Ritual change in north Shanxi

tray 91

By contrast with most research on Daoist ritual, change over the three modern eras (before Liberation, under Maoism, and since the 1980s’ reforms) is a constant theme of my work. These recent posts, elaborating on my film and book on the Li family Daoists, make a useful series:

Ritual business

See also e.g.

You can search further under the sub-heads of the Li family category in the sidebar.

Li category

In Chinese, a classic on ritual and social change is the 1999 volume Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁 edited by Guo Yuhua.

Gaoluo: early history

*For main page, click here!*

dengpeng

My first experience of the New Year’s rituals in the Lantern Tent,
South Gaoluo 1989.

Under the Gaoluo sub-menu (Other publications > Gaoluo) I’ve just added a page on the early history of the village, like so:

GL menu

Apart from those pages in that menu, there are many more posts under the Gaoluo tag in the sidebar; for a basic roundup, see here.

My 2004 book Plucking the winds, an ethnography of Gaoluo and its amateur ritual association, mainly concerns the village’s fortunes under Maoism and since. Since history may seem to have been obliterated by the successive turmoils of the 20th century, I felt glad enough to be able to sketch the story as far back as the Republican era and even the late Qing. And thanks largely to talented village litterateur Shan Fuyi (b.1940), I went on to learn clues to the village’s founding in the Yuan–Ming transition and its fortunes through the Qing dynasty. The new page provides notes on the main lineages, local temples, the “parish” 社, “precious scrolls” 寶卷, and early ritual life.

The story of the Republican era continues with Ritual images: Gaoluo. But first, remarkably, a major trauma in the village in May 1900 is substantially documented in official sources, a story told in my post on the village Catholics.

All this was the background to the ritual associations that I got to know through the 1990s. It’s hard enough to reach definitive conclusions about ritual life today, but in this case at least we can observe, and ask…

Daoist ritual: the Pardon

This discussion of the Dispatching the Pardon (fangshe 放赦) ritual sets forth from my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.246–50, exploring the imperfect match between Daoism as performed and as shown in ritual manuals.

The highlight of my first visit to Yanggao in March 1991 was witnessing the great Li Qing presiding over a funeral at Greater Antan (see my film, from 48.35). I didn’t know how lucky I was. It was as if a Martian happened to land on earth, not at a conference of middle managers in Belgium, nor even at a church fête in Suffolk—but in Leipzig in 1727, filming the premiere of the Matthew Passion on her 3D eye-laser system, and then assuming that this was typical of life on Planet Earth. And then recording an episode of Family Guy over it.

The Pardon ritual was traditionally performed for both funerals and temple fairs, with the words “filial sons” (xiaozi) or “filial kin” (xiaojuan) as alternatives for “master of the retreat” (zhaizhu) or “temple chief” (miaozhu).

For funerals the Pardon is normally only part of the three-day sequence; the 1991 funeral was held over only two days, but Li Qing performed the Pardon at the request of the son of the deceased, a gujiang shawm player who loved the ritual for its lively (honghuo) atmosphere.

Li Qing’s band that day included his senior colleagues Li Yuanmao and Yuan Lishan; the guanzi player for the jocular “catching the tiger” sequence was Wang Chang, from the related Wang family in Baideng township. Li Qing’s son Li Manshan was taking part on drum, and the young Wu Mei was there; the band also featured Li Peisen’s second son Li Hua, as well as Li Yushan, son of Li Peisen’s older son.

As Li Manshan later recalled, this was the third time he had taken part in the ritual; they performed it for the 1987 video project, and did it again around 1993 for a funeral in Wangjiatun. The younger recruits Li Bin and Golden Noble have performed it for temple fairs, but by 2015 they hadn’t done it for nearly ten years—like Crossing the Bridges, kin and villagers now consider it “too much hassle”. It hasn’t been used for temple fairs since the early 1950s.

The Pardon manual
The Li family Daoists distinguish between the routinely used “inner five rituals”,  and the optional “outer five rituals” (see Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.30–32). Before Liberation Li Peisen copied a lengthy manual including the latter, generously titled

LPS old coverLingbao kaifang shezhao yubao xianzhuan youlian poyu fangshe duqiao zhu baiyu rang huangwen [ke] 靈寶開放[方]攝召 預報獻饌遊蓮破獄放赦渡橋祝白雨禳蝗瘟[科]
Numinous Treasure [Manual] for Opening the Quarters, Summons, Reporting, Offering Viands, Roaming the Lotuses, Smashing the Hells, Dispatching the Pardon, Crossing the Bridges, Precautions against Hailstones, and Averting Plagues of Locusts.
There was little trace of these “outer” rituals in their practice after the 1980s’ revival.

Finding Li Qing consulting Li Peisen’s early manuscript at the 1991 funeral, I hastily took some photos, rather randomly; by 2011 Li Manshan could no longer find it, so we rely on the faithful copy that Li Qing made in the early 1980s, divided into two volumes, with 42 double pages in all.

The Pardon itself takes up fifteen double pages. It’s one of their most complex, opening with long sequences of zhenyan mantras in four-, five-, and seven-word structures, and containing elaborate fu 符 talismans and jian 简 slips. Whereas most funeral segments are now dominated by the Heavenly Worthy of Grand Unity who Rescues from Suffering (Taiyi jiuku tianzun), this ritual is addressed to the Jade Emperor, in his role as Heavenly Worthy Who Pardons Sins (Yuhuang shezui tianzun). The talismans are addressed to the Three Officers (sanguan). The 108 pardon slips (shetiao, shewen) to be recited are combined into a few long documents.

Some pages from Li Peisen’s copy:

LPS Pardon 1

Slips to Rescue from Suffering.

LPS Pardon 3

Recto: slip for Long Life.
Verso: in the last line, the term jiao (Offering) in “dark yang pure jiao
(mingyang jingjiao 冥陽凈醮) refers to a funeral;
the listing of “Shanxi Datong fu” shows its local origins.

And some pages from Li Qing’s copy of the manual:

LQ Pardon 1

Pp.1b–2a. Third line from right: the Naihe qianchi lang couplet,
followed by 7-, 5-, and 4-word mantras.

LQ Pardon 2

Verso: the talisman for the Heavenly Official.

And we can compare these pages with Li Peisen’s copy above:

LQ Pardon 4

Recto: template for slip to Rescue from Suffering, “in red characters, with white envelope”.

LQ Pardon 5

Slips for Long Life.

The ritual as performed in 1991
We can soon discover that the version performed that day by Li Qing and his colleagues (and again, do watch my film, from 48.35) bears little relation to that given in the manual.

Li Qing copying ritual document, 1991

First, in the scripture hall, Li Qing copies the lengthy series of pardon slips with their talismans, and envelopes to put them in—a lengthy process, for which he consults Li Peisen’s manual.

Meanwhile, in light snow, the other Daoists construct an open-air altar in a large clearing in the middle of the village near the funerary site, using tables, benches, and planks. On this structure are placed in a row five “palaces”—cardboard images mounted on stalks of gaoliang inserted into large rectangular dou bowls filled with grain—for the Jade Emperor Yuhuang, the Three Officers (sanguan, for heaven, earth, and water), and the pole star Purple Tenuity (Ziwei, not mentioned in the manual).

Pardon altar

Just below the central palace to the Jade Emperor is an altar table bearing the soul tablet, and below that, a long table around which the Daoists will stand to make offerings to the five palaces. Further behind, facing the palaces, a long high platform has been built on top of tables, from where the Daoists will later dispatch the writs of Pardon.

Around midday, after the morning visits to Deliver the Scriptures, the seven Daoists proceed from their scripture hall, playing percussion with occasional blasts on the conch. After paying a brief visit to the soul hall, they purify the arena by leading the kin on an elaborate winding procession around it. Virtually all the villagers have gathered round—by contrast with their apathy today, gorging instead on the pop music outside the gate.

The ritual is in two large sections: presenting the offerings from the altar table, and announcing the writs of pardon from the ritual platform before handing them down to the kin to be burned.

Pardon x

Acting as intermediary for the kin standing in a row behind him, the chief celebrant Li Qing, wielding his wooden “court placard” (chaoban) and sounding a hand-bell and a qing bowl on the table, now faces the altars and presents offerings to each of the five deities in turn on behalf of the kin. An offerings tray (of red lacquered wood, not like the metal one used now) is at first placed on the altar table before the god palaces.

While the Daoists play an instrumental piece (for this next sequence the two sheng accompany not the guanzi oboe but the dizi flute), Li Qing bids the oldest son to wash his face from water in a bowl and offer one preliminary stick of incense to the palace of the Jade Emperor. After he shakes the bell and strikes the qing bowl, the Daoists sing a sequence of a cappella choral hymns from the “words of blessing” (zhuyan 祝言) repertoire, accompanied only by the ritual percussion, beginning with Myriad Years to Elder Emperor (Huangdiye wansui). These hymns are punctuated by imposing patterns on nao and bo cymbals.

Li Qing recites a brief shuowen introit while the tray is handed to the oldest son of the deceased. Again accompanied by dizi, he takes the court placard, bows with it, and one by one places five cups of tea, with incense resting on them, on his court placard to transfer them onto a small raised table before the central palace to the Jade Emperor. The sticks of incense are then further placed before the god palaces, accompanied by dizi. After each offering they sing another a cappella hymn from the “words of blessing”.

Li Qing now clambers up onto the table, taking bell and placard with him. He leads the Daoists as they solemnly intone the two couplets “Thousand-foot waves at Bridge of No Return” (Naihe qianchi lang, from p.1b of the manual, also used at the end of the Invitation, my film from 1.03.25). Whereas the first sequence was punctuated by jaunty dizi, for this new sequence the hymns are to be accompanied by solemn shengguan wind ensemble, punctuated with interludes on large cymbals, while Li Qing kneels on the table, bows with the placard, and transfers the remaining offerings (incense, flowers, and so on) in turn before the god images, always placing them on the placard first. He recites another shuowen introit, shakes the bell, and the Daoists play another piece with dizi while Li Qing steps down from the table.

Then, taking all their ritual and musical instruments with them, the Daoists ascend the platform behind, standing in a long line behind a long row of tables to face the altars. As a majestic prelude they play the percussion piece Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body.

The Pardon, 1991

Wang Chang recites a pardon writ from the ritual platform,
with Li Qing and Yuan Lishan further to our left;
to the right are Li Peisen’s grandson Li Yushan and a youthful Wu Mei.

Then the three leading officiants (Li Qing, Wang Chang, and Yuan Lishan) don five-buddhas hats, representing the Three Officers. The group plays The Five Offerings (Wu gongyang 五供養) on shengguan, and then the three officiants, in turn, solemnly read out the large and lengthy pardon slips. The first is read by Yuan Lishan. Li Qing calls out an instruction, folds the document up and places it in a large envelope, folds over the strip of paper to “seal” it, handing it down to the kin, again accompanied by the ensemble with dizi. The documents, envelopes, and seals are all of different colours, as specified in the manual.

Li Qing shakes the bell, recites a shuowen introit, and they sing the hymn Ten Repayments for Kindness (Shi bao’en 十報恩) with shengguan, another item common to several rituals. Li Qing recites a shuowen, and they play the cymbal interlude Sanqi song. Another shuowen leads into the second reading by Li Qing. Then a shuowen leads into a shengguan piece, which segues into a protracted “catching the tiger” clowning sequence.

Wang Chang

Wang Chang, the main guanzi player, standing to the left of Li Qing, plays two guanzi alternately and then at once, blows the mahan small telescopic curved trumpet, dismantles his instruments while playing them, plays a hefty whistle in his mouth, pretends to pluck snot from Li Qing’s nose and smear it over the face of the sheng player on his left, replaces the latter’s cap with a cymbal, puts on false eyes, and makes ribald gestures with the curved trumpet. Li Qing and the others try to keep a straight face throughout, but Wang Chang is having fun, and the villagers are in stitches.

Li Qing now recites a shuowen, followed by a percussion interlude. Then he recites the final pardon document, folds it up, places it in its envelope, and hands it down, accompanied by Sizi zhenyan 四子真言 on dizi. Finally, the Daoists descend from the platform, playing shengguan, and lead the kin on a slow parade around the arena. Li Qing guides the kin in the burning of the memorials in a pile together, while the Daoists stand round playing shengguan. They then retire to their scripture hall to rest and prepare for the next ritual segment.

Manual and practice
In sum, although we didn’t quite film the Pardon complete, they evidently didn’t perform the manual complete either. Li Qing was quite familiar with the text—he had lovingly copied it out a few years earlier. We can only surmise how often the senior Daoists Li Qing, Wang Chang, Yuan Lishan, and Li Yuanmao had performed the ritual before the 1950s with Li Peisen and others from that generation, but whereas they had maintained the “inner five rituals”, by 1991 their recollection of the Pardon may have been hazy, and the younger Daoists were quite unfamiliar with it. So perhaps this explains why the ritual was so transformed. Alas, on my first visits I lacked the background to consult Li Qing about such matters.

It is likely that sections like the Yellow Dragon percussion item and the “catching the tiger” sequence, though not specified in the manual, were traditionally included. But instead of the long series of four-, five-, and seven-word mantras in the manual, they alternated a cappella “words of blessing” from the Diverse Rituals for Joyous Scriptures (Xijing zayi 喜經雜儀) compendium for “earth scriptures” with an instrumental refrain using dizi, and sang standard “floating” hymns with shengguan. I suspect this was actually a version of the Noon Thanksgiving for temple fairs and Thanking the Earth, though the texts they performed also differed from those in the Xiewu ke 謝午科 manual. Only their final recitations of the Pardon writs appear to have been performed more or less intact as in the Pardon manual.

Anyway, rather as the temple fair sequence since the late 1980s seems to be a revision, this was already an adapted version. The ritual is lengthy and imposing, and its purpose is communicated, but it tallies only occasionally with the manual. With the same diligence that he had preserved the original content of the manuals, Li Qing was now selectively adapting rituals according to changing conditions—as Daoists (and other ritual specialists) have done throughout history; but it marks a substantial break with tradition.

Of course, scholars of Daoism may be more interested in the manual, which undoubtedly preserves early features. But (like the 1940s’ temple fair sequence) we can’t now witness it being performed; there is no demand for it among patrons, and even if we requested it specially, the current Daoists would be hard-put to recreate even Li Qing’s 1991 version, let alone attempting to perform it as shown in the manual. Even the “words of blessing” and the dizi interludes (which themselves may have been a substitute) are no longer part of their repertoire. For continuing ritual change, see A flawed funeral.

The Pardon elsewhere
The Pardon is commonly performed by household Daoists in southeast China, the heartland of research on Daoist ritual. For Taiwan it has been described in detail by John Lagerwey (based on the practice of the great Chen Rongsheng) and Jiang Shoucheng; and Ken Dean has documented it for south Fujian. [1]

While the text of Chen Rongsheng’s version appears different, its themes are similar. Apart from the mystical core of the ritual, Lagerwey draws attention to its dramatic, jocular interlude. In Yanggao such elements are absent from the manual, but an interesting connection seems to be implied in the “catching the tiger” sequence.

Lagerwey cites the 13th-century Daoist priest Wang Qizhen:

This Pardon document does not belong to our method for doing the fast. It is the invention of later people. Given the fact, however, that it has been used far and wide for some time, it would not do to eliminate it.

And he too notes variation between the early manual and modern practice.

For north China I have only a few other instances so far. [2] In Julu, south Hebei, it was performed on the afternoon of the 3rd day of funerals, comprising the segments qingshen 清神, ji lengshui 祭冷水, qing Yuhuang 請玉皇, song wulao 送五老, qing jianzhai 請監齋, and zhuan dagong 轉大供.

And in the jiao Offering around Baiyunshan in Shaanbei, again on the afternoon of the 3rd day, the Pardon is a spectacular (if not highly liturgical) ritual, with large god puppets of the Eight Immortals and the Four Officers of Merit (Sizhi Gongcao 四值功曹) descending on a rope down from the hillside to the bank of the Yellow River—somewhat reminiscent of the guandeng Beholding the Lanterns nocturnal ritual around Beijing (see here, under “A Buddhist and Daoist funeral”), on a far grander scale.

Pardon cover TianzhenBack in north Shanxi, in Tianzhen county just east of Yanggao, the Lü family of household Complete Perfection Daoists, whose tradition derives from the Nanmen si temple in Huai’an nearby, have a tradition of performing the Pardon, though it now seems to be defunct. Their lengthy manual, apparently copied in the Republican era, is entitled Taishang shuo Yuhuang shezui 太上玉皇說赦罪 or Yuhuang shezui tianzun shenjing 玉皇赦罪天尊神經. They also have a template for the writs of Pardon (“Pardon slips” shetiao 赦條):

shetiao

Aided by Lagerwey’s discussion, scholars of early Daoism will wish to trace the ancestry of “pardon for sins” (shezui 赦罪) in the Daoist Canon, with many sources following the Yuhuang shezui cifu baochan 玉皇赦罪賜福寶懺. Meanwhile, ethnographers are left to observe modern changes in the ritual adaptations of Daoists and patrons.


[1] See Lagerwey, Taoist ritual in Chinese society and history (1987), pp.202–215, Jiang Shoucheng 姜守誠, “Nan Taiwan Lingbaopai fangshe keyi zhi yanjiu” 南台灣靈寶派放赦科儀之研究 (2010); Dean, “Funerals in Fujian” (1988), pp.45, 52–53. Cf. Pregadio, Encyclopedia of Taoism (2008), pp.403–404.

[2] Based on my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.91 and 99–100. The Julu material is from Yuan Jingfang 袁靜芳, Hebei Julu daojiao fashi yinyue 河北鉅鹿道教法事音樂 (1997), pp.72–4; for Baiyunshan, see e.g. Yuan Jingfang et al., Shaanxi sheng Jiaxian Baiyunguan daojiao yinyue 陝西省佳縣白雲觀道教音樂 (1999), pp.112–13, and Zhang Zhentao 张振涛, Zhuye qiuyue lu 诸野求乐录 (2002), pp.149–50.

Thanking the Earth, and words of blessing

Today the great majority of the Li family Daoists’ ritual work is for funerals. As to rituals for the living, they now rarely perform for temple fairs, and the Thanking the Earth ritual, once commissioned by families for domestic blessing, has not been required since 1953 (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, chapter 12).

Ritual business

The Yanggao Daoists now perform almost solely for funerals, but before Liberation the ritual they did most often was Thanking the Earth (xietu 謝土). [1] Held over two days during the winter, it was a domestic ritual for an individual household of certain means. The head of such a household might pledge a vow (xuyuan 許願) in the summer, and fulfil it (huanyuan 還願) by commissioning a Thanking the Earth ritual in the winter. The request was commonly prompted by illness or crisis, or in thanks for a good harvest or success in business. It could be held in the family household, or in a temple.

In 1991 the great Li Qing, oblivious to the Party line, recalled the Japanese occupation in the 1940s:

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! The local bandits didn’t interfere either.

Li Qing’s colleague Kang Ren (1925–2010) recalled performing Thanking the Earth rituals forty to fifty times every winter from the age of 15 sui (when he “graduated” as a Daoist) until he was 30 sui in 1954. Given the poverty of the area, this sounded a lot to me. Just west of Kang Ren’s house, poor peasant Li Cunren (1915–2013) recalled that only people with money could afford to commission the ritual—and even before the 1950s there were few of them. But Li Manshan believes Kang Ren’s account: even two or three moderately affluent household patrons for twenty or so villages would suffice to keep the Daoists busy. Forty to fifty such rituals meant eighty to a hundred days work each winter, not counting funerals, which were also most frequent then; they must have been busy virtually every day.

Even after the Communists took control in 1948 some households were still able to commission a Thanking the Earth ritual until 1953; but as the economy was levelled, beleaguered former “landlord” and “rich peasant” families could no longer afford to do so. Previously the ritual had involved making vows for prosperity and the health of their livestock, but now prosperity was unimaginable, and livestock collectivised.

By the 1990s, following the liberalisations after the collapse of the commune system, plenty of relatively affluent households began to re-emerge. But now that they could afford to hold Thanking the Earth rituals again, they were no longer inclined to do so. Whereas families still dutifully invite Daoists to perform funeral rituals, and still believe strongly in fengshui and determining the date, a lesser faith in divine aid to protect their crops and livestock has now rendered the Thanking the Earth ritual obsolete. So documenting it requires considerable reconstruction.

The Memorial
The memorial for Thanking the Earth doesn’t get burned, as it is for the living; the family keeps it after the ritual.

Li Qing’s uncle Li Peisen made a copy of one such memorial in 1981, for a ritual commissioned by his father Li Tang in the late 1920s, entitled “Document for good fortune, with genealogy, recopied” (Jixiang ruyi wen jiapu chongchao 吉祥如意文家譜重抄). Such genealogies often contain a genealogy, a useful resource (cf. Customs of naming):

LPS jiapu detail

Li family genealogy, detail from Li Tang’s memorial.

Li Qing himself wrote a Thanking the Earth memorial over New Year 1989, again including a detailed genealogy:

IMG_20151221_105009

Thanking the Earth memorial with genealogy, Li Qing 1989.

I was also lucky to be shown another memorial preserved by the Ren family in Apricot Orchard village nearby, with the more formal title of “Memorial for supplementing and thanking the five earths” (Buxie wutu yiwen 補謝五土意文), dated 1942—the very year that the Li family Daoists’ participation in the Zhouguantun temple fair is documented:

IMG_2258_2

Thanking the Earth memorial, Xingyuan village 1942.

Comparing the three memorials reveals a basic standard format. It opens with the date, the place, the purpose of the ritual (to fulfill a vow and guarantee well-being, expressed in a standard formula), and the name of the male head of household commissioning it. It then lists the names and birthdates of the family taking part. There follows a general description of the ritual, including titles of some of the ritual segments to be performed. Finally, after another request for well-being that includes the orphan souls, there comes a list of deceased kin—minimally the three generations of ancestors (sandai zongqin).

Among the ritual documents that LI Qing copied in In the early 1980s is this placard for Thanking the Earth:

On separate occasions, both Li Manshan and I asked the elderly Kang Ren to describe the former sequence for Thanking the Earth. The older generation, who recalled the “old rules” of ritual life before Liberation, had steered the group through the revival of the early 1980s (see my film, from 40.22), but in turn they passed away; after the death of Li Qing (1999) and Li Zengguang (2000), Kang Ren was the sole survivor, and he still continued “responding for household rituals” with Li Manshan’s band.

Li vocals 2001

Kang Ren (left) with Li Manshan and junior Daoists, 2001;
right middle, Golden Noble.

Apart from the vocal liturgy, note how Kang Ren detailed the instrumental pieces, both the long suites and the shorter melodies accompanying particular segments:

Thanking the Earth

Day 1
am:

  • Opening Scriptures (kaijing): recite scripture Yuhuang jing
  •      shengguan suite 1 Shuihonghua
  • recite scriptures Laojun jing and Bafang zhou

pm:

  • Fetching Water (qushui)
  •      shengguan suite 2 Zhuma ting
  • sing “words of blessing” (zhuyan)
  •      shengguan suite 3 Yaozhang
  • recite litany Yansheng chan

eve:

  • Communicating the Lanterns (guandeng) to Bestow Blessing (cifu).

Day 2
4–7am:

  • Opening Scriptures (kaijing): rising at the fifth watch (qi wujing);
    then “seven litanies”, including six-line hymn; “words of blessing” such as Zhenxin qingjing daoweizong; and scriptures including Yuhuang jing and Bafang zhou
  • exit the yard and play shengguan piece Qiansheng fo
  • enter yard and sing “words of blessing”: Huangdiye wansui
  • Parading the Streets (shangjie) to each temple, burning incense and paper, reciting mantra for offering paper and playing dizi flute
  •      shengguan suite 4 Puanzhou
  • Shenwen Announcing Text
  •      shengguan suite 5 Da Zouma
  • exit the yard playing shengguan piece Sizi zhenyan
  • on return, burn yellow paper (huangbiao) in the house

noon:

  • recite Noon Thanksgiving Ritual (Xiewu ke)
  • shengguan piece Langtaosha

pm:

  • recite scripture Zhenwu chan
  •      shengguan suite 6 Ma yulang
  • depict the earth altar and recite Thanking the Earth Manual (Xietu ke), including scripture Bafang zhou and Erlang zhou; do Yubu cosmic steps

eve:

  • Offering to the Stove (jizao)
  • Bestowing Food (shishi) and Spreading Fowers (sanhua)
  • Escorting Away the Orphan Souls (songgu); Settling the Gods (anshen).

Xietu duilian

The first six of fifty couplets for Thanking the Earth in Li Qing’s Couplet volume.

First the chief Daoist had to write couplets from the series of fifty for this purpose within the Couplet Volume, to be pasted up around the site, as well as all the “god places” to the Three Pure Ones (sanqing) and Three Officers (sanguan), Lord Lao, the Heavenly Masters (tianshi), and Elder Emperor (Huangdiye).

As in the three-day funeral, the two major nocturnal rituals were Communicating the Lanterns and Bestowing Food. But whereas for funerals most ritual segments (including the seven visits to Deliver the Scriptures) feature sung “hymns of mourning,” the Thanking the Earth sequence included instead a repertoire of “words of blessing” (zhuyan 祝言), sung a cappella with percussion accompaniment, as well as a sequence of fast chanted scriptures. Note also the lengthy “rising at the fifth watch” on the second morning, and the six long shengguan suites in fixed sequence.

This is yet another case of the gulf between textual study and practical accounts. If we relied only on manuals, we might suppose the ritual consisted only of the Xietu ke, apparently the only relevant manual. And even once we learn which manuals were used, they describe neither the ritual business (like how to use the earth, or the mandala), nor how the texts are delivered.

LMS xietu mandala

Template for the mandala for Thanking the Earth
in Li Manshan’s blue notebook, 1990s.

The Earth Citadel
The core procedure of Thanking the Earth, on the second afternoon, is “depicting the earth citadel” (hua tucheng 畫土城, or just “depicting the citadel” huacheng; or “depicting the earth altar” hua tutan 畫土壇), on the floor of the central room before the god images. The texts performed here are those in the Xietu ke, a long manual of 17 double pages, apparently mostly for fast chanting on symbolic visits to the five quarters.

According to Li Manshan, the “Diverse rituals for joyous scriptures” (Xijing zayi 喜經雜儀) manual was for earth scriptures rather than temple fairs. At 27 double pages it is quite long, and its title suggests a compendium containing various optional sub-segments (like the funeral manual), not a manual to be performed complete. It contains some of the “words of blessing” mentioned in Kang Ren’s account (see below); a long sequence for Fetching Water, similar to that in the hymn volume; a series of eulogies (zan, not hymns here); and it concludes with a long series of thirty-five hymns in the classic six-line structure. As with the funerary manuals, there are lengthy sections here that even the senior generation seem not to have performed. There are several mentions of the Divine Empyrean (shenxiao 神宵), but Buddhist as well as Daoist elements look prominent.

The words of blessing
When Kang Ren talked me through the Thanking the Earth ritual in 2001, I mechanically wrote the term “words of blessing”, without querying it further. Only later did I find that these words of blessing were the equivalent for earth and temple scriptures of the funerary “hymns of mourning” (for vocal liturgy, see under Pacing the Void 2). From the late 1980s, when Li Qing taught his disciples, including his nephew Golden Noble (see film, from 53.15), he included the words of blessing in their training, but by the 1990s the rituals that required them were hardly needed, so that later the young recruits could barely recall them.

Not long before Kang Ren died in 2010, Golden Noble went to see him, using his mobile to record him singing a series of words of blessing, which Kang Ren recalled well despite hardly having occasion to sing them for over half a century.

zhuyan tapes contents

Golden Noble’s list of contents for his recordings of Kang Ren, 2010.

Li Qing didn’t include any of these “words of blessing” in his cipher-notation score in the 1980s, but later Golden Noble found some loose pages that Li Qing wrote just before his stroke in 1996.

Huangdiye score

Huangdiye wansui, opening.

Golden Noble did all this purely out of his own curiosity, before my own increasing attention to the ritual repertoire. For the recording Kang Ren marked the main beats with a woodblock, including the syncopated cadences, though making sense of them was doubtless easier for the Daoists than for us. Still, at our hotel in Beijing in 2013 we tried to record the songs with the aid of Kang Ren’s tapes, but it didn’t work out. (For Golden Noble’s exquisite leading of the Invitation ritual, see here, with my film, from 58.15.)

Here are Kang Ren’s recordings of the two “words of blessing” Zhenxin qingjing daoweizong [2] and Huangdiye wansui:

 

Though the texts are quite few, they make a precious addition to our impression of ritual as once performed. In melodic style they seem similar to the funerary hymns—although being sung a cappella, they would be sung rather faster. Golden Noble noted that their sections (gu 股) are punctuated by interludes on nao and bo cymbals.

This labour of love impresses me, even if it illustrates the tenuity of transmission; for more on ritual impoverishment, see Recreation. As usual, scholars of Daoist ritual will be content to have the texts, unencumbered by the messy realities of modern social change; but becoming a Daoist priest depends on learning how to perform the texts. 

Apart from the compendium, the manuals for Communicating the Lanterns and Bestowing Food (the yankou), and the chanted scriptures, we have Li Qing’s manuals for three more of the ritual segments specified: Announcing Text, the Noon Thanksgiving, and the Offering to the Stove. Note that we need to consult a range of manuals even in order to gain a full picture of the texts used in the Thanking the Earth ritual; and even this is no substitute for witnessing it in performance.


[1] For Shanxi, I gave a bare outline in In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.77–9. In Shuozhou just south of Yanggao, Daoists still perform jiao rituals pledged by individual families. For a description from a temple Daoist, see Ren Zongquan 任宗權, Daojiao keyi gailan 道教科儀概覽 (2012), pp.13–16. In south China there are many common terms for such domestic rituals, such as Settling the Dragon (anlong 安龍), and they are still commonly performed; for Thanking the Earth in Hunan (in the text-based style common in scholarship on religion in south China, free of modern social change), see the recent MA thesis by Tian Zeren 田泽人, Sheshu rudao: Hunan Xinhua xian minjian daotan xietu yu xiefen keyi yanjiu 摄术入道: 湖南新化县民间道坛谢土与谢坟科仪研究 (2021).

[2] Yet another text used in the daily services of Complete Perfection temples: Xuanmen risong pp.11–15, Quanzhen zhengyun puji pp.17–18.

A 1942 temple fair

LMS ZGT

Here I expand on a charming vignette in my film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist (from 35.45), and my book Daoist priests of the Li family (pp.60–61), illustrating how fieldwork can help us not just to observe current activity and collect historical material, but to illuminate earlier practices.

One morning in April 2011, at home in Upper Liangyuan village with Li Manshan, he casually told me that he knew of a stele at a nearby village temple which listed some names of his Daoist forebears. So after lunch we set off to the temple just northwest, known simply as “the Zhouguantun temple,” though it is rather distant in the fields to the north of the village (see maps here and here).

When we arrive, the temple grounds appear to be empty. Finding two weather-beaten stone steles planted on either side of the main entrance, we spend ages trying to make out the names of Li Manshan’s forebears. Eventually we go to disturb the siesta of the solitary temple keeper Zhang Zheng. Most affable, he helps us draw some water from the well so we can smear it over the stone to bring out the engraved characters.

ZGT kanmiaode

Zhouguantun temple keeper Zhang Zheng.

Slightly lame, Zhang Zheng is a bachelor. Brought up in Zhouguantun, he was attracted to Buddhism, spending time at Wutaishan; his master is now in Datong. As he “roamed the clouds” (yunyou, cf. the Hunyuan Daoist Jiao Lizhong), he came to look after this temple in 1998 (well before it was refurbished), becoming a monk in 2000 with the Buddhist name Shi Zhengci 釋正慈.

As Zhang Zheng tells us, the temple is now formally called Foxian si 佛仙寺; its original name was Zhangdenghe miao 張登河廟, to the deity Zhang laoxian shen 張老仙神. Its three annual temple fairs are on 3rd moon 3rd, 6th moon 6th, and 9th moon 9th.

As we apply water, the steles become easier to decipher. At last we can make out the date: they commemorate donors for the restoration of the temple in 1942, the 31st year of the Republican era—confirming that religious life was still thriving despite the Japanese occupation. If local people were seeking the protection of the deity at a time of crisis, it seemed to work, for today he is considered to have protected them then. Though the temple was destroyed under Maoism, it was refurbished in 2010, and is still considered very efficacious.

And sure enough, in a row near the foot of the right-hand stele, facing the temple, is a heading “Upper Liangyuan” followed by the names of five Lis; unclear at first, they scrub up nicely with plentiful applications of water, and eventually we make out the names of the three brothers Li Peiye, Li Peixing, and Li Peilong, as well as Li Peiye’s son Li Tong (then 33 sui) and Li Peixing’s son, our very own Li Qing (then 17 sui). The brothers’ cousin Li Peisen isn’t listed—he led a separate band. Here’s my genealogy of the nine generations of Daoists in the Li family, from Li Fu, first in the lineage to learn Daoist ritual in the 18th century:

Li generations

The stele doesn’t list any monetary donations from the Lis; as Li Manshan explains to me, this means that they were not mere donors, but were performing rituals for the temple fair as a “dutiful” (yiwu) offering of scriptures—a devotional act for which they would have been recompensed with donations over the course of the event. At the time, temple fairs were still known by the term jiao 醮 Offering, which is now little known in Yanggao.

Nowadays a band of six Daoists is standard in this area south of the town; but until around 2003 they still commonly used seven (as in my 2007 DVD Doing things, §B6). So the 1942 stele lists only the five adult Daoists; there were probably a couple of unspecified junior recruits too, playing percussion as they learned the ropes (see also here).

painting-detail-cropped

Ritual painting, detail, commissioned by Li Peisen from Artisan the Sixth, early 1980s.

This shows how fieldwork with living people can teach us about the past. It’s one thing to document early steles, listing dates and names of donors, but only acquaintance with Daoists like Li Manshan can reveal such clues. Who knows how many names of Daoist bands languish unremarked on old steles? Early artefacts are silent, immobile records of a vibrant ritual life.

Alas, the stele doesn’t record the sequence of rituals that they performed—such lists were commonly made, but on transient paper placards pasted up at the temple (cf. Changing ritual artefacts). Today the great majority of the Li family Daoists’ work is performing mortuary rituals; they still perform for a few temple fairs in the area (see the DVD with my 2007 book, §B), but the ritual sequence is less elaborate than before the 1950s, and has become quite similar to that of funerals (see my book, chapter 12). Most of the former segments have since become obsolete here, but we can glean clues from the ritual manuals that Li Qing and his uncle Li Peisen recopied upon the revival in the early 1980s (for a list, see Appendix 2 of my book), together with Li Manshan’s comments.

In 1942 the ritual segments would have included not only a cappella hymns and fast chanted scriptures such as Scriptures for Averting Calamity (Rangzai jing 禳災經), but also all six long shengguan suites for the instrumental ensemble. Apart from standard morning, noon, and evening segments, the Yanggao Daoists performed two major nocturnal rituals—temple-fair versions of rituals also used for funerals: the nocturnal “Bestowing Blessings” Communicating the Lanterns (cifu guandeng 賜福觀燈) and yankou 焰口; as well as Announcing Text (shenwen 申文), Presenting the Memorial (jinbiao 進表) and Stepping the Cosmos (tagang 踏罡), Inviting and Sending Off the Gods (qingshen, songshen 請送神); perhaps also Prior and Latter Invocations (qian’gao 前誥, hougao 后誥).

Moreover, Willem Grootaers and Li Shiyu were doing fieldwork in the region at the very time—how I would love to discover ciné footage of the 1942 temple fair at Zhouguantun!

It has been a pleasant, instructive afternoon. Before we leave, Zhang Zheng reads my hands. Bidding him farewell, we call a friendly local cab driver to take us back home to Upper Liangyuan. When we arrive, the main gate of Li Manshan’s house is locked, and his wife is out. We stand outside smoking contentedly in the early evening sunshine, waiting for her to return, until eventually I look at Li Manshan and ask him casually, “Do you, um, have a key?” He takes a leisurely drag on his cigarette and goes “Er… yeah.” We smoke some more, digesting this news. Me: “Ah… right.” Further long pause. “Um… Care to open the gate then?” Li Manshan shrugs nonchalantly: “OK then.”

Though the two main temples of Upper Liangyuan were demolished in the 1950s and never restored, on my 2013 stay in the village, thanks to the elderly Li Xu, we discovered steles lying abandoned and forgotten in ditches—again, see my film (from 8.18) and book (pp.46–9). The stele of the Temple of the God Palace (Fodian miao) is dated 1880; that of the Palace of the Three Pure Ones (Sanqing dian) is from 1942, like that of the Zhouguantun temple—again suggesting recourse to divine aid in times of crisis.

beiwen 2013

Li Manshan inspects the abandoned stele of the Temple of the Three Pure Ones,
with Li Bin (left) looking on.

Chinese scholars have been diligent in copying early steles in Shanxi; for me, such historical work merely provided punctuation for a daily schedule following Li Manshan’s band around the area as they performed funerals.

For a sequel, see Thanking the Earth.

William Byrd

Byrd

Ave verum corpus was a common theme of church music long before MozartCamilla Pang’s Private passions reminded me of the motet by William Byrd. I used to sing it in my school choir, and though many features of my youth are mercifully vague, somehow (like Bruckner’s Locus iste) I still remember this piece in some detail.

I was quite oblivious to its context. Byrd was a Catholic in Protestant England, practising in secret amidst persecution, like “underground” Chinese Catholics under MaoismAve verum corpus comes from Byrd’s Gradualia, published in 1605, the very year of the Gunpowder plot. Here it is sung by The Sixteen:

Its fame was belated:

It attained its popularity only in the modern era; being strictly a Catholic work, it was totally shunned by English church musicians until its revival by Catholic choirs late in the 19th century. In an age of greater religious tolerance its popularity quickly spread, and by a pleasing twist of fortune Byrd’s Ave verum corpus is now a staple not only of Catholic choral worship, but of Anglican too. Ave verum corpus at Evensong: again, Byrd would have been amazed.

The finer points of the doctrinal divide are still rather lost on me (miserable sinner that I am): it’s hard now to hear “militant sectarianism”—yet another instance of the changing values of reception history (relevant posts there including Bach, and Alan Bennett’s points about art).

Byrd score

Source.

Das Land ohne Musik—Pah!

Other posts featuring wondrous a cappella singing include A Swedish psalm, Brahms, and Strings and voices. For a fantasy of travels in time and place, cf. Orlando Gough, The world encompassed.

 

Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin!!!

Tintin lamas

Despite our best intentions, Hergé’s Tintin books and TV animations remain compelling, both in the West and in the cultures in which he dabbled from afar (see also wiki). The sonorous declamation “Herge’s Adventures of Tintin!!!” in the 1950s’ cartoons is still highly nostalgic for early generations of naïve youth like me—who would have been unaware how we were being indoctrinated by “racial stereotypes, animal cruelty, colonialism, violence, and even fascist leanings, including ethnocentric, caricatured portrayals of non-Europeans”.

Hergé developed the series as illustrator at Le vingtième siècle, “a staunchly Roman Catholic, conservative Belgian newspaper based in Brussels, describing itself as a “Catholic Newspaper for Doctrine and Information” and disseminating a far-right, fascist viewpoint.

His first story Tintin in the land of the Soviets (1929–30) was followed by Tintin in the Congo, written “in a paternalistic style that depicted the Congolese as childlike idiots”. His fictional creation of Syldavia long predates Molvania. After the war Hergé somewhat distanced himself from such racist, paternalistic messages. The first English translations appeared in 1951, and the TV cartoons became popular.

By 2007, the UK Commission for Racial Equality called for Tintin in the Congo to be pulled from shelves, stating: “It beggars belief that in this day and age that any shop would think it acceptable to sell and display [it]” (cf. this Channel 4 report). Still, in Belgium the Centre for Equal Opportunities warned against “over-reaction and hyper political correctness”; and Claude Lévi-Strauss, no less, stated that “Tintin was the comic strip that was the most respectful of world cultures”—admittedly a low bar. A thriving discipline of Tintinology emerged, as well as parodies.

* * *

Tintin: So you see, my dear Chang, that’s how many Europeans see China!
Chang: Oh! How funny the people of your country are!

Shanghai Tintin

The Blue Lotus (1934–35; see also wiki), set in Shanghai, was inspired by Hergé’s friendship with the Chinese artist Zhang Chongren, then a student in Brussels.

with Zhang

In the story Zhang appears in the form of Chang Chong-chen, who relieves Tintin of his preconceptions.

Tintin China images

In China, pocket editions of the Tintin books were pirated from the 1980s, giving him the pleasingly economical name of Dingding 丁丁. A recent Sixth Tone article explores the reputation of The Blue Lotus there. As Alex Colville comments there, “without Zhang’s humanising influence, it is easy to imagine The Blue Lotus simply becoming a tale of Tintin foiling a group of pigtailed Chinese opium dealers.” The story scored points for its anti-Japanese stance; and moving away from imperialist stereotypes, Tintin defends the Chinese not only from Japanese aggressors but bullying Western businessmen.

Zhang Chongren returned to China in 1936. Rehabilitated after the Cultural Revolution, he met up again with Hergé in 1981 in France, where he ended his days.

Here’s a 1992 animation of The Blue Lotus:

* * *

Tintin Tibet coverThe character of Chang also features in Tintin in Tibet (1958–59, sic) (wiki; note also Séagh Kehoe here). By this time Hergé was doing more research; the story was based on his readings of works such as Fosco Maraini’s Secret Tibet, Heinrich Harrer’s Seven years in Tibet, Tsewang Pemba’s Tibet my homeland, discredited author Lobsang Rampa’s The third eye, and the books of Alexandra David-Néel.

For Hergé, Tibet might seem a Can of Worms, yet another potential candidate for the Duke of Edinburgh Gaffe of the Year award—but instead in 2006 the Dalai Lama bestowed the Light of Truth award on the book. A Chinese edition under the sneaky title Tintin in Chinese Tibet had already been retracted in 2001 after protests by the publishers and the Hergé Foundation. YAY!

Tintin lama

Sidestepping politics, there are no baddies here; it’s been seen as a story of friendship, a spiritual quest. Here’s the 1992 animation:

For all their flaws, these works may have enticed many young minds like mine to China and Tibet. Apart from innocent childish pursuits, the whole series must have inspired more anthropologists than crypto-fascists.

Some memorable umbrellas, East and West

umbrellas

I’m inordinately fond of these handsome souvenir umbrellas that the Li family Daoists and I were given on tour: a capacious one at the Amsterdam China Festival in 2005, and a dinky one from the Confucius Institute of Clermont-Ferrand in 2017.

Left: folk-singer, southwest China.
Right: Wu Mei improvises rainwear during a storm at Nanterre before our trip south.

Tianjin huanghui tu

The Imperial Assembly, Tianjin.

Umbrellas, or rather parasols, are an important part of the paraphernalia of Chinese ritual processions. And they’re a common prop for folk-singers at festivals in northwest China.

Gansu miaohui FK

Temple procession, south Gansu, June 1997.
Photo: Frank Kouwenhoven. © CHIME, all rights reserved.

A suitable soundtrack (note the leap of the major 7th!):

In north Europe we are unlikely to pray for rain, so I have much more practical use for umbrellas than do the dwellers of drought-prone north China.

Left, “Place this immediately above your own. Saves getting it wet”.
Right: top, paternalistic umbrella; lower left, umbrella for dry climates “for collecting the water of life”.
From Jacques Carelman, Catalogue of extraordinary objects (1969).

On a personal note, it may be thanks to my great-aunt Edith Miles that I warm to the topic:

Red umbrella lowres

For the plucky resistance of British street-signs to continental conformity, see here.

umbrella

 

Shanxi, 1991: a message from beyond

Hua session 1

Second recording session with the Hua family shawm band, March 1991:
the afternoon entertainment repertoire (Walking shrill CD, §4).
Hua Yinshan on shawm, Hua Jinshan on yangqin;
sheng player on left is blindman Duan Guanming.

In early March 1991 I took the train from Beijing to Datong, accompanied by local scholar Chen Kexiu, for the first of many fieldtrips to Yanggao county, whose unprepossessing exterior cunningly concealed a wealth of ritual life.

Visiting the great household Daoist Li Qing at his home in Upper Liangyuan, we made a date for a grand funeral the following day at Greater Antan village, where he would be presiding over the Pardon ritual with his Daoist band (my film, from 48.35, cf. my book pp.246–50).

pardon-in-colour-version-2

The other main object of my studies in Yanggao was to be the Hua family shawm band, whom we first met one afternoon at their home in Yangjiabu village north of the county-town. We were already impressed by the solicitude of kindly Yanggao cultural cadre Li Jin, whom I have extolled here. He was working at the office in town that day. By the time I began to record the shawm band, most of the villagers were crammed into Hua Yinshan’s courtyard. As I sat there blown away (“literally”, as one says nowadays) by the band’s Ming-dynasty bebop (e.g. sidebar playlist §5, commentary here), Li Jin rode up on his bicycle bearing an urgent message for me.

David Adams, fixer for the English Baroque Soloists, was renowned for his persistence, and somehow he had managed to track me down to Yanggao, seeking to book me for some EBS dates. David had phoned my partner in London, with whom I had left the phone number of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, so he called them; I have no idea how they managed to communicate, but he got hold of the number for the Yanggao Bureau of Culture. No-one in Yanggao spoke any English, but again Li Jin surmised that the phone-call must be from England, and it must be for me (cf. Comrade Paul); and he gamely, if approximately, transcribed David’s name with its unfamiliar letters—Russian was the preferred foreign language when he was studying at school in the 1950s, and pinyin was still little known.

In light snow, Li Jin then promptly set off to Yangjiabu on his bicycle (a contraption that had only become common in Yanggao in the 1980s); somewhat bedraggled, he handed over this important message to me, whatever it meant, before the bemused villagers. Alas, I can’t now find Li Jin’s pencilled note, but the message read something like DEWUEDADAAMS. I was impressed.

Immersed as I was in Daoist ritual sequences and shawm suites, early-music touring already seemed rather remote to me, but it was a pleasant reminder of my other life. In those days, still before email, it was hard enough to make a phone-call from Yanggao to Beijing; it was clearly out of the question to try one of the few landlines in the village, and hey, I was busy… Even when we returned to the dingy county-town, making an international call looked most unlikely. I don’t recall how I eventually got through to David—I guess only on my return to Beijing the following week, in between attending folk Buddhist funerals there. Anyway, I must have hastily pencilled in dates for my diary, perhaps even our Barcelona trip for the Mozart anniversary the coming November?! (Contrast “Can you come and do a Messiah next Monday night in Scunthorpe? There’s no fee, but there’ll be a jolly good tea.”)

Palau Mozart

Like my early run-ins with the local constabulary, this story soon became a popular source of mirth among my friends in both China and London. Though my forays to the Chinese countryside were far from the utter isolation of early fieldworkers in remote climes like New Guinea or Easter Island, on my early fieldtrips I cheerfully gave up any notion of keeping in touch with home (cf. Laowai, on my 1999 Long March with Guo Yuhua in Shaanbei). Those were the days.

For more in this linguistic ball-park, see It’s the only language they understand, and Interpreting pinyin

* * *

Keen as I was to learn more about ritual life in Yanggao, I made it one of our destinations on a tour of Shanxi the following year with Xue Yibing. For the rest of the 1990s I was busy with a major project on the ritual associations of Hebei (see outline of the progression of my work in the second half of this post); but those early trips to Yanggao made an important basis for my more in-depth studies there from 2001 (for the Hua band) and 2011 (for the Li family Daoists).

IMG_1411 - Version 2

The Li family Daoist band tending their motor-bikes and mobiles
between funerary ritual segments, Houguantun 2011.

By around 2004 the ritual “food-bowl” of Daoists and shawm bands began revolving around motor-bikes and mobile phones, which allowed them to “respond for household rituals” far more promptly than their forebears over the previous centuries. By 2013, whereas my own phone had already stopped ringing, on our European tours with the Li family Daoists (see e.g. France 2018Li Manshan and his son Li Bin were busy fielding calls on their mobiles from Yanggao villagers asking them to determine the date for burials and arrange their funeral rituals—a rather similar circumstance to mine in 1991, albeit more convenient.

Shaanbei-ology

SB covers

The northwestern province of Shaanbei (see sidebar tag) is a popular venue for the discussion of the interplay of politics and traditional culture, its iconic image as “a revolutionary mecca of modern China with colourful folk cultural traditions and scenic landscape” contrasting with the changing complexities of local reality.

Just in case you haven’t noticed, the top menu (under the Other publications sub-menu!) has a page on Shaanbei-ology, introducing splendid studies by David Holm, Adam Yuet Chau, and Ka-ming Wu;

GYH cover

and most notably, the ethnography of Guo Yuhua (must-read page here) on the hill village of Yangjiagou, detailing the peasant’s own views of the periods before, during, and since the coercive Maoist era.

My own work on Shaanbei is mainly presented in my 2009 book, leading to a series of posts on this site, including

For yet more, see Shaanbei tag in the sidebar.

Images of the Li family Daoists, revised!

The Pardon, 1991

This is to direct you to a new revision of the photos (click here) on the first page of images of the Li family Daoists (in the top menu: see screenshot below).

I first compiled it early in my blogging days, and since then I’ve added many more posts and photos (see the Li family category in the sidebar, with sub-heads); but this selection still makes a good introduction, so I’ve now overhauled it to make a handy way of surveying some of the topics covered, giving links.

Li images

And do also consult the other pages in that menu:

All this to complement your viewings of my film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist!

Pacing the Void 2: styles in vocal liturgy

WD 2011

Li Manshan, Wang Ding, and Golden Noble Delivering the Scriptures at the soul hall, 2011.

To follow my article on Pacing the Void hymns, what I didn’t attempt there was to discuss the musical style of modern renditions of the genre. It’s clearly important to document the soundscape of ritual: the most basic argument for taking it into consideration is that ritual is about performance, and sound is the means through which silent texts are animated and ritual expressed.

However, I find it hard to find clues that might help differentiate styles within vocal repertoires (such as notional “archaic” elements), or to suggest how Pacing the Void hymns may be distinguished from other items—either among temple or household Daoists.

To illustrate the problem, here I’ll outline aspects of the vocal liturgy of the Li family in north Shanxi, based on chapters of my Daoist priests of the Li family, with examples from the complementary film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist (for a roundup of many posts, see here).

In Chapter 11, “The ancestry of texts”, I noted:

Scholars of ritual tend to discuss whole segments and whole ritual manuals, rather than the individual elements within them. But it’s not just music scholars who focus on the detail: collections of musical transcriptions from current temple practice reflect the emic views of Daoists themselves (both temple and household) in documenting individual hymns. Since the same text is often used in different rituals, we may call such texts “floating” hymns.

I find more of the Li family’s Orthodox Unity texts in modern Complete Perfection temple practice than in the Daoist Canon or the Daozang jiyao; most come from the daily services and the yankou. At least nine of the texts sung by the Li family today appear in the “Orthodox melodies of Complete Perfection” (Quanzhen zhengyun) (cf. Rethinking Zhengyi and Quanzhen).

In a ritual corpus like this we have three types of text, some highly standard and national, others apparently distinctive and regional, even local:

  • ritual manuals: now hardly performed; few sources in the Daoist Canon or elsewhere, either whole or in part
  • individual hymns still in use today: few appear in the Canon, but many are found in modern temple sources like the daily services and the nocturnal yankou ritual—which are now known mainly in Complete Perfection versions
  • scriptures (jing 經) and litanies (chan 懺), which the Li family no longer performs: nationally standard, ancient, and found in both the Daoist Canon and modern temple sources.

In content, Pacing the Void texts can’t be neatly distinguished from those of other hymns. Many of the same hymns may now be used for several different ritual segments. As I explained in my previous post, the Li family’s Pacing the Void hymn is performed at the central pole for Hoisting the Pennant (yangfan 揚幡) and just before the coffin is taken out of the house to be buried.

In structure and style there is no clear difference between song types, like hymns (zan 讚) , mantras (zhou 咒), and gāthas (ji 偈) (such as Hymn to the Three Treasures, Mantra to the Three Generations, Gātha to Water), so such titles provide few clues. Here the terms zhou 咒 and zhenyan 真言 (mantra) seem to be used interchangeably; and despite its title, Sanbao zan 三寶讚 isn’t a “hymn” in the classic six-line structure of 4-4-7-5-4-5 words, common to both Daoist and Buddhist ritual (for an extensive collection of such texts in the syncretic tradition of Lesser Huangzhuang village south of Tianjin, see here).

As to textual structure, some hymns are in regular verse with lines of five or seven words—such as Recitation to the Great Supreme (Taishang song 太上誦, our Pacing the Void hymn Taiji fen gaohou 太極分高厚) and Diverse and Nameless (Zhongzhong wuming 種種無名) respectively—but most are in verses of irregular lines. Some hymns are strophic, with a recurring melody for successive verses, though that of the opening line is usually somewhat different. Two textual structures with several different lyrics are sung to the same two melodies: the six-line hymns, and the Lantern structure. More often, one just has to learn them individually.

For the seven visits to the soul hall over the day to Deliver the Scriptures (songjing 送經) , some hymns are prescribed, others a free choice. The hymns sung at the five poles for the Hoisting the Pennant segment are prescribed, but their texts are not specific to the ritual; and those for Transferring the Offerings (zhuanxian 轉獻) are a free choice, with only the brief shouted instructions to the kin between the sequence of hymns relating to the ritual itself. Such flexibility might seem like an impoverishment, but we find similar versatility in the elite temples, where many of the same texts may be used within different rituals.

Sound
For contrasting reasons, the texts of both hymns and scriptures are barely intelligible to the human ear: whereas the former are sung very slowly with melisma, the latter were chanted very fast, isorhythmically.

In Chapter 14 of my book I went on to discuss the Li family Daoists’ vocal liturgy in some detail.

What the Daoists learn is not so much ritual manuals to be recited complete, as how to perform rituals—acquiring the building-blocks and learning how to put particular hymns together within the context of the ritual segments required.

Daoist and Buddhist traditions, both temple and household, use a variety of styles of vocal delivery along the continuum from speech to song. The Yanggao Daoists now distinguish only shuowen 說文 solo recited sections and zantan 讚嘆 sung hymns; they are all “recited” (nian 念), though for visiting scholars they may explain that the hymns are “sung” (chang 唱)—a word usually denoting popular secular singing. “Reciting” can mean singing a cappella, accompanied only by the ritual percussion; when a hymn is further accompanied by the shengguan wind instruments, they call it chui 吹 “blowing” (see Unpacking “Daoist music”)—the singing goes without saying. Before focusing on the sung hymns that are now the main content of the Li family’s ritual practice, we should note other vocal styles:

  • short chanted shuowen solo introits (film from 32.19)
  • fast chanted mantras (film from 35.00)
  • reciting documents (solo) (film from 1.02.55)
  • silence (rare!).

As an instance of variety within the seemingly narrow parameters of vocal liturgy, I analysed the Invitation (zhaoqing 召請) segment performed at dusk at the edge of the village.

Focusing on the hymns, most are sung in unison by the whole group—either all six Daoists (formerly seven) when singing a cappella with percussion accompaniment only, or three (formerly four) when accompanied by the shengguan wind ensemble.

Whereas the melodies of the shengguan ensemble are recorded in gongche solfeggio notation, vocal liturgy is not traditionally notated. But as I seek to identify a core melodic style in the latter,  the useful cipher-notation score (see here, under 3rd moon 4th), compiled by Li Manshan’s father Li Qing while he was recopying the ritual manuals upon the revival of the early 1980s, lists a group of several hymns with similar or identical melody. Of these, still performed are A Lantern (Yizhan deng 一盞燈, film from 27.30) and Mantra of the Wailing Ghosts (Guiku zhenyan 鬼哭真言, sung a cappella for Redeeming the Treasuries huanku 還庫, film from 1.03.58), as well as Diverse and Nameless, based on the same melodic material. Li Qing further listed four other hymns to the same melody that have not been performed since the 1950s. Also closely related in melody is the Mantra of the Skeleton (Kulou zhenyan 骷髏真言), used to Open the Scriptures in the afternoon (film from 56.08).

Some hymns are only sung a cappella—I haven’t heard a shengguan version of the Hymn to the Three Treasures (Sanbao zan 三寶贊), first hymn to Open the Scriptures in the morning (film from 22.02) though Li Qing notated it. Li Manshan observes that the a cappella versions must be primary; and that “six-line hymns” are hard to sing with shengguan.

Conversely, some other items seem to be performed only with shengguan, like our Pacing the Void hymn Recitation to the Great Supreme; Diverse and Nameless is rarely sung a cappella; and A Lantern could presumably be performed a cappella (as are some other hymns with the same melody and textual structure), but the Daoists never do so.

To the casual listener it’s not at all clear how a cappella and shengguan versions of the “same piece” align. In my score below, the upper stave shows Mantra of the Wailing Ghosts, the lower stave A Lantern—they may look quite similar, but note that the latter is performed very much slower than the former!

Li score 1

Today one of few hymns still regularly heard in both a cappella and shengguan versions is Mantra to the Three Generations (Sandai zhou 三代咒). My film shows the contrast between the a cappella rendition sung at the gate on the return from the Invitation (from 1.06.08; cf. Playlist in sidebar, §§2 and 3, with commentary here) and the magnificent slow decorated version with shengguan in Transferring the Offerings (from 1.08.01); again, this is how the openings of the two versions align:

SDZ opening

In Chapter 14 I went on to discuss cadences and melisma; repeated words, text-setting and timbre; vocal contour, register, and tempo progressions. The percussion accompaniment on drums and cymbals follows the same rules across the sung hymns (for the melody and accompaniment of the opening of Diverse and Nameless, see here, and here).

If we listen again to the Li family’s Pacing the Void hymn (with the aid of my score), while it contains some phrases from the core melodic repertoire, it also uses phrases not heard there. The patchwork of melodic elements has to be learned hymn by hymn.

* * *

In sum, there are many sonic distinctions to be made within any Daoist ritual corpus: the sung hymns, fast chanted sections, and so on. But I find little to distinguish the Li family Daoists’ Pacing the Void hymn from their other vocal liturgy: it belongs firmly within the general stylistic parameters of their repertoire. Any distinctive melodic, or even textual, identity is elusive. So we should treat it not as some exotic ancient remnant, but rather as a part of a living ritual tradition.

At the same time, a reminder: ritual is about performance, and sound is the means through which silent texts are animated and ritual expressed!

For ritual traditions elsewhere in north Shanxi, see under Local ritual.

Ken Dean: discovering Fujian ritual life in the early reform era

Ken 2

Ritual procession entering the outskirts of Zhangzhou, 1985.
This, and photos below, from Ken Dean, Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China.

In mainland China from the late 1970s, as the commune system crumbled, a vast revival of traditional culture got under way (for the Li family Daoists in north Shanxi, see Testing the waters and Recopying ritual manuals). This energy was reflected in the excited discoveries of fieldworkers in the 1980s, as shown in the early reports of Kenneth Dean from Fujian province:

See also his short overview

  • “Taoism in southern Fujian: field notes, fall 1985”, in Pen-yeh Tsao [Tsao Poon-yee] and Daniel Law (eds), Studies of Taoist rituals and music of today (1989), pp.74–87.

Ken 1993 cover

Along with C.K. Wang, John Lagerwey, and Patrice Fava, Ken Dean built on experience of Daoist ritual in Taiwan and the classic portrayals by Kristofer Schipper and others; by the early 1980s, as mainland China became accessible at last, they began pursuing the Hokkien traditions back to their homeland across the strait to south Fujian—an eye-opening revelation.

Ken’s stay in Fujian from 1985 to 1987 led to the publication of his 1993 book Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China. And among the results of his later focus on the Putian region was the fine documentary Bored in heaven.

Ken film

Wang and Lagerwey soon expanded their regional studies, recruiting local scholars as they initiated major projects; a vast series of monographs soon proliferated, and later fieldworkers became accustomed to finding vibrant ritual traditions throughout south China. But in the first flush of discovery, the early reports by Lagerwey and Dean on ritual cultures of Fujian are especially vivid.

I ended my recent post on Pacing the Void hymns like this:

Our choice of emphasis is significant: whereas the sinological method is to use fieldwork as a mere adjunct to unearthing textual vestiges of medieval theology, a more ethnographic approach incorporates such ritual archaeology into our studies of living ritual repertoires in modern society.

And Ken’s work is a fine example of the latter: by contrast with most salvage-based accounts of southern Daoist ritual traditions, he not only followed the classical bent of Daoist studies, but integrated thoughtful social ethnography on this period of rapid change. 

“Funerals in Fujian” opens thus:

Unknown to most outside observers of modern China who believe it to be monolithic, atheistic, and materialist, and wholly divorced from its traditions, an enormous resurgence of traditional rituals, local cults, and popular culture has been gathering force since 1979, when the Chinese government relaxed its controls on the practice of religion.

Visiting scores of temples, Ken attended over fifty rituals—

week-long god processions involving tens of thousands of villagers, five-day community festivals centering around Taoist jiao Offering rituals, five-day funerals complete with theatrical rituals such as the “Smashing of Hell”, and several exorcisms featuring mediums in trance.

As he observes,

Economic activity boomed, and the first thing that people who had made money did was not to buy televisions and refrigerators but to rebuild temples to their local cult god that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

In Tong’an county alone, cultural authorities estimated there were 3,000 temples.

Manuscripts that had miraculously survived were copied back and forth. Paintings were taken out of their hiding places in pigsties and latrines. Gods were unearthed and returned to their temples.

Lineage organisations revived, and folk theatrical groups struggled to meet demand in performing for god birthdays and temple consecrations, weddings and funerals. The boom in house-building required inviting ritual specialists to perform house-settling exorcisms. Community jiao Offering rituals were held for the first time in several decades. Donations from overseas Chinese, encouraged by local cadres, played a major role in this restoration. While some cadres, angered by their loss of power in the economic sector, still resisted the observing of religious celebrations, most identified with the revival. Ken also notes ritual inflation.

In “Two Taoist jiao observed in Zhangzhou”. he describes three-day Pure Offerings (santian qingjiao 三天清醮). Ken notes how the local communities organised and funded the rituals.

jiao altar 1

Jiao altar 2

The first Offering was held in a rather small temple in an outlying neighbourhood of Zhangzhou city (see photo above), with Daoists officiating who were still not fully equipped to perform the rituals, such as the Division of the Lamps (fendeng 分燈). As Ken comments most pertinently,

possession of a liturgical manuscript does not necessarily imply the ability to perform the corresponding ritual. The actual performance depends in large measure on oral transmission.

 

Zhangzhou jiao 1.1

Zhangzhou jiao 1.2

Building on his experience in Taiwan, he describes the ritual segments in some detail.

Ken 1

Community procession bearing King boat, rural Zhangzhou 1985.

Two days later Ken attended the second half of another three-day Offering in a nearby village. What distinguished it from the previous ritual was the inclusion of a Pestilence King Offering (Wangye jiao 王爺醮). Traditionally held here every seven years, it had still been performed under Maoism, the last time being 1961. The article ends with an Appendix detailing altar hangings and documents, lu 籙 registers, and total listed costs.

* * *

Whereas much of the ritual activity that I find in north China consists of funerals, scholars in the south tend to focus on community rituals for the living. So Ken’s detailed fieldnotes in “Funerals in Fujian” are all the more valuable.

He discusses mortuary rituals in the natural sequence, from encoffinment to burial, the first brief funeral service, and the more elaborate third-anniversary rituals. He notes regional variation, whereby some areas call for Buddhist rather than Daoist ritual specialists to perform funerals; in Nan’an and Jinjiang counties, “either group may do them, but most people agree the Taoists do a better show”.

Encoffining
In Dongshan a Daoist officiated in a set of procedures (cf. my Li Manshan film, from 14.58), including the maishui 買水 procession to fetch water to wash the corpse, and a series of recitations. Ken compares the more elaborate rituals described in a local manuscript.

Burial
Near Anhai, he follows a long and elaborate procession to the grave (again, cf. my film, from 1.18.59).

A Western brass band played several incongruous tunes rather poorly. A traditional band played excellent nanyin.

Initial funeral service
Back in Dongshan, Ken attended a brief funeral ritual, its simplicity perhaps related to the fact that the deceased was only around 50 years old. Still, altars with paintings were on display (cf. Ritual paintings of north China). The ritual sequence (here and below I’ve slightly modified some of these translations) was

  • Opening to the Light (kaiguang 開光) and Opening Drumroll (qigu 起鼓)
  • Announcement of the Memorial (fabiao 發表)
  • Inviting the Gods (qingfo 請佛, fo referring generally to gods)
  • Visiting the Soul (guoling 過靈)
  • Worshipping the Soul (bailing 拜靈)
  • Filling the Treasury (tianku 添庫) (cf. my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.111–12)
  • Bathing the Soul (muyu 沐浴)
  • Settling the Soul (anling 安靈)
  • Seeing Off the Gods (cifo 辭佛)

Ken describes all these segments in detail. Like John Lagerwey, he pays attention to the “heat and noise” of ritual performance, including the varied soundscape.

A three-day funeral
This gongde 功德 ritual in Shishan, Nan’an county, with fifteen Daoists presiding, was held for the third anniversary of the death of an overseas Chinese relative.

In general, the ritual tradition is very similar to that of southern Taiwan, but one can find elements in Nan’an that have disappeared in Taiwan or perhaps were never completely transmitted there.

Ken notes:

The older Taoists now complain that since the Cultural Revolution and the massive destruction of Taoist manuscripts, many people have taken up work as Taoist priests despite a lack of training or materials. Thus, instead of one Taoist to a county, you can now find twenty. Or so they say.

Here, while Daoists do perform Pure Offerings (see above) for god birthdays, most of their work is for mortuary rituals. The overall effect of the elaborate altars and paintings displayed for this funeral was “beautiful and staggering in complexity”. He documents the ritual sequence in detail with a 20-page account (cf. my composite list for an area south of Beijing).

Day 1, evening

  • Rousing the Hall (naoting 鬧廳) and Purifying the Altar (jingtan 淨壇)

Day 2
morning:

  • Announcing the Memorial (fabiao 發表)
  • Inviting the Gods (qingshen 請神)
  • Reciting the Scripture of Universal Salvation (nian Duren jing 念度人經)
  • Summoning the Soul (zhaoling 召靈)
  • Opening to the Light (kaiguang 開光)
  • Untying the Knots (jiejie 解結)
  • Opening the Litanies (kaichan 開懺)

noon:

  • Giving Offerings (zuogong 作供)

afternoon:

  • Paying Tribute to the Ten Kings (gong Shiwang 貢十王)

evening:

  • Requesting the Writ of Pardon (qingshe 請赦)
  • Destroying the Fortress (pocheng 破城)

Day 3
morning:

  • Rites for the Masters (lishi 禮師)
  • Visiting the Soul (jianling 見靈)

noon:

  • Noon Offering (zuo wugong 作午供)

afternoon:

  • Juggling Gongs and Cymbals (nong luobo 弄鑼鈸)
  • Joining the Tallies (hefu 合符)
  • Worshipfully Presenting the Memorial (baibiao 拜表)
  • Universal Distribution (pushi 普施)

evening:

  • Filling the Treasury (tianku 添庫)
  • Dismantling the Soul Palace (chuling 除靈)
  • Sending Off the Gods (xiefo 謝佛)

Again, supporting musicians played nanyin melodies. Ken gives evocative detail on the theatrical, sometimes comic, Pardon ritual (cf. the Li family in Shanxi: my film from 48.35, and Daoist priests pp.246–50)—followed by the even more dramatic Destroying the Fortress. He translates the cloth displaying the list of rituals to be performed.

A simultaneous Buddhist and Daoist five-day funeral
Again in Shishan, again a gongde ritual for an overseas Chinese family.

The Buddhists’ rituals for the most part matched the Taoists’, but they had some special effects of their own. The music, dancing, patterns, spells, and deities invoked differed, but the structure of the rituals was identical.

Ken notes the fierce competition between the two groups.

Lake of Blood rites
The ritual also included a Lake of Blood (xuehu 血湖) segment. Ken also witnessed a Lüshan version in nearby Nan’an, also serving to save the souls of two women who had hung themselves from the same beam.

Putian: the Smashing of Hell
Having already described the Smashing of Hell for Shishan, Ken now discusses a version in Putian county further north, a rather different cultural area. Nine household Buddhists presided, and spirit mediums played an active role (for the self-mortifying mediums of southeast and northwest China, see n.1 here).

Ken 3

Mediums in front of the Baosheng dadi temple running with a sedan chair
carrying a visiting god statue, Baijiao 1987.

Zhao’an: a Hakka funeral
To the south, in the Hakka area of Zhao’an, Daoists had a rich tradition of jiao Offerings; but

funerals [there] are performed exclusively by Buddhists—unlike the situation in Quanzhou or Putian, but similar to the tradition in north/central Taiwan.

For the funeral that Ken attended he lists sixteen ritual segments. He focuses on the climactic Smashing of the Sand (dasha 打沙) ritual; and again he notes variations in ritual traditions even within this area.

In conclusion, citing de Groot’s major work in the region in the 1880s, Ken observes:

In general, extraordinary as it may seem, one may say that anything in de Groot is still happening in southeast China, but no longer all in any one place. The immediate qualification of course is that the role of civil mandarins and Confucians is no more.

In a fine formulation he notes:

Any one community brings its own desires to bear on the selection of elements from the regional cultural and ritual repertoire. At the simplest level, these forces select between competing groups of ritual specialists. The relative popularity of Buddhist,, Taoist, and sectarian ritual specialists for the performance of funerals and other rites varies regionally. Factors include the relative strength and historical depth of the various religious traditions in the locale, the range of fees demanded by the different groups, and the closely connected prestige value of the performances. At a deeper level of analysis, every ritual is a unique performance, inevitably opening up new connections and new expressions within the community. The growing force of these reviving traditions will change China.

The same volume of Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie also includes a catalogue of 290 ritual manuscripts that Ken copied during his stay in Fujian.

I note differences and similarities with my experience of mortuary rituals in north China. We should beware taking the ritual practices of southeast China as a national template (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Conclusion); indeed, as Ken stresses, considerable variation is evident even within a single region of south Fujian.

* * *

As to local folk musicking, those of us undertaking fieldwork in the heady days of the early reform era felt a similar excitement at discovering traditions hitherto unknown outside their locale. Such early energy is clear in the pages of the CHIME journal, particularly in the fieldwork of Antoinet Schimmelpenninck and Frank Kouwenhoven in south Jiangsu.

marionettes 86

Marionettes for nocturnal ritual, Quanzhou 1986. My photo.

Meanwhile in dusty north China, having learned much from accompanying Ken round some temples and rituals around Quanzhou in 1986 (see Fujian, 1961 and onwards, also including a basic map), I benefitted from a similar energy, working closely with the Music Research Institute as we discovered amateur ritual associations and household Daoists in the poor villages south of Beijing (see e.g. A slender but magical clueThree baldies and a mouth-organ, and a whole series of fieldnotes under Local ritual).

Incorporating ethnographic perspectives on a fast-changing society alongside the nuts and bolts of ritual sequences and manuals, Ken Dean’s work in Fujian makes a notable exception to the largely salvage-based template of most such research. While later monographs (notably in the Daojiao yishi congshu series) studied individual Daoist “altars” in great historical depth, the early reports of Dean and Lagerwey laid a foundation for such studies, showing the excitement and energy of the time.

For remarkable film clips from 1930s’ Fujian, see here.

Pacing the void 步虛

yangfan

Li family Daoists sing Taishang song at central pole to open Hoisting the Pennant ritual,
Yanggao 2011.

Following the recent commemorations of the great Kristofer Schipper, I’ve been re-reading his article

  • “A study of Buxu: Taoist liturgical hymn and dance”, in Pen-yeh Tsao [Tsao Poon-yee] and Daniel Law (eds), Studies of Taoist rituals and music of today (1989).

The volume was the result of a conference held in Hong Kong, just as the revival of ritual traditions was getting under way, with further contributions by such scholars as Michael Saso, Chen Yaoting, John Lagerwey, Ken Dean, Issei Tanaka, Qing Xitai, John Blacking, and Alan Kagan.

It’s impressive that “Daoist music” was considered to belong with Daoist ritual so early; later, scholars of ritual and those studying ritual soundscapes (a more suitable term) would work separately, to the detriment of both.

Many of the articles in the volume are historical; and most of those discussing “rituals and musics of today” concern southeast China and Taiwan. Indeed, even now, this focus of time and place still dominates the field.

Schipper’s article opens with modern practice in south Taiwan, noting that Buxu 步虛 Pacing the Void hymns are sung there in unison at the opening of jiao Offering rituals, as well as within chao Audience rituals. But the bulk of his article concerns early textual history. He notes that while Buxu hymns already opened jiao Offerings in the Southern Song dynasty, their texts date back as early as the 4th century, soon becoming enshrined in Lingbao liturgy. He also seeks clues about how such hymns were performed in medieval times, noting Buddhist influence. And he finds early associations with meditation, citing the 5th-century Daoist Lu Xiujing:

In the practice of the Lingbao Retreat, when reciting the stanzas of the Empty Cavern Buxu: grind the teeth three times, swallow three times, and then concentrate on the vision of the sun and the moon, in front of one’s face. The rays enter through the nose in the Palace of the Golden Flower. There, after a moment, they change into a nine-coloured halo… Again, grind the teeth three times and swallow three times, and then concentrate on the vision of the Primordial Lord of the Three Simple (pneumata) in the Palace of the Golden Flower, in the likeness of an infant…

Schipper also notes the link with the bugang 步綱 Pacing the Constellation (Yubu 禹步) liturgical dance steps, as well as the Buxu genre in secular literature. He ends by stressing the link between music and meditation in the simultaneous execution of an “interior” and external” ritual:

The way of achieving this, and this is borne out in a way no literary source can provide by today’s rituals, is through music. Only music can integrate the different levels of execution during a ritual, make the meditation and breathing of the Master follow step by step the performance of the outward ritual by the acolytes. Only music can bridge the separation between the two worlds and ensure the harmony of man and his environment and beyond that, of all the spheres of the universe.

I much admire Schipper’s stress here on soundscape; and the high bar that he sets for the “internal” aspects of Daoist ritual was indeed evident in the practices of his own Daoist masters in Taiwan. Yet the fundamental importance of soundscape in ritual practice (hardly pursued by later scholars of Daoism) is far wider than the abstruse arts of cosmic visualisation.

* * *

Schipper set the tone for Daoist ritual studies, which relate modern liturgy firmly to the medieval era. Yet the basis of modern practice is the formation of liturgical traditions since the late imperial period. Throughout China, at the opening of the rituals of both temple clerics and household ritual specialists (Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection alike), Pacing the Void hymns turn out to be widely performed today. Thus modern collections of vocal liturgy and the provincial volumes of the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, compiled through the 1980s and early 90s (see e.g. under Suzhou Daoist ritual), contain numerous transcriptions of Pacing the Void hymns from all over China.

For temple practice, Buxu hymns such as Dadao dongxuan xu 大道洞玄虛 are part of the Xuanmen risong 玄們日誦 daily rituals (Min Zhiting 閔智亭 ed., Quanzhen zhengyun puji 全真正韵譜輯, pp.31–2):

And such hymns, sung very slowly with melisma, are just as common among household Daoists. In my chapter on vocal liturgy in Daoist priests of the Li family I gave an example:

Recitation to the Great Supreme (Taishang song 太上誦) is the main hymn that the Li family sings in the Pacing the Void (Buxu) genre. Its incipit is Taiji fen gaohou (“As the Great Ultimate divided high and broad”); this ancient text, sometimes attributed to the Daoist master Du Guangting (850–933), is often found both in the Daoist Canon and in current temple practice.

It consists of eight five-word lines, plus a final fast seven-word invocation to the Great Heavenly Worthy of Five Dragons who Expels Filth (Wulong danghui da tianzun). As ever, my translation stays rather close to a literal interpretation, though the text (such as the obscure third couplet) has been subjected to highly arcane commentary.

Only performed with shengguan wind ensemble, never a cappella, the hymn is mainly used in three rituals: Fetching Water (qushui 取水); Hoisting the Pennant (yangfan 揚幡), at the central pole; and at the soul hall before the coffin is taken out (film, from 45.20 and 1.14.38). Until the 1950s it was also sung for Opening the Quarters (kaifang 開方), and in the Announcing Text (shenwen 申文) ritual for earth and temple scriptures. Buxu is also the title of a percussion item, which they now rarely play—the longest interlude between sections of certain a cappella hymns, a slightly expanded version of Jiuqu (Daoist priests, p.286).

Taishang song

Taishang song score

So while the hymn texts are “in general circulation” (Schipper’s term again), the melodies to which they sung vary widely by locality.

Anyway, Schipper did well to point out the significance of Pacing the Void, even if he could hardly have imagined at the time how very widespread the genre was throughout the PRC. As he wrote, “an entire book could, and perhaps should, be written about Buxu.”

So our choice of emphasis is significant: whereas the sinological method is to use fieldwork as a mere adjunct to unearthing textual vestiges of medieval theology, a more ethnographic approach incorporates such ritual archaeology into our studies of living ritual repertoires in modern society—further discussed here.

TSS

Coda of Taishang song before the burial procession:
Li Manshan, Golden Noble, Wu Mei, Li Bin.

For a sequel on the Li family Daoists’ vocal liturgy, see here.

Killer sounds: cadential patterns in Chinese melody

zisha

A drôle recent Languagelog post on “Pineapple suicide” somehow put me in mind of the shasheng 煞聲 in traditional Chinese music. I’m a bit like that.

A useful little item in the 1985 Zhongguo yinyue cidian 中国音乐词典 (pp.335–6) crams in considerable arcane ancient scalar theory, whose practical application remains obscure. Anyway, in the Northern Song dynasty Shen Kuo 沈括 (1031–95), in his Mengxi bitan 夢溪筆談, defined shasheng as a final cadential note (biqu suoyong zhiyin 畢曲所用之音, also glossed as jiesheng 結聲). Shen Kuo seems to use 煞 and 殺 interchangeably here, and later folk scores do indeed use homophonous characters quite freely.

Outside WAM the final cadential pitch of a melody is not a very useful guide to its melodic structure, and it’s hardly a concern of most performers. To identify the shasheng of a melody, rural musicians in modern north China sometimes name a pitch in the gongche solfeggio system (such as yi chezi sha 以尺字殺 “cadencing on the pitch che”). More illuminating for us are modern Western techniques like note-weighting, including the cadential notes of individual phrases (cf. my detailed analysis of a shawm-band suite). While neither ancient theorists or modern folk musicians shared such concerns, at least we can identify their use of the term shasheng.

As the great Yang Yinliu explains (Zhongguo  gudai yinyue shigao, pp.554–60), in the zaju drama of the Yuan dynasty the sha 煞 may be a series of final sections within a suite.

qin cadence

Qin melody Yuqiao wenda 漁樵問答, end of §4,
from Guqin quji 古琴曲集 (1982).
Among many recordings, this piece opens Lin Youren’s wonderful CD for Nimbus.

Some related topics come to mind. Decorated cadential patterns on the qin zither, with the left thumb repeatedly striking the soundboard to voice the upper note, rather remind me of early baroque cadences in Italy. In ensemble, extended ostinato cadential patterns  are used as punctuation between melodic phrases (see my Folk music of China, pp.126–9). And in the shengguan ensemble of northern temple and folk ritual (see under Three baldies and a mouth-organ), 4-bar ostinatos on two adjacent notes are common:

JZJ

Gongche score, 1947, West An’gezhuang village, Xiongxian, Hebei.

The gongche score above shows versions of Jinzi jing and Wusheng fo in fandiao scale, a whole tone below the “basic scale”. Ostinato cadential patterns appear in lines 2 (wu wu yi wu wu yi wu) and 3 (che che gong che che gong che) of Jinzi jing; and in the following Wusheng fo, in lines 1 and 2. For more, see my “The Golden-character scripture”, Asian music XX-2 (1989).

One might go on to consider the ostinato-based peiqu 配曲 “supporting pieces” of northern ritual groups, and the “tassels” (suizi 穗子), a more popular style used by northern wind bands (Folk music of China, pp.146–8; cf. #8–9 on the first CD of China: folk instrumental traditions).

suizi

A separate theme is the sha 煞 baneful influences in Daoist exorcistic ritual, which are to be exorcised by means of talismans and visualisation techniques (see e.g. here)—“but”, digressing still further from pineapples, “that’s not important right now” (see under Solfeggio, again).

Daoist sha

Chinese tomb decoration, ancient and modern

While I generally go for living embodiments of traditional culture, Shanxi province is a rich field for iconography, temples, murals, opera stages, and steles—for all periods of imperial history. Besides the major early sites, neglected little village temples also contain a wealth of murals since the Ming dynasty.

North Shanxi has long been one of my main bases for fieldwork (see under Local ritual). Traces of the Northern Wei dynasty (386­­–534), with its capital at Pingcheng (modern Datong), attract many visitors to the region—most famously, the Buddhist grottoes of Yungang just west of Datong city. The elite Daoist Kou Qianzhi 寇謙之 (365–448) is often wheeled out by scholars as an instance of the illustrious ancestry of Daoist ritual in north Shanxi.

The Shaling site, with mural.

Near Datong, excavations at a major Northern Wei tomb complex outside Shaling village in 2005 yielded impressive results, even though it had been subject to severe looting. Another remarkable tomb has recently been excavated at Qilicun village, revealing a lacquered tomb, murals, silk artefacts, and ceremonial lacquerware.

Qilicun: coffin, and mural.

Such elaborate tombs were made for the elite; while archaeologists still commonly excavate tombs from the period, it can be hard to relate them directly to ritual life today. And even before the modern disappearance of the old elite, the furnishing of tombs changed over more than two millennia.

Still around Datong, many tombs from the Khitan Liao dynasty (907–1125) have also been excavated. The Wohuwan site in the northern suburbs of Datong (c1119) was discovered in 1961–62—reminding us of the energy of archaeologists even under the difficult times of Maoism (cf. musicologists). More recent finds in the vicinity are introduced herehere, and here

Liao tomb: left, entrance; right, constellations—again, a living feature of Daoist ritual in
the litanies of stellar lords (xingjun 星君).

The new incarnation of the Datong museum (founded in the dark days of 1959) looks most impressive, with plentiful exhibits of early tomb art and artefacts. The compendium Yicai qiannian: Datong diqu muzang bihua  熠彩千年: 大同地区墓葬壁画 (2019) includes images from the Northern Wei, Liao, Jin, and Yuan dynasties.

* * *

Now, I’m underwhelmed by the fetish for blithely claiming connections between modern and ancient culture, flitting from millennium to millenium, as is popular in Chinese musicology—though I did make an exception for Li Qing and ancient sheng masters. In Daoist (and Buddhist) studies too, ritual archaeology is more popular than living ethnography (see Debunking “living fossils”).

For the wealthy families who had such early tombs built, elaborate mortuary rituals would have been held too—Daoist, Buddhist, perhaps both. The recent Northern Wei excavations naturally remind me of my times following Li Manshan round nearby villages as he determines the date, supervises the encoffinment, chooses the grave site, decorates the coffin, writes the tomb tile, and presides over the burial (all shown in my film, from 13.38). In between all the initial solo activities and the burial come the group rituals of the Daoist band that he leads—with repeated visits to the soul hall, as well as rituals in a more public arena, to a numinous source of water, and to the edge of the village at dusk, in prescribed ritual sequence.

Of course, today the main clientele of household Daoists like the Li family is the ordinary peasantry, by contrast with the imperial elite whose tombs are revealed by archaeologists.

Left, Li Manshan decorating a coffin;
right, an assistant placing the tomb tile over the bow-and-arrows on the coffin.

In modern times graves are only just big enough for the coffin itself, no longer containing any artefacts, apart from the tomb tile covering the little bow-and-arrows placed on top of the coffin—in Li Manshan’s own words (my film, from 1.18.12),

to protect against grave looting, the common people imitating the real bow and arrows used for the tombs of imperial princes of old.

But he and his son Li Bin do decorate the coffin (huacai 畫材), painting it with elaborate motifs such as “qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting” (qinqishuhua 琴棋書畫)—again emulating the culture of the imperial elite.

The Li family’s base of Yanggao county is just east of Datong; even closer to the Northern Wei site at Qilicun is Datong county, where we also found active household Daoist groups.

So artefacts are all very well; but one wants to relate them to people’s lives, and deaths. With finds like Qilicun, what I lack is knowledge of Northern Wei burial practices. Indeed, for folk ritual life in north Shanxi, it’s none too easy to glean firm clues right through from early medieval to late imperial times; for the period since the late Ming it is mainly through fieldwork that we at last begin to find clues to the forebears of the household Daoists practising today.

One fine study is

  • Jeehee Hong, Theater of the dead: a social turn in Chinese funerary art, 1000–1400 (2016),

focusing on a lively period for the evolution of drama—again, still a major aspect of modern expressive culture in Shanxi. With material on Shanxi (though not the Datong region), Hong uses tomb artefacts as evidence of the funerary practices of the day, and paying attention to the artisans who created them.

xuanhua liaomu HT lowest

Mural from Xuanhua tombs, 1116.  Reproduced in Yuan Quanyou 袁荃猷 (ed.),
Zhongguo yinyue shi tujian 中国音乐史图鉴 (1988), p.109.
This image ingeniously created by Hannibal Taubes from his own photo.

As to the soundscape of mortuary rituals, tomb murals and statuettes have long provided rich evidence for music historians—such as the above Liao-dynasty mural, a forebear of the shengguan ensemble still used by household Daoist bands in the region today. The pipa lute and paixiao panpipes were perhaps only common in the elite groups of regional courts, and were no longer used as ritual groups distilled the instrumentation to sheng mouth-organ, guanzi (bili) oboe, dizi flute, and yunluo gong-frame, with drum and cymbals. For some later murals of musicians from the region, see here. Of course, such images can only furnish scant clues to the vocal liturgy, the main component of ritual. Amidst all the artefacts within an ancient tomb, what is fatally lacking is video footage of the activities surrounding the event.

Anyway, the practices surrounding tombs of the medieval elite are quite remote ancestors of the mortuary rituals of common folk today—it just strikes me with my explorations in the region (“you dig?”), traipsing round gravelands and peering into freshly-dug graves. Fieldwork among living ritual specialists and their clientele can give us concrete images of the kinds of details we would like to learn about early practices—one way of coaxing ancient artefacts from their frozen silence.

See also e.g. Grave chartsChanging ritual artefacts, and the funerary headgear of the kin; for Qing-dynasty temple murals in Yanggao, see The cult of Elder Hu.

 

With thanks to Hannibal Taubes.

Kristofer Schipper

portrait

Portrait of Kristofer Schipper,
commissioned for commemorative ritual in Suzhou, 2021 (see below).

Not only in the West but in Taiwan and China, the great influence of the great Daoist scholar Kristofer Schipper (Chinese name Shi Zhouren 施舟人, 1934­–2021) is clear from the many tributes to him that have been appearing. Here’s a selection from the various extensive lists going round.

Perhaps the most accessible starting-point is Ian Johnson’s NYT article (Chinese version here). You can find numerous posts on the websites of the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions (SSCR) and the Chengdu-based Centre for the Study of Chinese Religions (CSCR); by subscribing to the European Network for the Study of Religions in China (ENSRC); as well as on douban and Wechat.

The SSCR and CSCR sites include tributes by John Lagerwey, Vincent Goossaert, Franciscus Verellen, Brigitte Baptandier, Lee Fong-mao, Lü Pengzhi, Lü Chuikuan, Ye Mingsheng, Stephen Bokenkamp, Terry Kleeman, and David Palmer. See also e.g. Ken Dean (live), Patrice Fava (forthcoming), Richard Wang, and an online discussion held by the Global Daoist Studies Forum. Doubtless the bibliography will continue to grow.

Several of these sites also give extensive lists of Schipper’s writings—this one looks comprehensive. Just a few of the seminal works that we keep consulting:

  • Le fen-deng (1975)
  • “Vernacular and classical ritual in Taoism”, Journal of Asian studies 45.1 (1986)
  • Le Corps taoïste (1982; English version The Daoist body 1994).

And I’ve reflected on his 1989 article on Pacing the Void hymns.

* * *

Schipper was brought up in Holland, where during the war his parents sheltered Jewish children from the Nazis. As Vincent Goossaert commented, “This really shaped his worldview, both his hatred of nationalism and his deeply humanistic preference for local democracy instead of great national narratives”.

Schipper with Chen Rongsheng, 1960s.

After training with Max Kaltenmark in Paris, in 1962 Schipper went to study in Taiwan; based at the Academia Sinica, he became a disciple of the great household Daoist priest Chen Rongsheng 陳榮盛 (1927–2014) in Tainan (see video tribute in n.1 here), who ordained him in 1968. He returned to Paris in 1970, taking up a position at the École Pratique des Hautes Études.

Schipper went on to create a massive project on the Daoist canon; the result, co-edited with Franciscus Verellen, was The Taoist canon: a historical companion to the Daozang (3 vols., 2004), an essential companion to texts found both in libraries and in the manual collections of local ritual specialists. His distinction between texts “in general circulation” and those distinctive to local traditions has been most useful to me in trying to classify collections of ritual manuals among northern household Daoists (see e.g. under Recopying ritual manuals, and Daoists of Hunyuan).

We might almost regard Schipper as a Daoist equivalent of Nadia Boulanger. Paris has been an île sacrée for Daoist studies, with Schipper bridging the lineage from Henri Maspero and Max Kaltenmark to John Lagerwey and Vincent Goossaert; his vast influence is clear from the list of his pupils, many of whom have gone on to distinguished careers.

If his main contribution was in sinology and textual research, his influence extended to anthropology. As Ian Johnson writes:

His ideas contributed to an understanding of how Chinese society has been organized through its history—by local autonomous groups often centred on temples rather than the emperor and his vaunted bureaucracy, as historians have traditionally tended to depict it.

Ken Dean observed:

He was able to show that there was a religion of the people of China that was deeply connected to local forms of self-organization and self-government. It was part of a change in how people described Chinese society.

Schipper and Chen Guofu

Inklings of change in the PRC: meeting Chen Guofu (1914–2000), Tianjin 1981.

While Taiwan had hitherto been the most fruitful fieldsite to study Daoist ritual, by the late 1970s, as a huge revival of tradition got under way in mainland China, it was becoming clear that there too there was now a vast field to explore—and Schipper was among the first to build bridges. Recruiting regional fieldworkers, scholars like C.K. Wang, John Lagerwey, and Ken Dean now initiated fieldwork projects on local ritual traditions throughout south China, which still continue to yield major results (see e.g. Lü Pengzhi’s massive Daojiao yishi congshu series). Such projects have tended to focus on the “salvage” of early history rather than documenting modern social change (among exceptions, see e.g. Yang Der-ruey on Shanghai, Qi Kun for Hunan); the historiography and ethnography of Daoism remain rather separate fields (see Debunking “living fossils”).

By the 1990s, Schipper’s concern for the history of religious life within local society resulted in another major collaborative project between the EFEO and Chinese scholars on the temples of old Beijing, still ongoing. Despite his focus on south China, he was most supportive of research on northern ritual practice (even my own, such as In search of the folk Daoists of north China, and related articles under Local ritual). After retiring in 2003, he and his wife made their home in Fuzhou, further inspiring Chinese scholars.

* * *

1991: left, as liturgist; right, “rousing the altar” (naotan 鬧壇).

While Schipper’s early training as a Daoist priest was to form the inspiration for his career, one method where later scholars have roundly ignored his example is participant observation—a route very rarely taken in Daoist studies, though de rigueur in ethnomusicology. Even more remarkable was Schipper’s apprenticeship to Chen Rongsheng, which opened up the path for studying the ritual practice of household Daoists. Of course, “becoming a Daoist priest” can only refer to one particular tradition—the ritual practices that Schipper acquired (including its language, melodies, chants, and style of percussion) were particular to one region of Taiwan.

Analysing an ancient ritual manual, or even a modern ritual, in silent, immobile text is not the same as performing it. Sure, few scholars will find the time—though they are happy to devote years to poring over Song-dynasty ritual compendiums in libraries, to collect silent immobile texts in the field, and then to create more such texts themselves. Of course, performing as an occupational Daoist priest, as part of a ritual group, can only be done by living in China or Taiwan; it’s an unlikely career path for academics, yet it has hardly appealed to them even as an interlude. Still, the insights to be gained from even a basic training are most valuable (see e.g. Drum patterns of Yanggao ritual).

Schipper doesn’t seem to have discussed any tensions between textual research and living performance. Though uniquely placed to write a detailed ethnography of Daoists’ lives, that wasn’t his main concern; for him, the lessons gained from learning to perform look to have been more about texts than practice. It was John Lagerwey, in his Taoist ritual in Chinese society and history (1987), who provided the most detailed account of Chen Rongsheng’s ritual practice. See also my remarks on documenting ritual in film, and Appendix 1 of my Daoist priests of the Li family.

So Schipper’s training as a Daoist priest, while most thorough, was part of his studies within the bounds of academic sinology, rather than a vocational conversion. It can work the other way round too: some practising temple priests, such as Min Zhiting, have undertaken research on historical texts.

Around the same period in Taiwan, Michael Saso learned to perform Daoist ritual, also going on to become a scholar before eventually returning to the Catholic priesthood. More recently, another remarkable exception is Tao Jin 陶金 (an accomplished young architect who writes many profound articles on Daoism), who studied with masters in Beijing and Suzhou and was ordained in Suzhou in 2018 (see under Ritual life around Suzhou). Meanwhile in Taiwan, Stephen Flanigan 馮思明 has learned to perform Daoist ritual to inform his academic studies in Hawaii. While the pull of an academic career is strong, the path that Schipper opened up has brought added depth to the field.

Outside academia, many in the West have espoused individual versions of Daoist meditation (often with a New-Age tinge—see David Palmer, Dream trippers: global Daoism and the predicament of modern spirituality, 2017); but for them, as for scholars, the idea of learning to perform ritual has largely remained alien.

Schipper also had suitable esteem for nanguan, the exquisite chamber ballads so popular in Hokkien communities of south Fujian and Taiwan (see the tribute from Lü Chuikuan), whose melodies were incorporated into Daoist ritual there—even if I’ve suggested that he may have overestimated the importance of a concert in Paris in 1986 for the revival in south Fujian.

* * *

Shanghai gongde

Commemorative ritual for Schipper at the Chenghuang miao, Shanghai.

Notably, several Daoist temples have held commemorative rituals for Schipper (listed here, and here). For the sixth “sevens”, temple priests performed shengdu gonggde daochang 升度功德到場 rituals: at the Xuanmiao guan in Suzhou, with some of the most distinctive ritual segments that are performed there, and at Huotongshan, Fujian. For the seventh “sevens”, rituals were held in ShanghaiFuzhouLonghushan, and Beijing.

Kristofer Schipper’s work is a benchmark within a range of disciplines, firmly establishing the study of Daoism—in particular its rituals—as a core element in our understanding of traditional Chinese culture.

The Bach passions

For Good Friday, as a reminder to listen to the Bach Passions, two, um, trailers—

Here’s the chorale Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück that follows the anguished O Schmerz! to end Part One of the John Passion:

Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück,
Seinen Gott verneinet
Der doch auf ein’ ernsten Blick
Bitterlichen weinet.
Jesu, blicke mich auch an,
Wenn ich nicht will büßen
Wenn ich Böses hab getan,
Rühre mein Gewissen!

And also from the John Passion, the aria Zerfließe, mein Herze:

Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren        Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears
Dem Höchsten zu Ehren!                                         to honour the Almighty!
Erzähle der Welt und dem Himmel die Not:        Tell the world and heaven your distress:
Dein Jesus ist tot!                                                     your Jesus is dead!

I trust that will lead you to these complete versions, from the Proms:

And then, just as profoundly:

Essential background:

As we embark on the long haul of the Passions, sinking into the opening choruses is a uniquely spine-tingling experience for performers and audiences alike.

John MS

The ritual calendar: cycles and seasons

Bach

In my page on Bach—and Daoist ritual, I cited John Eliot Gardiner’s brilliant Music in the castle of heaven. For Easter Week, I’ve been re-reading Chapter 9, “Cycles and seasons”. At least in an increasingly secularised north Europe, our awareness of the rich annual programme has been severely diluted—but it does remind me of the continuing calendrical rituals of Chinese temple fairs.

Bach’s church cantatas were performed not for “concerts” but as part of religious services. As in Chinese ritual, elements within them could be recycled. However, whereas minimal change—both conscious and unconscious—was doubtless a feature of the Daoist soundscape (as in much of the world), Bach’s congregation grew used to hearing new music every week.

Gardiner places the Passions within the cycle of cantatas (note also the vast database on bachcantatas.com).

On the face of it, there is little reason to bother about Bach’s cantatas today. Never intended to be performed or listened to other than as part of a lengthy church service, they were composed (and rehearsed) each week at great speed to act as a foretaste of the Sunday sermon. *

Whereas Charles Rosen disputed the “fashionable” placing of the cantatas as Bach’s principle achievement, seeking to return to the conception of the keyboard works as central to his oeuvre, Gardiner cites John Butt (see Passion at the Proms, and Playing with history):

Cyclic time is essential to a liturgical, ritualistic approach to religion, in which important events and aspects of dogma are celebrated within a yearly cycle.

Bach devoted himself to such cycles, first at Weimar (with twenty-two extant church cantatas) and then in Leipzig, notably in his first few years there from 1723. Even in the “closed” seasons of Advent and Lent, when no figural music was allowed in church, he was busy preparing new works.

Following his cantatas in their seasonal context also allows us to notice how Bach, like Janâček two centuries later, often brings to the surface pre-Christian rituals and forgotten connections that reflect the turning of the agricultural year—the certainty of the land, its rhythms and rituals, the unerring pace of its calendar and the vagaries of rural weather. Saxony in the 18th century was still a predominantly agrarian society in which these seasonal events and happenings were closely linked to the concerns of religion—reminding us how, in today’s predominantly urban society, many of us tend to lose contact with the rhythms and patterns of the farming calendar and even with perceptions of the basic, cyclical round of life and death which feature prominently in so many of Bach’s cantatas. […] For Bach to remind his urban audience of Leipzig burghers of the patterns of seed-time and harvesting existing just beyond their city walls was nothing unusual, and the rhythms and rituals of the agrarian year frequently seep through into his music, giving it topicality and currency as well as a layer of simple rusticity.

Among their doctrinal messages, the cantatas allude to sowing, corn-flattening summer storms, bird damage, crop-failure. Rediscovering this seasonal basis on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000

was markedly different from the conventional practices of music-making we were used to in concert halls, which, however persuasive, cannot help but carry resonances foreign to the intrinsic purpose of the music.

Through his hectic first Leipzig cycle, Bach’s self-imposed task was to keep pace with the weekly demand:

There was the copying out of parts and guiding his (as yet) untried group of young musicians in how to negotiate the hazards of his startling and challenging music with a bare minimum of rehearsal. […] Come the day, there was first a long, cold wait in an unheated church, then a single shot at a daunting target. Then, without a backward glance, on to the next, maintaining a relentless rhythm. […]

One marvels at how he and his performers could have met these challenges. We shall of course never know how well they acquitted themselves and just how well the music was performed under such pressure.

As Gardiner notes,

The underlying theology is at times unappetising [to us today, that is—SJ]—mankind portrayed as wallowing in degradation and sinfulness, the world a hospital peopled by sick souls whose sins fester like suppurating boils and yellow excrement.

Here I can only sample Gardiner’s vivid commentaries on individual cantatas. In BWV 25, Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe, the dark text (such as “The whole world is but a hospital”; Adam’s Fall “has defiled us all and infected us with leprous sin”) is somehow healed by Bach’s setting:

As autumn passes into winter the themes of the week become steadily grimmer as the faithful are urged to reject the world, its lures and snares, and to focus on eventual union with God—or risk the horror of permanent exclusion.

Cantata schedule

After Advent the mood is lightened by the glorious explosion of festive music for the Christmas season (for the Christmas oratorio, see under Weimar here). Christum wir sollen loben schon (BWV 121), for the Feast of St Stephen, is “one of the oldest-feeling of all Bach’s cantatas”, adding cornett and trombones to the orchestration.

Replacing the portrayals of dancing seraphim are images of those angular, earnest faces that 15th-century Flemish painters use to depict the shepherds gazing into the manger-stall. […] Bach’s design for this cantata mirrors the change from darkness to light and shows how the moment when Christians celebrate the coming of God’s light into the world coincides with the turning of the sun at the winter solstice.

For a change, here’s Ton Koopman directing:

But there was no respite: Bach composed six new cantatas for the period between Epiphany to the beginning of Lent—including the operatic Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (BWV 81), with Jesus calming the storm at sea. Here’s Koopman again:

Always pushing the boundaries of the Leipzig councilmen’s warnings about excessive theatricality, such music leads to Holy Week and Bach’s Passions.

Bach opened his second Leipzig cantata cycle on 11th June 1724 with another setting of O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 20), again evocatively described by Gardiner. Time for some Sigiswald Kuijken:

The opening chorus of Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott (BWV 101, for the tenth Sunday after Trinity) features a trio of oboes, the voices doubled by archaic cornetto and trombones, and dissonances for the “grave punishment and great distress” of the hymn text. In the “rage” aria for bass the oboes become “a kind of latter-day [sic] saxophone trio”; and the pairing of flute and oboe da caccia that complements the soprano and alto duet foretells Ausliebe in the Matthew Passion. Here’s Nikolaus Harnoncourt:

Gardiner contrasts Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (BWV 65) and Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen (BWV 123), written for Epiphany in successive years. The first is “oriental and pageant-like”; getting a bit carried away, he describes

high horns to convey majesty and antiquity, recorders to represent the high pitches traditionally associated with oriental music, and still more, oboes da caccia so redolent—to the modern ear—of the Macedonian zurla, the salmai of Hindustan and the nadaswaram from Tamil Nadu. […] With their haunting sonority these “hunting oboes” seem to belong the world of Marco Polo—of caravans traversing the Silk Route—and it remains something of a mystery how a specialist wind-instrument-maker, Herr Johann Eichentopf of Leipzig, could have invented this magnificent modern tenor oboe with its curved tube and flared brass bell around 1722 unless he had heard one of those oriental prototypes played by visitors to one of Leipzig’s trade fairs.

(Cf. my fantasy of Bach on the erhu.) Indeed, the riches of Bach’s writing for the oboe are inexhaustible—as are those of world shawms! Returning to Gardiner’s own performances, here’s the Saba cantata:

Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen “opens with a graceful chorus in 9/8, a little reminiscent of an Elizabethan dance”. But as Gardiner reminds us, the central arias are just as captivating as the opening choruses:

In accord with the brief of ethnomusicology (e.g. works like Enemy Way music, or Thinking in jazz; cf. Pomodoro!), Gardiner’s study integrates social life, sound object, and doctrine, which lesser scholars often consider separately.

* * *

Mouldering away somewhere in the attics of [Leipzig] citizens there could still be letters holding what we so sorely lack—direct testimony to the varied responses by members of Bach’s listening public to the music he put in front of them.

Whatever their responses, I never cease to envy them as they dutifully turned up every Sunday to be regaled with such extraordinary new music. And the musicians—imagine Bach’s oboist Johann Caspar Gleditsch when he got home after rehearsal:

“Good day at the office, dear?”
“You’ll never believe it when you hear what our new Kantor has given me to play this Sunday! God knows how I’m going to manage it—but it’s amazing…”

For the cantatas, Passions, and much more, see under A Bach retrospective.


* A cantata might even be punctuated by the sermon—bear this in mind when you find your listening on YouTube cruelly disrupted by a smarmy ad for funeral care, a latter-day vision of the torments of hell. On the other hand, the Leipzig congregegation couldn’t click on “Skip sermon”, so Thanks Be to God.

Illusion and reality: the painted wall

Huabi

Source here.

Around Yanggao in north Shanxi, home of the Li family Daoists, the common dialectal term for “chat” (liaotianr 聊天 in standard Chinese) is guada 呱嗒. Usually duplicated as guada guada, its wider etymology evokes the click of the clappers accompanying kuaishu 快书 story-telling, the smack of the lips while eating, or the thwack of the dough on the board—it’s also the name for a Shandong street-snack. Guada suggests just the kind of rapport to which fieldworkers aspire, rather than “interviewing” “informants”.

Knowing my fondness for the Yanggao term, as Hannibal Taubes was reading the “Painted wall” (Huabi 畫壁) story from the celebrated Liaozhai zhiyi 聊齋誌異 [Strange stories from a Chinese studio] by Pu Songling (1640–1715), he was soon beguiled by the expression guada 挂搭 there—which Chinese commentators had felt the need to explain. 

Alas, here it has nothing to do with the Yanggao term! My introduction has been a red herring! (For more wilful misreadings of the classics, see Fun with anachronisms).

Huabi guada textSo while our fleeting linguistic frisson soon became a wild goose chase (A really wild goose chase), at least it prompted me to read up on the story… It opens (in Judith Zeitlin’s translation):

Meng Longtan of Jiangxi was sojourning in the capital along with Zhu, a second-degree graduate. By chance they happened to pass through a Buddhist temple, none of whose buildings or rooms were very spacious and which were deserted except for an old monk temporarily residing [guada] there. When he caught sight of the visitors, he respectfully adjusted his robe, went to greet them, and then led them on a tour of the temple. In the main hall stood a statue of Lord Zhi, the Zen monk. Two walls were covered with paintings of such exceptionally wondrous skill that the figures seemed alive. On the eastern wall, in a painting of the Celestial Maiden scattering flowers, was a girl with her hair in two childish tufts. She was holding a flower and smiling; her cherry lips seemed about to move; her liquid gaze about to flow. Zhu fixed his eyes upon her for a long time until unconsciously his spirit wavered, his will was snatched away, and in a daze, he fell into deep contemplation. Suddenly his body floated up as though he were riding on a cloud, and he went into the wall.

Chinese commentators glossed guada there as 挂, “hanging his monkly robes”. I’m somewhat disturbed to find that even Qing-dynasty classical texts require such exegesis—yet despite our attachment to dialect, they are quite right! The radicals flanking the phonetic elements clearly matter. To some readers the term may even suggest guadan 掛單, the temporary enrolment of a wandering monk at a temple.

Judith Zeitlin reflects on the story’s blurring of the boundaries between reality and illusion. [1] Indeed, this is just the kind of topic that Hannibal explores on the basis of his rich archive of temple murals (see e.g. his Trompe l’oeil category).

Huabi monk

Source here.

Pu Songling added a final comment:

The Historian of the Strange remarks: “ ‘Illusion arises from oneself’—this saying seems to be the truth. If a man has a lustful mind, then filthy scenes will arise; if a man has a filthy mind, then terrifying scenes will arise. When a bodhisattva instructs the ignorant, a thousand illusions are created at once, but all are set in motion by the human mind itself. The monk was a bit too keen to see results. But it’s a pity that upon hearing his words, Zhu did not reach enlightenment, unfasten his hair, and withdraw to the mountains.”

Fahai si

Zeitlin illustrates the theme with murals from the Fahai si temple in the Beijing suburbs (for technical aspects, see Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing):

Peering into the semi-darkness as the figures gradually emerge, we can almost visualize how the contemplation of such dazzling images sets the story into motion. […]
The small and deserted buildings of the real monastery are transformed into a large and bustling complex in the painted world.

* * *

The Liaozhai, and this story, are popular subjects for glossy Chinese film and TV adaptations. Here’s a trailer for the Hong Kong film Mural (Chan Ka-Seung 陳嘉上, 2008):

And the first episode of the 2011 mainland TV series:


[1] Historian of the strange: Pu Songling and the classical Chinese tale (1993), pp.183–99, with full translation 216–18. Cf. John Minford’s translation, and the old version by Giles; among other Western scholars who addressed the work were Jaroslav Průšek.

Red love

Red love cover

In my post on Lives under the GDR I mentioned

  • Maxim Leo, Red love (2009; English translation by Shaun Whiteside, 2013)
    (reviewed e.g. here),

but it richly deserves a separate post—coinciding with the new Deutschland 89 (catch up on the two previous series here).

There was no typical experience in the range of socialist societies and the variety of people within them. Intergenerational family stories make a popular device to address 20th-century change; memoirs of the GDR are also voluminous. As Maxim Leo (b.1970) talks with his parents and grandparents, unearthing their stories, he constantly puts himself in their shoes. Tensions within the GDR were (and are) embodied in family relationships; there were endless nuances in how people adapted to the pressures of the state, but I find this account particularly vivid and thoughtful.

With their different pre-GDR fortunes, Leo’s grandfathers Gerhard and Werner make this a rather exceptional family. Anne’s father Gerhard (b.1923), a hero of the French resistance, was a devoted follower of the Party. His memoirs, though largely orthodox, were censored. Reading his account of his interrogation at the hands of the SS, Maxim reflects:

I only understood how brave he had been when I was arrested myself. That was on the evening of 8 October 1989, a day after the fortieth anniversary of the GDR. Along with my friend Christine I was arrested by two Stasi in Alexanderplatz. We were carrying flyers for the “New Forum”, and were put on a truck that brought us to a police barracks. There we had to spend the night standing in a cold garage. The next morning we were questioned separately. I was very frightened, because I really had no idea what was going to happen to us. The interrogator just had to raise his voice once and I told them everything I knew. Gerhard didn’t say anything, even though his life was in danger. I gave in, even though there wasn’t actually anything much to be afraid of.

After the war Gerhard found himself having to run a network of informants from former SS backgrounds, separating work and emotion. After he was sent to East Berlin on a secret Party mission in 1952, the distrustful leaders of the security apparatus “never forgot that the people they were now ruling were the very same people who had once driven them from Germany”. But Gerhard weathered purges within the Party, even though he was rather unguarded—on a mission to Budapest in August 1956 he met members of the Petőfi Circle (“Brave? Gullible? Or both?”).

Wolf’s estranged father Werner had a more questionable background. A former Wehrmacht corporal, his own memoirs are understandably cagey about this early period. Captured by US troops on 1st May 1945, he spent over two years as a POW before the belated reunion with his wife Sigrid in late 1947. Finding work as a teaching assistant, he now threw himself into the cause of the new GDR. After divorcing Sigrid in 1951 he remarried.

Perhaps Werner was a person who could have worked well in more or less any system, in any role. He would always have made the best of things. His life’s happiness would not have been threatened if Hitler had won the war, or if he’d happened to end up in the West. He would certainly have been a good stage painter if he hadn’t been a good headmaster. Just as he had been a good model-maker, a good soldier, a good prisoner. And now a good citizen of the GDR.

Maxim reflects:

I think that for both of my grandfathers the GDR was a kind of dreamland, in which they could forget all the depressing things that had gone before. It was a new start, a chance to begin all over again. The persecution, the war, the imprisonment, all the terrible things that Gerhard and Werner had been through could be buried under that huge pile of the past. From now on all that mattered was the future. And trauma turned to dream. The idea of building an anti-fascist state had a beneficial effect on both of them. Gerhard could devote himself to the illusion that GDR citizens were very different Germans from the ones that had driven his family out of the country. And Werner could act as if he had always believed in Socialism. All wounds, all mistakes were forgotten and forgiven if you were willing to become part of this new society.

New faith for old suffering: that was the idea behind the foundation of the GDR.

That is the explanation for the unbounded loyalty with which Gerhard and Werner were bound to that country until the bitter end. They could never unmask the great dream as a great lie because the lies they needed to live would have been exposed at the same time.

And their children? They were hurled into their fathers’ dreamlands, and had to dream along whether they wanted to or not. They didn’t know that founding ideal. And because they had nothing to overcome, nothing to hide, they found faith difficult too. They saw the poverty, the lies, the claustrophobia, the suspicion. And they heard their fathers’ phrases as they raved about the future. Much of the power and the euphoria had gone. And the grandchildren? They were glad when it was all over. They didn’t even have a guilty conscience at kicking the state. What did I get from the great dream? Small-minded prohibitions, petty principles, and jeans that looked like elongated Youth Front shirts. The energy of the state had been used up in three generations. The GDR remained the country of old men, of the founding fathers, and their logic no longer made sense to anybody.

Red love 73

Most moving are Maxim’s stories of his remarkable parents Anne and Wolf. They met in 1969, and Maxim was born the following year.

Red love 18.When I was ten, my father walked round with his hair alternately dyed green or blue, and a leather jacket he’d painted himself. […] My mother liked to wear a Soviet pilot’s cap and a coat that my father had sprayed with black ink. They both always looked as if they’d just stepped off the stage of some theatre or other, and were only paying a brief visit to real life.

Anne (Annette) Leo was born in the West in 1947, moving to East Berlin with her parents in 1952. Loyal to her father, she felt a responsibility to defend the new state; she too supported the building of the “Anti-Fascist protection rampart” in 1961 (“to keep the bad people out of the country”), and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to leave the GDR. In 1966 she joined the Party; but in her work as a journalist she was constantly beset by doubt, frustrated by the blocking of her modest proposals for greater honesty. Resentful of censorship, she found herself having to parrot lies about the crushing of the Prague Spring. Also in 1968 she disputes the Party line on the dissident songwriter Wolf Biermann.

Anne says she was always rather alone in her political attitudes. She wasn’t faithful enough for the faithful, too uncritical for the critical. She wanted to belong somewhere, but it didn’t work. […]

When Anne talks to me about these things today, she sometimes starts crying. Perhaps out of rage, because she was so naïve, but perhaps also out of disappointment that it didn’t work. That this state and this Party, which cost her so much energy, simply disappeared like that. I think my mother’s relationship with that state was like an unhappy teenage infatuation. She had fallen for the GDR as a young girl, and it took her a lifetime to break free of it again. It’s hard for me to understand all this, to see that my cool, intelligent mother is still grieving for that first great love even twenty years after the end of the GDR. How deeply embedded inside her it must still be, that hope, that unconditional desire to be there when it came to freeing the world from evil.

Wolf (b.1942) is an artist. He recalls the impoverished, ruined Berlin of his childhood as “one enormous adventure playground”. Unlike Anne, he never identified with the state; witnessing the crushing of the June 1953 protests,

He goes home and thinks that the GDR might be over soon. In a few days the uprising has been defeated, and everything goes on as if nothing had happened.

He becomes “ a rocker, a thug”:

That balance between conformity and resistance, between courage and betrayal, is hard to explain. Even those words are probably too big to describe the little movements that were generally at issue. It was a grey area of possibilities, in which you could go in one direction or another, in which there was no right way and no wrong one, but at best the feeling of having found a bearable compromise.

He enjoys a stint in “bourgeois” Leipzig in 1962, partying and dancing, but is soon conscripted. He begins to paint, producing “ludicrous propaganda pictures”.

Wolf says it’s all about the facade, that the state didn’t really demand genuine belief. You didn’t have to bend the knee or sell yourself, you just had to go along with the big spectacle of Socialism.

But Maxim goes on:

I wonder whether that was really the case. Whether you really noticed when you’d crossed your own boundaries, when the alien belief slowly and unnoticeably seeped into you. Or whether in the end the others determined the rules of the game. Perhaps all those free spaces and possibilities were just an illusion that distracted you from the fact that you were joining in. I too always had the feeling of actually being true to myself, while at the same time I knew what I had to do to avoid getting into trouble. This combination of cheeky thoughts and good behaviour, of little lies and a big truth, is quickly learnt and hard to shake off again. It’s a survival strategy, a protection mechanism for people who can’t make up their minds. […]

Today, I think that Wolf was probably more like a clever fish that dreams about the sea, and forgets that he’s still swimming in an aquarium.

He starts working as a freelance graphic designer. Less invested in Party orthodoxy than Anne, he’s disturbed by her defence of punishment for those who tried to escape, and they argue.

Much as Maxim loves his alternative parents, he found himself rebelling by trying to be “normal”. And real life inevitably intruded. As a child he found restricted areas exciting; he played “Escape to the West” with his schoolmates; for his essay on the topic “Why the State Border Must Be Protected” he got a poor mark for his reply “Because otherwise everybody would run away and there are fascists over there.”

It was somehow clear that there was one truth at school and another in real life. You just had to switch over. Like on television.

When he was 15 his parents were disturbed that he had to attend pre-military training camp. As Wolf complained to Maxim’s teacher that the school was forcing children to use guns, Anne told him, “You’ve just fucked up your son’s future”—to which Wolf responded that it was this bloody state that was fucking up people’s futures. Anne was only too aware of the problems, but still somehow believed they could be overcome. She didn’t want to pass her attachment to the GDR on to Maxim because it had caused her so much suffering; and he realises he had stopped caring about the GDR:

There was neither hatred nor love, neither hope nor disappointment. Just a kind of numb indifference.

Anne often had serious talks with him. She said that

There were various ways of living in this country. You could join in or you could resist. You could also join in a bit and resist a bit. Anne said she would always support me, whichever option I went for.

But Maxim also observes:

All of these are moments which, telling them now, assume a meaning that I don’t think they had for me at the time. The truth is that my life was mostly normal. […] That life was mostly played out at home, in the garden, by the sea, at friends’ houses, at the football pitch. It was about jumping from a climbing frame, catching a fish, smoking your first cigarette and snogging girls in the park. It was only later, when I found it hard to avoid the GDR, when it got too close to me, that I started seeing it with different eyes.

In 1976, Anne and Wolf received visits from a young man who gently tested their willingness to act as intermediaries for some “scouting” the Stasi were doing in the West—making a letterbox available, making phone calls from their flat. At first, inexplicably, they found themselves acquiescing; but later, declining further involvement, thankfully they were not penalised. Their attitude was still regarded as “critical, but not hostile”. In 1977 they hosted an innocuous but illegal discussion group without repercussions.

Anne’s new magazine job turned out to be even more frustrating than her former post. When she proposed an alternative candidate to those pre-ordained by the Party, not only was her suggestion defeated but all those who supported her, and the candidate himself, performed abject self-criticisms.

In 1978 Anne resigned, working for a doctorate at the Humboldt university, on the history of the Spanish trade-union movement. This gave her access to all kinds of banned works in the library—notably those by left-wing dissenters. As she reads, “she becomes increasingly convinced that the GDR is actually preventing Socialism, instead betraying and perverting it. For Anne this is at once a relief and a burden because she knows that she believes in the right cause, but unfortunately lives in the wrong country.” Amongst the banned literature she also discovers her own grandfather’s story as a Jewish Communist.

In March 1982 Anne has a Partieüberprüfungsgesprach, a “scrutinising session”, a kind of confession for loyal comrades. […] She has decided to accept expulsion from the Party if there’s no way of preventing it. Anne talks about the things she doesn’t agree with. The lies, the rigid thinking, the ideologythat ended up frozen at some point. […] But nothing happens. The comrades smile at her benignly, saying that everyone has their doubts and problems. […] It seems that things have changed somewhat. The Party has become softer. And it’s becoming clear that nobody is being thrown out of the Party any more. She would have to take that step herself. But Anne doesn’t think about that at all. She is relieved to be able to keep her opinion and still remain a comrade.

After finishing her thesis she takes a new job at a magazine, but soon resigns.

Meanwhile Wolf has been illustrating fairy tales in his studio while working on more challenging projects of his own. By the 1980s he is exhibiting his work, and though the Stasi are wary, he is commissioned to design stage sets for the high-profile Berlin 750th-anniversary celebrations.

It’s a delicate business, walking the tightrope between acceptance and refusal. “The principle of seduction was always there,” says Wolf. “The question constantly arose of how far you can go, how much conformity you can bear without it hurting.”

In 1986 Wolf buries himself in a fantasy of the South Seas. But after his outburst to the schoolteacher, Maxim was indeed refused permission to sit the Abitur, and has to exchange his pampered childhood for the grimy realities of factory work. He realises how little his parents’ world had to do with everything else that was happening in the country, how shielded he had been from reality. While in vocational school he manages to prepare for the Abitur in evening class.

And in July 1987 his grandfather Gerhard smooths the way for them to take a trip to France together. Nostalgic for his youth, Gerhard is transformed, human and relaxed. His exalted friends, like Gilles Perrault and Régis Debray, clearly think the GDR is a paradise. Maxim comments:

How can you sit in a villa like that and rave about the GDR? Or do you have to sit in a villa like this one to be able to? […] The men laugh and clink glasses, and I reflect that it’s a very pleasant business, being a revolutionary in the South of France.

Naturally the GDR seems even more drab to Maxim after the holiday. By 1988 practically everyone in his circle is thinking about “how to get out as quickly and elegantly as possible”. But he recalls:

It’s also the case that the East is getting really interesting again round about now. All of a sudden there are great bands I’ve never heard of, they only play music from the West in the clubs, and there are all kinds of wild parties.

Wolf too says that his game with the state, and with himself, actually got more and more interesting in the last years of the GDR: “there were no clear rules any more, boundaries were blurred […] No-one could tell what was still allowed and what was forbidden”. But the Stasi still had the capacity to intimidate people.

In her letter resigning from the Party, Anne wrote

I can no longer bear this attitude of denying reality that our leaders are assuming. The repression of reality has led to a paralysis of social life. A state of affairs like that is not just regrettable but also dangerous. Remaining in this completely ossified organisation, which has long ceased to give signs of life, strikes me as pointless.

As demonstrations grew before the fall of the Wall, Anne took an active political role, finding that the Party was losing its power over her; she felt strong and happy. But, like Wolf, she was still conditioned by her relationship with her father.

Maxim describes the excitement of the final days of the GDR, despite fears over a possible “Chinese solution”. On the last evening

Wolf suggests going to the Wall, but Anne is tired, and she doesn’t want to go to the West anyway. “What’s going to be on at the Wall anyway?”, she says, and Wolf allows himself to to persuaded to stay at home. At half past ten they go to bed. And when they wake up the next morning, the GDR has already almost disappeared.Maxim hardly touches on the story after unification. When he applied for a Western passport, he feels ”like a bushman being greeted by white men in civilisation”. Despite his own alienation from the old regime, Westerners soon got on his nerves: “I think I never felt so close to the GDR as I did after its downfall”.

Red love 237

Anne felt still more conflicted. She went on to become a noted historian, not only reflecting on the GDR but also rediscovering her Jewish heritage—writing about Ravensbrück, and making a film about two young Sinto brothers murdered at Auschwitz.

Wolf missed the friction he got from rubbing up against the state; his creativity drowned in worries. They eventually divorced—which, I admit, saddens me. Maxim, now with his own children, relishes his career as a journalist, so very different from that of his mother.

Maxim

Maxim.

* * *

In all this there are echoes of China—I think of the moving film The blue kite, and the whole inability of “old revolutionaries” to move on from their youthful idealism.

See also Life behind the Iron Curtain, and cf. the story of my orchestral colleague Hildi (here and here). On Twitter, @DDROnline has many useful links.

Can’t get you out of my head

Curtis title

Do watch the brilliant BBC TV series

Love, power, money, ghosts of empire, conspiracies, artificial intelligence—and You

The series, in six parts over some eight hours, is broadly chronological, with an ambitious coverage of major events and recurring themes—failed political revolutions amidst a widespread distrust and resentment of elites; radical movements, and their defeat; pessimism as old power structures remain intact and kleptocracy rages; racial antagonism (with sexism revealed less explicitly); anger, insecurity, and paralysis in the age of individualism, haunted by the malignant scars of the past, lacking a vision for the future, “free but alone”; personal expression, technology, psychology, consumerism, advertising, mass electronic surveillance and algorithms. You know the kind of thing…

While countercultural discontent has long been a much-discussed theme, Curtis’s take is virtuosic. The dystopian vision of his message, juxtaposing cultures, is conveyed as much through the collage of blending images and a sinister, psychedelic soundtrack (including pop and Chinese revolutionary opera) as through graphic newsreel footage, interviews, and his own voiceover.

Funnily enough, among interviews, this—with Diane Morgan (aka Philomena Cunk), no less—is rather good.

I think I get so sucked into the stories that you choose and the people you concentrate on. They’re not boring people. Like Jiang Qing! She could’ve been from Bolton.

As Ms Cunk, herself master of the deadpan delivery, notes:

It’s partly your calm, authoritative voice. I feel like you could be a cult leader. You could tell me that bananas were invented by the Polish secret service and I’d believe you. There’s something hypnotic about it.

Here’s the fine parody of Curtis’s style mentioned in their chat (“In a landmark new documentary produced for YouTube, Adam Curtis has not examined his career and laid bare his style in the light of some confused academic papers he stumbled across on the internet”):

Themes
In the USA, bastion of individualism through the Cold War, we are introduced to Richard Hofstadter (tracing suburban anxiety, fear, and hatred right back to the pilgrims), the John Birch Society and the Illuminati conspiracy theory; the CIA’s MK-Ultra mind-control experiments; Black Power, and infiltrators.

In Britain, the loss of empire also gave rise to insecurity and xenophobia. Curtis covers Kenya and the Mau Mau; and the disillusion of new arrivals from the former empire. In the wake of the slave trade, in the USA guilt mutated into fear and anger, along with deep resentments over racism and police violence. Featured are the Yellow Peril, and the KKK; the IRA, and MI6; Blair’s Britain.

In Germany the Red Army Faction (aided by the Stasi) responded to what they saw as the mutation of Nazism—with the far right indeed growing. But revolutionary chic also emerged.

Politicians gave up being our representatives who would challenge the powerful on our behalf, and began to tell us what to do on behalf of the powerful. But we didn’t notice because we were too busy shopping.

Alongside climate change and suburban alienation, Valium (and later OxyContin) submerged people’s disillusion at the false promises offered by material comfort—at first particularly for women. The blurring of reality and illusion is illustrated by The dream of the red chamber. Curtis surveys Nixon, the Vietnam war, his visit to China, and Watergate; ever more volatile money markets; US and British involvement in the Middle East, and oil; 9/11, Iraq, Syria, ISIS; USSR dissidents and prison songs; new despair in Russia after the fall of Communism; oligarchs, corruption; the Balkan wars, and the corrosive allure of nationalism, always connected with the past.

Democracies, subordinate to financial and bureaucratic interests, often seemed to be producing the wrong results (north Africa, the Middle East)—“What if the people are stupid?”. Meanwhile humanitarian aid arose from frustration with politicians, attempting to change the world by bypassing them; but it was vulnerable to being exploited by them, as in Ethiopia.

With technocrats ever more powerful over politicians, and constant global financial crises, a conservative nostalgia for empire re-emerged. Curtis notes the magical vision of Britain’s feudal past that had been created by artists and writers from the late 19th century; passing over socialist currents within the folk music and dance revival, he suggests they were

invented to create a kind of safe dream of the nation that could hide the violence and the horrors. The dream persisted under the surface of the 20th century. But as the fears and uncertainties and the chaos of the last few years rose up, millions of people started to believe that dream. That it was real.

Part 5 ends with a particularly disturbing montage, as How beautiful they are, the lordly ones accompanies images of Isis and Morris dancing.

What had begun a long time ago as a make-believe version of England, created in the deserts of Mesopotamia as the British Empire fell apart, had now turned into a terrifying nightmare.

This has led to the similar urge in the USA and UK to recreate the dream of a lost greatness—Trump and Brexit, the inevitable dénouement that Curtis’s whole project has sought to explain.

Part 6 takes in the rapper Tupac Shakur, son of Afeni, with civil rights an ever unresolved issue; Saudi Arabia, and jihad as a remedy for nihilism; Chaos theory and Complexity theory amidst growing paranoia; the 2008 economic crash and austerity, as resentment against elites grew further; the growing power of global corporations; AI, conspiracy theories, manipulation, “a world beyond freedom and dignity”.

China dolls

In Russia, Curtis shows post-Soviet unrest, with popular protest at corruption and chaos; Putin, Pussy Riot, Navalny. The 1997 British handover of Hong Kong; capitalist consumerism in reform China, Deng Xiaoping and the limits of democratic reform; Tiananmen 1989 and the disturbing figure of Chai Ling; land grabs and corruption, the downfall of Bo Xilai’s attempt to revive collective idealism, popular grievance; mass surveillance—and Xinjiang—under Xi Jinping.

And so to Trump, Bannon, QAnon; Cummings, and Farage—with Covid now compounding inequalities. Politicians have moved from espousing reprehensible visions to having no agendas beyond power itself. With liberalism in retreat, tech companies feed off paranoia.

Characters
Largely eschewing the Usual Suspects, Curtis’s choice of personalities and interviewees is most original, with a wealth of fascinating stories to follow up, making the viewer reach for wiki—including Peter Rachman and Michael X, Ethel Boole and Maya Plisetskaya, Edgar Mittelholzer, John L. Lewis and Harry Caudill representing the miners of Appalachia; Kerry Thornley, Operation Mindfuck, and Lee Harvey Oswald; Daniel Kahneman; the Russian criminals sent (along with Solzhenitsyn) to New York in 1974 who became the Potato Bag Gang, and Eduard Limonov; Horst Mahler, Afeni Shakur.

Jiang Qing and her psychological makeup feature (perhaps too) prominently:

In her operas, Jiang Qing had gone back into China’s past. Her aim had been to rework them, to express a new kind of revolution. But in reality, she had reawakened a dark and poisonous kind of violence that had lurked under the surface of China for hundreds of years. It was driven by a resentment of the rigid hierarchies that the revolution had not really changed. Mao had not given her or anyone else guidance about what to do with the fury that she had summoned up.

Curtis’s vision will doubtless be unwelcome to entrenched elites. So while he gives the revolutionaries a poor review, and rejects being labelled as a leftie, I guess we might settle for a definition based on having an enquiring mind prepared to challenge the status quo—precisely the fear of conservatives.

Despite all the endless pressures, he ends with the possibilities that the election of Biden may offer hope for a return to a former stability, and that people will be able to imagine genuinely new kinds of futures—dependant on their regaining confidence. We may need further encouragement. Some may recall the counter-intuitive optimism of Steven Pinker over the long sweep of human history. Others might suggest that paralysis and nihilism have not conquered all; while Curtis hardly broaches the more modest (but not necessarily less radical) advances of non-violent movements for social justice (cf. Hašek’s ironic “Party for Moderate and Peaceful Progress within the Bounds of the Law”!), progressives don’t necessarily seem doomed by the demons of the past, as young grassroots activists increasingly take up noble causes, holding power to account. 

Anyway, it’s an immensely stimulating series, whether “dazzling”, “terrifying”, or “incoherent”; perhaps Hugo Rifkind’s comment is apposite:

I feel I learnt a lot. I’m just not sure what it was—

which indeed encapsulates the very confusion that Curtis evokes.

Daoism and local cults

Clart cover

Another recent conference volume offers perspectives on local religious practice in China:

  • Philip Clart, Vincent Goossaert, and Hsieh Shu-wei 謝世維 (eds), Daojiao yu difang zongjiao: dianfan de chongsi (guoji yantaohui lunwenji) 道教與地方宗教─ 典範的重思國際研討會論文集 [Daoism and local cults: rethinking the paradigms] (2020).

Most of the ten chapters are in Chinese; among many other articles on this useful databasethey can be downloaded by clicking on the relevant pdf icon, with abstracts in both Chinese and English shown by clicking on the title.

With the scope largely limited to south China, still the dominant trend in Daoist studies, a common theme of the chapters is the interaction between different kinds of ritual specialists.

  • Hsieh Shu-wei on the Dipper Mother ritual
  • Matsumoto Kōichi 松本浩一 with a historical chapter on the Taiji jilian neifa 太極祭鍊內法 mortuary ritual and the religious thought of Zheng Sixiao.
  • Xie Conghui on Lüshan ordination rituals in central Fujian
  • Lee Fong-mao on pestilence rituals in Taiwan
  • Zhang Xun on the popular theme of Mazu worship in Fujian and Taiwan
  • Pan Junliang on ritual healing in Cangnan county, Zhejiang
  • Paul Katz on rituals of the Miao of west Hunan (cf. next link below).

Three chapters are in English:

  • Mark Meulenbeld continues to explore the rich ritual life of Hunan
  • Adam Yuet Chau again stresses hierarchies of “hosting” at jiao communal festivals
  • Isabelle Ang on a temple cult and pilgrimage associations in Jiangxi.

Ritual and masked drama in Hunan

nuoxi 2

From the nuo drama Da pandong, and the she tanshen ritual.

Adding to the extensive research on ritual in Hunan (note also Yang Yinliu’s 1956 field survey) is a recent case-study of ritual and sacred drama there:

  • Tan Jinhe 譠金鶴 and Tian Yan 田彥, Nanyue shenxi: lishi chuancheng yu yanchu wenben 南嶽神戲: 歷史傳承與演出文本 [Sacred opera of the Southern Peak: historical transmission and performing texts] (2020; 370 pages).

Nanyue shenxi cover

The book, result of a collaboration between household Daoist Tan Jinhe (b.1946) and the able fieldworker Tian Yan (b.1981), describes the range of rituals performed by groups of household Daoists around Hengyang, and the nuoxi 傩戏 masked dramas that are included within them. The ritual specialists, known as shigong 师公, combine Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi) practice with the Hunyuan jiao 混元教 branch of Daoism—which I’ve mainly encountered in its northern sectarian forms (see various pages under Local ritual).

While plenty of “religious” groups (both temple- and household-based) have been recruited to the cause of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), this is a rarely detailed study under its auspices: with its main role as official propaganda rather than academic research, coverage of such local traditions is usually formulaic and brief. But Hunan has an impressive tradition of scholarship: conferences on the topic began as early as 1981, part of a renewed academic interest in ritual drama and Daoist ritual in mainland China that soon led to the influential fieldwork projects masterminded by the great C.K. Wang (see also the films of Jacques Pimpaneau).

Tan Jinhe, leader of the Xianying leitan 显应雷坛 altar, is the fifteenth generation of Daoists in his lineage, based in Shaotian village in the southern suburbs of Nanyue township. Though only 3 when his father died while recovering the body of a local guerilla, he studied under his grandfather; by 1957 he was taking part in rain rituals. But (like his exact contemporary Li Manshan in Shanxi) amidst the privations following the Great Leap Backward, he can only have been active sporadically for a few years before Socialist Education campaigns escalated; recruited to the local propaganda troupe in 1965, through the Cultural Revolution he pursued other trades. He was able to resume ritual practice by 1980, going on to train new generations of Daoists. In 1985 he became head of his village committee, while doing well in correspondence college. He went on to assume several prestigious official positions for Daoism and the arts.

Tan lineage

Two branches of the Tan ritual lineage.

The authors survey the ancestry of other “thunder altar” ritual groups in the area: other branches of the Tan lineage, Yongxing leitan 永兴雷坛 altars led by the Yang and Kang lineages, and the Kaihua leitan 开化雷坛 of the Li family.

The ritual scene since the 1980s’ reforms is described in a useful section. While activity revived strongly upon the revival of the 1980s and 1990s, the authors admit to a certain dilution of faith in ritual among the local clientele by the 21st century. With the spread of hospital treatment, healing rituals were commissioned less often; Tan Jinhe has seldom been invited to perform exorcistic rituals like she tanshen or rangxing zuofu, and other rituals are abbreviated. I’m curiously encouraged to read this admission, since it rarely features in accounts of southern Daoism (contrast my account of a flawed funeral in Shanxi)—even if it may derive partly from the ICH’s “salvage” agenda, portraying itself as a saviour in rescuing genres from decline (see also Glimpses of Hunan).

hexiao sequence

Sequence for three-day hexiao ritual.

Seeking maximum information irrespective of recent dilution, the authors list ritual sequences in detail, including jiexiao 接霄, hexiao 和霄, she tanshen 设坛神, rangxing zuofu 禳星作福, and the “graduation” ritual chuantan 传坛. These Daoists don’t perform mortuary rituals.

chuantan sequence

Sequence for three-day chuantan ritual.

The authors describe the deities worshipped in rituals, notably the xiao 霄 goddesses. Here we perhaps need John Lagerwey to tease out themes in the wider inter-regional context (cf. west Fujian).

Long sections provide ritual and dramatic texts in turn. Foremost among the latter is Da pandong 大盘洞. The authors note the connection between the ritual dramas and huagu xi opera (cf. Famine and expressive culture in Hunan). 

Left, artefacts; right, Tan Jinhe demonstrates mudras.

A final section describes ritual costumes, masks, statuettes, and other artefacts, with some transcriptions of the vocal liturgy, which in addition to percussion is supplemented here by shawms and fiddles; and mudras and cosmic steps are described in detail.

Hunan Fava

Inviting Water (qingshui 请水), standard opening ritual segment. Photo: Patrice Fava, 2016.

Even better, of course (my usual refrain), would be to see all this on film—youku has only a few unsatisfactory clips. As with many groups, Patrice Fava tells me that Tan Jinhe’s band has recently taken to using amplification—a challenge for both ethnographers and film-makers to confront.

So this study makes yet another valuable addition to the extensive literature on ritual activity in south China.

 

With thanks to Patrice Fava

 

A new website on Chinese religions

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A useful new resource in Chinese is the website of the Center for the Study of Chinese Religions at the Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu, along with its online newsletter Shenzhou studies 神州研究: 中國宗教研究中心通訊.

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It’s masterminded by the dynamic Lü Pengzhi 呂鵬志, integrating Chinese research with the international academic milieu, with input from his long-term collaborator John Lagerwey.

Focusing on Daoism, the site also covers Buddhism, Confucianism, and shamanism; while it reflects the historical, textual bias of scholarship, its remit also includes recent ethnography. With news of publications and academic activities, here we can find updates on the vast Daojiao yishi congshu 道教儀式叢書 series (for the most recent volume, see here). 

A Daoist altar in west Fujian

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Daoist master Dingling (Guanbao, 1929–2013).

In the immense Daojiao yishi congshu 道教儀式叢書 [Anthology of Daoist ritual] series, the provinces of Jiangxi, Fujian, and Hunan feature prominently (more on Hunan here). While studies of Fujian culture often focus on the south of the province, the Hakka western region is also rich in ritual traditions.

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The distribution of Daoist groups in Shanghang county.

This latest magnum opus in the series is a detailed study of the Lingying tang 靈應堂, one of fifteen groups (“altars” tan 壇 or “halls” tang 堂) of household Daoist ritual specialists in Shanghang county, west Fujian:

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Born in 1984, Wu Nengchang trained in Xiamen, going on to study in Paris before taking up a post at Fudan university in Shanghai. In French, see his thesis

The main text of this new publication has 336 pages; the following 1,392 pages comprises reproductions of ritual manuals.

In his English introduction to the series, the masterly John Lagerwey highlights some main points, with his unmatched experience of Daoist ritual in south China. He sees Daoist, Buddhist, and exorcistic rituals as a single system. This classification is widely applicable in south China, though not necessarily elsewhere—spirit mediums are important in the north too, but they are not integrated with the liturgical system there. Lagerwey also gives a fine English summary of this volume, again identifying salient themes.

Although the Lingying tang was only founded a century ago, the study is rich in historical evidence. The Lingying Tang inherited the ritual traditions of two older Daoist altars, specializing respectively in Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi) liturgies performed by “Daoist priests” (daoshi 道士) and the exorcistic rituals of “ritual masters” (fashi 法師).

While this volume, like the whole series, stresses early history and ritual texts, Wu provides a useful outline of the Lingying tang Daoists under successive periods in the modern era (pp.69–91). As I did for Yanggao in north Shanxi, Wu surveyed all fifteen of the Daoist altars in Shanghang county before focusing on this group. There his main consultant was Guanbao (Daoist name Dingling, 1929–2013), older son of the founder Chen Lintang (Hongxing, 1894–1959).

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Left, Guanbao (Dingling) in 1944; right, his father Chen Lintang (Hongxing).

After giving fine detail on the Republican period, Wu explores transmission under Maoism. This may play a very minor role in the series, but here I’d like to summarise this section of the chapter, as it illustrates common themes (cf. my work on Gaoluo, and the Li family Daoists, particularly this); indeed, it’s a fundamental context for the liturgical material presented.

Following Land reform, Hongxing’s family were classified as poor peasants. He was given posts in new state troupes for local opera. His son Guanbao at first retrained as a photographer, but then resumed Daoist activity on a small scale until 1956, eventually desisting after twice being criticised by work teams while performing rituals.

When Hongxing died in the winter of 1959, his sons Guanbao and Xibao, with other Daoist colleagues, surreptitiously “did the lanterns” (zuodeng 做燈) for his funeral. That same year they adapted scenes from the zuoxi 做覡 exorcistic ritual for a “cultural programme” at county and district levels.

When the Socialist Education campaign began in 1963 Guanbao buried the altar’s ritual paintings, instruments, and manuals for safekeeping. Though 1965 the work teams found some such artefacts on a raid of his house in 1965, the team chief, declining to consider them as belonging to the tainted “Four olds”, didn’t have them destroyed. However, as the situation became ever more serious, Guanbao fearfully burned ritual images himself.

In 1963 Guanbao had been appointed head of the new Nanyang amateur opera troupe, and worked away from the town after the violent opening of the Cultural Revolution. Recalled in 1976, he won county awards in 1979 for educative cultural items. As tradition, and ritual, were restoring, that year he was put in charge of the revival of the Nanyang puppet troupe, which was soon in considerable demand over a wide area. Jiao offering rituals were now being gingerly revived too.

Around 1983 Guanbao met the son of another renowned Daoist, who showed him some crucial ritual manuals which he copied, making notes on how to perform them. By this time the restoration of Daoist ritual was in full swing (cf. the Li family Daoists in Shanxi).

The group’s sporadic activities under Maoism make the extensive ritual repertoires, texts, and images presented in the book even more remarkable.

And then Wu takes the story on further into the reform era, with detailed descriptions. Guanbao soon found he could make a much better living from performing rituals than from his photography and puppetry—and fees continued to increase. He trained a new generation of young disciples to perform jiao Offering rituals. The two brothers often met demand by leading separate bands.

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Guanbao’s band: annual ritual income from 2003 to 2011.

Again interspersing black-and-white photos, Wu then moves onto his main theme, the ritual repertoire, describing in turn the segments of xi 覡 (read sang in dialect) exorcistic liturgies, Orthodox Unity rituals for jiao Offerings and funerals, and “rites of confinement”.

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Arena for zanghun and other ritual segments.

Always noting wider regional and historical connections, he explores the history of the whole pantheon, including the Three Immortal Masters, earth gods, and female deities such as Queen Mother (Wangmu 王母), the Ladies (Furen 夫人), and Chen Jinggu.

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Ritual paintings by Dingling.

The extensive second part, preceded by detailed catalogues, is an anthology of ritual texts (mainly manuscripts) of the Lingying Tang. Whereas other volumes in the series often contain manuals from the Qing dynasty, most of those presented here look to have been copied by Dingling since the 1980s’ reforms—discussed in more detail in his article “Zhizao keyiben: yi Minxi daotan Lingying tangde duwang keben weili” 制造科仪本:以闽西道坛灵应堂的度亡科本为例Daojiao xuekan 道教学刊 2018.2, cf. his French thesis, pp.90–107 (for my take on the process for the Li family in Shanxi, see here).

The study concludes with an enticing series of colour photos from Wu’s fieldwork.

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From the yingxian ritual.

* * *

My comments on Daoist ritual studies in Appendix 1 of my Daoist priests of the Li family relate to the dominance of south China in the project, and its salvage-based nature, based on texts rather than performance and social change. I mention these points again here because I would dearly like the monographs in this series to reach a wider audience; yet they are at some remove from the kind of ethnographic fieldwork on local society (including religious behaviour) that has simultaneously become popular (for a sample of coverage for Hunan, see here).

Thus, throughout the series, I’d be interested to learn how ritual practice has changed since the 1940s, along with the changing socio-economic context, such as migration and education. With the Li family in north Shanxi, the basic performing style seems quite constant, but the repertoire has diminished; I also noted changes in the material artefacts deployed, and in the perceptions of their clients.

In line with the brief of the series, the emphasis is on silent text, rather than performance and soundscape; yet these are precisely the means by which such texts are rendered efficacious. A core part of the Daoists’ training, not reflected in ritual manuals, is learning to sing, chant, and recite all the hymns, mantras, and memorials, and how to accompany them on the ritual percussion. Another compelling reason to highlight this soundscape is that it’s the main marker differentiating similar rituals regionally.

So if we can’t experience the sounds and movements of Daoist ritual live, then at least we should be offered edited videos of these traditions; this should be an indispensable part of any funding. If we had access to such films, then all this meticulous textual research would make a valuable complement. That said, the riches of this volume are astounding.

In search of temple murals in north China

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The eye-opening project of Hannibal Taubes documenting village temple murals in north China is presented in his immense, ever-expanding website—material that invites us to revise the whole history of visual culture in the Ming and Qing dynasties.

His work traipsing around his main site of Yuxian, a poor county west of Beijing, is the subject of a recent documentary in Chinese, making a vivid reminder of the kind of intrepid fieldwork required for such detailed studies. The film is the fourth (!) in a CCTV series entitled Yuxian gubu 蔚县古堡 (Ancient ramparts of Yuxian):

We see Hannibal travelling round in search of temples, opera stages, village ramparts, and steles; his persistence in tracking down the custodian of the temple keys (cf. On visiting a hermit, and Alan Bennett’s sermon: “We are all of us looking for the key…”); and working with local scholars.

One common experience of foreigners in China is immortalised in a drôle vignette (from 12.30), as he converses fluently with a villager—whom he has met on previous visits, to boot—only to be asked “Can you speak Chinese?”, prompting a fine WTF response from Hannibal (cf. It’s the only language they understand, and Frances Wood’s experiences).

This is largely a historical salvage project, focusing on material culture rather than current ritual life. Indeed, while some household Daoist groups are active in Yuxian, it’s curious that this abundance of iconography seems to outrank living ritual performance there, whereas in counties of nearby north Shanxi the ratio is reversed.

Representing Aboriginal music and dance

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Further to Dream songs, I’ve been admiring

  • Amanda Harris, Representing Australian Aboriginal music and dance 1930–1970 (2020).

The perspective of non-Indigenous art-music composers writing for the public stage may seem niche:

From a music history or musicology perspective the music and dance events that feature would commonly be perceived as peripheral to the main story. They are not the events that have contributed to the canon of important moments in Australia’s music history, itself a minor player in the canon of (European) Western art music. In the histories of Western art music taught in Australia’s conservatoria and high school music courses, the events which feature here are not even a blip on the radar of music history.

Thus Aboriginal culture itself has been marginalised, as has Australian composition within the wider sphere of WAM; and within the latter, Aboriginal-inspired works may seem even more peripheral. However, Harris puts in focus many important issues underlying the encounter between the broad categories of “folk” and “art” musics, making a fascinating story.

The period from 1930 to 1970 was characterized by government assimilationist policies aimed at “protection” and “welfare”. The book is focused primarily on the southeast and the ways that representation of Aboriginal music and dance linked urban centres to Australia’s Top End and its Red Centre.

Many of the works described here tap into “an appetite for representations of Aboriginality devoid of Aboriginal people”:

Non-Indigenous Australians have engaged more readily with works that could be disembodied from the people who created them, than they have with living, singing, moving Aboriginal people. […]

As Linda Tuhiwai Smith reminds us, Indigenous peoples have long been appalled by the way “the West can desire, extract, and claim ownership of our ways of knowing, our imagery, the things we create and produce, and then simultaneously reject the people who created and developed those ideas and seek to deny them further opportunities to be creators of their own culture and own nations”.

Importantly, Harris listens to the accounts of Aboriginal people themselves, “disrupting” the chapters with three essays. While these commentators partly share the values of the settler majority, they are attuned to the ways of their forebears.

Australian Aboriginal people’s rich oeuvres of song and dance point to the importance of embodied and auditory modes of knowledge transmission and continuance in the same way that the West’s libraries of books and reams of paper archives reveal the dominance of the visual and the written in European epistemologies. […]

Under protection/assimilation regimes, immense pressure was exerted upon Aboriginal people to abandon culture by banning the speaking of Indigenous languages and performance of ceremony and by rewarding actions that showed Aboriginal people were adopting mainstream behaviours like residing in a single house, in a nuclear family unit. These pressures were not just notional, but rather, punitively enforced—people who grew up under this regime remember mothers, aunts and grandmothers obsessively dusting and keeping a clean house, knowing that untidiness could lead to allegations of neglect of children, and that children were routinely removed from their families and placed in institutional care, sometimes indefinitely.

Nevertheless, at moments of national nostalgia, events commemorating European settlements sought to memorialise and celebrate the lost arts that had been actively repressed.

Such events go back to the start of the century, becoming more common from the 1930s. Aboriginal people were presented to gawping non-Indigenous audiences as “noble savages”.

Chapter 1 a general introduction, opens with the 1951 Jubilee of Federation, featuring the Corroboree, a symphonic ballet composed in 1944 by John Antill with new choreography by Rex Reid.

Instead of the dozens of Aboriginal people proposed by the publicity subcommittee, Corroboree presented dozens of orchestral musicians from the symphony orchestras of each state and dancers from the National Theater Ballet Company. No Aboriginal people were involved in the production. The show was acclaimed as a landmark Australian work. […]

Non-Indigenous Australians have appropriated this language to stake a claim in Aboriginal culture and to represent Aboriginal music and dance to non-Indigenous audiences. […] But what relationship do these songs bear to those that Aboriginal people were singing?

In the Prelude that follows, D’harawal scholar Shannon Foster recalls her great-grandfather, the activist and songman Tom Foster, who spoke out on Aboriginal rights at the Day of Mourning in Sydney in 1938.

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As she observes tellingly,

The archival research space is full of contradictions for Aboriginal people. I cannot help but feel a forging of my cultural identity when the archives unveil another piece of “evidence” of who we are and who I come from. I do not need Western research to validate who I am, though it still performs this task, whether I want it to or not. I can use the archives to tell the stories of the destruction of colonization and the violence that has been inflicted on my family, and I need people to know that it is there and not deny it. But I do not want others to misuse this information and to paint us as victims or use our damage to sell their research: to perversely and voyeuristically indulge in our pain and damage. […]

Every time I relish another crumb of information about my grandfathers, the joy is tinged with despair at not knowing or seeing this information until it is delivered to me through a white man’s colonial archive, stained with the blood and pain of our ancestors.

And

I am told by a prominent historian in the audience that they had always seen boomerangs like Tom’s as nothing more than kitsch, cultural denigration, humiliation, and damage. They had never considered (nor thought to ask) how we feel about them. It had never occurred to them that what we see is physical evidence of our existence in a world where we have been consistently erased. Tom’s boomerangs speak to us of survival, resistance, and cultural fortitude and strength.

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This account makes a bridge to Chapter 2, on the 1930s. Though Tom Foster took part in the troubling silent film In the days of Captain Cook (1930), he was among those asserting the enduring presence of Aboriginal people in society.

As various official commemorations were staged through the 1930s, Harris describes the Aboriginal presence at the opening of the Sydney Harbor Bridge in 1932. The 1938 reenacting of the First Fleet landing was attended by historical pageants—and the Day of Mourning protests. By contrast with the quotidian limitations on their mobility, the performers were coerced into travelling to Sydney.

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Anthropologists had long been recruited to government agencies. They now acted as cultural brokers between performers, the arts sector, and the media; under A.P. Elkin a shift occurred from protection to assimilation.

A major actor in cultural agendas and the new “Australian creative school” was the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), founded in 1932. Alongside visits by Percy Grainger, composers building on European explorations in harnessing folk styles included Clive Douglas, John Antill, and Margaret Sutherland.

Chapter 3, “1940s: reclaiming an Indigenous identity”, surveys wartime performances for recruitment rallies; and after the war, the forming of groups like the radical New Theatre, whose productions included the 1946 Coming our way and the ballet White justice, with Eric and Bill Onus coming to the fore.

Ted Shawn, co-founder of the modern American dance movement, was deeply impressed by the performance culture he witnessed on a visit to an Aboriginal community in Delissaville (now Belyuen) in 1947. Still, when dancers were recalled for his trip, “many Darwin housewives found themselves without domestic labour”.

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I note that in 1950s’ China too, under the avuncular eye of the Party, dance made a forum for modern experiments, as in the Heavenly Horses troupe in Shanghai (see Ritual life around Suzhou, under “Mao Zhongqing”).

Harris refers to the short 1949 documentary Darwin: doorway to Australia (filmed in 1946), which includes footage of a tourist corroboree in Darwin Botanic Gardens (from 6.23):

As Aboriginal activists continued to meet obstacles, the Aboriginal tenor Harold Blair was exceptional with his recital tours of the USA. Meanwhile the ABC was promoting non-Indigenous composers in “representing an Aboriginal idyll”.

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Within this niche, John Antill and his Corroboree, with its clapstick beat persisting amidst the “modernist antics” of the orchestra, made a considerable impact, suggesting comparisons with The Rite of Spring:

New organisations supplementing the cultural work of the ABC included the Arts Council of Australia. Echoing Chinese clichés, “international cultural exchange” now “took Aboriginal music to the world”—specifically to the USA, as Australia’s ties with its imperial parent were downgraded. Ironically,

Just as Aboriginal people were increasingly steered away from maintaining their own cultural practice, non-Indigenous people turned new attention towards it.

But Aboriginal performers still met with obstacles in touring abroad.

Chapter 4 sets forth from the debates surrounding the 1951 Jubilee celebrations. The official cultural initiatives of these years were accompanied by strikes and protests. Performances took on a political dimension, with Bill Onus and Doug Nicholls taking leading roles in asserting Aboriginal rights.

As others have noted, Aboriginal visual and material arts are more readily packaged, reified, than their expressive culture. Despite their sincere aim of enhancing Aboriginal status, the Jubilee committee’s proposals for massed corroborees didn’t come to fruition, being replaced by Antill’s Corroboree. Still better received was the new dance drama Out of the dark: an Aboriginal moomba.

Linking Corroboree to the political, economic, and social exclusion suffered by the Aboriginal owners of the cultures that had inspired it, Margaret Walker of the New Theatre movement proposed her own alternative. She saw Aboriginal people as both a society of “primitive communism” and an oppressed group to be liberated through socialism. In 1951 the Unity Dance Group even toured to East Berlin. In 1958 Aboriginal soprano Nancy Ellis toured China, just as convulsive political campaigns were intensifying there.

Among arts bodies in the 1950s, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust was founded in 1954—looking forward to a cultural renaissance of a type later ridiculously promised by Brexiteers. The Adult Education Boards sponsored major tours by Beth Dean and Victor Carell, whose ethnographic shows introducing song and dance from around the world gave a role to Aboriginal culture—albeit based, until their 1953 “expedition”, on reading anthropology rather than any acquaintance with the people themselves. In 1954 Dean did a new choreography of Corroboree. For events to mark newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth’s 1954 visit, Aboriginal performers again had to travel large distances to perform.

Debra Bennet McLean brings us down to earth:

We asked ourselves how many Aboriginal people could ever really contemplate, let alone afford, to attend the ballet in the era of the “colour bar”; most Aborigines could not walk freely into an Australian town without an exemption form or “dog tag” at the time of Antill’s composing Corroboree, nor could they even sit in the same milk bar or use public toilets at the time of the premiere of the ballet Corroboree.

Harris writes with such empathy about all the diverse actors in these encounters that the following Interlude is timely, refocusing on the people who were the object of all this well-meaning attention, with Tiriki Onus thoughtfully reflecting on his grandfather Bill (for whose films, see here).

In Chapter 5: 1960 to 1967, Aboriginal performers begin to take the main stage. Harris discusses opportunities for public performance and the limitations imposed by state agencies. She begins with talent quests from 1961, the North Australian Eisteddfod, and tours of northern companies in the south—notably the well-received Aboriginal theatre, presented in Sydney by Aboriginal people from north Australia in 1963. Such shows

aimed simultaneously to engage those interested in Aboriginal performance from an ethnographic and/or historical perspective and those creating and producing new works of modern dance, music, and visual art on Australian stages.

As Harris notes, a defining feature of these new contexts was the way that performers from different traditions were brought together into a scratch ensemble, or into competition with one another.

In an interview Harris draws attention to a film about the 1964 North Australian Eisteddfod:

Yet international tours remained elusive. In Australia (as in New Zealand and Canada), with Indigenous and European genres competing for resources, the authorities of settler colonies still preferred to highlight their European heritage—by contrast with countries from which British colonisers had withdrawn (Pakistan, India, Kenya, Ghana).

Expatriate Australian Dudley Glass addressed the Royal Society of Arts in 1963,

writing that though Aboriginal people had given little to music [sic!] with their monotonous music and crude instruments [sic!], the “ingenious” John Antill has given a ballet suite “the flavour of aborigine music”, portraying native dance ceremony and using different totems for different parts of the ballet.

This contradictory sentiment, in which Aboriginal music was deemed to have little value and yet non-Indigenous composers were praised as innovative for evoking it in their music, permeated decisions about how Australia should be represented overseas. […]

In representing itself to international audiences, the Australian government sought to maintain a narrative of Aboriginal people as something old and static, not modern and constantly transforming. Tangible art works were sent overseas—works standing in for the artists who had created them, but live performers were excluded from events like the Commonwealth Festival in favour of non-Indigenous composers and performers who would represent Australia as a culture in dialogue with European modernity.

Here, as often, I hear echoes of the Chinese authorities towards their folk culture.

All this leads back to an update on Antill and Dean, with their 1963 Burragorang dreamtime, using non-Indigenous performers. Harris notes the bitter irony that the people whose displacement by the settler colonists was romanticised in the ballets, and embodied by the performers, had themselves just been displaced by a dam project to supply the Sydney population.

Interestingly, Beth Dean reported on Antill attending Aboriginal theatre:

This was far different from anything Antill had seen before. It was not the rather impromptu “tourist version” by Aborigines who had not been living a tribal life for many years, sometimes generations, as they survived on the outskirts of towns. John was thrilled. One may wonder what Antill might have done if he had experienced this kind of Aboriginal music in his early days, rather than on his 60th birthday.

Chapter 6 dicusses the end of the assimilation era—from the 1967 constitutional referendum, which led quickly and decisively to a shift to Aborigines representing their own culture, to the 1970 Cook Bicentenary, marked by protests.

The referendum belatedly paved the way for full rights of Aborigines as citizens. In the performing arts, they now gained greater rights of self-determination, as groups such as the Aboriginal Theatre Foundation and Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre were formed. Although I imagine that such developments had a tangential impact for poor dwellers of the remote Country,

Groups like the Aboriginal Theatre Foundation would be momentous in localising the performance of Aboriginal culture internationally, bringing a regional focus to owned and self-represented cultural practice, in dialogue with global contexts for performance.

In Australia’s music (1967), largely a study of contemporary art music, Roger Covell allowed some space for Aboriginal traditions—recalling the prophetic remarks of Percy Grainger in the 1930s:

What would we think of a Professor of Literature who knew nothing of Homer, the Icelandic sagas, the Japanese Heiki Monogatori [sic], Chaucer, Dante and Edgar Lee Masters? We would think him a joke. Yet we see nothing strange in a Professor of Music who knows nothing of primitive music and folk-music, and music of mediaeval Europe, and the great art-musics of Asia, and who knows next to nothing of contemporary music.

One fruit of this new mindset was the impressive 1971 Sextet for didjeridu and wind instruments, in which composer George Dreyfus collaborated with Aboriginal cultural leader George Winunguj (see cover image above):

For the Mexico Cultural Olympics in 1968, Beth Dean presented the new ballet Kukaitcha, using taped recordings from Arnhem Land, still propagating non-Indigenous representation of Aboriginal culture abroad. Harris comments:

Performing the role of the woman who had transgressed cultural law by witnessing ceremonies forbidden to her in Kukaitcha, while publicly proclaiming her ability to dance men’s dances that women should not even see, Dean seemed more enamoured of the sensationalism of these transgressive actions than of the richness and complexity of the cultures she aimed to represent.

However, new international opportunities for Aboriginal performers were arising, such as performances of the Aboriginal theatre for the 1970 Expo in Japan, amidst complex negotiations.

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The 1770 Cook landings, and modern protests over commemoration, are much-studied topics.

Despite the involvement of Indigenous performers, Dean and Carell’s 1970 show Ballet of the South Pacific was now at variance with the prevailing mood. Corroboree was still dusted off, to ever lesser impact.

The re-enactment for the Cook bicentenary, attended by the Queen, with Aboriginal performers among the cast, were now controversial. Protests were a feature of nationwide events.

After the “Too many John Antills?” of Chapter 1, Chapter 7 considers the legacy, progressing elegantly to “Too many Peter Sculthorpes?” and pondering the failure of Australian art music to engage with Indigenous cultures, always (inevitably?) remaining at a remove from Aboriginal performances.

Harris offers a balanced assessment of the inescapable Corroboree:

Antill did not appropriate Aboriginal musical culture. He successfully represented it in a way that settler Australians continued to experience it—as a background presence, a remembered soundscape from childhood, one that was not well understood, was constant, but which would always be subject to inundation by the productivity of nation building. In evoking Aboriginal soundscapes, Corroboree may have appeared to celebrate Aboriginal culture, but the action it performed did the opposite, replacing Aboriginal performance cultures on public stages.

Considering her topic in the light of settler colonial (and post-colonial) theory, she notes that composers’ representations of Indigenous culture “aimed to tame Aboriginal Country and define its value in economic terms”.

Antill’s position as composer of a work that would found a national creative school was not just produced out of his own creative industry and good fortune, rather, it capitalised on the state agenda for representing Aboriginal culture without the messiness of engaging with Aboriginal people and their political demands and physical needs.

As Anne Thomas noted in 1987,

Public dances and performances of folk musics that had been so active in the assimilation era fell away once Aboriginal people were able to advocate for their rights in explicit ways.

Harris goes on to describe later collaborative projects that seem to resist narratives of replacement.

Yet as ethnomusicologist Catherine Ellis observed,

very few composers have taken the trouble to examine the structural intricacies of Aboriginal music. They have preferred to look at the superficialities: a descending melody, a regularly repeated stick beat, a didjeridu-like sound.”

Thus

Though the public rhetoric around these works claimed that they aimed to persuade listeners of the value of Aboriginal culture, value (through public recognition, commissions for new works, performances, and recordings) was attributed to the composers and their works rather than to the cultures that ostensibly inspired them.

Peter Sculthorpe (1929–2014) went on to become the leading figure on the WAM scene in Australia. Inspired at first by Japanese Noh drama, by the 1960s his music showed greater Australian Aboriginal influence. But as Harris comments, his works have such a unique voice that “they no longer resemble the Aboriginal music on which their performative capital is dependent.”

She also surveys recent works by composers such as didjeridu player William Barton.

Harris never loses sight of the perspective of Aboriginal people, or their maintenance of traditional ritual life under trying conditions. In a lively Coda, Aboriginal storyteller Nardi Simpson reflects further on the encounter. She makes a simple, pithy statement:

I want to do something that hasn’t been done before with the tools and knowledge that I have and who I am and where I’m from and that’s what I want to do.

* * *

This is a most thoughtful, compelling study. For a survey of the timeline, see also Harris’s Storymap site.

For the period since, one might also turn to Indigenous pop and rock music, another hybrid forum for creative representation with a more far-reaching influence, less constrained by officialdom. Meanwhile, anthropologists and ethnomusicologists have been ever more active in documenting the enduring ritual life of Aboriginal communities—and protests over Invasion Day continue.

See also Grassy Narrows, Native American cultures, First Nations: trauma and soundscape, and An Indigenous peoples’ history of the United States. For a remarkable vision, cf. Alan Marett’s 1985 Noh drama Eliza. And note What is serious music?!

The death of Stalin

Death of Stalin

I’ve been watching Armando Iannucci’s 2017 film The death of Stalin just at a time of crisis for another major world power, as the departure of a capricious monster offers the hope of a more humane society (cf. this review).

A study in duplicity and terror, Iannucci’s telling script continues from In the thick of it and Veep. Far from belittling the gruesome history of Stalinism, the film’s black humour makes the macabre, chilling brutality sink home. Amidst the frantic, ludicrous power struggles of the Central Committee, the brilliant cast is headed by Simon Russell Beale as the evil Beria; besides Kruschev, Malenkov, and Zhukov, Michael Palin as Molotov has some telling scenes.

Most commentators agree that it would be churlish to cavil at the artistic licence the film takes with historical facts—indeed, it’s likely to prompt viewers to delve into the grim realities, consulting the detailed work of scholars such as Orlando Figes (cf. this brief page). In her enthusiastic review, the perceptive Sophie Pinkham (always worth reading) also explores the banning of the film in Putin’s Russia (as Iannucci remarked, “In many ways Putin did our PR for us”).

Stalin’s death not only radically altered Soviet people’s lives, but set off a chain reaction outside the USSR. In China, the population was subjected to similar terrors until the death of Mao in 1976 prompted equally momentous change.

The film’s opening and closing scenes (embroidering a story about the pianist Maria Yudina) feature Mozart’s A major piano concerto, making another indelible association for me.

Short of watching the film on other, um, portals, it’s still available for another week on BBC iPlayer.

Under Life behind the Iron Curtain: a roundup, note e.g. The first gulag, and Kolyma tales. For black humour under state socialism, see herehere, and here. And among satirical stories under the Chinese jokes tag, I’m most keen on You don’t have to be mad to work here, but…Take a flying jump, and Yet more wordplay.

Some meals with Li Manshan

Here’s yet another vignette to complement my portrait film on Li Manshan (watch here!!!) and his family Daoist tradition in north Shanxi.

Now I don’t want to make him out as some kind of Mystic Sage, but for village ritual clients his focus and integrity are a major aspect of his charisma. His unassuming personality shows itself in all the different contexts where we’ve shared food together over the years. He is far more comfortable with informal gatherings than with formal group banquets.

meal

Most relaxed is eating on the kang brick-bed at home in his village with his wife Yao Xiulian and second daughter Li Min, when I relish their gentle, humorous exchanges.

LMS funeral meal

For much of his life since the 1980s Old Lord Li has been fed during village funerals (brief scene in my film from 48.02), where the Daoists sit round their own table in the communal tent, usually with a couple of old friends, and perhaps a couple of members of a gujiang shawm band. He has written some of the ritual documents in advance (my film, from 10.44), but now, smoking as he dips sparingly into the sumptuous dishes, his mind is on the paperwork he still has to prepare back in the scripture hall (my film, from 19.38).

And on his own, when visiting village clients to determine the date, site the grave, supervise the encoffinment, decorate a coffin, and “smash the bowl” (see under Li Manshan’s latest diary), the host family also feed him.

lunch LJ LB LMS

Li Manshan, Li Bin, Li Jin, 2018.

Like the rest of his generation, Li Manshan was constantly hungry through his whole youth, from well before the famines caused by the Great Leap Backward right until the 1980s; the variety of dishes now served at funerals contrasts with the meagre fare then available. Along with other rural dwellers he shares an unease at the conspicuous consumption that came into favour in the towns after the reforms. His son Li Bin (also a Daoist), and his (much) younger brother Third Tiger (my film, from 55.23), who became a cadre in the county-town, are much more at ease with the world of banqueting. Even at a family meal in a posh Yanggao town restaurant, hosted by Third Tiger, with Li Bin and our old friend Li Jin, Li Manshan was quiet (see here, under “A trip into town”).

img_2448

Venice, 2012: lunch at Il Giardinetto with Mirella Licci, our favourite groupie.

Turning to our foreign tours since 2005, group meals with our hosts were none too formal, and pleasant. And with just the band and me, it’s been fun to find little restaurants free of formalities. We became regulars at Il Giardinetto in Venice, relishing delicious courses; and in Paris we were happy to walk round the corner from our hotel to take lunch at little Chinese restaurants, Li Manshan drumming peacefully away on the table with his chopsticks.

Buffet breakfasts at a succession of hotels were always fun too, as the Daoists kept in practice using the cappuccino machine. And on the train between venues in Italy, Germany, and France we enjoyed sandwiches (“the lunch-pack of Notre Dame”).

Less comfortable for Li Manshan (and for me) are mercifully rare official banquets, such as at a Hong Kong conference in 2011, and with the band after our workshops in Beijing in 2013. He doesn’t drink, or make grandiose speeches—which are the main objects of the exercise—so he just sits quietly before slurping the final bowl of noodles and gaining his freedom to go outside for a smoke, his main pleasures.

On our brief stay together in Beijing following our return from Hong Kong we both enjoyed the tranquility of sharing bowls of noodles in modest little noodle joints together before he took the train back home to Yanggao.

See also under Music and the potato.

In memoriam Fou Ts’ong

Fu Cong Fu Lei

“Piano prodigy Fou Ts’ong tries to win the approval of his stern Francophile father,
the translator Fu Lei” (Kraus). From China reconstructs, April 1957.

In homage to the great Fou Ts’ong 傅聪 (1934–2020), who became yet another casualty of Covid last week in London, I’ve been re-reading the account of his career in Chapter 3 of Richard Kraus, Pianos and politics in China (1989). It makes a perceptive study of tensions in the Chinese artistic world before and after the 1949 revolution, rippling out to the Iron Curtain and London (note also this post by Jessica Duchen, and this by Chen Guangchen).

Fou Ts’ong’s father Fu Lei 傅雷 (1908–66), renowned Francophile translator and essayist, was a leading light in the Shanghai literary scene. Though steeped in China’s traditional literature, he was deaf to its musical culture:

These antiques are merely things for a musical museum or an opera museum; not only can they not be reformed, they ought not to be reformed.

The debate between urbane cosmopolitanism and revolutionary populism was to be played out in the sphere of traditional Chinese music (see here).

So it was through Western Art Music that Fu Lei resolved to groom his son to “fulfil his destiny” of modernising China. In recent years in China, as Kraus observes,

partly because of the family’s tragic history and partly because of the renewed influence of their class, the Fus have become a posthumous model for upright behaviour, principled integrity, and child-rearing.

 Fu Lei

may seem the image of Confucian propriety to Chinese, but to a Western reader the regime he imposed on his son seems cruel.

Indeed, Fou Ts’ong himself gave a more critical view (here, in Chinese). Latterly such “tiger parenting” has more often been associated with mothers.

Fu Lei Fu Cong

Source: this thoughtful tribute (in Chinese).

So Fou Ts’ong began learning the piano from the age of 7; the following year his father resolved to educate him from home. Among Fou Ts’ong’s early piano teachers was Mario Paci, founder of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. After Paci’s death in 1947 he mostly studied piano on his own; but when the family moved to the Nationalist base of Kunming in 1948 to escape unrest in Shanghai, he began to rebel. He was now punished by being sent to school. He remained in Kunming when the family returned to Shanghai in 1949; entering Yunnan university, he hardly played the piano. He returned to “Liberated” Shanghai in 1951, where Western music remained in vogue in bourgeois circles despite the ideology of the Yan’an populists. In 1952 he performed Beethoven’s Emperor concerto with the Shanghai Philharmonic. But by 1953 Fu Lei, disillusioned, refused to allow him to take the entrance exam for the Shanghai Conservatoire.

Poland
With bonds now severed between China and western Europe, Chinese musicians looked to the countries of the Soviet bloc. Later in 1953 Fou Ts’ong was chosen to take part in a festival in Romania—part of a Chinese delegation led by Hu Yaobang. After giving additional performances in the GDR and Poland, he was offered a scholarship to the Warsaw conservatoire in preparation for the 1955 International Chopin competition there. Poland was still recovering from the extreme devastation of the war, and this was an unstable period in the Soviet bloc: even before the 1956 crushing of protest in Budapest, discontent was revealed in the widespread GDR protests of 1953 (see also Life behind the Iron Curtain: a roundup). By 1956 the Polish regime was promoting Western Art Music at the expense of folk culture (see also Polish jazz, then and now).

Fou Ts’ong took third prize at the competition, as well as a special award for his his performances of Chopin mazurkas:

Back in China,

For urban intellectuals, Fou Ts’ong’s success was a badge of their their own ability to participate in the world culture which they held so dear. For the leaders of the Communist Party, the Chopin competition was a diplomatic encounter, in which Fou’s performance demonstrated that China could achieve great things after expelling the imperialist powers.

For Fou Ts’ong the triumph also marked a new independence from his domineering father.

Meanwhile in China political pressures were increasing. Kraus describes the 1955 campaign against Hu Feng, the Hundred Flowers movement that led insidiously to the Anti-rightist campaign, and Fu Lei’s own tribulations after being branded a rightist. Music too was becoming an increasingly perilous battleground.

Fou Ts’ong could only try to grasp these events from Warsaw. As his father’s letters veered from depression to exuberance, the political changes in China between 1954 and 1958 must have seemed both mysterious and frighteningly unstable.

Having been criticised by Chinese students in Warsaw, Fou Ts’ong was recalled to Beijing to take part in rectification. But after writing a self-criticism he soon returned to Poland, graduating from the Warsaw conservatoire in December 1958—just as the Great Leap Backward was rolled out to empty fanfare across China.

London
And so on Christmas Eve that year, Fou Ts’ong defected, seeking political asylum in London, still only 24. Among those helping him flee was Yehudi Menuhin’s daughter Zamira, who became his first wife in 1960. Refusing to return to China, Fou Ts’ong was escaping the dual prisons of Confucianism and Communism. From the safe haven of his London base, his international career soon thrived.

His father’s tribulations were compounded by Fou Ts’ong’s defection, but they continued corresponding. Fou Ts’ong later published a volume of his father’s letters written over the following period:

The family letters of Fu Lei are popular in China allegedly because Fu Lei is such a model of old-fashioned virtue. But one wonders if Fou Ts’ong published them to justify his defection, perhaps unconsciously letting all readers understand that he was fleeing not only China’s politics but the obsessive love of a tyrannical father.

A brief political thaw from 1961 even encouraged Fu Lei to imagine his son returning to China. But in September 1966 Fu Ts’ong’s parents, persecuted by Red Guards from the Shanghai conservatoire, became two of the most notorious suicides of the Cultural Revolution. In the elite world of the qin zither, other tragic suicides were those of Pei Tiexia (old friend of Robert van Gulik in 1940s’ Sichuan) and Pu Xuezhai.

Fou Ts’ong now went through a difficult period in both his personal and professional life.

On his first return visit to China in 1979, as old wounds began to be plastered over, he took part in a memorial service for his newly-rehabilitated parents. Hard as it is now to imagine a time when glossy Chinese piano superstars were still a rarity, he inspired a new generation with regular visits thereafter.

His reflections on Chopin convey his charm:

Though both father and son espoused a very different aesthetic from that of the qin zither, their stress on wider personal cultivation, and the refinement of Fou Ts’ong’s touch on the piano, recall the refined sensibilities of that world.

I imagine him in his Shanghai youth listening to the numinous 1927 recording of the Schubert G major piano trio by Cortot, Thibaud, and Casals on the family phonograph… By the 1960s Fou Ts’ong, my teacher Hugh Maguire, and Jacqueline du Pré relished playing piano trios together—how I wish I had heard them.

Fou Ts'ong

Roundup for 2020!

Since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual roundup (cf. 2018, 2019) is an occasion to group together some major themes from the last year (see also the tags and categories in the sidebar). This is just a selection (with apologies to the posts I’ve missed—do seek them out!):

For China, note

A substantial addition to my series on the ritual associations of Gaoluo:

Also new to the extensive Local ritual menu:

and on folk culture around Tianjin:

See also

Book reviews, mostly on religion and politics:

as well as

On modern Tibetan cultures, I’ve added a whole series, listed here:

—complementing my series on Uyghur culture in crisis, also with new input:

besides

* * *

For fieldwork and cultures elsewhere around the world—bearing in mind the important perspectives of

This year’s new posts on Indian raga, including some divine dhrupad singing:

* * *

On the travails of the 20th century:

* * *

On jazz:

and WAM:

On TV, film, popular culture:

* * *

Thanksgivings for liberation from tyranny:

And another sign of hope:

More jocular items include

as well as additions to The English, home and abroad:

and new entries under the headlines tag:

Further roundups:

And much much more, As They Say. Having grouped them together like this, I hope readers will scramble them all up again like a jigsaw, rather than retreating into their own little boxes… And do click on all the links within these posts! Happy, Happier New Year!

Tianjin: a folk Buddhist group

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(under Themes > Local ritual, in main menu)

Tianjin FYT 1989

Having written about the 1990s’ UK tours of ensembles from Wutaishan (Buddhist) and Suzhou (Daoist), my articles on dharma-drumming associations and sectarian groups around Tianjin now remind me to introduce a household Buddhist group based in the Southern suburbs there.

Tianjin FYT 1993.1

As tradition revived with the 1980s’ reforms, the group was guided by former temple monks, long laicised. I reflect on their 1993 UK tour and the resulting Nimbus CD Buddhist music of Tianjin.

Tianjin CD cover 1

Dharma-drumming associations of Tianjin

*For main page, click here!*

Tianjin huanghui tu

Yet another instance of the variety of ritual performance around Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei

Just southeast of Beijing, the municipality of Tianjin is vast, with extensive suburban and rural regions. I’ve only made brief forays there (notably to sectarian groups around rural Jinghai), but it’s a remarkably rich area for fieldwork, both for ritual traditions and for various genres of narrative-singing.

In many villages in the Western and Southern suburbs, large “dharma-drumming associations” (fagu hui 法鼓會), perform for mortuary observances, calendrical rituals for the parish (she 社) temple fairs, and rain prayers; processions for popular entertainment, and formerly the grand ceremonies of the elite.

Tianjin is a major centre for maritime trade, so it has long been a rare northern outpost for the worship of the seafarers’ goddess Mazu, such a pervasive element in the cultures of south Fujian and Taiwan. 

Huanghui 2

Also known as the “Imperial assembly” (huanghui 皇會) since the patronage of the 18th-century Qianlong emperor, it is the subject of considerable research—not least on its heyday before Liberation, suddenly a legitimate topic after the 1980s’ reforms. Since 2005 it has become an object for the commodifying agenda of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, along with the dharma-drumming associations.

So do click here for the main page!

Hašek’s adventures in Soviet Tatarstan

Josef Lada, illustrations to The good soldier Švejk.

Having featured the character of Švejk under The great siege of Przemyśl (cf. Why the First World War failed to end), I was prompted to explore further the life of his creator Jaroslav Hašek (1883–1923) (see under Czech stories).

Cecil Parrott’s biography The bad Bohemian (1978) is full of insights (see also this review, and even this 2019 thesis). As Parrott observes,

Like so many Czechoslovak personalities, Hašek ran the gauntlet of differing assessments according to the prevailing political doctrines of the time. From his death until 1939 he was looked on as a “bad bohemian”; from 1939–45 (under the Germans) he was outlawed and his books burnt; from 1945–48, thanks largely to Communist influence, he was rehabilitated to a limited extent; and since 1948, after a brief period of uncertainty, he has almost been canonised.

Thus, ironically, Hašek became a “hero of Communism”, and Švejk approved reading for the Czechoslovak army. But

Had Hašek not been disillusioned about politics but engaged himself more deeply in party activities, it is almost certain that with time he would have been expelled from the Party too, because by his very nature he could not be anything but a non-conformist. His experiences in Prague soon after his return cooled his ardour and, paradoxically enough, his subsequent withdrawal from political activity was to prove his saving grace and to earn him later a place in the Communist canon.

Indeed, this whole history was submerged as Švejk became a theme for tourist pub-crawls (to which I also plead guilty).

Beermat from U Kalicha, as borrowed from my trip to Prague in 1980.

As Parrott describes in chapter 7 of The bad Bohemian, Hašek had already thought up the character of Švejk by 1911, well before the war, when he published five stories, which Parrott translates in The Red Commissar (1981).

One evening he had returned home very exhausted. Hardly had he woken up next morning when [his wife] Jarmila saw him feverishly searching for a scrap of paper which he had left about the night before. Before going to bed he had jotted down on it a “brilliant idea” and to his horror had now completely forgotten it.

Jarmila goes on:

In the meantime I had thrown it on to the rubbish heap. (Jarmila had a fetish for tidiness.) Hašek rushed to search for it and was delighted when he found it. He carefully picked up the crumpled note-paper, read its contents, crumpled it up again and threw it away. Meanwhile I rescued it again and preserved it. On it I saw clearly written and underlined the heading of a story, “The booby in the company”. Underneath was a sentence which was just legible: “He had himself examined to prove that he was capable of serving as a regular soldier”. After that came some further words which were illegible.

Parrott explains, “At a time when no Czech wanted to be classified as mentally or physically fit for service, the ‘booby in the company’ was literally asking for it!”

Aficionados of the Tang may even see echoes of the recluses Hanshan and Shide.

In The good soldier Švejk Hašek offers few clues that he might suffer from any delusions of political engagement. Parrott describes the japes of his early years—his hoaxes, spoof articles for The animal world, and his brilliantly-named Party for Moderate and Peaceful Progress within the Bounds of the Law, “designed largely to satisfy Hašek’s innate thirst for exhibitionism and partly to bolster the finances of the pub where election meetings were held” (see also stories in The Red Commissar).

This seems to have been the extent of his propensity for leadership at the time.

* * *

So it’s hard to square Hašek’s bohemian, alcohol-fuelled capers before the War, and after his return to Prague in 1920, with his interlude of commitment and responsibility in revolutionary Russia.

As Parrott notes, Slav prisoners of war were treated abysmally; Hašek was lucky to survive. After a spell in the Czech Legion in Russia, at first he worked as propagandist in Kiev, while continuing to write satirical sketches. He soon found himself in charge of an army detachment.

These years were a convulsive period when people had to juggle personal survival with shifting, murky political allegiances. With the Russian revolutions of 1917 Hašek’s loyalties shifted from monarchism to Bolshevism. From 1918 he broke with the Czech Legion to spend two years in the Red Army, soon becoming a leading figure in the town of Bugulma in southeastern Tatarstan during the civil war.

Parrott opens The Red commissar with Hašek’s nine short Bugulma stories. Like Švejk, the persona of Hašek here blurs the lines between fact and fiction. As Parrott observes, while the stories are satirical, they give a mellow, benevolent view of the convulsive social changes then under way.

With Hašek’s constant aversion to authority, the stories revolve around how he outmanouevres the belligerent yet hopelessly dimwitted Comrade Yerokhymov, Commander of the Tver Revolutionary Regiment. Hašek generally ends up having to give counter-orders to such proclamations by Yerokhymov as

To the whole population of Bugulma and its Region!
I order everyone in the whole town and region who cannot read and write to learn to do so within three days. Anyone found to be illiterate after this time will be shot.

Commandant of the Town, Yerokhymov

Also featured is the enmity between the local Chuvash and Cheremis, and their shared bemusement at the struggles they now found themselves caught up in.

In addition to the Bashkirs the Petrograders brought in other prisoners, youths in peasant sandals, aged seventeen to nineteen, who had been mobilised by the Whites and had been watching for the first opportunity to make a bolt.

There were about three hundred of them, emaciated young men in tattered homespuns. Among them were Tartars, Mordvins, and Cheremisses, who knew as much about the significance of the civil war as they did about the solution of equations to the power of x.

Parrott retells another story:

A member of the Central Committee came to Ufa and at once searched for me!
“You’re Comrade Gashek, aren’t you?”
I nodded…
“You’re a former legionary, aren’t you?”
He looked at me sternly, straight in the eyes.
“Yes, I am.”
“You’re from Prague, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Comrade Gashek, you’re a great drunkard. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Comrade Gashek, everything’s all one to you—there’s nothing sacred, right?”
“Quite right.”
“When you were at home they say you were everything—Anarchist, Social Democrat and working in editorial offices all over the place. Is that correct?”
“Perfectly correct.”
“Khorosho [good]! You don’t deny anything. You’re a good man.”
After his departure in about a fortnight, I was appointed inspector of the Fifth Red Army.

He spent time as Commissar in Ufa, capital of the Bashkir Autonomous Republic—where he was involved in purges, and began a relationship that became a bigamous marriage.

His language skills came into play:

He spoke some Russian, Polish, German, and Hungarian, and later learned some Bashkir as well as a little Chinese. Indeed, his “pidgin” Chinese seems to have great success with the Chinese prisoners-of-war.

He continued studying Chinese in 1920 when posted to Irkutsk in western Siberia, and published a report of his work among the Chinese Communists (for the 1956–57 film of Švejk dubbed into Chinese, see here; and note The definitive transliteration). There too he learned the Buryat language, founding its first ever journal—earning him the title “father of the nation” there. But clues to a planned mission to Mongolia remain elusive.

Accounts differ over Hašek’s alleged abstention from alcohol during this period.

Summoned back to Prague in 1920 by the Czechoslovak Bureau of Agitation and Propaganda (attached to the Central Committee of the Russian Bolshevik Party), his early death in 1923 rescued him from having to confront the more disturbing ramifications of his political involvement, and from learning the limits of satire under the new regime.

The mantric Shipping forecast

The Shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4, whose antecedents date from 1861, is an extraordinary marker of British identity (cf. The Archers and Desert island discs, among many posts under The English, home and abroad). To be fair, Radio 4 listeners may not quite be representative of the whole population (You Heard It Here First), but still…

The forecast is replete with the abstract, poetic litany of

North Utsire, South Utsire, Viking, Cromarty, Forth, Dogger, German Bight…

and

southwesterly veering northwesterly five or six, decreasing four. Rain then showers. Moderate with fog patches, becoming good.

In a perceptive chapter on “weather rules” from her brilliant book Watching the English, Kate Fox notes the power of this “arcane, evocative, and somehow deeply soothing meteorological mantra”:

None of this information is of the slightest use or relevance to the millions of non-seafarers who listen to it, but listen we do, religiously mesmerised by the calm, cadenced, familiar recitation of lists of names of sea areas.

Mark Damazer, Controller of Radio 4, attempted to explain its popularity:

It scans poetically. It’s got a rhythm of its own. It’s eccentric, it’s unique, it’s English. It’s slightly mysterious because nobody really knows where these places are. It takes you into a faraway place that you can’t really comprehend unless you’re one of these people bobbing up and down in the Channel.

Zeb Soanes, a regular Shipping Forecast reader:

To the non-nautical, it is a nightly litany of the sea. It reinforces a sense of being islanders with a proud seafaring past. Whilst the listener is safely tucked up in their bed, they can imagine small fishing-boats bobbing about at Plymouth or 170ft waves crashing against Rockall.

Like Fran in Black books, perhaps:

Charlie Connelly, in his engagingly nerdy book Attention all shipping: a journey around the Shipping forecast (2004, complementing the 1998 picture-book Rain later, good), notes the subtleties of reading the forecast at different times of day.

The late-night broadcast is particularly evocative (as in the old joke “Drink Horlicks before you go to sleep—otherwise you’ll spill it”). It’s perfectly crowned by the healing aural balm of Sailing by (1963), by the splendidly-named Ronald Binge, creator of Mantovani’s “cascading strings” effect [Persontovani, please!—Ed.]:

In case you’re still mystified as to what the forecast is for, click on the YouTube icon and note the BTL comments there.

As reader Jane Watson comments, the forecast is “comforting for people at home, because they’re tucked up in bed and they’re hearing that it’s absolutely blowing a gale somewhere out at sea”—which might sound rather like Schadenfreude.

As with most ritual traditions, the language is slow to change—how I would love to hear the suave tones of Charlotte Green announcing

Pissing down. Bummer.

Among many parodies, most brilliant are Les Barker’s version as read by Brian Perkins:

and Stephen Fry (1988):

Back at the real script, Alan Bennett (“occasionally moderate”) read it for Radio 4’s Today at the inspired request of Michael Palin—taking on a quite different tone, both sinister and hilarious:

Talking of British identity, the forecast waxes philosophical in the phrase “losing its identity”—precisely the paranoid fear bandied by Brexiteers.

Yansheng chan gods

Stellar lords of the Northern Dipper, from the chanted Litanies for Prolonging Life
(Yansheng chan 延生懺) manual, copied by Li Qing, early 1980s.

SanskritRadio 4 listeners, bless their cotton socks, defend the ritual fiercely: there was a “national outcry when the BBC had the temerity to change the time of the late-night broadcast, moving it back by a mere 15 minutes (‘People went ballistic’, according to a Met. Office spokesman).” When the name of sea area Finisterre was changed to FitzRoy, “Anyone would think they’d tried to change the words of the Lord’s Prayer!”

Needless to say, such formalistic language reminds me of the long litanies of deities and pseudo-Sanskrit mantras that punctuate Daoist ritual (e.g. here, under “20th May”), whose efficacy for the devotee is also unsullied by mere cerebral comprehension.

For further meteorological drôlerie, see Cloudy with showery outbreaks, and More wisdom of the elders.

Gaoluo: vocal liturgists

*For main page, click here!*
(under Other publications > Local ritual > Gaoluo, in main menu)

This is to direct you to yet another vignette on the ritual association of South Gaoluo, based on my detailed historical ethnography Plucking the winds. Focusing on the transmission of the vocal liturgy through the first fifteen years of Maoism and since the 1980s’ revival, my main purpose here is to illustrate the close relation of ritual and political authority both before and after the Communist revolution, with sketches of the vocal liturgists (“civil altar”) of the association, and their strong hereditary backgrounds, from the 19th right through to the 21st century.

The new page (to be read in conjunction with Two ritual leaders) features the great masters Cai Fuxiang, Cai Yongchun, and Li Wenbin, who steered the vocal liturgy through the early years of the revolution; and their young students from 1961 to 1964, Shan Mingkui, Shan Yude, Cai Ran, and Cai Haizeng, who have represented the “civil altar” in performing for funerals and calendrical rituals since the 1980s.

Do explore the wealth of further material on Gaoluo (as well as its tag) and the many other village ritual associations on the Hebei plain (main page here, articles under Local ritual)!

Masked drama in Asia

Speaking of masks for the current crisis, the use of masks in performance is common throughout the world. It occurs to me that this blog now has a quorum of posts featuring masked drama around Asia.

Starting with Tibet:

For China and Japan:

And for Tuva:

Elsewhere, apart from Africa and the Americas, masked performances around Europe would make a fruitful theme, both in folk and art cultures.

Chinese film classics of the early reform era

From The story of Qiu Ju.

Along with the first flush of the liberal reforms that attended the collapse of the commune system, the classic feature films of the 1980s’ “fifth generation” were part of a widespread flowering of the arts, overturning the “socialist realism” of the Maoist era.

As with the other arts, while Chinese films and documentaries have continued to adapt (see e.g. Social issues in rural Hunan), it remains worth celebrating this early body of work—made just around the time when I was becoming familiar with folk music and ritual in village China, fostering my concern to consider wider social change. For more films (mainly documentaries) on Chinese ritual and rural life, see here.

Wedding scene from Yellow earth.

There’s a wealth of academic and media coverage, but here I’ll make a little selection of some films—just the Usual Suspects, for those already in the know—that explore the lives of ordinary people (both rural and urban), including their folk music. Often set in the barren landscapes of rural Shaanbei and Shanxi, several of these works use amateur actors—always a good sign. Some are verité depictions of the early reform period itself, while others are set in the Maoist and pre-Liberation eras, but they were all important in helping revise our image of China. Of course, as fieldworkers we hope to document all three periods.

A seminal film from the early days was

  • Yellow earth (Huang tudi 黄土地, Chen Kaige, 1984). Set in the Shaanbei base area during the War against Japan, exemplifies the travails of early CCP folk-song collectors (cf. Hequ 1953) as they were confronted by the poverty of rural China, and the vast cultural gulf separating them from the peasants they were seeking to rescue from “feudal superstition”. It’s framed by the opening wedding scene, and the final rain ritual:
  • Old well (Laojing 老井, Wu Tianming, 1986, with Zhang Yimou) [1] is based on a poor village’s struggle against constant drought. One well-observed vignette (from 1.20.19) features a village story-telling session with blind musicians, and the peasants’ taste for “dirty songs” licensed by a token politically-correct speech (cf. Bards of Shaanbei, under “Old and new stories”):

Despite the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, this wave persisted into the early 1990s. A timeless, mystical story of a rural blind bard in a stunning landscape is

  • Life on a string (Bianzou bianchang 邊走邊唱, Chen Kaige, 1991):

In more verité style, filmed in rural and urban Shaanbei, is

  • The story of Qiu Ju (Qiu Ju da guansi 秋菊打官司, Zhang Yimou, 1992), surely Gong Li’s greatest and most uncharacteristic role as a sullen, aggrieved, confused peasant, a far cry from her standard fragrant image—with the street scenes particularly authentic, and a soundtrack punctuated by gutsy wanwanqiang singing by Li Shijie 李世傑 (sorry, no English subtitles here):

On the insidious pressures of urban family life under Maoism, a most moving film is

  • The Blue kite (Lan fengzheng 蓝风筝, Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1993):

And in similar vein,

  • To live (Huozhe 活着, Zhang Yimou, 1994)

In these two films I find links with depictions of the lives of ordinary people under the GDR.

Among many films revising images of Tibet within the PRC (note Robbie Barnett’s chapter in Conflicting memories, and §4 of his Columbia course) is

  • The horse thief (Daoma zei 盗马贼, Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1986):

Similar themes and approaches were to be explored in the work of directors such as Jia Zhangke, set in small-town Shanxi.


[1] Not to be confused with Blind shaft (fine translation of Mangjing 盲井, Li Yang 2003), another disturbing film about mining.

A stammering musical Bodhisattva?

Prelude to shengguan score, Hanzhuang village,
Xiongxian county, Hebei.

A Buddhist monk called Miaoyin 妙音, “Wondrous Tones”, is associated with transmissions of the grand shengguan suites that have punctuated the vocal liturgy of amateur village ritual associations around Xiongxian county in Hebei since the late 18th century (see also under Local ritual).

Hannibal Taubes, ever on the trail of recondite historical byways, leads me to Gadgadasvara, a minor-league figure among the great Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism. Since his name literally means “stammering tones”, even if he’s an imaginary being, he may appear to be a promising early Indian candidate to complement my list of great Chinese stammerers—and a musical one, to boot (see also stammering tag). But there are several strands to unravel here, both for ancient India and late-imperial China.

Gadgadasvara, as described in chapter 24 of the Lotus sutra (e.g. here and here),

emits rays of light from his topknot and between his eyebrows and illuminates the world of the Buddha Kamaladalavimalanakṣatrarājasaṃkusumitābhijña [Kevin for short—Ed. Try saying that with a speech impediment].
[…]
Gadgadasvara passes through many worlds, and his beautiful form is described. He arrives at Vulture’s Peak Mountain on the seven-jeweled platform and presents a necklace to Śākyamuni Buddha, inquiring after him on behalf of Buddha [Here we go again—Altogether now] Kamaladalavimalanakṣatrarājasaṃkusumitābhijña. *
(source here).

Gadgarasvara Nepal

Modern bronze image of Gadgadasvara, Nepal.

Svara is not just “sound” or “voice”, but the comprehensive system of musical pitches as represented by sargam solfeggio (see e.g. here). Sources do indeed allude obliquely to Gadgadasvara’s mastery of music:

In the worlds through which he passed, the land quaked in six ways, seven-jeweled lotus flowers rained everywhere, and hundreds of thousands of heavenly musical instruments sounded spontaneously without being played. 

Still, musical accomplishments play only a minor role in his transcendent CV:

According to T’ien-t’ai’s Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra, this bodhisattva is called Wonderful Sound because he propagates the Lotus Sutra throughout the ten directions with his wondrous voice. Among the many sutras, Bodhisattva Wonderful Sound appears only in the “Wonderful Sound” chapter of the Lotus Sutra.

And he doesn’t seem to be among the numerous cosmological deities who feature in the rich mythology of Indian music.

As to gadgada, the etymology of stammering, faltering, even sobbing, is clear. However, there seems to be no suggestion that the Bodhisattva was ever actually portrayed as a stammerer. Moreover, would any Indian, now or at any earlier point in history, be conscious of the etymology? Instead, the name has long been interpreted as “Wonderful Voice” or “Wonderful Sound”, and that is how it was rendered in Chinese.

So alas, Gadgadasvara is not an ancient mystical precursor of the characters listed here. In short, neither stammering not music make fruitful avenues to explore! Aww.

Conversely, Moses (like Marilyn Monroe) has been widely recognised as a stammerer, although the evidence is open to dispute (see e.g. here and here). The image on the left (from the latter article, p.169) shows the ancient hieroglyph for “stammer”!

* * *

From Lotus sutra scroll. Source: British Library.

In medieval Chinese translation, Gadgadasvara became Miaoyin 妙音 “Wondrous Tones”—which seems a faithful rendition of how the Sanskrit name has been understood.

After that inconsequential excursion to the ancient world of scripture-revelation, let’s return to our musical monk in Qing-dynasty Xiongxian county. It remains to be seen how distinctive it was for a monk to be given the name Miaoyin. For the double-character names chosen for Buddhist and Daoist clerics, either the first or second element was stable within each generation (cf. Customs of naming), and miao 妙 was often adopted for the first; the second character yin 音 seems less common than sheng 聲 (sound)—such as the cohort of young monks at the Guangji an temple in Beijing in the 1930s (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.223).

Anyway, even if Miaoyin received his early ritual training in Beijing before being deputed to staff a rural Hebei temple, such occupational “musical monks” (yiseng 藝僧) performing rituals around the old city were most unlikely to be familiar with the Lotus sutra, which is not among the ritual manuals that they performed—so our musical monk clearly wasn’t named after Gadgadasvara.

Still, while he would have been utterly remote from the abstruse concerns of ancient Buddhist cosmology, the prelude to the Hanzhuang score does indeed describe him as “Chan master Miaoyin, Wang ‘Bodhisattva’ Guanghui” (妙音王菩薩光輝禪師)—the honorific “Bodhisattva” suggesting his local reputation.

Anyway, do get to know the wondrous tones of the shengguan ritual suites attributed to Miaoyin, still being performed by ritual associations in Hebei villages (cf. ##8 and 14 of playlist in sidebar, and for the process from singing the oral gongche to instrumental performance, ## 9 and 10—with commentary here)!

Gongche solfeggio score, Hanzhuang: Hesi pai prelude to Qi Yanhui suite.

Long story short: like “And did those feet in ancient time?“, my title seems to resemble those questions they ask you at airport check-in—to which you’re pretty sure the answers are going to be “No”, but you have to keep on your toes just in case.


* I don’t mean to labour the point à la Stewart Lee, but in search of wisdom, I find this helpful explanation:

The Sanskrit term Kamaladalavimalanakṣatrarājasaṃkusumitābhijña can be transliterated into English as Kamaladalavimalanaksatrarajasamkusumitabhijna or Kamaladalavimalanakshatrarajasamkusumitabhijna.

Thanks for that.

The global art market

Soon after the Yuan-dynasty scroll Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback fetched £32 million at auction in Hong Kong, here’s some more Breaking News from this “world-beating” Scepter’d Isle * of our fabled (viz. illusory) New Jerusalem, never never never to be outdone:

Blurry 1986 polaroid Four Pissed Mates On the Razz Staggering Out of a Stretch Limo in Pink Sombreros After a Karaoke Night fetches 99p at a car boot sale

Just like the elegant calligraphy of the colophons with the scroll, the photo is adorned with scrawlings in marker-pen of a Hitler moustache and Sundry Ribald Appendages [popular beat combo—Ed.], further enhancing its market value.

Rule Britannia, eh! And Did those Feet in Ancient Time?—No, they didn’t. Mind you, just wait another 700 years, it’ll be the buyer’s descendants who have the last laugh. I need hardly add that subaltern studies are grist to my mill.

Among the Tang princes depicted in the Chinese scroll is the future Xuanzong emperor—for a spoof from the great Tang historian Denis Twitchett, click here. For some drôle Tang poetic titles, see here; for more art, see On visual culture and Great art missing the crucial element. Note also headlines tag, and Five go mad in Dorset.


* With All Due Respect to Shakespeare and Elizabethan orthography, it’s the apostrophe there that really Gets My Goat.

More films on ritual drama

From Un opéra rituel chinois : Zhang Wenxuan (Anhui).

For the rich local traditions of Chinese ritual—as I never tire of observing—we have ample silent, immobile textual documentation, but much less material in the public domain on film (see this list).

Ritual drama has been a substantial component of this field ever since the projects initiated by C.K. Wang soon after the 1980s’ revival of tradition. But again we rarely have access to the drama itself, with all its actions and soundscape, all the “red and fiery” sensuous pleasures that are an indispensable part of the experience.

The distinguished sinologist Jacques Pimpaneau (b.1934), along with his numerous publications, founded the Musée Kwok On in Paris in 1972, the collection more recently housed in Lisbon (see also here).

And besides documenting textual and material aspects, he avidly recorded local Chinese ritual drama on film—mainly in the early 1990s, before migration, pop music, the lures of material enrichment, and heritagification were too rampant.

The playlist of films (mostly around half an hour, with French voiceovers) on his YouTube channel includes exorcistic drama from south China, such as the nuoxi masked dramas of Jiangxi, Hunan (including Mulian drama; see also here), and Anhui; as well as Nantong near Shanghai, and, again in Hunan, New Year rituals of Hengshan and among the Miao.

Here’s the English version of L’expulsion du petit demon, filmed in Pingxiang on the Jiangxi–Hunan border:

Of two excerpts from shadow-puppetry in Shaanxi (cf. Chinese shadows), the second also including marionettes from Chaozhou and again Shaanxi:

The playlist also ventures to Tibet—a grand monastic festival near Lhasa, and lhamo opera—as well as south and southeast Asia: Kerala, Java and Bali—as well as itinerant story-tellers of Bengal illustrating their religious paintings, part of a rich Asian tradition documented by Victor Mair in Painting and performance: Chinese picture recitation and its Indian genesis (1989).

Tiananmen: bullets and opium

Within China, as for the whole of the Maoist era, public memory of the righteous student protests of 1989 in China continues to be repressed. A valuable recent addition to the extensive literature published abroad (see e.g. this list, with perceptive reflections by Jeff Wasserstrom) is

  • Liao Yiwu, Bullets and opium: real-life stories of China after the Tiananmen Square massacre (German edition 2012; new English edition translated by David Cowhig and Jessie Cowhig, ed. Ross Perlin, 2020).

After Ian Johnson’s lucid introduction, reflecting on the “failed revolution”, Liao Yiwu (@liaoyiwu1) provides a useful Prologue. He himself spent four years in prison after 1989, going on to document these first-hand accounts (cf. The corpse walker) while under constant harrassment, before fleeing to Berlin in 2011. He returns to his own story in the final chapter, and fantasises about museums and monuments in China to political movements: “How will our children and grandchildren find a place to live in a country crowded with so many monuments?”

Liao’s subjects (he co-opts the Party’s terms “thugs” and “hooligans”) are not the student “elite” of the movement whose later emigration and defection from the cause aroused much resentment, but those left behind—the common people of Beijing and Chengdu (often factory workers, also mostly very young) who bore the brunt of the military crackdown as they tried to support the patriotic protests. Tortured and sentenced to long prison terms for their righteous actions, after their release they found themselves having to beg for low-paid menial jobs, scrabbling for a place to sleep, with chronic health problems, ostracised, condemned to poverty. Meanwhile the economic miracle served as if to bribe people not to ask any more questions. Even now, over thirty years later, few of the survivors or bereaved hold much hope for any official recognition of the events.

Though Liao’s interlocutors are all men, the impact on their wives and families is clear (this review includes a critique of implicit sexism). Despite their anger, several of them comment on the sorry plight of the troops sent in to quell the “chaos”—they too were victims, misled by their rulers.

The unrest extended far beyond central Beijing. Not only was there fierce resistance in the suburban counties through which the various armies had to fight their way, but protests erupted in many provinces (note this wiki entry). In Part Two the scene shifts to Sichuan, where Liao catches up with some of his former colleagues.

The Afterword, “The last moments of Liu Xiaobo” (translated by Michael Day), is based on Liao’s conversations with his widow Liu Xia. And in three appendices, “A guide to what really happened”, Ding Zilin and Jiang Peikun, founders of the Tiananmen Mothers movement, conscientiously attempt to document some numbers for the victims, and their fates. And many more—3,000, or over 10,000, according to other reputable sources—may have been killed, besides countless injured.

This playlist includes the documentary of Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton, and a Storyville film:

Throughout this aftermath Western scholars (including me) blithely continued visiting China, judging it better to engage than to leave our contacts even more isolated. And as the economy flourished, China was an ever-more tempting place to do business, as the general population retreated into blind materialism.

In academic circles too the climate seemed open enough: Chinese scholars somehow found a certain latitude to explore sensitive topics. Through the 1990s, as I explored the hutongs of Beijing, I must have come across many people with harrowing stories to tell—or to refrain from telling—of June 1989. Among my urban and rural friends, the climate didn’t seem too (sic) repressive; we could still function around the workings of the police state. Even in 2018 I had a great time in Beijing and the countryside. So it’s taken me all this time to draw the line, as repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong has become more extreme—and the recent escalation may also remind us to resist Tiananmen fatigue.

For more on political amnesia, see e.g. China: commemorating trauma; The temple of memories; Confessions; for Tibet, Forbidden memory; and further afield, many posts under Life behind the Iron Curtain.

Some favourite posts

Punctuating my major articles on local ritual in rural China, having just added the contrasting recent posts Rāg Yaman Kalyan and Replies from the Complaints Department to my burgeoning *MUST READ!* category, they belong in this more radical distillation of the list—I am particularly attached to

As to listening, apart from the Chinese playlist in the sidebar (commentary here), there are links to a wealth of amazing music here:

And apart from my film, I consider the greatest gift of this blog to be

Ma Yuan

That’s just a selection—I find myself wanting to add more, but do also refer to leads on the home page!

Native American cultures: a roundup

Recent posts on Native American cultures—relevant to ritual and China—include

  • Bruno Nettl with an introduction to themes in music, history, and change
  • Ceremonies of the Navajo, based on McAllester’s classic Enemy way music
  • The Ghost Dance of 1890—citing Bury my heart at Wounded Knee, and the 1900 Boxer uprising, including Buffalo Bill’s “Rescue at Pekin”.

This led me to Tony Hillerman’s fictional treatments of the Navajo:

My interest was initially prompted by the tragic story of

See also

On a lighter yet trenchant note, see

Amdo rituals: early and recent films

While my own focus is on the local ritual cultures of the Han Chinese, I’ve recently found myself trying to get a basic grasp of some of the fine research on ritual and musicking among the ethnic minorities within the PRC—such as the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and the peoples of Yunnan.

My Chinese colleagues and I like to cite the dictum attributed to Confucius (“already”!), “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside“—which may mean villages just an hour’s drive from Beijing, but is even more apposite for regions more remote from centres of Han Chinese culture.

I’ve already featured some remarkable 1930s’ film footage from Fujian in southeast China; now, alerted by Gerald Roche, intrepid anthropologist specialising in both ritual and the politics of language endangerment and revitalisation, I’ve been admiring footage of similar vintage from northwest China (“northeast Tibet”!), at the far opposite corner of the empire.

The Chinese provinces of Gansu and Qinghai (including the Tibetan region of Amdo) are home to a patchwork of ethnic groups (for some basic resources on the region, see here).

Carter D. Holton (1901–73) was a missionary who worked with his wife Lora in northwest China from 1923 until 1949. His footage on the “two” films online (click here) is identical. It contains material from around Hezhou (now Linxia) in 1940–41, including scenes from Labrang, showing the daily life and rituals of Tibetans, Mangghuer (“Tu”), Muslims, and Han Chinese—during a period of ethnic and political unrest.

The footage itself is (alas) silent, with a basic voiceover recorded in 1995 by Robert Carlson (1928–2019), himself son of missionary parents active in the region at the time. And while the scenes of daily life are suggestive (transport, food, clothing, and so on), the clips of ritual are tantalisingly short (here I refer to timecodes in the “first” film):

  • 11.48 Daoist priests, directing a spirit medium, and
  • 12.45 burial procession (part of same sequence?)
  • 16.26 Muslim observances
  • 25.55 Prostrations and circumambulation at Labrang?
  • 33.10 burial procession
  • 34.04 someone should be able to give more detail than Carlson or I on this sequence, mostly (all?) at Labrang, with female dancers, Bön priests, cham masked dances, processions, and at the end a brief glimpse of Apa Alo with Marion Griebenow (Makley, The violence of liberation, pp.50–52, cf. Nietupski, Labrang: A Tibetan Buddhist monastery at the crossroads of four civilizations, ch.4).

* * *

In many ways one may regard this footage as evoking a bygone age; but after the Communist revolution, notwithstanding convulsive social transformation, the style of rituals shown was not erased until 1958, and revived strongly upon the 1980s’ reforms. As ever, I’m also keen to learn of any tenuous connecting threads that persisted through the 60s and 70s.

If Holton’s footage from the 1940s offers slim pickings for those concerned with ritual, far more substantial are recent scenes filmed by Gerald Roche and Wen Xiangcheng, in the YouTube playlist “Rituals and ritual practitioners of the northeastern Tibetan plateau“. Roche’s work has focused on nadun rituals of Mangghuer communities for the summer harvest. [1]

One element in the ritual practice in the region is self-mortification. Roche and Wen’s film “The gods incarnate: the huala of China’s Sanchuan region” shows Mangghuer trance mediums piercing themselves with skewers. While other ritual activities also suffer from 21st-century pressures, they seem to remain lively; but Roche notes that such mediums are now becoming less common.

Huala trance mediums:
left, mid-1930s (reproduced here, from the remarkable archive of Zhang Xueben);
right: from The gods incarnate, 2009; cf. Roche’s extensive galleries of images from fieldwork.

The lengthiest sequence, filmed by Wen Xiangcheng (clips 6 and 7, 109 minutes in total, with Chinese introduction) shows the grand four-day consecration of a temple in Jishishan county, Gansu, in 2009, with local household Daoists presiding, featuring much ritual dancing with fan drums, and the parading of a god palanquin:

Alongside all the ritual activity of local ethnic groups, Gansu is one of the major regions for household Daoists, as I keep saying; for Daoist ritual elsewhere in the province, see here, and here. For the changing fortunes of a Confucian temple in Gansu, click here.


[1] Among many articles by Roche assembled here, for the modernizing agenda, and more on Mao worship (cf. Gansu, Henan), see

On early historical change, see Roche’s

See also e.g.

For more on the huala mediums, see e.g.

  • Kevin Stuart and Hu Jun, “Tu fala: trance mediums of northwest China”, Shaman’s drum 23 (1991),

and for some sources on self-mortifying at the Klu-rol festival in Rebkong, see n. here.

A dream: the Tibetan ancestry of I Will Survive

Songs are commonly revealed in dreams—from Aboriginal and Native American cultures to Paul McCartney’s Yesterday.

In my own life I tend to eschew dreams as a source of insight, though they have provided me with some inspiring moments—reminding me of songs I had long neglected, or coming up with a wonderful linguistic reproach to my pretensions to insider status in Lisbon.

The elements of my dream last week can all be identified in my recent experience. * But, typically, they were recombined: somehow I was researching the Tibetan ancestry of I will survive and its links to the Chinese shifan ritual ensemble. And the yunluo frame of ten pitched gongs was a prominent part of the sound. Niche or what?

I’ve already featured Gloria Gaynor’s iconic disco anthem in this post on feminist songs. BBC Radio 4’s long-running series Soul music is always evocative (cf. Moon river). While its themes of loss and recovery tend to recur, its personal vignettes remind us of the transformative power of music in people’s lives—as in the recent programme on I will survive.

Rather than the song’s adoption by the camp “community”, it’s the cathartic theme of women’s empowerment that is important. The message of survival should resonate with Tibetan people too. To me it suggests not the bland propaganda of Princess Wencheng “civilising” Tibet, but rather the tragic tale of Lady Meng Jiang.

For all I know, I will survive may long have been a karaoke hit in the nangma-töshe bars of Lhasa—but I have in mind a more traditional version.

* * *

labrang-jc-1

Dodar ensemble, Labrang. Source: Anthology, Gansu vol.

I’ve no idea how the gong-frame worked its way into my dream. The mkhar-rnga bcu-pa frame of ten pitched gongs is one of the lesser-known instruments of Tibetan music. Apart from its use in the dodar ensemble of monasteries around Amdo, it also accompanied the loud shawms and drums of the Dalai Lama’s gar courtly ceremonial ensemble—a most exceptional combination. This image (from the rare, silent 1945 footage in the section on gar here) shows the gong-frame and shawms together on procession—blurry as it is, unlike the sharp focus of dreams, I might try and suggest that it suits my hazy recollections:

gar 1945

The Chinese equivalent yunluo, while mainly a component of the shengguan ritual ensembles of north Chinese temple and folk ritual groups, was also part of Daoist shifan groups in south Jiangsu—which appeared in my dream.

Left: Shifan, Wuxi c1962, showing yunluo on left, next to gongs.
Right: Kaikou village ritual association, Xiongxian county, Hebei, with two frames of yunluo. My photo, 1995.

To everyone’s great relief, just as I was starting to pursue arcane, spurious historical clues in detail, I woke up.

My new Tibetan version of I will survive might also feature an ondes-martenot à la Messiaen. I imagine it as a big hit on the world-music fusion scene; it might even become a component of my global Matthew Passion (cf. Bach, um, marches towards the world).

Mind you, I don’t have to be asleep, or even drunk, to come up with such wacky connections—see e.g. Bhutan: a tongue-twister, archery festivals, and teasing cheerleaders.


* For likely Tibetan ingredients of my dream, see e.g. Labrang 1How not to describe 1950s’ Tibet, and Women in Tibetan expressive culture.

A new volume for a great Chinese music scholar

Chengde 3

Yuan Jingfang documenting the ritual music of Chengde, 1987. My photo.

At the Central Conservatoire of Music (CCM) in Beijing, Yuan Jingfang 袁静芳 is the most influential pedagogue, fieldworker, and theorist of traditional Chinese instrumental music, whose work bears major relevance for the study of ritual.

Having been an errant student of Yuan Jingfang in 1987 (see e.g. Buddhist ritual of Chengde), in May 2016 I attended a major conference at the CCM for her 80th birthday (see here, under “The reform era”). Now a collection of related articles has been published in her honour (nice succinct title—brace yourselves for the subtitle!):

  • Chu Li 褚历 (ed.), Jiwang kailai: Zhongguo chuantong yinyue lilunde jicheng yu chuangxin/Yuan Jingfang jiaoshou 80 huadan xueshu yantaohui lunwenji [Carrying on from the past: transmission and innovation in the theory of traditional Chinese music/Collected articles from the scholarly conference for the 80th birthday of Professor Yuan Jingfang] 继往开来:中国传统音乐理论的继承与创新/袁静芳教授80华诞学术研讨会论文集 (2020, 497 pp.).

Jiwang kailai

The volume includes a detailed interview with her student Chen Yu (first published in Zhongguo yinyuexue 2016.3—also here), providing material on Yuan Jingfang’s career.

YJF with CY

Yuan Jingfang (right) with Chen Yu.

In 1951, aged 15, Yuan Jingfang joined the Public Security division of the PLA, taking part in musical propaganda work. She studied at the CCM from 1956. Already having a background in the erhu, after studying briefly with Jiang Fengzhi she focused on the yangqin dulcimer. She also studied the shifan luogu ensemble of the Wuxi Daoists with the great Yang Yinliu, and later (before and after the Cultural Revolution) with the Daoist drum master Zhu Qinfu.

Yang Yinliu was a major inspiration for Yuan Jingfang—she recalls his laments about conservatoire musicians’ arrangements of folk material. Among the cultured masters teaching at Beijing music schools of the day, she was influenced by Lan Yusong 蓝玉崧 (1925–96)—also a noted calligrapher.

Yuan Jingfang’s research has always been based in musical analysis. In her classic 1987 book Minzu qiyue 民族器乐 [Chinese instrumental music] she expanded her remit from solo genres to folk instrumental ensembles, and thence to ritual music—notably the Buddhist temple music of old Beijing, as well as folk Daoist traditions such as those of Shaanbei and south Hebei, documenting ritual sequences in fine detail, including the texts and melodic contours of vocal liturgy. Her book provided valuable material for my own Folk music of China (1995).

By now Yuan Jingfang was codifying her influential system of “music-genre studies” (yuezhong xue 乐种学), enshrined notably in her 1999 book of that name. Her pervasive methodology includes aspects such as scales, fingerings, notation, form (including suites), material components (instruments, iconography, notation, and so on)—and fieldwork. While stopping short of ethnomusicological “participant observation”, she stresses the importance of instrumental technique.

As a major editor for the instrumental volumes of the Anthology, guiding nationwide fieldwork, her methods were widely adopted (see Chen Yu’s interview, §4). While her main domain is instrumental music, in her book Zhongguo chuantong yinyue gailun 中国传统音乐概论 (2000) she also encompassed vocal genres.

The new volume includes contributions from many of the foremost Chinese musicologists, her cohorts and students. Several authors (including Chen Yingshi, Fan Zuyin, Wang Yaohua, and Wu Guodong) offer paeans to her system of “music-genre studies”; others to her research on Buddhist music (as well as one on Daoist music). Various scholars describe her inspirational teaching, such as the volume’s editor Chu Li, and the sanxian performer Tan Longjian, who reflects on her studies with Yuan Jingfang—including their work on the chamber ensemble of the Manchu-Mongol elite.

Some caveats. Her template can seem rigid if applied without imagination; like the projects of scholars on southern Daoism, it tends to reify, downplaying the changing social context. Thus she refrains from documenting the lives of musicians and ritual specialists through the turbulent times of the 20th century (cf. my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.365). Indeed, in interview her own reservation about more anthropologically-minded approaches is merely their considerable difficulty (by which she’s not referring to political sensitivity). Anyway, such methods should incorporate her more technical system: both are indeed challenging.

Indeed, the volume also contains contributions from some scholars whose more social ethnographic bent complements their studies of music and history, like Zhang Zhentao and Xiao Mei; and in my own essay I show Yuan Jingfang’s influence on my analyses of the soundscapes of Gaoluo, the Hua family shawm band, and the Li family Daoists.

So while Yuan Jingfang’s output may have more to offer to musicologists than to anthropologists, her work is essential to our studies, underlining the importance of soundscape in traditional Chinese culture.

Ethnic polyphony in China

I’ve praised the fine CD sets of archive recordings from the Music Research Institute in Beijing, in collaboration with Wind Records, Taiwan. For songs of the ethnic minorities in China, the same team also produced

  • Qiao Jianzhong 喬建中 and Wu Guodong 伍國棟 (eds), Zheshan chang nashan 這山唱那山 [English title Polyphonic folksongs in China] (2-CD set, 2002), with booklet in Chinese.

It makes an important addition to our roster of folk polyphony around the world—best known on the world-music scene through the recordings of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. For guidance on multi-part singing we may also consult the CD-set Voices of the world and its instructive booklet.

The cultures of China’s ethnic minorities are a popular topic— [1] more so, indeed, than those of the Han Chinese, thanks largely to the reductive image of ethnic groups being “good at singing and dancing”, and their exotic costumes.

All this is well beyond my expertise, but since the 1980s, along with research, there’s a substantial repository of audio and video recordings, and minority groups are commonly invited to give staged performances in urban festivals. The vocal repertoires of many such peoples include a substantial component of polyphonic songs. [2]

The two CDs contain 56 tracks—mostly a cappella—from 16 ethnic groups in provinces such as Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan, including Buyi [Bouyei], Miao [Hmong], Jingpo, Yi, Naxi [Nakhi], Lisu, Dong [Kam], Zhuang (16 tracks!), Yao, Molao, Maonan, Bai, and Qiang, as well as Tibetans and Mongols, and the She minority of Fujian in the southeast.

Most of the recordings were made (in concert, rather than in situ) at a major gathering of singing groups for a 1982 symposium in Nanning—just as the liberalisations that followed the collapse of the commune system were allowing traditional culture to revive, but rather before migration, tourism, commodification, and heritagification further thickened the plot.

* * *

Many other recordings of the musics of ethnic minorities are the result of “hit-and-run” missions. But for the poor mountainous province of Yunnan, the long-term studies of local fieldworkers Zhang Xingrong and Li Wei, often in collaboration with British ethnomusicologist Helen Rees, are most diligent. Their numerous CDs include both ritual and instrumental genres and vocal music. For the latter, most relevant here are

  • Alili: multi-part folksongs of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities (2 CDs, Pan, 2004) and the sequel Nanwoka (2 CDs, Pan, 2005),

with field and studio recordings (again mostly a cappella, with only occasional instrumental accompaniment) of the Yi, Hani, Nakhi, Lisu, Nu, Lahu, Jinuo, Jingpo, Tibetans (9 tracks), Bai, Miao, Yao, Zhuang, Bouyei, Dai, Wa, De’ang, Bulang, Achang, and Dulong peoples—both sets containing most instructive liner notes. Here’s the playlist of the former (click on “YouTube”):

Particularly remarkable are the multi-part songs of the Hani (only “discovered” in 1995)— such as the densely-textured clusters of this rice-transplanting song (well documented in the liner notes):

Note also

  • the CD Baishibai: songs of the minority nationalities of Yunnan (Pan, 1995, playlist here)
  • the 2-DVD set From China’s southwest borders: minority dances, songs and instrumental music of Yunnan (2001)
  • and, covering all the diverse expressive genres, the compendium
    Zhang Xingrong 张兴荣 (ed.), Sanjiang bingliu quyu yinyue wenhua daguan 三江并流区域音乐文化大观 [English title Musical cultures of the Three Parallel Rivers region of Yunnan] (2012), comprising a richly-illustrated 574-page book, 4 DVDs, and 2 CDs! [3]
Zhang Xingrong and Li Wei among the Hani, 1995.

Simply as pure sound (whatever that is), all these CDs are ear-opening, often mesmerising—remote from the commodified versions of “folk-song” common in the media. Of course, as I never tire of saying, audio recordings tend to reify; there’s no substitute for observing musicking in all its messy social context—including migration, tourism, and so on. Though online videos tend to be highly idealised, under the guidance of Xiao Mei at the Centre for Ritual Music Studies at the Shanghai Conservatoire, some more thoughtful ethnographic documentaries are being made.

While one can hardly expect the long history of the accommodation of these groups with state power to intrude into such accounts, for the interplay of ritual and politics among the Yi people in Yunnan under Maoism and since, do read Erik Mueggler, The age of wild ghosts.

All this just to remind myself why I don’t dare venture into the field of the ethnic minorities…


[1] In Chinese, a useful diachronic survey of PRC research on minority musics is Du Yaxiong 杜亚雄, “Ershishiji Zhongguo shaoshu minzu yinyue fazhan zhi huigu” 二十世纪中国少数民族音乐发展之回顾 (2000). The ethnic minorities of Taiwan are also much studied.

[2] In Chinese, a standard textbook on multi-part singing is Fan Zuyin, Zhongguo duoshengbu min’ge gailun 中国多声部民歌概论 (1994).

[3] For the whole project (quite separate from the Anthology for Yunnan), note Helen Rees, “From field recordings to ethnographically informed CDs: curating the sounds of Yunnan for a niche foreign market”, in Levi S. Gibbs (ed.), Faces of tradition in Chinese performing arts (2020). An evocative introduction to the work of Zhang Xingrong is the interview in CHIME 8 (1995) by Jack Body—another avid fieldworker in the region during the period. For further detail on the Hani songs, with transcription, see Zhang Xingrong, “A new discovery: traditional 8-part polyphonic singing of the Hani of Yunnan”, CHIME 10/11 (1997). For the Kam/Dong people in Guizhou (another highly popular topic), the publications of Catherine Ingram are detailed and nuanced. An ambitious ongoing series of CDs of China’s ethnic minority songs is reviewed here.