Learning: Hu Zhihou

The guanzi oboe, leader of the shengguan melodic ensemble that accompanies temple and folk liturgy throughout north China, also has a foothold in the conservatoires—though it is far less popular a solo instrument there than the erhu or pipa. Just as I noted for the suona shawm, there is quite a gulf between folk and conservatoire versions of the guanzi.

Back in 1987, my official “unit” for my second half-year stint in China was the Central Conservatoire in Beijing. My main supervisor there was the great Yuan Jingfang, who (resigning herself to my frequent excursions to the countryside) managed to teach me a lot about the instrumental ensemble music on which she is the leading expert. My first book Folk Music of China was in large part a result of my studies with her.

While I already realized that folk ritual and instruments were to be learned through constant ritual experience rather than in the arid setting of the classroom, I thought I’d better show willing by taking the odd lesson from the guanzi master Hu Zhihou, himself a pupil of the great Hebei Daoist master Yang Yuanheng in the 1950s.

Turning up for lessons every Monday morning at 8am, the warm-up breathing exercise Teacher Hu set me was to smoke a couple of cigarettes with him. This was a real challenge for me, since at the ripe old age of 33 I had still only succeeded in training myself in the consumption of alcohol—absorbing that aspect of my violin teacher Hugh Maguire’s education but not his cavalier smoking habit.

Even my exploratory first fieldtrips to the countryside in 1986 were conducted without the social lubricant of sharing cigarettes. I was now becoming a fully-fledged yanjiusheng (研究生 “research student”, or 烟酒生 “scholar of fags and booze”)

So, egged on Teacher Hu, I obediently puffed away in the classroom before spluttering into the guanzi, failing to make much progress in coaxing more than a weedy squawk out of the poor instrument. Fiddling around with reeds and working out fingerings certainly stood me in good stead for my later (passive) immersion in the world of folk guanzi playing, but I can hardly claim to have made the most of his wisdom.

When in 2013 I brought the Li family Daoist band to Beijing to give a recital at my alma mater, I was delighted to find Hu Zhihou in the audience.

He had always been a keen student of folk guanzi playing. While I was “studying” with him, he was leading the suave conservatoire version of the Zhihua temple repertoire—albeit rather distant from the haunting original style. And like Yuan Jingfang, he had made an early  fieldtrip to Yanggao, where he admired the playing of Liu Zhong in Li Qing’s Daoist band—we were all spellbound by Liu Zhong then, in the days before it transpired that there were other Daoist guanzi players there who were even more respected.

Erqing and WM

Wu Mei and Erqing, 2009.

So now I was delighted that Hu Zhihou could relish the brilliant playing of Wu Mei. As I introduced them after the concert, I observed boldly:

“Teacher Hu, I must admit that you never managed to teach me the guanzi! But one thing you did teach me really well, for which I am eternally grateful, is smoking!”

Sure, it’s possible to do fieldwork in rural China without it (I refrain from drinking “white spirit” there, for instance, so I don’t completely go native), but the conviviality of the exchange of cigarettes may seem a necessary temporary expedient—a sacrifice for our art.

Three paperbacks out!

After an interlude when my three Ashgate volumes (the first two being part of the fine SOAS Musicology series) suffered a prohibitive price-hike, they are now reissued by Taylor & Francis/Routledge in affordable paperback editions. You can order them here (under “Books”!).

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The two Ritual and music books are all the more worth snapping up for their accompanying DVDs—the first making useful background for my film on Li Manshan.

While I’m about it, details of my 2016 book Daoist priests of the Li family are here.

And you can order Plucking the winds, my riveting account of the South Gaoluo village ritual association and its history, here!

Women of Yanggao 3/3: singers

At a tangent from female members of Daoist families, or sectarians and spirit mediums, are the female vocalists who serve weddings, funerals, and celebrations—now mainly singing pop. As ethnographers we can no more ignore this than we can neglect pop music in our own cultures.

First I should give a little overview of gender roles in Chinese performance. [1] In their worthy goal of reinstating women into the story of Chinese music, the two articles by Cynthia P. Wong and Su Zheng in The Garland Encyclopaedia of Music: East Asia volume leave no space to spell out women’s historical and ongoing submission in society.

Though I’m happy to accept Zheng’s portrayal of Confucian culture as misogynistic, her “radical view” shouldn’t mean airbrushing the evidence of the submission of women. This is as serious as (and not unrelated to) ignoring the ever-backward supply of water, healthcare, electricity, literacy, and transport available to much of the population. Along with celebrating women’s musical contributions, and for all the complexities of women’s ongoing struggle, it is worth stressing their ongoing exclusion from power and choice in public society, underlining the persistence of patriarchal tradition and the limited scope of modern progress.

Both Wong and Zheng illustrate women’s contributions to early Chinese music history by referring to archeological excavations that show that female musicians were buried alive along with their dead master. A disturbing (if remote) echo of this is in posthumous marriage, which has been reviving in northwest China since the 1980s.

When women were allowed to survive their masters, they often worked as prostitutes. Zheng goes on to observe that, in ancient China, women could also be bestowed as a gift, and bought and sold—another enduring tradition today. What a lot of categories of prostitute upright Confucian men had to choose from—and some were even chosen to be concubines! We should indeed incorporate all this into our account of Chinese music history, but I struggle to see what there is to celebrate here.

Wong and Zheng briefly point out women’s progress in the twentieth century. To be sure, foot-binding was successfully stamped out, and arranged marriages became exceptional; female education was no longer limited to a tiny elite.

Yet despite government campaigns, female babies are still routinely murdered or abandoned. Under siege from the draconian birth-control policy, women and men alike attend rituals to pray to the gods to be granted a healthy son. Girls are a burden: since upon marriage they will be lost to another family, rural parents invest mainly in the welfare and education of sons. Economic progress has been uneven since the reform period. Scholars note many instances of regression in women’s status: decollectivization and urban migration have been a mixed blessing. Women are still abducted and sold to poor older disabled men in less impoverished provinces; they continue to be subject to domestic abuse and are largely barred from public roles. Female leaders remain rare—at village, township, county, provincial, and national levels. Prostitution is rampant, though some women now rise to the artistic heights of working as karaoke hostesses.

Our accounts of women’s roles in Chinese music cannot assume that readers know all this. Any study of gender and music in China must include a broad assessment of women’s progress, or regression, and this must be based on detailed local ethnography (both for expressive culture and the society that nourishes it), rather than plucking out instances of female stars. In my chapter (n.1) I further outlined some issues of gender and class, violence and power.

Rural performance: overview
As in all areas of study, we should beware describing gender in performance mainly through the prism of urban state troupes.

At the bottom of the social pile, opera performers (xizi), like shawm bands (chuishou), were traditionally part of a litany of outcasts, and also in most places all-male until the 1930s. Along with other low-status men like grave-diggers, coffin-bearers, and cooks, they all play essential roles at life-cycle and calendrical events.

Since at least the 1930s women have gradually played a larger role in opera for life-cycle and calendrical rituals, though they have still little power within the troupe—the troupe bosses are male, making the arrangements with the male temple committee and controlling the fees. And by displaying themselves thus in public women are always vulnerable to moralistic criticism.

The vast majority of narrative-singing genres in the countryside, given their public nature (not to mention their primary ritual function of invoking blessings from the gods), are still performed by men. Bards in Shaanbei, for example, are traditionally blind and male (see my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2). For Shanxi, Liu Hongqing’s harrowing tale of the dysfunctional families of blind itinerant performing groups in Zuoquan county is revealing of the wretched fate of poor people generally and the burden of care on women. [2]

At weddings and funerals, though laments sung by the female kin (once a means of venting frustration against the Confucian system, however impotently) have become rarer, women are often among small itinerant groups of beggars performing songs, accompanying themselves on clappers and erhu fiddle.

beggars

A group of beggars sing auspicious songs facing the coffin before offerings of sheep heads, 2001.

XX: a piece of (field)work
Most visible, vulnerable, and innovative on the public stage are the pop singers who perform on a truck outside the gate of the mortuary home (my film, from 30.32 and 1.07.32). These singers, both male and female, have become increasingly accomplished since the 1990s, performing arrangements of local vocal music and pan-Chinese pop as well as sophisticated skits. [3]

pop better

Pop outside the mortuary home, 2011.

Pop duo

The evening session, 2015.

On one of my occasional excursions into town, Li Bin has arranged for us to meet up for supper with young star gujiang shawm-player Bobo. I first met him way back in 2003 when he was a teenage pupil of a wonderful cultured gujiang shawm player. Then, he seemed shy and I could never find a way of chatting with him, but now, once we realize we can chat together, he is sweet, relaxed, and funny.

Then femme fatale singer XX shows up, all glammed up. So a Daoist, a shawm player, a pop singer, and a WAM muso take a convivial meal together. Endless joking, largely revolving around the theme of the local beauty (meinü) and the foreigner (laowai). While XX is adept at orchestrating the flirting, she is intelligent, sincere, clearly aware of the delicacy of her public position as a singer, yet not afraid to be seen in our company. Accomplished at presentation—outfit, make-up, hair, perfume—she acts the part, but behind it all there is an alert woman, strong by necessity. Allergic as I am to the word “feisty”, here it is the mot juste: she has to be considered a kind of feminist.

She enjoys showing me the vast library of photos on her smartphone, mostly but not all glam.

XX and friend

The selfie mania: two popular Yanggao singers.

I’m not quite understanding the rules here. My attitude to XX is different from that of my Yanggao friends, who see her at funerals all the time. They’re used to the local language of flirting: she can read their signs and knows how to handle them. Sure, I enjoy it—I can’t shake off my ethnographic instincts, but the context isn’t conducive to getting to know people better, so I go with the flow. My best chat-up line:

You’re nearly as beautiful as Li Manshan!

Knowing my devotion to Li Bin’s father, she takes this in good spirit.

While XX and I enjoy the banter, we’re both a bit wary since we realise our signs may differ. So she backs off—as even I do; as we stagger out of the restaurant I kiss her hand in farewell, which even after all the backchat still takes her aback.

On my next trip into town we all meet up again for supper. One reason for my visits to town is to take a shower at Li Bin’s place—much needed after ten days traipsing round village funerals. XX turns up in her posh black car—“I didn’t even have time to wash my face, only the car!” Still, she’s pretty dolled-up (tiny hot pants, black tights, heels, red coat), yet enigmatic as ever. Other diners come over to our table to share a toast, musicians who know all about me—people still thanking me for introducing Yanggao culture to the world. The son-in-law of a revered Daoist, whom alas I never even met, discreetly pays our bill and goes off before we can protest.

XX is even busier than Li Bin and Bobo, since she does weddings too, as well as acting as hostess for various gigs like yuansuo coming of age parties (see my film, from 5.26). So she drives off to get some sleep before embarking on a heavy series of three days of back-to-back wedding gigs.

By 2017 she had remarried, was pregnant, and no longer singing.

Pop at Yanggao life-cycle events continues to evolve, with both male and female performers constantly innovating; singers like XX are at the vanguard of local modernity, forging a role, negotiating old values.

Conclusion
The tiny corner of China that is Yanggao county reminds us that we need grass-roots study, beyond simple images of educated urban milieux. As long as we remain mesmerized by urban stage performances, and by Confucian and Communist propaganda, we will never comprehend gender roles in the expressive cultures of the myriad local communities. But one point is clear: however much we unearth women’s varied roles in local cultures, and for all their “subversive strategies”, as long as girl babies are murdered or abandoned, as long as women are kidnapped from poorer provinces and sold to older (sometimes disabled) men unable to afford a local bride, and as long as women remain excluded from public power, their ability to contribute to expressive culture in the public sphere is likely to remain limited.

 

[1] Again, much of this is adapted from my “Gender and music in local communities”.

[2] Liu Hongqing, Xiang tian er ge: Taihang mangyiren de gushi (Beijing chubanshe, 2004). Still, the role of women is clearly increasing: see e.g. Zhang Yanqin, “Zhangzi shuoshu jiqi xijuhua qingxiang,” Minsu quyi 151 (2006), on narrative singers in a county in southeast Shanxi.

[3] See also the stimulating article by Zhang Zhentao, “Nü yueshou yu nü changjia,” Xinghai yinyuexueyuan xuebao 2009/3, pp.43–9.

Women of Yanggao 2/3: sectarians and mediums

The male domination of rural performance genres appears stark. [1] I’ll outline the overall context in my third article, but for now let’s focus on ritual.

As with most public roles, ritual specialists (such as household Daoists or members of ritual associations) are male—or so it may at first seem. The few exceptions to the male monopoly—nuns performing public liturgy, unmarried daughters taking part in their father’s shawm band—only prove the rule. However, the role of women in ritual transpires to be substantial.

Ritual and Religion
Ritual, much of it religious, remains the main cultural engine of folk communities.

Again, male domination is apparent—temple committees, household Daoists, funerary officiants, yinyang, and fengshui masters. Women are often said to be unable to represent the community in communicating with the gods—their exclusion is starkly revealed in rain ceremonies, where, considered polluted and inauspicious, females are strictly forbidden even to witness the rituals. [2]

Yet ironically, it may transpire to be through religious behaviour—seemingly a bastion of male hegemony—that women’s power is most efficacious. [3]

Some major female deities are worshipped—notably the Bodhisattva Guanyin and a host of local “Our Lady” (niangniang), “Granny” (nainai), and “old mother” (laomu) or “holy mother” (shengmu) deities—often promising fertility (healthy male births!). Though women are neither part of temple committees nor heads of household for life-cycle rituals, they may comprise a majority of worshippers and patrons. It is perhaps at temple fairs that their role can be discerned most strongly: they are major agents in temple life.

Further, women may be strongly represented in local cults, in which their role as ritual specialists is only slowly becoming apparent. Sectarian and Christian groups may have a mixed membership, including performers of vocal liturgy.

But it is as spirit mediums that I suspect women most commonly subvert male power. Amazingly widespread, both among the ethnic minorities and the Han Chinese, they have begun to attract scholarly attention as a major element of folk religion; [4] and they invariably sing. Though there are male mediums, such as the self-mortifying mediums who skewer their cheeks and flagellate themselves in trance under the direction of Daoists at the temple fairs of south Fujian (Dean, Bored in heaven), in most areas female mediums seem to be in a considerable majority and may indeed possess local charisma. They often practise initially as healers for individuals, but this tends to overlap with public representation, as they instruct their clients (or their clients’ offspring) to donate to the temple of the god possessing them and organize group attendance at temple fairs, often involving ritual singing. This may be a significant area where women forge a public role for themselves, even taking a leading role.

Houshan medium

Medium praying to the female deity Empress Houtu, Houshan temple fair 1993.

Houshan disciples

Medium’s disciples, Houshan temple fair 1993.

Yanggao
In Yanggao, mediums (known here as “great immortals” daxian 大仙) are as common as everywhere else.

XLY mediums

Worshippers cluster round mediums in a sideroom at the new temple at Lower Liangyuan, 2011.

Some of them also take part in the amateur sectarian groups which are also popular. Of many such groups on the eve of Liberation (commonly known here as “charitable friends” shanyou 善友), two which have outlasted Maoist campaigns are the Bright Association (Minghui) and the Yellow Association (Huanghui) (my book, pp.44–5)—both voluntary intra- and inter-village networks. Whereas the all-male Yellow Association—at least here in Yanggao—used shengguan melodic instrumental music as well as vocal liturgy and percussion, the mixed-gender Bright Association only accompanies its vocal liturgy with percussion.

Shanxi sect

Sectarian ritual, north Shanxi 2003.

Over a couple of freezing days in December 2003 I attended an impressive two-day ritual of a sect in north Shanxi (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Appendix 3).

They performed precious scrolls (baojuan) in the classic 24-chapter format, that are unique to the sect and not featured in any catalogue or library. Though the sect was among those earmarked for suppression in the 1950s, they were now keen to gain official recognition, and enjoyed a good local reputation—thanks partly to the recognized moral integrity of their leader.

The ritual has been commissioned in fulfillment of a vow, by a woman who finally managed to have a child; not herself a member of the sect, she prepares and helps present the offerings but attends the ritual only sporadically. Over thirty people, both men and women, take part, of whom a dozen or so come from the village in whose temple the ritual is being held. This is not a public temple fair but a private ritual; the temple is only open to ordinary worshippers for temple fairs, and is not open to them now. Unlike ordinary worshippers, the sectarians are expected to observe the five precepts (wujie). For rituals they don yellow robes. Unlike the setting for the precious scrolls in central Hebei, where during the rare performances of the small group of liturgists a large “audience” mills around offering incense, smoking, chatting, and admiring the ritual paintings, here all the sectarians take part devoutly in the recitation, singing the texts and melodies with great gusto—they evidently perform them frequently.

 

[1] This introduction is largely based on my “Gender and music in local communities”, in Harris, Pease and Tan (eds), Gender in Chinese music, pp.26–40.

[2] Note Xiao Mei, “Huwu hujie qi ganlin: Xibei (Shaanbei) diqu qiyu yishi yu yinyue diaocha zongshu”, in Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Xibei juan, ed. Cao Benye (Kunming: Yunnan renmin chubanshe, 2003), with DVD.

[3] See e.g. “Gender and music in local communities”, n.36.

[4] See ibid., n.40.

Women of Yanggao 1/3: Daoist families

In China, as in most societies, public performance—of all kinds, including ritual—is still largely a male monopoly. In the course of thirty years of documenting ritual groups in the countryside, it has been distressingly possible for me not to meet any women at all; from local cadres to temple committees, from shawm bands to ritual specialists, public roles remain largely monopolized by men. As until very recently in the Vienna Phil, women are invisible. Their absence from our accounts of household Daoist ritual is understandable, yet partial.

It’s not easy for male fieldworkers to engage with rural women. In Yanggao the potential for such study was suggested by the easy rapport (with both genders) of female scholar Wu Fan, whose fine book Yinyang gujiang led the way in incorporating women into the picture of Yanggao ritual life.

Even before we consider public roles (see the two following posts, about sacred and secular performers respectively), the female members of Daoist households play a significant role. Just as Daoists are Real People, not mere Faceless Paragons of Ancient Wisdom, I’d like to give a face and personality to these fine people.

So in this first of three posts I’d like to introduce Li Qing’s wife Xue Yumei, Li Peisen’s wife Yang Qinghua, Li Manshan’s wife Yao Xiulian and their second daughter Li Min, as well as Li Bin’s wife Jin Hua. I give the formal names of women in an egalitarian spirit that is quite misplaced—married women’s formal names are hardly heard.

That I can provide such little sketches is thanks to the wonderful hospitality of Li Manshan’s family since 2011.

***

In the “old society” (as in Europe until quite recently) women had many children, of whom rather few might survive. Childbirth was itself dangerous for the mother; many Daoists took successive wives after the early deaths of previous partners. In education, attending sishu private school was costly; only a tiny minority of the more affluent villagers could afford to send their sons to school. In Yanggao until the 1950s only very few males were literate—but no females were.

In 1953, at the same time as he was beginning to learn Daoist ritual with his brilliant father Li Qing, Li Manshan, aged eight sui, also began attending school, then still in the decrepit Palace of the Three Pure Ones. The village of Upper Liangyuan set up a lower primary school, for years one to four. This was the official requisite age to attend lower primary after Liberation, but he was one of few children in the village who went so young—most of his classmates were four or five years older. Impressively, girls now began to attend too, though boys outnumbered them by two to one. In Year One there were around forty pupils, but as they dropped out after failing exams, by Year Four Li Manshan was in a class of only a dozen. Still, the school had around a hundred pupils in all, the beginnings of a modern education system.

If rural girls seldom advanced far in education under Maoism, they made rapid progress since the 1990s. An utterly unscientific survey among the grandchildren at Yanggao funerals suggests that girls are now going on to tertiary education at least as much as boys.

Xue Yumei
From 2013 I finally paid visits to Li Qing’s wonderful widow Xue Yumei (1925–2016; see my film, from 36.46).

LQ widow

Early in 1945, with Yanggao still under Japanese occupation, Li Qing was married, at the age of twenty sui. His bride Xue Yumei, one year older (brides were commonly a year or two older than grooms) came from a common family in Houguantun just west. As usual until at least the 1970s, they were introduced by a matchmaker. Like all village girls, she was illiterate; she had bound feet, again like all girls before the 1930s when warlord Yan Xishan’s campaign had some influence in Shanxi. But she was tall, with poise—a local beauty.

The wedding was one of the last grand events of the old society. Wearing a “python costume” (mangpao) with phoenix headgear, the bride was carried in a sedan—by then, sedan weddings were none too common.

The new couple’s first child, our very own Li Manshan, was born in the first moon of 1946. They went on to have three more sons and three daughters: the second son, Yushan (b.1954) later also become a Daoist. They had another son in 1956, but as Li Qing’s wife had no more milk, after three days they had to give him away to a family living opposite; and then having done so, they had no money to buy him back (he now lives in town, and does well—they sometimes see him). After long years of separation and trauma, the couple would have two more children—the youngest son Yunshan (Third Tiger, b.1969) training as a Daoist too. Xue Yumei had to labour in the production team too, despite her bound feet and the burden of childcare—not alleviated (in Yanggao at least) by notional crèches.

Traditionally only sons, not daughters, learn to perform ritual. Like most Daoists, indeed like most rural Chinese, Li Manshan doesn’t approve of girls learning. In recent years, a few Daoists in the area just northeast of the county-town have taught their daughters, but it remains a curiosity, and they never continue after marriage (Wu Fan 2007: 262–7). Li Manshan’s own second daughter Li Min (see below) is highly intelligent, and graduated from senior secondary—not such a common feat in rural Yanggao. She appreciates the Daoist rituals, but it was inconceivable that she might learn.

During the Cultural Revolution she and Li Qing bore their sufferings with dignity. On his deathbed in 1999, recalling their tribulations under Maoism, he was wise and benevolent as ever, enjoining his children: “After I die, you mustn’t curse the village cadres or bear grudges!” When in 2015 I went with Third Tiger and Li Bin to visit Li Qing’s widow in her 90th year, she was clearly still moved to remind them of his entreaty, her own moral compass shining through.

LQ widow, SH, LB

In her old age, like many of the older generation, she preferred to stay on the land, living on a farm estate that Third Tiger runs in the rural southern suburb of town, where his staff could look after her. Though hard of hearing, she chatted with Li Bin as she sat outside on the ground, trimming green vegetables.

widow with veg

Yang Qinghua

LPS and wife

Li Peisen and Yang Qinghua, late 1940s?

Alas I never observed Xue Yumei’s activities in support of Li Qing, but Yang Qinghua, wife of his Daoist uncle Li Peisen (also known as Li Peisheng, 1910–85) was a respected local personality (for more, see my book, and film from 38.44).

Li Peisen had served as village chief under the Japanese occupation. Like his Daoist cousins, he owned surplus land. But in 1947, towards the end of the civil war, perhaps realizing land reform was imminent, he quietly moved his family to his wife’s natal village of Yang Pagoda in the hills just south, taking his sets of ritual instruments and costumes, as well as two trunks full of scriptures handed down in his branch of the lineage.

Moving to the wife’s village was quite a common expedient when her family lacked male relatives. But more significantly, people from “black” families tended to encounter less scrutiny outside their home village. The family of Li Peisen’s wife were well-off and well connected; both he and his wife are remembered as highly intelligent. Their move was clearly an astute way of sidestepping any investigations into his background—his economic standing, and his connections with the vilified Japanese and Nationalists. Yang Pagoda might make a safer base from which to survey the lie of the land under the new regime—the potential sensitivity of practicing ritual would have been a minor issue.

Anyway, Li Peisen wasted no time in displaying his political correctness. Amazingly, he now gains an honorable mention in the county gazetteer. In March 1949—just as family members back in Upper Liangyuan were being stigmatized with a “rich peasant” label—he was the very first in the whole county to organize a mutual aid co-op, consisting of three households. This is the only tiny glimpse of him in the official account, but with his prior experience as village chief in Upper Liangyuan, and as one of very few literate villagers, he went on to serve as brigade accountant in Yang Pagoda right until the Four Cleanups campaign in 1964. And meanwhile, when conditions allowed, he continued to lead a Daoist band. His wife helped him organize his schedule. Li Peisen’s move to this tranquil village, and his wife’s careful assertion of local status, were to play a major role in enabling the lineage to preserve its Daoist traditions.

In 2014 the couple’s children erected a stele to their parents.

LPS stele

Yao Xiulian
It took me quite a long time to appreciate Li Manshan’s wife Yao Xiulian. Even if we managed to understand each other’s dialects, she wasn’t used to conversing with a foreigner, and I couldn’t break the ice.

They were married in the winter cold late in 1971, when he was twenty-six sui, with Li Manshan’s family and the whole society under a cloud. Still bearing the hat of “rich peasant,” he had little choice of bride, despite Li Qing’s repute. Li Manshan’s uncle Li Tao lived in Yaozhuang further north, and his bride came from there. She never went to school, but over the years she has gradually picked up a few characters like their names. It was a very simple wedding—in this period even the shawm bands were only able to accompany life-cycle rituals in the more remote hill villages. Li Manshan remains eternally grateful to an uncle who came from Inner Mongolia for his wedding with a sack of white flour to make the prized gao paste for the wedding meal. The new couple lived in Li Qing’s courtyard complex, part of which had been allocated to another family after land reform.

Staying with them since 2011, I came to admire her unassuming hosting skills— not just with me, but her natural rapport with both female and male guests who constantly arrived for a “determining the date” prescription with Li Manshan—putting them at ease, exchanging local gossip, sympathetic. Though not a smoker, she is always ready to offer a cigarette to male visitors.

LMS wife

Yao Xiulian mending Daoist hats, 2015.

While not in great health, she washes and mends the Daoists’ costumes, and helps out with making the paper artefacts for funerals too. Without making a fuss over me, she worked out what kind of food I like, and prepared a range of delicious meals for the family. We eat meat sparingly; the basis is noodles and mostly home-grown vegetables—potatoes, beans, mushrooms, greens, as well as fresh eggs and succulent tomatoes. Actually, Li Manshan is on the road so much that his wife’s cooking duties are usually modest—though his patriarchal background obliges him to disparage her cooking, even with me (I resist the temptation to ask him, “Why don’t you cook for me, then?”).

Li Min

Li Min and baobao 2013

Li Min with Baobao, 2013.

Apart from Li Bin (Daoist son of Li Manshan and his wife), their three daughters are all highly intelligent too. In growing to appreciate Li Manshan’s wife, their second daughter Li Min (b.1975) served as a bridge when she brought her young son to stay with us, in an astute move to make my visits more pleasurable for all; she not only interpreted for us, but at informal family meals I relished their thoughtful and humorous exchanges.

Jin Hua

Jin Hua

Li Bin’s affable wife Jin Hua is an equal partner in running their busy funeral shop in town. With Li Bin constantly away doing prescriptions, decorating coffins, performing rituals, and networking, she is often left to fend alone with the shop; this is a largely female-driven cottage industry. Along with her own chain of female supporters, they provide all the paper artefacts that will escort the deceased to heaven—houses, carts, treasuries, floral decorations, wreaths, “banner to lead the soul”, and so on. Though these artefacts are less elaborate than in south China, the whole process of making them is complex and skillful. I keep them company as they make the two treasuries, using sunflower stalks to make the frames.

As Jin Hua observes, it takes two people a whole day to make the two treasuries, but only one minute to burn them to ashes. I ask her why patrons still demand such complex structures that will go up in smoke, when they are otherwise so lukewarm about ritual. She explains astutely that the hosts have money and can afford to pay people to spend the time making them—but they themselves can’t be bothered to do all the work that is involved in organizing long complex rituals.

***

I’m aware that so far we have mainly found such women assuming domestic and supportive tasks, but their contributions should not be neglected. And in the following two posts (here and here) we will observe women taking more independent roles.