Ethnography at home: Morris dancing

female dancers

Esperance dancers. Source: EFDSS, via

Why bother traipsing halfway around the world, I hear you ask, when our very own Sceptered Isle offers such potential for pursuing the local ethnography of seasonal ritual?

Our folk culture may be a rich and ever-evolving topic, but Morris dancing has long been a national joke. Here I’ve churlishly suggested it as a suitably disturbing English riposte to the magnificent All-Black haka. I suddenly understand why some Chinese people may initially be reluctant to engage with their folk culture (see e.g. here and here).

Morris dancing comes round every so often as a drôle topic for media coverage—this article by A.A. Gill may not impress academics, but it’s brilliant, evocative, and strangely respectful writing.

I’m reminded of the topic again by a recent BBC4 programme, engagingly titled For folk’s sake.

One could almost mistake the May procession, with its bowery palanquin,
for a rain ritual in Shaanbei.

Now, I take a keen interest in calendrical rituals—indeed, as Easter week approaches, Bach is in store, and it’s a busy season for ritual in China too. But I’m not alone in tending to consign Morris dancing, with its incongruous juxtaposition of hankies, bells, and silly hats with beards and beer, to a long list of embarrassing genteel eccentricities of the English, along with The Archers. But like any social activity performed by Real People it deserves serious study, in the context of social change in England since the Industrial Revolution, and even a preliminary exploration is fascinating. [1]

The wiki entry makes a useful starting point. Whatever the etymological connection between Morris and Moorish, it does seem, Like Life (cf. Stewart Lee), to have come from abroad. It’s part of a group of genres that includes mummers’ plays, sword and stick dances, and so on.

Gender and class
Though there is evidence of female Morris dancers as early as the 16th century, male groups predominated. I’d like to learn more about the 19th-century decline; anyway, by the early 20th century the women who soon became the driving force of Morris learned from surviving male performers. From wiki:

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Lancashire tradition was taken up by sides associated with mills and nonconformist chapels, usually composed of young girls. These lasted until the First World War, after which many mutated into “jazz dancers” [note the cryptic quotes].

Mary NealAfter severe losses in World War One (when some entire village sides were killed) the female dominance increased, with women now teaching men.

In 1895 Mary Neal (1860–1944; website here; see also Lucy Neal’s project and this nice article) founded the Espérance Club, a dressmaking co-operative and club to enrich the lives of young working-class girls in London:

No words can express the passionate longing which I have to bring some of the beautiful things of life within easy reach of the girls who earn their living by the sweat of their brow… If these Clubs are up to the ideal which we have in view, they will be living schools for working women, who will be instrumental in the near future, in altering the conditions of the class they represent.

Cecil Sharp (1859–1924) first experienced Morris at Headington Quarry in 1899. Mary Neal began working with him in 1905, but their outlooks conflicted, and she soon joined the WSPU (for the Espérance’s modern reincarnation, see here). Vic Gammon encapsulates the conflict in his review of Georgina Boyes’s The imagined village culture:

Mary Neal, middle-class reformer, socialist, and suffragette who sees the possibility of reviving folk dance among working-class girls in north London, is defeated by Cecil Sharp, professional musician, Fabian, and misogynist who spread the activity of folk dancing among the young genteel, making vernacular arts fit bourgeois aesthetics.

These clips from 1912 feature the sisters Maud and Helen Karpeles, co-founders of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, as well as Cecil Sharp, and George Butterworth, who died in the Battle of the Somme:

But as in the world of work, male groups soon came to dominate again. The all-male Morris Ring was founded by six revival sides in 1934. And between the wars, for John Eliot Gardiner’s father Rolf “mysticism, misogyny, and Morris dancing formed a coherent whole in which nostalgia was a spur to action”. Whether he would have approved of The Haunted Pencil, with his AfD comrades, I couldn’t possibly comment.

Meanwhile Stella Gibbons and Elisabeth Lutyens took a more cynical view of genteel “folky-wolky” representations of English folk culture (note also Em creeps in with a pie).

Following World War Two, and particularly in the 1960s, there was an explosion of new dance teams, with some women’s or mixed sides. A heated debate emerged over the propriety and even legitimacy of women dancing the Morris; and mainly on the left, critics disputed the method of Sharp’s work as they pondered the perilous concept of “tradition” (as they do). But as in most walks of life, despite bastions of male conservatism, the creative participation of women is again becoming a major driving force, as you can see in this fine article by Elizabeth Kinder.

Boss Morris

Click here for a short clip from Berkhamstead in 1950, with pipe and tabor sadly mute. And this was filmed in Thaxted (“hub of the universe”), c1958—just as collectivization was leading to calamitous famine in China:

All this may seem quaint at any period, but all the more so in the Swinging Sixties. For folk’s sake shows glimpses of a 1966 festival at Thaxted—just as revolution (not least the Cultural Revolution) was in the air, alongside jazz, soul, the Beatles… The Saddleworth rushcart festival features in For folk’s sake—here’s a clip from 2014:

And as with folk traditions in China and worldwide, Morris survives alongside newer genres like punk (for punk in Beijing, see here).


Source: David Holm, Art and ideology in revolutionary China (1991).

Indeed, a survey of the many English villages with teams somewhat resembles our documentation of ritual groups in particular counties of China—or the rich local dance traditions like yangge (among several genres using handkerchiefs and sticks!), Boat on Dry Land, Bamboo Horses, and so on, with their common ritual connections—covered at length in the provincial volumes of the Anthology for dance:

  • Zhongguo minjian wudao jicheng 中国民间舞蹈集成,

with over 30,000 pages there alone, besides all the related material in the volumes for folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, and instrumental music.

Among the main regional Morris traditions are Cotswold, Northwest, Border, and Plough Monday groups in Yorkshire and the east Midlands (all the sides have instructive websites)—and as in China, their styles are often distinctive to individual villages. Four teams claim a continuous tradition predating the revival: Abingdon, Bampton, Headington Quarry, and Chipping Campden. In the 1930s at the important centre of Thaxted, the sinologist Joseph Needham championed Molly dancing.

Only now do I recall that my granddad took me to watch mummers in Wiltshire (at Colerne? Marshfield?). Indeed, his home village of Potterne still has a group. It’s a very blurred childhood memory, by which I seem to have been underwhelmed; but did it sow a seed?


The Britannia Coco-nut [2] Dancers of Bacup (“Nutters”; see e.g. this article) have a venerable history that inevitably attracts controversy (no less inevitably, one of the transmitters is called Dick Shufflebottom, who celebrated fifty years of service in 2006). A.A. Gill’s description of the Nutters is classic:

They are small, nervous men. And so they might be, for they are wearing white cotton night bonnets of the sort sported by Victorian maids, decorated with sparse ribbons. Then black polo-neck sweaters, like the Milk Tray man, with a white sash, black knee-breeches, white stockings and black clogs. As if this weren’t enough, someone at some point has said: “What this outfit really needs is a red-and-white-hooped miniskirt.” “Are you sure?” the dancers must have replied. And he was. But it doesn’t finish there. They have black faces, out of which their little bright eyes shine anxiously. On their hands are strapped single castanets. A single castanet is the definition of uselessness. The corresponding castanet is worn on the knee. To say you couldn’t make up the Coco-nutters would be to deny the evidence of your astonished eyes.

The dance begins with each Nutter cocking a hand to his ear to listen to something we human folk can’t catch. They then wag a finger at each other, and they’re off, stamping and circling, occasionally holding bent wands covered with red, white, and blue rosettes that they weave into simple patterns. It’s not pretty and it’s not clever. It is, simply, awe-inspiringly, astonishingly other. Morris men from southern troupes come and watch in slack-jawed silence. Nothing in the civilised world is quite as elementally bizarre and awkwardly compelling as the Coco-nutters of Bacup. What are they for? What were they thinking of? Why do they do these strange, misbegotten, dark little incantations? It’s said that they might have originally been Barbary corsairs who worked in Cornish tin mines and travelled to Lancashire, and that the dance is about listening underground, a sign language of miners. And then there’s all the usual guff about harvest and spring and fecundity, but that doesn’t begin to describe the strangeness of this troupe from the nether folk world.

Do watch the Nutters on YouTube.

Again as in China, the Morris vocabulary is suggestive, with teams, sides, squires, bagmen, fools, beasts. At least England hasn’t yet fallen for the Intangible Cultural Heritage flapdoodle (we have our pride). Still, even without it, contentious arguments about “authenticity” continue to fester. And even now there’s still considerable opposition to admitting women. FFS.

I might be tempted to make the music share the blame. Of course, it is what it is, irrespective of the impertinent tastes of outsiders; but it often seems to endow the proceedings with a twee comfy feel that conflicts with the edgy (“pagan”?!) atmosphere of the dance itself. Once mainly accompanied by pipe and tabor, fiddles and melodeons became more common. The gritty new sounds of great musos like Jon Boden don’t seem so relevant to most Morris sides—though again, see Elizabeth Kinder’s article. I’d love to hear a Bulgarian version—accompanied with suitably complex metres by zurna and davul, relatives of early English pipe and tabor.

For the BBC2 documentary Tribes, predators and me, it was a cute idea to show footage of Morris dancing to tribespeople (click here).

* * *

Of course I’m merely dabbling here. But is this the kind of thing that urban educated Chinese people think I’m doing in their country?

In a way, it is: cultures change, in China as in England. The brief of the ethnographer is the same: to document the whole history, down to today, of local traditions amidst ongoing challenges to community cohesion through social and political change. We both have blind spots about our own cultures, further muddied by patriotic posturing and our reactions against it. It’s not that I can’t see the “value” of Morris, just that I’ve inherited negative associations. While plenty of English writers have debunked the myth of an unspoilt Victorian Merrie England, in China the “living fossils” nostalgia, referring to a Golden Age of much greater antiquity that bears even less relation to rural life there, is still touted by heritage pundits. For the awful cliché of “international cultural exchange”, see here.

And whereas in China I’m keenly aware of major dates in the rural calendar when temple fairs may be held, I’m not alone in being completely estranged from the seasonal rhythms of English life; only Bach cantatas manage to educate me.

This may be a particular issue for the English. In Hungary the táncház revival has become popular; and it would seem natural enough for an American studying old-time music in Appalachia to find continuity when working on China.

The world of Morris and English folk-song culture, like that of Newcastle punks, is no more “home” to me than are the rituals of the Fujian countryside for an educated Chinese from Beijing. But whereas local ritual in China still seems to me an intrinsic component of local life, Morris dancing has long seemed a quaint byway in my whole experience of England. Of course, when pressed, I can quite see this is wrong. OK Guys, I’ll take my culture seriously if you take yours…

Anyway, just think, as you board a rickety bus to a poor Hunan village in search of household Daoist rituals, you could be sitting in a sunny Oxfordshire pub courtyard nursing your pint as you take notes on the magnificent ritual spectacle unfolding before you—complete with its “feudal superstitious colourings” 封建迷信色彩.


See also my haiku on Morris dancing. For a roundup of posts on the English at home and abroad, see here; and for more on Heritage movements, here.


[1] Useful background includes the research of Vic Gammon; Georgina Boyes, The imagined village culture: culture, ideology and the English folk revival (1993/2010); Trish Winter and Simon Keegan-Phipps, Performing Englishness: identity and politics in a contemporary folk resurgence (2013); numerous publications from the English Folk Dance and Song Society, e.g. here; Theresa Buckland, ” ‘Th’owd pagan dance’: ritual, enchantment, and an enduring intellectual paradigm” (2002). On class, gender, and national identity, see also this (cf. Stewart Lee!). For innovative performance-based studies of clog dancing, see the work of Caroline Radcliffe. For an accessible introduction to the English folk scene, see The Rough Guide to world music: Europe, Asia, and Pacific, “England: folk, roots”, and regular features in Songlines and fRoots.

For further refs. on the wider context, see Helen Myers, “Great Britain”, in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (The New Grove handbooks in music, 1993), pp.129–48. Among many fine compilations of British folk music, note the extensive Topic Records series The voice of the people (here on Spotify).

[2] Pedants’ corner (or is it Pedant’s corner?): the form “coconut” seems more common (as on their own website)—I can’t find a ruling on the hyphen, but it seems suitably eccentric (but was it eccentric then? That’s the perennial question!).

New tag: famine


Liu Shaoqi visits Hunan, 1961.

Since the food shortages caused by the 1958 Great Leap Backward were such a major trauma for the people we meet during fieldwork, I’ve just added a tag in the sidebar for famine. See also the Maoism tag.

Indeed, this was no mere “three years of difficulty”: food shortages began even before the Leap, and continued throughout the Cultural Revolution right until the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s.

Among the main articles are:

The famine also features in many of the pages under Local ritual; it’s a theme of my work on Gaoluo (see e.g. A tribute to two local ritual leaders) and the Li family Daoists. Indeed, while there are many fine studies dedicated to the subject, it should be a recurring theme in coverage of local society, expressive culture, and people’s lives.

North Xinzhuang 1959

North Xinzhuang, Beijing suburbs 1959.

The Confucian ritual in Hunan


Source: Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Hunan juan.

One subject of Yang Yinliu‘s 1956 ambitious survey of the diverse performing genres in Hunan province was the large-scale Confucian ritual sacrifice of Liuyang, east of Changsha. Appendix 2 of his report,

  • Kongfu dingji yinyue 孔府丁祭音乐 (1958, 78 pp.)

was discreetly tucked away in a separate mimeograph; I haven’t yet tracked down the original, but its material is included in the 2011 reprint of Yang’s Hunan volume, and cited in the Anthology section. [1]

There are all kinds of themes to unpack here. First, a confession: my own reluctance to study the topic is flawed. Cultures routinely exclude certain soundscapes from their concept of “music”, but ethnomusicology counsels a far more inclusive view. Indeed, for China I’m keen to include the songs of spirit mediums, work hollers, and vocal liturgy within our brief. I have no argument with studying elite culture, even if in most societies, including China (both historically and today), it only represents a tiny tip of the iceberg (for imperial culture, see here; and for similar reservations about the qin zither, here).

I keep stressing that our focus shouldn’t be some reified concept of “music”, but expressive culture within society; and the topic of the Confucian rituals may lead all too easily to the glorification of some notional Golden Age of Ancient Sages. So I’m wary of “recreations” claiming to preserve or salvage such glories. Such a mindset may even distract us from other forms of musicking that are far more deeply embedded in social life.

Still, like the performance of modern CCP propaganda, the Confucian sacrifice is a political subject, which of course we have to study. So it may be irrelevant that it seems to exclude most features that I (or the Chinese) can perceive as “musical”, and that (unlike folk ritual) it seems remote from the lives of ordinary people. Ritual often seems austere—we might adduce the hymns or the fast chanted scriptures of household Daoists like the Li family—but expertise, human energy, social interaction, are usually evident in performance.

The origins of the Confucian sacrifices are in the numinous ancient music of Shao, whose wonders made Confucius himself oblivious to the taste of meat, if only for three months. But I’m going to start with the Tang—not because I wish to recreate its glories, but precisely because I don’t.

Now I don’t applaud the xenophobia and moralistic snobbery of the Tang poets Bai Juyi and his friend Yuan Zhen, as society struggled to recover from the cataclysm of the An Lushan rebellion (see here, n.2). Bai’s poems like “The Standing Orchestra” and “Chime-stones from Huayuan” (which I might rename “Just Can’t Get the Staff, Nowadays”) rest on a flawed nostalgic idealization of the Wisdom of the Ancient Sages; but, with ethnographic candour, they also reveal the ineptitude of the yayue Confucian ceremonial performers of his day.

Several studies have been made of these poems, but they were a theme that my teacher the great Tang scholar Denis Twitchett approached with relish (as you may see from our irreverent correspondence on the faqu, here and here; see also my own spoof Tang poems). So below I’ve adapted his (apparently unpublished) translations from a draft that he sent me, retaining the sometimes E.J. Thribb-like character of Bai Juyi’s original, and refraining from adding the Teutonic footnotes that every phrase invites (as parodied by Flann O’Brien’s commentaries on de Selby):

The Standing Orchestra
Drums and fifes of the Standing Orchestra blare out
Dancers perform the two-bladed sword-dance, jugglers toss the seven balls
Slender maidens walk the tightrope, quivering with long pole
Among the orchestras of the Court of Sacrifices is a rigid hierarchy
Those in the upper hall sit, those in the lower hall stand
In the upper hall the mouth-organ songs of the Seated Orchestra are pure
In the lower hall the drum and fife of the Standing Orchestra resound
At the sound of a single note from the mouth-organ songs, everyone inclines their ears
But if drum and fife were to play ten thousand pieces, no-one would listen
The Standing Orchestra is base, the Seated Orchestra noble
Once rejected, a member of the Seated Orchestra joins the Standing Orchestra
Playing drum and mouth-organ to accompany circus acts
But once a member of the Standing Orchestra is rejected, where can he find a job?
First he is sent to the suspended bells and chimes to play the ritual music
The ritual music has fallen so far out of fashion
That incapable dolts like you are ordered to perform the gong and zhi modes
When at the urban sacrifice we pray to the Earth Lord at the circular altar
The claim takes this music to move the spirits of Heaven and Earth!
Hoping to make the Phoenix come and the hundred beasts dance
Is just like driving your carriage north, hoping to arrive in Chu!*
The musicians are all incompetent fools—how can I adequately describe them?
And you, the Three Ministers of the Court of Sacrifice, whatever sort of men are you?

Chime-stones from Huayuan
Chime-stones from Huayuan, chime-stones from Huayuan
Men of old didn’t listen, but men of today listen
Sonorous stones from the banks of the Si river, sonorous stones from the banks of the Si river
Men of today don’t play them, but men of old played them
How is it that men of old and men of today are so different?
Which instruments are used and which rejected depends on the musicians
Although the musicians have ears like a wall, if they’re unable to distinguish Pure from Muddy sounds then they might as well be deaf!
When the pupils of the Pear Garden adjust the temperament
They only know the new sounds, they are ignorant of the old
Of old it was said of the fouqing chime-stones from the banks of the Si
That their sound moved the listener to thoughts of those serving and risking their lives in distant places
But when once the sound of the Huayuan chime-stones had been heard at the palace
The prince’s heart straightaway forgot his subjects guarding the frontiers
And sure enough, when the barbarian brigand rose up from Yan
Few of the generals were willing to die in defence of the borders
If once one understands how music and the state of government are intertwined
How can one simply listen to the clashing and clanging of these instruments?
“Xiang, the player of the stone-chimes, withdrew to his island in the sea”, leaving never to return
And now kids from the Chang’an market-place have become Master Musicians!
Who is there to truly understand the difference between Pure and Muddy sounds
Between the chime-stones from Huayuan and the sonorous stones from the banks of the Si?

So Bai Juyi is contrasting the expertise of the Seated Orchestra with the ineptitude of the ritual musicians, but “It’s Complicated”. The two genres serve entirely separate functions, with different demands. Technical virtuosity doesn’t correlate with efficacity: a lullaby serves its purpose perfectly, whereas the years of discipline that go into mastering a Paganini Caprice hardly go beyond mere technique. And some of the finest musicians in the world come from the “market-place”… Of course, recruiting practices may have changed from Tang to Ming, but I doubt if evidence is available to suggest that later ritual musicians were of a higher standard—they hardly needed to be. Bai Juyi’s argument doesn’t invalidate the performance, but it does rather, um, chime with my own reservations about studying it.

“But that’s enough about me”. Yang Yinliu, with his historical erudition and concern for “literati music”, “palace music”, and indeed “feudal superstition” and the culture of the “exploiting classes”, was doubtless more interested in the Confucian ritual than I am. Whereas I can see the “value” of exploring the topic but prefer to focus elsewhere, for Yang and his colleagues it formed part of the rich topic of archaeology and early historical sources on which they also worked tirelessly.

The wider context
A useful introduction, for the Ming, is

  • Joseph Lam, State sacrifices and music in Ming China: orthodoxy, creativity, and expressiveness (1998).

He stresses those features, even if the latter two may seem rather remote from many people’s understanding of the topic. For dance, see also

The stimulating article

  • Sébastien Billioud and Joël Thoraval, “Lijiao: The return of ceremonies honouring Confucius in mainland China”, China perspectives 2009.4.

mainly concerns Qufu in Shandong (birthplace of Confucius, and site of the most renowned rituals) and the rehabilitation of Confucius since the 1980s.

Confucian sacrifices were performed widely throughout the empire until the collapse of the imperial system in 1911. They are not only documented in the national dynastic histories but also (at the expense of folk traditions!) often occupy an unreasonable amount of space in imperial county gazetteers, compiled according to a template. The topic, burdened by abstruse theory and false nostalgia, may seem largely to belong to the rarefied confines of early sinology. However, as always, it is no timeless “living fossil”, but was constantly remoulded and re-invented throughout the imperial era right down to today.

Through the Republican era the rituals declined. After the 1949 Communist victory they were promoted by the Nationalist regime on Taiwan, but on the mainland they fell silent—apart from a few initiatives from cultural authorities.

In late imperial times the rituals must have been common elsewhere in Hunan too (the Anthology mentions mid-19th-century accounts in the Yongzhou and Jiahe county gazetteers), but it is those of Liuyang that came to achieve national celebrity. So here I’d like to introduce the fortunes of the rituals there over their life-span of a century, from the 1840s to the 1940s.

Liuyang [2]
Confucian sacrifices may have been performed in Liuyang since ancient times, but we only find firm evidence from 1829, when the local jiansheng 監生 official Qiu Zhilu 邱之稑 (1781–1839) was commissioned to begin a lengthy investigation of how to perform the rituals, with funding to establish a Bureau for Rites and Music (Liyue ju 禮樂局). His research was based not only on early compendia (including Han sources and the Qing Lülü zhengyi) but also on a visit to Qufu.

Qiu Zhilu then had to decide on the pitch standard (itself a thorny historical issue); choose the vast instrumentarium and repertoire (indeed, he is credited with incorporating folk elements, revising the system of one note per beat, and expanding the scale); and rehearse the singers, instrumentalists, and dancers. He documented the results of his research in a series of volumes.

Though Qiu Zhilu died in 1839, the rituals he had designed were first performed in the early 1840s. Every three years over sixty youths over the age of 12 sui within the town—“from decent families” shenjia qingbai 身家清白, an assessment that would have been abruptly reversed after the 1949 Liberation!) [3]—were recruited, training for a month before the 2nd- and 8th-moon rituals.

(An aside: I can’t help comparing this to the hereditary training of shawm-band musicians in Hunan and throughout China, who would begin playing percussion in the family band from around 6 sui, moving on to shawm in their early teens, and learning daily through constant participation in life-cycle and calendrical rituals. And that is where real creativity is to be found: for more on elite and folk cultures, with a detailed analysis of a qin piece and a shawm-band suite, see here. But as in the Tang, the efficacity of the Confucian ritual depended not on the performers but on the “arrangers”…)

The Qing statesman Zeng Guofan (1811–72), himself a native of Hunan, sent envoys to Liuyang to attend the ritual, recommending it to the emperor. After the collapse of the imperial system in 1911, the Bureau was still maintained, though only the 8th-moon sacrifice was now held. Wannabe emperor Yuan Shikai (1859–1916) sent envoys, who reported it to be superior to the Qufu ritual; envoys from there and other regions of the country (including Heilongjiang, Yunnan, and Xinjiang) came to study. Apparently the genre even appeared in a feature film made in the early Republican era.

Liuyang 2
Liuyang 1

These photos of the Liuyang performers appear quite widely online, but I can’t find dates—can anyone provide them? The first seems to date from before Liberation; I surmise that the second was taken when Yang Yinliu took them to record in Changsha in 1956. [4]

As ever, I’m struck by both how much has survived and how much has been destroyed, and by the maxim “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”.

The 8th-moon ritual was held in 1937 with an ever-dwindling personnel. After Liuyang was occupied by the Japanese, activity was interrupted in 1944. [5] After Japan was defeated, the temple grounds were taken over by the Nationalist administration and a local newspaper. By the time of an October 1945 performance in the temporary provincial capital Leiyang, following social upheavals, instruments had been damaged and the (recent) tradition much reduced. In 1946 the senior Liu Puxian 劉蒲仙 led a ritual with over a hundred performers, still only a pale reflection of the previous quorum. The last ritual performance took place on 28th September 1948.

After the Communist victory, in 1951 the Liuyang Bureau of Culture retrieved the entire collection of over 350 instruments as well as the textual material, holding an exhibition; from 1953 they were stored in the Hunan provincial museum in Changsha, and some newly-reproduced instruments were made.

Such was the backdrop to Yang Yinliu’s 1956 visit. He now assembled a dozen of the senior performers to go to Changsha, recording some of the main hymns with a motley assemblage of instruments whose pitches no longer matched (a topic that he explored eruditely in his monograph). The Anthology reprints Yang’s own transcriptions of these recordings.

LY JC score

Zhaohe (Zhaoping) hymn to welcome the gods (opening), documented by Yang Yinliu. Source: Anthology.

Hunan was hit by the famine that followed the Great Leap Backward, but in 1962, in a brief lull between campaigns, the Hunan cultural authorities organized another project on the ritual. The instruments were even briefly returned to Liuyang; new performers were trained, and further recordings made. Ever since then the instruments have been kept at the Changsha museum. Meanwhile similar research was ongoing in Qufu.

From the 1980s, the resumption of research (now for the monumental Anthology) coincided with a progressive rehabilitation of Confucius and Confucianism. Indeed, Yang Yinliu’s 1956 work in Liuyang formed an important basis for the glitzy 1980s’ recreation of the most renowned Confucian ritual at Qufu, with which it had long-standing links. In recent years—inevitably—the Liuyang cult has been taken up by the Intangible Cultural Heritage (see here), although, as with many such projects, any tradition has long disappeared. The only remaining source was Qiu Shaoqiu 邱少求 (b. 1931), who had spent nearly ten years performing intermittently after training from the age of 9.

LY JC diagram

Reconstructed diagram showing deployment of instruments. Source: Anthology.

* * *

So once again, we have to unpack the thorny question “What is music?”. As Confucius himself observed,

Music! Music! Is it nothing but the sound of bells and drums?

Always remote from the lives of ordinary people, and performed only intermittently, the Liuyang ritual was a very minor aspect of musicking in Hunan; but it’s one that may attract sinological historians. To be sure, like folk musicking, it was in a constant process of change; and a certain creativity was involved—though far from the kind universal to most expressive culture in China and elsewhere.

With Chinese and foreign scholars alike still keen to imagine “living fossils”, such as the ritual traditions of Beijing, Xi’an, and south Fujian, reification is a dangerous theme throughout traditional culture.

Irrespective of my own ambivalence about the topic, Yang Yinliu’s work, even amidst pressure to downplay elite culture, shows his dedication to all aspects of performance and the historical background. At the same time, he wasn’t alone in studying the Liuyang ritual: the Hunan cultural authorities made efforts to document it throughout the first fifteen years after Liberation.


* Satnav on the blink again—Ed.


[1] Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Hunan juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 湖南卷, pp.2049–57, 2137, 2141, 2179–80, transcriptions 2060–85.

[2] For Liuyang, online sources I have consulted include浏阳古乐编吕钟
In the Anthology, note the biography of Qiu Zhilu (p.2137) and the item on the Bureau of Rites and Music (p.2141).
See also Yu Yizhi 喻意志 and Zhang Yu 章瑜, “Liuyang jikong yinyue chutan” 浏阳祭孔音乐初探, Tianjin yinyuexueyuan xuebao 2008.2. As ever, several details remain to be clarified.
In English, an early mention of Yang Yinliu’s work on the Liuyang rituals is Rulan Chao Pian, Sonq dynasty musical sources and their interpretation (1967), pp.94–6.

[3] Having observed that many of the CCP leaders came from Hunan, I note that Liuyang was the birthplace of Hu Yaobang (1915–89), who would not have made a suitable recruit…

[4] This site, with 52 pages, contains a rich archive of visual images from Hunan, and leads to further sources showing the depth of both literati and popular culture there.

[5] An instance of my problems interpreting the material: I surmise that it continued until then even under Japanese occupation. One would like more detail on the whole period from 1937 to 1949—but please, if you go to Hunan, do look beyond the Confucian ritual!



Two recent themes

Two images from the 1950s.

Recently I wrote a mini-series of posts on the fortune of expressive culture through the first fifteen years of the PRC, and the intrepid scholars who documented it—worth reading along with my tribute to the great Yang Yinliu:

This happens to be an important period for the relationship of politics and culture—the Maoist decades are a crucial bridge from the “old society” to the current reform era—but that’s not the only reason for studying it. One always seeks to gain a picture of change over the lifetimes of informants; if we had visited in the 1880s, or indeed the 880s, we would also have asked them how their social and cultural life had before the cataclysms of the Taiping uprising and the An Lushan rebellion respectively. While I’m critical of reified studies that are limited to the “salvage” of an idealized past, a diachronic approach is always valuable.

* * *

I followed up that series with Great Female Singers Week (cf. A playlist of songs):

Again, these are part of larger series, in this case on gender (for a roundup, see here), jazz, and Mediterranean culture—to which you’ll find links in the above posts.

Expressive culture (both popular and elite) always makes a revealing prism through which to view social change—whether for China, Puglia, New York, or Vienna.

New tag: Yang Yinliu!

Yang Yinliu 1950

I’ve just added a new tag in the sidebar for the great Yang Yinliu (1899–1984), whose encyclopedic work on Chinese music encompassed elite and folk traditions, historical sources and fieldwork.

The starting point is this tribute, describing his early background in Kunqu, qin, and Daoist circles, and reflecting on his constant determination to document the whole heritage—notably ritual—despite the strictures of Maoism. It leads to further posts on his discovery of Beijing temple musics, his 1956 fieldwork in Hunan (here, and here), and much more.

Update to A Czech couple in 1950s’ Tianqiao

I’ve just done a major update to A Czech couple in 1950s’ Tianqiao. Even if you have already read my original post, do take another look—I’ve added considerable further material, courtesy of the couple’s grandson (also Zdeněk).

New content includes more vignettes on their early life; a 1968 letter from the son of Robert van Gulik to Ambassador Hrdlička; more on the tribulations of Czechoslovak scholars; and under post-1968 “normalization”, Věna’s wry gratitude to the authorities for improving their health by depriving them of employment…

Note also Czech tag, including appearances from Švejk and Alexei Sayle…

Famine and expressive culture

Glimpses of the early 1960s’ cultural revival in response to desperation

Liu Shaoqi visits Hunan, 1961.

The disastrous consequences of the Great Leap Backward have been documented by several scholars. But between 1961 and 1965, as the CCP retreated briefly from extreme policies in a brief lull before the Four Cleanups campaign, traditional (incuding ritual) culture revived significantly throughout the countryside. I’ve documented this fleeting revival for my main fieldsites in Hebei (Plucking the winds ch.5) and Shanxi (Daoist priests of the Li family, ch.5), and it often features in my accounts of local ritual—note also the Maoism tag.

Apart from talking with people who can recall the period, documents by the provincial Bureaus of Culture from the late 1950s–early 1960s make an unlikely but fruitful source. While they are prescriptive decrees calling for further suppression of a gamut of “superstitious” activities, they thereby show how prevalent such practices were becoming—precisely in response to the desperation of the Leap.

Here I’ll focus on the province of Hunan, to complement my post on Yang Yinliu’s 1956 survey. [1]

Mao Zedong, Peng Dehuai, and Liu Shaoqi were all natives of Hunan. On 11th May 1959 Liu wrote to Chairman Mao after spending a month investigating the region of his birth:

According to comrades from the provincial Party committee, 40% of all houses in Hunan have been destroyed. Besides this there is also a portion that has been appropriated by state organs, enterprises, communes, and brigades.

On a visit to Mao’s home village in Shaoshan before the fateful Lushan conference of summer 1959, the Chairman himself had hinted at a partial retreat from the more radical policies of the Leap. Peng Dehuai went on to confront him at the fateful Lushan conference of summer 1959:

When Peng had gone back to his home in Xiangtan, he found abuse and suffering everywhere, from farmers forced to practice close cropping to cadres tearing down houses in the iron and steel campaign. Visiting a retirement home and a kindergarten, he saw nothing but misery, the children in rags and the elderly crouched on bamboo mats in the freezing winter. Even after his visit he continued receiving letters from his home town about widespread starvation.

Becker notes that in the anti-Peng hysteria that followed the conference, Hua Guofeng personally supervised the brutal persecution of Peng’s family who lived in the Xiangtan region. Provincial leader Zhou Xiaozhou, who had tried to blunt the impact of extreme leftist policies, was purged, and the madness only escalated.

Dikötter observes:

The number of people per room in Hunan doubled during the years of the Great Leap Forward, as entire families crowded into a single room the size of a wardrobe—despite the space created by the loss of several million to starvation.

Ambitious yet misguided irrigation and land reclamation projects further depleted the environment. People were beaten to death in 82 out of 86 counties and cities. As investigating teams dispatched to the countryside reported:

In Daoxian county many thousands perished in 1960, but only 90% of the deaths could be attributed to disease and starvation. […] Having reviewed all the evidence, the team concluded that 10% had been buried alive, clubbed to death or otherwise killed by Party members or militia. In Shimen county, some 13,500 died in 1960, of whom 12% were “beaten or driven to their deaths”.

Dikötter cites reports from 1961:

In Yuanling county, testicles were beaten, soles of feet were branded, and noses were stuffed with hot peppers. Ears were nailed against the wall. In the Liuyang region, iron wires were used to chain farmers.

Liu Shaoqi returned to Hunan in 1961 in a widely-reported trip (online, see e.g. here):

Determined to avoid the large retinue of bodyguards and local officials that inevitably came with every visit from a top dignitary, Liu set off on 2nd April 1961 from Changsha, travelling in two jeeps in the company of his wife and a few close assistants, bowl and chopsticks tucked away in light luggage, ready for a Spartan regime in the countryside. Soon the convoy came across a sign announcing a giant pig farm. On closer inspection, it turned out that the farm consisted of no more than a dozen scrawny hogs foraging in the mud. Liu decided to spend the night in the fodder store, and his assistants combed the place in vain for some rice straw to soften the plank beds. Liu noted that even the human excrement piled up for fertilizer consisted of nothing but rough fibre, another telltale sign of widespread want. Nearby a few children in rags were digging for wild herbs.

Liu Shaoqi’s fears were confirmed over the following weeks, however difficult it was to get wary farmers to tell the truth. In one village where he stopped on his way home, he found that the number of deaths had been covered up by local leaders, while an official report drew a picture of everyday life which had nothing to do with the destitution Liu saw on the ground. He clashed with the local boss, who tried to steer the team away from speaking with villagers. He tracked down a cadre who had been dismissed as a rightist in 1959: Duan Shicheng spoke up, explaining how the brigade had earned a red flag during the Great Leap Forward. To protect their privileged status, Duan explained, local leaders had systematically persecuted anybody who dared to voice a dissenting view. In 1960 a meager crop of 360 tonnes of grain was talked up to 600 tonnes. After requisitions villagers were left with a paltry 180 kilos, out of which seed and fodder had to be taken, leaving a handful of rice a day.

In his home village Tanzichong, friends and relatives were less reluctant to speak out. They denied that there had been a drought the year before, blaming cadres instead for the food shortages. “Man-made disasters are the main reason, not natural calamities.” In the canteen cooking utensils, dirty bowls and chopsticks were tossed in a pile on the floor. A few asparagus leaves were the only vegetable available, to be prepared without cooking oil. Liu was shaken by what he saw. A few days later, he apologized to his fellow villagers in a mass meeting: “I haven’t returned home for nearly forty years. I really wanted to come home for a visit. Now I have seen how bitter your lives are. We have not done our jobs well, and we beg for your pardon.” That very evening the canteen was dissolved on Liu’s orders.

A committed party man, Liu Shaoqi was genuinely shocked by the disastrous state in which he found his home village. He had dedicated his every waking moment to the party, only to find that it had brought widespread abuse, destitution, and starvation to the people he was meant to serve.

Becker also describes Liu Shaoqi’s visit to Hunan:

In the Hengyang district “nearly an entire production team had died of hunger, and there was no one left with the strength to bury the bodies. These were still lying scattered about in the fields from which they had been trying to pull enough to stay alive.” Yet when Liu Shaoqi and his wife, Wang Guangmei, visited Hunan to see for themselves, local leaders went to extraordinary lengths to try and deceive them. Along the road leading to Liu’s home town of Ningxiang, starving peasants had torn the bark off the trees to eat, so officials plastered the tree trunks with mud and straw to conceal the scars. […] Liu only managed to discover the truth in the village where he had been born, Ku Mu Chong, when some villagers dared to tell him that twenty of their number had starved to death, including a nephew of Liu’s, and that a dozen more had fled.

Expressive culture
With all this in mind, it may seem almost perverse to turn our attention to expressive culture. Doubtless in some areas upon the 1949 Liberation, traditional culture was virtually stamped out, quite abruptly, only reviving after the collapse of the commune system from the late 1970s. Even where traditional genres survived relatively unscathed in the early 1950s (in 1956 Yang Yinliu’s team found rich material on his fine fieldtrip to Hunan, and his report contains no hint of the impending disaster), one might suppose that they would have declined further as collectivization intensified. We might doubt the ability of performance genres to survive through the famine following the 1958 Leap. Indeed, in many regions, irrespective of any official prohibitions, it may seem inconceivable that people could even have the strength to observe traditional cultural practices (see e.g. here, under “Religion and culture”).

On the contrary, it seems that it was precisely the desperation of the times that prompted (on the economic front) a revival of folk performing groups and (in the sphere of belief) a renewed emphasis on traditional ritual. With no food or shelter in their home villages, people resorted to extreme measures. Migration was a traditional response to adversity; Hunan peasants often crossed the border into Hubei (cf. the flight of Yanggao dwellers to Inner Mongolia: Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.120–21).

For the condition of folk performance activity in the early 1960s, apart from talking with people who recall the period, official documents in the Appendices of several of the provincial volumes of the monographs on opera and narrative-singing in the Anthology make an unlikely but revealing source, containing documents from imperial, Republican, and Maoist times, often relating to prohibitions (for all three periods!). [2] Often they inadvertently reveal “negative material” in discussing the desperate revival of folk and ritual groups from the late 1950s, reminding us that even through all the traumas of campaigns and collectivization, traditional genres “obstinately“, however tenuously, kept active.

A series of detailed documents from the Hunan Bureau of Culture between 1957 and 1965 gives a remarkably frank impression of a far-from-stable socialist society. [3]

A document from September 1961 innocuously prescribes a systematic project on the province’s rich heritage of local opera, specifically calling for impartial documentation irrespective of “feudal” and “superstitious” elements. Doubtless they benefitted from the model established by Yang Yinliu on his 1956 fieldwork. A lengthier document from March 1962 explicitly includes the diverse genres of narrative-singing in the project.

By October the Bureau of Culture was discussing the registration of “folk professional scattered artists” (minjian zhiye lingsan yiren 民间职业零散艺人) that they had initiated in 1957. They note the recent growth of such performers along with state cutbacks and the arrival of migrant groups; some belonged to the “five black categories”, performing “unhealthy” items.

With new campaigns for Socialist Education, the tide was turning: by April 1963, prompted by a central decree from Beijing, the Bureau of Culture issued a ban on the performance of “ghost operas”, which had grown “in the last couple of years”. For rural and urban Hunan they describe an increase of funeral elegies and rituals, offering incense and worshipping the Buddha, constructing temples, and inviting opera groups for rituals to invite the gods and redeem vows, [4] all encouraging the spread of anti-revolutionary elements and reactionary sects (fandong huidaomen).

A draft discussion from 1964 elaborates further on how to register folk performers, mentioning over 12,000 rural scattered semi-professional artists (performing opera, shadow-puppetry, marionettes, and narrative-singing), some of whose groups “have become hiding places for class enemies, their programmes mostly spreading feudal superstition and capitalism.”

Despite (or because of) the rising tide of political campaigns, a lengthy supplement from August 1965 reveals continuing issues:

wenjian 1
wenjian 2
wenjian 3
wenjian 4

Under “Severe situation” (pp.622–3), problems are listed under five headings, all with detailed examples:

  • Performing bad [feudalistic, superstitious, capitalistic] programmes, long prohibited but still rife, “poisoning people’s thinking”. This was a problem among the state troupes as well as folk groups: from the founding in November 1963 of the No.2 Marionette Troupe in Xinshao county to September 1964, 84 of their 103 performances were deemed “superstitious”.
  • People abandoning production to take up itinerant performance. Of 96 shadow-puppet artists in one district, 21 took it up before Liberation, 17 from Liberation to 1958, but 58 since 1958—and those taking it up since Liberation were mostly strong young men, badly needed to help agriculture recover from the disasters of the years of hardship. In Lixian county, [5] the senior yugu performer Cheng Dengyun’s oldest son (33) was a production-team chief, his second son (28) team accountant, his third son a strong worker, but from 1961 they all took up yugu and abandoned production.

Left: daoqing/yugu performers in Hengyang municipality, 1956.
Right: yugu, undated photo from Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan.

Yugu 渔鼓, related to daoqing 道情 and shadow-puppetry, is one of the most widespread genres of narrative-singing around Hunan and nearby provinces, using a distinctive drum made from a bamboo tube. The separate Anthology item on the genre introduces the early and later history of yugu, giving useful leads for the various regional styles. [6] But the 1964 document valuably supplements the largely official picture of yugu modernizing under the avuncular guidance of the Party. Online, besides more glossy official versions, you can find some excerpts from recent funerary performances, like this from Qidong county.

  • Exorbitant charges. In a case from 1963, two shadow-puppeteers from a commune in Hengnan county performed an opera to redeem a vow; apart from a ticket price [??] of 6 yuan, they also demanded a dou of “holy rice” and 2 jin of oil; at the end they gave a commune cadre a statue of the deity Guanyin and demanded a further 2 yuan as a donation.
  • Taking disciples, exploitative hiring practices—again showing the persistence of pre-revolutionary traditions.
  • Harbouring bad elements and carrying out anti-revolutionary activities; examples are given of puppeteers performing anti-Communist propaganda.

For local religious life over the Maoist era I haven’t yet sought documents from the Bureau of Religious Affairs, or indeed the archives of the Public Security Bureau, but one might expect revealing results there too.

* * *

Having endured yet more traumas in the Cultural Revolution, such genres, mostly based on ritual practice, revived spectacularly after the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s. But we can now see that the revival was not some miraculous atavistic re-imagining after three decades of silence: it took up a thread that had never been erased. Indeed, there was even a certain very limited activity through the Cultural Revolution decade. Equally, the wealth of research since the 1980s didn’t spring from a vacuum: it built on the brave work of scholars under Maoism.

Studies of expressive culture under Maoism are often narrowly based on central policy towards “the arts”. Candid documents like those discussed here reveal not only regional policy but—more interestingly—the real situation on the ground, even if they were seeking to “correct” it. Thus the Party refutes its own simplistic narrative that “feudal superstition” was abruptly suppressed after Liberation—a claim that is rarely challenged even by scholars outside China .

So the study of Maoism, expressive culture, and people’s lives should go hand in hand.


[1] The material here is based on Jasper Becker, Hungry ghosts and Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, consulting the indexes under Hunan. The famine in some provinces, notably Henan, was considerably worse: I won’t attempt to summarize the abundant material here, but again it is described by Becker, Dikötter, et al. For refs. to Henan folk opera troupes begging during the famine, see Zhongguo quyi zhi, Henan juan, pp.735–40. For the great famines of Ukraine and China, see here.

[2] Zhongguo xiqu zhi 中国戏曲志 and Zhongguo quyi zhi 中国曲艺志; cf. pp.329–30 of my “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003). For a recent discussion of sources on Maoism, see Sebastian Veg (ed.), Popular memories of the Mao era: from critical debate to reassessing history (2019).

[3] For all the rich material on local household Daoist ritual in Hunan, I would love to read more accounts of their activities under Maoism.

[4] Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan, pp.614–25.

[5] Confession: in “Reading between the lines” I miswrote this place-name—I have no culture!

[6] Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan, pp. 67–74; for its music, see pp.275–300, and Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Hunan juan.