Calligraphy of a Manchu imperial scion

Aixin shufa

In my post on Robert van Gulik I mentioned my 1986 encounter with the painter and pipa-player Yang Dajun (1913–87), who was in wartime Chongqing with van Gulik and my mentor Laurence Picken. Another illustrious heir to traditional culture whom I visited in Beijing in 2001 was Aisin Gioro Yuhuan 愛新覺羅毓峘 (1930–2003), great-great grandson of the Daoguang emperor.


As we saw in my post on the “suite plucking” of old Beijing, apart from his distinguished painting, Aisin Gioro Yuhuan had learned the sanxian plucked lute from the age of 8 with a former palace eunuch, and then with blind folk musicians; from 1985 he mentored conservatoire students as they recreated the repertoire once played by Manchu–Mongolian nobles along with lowly itinerant blind performers.

My visit was rather belated, perhaps because whereas I was aware of the genre, by the 1980s it was long been obsolete in social practice. In Beijing I’d been spending more time with elderly former monks; and the village ritual associations in which I was immersed were still active, their shengguan wind ensemble repertoires still forming richer repository of early melody. Still, meeting Aixin Gioro Yuhuan, a living descendant of the Qing imperial family, made an apt reminder of Granny Liu’s epithet in The dream of the red chamber on the continuity of tradition despite all its tribulations.

In the calligraphy that he wrote for me, we can discount its typical flattery of the foreigner, attributing to me a deep empathy with Chinese music (for a more humble yet heartfelt example from my Gaoluo friends, see here; and for the calligraphy of Tian Qing, here). But it makes a precious souvenir.

Some great Chinese stammerers


As a card-carrying stammerer, I’m always on the lookout for fellow-sufferers—not least in China.*

I’ve already described my encounter with a stammering shawm player in Shaanbei (here, under “Status and disability”), and suggested a motto for the Chinese Stammerers’ Association, as well as noting an entertainingly crap Chinese therapy. I’ve noted how the public nature of Chinese life may force the stammerer to confront the issue.

Now (thanks to NBL on languagelog) I learn of the illustrious stammerer Deng Ai 鄧艾 (197–264 CE), a military general in the Romance of the three kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi 三國演義).**

On further study, this clue leads to a whole world of Sanguo nerds, largely through the medium of video gaming…

Chapter 107 of the Romance of the three kingdoms reads:

The other man is presently a lower official. His name is Deng Ai […]. He lost his father when he was young, but he always harbored great ambitions. Whenever he saw mountains or valleys, he would instinctively point out the best places to station troops, store grain, or stage an ambush. Everyone else laughed at him, but Sima Yi appreciated his talent and came to include him when discussing military strategy. Deng Ai has a speech defect. He always stutters when he’s trying to speak, so that whenever he had to make a report he couldn’t help saying ‘Ai Ai…’.*** Sima Yi once teased him about it, asking him, “You’re always saying ‘Ai Ai’. How many Ai’s are there?”

But Deng Ai immediately replied, “They say O Phoenix, O Phoenix, when there’s only one phoenix.” From this, you can see that he has a quick and alert mind. You must watch out for these two people.


Putting down a heckler with a quote from the Analects of Confucius—now that’s niche! Beat that, Stewart Lee. Later, as Deng Ai rose to power, he mastered his stammer, addressing his troops—another tough gig.

Here’s a typically cute Chinese video!

Actually, this illustrates how a certain insider knowledge on a seemingly technical topic may illuminate our studies—such as geographical and topographic features in early literature, or the availability of materials for painting or sculpture; or for Daoist ritual, how participant observation, an understanding of vocal, percussive, and instrumental melody in performance, should be a basic aspect of research. “Yeah?”

* * *

Some useful Chinese sites (like this) list many other illustrious Chinese stammerers, ancient and modern. Starting with the early legalist philosopher Hanfeizi 韓非子, and the poet Sima Xiangru 司馬相如, there’s a g-glut [measure word] from the pre-Tang era. For the aficionado of Tang poetry we have Meng Jiao 孟郊, writing (and stammering) in the aftermath of the cataclysmic An Lushan rebellion. (In a post on stammering songs I speculate whether there’s a link between fluency and social trauma.)

Celebrated 20th-century stammerers (putting aside Wang Guowei, who seems to belong in Confucius’s “deliberate” category) include the philosopher Feng Youlan 馮友蘭, influential both within and beyond China.


Gu Jiegang and his family, 1954.

Most notable for my tastes is the folklorist Gu Jiegang 顾颉刚 (1893–1980), to whose 1925 fieldwork on Miaofengshan one often refers [Innit though—Ed.]. He might have made a drôle companion to interpret my own questions in the field. Lu Xun abruptly goes right down in my estimation as I learn that in their literary feud he uncharitably took the piss out of Gu’s impediment (B-b-bastard).

But my favourite reference to early Chinese stammering has to be a passage from Sima Qian’s Records of the grand historian (Shiji), to which Hannibal Taubes alerted me. It appears in the biography of Chancellor Zhang 張丞相列傳, referring to the stammering minister Zhou Chang:


In Nienhauser’s 2008 translation (p.213):

When the Emperor wanted to depose the heir and install Ju-yi, the son of Beauty Ch’i, as the heir, the great ministers firmly challenged this, but none was able to win him over. The Emperor [eventually] because of the Marquis of Liu’s strategy desisted. But Chou Ch’ang having been mighty in the court disputes, the Sovereign asked him for his arguments. Ch’ang was a man with a stutter and furthermore was filled with anger. He said, “My mouth cannot speak, but surely I kn-kn-know this is not permissible! Even if Your Majesty wants to depose the Heir, your subject surely will n-n-not accept the decree!” The sovereign laughed delightedly. After [court] had been dismissed, Empress Lü, who had been eavesdropping from the chambers on the eastern side, saw Chou Ch’ang, knelt down to him, and thanked him.“Without you, Sir, the Heir would certainly have been deposed.”

More um, fluently, Joseph Needham and Christoph Harbsmeier (Science and civilisation in China, volume 7: the social background, part 1, pp. 43–4) translate the relevant passage thus:

“I cannot get the words out of my mouth.” he replied. “But I know it will n-n-n-ever do! Although Your Majesty wishes to remove the heir apparent, I shall n-n-n-ever obey such an order.”

Indeed, even for those who are otherwise fluent, having to speak truth to power before a capricious amoral emperor might bring on a speech impediment. One inevitably thinks of the current wranglings around the White House—for my Hollywood screenplay I have Michael Palin lined up as Zhou Chang, with a bit part for Stormy Daniels as Concubine Ji.

While the great Han scholar Michael Loewe was introducing me to the riches of the Shiji all those decades ago, he somehow omitted to draw my attention to this—out of tact, perhaps?!

This topos is sometimes combined with an allusion to the Deng Ai story in the phrase qiqi aiai 期期艾艾.

Note also the fine songs about the Coronavirus by the stammerer Zhang Gasong.

So we can add such luminaries to the list of historical stammerers like Moses and Demosthenes, and later Marilyn Monroe and Ed Balls. One of those niche pub-quiz topics, like left-handed calligraphers, or Norman Wisdom and Albania.

But what about the suffering workers, eh?!


* BTW, more colloquial than the standard kouchi 口吃 is jieba 结巴 (jiejiebaba!), but still more common in north China is jieka 结卡.

** See, I Have No Kulture (paltry excuse: I’ve been busy with Tang poetry and Daoist ritual under Maoism).

*** Call me a pedant, but while it’s perfectly possible to stammer on a vowel (and a diphthong), written Chinese doesn’t capture the likely nature of the impediment here. Repeating whole syllables or words is less common than repeating initial c-c-consonants.

Musicking at the Qing court 1: suite plucking

On the folk–art continuum in culture

XS early

“Musiciens Chinois. légation a Pékin”, Paul Champion, 1865/1866, with sanxian plucked lute, xiao end-blown flute, yangqin dulcimer, and sihu fiddle.

Inspired in 2017 by Stephan Feuchtwang’s 80th birthday to essay a fantasia on Bach at the court of the Qianlong emperor, I’ve been meaning to give a little introduction to the court music of the Qing dynasty (for another vignette, see here).

First we need to unpack the wafty term “court music”, subsuming all kinds of activities (for an early study from the Forbidden City, see e.g. Wan Yi and Huang Haitao, Qingdai gongting yinyue, 1985; see also the succinct introduction in Yang Yinliu, Zhongguo gudai yinyue shi gao, pp.1005–1009). It includes the large-scale yayue, ceremonial groups of both Inner and Outer courts, Daoist, Buddhist, and shamanistic observances, various genres of opera—and recreational chamber ensembles for life-cycle celebrations.

Most of the groups that I study in rural China serve the ritual needs of their local communities—whether occupational or (as in the case of sectarian associations) devotional. Amateur musicking for recreation or entertainment is less common. Even vocal genres like opera and narrative-singing are often occupational, largely serving ritual; but we do find some recreational groups, mainly in urban areas. And even here, the ceremonial–entertainment dichotomy is not clear-cut: recreational genres too were often performed for life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies.

Suite plucking
After Liberation, cultural cadres gave misleading names to many folk genres (cf. here, and for the “songs-for-winds”, here). The recreational chamber repertoire known since the 1950s as the “thirteen suites for strings” (xiansuo shisan tao 弦索十三套) was simply known as “suite plucking” (tantao 彈套). [1]

Often valorized by a narrow association with the Manchu court elite, it turns out to belong to a wider circle of folk activity (and here we may detect echoes of the hype surrounding the Zhihua temple). Indeed, it’s not useful to draw a clear line between folk and elite musical cultures in China—for a detailed instance, see this comparison of a qin piece and a shawm suite.

The social and cultural life of the late Qing is a rich topic, little explored in relation to these suites. I learn much from a 2013 article by Zhang Weidong 张卫东, stalwart of the amateur narrative-singing clubs around Beijing. Among many sources, he cites Jin Shoushen 金受申, Lao Beijingde shenghuo 老北京的生活—just the fascinating kind of social detail also found in the work of Chang Renchun on the customary and ritual life of old Beijing.

As part of his broad cultural education Aisin Gioro Yuhuan 爱新觉罗毓峘 (1930–2003), descendant of the Qing imperial family, learned the sanxian plucked lute from the age of 8 in Japanese-occupied Beijing with the former palace eunuch Luo Defu 羅德福, and later with blind musicians Wang Xianchen 王宪臣 and Zhang Songshan 张松山. He expanded on this background in several interviews, including articles in Renmin yinyue 1988.9 and 1990.6. For my visit to him, see here.

Like most musicking in China and worldwide, the genre wasn’t dependent on notation: indeed, it was largely an oral tradition. And again it illustrates the continuum between folk and art musics: it now tends to be associated with the Manchu–Mongolian nobility, but they learned this repertoire as patrons of lowly blind itinerant street performers (menxianr 門先 or gumu 瞽目) whom they invited to their mansions. Blind musicians are important in local social life, such as shawm players and bards (and, further afield, in Ukraine—formerly), and the menxianr were major players in the Beijing narrative-singing scene.


Illustration from the “72 trades of old Beijing”.

In the mid-19th century [2] a blind sanxian player called Zhao Debi 趙德壁 was renowned for his rendition of the suites. His pupil Yue Fengting 岳鳳亭 was an influential transmitter of the repertoire. And Wang Xianchen, a protegé of the empress Cixi, served the inner court.

Instruments included the plucked lutes sanxian and pipa; a bowed lute tiqin or sihu; and the zheng zither—which, despite its rippling ubiquity in the conservatoires, is rarely used in folk ensembles in north or even south China. A xiao end-blown flute, dizi transverse flute, or small sheng mouth-organ might also take part, but were already less often used by the early 20th century.

In the early 19th century the Mongolian nobleman Rong Zhai (Ming Yi 明誼) learned the repertoire along with four other princes (gong 公), and in 1814 he compiled a gongche score in his Xiansuo beikao 弦索備考.

By the 1940s, this and several related scores kept in private hands had reached Beijing music scholars (cf. this post), Later Cao Anhe thickened the plot with a discussion of these versions, including forgeries, showing the importance of textual research:

  • Cao Anhe, “Xiansuo shisan tao paishengchulaide jizhong wei yuepu” 弦索十三套派生出来的几种伪乐谱, Wenyi yanjiu 1981.4.

This resulted in yet another project from the brilliant Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing under the aegis of Yang Yinliu, largely consisting of transnotations. It was first published in three slim volumes in 1955 and 1962, and then reprinted in 1985:

  • Cao Anhe 曹安和 and Jian Qihua 简其华 (eds.), Xiansuo shisan tao 弦索十三套.

Yet again I marvel at the energy and discrimination of the Beijing scholars before and after Liberation, also including Wang Shixiang, the great painter and qin player Pu Xuezhai雪齋 (1893–1966, also a scion of the Aixin Gioro imperial family—see below), and Ling Qizhen 凌其阵. [3]

In 1963 Aisin Gioro Yuhuan was invited to teach at the Beijing conservatoires, but this was soon interrupted by the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution (cf. Daoist drum master Zhu Qinfu: my Folk music of China, pp.255–6). By 1985 he had hardly played sanxian for over thirty years, but he now worked closely with Tan Longjian to recreate the style of the Xiansuo beikao suites. She went on to publish separately the results of their work on the sanxian parts:

  • Tan Longjian 谈龙建, Qing gu gongwangfu yinyue: Aisin Gioro Yuhuan sanxian chuanpu 清故恭王府音乐: 爱新觉罗·毓峘三弦传谱 (1988), with a useful introduction by Yuan Jingfang 袁静芳.

Rong Zhai had given individual parts for each instrument, spelling out their heterophony. By contrast, when melodies of instrumental ensembles were notated, it was invariably in a single gongche skeletal outline, with the realizations on particular instruments left to the taste and experience of the musicians. This was evidently so for these suites too: the score was an isolated instance of documentation in what remained an oral tradition.

In one case Rong Zhai even gave a “full score” with all the parts aligned—perhaps a unique instance in traditional notation:


Xiansuo beikao, opening of Shiliuban. From Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian, vol.4 (1955).

Still, as in all traditions of musicking around the world, performance requires practical experience of learning with a master; and this applies even when notation is available.

The suites consist of sequences of melodies, though titles within the suites are not always given. The repertoire overlaps with that of shengguan ritual wind ensembles such as Haiqing 海青 and Pu’an zhou 普安咒, widely performed both in the temples of old Beijing and among amateur ritual associations in the countryside nearby and further afield. It was on these rural groups, still active, that I came to focus; and here too, I learned that one’s field of study must be far broader than “instrumental music“.

Changing society
As I often note for ritual studies too, scholars tend to favour reified documents, at the expense of changing social context.

Well before the Communist revolution of 1949, the social system had been changing along with the demise of the imperial system in 1911. But when musicologists began transnotating the suites in the early 1950s, there were still some musicians who recalled playing them—like Aisin Gioro Yuhuan, indeed. How I wish Yang Yinliu and his colleagues had managed to record them then, like their 1953 Zhihua temple recordings (playlist #14, with commentary here). According to Cao Anhe (1981) the MRI did indeed record four or five suites played by the great blind sanxian player Wang Xianchen (for whom, see again Zhang Weidong’s article). By 1950 Wang must have been at least 80 years old, but alas these recordings appear to have been lost. I’ll save another surviving recording for further below.

QYDWhat did persist in Beijing, both before and since the Cultural Revolution, was the amateur narrative-singing scene—a must for any aficionados of The dream of the red chamber, by the way. Some instrumental pieces are still played there as preludes or interludes, but the suite repertoire didn’t survive. Anyway, it’s another of the pleasures of Beijing musical life, less well publicized than the indie/punk scene there.

In the 1990s, between fieldtrips in Hebei, I enjoyed visits to a little hutong in Xinjiekou for the weekly gatherings at the house of the late great Qian Yadong 钱亚东 (right, in 1995—then aged 85!).

Jixian chengyun

Sihu, pipa and sanxian players (the latter blind—long rare at such gatherings) at Qian Yadong’s house, 1995.

For the narrative-singing scene in early 1950s’ Beijing, the vicissitudes of Czech and Chinese scholars and artists, and the 1980s’ Anthology, see here.

Belated recordings
With the renewed vigour of the 1980s, the Central Conservatoire in Beijing organized students to perform the suites on the basis of the 1950s’ transnotations, consulting Aisin Gioro Yuhuan and Cao Anhe.

I’ve given some instances of the aesthetic gulf between folk and conservatoire, and here’s another. While well-intentioned, these reified conservatoire recordings can hardly capture the more traditional mood of the earlier masters. Of course, young conservatoire students were not only learning from prescriptive modern notation, but belonged to another aesthetic world to that of the itinerant blind performers and the Qing nobility—and even to that of their own conservatoire teachers, many of whom (including masters like Yang Yinliu, Cao Anhe, Yang Dajun, Cao Zheng) had been brought up in a traditional aesthetic. Even the instruments, and their strings, would have been different.

You can find the conservatoire recordings in a YouTube playlist from David Badagnani (note also the Chinese documentary to which he refers):

So just like my own humble rendition of Bach on the erhu,

After intensive research on Qing-dynasty performance practice, I can now say with some certainty that…  it wouldn’t have sounded like this.

We can get more of a flavour of a convincing style for “suite plucking” from early recordings of narrative-singing in old Beijing. And thanks to Yuan Jingfang I learn of a 1950s’ recording of (a variant of) the “plucking suites” piece Hehuan ling 合歡令 on sanxian by none other than Pu Xuezhai (see above)! Indeed, whereas Pu quite Correctly regarded the qin as merely part of the whole “qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting” amateur literati culture, he seems to have been more adept as a sanxian player. Gratifyingly, the recording has been reissued:

* * *

Such genres in China, largely performed by amateurs for entertainment, are commonly grouped under the umbrella term of “silk-and-bamboo” (sizhu). Some are mainly for instrumental ensemble (as in Shanghai or Chaozhou); in others (such as the nanyin of south Fujian) the ensemble mainly accompanies a solo singer, and genres may be classified under narrative-singing. They are often linked to a literate elite background, later becoming popular among ordinary people.

These groups have survived well along the southeastern coast. Nanyin continues to enjoy wide popularity, not just in the main urban centres like Quanzhou and Xiamen but throughout the surrounding countryside. Some genres are nationally renowned, and a common topic of music scholars; but my reading of the fine ethnographic reports around the region suggests that they are only a minor part of expressive culture there—with Daoists and mediums, opera troupes and puppeteers, shawm bands and percussion ensembles dominating the rich ritual culture of the area. Many more genres, little-known outside their catchment area, can be found in the instrumental and narrative-singing volumes, by province, of the Anthology (see e.g. the “silk-strings” of Wugang in Hunan, mentioned in my “Reading between the lines”, pp.327–8, and also recently the object of heritagification).

In the north, most string ensembles with substantial separate repertoires seem to have declined since the 1950s, suffering from a decline in both recreational activities and patronage. As for the south, I introduced some groups briefly in my Folk music of China, and again you can pursue them further in the Anthology—such as in Chengde northeast of Beijing; various types of Shifan 十番 ensemble; Henan bantou 板頭 and Shandong peng baban 碰八板 repertoires. See also my post on the “little pieces” of Yulin city—amateur groups that survived Maoism but became moribund since the reforms, with the kiss of death bestowed by the reforming zeal of cultural officials.

The question remains, why amateur folk activity in those chamber genres along the southeastern coast has remained strong through the Maoist and reform eras, with a spectrum of traditional and official styles, whereas in the north most amateur string ensembles seem to have become musical casualties of the revolution.

* * *

So while a narrow musicological approach tends to encourage reification, the study of “suite plucking” should lead us to the cultures of late imperial Beijing, both folk and elite; and to the voluminous sources on the whole history of vocal music.

What such research doesn’t spell out is that entertainment has moved on: the social milieu in which the plucking suites were performed before 1911 has long ceased to exist. The current Beijing elites no longer play along with itinerant blind musicians! Of course, the 1980s’ project on the suites was not seeking to reinvigorate them as a form of social life; they came to form part of the nostalgic re-imagining of the imperial past, quite removed from society. So this yet again confirms my reservations about recreating early music for genres whose performing traditions have been lost. As with any musicking worldwide (including WAM, such as Bach or Haydn), we need to study changing performance practice in social context, and reception history.

Ritual activity, however, persists in China. The rosy reification of imperial culture may distract us from the ethnography of groups that have remained active through the tribulations of the 20th century, and from the enduring importance of living soundscapes as part of changing social activity.

Lastly, even where we can distinguish between folk and elite cultures, there is nothing “superior” about the latter, either in China or elsewhere!


[1] Here I’ve expanded modestly on my brief introduction in Folk music of China, pp.208–12. For rich material on vocal and instrumental groups in the late imperial period, note Yang Yinliu, Zhongguo gudai yinyue shi gao, vol.2.

[2] Cao Anhe and Jian Qihua give Qianlong–Jiaqing eras, but Zhang Weidong’s later dates of Daoguang–Xianfeng (1820–61) seem more reliable.

[3] Ling Qizhen (1911–84) was a qin player, originally from Shanghai, later professor at the Shenyang Conservatoire, where he founded the Liaoning qin research association. For his useful 1958 article on “Buddhist music”, see here.

Guide to another year’s blogging


Struggling to encompass all this? I know I am. While we inevitably specialize in particular topics, it’s important to build bridges. I guess it’s that time of year when another guide to my diverse posts may come in handy—this is worth reading in conjunction with the homepage and my roundup this time last year.

I’ve added more entries to many of the sidebar categories and tags mentioned in that summary. I’ve now subheaded many of the categories; it’d be useful for the tags too, but it seems I can’t do that on my current WP plan. Of course, many of these headings overlap—fruitfully.

Notably, I keep updating and refecting on my film and book on the Li family Daoists. I wrote a whole series resulting from my March trip to Yanggao (helpfully collected here) and Beijing (starting here, also including the indie/punk scene). Other 2018 posts on the Li family include Yanggao personalities and Recopying ritual manuals (a sequel to Testing the waters).

To accompany the visit of the Zhihua temple group to the British Museum in April, I also did a roundup of sources on the temple in the wider context of ritual in Beijing and further afield, including several posts on this site.

I’ve posted some more introductions to Local ritual, including

Gender (now also with basic subheads) is a constant theme, including female spirit mediums—to follow the series on women of Yanggao, starting here. Or nearer home, Moon river, complementing Ute Lemper.

Sinologists—indeed aficionados of the qin, crime fiction, and erotica—may also like my post on Robert van Gulik (and note the link to Bunnios!).

I’ve added a few more categories and tags, notably

The film tag is developing, with a side order of soundtracks—for some links, see here.

I’ve given basic subheads to the language category (note this post on censorship), which also contains much drôlerie in both English and Chinese. Issues with speech and fluency (see stammering tag) continue to concern me, such as

Following Daoist football, the sport tag is worth consulting, such as The haka, and a series on the genius of Ronnie.

Some posts are instructively linked in chains:

More favourites may be found in the *MUST READ* category. Among other drôlerie, try this updated post, one of several on indexing and taxonomy; and more from the great Philomena Cunk.

Most satisfying is this collection of great songs—still not as eclectic as it might become:

Do keep exploring the sidebar categories and tags!



Recopying ritual manuals

21 manuals of LMS

Ritual manuals of Li Manshan, handed down by Li Qing.

In 2013, as we survey a growing haul of over forty ritual manuals in Li Manshan’s collection, I exclaim: “Wow—I never realized you still had so many scriptures!” He chuckles whimsically: “Ha, neither did I!”

Following the collapse of the commune system, the religious revival of the 1980s revolved around the performance of rituals for local communities keen to restore the “old rules”. At the same time, scholars of Daoism tend to be more concerned with silent texts. But performance is primary—as I often remark on this blog, e.g. the Invitation and Presenting Offerings. As I observed here, giving primacy to ritual manuals is akin to having a fine kitchen and loads of glossy cookbooks, but drawing the line at handling food or cooking.

Further, ritual manuals were widely recopied, but we don’t always unpack the process, or the relation of the manuals to actual changing practice.

I described all this in detail in ch.8 and Part Four of my book Daoist priests of the Li family, which I summarize and adapt here (cf. my film, from 39.33).

From the late 1970s, as ritual was gradually coming back to life—families again able to observe funeral propriety, Daoists reuniting to recite their beloved scriptures—Li Peisen and his nephew Li Qing were also busy at home, painstakingly recopying the family’s old ritual manuals that had been lost or hidden away for fifteen years. This was part of a process then going on all over China, with Daoists piecing together as much as they could of local traditions that had long been under threat. [1]

You might suppose that for a group like the Li family, re-assembling a set of ritual manuals would be an essential condition for reviving their ritual practice in the 1980s. But it wasn’t. It was an important aspect of the personal striving of Li Peisen and Li Qing to reconfirm the tradition, but once they and their colleagues began doing funerals again, they had little need for manuals. Most of the texts they needed—for Delivering the Scriptures, Hoisting the Pennant, Transferring Offerings, and so on—were firmly engraved in their hearts after decades of practice, and there were no manuals for those rituals anyway. One might surmise that under ideal circumstances before the 1950s (itself a dubious concept) when the Daoists were performing ritual frequently without interruption, most of the manuals would be largely superfluous, as today.

As it happens, most of the manuals that Li Peisen and Li Qing copied (notably the fast chanted jing scriptures) were either for temple fairs, which were only to resume a few years later in a modest way, or for Thanking the Earth rituals, which hardly revived at all. So very few of these manuals were to be performed again. Can we even assume that they had once performed all the manuals that they now copied?

Li Manshan’s collection
Our discovery of the manuals has been a gradual process. [2] Over several centuries in medieval times, there were successive miraculous “revelations” of Daoist scriptures—from grottoes, or dictated by immortals. But our revelations of the Li family manuals were more prosaic. At the first funeral I attended in Yanggao back in 1991, I found Li Qing in the scripture hall consulting the old manual of funeral rituals copied by his uncle Li Peisen, and I photographed some pages—hastily and somewhat randomly. By the time of my visit in April 2011 I had still only seen two of Li Qing’s manuals. Over the course of successive stays with Li Manshan he rummaged around in cupboards and outhouses and discovered more and more volumes (for a complete list of titles in the collections of Li Manshan and Li Hua, see Daoist priests of the Li family, Appendix 2).

Pardon manual, Li Peisen

Pardon manual, Li Peisen, pre-Liberation. My photo, 1991.

The reason why so few manuals surfaced until I began enquiring in detail was not any conservatism on Li Manshan’s part. They are simply not used in current ritual practice, so he really never needed them, and they were just casually stashed away and forgotten. Now that I show interest, he too takes considerable pleasure in delving into them, but they are of no direct relevance to his current practice.

Each time that Li Manshan discovers more manuals, I busy myself taking complete photographs. This not only serves as valuable study material for me, but once we have copied them onto Li Bin’s computer it helps the family preserve them against any future mishaps.

Apart from their content and the historical significance of the undertaking, the manuals that Li Qing now copied move me because his personality leaps off the page in the assured elegance of his calligraphy. I have pored over hundreds of manuals copied by peasant ritual specialists since the 1980s, but few of them can compare to Li Qing’s hand. From the inscription that he wrote on the final page of the bulky Bestowing Food manual we can sense his pride and growing confidence:

Recorded by Li Qing, disciple resident in Upper Liangyuan village, the Complete Numinous Treasure Comprehensive Ritual for Bestowing Food manual in 69 pages, completed on the 3rd day of the 5th moon, 1982 CE.

Left: last page, shishi manual, 1982; right, Li Qing writing, 1991.

Li Hua’s Collection
In 2013 I learned that Li Hua has a collection of his father Li Peisen’s manuals, largely overlapping with that of Li Manshan.

Li Hua takes me and Li Bin to his son’s funeral shop, where they keep their scriptures and paintings. They bring them out and seem happy for me to take photos; but it’s getting late, so, reluctant to try their patience, I don’t ask to photo any complete manuals—most are identical to Li Qing’s copies anyway.

22 manuals of Li Hua

Ritual manuals of Li Hua, handed down by his father Li Peisen.

We go off together for lunch, all very friendly. I feel as if I am making a bridge between them; Li Bin agrees this has been a useful experience, and thanks me. But over the following days we visit Li Hua’s shop in vain; it has been locked ever since our first visit, and he isn’t answering his mobile. He seems to regret having shown us so much the first time. Later, after digesting my photos, we find there are at least four manuals in Li Hua’s collection that Li Manshan hasn’t yet found in his own.

Shelf-life of manuals
So the ritual manuals of the Li family Daoists that I have seen come from the collections of Li Peisen and Li Qing, handed down to Li Hua and Li Manshan respectively.


The earliest surviving manuals are by Li Peisen’s grandfather Li Xianrong (c1851–1920s) (left: his Presenting the Memorial manual). If manuals from the 19th century can survive all the destructions of the 20th century, then Li Xianrong and his colleagues in turn might have had a collection going back right to the lineage’s early acquisition of Daoist skills in the 18th century. And those manuals must in turn have been copied over successive generations of the lineage in Jinjiazhuang from whom Li Fu first learned. And so on.

Throughout the two centuries of the Li family tradition, ritual manuals had occasionally needed recopying. There are at least two reasons for copying a manual: when the old one becomes too decrepit, or if there are several Daoist sons. Daoists needed to recopy individual manuals occasionally as the older ones became dog-eared through use.

In south China scholars have found a few manuals from the 18th century, and even the Ming dynasty, but for the north even 19th-century ones are quite rare. Whether, or how long, Daoists kept the old manuals after copying them must have depended on their condition and on the taste of the custodian. Li Manshan observes that a Daoist may also copy manuals when he has more than one Daoist son. This seems simple, but presumably refers to a situation where the sons are likely to work separately—not necessarily long-term, but when there is simultaneous demand for more than one band.

So we can read the attempt by Li Peisen and Li Qing to recreate the complete textual repertoire in the early 1980s as a unique labour of love after an unprecedented threat of extinction, a reaffirmation of the family’s identity as Daoist masters. For over three decades during the Maoist era no-one had copied any manuals; “No-one was in the mood,” as Li Manshan reflected—another hint at the depression of the times. [3] As ritual practice slowly revived, Li Peisen and Li Qing now decided to do so because they realized the new freedoms brought hope. Their purpose was not to reflect current practice, which was still embryonic; thankfully, they sought to document as much of the heritage as they could, irrespective of which manuals had been used in their lifetimes or might now be needed.

So what was going through Li Qing’s mind as he put brush to paper? One surmises that for him, copying the manuals was partly a kind of atonement for having had to sacrifice so many old scriptures in 1966. But one also feels a great sense of optimism. The manuals he set about copying included many that even he had hardly performed. After all the false starts since 1949, was he so sanguine as to assume all these rituals would now become common again? Or was his instinct as archivist dominant?

Once again I kick myself to think that I could have gone through the manuals with Li Qing himself. When I met him in 1991 and 1992 I had no idea that he had copied so many—anyway I wasn’t yet expecting to study the family tradition in such detail. So now the main interest of going through the manuals with Li Manshan is to assess what has been lost. But that isn’t so simple either: it’s unclear how many of the manuals that Li Qing copied he himself could, or did, perform by the 1980s. I can’t even be sure he could perform all the texts in the lengthy hymn volume. When I casually comment to Li Manshan, “Shame you didn’t sit with Li Qing as he copied the manuals!” he replies, “I’m not a good son.” He is being neither ironic nor maudlin.

Of course, there may yet be some missing manuals that would further augment our picture of their former ritual repertoire. But impressively (given the usual stories of the decimation of ritual artifacts in the Cultural Revolution), Li Manshan now reckons that the surviving titles represent the bulk of those handed down in the family before 1966.

I can glean few clues about how this ritual corpus, and the texts within individual manuals, might have been modified over time. In the exceptional circumstances of the 1980s, Li Qing must have copied some manuals that he had never performed; and even for those rituals that he did perform, the version in the manual may differ substantially. Of course that was a special time, but a ritual manual from a given period doesn’t necessarily prove that the ritual was performed then, or in that form—not that the manuals actually tell us how to perform them anyway!

Moreover, early Daoists must have known a lot of texts from memory, as their descendants do today. Sure, they had a much larger ritual repertoire, and some lengthy texts required them to follow the manual. As it happens, the rituals that have fallen out of use are precisely those for which they needed to consult the manuals.

The process of copying
Li Qing may have inherited even more scriptures than Li Peisen, but he could retrieve only a few of them after the Cultural Revolution. With political conditions in Yang Pagoda more relaxed, Li Peisen had managed to hang on to his scriptures (and indeed his ritual paintings); so after he returned to Upper Liangyuan around 1977 it was these manuals that formed the basis for him and Li Qing to copy.

Li Peisen now lived not in his old home near Li Qing, but in another house just west of the site of the Palace of the Three Pure Ones. Li Peisen would copy a manual first, then lend it to Li Qing for him to copy too. Li Qing wrote alone, without help from anyone; no-one recalls them consulting.

On the covers, after his name Li Qing mostly used the word “recorded” (ji 記); only at the end of a couple of manuals did he write the word “copied” (chao 抄). The choice of term isn’t significant. The only manual in which Li Qing specifically wrote “copied from Li Peisen” is the Qiangao, dated the 21st of the 4th moon in 1982.


From collection of ritual documents, copied by Li Qing, early 1980s: template for funeral placard, including “China, Shanxi province, outside the walls of XX county,
X district, XX commune, at the land named XX village”.

When they began putting brush to paper, Li Peisen was 70 sui, Li Qing in his mid-50s. Having been taking part in rituals since the age of 6 or 7 sui, Li Qing would have been even more experienced had it not been for the interruptions since 1954; and by 1980 he had not performed rituals since 1964. Remember he had lost his father in 1947; since then he still had plenty of uncles and other senior Daoists to work with, but through the early years of Maoism he was beginning to rely more on his own knowledge.

Writing was unknown to the great majority of the population, but despite ongoing material shortages there was no problem buying white “hemp paper” (mazhi). One summer day in 1980, with the sun pouring through the latticed windows of his main room, Li Qing took a low wooden table and placed it on the kang brick-bed. Removing his cloth shoes, he climbed onto the kang and sat cross-legged at the table. Putting on his thick black-rimmed glasses, he took out his brushes, inks, and inkstones, with the old manuals to hand, as well as a thermos of hot water. After folding some paper to make guidelines as he wrote the characters, he opened it out again; carefully dipping his brush in the ink he began to write, pausing as he went over the texts in his head, phrase by phrase. First he completed the whole text in black ink, laying each page on the kang to dry. Then, changing his brush and mixing some red ink in a separate receptacle, he drew circles showing the head of each new segment, and added punctuation.


Zouma score, written for me by Li Qing, 1992.

They do the same when writing a score of the gongche instrumental melodies—first writing the solfeggio notes in black, then later adding red dots that show the basic metrical pattern, rather like punctuating a text. I treasure a page of gongche notation of the exquisite shengguan melody Zouma (over opening titles of my film: playlist, #4, discussed here) that he wrote before my eyes in the summer of 1992, inscribing it for me at the end. When Li Qing finished writing a manual, he carefully folded each page in half, and then stitched them all together. Li Manshan tells me that it takes around three days to write a typical manual of around 15 to 20 double pages.


Incidentally, while the shengguan wind ensemble is a vital aspect of ritual performance, it was only later in the 1980s, after he had achieved the main task of salvaging the ritual texts, that Li Qing set to work recopying the gongche scores.

I don’t know if there was a standard size of paper in the late imperial period, or if folk copyists followed temple practice. The paper that Li Peisen and Li Qing used was mostly around 23 x 12 cm, but varied somewhat in both height and width. For the Communicating the Lanterns (guandeng) manual Li Qing used a larger format (29.5 x 14.5 cm), since this was one manual that they all consulted while reciting it together, so the larger characters would make it more convenient—and for the same reason, multiple copies were written. Other minor differences in size just depended on the availability of paper.

Since they were mostly copying existing old manuals, they followed the layout of text on the page of their models, beginning a new line for each couplet in regular verse and leaving spaces where suitable. Older manuals such as those of Li Xianrong are similar in size, with similar numbers of lines and characters. So old and new manuals alike have 6, 7, or 8 lines per (half) page, each full line allowing for 16 or 17 characters. [4]

They used the same paper for the cover pages, writing a title on the front cover, generally only an abbreviated one; the full title often appears within the volume, usually at the end. Some volumes contain several scriptures, and the title thus summarizes the contents, like Scriptures for Averting Calamity (Rangzai jing), which contains four scriptures. Li Qing didn’t write a title at all for what they call the hymn volume (zantan ben 讚嘆本)—Li Manshan only wrote the two characters zantan (“hymns of mourning”) on the cover when I wanted to take a photo of the manuals complete in 2011. We may never know its proper title.

The older manuals of Li Xianrong and Li Tang were in this same format, although in a few earlier volumes the title and the name of the copyist are written in two red strips pasted onto the cover page. One Thanking the Earth manual by Li Peisen from before Liberation has slips of red paper for the title and his name, followed by the characters yuxi 玉玺 “by jade seal,” suggesting some rather exalted ancestry.

But even these older manuals had no sturdier protection like wooden or cardboard covers. Nor do they use the concertina form that one sometimes finds on older scriptures elsewhere; this system is used not only in elite temples—I found it in use by amateur folk ritual associations in Hebei. The opening pages of such more elite early manuals also often show a series of drawings of gods. I found a substantial collection of such manuals—printed—in Shuozhou not far south, in the hands of Daoists whose forebears had spent time as temple priests. The concertina format is convenient to use if one is following the text while performing, turning the pages with a slip of bamboo between them. Another advantage of the format is that the pages don’t get so worn—the paper is so flimsy that with constant fingering it can soon get torn. But most of Li Qing’s manuals are in pristine condition, showing that they have hardly been used. Even Li Xianrong’s manuals, dating from around 1900, are remarkably well preserved.

Li Xianrong numbered the pages of his Presenting the Memorial manual, but the only time that Li Qing used pagination was for the melodic score in modern cipher notation that he wrote later. Li Qing wrote the date of completion at the end of a manual more often than Li Peisen. He usually wrote the CE (gongyuan) year, though sometimes he signed off with the two characters of the traditional sexagenary cycle; he always used the lunar calendar for the moon and day, as villagers still do today.

The manuals and ritual practice
The very first manual that Li Qing completed was apparently the hymn volume, whose date in the traditional calendar is equivalent to the 16th day of the 6th moon, 1980. Over the next few years he would sit down and copy a manual whenever he had a couple of free days at home.

That first manual was not for one specific ritual segment, but a general-purpose collection of funerary texts. At 60 double pages, it is the second longest of all the manuals that he was to copy. Though giving a few texts for individual ritual segments, it is mainly a collection of shorter texts whose ritual use is not specified. Later Li Qing copied a similar compendium of texts for Thanking the Earth. These two compendiums suggest the practical basis of what the Daoists do: not long abstract texts, but individual lyrics to be adopted as required.

Similar collections of hymn texts, not specific to particular rituals, are found in early ritual collections within the Daoist Canon, and elsewhere among household groups in north and south China. Such volumes are often the most practical manuals for Daoists today. Li Qing’s hymn volume includes most of the texts that the Daoists need for the rituals they now perform. Many of the hymns, performed for both Delivering the Scriptures and the fashi public rituals, are not in any of the other ritual manuals, only in this separate volume.

However, looking more closely at the hymn volume, it is not merely a succinct practical list of texts for use in rituals, like those in the little notebooks that Daoists carry around with them. While it may be significant that this was the first volume that Li Qing wrote, he was apparently not compiling a new volume consisting of random texts recalled off the cuff, but copying out an existing one.

We need to exercise similar caution in studying the funeral compendium that Li Peisen copied, apparently before 1948. This manual is snappily entitled Numinous Treasure Manual for Opening the Quarters, Summons, Reporting, Offering Viands, Roaming the Lotuses, Smashing the Hells, Dispatching the Pardon, Crossing the Bridges, Precautions against Hailstones, and Averting Plagues of Locusts

Here is another salient lesson in the importance of fieldwork and observation of practice. When Li Qing made his own copy in the 1980s, he divided it up into two volumes of 17 and 25 double pages. Perhaps he found the old manual too bulky (even the title is quite a mouthful)—he did copy more lengthy manuals, but this collection of rituals divided conveniently. Now imagine if we only had this manual, preserved in a library somewhere. If we were lucky enough to know that there was a Li family of whose collection it formed a part since the 1980s, we might suppose it was a faithful and rather complete description of the segments in their funeral practice, if not in the 1980s then perhaps in the 1930s. But we can’t use ritual manuals as a guide to performance. Until I began working more closely with Li Manshan, this single manual was almost my only clue to funeral practice as preserved in texts, and I found it bewilderingly irrelevant to their current practice.

Of the ten segments in the manual, only Opening the Quarters, the Pardon, and Crossing the Bridges were very occasionally performed in the 1980s; the others may well have been obsolete by the 1940s. The two rituals at the end (against hailstones and locusts) may have been not for funerals but for temple fairs. Moreover, the volume contains none of the standard segments of a funeral; some of those have their own separate manuals, but most have (and need) no manuals at all. And the texts of the seven visits to Deliver the Scriptures can be found only in the hymn volume—if you know where to look.

So one might suppose, “OK then, so Li Peisen’s manual shows the very different, more rigorous structure of funerals before the impoverishment since the 1950s.” That would be quite wrong! I now deduce that Li Peisen (or his forebears) put those ten rituals in a volume together precisely because they were rarely needed even before Liberation; it reveals not the then norm but the then exception. It doesn’t even quite match the “inner and outer five rituals”. Li Peisen’s generation may have been more able to perform these rarer rituals than either Li Qing or Li Manshan, but we mustn’t assume that the manual represents the standard practice of some ideal earlier age.

Apart from manuals for particular ritual segments (Invitation, Pardon, and so on), around half of the forty or so volumes handed down in the Li family are jing 經 “scriptures” or chan 懺 “litanies”. These have not been performed since the early 1960s, since they are not used for funerals or (at least in the current sequence) temple fairs, and Thanking the Earth is obsolete. They were mostly to be chanted fast rather than sung slowly.

The role of memory
Before we saw Li Peisen’s collection, Li Manshan claimed that Li Qing wrote many of the manuals on the basis of his memory. Blinkered by my background in Western art music, I was sceptical; and now that we have seen Li Peisen’s manuals, it does indeed begin to look as if they were mostly copying, not recalling. But a doubt nags. Li Peisen’s collection did include several old manuals, but I haven’t seen older originals for most of those that he and Li Qing wrote. So is it possible that memory did play a considerable role after all?

We may easily neglect the depth of folk memory—further afield, for instance (Tibet, the Balkans), epic singers might have huge unwritten repertoires. Chinese elites memorized vast passages of classical texts, as did the scions of the Li family both in private school and when learning the ritual manuals at home. Li Manshan, not easily impressed, is amazed to recall the knowledge, energy, and memory of the elders with whom he did rituals until the 1990s.

I can believe that Li Qing could recall the texts of rituals that he hadn’t performed much for a couple of decades; frequent practice since youth would have engraved them indelibly in his heart, and there are innumerable instances of this in China after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Li Qing’s perceptive granddaughter Li Min points out that he loved the scriptures so much, he would always have been reciting them silently in his heart, even in periods of forced silence like his sojourn in the troupe or the Cultural Revolution. He performed them almost daily from 1932 to 1953, less from 1954 to 1957, not from 1958 to 1961, then from 1962 to 1964, but not from 1964 to 1979. Was that enough? In many cases I now tend to think it was, but it would depend on the scripture; some of them he would hardly have performed since 1953. Li Peisen, sixteen years Li Qing’s senior, had even longer experience. Also, the degree of serial repetition in Daoist texts is such that one could recreate a lot just by filling in the titles of a series of gods and offerings, much of the remaining content being identical for whole long series of invocations. Where phrases are of regular length, that would give further clues.

I supposed that the lengthy scriptures chanted fast to the regular beat of the muyu woodblock might be hardest to recall, especially since these were the only ones that they recited with the manuals on the table in front of them. But even these, Li Manshan observes, they largely knew by heart—Kang Ren whipped through them so fast that he couldn’t keep up; he hardly referred to the manual at all, just turning the pages as a backup.

And how about a lengthy and complex manual like the Lingbao hongyi shishi quanbu? I would be amazed if Li Qing could have rewritten it from memory having hardly performed it since at least 1957, but Li Manshan points out that by then his father would have taken part in the ritual often enough for over twenty years. I still demur: how often would that have been, actually? It was only performed for three-day funerals, and even there it was an alternative to Hoisting the Pennant and Judgment and Alms.

And surely it is one thing to recite such scriptures from memory, another to commit them to paper without frequent miswritings. Li Qing’s manuals contain few corrections—only occasionally do we find an extra character or line in black or red added between the columns where he had accidentally omitted it, or slips of paper pasted over a short passage that he later realized was inaccurate. And characters are rarely miswritten. Folk transmission over a long period often produced minor variants, but in general the texts are written meticulously, and where we can collate them with the manuals of the great temples they are basically identical.

Sharing manuals
One sweet vignette offers a glimpse of the energy for copying scriptures in the 1980s. Li Peisen’s disciple Kang Ren evidently copied many of his manuals too, perhaps after Li Peisen’s death in 1985. He borrowed the Lingbao hongyi shishi quanbu manual from Li Peisen’s son Li Hua, but when he took it back Li Hua was out, so on its back cover he wrote him a message to ask for four more manuals:

Younger brother Li Hua, can you bring me the Xianwu ke, the Shenwen ke, the Dongxuan jing, and the Shiyi yao? Please please!

As it turned out, none of those scriptures would be performed again; like Li Peisen and Li Qing, Kang Ren was just being enthusiastic, excited at the potential for restoring the scriptures that they had all recited constantly throughout his youth, after a long silence.

Kang Ren’s access to the manuals was exceptional. They were generally transmitted only within the family, not widely shared among disciples, even within Li Qing’s group. Daoist families are always in competition, and while they may often collaborate for rituals, there is an innate conservatism about revealing the core of a family heritage. Apart from the few manuals that they needed to consult while performing rituals, some of Li Qing’s senior colleagues from other lineages might never see them. When Golden Noble and Wu Mei were learning in the 1990s they hardly got to see the manuals; Li Qing wrote them individual hymns on slips of paper one at a time, just as Li Manshan did more recently for his pupil Wang Ding. Li Qing lent his manuals to the Daoists of West Shuangzhai in the 1980s so they could copy them, but in general there was little borrowing between rival Daoist families, even those on good terms. But the ritual tradition is remarkably oral.

However, Kang Ren, as well as Li Yuanmao (whose father was a Daoist anyway), copied manuals too. If any of their scriptures survive, they would be copied from Li Peisen. But since Kang Ren’s death in 2010 his son has sold them, and Li Yuanmao’s son is cagey.

The identity of the copyists
As we saw, the bulk of the two surviving collections was copied in the early 1980s by Li Peisen and Li Qing, as well as some earlier manuals written by their forebears. Manuals are almost always signed, usually on the cover, sometimes also at the end.

The earliest manuals we have now were written by Li Xianrong around 1900. We have clues to manuals by his younger brother Li Zengrong. And we have one manual said to be in the hand of their cousin Li Derong, as well as his precious early score of the “holy pieces” of the shengguan music. For a genealogy, see Daoist priests of the Li family, p.5; for the family’s own genalogies, see photos here; note the alternation by generation of single- and double-character given names.

Li Xianrong’s second and third sons Li Shi and Li Tang both copied manuals. Li Shi’s manuals were among those that his grandson Li Qing sacrificed in 1966, but Li Peisen preserved those of his father Li Tang, two of which are still in Li Hua’s collection. Li Peisen himself wrote many manuals. So did his cousin Li Peiye (1891–1980)—but his son Li Xiang took them off when he migrated to Inner Mongolia in 1959.

Authorship may not be quite so simple. Li Qing wrote his own name on the cover page, almost always adding the character ji 記, “recorded by.” But in some cases a father would write a manual for his son, writing the son’s name on the cover—again, almost always with the character ji, in this case meaning “recorded for.” For instance, most of Li Peisen’s manuals from the early 1980s bear the name of his son Li Hua; Li Qing only wrote Li Manshan’s name on one manual, the Treasury Document and Diverse Texts for Rituals, written in 1983 or soon after; and on the cover of Li Manshan’s only manual he wrote the name of his son Li Bin. When there is a name at the end of the manual, it is that of the copyist himself. Most earlier manuals (Li Xianrong, Li Tang, and so on) were signed by the copyists themselves.

Why did Li Peisen often write his son’s name, whereas Li Qing almost always wrote his own name? It wasn’t so much that Li Qing still saw Li Manshan’s future mainly in determining the date, but that he had two other sons who were potential Daoists, so perhaps he was avoiding favoritism. Of Li Peisen’s two sons, the older, Li Huan, was only going to specialize in determining the date; but Li Peisen must by now have earmarked his second son Li Hua (30 sui in 1980) as a Daoist. Perhaps a more pressing reason was that Li Peisen was getting on in years, and wanted to feel he was leaving his manuals for posterity, whereas Li Qing was still only in his mid-50s.

Anyway, it’s worth bearing in mind that a manual bearing someone’s name may have been copied by his father. Expertise in calligraphy may help, but it takes me time even to distinguish the calligraphy of Li Peisen and Li Qing—Li Peisen’s brush ever so slightly more cursive, Li Qing’s more bold. The styles of Li Qing and Kang Ren were virtually identical.

The manuals of Li Xianrong
I have only seen four manuals by Li Xianrong, most written in the early 20th century, when he was around 50: in Li Hua’s collection, Lingbao shiwang guandeng ke (1901), Lingbao shanggong ke, and probably Lingbao hongyi shishi quanbu (1912); and in Li Manshan’s collection, the Lingbao jinbiao kefan (see above). Li Hua claims to recall two whole trunks of scriptures by Li Xianrong, but says that only a quarter now survive. If so, then he hasn’t shown us all of them—and if Li Peisen didn’t have to sacrifice them, then why have so many been lost since?

Li Xianrong’s “style” (zi) or literary name was Shengchun, only used in one manual that I have seen, the Lingbao shiwang guandeng ke. The very fact that he had a literary name suggests his superior social status. He wrote in a more elegant hand than either Li Peisen or Li Qing; Kang Ren liked to consult his scriptures.

Li Peisen’s own manuals
The manuals that Li Peisen inscribed for his son Li Hua (b.1951) are evidently the new copies he made from around 1980 after returning to Upper Liangyuan. He wrote some manuals earlier, but it is hard to guess when; even if Yang Pagoda was quite undisturbed under Maoism, it seems unlikely that he wrote any over that period. He was only 39 sui in 1948, perhaps a bit young to write manuals before then, but he evidently did so. He was also known as Li Peisheng, the name he wrote at the end of the Yushu chan.

The Lingbao shiwang bawang dengke is one of the earlier manuals bearing Li Peisen’s name on the cover. It is dated on the last page with the inscription

23rd year of the Republic [1944], 6th moon, 3rd and 4th days,
Bingshan picked up the pen to finish copying.

Indeed, this page doesn’t look like Li Peisen’s hand. No-one can be sure who Bingshan was—there was one in Xingyuan village, but he was only born in the 1920s; was there another one? And why did Li Peisen hand it over to Bingshan to complete? Perhaps he got busy with his work as village chief—but why ask someone from another family (presumably a disciple) to complete it, rather than shelve it until he had time? Did they need it in a hurry for a funeral? This was one manual that they did need to follow from at least two copies while performing it.

The couplet volume
Among the volumes that Li Qing copied in the early 1980s is a collection of 21 double pages listing around 300 matching couplets (duilian, see Daoist priests of the Li family, Ritual 7) to be pasted at either side of a doorway or god image. Such volumes are often part of both temple and household collections. Again, this one is evidently copied (or edited) from an earlier volume. Perhaps it originates from a temple, since many of the contexts listed seem unlikely to have been part of the Li family tradition even before the 1950s.

Temple collections often list couplets for particular types of temples, and Li Qing’s volume has some for particular deities—though not for those of the Upper Liangyuan temples, nor for any local gods like Elder Hu. Most are single couplets, but there are over thirty for the Dragon Kings (Longwang). There are eight for the God Palace (Fodian)—not necessarily for the village’s own Temple of the God Palace.

A couplet for the “meditation hall” (chantang) further suggests the temple connection, as do couplets for bell tower (zhonglou) and several for the opera stage (xitai). But I can’t be sure if this implies an earlier derivation from temple priests, or simply that couplets were required for the unstaffed temples of the area when they held temple fairs. There are twenty-two couplets for the scripture hall, and fourteen for the kitchen. There are couplets for each of the Palaces of the Ten Kings, perhaps to adorn existing paintings or murals, and fifty couplets for Thanking the Earth. There are verses for each of the “seven sevens” after a death, the hundredth day, and for all three anniversaries, and over fifty couplets for the burial itself.


Couplets for the scripture hall, including series for the Ten Kings.

There is a couplet for seeking rain, and fourteen for raising the roofbeam. There are many for more general social life, such as those for archways, cattle sheds, and carts; for carpenters and metal workers, and for the “wine bureau” and pharmacy. Six further verses marked “treasury couplets” are for the funerary treasuries. The volume opens with a series of over twenty couplets for weddings, the only instance of any Daoist component for this context.

Near the end of the volume there is a series of four-character mottos—the diaolian large paper squares to be hung on the lintel where the coffin is lodged. Li Manshan has to write these regularly for funerals, but again he never needs to consult the volume: he’s been writing them from memory for over thirty years.

In all, the couplet volume suggests how pervasive Daoism was in the daily life of a previous era, but we can’t deduce how many of these couplets Li Qing or even Li Xianrong commonly used.

The fate of the new manuals
Despite all this energy in recopying, once Li Qing and his colleagues began performing ritual again, few of the segments that require the use of the manuals were to be restored in practice.

Most rituals in common use for funerals consisted of relatively short texts that could be memorized. When the manuals are needed, it is mainly for rituals that are rarely performed; and until the early 1960s, they would also have been used for the lengthy fast recited chanted scriptures that were part of temple and earth rituals, like Bafang zhou and Laojun jing. Li Peisen and Li Qing devoted considerable energy to recopying these chanted scriptures, but their optimism that they would be restored in performance under the new more liberal conditions turned out to be misplaced. So while we may treasure the manuals that they copied in the early 1980s (not least since they provide clues to former practice), we must observe that after they had been copied they were hardly consulted.

More prosaically, Daoists now often transcribe the texts they need into little exercise books, copying them horizontally in biro. For the sinologist they may seem unpromising: small, with plastic covers (a welcome innovation with regard to preservation), sometimes bearing cheesy pinup-type photos. Through the 1990s I myself had something of a fetish for using such kitsch notebooks for my fieldnotes, but eventually I resigned myself to the posher ones that had replaced them in the shops. But such notebooks copied since the 1980s are an important resource. They are probably the most useful guide to their current practice, even if their older manuals, elegantly copied with brush and ink, look more elegant and archaic. Household Daoists in Shuozhou county nearby have copied some long complete ritual manuals into such notebooks. Apart from convenience, after the traumas of recent times, perhaps Daoists also took instinctively to small easily-stashed notebooks, rather than more bulky old tomes.

Like all men who determine the date, Li Manshan has several small notebooks that serve as almanacs for all his complex calendrical calculations. But sometime in the 1990s he copied a little blue notebook in the traditional vertical style, with a set of ritual texts densely written over twenty-five pages. Later he wrote a black notebook with a mere fifteen texts in 21 pages, this time copied horizontally. This briefer volume may now meet most of his needs for funerals, such as Delivering the Scriptures and Transferring Offerings, but it by no means shows the full extent of his recent practice; he still performs many texts not copied there. And some of them don’t even appear in Li Qing’s lengthy hymn volume. Li Manshan may have written his blue notebook to remind him of the texts, but the black one served a different purpose (as he says, “I don’t need them, they’re in my belly”)—“Because if someone tells me I’m making it up as I go along, I can take it out and show him it’s the real deal!” So it wasn’t an aid to memory so much as a kind of certificate, almost like a license.

Li Manshan recalls that Li Qing had a similar notebook for various such texts, which we haven’t found. Did Daoists always use something similar? Of course, the beauty of the Mao jacket is that it can store such a notebook. When did notebooks become available in Yanggao? Going back through imperial history, what kind of equivalents might Daoists have used? And, if you’ll allow me a further sartorial query, what kind of pockets would they have put them in?

Perhaps the Dunhuang religious manuscripts from around the 10th century offer a clue. They include some small booklets, “the size of a pack of Lucky Strikes”, as Teiser describes them, going on to speculate nicely: “Easily transported? Hidden in a sleeve? Used surreptitiously? Studied in private?” As he remarks, “a booklet this size would serve as a perfect study guide for an officiating priest.” But with our experience now, we would wish to unpack a term like “study guide”.

* * *

In my book I go on to explore the ancestry of the texts contained in the ritual manuals. This bears on the complex issue of the relation between Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection (for an outline, see here).

Some scholars have traced rituals still practiced in Jiangnan or south China to early, whole, ritual manuals in the Daoist Canon. At least in north China, this is unlikely to be at all common. Few of the texts sung there by modern household and temple Daoists appear in such early sources; many can only be documented since the late imperial period. Such a conclusion may help us modify an antiquarian tendency in Daoist studies.

All this suggests merely that these texts are part of a broad tradition related to modern temple practice. And since many of them are common to household groups over a wide area of north China, we have to take the temple link seriously. Even poor household Daoists, quite remote from urban elite traditions, with no clues in their oral history to any temple connection, turn out to have a substantial link to the nationally promulgated texts of the major temples. We can only guess at the ritual repertoires of smaller regional temples that were the links between the major temples and rural household groups.

Still, having traced a few isolated texts, it is frustrating that parallels with most of the ritual manuals remain elusive, like Communicating the Lanterns or Dispatching the Pardon (see my book, ch.13). Such repertoires look like a patchwork assembled from various sources, few of which may ever emerge. We have a few pieces of a few jigsaws, and none at all for others.

So in a ritual corpus like this we have three types of text, some highly standard and national, others apparently distinctive and regional, even local:

  • ŸRitual manuals: now hardly performed; few sources in the Daoist Canon or elsewhere, either whole or in part.
  • Individual hymns still in use today: few appear in the Canon, but many are found in modern temple sources like the daily services and yankou—which are now known mainly in Complete Perfection versions.
  • Scriptures: no longer performed; nationally standard, ancient, and found in both the Daoist Canon and modern temple sources.

The contrast between ritual manuals and scriptures is absolute. The scriptures, “in general circulation,” can easily be found in the Daoist Canon, their titles and contents identical. But the ritual manuals can’t be found—neither their titles nor the great bulk of individual texts within them. However, many of the individual hymns, as well as scriptures, are common with the current practice of temple priests, who happen to be Complete Perfection—notably those found in the Xuanmen risong and yankou. This doesn’t mean that the Li family tradition is or was mainly based on them, since the great bulk of the other texts in the ritual manuals cannot be traced; but the fact that “standard” temple Complete Perfection texts are the single most fruitful match with the Li family’s current repertoire should remind us that the superficial dichotomy of “folk Orthodox Unity versus temple Complete Perfection” is a mere academic fantasy.

* * *

So we do indeed need to document ritual manuals, but it is performance that is primary. Daoists aren’t dependent on the manuals, relying on much knowledge that can’t be reflected in them; so rather than being the main object of study, they should be an adjunct to our study of changing performance practice.

While it is with the Li family that I collected most ritual manuals, see the many posts under Local ritual for other manuals around north Shanxi and Hebei.


[1] For fine accounts of the whole process in south Fujian, see Kenneth Dean, “Funerals in Fujian” Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 4 (1988) and his Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China (1993).

[2] With the study of ritual manuals dominated by south China, the general term keyiben 科儀本 has become standard in scholarship. I don’t know if this term is commonly used by southern Daoists, but it isn’t heard in the north. In Hebei they often refer to ritual manuals as jingjuan, but in north Shanxi the more prosaic term is jingshu or jingben, or even the innocent-sounding shu “books.” Since manual titles often end with the term keyi, they could notionally call those manuals “keyiben”—but they don’t. For such vocabulary, see here.

[3] Cf. amateur ritual associations in Hebei, where many manuals were copied in the short-lived restoration of the early 1960s: see Zhang Zhentao, Yinyuehui, pp.67–396, and many posts under Local ritual.

[4] For the production of early Ten Kings scrolls from Dunhuang, see Stephen Teiser, The Scripture of the Ten Kings and the making of purgatory in medieval Buddhism (1994), pp.88–90, 94–101. 16 or 17 characters per line seems common down the ages, but the number of lines per page is variable—some modern printed scriptures produced by the Baiyunguan in Beijing have only 5 lines per page (half of a folded page of 10 lines).

Another everyday story of country folk


We’ve discussed the rural society of Gaoluo village, and Yanggao county; and to follow Cheremis, Chuvash, and Tibetans, now for Ambridge.

Despite my tireless ethnographic devotion to Everyday Stories of Country Folk and, um, popular culture in all its forms, I can’t stand The Archers!!! There, I’ve said it.

Still, like the Hoffnung speeches, I recommend it highly to foreigners. The world’s longest-running radio serial [zzzzz], it makes a perfect portrait of daily life in Middle England, showing what we’re up against—a complement to Watching the English. For Stewart Lee’s somewhat different take on being English, see here.

I do realize that social change has come to Ambridge—indeed, Peter Hitchens moans that the series has become a vehicle for liberal and left-wing values and agendas (“all kinds of sexual revolution stuff and ultra-feminist propaganda”) (PAH! Nay, YAY!). But its core plots still revolve around riveting issues like the loss and rediscovery of a pair of spectacles, and competitive marmalade-making, The scripts are an inexhaustible catechism of cliché that I believed to have expired along with my great-aunts (“Ooh I shouldn’t really…” “And more power to her elbow, that’s what I say!”—the latter perhaps constituting evidence of Hitchens’s “ultra-feminist propaganda”?)

So despite occasional daring updates to the world-views and vocabulary of the “characters” (sic: see below) since 1950, it’s always going to be trapped in a time-warp: the visual image that the series still conjures up today is surely the photo above (note for any Chinese, Chuvash, or Bulgarian readers: YES, this is how we all dress).

The wiki article on The Archers makes fascinating reading, with some drôle diachronic byways, not least on the irritating and inescapable theme-tune Barwick Green—a maypole dance, FFS [Can it be that you have suddenly abandoned your mission to document rural culture? Not Exotic enough for you?—Ed.] (cf. Morris dancing as a suitable riposte to the haka), endowed with “the genteel abandon of a lifelong teetotaller who has suddenly taken to drink”, as Robert Robinson observed.

The 1954 recordings were never made available to the public and their use was restricted even inside the BBC, partly because of an agreement with the Musicians’ Union.

Oh well, that’s one good cause to which the MU has been putting my subscription. But when a new stereo version was recorded in 1992 (quelle horreur!)

the slightly different sound mixing and more leisurely tempo reportedly led some listeners to consider the new version inferior, specifically that it lacked “brio”.

“Brio” is indeed the mot juste. Bless.

A 2011 folk-rock version by Bellowhead was well received, however:

For further windows on changing performance practice, see e.g. Mahler, vibrato, jazz, DaoismTaruskin; the Wimbledon and Pearl and Dean themes. Not forgetting Pique Nique by Ibert’s brother Edouard—an oeuvre that has everything that Barwick Green lacks, despite their shared 6/8 metre (can we have a Bulgarian version, please?).

Anyway, my whole reason for this unseemly rant is to alert you to a brilliant parody that John Finnemore did in 2014, for which I am precisely the target audience:

How The Archers sounds to people who do not listen to The Archers:

[Announcer:] And now on Radio 4—unbelievably—it’s time to accidentally hear a bit of The Archers again.

with all the stereotypes lovingly exposed—

“Hello, one of the men who always sounds tired!”
“Hello, one of the unsufferably wry women…”

“Hello, one of the women with an accent! You’d think that would make it easier to tell you apart from the others, but… no.”

He continues the theme here:

… doomed endlessly to repeat the same morality tale of how all men are feckless idiots with terrible ideas, all women are joyless wet blankets who are nonetheless powerless to stop them.

Indeed, the great Tony Hancock did a spoof as early as 1961:

For denizens of Twitter, the fantasy scripts of @jonreed are also recommended. And inevitably, The Archers is an academic research topic

For a roundup of posts on How to be English, see here.

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. Some tracks appear on YouTube, such as

Note also this channel.

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, Kodály, 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 (cf. The whisperers). 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 the interest of early east European music scholars in “archaic layers”, these are not timeless idyllic communities; though by the 1970s they had weathered 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.

See also The Kazakh famine.

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.

For Czech–Chinese exchanges over the period, see here.

Kodály’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: Tibetan monks lay down their arms, 1959. Right: Norbulingka, 1966.
For insights on the period in Tibet, with rare photos, see here.

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 our very 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 Jonesand now in the new feature film Mr Jones 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.

See also The Kazakh famine.


[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) (for a review of his work by Sheila Fitzpatrick, see here)
  • 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. Robert Gerwarth, 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 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”). For more on the Yanggao county gazetteer, see here.

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?” (see also Bloodlands, n.2). 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.

Note also

  • Andrea Graziosi and Frank E. Sysyn (eds), Communism and hunger: the Ukrainian, Chinese, Kazakh, and Soviet famines in comparative perspective (2016).

And for a comparison between the famines of Ukraine and Kazakhstan, see here.

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.

* * *

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 (recently, see e.g. here, and here). 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. For punk in the GDR, see here, and in Madrid, here.

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):

* * *

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.




Flamenco in Chiswick

*Sequel to my three posts on flamenco:
gender, politics, wine, deviance; and
cante jondo!*


Among the varied aesthetic pleasures on offer in west London (“Come and live in Chiswick, your statistical chance of survival is relatively high“), what better for a rainy autumn Sunday evening than another flamenco gig?

It was a small price to pay for missing the public moral verdict on the Strictly dance/snog of shame—though I would humbly suggest to the BBC that such quandaries would be obviated by my Strictly north Chinese Daoist ritual project.

The show featured stalwarts Anita La Maltesa with Ramon Ruiz on guitar, the fine Sevillian singer Julio Lopez (another London local), and the star guest dancer Juan Polvillo on a visit from Seville, all sensitively accompanied by the cajon player Antonio Romero.

After worthy recent distractions (blind Ukrainian minstrels, Chinese female spirit mediums, Barbara Hannigan as Gepopo, and so on), I’m delighted to reinvigorate my naïve studies of the riches of flamenco—continuing to get to grips with palmas hand-clapping patterns with the aid of the amazing Rito y geografïa del cante series and various useful websites (see my first post).

In order to appreciate Mozart you don’t have to analyse sonata form—indeed, the term hadn’t even taken shape in Mozart’s day. But a basic understanding of what’s going on, as with the pitch relationships in Indian music, can enrich our enjoyment.

For a hidebound classically-trained Brit like me, learning is a lot to do with switching off the tedious analytical brain and engaging the body‚ experiencing the performance whole—singing, lyrics, palmas, dance, guitar and all. After all, homing in on the fancy footwork would help me get the hang of the palmas (but don’t worry, the dance world is safe).

How envious I feel of the sleeping Andalucian child in the arms of her mother as she sings her heart out (DO admire the footage of Cristobalina Suarez in this post!)—that’s the way to learn. Anita and Ramon’s sessions must be great for London schoolkids too.

Presenting world music on stage always involves striking a balance between what Chairman Mao called “popularization” and “raising standards” (puji 普及 and tigao 提高). The Rito series shows how in more informal social gatherings in Andalucia, dancing can serve as an organic physical response to the intense singing that draws me to flamenco. By contrast, in more polished shows (at least in the minds of foreign audiences) the balance is often reversed, with the cante subsidiary to the virtuosic dance items—which while also intense, are more popular than, say, an entire evening with a solo gypsy blacksmith singing anguished siguiriyas, perhaps a tad heavy for some. Anita and Ramon manage to strike an effective balance between peña and tablau, incorporating all the elements of flamenco into an inspiring evening.

London, microcosm of world music—for now, anyway: if some people have their way, from here on we may have content ourselves with Morris dancing. For more flamenco in London, see here.



The Li family Daoists: a roundup


Li category

After the latest screening of my film, perhaps it’s worth giving links to some of the major posts (so far!) on the Li family Daoists—even with the subheads in my category for them (film, on tour, rituals, updates, vignettes) it’s easy to get lost…


The basic material is

On ritual, see e.g.

Among the vignettes: for Yanggao, try

and a whole series of updates from March–April 2018 (see archives in the sidebar), led by

and including

as well as their continuing activities while under lockdown earlier this year:

Other posts (reflecting material from my book) include

On tour, you can start with

part of a whole series from May 2017, hotly followed by

Also useful are articles on other characters in Yanggao, such as

And there’s much, much more to explore if you use those subheads, and keep clicking away on the links within the posts…





Between East and West

With my own background, the work of Anne Applebaum often suggests Chinese parallels. I already found her book Iron curtain: the crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956 a valuable introduction to this formative period. Rather like Dikötter for post-revolutionary China, she groups her discussion under themes like Victors, Policemen, Youth, Radio, Reluctant collaborators, and Passive opponents.

* * *


Before I get round to reading Applebaum’s Gulag: a history of the Soviet camps, and her recent book Red famine (again, both suggesting Chinese links; for the latter, see here), her

  • Between East and West: across the borderlands of Europe

makes a vivid, accessible picture of a vast area unknown to me, continuing my education from the work of Philippe Sands around Lemberg.

Travelling, um, north to south from Kaliningrad to Odessa, along a kind of faultline from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Applebaum explores in a series of fascinating vignettes the constantly changing border regions of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova; Ruthenia, the Bukovyna, and Bessarabia.


I suppose I’m not alone in my ignorance—such work serves as a corrective to a simplistic British East–West perspective:

Whole nations were forgotten: within a few decades the West no longer remembered that anything other than “Russia” lay beyond the Polish border.

In her introduction to the 2015 reissue, Applebaum observes that it began to seem out of date very soon after its first publication in 1994:

Meandering discussions of history and identity that seemed so important in 1991 or 1992 began to feel irrelevant as the new states in the region took very different paths.

But she has wisely refrained from trying to update the book. As she comments, her descriptions now take on another significance as history—“a record of an experience that can never happen again” (which is always true, of course—like our notes from 1990s’ Hebei).

The people I met on that trip are doubtless more worldly, more busy, maybe more confident, maybe more cynical than when I met them. They would no longer treat me like an emissary from another world, and I would no longer perceive them, as I did then, as exotic and strange. But in 1991, this is what I was, and this is what they were.

* * *

Much of the region was still quite isolated. Long unstable, it remains so, with a history of linguistic complexities, deportations, cycles of hatred and revenge, atrocities—and the constant spectre of the Jewish heritage. Wider entities such as Poland or Russia are often buried under local allegiances.

Applebaum’s comments on architecture often remind me of China too. In Kaliningrad—populated by Russians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Belarussians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Uzbeks, and Azerbaijanis—and once a German city,

wherever one looked, there was nothing to see but high walls of concrete and steel.

But it was not the clean, crisp concrete and steel of New York or Los Angeles. Here the tall buildings were cracked, broken, and sagging, as if prematurely aged. Their walls were pockmarked with dirt and building flaws, their windows were broken, their facades had grown black from pollution. Although already in a state of advanced deterioration, few appeared to be complete. Great hunks of concrete, rusted piping, wire, and sheets of plate glass covered with masking tape lay strewn about on the mud beside them. Piles of broken brick stood beside doors whose hinges were already rusted. Thick green fungus covered half-built walkways. Whole avenues were partially paved or blocked off for repair, heaps of dirt and sand covered the grass in the parks.

Occasionally, signs of another, older, order poked through the wreckage of the new. In one place, a concrete sidewalk came to an abrupt end, suddenly revealing a well-laid cobblestone road lying just beneath its surface; somewhere else, an old building leaned sideways in an empty lot, surrounded by nothing.

In Minsk too the 20th century had taken its toll:

After the baroque extravagance of Vilnius, the remote silence of the countryside, and the slow silence of the pastel-colored villages, the suburbs of Minsk came as a shock: dirty concrete apartment blocks lining the highway, muddy courtyards, ancient trams, people scurrying through the long shadows cast by the tall buildings.

The city center wasn’t much better. On the morning I arrived, Minsk seemed to be suffocating in its own dirt. Visible grains of black pollution floated through the air, and a thin film of black grease lay over the buildings and sidewalks. Plumes of purple smoke puffed out of the cars, the factories, the chimneys of the apartment blocks, the cigarettes in the mouths of pedestrians. Everywhere there were crowds: crowds lining up for bread, crowds waiting for the broken-down buses, crowds pushing and shoving one another across the wide streets.

But even here, in a city deprived of history and soul, she finds

the low murmur of a people discovering, or rediscovering—or perhaps inventing—who they were.

Reminding me of Kundera‘s comments on the exploitation of folk ritual and music, a young idealist comments,

“Kitsch—they gave us fake peasant culture: mass-produced dolls for tourists, cheap wooden spoons. And all the time they were destroying the real peasant culture, shutting down workshops, telling people to give up carving and join the Communist Party.”

Here too Applebaum explores the city’s lost Jewish culture—and again when she visits Kobrin, home of her great-grandfather, who had fled conscription to make a life in America.

She learns of scholarly warfare over a phantom 1930s’ manuscript said to prove that Lithuanian had once been the dominant culture of western Belarus. In Paberžė she meets Father Stanislovas, who has filled his house with relics of early Lithuanian culture, “waging his own war against conformity, against enforced equality”.

In south Lithuania the short-lived Independent Republic of Perloja was declared in 1918—reminiscent of Passport to Pimlico. By the 1940s the region was invaded by the Soviets and Nazis. The widow of a resistance hero who had disappeared into the forests then, having herself languished in Siberia for fifteen years, still hopes that he will emerge.

Applebaum hears complex, conflicting claims about history and ethnicity. In Bieniakonie, Pan Michal tells her

“Eh,” he said, waving his hands in disgust, “these people here aren’t Polish or Russian or Belarussian or Lithuanian or anything, they are Bieniakonian.”

She comes across scenes of massacres, like the 1,137 “peaceful Soviet citizens” (actually Jews) murdered by the Nazis in Radun in 1942.

Nearby in Nowogródek she inadvertently spends the night as guest of a devout ancient grandmother, who had suffered under successive invasions and remained desperately poor, yet turns out to have remained virulently anti-semitic. When Applebaum takes her to task,

The old woman’s features shriveled in confusion, and I felt suddenly sorry for her. She was ignorant, poor, and dirty; her life had been one long series of misfortunes. The world into which she had been born was well and truly dead, and she had witnessed its passing. […] Why argue with her?

Such an uncomfortable confrontation has shades of Timothy Garton Ash’s conflicted encounters in The file with people who had once informed on him.

Learning of the “many Ukraines”, Applebaum explores Bukovyna, Bessarabia, and Transcarpathian Ruthenia. As she visits L’viv (heart of Philippe Sands’s account) she is at first impressed by the Habsburg legacy, but

After a while I began to be wary of it. L’viv was part of the borderlands, and the same historical breaks, the same mass murders, the same shuffling of peoples back and forth across borders had affected the city like all other borderland cities.

Through a crime reporter she glimpses the murky underworld of the city.

For me, all this might be a starting-point for exploring the background of the late lamented Natasha, if I could ever begin to broach it.

Moving down towards the Balkans, in Chernivtsi

the city’s Romanian Hungarian Ukrainian Polish Jewish German essence seemed capable of outliving any empire.

Here she talks with a professor who finds the city’s isolation conducive to a wholesome life. But in the island town of Kamanets Podolsky (also the subject of ch.2 of Anna Reid’s Borderland) her hosts are less contented. Once proud, it had long been in decay. Its decline reminds her of Venice:*

Walls sagged, potholes grew wider, houses fell down. […] The town authorities tried to grow trees in the central square, but failed: so many centuries of rubble were buried beneath it that nothing came up except scrawny shrubs. […] Laundry hung from the ancient walls, and garbage lay in the streets.

She doesn’t mention that Kamanets Podolsky was the site of yet another massacre over two days in August 1941, when troops under German command murdered over 26,000 Jews.

By contrast with Minsk, Applebaum finds that Kishinev (now Moldovan, sometimes Polish, Turkish, Russian, Bessarabian, Romanian; site of vicious anti-semitic pogroms), “was not even especially ugly”.

She ends up in the cosmopolitan port of Odessa, created by immigrants, leading to yet more cultural worlds.

* * *

For the southern leg of Applebaum’s travels, Kapka Kassabova‘s more recent travel writings also seek to get to grips with ethnic and cultural diversity. I suppose Patrick Leigh Fermor is a predecessor of such authors. I often find his precocious prose ponderous, and Vesna Goldsworthy unpacked his “othering” nostalgia in Inventing Ruritania: the imperialism of the imagination (1998); but Neil Ascherson (always worth reading for the wider region) is more measured (see this review).

* * *

Of course, throughout the globe—even in nations that seem to have achieved some kind of lasting stability—there are always border areas with skeletons of traumatic histories, great and little traditions, cultural faultlines. Only quite recently, vast areas of south and west China have had to learn to accommodate with the power of the nation-state, while their own allegiances remain ambiguous.

One might also think of the medieval kingdoms of central Asia, or indeed the city-states absorbed not so long ago (more effectively, with rather less trauma) into Germany and Italy. “Between East and West”—central in the vast land-mass, but marginal in our conceptual world; while it seems unlikely that we could give a central place to such regions, they make a salutary case.

Meanwhile traditional soundscapes, a crucial part of social life, suffered along with other regional cultures, and will make a further absorbing project for me. For the blind minstrels of Ukraine, see here.


*Such descriptions might be the cue for a party game on post-Brexit Britain. See also here.





Different values


I’ve written a series of posts on the various ways of playing Chinese fiddles:

And some related articles:

Much of my work revolves around trying to understand the mindsets of rural Chinese dwellers, as in my post on vocabularies. Now I come to think of it, that’s almost an incidental definition of ethnography. But it’s not entirely a contrast between urban and rural: the difference between traditional playing in literati and folk genres (both part of a long imperial tradition, and closely related) seems slight, whereas the modern conservatoire style—romantic and Westernized—is quite remote from both.

The term yijing 意境 has a rather more arty literate feel than the trendy English “mindset”, more like “aesthetic”, and in talking to educated urban Chinese I use it quite often to illustrate the issue. But—ironically, illustrating the issue further—I don’t quite know how rural Chinese people might express it, though they have plenty of terms to describe different ways of performing within their own style.

Learning with the Hua band, 2001

Learning with the Hua band, 2001.



Lives of female mediums

Here’s a companion to my post on female spirit mediums and sectarians in Yanggao.

As I observed there, alongside the more literate manifestations of religious practice in China, mediums also play an important role in local society. The gender ratio varies by region, but in many areas female mediums dominate, serving not only as healers but as protagonists in religious life. [1] For them in particular, becoming a medium gives them a social status that is otherwise unavailable.

Their abilities often stem from traumatic domestic and psychosocial crises—which the Maoist era provided in plenty. [2] Mediums we met came from a wide age-range: some began their careers under the commune system, others since the 1980s’ reforms.


Me-mot spirit mediums, Guangxi. Photo: Xiao Mei.

Perhaps the most detailed research on spirit mediums in China comes from Xiao Mei 萧梅, with her study of me-mot mediums of the Zhuang people in Guangxi in southwest China—including a diary of one medium’s busy healing schedule over a month (a fruitful way of studying the lives of local ritual performers—cf. the diaries of household Daoists Li Manshan and his son Li Bin).

In this region, as Xiao Mei explains, [3]

Whether mediums are biologically male or female, when performing as mediums they adopt the role of female. But they all have experience of having encountered intractable calamity, either personal (such as incurable illness or mental disorder) or domestic (such as frequent illness or death in the family) [SJ: here Xiao Mei doesn’t consider socio-political aspects], and it is only through becoming a medium that they can be released from such calamities.

In Jingxi county the me-mot have a close relationship with household Daoist priests. The latter not only play a major role during the process of someone becoming a medium, but also need to collaborate with the medium in practising rituals for averting calamity and seeking blessing.

For the Wenzhou region of Zhejiang province, note

and her new book

  • Re-enchanting modernity: ritual economy and society in Wenzhou, China (2020)

* * *

But mediums are also very common among the Han Chinese in north China.

For Yanggao in north Shanxi, I’ve just added Wu Fan’s interesting notes from 2003 to my post on mediums there. That post also includes some material (including photos) from the Hebei plain—which is now even nearer Beijing than it was when we were doing fieldwork on ritual groups through the 1990s. In the course of our studies we met many mediums; on and around Houshan they often channeled the goddess Houtu (see also here).

Zhang Zhentao (Yinyuehui, pp.302–4) introduces some of them in his notes from 1995, offering rare glimpses into their activities during the Maoist era:

Liu Derong (b. c1941), from a village near Houshan, used the ritual name (faming 法名) Longding 隆定. As she told us, while giving birth in 1954 and 1961 she “went mad”, clambering up the walls, fearless; in a dream she saw Guanyin of the Southern Seas seated in lotus posture before a table on the kang brick-bed. She would levitate, only coming back to the ground when she called out to the deity. She began healing at the age of 31 sui, around 1971, and had by now healed over a thousand people, notably for gynaecological ailments. We heard her sing “ritual songs” (foge 佛歌) such as The Ten Lotus Leaves (Shiduo lianhua 十朵莲花).

We also chatted with Ren Xiuzhi (then in her 60s), who came from another village in Yixian county. She had begun to “fall ill” in her 20s, and began healing people when 42 sui—in the mid-1970s.

These accounts also suggest that there could be quite a long gestatory interval between the initiatory crisis and the consolidation of healing powers.

Dingxing HTM 1995

Houtu temple, Dingxing Northgate 1995.

Still in 1995, nearby at the Houtu temple (formally called Taining gong 泰宁宫) in Northgate of Dingxing county-town, we met the exceptionally renowned medium Chen Shiying (1907–98), [4] who was still in charge of the temple. Indeed, its popularity rested mainly in her reputation as a healer.

I have supplemented our notes with the 1994 biography (indeed, hagiography) displayed in the temple, which shows a rather distinctive path:

Chen Shiying bio

Unusually for a medium, she came from a successful literate family. This precious old photo of the Chen family is said to date from the 1930s:

Chen Shiying old pic

As always, I wonder what became of them all through the ensuing turbulent times.

After the early death of her husband, Chen Shiying contemplated suicide. But when she was 37 sui (1943) her husband appeared to her in a dream, telling her that her mission was to become a healer.

Chen Shiying continued her story for us. By the age of 46 sui (1952!) she had earned such merit that Houtu occupied her body, telling her that as she had no resting-place, Chen should collect funds to build a temple for her. With collectivization escalating, she now had to persuade the reluctant village authorities. As she tearfully threatened the village chief that she would die if he didn’t give permission, and that he would soon follow her, eventually he had no choice but to allocate a plot of land by the river. She told us that she practised as a medium throughout the Maoist era, including the Cultural Revolution, though “Granny” (Houtu) didn’t necessarily possess her body then.

Now one would clearly like to learn more about this whole period… When we visited the temple in 1995, Chen Shiying was still living there, healing a regular succession of patients there. A placard was displayed, reading “Holy physician, sacred practitioner” (Shenyi shengshou 神醫聖手). “Granny” had recently told her she also needed an opera stage before the temple, so she was now busy assembling funds to build one.

As Zhang Zhentao observes, the popularity of the cult to Houtu depends largely on the great faith that villagers place in the efficacity of both the mediums and the deity occupying them.

* * *

In Shaanbei, spirit mediums (both female and male) are also ubiquitous (for an introduction to the various categories, see Chau, Miraculous response, pp. 54–6).

Here, again, we find that the waxing and waning fates of temples (not always evident from written sources) may depend largely on the efficacity of their presiding medium. The intrepid Guo Yuhua (Minjian yishi yu shehui bianqian, pp.378–9) gives an interesting illustration of such change over a brief period—in this case referring to a male medium:

On a hill above Yangjiagou village the Lingguan temple (full name Heihu lingguan miao, to Efficacious Officer Black Dragon) was rebuilt in the early 1990s and rapidly became very popular, thanks to the renowned efficacity of its healing matong medium. Villagers throughout the area flocked to its temple fair on 7th moon 15th, making donations of several thousand yuan that financed the new god statues and the performance of a “holy opera” down in the village.

But suddenly in 1996 the temple revenue declined sharply, because the medium died. Villagers explained that the god had departed along with him. Then over the following New Year the temple mysteriously caught fire. burning the “god places”, an offerings table, the door, and windows.

At the same time the village’s Longwang miao and Pusa miao temples were enjoying a revival with their successful rain processions during the droughts of 1995 and 1997. So villagers soon transferred their loyalties. As the “rain opera” at the Longwang temple on 5th moon 15th became popular, the Lingguan temple accordingly moved the date of its own temple fair to combine with it. The villagers even moved the Lingguan god statue, responsible for healing, to the Pusa temple so that they could seek cures before it at the 4th moon 8th fair, and “hang the locket” there for their children—not part of the temple’s original functions.

With this in mind, a return visit to Chen Shiying’s temple in Hebei, since her death, would be interesting.

As Guo Yuhua notes, this is also an instance of the resilience of popular strategies, by contrast with state measures towards religion. Temples are not just timeless ancient vestiges of some ancient cultural heritage, but depend on people—both educated and illiterate, both male and female.

Lingguan miao 99

The Lingguan temple, now forlorn, Yangjiagou 1999.

* * *

The healing sessions of mediums, while now acting in tandem with (rather than in conflict with) more orthodox medical procedures, are clearly a significant and enduring aspect of folk healthcare. And in all these regions, mediums vocalise in various forms including singing: soundscape is always an important aspect of our ritual studies (see also here, and here).

While it is hard enough to unearth the history of household Daoists under the Maoist era, it’s even more so for the female mediums. Their domestic healing activities never drew much outside attention, so it seems likely that they discreetly maintained their activities under the commune system. But since women tend not to relate their stories to the public life of the society, and such mediums are often illiterate, it will take thoughtful work to explore this topic. Similarly, fieldworkers are unlikely to happen upon the initiatory crises that first trigger their possession, which might also make a revealing study.

For more on studying gender in Chinese religious life, see here.


[1] Note the bibliographies here and here. See also my “Gender and music in local communities”, in Rachel Harris, Rowan Pease and Shzr Ee Tan eds., Gender in Chinese music (2013), pp.32–4 and n.40, as well as the work of Mayfair Yang on the mediums of Wenzhou (here, n.2).

[2] For a fine ethnography of an Yi community in Yunnan, describing possession and exorcism as symptoms of (and strategies to handle) the violent traumas of both Maoist and reform eras, see Erik Mueggler, The age of wild ghosts: memory, violence and place in southwest China (2001). The blunt psychiatric perspective of Albert C. Gaw et al., “The clinical characteristics of possession disorder among 20 Chinese patients in the Hebei province of China”Psychiatric services 49.3 (1998) is now richly augmented by Emily Ng in a study of mediums in Henan

[3] Adapted from Xiao Mei, “Bodies, gender and worldviews: me-mot spirit mediums in the Jingxi region of Guangxi”, in Gender in Chinese music, pp.247–64. For more, see Xiao Mei, “Chang zai wulu shang” 唱在巫路上 [Singing on the journey of the medium], in Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Huanan juan 中国民间仪式音乐研究·华南卷) [Studies of Chinese folk ritual music, South China vols.], ed. Cao Benye (Shanghai: Shanghai yinyue xueyuan chubanshe, 2007, vol.2, pp.328–494; note also the amazing scenes on the DVD). On the initiatory crises, see p.438 ff.; for the diary, pp.455–7.

[4] For her birth-date, the biography gives a Guangxu year of Yiwei 乙未, equivalent to 1895, but then states that she was 88 sui in 1994 (indeed, in 1995 she told us she was 89 sui), so perhaps we should read the year as 丁未。


King Kong: temple Chinglish

The intrepid explorations of Hannibal Taubes continue to bear fruit.

Apart from his amazing images of village temple murals around Hebei and Shanxi, he has recently found these helpful Chinglish translations at the Chongfu si temple in Shuozhou county—which, incidentally, is one of the most fruitful sites for household Daoist ritual in north Shanxi.

Here’s the Amitābha hall (Mituo dian), arcanely rendered as “Indemnity Tuo Temple” (“I’m like, WTF?”)—blowing plastic and threat paternity (has clearly experienced vicissitudes of life):

indemnity tuo

It’s also gratifying to learn that between 1987 and 1991 the country allocate huge funds to a landing gear overhaul—presumably to help the deities descend after riding the clouds 駕雲 (for their earlier modes of transport, see here).

And a fine interpretation of the deity Jin’gang (Vajracchedikā) in his local reincarnation as King Kong:*

King Kong

The four kings are cool, but I have no idea where the “three with disabilities” came from.

In the Manjusri hall [Gosh, jolly good show! It’s all about comic timing], along with yet more plastic, we find the splendid Boulez Lichtung (in niche homage to Stockhausen’s Licht and Stimmung?):

Wenshu tang

Hats off to this budding comedian on the local temple circuit.

* * *

More disturbingly, here’s a poster advertising state intrusion in an inauguration ritual at the newly refurbished Sanhuang miao temple in nearby Hunyuan county:


I’d like to know which Daoist group took part (that of Jiao Lizhong, I surmise), and what ritual segments they performed—unsurprisingly, details not found on the poster.

Anyway, as Hannibal notes, with the core of the event formed by not one, not two, but three speeches from the leadership, I think we can all agree that under the resolute guidance of Uncle Xi‘s New Epoch Socialist Thought, Daoist ritual will certainly attain a high level of development. Now that’s what I call ritual redundancy. Whoever said chanting scriptures was boring?

While Party involvement in the rituals of larger official temples is common, such encroachment into local ritual practice is (so far) rare; but as usual, everyone is probably just going through the motions—like under Maoism, when the bard might perform a token new section before the traditional story that peasants actually wanted. Keep calm and carry on.


*I heard a story that since the Danish for “king” is kong, King Kong was translated as Kong King, but disappointingly it turns out to be apocryphal. For a fractious yet melodious King Kong headline, see here.


With thanks to Hannibal



Ritual studies mildly censored


I’m happy to see a Chinese translation of the Appendix “Ethnography, performance, and history in Daoist ritual studies” of my book Daoist priests of the Li family, just published in the fine series Dayin (“Ritual soundscapes”—which, BTW, is always full of excellent field reports) from the enterprising Centre for Chinese Ritual Music Research at the Shanghai Conservatoire 上海音乐学院中国仪式音乐研究中心:*

  •  “Daojiao yishi yanjiuzhongde minzuzhi, biaoyan he lishi” 道教仪式研究中的民族志、 表演和历史, Dayin 大音 vol. 13, pp.112–30.

This Appendix explores many of the main themes in my research, not just on the Li family Daoists but on my whole fieldwork on ritual practice in rural China. I worked on the translation together with Zhang Lili, whose recent PhD thesis explores my relationship with the Hebei village of Gaoluo, as in my ethnography Plucking the winds. She’s thoroughly familiar with my work.

Dayin p.1

Amidst current anxieties over censorship (for Chinese pressure on Western academic publication, see e.g. this NYT article), my own arcane publications hardly merit much attention. But here at last I did come up against a little issue.

Earlier this year in my talks in Beijing I noted an impressive candour about modern history amongst Chinese colleagues (cf. this article), and Chinese social media and websites resound with yet more controversial material (such as on, including this recent English translation); but print publication is a rather separate matter.

As we worked on the translation, we very occasionally adapted a phrase to read more naturally in Chinese, but left my content intact. It was then accepted for the Dayin series—which is gratifying, since while I stress the crucial role of soundscape in ritual, my Appendix contains rather little material on “music” as such. And Dayin also makes a suitable home for my work since the Centre for Ritual Music Research (despite its name) has long advocated the use of the term “soundscape”, while taking a broader anthropological view than other Chinese “music” journals.

Later during the editing process, the doubtless well-meaning editors were mainly concerned about the potential political sensitivity of one sentence (in bold below) under “The 1949 barrier”, where I explore the status of research on ritual in the PRC:

Scholars of Daoism recognize the historical importance of politics, describing machinations at imperial courts, or campaigns in the Republican era. But then their enquiry abruptly stops. So religious practice since 1949—whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue.

Indeed, early history has long been a safer topic in socialist countries, as Vesna Goldsworthy notes for Serbia. In the discussion at one of my Beijing talks, a senior Chinese scholar made a similar point, even while noting greater freedoms in research since the 1980s’ reforms; and I’m sure personally the Dayin editors (like everyone in China I know in the field) concur with it. I’ve made such observations in many previous English (and even some Chinese) publications, read by my Chinese colleagues and their students; after all, the dominant theme of my research is the maintenance of ritual activity under Maoism and since. Though my critique applied as much to Western as to Chinese scholars, some—even within the PRC—have published honorable ethnographies that I often cite.

But constrained by the current climate, the editors observed that if I wanted to retain the sentence in bold above (indeed the whole passage—see below), then it would need to be submitted to a whole chain of meetings of Higher Authorities, which could be both time-consuming and tedious. Reluctant to do a King Canute, and bearing in mind the fieldworker’s maxim “abide by local customs“, I found myself willing to make a certain compromise.

Our Chinese draft had gone:


For “whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained” the editors at first suggested a softer 无论管得严还是松 (“however strict or lax the control”); it’s not quite what I wrote, but I liked it since it read more idiomatically. I wasn’t privy to later stages in editing, and the final version turned out closer to our own—but at the expense of a cunning adjustment to the previous phrase. In the end the sentence came out as


Thus, following “But then their enquiry abruptly stops” (from which the deletion of “abruptly” also subtly transforms my intent), the sentence now reads

So religious practice in different historical periods—whether [“savagely” cut] repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue.

In other words, they’ve replaced my “religious practice since 1949” with “religious practice in different historical periods”. That totally garbles my point: it’s not the whole political history that’s sensitive, just that since 1949!

Of course, the beauty of it is that precisely by censoring the sentence they proved my point—by feeling it’d be rash to admit that it was a sensitive issue, they revealingly showed that it was… Ha! I rest my case.

Leading on from that idea, our translation of the following section has also been garbled in the publication:

Ironically, modern history (as for earlier periods) is not entirely about political campaigns; general social and economic trends also need discussion, but they too are casualties of this taboo mentality. It is ironic, or significant, that this self-censorship has largely emanated from projects led from Hong Kong and Taiwan—their caution perhaps deriving partly from not wishing to implicate mainland authors and subjects. But such idealization of both present and past feeds into the rose-tinted patriotic subtext of recent cultural heritage projects.

Of course, this is a far wider issue than ritual studies, involving the whole historiography of modern China. The next paragraph also received subtle yet significant editing:

Actually, it is not only religion that is sensitive. When discussing with Chinese colleagues the lack of detail on modern history in reports on local folk culture, one often hears the riposte “Everyone knows [again they’ve added “tacitly” here, which I like] what happened since 1949—there’s no need to discuss it.”
*Such a conspiracy of silence is both erroneous and dangerous [that phrase altered], repressing memory. There is a remarkable ignorance among younger Chinese of basic details about modern history [that whole phrase cut, and thus the following two words]; even older people who lived through the period must have had different experiences, that are still poorly documented.* If we refrained from writing about World War Two because “everyone knows what happened”, we might assume that the experiences of people of various classes in Latvia, Puglia, and Singapore were similar and so not worth recording.

For the record, here’s our draft of that further offending passage (between asterisks above):

这种保持缄默的密约是错误和危险的,它抑制记忆。年轻的中国人对近代历史基本细节的知识很有限。即使是生活在那段时期的老年人也一定有不同的经验 ,这种记录仍然很缺乏。

Of course, Western editors can be critical too—but this is a translation of a published work, not a manuscript submitted for assessment. Our Chinese version may not always have read well, so I welcome stylistic suggestions—but here there’s also another agenda for editor and author to ponder. I didn’t write my book, or any of my other English works, with a view to publication in Chinese; while always sensitive to the condition of Chinese people, I carry out my research in the context of Western academic discourse. But reading my original, perhaps you will think me naive not to have engaged in self-censorship even while working on the translation.

Innocuous enough, the incident may not be the end of the world, but it’s a slippery slope. Whatever the result, now I’m free to document it all here, somewhat salving my conscience, and I’m not blaming the editors in the least. Everyone involved acted in good faith—these are just the kind of issues with which we all have to grapple through variable political climates.

Anyway, I am glad to see my Appendix in Chinese—very nearly complete, and more or less accurate. Far more impressionistic translations, in both directions, have doubtless been published.

The same volume also includes updates on research on Buddhist and Daoist “music”—which, though I dispute such concepts, are useful if one reads between the lines, just as my own article suggests.


* BTW, following my peeve about the Western academic convention of disrupting authors’ melliflous prose with garrulous parenthetical in-text citations, the name of the Dayin editorial committee would make another fine case (Shanghai yinyue xueyuan Zhongguo yishi yinyue yanjiu zhongxin Dayin bianjibu weiyuanhui 2018, personal communication).

Daoist ritual in southwest Shanxi

*For main page, click here!*

Shanxi pics

This article introduces household Complete Perfection Daoist groups in the counties south of Linfen city.

Since southwest Shanxi is another region that I haven’t visited, my account is based on limited secondary sources, so this is more of an invitation than a report. So this is a modest if more colourful update of the material in ch.4 of my In search of the folk Daoists of north China. Even if many details need clarifying, we gain a tantalizing glimpse into grass-roots Daoism since imperial times.

And following my articles on the worship of the goddess Houtu on the Hebei plain, I also give a note on Houtu temples in south Shanxi.

Layers of fieldwork

SLY map - Version 2

Map of Upper Liangyuan village, Li Manshan 2012, showing former temples and the houses of Daoists.

As you may notice in my series of reports on local ritual, fieldwork often oscillates between various geographical levels, all mutually beneficial—zooming in with thick description, or out to sketch the wider picture.

Dong Xiaoping reflected on this issue in a thoughtful review of field reports on west Fujian (in Overmyer, Ethnography in China today, pp.347–50), commenting again on the old “unity and diversity” theme in Chinese culture.

We need a balance between “making a base” (dundian) and “surveys” (pucha). My two detailed long-term projects on Gaoluo village and the Li family Daoists have both benefitted from surveys of the wider regional culture of which they are part.

Thus, in my writings as in the wider literature, one can find studies of

My posts on local ritual illustrate all this with many maps. The more we zoom in, the more satisfying the results; but the broader picture is necessary too.

Yanggao personalities

Wang Ji 2003

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

Worldwide, biography makes a fruitful complement to social history. Fieldwork reports on religious life in rural China don’t necessarily focus on personalities at all—with some noble exceptions (such as the book of Stephan Feuchtwang and Wang Mingming on charisma, or Antoinet Schimmelpenninck‘s work on folk singers), they’re often more concerned with silent, inanimate artefacts like ritual manuals or temple murals.

When we do discuss the lives of Real People, our work often focuses on particular “bearers of tradition”. Even then, Chinese biographies often seem to take their cue from the hagiographies of Lei Feng (all the more so since the contagious ideology of the Intangible Cultural Heritage); and even Western descriptions tend to portray their Daoist masters as paragons nobly aloof from any engagement with social and political change. But we also need to document the complexities of their lives within changing society; over a long period I’ve come to engage with many other local figures too. Writing history clearly involves looking beyond kings and queens.

My first long-term field site of Gaoluo, where the village’s amateur ritual association represented the whole village, made a good education: while I focused on ritual specialists like He Qing and Cai An, the cast was diverse. This trained me to integrate my accounts of ritual in changing society with people’s lives—a theme that I continued with my work on bards and shawm players in Shaanbei.

* * *

In Yanggao county of north Shanxi, my primary mentors were again outstanding ritual performers—first the Hua family shawm band, and then Daoist masters Li Qing and his son Li Manshan (see also here). But again I began to spread the net wider.

Li Manshan’s wife Yao Xiulian, and his mother Xue Yumei.

First, a reminder of the women of Yanggao, whose various roles I’ve described in three posts—the female relatives of Daoists, sectarians and mediums, and singers. Anthropologists like Guo Yuhua also stress the importance of studying women’s experiences under Maoism.

Further to my film and book, on tour of France with the Li family Daoists in 2017 I wrote a series of tributes, starting here.

Li Xu with Li Manshan, 2013; right, Li Xu’s coffin, 2015.

In the Li family’s home village of Upper Liangyuan, I met poor peasant Li Xu (1926–2015) all too briefly. Though illiterate, he seemed to be the only villager who knew of the precious early steles of the village’s two main temples (my book, pp.46–9). If only I had been in time to learn more from him—he was a living library of local customs.

SLY oldies

In 2011 Li Manshan took me to meet the oldest person in the village, born in 1915. Just south of the site of the Temple of the God Palace, opposite the house of senior Daoist Kang Ren (1925–2010: photos here and here, with playlist #2; more in my book), he lived in a humble cave-dwelling with his (somewhat younger) wife. Being poor and childless, the couple had played no active role in major events in the village. That didn’t mean they couldn’t have valuable insights; they were friendly and articulate, and we had a long chat about life before and after Liberation (temples, rain processions, campaigns against sects, and so on); but even Li Manshan found them quite hard to follow, and I learned less than I had hoped.

Shi Shengbao 2018

Shi Shengbao with Li Manshan, Yangguantun 2018. Photo: Li Bin.

Nearby in Yangguantun, the energetic Shi Shengbao (b.1948) has fulfilled the role of ritual director there since 1981. One of the Li family’s most trusted collaborators, he’s the subject of a nice vignette in Ian Johnson’s book (pp.373–4).

North of the county-town everyone admired the kindly and devout ritual specialist Wang Ji (1950–2017, photo at head of article), local leader of an amateur sect that performs “precious scrolls” as part of their rituals (for an update, see here).

In another instance of the tacit maintenance of ritual traditions during the Cultural Revolution (see e.g. under “Other coverage of liturgy” in my post on Ningxia), Wang Ji studied from 1967 with his father and another sectarian master in the village. They were all disciples of a former abbot at Wutaishan, whom they looked after in this period. They also studied with a liturgist in a nearby village. Wang Ji was formally admitted to the sect in 1970. Though it was formally proscribed after Liberation, they  were clearly active throughout the period, and he and his father had no problems as long as they didn’t cause trouble for the village cadres by practising too openly. In some memorable sessions in 2003 Wang Ji patiently explained to us the complex practice of singing the scrolls, as well as inviting us to the sect’s imposing rituals.

* * *

As to the lowly shawm players who also accompany life-cycle and calendrical rituals, I endured some challenging times over the years with the brilliant yet dysfunctional Hua family, both in Yanggao and on foreign tours. Most bands have long abandoned the complexity of the former long suites for a pop repertoire, but Yang Ying still leads a fine band, as well as depping with the Li family Daoists.

But it was two senior blind players who made a deep impression on both Wu Fan and me. Liuru’s circumstances had been desperate both under Maoism and since the reforms; Erhur at least had children to help him out. Their spellbound reciting of the gongche mnenomics of the shawm melodies gave us an entry into their world.

Left: Liuru, with Yinsan, another blind shawm player. Right: Erhur. Photos 2003.

ZQ and me

With Zhang Quan, 2018.

In recent years I’ve always been delighted to meet up with the sweet semi-blind shawm player Zhang Quan in Pansi village—this time he was helping me with my search for the kang murals of Artisan the Sixth! For blind shawm players, see here.

gravediggers HGT 2013

Grave-diggers, Houguantun 2013.

I should also consult some of the other still more lowly helpers, like coffin-bearers and grave-diggers. One character whom I’ve seen countless times at funerals over the years is a bearded, itinerant helper with ragged clothes. Despite impaired use of his limbs he accompanies the kin, helping out with various duties like carrying props for the Invitation procession.

I’ve never managed to chat (guada 呱嗒) with him, but the trusty Li Bin has just given me some background on his story, which—in utter contrast to the long hereditary solidity and repute of the Li family—evokes chronic rural poverty and family vulnerability:

He’s known by his nickname Yanjun. Born in Liujiaquan village in the mid-1980s, his mother came from Sichuan, from where poor village men often buy wives. But she soon returned there, leaving him behind. Again, such bartered brides often sought to flee their unwanted new homes, and the unfamiliar northern climate and dialect, though many too resigned themselves to their fate—I’ve met several of them. Even in those days transport was still primitive, and there were no telephones.

But Yanjun’s maternal grandmother stayed on to look after him—he had severe physical problems, and if it hadn’t been for her care he might never have learned to walk. But later she too returned to Sichuan, while Yanjun’s father found another wife and set up a family in Inner Mongolia just north (again, a common refuge of Yanggao people since imperial times). Yanjun now moved in with his poor bachelor uncle.

An only child, Yanjun never went to school, and he has no prospect of finding a wife. As a vagrant, he’s quite aware of his outcaste status. He knows his place—I’ve never seen him chatting with anyone at funerals, and of course he doesn’t eat with the guests, just hanging around outside the field kitchen. I can’t even recall seeing him indoors. But he’s alert and trustworthy, and the host families take pity on him, giving him cigarettes and liquor, as well as (these last few years) quite a bit of cash—most of which he spends on buying cigarettes for the funeral director. Charity isn’t always evident in rural society, but inconspicuously it operates its own safety net. Now Yanjun also gets a little dibao allowance from the local government.

Meanwhile on a trip into town, Li Manshan’s younger brother, a successful cadre, invites me with a group of friends to a sumptuous banquet in a posh restaurant, washed down with a case of 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon. The gulf between rich and poor in China is staggering.

* * *

Jing Ziru

Right to left: Jing Ziru, Li Bin, and Li Jin, 2013.

At the other end of the social scale from Yanjun, by comparison with areas like Fujian in south China, cultural scholars in north Shanxi are thin on the ground. But in Yanggao the affable Jing Ziru (b.1926) is a local historian whose erudition is alas displayed only in a few brief articles. Also widely admired—truly an unsung local hero—is Li Jin (b.1945), successively opera performer, trusted cadre, and retired amateur Errentai instrumentalist, to whom I wrote a heartfelt tribute. But like their rural counterparts, they too suffered under Maoism.

Alongside all the necessary work documenting material artefacts like temple steles, ritual manuals, and so on, it’s only through such wide-ranging personal accounts—the tribulations of people’s lives—that we can evoke a vivid picture of changing rural society.

Doing things

Doing Things cover

My 2015 film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist (which complements my book Daoist priests of the Li family) is an intimate evocation of the Li family Daoists (next London screening here!).

In a field where silent inanimate publications vastly outnumber audio-visual documentation, for further background on ritual life in Yanggao it’s also worth watching my earlier DVD Doing things (办事, widespread parlance for “performing rituals”), which comes with my 2007 book Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi.

Apart from the shawm bands (notably the Hua family band: the magnificent suite in §C of the DVD is analysed here), this film also contains many interesting scenes of funerals and temple fairs in Yanggao from as far back as 1991, including not only the Li family Daoists but also

  • Li Yuan‘s Daoist band
  • Rituals such as Fetching Water (for both funerals and temple fairs), Burning the Treasuries, Transferring Offerings, and the burial procession
  • Raising the Pennant, and Judgment and Alms, at the 2003 Lower Liangyuan temple fair
  • A nocturnal yankou ritual performed by Buddhist monks
  • The Gushan temple fair, with Daoists and sectarians
  • pop music at funerals and temple fairs (cf. here, and here).

XLY yangfan 03

And while I’m here, don’t forget the DVD Notes from the yellow earth with my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei—a vivid complement to the book and my various posts on Shaanbei!

Both volumes are now in paperback


London film screening!

I’ve just added details of the next London screening of my film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist to the Upcoming events in the sidebar. Do come along if you can—it’s always good to watch it in company, and the post-match discussions can be lively…

The free event is hosted by the SOAS China Institute—details here.

Slapping the coffin, and headgear

LMS huacai

Li Manshan decorates a coffin.

Apart from the liturgy of the Daoists that is my main topic, many other concomitant mortuary observances tend to fall under the domain of “folklore”.

After a death in rural Yanggao, among all the complex arrangements shown in my film, there’s a tiny exchange (from 14.11) where the son of the deceased reads out Li Manshan’s prescription for the funeral arrangements.

I’ve never witnessed Slapping the Coffin (yicai 移材, my book, pp.186–7), but I now find a little description in Wu Fan’s notes from our 2003 fieldwork in Yanggao:

According to the “old rules”, Slapping the Coffin follows the nocturnal Escorting Away the Orphan Souls ritual segment and the lengthy Crossing the Soul [aka Sitting Through the Night] instrumental sequence from the shawm band or Daoists (my book, p.128). Around half an hour after the band has fallen silent, when all is quiet, the oldest son and oldest daughter slap the coffin with their palms, crying out “Go, then” (Zouba, zouba 走吧,走吧). Then the son leads the way, sweeping the path while the daughter takes the paper cart (now often a car) from the funeral artefacts, kowtowing all the way to a crossroads, where the cart is burned.

See also Allan Marett’s comment below on a Song-dynasty Zen collection.

By 2003 this procedure had commonly been simplified for some time, and even Sitting Through the Night was optional. But it’s an instance of all the minutiae formerly observed by the kin, beyond the more public rituals of the Daoist band—”customary” rather than “religious”.

The kin still observe elaborate, ancient distinctions in their funerary headgear—these are just the appendages for the female kin:


Headgear appendages for female kin. Left to right: 1–2 daughters, wife; 3–7 sisters’ daughters, wives of sisters’ sons; 8–9 granddaughters, wives of grandsons; 10–11 maternal granddaughters, wives of maternal grandsons. Made by Li Manshan’s wife.

Left, sister; right, granddaughters.

But as ever, “customs differ every 10 li“. We should document both religious and customary rituals. Neither is timeless: we need to show how they change within local societies.

While we’re talking headgear, I’m very fond of this image from my film, of Daoist hats hanging out to dry after being washed—a reminder that ritual equipment has to be maintained:

yinyang hats




Update on Yanggao ritual

Gushan yinyang 2003

Following my links to images of Yanggao temple murals, I’ve also updated my post More Daoists of Yanggao with photos of the temple at Gushan—recent ones from Hannibal Taubes, and my own images of 2003 rituals there, including a fine sectarian group.

So do (re)visit the post—useful background for ritual groups there apart from the illustrious Li family. Not to mention many more articles on other counties of north Shanxi, Hebei, and so on, linked under Local ritual.

Gushan sect 2003.3

Folk and temple ritual in Ningxia

*For main page, click here!*

NX Daoist

Continuing my series on local ritual in north China, the province of Ningxia, between Shaanbei and Gansu, looks to have lively traditions of Daoist and Buddhist ritual, both temple-based and household.

Of course Ningxia is better known for its Hui Muslim population—and the recent clampdowns. But Han Chinese make up around two thirds of the inhabitants, and their Buddhist and Daoist ritual activity is widespread, with a long history. One scholar has estimated that there are over thirty thousand household Daoists active there!

With no personal experience of fieldwork there, my little introduction is based on limited secondary sources, merely suggesting the kind of spadework one should do before venturing into the field. I set forth from the instrumental volume of the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, itself resulting from fieldwork in the late 1980s to early 90s. As usual, while I dispute the very concept of “religious music”, I’m grateful for all the clues there.

Still using the Anthology, I also add a note on “Buddhist precious scrolls” and “Daoist morality tales” performed by devotional sectarian groups in Gansu.


More temple murals from Yanggao

Rear central hall rear wall west mural

As part of my work on the Li family Daoists (film, book, and unwieldy category), I’ve just added links to a wealth of images of temple murals (for Lower Liangyuan, Zhenmenbu, and Gushan) from the recent explorations of Hannibal Taubes around Yanggao, in my posts on

As to ritual paintings, see these posts on north Shanxi:

For the series of field reports from my recent trip to Yanggao, see links here.

And for Hebei, see

as well as many posts under

Spreading the net still wider, you might browse the art tag.

Meanwhile, do continue consulting Hannibal’s inexhaustible website!

Sardinian chronicles

Bernard Irgoli 1995

Bernard Lortat-Jacob entertains villagers, Irgoli 1995. Photo: Maria Manca.

I’ve already mentioned some of the more accessible bibles of ethnomusicology, like the works of Bruno Nettl, Susan McClary, Ruth Finnegan, Christopher Small, Paul Berliner, and Ciaran Carson. Another justly popular one is the slim tome by

How I envy Bernard his fields of study—apart from Sardinia, also Morocco, Romania, Albania…! As with flamenco (first of three posts here), he explores the riches of regional folk cultures around the Mediterranean, integrating changing musical and social practices into everyday life—which is precisely what fieldwork should be about (see also fieldwork tag).

His publications are enough to make anyone want to become an ethnographer. He also blazed a trail in making audio and visual anthropology an indispensable part of our oeuvre.

* * *

I’ve introduced the riches of the regional folk cultures of Italy here. The concept of “Italy” is rather recent anyway, and there’s still a huge amount to explore in its regional traditions. So taxonomy falls short again: to subsume the folk culture of Sardinia under Italy is no more suitable than discussing Tibetan or Uyghur cultures under China (ha). And it’s another illustration how very blinkered is our search for sun and sea (cf. fado, football, and Fátima).

Sardinian chronicles is popular not only by virtue of its brevity and its engaging style, akin to travel writing, but from its rich ethnographic observation and its musical, social, and indeed psychological detail, with a series of encounters with individual musicians and their families—musicking as part of social interaction within changing local communities.

Like the late lamented Antoinet Schimmelpenninck for China, Bernard is gifted with a natural rapport. And as he unpacks his own involvement, his delights and tribulations form part of the picture. Sardinian chronicles has become a model for later texts—certainly mine (not least my latest film and book).

Despite the luxury tourist enclaves of latter years, the poverty of Sardinia is striking, far from the glamorous life of Tuscany or north Italy. Vendettas remains chronic among Sardinian shepherds—like the feuds of rival clans in south Fujian, and child chimney-sweeps, among the traditional heritages that UNESCO won’t be supporting…

Complementing his book, this beautiful 1989 film by Bernard (with Georges Luneau) makes a fine introduction to various kinds of musicking in Sardinian life:

Here one truly feels the “red-hot sociality” attributed to Chinese temple fairs.

Canto a tenores
This style of a cappella vocal quartet (see e.g. from 16.40 in the film above) is one of the most entrancing vocal sounds anywhere in the world, let alone in Europe. Its sound ideal makes a fascinating contrast with that of the Swedish psalm—more for Lomax’s Cantometrics to explore. Though recently, inevitably, sucked into the heritage razzmatazz (nowhere is safe!) and a regular guest on the world-music circuit, commodification can’t hijack its presence in local society.

On Lunissanti Holy Week in Castelsardo in northwest Sardinia (cf. calendrical rituals, or Athos), Bernard Lortat-Jacob has another gorgeous book

  • Canti di passione (1996; French edition 1998),

with photos by Bachisio Masia—a brilliant innovation of a scholarly work on folk liturgy which doubles as a coffee-table book!

Like Berliner’s Lives in jazz, it is just as detailed in musical as in social analysis—and as with Indian music, or indeed Madonna, a basic grasp of musical features can only enhance a more physical and intuitive response. Apart from the wonderful scenes in Bernard’s film (from 28.26), some video from 1992:

and 2011:

Here the magical canto a cuncordu vocal style evokes that of the secular tenores.

The launeddas (Sachs–Hornbostel #422.3!!!) is another microcosm, with its locally renowned players and makers. With three pipes (one drone, two melodic), it’s a very distant cousin of the Chinese sheng mouth-organ. Again, Bernard’s film has some insightful scenes (from 46.14).

An early pioneer of launeddas studies was Andreas Bentzon (1936–71):

The minimalists would love the constant imperceptible transformations in these riffs!


Prominent among the masters with whom Bentzon studied were Efisio Melis and Antonio Lara (yet more rivals who made a tactical truce!). Their recordings from 1930 and 1961 are featured on a fine CD.

I haven’t yet caught the launeddas in situ, but I was delighted to hear the great Luigi Lai at the City of London festival in 1998, to which I had invited the equally distinguished qin master Lin Youren. Here he is with Totore Chessa in 2011:

The manic melodic quality of the style is the basis for that of the organetto—one accordion type that Annie Proulx doesn’t quite cover (and to lower the tone, Captain Pugwash perhaps sowed the seed for my generation in Britain). A brief appreciation (of the organetto, not Captain Pugwash, as Nina Stibbe would explain) features below.

* * *

By contrast, to show the limitations of casual visits by an outsider like me, here are some vignettes from a holiday I spent there with my partner from Mantua in the summer of 1998, when Bernard affably introduced us to his adopted village of Irgoli—his chapter about which in Sardinian chronicles is itself a kind of love song, with beautiful insights on guitar song (another major genre) in the bar.

Writing up my notes mainly on the beach, the contrast with my fieldwork in China was extreme—I was deep in my studies of Gaoluo and the Hebei ritual associations at the time.

And despite the ethnographic riches of, um, Chiswick, it’s ironic that I should be writing all this stuck here, sweltering (insert suitable headline here)—I should be there! I guess it’s called work­–life balance.

Our hosts Totore Vacca and Doloretta are friendly—warm and natural. There are lots of musos around. We get by with speaking Italian, though of course they all speak Sardinian together.

On our first evening we go along to a festa for children’s singing, meeting the breezy, nay manic, organetto star Totore Chessa (see e.g. here and here; also featured in Bernard’s film above, and on the Sardinian chronicles CD). Totore uses his big fisarmonica (rather than his organetto) to accompany our hosts’ daughter Francesca. To conclude, the local priest makes a speech that reminds me of a Chinese cadre: family, pride, culture, blah blah.

One evening Totore drives us, manically, to the festa of Santa Margherita Bultei. The gig on a stage in the piazza is furnished with loud amplification. Several groups of dancers perform, one of which Salvatore accompanies, with singers and guitar. The other dance groups have their own organetto accompanists; and there are three groups of tenores, including the fine group from Orgosolo. An old codger goes round liberally dispensing local wine. This sure beats the Nether Wallop church fête.

The costumes seem rather fabricated to me, but it doesn’t affect the authenticity of the performances. The parameters of the music seem simple, narrow, but it’s still hard to grasp.

After the festa ends at 2.15am, the local organetto player Mario Bande invites Totore back to his place for a drink—which turns into an all-nighter. We’re tired enough after the long festa, unprepared for this further private party, but given that Totore is our lift, we tag along with some of the dancers. Their animated talk is incomprehensible, even to my Italian partner; yet if we had managed to understand more, it would have been a wonderful insight into local musical values. Story of my life…

The two of them are subtly sounding each other out. Mario’s uncle and grandfather were great players, and the latter collected many folk pieces, some of which Salvatore is said to have ripped off.

First Mario brings out various instruments for Totore to try out and appraise, then they have a protracted argument about the uniqueness of local dance styles. Totore, defending himself against the taint of plagiarism, makes the point that there can be no evidence that such pieces originated in this one village alone.

They’re not just arguing passionately about aesthetics (the local dancers are also vocal in support of the Bultei faction), with all the loving exploration of craftsmanship of instrument-making that Annie Proulx describes, but they also have a deep and insatiable need to keep playing and dancing. As soon as anyone even tries out a phrase, the dancers can’t help gyrating—a contagious kind of dancing mania. Everyone (except us!) gets involved. Eventually the party winds down, with diplomatic decorum apparently maintained, though we’re not privy to the nuances of their probings.

Totore is pure, other-wordly, childlike, living only for the organetto. He talks just the way he plays, in quickfire bursts and abrupt cadences, always upbeat, hectic, alert to the spark of the moment. People know he’s different.

Here he is with Luigi Lai in 2011:

Back to my notes, covered in wine and suntan lotion:

Totore drives just like he plays too. Still chattering away, he navigates the mountain roads at breakneck speed as the sun rises. He clearly know the roads as well as he knows his keyboard—like Daoist Li Bin as he chases round doing funerals in Yanggao. We get back to Irgoli by 7am. Only later that day do we learn that a shepherd had been shot dead at the edge of the village at 5am—another victim of local vendettas.

Another evening we take our hosts for a pizza in Orosei. They’re keen to go to a screening of Titanic. We make excuses—another of those moral dilemmas of the fieldworker. Solidarity (“Becoming at One with the People”) suggests that we try and share their world, but hey, we’re on holiday… Instead we find Totore Chessa propping up the bar. He drops in next day to invite us to another festa, but we’ve agreed to go to a gara poetica poetry joust in Orosei—which is no longer quite like this:

(As often I tend to cite older clips because they hint at change—more recent footage is easily found!)

On a visit to the museum at Nuoro we get a glimpse of how very much life has changed in Sardinia. Then Bernard and Maria arrive; after a trip to the beach we go to the wedding of their friends, where the tenores di Bitti and a group from Castelsardo are singing. As in China, this is how to experience folk music, rather than in sanitized stage renditions. Sure, it’s all a continuum

tenores 1998

And of course this is yet another instance of the diversity of all the cultures of Europe (like those of China, or Africa) from which Some Brits now seek to isolate themselves…

Notes from Beijing, 4: between cultures

Left: Dom (photo: SCMP). Right: Matt jamming at home.

The support network enjoyed by fieldworkers rarely intrudes into scholarly accounts, except as dry lists in the acknowledgements to musty tomes. So to follow my posts on recent encounters with Chinese scholars (Notes from Beijing, 1, 2, 3), here are some vignettes on expat life in Beijing—perhaps reminiscent of Nigel Barley’s remarks on the missionary veranda.

The laidback hospitality of Matt Forney has long been a delight whenever I return grubbily to Beijing from the countryside. This time, after my fruitful stay with the great Li Manshan (see a whole flurry of posts from March–April 2018, some linked here), amidst the unprecedented experience of an almost daily lecture schedule, I find expat life a jovial counterpoint to meeting inspiring Chinese teachers and students.

* * *

After a fond farewell with Master Li, I arrive at Beijing station at midnight to join a long taxi queue—rogue drivers touting for business all along the line. Maybe not so much has changed…

I miss Li Manshan and Yanggao already, and am tempted to get straight back on the train. But over the next few days I gradually acclimatize, coming on as “civilized”. I soon stop finding it weird when people say ni hao, xiexie, and zaijian (hello, thankyou, goodbye)—words never heard in rural China. And after acclimatizing to the lunar calendar, I’m back with “normal” dates, even days of the week and the concept of the “weekend”!

Settling in at Matt’s place, next morning I take a welcome shower and put my filthy clothes in the washing-machine. Matt’s wonderful lodger is film-maker Dominique Othenin-Girard, who, finding inspiration in China, has lived in Beijing since 2013. Their door is always open, and they also have the lovely Italians Gabriella and Nelly staying. It’s good to get back to the style and topics of conversations in English (bear in mind that in London I rarely have any company…), and I enjoy cranking up my crap Italian (hallucinante)—though since much of my energy still needs to be invested in Chinese, trying to switch between three languages is perhaps a challenge too far.

The donne italiane are much given to home cooking. Much as I relish meals with Li Manshan and his wife (noodles and baozi dumplings and steamed bread), breakfast of espresso with home-made crostaccia is a treat.

After my first film screening at Beishida, Ju Xi and her students take me to the campus bar round the corner. Already pleasantly pissed (“I drank a little beer”; cf. Some Portuguese epigrams), I take the subway home (so much more civilized these days) to a sumptuous Italian supper over copious wine and a political discussion: why is Italy so totally fucked, in a different way from the US and UK? At least we have been lately stimulated to resist: Italians seem somehow resigned to their fate.

I still find no evidence of a cowed population, either in Beijing or in the countryside. Xi Jinping seems an irrelevance, for both locals and expats. If there is little evidence of him on the street, I do pass an intriguing sign on my walk to the subway:

Pu'an Pharm lowres

The Song-dynasty Buddhist monk Pu’an is remembered throughout Hebei villages (and further afield) in the long pseudo-Sanskrit mantra Pu’an zhou 普庵咒 sung with shengguan accompaniment for exorcistic healing over the New Year’s rituals; so (allowing for typical folk variation of the second character) it seems suitable that a pharmacy should be named in his honour.

After my second Beishida show, on the walk home I pass a group of deaf-mutes signing in heated debate.

What should await me back home but a vision of pan-European elegance, the force of nature that is the multi-talented Miranda Vukasovic, having supper with the Italians and Dom—or rather holding court. Alongside his day-job, Matt is a brilliant old-time banjo player, and he used to play guitar in Miranda’s band. Miranda (like Dom, a roving soul) is a born performer—I can’t wait to see her on stage. She regales us with the long story of the impressive collection of gaily-coloured cazzotti—phallic bottle-openers—that she found in Bali (cf. Bhutan).

I can’t resist trying out my chat-up line “You’re almost as beautiful as Li Manshan!” Yeah I know, I’m such a smooth talker.

(For Li Manshan and Andy Capp, see here).

Preparing with casual expert rapidity, Miranda floats off to go clubbing, leaving me shell-shocked. Aargh, young people. But I can’t possibly expect her to share a stage, so I’ve written a separate homage to her.

Of course, there are cultural bazaars everywhere, but this gives me a glimpse of why people find Beijing such a lively scene these days—like Xi’an in the Tang dynasty?! Sure, there are always challenges—sponsors who are all mouth and no trousers, the arcane ways of bureaucracy, and so on. But beneath all the political flapdoodle there’s an energy here that I’m not sure is so easy to find in a depressed declining Europe (like I’d know). My ailing friend the cult novelist and musician Liu Sola—who should know—says there are a lot of funky people here too.

Another evening, Hannibal and Hannah come over for an aperitivo. Browsing the shelves at April Gourmet I’ve snapped up a bargain bottle of Bombay Sapphire (which features in my fantasy address at the foot of my homepage, with its Chinese name), served complete with Schweppes, ice and slice—”if a job’s worth doing…”.

Then we meet up with the splendid Andrea Cavazzuti at the Ganges; I have the opportunity to introduce him to Dom, a fellow film-maker. Andrea is a long-term resident of Beijing, and an old friend of the Li family Daoists; with Hannibal and Hannah we reflect on change in the Shanxi countryside. Back home we have a little party—my tipple this evening is a beer sandwich, with gin standing in for the bread.

Italian group

With Andrea, Gabriella, and Nelly. Photo: Domenique Othenin-Girard.

Never mind the tribulations of my fellow-students in Beijing in the 1970s—even in the 90s, when my Chinese friends were still terribly poor, such a lifestyle felt like an unwarranted luxury, a failure to Become at One with the Masses. But now that most of us have become poor foreign cousins to the locals (cf. fieldwork too)—and even Li Bin’s circle in Yanggao county-town have become conspicuous consumers—“long gone are the days when” [Molvania] one might feel ashamed at indulging in such expat decadence.

At the same time I’m always aware that I’m only passing through, and I respect the experience of long-term Beijing dwellers like Matt, Andrea, or the redoubtable Ian Johnson (another groupie of the Li family Daoists!).

At one film screening I’m received by a seriously cool Uyghur student, considerate and lovely. After setting up, we sit outside in the courtyard and we check out cool tracks on his tablet. He loves Billie, Amy, and punk—and he takes to heart Nowhere man:

I tell him how I used to play ghijak in London (we are eliptical with words), and we listen to intense muqaddime on satar.

After the film, and astute questions from the students, a bunch of us take cabs to a great upper-storey bar, mates of my new friend. Yet again I get pleasantly pissed, loving their chat—such a great scene here. Adept with their fancy phones, they insist on prepaying for a cab for me back to the hotel. Thankyou all for the inspiration, teachers and students!

Despite my culture-shock on returning from Yanggao, Beijing seems great—overlooking the “architecture”, obviously. But I still miss Li Manshan. He was getting a cold as I was leaving, so I call him up to see if he’s on the mend. I tell him his name is on everyone’s lips here; and I’m happy to report that I met a “Chinese bloke—big cheese” (see here, under 2nd moon 28th).

Next evening I take Matt for a curry, then more laughs with Dom and the Italians. The warmth of their interaction is precious.

Friday is Good Friday—better for us than for Jesus (I suppose that’s the whole point). After our round table at Beishida, we all go for an informal and boisterous meal. The splendid Cao Xinyu wonderfully insists on making a detour to take me home in a cab. My Beijing friends find my commitment to public transport an affectation; I get used to my erstwhile poor Chinese colleagues ferrying me round in cabs and their own gleaming posh cars, the like of which I never see among my friends in the UK.

Back home there’s yet another party going on (a juerga, if you like), to which I contribute Prosecco. I tell the Mantua joke for our Italian maestre della cucina. Matt gets in the groove with some blues, and Stones numbers; after a rendition of I’m a pheasant plucker, he sings an amazing I’ve been everywhere, along the lines of Johnny Cash (“tight but so loose”, as Matt observes)—Country, like flamenco, making another instance of “license to deviate from behavioural norms“:

—itself based on the Hank Snow version. So it’s a “catalogue aria” (here I go again)—as in Don Giovanni (immortalized by Michael Nyman!), or Chinese folk-songs—including ritual items like the Song of the Skeleton and the Twenty-four Pious Ones. So there.

Matt shares the true guitar aficionados’ love of open tuning, and we sing the praises of Keef.

Chez Matt cropped

Gabriella, Dom, Nelly, Matt.

International cultural exchange, eh. On my last day in Beijing my lighter runs out at the same time as my notebook—most satisfying. Then back to London for another dose of culture-shock.

Flamenco, 3: the soul of cante jondo

*Following Part 1 and (you guessed it) Part 2!*

As we saw in my previous posts, the soul of flamenco is cante jondo (“deep singing”). It may be nourished by the toques of the guitar, and may lead into dancing; but at its heart is anguished solo singing and palmas. Besides Washabaugh’s social analysis, I’m also much taken by

  • Timothy Mitchell, Flamenco deep song (1994).

While recognizing the power of cante jondo, Mitchell takes a refreshingly detached, even jaundiced view:

A decoding of flamenco from a psychohistorical perspective will reveal self-pity, posturing machismo, hypersensitive adolescent egos, and a defensive flight into narcissistic ethnicity.

Again, as a counterpoint to the wholesome family revamp subtly promoted in the Rito series, Mitchell shows that the moods and musical techniques of cante jondo

are inseparable from alcohol abuse. […] Flamenco creativity sought to recover Catholicism’s lost catharsis in saloons, bordellos, and prisons. At the behest of playboy-philanthropists, the haunting cries and brash guitars of a stigmatized underclass were harnessed to explore every aspect of co-dependency. To be worthy of deep song, male performers needed to get their hearts trampled by some dark-skinned dancer; female singers needed to be abandoned or battered by their men. Flamenco artistry as we know it today makes sublime psychodrama out of alcoholism, fatalism, masochism, and ethnic rivalry.

Music can convey the most profound expressions of anguish, from the arias of the Bach Passions to the hymns of mourning of the Li family DaoistsCante jondo has long entranced outsiders, from Lorca and Falla’s 1922 festival to the films of Carlos Saura. But Mitchell confronts the crucial question:

Why does flamenco deep song appeal to people who never shared the traumas that precipitated its birth?

—one that we might ask about our esteem for the ravings of mad women and men in WAM opera, for that matter.

He reflects (evoking jazz, and reminding me of China—I plead guilty on all counts),

All forms of human expressive culture may be intrinsically or potentially artistic. In practice only a small range of creative endeavors come to be designated as Art with a capital A. […] A given expressive behavior becomes art because the right people rally to redefine it as such in accordance with their needs at a given historical moment and usually in conscious opposition to some other group’s standards. Forms of creativity that originated with the “wrong” people can always be redeemed (and thereby transformed) by talking or writing about them in ways associated with established genres.

He is critical of scholars like Demófilo in the 1880s:

With his selective compassion, unabashed elitism, neoromantic primitivism, spurious notions of purity and contamination, classificatory compulsion, lack of sociological acumen, nostalgia, and racialist aesthetics, he paved the way for numerous 20th-century flamencologists.

As Mitchell observes, the performance style

can strike even the most open-minded as brazen, overwrought, tortured, or histrionic.
Male-female relationships […] contained considerable amounts of codependency, sado-masochism, self-destruction, and (in compensation) large amounts of transgressive ecstasy.

He gives a nice parallel with reactions to the waltz from an 1816 article in the Times:

So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now it is attempted to be forced on respectable classes of society by the evil example of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing their daughter to so fatal a contagion.

Still, he concludes:

The flamenco style is not only about trauma but about the quest to recover from trauma; it is about distress and discharge too; it is about taking pain, expressing it, playing with it, and possibly working through it.

* * *


Near the base of the flamenco treetrunk (for full tree, see here), the cluster of tonás (cantes a palo seco, solo songs without guitar, often even without palmas) includes the unaccompanied saeta ritual songs, as well as no-less-intense secular deblas (“goddess”), carceleras (jailhouse songs; there were even penitential jailhouse saeta), martinetes, and seguiriyas (¿are the latter shown on the right side of the trunk?).

Melodically, in their narrow range and in the frequent cadences on do, most of these songs show a contrast with the common minor descending phrygian tetrachord of other flamenco palos.

I’ve already featured the solo saeta ritual singing in honour of the Virgin as her statue passes—alternating with percussion, and wind ensemble with piercing trumpets. Mitchell’s discussion is illuminating as ever (pp.100–103, 137–42).

Here are some more examples, starting with Niña de los Peines in 1920:

This early programme in the Rito series, clearly explained as ever, includes searing instances of martinetes, as well as rare deblas and carceleras, from Juan Talega, Antonio Mairena, Aguejetas with Tio BorricoTia Anica de la Piriñaca, Rafael Romero, and José Menese:

These stark searing solo songs are literally forged—in forges, with hammer and anvil. Here’s Agujetas el viejo:

And his son:

Ian Biddle (ch.2, pp.31–6, and ch.3, pp.16–18) analyses in detail the martinete “A la puertecita de la fragua” sung by Pepe El Culata:

A la puertecita de la fragua            At the little door of the forge
tú a mí no me vengas a buscar       don’t come looking for me
con el fango a las roillas                  with the mud on your hem,
y las enagüitas remangás.               rolling up your petticoat.

Vinieron y me dijeron                       They came and told me
che tú habías hablao                         that you had been saying
muy mal de mí                                    
bad things about me
y mira mi buen pensamiento:          and look at my good thoughts:
yo siempre pensando en ti.               I am always thinking about you.

Ma fin tenga la persona                    May that person have a bad end
que anda llevando y trayendo          who goes about gossiping,
poniéndole mal corazón                    giving a bad heart
a aquel que lo tiene bueno.                to the one who is good.

La maresita de toítos los gitanos,   The mother of all the gitanos,
toítos venian al tren.                          they were all coming by train.
La mía como estaba malita              Mine, being so bad
no me ha poio venir a ver.                could not come to see me.

La lunita crece y mengua                  The moon waxes and wanes
y yo me mantengo en mi ser,            and I remain in my own being
yo soy un cuadro de triste                 I am a picture of sadness
pegaíto a la paré.                                I will stop being stuck to her.

Most often heard among the intense solo tonasseguiriyas—like soleares and bulerías— have an underlying 12-beat metre, though it can take some concentration to detect it; as ever, the studioflamenco site is useful.

Especially in these more intense slow songs, non-lexical sounds are important, like the opening “ay“—”a knife-at-the-throat sound, a chain, a parched throat, a wound”, as Hecht describes it. Another integral aspect of the flamenco event is the jaleo—of which palmas are part—exclamations of encouragement, way beyond the familiar “¡Olé!” (cf. Indian raga).

The Rito series dedicates two programmes to seguiriyasFramed as ever by perceptive comments, this first programme (based around Cádiz) opens with a precious sequence from Tia Anica de la Piriñaca, and concludes with brilliant seguiriyas from Aguejeta and Terremoto de Jerez:

The second programme is centred on Seville. Again it opens with the venerable cantaor Juan Talega, leading on to Chocolate, Louis de Cabellero, and Antonio Mairena:

Oh all right then, here’s the programme dedicated to Terremoto (with soleares from 8.00, a fantastic bulerías from 17.14, and siguiriyas from 24.20):

And more from Agujeta, father and son—with soleares (4.59), romance y alboreá (10.05), bulerías por soleá (21.07), culminating in a mesmerizing seguiriya (27.28)—how intently they listen!

And a complete concert from 1996:

And we just have to include a seguiriyas from Camarón de la Isla:

The Rito series captured Camarón’s early career. Two excerpts:

Near the beginning of the second excerpt (from 1.37) is a wonderful bulería in which Camarón follows his mother:

Along with Pohren’s A way of life,

  • Paul Hecht, The wind cried: an American discovery of the world of flamenco (1993)

is a fine ethnography of flamenco social life in the 1960s; and it also contains plentiful translations of coplas verses (or letras, lyrics).

Just a few examples:

A las rejas de la cárcel            Don’t come and weep
no me vengas a llorar             at the jailhouse gate;
ya que no me quitas pena       since you can’t ease my sorrow,
no me la vengas a dar.            don’t darken my fate.

Cuando yo me muera              When I die,
te pido encargo                         in you I confide:
que con las trenzas                  with the braids
de tu pelo negro                        of your black hair
me amarren las manos.          let my hands be tied.

The ¿Y a quién le voy a contar yo mis peñas? genre includes some intense gems of oedipal Catholic masochism (maudlin Andalucian haiku?)—one from Agujetas ticks all the boxes:

Que a nadie se las puedo contar   I’ve got no-one to tell my woes
Yo tengo a mi mare loca                 My mother is crazy
La llevan pa un hospital                 They’re taking her to a hospital.

* * *

There’s a whole treasury of videos to explore on YouTube. The depth and artistry of flamenco never cease to amaze me—if we think we know European culture, or even flamenco, all this makes an ear-scouring awakening.


*Cf. the more stoic Chinese genre “On visiting a hermit and not finding him in“.

Bards of Shaanbei

In my summary of Guo Yuhua’s fantastic book on a Shaanbei village, I mentioned the blind bard Li Huaiqiang. The complex fortunes of these bards under Maoism and since the reforms require a nuanced approach, and deserve a separate post. [1]

As I edit my old material from around 2000, I’m aware that fieldwork is always of its time. I haven’t sought to update it, but the period since then will also have seen rapid change—which I discuss further below in my review of a more recent book.

LWJ in courtyard

LWJ shuoshu

Sighted bard Li Wenjin performs a “story for well-being” to protect the son of the host family, first inviting the gods in the courtyard and then narrating a sequence of stories before the altar inside the cave-dwelling (see DVD §C4 with my Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei, and pp.83–4 there).
Photos: Guo Yuhua, 1999.

In Shaanbei, as in much of rural China, while many blind men earn a living by taking up the shawm (on which see my post on Guo Yuhua, and here, as well as this post on north Shanxi), others have also long served as protectors of children, acting as godfathers and healers, and telling fortunes—as well as singing “stories for well-being”, accompanying themselves on a plucked lute and clappers, a kind of one-man band. They are itinerant, going by foot over quite a wide area.

Though in decline since the 1960s, the bards appear to have adapted rather little in context or sound. Under the Maoist collectives, some spent brief periods being taught new stories in the county-town “propaganda teams”, but this hardly affected their repertory or performing contexts. Since the 1990s, the popularity of the genre has been further threatened by the media of TV and pop music; and little bands now increasingly supplement the solo performers.

Social background
Blind bards also tell fortunes, cure illness, and act as godfathers—occasions when they do not necessarily perform stories. As godfathers they perform ceremonies protecting children (including hanging the locket, the annual Crossing the Passes ceremony at temple fairs, and opening the locket). These ceremonies have doubtless become rather less common since the 1950s, though neither campaigns against superstition nor any gradual improvement in healthcare entirely explain this.

Li Huaiqiang, in his 70s, had hung the locket for three or four hundred children; Guo Xingyu, in his 50s, for “over 290”.

Like geomancers and mediums, the blindman performs healing in a ritual called Settling the Earth or Settling the Earth God. For this he recites incantations and depicts talismans, but does not perform stories.

These occupations were a lifeline for males only: the fate of blind females was pitiable.

Occupations for blind men in Shaanbei

  • begging (yaofan 要饭)
  • playing in a shawm band (guyue 鼓乐, chuishou 吹手)
  • telling fortunes (suangua 算卦)
  • exorcism / healing (antushen 安土神, zhibing 治病)
  • hanging the locket (baosuo 抱锁, daisuo 带锁), opening the locket (kaisuo 开锁), Crossing the Passes (guoguan 过关)
  • narrative-singing (shuoshu 说书).

Contexts for narrative-singing

  • Stories for vows (yuanshu 愿书), to fulfil a verbal vow (huankouyuan 还口愿):
    household (jiashu 家书), for well-being (ping’an shu 平安书)
    temple fairs (huishu 会书: miaohui 庙会)
    parish (sheshu 社书)
  • less common: weddings (hongshi 红事), moving into a new cave-dwelling (nuanyao 暖窑), going off to the army (canjun 参军), official meetings (jiguan 机关).

Ritual equipment, stories, and music
For the narrative-singing contexts, the bard performs before a small temporary altar. Inscriptions for the gods and family, rectangular paper “god places” with a triangular head, mounted on gaoliang stalks, as well as changqing yellow paper streamers, are inserted into one or two rectangular bowls filled with grains of millet or corn. Before the altar are placed a lit candle, small bowls to hold incense and burn paper offerings, and offerings such as dough shapes, biscuits, dates, fruit, peanuts, cigarettes, and cups of liquor.

The altar is placed on the family stove or on a table; for the rituals to invite the gods and escort them away at the beginning and end of stories for well-being, it is placed on a table in the courtyard outside. Li Huaiqiang, though blind, prepared the changqing streamers himself; someone sighted and literate has to be found to write the inscriptions. Incense and paper are burnt before the altar periodically throughout the performance.

The bard takes with him a red cloth bearing the titles of a pantheon of gods. When not in use it is rolled up and kept in the bard’s bag. The cloth is unfurled and placed upright behind the altar, supported by two sticks inserted into a sleeve at either end of the cloth.

Cloth pantheons:
(left) Li Huaiqiang, 1999;
(right) Xu Wengong, 2001 (for a list of these gods, see Zhang Zhentao, Shengman shanmen, p.356).

Stories overlap with opera plots, relating historical tales of love, official success, solving of crimes, famous battles, and righteous protest—all familiar in Chinese fiction since the Ming dynasty, and often referring to still earlier times. Like opera, these stories have long been a dominant form for poor people to learn of history, legend, and morality, only being challenged by schooling since the 1950s. Schooling even now is quite elementary, though TV and pop music are doubtless replacing traditional stories for entertainment.

Indeed, bards’ stories are like a cheaper, more portable version of opera that can be brought into the home to bring good fortune to the family. Like opera (and indeed TV soap opera), stories may be performed in sections at successive sittings—commonly three episodes (huihui).

Bards improvise phrases on the basis of a well-known story—as He Guangwu observed: “We respond to the changes on the spur of the moment (suiji yingbian 随机应变), the lyrics aren’t fixed and dead (dingsi 定死).”

The solo performer accompanies himself on a plucked lute and usually two percussion instruments attached to his left leg and right hand. He may rest his right foot on a low stool, and drapes a towel over his shoulder to wipe sweat from his face. The plucked lute is either unfretted three-stringed sanxian (known as xianzi) or the fretted four-stringed pipa; the sanxian is most common, the use of pipa declining drastically in this area since the 1980s.

This rare form of pipa (see below), held less vertically than the “modern” pipa, and played with a plectrum, was a major discovery, reminding scholars of the Tang dynasty pipa. As was the trend through the 1980s, they were keen to conjure up “living fossils” and evoke the glories of ancient dynasties, but they mustered less publicity for this supposed relic of the Tang pipa than did scholars of nanyin in southeast China.

Han Qixiang and the training sessions
As with many other genres in China, the national reputation of narrative-singing in Shaanbei rests largely on one performer who came to the attention of cultural cadres and was cultivated by them. Han Qixiang (1915–89), dubbed “China’s Homer” but redder than red. The Party’s model blind bard in Shaanbei during the Yan’an period.

Han Qixiang


In my book I outline his career, trying to read between the lines of hagiographic Chinese accounts on the basis of the 1993 article

  • Chang-tai Hung, “Reeducating a Blind Storyteller: Han Qixiang and the Chinese Communist Storytelling Campaign”, Modern China 19.4 (1993).

From 1945, Party ideologues went to some lengths to reform storytelling with a network of training sessions. After the national “Liberation” of 1949, every county government throughout China set up an arts-work troupe, which soon metamorphosed into an opera troupe; some county authorities further set up a narrative-singing artists’ propaganda team (shuoshu yiren xuanchuandui). These narrative-singing teams were less permanent (and much less costly) than the opera troupes; they held training sessions before dividing into smaller teams to go off on tour round the villages. Bards were lodged together, sometimes for a few months but often for just a few days, and even if they could remember the new stories, they remained reluctant to perform them once they went on the road.

Apart from Han Qixiang, another blind performer mentioned in the 1940s as creator of new stories is Shi Weijun (b.1924), who organized training sessions for bards around Suide county. Blind bard Guo Xingyu (see below), himself no simple official mouthpiece, hinted that Shi Weijun found it hard to adapt to official demands after Liberation. “But then he gave up—he didn’t even want his wages, he lost his standing, and went off on his own to tell stories.” He was clearly reluctant to take part in official events.

We can discount the rosy official image, but even the candid local scholar Meng Haiping recalls the period before the Cultural Revolution as a golden age for the blind bards, with county Halls of Culture organizing them into teams and issuing permits, so that district and village leaders had to receive them, hosting and feeding them—an unprecedented and welcome way to guarantee their “food-bowl”.

Conversely, if the state now acted as the bards’ patron, their richer patrons had disappeared, and their poorer ones were becoming wary of inviting them; temple fairs and “superstition” were under threat. Many bards were not recruited to the teams or were unwilling to join, and even those who did take part did so only intermittently. Although those not registered in the teams were not given permits, they still managed to perform, relying on the old contexts such as “stories for well-being” and godfather duties. But the climate was changing: as the power of campaigns sunk into people’s consciousness, they would have been increasingly nervous of inviting bards openly.

Even those bards who did spend periods in the official teams learning new stories continued to earn their living from more or less “feudal superstitious” contexts. You couldn’t perform new items for hanging the locket, or as stories for well-being.

Party ideologues admired popular oral literature; while deploring its links with superstition, they were unsuccessful in seeking to break such links. The new stories were often based on novellas or opera scripts, and composed with the “guidance” of cadres. As Hung points out, it was hardly a collaboration between peasants and intellectuals—it was never in doubt who was in charge.

It’s hard to assess is how the new stories were received. Even clues in the unremitting hagiography unwittingly give glimpses of constant conflict and difficulties. Han Qixiang composed a new story called “We can’t withdraw from the collective” (Buneng tuishe) (how very true!), reportedly converting peasants who were opposed to collectivism. Having heard that in some Zichang villages women were reluctant to work in the fields, and men reluctant to tolerate them doing so, he composed pieces exhorting them and praising female labour heroes. During the famine of 1959–60 he performed “Turning over a new leaf” (see link in Comment § below) for peasants disgruntled with the paltry goods available on New Year’s Eve, supposedly enlightening them as to how much their lives had improved since the bad old society. Yeah right…

Still, Han Qixiang was a fine performer; even when he told new stories, he would naturally vary them every time, like bards worldwide, and he retained the colourful local vocabulary of bards throughout the area. One cannot merely assess his stories from the page, without being able to witness his performances and those of other bards of the day. Bards I met were less impressed by his technique or creativity than by his good fortune in meeting the right people at the right time and getting onto the government payroll.

So whereas Han Qixiang appears to have been a model “folk artist” propounding Party policies with conviction, most bards in Shaanbei have continued to eke out a living from their traditional exorcistic “stories for well-being”, both under Maoism and since the reforms.

Immortal Li
Among the characters in Guo Yuhua’s book on Jicun is the village’s blind bard Li Huaiqiang (1922–2000, known in the village as “Immortal Li”, Li xian); as ever, my notes benefit from her rapport with him. Visiting his cave-dwelling in 1999, she introduced us and we all sat ourselves down on his kang brick-bed; having explored my facial contours with his hands, he gently held my hand throughout our chat.

LHQ shuoshu

Li Huaiqiang was among the great majority of bards (and audiences) not amenable to the new stories. Under Maoism, though he gained a house and a family, his livelihood was reduced; since the reforms of the 1980s he suffered both from the decline in popularity of the art and his own dwindling skills.

Li Huaiqiang was born to a poor family of hired labourers working for the village landlords. Such poor families couldn’t afford to send their children to school, and he attended “winter school” for a mere few days. He lost his sight completely by the age of 10 sui. When he was 15 or 16 sui (c1936–7) his father took him to a blind bard to “learn up the arts” of narrative-singing, “history”, fortune-telling, and healing. Learning stories phrase by phrase was time-consuming and expensive—his father had to scrape the fees together. Li contrasts that ruefully with the ease of young upstarts today who can learn just by listening to tapes.

Li began “going out of the door” to earn a living before he was 18 sui, practising both healing and narrative-singing. He was often in demand to cure illness: when someone’s child was seriously ill, Li could give acupuncture and Chinese medicine. When adults had some irregular illness (xiebing), some bad karma, for which orthodox medicine was no use, he’d find them some special herbs.

Since Yangjiagou was still a landlord stronghold, in the early days Li often performed stories all four seasons of the year for the landlords in the village itself. Such performances—like longevity celebrations, or for the first full moon of newly-born children—often lasted seven or eight days. The landlords had a shrine to the god of wealth in their houses—before it bards would tell their stories, and Buddhist monks would recite their scriptures.

Ritual has always remained paramount for bards like Li. “Poor people (shoukuren) worship the Dragon King Elder (Longwangye), stockbreeders worship Horse King Elder (Mawangye), people in business worship God of Prosperity Elder (Caishenye). When people make vows they invite us to tell stories, that’s how we make our living.” Since vows were often fulfilled in the 1st and 2nd moons, bards were most busy then.

By the 1940s, Li’s itinerant business was taking him—by foot—all over Shaanbei. Recalling the old temple fairs, he mentioned the two most famous, still very active now: “I used to go to Baiyunshan for over twenty years, I even went once after the end of the Cultural Revolution. I used to go every year, there were kids there that I’d hung the locket for.” Li performed for the small temple fairs in his home village too, notably the 4th-moon fair at the Pusa miao temple. The temple fairs in the neighbouring hamlet of Sigou were planned best, and were popular; people liked listening to narrative-singing there.

Li Huaiqiang’s early visits south to the Yan’an region, in 1938 or 1939, were part of his routine itinerant business. He told stories around Hengshan and Bao’an (Zhidan) counties too. “No-one controlled what stories you told then, you could narrate what you liked.”

In 1943, after the Suide–Mizhi area was taken over by the Communists, Li found himself unable to make a living there, and went off to Yinchuan in Ningxia and nearby Xichuan. The Nationalist officials loved listening to stories—bards were invited to their quarters. They could travel freely then—only later, when the Communist–Nationalist collaboration ended, did the roads become impassable.

Still, his assessment of the Red and White areas was ingenuous. “It was just the same under the Communists and the Nationalists. Under the Nationalists it was easy to earn money, people liked to listen to stories. After the Communists took control over people, not allowing superstition, at least there was provision for us disabled people, there was relief. So things were the same.” But he did remark, “In the end the Communists came along and broke all the temple fairs up, so there was nothing left.”

I wonder how many bards chose to seek a living in either the Red or White Areas. Evidently old stories did not suddenly vanish throughout the Yan’an countryside. The Yulin region was a seesaw area between the two sides, and most local leaders would, as yet, be broad-minded about traditional forms. We can’t judge, but it is worth challenging the propaganda. And having blithely equated “new stories” with items supporting the Communists, I wonder if bards in the Nationalist areas performed new stories opposing the Communists.

Li Huaiqiang dismissed our queries about the officially-organized groups—he had only the vaguest recollection of this experience. It might have remained an exciting moment in his life distinguished by its uniqueness—but apparently hadn’t. Li went on:

From 1945 they summoned all the blind bards to meetings—they weren’t allowed to sing old stories any more, they had to sing new ones. I studied them and then forgot them all—well, I basically didn’t study them! When you go out [on business], the common people don’t listen to that stuff! New stories aren’t good to listen to—people don’t like listening to new stories, they like old ones! I could never forget the old stories I learned when I was young, though. I can tell twenty or thirty stories. When you went out in the old days there was business, you could count on it—who’d have thought it would all come to an end?

He knew of Han Qixiang but didn’t hear him perform or meet him. “That Han Qixiang, he got onto the official payroll. Oh yes, people in our business all know about Han Qixiang. In the Yan’an period people reformed it into new stories, but they didn’t control us lot who narrated old stories, we just went off round the countryside narrating on our own.” He knew that some performers sang for political meetings, but didn’t admit to doing so himself.

Li Huaiqiang was lucky to find a wife:

I was 24 when I got married [c1946]. They came to take conscripts—people stuck to their old habits, no-one wanted to go off, but they forced them. But us blind people, we couldn’t go off to the army, no-one wanted us—that’s how I got a wife. People were afraid of joining the army, both sides were taking people off, no-one dared go, as soon as you went off you’d get killed. If it was today I couldn’t get married—now it’s hard enough for sighted men to find a wife.

During land reform there were meetings all the time. The Communist Party controlled people, eliminating superstition. When they wanted to hold a meeting they first summoned a bard to narrate a [new] section, so everyone turned up—then the bard sang the old stories that people liked.

This was a common theme, of great significance for our understanding of the Maoist period. The bard would attract people to turn up for tedious political meetings, and satisfy the demands of political expediency by performing a brief political item first, before the fun began. Scholar Meng Haiping recalled: “Both old and new stories were heard then. Until 1956, they began with a short section with new content, then moved onto the old stories like ‘The story of five women reviving the Tang’ (Wunü xing Tang zhuan).”

Li Huaiqiang originally lived in a miserable cave-dwelling made of earth, but after land reform, he was helped to “buy” a comfortable cave-dwelling right at the top of the village from the former landlords, which had been servants’ quarters. The landlords also had to “sell” him their precious sanxian banjo, which he bought for one dan of grain.

If in that sense Li was able to profit from the overthrow of the landlords, he soon suffered from their demise. “We were allowed to narrate stories in the early days after Liberation, but people’s consciousness was raised, people had studied a lot of books.” I didn’t care to argue with him there, so he went on, “They said narrative-singing was boring, so there was a lot less of it—it got less all of a sudden with the collectives [from the mid-1950s]. People like us just tilled the fields, told fortunes, we could just about get by, the state gave us relief. We couldn’t just die off—some people were given relief, some were put in old people’s homes, some with skills could go out and heal illness and tell fortunes.” And he was still taking large numbers of godchildren, whose parents’ regular little gifts always presented a lifeline.

If Li Huaiqiang was unaware of it, the Mizhi county authorities were attempting to organize bards. Gao Zhiqiang, former chief of the county Hall of Culture, recalled, “The county first set up a narrative-singing team in the early 1950s, organizing over twenty blind bards, training them all together to sing new stories. The Hall of Culture issued them with performance permits, which meant that the district and village authorities had to host them—that resolved blind men’s problem of livelihood.” But the teams never controlled blindmen for long.

Li Huaiqiang, who had never belonged to a team or performed in a group, still relied on a minimal handout from the village government to survive; with his wife and five children, times were desperate. “In the Cultural Revolution they didn’t invite us bards any more, it just stopped. But people like us still went out—mostly to tell fortunes, not so much to narrate stories.” And he sometimes sneaked out to hang the locket for children in exchange for “a couple of little coins”. Li was soon branded an “ox demon and snake spirit”, accused of feudal superstition. They took his manual off and burned it; they took his sanxian banjo away too, but he got it back after half a year. “Pesky kids, coming to our houses to get us to hand things over—if you did, then you were let off, if you didn’t then they paraded you through the streets.” Li was only paraded once. The only time he could recall when the authorities regulated narrative-singing was in the year of rebellion (zaofan) of the Cultural Revolution, when all the brigades had to organize blind bards into narrative-singing teams to go round and make propaganda, the county Hall of Culture taking a cut.

The reform era
In Shaanbei, as elsewhere in China, as the commune system began to be dismantled from the early 1980s, traditional culture revived more openly. Bards had been active throughout the commune period, both in and out of the new teams; if the old contexts and stories had never died out, after the “rotting of the collectives” there was no longer such need for collusion or duplicity. As Li Huaiqiang recalled, “As soon as Mao Zedong died, they stopped controlling us bards.” But like other traditional performers, they were soon competing with new economic pressures, TV and pop music taking their toll: where Maoism had failed to marginalize tradition, capitalism looked like succeeding.

Despite his privations under Maoism, he warmed to the theme:

Society’s different now, people have “turned over a new leaf”, reforms and all that—too much reform, it’s all gone too far…

Ebullient local pundit Meng Haiping had a perceptive comment:

In those days [under the communes] they tried to destroy traditional culture, but couldn’t; now they don’t control it any more, but it gradually declines anyway. 1984 to 1990 was the best period. Ever since the great wave of economics started, culture has been dying out.

The agenda of the cultural authorities hardly changed, even if state policy would never again be so “hard”: they still sought to teach the bards new stories to spread education about party policies, and they still aspired to both “controlling” and “looking after” the bards—ambivalent meanings of the term guan 管.

By the late 1990s Li Huaiqiang, quite frail in his old age, was less active as a bard. Lucky enough to have found a wife during times of war, Li has two sons and three daughters; but the family has remained poor, and the sons have been unable to find wives. In 1999 Li performed for the 4th-moon temple fair in his village, and he still did the occasional story for well-being for families fulfilling vows. But he told us: “I’m almost without business these days, 80% of my work is gone. Most temple fairs don’t have narrative-singing any more. These days people read books a lot [surely he overestimates this!]—the state doesn’t control it any more, people just don’t want to be away from work. They’ve got TV and recordings too now.” He used to perform for audiences of 80 or 90 people, but now it’s only for around 20 or 30, mostly elderly. “I can’t keep up.” This didn’t apply generally to narrative-singing in the whole area, but to Li in particular—elderly, frail, and no longer a gifted performer.

In the exceptional conditions of Yangjiagou, the occasional visit from Japanese tourist groups, Chinese and foreign scholars, and visitors to the memorial hall to Chairman Mao’s 1947 sojourn, allowed Immortal Li to supplement his meagre income: “They always get me to perform when someone comes.” But his main income still came from his godchildren, as it had done under Maoism. While we were in the village, one of his godchildren’s children was getting married, and when he paid a visit he was given 20 kuai; when he left they gave him mantou steamed buns, and later they gave him some clothing.

LHQ qingshen

We took him to the cave-dwelling of our host Older Brother, the sweet blind shawm player, to perform a “story for well-being” for the family, as usual inviting the gods outside in the courtyard before telling a story indoors. Though his skills were in decline, it was a memorable occasion.

Li Huaiqiang died in July 2000, falling from a narrow mountain path while on his way to another village to hang a locket. Since his death, other itinerant bards occasionally stop off to perform in the village.

He Guangwu
He Guangwu (b. c1932) is a semi-blind bard from a village west of the river, south of Mizhi town. He began to lose his sight when 15 sui (c1946), so a couple of years later he began “learning the arts” with a master from Zizhou county, mastering a dozen traditional stories—although this was supposedly a climactic period for the new stories, the old stories were being transmitted as if nothing had changed.

He married when 21 sui. Their families arranged the match; his betrothed lived in a village only two li away, but they wouldn’t let her see him, and she only discovered his disability at their wedding. Now she jokes about it and is evidently happy that the family is relatively prosperous with many great-grandchildren; we didn’t like to press her on how it had seemed then.

He had taken part in training sessions in 1955 and 1964, but his concept of his livelihood barely took official contexts into account.

His family has done well since the reforms. He is active over a small area, proudly claiming to be well known within a radius of 20 li (10 kilometres), and he hasn’t taken any disciples. But he is busy. “People still invite me, and I still go. For temple fairs, or if a donkey isn’t eating its fodder, or if a family member is on a long journey, you must invite a ‘story for well-being’; and I tell stories for opening the locket, weddings, moving into a new cave-dwelling, and sons going off to the army.” He is also busy telling fortunes and healing.

HGW and me 2001

With He Guangwu, 2001. Photo: Zhang Zhentao.

In 2001 we found He Guangwu at a small temple fair at Jijiashigou, near his home village. He had agreed to tell fortunes for a family there to help them overcome adversity, and hadn’t brought his sanxian. He agreed to tell a story for us back at his home if we took him back to the temple fair later.

Tian Zhizi
We also visited Tian Zhizi (b. c1933) at his son’s home in a little town south of Zizhou on the road to Suide. He had belonged to the Zizhou team, and also studied in the Suide team. “My eyes were no good from young—I began studying narrative-singing in 1944. My master was Wang Jialai from Zizhou county. When I learned I lived at his house—his fee was 3 dan of grain per year, and I learned for three years.” Through the War of Resistance and the War of Liberation—precisely the period when the new stories were supposedly in the ascendant—Tian supported himself by curing illness, reciting incantations, and depicting talismans.

I began telling stories in 1951, and in 1952 became chief of the Zizhou blind people’s propaganda team, which had been formed the previous year. I was chief of the team for three years; it had over 60 members. Between 1952 to 1956 I studied new stories at the Jiuzhenguan hall in Suide.

Their boss was Shang Airen, an influential cultural official in Shaanbei. Despite my suspicions, Tian recalled,

In the 1950s the peasants loved hearing new stories. The main ones I learned were “The outstanding troupe member”, “Zhang Yulan takes part in the election”, “Opposing shamans”, “The tobacco pouch”, “Mother Gui makes shoes for the army”, and “Wang Piqin takes the southern road”.

Still, through the 1950s and 60s, while the bards from the team sometimes went on tour in small groups, Tian usually went round on his own. When he was 28 sui (c1960), Tian married a girl from the same town—which he claimed was “free love’” not arranged. In 1962 he spent a period working in Yan’an with none other than Han Qixiang, earning 36 kuai a month. Later he resigned and returned home, still making a living as an itinerant bard, also telling fortunes, hanging and opening lockets—by 2001 he had over 200 godchildren.

He went on, “I have 28 disciples in all, eight in Wubu, four in Yulin, two in Shenmu, also in Yan’an, Ansai, and Bao’an [Zhidan]. I took some disciples while I was at Yan’an in 1962, others stayed at my house to learn.”

Unusually, the Cultural Revolution was a significant period of activity for blind bards, who continued to perform both in their traditional contexts and in the state groups. The latter now had a new lease of life as “Blind artists’ Mao Zedong Thought propaganda teams”. In Mizhi county, the Hall of Culture organized a dozen bards into one such team, touring villages, mines, and schools—villages without electricity, mines where accidents were routine, schools with few tables or chairs, and the whole population constantly hungry and demoralized, if you will forgive me for reminding you.

“In 1972 I was mainly taking disciples in Wubu, ‘cos the Wubu Hall of Culture invited me to come to train members for their propaganda team.” Though it was ever harder for bards to perform without the sanction of the teams, popular taste still appeared to require an escape from the relentless revolutionary diet. Tian Zhizi had claimed that the new stories were popular in the 1950s, but “from 1967 [traditional] narrative-singing was forbidden—by that time people preferred old stories, or at least they didn’t like new ones, so we bards told some old ones in the villages on the quiet.”

Other bards also told us that while they couldn’t hang the locket openly during the Cultural Revolution, for those who needed it they still did it, and they still performed in secret in the villages—the people liked to listen and protected them. Geomancers were also still furtively active.

Ironically, perhaps the worst case of penalization was revolutionary Han Qixiang himself, inactive and subject to public criticism throughout the period. As late as 1976, just as the Gang of Four was about to be arrested, he was summoned to perform in Xi’an and criticized, though by late 1977 he was well back on the road to rehabilitation, taking part again in official meetings.

Guo Xingyu
A younger blind bard more able than many to move with the times is Guo Xingyu (b.1951), with whom I spent some time in 2001. His case is quite exceptional among bards I have met, following political trends astutely while continuing to take godchildren and cure illness.

Brought up in a poor Suide village, Guo Xingyu was blind from young. He studied narrative-singing and fortune-telling for ten moons with Wang Jinkao from the age of 12 sui (c1962). He started going out on business when about 16 sui, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. “When I was young I enjoyed learning everything from my master, curing illness, depicting talismans and chanting mantras”.

When I was just starting out we mainly told old stories, though in public contexts we told bits of new stories. New ones I liked telling, before and during the Cultural Revolution, were “Fuss over an abortion”, “Eliminating transactional marriages”, “The great immortal who eats ghosts”, “Eliminating superstition”, and “The tale of the city youth returning to the countryside”.

In 1968 Guo Xingyu joined the Suide county blind peoples’ propaganda team, which had several dozen bards, divided into three or four sub-groups:

In the 60s we were issued with narrative-singing permits; we had to hand over part of our income to the Hall of Culture as “public assets”—the state also took a certain amount of training expenses, but later that stopped. In the 60s and 70s the whole county probably had about 70 or 80 bards—about 40 or 50 didn’t enter the training bands, they had to tell stories on the quiet.

Guo Xingyu even took part in official festivals in Suide, Yulin, and Xi’an; he was praised by the venerable Han Qixiang. He appeared a model bard in the new mould—little would one think that all the while he was performing stories for well-being and healing.

From 1972 I was head of the blind men’s propaganda team organized by the Suide Hall of Culture. I entered the Party in 1975, and from 1978 I was political instructor of the team. In the 1980s I composed some new propaganda-type stories on the basis of the political needs of the time, mainly things like advertising the spirit of the Party’s 12th and 14th Plenary, and birth control, like “Fuss over an abortion” and “Marrying Late”.

By 2001 the team was moribund. Guo and his (sighted) wife were dividing their time between his home village and an apartment in the suburbs of Suide town. He had rarely performed as a bard since getting heart disease around 1991; now his main livelihood was curing illness by depicting talismans and chanting incantations, and hanging and opening lockets. Relying on his traditional magic, he legitimized it with a fashionably scientific-sounding defence: “magic power is rational (fali you daoli)”.

Guo Xingyu took us to see his blind master Wang Jinkao at his village home south of Suide town (DVD §C3).

WJK, GXY heying

With (right to left) Wang Jinkao, Guo Xingyu, and Wang’s son, 2001. Photo: Tian Yaonong.

Wang (known as Niur, b. c1930) married a sighted girl in 1947; they have three sons and a daughter, all peasants in the village. Wang accompanied himself on pipa rather than sanxian. When Guo Xingyu studied with him around 1962 he was running a kind of blind school in Qingjian; he learned in a group of five or six blind boys, whose parents had to pay fees. He was one of few bards still using pipa rather than sanxian.

Wang Jinkao had had minimal contact with the new ethos: he could tell new stories like “Wang Gui and Li Xiangxiang”, but if he had ever taken part in training sessions or belonged to the county team, no-one cared to remember.

As we saw, bards mostly worked solo; even when they assembled for temple fairs and New Year’s festivities, they performed in sequence, not together. But under Maoism, bards were sometimes organized into small groups to perform for non-ritual contexts.

Still, both new contexts and musical innovations remained a minor feature even through the years of Maoism, and after the “rotting of the collectives”, tradition became yet more dominant. Some new stories were still performed—on the birth-control policy, the reform and open-door policy, the private enterprise system. Some county authorities continued their efforts to organize blind performers, even trying entry by ticket. But as prices rose and more modern entertainments became popular, they resorted to more viable money-making ventures like setting up halls for video games, or classes teaching electronic keyboards.

By the 1990s the propaganda teams were virtually defunct. As one cultural cadre told us: “Later the bards didn’t want people to control them, and we didn’t have enough money anyway, so we gave up.”

Blind and sighted bards
Though Han Qixiang mentioned competition between blind and sighted bards when he was learning in the 1930s, narrative-singing in Shaanbei was largely a monopoly of blindmen, and only since the eve of the Cultural Revolution has the taboo against sighted performers been seriously challenged.

By around 2000 it was a fait accompli for sighted men to muscle in on the trade. There were fewer blind people anyway, since health has improved (though still appalling); and they could now receive modest disability benefits, or migrate in search of work as masseurs.

Nor do sighted men fear going blind any longer if they take it up. Half of Tian Zhizi’s 28 disciples were sighted—presumably those he taught since the 1970s. Although one elderly bard commented that the new disabled allowance for blind people makes them lazy, blind performers who are still active rather resented the encroachment on their “food-bowl”. “Originally sighted people weren’t allowed to tell stories—if you’re sighted you can do anything [else].” Now not only can sighted people learn, but they can even learn from tapes, saving them money but depriving senior blind bards of teaching fees.

Scholar Meng Haiping pointed out: “In the old days, bards’ social status was low; now for everyone all that counts is money, social status no longer comes into it.” This was certainly true for trendy young chuishou shawm-band musicians in the towns, but less obvious for the bards. Unlike the chuishou, bards have not spruced up their image so ambitiously, and remain quite modestly paid; nor have they yet availed themselves of the mobile-phone revolution that has occurred since about 1998. Whereas chuishou often ride motor-bikes, bards (even sighted ones) mostly go on foot.

Guo Xingyu:

Now there are sighted bards everywhere—many senior-secondary graduates, not wanting a hard life, go and tell stories. In Zizhou, Hengshan, and Yulin there are a lot of sighted bards, and there are some in Mizhi and Jiaxian too. Now there are fewer than thirty blind bards in Suide, but there are more sighted ones. They began appearing in the 1980s or 1990s, they drove the blind ones away; the blind ones were very angry about it—but the sighted ones had permits too.

He went on darkly,

Now how did that come about, then? Perhaps by bribery. Now blind artists are in great difficulties. There are more of them west of the river, but quite a few of the old artists have died; east of the river their skills aren’t quite so good.

Li Wenjin
I met sighted bard Li Wenjin (b. c1943) with Guo Yuhua in 1999 when he performed informally for staff at the office of the Black Dragon temple (on which see Adam Chau’s fine book Miraculous response), as a kind of advertisement for his arrival in the area. He comes from a village in Zizhou county. Soon after Liberation, in the early 1950s, he studied for three winters in the evenings in the “school for sweeping away illiteracy”. His parents died early, but he only began studying narrative-singing in the early 1980s, with the old blind bard in his village. His master could never find a wife: “when the five organs are incomplete, no-one will follow you”—though most of our blind mentors were exceptions. There was a libretto (benben) that he could follow—even blind performers sometimes owned a libretto. Li Wenjin was active over quite a wide area. He usually sings with his eyes closed—in imitation of blind bards?


Guo Yuhua and temple organizers listen to Li Wenjin, Black Dragon Temple 1999.

A couple of days after meeting him at the temple where we were staying, we bumped into him on our way back there, and he invited us along to hear a “story for well-being” that evening for a family in the nearby village (see photos at head of this post).

Xu Wengong
We met another sighted bard at the White Cloud Mountain temple fair in 2001. Xu Wengong (b. c1948), from a village in Qingjian county, began learning at 17 sui [c1964] from an uncle, so the taboo was perhaps being broken down even then. He has never taken part in any county-organized teams, or learned new stories. During the Cultural Revolution he was protected by villagers as he went round performing and hanging lockets on the quiet.

Many pilgrims attend the temple fair under the auspices of a dozen or so regional associations, each with particular allegiances among the many temple gods, sponsoring different daily rituals. Apart from the daily performances of opera, bards perform in a less public and commercial arrangement that is also typical of Shaanbei temple fairs. One evening we visit the cave of the Zizhou, Qingjian, and Ansai association where Xu Wengong was performing.

He comes to this fair every year as part of this pilgrim association, in order to fulfil a vow. “My father was a model labourer, and was head of this association”—note this typically casual link between Communist and traditional authority. “He came here to take part in the rituals and made a vow, because I’d had stomach disease for twelve years, and sure enough I got better. So I’ve been coming here to fulfil the vow every year since the temple restored, to revere the great god Zhenwu; I come here to avert calamity.” Some other bards also come to the temple fair not to make money but to fulfil vows.

There is no need to “invite the gods”, since they are already present, but on the left of the cave, as you stoop to enter, is an altar behind which the bard’s red cloth pantheon is displayed (see photo above). Individual pilgrims periodically burn paper and kowtow before it. Xu Wengong performs opposite the altar, the pilgrims sitting on mats at the rear of the cave, listening intently. They consist mostly of men over 50, but even those over 60 were brought up largely under Maoism. Yet such senior men entirely represent tradition; ritual associations like this surely represent a kind of passive alternative to government control.

Baiyunshan pilgrims 2001

XWG BYS 2001

Xu Wengong, Baiyunshan 2001

Old and new stories
Despite the propaganda surrounding Han Qixiang, not only does no-one value new stories now, but few recall them being popular even under Maoism. He Guangwu recalled, “In those days, usually we’d tell a section of a new story first and then tell an old one.” Other bards like Li Huaiqiang had no time for new stories at all. He had heard “Smashing superstition” on tape at a villager’s house, but “people don’t like it, it’s not good to listen to—you can’t sing stories like that for families, only for big meetings where tickets are on sale!” He Guangwu had learned “Opposing shamans” in the training session in the 1950s, but he too commented wryly, “You can’t tell that story nowadays—that’d be blasphemy!”

Even if the popularity of new stories was highly limited, and the subjects remained traditional, Li Huaiqiang pointed out that the bards’ language had been evolving along with the language of society generally. A certain change of style, reflecting the times, had evidently left him behind.

In the old days you sang of “Lady” or “Mistress” (furen, xiaojie), now it’s “missus” (poyi); in the old days it was “setting up as a family” (chengjia), nowadays it’s “the couple have got together”, “they held hands as they walked”, “they kissed”—it’s so lacking in culture! Old people won’t listen to that stuff, in the old days it was real cultured, now it just ain’t the same. But you have to adapt yer language to the times, eh?

So why should people apparently prefer stories about events many centuries earlier to ones about their society now? Local scholar Meng Haiping explained the ability of the old stories to survive under Maoism:

Traditional stories propound truth, goodness, beauty, and filial piety (zhenshanmeixiao 真善美孝)—that is China’s traditional morality, the Party doesn’t oppose that, and doesn’t suppress it.

Though there is ample evidence to show that they did oppose it, deliberately, regarding it under headings such as “bourgeois morality”, Meng was still making a fair point—because the Party he refers to is that on the ground, where continuity is more evident in local practice than the rupture often advocated by central theory.

Having complained about the coarsening of the bards’ language, Li Huaiqiang went on to lament the changing times:

In the old days bards used to wear a robe, and a hat with a pigtail. Nowadays it’s all simplified. Then it was wagai hats, sitting at a high table; now you don’t get changed, and just sit on a stool, it’s much simpler. And the gods used to be more efficacious, they were dead efficacious—if you didn’t follow them you could die. Once someone’s son died, and the parents made a vow to beg him to come back to life, so I obeyed the gods, and he really did come back to life.

So why didn’t the new stories become popular? Sure, villagers might be conservative and escapist in their tastes, finding stories of emperors and concubines, scholars and maids, generals and outlaws more attractive than propaganda. But the new stories might have been entertaining and meaningful in the contexts of the 1940s too. The irony was that the whole purpose of the new stories since the 1940s was to address current issues of great importance to the peasantry: namely tackling endemic social problems inherited from the old society.

But problems that might be arising under the new society were not now to be publicly aired. I would surmise that villagers might have been open to new stories, but were disillusioned by their glib political correctness, their failure to reflect complex new realities. The new stories were surely rarely heard in the villages apart from at mass meetings by which people were anyway alienated. If villagers were still able to host a performer to sing to invite the gods to heal their livestock, the new stories were inappropriate. In the early period of the 1940s, they might have had considerable novelty, and even helped people confront genuine problems, like forced marriages, opium, landlord exploitation. But maybe the themes didn’t keep pace with the problems: by the 1950s their perceived problems included campaigns, collectivization, irrational directives, and thus the new items seemed false, like the propaganda itself.

Still, as we saw, the stories Han Qixiang performed on his tours in the late 1950s were often semi-improvised according to the events unfolding in the village. That is, problems such as reactionary thinking among the peasants could be ridiculed; perhaps even bourgeois thinking of local leaders; but central policy could hardly be questioned.

As to issues topical since the reforms of the 1980s, several performers mentioned stories about the birth-control policy—that is, supporting it; given its massive unpopularity, has anyone dared sing stories opposing it? If no stories have arisen dedicated to sensitive issues such as official corruption, they are doubtless subtly aired in passing, if not as flagrantly as the fictional balladeer in Mo Yan’s visceral 1988 novel The Garlic Ballads (p.73):

A prefecture head who exterminates clans,
A county administrator who wipes out families;
No lighthearted banter from the mouths of power:
You tell us to plant garlic, and that’s what we do—
So what right have you not to buy our harvest?

Since the government mounts regular poster campaigns warning of sexually transmitted diseases, even if it was slow to admit to the danger of AIDS, I wonder if the bards could now be enlisted to tell stories warning of such perils. It seems unlikely. For a hard-hitting song from blind singer Zhou Yunpeng in Beijing, see here; and for songs on the Coronavirus, click here and here.

At any rate, one can only be impressed by the adaptability and creativity of storytellers, and whatever the constraints on public speaking both under the communes and since the reforms, they must always rely to some extent on keeping their audience entertained with topical remarks which will strike a chord.

Note that it was the texts that the Party cadres sought to reform—the traditional melodic and rhythmic elements were not an object of their attention.

Research and images
By the 1980s, while local scholars did most of the work by contacting the bards through the urban teams, rather than accompanying them on tour, they were now concerned to document ritual aspects of the performance. People’s mind-sets had become much more free than under Maoism—one local scholar who recorded bards for the Anthology was not going to be hoodwinked into toeing the Party line by recording new stories:

When I recorded them, I chose anything about Heaven, Earth and Man, and rejected everything about the Party, Chairman Mao, and Socialism!

One might see this as a political bias in itself, but I would view it as a shrewd correction of any tendency the bards might have to play safe by performing a politically-correct piece for a government representative.

Since Shaanbei is often featured romantically in the national media as a revolutionary base, brief sanitized glimpses of Shaanbei folk culture are occasionally broadcast. The standard images are yangge dancing or a cheesey folk-singer, but in 2001 I saw a young sighted man do a passable imitation of a Shaanbei bard on a national CCTV chat-show featuring the cult Shaanxi novelist Jia Pingwa.

Avant-garde Chinese artists have presented a less revolutionary image of Shaanbei. One fine antidote to Han Qixiang is the blind bard in the novella Life on a string (Ming ruo qinxian) by Shi Tiesheng (b.1951), one of many “educated youth” rusticated to a village near Yan’an in 1969 (see my Shaanbei book, pp.8–11, 76–7). This 1985 story mystically evokes the life of an itinerant blind bard and his young blind disciple:

The old man believes that when he has broken one thousand strings, he can open up his sanxian and find a prescription inside which will restore his sight. When he finally does so, the piece of paper inside is blank.

The story was made into a film by Chen Kaige (1991), director of the brilliant Yellow Earth, also showing the gulf between the harsh realities of rural life and the Party’s ideals.

Such avant-garde creations, with their mystical minimalism, are more popular outside than inside China. While far from ethnography, they at least offer an imaginative alternative to the revolutionary idealism of official sources.

You can find many video clips of Shaanbei bards online (on Chinese sites and even youtube), most but not all in a commodified style. This one, while close to the traditional setting, is clearly specially staged. In recent years Cao Bozhi 曹伯植 has published prolifically on musical aspects of the genre.

* * *

Now I also learn much from

  • Ka-ming Wu, Reinventing Chinese tradition: the cultural politics of late socialism (University of Illinois Press, 2015).

Though Wu immersed herself the lives of her village hosts, she also engaged more with officialdom than I did. She was introduced to bards through the propaganda teams, which look to be more important in her region of the Shaanbei field site than in mine. So whereas bards that I met—even those who had spent periods in the training teams—found the new initiatives evanescent, she tends to take the institutional level as primary, although local variation may also play a part.

For instance, her subheading to Chapter 3 “Propaganda storytelling turned into spiritual service” puts the cart before the horse—when the latter has such a long history, and the former remains only one aspect of their activities. Following blind bard Master Xu around for a month, she gives some excellent vignettes.

She found that

He had transformed his performance into a series of clandestine religious activities and religious performances.

But this was precisely how the blindmen had always earned their living throughout history! A similar slip is

Northern Shaanxi storytelling was originally designed as part of a government-sponsored cultural enrichment mission to poverty-stricken rural areas. (104)

 In Chapter 4 Wu valuably describes danwei work-unit performances, which I hadn’t found. She shows bards’ (not always successful) search for performances in such danwei; indeed, even when a bard goes on a solo tour of the countryside she suggests a rather formal arrangement with the village leadership. Conversely, the nearest to this that any bards I met got to was when Li Wenjin announced his arrival in the area to the Black Dragon Temple temple committee—whereupon word soon spread, and household patrons came forward.

Again she shows how bards tend to open with a brief modern propaganda item (no longer based on class politics, as she notes) before launching into a more popular traditional story.

She gives some valuable translations of lyrics, both traditional and modern. Further to my comments above on stories about topical issues, she translates a remarkable item “Quality Control System Spread to Millions” warning against fake consumer goods, performed at a factory; and the 2008 “Alleviate Earthquake Disaster, Look Forward to the Olympics, Increase Productivity” for a staff appreciation event.

While she notes that such national and government messages were overshadowed by the traditional stories that followed them, she reminds us to pay attention to the mutual interpenetration and agenda contestation among the local state, danwei, and folk cultural practitioners.

She finds that storytelling

neither resists nor colludes with the state; nor does it cater to urban tourism or consumption.

And she observes acutely:

Instead of attributing the spiritual revival to a simple return to the storytelling tradition from before the 1940s, I relate it to the huge movement of labor, objects, and emotions between the rural and urban areas.
My point is not that northern Shaanxi folk storytelling has revived because of depressing rural economic conditions. Rather, I wish to emphasize that the revival of storytelling practice becomes one of the rare social and communal occasions for rural villagers to get together where they can openly discuss all kinds of major rural developmental contradictions: lack of elderly care, split households, and youth who find no career development in remote rural hometowns and who encounter much difficulty surviving in cities.
In short, folk storytelling occasions are valuable not so much because villagers are getting more religious or that the practice is a time-honored heritage. Rather, folk storytelling has become what Megan Moodie called “platforms for articulation”, where local citizens draw traditional cultural resources to discuss pressing concerns of split households among left-behind elderly and young wives in remote communities in a translocal age. (101–102)

 Despite these areas for discussion, when she writes so perceptively such variations in focus are welcome.

Despite the substantial material published on Communist reforms of narrative-singing, and ethnomusicologists’ eager search for change and modernization, it was hard while observing daily life in Shaanbei around 2000 to credit the Party’s reform programme with much long- (or even short-) term influence.

As Guo Yuhua observes, people remained loyal to their traditional concept of local village culture rather than to the state. Though state-funded troupes are undoubtedly an aspect of overall activity, this point appears to be of wide relevance for ritual activity and expressive culture in the Chinese countryside today, and for our understanding of modern China.

If the bards are now threatened by the recent spread of TV and pop music, they are still in demand for their “stories for well-being” as well as for their healing skills. While they do assemble for public rituals like temple fairs and New Year, they mostly perform solo. From the 1940s, a disjuncture emerged between the secular political performances of the official teams and the rituals of the solo bards. Narrative-singing has perhaps become a lesser aspect of the blindmen’s activities than their godfather and healing duties. Indeed, since sighted bards do not necessarily learn the healing arts of blind men, a potential divorce also looms between narrative-singing and healing—all the more since people can now learn stories by listening to commercial tapes.

My point is not to belittle official efforts, either in the cultural or political spheres. But we should avoid basing our assessments either on the new stories of Han Qixiang or on a simple revival or reinvention since around 1980. As Ju Xi comments, criticizing the recent interpretations of “secularization” (compared with imperial China) and “revival” (compared with the Maoist era), both of which portray Chinese religion as somewhat isolated from society, local religion is not merely a “spiritual creation” or “cultural heritage”—it’s a cultural resource and social power which can play active roles in contemporary rural society.

The Party never managed to “eliminate superstition”, but complex social and economic changes continued to affect ritual life and expressive culture both under Maoism and since the reforms. Studying their changing fortunes in such a society requires a nuanced approach.


[1] This article is based on Part Two of my book Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei, (where you can find further refs. and characters)—note §C of the accompanying DVD. See also my “Turning a blind ear: bards of Shaanbei”, Chinoperl 27 (2007); Zhang Zhentao, Shengman shanmen 声漫山门, pp.353–79. I use the term “bard” for convenience, and to hint at their broader ritual duties.


China and Europe: local society and politics



My article on Guo Yuhua leads to several related posts on my blog—many collected under the Maoism tag in the sidebar.

For further alternative grass-roots accounts of Chinese society, see

For the troubled maintenance of local ritual life under changing regimes:

On recent conflicts between state and society, see e.g.

In Guo Yuhua’s interview with Ian Johnson she gives short shrift to the Intangible Cultural Heritage—as do I. Some tasters among the numerous posts under the heritage tag in the sidebar:

* * *

For Chinese parallels with authoritarian regimes in Europe, see e.g. my posts on


For another handy digest on a variety of topics, see here.

Guo Yuhua: Notes from Beijing, 3

GYH chat with last headscarfed man

2005: Guo Yuhua chats with the last man in Jicun village still wearing the traditional headscarf of the north Chinese peasant, iconic image of the revolution. Photo courtesy Guo Yuhua.

During my recent sojourn in Beijing, as well as my lecture series at Beishida and film screenings at People’s University and Peking University, it was a great inspiration to meet up again with the fine anthropologist Guo Yuhua 郭于华 (b.1956).

She’s done an interview for Ian Johnson (latest in a fine series for the NYRB; this interview is also instructive, as well as this earlier one in Chinese, as well as recent posts by David Ownby and Jonathan Chatwin), so here I’d just like to add my own personal reflections on her extensive oeuvre, with further material on fieldwork. [1]

1 Introduction
Introduced in London by the great Stephan Feuchtwang in the 1990s, we later met up in Beijing. In 1999 she took me to the Shaanbei village that was already a major focus of her research. In March 2018, not having seen her for ages, I was keen to catch up.

Professor of sociology at Tsinghua university in Beijing since 2000, Guo Yuhua is widely admired by scholars in China and abroad, maintaining high academic repute in the innovative sociology department alongside Shen Yuan 沈原 and Sun Liping 孙立平[2] What distinguishes them from other China anthropologists—both in China and abroad—is their rigorous critique of “Communist civilisation”.

I meet Guo Yuhua on the vast Tsinghua campus one afternoon and we go to a quiet café. I sip a bucket-sized strawberry frappé for hours as she delivers a passionate tirade/lecture, talking non-stop.

After gaining her PhD at Beishida and doing a post-doc at Harvard, by the 1990s Guo Yuhua was involved in a major project on oral history at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), documenting villagers’ personal experiences of the Maoist era—a project very far from the traditional oral history of folklorists.

Her early fieldwork focused on folk culture (as was the vogue at the time), but as she began delving deeper she moved onto the wider, and deeper, social and political systems of modern life. In 1999 she edited the influential book

  • Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁 [Ritual and social change] (Beijing: Shehuikexue wenxian cbs),

with contributions from leading scholars like Wang Mingming and Luo Hongguang. Most articles explore the complex relation between local society and the state. Apart from her introduction, her own article there expounds many of the issues in her 2013 book (see below):

  • “Minjian shehui yu yishi guojia: yizhong quanli shijiande jieshi” 民间社会于仪式国家:一种权利实践的解释 (陕北骥村的仪式于社会变迁研究) [Folk society and the ritual state: an interpretation of the practice of power (Ritual and social change in Jicun, Shaanbei)].

Guo Yuhua was an early blogger, later moving onto Weibo, Wechat and Twitter, where she is indefatigable in exposing injustice and defending rights.

Surveying her activist online activity, it might seem as if she’s changed paths since her early fieldwork on rural society and ritual, towards a deeper political engagement. But far from it, it’s all a continuum (“the whole dragon” again)—the social concern was always there. Amidst the current threat to our own values in the USA and Europe, many Western scholars may now be appreciating her wisdom.

But in China, such a principled stance requires more determination. Guo Yuhua’s blog and social media accounts have long been regularly blocked or censored. As she observes, in the face of constant scrutiny, it’s never clear where the line is—you just have to keep probing. The Party can’t control thought totally—the genie is out of the bottle, and China has to stay open for business; social media stills brings information and can be astutely deployed. Still, plain speaking is easier for established scholars than for younger scholars starting out.

I’m scribbling notes as she talks, but after a while my pen runs out. I suggest, “Is this one of Theirs, trying to stop me writing down your Thoughts?!

Apart from her Tsinghua colleagues, scholars she admires include historians Qin Hui 秦晖 and Zhang Ming 张鸣; and in legal studies, Xu Zhangrun 许章润 (for the latest in a series of critiques, see here; and for Guo’s defence after his 2019 suspension, here), He Weifang 贺卫方, and Zhang Qianfan 张千帆 (individual articles also on—gosh, what an important resource this site is!). Guo Yuhua is part of a chorus of scholars criticizing the “New Rural Construction” campaign, with its coercive programmes of expulsion.

Complementing her through background in Western sociology, her work builds on Chinese tradition—like Fei Xiaotong’s candid account of villages evading state collective policy (Dikötter, The Cultural Revolution, p.280).

Though she is closely surveilled even when she does rural fieldwork, she never loses her sense of humour—she has lots of funny stories about her fieldwork, and being surveilled. She seems cool and open, knowing she’s doing the moral thing, saying what needs to be said, on the basis of her rich practical and theoretical experience, with careful detailed scholarly research. She speaks for truth, that of the common people among whom the CCP once gained support by espousing. She does all this not out of “bravery” but more as a duty, like the patriotic intellectuals of yore. As she comments in the NYRB interview,

Sometimes, you feel you can’t tolerate it—you have to speak out. And if you’re looking at the people in society who are suffering, well, they’re so pitiful. It’s intolerable. You feel you can’t help them in another way, so at least you can try to publicize it and get a public reaction. In fact, you aren’t really helping them, but you feel you have to speak.

And she still manages to take teaching very seriously. Her courses, with impressive reading lists, include rural sociology, research methods, and the sociology of politics. Taking students on village fieldwork, she even does livestreams.

Such Chinese scholarship doesn’t tally neatly with Western concepts of left and right.  Over here, last time I looked, those who strive for social justice and speak truth to entrenched conservative power are considered on the left. But When Guo Yuhua visited the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle in 2016, making a critique of Karl Polanyi’s views on the market economy, their views were at odds.

While she understands my lament that some foreign media coverage seems to suggest that Chinese people are brainwashed automatons, she still worries that many are indoctrinated. Like in the USA, I ask? I may sometimes feel uncomfortable with foreign China-watchers’ monolithic portrayal of an evil surveillance state, but Guo Yuhua, in the thick of it, commands great authority.

* * *

Fieldwork may stimulate a social conscience (cf. journalistic reports like those of Liao Yiwu), and anthropology has a long history of activism—if less so for China. The task is to understand different lives, and speak out on people’s behalf—obvious topical instances including Syrian refugees and Beijing migrants.

I’m tempted to wonder, isn’t this a natural career path for any anthropologist (or indeed priest) working among the poor? What may seem more curious is that many, whether Chinese or foreign, don’t follow such a path. Exposure to the lives, and cultures, of rural dwellers should inevitably prompt us to ponder their situation—but that rarely surfaces clearly in the literature on China. And it does seem to lead naturally to a principled involvement with issues of social justice. So perhaps that’s why authoritarian governments are likely to be wary of anthropology, and “experts” in general.

The anthropology of ritual and expressive culture in China may seem somewhat separate from such social and political enquiry, but it needs to absorb such lessons (as I often suggest. e.g, here). So with much research on Chinese music and Daoist studies still blinkered and stuck in reification and myths of an earlier idealized past, I’ve long looked to anthropology for inspiration. Still, compared to the 1990s when one could do meaningful work, Guo Yuhua finds the current anthropological scene in China backward, with funding ever more politically controlled.

Of course, anthropologists don’t only study exotic tribes and peasants. They may also explore the lives of the legions of those who make “our” own pampered lifestyles possible—cleaners, migrants, construction workers, often from poor villages whose conditions the anthropologists may also experience.

The fabled Chinese Masses may have been thoroughly exploited under Maoism, but since the reforms they have been serially demoted from the empty epithet of laobaixing to flagrant “low quality” (suzhi di) to “low-end population” (diduan renkou). Guo Yuhua is always on their side.

2 Narratives of the sufferers
There’s already a substantial literature in Chinese and foreign languages not only on Shaanbei-ology (see also Shaanbei tag) but on the village of Yangjiagou (Guo Yuhua uses its old name, Jicun). It features prominently in my own book

Adapted from pp.xxvi–xxvii there:

In the hills east of Mizhi county-town, Yangjiagou has been the object of study for a steady stream of Chinese and foreign scholars. It is not necessarily typical, in that it was home to a dominant local landlord clan in the Republican period, and has been visited by sociologists since the 1930s; since Chairman Mao stayed there in 1947 it has become a minor revolutionary pilgrimage site. Sociologists with new agendas have made thorough restudies since the 1990s, and recently a Japanese team has published a book on its architecture, soundscape, and society. Today villagers have become all too accustomed to outsiders. However, the revolutionary connection hasn’t protected it from poverty. Though only 18 kilometres from the main road, it was a difficult journey until 1999. The village gained electricity only in the early 1980s, and its first telephone only in 2000. Though Yangjiagou’s musical traditions have been declining since the 1930s, they were maintained into the reform era. My modest contribution to Yangjiagou studies is to attempt to put the lives of its bards and its shawm-band musicians since the 1930s in the wider Shaanbei context.

By the time Guo Yuhua took me on my first fieldtrip to Shaanbei in 1999 she was already engaged in an important oral history project there. I suppose my tagging along with her confirmed my gradual shift towards the more social approach that had already been emerging in my work with Chinese colleagues in Hebei—an approach more embedded in the changing lives of people than was, or is, the fashion in either musicology or Daoist studies.

It was a great trip, instructive and fun—even if she was doubtless underwhelmed by my limited ability to behave suitably with either peasants or cadres. But I learned a lot from her, from the warmth and honesty of her rapport with villagers, right down to little practical details like buying a modest amount of incense paper as a suitable gift on attending funerals.

We spent some time around the Black Dragon Temple—another site which she and Luo Hongguang were studying, later covered in Adam Chau‘s book Miraculous response—before going to stay in Yangjiagou.

Guo Yuhua’s principled stance is shown in a nice story from our fieldwork together. In my Shaanbei book (p.147) I describe how I found some obscure tapes of shawm bands there:

I sweated blood to get hold of some of these cassettes. Few shops stock more than a couple of them, and I finally tracked down a selection on an expedition by foot to a dingy general store in the sleepy township near Yangjiagou. As I eyed the cassettes up over the counter, the dour assistant—who apparently hadn’t ever sold any of them, and certainly not to a foreigner—spotted a business opportunity. She ingenuously asked 5 yuan each for them—I had enough experience to realize they sold at around 2 yuan. My companion Guo Yuhua was indignant, and we launched into some increasingly impolite haggling. But the assistant wouldn’t budge. I generally get angry when people try to overcharge me in China, but having been searching for these tapes for years, in this case I was inclined to allow myself to be ripped off—the three tapes I had set my heart on would still cost less than a half-pint of London beer. But for Guo Yuhua the principle was clear, and she dragged me out of the shop, refusing to let me part with my money.

After some spirited exchanges as we set off back to Yangjiagou along the filthy main track, debating the balance between adhering to principle and yielding to corruption, I dashed back to the shop and bought them at the inflated price, flinging the money at the assistant with a vain display of sarcasm that went clear over her head.

Guo Yuhua reminds me how my visits to the latrine always prompted the “patriotic” family dog, chained worryingly nearby, to bark fiercely—but a visit from a district cadre also aroused its ire, so it had a certain taste. Another vignette:

One day in 1999 we visit a former village cadre—who also happens to be a spirit medium—to chat with him while his wife prepares lunch for us (“Typical!“), when in walks a young policeman from the township nearby, in search of a signature from our host for some bureaucratic trifle. I’m a bit alarmed, not so much as we’re kinda talking about some sensitive stuff here, but because as the climate relaxed through the 1990s we had reckoned we could probably economize on the laborious rounds of local permits that my forays once invited. Sure enough, the cop eyes me somewhat ferociously and goes, “What’s this wog [oh yes, there’s another story!] doing here?”

When our host explains that I’m from England, even before I can launch into some spiel about collecting the fine local folk music heritage, blah-blah, international cultural exchange, blah blah, he is open-mouthed. “Do you like Manchester United?” he asks, spellbound. Relieved, I launch into my Beckham routine, we exchange cigarettes as we discuss the prospects for the World Cup, and he leaves contented.

On my second stay there in 2001, this time accompanied by Zhang Zhentao, I spent more time with the village’s lowly shawm players (see below), and appreciated them a lot.

An important book
Propaganda is pervasive—and not just in China, as this recent attempt at debating the British legacy shows. The romantic patriotic image of Shaanbei (cf. my post One belt, one road), deriving first from Mao’s base there on the eve of “Liberation”, is now further entrenched by the bland legends of Xi Jinping’s seven years there as a “sent-down youth” during the Cultural Revolution.

Guo Yuhua’s article on Jicun in Ritual and social change already broached many of the issues expounded in her 2013 book

  • Shoukurende jiangshu: Jicun lishi yu yizhong wenming de luoji [Narratives of the sufferers: The history of Jicun and the logic of civilization] (Hong Kong: Chinese University, 2013)
    (for Chinese reviews, see e.g. this by Sun Peidong, herself hounded out of her post at Fudan in 2020).


If I were King of China (an unlikely scenario), it would be required reading for all. But I’m not, it’s not, and even to find a copy in the PRC may take a certain ingenuity.

As Guo Yuhua writes [Harriet Evans’s translation],

We discovered that ordinary peasants are both able and willing to narrate their own history, as long as the researcher is a sincere, respectful, serious and understanding listener.

Notwithstanding my comment that ethnography is about description, not prescription,

Bourdieu and his collaborators’ work in listening to these people’s stories and entering their lives can be seen as a fulfillment of the sociologist’s political and moral mission—to reveal the deep roots of the social suffering of ordinary people.

The peasants of Ji village where we have been carrying out fieldwork for many years refer to themselves as “sufferers”. This is not a term that we as researchers have imposed on the subjects of our research; rather it is the definition that villagers give to themselves. In the region surrounding Ji village, “sufferer” is a traditional term that peasants continue to use today to refer to those who farm the land present. In local language, the “sufferers” are those who “make a living” on the land; it is a local term that is popularly accepted and conveys no sense of discrimination. When you ask a local person what he is doing the common response is “zaijia shouku” (lit. “suffering at home”), in other words, making a living farming the land.
[from Harriet Evans’s translation].

In the Hong Kong interview Guo Yuhua explains,

Of course, in doing oral history we would never expect people to “tell about your suffering”—we’d never ask like that. Rather, we ask them to tell us their stories: how their life was when they were young, when they grew up, married and became parents. We don’t go in search of suffering, and their accounts aren’t entirely about pain. Sometimes their stories sound really painful, but they will talk very ironically. Often we find women laughing and crying at the same time—one moment crying as they talk of heartache, the next finding it funny how foolish they must have been at the time.
Scholars aren’t some Arts Propaganda Troupe [!!!]—we don’t have to extol how happy and contented we are nowadays, that’s not our job [cf. “WTF” article in n.1 below]. Our job is to view the issues in this society, to understand the painful experiences of ordinary people, and where they come from.

Citing Xu Ben 徐贲 (For what do human beings remember? 人以什么理由来记忆) and Wu Wenguang’s project on the famine, she goes on to discuss the significance of memory.

Apart from the villagers’ own accounts, the subtlety and perception of Guo Yuhua’s enquiries are a model for fieldworkers (e.g. 211–12).

As we will always find, the village’s history is utterly remote from its model revolutionary image. You might think it would take more effort to ignore what happens than to document it, but people have been effectively groomed in public amnesia. The case of Yangjiagou is all the more revealing since it is a common rosy theme online, including videos, based on the image of Mao’s sojourn there and the whole CCP myth-making. It also makes a good case because there were no excess deaths there in the “famine”; unlike the labour camp stories, it’s a story not so much of extreme degradation but rather the routine degradation of daily life—the constant hunger, duplicity, and brutality.

Breaking free of the simplistic class narrative of Maoism, Guo Yuhua’s thorough theoretical Introduction [3] is inspired notably by Bourdieu, as well as authors like James Scott, Philip Huang, and Guha and Spivak; for the stories of women, she cites Marjorie Shostak.

Clearly written and structured, the book highlights the vivid voices of the local “sufferers” (including former “landlords”, cadres, women, and so on), linked by her trenchant commentaries.

GYH 2006

Chat with village women, 2006.

The memories of women form a major component of the story, on which she reflects thoughtfully—not least issues in eliciting their more domestic world-view (e.g. 127–37; cf. this article).

Women do recognize the social “conviviality” (honghuo) of being forced out of the house to work in the collective fields. [4] But the true impact of hunger hits home in their accounts of childcare, with the constant anguish of being unable to feed their children.

In the Hong Kong interview she expands on the changing status of women, as ever disputing the Party line:

Some scholars consider that after rural women had experienced the female liberation (elevating their status), they regressed after the reforms. But after you have done fieldwork among rural women and listened to them describing their life experiences, you will realize that it simply couldn’t be called “liberation”. However is liberation passive? To be called liberation it has to be autonomous, personal. Their status was merely changed: previously dependent on family and lineage, they were now dependent on the state and the collective. They remained tools, objects, being organized and mobilized into collective labour against their will. What they seem to be telling is how they fell sick, exhausted by labouring, looking after children, sewing, enduring famine amidst a lack of material goods. Such accounts may sound like trivial matters, but the whole background it is quite clear what it really meant to be a rural woman, and what it was that created their plight. With no room for choice, women had to do what they were told; they had to take on the most exhausting, physically demanding tasks, not even able to recuperate properly after giving birth, thus subjecting them to disease. Their condition was one of enslavement.

After the reforms, they could leave the village to work, and there were plenty of active young women able to use their determination and aptitude to change their fate to some extent. This was definitely progress, but it wasn’t an automatic process: there were still many constraints, with injustices at many institutional levels. Still, although many girls don’t appear independent, and may choose to find a good husband, at least they have this choice; or they can choose to go and study, become female enterpreneurs and independent women. All this gives them more choices than under the collective era.

Adroitly adopting the recent CCP buzzword hexie 和谐, Guo Yuhua pointedly details how—both under Maoism and since the reforms (121, 240–41)—the “harmonious” social relations of the old society were polarized and moral values poisoned.

The revolution brought to the fore the less reputable elements in local society, like the local bully who used his new power as an activist under the CCP to torture a “landlord” into giving him his young daughter in marriage (60–61). And the villagers remained disgusted despite his political power. As she notes, facing such problems in mobilizing the masses, “the use of bad people became the only choice” (112–14).

As throughout Shaanbei, infant mortality rates were high, both before Liberation and under Maoism. Apologists like Mobo Gao point out certain advances (in healthcare, education, and so on) under the commune system; the Mizhi county gazetteer (p.630) [5] claims an increase in life expectancy from 35 in 1949 to 60 by 1989. Indeed, the villagers concede that some of the economic advances since the reform era were based on the desperate projects under Maoism.

But for Guo Yuhua such defences are derisory. On my interminable bus journey back to Beijing in 2001 I chatted with a modest young guy from poor Jiaxian county who was studying for an economics PhD at People’s University in Beijing; he was one of fifteen children, of whom only three had survived.

In numerous villages like this where there was no resentment towards the landlords (they were widely considered “benevolent”), and the concept of “exploitation” was alien, the CCP had to manufacture “class hatred” by the indocrination of constant campaigns. Landlords and their children, educated and able, joined both sides of the conflict, working away from the village until they were dragged back to be punished as “sacrificial victims”, notably with the layoffs from state work-units around 1962 (another universal theme in my own studies, e.g. Li Qing in Yanggao: Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.113–18).

She concludes: “Overall, before 1946 Jicun was a relatively tranquil and serene traditional village.” (Discuss…)

The new rulers now had to foster class consciousness. With both oral accounts and substantial official sources Guo Yuhua documents the stages of land reform, with its inevitable corruption and theft. [6] Conscription, brutally enforced (108–10), added to their woes. Citing Zhang Ming (see above), she shows how the goal of land reform was not economic but political (113).

She refutes the CCP myths of “temporary problems” like the Cultural Revolution, or the “three years of difficulty”: just as I found in north Shanxi, villagers were starving for over two decades, from collectivization right until privatization.

After a brief interlude when the peasants at least nominally had their own land, a long succession of political rituals now cowed the villagers into obedience, condemning them to long-term hunger, exhaustion, and sickness. Having already suffered famine in winter 1947–8, their hunger became ever more severe as collectivization was enforced; one villager recalls that from 1958 to 1979 it got worse year by year (154). Scavenging was the only hope of survival. We may note certain parallels in the fate of a First Nation community in Canada.

Coercion was an intrinsic component of the whole system, and excessive violence was rewarded (236­–8). As the objects of attack soon expanded from the landlord class to the whole rural population (114), campaigns became a life-or-death struggle.

In describing the stages of collectivization, Guo Yuhua reminds us of the traditional voluntary methods of mutual help, and the whole ethical system, that were demolished (117–21).

Stressing the militarization of society, she details the whole succession of what the villagers call “a fucked-up flim-flam” (luanqibazaode mingtang 乱七八糟的名堂)—like short-lived care enterprises for children and the childless elderly, largely unsuccessful literacy campaigns, the failure to teach revolutionary songs. After the sheer desperation following the Great Leap and the short-lived communal canteens, the interlude when private plots were tolerated from 1961, giving peasants a slender lifeline, was all too brief before the Socialist Education and Four Cleanups campaigns led into the Cultural Revolution, as hunger became endemic again. Cadres were just as clueless as ordinary villagers about the details and goals of these “rotten” campaigns; and the aims of factional fighting (180–82) were no clearer, apart from the constant cycle of petty revenge that the whole system had long fostered.

Apart from the persecution of cadres, the landlords again made inevitable scapegoats. Only two villagers met violent deaths in the Cultural Revolution (and that after the main violence of 1966–8)—but their story still haunts villagers today (182–6).

With its landlord history, the village had a wealth of fine old architecture. Nearly forty years after a stone mason was recruited to detonate “the finest archway in Shaanbei”, Guo Yuhua finds him to tell the story.


The former landlord stronghold, 1999.

As in Europe, even today the older buildings that somehow survived look picturesque—as long as you don’t dwell too much on the indignities that they have witnessed.

By the 1960s villagers’ disillusion was complete. Still, Guo Yuhua notes their own later conflicted memories (cf. the Soviet nostalgia for Stalinism):

  • the sense of conviviality (honghuo) enforced by collective labour (including singing haozi work hollers), which she compares with the “collective effervescence” of ritual;
  • the sense that they were all in the same boat—scant consolation when people were all destitute and starving together, but contrasting with their later atomization since the reforms:

Out we went, voices all round, chattering away merrily, convivial all of a sudden. As soon as we got back home, there was nothing to eat, the kids were crying, clothes all tattered, nothing to mend them with—just that moment of conviviality.

Commenting on their more recent memories, she notes

Material amelioration and the deterioration of social life, as well as nostalgia for the collective life produced by their escalating marginalization, to some extent transforms and even conflicts with their memories of suffering.

  • and their startling ironic “logic” that with the collapse of the commune system the CCP slogan “first bitter, then sweet” (coined to contrast the old feudal society with the Communist Utopia) had indeed finally come to pass with the present material sufficiency—albeit several decades too late, and only after the collapse of the very system that had touted the boast (156–65). For some, the transition

from collective to privatization wasn’t a retrogressive transformation of correcting the mistakes of the system, but like a natural “first bitter, then sweet” cause-and-effect.

She notes the villagers’ sullen passive resistance in showing up for collective labour without working, citing the dictum of Qin Hui (see above) that communes from which people can’t withdraw are no different from concentration camps.

Since the reforms
As the stultifying commune system collapsed (“rotted” as they say, lan nongyeshe 烂农业社; another common expression for the privatizing reforms is dan’gan 单干, “going it alone”), the book describes the long complex process of adjustment.

With villagers clamouring to overthrow the commune system, at first some cadres hesitated to stick their necks out, anxious that the political winds might change yet again.

A vivid exchange in an interview with a former cadre:

Later it became the norm, the whole county was dividing up…
[Woman interjects:] It was spring. I remember dividing up the donkeys, don’t I.
Cattle, you mean cattle.
[They argue over whether it was donkeys or cattle…]

As for villagers in north Shanxi, this was the real “Liberation”:

Going it alone was great, just great. If we’d have gone on in the collective, in a few more years there’d be no-one alive, we’d all have fucking starved to death [laughs]—really! (212)

Guo Yuhua goes on to reflect on the mechanism that had enabled such coercion, and the villagers’ own assessment of the changing times, including their reservations about the way society had gone on to evolve (213–21).

In the final chapter she draws conclusions, exploring the “logic” of both sufferers and the system that they endured, and warning that the campaign style is still active.

In an Appendix (also online) entitled “Doves occupying the magpie’s nest” she updates the story, reflecting on later visits in 2005 and 2006. The dwelling where Mao stayed from 1947–8 had been revamped as “Commemorative hall to the revolution”, and the former ancestral hall of the Ma landlords was being converted to an “Commemorative hall to the battle relocation in Shaanbei”, an “educational base on the revolution”. No room for the villagers’ own voices here.

Taking a tour of Mao’s old dwelling she suddenly realizes that two of the cave-dwellings—former residence of Peng Dehuai, no less—had become the home of the eccentric villager Liudan, whose father had made such a deep impression on Guo Yuhua that she had published an article about him in 1998:

Though from a landlord background, he was considered “enlightened gentry”, and was on the advisory team for land reform. Becoming a teacher away from the village, he was yet another victim of the state cuts in 1962, having to return home. He now became “maladjusted”, cut off from village life.

Now, amazingly, his son Liudan was still occupying the two caves in the revolutionary site, adamantly refusing the state’s handsome offer of money to move out. Never able to find a wife, he too was unable to work; most villagers understood his seeming mental deficiency as a highly astute form of passive resistance. Even recently he was still something of a down-and-out. As Guo Yuhua observes, his refusal to move out was reminiscent of both the indignant protests of evicted urban dwellers and the struggle over whose version of history will prevail; but given his mental frailty, his resistance was rather complex.

Anyway, we needn’t hold our breaths for a memorial to the victims of Maoism, to match the commemoration sites in Germany for those of Nazism and the GDR.

And Guo Yuhua still manages to go back regularly to Yangjiagou—even as year by year, fewer people remain who can recall the period before “Liberation”; before long, who will remember the Great Leap Backward?

GYH 2011

Village chat. 2011.

As in Europe, we all visit sites where people were tortured and murdered within living memory, yet we may merely see them as picturesque—an image avidly promoted by Chinese propaganda.

* * *

One feature that enriches the authenticity of the book is its direct citations of villagers’ accounts in their own words. Thus it also serves as a kind of practical handbook for Shaanbei dialect. Use of language, of course, lends insights into people’s conceptual world. [7]

Apart from having to latch on to regional pronunciations, like de (duo), hou (hao), he (hei), bie (bei), ha (xia), ka (qu), and so on, Guo Yuhua soon helped me pick up some basic expressions, like haikai 解开 “understand” and chuanka 串去 “go for a stroll”. Now I can finally savour the language of her meticulous documenting of peasants’ reflections, albeit twenty years too late—basic expressions like nazhen 那阵 “then” (jiuqian 旧前 “in the old days”); zhezhen 这阵 or erke 尔刻 “now”; laoha 老下 “dead”; yiman 一漫 “totally”; ele 恶了 “very” (not the standard feichang). The whole commune system is known as nongyeshe 农业社 or daheying 大合营; for collective labour they say dongdan 动弹.

Among the many pleasures of peasant language is its liberal use of expletives, a revealing contrast with the standard Chinese of propaganda—polished, polite, and so flagrantly false as to insult the intelligence.

Religion and ritual
Guo Yuhua’s PhD, which became the book

  • Side kunrao yu shengde zhizhuo 生的困扰与死的执着:中国民间丧葬仪式与传统生死观 [The puzzle of death and the obstinacy of life: Chinese folk mortuary ritual and traditional concepts of life and death] (Beijing: Zhongguo Renmin daxue cbs, 1992),

largely concerned traditional rural mortuary rituals, and remains stimulating (note her fieldnotes from Shanxi and Shaanxi, pp.198–217). Indeed, her 2000 article on Jicun in Ritual and social change contains more material on changing temple life there than does her 2013 book.

While she has moved on from ritual to broader social issues, she recognizes the importance of both religion and religious studies in China. I think of de Martino‘s fieldwork on taranta in south Italy, also engaging with the plight of the sufferers.

Guo Yuhua sees religion and myth as behaviour with long historical roots to explain the world, a kind of survival technique. (cf. Ju Xi). In an email she notes similarities with the CCP’s enforced belief system:

If the latter is as “scientific” as they claim, then it too should be subject to corroborating or refuting; it should be explored, debated, doubted, critiqued. But the current reality is that it demands unconditional veneration as an item of faith, even written into the constitution—a totally illogical position.

Religious studies should take account of such [sociological] approaches, rather than mere descriptive documentation or “salvage”—viable cultures will endure and evolve without such measures. Given the importance of religion in society, as long as studies takes account of its social basis, then it’s a worthy discipline.

As she observed in interview, alluding to the Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft debate,

If you say, Chinese tradition is such a society of rites and customs (lisu 礼俗), not of legal rationality (fali 法理), then its distinctive feature is human governance. To be satisfied with this explanation is to shirk responsibility, because if everything goes back to the ancestors, then what is there for us to do? If one wants true reform, I think we have to start from the institutional level, so naturally we have to transfer our attentions towards institutions, or more precisely, the interactive configuration of culture and human nature. 

Expressive culture
My taste of fieldwork with Guo Yuhua only increased my own quest to relate local expressive cultures to politics and society—a common goal of ethnomusicologists, but much less commonly achieved for China.

On one hand, the study of imperial China is eminently necessary, but for many Chinese scholars it has had the added attraction of being relatively safe (cf. former Yugoslavia). Studies of culture and ritual, too, tend to be an autonomous zone into which social change since 1900 rarely intrudes.

As the state has receded somewhat since the 1980s, it may seem slightly less risky to document the current fortunes of folk genres, though this too often descends into a simplistic lament about the lack of a new generation; and as the overall society certainly becomes more affluent, those stark social problems that do remain continue to be taboo. So we accumulate dry lists of ritual manuals and sequences, vocal and instrumental items, and birthdates of performers.

Meanwhile, social and political change is often seen only through the lens of “revolutionary” culture, while living (or at least only semi-moribund) traditional vocal and instrumental genres are imprisoned in museums and libraries, and their performances sanitized for the concert platform. Their history under Maoism is blandly encapsulated by listing a few isolated performances at secular regional festivals, along with a standard clichéd sentence on the “mistakes” of the Cultural Revolution.

Guo Yuhua tellingly describes the replacement of traditional ritual culture by that of political campaigns—although in my Shaanbei book I note the enduring strands of tradition even through the years of Maoism. While the lives of blind bards and shawm players feature in her account, I think my own focus on them in my book still makes a useful supplement.

LHQ shuoshu

Li Huaiqiang, 1999.

In my survey of itinerant storytellers in Shaanbei, my accounts of the changing fortunes of the village’s blind bard Li Huaiqiang (1922–2000, known as “Immortal Li”, Li xian) also derive from Guo Yuhua’s close relationship with him (see my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei). As this article grows, I’ve written about him and other bards in a separate post.

Another major theme of my Shaanbei book, and the accompanying DVD (§B, cf. my comments on the funeral clip from Wang Bing‘s recent film), is the village’s shawm band. Such bands belong to the traditional litany of social outcasts. One of Guo Yuhua’s main informants is Older Brother, the sweet semi-blind shawm player who features in my own book and DVD (cf. blind shawm players in Yanggao, north Shanxi).

Yangjiagou funeral 1999

Yangjiagou funeral, 1999. Older Brother second from left.

While I was filming the procession to the hilltop grave, setting off before dawn, Guo Yuhua was taking photos:

funeral climb 1

funeral climb 2


In a society where no matter how desperate people were, even vagrancy offered no hope (p.162), Older Brother tells Guo Yuhua how, with his family starving, he reluctantly went on the road begging in the second half of 1968 (pp.133–4, 193–6), led by a sighted old man from a martyred revolutionary family. In a moving account, he tells how they went on a long march throughout Shaanbei, sleeping rough; they were treated kindly on the road, learning to beg for scraps. When conditions allowed simple funerals, he even played his shawm, his companion accompanying on cymbals. He would find people to write letters home to his father to reassure him he was still alive. By the winter he had found a rather secure village base where he was hopeful of eking a living, but this enabled his father to track him down and summon him home.

It may seem ironic to cite Mao here, but as he observed,

There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.

So did the socialist arts Serve the People, meeting their needs? Whose needs do state propaganda units like the Intangible Cultural Heritage serve now? Of course, while the state has its own agenda for the latter, local actors can utilize it to achieve their own requirements, as several scholars have observed (and that is perhaps the only thing that can be said for it).

As I suggested in my post on the recent film of Wang Bing, this is the context in which we blithely analyse the scales, melodies, and structures of Chinese music. Primed with Guo Yuhua’s book, you’ll never again want to read the bland reified propaganda from the ICH.

* * *

In her book, as in her whole scholarly output, Guo Yuhua makes a rational and forceful indictment based on detailed evidence, a passionate plea for heeding the voices of ordinary people and rewriting history.

All this may be a rather familiar story abroad (from individual studies like those of Chan, Madsen and Unger (Chen village), Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden’s two volumes on Wugong, Jing Jun’s The temple of memories, my own Plucking the winds and Daoist priests of the Li family, or the broader brush of Frank Dikötter—I hardly dare mention the few apologists like William Hinton and Mobo Gao, to whom Guo Yuhua gives short shrift). But it feels yet more incisive coming from PRC scholars, and her research is both detailed and amply theorized. The only aspect where the stories of Chen village and Wugong may make more impact is that they follow individual lives, whereas most of Guo Yuhua’s citations are anonymized.

While her work such as that on Jicun exposes the tragic failures and outrages of the Maoist decades, she is also relentless in denouncing current abuses—always upholding the values of social justice and the liberation of the sufferers, inspired by the same concern for the welfare of Chinese people that once made the CCP popular. (For my own nugatory contribution to Xi Jinping studies, see here, and even here.)

I seem to be suggesting a rebalancing from the newly-revived Guoxue 国学 (“national studies”: traditional Chinese culture, especially Confucianism) towards Guoxue 郭学 (Guo Yuhua studies). She bridges the gap between politics, anthropology, and cultural studies. Whether you’re interested in society, civil rights, history, music, or ritual, let’s all read her numerous publications—and do follow her on social media.


[1] Many of her important articles are collected here, including several related to her work in Shaanbei. For another major recent article, see here (or here). For a brief yet penetrating and indignant essay, try “OMG, not that stupid ‘happiness’ again?!” My thanks to Guo Yuhua, Stephan Feuchtwang, Harriet Evans, and Ian Johnson for further background.

[2] For a translation of Sun’s recent article, soon blocked from WeChat, see here. For a useful English account of the Tsinghua group, see here; and yet another fine anthropologist there is Jing Jun 景军. For Wang Mingming at Peking University just up the road, see here.

[3] §4 of which was translated by Harriet Evans as “Narratives of the ‘sufferer’ as historical testimony”, in Arif Dirlik et al. (eds.). Sociology and anthropology in twentieth-century China: between universalism and indigenism (Hong Kong: Chinese University, 2012), pp.333–57.

[4] Guo Yuhua notes that traditionally women’s main opportunity for public interaction was at the 3rd-moon temple fair for Our Lady, but I wonder if their exclusion from the ritual sphere was so severe: female spirit mediums had been, and still are, a major element in ritual life.

[5] The silence of the 1993 Mizhi county gazetteer on the privations and indignities of the Maoist decades makes the frank accounts in the Yanggao gazetteer (also 1993) all the more impressive: see my Daoist priests of the Li family, e.g. pp.100–101, 123.

[6] Hinton, in his classic Fanshen, also documents complexities, but within an overall positive tone.

[7] I’m not sure how rare this is in academia, but it has been adopted by novelists such as Li Rui and Liu Zhenyun. In Sun Peidong’s review she cites Han Shaogong’s novel A dictionary of Maqiao (Maqiao zidian 马桥词典), set in Hunan, for its unpacking of local language. For Shaanbei dialect, cf. the 2007 book Tingjian gudai 听见古代 by Wang Keming 王克明. For film documentaries, see here.


Flamenco, 1: palmas—soleares, bulerías

*Revised, with some sections moved to Part 3! Part 2 is here.*


Tony and Two-Jags explore the intricacies of flamenco palmas.

Coinciding with the thrilling Portugal–Spain match the other day was a flamenco gig in Chiswick with the splendid Ramon Ruiz.

Unlike the football, it’s not a competition, but much as I love fado (and you just have to listen to the Carminho song there; see also here), I’ve long been enchanted by flamenco. One benefit of the life of a touring WAM muso: how blessed to have had the chance to wind down from performing Bach Passions in Andalucia in time for late-night sessions in flamenco bars.


The rustic Andalucian charm of Ramon’s courtyard. Photo: Ramon Ruiz.

Recently my passion has been reinvigorated by occasional palmas sessions with Ramon. Flamenco is yet another illustration of the wonders of all the diverse regional cultures throughout Europe (e.g. east Europe, or Italy). And despite the efforts of those who would float off into an imperial ocean idyll of tweed and Morris dancing, London is still a wonderful microcosm of world music! You can find everything…

YouTube opens up a rich world of flamenco, not least the fantastic documentary series Rito y geografïa del cante. [1] Here’s a briefer introduction to flamenco as part of social life:

This is just a preliminary reccy—more to follow.

* * *

Flamenco is about as far as you could possibly get from its cosy tourist image—Torremolinos, castanets, rose between the teeth, and all that. Like tango or rebetika, its life is “among the folk”, as the Chinese would say: at lineage gatherings, at informal fiestas and local peña clubs; and it’s rooted in the exorcizing of suffering. Rather than the commodified tablau shows, one lives in hope of sitting in on a juerga among aficionados (cf. the touring musos’ game). [2]

* * *

Like Lorca [name-dropper—Ed.], my taste draws me to the intensity of cante jondo “deep singing”, with genres like seguiriyas and martinetes. But my Spanish is rudimentary, I don’t play guitar, and No Way am I going to dance (like, ever)—so a great way of learning is to get a basic grasp of the wonderful palmas hand-clapping that accompanies singing, guitar, and dancing. Not to mention foot stamping, and the cajón box.

Come to that, palmas is a great way for British kids to become musically competent, growing into music—as Ramon finds in his school workshops.

Like the human voice, our hands, our bodies, are the most elemental musical instruments. Hand-clapping, relegated in northern societies to children’s games, is a captivating art in some Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cultures. And it’s belatedly come into its own with so-called minimalism—Steve Reich’s Clapping music,

and Anna Meredith’s exhilarating Hands free.

* * *

Complementing my explorations of YouTube clips, I’m finding some practical sites useful, like this and this; also instructive are Ian Biddle’s chapter on cante and the Appendix “Cante, definition and classification” of Paul Hecht’s The wind cried.

As usual, we need an overview of the genres: this tree suggests the riches of all the various palos styles.

And then, within all these palos are the compas rhythmic patterns—embodied by specific (hands-on!) palmas. Not to mention all the local styles of towns throughout Andalucia—Seville, Jerez, Cádiz, Morón de la Frontera, Granada…

For a sophisticated model of metrical analysis, see here.

Palmas seems like a relatively easy way of getting a basic grip on flamenco. But focusing narrowly on the rhythms, it still takes me a lot of time to absorb the important clues from the guitar and voice that are equally basic.

Ramon suggests I begin with soleares (linguistic note: associated with soledad, like saudade in fado!) and buleríasthe latter faster, difficult but much prized.

Here’s a soleares from Perrate de Utrera:

And bulerías by the de Utrera sisters, with Diego del Gastor:

I start by internalising the basic 12-beat cycle while swimming, taking breaths before the accents:

       1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

or rather (beginning on 12)

12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

So it’s a recurring hemiola* pattern; that should be simple enough, but at first, for pedantic hidebound WAMmies like me it feels as if it begins on the “wrong” beat. (¿¡Surely this is as wacky as the Spanish upside-down question and exclamation marks?!). One soon learns to bounce off the 12, but I find it harder to internalize the varying patterns in the second half of the cycle.

Anyway, you can already hear just how complex the rhythmic variations are. As always, if you’re hampered by a classical education like wat I is (innit), or if you don’t happen to come from a long lineage of Andalucian blacksmiths, then you have to unlearn any ingrained assumptions from WAM and just immerse yourself in the whole style through the experience of the body.

I think of Indian tala; or even the way that household Daoists in Yanggao pick up, largely by ear, their ritual percussion items—seemingly simple but endlessly varied, with large cymbals and drum interacting. Indeed, the way that the clappers often leave the main beat empty reminds me somewhat of Li Manshan “calling the beat” with a busy drum pattern just before the down-beat on the small cymbals.

It’s no good just going oom-pa-pa like a waltz—in one video, Ramon spots some old ladies at the back doing just that! And then there’s the nuance of fuertes hard and sordas soft dynamics, and all the contra-tiempo cross-accents between multiple clappers.

As Ramon explains, it’s a series of questions and answers. I’ll have a better handle on this once I’ve learned to latch onto the guitar, with its chord change on 3, and the extra cadential flourish ending on 10—though the beginner may find few landmarks in between those points. The YouTube option of slowing down playback can come in handy.

Here’s yet another fine programme in the Rito series, with a series of bulérias (featuring, after Camaron, Cristobalina Suarez with young sleeping child from 23.20—see also my Part 2):

This is seriously complex funky stuff. No sooner have you learned a basic pattern than you find how variable it is—like sonata form. Given its considerable theorization (as if that mattered), that theory is orally transmitted, and the brilliant exponents are often semi-literate. But while insisting that flamenco should absolutely be admissible to the ranks of “serious music” (whatever that means), the only important point is that it’s extraordinarily life-enhancing.

For more bulérias, see here.

* * *

I also love it when all extraneous elements are stripped away: when everyone just claps their complex patterns in counterpoint with the dancer’s feet. Or the cantes a palo seco, when the singer dispenses entirely with guitar and even palmas, just howling in solitary pain… I’ll pursue these songs in my third post.

Talking of the Rito y geografïa del cante flamenco series, with all its precious archive footage, the programmes on the Utrera sisters illustrate the compilers’ fine ethnography of lineages, changing society and music, the amateur–professional continuum, and all the subtle distinctions that folk musicians always make:

All this wealth of musicking on our doorstep! I’ll keep studying and updating this post. The next post in this series outlines gender, politics, wine, and deviance!

As an aperitivo for the third post we just have to have a seguiriyas from Camarón de la Isla:


*BTW, lutenist Paul O’Dette told me this story on a long tour of the USA:
Summer school in Utah on baroque music. A professor from England solemnly writes “HEMIOLA” on the board and begins to explain the occasional use of three groups of two within a triple metre. One of the local students guffaws,
“HEY! We don’t have no hee-my-olas in Utaww!”
For another vignette from that tour, see here.


[1] In a nice illustration of how the concepts of “singing” and “music” are culturally conditioned (see also Is music a universal language?), the word flamenco doesn’t appear in the series title!

[2] Among a wealth of sources, in English one might start with the flamenco chapter of The Rough Guide to world music; William Washabaugh, Flamenco: passion, politics and popular culture; ethnographies like  D.E. Pohren, A way of life and Paul Hecht, The wind cried; and for cante jondo, see e.g. Timothy Mitchell, Flamenco deep song. Some of these are cited in Parts 2 and 3 of this series.

Notes from Beijing, 2

Further to my post on the Beishida ethnographers, and my seemingly underwhelming maxim that

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

in between my lectures at Beishida in March I sallied forth (cf. Cheeseshop sketch) to show my film at People’s University and Peking University for two fine scholars from whom I also have much to learn: Cao Xinyu (left) and Wang Mingming.

Cao Xinyu
I’ve already mentioned Cao Xinyu 曹新宇 (b.1973) in a previous post (just updated). Professor of the Qing History Research Institute in the History department of People’s University (Renda), he’s a most supportive teacher—and for me he has the added cachet of being a scion of Yanggao, home of my Daoist master Li Manshan! Talking of Renda, I was happy to tell Cao Xinyu of Li Manshan’s ingenuous repunctuation of 中国人大代表 (here, under 2nd moon 28th).

Sectarian activity is an important aspect of the picture of religious life in China, both in imperial and modern times—indeed right now. Cao Xinyu combines detailed textual research on the imperial ancestry of sectarian groups and fieldwork on their modern fortunes. In addition to his series of books on sectarian history, notably the Way of Yellow Heaven, you can also read astute articles such as this survey.

1958 fanguan

In a salient reminder of Maoist history, we had lunch at the Russian restaurant “1958” on the People’s University campus, opened in 2013 (with how much irony, I can’t fathom) to commemorate the Russian experts then at the university—shortly before they were all expelled.

For a fine recent initiative of Cao Xinyu, see here.

Wang Mingming
Just up the road at Peking University is the eminent anthropologist Wang Mingming 王铭铭 (b.1962). [1] He’s a native of Quanzhou in Minnan (south Fujian), whose ever-vibrant ritual culture (temple fairs, Daoist ritualnanyin, and so on) has always informed his research.

From 1981 he studied archaeology in Xiamen University, going on to embrace anthropology as it was incorporated into the department there. He came to London in 1987 to study for a PhD in anthropology at SOAS; this was also the start of a long and fruitful collaboration with the great Stephan Feuchtwang. He returned to China in 1994 to make his base at Peking University, becoming a full professor there in 1997.

With Stephan he wrote the fine book Grassroots charisma: four local leaders in China (2002) on the linking of religion and politics in two villages in Quanzhou and north Taiwan. Wang’s historical anthropology of the city of Quanzhou, Empire and Local Worlds, was published in English in 2009.

His article on the Fazhugong festival makes an introduction to the tenor of his work:

  • “Lingyande ‘yichan’ ” 灵验的“遗产” [Efficacious “heritage”], in Guo Yuhua (ed.) Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁 [Ritual and social change] (Beijing: Shehuikexue wenxian cbs, 1999).

Like Guo Yuhua (his fellow anthropologist at Tsinghua next door), he combines detailed ethnography with a thorough grasp of theory. As Stephan writes:

Through numerous publications, books he has written, series he has edited, journals he has founded, and through his teaching of postgraduate and doctoral students, he has been dedicated to the re-formation of anthropology in China as an academic discipline, not as an aid to programs of development and of government, nor as simply an import from English-language social and cultural anthropology, but as an anthropology coming from China that can and does have something to say to a larger anthropology.

His theoretical mission to re-historicize anthropology over a long time-frame, and in a global context, may be seen in

  • “To learn from the ancestors or to borrow from the foreigners: China’s self-identity as a modern civilisation”, Critique of anthropology 34.4 (2014).

as well as

  • “Minzuzhi: yizhong guangyi renwen guanxixuede jieding” 民族志:一种广义人文关系学的界定 [Ethnography: a redefinition from the perspective of extended human relations], Xueshu yuekan 47.3 (2015).

Among his recent projects, he has directed analytical fieldwork on the ritual life of Hui’an county in Minnan:

  • Wang Mingming et al., “Dili yu shehui shiyezhongde minjian wenhua: Huidong Xiaozuo kaocha” 地理与社会视野中的民间文化——惠东小岞考察 [Folk culture from the viewpoint of geography and society: survey of Xiaozuo, east Hui’an], Minsu yanjiu 2017.2,

Wang’s diachronic approach has much to teach us (including scholars of ritual and music) about changing local societies through imperial, Maoist, and reform eras, not least on their relations with the state and “cultural” authorities. In utter contrast with the reified salvage-based “living fossil” flapdoodle of the “heritage” authorities, such study is based both on thorough fieldwork and on detailed research into sources since the late imperial era.

I can’t help noticing that Peking University has changed somewhat since my last sojourn there thirty-two years ago. In Wang Mingming’s interaction with his students he has a wonderful informal style; he clearly makes a fine fieldworker. Both he and Cao Xinyu encourage their students to think; at both events—and in the pub afterwards—I relished their lively exchanges.

[1] Many of Wang Mingming’s articles are collected on the aisixiang site here. For an English introduction, watch this 2008 interview with Alan Macfarlane, transcribed here; and Stephan Feuchtwang and Michael Rowlands, “Some Chinese directions in anthropology”, Anthropological quarterly 83.4 (2010).

The corpse walker

Corpse walker

Always interested in alternative, local accounts of modern Chinese history, I much admire The corpse walker by Liao Yiwu 廖亦武 (English translation 2008, from originals published in 2002).

Subtitled Real-life stories, China from the bottom up, it contains over two dozen vignettes of lives neglected in the official history (subaltern studies, on which more soon). As the Foreword says, “hustlers and drifters, outlaws and street performers, the officially renegade and the physically handicapped”—but more than that, ordinary peasants, cadres, labourers, all kinds of people whose lives have been serially buffeted by the adversities of a capricious system. [1]

Their life stories are micro-histories shedding light on the abuses of Maoism (campaigns, famine) and the corruption and immorality of the reforms. The book makes salient reading for those interested not only in modern history, but in ritual and music.

Building on Liao’s early experience as a collector of folk music, the interviews (mostly based around Liao’s home of Chengdu) make valuable material for scholars of religion. Many folk ritual specialists appear—an elderly fengshui master, an ancient abbot, a mortician.

Supernatural beliefs also play a role in the distressing story of a leper and his wife, as well as that of a peasant who—in 1985!—declared himself emperor of an independent kingdom in his Sichuan hometown. The latter story, with rich historical antecedents, also relates to the birth-control policy.

Musicians also feature prominently, like ritual singers and wind players, a blind erhu player and a street pop singer. Visiting composer Wang Xilin, Liao learns of his tribulations under Maoism and more recently in trying to commemorate its victims. And he chats with a father who lost his son in the 1989 protests, as well as a fellow-inmate imprisoned (like Liao himself) in the aftermath.

Tiananmen inmates

Liao Yiwu (front row, 2nd from right) with fellow inmates imprisoned after 1989 protests. Sichuan 1992.

The vignettes are also effective because they are genuine dialogues—Liao is very much a “participant observer“. He doesn’t merely ask questions, his own comments are perceptive too, sometimes disputing conservative views. Among several prison interviews is one with a trafficker, guilty of selling women from his home province of Sichuan to desperate men in Gansu. As he defends himself with a series of shocking justifications like “rebalancing the yin and yang“, Liao’s ability to empathize is thankfully limited.

This is just such a cast as the fieldworker meets in the course of documenting society, and the stories have much to tell us about both Maoist and reform eras.

So far I’ve only read it in translation, though some details make me curious to read the Chinese version. For instance, in the very opening vignette a shawm player who migrated from Henan to Sichuan also takes on the role of funeral wailing—a combination that I hadn’t heard of in either province. Again, his recollections make a salient history of ritual change.

The manuscript was smuggled out by exiled author Kang Zhengguo, whose own memoir Confessions: an innocent life in Communist China is an important ethnography of subaltern life in Shaanxi under Maoism and since.

Since going into exile himself, Liao Yiwu is prolific both in documenting his own former tribulations within the system and in speaking out on behalf of those still enduring discrimination in China (Twitter: @liaoyiwu1 ). For Ian Johnson’s 2011 interview, see here; for a 2016 interview, here.


[1] Such collections of interviews have a noble history since the 1980s, such as Chinese lives (Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye, 1987), China candid: the people on the People’s Republic (Sang Ye, 2006), China witness (Xinran, 2009), and Chinese characters: profiles of fast-changing lives in a fast-changing land (ed. Angilee Shah and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, 2012). For scholarly discussion, see Guo Yuhua. For comparisons with the USSR under Stalin, see here.

More from the great Viv Albertine


Viv 2

The title of Viv Albertine‘s brilliant memoir Clothes clothes clothes music music music boys boys boys derives from her mum’s despairing litany of her daughter’s tastes as a teenager. In her new book To throw away unopened her mum takes centre stage. Structured around a shocking flashpoint, it’s at once harrowing and inspiring. *

Always brutally honest in her account, as daughter, sister, and mother in a matriarchal setup Viv Albertine both comes to terms with anger and makes a compelling case for  it.

One of the reasons why feminism took such a strong hold in my mind, and in the minds of many girls of my generation, is that we were brought up by repressed and dissatisfied women who had grown into adulthood during the war, learned new skills, tasted independence, and then had to dissolve back into their dark-brown homes and watch from behind their ironing boards as the swinging sixties unfolded.

On the saccharine brainwashing of pop songs:

Society had the same dreary old expectations of us girls as always: to be attractive, smile, acquiesce to men, search for romantic love and become supportive wives. […] Such an effective way to keep girls and women down and render us ineffective.

I managed to fight off the dogmas of patriarchy, organized religion, capitalism, class deference and respect for authority easily enough. How come I fell at the last fence and impaled myself on the railings of romance?

Where’s the advert on TV telling you to call a freefone number if you’ve been mis-sold, not a pension, but a belief system? My religion turned out to be bogus. I’m still unpicking those decades of conditioning that were stitched, or rather sung, into my brain.

A review can hardly encapsulate her psychological nuance in dissecting the demons of dysfunctional family life. The contrary scenario of a comfortable middle-class family leading contented idyllic lives over the generations is not only less compelling, but it must be rare—even illusory.

Along the way the book also contains valuable social history. She’s good on the disjunctures of urban life, and the unlikely pleasures of its architecture. In her youth, living near the Hornsey Gas Holder No. 1, she appreciates its elegance while comparing it to a Lowry painting in winter.

Like Annie Proulx and Ciaran Carson, she effectively evokes the texture of daily life with long lists of mundane objects, with vignettes on topics like the history of the Craven A cigarettes that her mum smoked. As for the Queen Mother, “No wonder she looks good for her age, she’s never had to carry four pounds of potatoes home.”

Modifying our image of punk history, on a US tour with the Slits in the 70s she looks forward to homely letters from her mum. Even recently, embarking on a weekend away with yet another feckless partner, her detailed inventory of preparations and packing, while hardly exceptional (“just to feel comfortable”), is still sobering—”If men lived in a society that expected them to put that amount of work into a date, they wouldn’t bother dating.”

Reading this traumatic family history, it’s intriguing to return to Clothes clothes clothes music music music boys boys boys. Everyone (including men) should read these books!


* While this blog, rashly or mercifully, does venture way beyond Daoist ritual, an encomium from me may not seem the most likely addition to the many rave reviews of the book (e.g. here)—but it’s all ethnography, unpacking the messy complexities of people’s real lives…



On visiting a hermit


In the preface to my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China I updated an ancient topos:

The “search” of my title is partly inspired by a popular genre of Tang-dynasty poetry, wherein the poet embarks on an arduous climb in search of the abstruse wisdom of a mountain recluse—only he isn’t in. Typical Tang titles include “On seeking the hermit of West Mountain and not finding him” 尋西山隱者不遇 [English version here].

Now mountain recluses, with their archetypal long white beards, are definitely not the type of Daoist I am looking for here—”pacing the void” that is rural north China, my search is for ordinary peasants who perform rituals among the people; and the arduousness of the journey is more likely to entail getting stuck in endless traffic jams behind coal-lorries, and enduring banquets with cadres in unsightly modern county-towns apparently bereft of all tradition. So the concept still has a certain resonance; in the immortal words of Alan Bennett’s clergyman, “Some of us think life’s a little bit like that, don’t we?”

Talking of seeking Tang hermits, I think of Gary Snyder‘s translations of the Cold Mountain poems.

In a fine post on “the Facebook of the 7th century”, the splendidly named Randi Hacker sparks classroom engagement by introducing his students to Tang poems written by men who had come to visit other men who were not, alas, at home—status updates, indeed:

Some of the more convoluted and humorous titles of Tang occasional poems from the “Sorry to Have Missed You” category:

  • Going to Visit Censor Wang on My Day Off and Not Finding Him Home
  • Walking in the Hills and Looking for the Recluse, But Finding Him Not In
  • Spending the Night in Reverend Ye’s Mountain Chamber. I was expecting the senior Mr Ding, but he did not come
  • Answering the Poem Left by Mr Su, Nominally of the Bureau of Forestry, When He Stopped by My Villa at Lan-tian.

I love the “Nominally” in that last one. I might add my own yet-unpublished

  • On Visiting the Hunyuan Bureau of Culture, Only to Find a Bunch of Sozzled Apparatchiks who wouldn’t know what Culture was if it Bit them on the Bum.

This will also chime in with the intrepid explorations of Hannibal Taubes in search of decrepit village temples—often either locked, or their precious Ming-dynasty murals plundered or covered over in cement.

Then there are my own Tang pastiches, as well as Faqu 2 and Faqu tutu

At least on our recent fruitless search for the Dragon King temple in Jinjiazhuang we were compensated by a chat with the splendid hereditary yinyang Zhang Nan.

Cf. Miles Davis’s quest for Charlie Parker in 1944.

Armchair ethnography: Chiswick

Chiswick old map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

healthy Chiswick

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


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

* * *

painting of pool

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

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

Chiswick Baths opened in Edensor road in 1910:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Priory of the Azure Cloud Bottle* within the Belvedere of Tenuous Obscurity, Chiswick

*Azure Cloud Bottle: Bombay Sapphire


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



China: commemorating trauma


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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Yangjiagou band, 1999

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

As I noted in my post on the famine, this is just the kind of memory that the rosy patriotic nostalgia and reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project are designed to erase.

* * *

As a recent review notes:

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

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

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

For Ian Johnson’s introduction to the work of independent film-maker Hu Jie, see here.

* * *

The simultaneous national famine, subject of a growing body of research, deserves a separate post, but meanwhile, here’s an impressive documentary:

* * *

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

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

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

A Nazi legacy


EW street

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

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


Leon Buchholz (1904–97).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Sands pores over family photo albums with Horst,

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

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

Nazi legacy trio

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

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

Further to tourism,

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

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

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

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

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

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

He takes out a faded photo of his father taken a few minutes after the hanging. “Every day I look at this. To remind me, to make sure that he is dead.”
As Sands notes, denial remains common today. In a telling scene near the end of the film, the three visit a neo-Nazi commemorative rally in Ukraine (accompanied by a folkloristic ensemble, I note), where Horst and Niklas—sons of mass murderers—are warmly welcomed. Worldwide, the need for truth remains constant, urgent.

* * *

Sands is no less compelling on radio. In his major recent ten-part series Intrigue: the ratline on BBC Radio 4, by contrast with Frank’s well-documented fate, he gives a disturbing update on the murky post-war story of Otto von Wächter. He provides ample recaps (as in the chilling title of episode 3, “A lot going on in Lemberg”), with the aid of the “parallel universe” of the memoirs of Wächter’s beloved wife Charlotte. With much further forensic sleuthing he goes on to investigate Wächter’s mysterious fate in Italy, as the role of the Catholic church in helping Nazi fugitives evade justice leads to a extraordinary story of espionage. And still Horst seeks to defend his father’s reputation.

Notes from Beijing, 1: some fine ethnographers

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

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

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

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

Ju Xi group

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

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

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

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

Ju Xi 1

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

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

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

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

 Ju Xi’s students are most fortunate.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *


Chen Zi’ai.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *


Yue Yongyi, 2002.

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

His detailed work on the Miaofengshan temple fair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wusheng laomu statue, Cangyanshan.

In English, note his

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

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

  • Xinghao: xiangtude luoji yu miaohui 行好: 乡土的逻辑与庙会 (Hangzhou: Zhejiang daxue cbs, 2014)
  • Chaoshan: miaohuide ju yu san, yingshechu minjiande shenghuo yu xinyang 朝山: 庙会的聚与散, 映射出民间的生活与信仰 (Beijing daxue cbs, 2017).
  • Jutou sanchi you shenming: manbu xiangye miaohui 举头三尺有神明——漫步乡野庙会 (Shandong wenyi cbs, 2018).

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

* * *

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

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


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

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

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

A selection of recent posts


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

For more, click on MY BLOG in the top menu and scroll down…

Life in the GDR, 2

Notes from Berlin, 2

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

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

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

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

Berlin divided 1945

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

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

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

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

1953 poster

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

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


Some of the eyewitnesses guiding visitors around the site.

At the Stasi prison (Gedenkstätte memorial) of Hohenschönhausen (formerly a Soviet special camp) the team of wonderful tour guides includes many former inmates; though our guide that day wasn’t among them, he gave us passionate