A Daoist ritual, Suzhou 1956


SZ 1956

The Daoists who took part in the jiao ritual, with the study team. Suzhou, August 1956.

From the early 1950s to the eve of the Cultural Revolution, notwithstanding constant political campaigns, the fieldwork of Yang Yinliu and the Music Research Institute in Beijing was largely based on ritual traditions. The grandeur of religious life around south Jiangsu was, and is, comparable with that of southeast China and Hunan. Yang Yinliu had long experience of Daoist ritual in Wuxi; but another definitive project in Suzhou in August 1956, while Yang was leading a survey in Hunan, was quite separate:

  • Suzhou daojiao yishu ji 苏州道教艺术集 [Daoist arts of Suzhou], Zhongguo wudao yishu yanjiuhui yanjiuzu 中国舞蹈艺术研究会研究组 (mimeograph 1957, reprint Shanghai shehui kexueyuan, 2009)

Daoism in the whole Suzhou region has an illustrious history. And by the 1950s, by contrast with most other regions of China, the city already had a history of research and training institutions. In the Republican era and even in the troubled 1940s, several such groups were formed, such as the Shouxuan xiejilu 守玄褉集庐 and its short-lived successors Yixuan yanlu 亦玄研庐, Yunji she 雲笈社, and Ziyun daoxue yanjiushe 紫雲道學研究社. After the 1949 revolution, under the watchful eyes of Party officials, the Suzhou Daoist Music Research Group was formed in winter 1952, recruiting many distinguished Daoists.

Under the PRC, despite my reservations about the term “religious music”, a focus on music served to distract from the taint of religion: while Daoist ritual might be suspect, study under the guise of “Daoist music”—particularly its instrumental component—was more palatable to the authorities. Indeed, this was still true when I began my fieldwork in the late 1980s.

In August 1956, Wu Xiaobang 吴晓邦, head of the Chinese Dance Research Association in Beijing, brought a team to Suzhou, where with the assistance of the Bureau of Culture they worked with the Suzhou Daoist Music Research Group to organize a complete large-scale jiao 醮 Offering ritual.

This was a major undertaking. Far from reducing the topic to a simple commodified programme of instrumental melodies (as was still common in the 1990s), they documented the ritual in detail, both in the 330-page book and in a complete documentary film. This was all the more remarkable considering the escalating political campaigns, with people increasingly anxious as the commune system was enforced ever more rigorously. Later, alas, the film seems to have been destroyed, though the editors of the 2009 reprint of the book claim that it was preserved at the Dance Association in Beijing.

Of course, it was a work of salvage. While minimal Daoist rituals were still performed around the region, this was a rare opportunity to assemble leading Daoists to perform a complete jiao—perhaps the grandest religious ritual held in China from 1949 to 1979. Indeed, since the 1990s similar digital salvage projects have been initiated, involving a core of senior Daoists—some of whom had taken part of the 1956 project. But documenting routine ritual practice in socal life, in the 1950s or today, is a separate topic.

XMG 1956

The Xuanmiao guan temple, 1956.

The ritual was held at the Wanshou gong 萬壽宮 temple just south of Suzhou’s main temple the Xuanmiao guan 玄妙觀, which was being restored at the time. The Wanshou gong was itself in disrepair by 1949 but had been converted to a People’s Cultural Palace in 1951, so it was now requisitioned for the ritual.

The book contains three main parts:

  • The segments of the jiao, with its three overarching ritual sections Quanfu 全符, Quanbiao 全表, and Huosi chao 火司朝 (pp.1–61), including diagrams of “dance” postures; followed by long lists of performers and their division of responsibilities, including fashi 法師 ritual masters, instrumentalists, and helpers (pp.62–70).
  • Detailed transcriptions of the vocal and instrumental music in ritual sequence (see below)
  • Plates (pp.276–330), including the jiao itself and its ritual equipment, as well as statues and ritual paintings (with some from other Suzhou temples).

Jifu guan

ritual pics

ritual 2

placard 1placard 2Placards proclaiming the Offering ritual.

Such photos make suitably surprising additions to my post Images from the Maoist era.

The main editors of the volume were Jin Zhongying 金中英 and Yu Shangqing 余尚清. Jin Zhongying (1925–96), a hereditary household Daoist from Suzhou city, headed the official Daoist Music Research Group from 1953. With his extensive personal collection of ritual manuals, he provided the Juntian miaoyue 鈞天妙樂, an important compilation of gongche scores of Daoist instrumental melodies, compiled by Wu Ding’an 吾定庵 and edited by Cao Xisheng 曹希聖 in the late 18th century. Meanwhile many other experienced Daoists were recruited to the Research Group.

SZ daoshi

Zhao Houfu, Cao Yuanxi, Zhou Zufu, and Mao Zhongqing in later years.
Source: Suzhou Daojiao yinyue gaishu.

The Daoists who were assembled in 1956 to perform the jiao came from hereditary backgrounds; until the 1950s, some had been temple clerics, while others had served as freelance household Daoists. Despite the forming of the research group, the authors note a certain depletion of personnel as outstanding Daoist instrumentalists were recruited to state performing troupes. Still, it was a stellar cast of Daoists who took part in the 1956 ritual—including Zhao Houfu 趙厚福 (1908–?), Cao Yuanxi 曹元希 (1913–89, descended from Cao Xisheng!), Mao Zhongqing 毛仲青 (b.1915), Zhou Zufu 周祖馥 (b.1915), and Jin Zhongying himself. Indeed, some of them were recalled for the occasion from their jobs in the troupes. And apart from the instrumentalists, note also the list of eminent fashi 法師 masters (pp.63 and 64) who presided over the liturgy—I would love to learn more about their backgrounds and fortunes under Maoism.

The introduction to the history of “Daoist music” in Suzhou (pp.71–87; note pp.79–80) makes an impressive early account of the subject. The long following section (pp.88–275) provides gongche solfeggio notation for the different ritual segments, showing the whole unfolding sequence of the sung hymns of the vocal liturgy (with their texts shown alongside the melody) and the chuida (Shifan) instrumental items that punctuate the ritual (also a speciality of the former tangming bands). Indeed, even for scholars of Daoist ritual who prefer to study texts in isolation from their performance, volumes like this, and the later Anthology, provide a wealth of ritual texts. Note that traditionally only the instrumental melodies were notated, not the vocal items; and of course, gongche is anyway only an aid to memory.

The authors’ choice of gongche, rather than the cipher notation that was already commonly used in Chinese musicology, is interesting. It may derive from the Daoists’ own familiarity with it—though they made a fine innovation by adding detailed rhythmic markers in the style of cipher notation, which they also used alongside mnemonic characters to notate the complex drum sections.

This is a rare insider’s account of the building blocks of Daoist ritual, thoughtfully annotated. Wonderful as it is, to most scholars of Daoism it will be even less intelligible than cipher notation—even conservatoire students are unfamiliar with gongche.

Songjing gongde gongcheOpening of Songjing gongde, a widely used hymn in both temple and household Daoist groups.

Tianshi hymn gongcheOpening of Quanbiao ritual: instrumental Yifeng shu leading into Tianshi song hymn, whose text is the generational poem for the priestly lineage.

For the vocal liturgy, somewhat more accessible (if only somewhat) are later transcriptions into cipher notation such as the Anthology (Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Jiangsu juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 江苏卷, pp.1473–1645):

Songjing gongde JCOpening of Songjing gongde hymn, transcribed by Anthology collectors from a 1990s’ rendition, also showing percussion accompaniment.

Tianshi hymn JCTianshi song hymn as transcribed by Anthology collectors.

and other modern studies like Liu Hong 刘红, Suzhou daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu 苏州道教科仪音乐研究 (1999)—here’s his transcription of the Buxu hymn Taiji fen gaohou, another commonly performed item throughout China sung to differing melodies by region (see e.g. Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.273–4, and my film, from 45.20 and 1.14.38):


Taiji JCOpening of Taiji fen gaohou hymn as transcribed in the Anthology.

The 1957 volume’s extensive transcriptions are deeply impressive, clearly a labour of love on the part of Jin Zhongying and Yu Shangqing—even recently, scholars of Daoism are often content to reproduce lengthy ritual manuals with scant explanation of how they are performed. So it would be churlish of me to note that this long section (apart from the brief chanted introits to the hymns) provides only the melodic sections, not including the many recited texts which are also a vital aspect of the ritual. It is best read in tandem with the summary of ritual segments on pp.57–61.

Despite the laudable (and rare) focus on soundscape, the volume still falls short of being a complete account of the Suzhou jiao. It would be over thirty years before scholars like Yuan Jingfang began documenting the texts and music of complex rituals still more systematically (see e.g. her volumes on the Beijing yankou and the jiao of household Daoists in south Hebei).

But of course, nothing is so valuable as film, and I still gnash my teeth (a Daoist practice of cosmic visualization, by the way!) over the loss of the 1956 documentary. In its absence, major projects to document Suzhou Daoist ritual on film have resumed in recent years. We can gain a flavour by watching a 2011 excerpt from the Dispatching the Talismans (fafu 发符) ritual segment:

What was not on the agenda in 1956 was a description of ritual activities in the wider society around Suzhou at the time—more on that story later. Meanwhile, let’s pause again to marvel at the energy of ritual research under the taxing conditions of Maoism.


With many thanks to Tao Jin






The Hall of Myriad Harmonies

WHTThe Wanhe tang:
Above left: scores; above right (indirectly related): Juntian miaoyue score, 1799.
Middle: remaining performers assembled in 1993. Below: trunks with instruments.
Source: Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Jiangsu juan.

I often sing qualified praises of the monumental Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples (starting here). Most of my posts on local ritual derive from my own studies in the field, but I also sometimes give surveys based on the Anthology—as here. The main lesson from this post is to illustrate the pitfalls of trying to interpret its material without more detailed fieldwork.

Having mentioned the illustrious Tianyun she society in Wuxi, I should also introduce the Wanhe tang 萬和堂 (“Hall of Myriad Harmonies”) in Huangdai town in Wuxian county north of Suzhou. This leads me to consider the whole rich culture of tangming ban 堂名班 groups (some sources give the form 堂鳴) before the 1949 Liberation, amongst whom there were many Daoist ritual specialists; their repertoire included both Kunqu vocal music and the Shifan instrumental ensembles that accompanied rituals (cf. my Folk music of China, pp.252–69).

I began by consulting the Anthology volumes for instrumental music in Jiangsu province:

  • Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Jiangsu juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 江苏卷, pp.1777–79, and p.102.

The Wanhe tang was founded by Cai Jinxiu 蔡錦綉 in the second half of the 19th century, when he was 20 sui. He was himself the third generation of Kunqu amateurs in his family; and he was an accomplished performer of Shifan. The hall he founded was now occupational. They were active performing for temple fairs and celebratory occasions for the local gentry around Suzhou, Wuxi, Changshu, and Kunshan.

By the 1920s Cai Jinxiu had handed over the leadership to his oldest son Cai Meiqing 蔡梅卿; his second and third sons Cai Zhuqing 蔡竹卿 and Cai Chengqing 蔡成卿 went on to lead the group. In the late 1920s there was such demand that they split into northern and southern halls. The main figures of the latter were the three Cai brothers and Cai Zhuqing’s son Cai Huiquan 蔡惠泉, as well as Wang Borong 王伯榮. Leading lights in the northern branch were Xu Jinru 許錦如, Xu Junru 許均如, Gu Yewan 顧葉萬, and Gu Yusheng 顧鈺生. The two groups often combined, but also competed at the same events.

They also absorbed elements from the popular tanhuang vocal style. By the 1930s and 1940s they had a close relationship with temples like the Xuanmiao guan in Suzhou. Other tangming groups formed under their influence included the Xuanhe tang 宣和堂, Chunhe tang 春和堂, Hehe tang 合和堂, Wenhe tang 文和堂, Honghe tang 鴻和堂, and the Lesser Wanhe tang 小萬和堂.

These groups had to cease activity on the eve of Liberation, “as a result of warfare, and so on”. But there was no revival in the early 1950s, and the scores, instruments, trunks, and equipment of the Wanhe tang were gradually “lost”.

Many of its members were now recruited to the new regional state opera troupes. Of Cai Meiqing’s sons, the oldest Cai Rongbing 蔡榮炳 had accompanied the great Peking opera singer Zhou Xinfang before Liberation, and went on to take up a post in the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe. The second son Cai Rongbiao 蔡榮標 was chosen for the Yangzhou Peking Opera Troupe. Another member of the Cai family became deputy director of the provincial Daoist Association.

The biographical sketch of Cai Zhuqing’s son Cai Huiquan 蔡惠泉 (b.1925) in the Anthology (pp.1775–76) is no more enlightening. Again, it’s a story of two halves. He began studying at private school at the age of 5 sui, and learned Kunqu with his father from 7 sui. By the age of 16 sui he was an accomplished member of the Wanhe tang.

After Liberation, with his traditional livelihood apparently curtailed rather abruptly, Cai Huiquan took part in an official festival at the Xuanmiao guan temple in November 1951, for which tangming performers were assembled to perform. In the audience was Peng Xiuwen, director of the Central Chinese Broadcasting Orchestra in Beijing, who invited him to join them as percussionist in 1954. Cai now became a model member of the state troupe, arranging several pieces of his traditional repertoire to the demands of the new style, and over the next thirty years he created many compositions based on other regional genres. From 1958 he adapted a new paigu set of tuned drums, which was soon widely adopted by state troupes.

This trajectory was not uncommon. Throughout China, outstanding instrumentalists among local ritual groups, including many Daoists, were often recruited to the new state troupes. At least Cai found long-term employment—unlike household Daoist Li Qing in Shanxi, who was among many folk artists whose recruitment to state troupes was curtailed by the cuts of the early 1960s. However, the Anthology account doesn’t begin to describe the fates of those performers who remained in local society amidst campaigns and collectivization.

All this looks like a thriving scene abruptly erased after Liberation. In official accounts the troubled conditions of the 1940s make a convenient scapegoat. But there’s a lot here that isn’t spelled out. How severely did the Japanese occupation and civil war disrupt ceremonial life in the region? When many ritual groups elsewhere in China (both occupational and devotional) remained active in the early 1950s and still later, were these groups really unable to perform? Elements to unpack here include the class status of the performers and their patrons, and the state’s escalating war on traditional contexts.

So in the case of the Wanhe tang, the enticing Anthology photos above are misleading: they merely show the brief reunion of nine senior performers in 1993. Still, it’s clear that not all their scores and instruments had been lost. And while this group was long defunct, as ritual life revived strongly from the 1980s, perhaps the many Daoist groups and chuida bands around the region are the modern heirs to the tradition.

Other tangming groups
The Wanhe tang was just one among a dazzling array of tangming groups throughout the wider region before Liberation. The Anthology introduction to chuida wind-and-percussion bands provides further leads (pp.97–105). Such sources provide considerable material for the Qing dynasty, but here I’ll focus on the transition from the Republican era to Maoism.

Locals distinguished shenjia chuida 神家吹打 and daojia chuida 道家吹打 groups. The shenjia (“holy”) chuida groups performed for life-cycle and calendrical observances, with Kunqu and other vocal music a major part of their repertoire. Before 1949, apart from the Wanhe tang, there were around 150 groups in the Suzhou region alone.

In the city, major groups included the Duofu tang 多福堂, Ronghe tang 榮和堂, Baohe tang 保和堂, Fugui tang 富貴堂, Yonghe tang 永和堂, and Juhe tang 聚和堂. Similar groups around the region included the Hehe tang 合和堂, Hongru tang 鴻如堂, and Shide tang 世德堂 in Wuxian county; in Changshu, the Chunhe tang 春和堂, Quanfu tang 全福堂, Zhonghe tang 中和堂, and Hongfu tang 洪福堂; in Taicang, the Qingxiu tang 慶修堂, Yuqing tang 餘慶堂, Duanhe tang 端和堂, Duanai tang 端靄堂, and Yongle tang 永樂堂; in Wujiang, the Jinyu tang 金玉堂, Dayue tang 大樂堂, and Daxi tang 大喜堂; in Tangkou, Wuxi, the Xinji Wanhe tang 新記萬和堂 and Dongting yaji 動亭雅集; and in Kunshan, the Yongni tang 永霓堂.

Daoist ritual specialists were often core members of the tangming groups, and the daojia chuida groups mainly accompanied Daoist ritual (for a major ritual in 1956 Suzhou, see here). The great Yang Yinliu was brought up in the environment of Kunqu and the tangming, studying the Wuxi Daoists and their Shifan repertoires from the 1930s. Here’s a reminder of the distinctions between local Daoists that he astutely observed (Sunan chuidaqu 蘇南吹打曲, with Cao Anhe, 1957 edition, pp.11–13):

A minority of abbots possessed ritual titles of the Zhang Heavenly Masters, like “Master who Guard the Way” (daoweishi) or “Ritual Master” (fashi), and mostly owned land. They didn’t take part in production. They interacted with landlords and the bourgeoisie in the cities and villages, taking ritual work and contacting and hiring the common village Daoists to take part in major rituals (daochang fashi).

These common Daoists mostly took part in agricultural production, being hired ad hoc: performing for rituals was an auxiliary occupation for them. In both agriculture and Daoism, they were an exploited class. These common Daoists—even the indispensable drummers and flute players, with their excellent musical technique—only got a tiny wage for a whole day’s work.

Conversely, the “Masters who Guard the Way” and “Ritual Masters”, having only taken responsibility for quite brief ritual segments of a few hours like Issuing the Talismans (fafu), Reporting the Memorial (zoubiao), and Flaming Mouth (yankou), claimed a reward many times higher than that of the others. Those who played music were mostly the common semi-peasant Daoists; very few of the “Masters who Guard the Way” and “Ritual Masters” could do so.

For tangming bands around Jiading and Chuansha counties near Shanghai,

  • Zhu Jianming 朱建明, Tan Jingde 谈敬德, and Chen Zhengsheng 陈正生,Shanghai jiaoqu daojiao jiqi yinyue yanjiu 上海郊区道教及其音乐研究 [Daoism and its music in the Shanghai suburbs] (2001)

provides further material in a useful section (pp.29–48). The authors list bands like the Chunhe tang 春和堂, Hexing tang 合興堂, Sanqing tang 三興堂, Xinxi tang 新喜堂, Xianjing tang 仙經堂, Quanfu tang 全福堂, Minle tang 民樂堂, Hehe tang 合和堂, and Hongqing tang 鴻慶堂. They suggest that activity resumed after the disruption of the Japanese occupation, with over thirty bands active in Jiading alone.

For the period after Liberation, the Anthology morphs disingenuously into an account of research, drawing a veil over what became of this rich culture. While even an official survey from 1953 lists 28 tangming groups with 272 performers around Jiading county, the culture was severely reduced after Liberation. As Qi Kun also suggests, major factors in the decline were the disappearance of former elite patrons, and campaigns against religion. Since the reforms, though the term tangming is no longer used, the tradition continues in various genres such as Daoist and qingyin groups, and shawm bands.

* * *

For “folk artists” Chinese sources always find it easier to list exceptional instances of official fame than to document the complexities of grassroots activities. In the case of many performers like Cai Huiquan, recruitment to state troupes was indeed an abrupt metamorphosis. Still, few would have been reluctant to take up such employment. They had to work out how to survive under the new regime; such posts offered them a reliable “food-bowl” and seemed to promise them a certain protection from accusations of “feudal superstition”, blunting the stigma of any dubious class background.

But many others “left behind” had to struggle to adapt to the new society. I have refined the official image in my work on north China, and Qi Kun has provided similar nuance for the Shanghai suburbs. Commonly across China in the early 1950s, ordinary people filled the gap in patronage left by the now-discredited—and impoverished—former elite by inviting such bands for their own more more modest rituals. But as collectivization intensified, many folk performers would have had to change trades, eking out a living from the land or taking up factory jobs.

Here I can’t broach the riches of Daoist ritual activity around Suzhou before Liberation or its changing later fortunes; but the Anthology biographies for Jiangsu also feature several of the most eminent “Daoist musicians”—a misnomer with which I often take issue. This reveals a further issue with the Anthology coverage, which I hope to explore soon.

Images from the Maoist era

Xi'an village festival, 1950s.

Village festival near Xi’an, 1950s.

One of the main themes of this blog, and my whole work, is the tenuous maintenance of expressive culture through the decades of Maoism.

There are many sources for visual images of the period, including the site of Covell Meyskens (see this interview). But photos of folk performance activity in the countryside during the period (like the one above) are less common. One useful source is the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, under the rubrics of folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, instrumental music, and dance; indeed, the volumes have rare images from the Republican, Maoist, and reform eras.

My posts include many such photos. Here’s a sample—do click on the links for background, and get to know the soundscape through recordings.

Several precious photos derive from the definitive work of Yang Yinliu and the Music Research Institute in Beijing, such as

Zhihua temple 1954

My tribute to Yang Yinliu includes several numinous images, such as

  • Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe immersed in research at the Institute, 1961:


  • A brief excursion to Huashan amidst the gathering political clouds, May 1965:

Huashan 1965

  • Shifan groups in Jiangsu:
  • Fieldwork in Hequ, Shanxi, 1953


Confucian ritual in Hunan https://stephenjones.blog/2019/03/28/hunan-confucian-ritual/

  • Meanwhile in Suzhou, a remarkable 1956 project documented a complete Daoist jiao ritual:

LQM shiban

  • More from Xi’an: former Daoist priest An Laixu leading a 1961 visit to Beijing:

ALX group lowres

  • Recreational ensembles in Yulin, Shaanbei:
  • including this wonderful 1962 photo of the Qiao family:

Qiao family 1962

  • Images of rural narrative-singing include the model bard Han Qixiang in Shaanbei, and Xihe dagu in Hebei:

A wealth of photos of qin zither players from the period is available, such as

For the Li family Daoists in Shanxi,

LPS and wife

  • and the only early photos of the great Li Qing were taken during his brief sojourn in the secular regional troupe in 1959:

If only we had images (or films!) of them performing rituals in the period!

Still in Yanggao,

  • the wonderful Li Jin during his time as an errentai operatic clown:

Meanwhile in Hebei, photos of ritual groups from the period are again rare. Perhaps the most remarkable image of all is

  • former Buddhist monk Daguang with his disciples in North Xinzhuang village in the Beijing suburbs, 1959:

North Xinzhuang 1959

1981 photo

In addition, over the period folk ritual groups recopied many gongche scores of the wind ensemble music that accompanies ritual, many of which appear in my many notes under local ritual.

I’m still curious to learn if such images might be available for expressive culture in Stalin’s Russia. Supplementing our talks with people who recall the Maoist era, it looks as if despite their appalling sufferings, folk traditions in embattled local communities in China were maintained with more resilience, however tenously. Do read the posts in which these photos appear!



South Jiangsu: beyond silk-and-bamboo

Laoximen 2001

Qinglian street club, Old Westgate, Shanghai 2001. My photo.

The Jiangnan sizhu (“silk-and-bamboo of south Jiangsu”) instrumental ensemble has become a reified image of secular Chinese entertainment music. It’s played not only by polished professionals on stage, but by amateur groups in teahouses and leisure centres around Shanghai and the whole vicinity (for amateur chamber ensembles elsewhere, cf. suite-plucking in old Beijing, the Yulin “little pieces”, nanyin, and so on). Shanghai is a hospitable cosmopolitan urban centre, and these clubs are a popular haunt of foreign music students there.

The title was formalized only in the 1950s—one of many instances of the official renaming of genres at the time, such as Xi’an guyue or Xiansuo shisantao. Yet however one may dispute reification, Jiangnan sizhu is indeed “a thing”. Over a long period since the early 20th century we can observe a continuum from life-cycle and calendrical performances, through the amateur clubs, to professional staged performances.

In Chapter 13 of my book Folk music of China I began to put silk-and-bamboo in the wider context of musicking around south Jiangsu (Suzhou, Wuxi, Nanjing, Changshu, Yangzhou, and so on—all large regions each containing several hundred villages!). And I outlined the background of regional opera, narrative-singing, and all kinds of ritual practice, including the Shifan ensembles that accompany Daoist ritual. Indeed, Daoist ritual around Shanghai and south Jiangsu is a vast topic subsidiary only to local traditions in southeast China.

So apart from their use as entertainment in the amateur clubs, the various types of sizhu have a firm basis in life-cycle and calendrical rituals.

Folk-singing in the region is easily overlooked, but fortunately we have a wonderful detailed study by Antoinet Schimmelpenninck, who also saw the wider picture. She refers to ritual styles like xuanjuan 宣卷 performed by devotional sectarian groups, common throughout south Jiangsu. [1]

As Chinese genres go, compared with many traditions in both north and south China Jiangnan sizhu is rather youthful. As commonly with folk groups, the musicians sit around a table, an inevitable casualty of stage performance. They often take turns on various instruments over the course of an afternoon session. The personnel remains predominantly male.

Chinese studies have favoured “music” over social context, and most publications on Jiangnan sizhu are based on the “eight great pieces” (for a simple introduction, see my Folk music of China, pp.275–82). While the repertoire is not so reified as this canonization may lead us to suppose, in the teahouses of central Shanghai it remains rather limited. But local variants of the repertoire abound, as shown by the definitive 1985 collection of transcriptions (770 pages!) by Gan Tao 甘涛. As always, we should regard it not as a reified repertoire, but as a regional form of musicking, a social activity (and since the ambience and sound-world of the amateur clubs may be reminiscent of Irish pub sessions, do enjoy my posts on Cieran Carson!).

Interlude: laowai
By the 1980s the Jiangnan sizhu repertoire was already the subject of analysis from scholars like Ye Dong, Li Minxiong, and Yuan Jingfang. Meanwhile, as China opened up again after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Larry Witzleben spent extended periods based at the Shanghai Conservatoire from 1981 to 1985, resulting in the brilliant early monograph

  • J. Lawrence Witzleben, “Silk and bamboo” music in Shanghai: the Jiangnan sizhu instrumental ensemble tradition (1995),

still one of the most accomplished ethnographies of a local Chinese tradition.

With chapters on the historical background and intergenre relationships, instruments, repertory, form, variation, texture, and aesthetics, perhaps the most innovative section is Chapter 2, a nuanced ethnography of the scene from 1981 to 1985, including relations with the professional music world.

Silk-and-bamboo soon earned a significant place in Western scholarship, and images of Chinese music, also thanks to the writings of Alan Thrasher, albeit concerned more with musical structures than with ethnography.

Silk-and-bamboo clubs, Shanghai 1987. My photos.

In 1986 and 1987, based in Beijing, I used to decamp to Shanghai occasionally, taking what was then a very long train ride. According to my own apocryphal story, my main incentive was that the showers of the foreign students’ dorms there had a rather reliable supply of hot water, still rare in my student accommodation in Beijing. Anyway, even though I was already entranced by northern ritual culture, it gave me an opportunity to take part in some of the many amateur silk-and-bamboo clubs on erhu fiddle—and also to hang out with the wonderful qin-player Lin Youren and acquaint myself with the thriving Daoist ritual scene.

For foreign students, participant observation was both instructive and pleasurable. As laowai, we were more keen on visiting the teahouses than our Chinese fellow-students, who naturally focused on the polished versions of their conservatoire teachers.

In 1987 I was roped into a Jiangnan sizhu contest at the conservatoire, joining a mixed group of Chinese and foreign students—the latter including François Picard, Fred Lau, and Tony Wheeler (back row, to my right). In the front row, on the far right is Ma Xiaohui 马晓晖, who went on to a career as erhu virtuoso, and at the centre is Zhou Zhongkang 周仲康, the conservatoire teacher assigned to oversee our efforts—our programme included his luogu sizhu composition Qing:

contest 87

The competitive format was hardly my favoured method of engaging with silk-and-bamboo, but it was an interesting experience. Alongside the conservatoire-style ensembles taking part, there were also some fine senior amateur groups. As cute foreign pets we inevitably won a prize, but our sound ideal, however flawed in execution, was modelled on folk practice rather than the more polished version of the professionals. Soon after, Helen Rees also became a regular participant at Shanghai teahouse sessions, while embarking on her fine studies of ritual music in southwest China.

Thinking back, guided by mentors at the Music Research Institute and Yuan Jingfang, my Beijing base propelled me towards ritual in the countryside more inevitably than might have been the case if I had been studying in Shanghai. Rural ritual is plentiful throughout south Jiangsu too, but somehow there is more to encourage one to tarry in cosmopolitan Shanghai without venturing out to the villages and townships.

Zhang Zhengming, 2001: left, with Zhou Hao at the Xuhui club;
right, with his wife—their 1952 wedding photo in the background.

On a visit in 2001 I spent a week in Shanghai, with the wonderful Zhang Zhengming 张徵明 (b.1925) guiding me to a different club every afternoon. It was good to see the renowned erhu master Zhou Hao, then 77, taking part keenly in the amateur groups, naturally modifying his polished style to the ambience; later in a one-to-one session he gave me a fine demonstration of the difference between “folk” and “conservatoire” styles.


I was happy to be able to invite a group led by Zhang Zhengming to the 2005 Amsterdam China festival, as I scurried around hosting the Hua family shawm band and the Li family Daoists from Yanggao.

Again, there’s a continuum: official staged presentations are part of the whole fabric of silk-and-bamboo. This playlist from Jan Chmelarčík includes his videos from the amateur clubs in 2006 and 2007, showing a variety of contexts and styles:

The silk-and-bamboo scene plays a major role in Ruard Absaroka’s thesis Hidden musicians and public musicking in Shanghai, very much informed by anthropological theory.

The wider context: the Anthology
It’s so easy to find activity in central Shanghai that one might not be tempted to explore the suburbs and further afield. But by the 1980s, research was also expanding significantly with the great Anthology:

  • Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ, Shanghai juan 中国民族民间器乐曲, 上海卷 (1993),

edited by the knowledgeable Li Minxiong.

Local collectors documented the wider region in the suburbs of Shanghai, with its twelve municipalities and ten counties. Apart from transcriptions, the collectors also described folk activity, with useful textual introductions as well as biographies and introductions to major groups.

Again it’s worth noting the overall Anthology coverage for Shanghai. After an opening section on solo music (pp.19–234) devoted mainly to pipa solos, there are three main rubrics: sizhu (235–930), chuida (932–1268), and “religious music” (1273–1594). There follow brief biographies and accounts of folk groups (1595–1638, illustrated descriptions of instruments (1639–58), and lengthy appendices, mainly gongche scores (1661–2087).

It may seem impressive that even by 2001 over thirty sizhu groups were still meeting amidst the glossy modernity of central Shanghai. But for the whole region, Li Minxiong gives a figure of 428 groups (!) since the early 20th century; as he explains in his introduction (JC pp.241–63), over two hundred were active on the eve of Liberation.

Following the May Fourth movement of 1919, many groups adopted the term “national music” in their titles. Indeed, such groups were the precursors of the whole “conservatoire style” that later came to represent the official image of Chinese music. The Anthology describes celebrated groups from the Republican era.


Top: Xiadiao music ensemble; middle: Qingping gathering, 1934; below: Datong music association (note music stands!). Source: Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shanghai juan.


Juntian gathering, 1917, Source: Qi Kun, Jiangnan sizhu.

After the 1949 Liberation, master musicians from the “old society” lent continuity, such as Jin Zuli, Sun Yude, Li Tingsong, Wei Zhongle, Chen Yonglu, and Lin Shicheng (for more, see Anthology, pp.1595–1722). At the same time they were responsible for certain innovations resulting from adapting the style to the concert platform. Commercial recordings were already quite common, but the carefully prescribed arrangements of Lu Chunling’s quartet with Ma Shenglong, Zhou Hao, and Zhou Hui became influential. Here’s a cassette (remember them?) of them from 1982, after the hiatus of the Cultural Revolution:


As collectivization and campaigns escalated, some folk groups had difficulty maintaining activity; but, as everywhere, the liberalizations following the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s brought a revival. In 1980 over seven hundred performers took part in a grand performance at the Shanghai conservatoire, with groups coming from Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuxi, Nanjing, and Hangzhou. But as Shanghai was transformed again, amateur clubs have somehow remained active.

Related genres
But apart from the public image of sizhu, the Anthology valuably introduces bands in the surrounding suburban regions, often serving life-cycle and calendrical rituals—in Nanhui, Fengxian, Chuansha, Jiading, Shanghai county, Baoshan, Qingpu, Songjiang, Jinshan, and Chongming island.


Undated Anthology photos: above and below: chuida bands, Chongming; middle: the Tianshan national music association.

So this involves expanding our explorations in terms of both geography and genre. While sizhu is the main theme, the plot thickens when we include related instrumental genres hardly broached by foreign scholars based in metropolitan Shanghai: the “pure tones bands” (qingyin ban 清音班) and the former tangming 堂名 groups (see also n.3 below).

Moreover, the latter are also related to the occupational “blowing and beating” bands (chuidaban 吹打班) based on shawms and percussion—another main rubric of the Anthology (see introduction, pp.932–45). Among 184 such bands for which collectors found evidence, Li Minxiong gives sketches of rural groups in Chuansha, Baoshan, Qingpu, and Jiading, all with several generations of transmission. This section also contains material on local ritual, including weddings, funerals, and longevity celebrations (qingshou 庆寿), as well as calendrical and religious rituals.

A fine case-study: Nanhui
Qi Kun 齐琨, with a firm background in music anthropology, has produced some fine ethnographic work, notably her book on the qingyin 清音 groups of Nanhui county in the southeastern suburbs [2] —itself an extensive area, with 26 districts (amalgamated in 2001 into 14 townships) and 347 villages:

  • Lishidi chanshi: Shanghai Nanhui sizhuyue qingyinde chuancheng yu bianqian yanjiu 历史地阐释: 上海南汇丝竹乐清音的传承与变迁研究 (2007).

Starting from around 1850 when such groups became common in Nanhui, she uses local gazetteers, interviews with senior performers, and fieldnotes from attendance at rituals and secular performances. She often cites the Nanhui draft for the Anthology, which looks to be among the more detailed local contributions to the Shanghai volumes.

She introduces various related genres in Nanhui, including Daoist groups [3] and their former “household kin” (menjuan 门眷) catchment-area system, occupational chuida bands, Buddhist groups, opera, and the Pudong style of pipa plucked lute.

Qi Kun musters impressive material on bands and activity in the late Qing and the Republican era (itself a period of significant change), with sections on temple fairs, weddings, and funerals.

After the Communist victory of 1949, state-sanctioned performances of Jiangnan sizhu on stage became more common alongside traditional contexts, but as always I’m keen to learn more about folk activity during the decades of Maoism, the crucial transitional period from the “old society” to the consumer culture of the reform era (cf. Yulin).

The Anthology notes in passing some basic elements in the decline of many groups over the period as a result of the state’s pervasive social remoulding, such as migration, army service, collectivization, and campaigns against superstition. But ever alert to change, Qi Kun has a detailed chapter on the Maoist era in Nanhui. She illustrates the severe reduction of the diverse local social contexts that were the basis for expressive culture before Liberation—the rich network of temple fairs, weddings and funerals. Many qingyin performers were absorbed into a scene now based on entertainment rather than ceremonial; as elsewhere, many fine folk musicians were recruited to the new state-funded opera troupes and amateur “art-work troupes”. Qi Kun notes the place of qingyin in state-sponsored events like political meetings and sending off army recruits.

However, there was a certain continuity, and amateur qingyin activity persisted. Qi Kun gives instances from nine districts. She notes the more-or-less undisturbed observance of life-cycle rituals in the early 1950s, with lengthy processions; some groups even persisted performing for these contexts into the early 1960s.

The fortunes of musicians depended largely on their “class status”, but irrespective of this many were reduced to poverty. But there were ironies—as one performer commented:

People like Wen Zhengxiu who served as Daoist priests weren’t persecuted. Almost all of those Daoists smoked opium, so they had virtually no possessions at home, they could never become wealthy. So after Liberation they were classed as poor peasants. Instead it was honest people like us, who had toiled over several generations to accumulate family property, who were targets of punishment.

Such people now became the core of many qingyin groups.

Amidst the traumas of the Cultural Revolution, Qi Kun goes on to describe the maintenance of the qingyin style (if not its former context) in the Mao Zedong Thought propaganda troupes. Some troupes even used the traditional sizhu repertoire, like Xingjie, to accompany political processions.

And even now a certain amount of furtive recreational activity continued (again, cf. Yulin)—behind closed doors, some troupe members even sometimes dared invite former “landlords” and “rich peasants” to play the traditional repertoire along with them. Performers recall both the cruelty and the nuances of the period. Many of the troupe members became core elements in the revival of tradition from the late 1970s—for which, of course, the main factor was the amazing resurgence of ritual practice. Indeed, a modest revival was already under way before the overthrow of the Gang of Four in 1976.

qingyin JC

Qingyin bands in Fengxian, Jiading, and Baoshan. Source: Anthology.

In Chapter 4 Qi Kun takes the story on into the consumer age. After detailing the gradual revival (cf. my own notes on that of the Li family Daoists in Shanxi), she surveys a scene that is still more diverse than that before 1949, with recreational groups (now under semi-official leadership, with some even adopting the title “folk music band” minyuedui 民乐队!) now able to meet regularly, overlapping with occupational bands performing for customary observances. She gives a fine diary of the varied public activities of the Zhuqiao qingyin band from 1994 to 2003, as well as detailed notes on a 2002 wedding and on the grandest of ten funerals that she attended in 2004. Indeed, while such groups traditionally performed for weddings, their participation in funerals is a recent innovation.


Still, even with the revival, fewer performers are active than before 1949. Qi Kun also illustrates changes in ritual practice over the period with graphic tables. Here she compares figures for qingyin bands active around Nanhui in 1937–49 and in 2004, by district:

QK 326

For all periods, Qi Kun constantly notes the interaction of social, economic, political, and musical change—if only Chinese musicology would learn from such an approach, rather than banging on about heritage and living fossils!


Wall advertisement for the Tongxin qingyin band, Nanhui c2004. Source: Qi Kun, Jiangnan sizhu (2009).

The advertisement above reads:

Exclusive service for wedding and funerals: destroy superstition and be frugal—stylish and trendy.

I don’t know if this was a disingenuous response to a temporary campaign, but the social mood of the time was not exactly keen on destroying superstition or enacting frugality. Discuss

And suburban regions like Nanhui are anything but a rural backwater: they are inextricably tied to the global economic market of Shanghai. But exploring the environs always reveals a diverse picture.

That’s quite enough for one sitting—but zooming out still further, the instrumental volumes of the Anthology for Jiangsu province give an impression of such bands throughout the province:

  • Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ, Jiangsu juan 中国民族民间器乐曲, 江苏卷 (1998).

Again its main rubrics are chuida, sizhu, and “religious music”.

And just south lies Zhejiang province… Aiyaa.

* * *

Shanghai silk-and-bamboo makes a comfortable repertoire that is too easily reified and detached from the wider society. Much as I have enjoyed visiting the Shanghai teahouses, there’s so much more to study, not only in the suburbs but all around south Jiangsu, where entertainment genres are always subsidiary to ritual! And the cast of ritual performers, here as elsewhere, is still more varied: Daoist ritual specialists, spirit mediums (very important in local society), devotional sectarian groups, and so on.

Like Beijing, Tianjin, Chongqing, and other municipalities, Shanghai is a vast region, the riches of whose expressive culture can hardly be encapsulated by simple labels. As usual, we have to look beyond the reified canons of idealized, “representative” “genres” (the Zhihua temple, the “eight great suites” of Shanxi, the Uyghur twelve muqam, and so on) and plunge into the complex world of changing local social activities.


[1] Among considerable research on xuanjuan, see e.g. articles in Dayin 大音 vols. 3, 4 and 5; Zhongguo quyi zhi, Jiangsu juan 中国曲艺志, 江苏卷; Qian Tiemin 钱铁民 (on Wuxi) in Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Huadong juan 中国民间仪式音乐研究, 华东卷 (2007) vol.1; Qiu Huiying 丘慧瑩, “Jiangsu Changshu Baimao diqu xuanjuan huodong diaocha baogao” 江蘇常熟白茆地區宣卷活動調查報告, Minsu quyi 169 (2010), pp.183–247; Li Shu-ju 李淑如, “Zhangjiagang diqu jianwang fahui yishi yu xuanjuan diaocha baogao” 張家港地區薦亡法會儀式與宣卷調查報告, Minsu quyi 204 (2019.6), pp.197–250. In English, see Mark Bender, “A description of ‘jiangjing’ (telling scriptures) services in Jingjiang, China”, Asian folklore studies 60 (2001), and ongoing work from Rostislav Berezkin, such as this.

[2] Qi Kun also has related articles in Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Huadong juan (with film footage on the DVD), and the Dayin series.

[3] For Daoist ritual in Nanhui, see Zhu Jianming 朱建明 and Tan Jingde 谈敬德, Shanghai Nanhui xian Zhengyi pai daotan yu Dongyue miao keyiben huibian 上海南汇县正一派道坛与东岳庙科仪本汇编 (2006), and Zhu Jianming and Tan Jingde, Shanghai Nanhui xian Laogang xiang nongjia duqiao yishi yu qiao wenhua 上海南汇县老港乡农家渡桥仪式与桥文化 (1996); in Jiading and Chuansha counties, Zhu Jianming, Tan Jingde, and Chen Zhengsheng 陈正生, Shanghai jiaoqu daojiao jiqi yinyue yanjiu 上海郊区道教及其音乐研究 (2001; for the tangming groups, note pp.29–48); and in Shanghai county, Zhu Jianming, Shanghai xian Shengtang daoyuan jiqi taiping gongjiao kaocha jishi 上海县圣堂道院及其公醮考察纪实 (1993). See also a thoughtful review by Poul Andersen in Daniel Overmyer, Ethnography in China today, pp.263–83.

A meditation on impermanence


In several posts I refer to the beautiful Buddhist meditation on impermanence Kangxi yun 康熙云, actually composed not by the Kangxi emperor but by his father the Shunzhi emperor (1638–61).

A variant of the poem forms part of the hymn volume of the Li family Daoists, the very first ritual manual that Li Qing recopied in 1980. This volume is not for one specific ritual segment, but a general-purpose collection of funerary texts—I explain in some detail the process of recopying the manuals in this post (for the hymn volume, see under “Manuals and ritual practice”).


Here I noted Li Manshan’s attachment to the text of the Kangxi yun (with a very rough translation), and began to wonder what it is doing in the hymn volume. And on my stay with Li Manshan last year (see my diary, under “Pacing the Void”) we sought further clues, speculating about how, and when, the text might have entered the Li family manuals.

But ritual manuals are never merely silent texts; it’s also important to document the function of such texts in ritual performance. The Li family Daoists no longer perform the Kangxi yun, but as Li Manshan explains, it was one of several long texts grouped together in the hymn volume that could be recited in the shuowen solo introit style used for funerary segments like shanggong 上供 Presenting Offerings—discussed here.


From my film: a shuowen introit from the shanggong ritual.

Summary: update to Other publications


FWIW, in my post Other publications I’ve just appended a very brief outline of the, um, progression of my work on China. Do take a look!

From 1986, as I converted from Tang music to fieldwork on living traditions of local ritual—groups serving life-cycle and calendrical rituals, I focused first on amateur ritual associations in Hebei villages (notably Gaoluo) and then (after an interlude on shawm bands), on hereditary occupational groups of household Daoists around north China (notably the Li family Daoists in Shanxi).

All this accompanied a shift from studying reified “music” to the ethnography of changing ritual practice in local communities, and documenting the vicissitudes of people’s lives—before, during, and since the decades of Maoism.

Archive Chinese recordings

One essential resource for studying—and teaching—Chinese culture is an excellent series from Wind Records 風潮公司 (Taipei), based on archive recordings of the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing, many made amidst the constant campaigns of the first fifteen years of the PRC before the Cultural Revolution—the most authoritative overview of Chinese music on disc.

Four 2-CD sets (with booklets in Chinese) are devoted in turn to folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, and instrumental music:

  • Tudi yu ge 土地與歌 [English title Songs of the land in China: labor songs and love songs] (1996).
    Far from the kitsch arrangements that flood the market, these tracks—many recorded in the 1950s—are mostly unaccompanied, with work songs, songs of boatmen and foresters, love songs, wedding laments, passionate huar from Qinghai, and shan’ge from Shaanbei. Also featured are recordings from Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Yunnan.
  • Shibaduan quyi 十八段曲藝 [Shuochang: the ultimate art of Chinese storytelling] (1998).
    This collection of early recordings of narrative-singing includes drum-singing from Beijing and Tianjin, tanci from Suzhou, and less well-known examples from Henan, Gansu, Qinghai, Hubei, and Guangxi.
  • Jinye lai changxi 今夜來唱戲 [The beauty of Chinese opera] (1998).
    An overview of regional dramatic traditions, including not only Kunqu and Beijing opera (with Yu Zhenfei, Mei Lanfang, and others), but tracks from Hunan, Sichuan, northern “clapper” operas, as well as yangge opera and searing puppet drama from Shaanxi.
  • Xianguan chuanqi 弦管傳奇 [Special collection of contemporary Chinese musicians] (1996).
    Complementing my 2-CD set on AIMP (also based on early MRI recordings), this set focuses on solo instruments, with some of the great masters from the 1950s. Apart from qin and zheng zithers (Zhao Yuzhai, Gao Zicheng, Luo Jiuxiang), pipa plucked lute, and various fiddles, there are also ensemble tracks led by dizi flute and suona shawm (from southwest Shandong), and guanzi oboe (Yang Yuanheng). The set ends with a drum section from the Shifan gu repertoire played in 1962 by the great Daoist master Zhu Qinfu.

Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe at the MRI, 1961.

The series highlights the sterling work of the MRI under the great Yang Yinliu—to whom Wind Records also dedicated a 2-CD set. Of course audio recordings alone can’t encompass the complexities of changing social life, but basic familiarity with soundscape should be an essential aspect of our education in Chinese culture. For more discography, see my article in The Rough Guide to world music; for films on rural and ritual life in China, see here.