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

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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).

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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:

Wu Nengchang cover

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

HT site

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).

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.

Expressive cultures of the Himalayas

Musique et epopee

To complement my introduction to Tibet: the Golden Age, another volume, focusing on ritual and expressive cultures in the Himalayas and Tibet,

  • Katia Buffetrille and Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (eds), Musique et épopée en Haute-Asie: mélanges offerts à Mireille Helffer à l’occasion de son 90e anniversaire (2017; 427 pages),

makes a fine occasion to survey the inspiration of Mireille Helffer’s pioneering studies.


The book opens with a tribute from her long-term colleague Bernard Lortat-Jacob (another doyen of French ethnomusicology, whose own ouevre is the subject of a new volume) and a detailed overview by the editors themselves, followed by a bibliography and discography of Helffer’s work on pp.25–33 (for her audio recordings, see also under https://archives.crem-cnrs.fr).

Though C.K. Yang’s distinction between “institutional” and “diffused” religious practice has been refined, I still find it useful for Tibetan as well as Chinese cultures. While the Tibetan monastic soundscape became a major focus of Helffer’s work (see e.g. her section in the New Grove article on Tibetan music), she always paid attention to folk practice too—a focus continued by scholars in recent years. The chapters further show the relevance of her studies for iconography, historiography, and organology.

Helffer 72

Through the 1960s and 70s, when Chinese-occupied Tibetan regions were inaccessible to outsiders, the base for Helffer’s fieldwork was among the Himalayan peoples in Nepal, India, Bhutan, Ladakh. Since the 1980s her research has inspired younger scholars to address the embattled Tibetan heartland of the TAR, Amdo, and Kham (cf. Henrion-Dourcy, “Easier in exile?” and other articles in n.1 here). Here I’ll just mention some chapters that particularly arouse my interest.

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The essays are grouped in three main sections. The first, “Conteurs et épopée”, includes a survey by Gisèle Krauskopff of the early days of ethnology on Nepal, as Helffer’s concern for sung oral literature developed through her fieldwork on the gäine minstrel castes—who are also discussed in the following chapter by Jean Galodé. Marie Lecomte-Tilouine explores a related tradition through an interview with a damāi minstrel. In the first of several contributions addressing the Gesar epic, Roberte Hamayon sets forth from Helffer’s work on the genre to compare its form in Buryatia.

Helffer 222

The second section, “Danse, musique et théâtre”, opens with reflections by Geoffrey Samuel on Tibetan ritual and cham ritual dance, focusing on its use inside the temple. Always keen that we should have an impression of such rituals as performed, rather than mere silent immobile text, I’m glad to learn of the films Tibet: le message des Tibétains by Arnaud Desjardins from the mid-1960s (set mostly in Dharmasala), including this on Tantrism:

Turning to Kham (in the PRC), Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy reports on her 2014–15 fieldwork on Gesar dance in the Dzogchen monastery—one of three ritual dances created under the Fifth Dzogchen (1872–1935).

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Gesar is also the subject of “From Tibet to Bhutan” by Françoise Pommaret and Samten Yeshi. Françoise Robin contributes a translation, with commentary, of “Dream of an itinerant musician”, a novella by Pema Tseden (b.1969), based in Amdo.

The third section, “Études népalaises et tibétaines”, opens with Véronique Boullier reflecting on issues in studying the life of apparently “closed” Hindu temples in India, setting forth from Helffer’s 1995 article “Quand le terrain est un monastère bouddhique tibétain”. Following chapters discuss themes in the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism.

The volume ends with an engaging conversation between Samten G. Karmay and Katia Buffetrille (English version here), with astute reflections from Karmay on the culture clash he experienced since making an academic career in the West from 1960—covering topics such as Karmay’s childhood in Amdo, Tibetology in France, Gesar, Bön, and documenting a ritual on his return visit to his natal village in 1985.

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Ample references complement Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s bibliography for the Tibetan performing arts.

Throughout these chapters the influence of Mireille Helffer is clear. Yet again I am struck by the great vitality of Tibetan studies, and the mutual benefit of perspectives from both outside and within the PRC.

See also Recent posts on Tibet.

The first snooker commentary

A sequel to Oh and that’s a bad miss, and various posts under Ronnie: a roundup

Snooker b&w

“What shall we do with all these balls?”

The 2021 Masters snooker tournament is now well under way, NOT reaching a crescendo on Sunday.

A most educative aspect of enjoying snooker on TV is the expert commentary by former players. But way back in the Mists of Time, pundits were considerably less well informed. And everyone was hampered by only being able to see the “game” in black-and-white—even live…

Here’s a transcript of the first ever broadcast:

I wonder what he’s going to do with that stick.
I think you’ll find the technical term is “baton”.
Gosh, he used it to hit one ball onto another one. Well that’s a bad start.
Oops, one of the balls has gone down a hole. Obviously another serious mistake.
Yes, unfortunate, that—looks like the ref’s going to punish him by making him take another go.

Hang on, they gave him a goal then, when that ball went down the hole (I think it might be red, but who can tell?). Rewarding failure, if you ask me—Typical!
Yes, but I notice they only score one goal for that. Someone should tell them not to bother.


Oh no, now another ball has gone down a hole!
It’s almost as if they’re doing it on purpose.
This time it looks like a black one—makes a change, I suppose. Screwing up once is understandable, but twice in a row, come on! These chaps are clearly amateurs.
Hey, the ref’s put it back on the table—cheating, surely. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? O tempora, o mores!

Have you noticed how they keep hitting the white ball first? Bit unimaginative if you ask me.
It’d be easier without the stick too—whatever it is they’re trying to do.
And they might have thought of the risks and just designed a table without holes in it. Basic design fault, what. I’ll give them a call, once someone gets round to inventing the telephone.
Or they could just play with bigger balls, so they don’t go down the holes.

I think he’s eyeing up a plant!!!
What on earth are you on about? Kindly leave botany out of this. People will think we don’t know what we’re doing.
Sorry, no idea what I meant by that. Mind you, now he’s got a nice angle on the blue to go into the pack, hitting the pink full ball.
You’re at it again.

Hang on—do you reckon the goal is to Attain Emptiness, after the fashion of Huineng and Walt Disney?

Pour me another gin.
I think I’m starting to get the hang of this.

Hmm, not many red balls left on the table. The ref should put them all back. At this rate they won’t have any more balls left to hit—the whole sorry travesty will just fizzle out. Let’s face it, this is never going to catch on. I’m going to take up accountancy.
Fancy a curry?


Ronnie graces the baize on Wednesday.

Cf. Script to an iconic head-butt. Seriously though folks, don’t miss Ronnie’s divine 147!!!

Discerning rules is pretty much what anthropologists and ethnomusicologists do. This vignette from Nigel Barley on his fieldwork among the Dowayo of Cameroon (cited here) is apposite:

They missed out the essential piece of information that made things comprehensible. No one told me that the village was where the Master of the Earth, the man who controlled the fertility of all plants, lived, and that consequently various parts of the ceremony would be different from elsewhere. This was fair enough; some things are too obvious to mention. If we were explaining to a Dowayo how to drive a car, we should tell him all sorts of things about gears and road signs before mentioning that one tried not to hit other cars.

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.


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.

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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”).


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.

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:


* * *

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!

Kolyma tales

This post continues my series on trauma—e.g. under Life behind the Iron Curtain, for the Soviet bloc as well as Germany; and for China, e.g. China: commemorating traumaConfessions, The temple of memories, and Guo Yuhua.

Among all the vast gulag camps spread across the USSR (e.g. Solovki), most utterly remote and terrifying was the Arctic region of Kolyma in northeast Siberia (wiki: under KolymaSevvostlag and Dalstroy; also e.g. here). As Anne Applebaum remarks,

In the same way that Auschwitz has become, in popular memory, the camp which symbolises all other Nazi camps, so too has the word “Kolyma” come to signify the greatest hardships of the Gulag.

An early study in English was

  • Robert Conquest, Kolyma: the Arctic death camps (1978)—cf. his major book on the Ukraine famine, a predecessor of Anne Applebaum’s Red famine.

A major source is

  • Varlam Shalamov (1907–82) (wikiwebsite), who endured consecutive sentences in Kolyma from 1937 until 1953.

His Kolyma tales, a bulky collection of stories, most only a few pages long, makes grimly compelling reading. [1]

For the wider story of the camps, a brilliant study is

  • Anne ApplebaumGulag: a history (2003).

She uses Shalamov’s work extensively among a great variety of sources, and it’s worth reading the historian’s forensic overview of the camp system in conjunction with the Kolyma memoirs.

As Applebaum notes in her Introduction, it is impossible to treat the gulag as an isolated phenomenon. The difference between life inside and outside the camps was one of degree.

The Gulag did not emerge, fully formed, from the sea, but rather reflected the general standards of the society around it. If the camps were filthy, if the guards were brutal, if the work teams were slovenly, that was partly because filthiness and brutality and slovenliness were plentiful enough in other spheres of Soviet life. If life in the camps was horrible, unbearable, inhuman, if death rates were high—that too was hardly surprising. In certain periods, life in the Soviet Union was also horrible, unbearable, and inhuman, and death rates were as high outside the camps as they were within them.

Having noted the wretched fate of the “special exiles” (a separate yet related theme), she goes on to summarise the “long, multinational, cross-cultural history of prisons, exile, incarceration and concentration camps, from Ancient Rome and Greece to Georgian Britain, 19th-century France and Portugal, and Czarist Russia itself. She then encapsulates similaries and differences between Nazi and Soviet camps.

Applebaum explains:

To reach the camps of Kolyma, prisoners travelled by train across the entire length of the USSR—sometimes a three-month journey—to Vladivostok. They made the rest of the trip by boat, travelling northwards past Japan, through the Sea of Okhotsk, to the port of Magadan, the gateway to the Kolyma river valley.

The transport ships were themselves deadly, as portrayed in Shalamov’s “The procurator of Judea”, and in the documentary below.

Kolyma map

Source here.

Part II of Gulag: a history, “Life and work in the camps” is a particularly harrowing survey, with chapters on arrest, prison; transport, arrival, selection; life and work in the camps; punishment and reward; guards, prisoners; women and children; the dying; strategies of survival; rebellion and escape.

Having noted that the guards didn’t inhabit an entirely different social sphere from the prisoners, in an astute analysis Applebaum observes that neither “politicals” nor “criminals” were simple categories. While inmates such as scientists, agronomists, former NKVD officers, and artists, mostly loyal Communists, have a higher profile, the “political” rubric was a catch-all for many ordinary people with no strong political views who had made some innocent yet fatal “mistake”, and most prisoners were ordinary workers and peasants. In 1934, 42.6% of the general gulag population were semi-literate; even in 1938, only 1.1%  had higher education. The proportion of “political” inmates rose during the war, reaching nearly 60% in 1946 following an amnesty for criminal prisoners.

Constantly hungry, subjected to relentless, punishing work in the dreaded gold mines and the endless taiga forests, they were at the mercy of the urki criminal inmates; degradation and dehumanisation were essential for survival.

Applebaum cites Evgeniya Ginzburg’s experiences on boarding the boat to Kolyma:

They were the cream of the criminal world: murderers, sadists, adept at every kind of sexual perversion… without wasting any time they set about terrorising and bullying the “ladies”, delighted to find that “enemies of the people” were creatures even more despised and outcast than themselves… They seized our bits of bread, snatched the last of our rags with our bundles, pushed us out of the places we had managed to find…

Shalamov 1937

Shalamov, “The Red Cross”:

Tens of thousands of people have been beaten to death by thieves. Hundreds of thousands of people who have been in the camps are permanently seduced by the ideology of these criminals and have ceased to be people. Something criminal has entered their souls for ever. Thieves and their morality have left an indelible mark on the soul of each. […]

The young peasant who has become a prisoner sees that in this hell only the criminals live comparatively well, that they are important, that the all-powerful camp administrators fear them. The criminals always have clothes and food, and they support each other.

The young peasant cannot but be impressed by this. It begins to seem to him that the criminals possess the truth of camp life, that only by imitating them will he tread the path that will save his life. […]

The intellectual convict is crushed by the camp. Everything that he valued is ground into the dust while civilisation and culture drop from him within weeks. The method of persuasion in a quarrel is the fist or a stick. The way to induce someone to do something is by means of a rifle butt, a punch in the teeth. […]

The intellectual is permanently terrified. His spirit is broken, and he takes this frightened and broken spirit with him back into civilian life.

Applebaum describes thieves’ slang, known as blatnaya muzyka “thieves’ music”.

The minority of women prisoners (Gulag, Chapter 15), again both political and criminal, were terribly vulnerable too. Shalamov’s “Women in the criminal world” is a substantial account, also addressing male homosexuality. As he notes, the sole exception to the contempt for women prescribed in the camps is the hypocritical cult of veneration for the criminal’s mother (cf. flamenco):

Even this seemingly lofty feeling is a lie from beginning to end—as is everything else. […] This feeling for his mother is nothing but a pack of lies and a theatrical pretence. The mother cult is a peculiar smokescreen used to conceal the hideous criminal world.

Crucial for inmates’ desperate strategies of survival (Gulag, Chapter 17) was the hierarchy of hospitals and medics, with their own troubled stories. They often feature in Kolyma tales, such as “Typhoid quarantine”:

The scratch marks on Andreev’s hands and arms healed faster than did his other wounds. Little by little, the turtle-shell armour into which his skin had been transformed disappeared. The bright rosy tips of his frostbitten fingers began to darken; the microscopically thin skin, which had covered them after the frostbite blisters ruptured, thickened slightly. And above all, he could bend the fingers of his left hand. In a year and a half at the mines, both of Andreev’s hands had molded themselves around the handles of a pick and shovel. He never expected to be able to straighten out his hands again. […]

The bloody cracks on the soles of his feet no longer hurt as much as they used to. The scurvy ulcers on his legs had not yet healed and required bandaging, but but his wounds grew fewer and fewer in number, and were replaced by blue-black spots that looked like the brand of some slave-owner. Only his big toes would not heal; the frostbite had reached the bone, and pus slowly seeped from them. Of course, there were less pus than there had been back at the mine, where the rubber galoshes that served as summer footwear were so full of pus and blood that his feet sloshed at every step—as if through a puddle.

Many years would pass before Andreev’s toes would heal. And for many years after healing, whenever it was cold or even slightly chilly at night, they would remind him of the northern mine. But Andreev thought of the future. He had learned at the mine not to plan his life further than a day in advance. He strove towards close goals, like any man who is only a short distance from death. Now he desired one thing alone—that the typhoid quarantine might last for ever. This, however, could not be, and the day arrived when the quarantine was up.

Among their strategies was self-mutilation, evoked in Shalamov’s “The businessman”.

The region’s main town Magadan was built by forced labour from 1932. Evgeniya Ginzburg noted a “peculiar paradox”:

the gulag was slowly bringing “civilization”—if that is what it can be called—to the remote wilderness. Roads were being built where there had only been forest, houses were appearing in the swamps. Native peoples [2] were being pushed aside to make way for cities, factories, and railways. […]

My whole soul cursed those who had thought up the idea of building a town in this permafrost, thawing out the ground with the blood and tears of innocent people. Yet at the same time I was aware of a sort of ridiculous pride…

The early years under Eduard Berzin were later recalled with a certain nostalgia. But

Of the 16,000 prisoners who travelled to Kolyma in Berzin’s first year [1932], only 9,928 even reached Magadan alive. The rest were thrown, underclothed and underprotected, into the winter storms: survivors of the first year would later claim that only half of their number had lived.

Berzin was himself executed in the purges of 1938, as Stalin’s Great Terror took an even more severe toll on the camps.

During the American Lend-Lease programme to assist their Soviet allies, vice president Henry Wallace visited in May 1944, and was efficiently deceived. In a macabre story the most urgent task of a bulldozer donated under the programme is to rebury the frozen corpses of prisoners exposed as mass graves from 1938 began to slide down a hill. And for Monty Python fans, Shalamov also features the prisoners’ withering assessment of spam.

During and after the war, the ranks were supplemented by Ukrainian, Polish, German, Japanese, and Korean inmates (cf. Gulag, Chapter 20)—as well as Soviet prisoners of war, considered traitors.

After the war the general population’s hopes for a less punitive society were soon crushed (see The whisperers).

In “The lepers” Shalamov describes yet another disturbing story.

In the course of the war the leprosaria had been destroyed, and the patients had merged with the rest of the population. […] People ill with leprosy easily passed themselves as wounded or maimed in war. Lepers mixed with those fleeing to the east and returned to a real, albeit terrible life where they were accepted as victims or even heroes of the war.

These individuals lived and worked. The war had to end in order for the doctors to remember about them and for the terrible card catalogues of the leprosaria to fill up again.

Lepers lived among ordinary people, sharing the retreat and the advance, the joy and bitterness of victory. They worked in factory and on farms. They got jobs and even became supervisors. But they never became soldiers—the stubs of the fingers that appeared to have been damaged in the war prevented them from assuming this last occupation. Lepers passed themselves off as war invalids and were lost in the throng.

* * *

Rebellion and escape attempts were rare, and doomed (Gulag, Chapter 18). As in China, there was nowhere to escape to (ironically, it was only 55 miles across the Bering Strait to America). In “Major Pugachov’s last battle” Shalamov notes a certain change after the war:

The arrests of the thirties were arrests of random victims on the false and terrifying theory of a heightened class struggle accompanying the strnghtening of socialism. The professors, union officials, soldiers, and workers who filled the prisons to overflowing at that period had nothing to defend themselves with except, personal honesty and naïveté—precisely those qualities that lightened rather than hindered the punitive “justice” of the day. The absence of any unifying idea undermined the moral resistance of the prisoners to an unusual degree. They were neither enemies of the government nor state criminals, and they died, not even understanding why they had to die. Their self-esteem and bitterness had no point of support. Separated, they perished in the white Kolyma desert from hunger, cold, work, beatings, and diseases. They immediately learned no to defend or support each other. This was precisely the goal of the authorities. The souls of those who remained alive were utterly corrupted, and their bodies did not possess the qualities necessary for physical labour.

After the war, ship after ship delivered their replacements—former Soviet citizens who were “repatriated” directly to the far north-east.

Among them were many people with different experiences and habits acquired during the war, courageous people who knew how to take chances and who believed only in the gun. There were officers and soldiers, fliers and scouts…

Accustomed to the angelic patience and slavish submissiveness of the “Trotksyites”, the camp administration was not in the least concerned and expected nothing new.

So escape attempts increased, but were just as futile. Shalamov evokes another such attempt in “The green procurator”.

Here’s a 1992 documentary, if you can bear it:

* * *

The 1930s and 40s were the most horrifying years for the gulag system. After the war amnesty (Gulag, Chapter 21), the death of Stalin in 1953 created a new mood, and Kruschev declared a more lasting amnesty in 1956, freeing many. But as Applebaum describes in her concluding chapters, some still had little choice but to remain until the 1990s.

The end of the war may have brought an end to the Nazi camps as such, but in the USSR the gulag network continued operating; and just as it was winding down following the death of Stalin, in China Mao was expanding his own system of labour camps.

As Applebaum explains carefully in an Appendix to Gulag, attempts to assess the death toll have been inconclusive; for comparisons with estimates of victims under Hitler and Mao, cf. Timothy Snyder and Ian Johnson.

The legacy
Memory of the whole gulag system is a complex subject, explored by Applebaum in her perceptive Epilogue (cf. Figes). More recent accounts of the haunted Kolyma region discuss memory, ignorance, and veneration for Stalin. Jacek Hugo-Bader revisited the region in Kolyma diaries (2014), reviewed here by Kapka Kassabova (cf. this article).

And Yury Dud challenges modern amnesia in Kolyma: the home of our fear (2019):


[1] I’ve been reading the 1994 translation by John Glad; a recent version by Donald Rayfield (“Kolyma stories”) is well reviewed here, including its vexed publication history, and a comparison with Solzhenitsyn. See also the sequel Sketches of the criminal world. Other survivors’ accounts of Kolyma include those of the Polish Stanislaw J. Kowalski, The land of gold and death, Vladimir Nikolayevich Petrov, Evgeniya Ginzburg, and the Romanian Michael M. Solomon.

[2] Accounts of Kolyma inevitably focus on the camps’ Russian inmates and other outsiders; the fate of local indigenous peoples like the YukaghirsYakutChukchi, and Evenki, with their shamanistic cultures, is another story.

Tianjin: a folk Buddhist group

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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

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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!

Madonna pilgrimage in Communist Poland

The Black Madonna of Częstochowa.

One of my main themes for Maoist China is the persistence of religious activity. In my posts on folk traditions of Poland and east Europe I mentioned the 2009 volume Music traditions in totalitarian systems (see also Life behind the Iron Curtain).

Complementing studies of the largely “secular” Polish folk genres, an interesting chapter there is

  • Jacek Jackowski, “Folk religious songs sung during the Peregrination of Virgin Mary’s Icon: an example of traditional Polish peasant piety in Communist times”.

Despite secular, atheist Communist policy, the Catholic church remained central to Polish identity, and a focus of resistance.

Among many pilgrimages in Poland, the Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa northwest of Kraków inspires a national network of religious devotion, with its holy icon of the Virgin Mary, the Black Madonna (most famous of many such images around Europe and around the world).

The pilgrimage was sometimes interrupted by political movements from the late 18th century, and notably during the wars of the 20th century.

Source here.

As in Communist regimes more widely, a partial thaw followed the death of Stalin in 1956, though persecutions of the clergy continued. From 1957 major round of Peregrinations to the Icon got under way in many dioceses and parishes, which were held until 1966—just as in China local folk rituals that had managed to persist during the first fifteen years of Maoist rule were also silenced by the Cultural Revolution. After the Icon was “arrested” that year, empty frames were taken on pilgrimage, “the best example of authentic folk piety”.

Meanwhile in Jasna Góra small copies of the Icon were consecrated and offered to all parishes in Poland for veneration. With the approval and guidance of the institutional Church, domestic services (“Small Peregrinations”) before the Icon also became highly popular. Even after the clampdown, all these manifestations of popular piety persisted, emerging more openly by the 1980s.

A 1983 Peregrination.

As with any study worth its salt, Jackowski pays attention to the soundscape, going on to give details of religious song, under three broad headings:

  • Church songs, from official songbooks, with official approbatur
  • Religious songs from the songbooks especially issued on the occasion of the Peregrination
  • Local religious and devotional folk creations—a rich repertoire.

Pilgrimage songs were led by przewodnik/prowadnik “guides”, often elderly women.

With religious devotion and pilgrimage significant elements in the popular resistance to the Communist regime, such songs were also sung during strikes and protests.

Meanwhile the Catholics of China were enduring their own tribulations.

Folk traditions of Poland

String band, Polish highlands 1931. Source here.

My recent post on the great siege of Przemyśl reminds me to explore Polish folk soundscapes, which were somewhat outside my remit in surveying folk musics around east Europe but also deserve to be savoured.

As Simon Broughton observes in his useful Songlines update, since he edited the second edition of The Rough Guide to world music in 1999, Polish folk music has seen a dynamic revival akin to the earlier Hungarian táncház movement. See also the third edition (2009).

Fieldwork project, early 1950s. Source here.

Fans of “world music” have long made an avid audience for the folk musics of Hungary and Romania. Poland’s extreme sufferings in the mid-20th century (see also Bloodlands) were followed by Communism and its sanitised musical “fakelore” (brilliantly dissected by Kundera for Moravia). But local traditions were maintained there too—and indeed collected, both before the 1939 invasions [1] and in the early 1950s, although official support for such fieldwork was an ironic casualty of the 1956 political thaw. Note also chapters in Music traditions in totalitarian systems, 2009 (slow to load, but worth persisting!). Cf. fieldwork in Maoist China.

So here, as is my wont, I seek more hardcore rural traditions, the inspiration for higher-profile bands touring on the world music circuit like the Warsaw Village Band, Kroke, and, notably, Janusz Prusinowski’s group.

Do explore the riches of Andrzej Bieńkowski’s Muzyka Odnaleziona site (in Polish; for perceptive interviews with him in English, click here and here), along with hundreds of wonderful videos on his YouTube playlists, featuring both instrumental bands and singers from regions including Lublin, Radom, and (in Łódź province) Rawa and Opoczno, as well as Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Lithuanian traditions within current Polish borders (several of my posts also feature Ukraine and the work of William Noll, such as this).

Recording venues of the Muzyka Odnaleziona project.

We might start with Bieńkowski’s own selection of favourite clips:

Kapela string bands (often family-based) for festive dancing are led by fiddles—with sawing accompaniment, or sometimes a slapped bass resembling the gardon of Gyimes [Plain people of Ireland nod knowingly]. As one moves south, triple-time dances give way to duple metres. The Muzyka Odnaleziona material also does a nifty sideline in bagpipes.

Among the discography in Simon’s article is an impressive anthology of 27 CDs in the Muzyka Źródeł series from Polish radio (here, or here), featuring great musicians such as the fiddler Stanisław Klejnas (1905–88), from the tiny village of Raducz east of Łódź:

He’s also shown in this clip:

From the 1970s, a major inspiration for the renewed interest in Polish folk traditions was Kazimierz Metó (1922-–2008), from Glina south of Łódź. Here he is at home in 1987:

The brothers Jan and Piotr Gaca, based in Przystałowice Małe in the Radom district, are also renowned:

Particularly famed for its distinctive traditions is the Podhale region of the southern Górale highlands, near the border with Slovakia (and west of Przemyśl)—despite the popularity of the main town Zakopane as a tourist resort. In similar vein to Bartók, Kodály, and Janâček, the folk culture of this region inspired WAM composers from Mierczyński and Szymanowski to Górecki, as well as the anthropologist Malinowski. [2] 

This style is addictive as that of the string bands of Transylvania at the southern reaches of the Carpathians. Besides the sheer energy of the music, it’s intriguing to become acquainted with the syntax and signposts of the distinctive harmonic progressions; and above them, apparently quite independent, the decorations of the fiddle melodies. Such features are all the more stimulating for seeming rather close to the familiar conventions of WAM (and indeed pop music) while operating quite outside them.

The ever-discerning Nimbus label (e.g. their flamenco recordings) issued two intoxicating CDs in 1996. Recorded a couple of days apart in nearby villages, they evoke a festive conviviality, punctuated by gutsy vocals and dance calls:

  • Music of the Tatra mountains: Gienek Wilczek’s Bukowina band —among whose many delights are the funky coda of Oh, Susanna that rounds off the ballad sequence of #5 on this playlist!:


  • Music of the Tatra mountains: Trebunia family band:

Here’s a 1985 video of Tadeusz Szostak’s kapela—based, like the Trebunia band, in Poronin:

And here’s the playlist of the CD Poland: folk songs and dances (VDE-Gallo, 1993), compiled by Anna Czekanowska (author of many works, including Polish folk music, 1990):

As in China, it’s only by zooming in from region to county to village to family that we can marvel at the depth of local traditions. By analogy with my experience of the Hebei plain and north Shanxi, I can well imagine the wealth of material that detailed fieldwork can afford on the lives of Polish people through all the vicissitudes of modern history.

* * *

Further to Accordion crimes, and among a rich archive of recordings of migrant communities in the USA (such as Italian piffero and ciaramella players in 1963–64!), yet another great Folkways album features early recordings (1927–33) of Polish bands around Chicago and New York; as the liner notes suggest, over this period the rougher folk string-band style (e.g. #4, from the Tatras—where, as we’ve heard, it has persisted) was giving way to a more, um, polished idiom with wider commercial appeal:

Note also the “cheerfully infanticidal” #2.

See also Madonna pilgrimage in Communist Poland, and Polish jazz, then and now.

[1] For the early history of documenting Polish folk music, see also Barbara Krader’s section in Helen Myers (ed.), Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (1993), pp.171–7.

[2] For the music of Podhale, note the works of Timothy Cooley, such as Making music in the Polish Tatras: tourists, ethnographers, and mountain musicians (2005), and this article; see also here, and for the renowned fiddler Bartek Obrochta (1850–1926), here. For a hint of the region’s travails during and after World War II, see here and here.

Gaoluo: vocal liturgists

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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)!

Festive soundscapes of the Rioja

Further to my flamenco series, and Songs of Valencia, continuing to explore the regional cultures of Spain, I return to the fine CD

  • La gaita: dance and festive music of La Rioja (Pan, 2000),
    with instructive liner notes by Ad Linkels.

It comprises vocal hymns and dance music from the fiestas of villages in La Rioja (the northern province of Logroño) for their local patron saints.

Short of being there, or watching video footage, as an aural portrait these recordings are highly atmospheric—with most tracks captured live during feast days, and most inclusive in showcasing the variety of the ambient soundscape. They hardly offer the illusion of listening as disembodied sound.

So the CD title refers to the whole festive soundscape, with its gaita dances (often using sticks, stilts and ribbons—cf. Morris) accompanied by small shawms (dulzaina, gaita) and tamboril drums. But the latter are only one element in the texture of the soundscape, which also features campanillas ritual songs of confraternities, punctuated by church bells and hand-bells; festive jota songs; castanets, and the chirping of caged birds.

Here it is as a playlist:

The CD includes extended sequences from three village fiestas: ##1–8 from Cervera del Rio Alhama (for Santa Ana and San Gil); ##13–17 from Anguiano (for Santa Magdelena), with twirling, perilous zancos stilt-dancing; and ##18–23 from San Vicente de la Sonsierra.

Here’s a video of the Anguiano stilt dancers:

San Vicente de la Sonsierra is also among many villages which hold self-mortifying processions:

And here shawms accompany giants at the nearby festival of Estella:

(many more clips under “Gaiteros de Estella”).

The region is also among many parts of Spain notable for a variety of bagpipes.

The great siege of Przemyśl

Fortress cover

Further to Why the First World War failed to end, the history of the chronically traumatised region of the eastern Bloodlands (see also here) makes a necessary counterpart to our British focus on the horrors of the Western Front. A fine recent vignette on World War One is

  • Alexander Watson, The fortress: the great siege of Przemyśl (2019, reviewed e.g. here).

It’s a detailed and readable account of extreme human suffering, quite overcoming my aversion to military history.

In the province of Galicia, soon after the Russian invasion and the fall of the capital Lwów (Lviv) to the east, Przemyśl—now in southeast Poland near the border with Ukraine—became a crucial Habsburg stronghold.

With the Habsburg military operation headed by the reckless, inept General Conrad, the cowed troops who converged on Przemyśl on 14th September 1914 were already broken by defeat. After the field army retreated further, the inhabitants had to endure the Russian siege until March 1915.

Przemyśl was a multicultural city, with Polish and Ukrainian-speaking Ruthenian populations (respectively characterised by allegiance to Roman and Greek Catholicism), Jews, and Germans. Despite all the simmering tensions, they had somehow managed to coexist; with inter-ethnic antagonisms now sparked by international conflict, the war created flashpoints in a long-term clash.

As Watson observes, “the memory of the First World War is dominated by youth”. But the “ragtag garrison” left to defend Przemyśl was composed of a “dad’s army” of middle-aged reservists—including Austrian Germans, Hungarians, Romanians, Serbs, Slovaks, Moravians, Bohemians, Italians, Poles, and Ruthenians. The gulf in class and culture between largely German- or Czech-speaking officers and this Babel of peasant soldiers was reflected in problems of communication.

Most widely mistrusted by the Habsburg command was the local Ruthenian population, suspected of Russian sympathies. The peasant population in the villages had largely been evacuated, their homes brutally demolished, but many returned, unable to survive in squalid refugee camps; others had never left. Now, trapped in the starving purgatory of no man’s land, they found themselves vulnerable to both armies.

Siege Galicians

Within the fortress itself, violent repressive measures were taken against potential traitors such as Ukrainian nationalists and Greek Catholics, with deportations and executions.

Siege hanging

The Russian army too was diverse, with Ukrainians, Jews, Poles, and Romanians alongside people of various ethnicities within the Russian empire. But the Russians had their own agenda of ethnic cleansing, aimed in particular at growing Ukrainian and Polish nationalism, and at the Greek Catholic church.

And the whole region already had a history of anti-Semitic violence. All these enmities came to a head in World War Two under the genocidal policies of ruthless totalitarian states.

In the ravaged countryside around Przemyśl, the fortress was guarded by an outer perimeter of forts, whose defences are described in great detail, with their “gloomy subterranean tunnels and low-ceilinged chambers”, places of terror; out of dysfunctional pyrrhic resistance, heroic legends were concocted.

The following chapter-headings flag the sequence of events: Storm, Barrier, Isolation, Starvation, Armageddon—subsuming epidemics, starvation, stress disorders, fear of espionage, desertions, executions; changing technologies (not least in weapons of war), and a thriving (and class-based) sex trade. Diversion could even be found in cultural events such as cinema and concerts. As morale continued to plummet further, officers indulged in obscene banqueting.

Siege cartoon 2

Watson cites a bitter joke from Przemyśl:

Q. What is the difference between Troy and Przemyśl?

A. In Troy, the heroes were in the stomach of the horse, and in Przemyśl the horses are in the stomach of the heroes!

Siege cartoon

With no hope of relief, the end came in March 1915 upon the inevitable failure of a breakout—in the utterly deluded direction of the east. Here’s footage from the end of the siege:

And the recapture of Przemyśl in June 1915—with the soundtrack perhaps inadvertently mocking pretensions of imperial grandeur and their appalling consequences:

Still the terror continued. Prisoners were deported to camps in Turkestan and Siberia, the foundations of the Soviet gulag system; already exhausted, many died in captivity. The Russian vendetta against the Jews intensified.

After Przemyśl was recaptured by the Habsburgs, it passed to the new independent Polish republic, under which antagonism between Poles and Ukrainians escalated, and Jews continued to be scapegoated.

Though the rival Habsburg and Russian empires soon fell, the violence, poisoned by an endless thirst for revenge, “persisted, mutated, and further radicalised”—culminating in the ethnic cleansings of World War Two, outlined in Watson’s Epilogue, “Into the dark”. Under successive Soviet and Nazi occupations Jewish, Polish, and Ukrainian peoples—and the whole of the Bloodlands—fell victim to unimaginably brutal atrocities. Pogroms and ethnic cleansing continued even after the formal end of the war in 1945 (see e.g. Keith Lowe, Savage continent, ch.18).

* * *

Watson laces his disturbing account of barbarity with black humour—like the ludicrously complex choreography of the three-part ritual that troops were expected to perform as a recognition system while patrolling no man’s land, which “would have been funny, had it not put lives at risk”.

Such tragic absurdities may remind us of Jaroslav Hašek’s The good soldier Svejk and his fortunes in the World War (1921–23—see under Czech stories).

Volume 4 (unfinished on Hašek’s death) evokes the ignominious dénouement of Švejk’s involvement in the Galician campaign. Out of curiosity he dons a Russian uniform that he found by the lake, whereupon he is seized by a gendarmerie patrol as a fugitive prisoner of war. He is then classified as a Russian spy and escorted on foot from Dobromil to Przemyśl—a fiction later commemorated there more readily than the realities of the siege.

Svejk p.675

Illustration by Hašek’s friend Josef Lada.

Hašek himself served with the Habsburg army on the Galician front. Captured by the Russians, he went on to work, quite commitedly, with the Bolsheviks. For a “humorist, satirist, journalist, anarchist, hoaxer, truant, rebel, vagabond, play-actor, practical joker, bohemian (and Bohemian), alcoholic, traitor to the Czech legion, Bolshevik, and bigamist”, his brief Soviet career was remarkably exalted ( see Hašek’s adventures in Soviet Tatarstan). He commanded Chuvash troops in the Red Army and served as commissar of Bugulma in Tatarstan (which inspired stories translated in The Red commissar). In Siberia he found himself the “hero of the Buryat nation”; he was learning Chinese, and wiki also mentions a “mysterious mission to Mongolia”. He returned to an independent Czechoslovakia in 1920.

In the novel, Hašek’s comments on the ineptitude of the Habsburg command are echoed in Watson’s portrayal of General Conrad—who, “never a man to permit reality to interfere with his plans, insisted on having his horse and eating it”.

Meanwhile, Švejk meets his fellow prisoners:

The Russian prisoner looked at Švejk in full understanding of the fact that he could not understand a single word of what he said.

“No understand. I Crimean Tartar. Allah achper”, the Tartar said. Then he sat down, crossed his legs on the ground, folded his arms on his chest and began to pray, half in Russian and half in Tartar. “Allah achper, Allah achper—bezemila—arachman—arachim—malankin mustafir”.

“Well now, so you’re a Tartar, are you?” said Švejk with compassion. “Well, you’re a fine customer then! How could you with your double-Dutch be expected to understand me then and I you, if you’re a Tartar? […]
Švejk turned to another prisoner:

“Are you a Tartar too?”

The person addressed understood the word Tartar, shook his head and said half in Russian: “No Tartar, Circassian, Circassian born and bred. I chop off heads!”

It was Švejk’s luck that he found himself in the company of these various representatives of the Eastern peoples. The transport comprised Tartars, Georgians, Osetins, Circassians, Mordvins, and Kalmyks.

As Hašek’s fine translator Cecil Parrott observes, “I know of no novel which conveys so poignantly not only the ugliness of war but the utter futility of anything connected with it.” I may not be alone in needing to re-read the book with a clearer picture of the tragedy that pervades it.

First Nations: trauma and soundscape

Tell them we don’t just wander around.

—Sami herder, to ethnographer Robert Paine

Standing Rock protests, 2016.

Further to my post on the harrowing story of Grassy Narrows, and the resulting series on Native American cultures, I’ve been reading

  • Tanya Talaga, All our relations: indigenous trauma in the shadow of colonialism (2020),

based on her 2018 lecture series. Talaga, a journalist, had to rediscover her Ojibwe heritage on her mother’s side. Whereas Shkilnyk’s book on Grassy Narrows is a detailed ethnography of the sufferings of one small community, Talaga extends her scope to the wider fate of indigenous peoples in north America and around the world—including the Inuit, tribal groups in Brazil, the Sami people of Scandinavia, and Aboriginal people in Australia. I’m also reminded of the fate of ethnic minorities in the PRC such as Tibetans and Uyghurs.

Talaga opens her account with the high incidence of suicides—particularly of children—in the territories of NAN (Nishnawbe Aski Nation), a group of forty-nine First Nations in northern Ontario. From 1986 to 2017 there were over 558 suicides there; 37 people took their own lives in 2017 alone. The problem was common throughout First Nation bands in Canada, notably among the Inuit, where the suicide rate is ten times the national average.

Left: Inuit demonstration, c2018
Right: Sami climate strike joined by Greta Thunberg, 2020.

Nearly one in three Sami have thought about or attempted suicide. In Guarani-Kaiowá in southwest Brazil, the suicide rate is 34 times higher within indigenous communities than among the non-Indigenous population. In Australia too, intentional self-harm was the leading cause of death for all Aboriginal people between the ages of 15 and 34. Meanwhile incarceration rates are far higher than in the general population.

Talaga puts all this in the context of the global search for justice, civil rights, and freedom—subsuming environmental protection, housing, healthcare, education, nutrition, and access to clean, drinkable water.

She sketches the painful colonial histories that have led to the ongoing plight of these peoples: genocide, disease, treaties betrayed, multi-generational trauma, discrimination, suppression of identity; residential schools and churches, constant official prevarication and obstruction.

As she notes, all this is strongly reminiscent of the apartheid system in South Africa. She cites Martin Luther King:

Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the 16th century onward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which has triedas a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore, all exalt it.

Against the legacy of the residential schools, the “lock hospitals” of Australia, and segregated hospitals in Canada, Tanaga meets fine community leaders striving to redress injustice, themselves mostly survivors of the residential schools.

NAN awards, 2019.

Yet despite the involvement of such enlightened figures and social scientists, a plethora of institutions—themselves responsible for much of the trauma—have been quite unable to tackle such problems, and are widely distrusted.

With a long succession of decrees falling far short, protests have been frequent for many decades. Despite the Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline from 2016, construction has resumed under Trump, with his contempt for the environment.

Tanaga suggests that while education has long kept people in ignorance, it can now play a major role in alleviating the situation.

Here’s one of several of her talks to be found online:

* * *

While expressive culture may seem a cruel irrelevance in all this, it was precisely the forced removal of these people from their cultures that led to their sufferings.

So moving to soundscape, Mitchell Akiyama, in “Unsettling the World Soundscape Project”, unpacks the methodologies of the ten-hour radio series Soundscapes of Canada, recorded for CBC in 1973.

As project leader Murray Schafer observed, “the general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much about the trending and evolution of that society”. Prescriptively, the series warns against “the degradation of the soundscape thanks to the mounting din of industrial modernity”.

Innovative and well-meaning as the series was, it appears as a “back to nature” project, and “what the broadcasts exclude is perhaps more important than what they include”. The recordings largely ignored urban soundscapes: “Anyone unfamiliar with the Canadian soundscape would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the world’s second largest nation was a bastion of early industrial machinery, a sanctuary for quiet, self-reliant, God-fearing folk”.

Also largely absent are the First Nations and its “visible minorities”. “Their portrait of a pastoral, post-colonial British outpost shunted the country’s sizeable non-Christian, ethnic population squarely out of earshot”, dismissing

a protracted, often violent and brutal, campaign of assimilation that replaced one set of sonic practices with another. For generations of Indigenous Canadians, the sounds of church bells would likely not have connoted community or belonging, but would have rather reverberated with echoes of the “re-education” in settler religion and language that many were forced to endure in Canada’s residential schools”. […]

If a nation needs a myth, it can do better than telling stories about the necessity of shoring up a colonial legacy whose time has come.

Of course, the “traditional”, and changing, cultures of indigenous cultures have also been a popular subject; what is at issue with this series is how they are kept separate, marginal. And it’s very common for a project to be less all-embracing than its title suggests (e.g. “Singers of the world“, “British music”, Punk).

As long as we bear this in mind, it’s quite natural to focus on a particular area within a culture; with the bolder aim of encompassing the soundscape of a whole culture, however, one has to be more inclusive.

Another post on the site explores the “hubbub” of First-Nation healthcare in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside, and the film East Hastings pharmacy (Antoine Bourges, 2012):

For Sami musical culture, we might start with the article “Sámiland: joiks of the tundra” in The Rough Guide to world music: Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. Among recordings of traditional song, Yoik: a presentation of Saami folk music comprises 3 CDs with a 310-page book. And here’s the playlist of the 1956 Folkways album Lappish joik songs from northern Norway (liner notes here):

For the maintenance of aboriginal cultures in Australia, click here and here. See also links under Society and soundscape.

Songs of Valencia

Several of my posts derive from the perks of orchestral touring (e.g. Calendrical rituals, Enza Pagliara). For Spain, I’ve focused on the vibrant flamenco scene of Andalucia (roundup here)—but like Italy, regional cultures all around the country are remarkably diverse (see also Festive soundscapes of the Rioja).

In Valencia on the Mediterranean coast, the cant d’estil are short festive songs sung on the street and on procession. My baroque gigs there have coincided with a couple of processions to the cathedral, but I’ve never managed to hear cant d’estil live. What I did pick up, though, was

  • Antologia del cant Valencià d’estil 1915–1996,volumes XXV–XXVI (!) of Fonoteca de materials of traditional Valencian music,

a 2-CD set with 192-page booklet by Jordi Reig in both Valencian [related to Catalan] and Spanish, containing 59 pieces by 46 singers; the erudite notes (with photos, transcriptions, analysis, and English summary) consider (quite limited) musical change over the 80-year period.

And cant d’estil is the subject of yet another fine CD by Bernard Lortat-Jacob, assisted by Vicent Torrent, compiler of the Antologia:

  • Espagne, València, cant d’estil, joutes chantées (Ocora, 2005), with recordings from 2003—here’s the playlist:

Of the two main genres, valencianes are accompanied by guitarró, with wind bands providing formulaic punctuation; albas are framed by dolçaina small shawm and tabal snare-drum. The songs themselves are more florid and free in tempo than the rigid, banal instrumental sections—the two seem in deliberate conflict; even the fandango strummings of the guitarró serve merely to offset the rhythmic freedom of the singing.

Within a framework that seems based on “art music”, there is considerable latitude in both texts and melody. The creation of songs, with llisteros and versadors whispering in the singer’s ear to prompt themes, may remind us of the gara poetica “poetic jousts” in Sardinia. Both men and women sing in the same range, the former in a “forced” high register.

The brief lyrics are not just traditional, but also cover charmingly topical themes:

I ask the crowd here assembled
To give a thought
To whether the powers that be
Will ever find a solution
To the parking problem.

Others seek to do little more than introduce the band (cf. Sgt Pepper):

Today the wind section
Are all here
Toni on the powerful trombone
Tico on the trumpet
And Casar on the clarinet.

Among many YouTube clips, this sequence, from 9.14, after the opening speeches, shows the prompters:

And alba:

And pursuing my drum-and-shawm theme (notably for China, starting here, as well as Uyghur, Lorestan, south Asia, Morocco), having featured a Catalan group here, here’s the Valencia tabal and dolçaina combo that frames alba songs (featured on the Antologia, and #13 of Bernard’s CD):

Shawm and drum score, featuring additive metre.

Among posts on other Mediterranean cultures, see e.g. Musics of Crete.

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.

Music and the potato

The potato is central to the structuring of musical expression.

—Henry Stobart 
(To be fair, he wasn’t claiming this as a universal of human musicking.
Cf. The life of Brian sermon: ““Blessed are the cheesemakers”
Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally.
It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”)


Being highly partial to a good potato, I’m well up for an article on its relation with music.

  • Henry Stobart, “Flourishing horns and enchanted tubers: music and potatoes in highland Bolivia”, British journal of ethnomusicology 1994.3,

makes a tasty hors d’ouevre for his 2006 book Music and the poetics of production in the Bolivian Andes; note also his Introduction to The new (ethno)musicologies (2008)—a volume that includes many thoughtful chapters, such as those of Michelle Bigenho. and Nicole Beaudry. For me, Stobart’s discussion of a rural Andean hamlet marks a rare excursion to south America.

Music is not the universal language that many people have often claimed it to be. This does not prevent us from deriving great pleasure and inspiration from the musics of other cultures, but the structural principles, aesthetics, and perceptual bases of our appreciation are likely to be radically different from those of the performers themselves.

In another instance of the exclusive, culturally-based meanings of the term “music”, the Spanish word musica is used to refer to either urban brass bands or sometimes sikura panpipe ensembles. As conversations veer off into agriculture, he learns that performance revolves around cycles of agricultural production.

Flutes and guitars, or panpipes, are played for rainy and dry seasons in turn. The wooden pinkillu flutes, considered “alive”, with their “eyes”, are strongly associated with the potato, whereas the panpipes of the dry season, lacking fingerholes, are unable to regenerate. The flutes are “enclosed” by women in the qhata circle dance, and released at Carnival preceding the dry season.

As Stobart notes, “the lives of humans and potatoes overlap and are sometimes compared with one another”. Instruments are considered to “weep”. The pinkillu is also associated with the sirinus, demonic and enchanting beings, who are said to provide players with new melodies between the feasts of San Sebastian and Carnival. The flutes are then hidden away until the following November—which according to a recent survey in The Strad was also voted one of the “best possible things you can do with a viola“, among other popular items covering the entire annual cycle.

For my hosts the potato is no mundane staple, but is an enchanting and magical being whose life is seen in many ways to parallel and enable their own. Potatoes must be loved and cared for, just like human children. This sentiment is expressed through music, song, poetry, and dance which in turn are some of the ultimate expressions of human feeling. For the people of this highland hamlet, it would seem that the potato must count among the most important organising principles of musical performance. Or rather, might it be more accurate to say that music is one of the primary expressions of the potato?

As one often finds, this cyclical relation between agriculture and performance is being impoverished by migration and changing patterns of labour. But this account makes a welcome antidote to all those (alas, perennial) panpipe bands that clog high streets worldwide, bless their alpaca socks.

* * *

To introduce a meretricious interlude on Li Manshan, I can offer the classic headline

Oh my gourd! (cf. these other silly article titles).

LMS potatoes

For more, see The history and social influence of the potato. Though “Daoist ritual and the potato” is a yet-unploughed field, for some reason I always think of Li Manshan when I’m peeling potatoes at home in Chiswick—which I do remarkably often, if impressionistically. While potatoes (shanyao 山药 or yangyu 洋芋 rather than standard tudou 土豆) feature rather sparingly in the local cuisine, which (as generally in north China) is based on noodles, he has a cool underground store in his courtyard, occasionally using a wicker basket to dredge up some potatoes for his wife to incorporate into various succulent recipes. For Li Manshan’s relationship with the earth, see my film, from 6.20.

See also You say potato, and Alan Partridge‘s confident, tasteless comments on the Irish famine.

* * *

“Flourishing horns and enchanted tubers” belongs to Stobart’s early career. In a fine recent update,

  • “Potato music revisited and the rise of a worldly music studies: perspectives from the UK”, in Gerd Grupe (ed.), Recent trends and new directions in ethnomusicology: a European perspective on ethnomusicology in the 21st century (2019),

he puts it in a wider context, reflecting wisely on the changing scene in UK musicology, as WAM scholars have fought a rearguard action against the growing trend for studies of folk and popular music, jazz, and film music.

On his early article, he notes that if he had written it a decade later,

it would probably have included explicit references to (post)colonialism, modernity, class, race, politics, violence, gender issues, migration, or new technologies; themes, among many others, that I would go on to explore in subsequent work.

But that’s not the main issue he needs to address here. Like other ethnomusicologists, Stobart is eminently sympathetic to the study and practice of WAM. Conversely, as Bruno Nettl already observed over half a century ago, the WAMmies are anxious about the perceived threat to their status (a regular theme of my blog, e.g. under Musicking, and What is serious music?!), fearing that “the ethnos are taking over”. So Stobart’s chapter is mainly a careful, equanimous response to belated, misleadingly simplistic critiques by J.P.E. Harper-Scott and Ian Pace.

Is Harper-Scott suggesting that by glancing beyond, what he calls, a “Eurocentric focus on Beethoven” and asking bigger questions, students’ minds might somehow become contaminated?
Alternatively, is he worried about the legitimacy of what he studies and teaches, where we might interpret his attack as an attempt to shore up this music’s value though negative assessment of others?
The ‘noble savage’-style “essential authenticity” Harper-Scott reads into the article is largely a product of his own imagination.


According to Harper-Scott, I should be berated for failing to condemn these Bolivian potato farmers for their misogyny and pro-natalist attitudes from a universal moral position. Quite how he manages to read the text , and interpret the symbolism of this dance, as evidence of these people’s misogyny is hard to fathom. […]

Of course, a global economic order which enables certain populations to live in poverty is immensely troubling. As Harper-Scott would know if he read my 2006 book, I am painfully aware that the musical expressions I have documented in this rural community have been maintained in large part because of the precariousness of people’s lives. However, it is hard not to be annoyed by the dismissive way in which Harper-Scott seems to propose that, rather than listening to these people and trying to understand their values and way of life, I heroically barge in with scientific knowledge to miraculously bring them out of poverty.

That’s just a taster—do seek out the whole article, as well as reading Music and the poetics of production in the Bolivian Andes!

Recent posts on Tibet

Amidst outcry over China’s recent assault on the Uyghurs, I’m finally giving equal coverage to the plight of the Tibetans. My comments set forth not from any knowledge of the societies in question, but from my interest in local communities and lives under the CCP, both during the Maoist era and since the 1980s’ reforms. So these posts cover social change, political upheavals, and expressive culture.

and necessary corrections to misguided views:

On the ritual cultures of ethnic groups around Amdo, see

A conspicuous absentee from my coverage so far is monastic ritual, a major part of the Tibetan soundscape that has been much studied, even at the expense of other genres. And as many Western studies turn to the lively scene of Tibetan pop, I tend to seek the changing fortunes of traditional culture.

See also Tibet tag.

Iranian lives

In reportage, a cartoon book, and feature films

I’ve been seeking to glean a few basic perspectives on Iranian society beyond its (seemingly “autonomous”) chamber music—note Laudan Nooshin’s useful Songlines introduction to the sound spectrum in Iran.

  • Ramita Navai, City of lies: love, sex, death, and the search for truth in Tehran (2014)

makes a compelling read, an effective blend of interviews, observation, and research. The eight vignettes read like a novel—in “Sources” she explains how she compiles each account, giving further references. In a final note she summarises her own story: based in London from young, returning to Iran as a journalist since 2004, engaging with the poor of south Tehran. Her website also includes her excellent films for Channel 4 from around the world.

With the long avenue of Vali Asr as a thread linking bourgeois north Tehran and the gritty south of the city, the characters (both male and female) encompass all the contradictions of changing modern life there—regime supporters, mullahs and judges, party-goers and dissidents, morality police and mobsters; fashion, nose jobs, and rap; opium, crystal meth, and heroin.

Among all the waves of repression and executions since the 1979 revolution, the protests of 2009 loom large, as well as the constant lure of refuge in the diaspora—including the murky Iranian underworld in Japan.

The book opens with the tale of an MEK hit-man returning to Tehran for a botched assassination attempt. Other characters include Somayah, a devout girl who still falls foul of the regime’s moral strictures, reveals the society’s misogyny; Amir, unable to forgive a repentant judge for sentencing his parents to death; Leyla, whose divorce leads to her to sex work and the thriving porn scene, exploited by hypocritical police and judges; Morteza, an abused young member of a basiji militia who finally manages to have a sex-change operation (a chapter that opens with a vignette on ritual self-mortification); and Farideh, a widow from an affluent family fallen on hard times, who, having learned that swinging 60s’ London was uptight and “backward”, finally decides to make a home there, but returns to Tehran after only two months.

While the contrast between tradition and modernity is a staple cliché of travel writing, here Navai brings real insight to these life stories, always nuanced, conflicted.

Even in large cities, the soundscape is among ways in which such conflicts are evident—in this case, not just the contrast between rap and the call to prayer, but the duality of the art music of the radif and more gritty sounds like festive shawm bands. As Morteza observes the incantations, sobs, and drum-beats of ritual self-flagellants in trance, he notes that they appear strangely like the north Tehran ravers they abhor (cf. Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam).

To varying degrees, duplicity is perhaps a universal in societies, “the consequence of surviving in an oppressive regime”. While it has been noted as a characteristic of socialist societies (e.g. The whisperers), Alan Bennett also regards hypocrisy as a defining trait of the English. More basic is the imposition of power through intimidation, exercised both by political regimes and by traditional values—often reminiscent of China.

* * *

I was reminded of the educative cartoon book

  • Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2000­–2003; complete English edition 2007),

another fine introduction to the modern urban society of Iran.

At 343 pages it’s a substantial autobiography, whose innovative format belies its serious message. Under headings such as “The veil”, “The party”, and “The croissant”, it evokes her early experiences after the 1979 revolution, her troubled teenage years in Vienna from 1983, and her return, feeling defeated, four years later to Iran—where she gets married and divorced before leaving again for good. Since 1993 she has been based in France.

Here’s a trailer for the 2007 film version:

* * *

One of Ramita Navai’s characters approves of the film A separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011), by contrast with the “overrated and pretentious” Iranian films, with their heavy-handed symbolism, that beguile the Western media—a suspicion that is widely common within societies, again as in China.

Still, the new wave films of Iran have a distinguished history, the “second wave” led by Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016) such as the Koker trilogy—here’s a trailer for Where is the friend’s home? (1987):

As to the “third wave”, Samira Makhmalbaf (b.1980), following the path of her father Mohsen (b.1957; family website here) directed her first film The apple (1998) at the age of 17, a moving story of a Tehran family in difficulty (reenacted by the family themselves) that again blurs the line between documentary and fiction.

By contrast, Blackboards (2001) depicts the plight of Kurdish refugees in desolate countryside, against the backdrop of the chemical bombing of Halabja, only revealed at the devastating greyed-out ending. As an itinerant teacher struggles stoically to convince poor villagers of the remote benefits of literacy, he creatively puts his blackboard to more practical uses:

All this just to remind myself again that music is never autonomous… Cf. Three women of Herat.

Tibet: some folk ritual performers

Ngagmo female ritual group, Rebkong (Amdo), c2009. Source here.

For the Tibetan peoples, both before the Chinese occupation—or the uprisings from 1956—and under the reform era since the 1980s, our popular image of religious life is dominated by “institutional” monastic activity. Even genres like lhamo opera, nangma-töshe, and grand local folk communal rituals seem more commonly known than the diverse types of folk ritual performers.

To remind ourselves of a pertinent comment,

any attempt at (re)presenting Tibetan culture today is inseparable from an implicit ideological and political commentary on the situation of Tibet, through history and at present. 

Emic and etic ways of slicing the cake of expressive cultures vary; and for Tibet they vary both within and between Tibetan, Chinese, and Western approaches. As in many cultures, a simple dichotomy like sacred–secular will only confuse, even if we take it as a continuum. Catherine Bell reflects wisely on the variety of “ritual specialists” within world cultures in Ritual theory, ritual practice, pp.130–40. But again, such an etic umbrella term often seems inadequate for Tibet.

One would include the male ngagpa and female ngagmo self-cultivational groups of Tantric practitioners (see e.g. the work of Nicolas Sihlé, such as this article; wiki, and here; photo above). Further, with religion such a pervasive element in the daily life of Tibetan people, there’s no simple way of encapsulating the variety of performers, family groups and individuals, occupational, often itinerant—such as spirit mediums and diviners, mendicants and beggars (for the latter in pre-occupation Lhasa, see e.g. Part Two here, under “Professional and spiritual beggars”). Moreover, the trite rubric of “song-and-dance” subsumes calendrical rituals with communal, largely ascriptive participation (see e.g. here). [1] Indeed, since the 1950s, and still now, lay performers may be less closely surveilled than the major monasteries such as Labrang (for which see here and here).

A variety of such genres is described in the 2006 book (in Chinese) Zangzu shuochang yishu [Narrative-singing arts of the Tibetan people] by Suolang Ciren 索朗次仁 [Sonam Tsering], (cf. this page).

As with Han Chinese traditions, some of these genres are described as obsolete, and appear to belong to “salvage” fieldwork. Having so often heard this claim from Chinese cultural cadres anxious about revealing “superstitious” activities in their domain, I am reluctant to take it as gospel. It is hard to assess the current picture from published material in Chinese and Tibetan. On one hand PRC scholars may take mediated, secular performances on the concert platform as evidence of the continuing life of tradition; on the other, their access enables them to document local genres. But of course change is always a factor. As with some Han Chinese traditions, folk activity may be continued by other means, and I suspect that lengthy immersion in a given area may still reveal neglected life in such genres. At the same time, few of these groups quite resemble the household ritual specialists who are my main theme in local Han Chinese communities.

In exile, while some genres of the former elite were maintained, and the monasteries have long been the main scholarly focus, many folk ritual genres hardly feature in representations of Tibetan expressive culture such as the 1986 Zlos-gar. However, some of the folk performers who made their way into exile sought to continue activity there.

Moreover, one would seek to consider groups among Tibetan communities such as those of Sikkim, Bhutan, and Ladakh, from where some of the most interesting material derives. As with other “marginal survivals”, always bearing in mind that these are local traditions, it can be tempting to regard such manifestations as suggestive of culture within old Tibet (cf. “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”).

* * *

Among all these genres, by far the most popular area of research is the Gesar epic (see here, n.2, and here). Though it is often treated as a reified genre of oral literature, and since the 1980s has also been performed on the secular stage, the solo performers (both the “inspired” bards who received the text through spiritual revelation in trance after a psychological crisis, and those who learned by listening to other bards) continued to play a role in the domestic rituals of their local communities after the 1980s’ reforms, despite the encroachment of pop and media culture.

But as in south Asia and China, there was (and is) a variety of performers. So here I will illustrate the difficulties of simple classification with brief introductions to lama mani, drekar, and ralpa.

Lama mani
The itinerant solo folk storytellers lama mani enact religious tales with the aid of thangka paintings. It may be more suitable to regard them as educators. [2]

An important source for the wider historical context around China and south Asia is

  • Victor Mair, Painting and performance: Chinese picture recitation and its Indian genesis (1989).

For the TAR, the lama mani feature in Zangzu shuochang yishu; see also this introduction. Around Lhasa, this 2014 article portrays “Chilie” [Thinley / ‘Phrin las] (b. c1940), typically, as “the last lama mani”.

Brought up in a village of Nagarze county in the Lhoka region of southeast TAR, both of his parents had performed lama mani, and he learned with them from young, along with his three older sisters; here one would wish to fill in the gaps in his biography for the Maoist decades. Even recently, his status as a Transmitter of the Intangible Cultural Heritage hadn’t brought him security: in 2014, performing on the street in the Barkhor, he was moved on by the police.

Thinley performing in Lhasa, 2014.

Some lama mani have also been active in exile—note

Besides a film by Tsering Rithar on a refugee lama mani in Nepal, this is a 10-minute film on lama mani there:

Drekar oldAlso belonging within this diverse rubric are the drekar (in Chinese, zhega 折嘎: see this useful page), mendicant masked buffoons reciting auspicious verses for New Year and weddings (cf. Chinese beggars, such as in Shaanbei).

Again, the drekar have been described as obsolete, both within and beyond the PRC. A brief recorded excerpt (from since the 1980s’ reforms!) can be heard in #2 of CD 6 in Mao Jizeng’s anthology Xizang yinyue jishi. Whereas it was clearly recited on request, Woeser filmed this even briefer video during a street performance, suggesting that there may still be potential for fieldwork:

Until the 1950s the ralpa or relpa (in Chinese, reba 热巴), mostly from the Kham region in origin, were family-based, low-class, itinerant performers, using narration, singing, dancing, acrobatics, and small plays, based on the life of Milarepa.

Ralpa dancers, Dengchen, Chamdo. Source here.

But the sense in which ralpa is now commonly promoted is as a communal dance festivity in the villages of Kham—subject of a book by Gonpo Gyaltsen (1928–2020), himself a former ralpa from the Dechen region there: in Chinese, Oumi Jiacan 欧米加参, Xuecheng reba 雪域热巴 (1998), Tibetan translation Gangs-ljongs ral-pa (2017).

Today this form too may be largely obsolete (see e.g. this useful survey), even as it has become a victim of commodified dance arrangements and the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

* * *

Under Chinese occupation and modernity some of these genres have doubtless suffered more than others; but we should include them all within our picture of the varied religious behaviours in local Tibetan societies—even as many fine scholars, quite legitimately, turn their attention to the pop soundscape. And of course more revealing ethnographies could be compiled on how individual, family, or devotional groups of lay participants dovetail in local societies with monasteries, communal ritual activities, and so on [3]over time: as usual, we might hope to seek threads of continuity in 1950s’ activity.

With thanks as ever to Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy

[1] Sources for such genres appear rather piecemeal. Some feature in §III of the New Grove article on Tibet, and in the bibliographies of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (for Western-language sources) and Sangye Dondhup (for Tibetan and Chinese items); but Isabelle surveys much of the material in chapter 3 of her magnum opus Le théâtre ache lhamo, with references including some notes by early Western Tibetologists (such as Tucci and Stein), and for the post-reform era, studies by Tibetan and Chinese scholars, again mostly brief.

For Tibetan communities within the PRC, among the Anthology volumes (for the Tibetan Autonomous Region [TAR], Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan, in Chinese), those on narrative-singing (and perhaps on folk-song, and dance) should give further leads.

At a tangent, YouTube has a range of interesting material under “Tibetan wedding”, like this 2013 ceremony from a village in Qinghai, with some fine singing. This might lead us to the chang ma beer servers in old and new Tibet.

[2] Among references to lama mani in Le théâtre ache lhamo (n.1 above), two discuss the drama Padma ‘od-‘bar (also popular in lhamo, like many items here): Anne-Marie Blondeau’s chapter in Zlos-gar (referring mainly to the relation of paintings and text), and a 2012 booklet (in Tibetan) with three CDs, for the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

[3] For a mendicant singer in early 20th century Amdo, with pertinent details on present-day performers, see this article by Gerald Roche.

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).

Tibet: conflicting memories

Coming soon after the English edition of Woeser’s Forbidden memory, another fine contribution to our understanding of modern Tibetan history is the magnum opus

  • Robert Barnett, Benno Weiner, and Françoise Robin (eds), Conflicting memories: Tibetan history under Mao retold (2020, xxix + 681 pp.!).

Covering the periods since the Chinese occupation in 1950 and the death of Mao in 1976, it presents a wealth of original material in the form of memoirs and oral narratives, histories and official sources, fiction and film, dovetailing perceptive essays and primary documents. Besides the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), Amdo and Kham are especially well represented.

As Robert Barnett explains in yet another of his exemplary introductions, the book presents the candid narratives of a range of Tibetan and Chinese writers—by contrast with the historiography of the Chinese state, with its “logic of legitimization”. Before the reform era since 1980, the main periods, in an escalating sequence of violence, were the early years of occupation; the crises of 1956–59; and the Cultural Revolution (notably 1966–69).

Oral accounts and memoirs—from Tibetan and Chinese officials, some early Tibetan Communists and progressives, and ordinary and elite Tibetans—“seek to make nuanced, sometimes almost imperceptible, adjustments to official narratives about China’s recent record in Tibetan regions”. While they don’t go so far as to challenge CCP rule over Tibet, they are “historical retellings in which the state has been removed or reduced to an inanimate or malignant force, and in which Tibetan agency has been restored, but only as a question of endurance and at an individual, local level.” In all such accounts, we need to “read between the lines”—just as for material on Han Chinese regions (see e.g. here, and here).

Part One, “Official retellings and revisualisations of the ‘Liberation of Tibet’ ”, opens with chapters by Benno Weiner (whose recent book The Chinese revolution on the Tibetan frontier is another important contribution to our knowledge of the modern history of Amdo) and Alice Travers, exploring changing agendas in the published “cultural and historical materials” (wenshi ziliao)—also a revealing source for Han Chinese areas (cf. here).

Compared to the extreme violence that was to come, Western, Chinese, and Tibetan authors have tended to portray the early years of occupation as relatively genteel. But Bianca Horlemann’s scrutiny of an account by the Chinese leader of a “Work Group” for the pastoralist Golog region in south Amdo adds to a growing body of evidence that “liberation” was far from smooth.

And Robert Barnett’s own chapter describes in detail the change of emphasis in mainstream Chinese “Tibet-encounter” films and TV dramas from the Maoist era to the reforms (cf. his Columbia course). Setting forth from the beguiling voyeuristic notion (Western as much as Chinese) of Tibet as “mysterious” and “exotic”, he notes a shift from tales of socialist military valour to commercially attractive stories of romance and self-discovery.

He suggests that the rationale for the early films was

in large part to explain and justify to the wider nation the abrupt and large-scale interaction then occurring between Chinese forces and Tibetans. That contact was, after all, on an unprecedented scale and involved entirely different and unfamiliar cultures, languages and social systems. Chinese citizens who were sent to Tibet were being asked not just to risk their lives fighting Tibetan troops and rebels in deeply unfamiliar and difficult terrain, but also in many cases to dedicate decades of their lives as cadres, teachers, doctors, road-builders, labourers, and so forth in order to administer and colonise an area which, unlike other minority areas within China, had had its own government, military and ruling institutions for centuries and where few Chinese had ever lived or worked before.

Throughout the various periods, many films portray Tibetans as grateful allies of the Party; and they dwell on the exploitation of the masses at the hands of the old ruling classes.

At its simplest, films in the Mao era vilified Tibetan culture and the Tibetan social system, while those produced in the reform period beautified Tibetans, their environment, and, increasingly, their bodies.

TV series Love song of Kangding, 2004.

Ever attentive to gender issues, Barnett notes the trope of the “orphan–heroine”. And while Chinese characters have come to be explored in more depth, there remain no credible portrayals of the Tibetan side of the story.

In Part Two, “Rereading the past: stories told by documents”, Alex Raymond again reinterprets the initial “liberation” of Tibet, showing that any “gradualism” in Chinese policy was a matter of expediency and logistics. Chung Tsering assesses a variety of accounts of the ambiguous political career of Ngaphö Ngawang Jigme (1910–2009); Document 4 translates his 1989 speech. And Document 5 is an important addition to work on the Tenth Panchen Lama—a hitherto unpublished speech also from 1989, a critique not just of the Cultural Revolution but of the whole three decades of occupation.

Part Three, “Speaking the past: oral remembering” addresses the uprisings in Amdo from 1958, and the Cultural Revolution there. Dáša Mortensen unpacks ongoing historical amnesia through public and private accounts of the 1966 destruction of Gandan Sumtsenling, the main Tibetan monastery of Gyalthang in Yunnan province, showing how “the politics of memory and forgetting are shaped by both official and individual agendas, competing to produce an acceptable memory at a time when grievances are still deeply entrenched and inconvenient for any side to air”.

Charlene Makley, with two pseudonymised contributors, unpacks an oral account of the years following 1958 by a senior Tibetan village leader (“G.” below) in Rebgong (southeast Qinghai)—using a detailed system of transcription to evoke the subtle messages of his language and his interactions with the participants, which rarely emerge in interview transcripts. A sample (asterisks denoting Chinese loanwords):

T: How many years were you in the *labour camp*?
G: Four and a half years.
T: For four and half years? Oh so that means ’58, ’59, ’60 and ’61?
[11:38 G explains how central Party officials came to investigate Qinghai during the post-famine rectification process. Here he goes into the most detail so far. T had never heard this; T and CM are entranced.]
G: [until] ’62… ’62… that’s how long I had to stay. Not just for 1958, but for ’59, ’60, ’61 and ‘62. – T: Oooh. – Until August of 1962, in *September I returned. – CM/T: Mmm/Oooh – The one who reported [the situation] to *central leaders* was … Wang Zhao came, Wang Zhao, the *deputy head* of the *Central Management Department* (Ch.: Guanlibu). – CM/T: Oooh. – So Qinghai *province *sent a delegation down*, and the *Management Department* officials accompanied them. When they came, they *investigated everything. They disbanded the *cafeterias. All those sent to the *labour camp* were released. Wang Zhao said a few words: “Just as for the People’s Militias, keep the *‘group leaders’* (Ch.: banzhang) imprisoned, and release the ‘militia members’.” He used that kind of metaphor, he didn’t say more than that … What did he mean by a *‘group leader’*? He meant the traditional Tibetan leaders, of course. By *‘group leader’,* he meant Tibetan *landlords, or lamas or lay leaders. [Wang] ordered everyone but them to be released. But *half [of those leaders] had already died, They died! They all died! That region was harsh because of the high altitude!

The same period is discussed in an excerpt from a remarkably frank book by Rinchen Zangpo (Shamdo Rinzang).

Shamdo Rinzang (left).

Documents 7–10 are excerpts from the 2016 Living and dying in modern Tibet­, an important collection of oral memoirs from the 1930s to the 1970s for northern Kham.

 Part Four describes “Literary retellings”—the short stories, novels, literary memoirs, and fiction from the reform era that served as a necessary, not optional, forum for Tibetan critiques of the terrors following 1958. Françoise Robin discusses literature recalling the period in Amdo:

Fiction and literature confirm their use by Tibetans to counter official memory and circumvent the hegemonic memory engineering that has been going on for over fifty years. Still facing too many risks to offer directly a revised account of lost events, these works of fiction not so much mark what has been forgotten as delineate the history of state erasure of that past, and its silencing of the generation that experienced it.

Xénia de Heering introduces Nagtshang Nulo’s autobiography Joys and Sorrows of the Nagtshang Boy, set in Machu county, Kanlho, interspersing official documents.

Part Five, “Religious remembering” focuses on history recollected through the lens of faith. Nicole Willock, Maria Turek, and Geoffrey Barstow describe accounts by lamas, Buddhist scholars, hermits, and a religious artisan. Even those who accommodated with the new regime suffered terribly, but they continued to view their role as guardians of Tibetan culture and religion, recalling ultra-leftist violence merely in terms of obstacles to spiritual development.

The volume is further enriched by extensive references, detailed maps, glossary, photos, and an exhaustive index. Hefty as it is, I still wonder how Brill still manages to charge such astronomical prices for their fine books, mitigating against the wide readership they deserve.

Again I marvel at the enterprise, energy, and nuance of recent scholarship on Tibet, so very far from the simplistic, polarised work of the 1980s. But the emergence of a certain space for alternative versions of this traumatic history can be of little consolation for Tibetan people amidst their current plight, as Chinese state control continues to intensify.

See also Labrang 1; How not to describe 1950s’ Tibet; and Tibet and Uyghur tags.

More crime fiction

Weimar Berlin—Stasi—Russia—Hungary

Berlin Alex

From Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.

In my post on the Navajo novels of Tony Hillerman I admired the necessary social and personal texture that rarely informs more scholarly accounts. And in another review I featured crime fiction from East Asia and the GDR—as well as Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, mostly concerning the rise of Hitler, World War Two, and the Cold War aftermath.

MetropolisIn Metropolis (which turned out to be Kerr’s last book in the series, published posthumously in 2019) he returned to Bernie’s early career during the Weimar period. As ever, historical personages (such as Arthur Nebe and George Grosz) are woven into the plot, as well as early performances of The threepenny opera.

Often such novels come from outsiders to the culture portrayed. But German authors have long explored the Weimar era—a genre enshrined in

  • Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929),

a complex, sprawling assembly of underworld degradation through turbulent times. The author’s own summary gives an impression of his distinctive, disorienting literary style:

Doblin summary

Michael Hoffmann has risen to the daunting challenge of translating Döblin’s quirky Berlinisch prose—do read his Afterword, and this review. Cf. Hoffmann’s version of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin.

Here’s a trailer for the 15-hour TV adaptation by the visionary Fassbinder (1980):

Babylon BerlinAs to more recent recreation of the Weimar era,

  • Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin (2007)

is the first in a series featuring the detective Gereon Rath, with his beguiling protégée Charlotte Ritter. It recasts the decadence of the roaring 20s and the rise of fascism, with vivid period detail on exiled Russians and paramilitary forces. Yet again, the novels form the stimulus for a highly popular TV series:

Meanwhile David Young continues exploring the murky history of the GDR in Stasi winter (2020) through the struggles of detective Karin Müller, against a backdrop of escape attempts amidst a desolate, frozen northern landscape.

For Russia, I’ve been catching up on the Arkady Renko novels by Martin Cruz Smith. Gorky Park was published as early as 1981, a gripping tale of KGB and CIA espionage, ikon smuggling—and a sinister fabrication to quell dissidents:

It is the finding of the institute that criminals suffer from a psychological disturbance that we term pathoheterodoxy. There is theoretical as well as clinical backing for this discovery. In an unjust society a man may violate laws for valid social or economic reasons. In a just society there are no valid reasons except for mental illness. Recognising this fact protects the violator as well as the society whose law he attacks. It affords the violator and opportunity to be quarantined until his illness can be expertly treated.

Later in the series, Stalin’s ghost (2007) moves on to the Putin era, still haunted by the delusions of the USSR, as well as the Chechen war and mass graves.

For Hungary, the “Danube Blues” novels of Adam LeBor, himself an investigative journalist, are compelling. Starring the Roma detective Balthazar Kovacs, the themes of District VIII (2017) and Kossuth square (2019) are highly topical—including corruption, press freedom under authoritarian rule, and the plight of refugees.

Balthazar is the first in the family to progress to higher education. With his brother a leading figure in the Budapest underworld, he has torn loyalties. At university he meets Sarah, a Jewish student. He starts a PhD on the Roma Holocaust, but

after a couple of years he realised he had had enough of libraries and archives and extermination. He also realised he had no desire to be a disczigany, a decorative, token Gypsy.

To the horror of both his family and the “uber-liberal” Sarah, Balthazar decides to join the police force. Meanwhile Sarah, with whom he now has a son, rises in the field of gender studies. Even after they separate, she still depends on his introductions to the Roma world.

Evoking the ethnic mix of new immigrants (southern Slavs, Arabs, Africans, Russians, Chinese) alongside the gentrification of Budapest, LeBor adroitly interposes lessons on Hungarian history in imperial times and the Arrow Cross militia during World War Two.

* * *

Like Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee series, all these novels are not just engaging in themselves, with their suspenseful plot twists, but they document the whole texture of the society, drawing us towards history and people’s lives.

The enchanting world of Tibetan opera

All images here from Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, The singing mask.

Tibetan opera is just enthralling.

Best studied of the various dramatic genres among the Tibetan peoples is ache lhamo of central Tibet—a seamless blending of sacred and secular, human and divine, comedy and deep introspection (cf. European mystery plays, or indeed Mozart’s The magic flute).

Usually I leave audio/video clips for a later section, but here I want to plunge right into this enchanting world, with its intoxicating singing, in this excerpt from Sukyi nyima performed by former members of TIPA from Dharamsala:

As a caveat against reification, such footage reminds us that, as with all musickinglhamo is a social event—performed over a whole day (or more) under an awning in the open air. In the words of Jamyang Norbu, it “combines the relaxed informality of village cricket [!], the magical world of pantomime, and the open-air eating and drinking of a good picnic”.

Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy makes a fine guide to lhamo, with her experience among Tibetans both inside the PRC and in exile—an order that now seems suitable. [1]

She edited the attractive, instructive volume

  • The singing mask: echoes of Tibetan opera (2001)
    (some chapters here).

In her Introduction, she sums up the main themes within the “fragmented and politicised” research. Both in the PRC and in exile, lhamo has become an icon of “popular” Tibetan culture, with concomitant folklorisation. Though ritual elements are strong, in the PRC it is perceived as a necessary counterpart to monastic culture. Professionalisation has brought modifications to vocal styles, costume, and movement, as well as in context and economic conditions.

Within the PRC, Isabelle comments that lhamo became a focus of the “mind-boggling” search for entirely secular elements within Tibetan culture”, an ideological mold that “obliterated the deep ties that opera had with religious and institutional aspects […] not only in its content and symbolism but also regarding its social context”. More generally, I note that the dichotomy fails to do justice to the rich variety of performance genres along the sacred-secular continuum.

As Isabelle observes,

any attempt at (re)presenting Tibetan culture today is inseparable from an implicit ideological and political commentary on the situation of Tibet, through history and at present. Tibet’s past still has a very long future. Given all these difficulties, how can one make a valid representation of the tradition of opera? Who can claim representational authority? An academic point of view would understand that a valid representation needs to incorporate in a critical way all the key diverging views.

With that qualification, most articles are based on documenting the tradition before the transformations since the 1960s; and on the Lhasa tradition, in particular that of the Kyormolung troupe—also a popular theme of studies within the TAR. Most of the splendid photos show the early period.

The main periods, and areas, can be outlined thus: before the Chinese occupation of 1950; until the 1959 rebellion and escape of the Dalai Lama into exile at Dharamsala; and the reform era within the PRC.

The volume proper opens with a reprint of Jeanette Snyder’s ground-breaking 1979 overview, based largely on her studies in Dharamsala in 1963–64, giving a historical introduction and vivid accounts of the unfolding of the drama. Citing a 1958 list, she provides details of the four major and six minor troupes engaged by the (Tibetan) government for the summer Shotön festival at the Norbulingka.

After Tashi Tsering’s chapter on the early history of lhamo through the life of the saintly Thang stong rgyal po, Lobsang Samten focuses on the ritual prelude (see also here) and coda (“auspicious victory of the gods”), both substantial sequences of blessings led by hunters, princes, and goddesses. With the help of actors themselves, as well as scholars of classical Tibetan, he elucidates their complex orally-transmitted language, providing valuable clues to performance vocabulary.

lhamo 130

Perhaps this is a suitable moment for an outline of the elements of lhamo in performance.

In a largely oral tradition (with most performers illiterate), the voices are accompanied by a mere two percussionists on drum and cymbals, without melodic instruments (like the strictest traditions of Chinese ritual—but unlike modernised versions of professional lhamo groups in the PRC). Some masks are worn (cf. Noh). The plot is punctuated by dance, some popular songs, and comic interludes, with some characters akin to panto.

lhamo 111
Norbu Tsering.

And so onto Isabelle’s chapter with Tenzin Gönpo, which addresses the nuts and bolts of the two main vocal styles, with comments from the great Norbu Tsering (1927–2013), whose autobiography is a major resource. The lack of notated examples is of no consequence, but one longs for video, or at least audio, of their demonstration.

The authors discuss fast chanted recitation and, most remarkably, the intense, moving namthar arias—high and guttural, free-tempo, melismatic, with glottal tremulations, sung solo with supporting chorus.

The namthar play a rather similar role to the arias of Bach Passions, though the resemblance perhaps ends there… Here the authors discuss the incipit, inflexions (“change through bending”), glottalisations, non-lexical ornamental interpolations (a common feature of other Tibetan genres, and in much singing around the world, e.g. Navajo), and (also in fine detail) the role of the chorus that supports the solo namthar. They cite a wonderful description by Jacques Bacot in 1921—in Isabelle’s translation:

The king is the one who sings the slowest, as is becoming for such a solemn and august character. In a way, he stutters at the end of his sentences. The last syllable (in Tibetan, the verb encapsulating the idea) cannot merely go out from his mouth and hurry. It sort of falls off his mouth, separate, precious, like a gift anxiously awaited. And all his court, as if suspended during his speech, collects the king’s last word and sings it with him. The feeling is admirable.

Next they analyse namthar melody, discussing in turn terminology, leitmotivs, male and female melodies (gendered concepts as in dancing), “long” and “short” tunes, the special category of “sad” songs, the relation of principle and practice, and the incorporation of folk elements.

This whole discussion adds to our already complex notions of “improvisation”; and it makes a model integration of emic and etic approaches. Though Isabelle proclaims her lack of qualification to broach “musical” issues, this chapter shows how much untrained scholars can—and must—contribute to study of soundscape, confounding the feeble disclaimers of scholars of Daoism.

The authors conclude by observing increasing standardization, mainly within the PRC but also in exile.

The volume ends with a chapter by Jamyang Norbu—always a stimulating, frank commentator. He gives a fine introduction to the challenges faced by the exile community from 1959 in establishing the lhamo scene in Dharamsala, under the guidance of Norbu Tsering, as they pieced the melodies together like a jigsaw from the memories of various people”. Jamyang Norbu reflects on his early years as member of the Drama Society, forerunner of TIPA, which he served as director from 1980 to 1985.

lhamo 113

Jamyang Norbu: “My inability to sing opera arias did not prevent me from playing the role of the village idiot in the story”.

At first living conditions were grim, and many of the performers in poor health. In Dharamsala too, there was a lively debate over the tensions between tradition and innovation. Some monks objected to the scenes in lhamo satirising religion, but

I replied that opera performers had been performing such satires and making such irreverent jokes even in the old days, and that I would certainly not stop this democratic tradition in our performing culture.

Indeed, in an adaptation of Prince Norsang he managed to insert a scene satirising religious intolerance: a priest, realizing that whatever ritual he performs will cause offence to one sect or other, is reduced to singing a popular Hindi film song instead.

Morale was low, with performers suffering from the traditional prejudice against actors and musicians; funding was also a problem. Gradually they created a viable tradition, mustering sets, costumes, masks, and props, and training performers. While adhering to the traditional accompaniment of drum and cymbals, they experimented with three different sizes of drum. They also recreated the Shöton opera festival in Dharamsala.

In 1981 Jamyang Norbu wrote a new lhamo script Chaksam (“The iron bridge”), based on the trials of Thangtong Gyalpo (cf. Tashi Tsering’s chapter), with Norbu Tsering adapting the melodies. Jamyang Norbu’s questioning spirit is evident. Observing that “the Tibetan opera is frankly Lhasa-centric and unabashedly medieval in outlook”, he notes the stereotyped depictions of regional characters as villains and buffoons. So, wanting to have “at least one opera where a humble Tibetan layperson from outside Lhasa was the principal character”, he wrote the story around two lowly pilgrims—one from Kham, the other from Amdo. And he also sought to educate younger Tibetans in the texture of life in the past.

As they refined their productions, they also worked on giving contemporary relevance to the comic scenes. They paid attention to the whole pageantry of performance. Lhamo became a meaningful part of community life. Only the quality of singing was considered inferior to the halcyon days of old Lhasa.

In 1985 Jamyang Norbu was ousted from TIPA amidst political intrigue, again featuring his experiments in drama. He comments on the later fortunes of lhamo in Dharamsala, and other diaspora groups, reflecting on the challenges of maintaining Tibetan culture outside Tibet.

In order to truly survive, not only in museums, or in the accolade and admiration of foreign friends, Tibetan culture, especially performing culture, must be able to entertain and inspire a new generation of Tibetans, and must have real meaning in the lives of Tibetans everywhere.

In 1986 Jamyang Norbu edited Zlos-gar, an important early introduction to the Tibetan performing arts. Meanwhile he has kept a keen eye on the revival within the PRC.

For a vignette evoking a rainy TIPA performance of opera in 1995, see Keila Diehl, Echoes from Dharamsala (2002), pp.70–72.

* * *

As ever, such careful work on documenting the tradition should complement studies of ongoing change. There’s always more fieldwork to do among both professional and amateur troupes. [3]

I look forward to reading Isabelle’s magnum opus (976 pages!)

  • Le théâtre ache lhamo: jeux et enjeux d’une tradition tibetaine (2017) (reviewed here), with historical background, the relationship with Buddhism, social ethnography, and a focus on the practical aspects of performance.

* * *

We’re now ready to immerse ourselves in the trials of the pious Nangsa woebum (plot summary here), as performed by TIPA in Dharamsala, unfolding over nearly seven hours! Starting here:

followed by Parts 23, and 4.

We can also compare online videos from within the TAR, like this excerpt from Sukyi Nima at the Norbulingka for the 2014 Shöton festival:

And here’s the first of eighteen short clips from a 2019 Shöton performance at the Norbulingka (they don’t follow on, so type 羅布林卡藏戲):

Returning to the exile scene, after our initial introduction to Sukyi Nyima, we can again relish it complete—here’s the first of fifteen instalments (again, they don’t often appear in sequence, so you may have to type the next section into the YouTube search box):

One of the most charming stock characters in world drama is the truth-speaking parrot (“Despite the warnings King Sengey receives from his sagacious parrot advisor, he banishes Sukyi Nyima from the kingdom”).

lhamo 122

But in between the more popular songs and dances, the rapid narration and the slapstick, it’s the searing intensity of the namthar singing that is most captivating.

[1] See her section in the New Grove dictionary, §III, 5; her bibliography of Western-language sources, §7; and for Tibetan and Chinese sources, see here.
In Chinese, note also the opera volumes (Zhongguo xiqu zhi and Zhongguo xiqu yinyue jicheng) of the Anthology for TAR. For all its ideological perspective, as with the volumes for Han Chinese traditions, a wealth of information is contained among the many rubrics of the xiqu zhi—such as masks, costumes, professional and amateur troupes, venues and performance customs, and historical artefacts.
For more comparisons of the PRC and exile scenes, see e.g.

[2] As with Flann O’Brien‘s references to the ouevre of De Selby in The third policeman, the footnotes often dwarf the main text, but are most edifying. Please excuse the brevity of this footnote.

For the related tales of folk lama mani performers, see here.

[3] For some more adventurous recent innovations within the PRC, see Isabelle’s article “Quelques voies de renouveau pour le théâtre traditionnel tibétain depuis les années 2000” (2019).

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

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 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

Complementing the fine CD sets of archive recordings from the Music Research Institute in Beijing, in collaboration with Wind Records, Taiwan (notably the folk-song volume Tudi yu ge):

  • 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.

Women in Tibetan expressive culture


Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy with Kham shopkeeper, Lhasa 1997.

Following my recent posts on Labrang (here and here), the Cultural Revolution in Tibet (here and here), and 1950s’ Lhasa, I continue exploring Tibetan expressive culture as an outsider.

Only quite recently has the role of women in Tibetan society has become a field for enquiry. And as in other disciplines, the study of gender has become a major topic in ethnomusicology (for a basic introduction, see here). Yet our image of the expressive culture of Tibet is still based on monastic ritual, and thus dominated by men (though nuns too perform vocal liturgy).

A finely-wrought discussion is

It’s a useful volume; other chapters on the modern era include Hildegard Diemberger on female oracles, Charlene Makley on nuns, and Robert Barnett on women and politics. For more on nuns and female visionaries, see the work of Nicola Schneider. And for further articles of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, click here.

* * *

First Isabelle gives a useful outline of gender roles in Tibetan areas before 1959. Women were usually the “beer vendors”, and as “ceremonial beer-servers” they sang for parties and weddings. Indeed, they still are. And she introduces the “label-girls” of nangma-töshe song-and-dance. [1]

Lhasa label girls

Acha Yitsa, leading performer of the nangma’i skyid sdug association, flanked by two famed “label-girls” at an aristocrats’ picnic, Lhasa 1936–37. Photo: Sir Basil Gould.

She then discusses six Tibetan female singers on the eve of the occupation, the Maoist era, and since the 1980s’ reforms—describing the exceptional case of “stars”, as she explains, since they are better documented than common performers: three from the world of tradition, as well as three stars of popular music, providing an instructive spectrum. She constantly interrogates the role of gender in their careers, offering valuable perspectives on the tensions within modern Tibetan society over three distinct periods, both within the PRC and in exile.

Ama Lhagpo
This first sketch makes a good introduction to Isabelle’s fine work on lhamo opera, which I extol here. Ama Lhagpo (1909–97) performed lhamo for over eighty years (!).

Orphaned at the age of 3, she was taken in by a woman whom she accompanied begging on the streets and in chang taverns. There she was spotted by the celebrated Kyomolung lhamo troupe in Lhasa, just in the process of reviving. She gave her first public performance at the age of 8, taking the lead roles from 15.

After the occupation she kept performing with the troupe through the 1950s. In 1961, after a two-year hiatus following the rebellion, she was recruited to the government’s newly-formed Tibetan Opera Troupe, spending a period training at the Shanghai Conservatoire—where she soon lost her voice.

With the revival of tradition that followed the end of the Cultural Revolution, Ama Lhagpo trained a new generation while being showered with honorary titles. As Isabelle notes, “what is poignant is that, in lhamo, the ascribed emblem of ‘tradition’ was an old lady with a broken voice”. A rare female star in a largely male genre, she was a model for the incorporation of women into the state professional troupes. Isabelle draws us into the world of singing and dancing styles for male and female roles in lhamo.

Chung Putri
Again, Chung Putri (1920–85) came from a poor folk background, singing and dancing to make a living with her husband and daughter by itinerant begging over a wide area. In 1956 she was recruited to the state Arts-work Troupe in Shigatse, along with Tseten Drolma (see below). From 1957 to 1959 she taught Tibetan dance in Beijing. Returning to Lhasa in 1960, she joined the Tibet Song-and-Dance Ensemble and Tibet Opera Troupe. After the 1980s’ revival, with her extensive repertoire, she played a role in the “salvage” work on folk-song, working with the Chinese scholar Tian Liantao.

Thus having lived through the first wave of state-sponsored adaptation in the 1950s, she came to represent the changing tradition in the 1980s, her style at some remove from musicians from more elite backgrounds like Zholkhang Sonam Dargye.

As Isabelle suggests, the lively debate over “authenticity” took place not only between Tibetans in the PRC and in exile, but within the PRC.

“Salvage” continues to feature in the portrait of Yumen (b. c1957), a renowned performer of the monumental Gesar epic (see here, n.2), born to a nomadic family in Kham.

As Isabelle explains, there are two types of bards: those who learned by listening to other bards, and—the more valued method—those who (like Yumen) received the text through spiritual revelation in trance following a psychological crisis. The great majority were male: among a hundred bards surveyed in the 1980s, Yang Enhong’s study of 26 bards lists Yumen as one of two women performers.

It seems that we can assume at least sporadic ritual performances until at least 1959. Yumen’s father was also an “inspired” bard; she herself acquired the ability to recite the epic after a dream at the age of 16—in the mid-1970s, note, well before the liberalisations. As she gained a local reputation, she was soon in demand.

But already from 1977, though illiterate, she was summoned to Lhasa to work in state literary units, going on from 1983 to work in the Gesar salvage project. Again, Isabelle gives a good introduction to the process of folklorisation. While performers, perhaps even in ritual contexts, are still quite common, Yumen is one of a dwindling number of “inspired” bards, albeit safely enshrined in a state work-unit.

Yumen is heard on the CD 12 treasures: Gesar songs and prayers from The saltmen of Tibet (Ulrike Koch, 1998).

The Gesar epic is a rather popular subject in online videos. Here’s a short film from UNESCO:

or more extensive coverage, with Chinese commentary:

And here’s a trailer for A Gesar bard’s tale (Donagh Coleman and Lharigtso, 2103):

Tseten Drolma
Tseten DrolmaBy contrast, the songs of Tseten Drolma (b.1937),“the golden voice of the Party” under Maoism, “symbolizing the Tibetan devotion and gratitude to the Party and to China, and telling again and again about the miseries of pre-1950 feudal life in Tibet”. While rather few Tibetans may subscribe to the ideology of her songs, they are widely known, inescapable.

Born to a serf family in Shigatse, her mother was yet another famed beer-vendor.

In 1956 she joined the Shigatse Arts-work troupe, meeting Chung Putri. From 1958 to 1963 she was sent to study at the Shanghai Conservatoire, developing a combination of Tibetan style and “Chinese” bel canto.

Her popularity was enhanced by her propaganda songs during the Cultural Revolution, and she has remained in favour since the reforms, accumulating honorific, ornamental political titles.

Nowadays, her CDs are purchased mainly by Chinese customers. Amongst Tibetans, they are the usual gifts that work units distribute to their workers, who usually immediately and dismissively throw them away.

This is the kind of thing:

See also the work of Anna Morcom, e.g. “The voice of the state: musical propaganda in Tibet”, in Unity and discord: music and politics in contemporary Tibet (2004); for Woeser’s comment on the ironies of her song Beautiful Rigzin Wangmo, see here.

The article now turns to two younger pop singers since the reforms (cf. Isabelle’s Western-language bibliography, §10), who have chosen exile.

Until she defected in 1992, Dadon (b. c1968) was a major star, genuinely popular among Tibetans, in the Tibet Song-and-Dance Ensemble from 1987.

DadonBoth her parents were members of the ensemble, and from 1980 to 1985 she studied at the music department of the Central Minorities Institute in Beijing. Back in Lhasa she sang Chinese pop in karaoke bars, modeling herself on the Taiwanese crooner Deng Lijun (Teresa Teng), then highly popular in the PRC. She soon began to blend Tibetan folk melody with an “Asian pop” style. As unrest erupted in Lhasa, her lyrics discarded the old political messages for melancholic and spiritual themes. After an interlude for further vocal training in Beijing and Shanghai, she broke into the national market in 1990, bolstered by TV appearances, just as the “Tibet craze” was developing in China. Yet, working within the state system, she eschewed political messages—like alternative Chinese pop singers of the time.

As her lyrics came under increasing scrutiny, she escaped to Dharamsala in April 1992, where her style was hardly appreciated. She soon moved to the USA, again struggling to gain a footing in a niche market. As she campaigned for human rights, she appeared in the film Windhorse (Paul Wagner, 1997), based on her own story—here’s a trailer:

Isabelle summarises with typical lucidity:

Dadon’s life-story shows the imbrication of at least four issues. First, her aspirations whilst in Tibet: as she sang the first significant songs with a Tibetan flavour after the Cultural Revolution, she navigated carefully within the PRC for a modern, yet Tibetan pop style to be accepted. Second, her defection signalled the impossibility of realizing her aspirations within the PRC. Third, the difficulty of finding, or even creating, a place for her in the exile community. And fourth, her voice changes, which exemplify the search for a modern tone in Tibetan singing.

Yungchen Lhamo
By contrast with Dadon, highly popular in Tibet yet little known in the West, Yungchen Lhamo (b. c1964), “a Tibetan diva for a Western audience”, enjoyed a certain vogue on the world music circuit but is hardly known by Tibetans within the PRC.

Both were born in Lhasa and fled to exile around the same time, but Yongchen Lhamo, not having gone through the mill of PRC work-units, built her career in the West from 1995 with a style of “Buddhist devotional songs”.

From a poor religious background, she had no access to education. Escaping on foot soon after the Lhasa demonstrations in 1989, there was no clear role for her in Dharamsala, and in 1993 she moved to Australia.

Yungchen Lhamo

Cover of Yungchen Lhamo’s first Real World CD.

Yungchen Lhamo released her first album Tibetan prayer in 1995, and coming to the attention of World-Music supremo Peter Gabriel she recorded for his Real World label. Performing totally alone on stage, she undertook a busy global concert schedule. As Isabelle notes, she had to come to terms not so much with the Chinese state but with the pressures of the Western record industry. She later engaged in charitable projects.

This track comes from her second album for Real World:

Like Dadon, but in a very different style, her themes are spiritual and melancholic.

With a longing for a lost country, a constant reference to the religious way of life of the Tibetans, and the Dalai Lama as dominant icon, Yungchen Lhamo wields the three core identity markers of contemporary exile Tibetans. But her approach is personal in that she departs from the singing of religious melodies, and creates her own style […] . The melodies she composes cannot be called Tibetan, and her voice is not recognized as typical by the Tibetans themselves.

As with all the singers discussed, discussions hinge on the issue of “Tibetanness”.

Her mission contrasts with that of the Chinese pop star Dadawa, whose use of Tibetan themes aroused protest among the exile community. Yet Yungchen Lhamo too struggled to find a niche there.

All such stars wax and wane; these singers may already seem as dated as Tseten Drolma. Before venturing into the more challenging recent Tibetan pop scene, as illustrated on the High Peaks Pure Earth site, Isabelle’s article offers fine perspectives on the longer history of traditional and popular musics, and gender, in the PRC and in exile. [2]

As she summarises:

Singing is always more than just producing melodious sounds. Music is as much a vehicle for politics as it is for pleasure, as it crosses between the realms of public and private use. More than different aspects of Tibet’s singing traditions, these women represent different periods of Tibet’s recent history, and we can see how all six women form a tiled historical bridge […] . The lives of all of them also appear traversed by contradictory tensions stemming from their problematic political positioning. They have been involved willingly or unwillingly in presenting a political message, holding a public position in the community, representing their nationality, mediating between past and present, Tibet and China, and Tibet and the West, yet failing to fully be acknowledged by all Tibetans, from both Tibet and Dharamsala. All these life-stories have been caught up in the redefinition of what it means to be Tibetan, both within Tibet and in exile, and in the negotiation of a professional and cultural identity within the new social forces of contemporary Tibet. […] In their own ways, each of these six women has had to come to terms with the same question: how to be at the same time “modern” and “Tibetan”?

I do recommend this detailed, nuanced article!

[1] For the demi-monde of Lhasa society before the occupation, note Jamyang Norbu, “The Lhasa Ripper”. For the chang-ma at Dharamsala festivities, see Kiela Diehl, Echoes from Dharamsala (2002), pp.57–62, 88–94.

[2] Another popular female star in the PRC who might further thicken the plot is Han Hong (b.1971)—see e.g. Nimrod Baranovitch, Representing Tibet in the global cultural market: the case of ChineseTibetan musician Han Hong”, in Andrew Weintraub & Bell Yung (eds.), Music and cultural rights (2009); and the important study by Anna Morcom, Unity and discord: music and politics in contemporary Tibet (TIN, 2004). Click here for Han Hong’s song Heavenly road (2005); and here’s a live version from 2001 of her 1994 song Tibetan plateau:

Tibet: a blind musician

Ajo Namgyal

Photo courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum,
via the fascinating article of Jamyang Norbu, “The Lhasa Ripper“.

Having introduced some blind musicians in China and further afield, as well as the nangmatöshe scene in Lhasa before and since 1950, a tribute to a noted blind musician from pre-occupation Tibet is apt.

Ajo Namgyel (1894–1942) came from a poor wood-logging family in the Dakpo region of southeast Tibet. He lost his eyes after being attacked by a raven at the age of one. Becoming a talented musician like his father, he was first spotted while busking on the dramyen lute in Lhasa shortly after arriving there in 1914. One version even suggests that he was invited there after being spotted by members of the Kashag cabinet on a mission to Dakpo.

Like other folk musicians in Tibet, China, and elsewhere, Ajo Namgyel was a versatile instrumentalist. Later he was invited to join the Nangma’i skyid sdug association, of which he became the last teacher, playing piwang fiddle as well as dramyen at high-society banquets. He created the popular töshe style in Lhasa by adapting folk-songs from western Tibet. He picked up new songs from visiting lhamo opera troupes on their summer visits for the Shotön festival. And he found a wife.

Geoffrey Samuel cites an evocative vignette from Hugh Richardson, British diplomat in Tibet until 1950. As Richardson recalled, the association

was engaged to perform at parties given by the Tibetan government for the British Mission at Lhasa in the summer. The players were Namgyel with the pi-wang [fiddle]; a Ladakhi Muslim on the flute and (I think) a Chinese on the sgra-snyen [lute]. The dancers were also three, headed by a famous old woman who was the teacher of dancing and singing … The players sat on the ground with a plentiful supply of chang [Tibetan beer] and tea and a small boy to look after Namgyel’s pipe for he was the only person with an unspoken license to smoke in the presence of the Kashag [the Tibetan cabinet]. The dancing was always on a board; the women wore their Lhasa headdresses and aprons and their hands were decorously covered by the sleeves of their blouses, hanging down a good foot or more below their hands. These sleeves played a big part in the gestures that were part of the dance. The songs were accompanied by gestures of their arms and a rhythmic shuffling of their feet and slight forward kicks. That was all in slow time. When the tune broke into quick time—a sort of scherzo!—there was, so far as I remember, no singing but the dance became much more vigorous and lively and there was some stamping on the board [“quickstep” as Jamyang Norbu calls it]. One of the songs, which always caused much amusement to them and the Tibetans, was an innovation (perhaps after the visit of Sir Charles Bell or one of his successors) in which the dancers turned to one another and made a gesture of shaking hands, singing “Good morning” or something like it, in English. The whole affair was very casual and informal and the song and dance went on while the guests were chatting or drinking. The only song that was almost always heard with some attention was bkra la shis pa [“Good Fortune”] which was described as being very old and of good omen. The three instruments I have mentioned were all I ever saw played out of doors. A yangchin [Chinese dulcimer] might be added indoors.

Posthumously, through no fault of his own, one of Ajo’s melodies was adapted into the Cultural Revolution hit in praise of Chairman Mao Jingzhu Mao zhuxi wanshou wujiang 敬祝毛主席万寿无疆, which those so inclined can find on YouTube…

A Chinese post on Ajo, hagiographic but full of detail, opens with an inevitable kowtow to his contemporary the blind Chinese musician Abing (1893–1950), whom Yang Yinliu inadvertently elevated to iconic status at the expense of all the innumerable other great blind musicians all over China—and Tibet. Abing made an unlikely hero for the CCP: his life declined from performing rituals with admired Daoists in Wuxi to becoming an opium-dependent street beggar after losing his eyesight through syphilis in his 30s. Conversely, Ajo Namgyel, blind from infancy, went from itinerant begging to leading the most respected nangma-töshe group in Lhasa. [1]

[1] He has a brief entry in the New Grove dictionary under “rNam-rgyal, A-jo”. The Chinese post may be based on a 1980 article in Tibetan by the leading scholar of nangmatöshe, Zholkhang Sonam Dargye (1922–2007)—himself a former member of the association and pupil of Ajo Namgyel from the age of 13. See also here. Geoffrey Samuel’s article is “Songs of Lhasa”, Ethnomusicology 20.3 (1976).

How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet

“There is singing everywhere in Tibet”


gunsTibetan monks laying down their arms, 1959. AFP/Getty.

In my first post on Labrang, recalling the debate over how to represent Tibetan music in the New Grove dictionary, I mentioned a succinct, nay flimsy, article by

  • Mao Jizeng 毛繼增, “Xizang wuchu bushi ge: minzu yinyue caifang zhaji” 西藏無处不是歌——民族音乐採訪札記 [There is singing everywhere in Tibet: fieldnotes on national music], Renmin yinyue 1959.5, pp.8–11 (!).

—a strong candidate for the award of Most Ironic Title Ever. [1]

* * *

Mao Jizeng’s brief article resulted from a ten-month stay in Lhasa that he made from 1956 to early 1957. He was part of a team chosen to do a field survey in Tibet, led by the distinguished Tibetologist Li Youyi 李有义 (1912–2015); Mao Jizeng (b.1932) had just been assigned to the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing after graduating from Chengdu.

The team clearly set out from Beijing with the intention of covering a wide area of central Tibet (then just in the process of becoming the “Tibetan Autonomous Region”, TAR). Unrest was already common in Amdo and Kham, and the political situation there would soon deteriorate severely in the TAR; but even in 1956, as Mao Jizeng recalled in a 2007 interview, Tibetan–Chinese relations were so tense that they had to remain in Lhasa, unable to get out into the countryside. One member of the team was so scared that he soon returned to Beijing; Mao Jizeng, being young, “didn’t know what fear was”—but he still got hold of a revolver for protection, which doesn’t suggest total faith in the warm welcome of Tibetans for their Chinese friends.

Anyway, for Mao Jizeng, “everywhere” in Tibet could only mean Lhasa. However, I learn here that Li Youyi did manage to travel farther afield with a separate team of Tibetan and Chinese fieldworkers (perhaps with military back-up?); and despite incurring political criticism in the summer of 1957, he continued doing field studies in TAR and Kham right until 1961, though not on music.

At the time, Chinese music scholars knew virtually nothing of Tibetan musical cultures—or even of Han-Chinese regional traditions of such as those of Fujian. That was the point of these 1950s’ field surveys, which would later blossom with the Anthology. But even as a musical ethnography of 1956 Lhasa, Mao Jizeng’s article is seriously flawed; it could only provide a few preliminary clues.

Those field surveys among the Han Chinese were given useful clues by the local Bureaus of Culture. But although Li Youyi was bringing an official team from Beijing, it’s not clear if there was any cultural work-unit to host them in Lhasa. Such cultural initiatives as there were in Tibetan areas at the time took place under the auspices of the military Arts-work Troupes—hardly a promising start. So Mao Jizeng may have been left to his own devices. Indeed, while in my early days of fieldwork I learned a lot from home-grown cultural workers, as time went by their successors were more interested in platitudinous banquets than in local culture, and it was preferable to bypass them in favour of grassroots sources. Still, Mao Jizeng would doubtless have been quite happy working within the state system.

The MRI had entrusted him with one of their three Japanese-imported recording machines, but batteries were an intractable problem. Billeted in the Communications Office, he could hardly engage meaningfully with Lhasa folk.

Now, I’m full of admiration for all the brave efforts of music fieldworkers in Maoist China to convey useful material on traditional culture despite political pressure—but this is not one of them. In a mere four pages Mao Jizeng managed to pen a tragicomic classic in the annals of the dutiful mouthing of propaganda, obediently parroting the whole gamut of Chinese music clichés. We might regard it under the Chinese rubric of “negative teaching material” (fanmian jiaocai 反面教材).

At the same time, I try not to judge his article too harshly: we should put ourselves in his shoes (cf. feature films like The blue kite, and indeed Neil MacGregor’s question “What would we have done?”).

Han Chinese scholars, not to mention peasants, were already quite familiar with the effects of escalating collectivisation upon their own society; there too, fewer people had the time or energy to sing or observe traditional ritual proprieties. But conditions in Lhasa must have alarmed the team that arrived there in 1956. Worthy as fieldwork projects were, they could only gloss over the social upheavals of the time.

At the head of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, Yang Yinliu, his distinguished reputation based on seniority and massive erudition, had earned a certain latitude for his studies of traditional music. While paying lip-service to the political ideology of the day—elevating the music of the working masses at the expense of the exploiting classes, and purporting to decry “feudal superstition”—he somehow managed to devote just as much attention to “literati” and “religious” culture as to more popular, secular genres.

After all, ethnomusicology was only in its infancy even in the West; and despite some fine fieldwork by Chinese folklorists before the 1949 revolution, the concepts of anthropology were still barely known—still less as it might apply to musicking. David McAllester’s pioneering 1954 monograph on the Navajo makes an interesting comparison, free of glib defences of the policies of his compatriots who had usurped their land.

Of course, in reading any scholarship, one always has to bear in mind the conditions of the time—particularly when we consult documents from Maoist China (as we must). They often provide revealing details, as I’ve noted for the history of collectivisation and famine in the Yanggao county gazetteer and sources for Hunan. We have to learn to “read between the lines” (cf. my Anthology review).

The main audience for such articles was urban, educated Han Chinese, who would know no better, and were willing or constrained to go along with the pretence. Their perspectives grate only with modern readers, certainly those outside China who are equipped with more information about conditions in the PRC under Maoism than was then available. [2]

The political background
Here, while consulting Robbie Barnett’s course on modern Tibet, we should turn to the masterly, balanced

  • Tsering Sakya, The dragon in the land of snows: a history of modern Tibet since 1947 (1999), chapters 5–7. [3]

In a nutshell, from 1956 the lives of Tibetans deteriorated through to the major 1959 rebellion and the Dalai Lama’s escape into exile; then by 1961 a brief respite led to still more appalling calamities after 1964.

Lhasa 1956

Source here.

For the first few years after the 1950 Chinese occupation, traditional life remained relatively intact. But the forming of the Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART) in 1955 made Tibetans anxious that the noose was to be pulled more tightly. For central Tibet, Chairman Mao was adopting a more gradualist policy than with the Han Chinese, proceeding more cautiously with collectivisation. But in 1955 “democratic reforms”, land reform, and mutual aid groups began to be implemented in Kham and Amdo, and armed uprisings soon erupted there, prelude to the major rebellion of 1959. The Chinese responded by bombing monasteries.

Even as refugees were arriving in Lhasa from Kham and Amdo with tales of Chinese violence and assaults on religion, the city also saw an influx of Chinese labourers, troops, and cadres; anti-Chinese feeling grew. But both Tibetan and Chinese officials strove to isolate central Tibet from the unrest, and Khampa refugees found themselves unwelcome in Lhasa.

Still, opposition to Chinese rule grew in central Tibet. During the Monlam New Year’s rituals of 1956, wall posters appeared in Lhasa denouncing the Chinese and saying that they should return to China. By the end of March 1956—when Mao Jizeng must have been in Lhasa—the atmosphere there was tense.

In November, as the Western press were equating the revolts in Kham with the Budapest uprising, the Dalai Lama managed to visit India. Amidst complex diplomatic considerations (which Shakya explains with typical clarity), he eventually agreed to return to Lhasa in March 1957. There, despite the Chinese promise to postpone radical reform, he learned that the situation in Tibet had deteriorated further.

In mainland China, large-scale public rituals had already become virtually unfeasible. But in July 1957 a sumptuous Golden Throne ritual was held in Lhasa for the long life of the Dalai Lama—providing a focus for the pan-Tibetan resistance movement. And from summer 1958 to February 1959—even as monastic life was being purged in Amdo and Kham—the Dalai Lama “graduated” in Buddhist philosophy with his lengthy geshe examinations, in an opulent succession of ceremonies and processions apparently unmarred by Chinese presence:

The Khampa resistance continued, with little support from Lhasa. But events culminated at the Monlam rituals in March 1959. Amidst popular fears that the Dalai Lama (then 25) would be abducted by the Chinese, he fled to India—where he still remains in exile. Meanwhile further revolts occurred in Lhasa and further afield. Their suppression was the end of both active resistance within Tibet and the attempt to forge a co-existence between “Buddhist Tibet and Communist China”.

In 1962 the 10th Panchen Lama presented his “70,000 character petition” to Zhou Enlai. It was a major document exposing the devastation of Tibetan life wrought by Chinese rule—and the reason why he was then imprisoned for the next fifteen years. For more on Amdo and the Panchen Lamas, see here.

With whatever degree of preparation, ethnographers always walk into complex societies. Such was the maelstrom into which Mao Jizeng unwittingly plunged in search of happy Tibetan singing and dancing. While one can hardly expect to find it reflected in his work, it makes essential context for our studies.

MJZ title

The 1959 article
Whereas monastic Buddhism has long dominated Western research on Tibet, Mao Jizeng passed swiftly over the soundscape of the monasteries. Unrest was brewing, particularly in Kham (see e.g. here), but rituals were still held in the populous monasteries in and around Lhasa, with the revered Dalai Lama still in residence; indeed, even after his escape into exile amidst the 1959 rebellion, the monasteries were still busy in 1964, as we see in Gallery 1 of Woeser’s Forbidden memory. Despite the sensitive status of “religious music”, Yang Yinliu would have been keen to study this major aspect of the culture. But while Mao Jizeng mentions elsewhere that he attended a “large-scale” ritual at the Jokhang in 1957, the monasteries seem to have been largely outside his scope.

Dutifully praising the long history of fraternal bonds between Tibetans and Chinese, Mao Jizeng toes the Party line in his brief historical outlines of various genres. He inevitably alludes to the marriage alliance with Tang-dynasty Princess Wencheng, exhibit no.1 in China’s flimsy historical claim to sovereignty over Tibet, citing the lha-mo opera telling her story, Gyasa Balsa. But while lha-mo remained popular in Lhasa until 1959—and it’s always an enchanting spectacle—that’s his only brief reference to it; he doesn’t mention attending any performances or meeting any of the musicians. [4]


Lhamo opera at the Norbulingka. 1950s. Source: Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (ed.), The singing mask (2001).

And these happy smiling ethnic minorities, they just can’t stop singing and dancing, eh! [5] Mao Jizeng tells how he often witnessed street gatherings with young and old singing and dancing together. And he was told a story about a Tibetan work team conscripted to build a new Lhasa airport in 1954, getting together every evening after work to sing and dance till late at night. In order “to look after their health and make sure they got enough sleep” [Yeah, right], the Chinese foremen stepped in to forbid such parties, whereupon the labourers’ mood, and their work, deteriorated; their overlords had no choice but to give way. [6]

How one would like to hear the Tibetan side of the story. Indeed, Tsering Sakya (The dragon in the land of snows, p. 136) gives a vignette from the same period:

In an attempt to reduce their expenditure, the Chinese began to ask people working on road construction to take a reduction in their pay. The Tibetan workers were urged that they should give their labour free as a contribution to the “construction of the Motherland”. Barshi, a Tibetan government official, remembered that when the people refused to accept a cut in their wages, the Chinese started to lecture them, saying that in the new Tibet everything was owned by the people, and that the wealth of the state was inseparable from the wealth of the people.

One intriguing genre that Mao Jizeng might have found suitable to record was khrom-‘gyu-r’gzhas, satirical songs lampooning prominent officials in the Old Society; but alas he doesn’t mention them. I don’t dare surmise that such songs might have been adapted to satirise their new Chinese masters. [7]

Tsering Shakya cites a more blunt street song popular in Lhasa after the Dalai Lama’s return from India in 1957:

We would rather have the Dalai Lama than Mao Tse-tung
We would rather have the Kashag than the PCART
We would rather have Buddhism than Communism
We would rather have Ten sung Mag mu [the Tibetan army] than the PLA
We would rather use our own wooden bowls than Chinese mugs. 

What Mao Jizeng did manage to study was the popular instrumental, song, and dance forms nangma and töshe, for festive entertainment—then still largely associated with elite patronage, and in decline but still not purged. Around the 1920s, in addition to the “art music” style of nangma, Lhasa musicians began adapting töshe (stod-gzhas) from dance-songs of western Tibet (“Western songs”, as Geoffrey Samuel calls them).

nangma 1956

Open-air performance of nangma, 1956.

Though Mao Jizeng might appear to have been largely engaging in “salvage” work, the photo above shows that he also witnessed some social activity. Among the performers of nangma-töshe were Tibetan Hui Muslims—including the senior master “Amaire” 阿麦惹 (Amir?), whom Mao describes as recalling the largest repertoire of nangma pieces. But he doesn’t mention meeting Zholkhang Sonam Dargye (1922–2007), who having taken part in the Nangma’i skyid sdug association, the most renowned of such groups, went on to write authoritatively on nangma-töshe from 1980. In an instructive 2004 interview (in Chinese) Zholkhang recalls senior musicians in the group—including the leader, celebrated blind performer Ajo Namgyel (1894–1942). [8]

Left: nangma, 1940s. Right: Ajo Namgyel. Source here.

Zholkhang provides some brief details for Amir. His grandfather had been a sedan-bearer in Tibet for a Chinese official from Sichuan, and Amir himself had a Chinese name, Ma Baoshan 馬寶山. A farrier by trade, he was an accomplished instrumentalist, and had served as organiser for the Nangma’i skyid sdug association.

But rather than instructing Mao Jizeng himself, Amir introduced him to the distinguished aristocrat and litterateur Horkhang Sonam Palbar 霍康·索朗边巴 (1919–95), a patron of nangma-töshe who was to be his main informant for the genre. As Mao describes in a tribute to Horkhang, for over three months he regularly visited him at his house near the Barkhor, studying with him in the mornings before taking lunch with his family. Even in the 1990s, some Chinese collectors still clung to the dubious habit of interviewing and recording folk musicians by summoning them to cultural offices (cf. my 1987 trip to Chengde), but that probably wasn’t practicable over an extended period.

And here (inspired by the likes of Mao Jizeng to bring “class consciousness” into the discussion!) I’m pretty sure we can read between the lines again; considerations of “face” must have come into play on both sides. Amir would have made an ideal informant on nangma-töshe; but he was a common “folk artist”, perhaps living in a humble dwelling in a poor quarter—unsuitable, even dangerous, for a Chinese scholar to frequent. Whether or not he considered himself unsuitable to represent Tibetan culture to a Chinese visitor, the annual round of festivities that had long kept the musicians busy must have shrunk after 1950, and their livelihood was doubtless suffering. Like others in that milieu, Amir may have been finding it hard to adapt to the new regime, perhaps worried about the consequences of regular contact with a Chinese scholar, or simply reluctant. For Mao Jizeng to have spent more time in the folk milieu would only have exposed him to inconvenient truths that he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, document.

Conversely, Horkhang was prestigious, despite his aristocratic background. Elsewhere I learn that as a prominent official under the old Tibetan administration, he had studied English with the Tibet-based diplomat Hugh Richardson (for whose photos of the old society, see under Tibet album). Horkhang was captured by the PLA in 1950 during the battle of Chamdo (or as Mao Jizeng puts it, “the Liberation of Chamdo”). After the occupation he accommodated to Chinese rule, “turning over a new leaf” by necessity; like many former aristocrats whose status under the new regime was vulnerable, he was soon given high-sounding official titles in Lhasa, through which the Chinese sought to mask their own domination.

Horkhang’s house would have been comfortable; he still had servants. Moreover, he didn’t drink, whereas the nangma-töshe musicians had a taste for the chang beer that was supplied at parties where they performed. And it would be easier for Mao Jizeng to communicate with Horkhang than with a semi-literate folk musician. While Mao must have had help with interpreting, perhaps Horkhang had already picked up some Chinese in the course of his official duties; anyway, Mao claims that his own spoken Tibetan improved over the course of these sessions.

So in all, while Horkhang was a patron rather than a musician (cf. the mehfil aficionados of Indian raga, and narrative-singing in old Beijing), he seemed a more suitable informant for the Chinese guest. While we should indeed document the perspectives of patrons and aficionados, it should only be a supplement to working with musicians themselves. But the ideology of “becoming at one with the masses” only went so far. Given the obligatory stress on the music of the labouring classes, it may seem ironic that Mao Jizeng’s main topic was a genre patronised by the old aristocrats, and that he chose to study it with one of them rather than with a lowly “folk artist”. He justifies his studies by observing his mentor’s warm relations with the common folk. He doesn’t say, but perhaps Amir and other musicians also took part in some sessions at Horkhang’s house—in which case it would have made an ideal setting.

By contrast with the distinctive soundscapes of the monasteries and lha-mo opera, nangma’s heterophony of flute, plucked and bowed strings, and hammer dulcimer, however “authentic”, often sounds disconcertingly like Chinese silk-and-bamboo, as you can hear in this playlist— sadly not annotated, but apparently containing tracks both from exile and within the PRC:

Indeed, as with the dodar ceremonial ensemble of Amdo monasteries, the Chinese influence goes back to the 18th century. This doubtless enhanced its appeal for Mao Jizeng; and like silk-and-bamboo, it was to make nangmatöshe a suitable basis for the state song-and-dance troupes. Woeser gives short shrift to modern incarnations of nangma in her wonderful story Garpon-la’s offerings (n.9 below).

So Horkhang Sonam Palbar was Mao Jizeng’s main source for the two slim volumes that he also published in 1959,

  • Xizang gudian gewu: nangma 西藏古典歌舞——囊玛 [Tibetan classical song and dance: nangma]
  • Xizang minjian gewu: duixie 西藏民间歌舞——堆谢 [Tibetan folk song and dance: töshe].

Even the enlightened Music Research Institute was anxious about publishing Mao’s afterword acknowledging a Tibetan aristocrat.

According to Mao Jizeng’s 2007 tribute, Horkhang told him that he survived the Cultural Revolution relatively unscathed. This fiction may result both from people’s general reluctance to remember trauma and from the limitations of their relationship—we learn a very different story from Woeser’s Forbidden memory.

Horkang 1966Horkhang Sonam Palbar (centre) paraded with his wife and father-in-law at a thamzing struggle-session, August 1966. Forbidden memory, fig.80.

As Woeser explains, the Red Guards dressed him in a fur coat and hat that they found in his home, to denote his official rank in the former Tibetan government and his “dream of restoring the feudal serf system”.

Woeser goes on to describe how among the “crimes” of which Horkhang was accused was his friendship with the famous writer and scholar Gendun Chöphel (1903–51). Horkhang had helped him through times of adversity, and before Gendun Chöphel died he entrusted many of his manuscripts to Horkhang; these were now confiscated and destroyed by the activists. Still, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Horkhang assembled what he could find of Gendun Chöphel’s work, eventually publishing a three-volume set of his writings that became an authoritative work.

“Palace music”
By contrast with the entertainment music of nangma-töshe, in his 1959 article Mao Jizeng also gives a brief introduction to gar, the ceremonial “palace music” of the Dalai Lama. Indeed, having worked on the genre “in some depth” in the winter of 1956–57, he compiled a third monograph on it, but realised it was too sensitive a topic for publication, and it was lost during the Cultural Revolution.

Gar seems to have been in decline even before the Chinese occupation, though details on its life through the 1940s and 50s are elusive. The little section in Mao Jizeng’s article is characteristically headed “The dark system is a stumbling block to the development of music”; his main purpose here is to decry the former feudal society’s cruel exploitation of the teenage boys who served as dancers—actually an interesting angle, however tendentious Mao’s approach.


Mao Jizeng, liner notes for CD 5 of Xizang yinyue jishi (n.9 below).
Right, gar dancers, 1950s, provenance unclear.

The main instrumental ensemble for gar consisted of loud shawms and kettle-drums, of Ladakhi origin (cf. related bands in XinjiangIran, and India)—formerly, at least, with the halo of a mkhar-rnga bcu-pa frame of ten pitched gongs (cf. Chinese yunluo). [9] A brief scene (from 5.50) of this silent footage from 1945 shows the gong frame on procession with two shawms:

But a subsidiary chamber instrumentation, closer to that of nangma, included the rgyud-mang dulcimer—and as a gift from the MRI, Mao Jizeng presented the musicians with a Chinese yangqin, which must have made an unwieldy part of Mao Jizeng’s luggage on the arduous journey.

He doesn’t cite a source for this section, so it’s unclear who the musicians he consulted were; the Dalai Lama, whom they served, was still in Lhasa, and by 1956 the performers were still at liberty. But following the 1959 rebellion, when the Dalai Lama had to flee, they were deported en masse to the Gormo “reform through labour” camp at Golmud in Qinghai, over a thousand kilometres distant—part of a network of such camps in the vast, desolate region (cf. China: commemorating trauma). There they were to spend over twenty years; conscripted to work on constructing the new railway and highway, singing and dancing can hardly have been part of their regime.

Mao Jizeng ends his 1959 article with a brief section on “New developments since the Peaceful Liberation [sic] of Tibet”—the formation of professional troupes, and the creation of new folk-songs in praise of Chairman Mao; also, of course, themes worthy of study. Encapsulating the fatuity of Chinese propaganda, his final formulaic paragraph is just the kind of flapdoodle we have to wade through:

With the defeat of the former local Tibetan government and the reactionary upper-class elements, traitors to their country, the great mountain weighing down on the hearts of the Tibetan people was overturned, providing more profitable conditions for the development of their ethnic music. The way ahead for Tibetan music is limitlessly broad. It will shine radiantly forth in the ranks of the music of the Chinese nationalities.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies only a few years later, “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”. Selflessly, I have read Mao Jizeng’s article so that you won’t have to.

Back in Beijing, and the reform era
Mao Jizeng may have largely ignored the fraught social conditions of the time, but one has to admire his persistence in remaining in Lhasa for ten months. Even by the 1990s, Chinese fieldworkers, and most foreign scholars, still tended to find brief “hit-and-run” missions more practicable, albeit over an extended period (cf. here).

Between 1956, when Mao Jizeng set off for Tibet, and the publication of his report in 1959, the political climate deteriorated severely in Beijing too. From 1957, music scholars were among countless intellectuals and cadres demoted or imprisoned during the Anti-Rightist campaign, not to be rehabilitated until the late 1970s; and the 1958 Great Leap Backward soon led to severe famine and destruction. Chinese people had to deal with their own devastating sufferings, without worrying about distant Tibet.

Even so, in 1960 Yang Yinliu managed to publish the Hunan survey that he had led, also in 1956; its 618 pages (as well as a separate study on the Confucian ritual!) make a stark contrast with the paltry material resulting from the hampered Tibetan expedition. * I wonder if his original fieldnotes have survived.

Disturbingly, the misleading clichés of Mao Jizeng’s article still continue to recur in more recent PRC scholarship. There, forty years since liberalisation, no frank reflections on the conditions of fieldwork among minority peoples in the 1950s seem to have been published—and amidst ever-tighter limits on academic freedom, such work is becoming even less likely.

Nonetheless, along with the widespread revival of tradition in the 1980s, more extensive study developed. For the major Anthology project Tibetan and Chinese cultural workers were no longer so cautious about documenting elite and religious genres. They now collected much material—with hefty volumes for TAR, Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan on folk-song, opera, narrative-singing, instrumental music, and dance. For the historian, the monographs on opera and narrative-singing (xiqu zhi 戏曲志, quyi zhi 曲艺志) are particularly useful. As with Han Chinese traditions, much of this research focused on the cultures that had been impoverished under Maoism, rather than the process of impoverishment.

From early in the 1980s, in both Dharamsala and Lhasa, gar court music was recreated under the guidance of Pa-sangs Don-grub (1918–98), the last gar-dpon master to have served under a ruling Dalai Lama in Tibet (and like Horkhang, a pupil of Gendun Chöphel), as well as the former gar-pa dancer Rigdzin Dorje. In Dharamsala it began to serve the ceremonies of the Dalai Lama again, whereas in Lhasa it was performed only in concert.


The gar-dpon, 1980s. Photo: Willie Robson.

Though we don’t know how many inmates of the Gormo camp survived, Pa-sangs Don-grub was at last able to return to Lhasa by 1982, literally scarred by two decades of hard labour. The precise timeline seems unclear, but in Woeser’s plausible interpretation, he only overcame his reluctance to accept the Chinese request for him to lead a revival of the genre when, in a brief rapprochement, he was given the opportunity to pay homage to his revered former master the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala through training performers at TIPA—and only on the Dalai Lama’s advice did he return to Lhasa to teach it there too.

The 1980s’ revival of gar. Photos: Willie Robson.

In July 1987, while I was still seeking folk ritual bands in China, the enterprising Willie Robson (with whom I later worked to bring a Buddhist group from Wutaishan to the UK) put together the Music from the Royal Courts festival at the South Bank for BBC Radio 3—a grand enterprise the like of which would hardly be possible to organise today. It included groups from Africa and India, Ottoman and Thai music, the Heike biwa epic from Japan, nanguan from Taiwan, Uyghur muqam, the Chinese qin zither—and, remarkably, a combined group from Lhasa, performing both gar and nangma-töshe.

Pasangs Don-grub

Pa-sangs Don-grub, early 1980s; from the Chinese version of Woeser’s story.

Moved by Pa-sangs Don-grub’s 1985 book in her father’s collection, Woeser encapsulates our task in reading PRC documents:

Even a short introduction in a book can reveal a lot of information. This was the case with Songs and dances for offerings, with its brief introduction to the 14th Dalai Lama’s eleven-member dance troupe. After a few pages, only bits of information about the troupe emerged, such as the number of members and their ages. There wasn’t a lot, but at the time it probably wasn’t safe to write much more. The introduction seemed to be quite ordinary, even mediocre. Nevertheless, much information was hidden between the lines. These nuances could only be understood by another Tibetan, who would discern from just a glance what was really being said, what happened when and where. Many Tibetan readers experienced the hardship and torment the troupe endured before they had at last survived the disasters in their lives. Anyone who hasn’t experienced similar torments will find it hard to read between the lines of the writing and know what the men went through. That’s why a narrator like me is needed, who is at some distance from the incidents but is sympathetic to their reality and able to retell the story.

Also in the 1980s, Mao Jizeng’s former mentor Horkhang Sonam Palbar, having endured his own tribulations in the Cultural Revolution, was once again showered with high-ranking official titles in the Chinese apparatus—in a common pattern, serving as “décor for the state and as mouthpieces for its policies”, as Woeser observes in Forbidden memory.

Meanwhile, from 1983 Mao Jizeng was finally able to visit regions of the TAR that were out of bounds to him in 1956; and after the convulsive events of the 60s and 70s, on his trips to Lhasa he was able to meet up again with Horkhang.

Horkang 1987Horkhang Sonam Palbar leading a study team to a village of the Lhoba minority people,
Mainling county, southeast TAR 1987 (cf. here, n.1).

Blissfully oblivious to all the evidence, Mao Jizeng still constantly parroted the cliché of the warm fraternal feelings between Han Chinese and Tibetans, and his own rapport with the latter, including Horkhang (for more subtle views on rapport, see the excellent Bruce Jackson; and here I develop Nigel Barley’s characterisation of the fieldworker as “harmless idiot” into “harmful idiot”).

In his 2003 tribute to Horkhang, Mao tells a story that inadvertently suggests a less rosy picture—revealing both Tibetan resentment and the insidious hierarchical power dynamics among Tibetans in their dealings with the Chinese:

In Lhasa in 1988—during yet another period of serious unrest, by the way—Mao Jizeng was having problems mustering the recalcitrant Shöl Tibetan Opera Troupe to perform Sukyi Nima for him to record. Rather shooting himself in the foot, he even lists some of their excuses: some actors hadn’t showed up, the troupe was out of money, they couldn’t find the drum… * It was only when the illustrious Horkhang stepped in to cajole them that they finally had to play ball.

And widespread unrest has continued in Tibetan areas. In 2009 the popular Amdo singer Tashi Dondhup was sentenced to fifteen months’ imprisonment after distributing songs critical of the occupation—notably 1958–2008, evoking two terrifying periods. For eleven Tibetan singers imprisoned since 2012, click here. [10]

* * *

As William Noll observes, the whole history of ethnomusicology abounds with scholars who come from a society that oppresses the culture in question; and around the world there are plenty of accounts of fieldwork projects that fell short of their ambition. The limitations of Mao Jizeng’s ten-month sojourn in the tense, turbulent Lhasa of 1956, and even his inability to reflect on the issues involved, may not be such an exceptional case.

As another kind of outsider, only able to read Chinese and English but not Tibetan sources, such are the slender clues that I can offer. Note also Tibet: conflicting memories and Forbidden memory.

So much for “There is singing everywhere in Tibet”. Meretricious (and a Happy New Monlam).

With thanks to Robbie Barnett

[1] Since the present or past tense is not necessarily specified in Chinese, one might almost be tempted to read it as “There was singing everywhere in Tibet [until we barged in and broke it all up]”—or perhaps as an optative, like “Britannia rule the waves”?!).

[2] By the way, “singing” is a very broad, um, church. Both singing and dancing on stage are only the tip of the iceberg; they lead us to folk festivities, notably calendrical and life-cycle rituals. Though “revolutionary songs” were an obligatory component of Chinese collecting throughout the PRC (if anyone remembers songs of resistance sung by the Tibetan rebels from 1956, people certainly weren’t going to sing them for Chinese fieldworkers—who anyway wouldn’t want, or dare, to listen), their main interest was the traditional soundscape (cf. Bards of Shaanbei, under “Research and images”). Tibetan and Chinese pop music only came to play a major part in the Tibetan soundscape after the 1980s’ reforms.

Even today in a (Chinese) region like Shaanbei, famed for its folk-songs, it would be misleading to claim that singing is everywhere, harking back to the romantic image of Yellow earth. Sure, folk-songs are still heard quite often there, but often in rowdy restaurants rather than by shepherds on picturesque hillsides (cf. One belt, one road).

[3] For yet more detail, see Melvyn Goldstein’s multi-volume A history of modern Tibet—for this period, vol.3: The storm clouds descend, 1955–1957 and vol.4: In the eye of the storm, 1957–1959. There’s also extensive research unpacking the representation of ethnic minorities in the PRC, from Dru Gladney and Stevan Harrell and onwards. For the changing physical and mental landscape of Lhasa, note Robert Barnett’s sophisticated book Lhasa: streets with memory (2006).

[4] Naturally, Mao Jizeng rendered Tibetan terms in Chinese characters, just as Western visitors devised systems to render it in their alphabet. Later, as the variants of the Wylie system became standard for international publications, Chinese transcription was acknowledged to be inadequate—though it still works for the Chinese… I’ve tried to give Wylie versions of Mao Jizeng’s Chinese terms.

[5] For Tibetan folk-song, see §9 of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s Western-language bibliography—including this detailed ethnography of a family in Amdo, yet another impressive publication from Kevin Stuart’s team; Sangye Dondhup’s list for sources in Chinese and Tibetan; and the folk-song volumes of the Anthology.

[6] The first such project is usually dated to 1956; even then, the airport didn’t become operational until 1965. Perhaps the 1954 labourers, too exhausted by singing and dancing, and too demoralised at being forbidden to do so, were unable to complete the job?

[7] See Melvyn Goldstein, “Lhasa street songs: political and social satire in traditional Tibet”, Tibet journal 7.1–2 (1982), based on material collected among exile communities. For Sitting Bull’s ingenious speech in Sioux for assembled white dignitaries, cursing them with impunity, see n.1 here.

[8] For nangmatöshe, see the bibliographies cited in n.5 above, as well as the Anthology for TAR. For the work of Geoffrey Samuel, apart from his chapter in Jamyang Norbu (ed.), Zlos-gar (1986), see “Songs of Lhasa”, Ethnomusicology 20.3 (1976)—including an Appendix referring to fifteen 78s recorded in Lhasa between 1943 and 1945 by the British Mission under Sir Basil Gould, which one would love to compare with later versions!

The writings of Zholkhang Sonam Dargye (Zhol-khang bSod-nams Dar-rgyas) feature in Sangye Dondhup’s list of Tibetan sources; he is included among the biographical entries for Tibetan musicians in the New Grove dictionary (handily assembled here; main article on Tibetan music here). For the role of female performers before 1959, see the fine article Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, “Women in the performing arts: portraits of six contemporary singers”, pp.204–207.

In search of Ajo Namgyel, I found the fascinating article by Jamyang Norbu “The Lhasa Ripper“, on the “dark underbelly” of pre-occupation Lhasa: crime, prostitution, beggars. For nangma bars since the 1990s, see e.g. Anna Morcom, Unity and discord: music and politics in contemporary Tibet (TIN, 2004), and her “Modernity, power, and the reconstruction of dance in post-1950s Tibet”Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 3 (2007).

[9] A useful introduction to gar before the occupation, and then from exile, is Jamyang Norbu with Tashi Dhondup, “A preliminary study of gar, the court dance and music of Tibet”, in Zlos-gar. See also Mark Trewin, “On the history and origin of ‘gar’: the court ceremonial music of Tibet”, CHIME 8 (1995). As well as the entry for Pa-sangs Don-grub in the New Grove (with a list of his publications), do read Woeser‘s story “Garpon La’s offerings“, Manoa 24.2 (2012). Dates given for the gar-pa Rigdzin Dorje differ: 1915–83 apud Zlos-gar, 1927–84 according to Grove. The mkhar-rnga bcu-pa gong-frame is mentioned in the Zlos-gar chapter and the Grove section on gar.

Within TAR the fortunes of gar are documented in the Anthology; and Mao Jizeng’s six-CD anthology of Tibetan music in TAR, Xizang yinyue jishi 西藏音樂紀實 (Wind Records, 1994), recorded since the 1980s, features both nangma-töshe (CDs 3 and 5) and gar (CD 5, ##3–4), despite the nugatory liner notes; see Mireille Helffer’s review. In the absence of Mao Jizeng’s monograph, all I can find of his notes on gar is on pp.38–42 of this trite overview of Tibetan music.

[10] For another thoughtful article by Woeser, exploring the shifting sands of prohibited “reactionary songs” and the challenge of keeping track of subtle allusions, see here.

* In another age, he might have returned with gifts emblazoned “My mate went to Lhasa and all I got was this lousy T-shirt”.

** Impertinently, this reminds me of both the Monty Python cheeseshop sketch and various instances of musos’ deviant behaviour (notably this, and even Revenge at the Prague opera).

Labrang 2: the violence of liberation

This review follows on from my posts on Tibet in the Cultural Revolution (here and here), and on issues arising from the 2002 UK tour of monks from the Labrang monastery.

Since the 1990s the polarized viewpoints of scholars within the PRC and in exile have been impressively refined. Just to reiterate, diverse topics in Tibetan culture are now receiving attention not only for central Tibet (“Tibetan Autonomous Region”, TAR) but also further afield in Amdo and Kham (for other works on Amdo, see Labrang 1).

Makley cover

By contrast with the timeless, transcendental image of Tibetan culture based on monastic ritual that beguiles some scholars, the complex, changing tensions around Labrang are brilliantly unpacked in

  • Charlene Makley, The violence of liberation: gender and Tibetan Buddhist revival in post-Mao China (2007); reviewed far more knowledgeably by Mona Schrempf and Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy.

Highlighting the role of gender, Makley’s sophisticated ethnography considers history before, during, and since Maoism to survey Buddhism at various levels;  the wider community; Chinese and foreign tourism; and generational attitudes.

The book’s evocative title is borrowed—and extended—from Mona Schrempf, who used it to refer to the distinctive Tibetan tantric subjugation of the earth and its associated enemy agencies. In the Introduction, Makley asks:

How did gendered inequalities structure the revitalization of the famous Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Labrang Tashi Khyil during post-Mao reforms? What were the exigencies of great gendered changes for Tibetans who lived under the nightmare shadow of state terror even as they encountered utopian dreams of pleasurable consumption in a new market economy? And what were the implications of my analytic interest in gender difference as a contingent and translocal social process in a community that was vigorously invested in rebuilding stable and coherent local worlds after the collective trauma of socialist transformation?

By the time that she arrived at Labrang in the mid-1990s, she found that

a decade of state-supervised tourism in the region had actually solidified a certain distance between locals and foreign visitors, in that assumptions each held about the other’s nature and interests had become anchored in stereotypes, often-cited rumours, and certain patterned interactions.

As she notes, the packaging of “ethnic culture” in the PRC under Mao and since has been much studied, and “state officials, local Tibetans, and foreigners all participated in this new commodity voyeurism in the valley”. Whereas Tibetans made up the great majority of the population in the surrounding areas, in the town itself they were outnumbered by Han and Hui residents. Labrang was

a rapidly urbanizing locale where the premises for power, value, and morality were shifting, and many residents thus deeply felt that boundaries among persons, places, and agencies were dangerously blurring.

Makley justifies her focus on gender as a key element in these multiple relationships, elaborating Goffmann’s “participation frameworks”.

Since the monastery was reopened in 1980, lamas and their monk and lay male students had been deeply invested in reframing Buddhism first and foremost as prestigious, rationalized knowledge production.

At Labrang she makes a discovery that can be observed in many cultures:

As I set out to talk with Tibetans of every stripe about local history, and their opinions about gender and ritual practices, I learned that there were no general Tibetan terms in everyday use for “religion” and “ritual” that would cover all the practices constituting the lay-monastic relationship. Tibetans across the community instead referred to a vast repertoire of efficacious practices with particular terms depending on the task to be accomplished, the target of the practice, and whether or not it conferred benefits to future lifetimes. But in the face of state regulation that divided institutionalised and Party-supervised “religion” from dangerously irrational “superstition”, what most structured this complex ritual life in Labrang was locals’ heightened insistence on a gendered social ontology that attributed highest efficacy to the rational knowledge of Tibetan Buddhist scholar-adepts initiated in the monastic system.

The attitude of a lay male Tibetan friend to her studies might also apply to the difference in approach between Western scholars of religion and anthropologists working in many cultures:

To him, my efforts to learn about ritual practices from the perspective of Tibetans at various levels of the community, and especially my interest in talking to laywomen and nuns, threatened to muddle seriously the crucial distinction between folk knowledge and authentic Buddhist knowledge. Despite his own position as a lay teacher under secular state auspices, Dargye was appalled that I was working outside the monastic contexts of initiation and oral instruction on a canon of Buddhist texts under a lama qualified to confer them, especially since Labrang was one of the few places left where one could find such a lama. In his view, any knowledge I produced through social science methods was trivial at best and mistaken at worst, and rendered suspect the quality of my scholarship.

Makley notes, and refines, the scholarly interest in “borderlands” (cf. Bloodlands, and Between East and West).

Chapter 1, “Fatherlands: mapping masculinities”, opens with the striking figure of Gompo, illustrating how new masculinities cut across regions and between lay and monastic contexts. Among many young nomad men in the town who “browsed the shops looking for necessities to take back up to the grasslands, attended public events at the monastery, or haggled prices with Hui merchants over sheep or wool they were selling”, seeking a good time by night in the bars and dance halls, Gompo modelled his image on that of fashionable Tibetan pop singers. While mentored by an old monk in the monastery, with his cosmopolitan ambitions he had spent over two years as a dancer in the “Folk Cultural Village” in distant Shenzhen—an uncomfortable experience for him.

As Makley observes, for both Tibetans and Chinese there were good reasons to reify a past that had been sealed off by the violence and destruction of the Maoist era. Exploring the competing masculine authorities of trulku reincarnate lamas and the post-reform Chinese state, she notes that historically

the most successful Tibetan trulkus were those who learned to mediate competing interests while carving out privileges and relative autonomy for their monasteries and estates.

She stresses the false dichotomy between “ritual” and “rational” contexts. Rather than a simple return to “tradition”, for Tibetan men the revival since the 1980s was “an often painful process of negotiating the essential hybridity of their positions as subordinated ethnic Others on the national margins”. As during the Maoist era, albeit now with less flagrant violence, the domestication of Tibetan men was a major aspect of the Chinese state’s “civilising project”.

Makley highlights the overarching “mandalisation” of Labrang society, viewing the grand New Year’s public rituals as the high point of exchanges between the high lamas and the wider community.

cham 1949She unpacks the multiple meanings of the cham dance ritual, “the culminating component of the greater mandalising event that was the annual Great Prayer Festival at the lunar New Year”. Following the destabilizing of the frontier zone in the wake of the decline of the Qing rule and the splintering of rule in China, in 1949 the monastery held the last cham before the Chinese occupation.

The tantric participation frameworks of such events were always amenable to misrecognition or appropriation by participants and competing agents for their own ends. […]

In effect, the Great Prayer Festival was a culminating “tournament of value” in which the circulation of the highest Buddhist values (trulku blessings, merit) provided frameworks and networks for the circulation of other values—everyone was invested, but not necessarily along preferred lines.

The conflict between sacred and secular gain was not a new feature of the reform era:

As early as 1865, the concerned ministers of the seven-year-old fourth Jamyang Shepa felt compelled to issue an edict […] warning all the monk officials and trulkus competing with one another in lucrative loan and long-distance-trade businesses not to be greedy, exploit others, or embezzle communal funds for personal profit.

After the Maoist decades, Labrang was the only Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the prefecture with any buildings left standing. The Great Prayer Festival there was revived in 1979. Around four hundred monks were soon allowed to return, their ranks rising to over a thousand by the mid-1990s, most of them under the age of 35. By 1985, eighty-nine monasteries had re-opened throughout the prefecture, with over five thousand monks, far exceeding state quotas.

In Chapter 2, “Father state”, Makley goes on to observe the cham ritual in 1996—by which time it had long become not just a focus for faithful locals but also a glossy attraction for Chinese tourists and state officials.

Always alert to gender issues, in her conversations with locals she considers the “heavy and often hidden” burden of the past, as forgetting became a pervasive policy of the Chinese state—not just for Tibet (see e.g. here and here). As a corrective to Chinese state propaganda, she notes that Westerners have commonly assumed the role of collecting testimonies from Tibetans about Chinese state repression; yet Tibetans themselves don’t necessarily share faith in such moralising historiography.

Under Maoism, as the ratio of Tibetans to Han and Hui settlers, and of adult Tibetan men to women, declined, among the life stories that Makley elicits are accounts of the training of female Tibetan cadres. People (notably cadres) came under pressure to replace Tibetan clothing with modern uniforms, and to wear their hair short, sacrificing their traditional headdresses. Women’s liberation under Maoism mainly involved the state exploitation of their labour. Village temples were recalled as centres for state terror during the 1950s, and resistance to the Chinese state then as virtuous. As in China, the famine resulting from collectivisation was another major aspect of their sufferings at the time.

But Makley’s discussions at Labrang also bear on the conflicts of class politics within Tibetan society as much as between Tibetans and Chinese.

I came to realise that the unspeakable among Tibetans was not just the result of state repression; it was also a marker of locals’ grapplings with the nature of their own and other Tibetans’ agency (and responsibility for) the unprecedented shape and scope of violence beginning in 1958.

We can observe a similar conflict in the memories of ordinary people in Han Chinese regions—and in many trouble zones of the world where the simple categories of oppressors and oppressed were blurred.

Makley highlights the role of the local People’s Militias,

an alternative participation framework for local young men especially, who sought social mobility to bypass their male elders.

Indeed, they played a major role in suppressing the rebellion. Moreover, as Woeser also notes, “those who had served the state well then continued to live well in the present”. One village woman, married to a man who had joined the Party in 1953 and helped suppress the 1958 rebellion, wavered between vilifying the “bad” Tibetan cadres under Maoism for their conscious actions and asserting that they weren’t really responsible. As with activists in Han China, stories about the karmic retribution of their early deaths circulated widely.

Alternative historiography among Tibetans was an ongoing and deeply gendered interpretative battle—with themselves as well as with the state.

Chapter 3, “Mother home: circumambulation, femininities, and the ambiguous mobility of women”, opens with the fanatical popular reception for the 10th Panchen Lama upon his return to Labrang in 1980.

Discussing the dilemmas posed by modernity and mobility since the reform era, Makley explores the gendered spatial politics of shifting divisions of ritual labour, and different “participation frameworks”. Here she joins the faithful (mostly women) who seek merit by circumambulating the perimeter of the monastery grounds—the “most broadly quotidian and public” ritual work at Labrang. It has apparently remained true that such important ritual activities often went unnoticed by foreign travellers (as Robert Ekvall noted in 1964); and indeed by scholars of religion, who tend to focus on discursive, logocentric expressions (cf. Adam Yuet Chau‘s comments).

The most determined of practitioners, the ones who walked so rapidly that they passed everyone else many times, were those who had ritual obligations or jawa given them by a lama, most often a trulku with a particularly close relationship to their households, whom they had approached for help with a particular problem, usually physical ailments, but also household difficulties.

The new state policies of development and consumption were seen to reflect the interests of the state. Highways in the region were primarily built to facilitate the continuing exploitation and control of the frontier, not to expedite local travel; by the early 1990s, 80% of villages were not accessible by car, and half the townships did not have paved roads. Moreover,

Dengist modernisation policies has disastrous effects on state-sponsored secular education in rural Tibetan regions, because the return to a “quality” approach to education (versus a “quantity” approach that emphasised providing basic education to the masses) channeled basic resources away from rural and primary levels toward urban and higher-education schools.


the concentration of resources on Labrang monastery supported what many locals came to see as the only good, prestigious, useful education in the region for those sons who could be spared.

But just as crucial was what Makley calls the “contesting entrepreneurships” of Tibetan masculinity.

The dream here would seem to be, in the absence of state support for secular education, to harness the taming power of Tibetan monasteries in order to recruit and sedentarise young Tibetan monks as a loyal (patrifilial) and aspiring labour force for national capitalist advance.

Yet now, by contrast with the Maoist era, young Tibetan men

could experience their communal private consumption and daily movements as appropriately (heroically) “Tibetan”, in that they allowed for a powerful sense of resistance to or transcendence of state discipline.

Meanwhile “images of Tibetan feminine cyclicity pervaded the writings, art, videos, and music of foreigners, Han, and Tibetan alike”, stressing their role as mothers and nurturers. And as in China and other societies, Tibetans still subscribed to a timeless notion distinguishing women occupying domestic spaces “inside” the household from men “outside” it, with their prestigious ritual and political affairs.

Since the 1980s, there were two competing centres at opposite ends of the valley—at one end, the rapidly revitalizing monastery, which had the highest concentration of lama-scholars in the Amdo region and was attracting hundreds of young monastics and lay worshippers from afar, and at the other, the headquarters of the Party and government of Xiahe county, whose buildings by the 1990s were rivalled in size only by the large new tourist hotels that had been erected between them and the monastery.

Makley notes the tensions in the juxtaposition of celibate monasticism and the lay communities on which it depends, with life in the town increasingly “chaotic”.

In a trend that further intensified the processes of increasing population densities, sedentarisation, and ethnic heterogeneity in the frontier zone since the founding of the monastery, Labrang by the 1990s had become a vital node in a regional movement to urbanity, a gathering place for young aspiring Tibetan men and women. Such rapid demographic shifts associated with state violence in locals’ living memory contributed to the strong sense many Lhade residents had that their valley was under siege by unprecedented numbers of non-Tibetan outsiders. […]

Like young men, young Tibetan women were increasingly drawn to the expanded horizons promised by Deng’s call to modernizing progress and agentive consumption, yet their aspirations could confront them with particularly painful dilemmas.

These themes are pursued in Chapter 4, “Consuming women: consumption, sexual politics, and the dangers of mixing”. Labrang now offered “unique opportunities for secular and monastic education, wage work, and contacts with cosmopolitan Others”, becoming “a gathering place not only for young monks and nuns but also for unmarried and ambitious young Tibetan laywomen and laymen” from surrounding rural areas and even other provinces. As in other urban centres,

a new form of commodified sexuality worked to sell not only bodies and products but also the sparkling future visions of a capitalist modernity.

Again, Makley’s discussion subsumes the periods before the Chinese occupation and under Maoism. She qualifies some common misconceptions. Monks had commonly engaged in commercial activities long before the reform era. Makley refines the contrasting images of “the transcendent power of celibate lamas in the monastery and relatively open sexuality in town”. She notes the enduring Tibetan taste for discretion, and the role of sexuality in tantrism; she cites Goldstein’s observation that the very ethic of “mass monasticism” meant that only a small minority of monks approximated the monkly ideal.

Most ordinary monks differed little from nuns except in the relative prestige attached to the various occupations they undertook to bring in income—most stopped at the novice level of vows and achieved only basic literacy.

Referring to the revival of the early 1980s, she notes one distinction:

All the monks I spoke to who entered monkhood at that time did so either on their parents’ initiative or with their enthusiastic support, and all of them were younger brothers with many (between four and nine) siblings. In contrast to nuns I interviewed, many fewer monks fled home to enter monastic life. Twelve out of eighteen nuns I spoke to who were ordained after the reforms fled home to enter the monastic life, while only two out of eighteen monks I interviewed who were ordained after the reforms had done so.


Most monks did not remain sequestered in monasteries; instead, they moved frequently between natal homes and monasteries (especially those who joined monastic communities close to home), growing up playing with lay boys, and in adulthood travelling often between monasteries on pilgrimage, monastic business, or trading missions.

Makley adduces the courtship themes of layi folk-songs, performed in ritualised contexts—and now also in bars and dance halls as prelude to commercial sexual encounters.

Again, while Tibetans seemed to subscribe to media and state laments about the apparent “chaotic” breakdown of sexual morality, they too were agents, negotiating modernities on their own terms—albeit enduringly androcentric.

The presence in the valley of foreign and urban Han women tourists, as well as of rural Tibetan laywomen and nuns, exhibited an unprecedented translocal mobility of female bodies. This had dangerously sexualised and desacralized public spaces in and outside the monastery. It had thus become paramount for local women to distinguish themselves from the unrestrained sexuality associated with tourist women, nuns, and prostitutes—even though many young laywomen in town who sought to distance themselves from commercial sex their own aspirations for independent social mobility and their desire to postpone the disproportionate burdens of marriage were precisely the motivations that were increasingly leading young women of every stripe to accept money for sex, not only in Labrang, but across the country.

Tibetan men vigorously pursued possible “modern” futures and lifestyles held out for them in the globalizing media. And

communal masculine consumption—of alcohol, food, travel funds, and cigarettes—was considered to be an essential means for building and reproducing the vital masculine networks across generations and regions that in post-Mao China provided any opportunities for social mobility or participation in commercial entrepreneurship.

In an aspect of such consumption, young men and monks frequented video halls by night—lured by the newly available soft-porn images (at first mainly of Western women, later of Chinese and other Asian models) displayed as pin-ups, on playing cards, and even on the covers of scholarly journals. Young women, including nuns, who ventured out at night risked harassment and violence.

In “the new eroticism of the frontier”, “state and local gazes converged on Tibetan women’s bodies as commodified objects both of sexual desire and efforts to contain it”.

In Chapter 5, “Monks are men too: domesticating monastic subjects”, Makley delves further into the new tensions in the claim of Gelug monkhood to transcend the polluting attachments of one’s sexual-karmic inheritance, and “the performative claim of the monastic community to have tamed lay masculinity in the service of Buddhism”.

The inherent gap between between the monk ideal and actual monk behaviour that fall far short of it was not necessarily experienced as “paradoxical” or “contradictory” for Tibetans. […]

Monkhood did not necessarily represent a “sharp division” of the male population either before or after Communist intervention.tangkha 1949

Attending the spectacular Great Prayer Festival in 1996 (for recent images, uncomplicated by reflection, see e.g. here)—just as news of the dispute over the recognition of the new Panchen Lama was circulating—Makley elicits the conflicting messages of the event for a wide range of participants, with tourists and state cadres alongside monks and lay pilgrims. The unfurling of the massive thangka became “the ritual frame for a culmination of interethnic and state-local hostilities played out in legitimized masculine violence”.

She tells the story of a committed young graduate student from rural Qinghai who had grown up hearing stories of the brave resistance to PLA military campaigns and Cultural Revolution struggle sessions. He was now struggling to find a career in which he could benefit ordinary Tibetan people.

“Heroic masculinities” are enshrined in the Gesar epic—the object of much attention from the heritage industry that hardly broaches its social life. [2] In Amdo the focus on such ritual exchanges was also evident in popular VCDs featuring mountain deities, threatening “to configure masculine loyalties and inspirations outside the disciplinary purviews of both monastery and state”. Chinese and Tibetan cadres were still frustrated by the enduring power of trulkus to mediate in feuds between tribesmen.

Amidst considerable historical latitude in monkly behaviour, even “hypermasculine” warrior monks known as dapdop could flourish, serving as a kind of monastic police force.

But despite the return to mass monasticism, Tibetans had to adapt to the emasculating power of the state. Official regulations persisted in distinguishing dutiful, “patriotic” religious activities from “superstition”:

[The monastery] must absolutely forbid such people as mediums and diviners from carrying out such activities inside Buddhist monasteries as calling deities or demons, curing illness by taming demons, or reading signs or letters, or divining in any way.

As in Han Chinese regions, prohibitions like this may alert us to the continuing activities of such folk ritual specialists.

Apart from the entrepreneurial activities of the monastery, lay offerings—in the form of money, goods, livestock, and donated labour—also constituted a vast income. Such unregulated movements of capital, and the enduring charisma of leading trulkus, represented a danger to the state.

Yet older Tibetans were disturbed to find the younger generation of men, with their new mobility, becoming lazy, selfish, and undisciplined; loitering around town, with a propensity for violence.

As Makley recognises, monks and nuns commonly claimed to be motivated by the exalted study of Buddhism. But they too were part of an increasingly venal society. And since those monks who were more devoted to their studies tended not to perform ritual services for wages, locals often requested such services from the ranks of those not within assemblies. But to wear a monk’s robes no longer conferred automatic respect.

* * *

So we can ignore neither the vast revival since the 1980s nor the ongoing tensions. As a particularly visible, accessible site, Labrang is not “typical”. But all these stories reveal not a simple conflict between pious lamas and a cruel state, but conflicts, and agency, at all levels of a diverse society amidst constant change. Indeed, as I noted in my first post on Labrang, unrest has intensified since 2008. [1]

We may now bear in mind Makley’s perspectives to assess online representations, such as this clip of the cham ritual dance in 2015:

See also Women in Tibetan expressive culture, and Makley’s chapter in Conflicting memories.

[1] Here I mainly cite descriptive passages, homing in on the ethnographic detail rather than the densely-argued theoretical sections. The latter are anyway hard to encapsulate, but it’s also my personal choice. It’s always a challenge to balance narrative and theory (cf. my review of Emily Ng’s book on spirit mediums in Henan). I don’t always find this an issue: for instance, Jing Jun manages to incorporate theoretical discussion readably (see also A forfeit for theorists). So here I’m not so much criticising Makley’s style as querying the wider anthropological discipline to which she belongs—in which jargon, compounded by lengthy in-text references, may seem to exert a new kind of, um, hegemony, substituting another alien vocabulary for that of the CCP. All this can make the text rather heavy going to negotiate, particularly early on. This concerns me since it’s such an astute analysis of a great topic, deserving a wider readership.

[2] For Western-language sources on Gesar, see §6 of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s bibliography, and more recently the work of Timothy Thurston, such as this. Within the PRC, Gesar studies have long been popular, expanding into a major field since the 1980s; yet as Sangye Dhondup suggests in his review of Tibetan and Chinese sources, the important dimension of ritual performance in society has still received little attention. See also under Yumen here.

Native American cultures 3: the Ghost Dance

Ghost dance image

To follow Bruno Nettl’s overview of Native American musical cultures, and studies of Navajo ceremonies, here I explore the Ghost Dance religious movement of 1890 among the tribes of the western USA; and again I consider Chinese parallels.

Alongside the wealth of academic research, I remind myself of the background by re-reading the accessible

  • Dee Brown, Bury my heart at Wounded Knee: an Indian history of the American West (1970).


The book was original for being based on the stories of tribal leaders, showing the agonising choices confronting them as their peoples were decimated. While citing their own accounts, often documented at treaty councils, Brown assesses the conditions in which they were recorded. [1]

If an eloquent Indian had a poor interpreter, his words might be transformed to flat prose, but a good interpreter could make a poor speaker sound poetic.


Even military leaders were often impressed by their demeanour, harking back to Columbus’s appraisal of the Tainos of San Salvador:

Their manners are decorous and praiseworthy.

Brown catalogues the betrayals and atrocities of the white invaders, as tribal land was progressively usurped amidst ethnic cleansing, massacres, disease, and famine. The settlers were bolstered by the overwhelming force of troops, and flimsy “treaties”. Long before the disasters of the 1960s, the destruction of the natural environment, along with its indigenous custodians, was routine.

Already the once sweet-watered streams, most of which bore Indian names, were clouded with silt and the wastes of man; the very earth was being ravaged and squandered. To the Indians it seemed that these Europeans hated everything in nature—the living forests and their birds and beasts, the grassy glades, the water, the soil, and the air itself.


The chapters—each prefaced by bulletins for the relevant years recalling the wider picture of the March of Progress—detail major flashpoints, such as the 1864 “Long Walk” of the Navajo; the Santee Sioux in Minnesota (cf. the Ojibwa), and Little Crow; the Cheyenne and Arapaho, and the Sand Creek massacre; Red Cloud, and the Fetterman massacre; the careers of Sitting Bull and General Custer, and the background to the notorious epithet “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”; the rise and fall of Donehogewa, Commissioner of Indian Affairs; Cochise and the Apache wars; the forced relocations of the Nez Piercés, Cheyenne, Poncas, and Utes; and Geronimo, the last Apache chief, who, demonised by the press for his raids, lived until 1909 in submission after his surrender.

The final two chapters cover the 1890 Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee massacre. By this time major resistance had largely been crushed, for the descendants of those who survived to be subjected to other insidious forms of suppression.

The Ghost Dance
All the time that the tribes were under attack, the need to perform their own ceremonies to ward off danger was all the more urgent, attracting little outside attention.

But the Ghost Dance movement of 1890 was a Messianic Christian cult inspired by Wovoka (renamed Jack Wilson), “the Paiute Messiah” in Nevada, who preached a message of universal love. It was based on the circle dance and singing, with the goal of entering into trance.


The cult soon spread widely through the American West.

While many European Americans were alarmed by the Ghost Dance and saw it as a militant and warlike movement, it was quite the opposite—an emergence of a peaceful resistance movement based on Indian beliefs. It was also a movement of desperation .

Not all tribespeople were convinced by the Ghost Dance. Indeed, Sitting Bull (a recurring figure in Brown’s story) was sceptical—but he was considered a dangerous figurehead, and he was killed in a struggle as troops tried to arrest him. Brown suggests that it was the sustaining force of the Ghost Dance that discouraged his followers from retaliating.

Nor did it become popular among the Navajo: their leaders described it as “worthless words” in 1890, though a brief 1944 article gives a more nuanced interpretation. [2] The movement was thoroughly studied in the early 1890s by the anthropologist James Mooney in

  • The Ghost-Dance religion and Wounded Knee (1896, 452 pp.!),

based on fieldwork over twenty-two months among some twenty tribes, as well as extensive archive material.

Mooney intro 1Mooney intro 2
Here’s the documentary Like grass before the sickle:

The songs
In 1894 Mooney made recordings of the Ghost Dance songs of several tribes; click here for a fine introduction, with audio here. Though he sung them himself (!), solo, however flawed his renditions may have been (and I wonder what Native Americans made of them then, or now: cf. cautionary tales by Barre Toelken, n.5 here), one has to admire his attempt—even a century later so few ethnographers considered participant observation. Note also

  • Natalie Curtis, The Indians’ book (1907).

The songs were later analysed by

  • George Herzog, “Plains Ghost Dance and Great Basin music” (1935), augmented by
  • Judith Vander, “The creative power and style of Ghost Dance songs”, in Tara Browner (ed.), Music of the First Nations: tradition and innovation in Native North America (2009).

Herzog found consistency in style, even among tribes whose songs were otherwise quite different.

The aftermath
After the Wounded Knee massacre the dance went underground. It is said to be still practised by the southeastern Caddo people. Most Native American have “martial” ceremonies (though the Ghost Dance wasn’t among them); but they have been subsumed into more general healing rituals, such as the Enemy Way of the Navajo. See also here.

The Ghost Dance movement was a helpless response to a particularly severe crisis at a point when the worst damage had already been done.

By then the Native Americans were already becoming branded as exotic “savages” for the smug entertainment of the colonisers, soon moving from travelling Wild West shows (Sitting Bull did a stint with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1885) to film and TV.

As to intertribal ceremonies, the later Powwow dance was of a more secular nature.

* * *

We might see the Ghost Dance as the ultimate failed ritual (cf. Clifford Geertz’s famous instances from Indonesia, and for China, A flawed funeral), powerless to halt the genocide.

Ghost Dance cover

For more ghost shirts, see here.

The Ghost Dance movement has similarities and differences with the Boxer uprising of 1900 in north China (see e.g. Ritual groups of Langfang, Catholics of Gaoluo). Both were millenarian, seeking magical aid; and both rashly claimed invulnerability to swords and bullets. However, by contrast with the peaceful Ghost Dancers, the Boxer movement was one of armed resistance, at first to foreign incursions and then to the Qing state. As Joseph Esherick commented in The origins of the Boxer uprising (19):

The Ghost Dance is interesting to us because it entailed both trances and invulnerability rituals, and it clearly expressed a longing among the North American Indians for a world once again free of the much-hated white man. There is, accordingly, much of the movement that is quite reminiscent of the Boxer Uprising itself.  It can serve to remind us that the peasants of north China were not the only ones who wished for a world free of Caucasian intrusion, and hoped that their invulnerability rituals would help bring that world about.

Indeed, such movements evoke the Taiping rebellion of 1850–64 and later Chinese millenarian unrest—and even, on a far smaller scale, the Nyemo uprising in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution. For astute parallels over a broader area, see Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s 2014 LARB article.

Buffalo Bill Boxers

In his 1901 Wild West Show, Buffalo Bill even celebrated the routing of the Boxers as yet another triumph of civilisation over savagery, in the tableau “The rescue at Pekin”, as discussed in the fascinating article

  • John R. Haddad, The Wild West turns East: audience, ritual, and regeneration in Buffalo Bill’s Boxer uprising”, American studies 49.3/4 (2008).

The Sioux Indians already appearing in the show now doubled as Boxers, donning blue cotton uniforms and long braids—as one reporter observed, they were “used to dying” on stage.

The Boxers were becoming the new Indians—a bold yet unfortunate group that dared to use violence to resist the inexorable march of civilisation. […] Substantial evidence suggests that Americans understood the Boxers by ascribing to them the stereotypical traits once reserved for defiant Indians: cruelty, savagery, and blodd-thirstiness.

Jingoistic American audiences received the show with wild, bellicose acclaim.

* * *

The history of the Americas has been described as “framed by the dual tragedies of genocide and slavery”. The whole painful process of the Native Americans’ subjugation still endures in their ancestral memory; Brown comments,

If the readers of this book should ever chance to see the poverty, the hopelessness, and the squalor of a modern Indian reservation, they may find it possible to truly understand the reason why [cf. Grassy Narrows].

And it makes a disturbing background to the modern “values” of the conquerors, based on the great myths of the American West—as Brown comments,

an almost reverential attitude toward the ideal of personal freedom for those who already had it.

Indeed, for those bent on denying it to others.

To outsiders—and one might say, to rational people—much of this will remain mystifying, such as gun culture (unpacked by Gary Younge, and in this review): recently, the surge in gun purchases during Coronavirus, and the armed occupation of the Michigan statehouse in protest against lockdown. And now, as Native Americans are among minorities suffering particularly from the virus, the Baby-in-Chief has used the sacred lands of the Sioux to divide people further.

[1] Here’s an instance of a common meme (cf. the scene in Bananas; there’s a closer analogy in another visit of Prince Sihanouk to China, which I’ll refrain from telling here). In 1883 Sitting Bull was chosen to deliver a speech to celebrate the opening of the transcontinental railroad, working with a young army officer who would translate it for the assembled white dignitaries:

He arose and began delivering his speech in Sioux. The young officer listened in dismay. Sitting Bull had changed the flowery text of welcome. “I hate all the white people,” he was saying. “You are thieves and liars. You have taken away our land and made us outcasts.” Knowing that only the Army officer could understand what he was saying, Sitting Bull paused occasionally for applause; he bowed, smiled, and then uttered a few more insults. At last he sat down, and the bewildered interpreter took his place. The officer had only a short translation written out, a few friendly phrases, but by adding several well-worn Indian metaphors, he brought the audience to its feet with a standing ovation for Sitting Bull. The Hunkpapa chief was so popular that the railroad officials took him to St Paul for another ceremony.

[2] W.W. Hill, “The Navaho Indians and the Ghost Dance of 1890”, American anthropologist 46.4.

[3] See also the brief introduction in Worlds of music (6th edition), Chapter 2.

Forbidden memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution

Woeser cover

This is an extraordinary book:

  • Tsering Woeser, Forbidden memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution (2020).

It’s a thoughtfully-revised version of the Chinese edition, first published in Taiwan in 2006 (Weise 唯色, Shajie 杀劫). The English text results from the effective team work of Woeser, editor Robert Barnett, and translator Susan T. Chen.

Forbidden memory contains some three hundred images, mostly photos taken by Woeser’s father Tsering Dorje at the height of the Cultural Revolution from 1966­–68, complemented by her own illuminating comments and detailed essays. While the focus is on the first two years of extreme violence, the book is not merely the record of a brief aberration: it contains rich detail both on the previous period and the situation since the end of the Cultural Revolution, as Woeser pursues the story right through to the 21st century. Using her father’s old camera, she went on take photos of the same locations in Lhasa in 2012. Some of the material also appears on the High Peaks Pure Earth website (links here and here).

Tsering Dorje (1937–91) was born in Kham to a Chinese father and a Tibetan mother. In 1950, aged 13, he was recruited to the PLA on their push towards Lhasa. By the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution he was a mid-ranking PLA officer, working in a military propaganda unit as a photographer. [1] In 1970 he was purged, transferred to a post in the People’s Armed Forces Department in Tawu county in his native Kham, 600 miles east of Lhasa. He returned to Lhasa in 1990, serving as a deputy commander of the Lhasa Military Subdistrict under the Tibet Military District, but died there the following year, still only in his mid-fifties.

His daughter Woeser was born in Lhasa in 1966; while her first language as a child was Tibetan, she received a Chinese education, and writes in Chinese. Having graduated from university in Chengdu, she worked as a reporter and editor while writing poetry. Through the 1990s she became increasingly sensitive to the plight of the Tibetan people, and though working under severe limitations, she has managed to keep publishing. [2] As the book’s Introduction comments, while she is openly critical of China’s policies in Tibet,

many of the issues that she raises, at least in this book, are criticisms of China’s cultural policies in Tibet rather than its claim to sovereignty.

Most of the book’s images come from Lhasa—which, of course, doesn’t represent the wider fate of Tibetans in the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” (TAR), Amdo, and Kham (covering large areas of the Chinese provinces of Gansu and Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan respectively), all deeply scarred by the Chinese takeover.

After a Foreword by Wang Lixiong, Robert Barnett, most lucid and forensic of scholars on modern Tibet, provides a substantial introduction.

The “grotesque forms of humiliation and violence” presented in the book are a forbidden memory indeed. Explaining the importance of the images in the book, Barnett notes that most of the information previously available was based on the accounts of “new arrivals” into exile since the 1980s, some of whom published accounts of their experiences during the Cultural Revolution—

Yet most of these writers had been in prison throughout the Cultural Revolution years and so had seen little of what took place on streets or in homes beyond the prison walls, events which in certain ways were worse outside the prison than in. And no one outside Tibet had seen photographs of revolutionary violence and destruction there.

For China as for Tibet, several scholars note that it’s misleading to take the Cultural Revolution as a shorthand for the whole troubled three decades of Maoism—as if those years of extreme violence were a momentary aberration in an otherwise tranquil period. Barnett gives a useful historical summary of China’s involvement with Tibet—before the 1950 invasion, succinctly exposing the flaws in the Chinese claim for sovereignty since ancient times; the relatively benign early 1950s, and the escalating destruction from the late 50s, culminating in the 1959 escape of the Dalai Lama; widespread hardship, and the 1966 Cultural Revolution; the liberal reforms since the early 1980s, and recurrent outbreaks of unrest since. [3]

Tsering Dorje’s photos

stand as artworks in their own right and as exceptional sources or provocateurs of knowledge. That is, they tell us not only information about the images they contain, but, like any work of art, point to moral and philosophical questions that go to the heart of the Chinese socialist attempt to construct or reconstruct Tibetan history and modernity. Woeser points to many of these issues in her comments—Which of these pictures were posed for the photographer? What were the participants really thinking but could not show? And, necessarily of special urgency for her, what did her father really feel about the often brutal and unprecedented events he was capturing with his camera?

So why did Woeser’s father take these photos? She wonders if it was to resist forgetting. It was clearly not to expose abuses; nor merely because he was a keen photographer. Barnett is always attuned to visual images and their messages (and we should all learn from his former courses at Columbia, here and here; see also §§11 and 12 of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s fine bibliography on the performing arts in Tibet). He points to two images (figs.9 and 21) where we see individuals who appear disengaged from the central action.

The aesthetic precision of these photographs itself provokes the question as to what is outside the borders of the image. For example, where are the Chinese? […] Were they just outside the frame, did they inform and shape those actions in some way from afar, had Tibetan activists by that time learnt to initiate and run these actions without them, or had Tibetan culture changed so as to incorporate and naturalize such actions? […]

All of Tsering Dorje’s photographs have this bivocal quality, telling two stories at the same time, and leaving Woeser unable to resolve her fundamental question about how her father viewed the events that he turned into lyrical images of socialist achievement. [4]

Barnett makes another important point:

She is clearly an engaged and committed writer, but, read carefully, she appears to be arguing almost the opposite of the conventional advocate for Tibet or the typical opponent of the socialist project. Clearly, she is appalled at what was done in the name of that creed, both to the individuals involved and to the nation and the culture that were its targets. But she is unusually careful to avoid saying that Tibetans had no responsibility for the atrocities that occurred. She does not remove the moral burden from their new rulers or avoid the unstated but obvious implication that Chinese rule involved unusually oppressive domination. But neither does she lift the moral burden from Tibetan participants or depict them, as is done in much of the writing on this topic by foreigners and exiles, as victims only: they are participants in the events that she describes, involved in very complex situations, which might or might not be in some way of their own making. Indeed, at least twice she makes the point that in certain issues during this period (such as adherence to one or other faction) ethnicity was not a factor. This already distances her from more simplistic polemics on this topic.

But she goes further than that: she also declines to say that Tibetans shown as happy in these photographs were always faking that emotion. She has no reluctance in stating that in many cases, particularly at the outset of the Chinese arrival in Tibet, ordinary Tibetans welcomed reforms and social changes at that time. As far as one can tell, she is not criticizing socialism as such, or even land reform and radical social redistribution. Her criticism is of the barbarities—cultural, historic, and cognitive as well as physical—that occurred as the socialist project in Tibet progressed. She presents a strongly critical perspective toward China’s record in Tibet and its social experimentation there, but much of her effort is not so much the chronicling of abuse as an attempt to understand what led people to become involved in their perpetration. “Why,” Woeser asks of the unknown woman hacking golden finials on the roof of the Jokhang temple, “did she seemingly believe that turning the past to ruins would give birth to a bright new world?”. The question remains unanswered, but, like so many of these photographs and their captions, it challenges us to try to understand the ideological constructions of the time that made such actions seem natural and even necessary to so many participants, both the rulers and the ruled.

These distinctions, undeclared though they are, are important ones, because we can imagine that they could have offered some common ground between her and her father, the search for which is clearly the underlying project of Forbidden Memory. In that sense, Woeser’s work is not just about exploring through the criticism of excess the possibilities for reconciliation between herself and her father, but also about searching for a shared space between herself, a person brought up as Chinese, and China, a nation that has chosen to forget much of what was excessive and abusive in its past and its treatment of Tibetans. As such, Woeser’s appeal to remember a painful history can also be seen as an unstated suggestion that the acknowledgement of previous abuse and suffering could offer a route toward potential reconciliation between the Tibetan people and the state of which they are now a part. Her father’s photographs cannot in themselves change political history or reshape the future, but, her work seems to suggest, they can open up a discussion and perhaps even a healing of the underlying wounds and pain that have marked Tibet’s calamitous encounter with China since the 1950s.

The galleries
The images are presented in eleven galleries under five headings. In describing the scenes, Woeser’s own illuminating comments amount to a detailed chronicle of the whole period. Far from an impersonal panorama of suffering, she attempts to identify the people shown in the photos, both victims and their tormentors, often seeking them out many years later. And she refers to the succession of incidents since the reform era.

The first group of galleries is headed “Smash the old Tibet! The Cultural Revolution arrives”. The first photos are from 1964, five years after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet. In these images

traditional ways of life are still evident—we see monks, former aristocrats, and religious ceremonies that appear to be functioning normally. Their focus, however, is on the excitement of socialist construction.

  • Gallery 1, “On the eve of the storm”


Fig.6: A debating session during the Monlam Chenmo festival, 1964.

  • Gallery 2, “The sacking of the Jokhang”. Wondering “Who is to be blamed?”, Woeser later interviewed several participants and eyewitnesses, going on to pursue the later history of the Jokhang..

According to one source, over 2,700 monasteries were active in TAR [NB] before 1959, 550 by 1966; by 1976 only eight were still standing.


Fig.35: The Great Courtyard in the Jokhang immediately after the “revolutionary action” of August 24, 1966.

Woeser’s text:

The courtyard had traditionally been used for monks attending the annual Monlam Chenmo. Those from Drepung Monastery would sit in the middle while those from other monasteries would sit in the cloisters and in the gallery. The Dalai Lama would come down from the Sun Chamber, the viewing chamber that looked down on the courtyard from the upper floor, to take part in the prayer gathering, seated on a golden throne on the left side of the courtyard.

It was in this courtyard that armed police beat and arrested scores of monks during the Monlam Chenmo of 1988. Long queues still form there during religious festivals when pilgrims come to the temple from all over Tibet, but increasing restrictions by the authorities mean the privately sponsored ceremonies once held there now rarely if ever occur.

  • Gallery 3 “Denouncing the ox-demon-snake-spirits”. We now move on to the human targets of the destruction. As Woeser comments:

Some were religious figures, statesmen, or military officers of the Tibetan government prior to the 1950s; others were merchants, landlords who owned rural estates, or managers working for those landlords. They were denounced and humiliated in mass assemblies, struggle parades, and smaller struggle sessions organized by various Neighborhood Committees. […]

The outcomes for some of those in these photographs were insanity, illness, or death. Some of them died back then, others passed away in the years after the Cultural Revolution was over. Not many of them are still around. Among the survivors, some have gone abroad, while those who have stayed put have been awarded new roles: they became “United Front personages,” with paid positions in the TAR Political Consultative Conference, the People’s Congress, or the local branch of the Buddhist Association. Once appointed, for the sake of self-protection, they all have to serve as décor for the state and as mouthpieces for its policies.

As ever, Woeser goes to great lengths to identify the people in the photos.


Fig.58: the Tenth Demo Rinpoche paraded with his wife. From a major lineage of reincarnated lamas, he was also the first photographer in Tibet—the camera slung around his neck was meant as “criminal evidence” of his foreign connections and his nature as a reactionary element.

In fig.66, a former aristocrat-official has been made to carry a case of gleaming knives and forks, probably to show “that he was a member of the exploiting class, living a life of luxury and corruption”, and perhaps that the family was close to Westerners—evidence of treason.

A series of images (figs.67­–75) show the parading of Dorje Phagmo, best-known of the female trulku reincarnate lamas in Tibet.


Fig.68: Dorje Phagmo, flanked by her parents.

She had been hailed across China as a “patriot,” having returned to Tibet soon after following the Dalai Lama into exile in 1959; she had even been received by Mao in Beijing, and back in Lhasa was granted high official positions. And after the end of the Cultural Revolution she was again given government posts, often appearing in TV reports of official meetings.

In Fig.85 the involvement of Woeser’s father in the events becomes even more disturbing:

The photograph captures a moment when Pelshi Po-la, staring without expression at the camera lens, must have momentarily exchanged eye contact with the PLA official behind the view finder of the camera: my father.

The reflections prompted by such images almost recall representations of the Crucifixion.

This gallery concludes with fine essays on “ox-demons-snake-spirits”; the diversification of activists as they manufactured “class struggle”:

a considerable number of activists pivoted dramatically to religion after the Cultural Revolution was over. […] It was often said that these people’s passion in embracing religion was as intense as the zeal they had previously displayed in destroying it.

and “Rule by intimidation: life under the neighbourhood committees”.

  • Gallery 4, “Changing names”—streets, stores, villages, people. As Woeser’s mother explained to her:

Back then [in my work unit], we were all required to change our names, we were told that our Tibetan names were tainted by feudal superstition and were therefore signs of the Four Olds. So we were to change both our given names and our family names. For me and my coworkers in the [school of the] TAR Public Security Bureau, when we handed in our applications for our names to be changed, they were all processed within the Bureau. You could choose which name you wanted to change to, but it had to be approved by the Bureau’s Political Affairs Office. Usually everyone chose Mao or Lin as their new family name. Or some chose to be named Gao Yuanhong, which meant “Red Plateau.” My first choice was Mao Weihua, meaning “one from a Mao family who protects China,” but that name had already been taken by someone else in the Bureau. So then I thought that since Yudrön sounds similar to the Chinese name Yuzhen, maybe I could be called Lin Yuzhen, and that would mean I could have the same family name as Marshal Lin.

We were all told to use our new names. But except for those times when representatives from the Military Region did the head count before each military drill session held in the Bureau, no one actually used these names. Many people forgot their Chinese names. One of my colleagues, Little Dawa, was also Gao Yuanhong. But every time the name Gao Yuanhong was called during the head count, she missed it. We had to poke her—“Dawa-la, they’re calling you”—and then she’d shout out, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here!” in a rush. Now when I think of it, it was really funny.

The second group of galleries has the theme “Civil War among the Rebels:
 ‘whom to trust—the faction decides!’ ”

  • Gallery 5. Here the theme is the violent civil war broke out between the two main rebel factions Gyenlog and Nyamdrel in 1967, with the military playing a disturbing role. “Although the two groups were bitterly opposed to each other, their aims and methods were almost indistinguishable.”

Violence continued into 1969 throughout most of the TAR—including the Nyemo uprising, on which Woeser provides further material.

The following galleries move away from Lhasa. The third group is headed “The dragon takes charge: the People’s Liberation Army in Tibet”:

  • Gallery 6: the PLA in Tibet
    Woeser’s father was a deputy regimental officer in the Tibet Military Region during the early phase of the Cultural Revolution; after the Tibet Military Control Commission was established, he was assigned to its propaganda team. As Woeser’s mother explains, he was a firm supporter of the Nyamdrel faction. He was purged in 1970, transferred to a post in Tawu county in Kham.
  • Gallery 7: the Tibetan militia.
    In Tawu, Woeser’s father was responsible for training the militia. As Woeser notes, his photos were now staged rather than shots of action taken in real time, lacking the immediacy and authenticity of his earlier Lhasa photographs. By now the images come more often from other sources.

The fourth group, “Mao’s new Tibet”, includes

  • Gallery 8: the Revolutionary committees from 1968. As ever, Woeser gives detailed accounts. Violence and destruction continued, including the destruction of Ganden monastery. But religious activities resumed from 1972, gradually and discreetly.
  • Gallery 9, “The people’s communes”. Here Woeser describes the adverse effects of the establishment of people’s communes with yet another fine essay. The communes were only set up in TAR from 1965, much later than in mainland China. Woeser notes again that her father’s photos did not capture the heavy repercussions of communalisation in many of the farming and nomadic areas of Tibet.

After he had witnessed and documented those terrible scenes of monasteries being wrecked, statues of the Buddha being destroyed, and Buddhist texts being burned in their thousands, did he really believe in the new era of Tibetan rural happiness that he tried to capture with his camera? I still struggle with this question.

  • Gallery 10, “Installing a new god”, Chairman Mao—again mainly illustrated with sanitised propaganda images.

The final group, “Coda: the wheel turns”:

  • Gallery 11: the karmic cycle. This brief section on the reform era is based on the experiences of Jampa Rinchen (see below).

Those who had been ox-demon-snake-spirits in the previous cycle were now wheeled out once again into the political arena, this time in their function as “political flower vases” […] Ordinary Tibetans picked up their rosaries and prayer wheels and reentered the shells of ruined and half-restored temples to resume the worship of the Buddha.

46 years later, Woeser used her father’s old camera in 2012–13 to revisit some of the scenes in his photos, now mostly using colour film. At yet another sensitive moment, following the 2008 protests and as self-immolations spread to TAR, she was under surveillance.

Trying to retrace his footsteps in Lhasa so many years later was anyway confusing and difficult. There was almost nothing that I could see in front of me that was shown in the photographs he had taken. It was as if that which should be remembered had all been removed.

Chinese tourists have replaced Red Guards, but security cameras, metal detectors, and police booths are now very much in evidence—as well as new propaganda. In the book Woeser sometimes contrasts old and new images. Still, she managed to find many traces of the past.

I tried to adopt the same camera angles, focal length, and exposure that my father had used, and to imagine what he might have felt, but the attempt to make his camera work again taught me what the more advanced technology could not replace: the immediate realities his camera captured, the changes that have happened since then, and the complexities rooted in human intention. […]

fig.285An Appendix reproduces from Tibet remembers the testimony of Jampa Rinchen, whose recollections have featured in various episodes of the book. A former monk at Drepung Monastery, he had become a Red Guard, and then a member of the militia and the Gyenlog faction. In 1986 he volunteered to serve as a cleaner at the Jokhang temple (right: helping monks at the Jokhang fashion sculptures out of tsampa and butter to be offered to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas). As he reflected sadly to Woeser in 2003,

I destroyed a stupa. It’s no longer proper for me to wear monks’ robes.

But on the night he died,

all the monks from the Jokhang chanted for him. They prayed for him again in the evening when his body was sent for sky burial. These can be said to be the best arrangements that could have been made for him. Yet he had been unable to wear the robes again that had meant so much to him, that had symbolized for him the purity of monastic life, and that had marked the greatest loss in his life.

* * *

Again, it’s worth reminding ourselves that Lhasa and TAR don’t represent the whole story for Tibetan peoples; our studies should also include Amdo and Kham. Amdo in particular has been the focus of several fine recent works by scholars such as Charlene Makley and Benno Weiner. Alongside the recent escalation in the repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, we should never forget the Tibetans. And meanwhile in China, academic freedom is increasingly constricted.

Less melodramatic than many Chinese memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, this distressing, nuanced book makes a template not just for Tibet, and China, but (as Yu Jie observes in this review) for many regions of the world where victims and persecutors have to come to terms with a traumatic past.

Note also Tibet: conflicting memories.

[1] Tsering Dorje had been sent to take photos during the Sino-Indian War in 1962; and as early as 1956, to document the Lhoba people, perhaps the smallest of the many ethnic minorities in the region—images I’d love to see. En passant, you can hear some audio recordings of Lhoba folk-songs on CD 6 of Mao Jizeng’s anthology Xizang yinyue jishi 西藏音樂紀實 (Wind records, 1994).

[2] For Ian Johnson’s 2014 interviews with Woeser and Wang Lixiong, see here and here; cf. Woeser on the recent wave of self-immolations.

[3] Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snows (1999) is a masterly, balanced single-volume history of modern Tibet, besides the ongoing multi-volume work of Melvyn Goldstein.

[4] Within the much larger image database for the Cultural Revolution in China, note Li Zhensheng’s photos from Heilongjiang, Red-color news soldier: a Chinese photographer’s odyssey through the Cultural Revolution (2003).

Updates on Chinese music

The latest newsletter from ACMR (the Association for Chinese Music Research), vol. 25.1, is now available for downloading here, along with past bulletins.

It includes news of recent publications on folk-song, opera, the qin zither, soundscapes of imperial history and the Cultural Revolution, pop music—and responses to Coronavirus, including my own posts


Spirit mediums in Henan

Ng cover

The grassroots ubiquity of spirit mediums (often female) in Chinese religious life is increasingly recognised (see here, with many links). I often plea for them to be recognised as among the most important practitioners “doing religion” in China—and now, as if in divine response to my entreaties, a welcome addition to our knowledge is

  • Emily Ng, A time of lost gods: mediumship, madness, and the ghost after Mao (2020),

on spirit mediums in a county of central Henan province. [1] Here’s the blurb:

Traversing visible and invisible realms, A time of lost gods attends
to profound re-readings of politics, religion, and madness in the
cosmic accounts of spirit mediumship. Drawing on research across a
temple, a psychiatric unit, and the home altars of spirit mediums in a
rural county of China’s Central Plain, it asks: What ghostly forms
emerge after the death of Mao and the so-called end of history?
The story of religion in China since the market reforms of the late
1970s is often told through its destruction under Mao and relative
flourishing thereafter. Here, those who engage in mediumship offer a
different history of the present. They approach Mao’s reign not simply
as an earthly secular rule, but an exceptional interval of divine
sovereignty, after which the cosmos collapsed into chaos. Caught
between a fading era and an ever-receding horizon, those “left behind”
by labour outmigration refigure the evacuated hometown as an
ethical-spiritual centre to come, amidst a proliferation of
madness-inducing spirits. Following pronouncements of China’s rise,
and in the wake of what Chinese intellectuals termed semicolonialism,
the stories here tell of spirit mediums, patients, and psychiatrists
caught in a shared dilemma, in a time when gods have lost their way.

Ng begins by reflecting on her initial confrontational encounter with the medium Zheng Yulan, who soon moved from indifference towards her guest to rejecting any further engagement, a telling story that rings true—the perceived dangers of transmitting messages “across what the mediums deem enemy lines”. [2]

Henan [3] 
Ng notes the “demonising” of Henan, in Ma Shuo’s term “a symbolic place of stagnation”:

Now, in place of a civilisational centre, Henan is more potent in the national imaginary as a land of poverty, backwardness, charlatans, and thieves, evocative of the famines of the 1940s and 1950s under Nationalist and Maoist rule, and of the HIV scandal of the 1990s, when villagers contracted the virus from blood plasma sales for cash.

Indeed, Henan suffered particularly grievously from the famine during the drive to communisation in the late 1950s. Citing Ann Anagnost on the “spectralisation of the rural” since the reform era, Ng evokes a society in which “ghostly presences swirl amid the hollow of an emptied centre”.

Mediums and vocabulary
Rather like Henan itself, mediums have been written out of the official history. They themselves have an alternative view of the Maoist and reform eras:

The purportedly antireligious campaigns of the socialist state, for the mediums, constitute cryptic acts of divine intervention—acts inaugurated by otherworldy forces that allowed the earthly state to misrecognise itself as secular.

Ng unpacks the local vocabulary for mediums and possession. The verb kan 看 is used, which she translates as “see”, as in kanxiangde 看香的 “one who sees incense”; as with the kanrizi “determining the date” among household Daoists, I’d suggest the more active rendition “looking with incense”, with the further implication of “taking care of through incense”. Mediums are also described as “those who walk/run/stand guard for spiritual power” (zougongde 走功的, paogongde 跑功的, shougongde 守功的). [4] Ng defines mediums broadly, as “those who regularly receive supplicants at an altar and those who regularly undergo possession at temples without necessarily receiving supplicants”, “lending their bodies” to spirits—as opposed to (usually male) diviners and fortune-tellers. Again like household Daoists, their domains are the yin and yang realms. The common term for the deities who possess mediums is xian 仙 “immortal”—who may also be ghosts.

Ng’s host quips with her by using the standard term shenpo 神婆 “witch”,

a term […] that I had brought to the scene, one intelligible to her while marking my externality to local articulations. It was a phrase more common with urban friends with less familiarity with such matters and carried a slight air of modern accusation. The term is rarely used in Hexian without either a note of disdain from those who denounce so-called superstitions or a knowing emphasis from those who do engage with such practices.

The aftermath of Maoism
Ng notes how the Cultural Revolution (and indeed, its first two years) often stands misleadingly as a condensed image of the Maoist era in its entirety. At a certain remove from Jing Jun’s study of the revival of a Confucian temple in Gansu, Ng approaches evocations of culture in a shifting moral landscape “not as a straightforward continuation but as painful enunciations and wounded reworkings after the cultural as such has been rendered petrified and petrifying”.

Despite variations on divine details, spirit mediums who frequented Fuxi temple in Hexian agreed: it was upon Chairman Mao’s death that the ghosts returned to haunt. Just across the road, in the psychiatric unit of the People’s Hospital,  patients lament accursed lives, tracing etiological paths through tales of dispossession, kinship, and betrayal. South from the hospital, a Sinopec gas station sits atop what was once known as the “ten-thousand-man pit” (wanrenkeng), where bodies of the poor and treacherous were flung, throughout decades of famine and revolution.

Ng describes “a set of tensions, between a reconstituted rurality and an ambivalent urbanity, a mournful psychiatry and a shaken cosmology.” She evokes “culture as aftermath”: “the time when Chairman Mao reigned” (dangjia 当家, “in charge”, an ubiquitous term for both secular and sacred leaders, as we heard constantly in rural Hebei) is recalled as an interval of divine sovereignty, after which the cosmos collapsed into chaos.

Recognising a painful rupture to traditions of thought, in this sense, is not antithetical to taking seriously ongoing engagements with a cultural repertoire, as the cultural is loosened from assumptions of its qualities as an immobile, unbroken, closed system, and fragmentation is no longer assumed to be characteristic only of the modern or postmodern. Instead, attention to the aftermath of culture allows us to address how “culture” in the historical present  is not simply an anachronistic concept but seethes in its simultaneous transmission of efficacious potential and tormenting attacks—from within and without.

At the temple square
Chapter 2 opens at the gate of the Fuxi temple in the county-town, as a man recites a Mao poem in a voice “from above”. For many mediums the journey consists in “walking Chairman Mao’s path”, and this is the focus of Ng’s study. But almost in passing she makes an important qualification:

Not all [mediums] centre their practices on Mao. They might be chosen by a number of tutelary deities from Buddhist, Daoist, and local pantheons to join their spiritual family and work in their service, or they might simply be vulnerable to possession by ghosts and spirits without an allocation of a divine task. But those who walk Chairman Mao’s path have a continual and notable presence at the temple square, on and beyond common ritual days, and even those who dedicate their ritual labour to other deities acknowledge Mao’s position in the cosmology.

So Ng surveys work on the Mao cult in the religious sphere—the study of Mao worship has become something of an industry (cf. this post on Gansu). As she notes, while commentators such as Geremie Barmé have described the “new Mao cult” as offering an implicit counterpoint to official portrayals, almost entirely divested of its original class, ethical, and political dimensions, her own work in Henan shows Mao still serving as ethopolitical and even cosmological figure.

In an inversion of the state’s ritual displacement of popular religion, the potency produced through Maoist-era political rituals is reactivated in post-Mao mediumship. Sharing a symbolic repertoire with the earthly state, the spectral polity speaks to the sense of a morally hollowed present and a revolution incomplete.

At the square she observes the scene acutely:

The air is dense with anticipation. Those who do not otherwise frequent the temple rush toward the gate, jostling their way through the crowds to burn the last batch of incense for the year. Making my way across the square, I am drawn toward a rumbling drum beat, steady and declarative, in sets of three. A large circle of onlookers gather around six women and two men, middle aged, as they prepare for ritual. They don matching and seemingly brand-new green Mao-era army coats, topped with brown Soviet-style fur hats, a single red star at the centre. One woman at the inner edge of the crowd holds a tall pole, topped with a large yellow flag with the word ling (lit. “command, order, or decree”; in this context meaning “divine command”) etched in red.

Ayahao!” Another woman, in a red parka and a red embroidered dress reminiscent of old Shanghai, traces the edges of the encirclement with her steps, passing at its northernmost point. Facing the heavens, hands outstretched, her arms slowly lift toward the sky. She is receiving not only lingqi from above but also divine command for the opening of the ritual. “Ayahao!” she cries again—an interjection confirming an otherworldly presence or signal, often one’s own possession or infusion by spiritual personae or airs. “Ayahao! Ayahao! Ayahao!” echo several spectators in the crowd—a signal that they too acknowledge and experience the presence and signals of the spirits. While some rituals on the square involve particular appeals to the powers above, rituals such as this are often considered a mode of acknowledgement and oblation for the gods as well as a means of gathering spiritual force.

Inside the circle eighteen sheets of yellow fabric—used commonly in local rituals and often considered, on the temple square, the colour of the emperor—have been laid out in the shape of a fan, flanked by a head of cabbage and two large stalks of scallions. Agricultural goods are often incorporated into ritual spreads at the temple square, sealing within them symbolic meanings and forces both shared and esoteric. […] North of this more yellow fabric, this time in a row of five, every other sheet topped with a bamboo platter […] is covered by paper cutting of four concentric red stars, one embedded in another, the emblem of the Communist Party.

On the central bamboo platter, three cigarettes point northward, an offering to the gods, I am told. A common offering in Hexian in ritual and mediumship, cigarettes are often smoked by mediums and at times are burned in an upright position in place of or in conjunction with incense on the temple square. Some say the use of cigarettes was a carryover from the Cultural Revolution, when incense sales were banned and visits to mediums were held covertly behind closed doors in the night. Above the cigarettes four sticks of incense burn in a golden urn—three for humans, four for ghosts, as the saying went—aside a row of plastic-wrapped sausages, “because gods like to eat too”.

At the very top, farthest north, thus of highest position in the cosmic-symbolic geography, is a large poster of Mao in a red-collared shirt, seated and flanked by his generals in blue uniform. Placed on the poster are three mandarin oranges and three slices of metallic-gold ritual paper—two covered in looping spirit writing, the third with the words “Through virtue, one gains all under heaven” (de de tianxia).

Fifty or so onlookers have gathered around by now; men smoking, women bundled in scarves, several in their teens and twenties peering on, gawking, giggling. A man, perhaps in his late thirties, cigarette dangling from his lips, begins swinging a three-feet-long necklace of Buddhist beads above his head. After a minute or so, he meticulously lowers the necklace atop the poster of Mao and the generals. The two men in Maoist army coats begin striking a gong and cymbals, tracing deliberate steps across the spread of ritual offerings. Others—mostly those I have seen frequenting the square before—join to walk the perimeter of the encirclement, some singing, some dancing, some plucking offerings off the spread, brandishing them toward the heavens. The percussion gains speed. The cries intensify. “Ayahao! Ayahao! Ayahao!”A woman walks to the centre of the circle and closes her eyes. Another twirls, palms up highto collect spiritual airs from above. A voice bellows amid the drum and song.

“Wansui! Wansui! Mao zhuxi wansui!” Ten thousand years! Ten thousand years! Ten thousand years for Chairman Mao! A woman, standing beneath the yellow flag of divine command, howls at the top of her lungs. “Wansui! Wansui!” she calls out again and again, until her voice grows hoarse. In an adjacent ritual circle, the drumming also reaches its peak. “Shenglile! Victory! Dajia shenglile! Victory to all! Shijie dapingle! The world has reached supreme peace! Zhongguo shenglile! China has reached victory! “Wansui! Wansui! Wanwansuiiiii!” Ten thousand years! Ten thousand years! Tens of thousands of years!

Probably out of discretion, the book only includes two photos:

Left: drawing of Mao on yellow fabric, with characters on watermelon reading junling “military [divine] command”. Right: “Cartography of loss”, showing stitching with neon yellow thread on red fabric, with character zhong “middle” in centre.

Ng points out that while corruption is a common lament, it is deeply embedded at all levels of society. She adduces the common issue of exorbitant entrance fees to temples (cf. Houshan). With the world of deities also tainted, the image of Chairman Mao has remained virtuous; many associate him, and the campaigns he led, with a kind of spiritual rectification.

In what is a widespread karmic trope, Ng notes that several Red Guards who took part in destroying the temple artefacts fell prey to strange illnesses or died bad deaths.

Acutely aware of fakery throughout reform-era society, local people struggle to distinguish fake mediums, and indeed fake deities who may possess them.

With the Chairman’s withdrawal back to the heavens postreform, an epidemic of brazen charlatanism and greed was unleashed across human and spiritual worlds.

So even if the “Mao shamans” are only one part of the picture, Ng contributes nuance to the discussion.

Consulting a medium at home
By contrast with the more performative public spectacle at the square, in Chapter 3, “Spectral collision”, Ng accompanies her host Cai Huiqing as she takes the bus to consult a medium at her village house, noting its unobtrusive “minimalist” nature, in Adam Yuet Chau’s term. As was common at the houses of mediums whom Ng visited, her altar had its own dedicated wing in the house complex, with its own entrance.

At the altar we take a seat across from Zheng Yulan on the west side of the square ritual table—the spiritually and symbolically less powerful side of the arrangement, in contrast to the east. In front of the altar, sitting between Zheng Yulan and us, is a large metal wash bin filled with incense from previous sessions. North of us all, thus at the top of the cosmic hierarchy, is the altar lined with several icons flanked by guardian lions, with Queen Mother of the West (Xiwang mu) at the centre. Cai Huiqing places a five renminbi note on the table as incense money (xiangqian)—a gesture that initiates the ritual exchange. *

* (Ng’s note:) In Hexian incense money is always laid on the table before a session begins. The amount given is usually volunteered rather than specified and often ranges from 10 to 50 renminbi at the village home altar session I saw. Compensation in gratitude for the completion of ritual assistance (huanyuan) is more likely to be specified and is higher than the initial incense money, ranging from the low to high hundreds of renminbi. More elaborate rituals or ones that require a medium to visit one’s home may reach into the thousands.

Zheng Yulan unwraps a a new batch of rusty-gold incense, lighting it slowly, attentively, squinting to determine whether the batch was properly lit before finally planting it into the large metal bin. […]

Zheng Yulan closes her eyes and begins yawning. In Hexian, as in many regions of China, yawning is a sign that the spirits had arrived and were entering the medium’s body, given the airy, pneumatic quality of other-worldly presences. “What is the name?” she asks.

Cai Huiqing responds with [her husband] Li Hanwei’s name, on whose behalf she is consulting the deities. As is often the case, the main supplicant of a session is not assumed to be the person who arrived at the altar; consultations are often initiated for others in the family. The reading of one’s own cosmic circumstances is not uncommonly left until last, after having inquired for others.

Zheng Yulan asks of Li Hanwei’s whereabouts. In an era of rural outmigration, family members are not always assumed to reside locally. Cai Huiqing replies that he is away, on the road, driving a large truck, delivering goods.

“Where does he drive?”

“From here to other counties, at times much farther, via the highway, to make deliveries.” Zheng Yulan contemplates this; then her right hand begins shaking as she whispers rapidly under her breath, conversing with her tutelary spirit. Another yawn hits her, and her eyes snap open. “He hit someone while he was driving.”

When it transpires that it was not a mortal but a xian ghost whom he had hit,

After enquiring about Li Hanwei’s local truck route, Zheng Yulan chuckles knowingly. “That corner—don’t you know it’s the ten-thousand-man pit, the wanrenkeng?” She is speaking of a major intersection, which for decades prior to the reform era was known locally as the site of a mass grave. During the famines of the 1940s and 1950s, it is said that those who simply collapsed of cold and hunger and died in the street or those whose families did not have the land to bury them in were simply tossed into the pit. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, it also served as resting place to those accused of political dissent—they were killed point-blank at the edge, I was told.

Now the ten-thousand-man pit lies beneath a Sinopec gas station. It is no longer so actively feared as it once was yet still houses countless hungry, wandering ghosts from decades past. […]

The ten-thousand-man pit is but one among many sites for spectral collisions in Hexian. Ghosts are also said to be common at intersections where their souls had been released during mortuary ritual; their personal gravesites; homes of women who recently miscarried; sites of past wrongs, reminiscences, and ghostly sociality […]; and simply arbitrary places along their driftings.

Ng goes on to illustrate such collisions through the history of the ten-thousand-man pit, and the famine of the 1940s and 50s. While she mentions in passing the terrible famine that followed the 1958 Great Leap Backward, I wonder if this is also a common theme of spectral encounters; rather,

in Hexian recollections of the pre-Maoist Old Society, transmitted through oral accounts and corroborated in national media, together with the sense of precarity and moral collapse in the post-Mao present, heightened the sense of safety and exceptionality of Maoist times.

As the consultation continues, Cai Huiqing rushes to the kneeling mat south of the altar and begins to kowtow northward, but the gesture seems insufficient. “Seeing with incense”, the medium gives a spoken exegesis, instructing Cai to burn six hundred ingots folded from gold spirit money to placate the ghost and ten reams of yellow spirit money to show gratitude to the deities. She correctly foretells that her client will have revealing dreams, which she describes on their next visit some days later. As Zheng Yulan requests clarifications, she concludes that a ghost is trapped and choked beneath “ a certain arc-shaped object, stuck beneath Cai Huiqing’s home, in the southwest corner”.

On her return, Cai indeed excavates an old, rusted pipe clamp from her yard, which she must get rid of. Such concealed artefacts may indeed be deemed malignant: in my book on a Hebei village I noted a story of villagers consulting a medium to locate a trowel accidentally buried in a wall as they were building a house.

Even if her husband and children disparage her recourse to mediums as a superstitious squandering of time and money, Cai Huiqing regards it as a way of mitigating danger for her family.

Ng notes that such spectral collisions may overlap with the potential natal calamity of one’s horoscope.

On the psychiatric ward
With striking, cinematic abruptness, Chapter 4, “A soul adrift”, transports us to the psychiatric unit of the county People’s Hospital, which indeed is across the road from the Fuxi temple—there’s even an advertisement for it on the big screen in the temple square.

In a highly original and insightful juxtaposition, Ng spends time with several patients whose crises seem to call for such a modern form of intervention, considering medical anthropology, madness, and the divided self, and again drawing on much research. She had already worked among psychiatric patients in Shenzhen, where she found that “the post-Mao generation increasingly individualised and psychologised their illness, with a heavy sense of self-blame, in contrast to the political, sociomoral, and situational accounts from those who came of age in the Maoist era”. Indeed, this perspective first came to my attention with an article on psychiatric patients in Hebei (n.2 here).

Ng also refers to Arthur Kleinman’s study of neurasthenia, which he found to provide a somatised, medically legitimised, and politically tolerable idiom through which to articulate otherwise punishable laments during the Cultural Revolution.

Many of the problems that people experienced stemmed from the pressures created since 2005 by the state’s New Socialist Countryside project (the object of several trenchant critiques by fine scholars such as Guo Yuhua)—people’s precarious economic prospects associated with migration and return, and familial tensions. At the same time,

many patients and families speak of the illness for which they come to seek treatment in terms of possession, soul loss, and ghost encounters or as the blurred boundary between madness and otherworldly happenings.

For some, social disintegration and crisis in filial relations are a manifestation of cosmic chaos.

The hospital might serve, modestly, as a “tentative site of retreat” from such pressures.

Save weddings, birth celebrations, and funerals, hospitalisation—psychiatric or otherwise—seems to be one of the few occasions in Hexian that draws local extended family and immediate family near and far, along with select friends and neighbours, into a circuit of visitations.

Ng meets a withdrawn, wandering mother, whose few utterances often reference the commune era; her crises have not been mediated by spirit mediums. Her worried daughters take turns attending to her, returning from Beijing.

Next Ng meets a female student, disturbed by the pressures of education and her impasse with her migrant father, who only thinks about money yet whom she describes critically as an “honest” (laoshi 老实) type. She reflects well on that common yet ambivalent term:

Until the early 1980s honesty connoted a good person, hardworking and trustworthy, the ideal marriage partner, particularly when describing men. With the turn toward market competition and growing disparity in the reform era, the same term began morphing in connotation, pointing to a naÏveté vulnerable to exploitation and duping, which would not fare well in the new moment and risks falling short of supporting a family amid the social games of the privatised world. Honesty also came to mark a caricature of the rural, of peasants too simpleminded for complicated times. As Yunxiang Yan writes of young women he encountered in rural Heilongjiang in the 1990s, “a number of them maintained that that [honest] young men had difficulty expressing themselves emotionally, and lacked attractive manners”. By contrast, articulate speech, emotional expression, ambition, and a capacity for advancing one’s social and economic position had come to be valued, reversing the previous connotations of similar traits as unsavoury signs of empty words, lasciviousness, and aggression.

I’m sure this is right, though I haven’t picked up so much on it. Often when I’ve heard the term used, I’ve felt that it was not only an implied rebuke to the widespread current avarice and duplicity, but also a tribute to those who had managed to maintain a moral core under Maoism, resisting fickle political pressures—like the much-admired Li Jin in Yanggao.

The patient’s mother has visited various “superstitious” guides on her behalf, both mediums and fortune tellers—“those who ask for directions for you” (gei ni wenwenlu nazhong, another formulation likely to serve fieldworkers better than alien, judgmental terms like shenpo “witch”). Like Ng’s host, the mother engages with the spirit world on behalf of her kin, “in search of otherworldly forces shaping the predicaments of the present”. While the student herself seems indifferent to all this, she doesn’t think the various drugs she has been prescribed (olanzapine, alprazolam, paroxetine) will suffice to help her, though she feels comforted by the IV drip. She places greater faith in counselling, but it’s available only in the major cities.

Next comes an injured former miner diagnosed with acute psychosis. Ng gains background from his wife. His frustration at his loss of earning power and, again, tensions with his father clearly play a role in his disorder. A female relative had consulted a medium on his behalf, who again diagnosed a spectral collision, but a “soul-calling” session was unsuccessful.

Here Ng reflects on what Yan Yunxiang described as the crisis of filial piety, “a deep shift in notions of intergenerational reciprocity”.

Across my conversations with patients and families, the language of psychiatry is present but, to some extent, sidelined. For most the psychiatric ward is one stop in a broader search for healing, and psychopharmaceutical cures are one hope among many.

Chapter 5 goes on to describe another patient, Xu Liying, herself a medium “summoned to the revolution” eighteen years previously by a vision of Chairman Mao and the Ten Great Marshals, struggling against evil spirits—a mission that torments her.

Brought to the ward by her husband and son, she is the only patient there diagnosed with “culture-bound syndrome”, but remains devoted to her divine task. Several fellow mediums come to visit her, trying in vain to convince the doctors to release her so that she can continue her work.

Again, much of Xu Liying’s task consists in discriminating fakery and corruption. Her cosmos depends heavily on the ledgers of the courts of hell. Among her few trusted deities is none other than the Eternal Mother (Wusheng laomu), the central figure of “White Lotus” eschatology. For her and other mediums in Hexian,

the historical arrival of Mao is at times linked with the arrival of the Maitreya Buddha, in a moment when China had reached the brink of ruin and calamity.

Ng notes that

The spatial face-off of the temple and the hospital follows a series of encounters between health and religiosity throughout the 20th century.

She makes another important qualification:

To be sure, psychiatry and mediumship do not always overlap in Hexian. Plenty of those in Hexian who have experienced possession by deities or ghosts do not wind up at the psychiatric ward, and many at the ward do not describe their ailment in terms of the invisible yin world. At the same time languages of madness pervade contemporary mediumship, and talk of possession is very much familiar to psychiatrists and patients at the ward.

In the Coda Ng observes

The mediums, having been written out of modern religious and medical legitimacy, continue to address madness in their consultations and ritual repertoires. Symptoms, for the mediums, are not merely representations of biological truth or psychiatric reason but signs of cosmopolitical disarray. Possessed bodies and disturbed dreams link the present with its hauntings, reinvesting the most local of geographies with significance across national, world-historical, and cosmic scales.

The mediums of China today are not those of the imagined past.

* * *

Now I’d like to read more about other local temples, further sessions, the role of gender (Ng notes that more women than men become mediums, but doesn’t go into detail), economic aspects, and the part mediums may play in any sectarian activity. I also find Xiao Mei’s diary of a busy medium in Guangxi makes an instructive template. Mediums have domestic altars, but Ng doesn’t mention any painted pantheons such as we find in parts of Shanxi and Shaanbei. As to performance, her comments don’t go much beyond “the song and drums reverberating from the proliferation of ritual across the temple square”. I wonder if the Hexian mediums perform group sessions in domestic settings as well as in the temple square. In some regions (such as Yanggao), they may speak and sing in dialects of which they have no knowledge in their mundane life.

XLY mediums

Mediums at temple fair, Yanggao 2011. My photo.

Ng does both descriptive ethnographic detail and broader theory very well, but I often found the former getting buried beneath her impressive array of theoretical citations and reflections. We can always consult Foucault and Derrida, but the grassroots detail of ritual life in rural China need to be evoked. Since Ng met many mediums, I kept wanting more thick descriptions of what they actually do.

It’s often a challenge to balance ethnography and theory, but to my taste I’d sacrifice some of the latter for more of the former. Still, A time of lost gods is a most original portrait of an important topic, sympathetic and non-judgmental.


[1] Ng uses pseudonyms both for the location and for personal names.

[2] For Navajo ceremonies for protection against baleful ghosts amidst modern traumas, see here—including Barre Toelken’s cautionary tales (n.5 there), evoking Ng’s initial encounter in Henan.

[3] For Henan, Peter Seybolt, Throwing the emperor from his horse (1996), a biography of a village leader through three eras, remains useful. Note also sectarian groups such as Eastern Lightning (see e.g. Ian Johnson, The souls of China, chapter 25). I really should get a grasp on ritual life and expressive culture in Henan—perhaps setting forth from the relevant volumes of the Anthology.

[4] Among many local terms for mediums, see e.g. HebeiShaanbei (Chau, Miraculous response, pp.54–8, Religion in China, pp.117–21, and forthcoming), and south Jiangsu. For educated and local vocabularies more generally, click here.

Glimpses of Hunan


The route of Yang Yinliu’s survey in summer 1956.

This series of posts suggests varying perspectives on changing society and expressive culture in Hunan province:

The extensive field survey led by the great Yang Yinliu over summer 1956:

Hunan 1

Major fieldwork since the 1980s on local Daoist ritual:

Migration and cultural responses to the famine that followed the Great Leap Backward:


The documentaries of Jiang Nengjie on left-behind children and the perils of mining:

As ever, I’d love to see all these perspectives integrated.

Native American cultures 2: the Navajo

Was advised to stay in the car.

—David McAllester, 22nd September 1950.

Squaw dance

The Squaw dance: undated early photo by Joseph Howard McGibbeny (1891–1970).

With Bruno Nettl’s wise reflections on Native American musical cultures in mind, among the many groups that he and others have studied, I’ve been trying to get a basic grasp of the ceremonies of the Navajo (Diné) [1]—most populous among the indigenous peoples in the southwestern USA (Hopi, Pueblo, Apache, Yuma, Pima, and so on).

Again, apart from the intrinsic merits of such research, the topic suggests fruitful perspectives for our studies of Chinese folk ritual and the sacred–secular continuum.

Here’s a basic map:

map SW

and a map of the Navajo territories:


From Titon (ed.), Worlds of music.

Modern Navajo history is just as troubled as that of other indigenous peoples—savage army repression from the 1840s leading to the Long Walk of 1864, followed by containment on reservations, assimilation in boarding schools, and the relocations and environmental degradation wrought by the mining industry since the 1960s. Yet their ceremonial life has remained lively. The Navajo language is still widely spoken (note this fine riposte); the wartime code talkers make an absorbing theme.

First I’ll give an outline of Navajo ceremonies, and then get to grips with a classic study of the Enemy Way, its soundscape and cultural values. Last But Not Least, for those of us unable to attend such rituals in person, I’ll offer a few audio and visual materials, which make an essential complement to silent, immobile text!

While many general themes in ritual are widespread (see e.g. Catherine Bell and Frits Staal), societies around the world slice their ritual pies in different ways. Many rituals, or segments, are multi-purpose (on a jocular note, do enjoy Stewart Lee’s youthful illustration of ritual redundancy).

In China, beyond the ancient binary classification of Daoist rituals as zhai Fasts and jiao Offerings, later we find yin and yang rituals for the dead and the living (more broadly, red rituals for the living, white for the dead), or a tripartite taxonomy such as funerary, earth, and temple scriptures, and so on (see In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.15–20). Even a list of different types of jiao Offering is extensive. And scholars may adopt their own categories, such as exorcism, healing, pestilence rituals, rites of affliction, and rituals for domestic blessing.


Kinaalda ceremony. Source here.

Navajo ceremonies may last for up to nine days and nights. Among several sites, the focus of healing rituals is the circular log hogan (by the mid-20th century, often a specially-constructed edifice rather than an everyday dwelling), inside which the medicine man (the Navajo term hatali “singer” isn’t gender-specific, though most are indeed male) deploys his jish bundle and depicts sand paintings [2] (see films below). Altars are also constructed outside the hogan.

Again the ritual taxonomy is complex. Among a wide range of Navajo ceremonies (Night Chant Way, Mountain Chant Way, and so on), some have become obsolete—their ritual activities have long been changing, albeit more subtly than other areas of their life such as material culture. But the Blessing Way (Hózhójí), the core ritual, is frequently held; it may be performed for expectant mothers shortly before birth, for young men leaving for the armed forces, and for kinaalda puberty rituals for girls (for which, see films below); moreover, parts of the Blessing Way feature within most other Navajo ceremonies. [3]

The Enemy Way
On the Enemy Way (Anaa’jí), a ceremony for countering the harmful effects of ghosts, I gladly turn to a monograph that Nettl cites often—an early classic of ethnomusicology:

(cf. later influential classics of ethnomusicology relating musicking to culture, such as Neuman, The life of music in north India, and accessible books like Lortat-Jacob, Sardinian chonicles, and indeed Proulx, Accordion crimes).

Navajo cover

McAllester’s study is based on fieldwork in the Rimrock area of Arizona over four and a half months from 1950 to 1951. Utilising an already substantial body of anthropological studies, in a mere 96 densely-packed pages—many of which are devoted to transcriptions and musical analysis—he manages to provide a wealth of information on the relation of sound to ritual culture and aesthetic values.

Apart from making formal recordings, McAllester lists the public Enemy Way ceremonies that he attended in September 1950—including one of my favourite fieldwork tips ever, which heads this post (cf. More fieldwork tips).

diary 1

diary 2As Nettl went on to observe, the very term for “music” is far from universal—an issue that McAllester addresses in his Introduction. Distinguishing existential and normative values, he notes:

There was no general word for “musical instrument” or even for “music”. A face-finding question such as “What kinds of musical instruments do you use?” (really intended to start the informant thinking and talking about music) had to be phrased, “Some people beat a drum when they sing; what other things are used like that?”. A “fact” in the Navajo [4] universe is that music is not a general category of activity but has to be divided into specific aspects of kinds of music. I learned, moreover, that beating a drum to accompany oneself in song was not a matter of esthetic choice but a rigid requirement for a particular ceremony, and a discussion of musical instruments was not an esthetic discussion for the Navajos but was, by definition, a discussion of ceremonial esoterica.

Similarly, the question “How do you feel when you hear a drum?” was intended to evoke an esthetic response. But the Navajo “fact” is that a drum accompaniment is rarely heard except with the public songs of the Enemy Way, and if you feel queer, especially dizzy, at the ceremonial, it is a clear indication that you, too, need to be a patient at this particular kind of “sing”. What I took to be a somewhat general esthetic question was, for the Navajos, a most specific ceremonial question and was interpreted by the average informant as an enquiry into his state of health.

At the beginning of my work I intended to limit my investigation to secular music, reserving any considerable study in the tremendous field of Navajo religious music for a later time. I soon discovered the Navajo “fact” that all music is religious and that the most nearly secular songs in melody, in textual content, and in the attitudes of the performers were derived from the Enemy Way chant mentioned above, a religious ceremony designed to protect the Navajos from the influence of the ghosts of slain outsiders. The dancing which accompanies certain parts of this rite is widely known as the Navajo Squaw Dance, and it is the singing which accompanies this dance, together with certain other kinds of public songs of the Enemy Way, to which I refer.

It was possible, eventually, to construct a hierarchy of different kinds of music according to the degree of secular emphasis. In the value-orientations of the Navajos I could find no music that was believed to be purely secular, but the public Enemy Way songs and certain songs of the Blessing Way were secular as well as religious and could be used in secular contexts.

It was necessary, of course, to try to ascertain, for music, the Navajo definition of “religious”. Questioning revealed little or no native preoccupation with a differentiation between that which is religious and that which is secular. The Navajo has not compartmentalised his life in this respect. […]

When a traditional Navajo is asked how he likes a song, he does not consider the question “How does it sound?” but “What is it for?”. […]

The social aspect of Navajo singing is another important part of the desired. Here too, a change from traditional values is taking place, and a conflict between younger and older generations may be seen. The question, “What do we want?” is in a state of flux, and the question, “What ought we to want?” has come very much to the fore. Sex roles and age roles emerge as important factors in Navajo normative values as regards music. Here too, significant changes are taking place due to the encroachment of white American culture and new religious ideas.

Thus it may take one a while to grasp McAllester’s distinction between “sacred” and “secular” forms—an etic problem that he created for himself. He explains his focus on the public songs, but (as often) our binary concepts may obstruct understanding.

Uses and functions
As we saw above, ritual taxonomy is complex. The Enemy Way is remarkably versatile, its purposes diverse. While it has “martial” origins in alluding to the two great wars in Navajo mythology, its formal intention is

to protect the Navajos from the influence of the ghost of an outsider; that of a white man or some other other non-Navajo such as a European, an Asiatic, or a member of some other Asian tribe.

And though McAllester claims that

most of the Enemy Ways performed in the last few years for young men have been directed against the ghosts of enemies slain in World War Two,

he goes on:

But numerous situations in everyday life may expose one to the attentions of an “enemy” ghost: being too near the scene of a fatal automobile accident was cited by one informant. Intimate contact with a non-Navajo who may have died subsequently is another possibility. Women as well as men may be pursued by these ghosts and require the performance of the Enemy Way.

Another instance is when girls coming into contact with white men’s clothes at school. And an Enemy Way may also be performed for someone returning home after a stay in hospital, where they will inevitably have been exposed to the spirits of non-Navajo who have died there. So the ceremony subsumes all kinds of healing.

The ways in which one can tell when the ceremony is needed range from the general, such as a vague feeling that it would be a good thing, to the highly specific, such as a dream that recalled an encounter with the body of a dead outsider. It is frequently used as a last resort when other ceremonies have failed.[…]

One sure symptom is a feeling of faintness or dizziness when one attends an Enemy Way which is being held for someone else.

This was a common occurrence, requiring a further Enemy Way ceremony.

McAllester also notes more mundane underlying motives, such as “the urge to keep up with the neighbours […] and the feeling among poorer families that wealthy families should provide more than the average number of these entertainments” (a rare suggestion of social stratification among the Navajo, generally downplayed); as in Chinese ritual, public reputation matters. Another important function is the “bringing out” of young girls who have reached marriageable age.

The ritual sequence
McAllester goes on to outline the ritual sequence over three days and nights (pp.8–14):

  • the decision: preparatory stages—including the construction of a hogan and cooking arbour, and seeking materials such as herbs, yarn for the rattle [stick], an enemy trophy (scalp or bone) and so on
  • duties of the stick receiver, possessed with some esoteric knowledge
  • ritual preparation of the drum, with singing
  • the journey to stick receiver’s camp, and facial decoration of the patient
  • first night of public singing and dancing, at the patient’s camp
  • gift singing before the stick receiver’s camp (early morning of the second day)
  • return of the patient’s party
  • the moving of the stick receiver’s camp
  • second night of public singing and dancing, at the new camp
  • the move to the patient’s camp soon after dawn, with a sham battle on arrival
  • the return gift singing, after breakfast
  • the Enemy Way rites, to treat the patient, whose face and body are decorated, led by the medicine man. The enemy ghost is slain by strewing ashes on the trophy.
  • third night of public singing, with circle dancing, and walking songs from the stick receiver’s camp to that of the patient, followed by sway songs
  • conclusion, at dawn, with more ceremonial songs and prayers.

Here McAllester notes (cf. the flawed Chinese funeral that I describe here):

When the ceremony had been concluded on the second and third nights of the Pine Valley Enemy Way, September 27 and 28, there were long announcements made by very drunk Navajos. The burden was similar to those of the other announcements mentioned but also included reproaches for the diminished energy of the singing group as the night wore on and for the drinking that had taken place. […] A group of Salcedanos […] said that they used to enjoy coming to the Squaw Dances for the social occasion, the refreshments, and the girls, and they used to feel that it helped to bring rain. Now, they said, they did not enjoy it and they did not feel that the occasion had been holy. They added that their governors (one of whom was present) did not get drunk, and they were sorry to see the Navajo leaders set such a bad example for their young men. The announcer translated this, and the Navajos seemed to take the reproach seriously.

The adverse effects of alcohol features in several of McAllester’s vignettes. In a section on the dangers of misuse, he observes exceptions to the generally muted quality of Navajo public gatherings (p.66),

when formally organized singing takes place, as at Yeibichai Dances, Squaw Dances, or when there has been a great deal of drinking. When fights begin to break out there may be some shouting, but even this is very different from drunken brawling in white-American culture. Much of the kicking and punching is done with silent intensity. The shouting is not prolonged or repetitive, but consists of a few short cries that seem to be forced out. Even in this extreme situation, there is very little sustained noise, nor do the onlooker shout censure or encouragement.

And on p.77 he comments:

Open expressions of hostility are a commonplace at Navajo gatherings if any considerable drinking has gone on.

McAllester suggests in particular that inhibitions may be released in the public singing of the Enemy Way, which provides an outlet for “self-expression, teasing, competition, and even aggression”.

As he explains at the outset,

Of all the arts, perhaps music has seemed the hardest to study as social behaviour. Aside from the accompanying poetry in the song texts, the actual substance of the music appears forbiddingly abstract. Melodic line and phrasing, metre, pitch, and scale have been reserved for highly trained musicologists, few of whom have been interested in cultural applications. The unfortunate result of this specialisation and the feeling that one must have “talent” to study music has been a general abdication from this field by social scientists, even to the extent that the most elementary questions about attitudes towards music have remained unasked.

While musicologists soon learned to incorporate culture into their sphere, the social scientists rarely reciprocated; we still find the same “abdication” among scholars of Daoist ritual, for instance. As McAllester wrote, even very modest attention to performance and performers will bear fruit. This applies both to social matters (How are you fed during the ritual? How do you get paid? Where do you find reed to make your oboe mouthpieces?) and to registering basic features of sound (Is this text sung slow or fast? Loud? In unison? What percussion instruments accompany?); even a little more detail is easily learned (Is the text sung with melisma? Is the melody pentatonic? Do you always sing it the same? Did your granddad sing it like that?).

For the musical aspect of his fieldwork, McAllester appends a questionnaire (pp.91–2)—which, as he explains, should be used sensitively (cf. Jackson, Schimmelpenninck):Qs 1Qs 2Transcriptions may look forbidding to the outsider, but audio samples of such songs might be a good test for scholars who disclaim musical expertise: they too should be able to make such simple and useful observations.

Having outlined the overall ceremony, he goes on to focus on the “secular” songs; but he opens this section by discussing songs more generally, listing them in more or less chronological sequence—and again it transpires that most of them (apart from the “secular” items marked with asterisks) are “sacred” (p.15):

  • Bear and snake songs (for protection against danger)
  • Songs used in preparation of the drum
  • Songs used in preparation of the rattle stick
  • The Coyote songs (sung by the medicine man to inaugurate each night of public singing)
  • The Sway songs*
  • The Dance songs* (trotting, skipping, signal for end of dancing)
  • The Gift songs* [the following four items are for the patient:]
  • Emetic songs
  • Unraveling songs
  • Medicine songs (for medicine in gourd, for application of pollen)
  • Blackening songs (referring to the enemy’s country, and to the Navajo country)
  • Circle dance songs* (as the evening of the third day approaches)
  • Walking songs (secret songs sung on the ceremonial walk to the patient’s hogan)
  • Songs to the patient
  • Concluding songs of the ceremonial (Blessing Way songs sung to the patient at dawn, Coyote songs)
  • Songs for depositing the rattle stick (including Twelve-word Blessing Way song),

as well as additional sequences for the longer version of the ceremony (songs of the Tail Dancers and the Black Dancers, songs at the meal of the no-cedar mush).

Ritual events around the world commonly display a sacred–secular continuum. While such an “etic” distinction appears questionable among the Navajo, we should pay just as much attention to the “highly formalized chant-like music of the sacred healing ceremonies”, containing “magical phrases and long, full repetitive lists of Holy People, sacred places, and parts of the body or of plants”—mostly performed solo by the medicine man, I gather, sometimes supported by a group of men. McAllester naturally recognised the importance of studying this art, but postponed it—though his work on the Navajo, later enhanced by his student Charlotte Frisbie, continued (see n.3 below). Anyway, here his focus on melody tends to detract somewhat from the more esoteric, even central, aspect of Navajo ritual (see also under “Changing values” below).

Again, this reminds me of issues in studying Chinese ritual. McAllester’s choice of the secular songs rather resembles that of most Chinese musicologists, who have focused too narrowly on the melodic instrumental component of Daoist and Buddhist ritual. By contrast, scholars of “classical” religion are drawn to the esoteric parts of the ritual (secret formulas, mudras, talismans, and so on), neglecting a more normative ethnography of everything that is going on during the event.

The secular songs
Anyway, it is these secular, public songs (collectively known as Squaw Dance) that McAllester analyses: the sway songs, dance songs, gift songs, and circle dance songs. They are more readily subjected to musical analysis, and “less freighted with the overtones of magic”.

For sonic material he practises the fieldworker’s typical combination of observing ritual performance and recording on request, noting the differences (“Once when I asked an informant why he was not singing ‘naturally’ (loud and high), he replied that he was afraid that my recording machine could not stand it”). He gives brief sketches of his main informants (pp.25–6).

The recording situation was almost always a stimulus to discussions of various aspects of music in Navajo life, and those in turn led to talk in many other fields, particularly that of religion.

So their comments on the songs that he discusses are interesting, such as:

Enemyway 27

I found this approach useful in working on Daoist hymns with Li Manshan too.

score 1

Sway songs (cf. comments above).


Circle dance songs sung to vocables—showing exceptional triple metre, with some irregular beats.

Along with his transcriptions of the songs, McAllester analyses each genre—adopting etic concepts while bearing in mind the Navajos’ own ethos, under the headings of

  • texts: meaningful, and vocables (the gift and circle dance songs are usually sung to vocables only)
  • vocal style: “nasal, high, with a wide vibrato and an ornamental use of the falsetto”
  • metre (and rhythm): mostly duple and in even rhythms, with occasional extra beats (largely attributable to the requirements of textual phrasing)—with some exceptions such as frequent triple metre in circle dance songs—e.g. §2 and 16 on the playlist below
  • tempo (quite fast!)
  • pitch
  • melodic line
  • phrasing
  • scales and tonality (mostly pentatonic, to which we should now add “anhemitonic”—as in China and much of the world…).

He concludes this section with a useful summary of musical features of all the public song genres (pp.55–9).

One basic feature of the group songs (not mentioned by McAllester) is that they are monophonic, and sung in unison. Of course, where (as often) his transcriptions are of recordings made with a solo singer on demand, rather than during a live ceremony, naturally the songs look monophonic; one needs to listen attentively to recordings of group singing to try and characterise what McAllester describes as its free, loose nature. Yet the recordings I’ve heard do indeed sound quite close to unison.

For a well-annotated audio survey of global singing styles, see Voices of the world. It might make a good exercise to listen to the dance songs among Paul Bowles’s recordings in Morocco, comparing all these musical parameters.

As fieldworkers know well, by contrast with the individual songs that they have to present on disc, rituals often string them together in lengthy song cycles (cf. Allan Marett’s analyses of Australian Aboriginal dream songs; see also Analysing world music).

Changing values
Part Two, “Values in the study of music as social behaviour”, opens with a discussion of the nature of taboo. Here McAllester has more to say on the sacred songs:

On my first day of recording Navajo songs, I learned that some may be sung by anybody and discussed freely, but that others may be sung only with circumspection, with the right preparation, at the right time, and by the right people. Indeed, some of the latter songs may not be heard except by those who have been properly protected by initiation.

For the dangers of doing fieldwork on Navajo magic, note the disturbing articles of Barre Toelken. [5] McAllester discovers a kind of “scale of danger”. Still, he reminds us:

It is hard to discuss with a Navajo what music is “holy” and what music is not. The first reaction of nearly all of my informants was that all of their songs were sacred. Nor did they respond with categories to such questions as “Are some songs more holy than others?” [cf. Nigel Barley!].

No such hierarchies seem to exist ready-made in the Navajo scheme of values. But when asked directly, nearly every Navajo feels that songs from the great ceremonial chants are more sacred than gambling songs such as those sung with the Gambling Game. The parts of the Night Chant and the Enemy Way Chant which are chanted by the ceremonial practitioner are recognised by everyone as being more sacred than the Yeibichai songs of the masked dancers in the former and the Squaw Dance songs performed in the latter.

He continues by compiling his own list of songs along the “scale of danger”:

  • Prayer ceremonials
  • Songs used in witchcraft, and deer hunting songs
  • Songs from non-Navajo ceremonials. I know that Peyote songs are considered highly dangerous and believe that this may be true for some of the other ceremonials performed by other Indian groups
  • The longer chants: Night Way, Shooting Way, etc. The Evil Way chants are considered more dangerous than the Holy Way chants
  • Chanted parts of the Enemy Way: the four starting songs, the walking songs, the blackening songs, etc., are all very secret
  • Moccasin Game, and perhaps Stick Dance songs, which must be used only in the right season of the year
  • Work songs such as weaving, spinning, and corn grinding songs. Much more needs to be known about these songs. They do not seem to be particularly taboo but they have, nevertheless, become extremely rare
  • Circle dance songs from the Enemy Way
  • Yeibichai songs from Night Way, should only be sung in the winter
  • Dawn songs and other songs from the latter part of the Blessing Way may be used in some social contexts, but still with religious overtones of bringing good luck
  • Sway songs, gift songs, and dance songs from the Enemy Way can be sung at any time.

McAllester continues with a section on the dangers of misuse and forms of protection: through initiation, through timing, and training for a particular singing event, by running hard, fasting, and purification by vomiting—one informant explained the declining quality of the songs of young men by their reluctance to make such preparations. Young men also found the old ceremonial chants “too hard” to learn; yet (again echoing China) while the diminution of expertise that McAllester noted has continued (e.g. this interview with a medicine man—with a comment on treating soldiers returning from Vietnam with PTSD), scholars commonly note that ceremonies are still thriving.

So while McAllester and others were interested in uncovering archaic layers, he was far from merely seeking “living fossils”; and while the Navajo were quite insistent on performing “correctly”, they frequently offered instructive comments on change.

The following section, “Religions from outside”, outlines the Peyote cult and the Galilean mission. The Navajos seem to have learned the Peyote cult, a new religion, from the Utes. They even remained faithful to the less nasal singing style of the latter. But like other outside influences, the cult was considered dangerous. McAllester notes a marked preponderance of women in the Galilean congregation—including the singers—by contrast with their more passive role in Navajo ceremonies.

Under Esthetic values, he reminds us that the Navajos consider music inseparable from function—though again he finds a shift in the values of some younger men. Two contrasting illustrations that he managed to elicit:

I like it better when it goes along level, then I know it’s a holy song. (Helen Chamiso)

Yes, they sing more fancy now. If you use only one tone it sounds kind of plain. (Nat Nez)

This generation gap applies both to choice of songs and to vocal technique.

McAllester ends this section with a brief extrapolation of musical esthetics: tonality, voice production, group singing, rhythm, tempo, and melodic line. He notes the tendency of some singers to cup a hand over their ear—just like Sardinian tenores.

Under “Other cultural values” he outlines features such as competition, self-expression, “Navajo quiet” (a promising theme), the prestige of musical knowledge (which, again, will be in flux); and he notes humour in the songs (punning, an unusual grammatical usage, ribaldry, and so on). In a brief section on the role of women in religion he notes their general exclusion—though here, as other scholars have gone on to observe, they surely play a greater part than the general taboo would suggest (cf. China).

He illustrates individualism, provincialism (the Navajos were “very curious to hear ‘foreign’ music”—of other Indian tribes, Mexican music, “white” music brought home by returning soldiers, and so on—though they were soon forgotten), and formalism; and he ends (with what I consider a *** passage à la Stella Gibbons) by discussing music as an aid to rapport in fieldwork:

There seems to be something more acceptable about a stranger who wants to learn songs than about one who wants to know how long babies are nursed. Among the Navajos, I was accused, jokingly, of wanting to become a ceremonial practitioner, the usual goal of learning songs. [cf. Wei Guoliang at Houshan (here, under “The local ritual network)!]

It seemed to work in my favour that I was there to learn, that I respected an aspect of Navajo life usually ignored or laughed at, and was willing to teach songs in return. […]

From a discussion of music one can move by easy stages into almost any area of cultural investigation. Almost any area of human behaviour is crossed at some point by music. With the Navajos, such seemingly remote subjects as attitudes towards property, propagation of livestock, and the nature of taboo came to the fore in connection with music; sometimes I found informants who were so reserved that it seemed as though no interview at all were going to take place, but who became interested and accessible when the topic was music.

Music has been made unnecessarily a specialist’s field in ethnology. A few songs from almost any culture can be learned by the ethnologist even if he is not a musician [sic]; even very imperfect renderings of native music can do much in establishing rapport.

The monograph ends with a succinct summary of existential and normative values.

* * *

Audio recordings
It’s a shame we can’t follow the songs that McAllester transcribed with specific sound examples, but the stylistic features he analyses can be perceived in many other early recordings.

Following on from the incomprehension of the Navajo themselves that there is something called “music” that can be extracted from ritual (or indeed life), audio compilations of short songs, valuable as they may be to us, may seem incongruous. As scholar-recordists would be the first to recognise, such songs aren’t mere reified sound objects: they can hardly suggest, let alone capture, the living experience of ritual. Yet at the same time it is useful to be able to focus on their sound with McAllester’s guides in mind. Film is not living ritual either, but is a major advance over audio recordings—let alone silent, dry texts (my constant refrain: see e.g. here, §6).

My examples below may seem to suggest nostalgia, but the transformation effected by modern life has long been an important theme: as with Chinese ritual, we should seek to document both early tradition and more visible contemporary manifestations.

A wealth of recordings has been released on disc, such as:

Recorded by Laura Boulton:

  • Navajo Songs, recorded in 1933 and 1940, annotated by Charlotte J. Frisbie and David McAllester (1992)
  • Indian music of the southwest (1957)

And Willard Rhodes issued ten LPs of the recordings that he had made from 1940 to 1952, such as

  • Music of the Sioux and the Navajo (1949)  (liner notes here)
  • Music of the American Indians of the southwest (1951)
  • Music of the American Indian: Sioux (1954) (liner notes here)

Here’s a good introductory playlist, with tracks from the 1992 Navajo Songs album with Laura Boulton’s early recordings, as well as excerpts from 1975 recordings by Charlotte Heth (more here, including liner notes) and from a Canyon Records album recorded 1952–1963 (for whose own notes, see here, on the useful drumhop site):

Here’s Music of the American Indians of the southwest (for notes, see drumhop again).:

Among the Navajo tracks is a highly distinctive falsetto night chant/Yeibichai dance:

On film
Again I’ll start with early footage. Valuable as it is, many scenes are clearly posed; voiceovers are often patronising and mendacious (“visitors are always welcome”; the paeans to residential schools; copious Injun cultural clichés); and dodgy musical soundtracks evoke Hollywood Westerns. For all these fatal flaws, and more, see e.g. Jacquelyn Kilpatrick, Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and film (1999)—note also the BTL comments that appear when you click on “YouTube” for the pages below. Bearing all that in mind…

This quaintly-choreographed short film from 1939 includes a public dance and “wedding ceremony” (from 5.39):

In this 1945 film (from 32.24) a medicine man presides over a healing ritual, including the creation of a sand painting in the hogan, with ritual paraphernalia such as the rattle stick and trophy bundle (and for all the limitations of these films, they do feature the sacred chanting style that McAllester outlines, not heard on the audio recordings above):

Navajo night dances (1957), from the nine-day Mountain Chant Way:

Also from the 1950s (with a kinaalda ceremony from 11.31, including more sand painting—and yet another classic use of the incongruous Hollywoodesque soundtrack!):

A more recent introduction to kinaalda:

And an excerpt from Kinaalda: a Navajo rite of passage (Lena Carr, 2000):

Starting again, here’s Between two worlds (1958)—shamelessly whitewashing the impact of government intrusion:

But breaking the mold of happy smiling natives grateful to be admitted to the benefits of civilisation is the documentary Broken rainbow (Maria Florio and Victoria Mudd, 1985)—though not without its critics, it soberingly relates the plight of both Navajo and Hopi, subjected to forced relocation and environmental pollution (cf. Grassy Narrows):

Lastly, following successive historical epidemics visited on Native American peoples by white contact, the Navajo are suffering severely from Coronavirus (yet another danger from outside—see e.g. herehere, here, and here)—here’s a song from quarantine:

* * *

While taking modern change into account, the complex ritual sequences and symbolism of the Navajo remain deeply impressive. And I now see why ethnomusicologists recognise McAllester’s monograph as an important pioneer of the concern to integrate music and culture. As he observes, the public dance songs that are his subject here are only a small part of the overall ceremonial performance, but he makes a compelling case for including their soundscape in ethnographies of ritual.

Of course, change has continued to escalate since the 1950s, inviting both continuing fieldwork and further study of earlier periods. At last I understand why scholars find such rich inspiration in Native American cultures.

My third post in this series is on the Ghost Dance. See also the Leaphorn and Chee novels of Tony Hillerman.

[1] The anthropology of the Navajo began early, and continues to be a vast field. On Navajo history, see e.g. Peter Iverson and Monty Roessel, Diné: a history of the Navajos (2002); or for a simpler overview, wiki.
In an engaging recent introduction to all kinds of Native American musicking, the Navajo feature prominently in Chapter 2 of Worlds of music: an introduction to the music of the world’s peoples (see here, n.1); again, the wiki entry for Navajo music makes a succinct hors d’ouevre.

[2] Cf. Tibetan and Han-Chinese mandalas (e.g. Shanghai, Hunyuan); and for various ways of consecrating the sacred space, click here.

[3] On the Blessing Way, see e.g. Leland C. Wyman, Blessingway (1970); and note Charlotte Frisbie and David McAllester (eds), Navajo Blessingway singer: the autobiography of Frank Mitchell, 1881–1967 (1st edition 1978, updated paperback 2003), complemented by the story of his wife: Rose Mitchell, Tall woman: the life story of Rose Mitchell, a Navajo woman, c1874–1977 (2001)—both works voluminous, with many useful further references. Indeed, life stories make an illuminating approach—see Nettl, The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, ch.13, and for China, e.g. Helen Rees (ed.), Lives in Chinese music (2009) and my work on the Li family Daoists.

For kinaalda, see e.g. Charlotte Frisbie, Kinaalda: a study of the Navaho girl’s puberty ceremony (1967/1993), and Joanne McCloskey, Living through the generations: continuity and change in Navajo women’s lives (2007). Female puberty ceremonies are widely performed by Native American groups: see e.g. Carol A. Markstrom, Empowerment of North American Indian girls: ritual expressions at puberty (2008). Here’s an Apache version:

For the major role of Navajo women during the pandemic, see here.

[4] McAllester uses the spelling “Navaho”; in direct quotes within this post I convert it to the form Navajo, which has since come to predominate—rather as I convert American to English spellings throughout my site.

[5] Notably “Life and death in the Navajo Coyote tales”, in Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat (eds), Recovering the word: essays on Native American literature (1987), and “From entertainment to realization in Navajo fieldwork”, in Bruce Jackson and Edward D. Ives (eds), The world observed: reflections on the fieldwork process (1996).

Resumé of Daoist film!

Left: Li Manshan doing ritual paperwork for the Lower Liangyuan temple fair, 2003
Right: Li Qing leading the Pardon ritual, funeral 1991.

Just a reminder:

I trust this trailer for my documentary Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist will entice you to watch the whole film (click here!):

While you watch it—as you MUST!—do consult my drôle Franglais resumé A French letter (“Poseur? Moi? Je ne regrette rien!”). While meant as a jeu d’esprit for a screening in Paris (“île sacrée of Daoist studies”), I’ve added handy links to posts on particular themes.


Bon appetit!

My work on the Li family Daoists (including the book, complementing the film) was the whole initial raison d’être for this increasingly diverse blog, and I continue to add updates and vignettes. The sidebar category Li family being so very voluminous even with subheads, I compiled a more manageable roundup of some major posts here.

Native American cultures 1

More from Bruno Nettl—and the Blackfoot


In a Piegan lodge: Yellow Kidney (left) and his father Little Plume inside a lodge, pipe between them (Edward Curtis, c1900, Library of Congress). In a later version, Curtis erased the clock in the centre; by now, I suspect some anthropologists might even add it.

Learning about the disturbing story of Grassy Narrows reminded me at last to delve modestly into Native American ritual and musical cultures. [1]

Like ethnic minorities within the PRC, such groups are a much-favoured subject for fieldworkers (“The typical Indian family includes a father, a mother, three children, and an anthropologist”). Meanwhile the popular imagination easily reduces such cultures to an Exotic Other, sweeping social issues under the carpet—further compounded by New Age flapdoodle (cf. dervishes, Tibetan singing bowls).

Fortunately, changing Native American cultures have long been the subject of serious academic study. Their musics were among the major focuses of the great Bruno Nettl, and besides his dedicated monographs, for a novice like me in this vast field his The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions makes a cogent and eminently readable introduction, the fruit of his long engagement with Native American groups—notably the Blackfoot, his long-term fieldwork project—recurring as illustrations within his topics illuminating global musicking. So here I’ll assemble some of Nettl’s most pertinent insights (cf. Iran: chamber music and Heartland excursions).

Here’s a very basic map:

Map N. America

I’ll begin with a passage from Chapter 31, “Second thoughts: some personal disclosures”, where Nettl notes that our own ideas can and should be revised—such as concepts about the simplicity and complexity of “folk” and “art” musics (pp.455–8; for China, see e.g. my own Dissolving boundaries):

Fundamentally, around 1950 the principal distinction between the music of indigenous societies (then called “primitive”) and “art” (or “cultivated”) music involved intellectualisation. Indigenous music, it was thought, didn’t have ideas about the technicalities of music, while art music (in Europe but also in the so-called high cultures of Asia) was based on complex theoretical systems. Essentially, this is what my teacher George Herzog taught, although in one article, “Music in the thinking of the American Indian”, he contradicts this view. But it’s significant that this (actually very interesting) article is extremely short and appeared in an obscure periodical, in contrast to Herzog’s several major works on Native American musics of the 1930s, which appeared in major journals and were often quite voluminous but said virtually nothing about the ideas about music held by Indians. He analysed the songs and showed that structurally they were often moderately interesting. I have to confess that for a long time, this made sense to me. Societies that had been nonliterate, learned songs orally, had no formalised music teaching—they couldn’t, it seemed to me, have much in the way of a system of ideas about music.

Well, by now I think the opposite. The styles of Native American songs are certainly very interesting but hardly very complex, but in my experience the Blackfoot people, for example, didn’t seem to think that the structure was worthy of much attention. To them, Western music—which they called “white” music—now that was complicated music. One had to know a lot to perform it, including reading music and understanding harmony. But white people, some Blackfoot singers told me, didn’t think very deeply about their own music, they only enjoyed its sound.

The Blackfoot people, I discovered from a good many interviews and observations but also from reading older ethnographies and examining myths, actually had (maybe used to have) a very complex system of ideas about music. […] For one thing, music was a reflection, a kind of counterpart, of the whole of life. The most important myth about the origin of the Beaver medicine bundle, perhaps the most fundamental ceremony [see also pp.257–8], told how each animal or bird had its own song and its supernatural power. The right way to do something is to sing the right song with it; everythin