, Mitropoulos’s 1942 version is a popular choice. Here’s Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic in 1963:

Among the glories of the Symphonic dances is a solo part for alto sax—again suggesting Shanghai’s jazz background. As an encore, a smoochy and bombastic arrangement of Molihua (another perennial Chinese music cliché)—strangely endearing as a snapshot of a bygone age of Chinese symphonic writing—led into a stirring rendition of Hey Jude, with fine jazzy solos on sax and trumpet and an audience singalong.

Now I dream of a Shanghai Daoist ritual at the Proms…




Drum patterns of Yanggao ritual

Learning with the Hua band, 2001

Learning with the Hua family shawm band, village funeral 2001.

Even now, all this time after the years I spent immersing myself in the wild shawm and percussion playing of the Hua family band in Yanggao (“Ming-dynasty bebop”), I still regularly find myself tapping out the slow 8-beat drum pattern that accompanies the opening sequence of melodies in their ritual suites.

Within a slow 8/4 metre, the recurring pattern on the drum is punctuated by one gong stroke and four cymbal clashes every measure. The drum pattern may be considered as beginning on the 3rd beat of the bar, with a little syncopated motif “calling for the beat” (jiaoban 叫板) alerting the gong player to sound the coming downbeat. Hua Jinshan often varies the first two beats of the bar. I’ve only attempted a rough rhythmic depiction of the drum part, refraining from an exhaustive notation of all the varied techniques, with rim-shots, single- and double-stick notes, and damped notes—here the slur sign denotes a roll before the beat:


The pattern is quite fixed, with only occasional minor variants—though there is a certain variation between different drummers.

An easily-followed instance is the opening of the Da Yanluo suite, whose melodies I analyse in detail—with video—in Dissolving boundaries. For the gradual accelerando and the cumulative effect of the pattern, do get to know the two versions of Shuilongyin on the CD Walking shrill (one of them also on the playlist in the sidebar, #5, with commentary here). Once you have the metrical framework in your bones, you can admire the long melodic phrases and the way their own syncopated rhythms constantly tug at the metre. This is AMAZING music—Trust Me, I’m a Doctor.

* * *

WD 2011

Li Manshan, Wang Ding, Golden Noble, village funeral 2011.

Meanwhile household Daoists take part in the same rituals; and though their instrumental repertoire is quite different, their use of percussion has certain similarities. As the first beat of the bar approaches (here it is the cymbal player who sounds the downbeat), drummers like Li Manshan play a syncopated motif similar to that of the shawm bands—and then tends to leave the downbeat to the cymbals (for the subtleties of the variants, see here). This example, from the slow, mournful hymn Diverse And Nameless Are The Bitter Roots, shows both the drum patterns and the yaoshuan syncopation on cymbals at cadences:zzwm-perc-ex

In my film (from 22.04) you can find clear examples in the Hymn to the Three Treasures, with the late Yuan Gaoshan on drum.

Along with memorizing the vocal texts and melodies of the liturgy, such unwritten rules are a substantial aspect of the nitty-gritty of what household Daoists have to learn in performing ritual.

LMS drumming

See also Tambourin chinois.



Shrine festivals of the Uyghurs


Rahilä Dawut.

I note two conspicuous, inevitable absences from the recent Shanghai festival of films on music ethnography.

One is the work of Liu Xiangchen, a Han-Chinese director who has long documented the cultures of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Only three years ago, the Centre for Ritual Music at Shanghai was able to hold an event at which his film Ashiq: the last troubadour was screened in full; and in 2017 he attended a screening at SOAS. Yet in this short time the climate has changed radically.

Infinitely more distressing is the case of the distinguished Uyghur anthropologist and film-maker Rahilä Dawut, who (along with countless others in Xinjiang) was “disappeared” in 2017 amidst the excalation of the tragic, all-pervading war now being waged on Uyghur culture; her whereabouts remain unknown.

As with most if not all other detained academics and artists, this is not a question of engaging in some kind of “subversive” activity: as Darren Byler notes in his fine tribute, Dawut’s work has long been celebrated within the Chinese academic and political system.

Here’s a compelling appeal from her daughter:

Among her writings in English are:

  • Rachel Harris and Rahilä Dawut, Mazar festivals of the Uyghurs: music, Islam and the Chinese state”, British Journal of Ethnomusicology 11.1 (Red ritual: ritual music and Communism, 2002)
  • Rahile Dawut, Lisa Ross, Beth R. Citron and Alexander Papas, Living shrines of Uyghur China (2013)
  • Rahile Dawut, “Ordam mazar: a meeting place for different practices and belief systems in culturally diverse Xinjiang” [sic], in Ildikó Bellér-Hann, Birgit N. Schlyter and Jun Sugawara (eds) Kashgar revisited: Uyghur studies in memory of Ambassador Gunnar Jarring (2016)
  • Rahile Dawut, “Mazar pilgrimage among the Uyghurs”, in Rahile Dawut and Jun Sugawara (eds), Mazar: studies on Islamic sacred sites in Central Eurasia (2016).
  • Rahile Dawut and Aynur Kadir, “Music of the Ordam shrine festival” (here, part of a useful site).

See also

  • Rian Thum, The sacred routes of Uyghur history (2014).
ordam 2

From Rahile Dawut and Aynur Kadir, “Music of the ordam shrine festival”.

In her conscientious research, Dawut documented at least two hundred local Sufi mazar festivals throughout Xinjiang. As in festivals everywhere (see also Calendrical rituals), a diverse cast of performers attends the mazar: alongside dastan story‐telling, muqam, and zikr rituals (with separate groups of male and büwi female ritual specialists), bakhshi ritual healers also play naghra-sunay drums and shawm

“Mazar and political authority”, the final section of Mazar festivals of the Uyghurs” (2002), now looks both prophetic and dated. The authors note that state authorities have long taken a suspicious attitude to such cults, but under the PRC they were rarely a target of systematic attack until recently.

The uneven situation across Xinjiang suggests that local decisions, rather than consistent state intervention, control the mazar. […]

In contexts less visible to the outside world, particularly in the case of the large-scale mazar festivals, policy has become more hard-line in recent years. The Ordam festival was first banned under the PRC in 1958 following the national Anti-Rightist campaign, a time when traditional cultural activities across the country but especially in Xinjiang began to be strongly circumscribed. The festival was revived after the end of the Cultural Revolution in the early 1980s, and at its high point in the mid-1980s it was attracting some 20,000 people each day. However, as Xinjiang’s political situation became increasingly tense during the 1990s, policy towards the mazar festivals became caught up in fears of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and Uyghur separatism, which are regularly equated in government terminology with violence and terrorism. This problem was undoubtedly instrumental in the new ban on the Ordam imposed in 1997.

In other parts of Xinjiang local authorities have preferred to implement policies of regulation and support, ensuring a degree of government control over the festivals.

Discussing official opposition to the mazar, they write:

It is less any real political threat that the mazar festivals may pose, and more the “disorderly” nature of their sights and sounds, which prove so alarming to the authorities. A few Uyghur scholars have recently dared to suggest that the banning of the mazar festivals fuels popular resentment against the authorities and have called for a redrawing of the line between “illegal religious activities” and the “folk customs” of the Uyghurs. There is currently little space for debate of such issues in Xinjiang and, sadly, it appears increasingly likely in the international climate at the time of writing, following America’s declaration of a “global war against terrorism”, that the space for such debate will become yet more limited.

Despite this sensitive background, the mazar pilgrimages, and Uyghur culture generally, managed to continued activity over the following years, and scholars like Rahilä Dawut were still able to pursue their researchHere, for instance, you can find a series of videos of dastan story-tellers that she and her students filmed in 2009 and 2010. The Imam Asim shrine was still attracting pilgrims too, but it was among many shrines and mosques razed since 2016, and as the brutal recent clampdown has intensified the fate of Uyghur culture—and Uyghurs who study it—looks bleak.

shrine 2010

Imam Asim shrine festival, 2010. Photo: Rian Thum.

See also Uyghur drum-and-shawm, and Uyghur tag.


Religion in Chinese society

My reviews of two recent surveys of the Chinese religious world by Ian Johnson and Adam Yuet Chau reminded me to revisit a remarkable early sociological study, also accessible:

  • C.K. Yang, Religion in Chinese society: a study of contemporary social functions of religion and some of their historical factors (1st edition 1961; Chinese edition here).

The sociological approach to Chinese religion was slow to develop—partly due to the difficulty of access to mainland China after 1949, and partly because of the enduring scholarly bias towards discursive, doctrinal issues and early history.

Indeed, much of Yang’s analysis anticipates approaches since the 1980s’ reforms, including Chau’s “five modalities”. Yang already saw through the bias of the discursive/scriptural modality that still holds a particular allure for many in the West, at the expense of the other “diffused” forms.

This study is an attempt to answer the question: What functions did religion perform in Chinese social life and organization so as to provide a basis for its existence and development, and through what structural forms were these functions carried out?

Having trained at Yanching University in Beijing and the USA, Yang returned to China in 1948, carrying out fieldwork there before having to return to the USA in 1951, where he was to be based at Pittsburgh. Given that his book was published in 1961, it may seem understandable that, until the final chapter, it’s largely written in the past tense. In my book Plucking the winds I noted a similar lapse in accounts of the performance of baojuanprecious scrolls”:

During the years of Maoism, “armchair sinology” was the only option, as in many fields. Even by the early 1980s, Daniel Overmyer still found that “unfortunately there are very few materials available for a discussion of sectarian ritual”.

Soon after, there was a growing awareness of the persistence of ritual practice in mainland China, but lapses still occurred: “We know a certain amount about how baojuan were [my italics] performed, although there are all too few good first-hand descriptions.”


South Gaoluo liturgists performing the Houtu scroll, 1993.

However, the vocal liturgists of the South Gaoluo ritual association were performing the Houtu precious scroll through the first fifteen years of the PRC, and they were still doing so in the 1990s.

While Yang’s focus is on the late Qing and Republican eras, and he surveys the early roots of Chinese cultural traits, he introduces major themes that later scholars have been able to elaborate with the benefits of detailed fieldwork since the 1980s’ reforms.

Yang makes extensive use of Republican-era sources such as Grootaers and county gazetteers, notably for Hebei (later explored further by scholars such as Naquin and Duara) and the Shanghai region.

In his Introduction he observes how early-20th-century urban scholars dismissed the role of popular religion in Chinese society, from Liang Qichao to Hu Shi (“China is a country without religion and the Chinese are a people who are not bound by religious superstitions”). By contrast, he notes the importance of temples in the collective life of local communities, going on to observe all kinds of religious influence. And despite the secular views of many intellectuals of the day, the Republican era also saw the beginnings of fieldwork on folklore.

In Chapter 2 Yang notes the place of religion in the integration of the family, including ancestor worship and mortuary rites. Chapter 3 goes on to discuss the religious bond in social groups, and Chapter 4 communal aspects of popular cults—notably temple fairs.

Chapters 5 to 8 explore the political role of religion over the long historical perspective. In his account Yang includes both official and popular cults, with notes on cults such as those of the deities Zhenwu and Chenghuang. Chapter 8 discusses the administrative control of religion, later elaborated by Vincent Goossaert; and the persecution of “heterodox cults”, which he pursues further in Chapter 9 on religion and political rebellion—again, while he cites pre-1949 material, the issue continued to fester under Maoism despite fierce campaigns.

As Yang’s manuscript was largely complete, the 1958 Great Leap Backward led to an appalling national famine, and religious sects rose in resistance over a wide area. The state’s partial withdrawal from extremist policies from 1961 produced a short-lived cultural and religious revival.

North Xinzhuang 1959

Former monk Daguang with village disciples, North Xinzhuang, Beijing suburbs 1959. For more images of Maoism, see here.

Yang was not to know of the maintenance of traditions among village-wide ritual assocations in Hebei through the first decade of the PRC, for instance, or the revival of “ghost operas” in Hunan and elsewhere; but his conceptual framework allows ample room to accommodate such grassroots activities.

In Chapter 12 Yang (inspired by Joachim Wach and Emile Durkheim) makes an important distinction between diffused and institutional religion, with the former dominant and the latter weak in Chinese society. In Adam Yuet Chau’s summary (Miraculous response, pp.143–5) he goes further:

C.K. Yang (1961) famously proposed that in China elements of popular religion are diffused into core secular social institutions such as the family, socioeconomic groups such as trade guilds, communities such as villages and native-place associations, and the state. He argued that the diffused religious ideas and practices provided an air of sanctity to, and thus helped uphold, these core institutions. I suggest that the symbiosis between secular institutions and religious life is even more intimate, that the same principles and mechanisms for organizing ordinary social life are used in organizing popular religious life.

Yang’s chapter concludes:

The lack of a powerful priestly religion did not mean the weakness of religious influence in social life. The Chinese common people, especially the women, hardly passed a day or faced a crisis without resorting to religious assistance. Burning incense to the house gods in the morning and evening, going to the temples to pray on numerous public and private occasions, visiting a classical priest for guidance on big or little problems, attending temple fairs and religious festivals, consulting the religious sections of the almanac for an auspicious time for making a major or minor move, and reflecting on the supernatural influence on life and the universe—all these added up to an intimate relationship between religion and life under the traditional social order. Yet all these activities proceeded without the organized direction of any priesthood. People visited a particular temple, worshiped a particular spirit, called on a particular priest, all in accordance with the practical function of religion for the particular occasion. To what religion a temple belonged might be a puzzle to many academicians, but such questions had no functional significance in the religious life of the common people. Hence, weakness in the structural position of institutional religion was not synonymous with the functional weakness of religion in social life.

See also the festschrift

  • Wenfang Tang and Burkart Holzner (eds), Social change in contemporary China: C.K. Yang and the concept of institutional diffusion (2007).

In Chapter 13 Yang uses detailed material to show the changing role of religion through the Republican era, noting the limited impact of the secular views of urban intellectuals and state campaigns. I’m happy to see him citing the maxim attributed to Confucius “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”, which later became a popular refrain with my fieldwork colleagues.

In Yang’s final chapter he looks beyond “Communism as a new faith”. While analysing the secular rituals of the new Party-state, he takes into account the coexistence with both diffused and institutional theistic religion in both policy and practice. He notes the radical assaults on “superstitious practices” and the destruction of religious properties, but always takes a nuanced view—such as this account setting forth from Wudangshan:

On this scenic mountain were eight palaces; thirty-two temples; twelve shrines; a “golden palace”, the largest existing bronze structure in China; and thousands of bronze Taoist images, many of which were unsurpassed works of art. In 1955 and again in 1956, county officials broke up hundreds of “scattered, damaged, or duplicate” bronze images and sold them as scrap metal to help provide funds for the county budget. Over 50,000 catties (about 65,000 pounds) of bronze were collected. In the 1956 campaign it took forty-eight days to destroy the images, one of which weighed over 3,000 catties or nearly two tons, and a large number of which had been preserved in good condition. Leading Taoist priests, some even with limited political status, could only watch the heart-rending destruction helplessly. Afterwards, as news of the wanton destruction reached the provincial authorities, several of the county officials responsible were given demerits as punishment, which seemed to be an insignificant gesture to placate the rising popular protest. Although the Wutangshan case was brought to public attention because of its prominence as a national religious center, the destruction or selling of the properties and sacred objects of innumerable obscure temples in villages remained unnoticed or unrecorded.

Although antireligious riots and destruction on temple property and images were partly inspired by the anti-supernatural attitude which characterized the Communist ideology, they were nevertheless scattered local occurrences without organized direction from the central Communist authorities. Furthermore, such actions were largely restricted to the destruction of religious properties without direct harm to believers. But when religious beliefs formed an active part of a “reactionary” social system, such beliefs became the object of drastic and systematic elimination in order to overthrow the social system which the religious beliefs supported. In such cases, professional practitioners of these beliefs would face persecution.

Yang also unpacks the state policy of preserving the art and architecture of major temples (cf. Wutaishan):

It should be kept in mind that the restoration work is limited to large, well-known temples in each locality, while innumerable humble ones are left to deteriorate or converted to nonreligious uses. The wholesale impressing of priests into secular production work and the conversion of most temples into secular quarters would seriously reduce the already weak foundation of Chinese institutional religion, an effect not canceled by the restoration of large temples.

Of course, worse was to come, but Yang must have welcomed the revival after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the new tide of research.

Even while describing campaigns against sectarian groups (on which we now have much more material), he suggests that

it is probably incorrect to assume that the Communists, although they have recently won success by their mastery of underground techniques, possess fully effective countermeasures against the underground sectarian societies. While the Communists can infiltrate into any of the known societies at will, they may not be able to penetrate into every one of the numerous isolayed small units in a highly decentralized organizational system. Furthermore, as one society is suppressed, others continued to rise spontaneously. The root of the matter lies in the popular belief in the gods and their magic to bring deliverance from suffering, and in the popular tradition or organizing religious groups to offer resistance to an oppressive ruling power against which the individual seems helpless.

His conclusion is prophetic, yet largely free of simplistic flag-waving for the supposed triumph of eternal, sacred values which some Western reviewers read into the more recent revival:

Communism’s probable inability to cope with all social and personal crises that may arise in the future would compel the people, when subjected to extreme distress, to continue to reach beyond the finitude of empirical experience and rational thought for relief. Should this be the case, even if the Communist ideology were to endure as a sociopolitical doctrine, it would have to develop permanent tolerance of theistic religion so that theism could perform the moral integrative function of stabilizing the new social order. The gods might then emerge from their eclipse to play a familiar role under the dominance of a disbelieving political orthodoxy, a situation reminiscent of the long and often stormy co-existence of theistic religion and Confucianism, whose excessively earthly quality invited the development of theistic faiths.

* * *

Through the 1950s few scholars were able to undertake fieldwork on the survival of local ritual traditions—with the laudable exception of considerable projects under the cloak of music studies.

But despite the paucity of material then available on the contemporary situation, Yang didn’t see the 1949 revolution as the end of the story. Though he was writing at such a traumatic time for Chinese society, when it would have been easy to take a black-and-white view, his book contains mature insights.






Czech stories: a roundup

Here’s a handy roundup of some posts under the Czech tag—mostly with a Chinese connection.

This post makes an introduction to Czech and Chinese lives before, during, and since the years of state socialism:

Svejk Chinese

The good soldier Švejk makes several appearances, notably:


See also

Alexei Sayle’s youthful ventures:

And my Cambridge mentor Paul Kratochvil is the source of some fine stories, including: