Armchair ethnography: Chiswick

Chiswick old map

Why bother traipsing halfway round the world to hang out in poor dusty Chinese villages, I hear you ask, when my home “village” of Chiswick offers such rich potental for local history?! OK, it’s not noted for its Daoist ritual; its cosy church fêtes can’t quite compete with the bustle of Chinese temple fairs; and doubtless any séances held there were rather different from those of the Yanggao spirit mediums—but still. For my culture shock on coming home, see here.

In that latter post I cite Nigel Barley‘s classic The innocent anthropologist, and talking of armchair ethnography, in a chapter bearing the fine title “Honi soit qui Malinowski” he has some wise words qualifying the demonology of missionaries:

It was something of a betrayal of anthropological principles even to be talking to missionaries: anthropologists have been obsessed with keeping themselves free of this taint since Malinowski, self-styled inventor of fieldwork, first issued his impassioned cry to the ethnographer to get off the mission veranda and go out into the villages. Still, I would be on my guard against the devil’s wiles and might save myself much time by talking to people who had actually lived in Dowayoland.

To my great surprise, I was received with much warmth. Far from being rampant cultural imperialists, I found the missionaries—except for one or two of the old school—to be extremely diffident about imposing their own views.

Evoking some fine work by missionaries in China such as Grootaers, he notes:

It was surprising how much work was being done on the local cultures and languages, translation work, pure linguistic research and attempts to adapt liturgy to local symbolic idiom; my own research would have been quite impossible without the mission’s support.

“Ethnomusicology at home” has an impressive tradition too: from Ruth Finnegan’s The hidden musicians (on the exotic musical rituals of the tribes of Milton Keynes) to wise analyses of WAM by Nettl, Kingsbury, and Cottrell, as well as Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the jungle.

* * *

I’ve already noted the leaning pillarbox of Chiswick. The Chiswick timeline project provides fine material on the area’s changing topography with artwork and maps (albeit not by Artisan the Sixth or Li Manshan), also now adorning the archway by Turnham Green station. Would that such material were available for Li Manshan’s village of Upper Liangyuan! This is just the kind of community project that can be achieved in a bourgeois enclave, even as desperate families are being incinerated a mere stone’s throw away in North Kensington.

This advertisement from 1882 (“Annual death rate under 6 per thousand”) is particularly drôle, evoking flawed campaigns like that for Chumleys vinegar:

healthy Chiswick

“Come and live in Chiswick, your statistical chance of survival is relatively high”.

Blake

Peter Blake, Chiswick Empire Theatre, 2017. I hardly need point out the Sgt Pepper link.

* * *

painting of pool

John Lavery (1856-1941), Chiswick Baths, 1929.

Even without getting onto Chiswick House, or Bedford Park and its fine architecture in the Dutch style, I’m intrigued to learn about the history of my regular swimming pool (see also here), the New Chiswick Pool—like the “old” and “new” musics of the Tang dynasty, and the stile nuovo of 17th-century Italian music, it was new when they chose the name. [1]

Chiswick Baths opened in Edensor road in 1910:

With their innovative architecture—including the double-decker changing cabins—and risqué mixed bathing sessions, this watery west London meeting place was a prototype for the classic art deco lidos, promoting freedom, frolicking and fun [a Chiswick variant on fado, football, and Fátima].

You can watch charming clips here, from 1924 and 1927 (“California hasn’t a monopoly of bathing belles or the latest in beach costumes”)—and many more on that site.

No matter what doom and gloom was going on elsewhere in the country [Phew–Ed.], the flighty, sprightly, bright young bathers of Chiswick’s “inland seaside” could be found embracing a sense of gay abandon.

Just as with Daoist ritual in Yanggao, it’s safe to say that Things ain’t what they used to be.

But by 1981, the council found the lido (as it had become known) too expensive to maintain, and it was closed, amidst considerable—if perhaps genteel—protest. Half of the site became home to the Moldovian Embassy (“Not a lot of people know that”), while by 1991 the New Chiswick Pool was opened on the other half.

So that’s the background of my regular swimming pool; it’s closed for repairs at the moment, so it’ll be even newer soon (with or without the gay abandon).

In case you haven’t spotted my fictional address at the foot of the home page, I rather like it:

Priory of the Azure Cloud Bottle* within the Belvedere of Tenuous Obscurity, Chiswick
京西微玄觀內碧雲罐庵

*Azure Cloud Bottle: Bombay Sapphire

 

[1] See Picken and Nickson, Music from the Tang court 7, ch.3; for stile nuovo, among much analysis, I’m dead keen on Susan MacClary, Feminine endings, ch.2.

 

 

China: commemorating trauma

Ditch

Just as I was lamenting the lack of public acknowledgement of the crimes of Maoism—by comparison with countries where regime change has enabled such necessary commemoration (see e.g. my posts on Ravensbrück, SachsenhausenHildiGitta Sereny, the work of Philippe Sands, the GDR, and the Salazar regime)—the new Wang Bing 王兵 documentary Dead souls, just shown at Cannes, is a timely reminder of his brave work and that of other documentarists and journalists, not to mention their interviewees, survivors of the late-1950s’ labour-camp system and the kin of its victims.

Research on the notorious Jiabiangou camp in Gansu has an estimable history. Wang Bing’s project goes back to meeting He Fengming in 1995 (herself a Gansu camp survivor), whose husband died at Jiabiangou—resulting in Wang’s 2007 film Fengming: a Chinese memoir (here, with Spanish and Italian subtitles; also interview), shown at Cannes that year. From 2003 Zhao Xu 赵旭 began publishing his research on Jiabiangou, Fengxue Jiabiangou 风雪夹边沟. From 1997 Yang Xianhui 杨显惠 was visiting former inmates, and in 2003 he published his collection Woman From Shanghai: tales of survival from a Chinese labor camp (English translation 2009). As Wang Bing began dramatizing these stories in a narrative film, he met more survivors from Jiabiangou, and The ditch was premiered in 2010—a deeply distressing watch (here with French subtitles):

And then, even before Wang’s latest documentary was released, the great activist film-maker Ai Xiaoming 艾晓明 (b.1953, another Beishida alumna later based in Guangzhou) filmed her six-hour Jiabiangou elegy: life and death of the rightists (2017)—in five parts, here:

The interviewees note the general desperation of the inmates’ families and the local population, themselves struggling to find anything edible. Yang Jisheng, whose book Tombstone is an important source on the great famine of the time, points out the political background in Gansu (for the famine and Wu Wenguang’s Memory project, see here; for the works of Frank Dikötter, here).

Wang Bing’s Dead souls is even longer, at 496 minutes—here are three clips:

* * *

That latter excerpt leads me to a subsidiary point about ritual and ritual soundscape, about suffering, and people’s lives—and in this case the suffering that we can, and must, document is that of the Maoist years.

My film Notes from the yellow earth (DVD with Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei) contains a lengthy sequence (§B) from a similar funeral—filmed in a village which indeed has its own traumatic memories. One might hear the playing of such shawm bands as merely “mournful”—indeed, that’s why younger urban dwellers are reluctant to hear them, associating the sound with death. And of course the style and repertoire of these bands took shape long before Maoism, based on earlier historical suffering. But we can only hear “early music” with our own modern ears

Yangjiagou band, 1999

So in the context of Wang Bing’s film the bleakness of the soundscape really hits home, suggesting how very visceral is the way that the style evokes the trauma of ruined lives and painful memory—slow, with wailing timbre and the “blue” scale of jiadiao, the two shawms in stark unison occasionally splintering into octave heterophony. For similarly anguished shawm playing, cf. playlist, tracks 5 and 6 (commentary here). For anyone still struggling, despite my best efforts, to comprehend the relevance of shawm bands, Wang Bing’s scene should be compulsory viewing. Similarly, since I often note the importance of Daoist ritual in Gansu, the camps there might form one aspect of our accounts of ritual life there.

* * *

As a recent review notes:

It’s not as if the prisoners had been caught red-handed in plotting the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party. Nearly all of the interviewees insist they are loyal, patriotic party members, with some saying they were indicted for a small critical comment against a supervisor or splashing tears on a portrait of Mao. One interviewee recalls hearing how leading cadres were sending people off to “re-education” by random, just to prove Mao’s view that 5 percent of society is composed of “bad elements.”

Amidst a shameful wall of official silence, both Ai Xiaoming and Wang Bing, along with their interviewees, were subjected to harrassment while filming. It may seem nugatory to observe that technically the editing and structuring of their films is highly accomplished.

And these are just a few of many hundred such camps, with their countless victims. No less harrowing is a film by Xie Yihui 谢贻卉 on juvenile labourers in a Sichuan camp:

Like “the German soul”, suffering in China isn’t timeless: it is embodied in the lives and deaths of real people in real time. People dying since I began fieldwork in the 1980s all had traumatic histories; at the grave their memories, and those of their families, are covered over merely in dry earth, ritual specialists only performing a token exorcism that doesn’t obviate the need for a deeper accommodation with the past.

Arguments for maintaining the stability of the state, avoiding chaos, are paltry compared to the duty to commemorate, to learn from history—for Europe, UK, anywhere in the world. Just a couple of examples: the destruction of the Summer Palace by British troops, and the 1937 Nanjing massacre. We should all owe loyalty to truth, to people; in China it’s an ethical duty, not least in the traditions of filial piety.

And all this may remind us how important it is to seek beyond the sanitized representation of “Chinese folk music”, or indeed Daoist ritual, both in China and abroad. The people shown in these documentaries are just those who anyone doing research in China will encounter—whether working on social or cultural life. The stories of suffering, however distressing, need telling.

A Nazi legacy

EW street

While visiting Sachsenhausen recently I was reading Philippe Sands’ brilliant book East West street. In my post on Sands’ splendid Private Passions I mentioned his film What our fathers did: a Nazi legacy, based on his extraordinary journey with the sons of two Nazi criminals who took utterly different stances on their fathers—essential viewing:

East West street is a kind of detective story, as Sands breaks through the silence to unearth gripping personal accounts developing from the remarkable Lviv (Lemberg) connection of two architects of mass murder (Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter—both, ironically, lawyers); of two legal scholars who developed a means of prosecuting it (Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin); and of the author’s own decimated family. Sands’ grandfather Leon Buchholz was almost the sole survivor from his entire extended family, making his home in Paris—and since he never talked about it, Sands had to do a vast amount of research.

Leon

Leon Buchholz (1904–97).

This also makes a good way of describing the debate (formulated at the Nuremberg trials) over how to define genocide and crimes against humanity, group and individual responsibility, which Sands is exceptionally well qualified to explain.

“Social inequalities coursed through Lemberg’s streets, built on foundations of xenophobia, racism, group identity and conflict”. In Ukraine he also visits the brave display at a museum in Zólkiew, where over three thousand Jewish inhabitants were murdered; here, by contrast to the memorial sites in Germany, the complexities of history are still highly sensitive. The film broaches the 2014 Ukraine unrest, and its complex links to the Nazi background.

Sands notes Britain’s objection to US President Wilson’s 1919 proposal to protect minorities, “fearful that similar rights would then be granted to other groups, including American negroes, Southern Irish, Flemings and Catalans”.(72)

After Lauterpacht sought refuge in England, arriving in Grimsby in 1923 with his musician wife Rachel, Sands notes his conservative views on gender: “individual rights for some, but not for the mother or the wife”. (83)

The stories of other characters are moving too, like that of Elsie Tilney, who brought Sands’ mother from Vienna to Paris in summer 1939 (117–36). He visits Lauterpacht’s niece Inka Katz, who in 1942, aged 12, witnessed the arrival of Hans Frank in Lemberg, saw her parents snatched away, and survived only by going into hiding and entering a convent:

Seventy years on, she retained a sense of discomfort. One woman, coming to terms with a feeling that somehow she had abandoned her group to save herself.” (102–4)

The Matthew Passion, which Sands chose in his Private passions, was a touchstone shared, with bitter irony, by both Lauterpacht and Frank (106, 302). The words of Frank’s devoted wife are chilling:

“He is an artist, a great artist, with a pure and delicate soul. Only such an artist as he can rule over Poland.” (223)

Sands even finds lyrics to a song by Richard Strauss in honour of Frank—the score “disappeared”, no doubt for good reasons of reputation. (253)

Otto Von Wächter’s son Horst takes a similarly disturbing tack:

“My father was a good man, a liberal who did his best. Others would have been worse.” (242–6)

Conversely, Niklas Frank is justly proud of his utter repudiation of his own father (“what a beautiful castle—full of criminals”). It’s this impasse that forms the core of Sands’ film.

As Sands pores over family photo albums with Horst,

I was transported back seventy years to the heart of an appalling regime. But Horst was looking at these images with a different eye from mine. I see a man who’s probably been responsible for the killing of tens of thousands of Jews and Poles. Horst looks at the same photographs and he sees a beloved father playing with the children, and he’s thinking that  was family life.

As Sands and Niklas confront Horst—“friendly, warm, talkative”—with more and more documents proving the involvement of his father in mass extermination, their conversation deepens. In one of the most excruciating scenes in the film—in the very room where Hans Frank proudly announced the Grosse Aktion to enthusiastic applause from Horst’s father—Horst keeps wriggling out of all the evidence with which Sands confronts him. He always manages to find a way to sanitize the material, only able to describe it as “unpleasant” or “tragic”. (248–51)

Nazi legacy trio

While they all get on remarkably well, Sands can’t help revealing his exasperation:

Horst fills me with despair. I cannot accept that approach. It’s not just the lawyer in me, concerned with how one treats evidence, it’s much more personal than that: when I hear him speak of his father’s good character and actions, I hear him to be justifying the killing of my grandfather’s entire family.

Further to tourism,

In the midst of the killing, and still worrying about his marriage, Frank managed to find the time to implement another bright idea: he invited the famous Baedeker publishing company to produce a travel guide for the General Government to encourage visitors. Baedeker hoped the book might “convey” an impression of the tremendous work of organization and construction accomplished by Frank. […] The visitor would benefit from great improvements the province and cities having “acquired a different appearance”, German culture and architecture once more accessible. Maps and city plans were modernized, names Germanized, all in accordance with Frank’s decrees. […] A million or more Jews had been erased. (246–7)

Sands moves onto the capture of Frank and the Nuremberg trials, with the harrowing testimony of witnesses like Samuel Rajman (303–5). Frank appears to show more regret than most of the defendants, declaring “A thousand years will pass and still this guilt of Germany will not have been erased” (308–11); but, as with Fritz Stangl, his position remained elusive to the end (357–8).

The final section of the book discusses the judgement—indeed judgement itself. A vignette from Rebecca West, who took time off from attending the trials to visit a nearby village, meeting a German woman who

launched into a litany of complaints about the Nazis. They had posted foreign workers near the village, “two thousand wretched cannibals, scum of the earth, Russians, Balks, Balts, Slavs”. This women was interested in the trial, didn’t object to it, but she did so wish they hadn’t appointed a Jew as chief prosecutor. Pressed to explain, the woman identified David Maxwell Fyfe as the offending individual. When Rebecca West protested the error, the woman responded curtly, “Who would call his son David, but a Jew?” (367)

Niklas Frank, then 7, remembers the day his father was taken to the gallows. He finds his repentant display at the trial insincere, noting that he later recanted his “confession”.

Frank dead“I am opposed to the death penalty,” he said without emotion, “except for my father.” […] “He was a criminal.”

He takes out a faded photo of his father taken a few minutes after the hanging. “Every day I look at this. To remind me, to make sure that he is dead.”

As Sands notes, denial remains common today. In a telling scene near the end of the film, the three visit a neo-Nazi commemorative rally in Ukraine (accompanied by a folkloristic ensemble, I note), where Horst and Niklas—sons of mass murderers—are warmly welcomed. Worldwide, the need for truth remains constant, urgent.

Notes from Beijing 1: some fine ethnographers

On my recent trip to China, I was having such a great time with Li Manshan in rural Yanggao [1] that I was somewhat reluctant to take the train back to Beijing—but thanks to encounters with some fine scholars (and home-made Italian cakes) I soon acclimatized. For me to observe

if you want to study Chinese culture, China’s a good place to do it,

may not be quite as fatuous as it sounds—given the hangover from the old image of Red Guards and the new one of a cultural desert watered only by Xi Jinping Thought, both perpetuated by Western sinologists.

I’ll outline the work of these scholars in turn, beginning with my main host, the ethnographer Ju Xi 鞠熙 (b.1981), of the Department of Anthropology and Ethnology at Beishida—or Beijing Normal University, as it is quaintly known (now, to invite me to talk at an Abnormal university, that I might understand). With great imagination, she invited me to show my film as part of a series of talks in which I could reflect on fieldwork and rural ritual amidst social change, focusing on my two long-term projects: the Li family Daoists and the ritual association of South Gaoluo.

Ju Xi group

Ju Xi with ritual leaders, Daohui village, Zhejiang 2017.

Quite apart from making an articulate and supportive moderator to my talks, Ju Xi’s own research is distinguished. With Marianne Bujard, she has long been involved in a major collaborative project with the EFEO in Paris (four of eleven volumes published so far!):

  • Epigraphy and oral sources of Peking temples: a social history of an imperial capital.

In addition to a succession of fine works on old Beijing like that of Susan Naquin, all this makes an important complement to research on its ritual life, including the Zhihua temple.

Ju Xi 1

Ju Xi’s wisdom was encapsulated at an unpromising one-day conference in March, which she transformed with a succinct and brilliant speech explaining the significance of local religion in current rural China—that should be compulsory reading for cultural pundits and cadres at all levels:

Criticizing the recent interpretations of “secularization” (compared with imperial China) and “revival” (compared with the Maoist era), both of which portray Chinese religion as somewhat isolated from society, Ju Xi observed that local religion is not merely a “spiritual creation” or “cultural heritage”—it’s a kind of cultural resource and social power which can play active roles in contemporary rural society.

She outlined the role of local religion in ecological conservation, building techniques, and handicraft taboos, and pointed out its tight social structure, close interpersonal and reciprocal relationships—a valuable resource for today’s poorly-organized rural society. She stressed the importance of temple fairs, pilgrimages, ancestor worship, ritual associations, and clan organizations, noting the “grassroots charisma” of ritual specialists. She explained local religion as practical strategy, and observes how peasants are now availing themselves of the mask of “intangible heritage” to express their own requirements and views, making local religion a new pivot of cultural identity.

Thus local religion should be seen as an important basis upon which the peasants can construct their social order, organize their social relationships, take part in social practices, and articulate their own life styles. It makes an essential pattern through which multiple actors in rural society can express their own requirements.

 Ju Xi’s students are most fortunate.

* * *

Beishida has a noble tradition of folklorists, including Dong Xiaoping 董晓萍 (b.1950), herself a pupil of the great Zhong Jingwen 钟敬文 (1903–2002). Among Dong Xiaoping’s books are

  • Tianye minsuzhi 田野民俗志 [Folklore ethnography] (Beijing Shifan daxue cbs, 2003),

and a slim but useful tome with David Arkush (欧达伟),

  • Huabei minjian wenhua 华北民间文化 [Folk culture of north China] (Hebei jiaoyu cbs, 1995).

In English Dong Xiaoping’s acuity may be admired in a short review in Overmyer, Ethnography in China today, pp.343–67.

* * *

CZA

Chen Zi’ai.

At Beishida I was also delighted to meet Chen Zi’ai 陈子艾 (b.1933), part of an illustrious generation of scholars whose academic careers might have been more fruitful but for the vagaries of Maoism. A native of Hunan, her experience of local Daoism there and in Jiangxi has left her with a deep impression. She is a contributor to the lengthy series of publications on Hunan Daoism edited by Alain Arrault.

In a lengthy and mesmerizing impromptu speech after my second presentation, Chen Zi’ai touched candidly on crucial aspects of research on religious behaviour in the PRC, observing the riches of the topic as a window on folk culture, by contrast with the incongruity of her generation’s ideological indoctrination; and the more recent benefits of Chinese–foreign collaboration on such projects.

* * *

Such research on folk religion and temple fairs builds on an influential volume edited by

  • Guo Yuhua 郭于华, Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁 [Ritual and social change] (2000),

and the work of Zhao Shiyu 赵世瑜, notably his 2002 book

  • Kuanghuan yu richang: Ming–Qing shiqide miaohui yu minjian wenhua 狂欢与日常——明清时期的庙会与民间文化 (2002).

Another Beishida scholar is Xiao Fang 萧放, co-editor with Zhang Bo 张勃 of another book discussing temple fairs around Beijing, including Miaofengshan:

  • Chengshi, wenben, shenghuo: Beijing suishi wenxian yu suishi jieri yanjiu 城市,文本,生活: 北京岁时文献与岁时节日研究 (Zhongguo shehui kexue cbs, 2017),

* * *

YYY

Yue Yongyi, 2002.

Yet another brilliant fieldworker and ethnographer at Beishida is Yue Yongyi 岳永逸 (b.1972), who has a prolific list of publications based on his fieldwork in rural Hebei.

His detailed work on the Miaofengshan temple fair

  • Zhongguo jieri zhi: Miaofengshan miaohui 中国节日志: 妙峰山庙会 (Beijing: Guangming ribao cbs, 2012)

complements the ongoing research of Ian Johnson. Like Ian, he too reflects on more recent changes, such as tourism and the Intangible Cultural Heritage[2]

Other Hebei temple fairs on which Yue Yongyi has published include two in Zhaoxian county—on the Dragon Placard Association (longpaihui) of Fanzhuang village: [3]

  • “Xiangcun miaohuide duochong xushi: dui Huabei Fanzhuang longpaihuide minsuxuezhuyi yanjiu” 乡村庙会的多重叙事: 对华北范庄龙牌会的民俗学主义研究 [Multivocal discourses in a rural temple fair: a folkloristic study of the Dragon Placard Association in Fanzhuang, north China], Minsu quyi 147 (2005), pp.101–60;
  • (with Cai Jiaqi 蔡加琪) “Miaohuide feiyihua, xuejie shuxie ji zhongguo minsuxue: longpaihui yanjiu sanshinian” 庙会的非遗化、学界书写及中国民俗学: 龙牌会研究三十年 [The heritage-ization of temple fairs, academic writing and Chinese ethnography: thirty years of research on the Dragon Placard Association], Minzu wenxue yanjiu 35 (2017.6), pp.36–52;

and on the temple fair to the Water temple goddess in Changxin village:

  • “Dui shenghuo kongjiande guishu yu chongzheng: Changxin Shuici niangniang miaohui” 对生活空间的规束与重整: 常新水祠娘娘庙会 [Restriction and regeneration of living space: the festival of the Water temple goddess in Changxin village], Minsu quyi 143 (2004).

Most notable is his detailed work on the temple fair of Cangyanshan in Jingxing county—which we may add to our bibliography on south Hebei:

  • Zhongguo jieri zhi: Cangyanshan miaohui 中国节日志: 苍岩山庙会 (Beijing: Guangming ribao cbs, 2016).

 

Like Yue’s book on Miaofengshan, it contains detailed subheadings on temples, gods, ritual associations and other performers, activities, and artefacts, with rich material on spirit mediums (xiangtou, cf. north Shanxi) as well as on the sectarian creator goddess Wusheng laomu (widely found in Hebei, e.g. in Xushui and Yixian counties) and (in the case of Cangyanshan) Third Princess (sanhuang gu 三黄姑).

WSLM

Wusheng laomu statue, Cangyanshan.

In English, note his

  • “The nation-state, the contract responsibility system, and the economy of temple incense: the politics and economics of a temple festival on a landscaped holy mountain”, Rural China 13 (2016), pp.240–87,

which also includes a useful bibliography. More general, but no less thoughtful, are his books

  • Xinghao: xiangtude luoji yu miaohui 行好: 乡土的逻辑与庙会 (Hangzhou: Zhejiang daxue cbs, 2014)

and

  • Chaoshan: miaohuide ju yu san, yingshechu minjiande shenghuo yu xinyang 朝山: 庙会的聚与散, 映射出民间的生活与信仰 (Beijing daxue cbs, 2017).

With his rich experience, Yue Yongyi made a fine discussant in our unlikely one-day panel at Beishida.

* * *

All these fieldsites provide rich material for ethnographers, even if they share a paucity of complex liturgical sequences such as those I generally find. My encounters with these scholars make a welcome change from the insidious infiltration of romanticized “living fossil” ICH flummery into music studies. Given the understandable dominance of research on religious activity in south China, they also form a community of scholars working on changing ritual life in north China (see also Goossaert article cited here).

While I entirely recognize the ongoing erosion of rights under the current regime, the current Chinese academic scene is far from emasculated. Fine scholars like these, undaunted, continue to seek the truth about modern history, at a great remove from the supposed brainwashing from Xi Jinping Thought trumpeted in the Chinese and foreign media. This theme continues in my following posts on the Beijing scene.

 

[1] See my series of posts starting on 14th March 2018, summarized here.

[2] Another recent book on the incense associations of Beijing is Zhang Qingren 张青仁, Xingxiang zouhui: Beijing xianghuide puxi yu shengtai 行香走会: 北京香会的谱系与生态 (Beijing: Zhongyang minzu daxue cbs, 2016).

[3] For earlier refs., see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.8 n.14.

A selection of recent posts

 

To help navigate through a plethora of recent posts, this is just a selection of some of the more substantial ones:


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Life in the GDR, 2

Notes from Berlin, 2

In Berlin a couple of weeks ago, apart from my visit to Sachsenhausen I was keen to explore the city’s GDR history, moving on into the 1950s and beyond—the Stasi memorial sites (as the Rough guide notes) making a potent antidote to the trendy Ostalgie of Trabi kitsch. Here my experience of China, learning to empathize with “sufferers” there (Guo Yuhua, after Bourdieu), feels all the more relevant.

To limber up I took the U-Bahn to Alex, which I can’t presume to call by such a familiar name.

 

Alexanderplatz: the Weltzeituhr and Fernsehturm (1969), with the 13th-century Marienkirche—not leaning towers, more an innocent trompe-l’oeil of my camera…

My splendid host Ian Johnson (whose own writings are a must-read on both China and Germany) made a fine guide for a trip along the remnants of the wall, Checkpoint Charlie and so on.

Berlin divided 1945

We passed the Staatsoper, where I performed Elektra in 1980. How shamefully little I knew then, and how limited was my curiosity. Throughout my recent visit to Berlin it finally hits me how very pampered our lives have been compared to the painful decisions that our German contemporaries constantly had to make.

Do click on these links, from a fine series of short films tracing the timeline of the Wall:

Meanwhile Timothy Garton Ash was beginning his long acquaintance with the regime.

Stasi memorial sites
I visited both the Stasi prison and the Stasi museum. Though they’re not so far apart in the Lichtenburg district, I wouldn’t advise trying to do both in one day—the prison tour is excellent, and even by spending the rest of the day there I still only saw a small part of its exhibits. While the museum is less taxing than the prison, its location has retained a more suitably grim, bleak, forbidding air. As in Sachsenshausen, it’s wonderful that these sites are so busy, with many school parties—though I didn’t see any Chinese tour groups among them…

1953 poster

Just a few months before I was born, the major popular uprising of 17th June 1953 throughout the GDR (wiki, and a wealth of online sites), documented in both exhibitions, is far less known abroad than Budapest 1956 and Prague 1968. Needless to say, the popular uprisings of June 1989 in China are not so called there.

Studying the exhibits of perpetrators and victims, one continues to deplore the appalling ethical morass caused by Nazism—what a terrible price to pay throughout the following decades. Again, what would we have done?

Guides

Some of the eyewitnesses guiding visitors around the site.

At the Stasi prison (Gedenkstätte memorial) of Hohenschönhausen (formerly a Soviet special camp) the team of wonderful tour guides includes many former inmates; though our guide that day wasn’t among them, he gave us passionate articulate reminders of how crucially important it is to learn lessons amidst the current erosion of crucial rights worldwide.

Klier

Freya Klier and Stephan Krawczyk.

There were many strands to the counter-culture in literature and music. Icons of the resistance in the arts became figureheads, like singer-songwriters Wolf Biermann (b.1936, exiled in 1976) and Bettina Wegner (b.1947); Bärbel Bohley (1945–2010), whose 1978 painting Nude makes a striking image in the prison; performers Freya Klier (b.1950) and Stephan Krawczyk (b.1955); and Jürgen Fuchs (1950–99).

But just as moving in the prison is the series of mugshots of ordinary people making a stand, trying to escape, or just caught up in the maelstrom.

Lives 2

Lives 5

Lives 7

Lives 1

Lives 3

Lives 4

Lives 6

However much I admire our own posturing counter-cultural heroes, all this can only make them seem bland and smug. Sure, the punk movement in London, New York, and so on was important—more so than my life in early music, anyway, though that was also new (“original”!). But apart from getting abused in the Daily Mail, the punk life in the UK hardly involved such serious risks. For the GDR punks, the “fascist regime” casually snarled by the Sex pistols would have had a far deeper resonance.

Stasi terms

who is who

The Stasi museum also has exhibits on the vast network of IM informants—including punks. The Stasi even managed to recruit two of them in the band Die Firma“it is not known whether they both knew each other’s secret”. Of course, the “decision” to inform, framed by self-preservation or desperation, and with whatever degree of apathy, was itself no simple matter.

punk straight

Die Firma, with Tatjana Besson, 1988.

Punks

wedding

Wedding at Jena, 1983: the couple’s friend was informing on them,

But the most basic routine parts of growing up were fraught with anxiety.

kindergarten

Alternative kindergarten, Prenzlauer Berg 1980–83.

school 1988

“Learning differently”, evening school 1988.

The Christian resistance was another crucial focus right through to the 1989 Montag demos that brought the whole system down. The pastor Oskar Brüsewitz burned himself to death in protest in August 1976—just as I was spending an idyllic summer after graduating (cf. Alan Bennett’s wry comment).Pastor

Also explored at the museum is the psychology of the Stasi employees.

Stasi comments

The whole second floor of the museum preserves the offices of Erich Mielke, head of this whole hideous edifice. It’s a riot of beige and formica. His diagram of the layout for his breakfast is a masterpiece of pedantry—of which, I have to say, my father would have approved.

Mielke breakfast

The diagram has now been cannily immortalized in a mouse-pad, one of the few concessions to modernity in the museum’s suitably antiquated little bookshop—Is Nothing Sacred?

As throughout the socialist bloc (including China), for bitter relief, jokes always made a subversive outlet.

The museum also tellingly depicts the race of people all over the east to limit the destruction of Stasi files after November 1989.

* * *

It’s little consolation to reflect that the GDR was surely exceptional in its degree of surveillance, even in East Europe. And in such a vast and predominantly agrarian country as China, for all the horrors of Maoism, and the current intrusive mission, “the mountains are high, the emperor is distant”.

Again it’s worth citing Timothy Garton Ash:

Precisely because German lawmakers and judges know what it was like to live in a Stasi state, and before that in a Nazi one, they have guarded these things more jealously than we, the British, who have taken them for granted. You value health more when you have been sick.
I say again: of course Britain is not a Stasi state. We have democratically elected representatives, independent judges and a free press, through whom and with whom these excesses can be rolled back. But if the Stasi now serves as a warning ghost, scaring us into action, it will have done some good after all.

And again, I both recoil at this horror that was perpetuated right through my naïve youth, and admire the German determination to document it for future generations.