Cheremis, Chuvash—and Tibetans


Photo: Cheremis “pagan” ritual singer H.H. Musztafa (then 69), June 1975.

Along with from the many Hungaroton LP box-sets of the musics of east Europe, another impressive 3-disc set that I brought back from Budapest is

collected and published by László Vikár (1929–2017) and linguist Gábor Bereczki. The set documents musical traditions of peoples in the “autonomous” republics around the eastern perimeter of the European part of the USSR, the central Volga and Urals—peoples about whom I know nothing, but feel we should know:

Mordvinians, Votyaks (Udmurt), Cheremis (Mari), and the Turkic-speaking Chuvash, Tatars, and Bashkirs.



Between 1958 and 1979 Vikár and Bereczki made four long summer fieldtrips to some 286 villages, accompanied by local scholars. With sound engineer Pál Sztanó they recorded life-cycle and calendrical items, both vocal and instrumental, including bridal dirges, funeral laments, dance tunes, and historical epics.

The recordings on this box set are part of a much larger archive. You can hear tracks on a playlist here:

The 43-page booklet contains detailed notes, as well as maps, translations, photos, and some transcriptions.

notes 2

A page from the booklet, on Mari singing.

Bartók, Kodaly, and Bence Szabolcsi had already shown an interest in these groups, mainly as part of their comparative musical paleography, classifying melodic types; Vikár was building on this tradition. [2]

Such early recordings were made on request, not—as ethnographers later also sought—while documenting the social events of which they are the core. So we meet the typical issue that often crops up in Chinese collections: were they performing items then still in use, or recalling them from an earlier social practice?

And of course these projects could barely hint at the painful recent histories of such peoples. Music is never autonomous, but gives us a window into the study of changing local societies.

Indeed, it’s worth recalling what else was happening in those years. Notwithstanding early east European scholars’ interest in “archaic layers”, these are not timeless idyllic communities; though they were over the worst of the years of repression under Stalin, they had been constantly starved, deported, subject to political whims, suffering under collectivization and the Great Purge (cf. Blind minstrels of Ukraine, under “Other minorities”). This too is a rich field of research—see e.g.

The task of modern ethnographers—just as for China—is to integrate socio-political histories with expressive cultures. In 1975 the moment had still not come to record the memoirs of “pagan” Mr Musztafa—and now it’s too late.

In addition to the Garland encyclopedia of world music, for more on early collecting, see under

  • Margarita Mazo, “Russia, the USSR and the Baltic states”, in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (The New Grove handbooks in music, 1993), pp.197–211,

and in the same volume,

  • Theodore Levin, “Western central Asia and the Caucasus”, pp.300–305.

In the early years after the crushing of the 1956 Budapest uprising, one might wonder how smooth was the collaboration between Hungarian and Soviet scholars—only of course the latter too would have suffered under the policies of their own regime.

* * *


Left to right: Yang Yinliu, Bence Szabolcsi, Li Yuanqing, Beijing 1955.

Meanwhile in China, scholars were also documenting local traditions, for both the Han majority and the many ethnic groups—under testing conditions, and with a similar caution in broaching socio-political issues. By the 1950s, with a growing interest in early connections between Hungarian and Chinese musics, China was open to Hungarian musicology; Bence Szabolcsi visited the great Yang Yinliu in Beijing in 1955, on the eve of the Budapest uprising. And Yang Yinliu visited the USSR in 1957, just after his remarkable fieldtrip to Hunan—just before the Anti-Rightist campaign and Great Leap Backward led to untold suffering.


Yang Yinliu (seated, right) on a visit to the USSR, 1957.

Kodaly’s Folk music of Hungary, dating from 1935, was published in 1964 in a Chinese translation from the 1956 German edition—just as a brief lull after the Leap was destroyed by the Four Cleanups and Cultural Revolution.


In east Europe, the USSR, and Maoist China, the enthusiasm of ethnographic collectors of the day is admirable—even as their leaders were imprisoning them and manipulating the peoples they were studying. As William Noll observes, such studies need both to be intepreted in their historical framework and updated constantly, both by augmenting the earlier material and by documenting more recent change. Also in that post, note Noll’s comment that ethnographers of one cultural heritage commonly conduct fieldwork among peoples of a different cultural heritage—even if both groups live within the political boundaries of one state.

Left: monks lay down their arms, 1959. Right: Norbulingka, 1966.
For insights on the period in Tibet, with rare photos, see this fine series by Woeser.

A flagrant instance of circumspection is fieldwork by Chinese musicologists in Tibet in the 1950s, rosily portraying the region (like Xinjiang) as a happy land of singing and dancing—even in 1959 Lhasa, just as mass rebellions were breaking out all over Tibet against Chinese occupation. Two of the most distinguished, and well-meaning, Chinese scholars resumed their fieldwork upon the 1980s’ reforms, encouraging their Tibetan pupils; but the whole social-political backdrop remained taboo.

Expressive culture is an illuminating window on society. How little we know about the world…


[1] The term Finno-Ugric seems somewhat dated, but see here for a more extensive list of peoples.

[2] An early curiosity among the ouevre of the great Bruno Nettl is his slim tome Cheremis musical styles (1960), part of a Cheremis project at Indiana. The Preface by Thomas Sebeok has a useful summary of interest among Hungarian and other scholars. But written from a distance, the monograph could still only be narrowly musical—free of ethnomusicology’s later concern for society and culture, in which Nettl has played such a major role; and the material that he assembles consists largely of transcriptions rather than recordings.

For Chuvash and Mordvins, note also the 1996 Auvidis CD Chants de la Volga: musique traditionnelle de Tchouvachie et Mordovie.



Li family Daoists, Beijing 1990

BJ 1990

The recent Beijing visit of a sectarian group from north Shanxi reminds me of the Li family Daoists’ performance at the 1990 Festival of religious music (for such festivals, see here)—the occasion that gave rise to their misleading media title (“calling Li Manshan’s band the Hengshan Daoist Music Troupe is like calling a group of Calabrian folk exorcists the Sistine Chapel Choral Society”).

I discussed here the gradual revival of Daoist ritual (now mainly funerals) in Yanggao after the collapse of the commune system; even by 1990, rural conditions there were still terribly poor, and memories of the Maoist era still fresh. For the dubious concept of “religious music”, see here.

Here’s how I described the festival in my Daoist priests of the Li family (pp.175–6):

Meanwhile my friend Tian Qing, later to become the pre-eminent pundit on Chinese music, was planning a major festival of Buddhist and Daoist music in Beijing for June that year, with groups from all over China invited to perform on stage. This was unfortunate timing, as everything was disrupted by the student demonstrations and their subsequent suppression, so the festival had to be postponed. With Tian Qing now indisposed, his colleagues at the Music Research Institute managed to put on the festival the following June—not in public, but with considerable publicity in the musicological world. To hold a festival of religious music was still controversial: some apparatchiks were opposed, but influential senior ideologues like He Jingzhi and Zhao Puchu supported it.

Li Qing had a difficult task to perform when it came to choosing the personnel to go to Beijing. Of his three Daoist sons, he ended up taking not Li Manshan or Yushan, but his third son Yunshan (Third Tiger), then 22 sui. Though Third Tiger was soon to take a different path, he remains nostalgic about his teenage years studying and the trip to Beijing with the great masters. Nine Daoists made the trip: the trusty core group of seniors Li Qing, Li Yuanmao, Kang Ren, Liu Zhong, Li Zengguang, and Wang Xide, along with Li Yunshan, Li Peisen’s son Li Hua, and Li Yuanmao’s son Li Hou. They stayed in the White Cloud Temple (Baiyunguan) along with several other Daoist groups from elsewhere in China invited for the festival, doing five performances (not rituals) for privately invited audiences over fifteen days in the temple and at the Heavenly Altar. The Music Research Institute also made studio recordings—which now sound rather harsh to me.

informal session

Informal session at Li Qing’s house, 1991. Left to right: Li Qing (sheng), his second son Yushan (yunluo), Liu Zhong (guanzi), Li Zengguang (drum), Kang Ren (sheng), Wu Mei.

The 1993 Yanggao county gazetteer includes a proud mention of the Beijing trip in its brief account of the Li family band. Valuable as the gazetteer is otherwise, Daoism is not its strong suit. Li Manshan and I giggle over its quaint description:

the average age of the members is 62.5. The instruments are even older than the people.

Still, even now, religious groups that have been legitimized by official recognition are in a tiny minority compared to all those that have never been “discovered”. Even in Yanggao and nearby, many other groups are active that have never enjoyed even such minor celebrity. And while it lent Li Qing’s group confidence, offering a potential buffer against any future ill winds, it brought them no tangible benefit, and no new audiences—at least until 2005 when I began taking them on foreign tours. They continued to scrape a living by performing for local funerals, and they still do.


For Third Tiger’s fine interpretation of my SOAS T-shirt, see here.

Shanxi sect performs in Beijing


Last week, through the auspices of the dynamic Professor Cao Xinyu of People’s University, the Department of Religious Studies at Peking University managed to invite a ritual group from north Shanxi to perform for a symposium.

Mingzong 2

Cao Xinyu explains the sect’s background.

Moreover, this is no orthodox troupe of temple monks, but a pious amateur sectarian group of ordinary villagers. They belong to the extensive network of the Mingzong sect, whose history and texts Cao Xinyu has ably documented. With a membership of both men and women, they perform a cappella vocal liturgy as part of long complex ritual sequences for their local devotees—notably the sect’s distinctive “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷), with their complex performing structures (see e.g. here, and here, under “The scrolls in performance”).

The sect maintained activity even after Liberation, and with their virtuous reputation they have long been tolerated by the local authorities. Alas, their venerable leader Wang Ji (1950–2017), who steered the group through the reform era, didn’t live to take part in this trip; but Cao Xinyu has now been able to realize Wang’s wish for the group to visit Beijing, with his disciples including his widow and sister.

Wang Ji 2003

Wang Ji (right) explains the structure of a “precious scroll” to Shanxi scholar Jing Weigang, My photo, Yanggao 2003.

All over China, devotional sects are a major aspect of folk religious life (cf. this recent film on a Hakka sect). While their vicissitudes since 1949 remain a sensitive topic, such groups offer important material to document local histories and regional transmissions since the Ming dynasty—for historians, ethnographers, and scholars of “music”.

It’s also good to see the culture of this unassuming corner of north Shanxi recognized further, following visits of the Li family Daoists to Beijing in 1990 and 2013 (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.175, 340–41) and their foreign tours—as well as those of the Hua family shawm band.

Of course, the event wasn’t a religious ritual but a low-profile symposium, in a literary historical context. While it’s no substitute for attending their observances in local context, it’s impressive not only that ritual life continues but that scholars of folk religion, alongside all their fine academic studies, can still “get things done” and bring life to silent immobile textual research.


Gushan sect 2003.2

Between ritual segments, 2003. My photo.


A Hakka nun


The ever-vibrant religious life of southeast China has been the subject of considerable research. Among the voluminous monographs on Buddhist and Daoist ritual of the Hakka people in east Guangdong (see also here, under “Keep calm and carry on”), women feature but rarely; but they play a major role in folk religious life—as mediums, sectarians, organizers, and worshippers (among many posts, mainly for north China, see e.g. here, and the trilogy starting here).

I now learn of a fine 92-minute film

  • Under goddesses’ shelter (姑婆, Yang Yufei, 2016).

Like my own Li Manshan, and Adeline Herrou’s Maître Feng, it’s a portrait film, about the daily life of the 80-year-old nun (“vegetarian woman”) Liu Yunxiang and the temple-based observances of her Hakka community in Meizhou, adherents of the Xiantian jiao 先天教 sect. You can watch it via this site, by clicking on “Website”—here’s the link:

zhaipo 2

I’ve noted the tensions between historical and ethnographic approaches to fieldwork. No mere paean to timeless oriental spirituality, the film has rich detail on changing social life.

Tastefully used on the soundtrack is the qin piece Remembering an old friend.

A brave journalist


As journalism, and journalists, currently face renewed threats around the world, a homage to Gareth Jones (1905–35) is timely. [1] This post serves mainly to direct readers to the comprehensive website about his life.

I’ve already mentioned him among the foreign journalists who tried to draw the world’s attention to the 1933 famine in Ukraine. On the site you can read his reports, including his rebuttal of Walter Duranty’s apologia for the Soviet regime.

Indeed, he features in Bukovsky’s film The living (from 24.33), which you can see in my post on the famine. His story is told in the 2012 Storyville documentary Hitler, Stalin and Mr Jones:

and soon in a new feature film directed by Agnieszka Holland, with James Norton in the title role.

Besides documenting the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, once Jones was banned from the Soviet Union, his interests turned to the growing encroachment of Japan in the Far East. On the eve of his 30th birthday in 1935—just as Robert van Gulik was arriving in Harbin on his first visit to China—he was kidnapped and murdered by “bandits” in Japanese-occupied Manchukuo.

Had Jones lived to visit Yan’an after 1936, perhaps he would have been more critical than Edgar Snow or Agnes Smedley; and if he had travelled in China around 1960, he might have been more observant than other journalists at the time—and taken more photographs to accompany his record of the Holodomor.


[1] Since you ask, I am no more related to him than is Li Manshan to Laozi—or indeed to Andy Capp. But do read about my great-aunt Edith Miles.

Famine: Ukraine and China

LHJ 456 Kings detail

North Shanxi, Ten Kings ritual painting, detail: see here.

*Companion to two posts on the fates of blind bards in Ukraine and China*

Hunger, malnutrition, and famine are an essential backdrop to the lives and cultures of people we meet doing fieldwork in China, including expressive culture and ritual. They loom large in the life stories of peasants whom I’ve got to know—like the villagers of Gaoluo in Hebei, and the inhabitants of Yanggao county in Shanxi (see below). And I haven’t even visited the worst-affected regions, like Henan, Anhui, or Gansu.

Yet this is just the kind of memory that the rosy patriotic nostalgia and reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project are designed to erase.

I began by writing about expressive culture under state socialism in Ukraine and China, and I’ve given links to some basic readings on the Chinese famineGlobally, one might also adduce 1840s’ Ireland, Bengal 1943, North Korea, and chronic famines in Africa. A classic study is

  • Amartya Sen, Poverty and famines: an essay on entitlement and deprivation (1981).

However, one estimate suggests that 80% of 20th-century famine victims died in the Soviet Union and China.

Ukraine: the 1933 Holodomor
Here I discuss the Holodomor; in a post to follow I’ll take the story on to World War Two.

I found it useful to read these works in conjunction:

  • Robert Conquest, The harvest of sorrow (1986)
  • Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010)
  • Anne Applebaum, Red famine: Stalin’s war on Ukraine (2017): reviewed by Sheila Fitzpatrick here, and, more critically, by Sophie Pinkham here.

One might begin with Applebaum’s summary of research in her Chapter 15 “The Holodomor in history and memory”, as well as Chapter 14 “The Cover-up” and her Epilogue. Snyder’s Chapter 1, “The Soviet famines”, makes a useful summary. While Conquest’s book, written before the collapse of the USSR, was a fine early study (for a review, with a fractious exchange, see here), Applebaum writes with the benefit of three decades of further research, using impressive Ukrainian sources and oral history projects since the 1980s (the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and many websites, including an interview database led by William Noll); and she offers insights on the changing political scene since the 1990s. Her maps are very good too (and note this site).

Conquest’s book was published soon after the 1985 documentary Harvest of despair (following the film proper, from 54′, are further interviews):

Note also Sergei Bukovsky, The living (aka Spell your name, or Live, 2006):

* * *

In the aftermath of World War One (see e.g. Why the First World War failed to end) and the Russian revolution, as the population was bludgeoned into submitting to the kolkhoz collective farms, the term kulak was soon devalued to denote anyone questioning Party policy—“enemies of the people”, as an odious phrase currently in vogue goes. Vasily Grossman cited a woman activist (Harvest of sorrow, p.129):

What I said to myself at the time was “they are not human beings, they are kulaks” … Who thought up this word “kulak” anyway? Was it really a term? What torture was meted out to them! In order to massacre them it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human beings. Just as the Germans proclaimed that Jews are not human beings. Thus did Lenin and Stalin proclaim, kulaks are not human beings.”

Conquest (p.118) cites an activist in 1930:

He has a sick wife, five children and not a crumb of bread in the house. And that’s what we call a kulak! The kids are in rags and tatters. They all look like ghosts. I saw the pot on the oven—a few potatoes in water. That was their supper tonight.

This reminds me how fellow villagers of kindly Daoist Li Qing (see also my film, and book) ribbed him for his status as a “rich peasant” (see here, under “The sojourn of Educated Youth”).

Over a long period there was constant unrest, with mass executions and deportations. Defiance (which indeed soon offered the only hope of survival) took the form not only of lethargy; violent resistance was common—not least from women. Rebellions had broken out as early as 1919 (Harvest of sorrow ch.3, Red famine ch.2). A widespread famine ensued in 1921. But it wasn’t kept secret, and international aid was welcomed (notably from the American Relief Administration)—whereas by 1933 the scale of the disaster was concealed, and no foreign aid was accepted.

While periodic retrenchments, and “indigenization” policies, were brief, an uneasy stalemate prevailed in the 1920s. Conquest opens The harvest of sorrow thus:

At the beginning of 1927, the Soviet peasant, whether Russian, Ukrainian, or of other nationality, had good reason to look forward to a tolerable future. The land was his; and he was reasonably free to dispose of his crop. The fearful period of grain-seizure, of peasant rising suppressed in blood, of devastating famine, were over, and the Bolshevik government seemed to have adopted a reasonable settlement of the countryside’s interests.

Even by 1929 (Red famine p.113–14),

as Dolot remembered it, the presence of the Soviet state in his village had been minimal. “We were completely free in our movements. We took pleasure trips and travelled freely looking for jobs. We went to the big cities and neighboring towns to attend weddings, church bazaars, and funerals. No one asked us for documents or questioned us about our destinations.” […] The Soviet Union was in change, but not every aspect of life was controlled by the state, and peasants lived much as they had in the past.

Politics had remained loose and decentralized. The choice of Ukrainian or Russian schooling was made in the locale itself; villages were still self-governing, and the various groups tried to accommodate one another. In a passage reminiscent of China (see e.g. here, under “Old and new stories”), for Christmas Day in Pylypivka,

the boys made a star [traditional for carollers] and thought about how to design it. After some debate, a decision was made: on one side of the star, an icon of the Mother of God would be featured, while on the other, a five-pointed [Soviet] star.
In addition, they learned not only old carols, but also new ones. They made a plan: when they were approaching a communist’s house, they would display the five-pointed star and sing the new carols, but when they approached the house of a religious man, they would display the icon of the Mother of God, and would sing [old carols].

But such flexibility was short-lived. Pressure escalated from 1927; as urban activists met stubborn resistance from peasants, they soon found that brutal coercion was the only way of fulfilling their brief. The new wave of collectivization soon led to famine. Despite the introduction of “internal passports”, starving peasants continued their migration to urban industrial centres. The gulag system (on which, among the vast literature, Applebaum also has a definitive study) expanded massively.

Major rebellions erupting in 1930 caused Stalin to tone down the rhetoric briefly (though the title of the anthem of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, “Ukraine has not yet died”, sung by armed rebels in 1930, doesn’t seem entirely encouraging.)

At the height of the famine, as later in China, cannibalism and insanity became common. Meanwhile there were purges at all levels of the Party too.

Conquest gives a prophetic quote, further foretelling the current total surveillance in Xinjiang:

What gave the regime its advantage both in 1930–31 and even more in 1932–33 was that it was now organized and centralized as it had not been in 1921. Herzen, back in the 1860s, had said that what he most feared was a “Genghis Khan with the telegraph”.

Religion and culture
The church (in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church—currently engaged in a divorce from the Moscow Patriarchate) was both a target of and a focus for resistance—as later in China. Church bells were melted down, icons smashed. The rituals of traditional peasant life—and thus musical traditions—were disrupted.

Alongside the major branches of the church, the repression and survival of the diverse sectarian groups is a rich theme, including Protestants, Evangelicals, and the Molokans—see also Margarita Mazo, “Change as confirmation of continuity as experienced by Russian Molokans”, in Retuning culture: musical changes in central and Eastern Europe (1996).

As to expressive culture, the itinerant kobzari blind minstrels soon disappeared. Meanwhile,

The Ukrainian musician Yosyp Panasenko was dispatched by the central authorities with his troupe of bandura players to provide culture [sic] to the starving peasants. Even as the state took the peasants’ last bit of food, it had the grotesque inclination to elevate the minds and rouse the spirits of the dying. The musicians found village after village completely abandoned. Then they finally came across some people: two girls dead in a bed, two legs of a man protruding from a stove, and an old lady raving and running her fingernails through the dirt. (Bloodlands, p.47)

With all this background it becomes easier to understand why the blind minstrels were dying out, along with the culture of which they were part—although I wonder why they were not erased so efficiently in China under Maoism.

One member of a local concert band recalled playing for funerals of activists murdered by irate peasants:

For us it was a happy event because every time somebody was killed, they would take us to the village, give us some food and then we would play at the funeral. And we were looking forward every time to the next funeral, because that meant food for us. (Red famine, p.150)

Again, I heard similar stories in China, such as north Shanxi:

When Li Yuanmao’s father died of hunger in 1960, no-one even had the strength to dig a grave for him. In a village in nearby Tianzhen county, even the village cadres volunteered to carry the coffin just so they could get a paltry mantou steamed bread roll to eat (Daoist priests, p.119).

In Ukraine by 1933, apart from the banning of traditional funeral rites,

Nobody had the strength anymore to dig a grave, hold a ceremony, or play music. “There were no funerals,” recalled Kateryna Marchenko. “There were no priests, requiems, tears. There was no strength to cry.”

Meanwhile, cultural institutions, writers, and academics—historians, ethnographers, museum curators—were also under assault.

Talking of documenting folk-song (see here, and here), Snyder cites a children’s song (Bloodlands, p.36):

Father Stalin, look at this
Collective farming is just bliss
The hut’s in ruins, the barn’s all sagged
All the horses broken nags
And on the hut a hammer and sickle
And in the hut death and famine
No cows left, no pigs at all
Just your picture on the wall
Daddy and mommy are in the kolkhoz
The poor child cries as alone he goes
There’s no bread and there’s no fat
The party’s ended all of that
Seek not the gentle nor the mild
A father’s eaten his own child
The party man he beats and stamps
And sends us to Siberian camps.

And a collective farm song from the 1930s (Red famine p.113, cf. p.145):

Green corn waves new shoots
Though planted not long ago
Our brigadier sports new boots
While we barefoot go.

I wonder if Chinese people were singing similar songs around 1960. Still, there neither religious nor cultural life was such a blank slate under Maoism as one might suppose.

The cover-up and aftermath
Somehow, through a series of grudging concessions, the death toll fell by 1934. But with resistance broken, collectivization accelerated.

And no less telling is the story of the cover-up, suggesting further Chinese parallels. The findings of the Soviet census of 1937 were suppressed, and the responsible demographers executed. During the Great Terror of 1937–8,

Mass graves of famine victims were covered up and hidden, and it became dangerous even to know where they were located. In 1938 all the staff of Lukianivske cemetery in Kyiv were arrested, tried, and shot as counter-revolutionary insurgents, probably to prevent them from revealing what they knew.


There were plenty of outside witnesses too, such as Vasily Grossman, Arthur Koestler, Malcolm Muggeridge, Andrew Cairns, Rhea Clyman—and Gareth Jones, to whom I devote a separate post. The photos of Alexander Wienerberger also provided firm evidence. The influential Walter Duranty knew well, but chose to deny. On the left, pundits like the Webbs averted their gaze in the interests of the greater cause. And diplomatic silence reigned, already aware of the impending need for an alliance with the Soviets against Hitler. Conquest describes the apologists—a large and influential body of Western thought—as “the lobby of the blind and blindfold”. With bitter irony, it was only the Nazis who were prepared to publicize the 1933 famine.


Emerging evidence gave pause to left-leaning scholars like Eric Hobsbawm. But the whole topic still remains highly charged ideologically, as shown by some agitated reviews from both left and right. But exposing the iniquities of state socialism shouldn’t be reduced to a blunt implement monopolized by those on the right to bludgeon the left.

Here’s a trailer for Hunger for truth: the Rhea Clyman story:

And Grossman (cited in Harvest of sorrow, 286) observed:

And the children! Have you ever seen the newspaper photographs of the children in the German camps? They were just like that: their heads like heavy balls on thin little necks, like storks, and one could see each bone of their arms and legs protruding from beneath the skin, how bones joined, and the entire skeleton was stretched over with skin that was like yellow gauze. And the children’s faces were aged, tormented, just as if they were seventy years old. And by spring they no longer had faces at all. Instead, they had birdlike heads with beaks, or frog heads—thin, wide lips—and some of them resembled fish, mouths open. Not human faces.

He compares this directly with the Jewish children in the gas chambers and comments, “these were Soviet children and those putting them to death were Soviet people.”

The Holodomor and Great Terror were soon followed by yet more devastating atrocities in World War Two. The population had been decimated and brutalized long before the Nazis invaded. In desperation, many hoped for an invasion to rid them of tyranny.

Ukraine was further devastated by the famine that struck the USSR in 1947—this time alleviated by foreign aid. Applebaum also places the complex interpretations of the famine within the context of Ukraine’s troubled recent history.

Other minorities
The populations of Ukraine (also including Russians, Jews, Poles, Germans) were certainly the worst casualties of the famine: Stalin was waging war not just on recalcitrant peasant individualism but on Ukrainian nationalism. But other minorities also suffered—like the Kazakhs (Harvest of sorrow, ch.9) and Kyrghyz, who, when not being deported, were desperately migrating to and from Xinjiang as conditions changed. Bashkirs, Buryats, Khalkas, Chuvash, and Kalmyks were also hard hit (and the efforts of ethnographers to study the cultures of such peoples were frustrated by censorship and imprisonment). Conquest’s ch.14 on Kuban, Don, and Volga—Cossacks of Ukrainian origin, German minorities, and the North Caucasus—leads to further disturbing stories.

Famine in China
Again, the so-called “three years of difficulty” from 1959 to 1961 were not an isolated tragedy: food shortages in the wake of coercive collectivization were long-term. For many in the countryside, it was a case not of three years of famine but of thirty years of hunger. So I’m impatient with any diachronic ethnography of the lives of rural Chinese dwellers that fails to recognize hunger and malnutrition. I’ve cited some basic sources for the Chinese famine here.

LPS 27

Ghost king, Li Peisen collection.

In Yanggao county, home of the Li family Daoists, I recall the satirical couplet posted during the Cultural Revolution, deploring the lack of clothing and food. But even official sources offer clues. While many county gazetteers compiled since the 1980s may be cautious, that for Yanggao contains impressively candid material (pp.66–72, 26–31; see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.118–22).

While appearing to recognize the impact of natural disasters, the gazetteer hints at the deeper political problems, with sections on the “Communist wind”, the “wind of exaggeration”, the Great Leap Backward, and the short-lived communal canteens. Indeed, it offers alternative insights on the whole Maoist era—such as its account of the model commune of Greater Quanshan, where in the summer of 1958, amidst a flurry of visits by bigwigs, the brutal exactions of a militarized railroad project goaded five hundred peasants to flee (Daoist priests, pp.122–3). Inner Mongolia, a traditional refuge in times of adversity, was a common destination until travel restrictions were enforced. Yanggao dwellers were still hungry for some years after Li Manshan married in 1971 (see here, under “Yao Xiulian”).

So that’s the background behind my internet session with Li Manshan, when I showed him the surprisingly candid Chinese wiki article on the Holodomor.

Comparisons, figures
In China the whole process of collectivization, and the famine, make the most appalling instance of wilfully ignoring the lessons of history; both Chinese and Soviet regimes were in denial.

Several scholars have attempted comparisons with the Soviet famines. Ian Johnson has written an important article “Who killed more: Hitler, Stalin, or Mao?“, which I’ll discuss in my next post. Note also

  • Felix Wemheuer, Famine politics in Maoist China and the Soviet Union (2014)

and review essays by Lucien Bianco (also a major author on peasant uprisings under Maoism):

  • “From the great Chinese famine to the Communist famines”, China perspectives 2013.3, here
  • “Comparing the Soviet and Chinese famines: their perpetrators, actors, and victims”, East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies 3.2 (2016), here, with many further refs.

It’s ironic that the official story in China, still often parroted there today, was that food shortages were caused by China’s need to repay the Soviet debt (Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, ch.14). And it puts in a chilling perspective my fine lunch at the “1958” restaurant on the People’s University campus in Beijing earlier this year.

In Ukraine and China there was a similar time-lull between famine and renewed terror: in Ukraine from 1933 to 1937, in China from 1960 to 1964. Ukraine suffered a severe post-war famine in 1947, but hunger in China was longer lasting.

Before the famines, rural poverty seems to have been significantly worse in China than in Russia. And (allowing for impressionistic statistics) even in 1926, the literacy rate in Russia was c56%; in China it was still only c20% by 1950. As to life expectancy at birth, for China in 1950, I find a single figure of 35–40 years—lower than that for Ukraine before 1932, for which Applebaum cites: urban men 40–46, urban women 47–52; rural men 42–44 years, rural women 45–48.

By contrast, Ukrainian men born in 1932, in either the city or the countryside, had an average life expectancy of about 30. Women born in that year could expect to live on average to 40. For those born in 1933, the numbers are even starker. Females born in Ukraine in that year lived, on average, to be eight years old. Males born in 1933 could expect to live to the age of five. (Red famine, p.285)

Applebaum cites around 3.9 million excess deaths, plus 0.6 million lost births—around 13% of the Ukrainian population of 31 million. She goes on to delve into regional variations, concluding that

The regions “normally” most affected by drought and famine were less affected in 1932–3 because the famine of those years was not “normal”. It was a political famine, created for the express purpose of weakening peasant resistance, and thus national identity. And in this, it succeeded.

In China from 1959 to 1962 there may have been over 40 million excess deaths (Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, ch.37—Wemhauer and Bianco provide important further nuance); even by percentage of population, that gives a very rough estimate of around 16%, still greater than that for Ukraine. In many villages in both Ukraine and China virtually the whole population was wiped out.

Besides, deaths don’t tell the whole story; even for survivors, lives are ruined by malnutrition, desperation, and trauma.

In China, though extreme violence was also endemic, there was less mass murder, and less pervasive use of the secret police. Other patterns were distressingly similar: resistance to collectivization, raids on non-existent hoards, war on markets, travel restrictions—and denial, then and now. Thaws, retrenchments, strategic retreats were all brief. Warnings were sent all the way up the hierarchy; those given to Mao by Peng Dehuai and the Panchen Lama echo those given by senior Party leaders like Hryhorii Petrovskyi and Martemyan Ryutin to Stalin in 1932. All spoke out in vain, and at great personal cost.

While Ukraine was a specific target of Stalin, under Maoist China Tibetan areas were gravely affected, but Han Chinese suffered just as badly (though note Wemhauer).

While studies such as those of Applebaum and Dikötter inevitably use a broad brush to paint the wider tragedy, the kind of detail afforded by ethnographies of a particular community, like those of ThaxtonFriedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, or Guo Yuhua, is also valuable.

Worldwide, with humane values and truthful reporting under renewed assault, and incitements to hatred ever more common, these histories matter. And for China, I expect such social and political discussions to form an intrinsic part of our studies of expressive culture and ritual, all the more since the topic is still suppressed in public memory. Even as we document the ritual manuals of household ritual specialists, or the melodies of shawm bands, it seems like a basic human duty to record their life stories. All this suffering is deep in the hearts and bones of those who survived.


New musics in Beijing

BJ club

The recent BBC Radio 3 Late Junction programme on the Beijing indie scene (still available here for 20 more days) prompted me to educate myself a bit by exploring further—with my customary disclaimer. Whatever our tastes, our modern ears are imbued with modern sounds (for a somewhat less contemporary take, see here).

As in any society, the Chinese soundscape is diverse. What individuals mean by “music” may often seem comically circumscribed (see also here). Just as “European music” means more than either Beethoven or British pop, so “Chinese music” should encompass all kinds of genres. For some, it may mean the qin zither (which, as I am wont to observe, is like focusing on the clavichord); for others, the schmaltzy solos of the conservatoires or the kitsch song-and-dance ensembles; for folkies like me, the gritty rural shawm bands (cf. here) and the songs of spirit mediums. Of course, the Chinese soundscape is all of the above, and more. Zooming out still further, there’s the whole issue of elite and folk cultures worldwide.

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While Cui Jian still remains iconic, it’s a relief to be reminded that the scene moves on. Like I’d know—it’s largely invisible (inaudible) to me. My first arrival in Beijing in 1986 more or less coincided with the rise of Chinese rock (though I don’t believe I can claim credit). It makes me feel my age—I can tell you much more about temple ritual groups there, now and before 1949.

But the indie scene too is a worthy topic of ethnography, all part of the diverse soundscape. And of course it’s always fluid. The current scene in Beijing, with its diverse techno and clubbing subcultures, has been compared to New York or Berlin—no wonder that artists like Miranda Vukasovic are drawn here.


There’s a wealth of journalistic coverage, which is as it should be. But it’s long been a popular academic subject too; for a definitive study, what we need is

  • Jeroen de Kloet, China with a cut: globalisation, urban youth and popular music (2010).

Besides hanging out with performers, he learns from producers and other industry people, fans, and pundits. The book is an exemplary ethnography, and makes a fine prism to view change in modern China altogether.

As is common worldwide, most of these bands disavow simple political agendas—and not merely out of prudence. And by contrast with the early period after the 1980s’ reforms, people no longer seem so hung up on issues like “But is it Chinese?”. De Kloet delves deeper into such issues; particularly in his Conclusion, he unpacks deeper political meanings.

Anyway, the scene is an important corrective to the Western media image of a brainwashed population cowed by Xi Jinping Thought. It’s worth listening to these bands as you read the latest propaganda from the People’s Daily (as you don’t…). De Kloet also offers a nuanced view on the commercial pop scene:

If we dig deeper, both sonic as well as political realities are more complex and contradictory than we may at first realize, and hence refuse to be essentialized into monolithic meaning like “rebellious” and “totalitarian”, or to be contained in fixed dichotomies like official versus unofficial or resistance versus compliance. Neither state nor artists can be pigeonholed that easily.

Sure, in this field my grasp of taxonomy is impressionistic (rock, underground, punk, noise, metal, hooligan, dakou, depression, grunge, and so on; for hip-hop, see e.g. here). But popular musos are simultaneously capable of wonderfully fine distinctions and not at all hung up on them, as we can see in the Rito y geografia del cante flamenco series. Anyway, I may be doing a bit of genre-bending with this selection.

Punk, including girl bands, makes the most lively sub-tribe (cf. here, including Riot grrrl’s take on China)—as ever, De Kloet’s Chapter 3 “Subaltern sounds” is well worth reading. Many online sites give updates, with bands like Criminal Thought, Gum Bleed, and Torturing Nurse—try this, and listing sites like and (e.g. this 2014 survey); see also this interview with entrepreneur Michael Pettis.

Just a few tracks to whet your appetite:

Hang on the box

Hang on the box.

Hang on the box sound great:


Here are Hedgehog live in Beijing at D22 in 2008:

Carsick Cars—whereas the fieldworker’s choice of Zhongnanhai cigarettes, named after the luxury compound of the Party leadership, has lost its ironic bite, this is more incisive:

Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai… I can’t live without Zhongnanhai.
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai… Who the fuck smoked my Zhongnanhai?

Zuoxiao Zuzhou:

De Kloet is also good on “hyphenated scenes”, like pop-rock, pop-punk, folk-rock, and so on. His book also led me to this hard-hitting 2007 song from blind musician Zhou Yunpeng (cf. Mo Yan’s Garlic ballads, cited here under “Old and new stories”):

And here’s a 2010 documentary from Shaun Jefford (and as ever, note the BTL comments):

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And of course there are thriving scenes in other Chinese cities too (also thoughtfully covered by de Kloet), not least Chengdu—including Tibetan bands.

For what it’s worth, while I remain deeply committed to the ethnography of rural society, I find all this an invigorating contrast with the fusty, rosy official praise of “traditional culture” and the absurd heritage flapdoodle. It’s gratifying to think that playlists like these must be on the phones of students who attended my recent film screenings in Beijing.

Meanwhile in the poor countryside, perhaps terminally demoralized, much of this is alien to funeral singers in Yanggao; but there too the scene has been changing. And students returning from city colleges to attend the rural funerals of their grandparents may be listening to the grittier urban sounds.

Meanwhile on our own sceptered isle, I’m reliably informed that (as I’m sorry I haven’t a clue would have it) Popular Beat Combos have achieved a certain currency—with singers like Vera Lynn, Lonnie Donegan, and Frank Ifield. Yeah, I’ve got my finger on the pulse all right.