A ghost village

This mini-series will be more edifying if you’re familiar with my film and book on the Li family Daoists—or perhaps it’ll lead you to them!

From my book (pp.310–11):

As young villagers abandon the stagnant countryside to seek laboring work in the towns, it is mainly the elderly who are left behind; younger people still stuck there seem listless and devoid of prospects. In the hills, some new villages have been built in rather better surroundings nearby, like Yang Pagoda and Sujiayao. Around 2009 half of the population of Renjiayao paid a one-off fee of 50,000 kuai to move to the new village of Xinhebu, built just south of the county-town as part of a state poverty-alleviation project; the new village has four hundred households, assembled from various poor villages. Now only a couple of dozen poor elderly people are left behind in Renjiayao. Most of the population of Gaojiayao have been relocated to Luotun, itself none too prosperous but at least on the plain. Just southeast of Upper Liangyuan, Shankoutou, always tiny, is nearly deserted now. Ghost villages are emerging. And meanwhile the plain villages too are depleted of young labour.

Soon after midnight on the day I land in Beijing, I take the night train to Yanggao. As I leave Beijing I also abandon the modern calendar: instead of Monday 12th March it is now 2nd moon 25th. The train is quite empty, and I doze fitfully on my bunk. Arriving at 5.36am, I get off along with five others. Li Bin is at the station to drive me to Upper Liangyuan, along new roads smooth as a baby’s bottom. Li Manshan is now only doing funerals nearby—Li Bin has very much taken over, and he’s always worked off his feet. After taking me to Upper Liangyuan he has bowls to smash that morning in three villages—the solo ritual that poor families sometimes request instead of the usual lengthy liturgical sequence with the whole band (see my book, pp.193–4).

As the sun rises, the wise and adorable Li Manshan comes out to greet me. I say hello to the family’s new doggie, occasionally let off its tether in the courtyard. After lighting the stove Old Lord Li soon has to zoom off on his motor-bike to Yangguantun to decorate a coffin (my book, pp.190–92). I stay home to try and sleep off my jet-lag, only waking up to be fed by his wife Yao Xiulian. Over baozi dumplings I ask a bit more about her background: born to a poor-peasant family in 1951, she was one of five kids. Unlike the illustrious Li Qing, who sent all his children to school, Yao Xiulian’s parents declined to let her and her sister attend, so she remained illiterate. The only city she’s ever visited is nearby Datong, where her daughter lives.

By the time I wake from my siesta Li Manshan is back and fast asleep. A neighbour drops by for a gossip and he wakes up and joins in. I get used again to the basics of country living, though after all these years I still find the local dialect really tough. I get online courtesy of his cool shepherd neighbour. We have a nice supper of noodles and then retire to the west room to chat till late.

Next morning we wake just before dawn. After a relaxed breakfast with Li Manshan and his wife, a guy shows up to ask him for a “determining the date” prescription (see my book, pp.185–9): it’s for “moving the earth”, so Li Manshan writes it on red paper.

We stroll over to the site of the old Zhenwu miao temple (see map), hoping naively to find a neglected stele like we did for the Fodian miao and Sanqing dian temples (my book, pp.46–9), but there’s nothing to see at all. The woman living opposite invites us in for a chat; she’s a Protestant, one of a tiny community that has sprung up in the village over the last few years. Hedging her bets, she has a Xi Jinping poster on the wall, next to her Christian calendar. Li Manshan is always affable, popular with everyone. It’s getting quite hot, so I leave my jumper at her place.

I’ve long wanted to visit Shankoutou (pronounced Shankioutou!), the next village south, 2 Chinese li (1 kilometer) distant—mainly because it’s so tiny. When I ask Li Manshan, “Is there a temple there?” he replies, “Every house is a temple!” I can’t think how to convey the wryness of this aperçu.

SKT walk

So we set off, first along a narrow track through a barren gulley, then emerging into open country, following Li Manshan’s internal Daoist satnav up and down to a frozen river. Fording it, we climb the slope up to a reception committee of nine free-roaming donkeys awaiting us.


Figures in the county gazetteer give a 1948 population of 63; according to our hosts, in 1970 there were 100 dwellers (under the people’s communes the village counted as the 9th brigade of Upper Liangyuan); back with the gazetteer, by 1990 there were still 75 villagers. Now only five aging families, eleven people, are still “left behind” here. But it’s hardly the mysterious ghost village I envisaged, and my only reward is the murals around the kang brick-bed in the house of a family that invites us in; they were painted in the late Cultural Revolution, which counts as “old” round here. They also have a Xi Jinping poster on their wall (on which more soon).

kang mural

Kang murals, 1973.

On the walk back we stay west of the river, the idyllic vista marred only by the cement factory, with its stink and pollution. Old Lord Li sets off over the fields he was given after the land division, which he now rents out. I call him a landlord, and he takes it in the spirit in which it was meant. Reaching Upper Liangyuan again we pass by the site of the Sanguan miao temple and Li Qing’s old house. As I collect my jumper from the Protestant woman I wish her a Happy Easter. Stopping off to chat with various friends, with the usual copious exchanges of cigarettes, we get home by midday.



Echoes of the past 2

Echoes of the past: refuge and memory, 2

Hildi 1962 lowres

Hildi directing school choir, March 1963.

After twice fleeing danger, by 1950 Hildi’s family had arrived in Detmold, in the British zone of occupation, where they found a more secure home as society slowly rebuilt.

In both Russian and Allied zones after the war, many prisoners were still held in squalid conditions, often in former concentration camps. At Minden just north of Detmold there was a British-run displaced persons’ camp, [1] which by the time Hildi arrived had become a British army base.

For a whole year Hildi’s family lived in a garden hut belonging to a friend, which had previously served to accommodate two other refugee families. The authorities, who had to find adequate housing for all of them, threatened to nail the door shut to put an end to this.

But in spite of the cramped conditions, living in freedom, enjoying the garden with its bench and table under the opulent cherry tree, listening to the chirping birds hopping on the roof of the hut—all this seemed bliss. In the morning the postman would shout from the bottom of the garden: “Dornröschen, wach auf!” [Sleeping Beauty, awake!]. Inside the hut there were three bunk beds on top of each other with not much room to manoeuvre; my father slept on a narrow bench under the window, but occasionally there would even be a place for a visitor on a field bed, with just a head peering out from underneath the table! A special treat for Sunday was one of the delicious loaves baked with yeast and full of juicy raisins.

We had lovely Sunday walks in the Teutoburger forest, taking picnic lunches. On Christmas Eve 1950, as my parents prepared for a festive celebration, decorating a tiny Christmas tree in a flower pot, my brother and I walked down the snow-covered street looking into the lit-up windows. Some of the houses were occupied by British families. Since their decorations were rather different from most German ones, we wondered if perhaps these colourful garlands meant some kind of carnival?

As the schooling system was different from that in the GDR, Hildi had to jump two classes to start her high-school education. In most subjects this didn’t seem to be a problem, but although her mother had tried to prepare her, she didn’t find English so easy at first—especially as she had to tackle the second language French as well. It was music classes that gave Hildi most pleasure, above all her violin lessons with Erwin Kershbaumer.

The following spring they were moved into a flat on a newly-built housing estate, which felt something of a luxury. They now had to find some furniture. When a professor from the local music academy, who was leaving to take up the position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig, posted an advertisement offering a table, six chairs, and a small sideboard of solid oak, Hildi’s mother agreed to the sale at once.

With money still very tight, both parents gave private lessons, often walking long distances to nearby villages to coach children who had difficulties at school. Still, given their lucky escapes, Hildi remembers it as a happy time:

We were content and made do with what we could afford without feeling deprived, although people around us seemed to be better off, and the choice in the shops was plentiful and perhaps tempting.

[This is neither here nor there, but I note that similar comments have been made by people recalling life in the GDR! People’s modern sense of entitlement to instant gratification was still some way off.]

Only later in my life did I fully appreciate the sacrifices my parents made in order to provide us with a good education and comfortable life. As long as my brother and I were studying they never took a holiday, and even afterwards they were there for the whole family whenever financial help was needed.

In August 1951 they all travelled back to Thuringia to attend the wedding of Hildi’s sister. This would be the last time they were all able to go together: by 1952 the GDR had closed its borders. Until 1963, when Hildi’s father became a pensioner, only she and her mother were able to make occasional visits—his profession in education made him immediately suspect to the authorities, so he felt it would be unwise to go.

In 1951 Hildi’s father, with his pre-war experience as Rektor, was appointed headmaster of a school just further north in Minden. Whatever their wartime backgrounds, qualified employees were desperately needed in the new Germany.

During the 1952 summer holidays, Hildi and her mother went to join him. Hildi’s brother stayed at boarding school in Detmold to finish his last year before the final high-school examination. Hildi, now 15, attended the high school for girls in Minden. By this time she was also a promising violinist.

Their flat in Minden was again a newly-built one, and Hildi was delighted to have a little room to herself for the first time. Another excitement was to acquire a second-hand piano, on which she immediately tried out some tunes with a few fingers—having just joined a local choir, she liked attempting the Hallelujah chorus. Quite soon a piano teacher was found and she began learning properly.

In 1950 the GDR had signed documents officially recognizing the Oder–Neiße border as permanent boundary between Germany and Poland, a gesture which in 1970 was followed by the western part of Germany at the Treaty of Warsaw, signed by the West German chancellor Willy Brandt. For the older generation of refugees from the east, like Hildi’s parents and grandparents, this meant a conclusive end to their hopes for a return to their Heimat. At the time such refugees made up about a quarter of the population of the GDR—who had to keep quiet about their past (socialism looks forward, not back, as Hildi observes!). They were officially called “resettlers” (Umsiedler); “expulsion” (Vertreibung) was now to be known as “evacuation” (Aussiedlung).

Silesian costume

Traditional Silesian costume.

While the complexities of Silesia’s ethnic history were being erased under the GDR and Polish regimes, Hildi´s parents, uprooted from their “Heimat” to Minden, and living with the realization that there was never to be a return, joined the local Silesian Association (Schlesier Verein), [2] where they found friends amongst people who shared a similar past, exchanging cherished memories, reciting poems in dialect and singing. Once a year there would be a festive occasion when everyone dressed up in traditional costume. [3] Such Heimat-Nostalgie was common—though their own nostalgia was not for Weißwasser but their ancestral home further east in Silesia, now part of Communist Poland. [4]

At the time Hildi was busy growing up, finding her own friends and activities. While her parents took comfort from celebrating the past, for her all this was slightly embarrassing and sentimental. Looking back now, she realizes her lack of enthusiasm for the family’s Silesian heritage must have disappointed her parents, but they never pushed her.

Studying and teaching
Hildi was firmly rooted in the present, looking to the future and enjoying her fortnightly trips back to Detmold at weekends for violin lessons, staying with her teacher.

When the British left in 1955, the houses they had occupied in Minden became vacant, and the British cinema closed, but people hardly noticed any change.

After matriculating in March 1957 Hildi began her studies at the NWD Musikademie in Detmold, resolving to become a teacher of music and German. Her brother was just finishing his studies in art and German.

Hildi was full of enthusiasm, not just working hard but enjoying her time with friends. She received a monthly allowance from her parents, and if she ever overspent her friends would share their second helping at the Mensa. Still, by the end of each term they had generally lost weight, and were looking forward to proper meals at home. In April 1960 Hildi graduated in German, and in July she qualified as a music teacher.

For the summer of 1961 I was awarded a scholarship for the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. I was given two tickets, one for Parsifal and one for The flying dutchman. As my violin professor was in the orchestra he managed to sneak me into the covered pit for a performance of Tannhäuser, conducted by Sawallisch, where I perched amongst the musicians of the first violin and could briefly stand up when they were not playing. This gave me the occasional glimpse of my idol Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Wolfram, Victoria de los Angeles as Elisabeth, and Wolfgang Windgassen in the title-role. The production of the Béjart Ballet in the Venusberg Scene and the first black Venus, the fabulous Grace Bumbry, caused quite a stir in the press. I was also able to get into the dress rehearsal of Die Meistersinger. This was my introduction into the world of opera, in which I would be involved myself at a much later stage of my life.

My first employment was at a primary school in a small town a short bus ride from Detmold. This first year in my teaching career proved to be demanding, as I had to cover all the subjects and do a lot of reading—sometimes I was just a few pages ahead of my pupils! Every lesson had to be prepared in writing, available for the supervisor who appeared, unannounced, on a number of occasions.

I was waiting for a position teaching music and German to become available in Lemgo nearby, which was to become vacant in 1961. There I was the first and only music teacher of the school, and I now had a modest budget to buy the necessary equipment. I promptly bought six violins and music stands and started teaching my violin pupils in the afternoons. This was the humble beginning of a little school orchestra later on. I also formed a small choir to perform for special occasions. In the beginning these were always a bit stressful for me, as I felt responsible for each of my singers and could not be sure how they would react under pressure. In my teaching I was always very careful not to have any “favourite” pupils in my class. When we prepared a play for parents’ day I was just guiding the children. The children wrote the play, they decided who should get the individual parts, they made the costumes, and as there were a number not directly involved in the play, I made sure they had other duties and thereby did not feel left out.

In the early days of the GDR Hildi’s sister (now married with two small children) could visit occasionally—always without her husband. Hildi’s parents regularly sent food parcels; their finances still stretched, her mother resumed teaching.

It was a terrible shock when the Berlin Wall (“Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”) was built in August 1961. As it happened, just beforehand Hildi’s sister managed to visit her family in Minden, with her little boy and a daughter still not one year old. Of course they wanted her to stay—but despite the GDR’s escalating problems, they understood her decision to return again to her husband and home.

From now on, visits from East to West were only granted under exceptional circumstances. It became increasingly difficult for Hildi’s family to visit her sister too: after filling in elaborate forms, they faced uncomfortable checks at the border, with guards watching on both sides of the train, Kalashnikovs poised. Visitors were invited  to attend the political “welcome meetings” to extol the praises of the GDR; though not compulsory, any absence would have been noted down. Hildi’s mother had returned from a previous visit seething and debilitated; later, afraid that her mother would be unable to sit through the propaganda without exploding, Hildi’s sister discouraged her from going.

1963–66: Zurich and the world
In 1963 Hildi’s life took yet another new course. By now the violin was playing an increasingly important role in her life. She pursued her studies further by continuing her lessons with Prof. Otto Schad at the Akademie in Detmold, and she enjoyed the chamber-music tuition with Prof. Günther Weißenhorn. She received her violin-teaching diploma at Münster in May 1962, and began getting occasional engagements for concerts.

Inheriting an attraction to Switzerland from her mother, she now boarded her first aeroplane (alone and terrified) to audition for the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. Wanting to keep it a secret, she took a flight from Hanover directly after school finished on a Saturday. After the audition on Sunday she took the sleeper back home, and went straight back to work at her school. The following week she received a letter offering her the Zurich job. She was overjoyed, but now she had to break the news to her parents, and (right in the middle of term) to the headmaster of the school where she was teaching. But of course they were pleased for her, even if they assumed she would come back one day.

However, saying farewell to my class was more difficult and caused quite a few tears from my pupils. I was deeply touched by their affection. They had prepared a moving little ceremony for me, presenting a booklet in which they had recorded in writing, accompanied by some photos, events in the course of our time together. At the end each of the girls gave me a beautiful pink rose before they waved me off and ran after the bus which finally parted us. When they were all out of sight and I sat holding my huge bunch of thirty-six roses, I too felt sad, realizing how much I had enjoyed my teaching. Little did I know then that much much later on I would indeed return to this profession when coaching singers in the performance of German repertoire.

Although the pay was low and Swiss prices high, these three years with the orchestra were a happy time for Hildi, unimaginable after the hardships of her early years of refugee displacement.

I loved the playing, and I am still grateful that I had the privilege of rehearsing with many world-famous soloists in the rather small room in the villa of the founder and conductor Edmund de Stoutz. In this intimate environment we experienced these wonderful musicians in a way that is hardly possible on the big stage—they were so close, this was chamber music at its very best! There would be Yehudi Menuhin and his sisters Hepzhibah and Yalta, Zino Francescatti, Nathan Milstein, André Gertler, Erica Morini, Maurice Gendron, Pierre Fournier, Gaspar Cassadó and many others—forever treasured encounters!

I bought a really good violin and studied with Ulrich Lehmann in Bern. Apart from concerts in Switzerland, I loved going on tour to places like Italy and the USA. Touring was a great way of visiting places I might otherwise never have seen.

 My first trip to Venice was unforgettable. The orchestra had a tradition that every newcomer would be taken blindfolded to the middle of Piazza San Marco—as the scarf was removed, imagine the breathtaking impact of finding myself surrounded by all the stunning architectural beauty!

Also unforgettable was my first tour of the USA, with forty-nine concerts, travelling for two months by Greyhound bus through the eastern states! We did not get any subsistence (meals were pre-ordered for the whole group), and we shared rooms—but I loved it. However a shocking experience for us all was to be confronted with the rigid segregation of blacks in the southern states. Seeing signs: “No blacks admitted!” in many public places gave us a guilty and very uncomfortable feeling. One saw blacks working in the kitchen, but none inside the restaurant. Only when we played in Atlanta did we notice black people in the audience.

In November 1963 news of the assassination of JFK spread like wildfire during the interval of our concert in the Tonhalle in Zurich. We were stunned—only a few months earlier he had been the focus of international news when he made his famous speech in Berlin. As soon as the concert ended we rushed off to the Bahnhofsplatz to join the throng of people staring in shock and disbelief at the news bulletin projected on a screen high up on a building. On our US tour the following April we visited Kennedy’s grave and the Eternal Flame at the Arlington Cemetery.

I was very conscious of the fact that I was privileged to experience this freedom while my sister’s family in the East was living under severe travel restrictions. To let them take part in my excursions, at least visually, I sent them as many picture postcards as I could, which they collected and have kept to this day.

Meanwhile in Germany, Christmas 1963 marked a temporary pause in the complete segregation of East and West Berlin: West Berliners could now get a 24-hour visa to visit relatives in the East. Of course it was a one-way deal, and the concession only lasted for eighteen days, but still it gave a glimmer of hope to all those families had been forced to live apart. As a sign of solidarity Hildi’s family always put a candle on the window-sill on Christmas Eve.

1966–68: from Hanover to London
Much as Hildi loved working with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, after three years she began to feel it was time for a change. Wanting to experience the big romantic sound of a symphony orchestra, in late summer 1966 she applied for positions in various German orchestras. Meanwhile in Zurich she did some freelancing with the Radio Orchestra, where she met her future husband, viola player Andrew Williams, who had just finished his studies with Max Rostal in Bern.

While Hildi waited to find out which direction her life would take, she returned to Germany, taking further lessons with her teacher Otto Schad in Detmold. In January 1967 she started work with the Niedersächsisches Symphonieorchester in Hanover—experience that stood her in good stead for her later career.

In 1968 Hildi married Andrew and they came to live in London—this time a willing migration for her. Her parents were happy to come and see her there, and they had a wonderful holiday in Scotland while she was performing there with Scottish Opera.

With her basic English learned at school in Germany, she often sank into bed exhausted from trying to communicate. Her ear now attuned to the nuances of German and English, she appreciates my bemusement at some of the mouthfuls cited here, but observes:

The English ear can be quite overwhelmed by all the composite nouns of German, like Brückenbauingeneuranwärter, “engineer apprentice for building bridges”! Of course, it sounds absurd out of context; but German poetry also has some exquisite creations that touch me every time I hear them, such as Richard Strauss’s Morgen:

inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden (sun-breathing)
zu dem Strand, dem weiten wogenblauen (wave-blue).

Sometimes I would try and invent such words in English, only to be told, “You can’t say that—it’s not in the dictionary!”

Such language—like the Matthew Passion, the settings of Berg, and Nina Hagen—further encourages me to learn German.

Hildi continued her studies of the violin with Manny Hurwitz, but having to make connections all over again, freelancing in London was hard for her at first. For the first year, as a German citizen Hildi was unable to join the Musicians’ Union. So after marrying she applied for British citizenship—seemingly a sensible step, since she had made London her home. She didn’t realize at the time that German didn’t accept dual nationality, which later caused her considerable problems. In Hildi’s poetically succinct evocation,

Sitting in an office among the clatter of typewriters, swearing allegiance to the Queen, I lost the nationality of my birth.

As to freelancing, the immediate problem was that Hildi’s musical training on the continent was very different. Since most continental orchestras have plenty of rehearsal time to get familiar with a work, she found herself ill-equipped with the sight-reading skills of British musicians, who might not even know what was on the programme before they showed up for the one rehearsal on the day of the concert. Further, the freelance scene depended largely on introductions and recommendations. Lacking such connections, she was a foreigner who hadn’t studied in Britain.

So Hildi made a slow start. Her account will strike a chord with many an early-career freelancer:

My first engagements were mainly out-of-town dates. I remember playing in stunning but freezing cathedrals, welcoming the breaks when I could cup my cold hands around a warming mug of tea served with home-baked goodies provided by dedicated elderly ladies. Sometimes I ventured out with my new friends in search of some affordable sustenance. Money was always tight. Andrew had bought a new viola, so from each payslip a deduction was made to pay for it in instalments. We were also saving up to buy a home. Between us we managed on £10 a week for housekeeping. Sometimes my parents would help out, but in those days the exchange rate was low—11 Deutschmarks to the pound!

We can’t erase memories of the “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs” posters of the day (Enoch Powell delivered his “Rivers of blood” speech in 1968), but there was also an enduring undercurrent of anti-German sentiment, both in the media and in society. Hildi was shocked when a well-meaning colleague took her aside and said, “Don’t tell anyone you’re German! Pretend you’re Swiss.” And in a fatuous tradition marginalized until the sinister rise of “the UKIPs”, even her new neighbours told her, “Go back to your Cologne, or wherever you come from”—their relationship remained frosty throughout her first decade in London. Since living in Swizerland had felt no different from being in Germany, such remarks felt hurtful. After the caricatures of British comedy, latterly—with Germany’s image improving constantly (I suspect the Apollonian Joachim Löw‘s rebranding of the national football team may be an element)—the legacy of such racism now resides mainly in odious tabloid headlines.

Of course, it is quite understandable that having endured such hardships as a result of standing against Hitler, many British people would feel long-lasting animosity—but as time went by, the personal consequences were unsettling. Since Hildi was still not two years old at the outbreak of the war, she gradually came to feel that she shouldn’t have to go on bearing the taint of being German; she hoped to be taken as an individual, to be judged by how she conducted herself and related to people.

Indeed, this was soon the case in the musical world where Hildi now found herself. As time went on she began to find work with leading chamber groups like the English Chamber Orchestra and John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Orchestra; other formative experiences were playing for Kent Opera, the London Classical Players, and the Academy of Ancient Music. She sometimes came across Hugh Maguire, who was soon to teach me

This was the swinging sixties—Beatles, Stones, Jimi Hendrix… Even the more staid classical music scene was still seasoned with dalliances with pop—the session scene was burgeoning, with Hildi’s colleagues playing in the string quartet accompanying Yesterday and She’s leaving home.

In 1969 Hildi was also playing in the run of the musical Anne of Green Gables, doubling on violin and viola. As the music became grindingly familiar, some players in the pit replaced the score on their stand with a magazine; during the dialogues Hildi managed to read through the whole of War and peace and Anna Karenina. (Blair Tindall’s fine book on the New York freelancing scene also encompasses life in the pit.)

Meanwhile I was a teenager in suburban London, playing violin and surreptitiously listening to the Beatles on my little transistor radio.

While refugees played a major role in British cultural life, a painful blanket of silence reigned. There was no sharing of reflections. Of course, those orchestras also contained a substantial quorum of Jewish refugee musicians, who had endured far worse sufferings than Hildi’s family; later their children were also among our colleagues.

So throughout the post-war period, in all walks of life (service, industry, the arts, including music), refugees were ubiquitous yet unacknowledged. Survivors of the war, both victors and vanquished, were relieved to tend their begonias, go shopping, and bring up their families without raking up the past.

Still, within Germany, films like Wir Wunderkinder (1958) and Die Brücke (1959) were hotly discussed, especially among the younger generation. Among myriad discussions, conflicting moods among Germans in the early 1960s are movingly evoked by Gitta Sereny. [5]

Life in the GDR
Meanwhile, the life of Hildi’s sister was taking a very different course. [6] She and her husband were teachers. Their lives under the GDR remained private; this isn’t the place to try and fill in the gaps, so I can only imagine her story through the prism of major events.

After the trials that immediately followed the war, West Germany as yet largely preferred to bury the ghosts of the recent past. In the GDR, despite some more perfunctory show-trials, there was still less soul-searching: the topic of its citizens’ relationship with Nazism was even more verboten.

My mother and I visited my sister at least once a year, mainly during the summer holidays. In the early years one would be confronted with red banners everywhere as soon as one reached the border—self-congratulatory slogans praising the achievements of the State, the fulfilment of the Five-Year Plan, and exhortations to strive hard for the socialist ideal. Photos of individual workers were displayed on a board in front of the factory, with captions giving their names and accomplishments. As time went on, fewer of these displays were evident.

In June 1953 there was widespread unrest. The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 added to people’s moral dilemmas. Hearing of these upheavals on the radio, Hildi was disturbed by the crushing of popular dissent while worrying for her sister. By 1968 the GDR authorities decided to destroy the ancient Paulinerkirche in Leipzig, where Bach had directed services. On 4th April the university choir performed the Matthew Passion there. But the church’s heavy student traffic was causing suspicion, and on 30th May, “the darkest day in the history of the city”, it was dynamited “to make way for a redevelopment of the university”; many of the protestors against the blasting operation were to spend years in prison. Similar protests accompanied the demolition of the Garrison Church in Potsdam.

Destruction of the Paulinerkirche, 4th April 1968.

At this very moment, the Prague spring and its repression by Soviet tanks were also causing difficult moral decisions in the GDR.

By the 1960s, along with the nationalizing of industrial and trade sectors, most land had been expropriated into collective farms called Landwirtschaftliche Produktiongenossenschaften, mercifully known as LPG. Dispossessed farmers would often find themselves laboring on their own land. A rigid work-to-rule atttitude came to prevail. Schools were often recruited at harvest time to help out “in solidarity with the workers to further the socialist ideal”. A friend told Hildi how on one such mission they had to gather potatoes after the plough had dug them up. By 5pm there was only one row left to gather, and the children were perfectly prepared to finish the job—but the order came to down tools, so they had to return the next day.

A distinct lack of individual commitment was evident. Reminding me of China, Hildi notes how the lack of a product in a shop would be acknowledged by a bored shrug from the assistant. Shopping was a lottery. Whenever word got round that an unusual item was in stock, it would sell out fast—even if it was of no particular use at the time, people snapped it up “just in case”.

Delikat shop, East Berlin.

For those who could afford to pay a bit more, there were Exquisit shops with higher-priced clothing and shoes, and Delikat shops for more “luxury” foodstuffs—mostly made in the GDR, but not generally available. In December 1962 Intershops were introduced, state-run stores stocked with goods from West Germany and elsewhere. Mainly intended for foreign tourists, they only accepted hard currency, at first mainly West German marks. For Hildi and her mother it was a welcome opportunity to purchase items that couldn’t easily be posted—including Nutella, which remains her sister’s favourite spread to this day.

Still, just as in China, it’s unsatisfactory to describe people’s lives solely in terms of deprivation, repression, or national crises, confrontation, and compromise; alongside “Stasiland” paranoia, one wants to reflect the normality of life under a paternalistic welfare state. Housing, and basic provisions like bread, potatoes, and milk, were cheap.

While the more adventurous GDR youth had long managed to gain clandestine access to popular culture from the West, by the late sixties the leadership was reluctantly allowing society to open up, and alternative underground scenes began to thrive—under close scrutiny. Nina Hagen (b.1955), who continued the anti-establishment stance of her mother and stepfather, eventually left for the West in 1976.

When their father lay dying in 1981, Hildi’s sister, restricted to a single visit, could come only for the funeral.

The world of early music
Back in London, Hildi was shocked whenever there were reports of GDR citizens being shot trying to escape. In her freelance work, Hildi had begun working for John Eliot Gardiner in his Monteverdi orchestra from 1968. She was in the vanguard of his pivotal move to early instruments in 1977, going on to play in his new English Baroque Soloists—as she still does today. In a Guardian report on the extraordinary 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage that was just unfolding, we find:

Hildburg Williams, a German violinist, was among those who made the leap with Gardiner in 1977. Gardiner had realised, after a particular performance of Rameau that year, that he simply couldn’t get the colour he wanted from modern instruments. So for a short time the orchestra used baroque bows on modern instruments. “We all struggled a bit,” she says, “and John Eliot soon realised that this halfway approach was unsatisfactory.” So, the following year, Gardiner switched to period instruments. Several regular players refused to follow him, and the split effectively led to the creation of the English Baroque Soloists, Gardiner’s instrumentalists ever since. Williams, though, remembers it as the most exciting time of her career: “The instruments and bows dictated a complete rethink of playing technique. It became possible to achieve absolute clarity in texture, to articulate, to speak with the instrument.”

As I suggested, Richard Taruskin thus seems to do something of a disservice to the genuine explorations of the time—as does Norman Lebrecht, in a soundbite that bears no scrutiny at all:

The early music movement has won an elective majority in the market place. The cult has claimed the centreground, homeopathy has defeated the BMA.

Hildi also features (along with Pete Hanson) in video reflections by members of John Eliot’s Orchestre révolutionnaire et romantique.

After her divorce in 1974, Hildi fended for herself, developing impressive DIY skills. As she gained in confidence she gradually came to feel less alien. In Paris she met the diplomat, Francophile, musician, and translator John Sidgwick, who became a soulmate, joining her in London when he retired from the British Embassy in 1984. They married in 1999.

With her vivacious personality and utter integrity, Hildi has always been a popular musician. In 1985 we did Israel in Egypt with John Eliot at the Handel Festival in Halle, and in 1987 we performed the Matthew Passion in East Berlin. For me, these trips (one on the eve of my first six-month stay in China in 1986, the other just after my second) made a niche variation on our tours to Spain, Japan, or wherever; it didn’t occur to me how deeply personal they were for Hildi. But it was wonderful for her to see her sister and family again.

A slight easing of travel restrictions for GDR citizens had taken place in 1982. More usefully, a GDR regulation that people over 60 could visit relatives in the West enabled Hildi’s sister to join their mother for a holiday in London in 1988—though her children were kept behind. Still no-one had any inkling of the imminent convulsion.

But by the autumn of 1989, following Gorbachev’s dramatic rolling back of restrictions—and, in Beijing, the abortive Tiananmen protests of the summer—unrest was suddenly rife throughout Eastern Europe. Hildi’s niece was working in Leipzig for the celebrated music publishers Peters—which we had all raided for scores on our 1985 and 1987 visits (I heard a story about Karajan’s visit to the shop: casting an eye over the stock, he simply declared, “I’ll take the lot.”).

By September Hildi’s sister was anxious whenever her daughter joined the growing crowds of demonstrators setting off every Monday in peaceful protest marches from the Nikolaikirche, where Bach had directed his John Passion. The conductor Kurt Masur joined the demonstrations, going on to play a leading role. As the Wall fell on the 9th November—almost as suddenly as it had been built in 1961—Hildi watched the TV broadcasts in London with excitement.

Since 1989
The fall of the Wall was momentous, allowing long-separated families to be reunited. It’s easy to celebrate “freedom”, but we should at least hint at the complexity of people’s feelings in the East. People now “just wanted a life”, as Hildi observes. Hildi’s sister and her husband didn’t want to enquire about their Stasi files—and nor does Hildi, who must have one too.

But as throughout East Europe and Russia, people now had to adapt to harsh and bewildering new economic realities. In China too, the dismantling of the commune system from the late 70s had led to great uncertainty; Li Manshan’s Daoist band were now thriving once again, though it was still to be over a decade before life became significantly more bearable.

After unification Hildi’s niece lost her job at Peters. Their precious stock was destroyed when its partner in Frankfurt decided it should be pulped: they couldn’t even sell it off cheaply.

The building of a modern church on the site of the Paulinerkirche, dynamited in 1968, was now on the agenda, and in 2009 the first service was held in the imaginative new buildings. Leipzig is now full of thoughtful commemorations of its troubled GDR past.

In 2000 Hildi and I were part of the pool of musicians taking part in weekly concerts throughout the year for John Eliot Gardiner’s extraordinary Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. While I was naively relishing the music, Hildi’s enjoyment would have been mixed with her personal history. She reflects with a certain irony how the poverty of the GDR had enabled towns there to preserve dilapidated old architecture that was being dismantled with abandon in West Germany (although it has been observed that in the East they compensated by ravaging the environment).

By 1994 Hildi’s life was taking a new course as she found herself in demand as a German language coach for singers. She has gone on to work mainly at Covent Garden, Welsh National Opera, the Royal College of Music, and the Royal Academy of Music. She dearly loves this work, combining her early teaching experience (in the family tradition) with her later career as orchestral musician—even if she sometimes has to bring into play the skills of diplomacy that she has honed in playing for conductors. Meanwhile she still plays for John Eliot.

H with Bach painting

Hildi (right), with Bach and John Eliot, Leipzig 2015.

As Hildi tells me the story of the 2015 return to Leipzig of the famous 1748 painting of Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, she clearly takes it to heart. The portrait had itself been on a lengthy odyssey (see also here)—from Leipzig to Berlin, Hamburg, Breslau (Wroclaw), London, Fontmell Magna, Princeton. Its final return to Leipzig in 2015 was a kind of homecoming for Hildi too. Bach’s generation, of course, also had to live in the shadow of the devastating trauma of the Thirty Years’ War.

Walter Jenke, whose Jewish family had bought the portrait in a curiosity shop in Breslau in the early 19th century, fled Germany for England in 1936. Remarkably, to protect it from air raids, he kept it at the Dorset country home of his friends the Gardiners; so John Eliot grew up with it, as he describes in his wonderful book on Bach.

But after the war, Jenke had to sell the portrait at auction in 1951, when it was bought by the American philanthropist William Scheide. It then hung in his living room for over sixty years. When he died, aged 100, in 2014, he bequeathed it to the Bach Archive in Leipzig, where it now welcomes visitors. It was fitting that Hildi took part in the Leipzig ceremony in 2015 with John Eliot and assembled luminaries.


Before making her home in London, Hildi lived under the Reich, the American Military Government, the Soviets, the GDR, the British zone of occupied Germany, and the Federal Republic.

Just recently, “hopping mad over Brexit”, Hildi—with great difficulty—has managed to reclaim her German nationality alongside her British passport.

Meanwhile in Germany, a vast and laudable reckoning has taken place for both the Nazi and GDR periods. For all the valiant attempts there to reckon for the past, the vast majority preferred to forget; but all our diverse societies continue to bear the scars of trauma. Indeed, such scars form an essential part of my fieldwork on ritual groups in rural China—and while I have documented the story of Li Manshan’s family with him in a certain detail, writing this account with Hildi reminds me that we always need to evoke Chinese lives more profoundly.

Like many, growing up absorbed with everyday problems amidst social reconstruction, Hildi later came to reflect, learning more and finding her own way of digesting and coming to terms with her country’s history. The pain of the mid-20th century is unimaginable to our pampered later generations; yet it needs to be remembered. Merely to survive was some kind of blessing—as evoked in Chinese films; and aware of her sister’s constrained situation, Hildi was moved by German films like The lives of others.

So the point is not that Hildi’s story is exceptional. Rather, whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re all surrounded by such memories—in an office, on the bus next to us, or me naively sharing a desk with Hildi in the violin section of an orchestra. And with refugees—and their contributions—ever more common, we urgently need to take them to heart. So this whole story is not just about Hildi’s early life, but about our whole relationship with our past, present, and future—in Germany, Britain, and worldwide.


[1] MacDonogh, p.413. Hildi notes that the connection of Minden with the House of Hanover and the British crown has made it a popular theme of British history books.
[2] For such groups, also known as “clubs for the Silesian homeland” (Schlesischer Heimat Bund), see e.g. Andrew Demshuk, The lost German East: forced migration and the politics of memory, 1945–1970 (Cambridge UP, 2012); Gregor Feindt, “From ‘flight and expulsion’ to migration: contextualizing German victims of forced migration”. For the ongoing conflicts over Upper Silesia, see e.g. this recent article. For narratives from Germans in Silesia, see also Johannes Kaps ed., The tragedy of Silesia 1945–46. Stephan Feuchtwang (a refugee from Berlin, later to become a masterly anthropologist of China), reflects on “the transmission of grievous loss in Germany, China and Taiwan” with pertinent comments on Heimat, in After the event, p.157, 172, 196–8, 201–4.
[3] While kitsch traditionalist sentimentality was less politically manipulated in the West than behind the Iron Curtain, a related feeling of manipulation and alienation is brilliantly dissected in Milan Kundera’s The joke.
[4] Echoes of an uncomfortable past have persisted. Another native of Weißwasser, Werner Schubert (85 in 2010) had served in the Wehrmacht, and went on to become a teacher. After retiring, he learned that the notorious SS commander Rudolf Lange, responsible for the mass murder of Jews in Latvia, came from his hometown. Schubert then set about exposing Lange’s biography, naming other local Nazi criminals.
[5] The German trauma, pp.59–86.
[6] In my post on the GDR I listed a few basic sources, not least Maxim Leo’s Red Love, a detailed and moving account of three generations in one family; and (for lives of those born under the regime) Hester Vaizey, Born in the GDR. For subversive behaviour, clothing, jokes, and so on, see also Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain, ch.17. For the whole period in China, see here.

Echoes of the past 1

Echoes of the past: refuge and memory, 1

Train refugess 1945

Refugees, 1945.

Hildburg Williams is a long-serving and popular violinist in London chamber and early-music orchestras, who has latterly added a major string to her bow [1] by becoming a distinguished German-language coach for singers in opera, lieder, and oratorio repertoires.

I’ve known Hildi since 1982, when we were playing a Handel opera in Lyon with the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner. Though I worked with her on and off for the next eighteen years (mostly in EBS), somehow we never managed to have a proper chat. As is the way with orchestral life, we moved in different circles, different groups going off in search of restaurants, and she was rarely to be seen in the bars that my mates frequented after gigs.

So I knew nothing of Hildi’s early years, fleeing twice from war and trauma; or the tale of her sister, who stayed behind in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Their stories are just a drop in the ocean of the continent-wide migrations in the period immediately following World War Two, not to mention more recent ones from farther afield—many such accounts have been published. But only very recently have I realized how important it is to tell the stories of such “migrants”; and this also bears on the post-traumatic amnesia that took hold not only on both sides of the German divide, but throughout Europe (including the UK)—and indeed China. All these lives are precious. [2]

After a couple of long sessions together, and some background reading, I produced a preliminary draft. Meanwhile, as Hildi was stimulated to reflect further on her life, more and more memories came to the surface, prompting her to give a more comprehensive account of her life—for her own sake, not merely at my behest. This, the first of two instalments, is my own adaptation of her story.

Chatting belatedly with Hildi has made an intriguing contrast with my main experience of fieldwork since 1986—making notes while hanging out with chain-smoking Chinese peasants between ritual segments at funerals. But the principle is rather similar: to document and empathize with people’s experiences through troubled times. Still, whereas in China my clear outsider-status somehow makes such talks quite smooth (though note my comments on “stranger value”), in this case, being somewhat closer I sometimes feel more impertinent. So it reminds me that we foreign fieldworkers intrude too blithely into the personal lives of our subjects—a privilege that is hardly earned.

Thankyou, Hildi—and a belated happy 80th birthday! Having boldly offered Stephan Feuchtwang some Bach for his own 80th, this tribute will at least be less aurally challenging.

Early years: Silesia
Hildburg was born in November 1937, the youngest of three siblings, in the town of Weißwasser in the Sorbian enclave of Upper Lausitz, east of Dresden—right by what is now the Polish border. The family ancestry can be traced back to Lower Silesia—her grandparents and parents originally lived in Bunzlau (now Bolesławiec, in Poland).

Both of Hildi’s elder siblings were born there, but by the time she was born the family had moved west to Weißwasser, where her father had been appointed as Rektor, school headmaster.

Hildi’s mother was also a teacher, but had to resign when she got married, as was the ruling in those days. However, when the war broke out she was reinstated. A young woman lived with the family, looking after the children.

Germans had made up the great majority in Silesia for many centuries. Weißwasser was just west of the Oder–Neiße line, which was to remain German even after 1945.

Through the 1930s the Jewish populations of such communities were ever more vulnerable. When Hildi was barely a year old, anti-semitic violence escalated with Kristallnacht; near Weißwasser, the Jewish population of Görlitz was among those targeted. In October 1939 a camp just south of Görlitz, originally for Hitler Youth, was modified into a PoW camp and began to receive inmates. Indeed, it was at this very camp that Messiaen, captured at Verdun in 1940, was interned—soon to compose and perform his amazing Quatuor pour la fin du temps there, as if untouched by human society.

By 1939 Hildi’s father was in his forties; in August, as the war started, he was called up by the Wehrmacht, going on to serve in the army administration in Poland, Russia, and France. Hildi reflects:

I can only remember one short visit when he was on leave. Apart from this, I only knew him from photographs and his letters home, which would often include little paragraphs to us children, with some drawings. [3]

But after the war he hardly talked about his experiences, so Hildi knows very little of this period in his life.

When she began attending school in 1943, her mother was her first teacher there (“a fact she enjoyed more than I”)—Hildi remembers addressing her in the third person like all the other pupils in class, anxious to fit in and not be treated differently from her classmates.

Up to the summer of 1943 the family spent the holidays at Hildi’s grandparents’ home in a little village just outside Bunzlau—they owned the former village school, with its large garden and a wooded area known as The Park. For the children it was an idyllic setting.

First flight
As we chat over coffee and cake in Hildi’s gemütlich little house in north London, I struggle to imagine the utter devastation of Germany by that time, evoking the most appalling images we have seen from Syria in recent years—and refugees then were just as vulnerable as Syrians today, desperately trying to survive by fleeing. Keith Lowe tellingly sums up the devastation of post-war Europe: [4]

Imagine a world without institutions. It is a world where border between countries seem to have been dissolved, leaving a single, endless landscape over which people travel in search for communities that no longer exist. There are no governments any more, on either a national scale or even a local one. There are no schools or universities, no libraries or archives, no access to any information whatsoever. There is no cinema or theatre, and certainly no television. The radio occasionally works, but the signal is distant, and almost always in a foreign language. No one has seen a newspaper for weeks. There are no railways or motor vehicles, no telephones or telegrams, no post office, no communication at all except what is passed through word of mouth.

There are no banks, but that is no great hardship since money no longer has any worth. There are no shops, because no one has anything to sell. The great factories and businesses that used to exist have all been destroyed or dismantled, as have most of the other buildings. There are no tools, save what can be dug out of the rubble. There is no food.

Law and order are virtually non-existent, because there is no police force and no judiciary. In some areas there no longer seems to be any clear sense or what is right and what is wrong. People help themselves to whatever they want without regard to ownership—indeed, the sense of ownership itself has largely disappeared. Goods belong only to those who are strong enough to hold onto them, and those who are willing to guard them with their lives. Men with weapons roam the streets, taking what they want and threatening anyone who gets in their way. Women of all classes and ages prostitute themselves for food and protection. There is no shame. There is no morality. There is only survival.

For modern generations it is difficult to imagine such a world existing outside the imaginations of Hollywood script-writers. However, there are still hundreds of thousands of people alive today who experienced exactly these conditions—not in far-flung corners of the globe, but at the heart of what has for many decades been considered one of the most stable and developed regions on earth.

By 1945, Silesia was ever more lawless. As German defeat was imminent, and with zones of occupation constantly shifting, the American and British inmates of the Görlitz PoW camp were marched westward in advance of the Soviet offensive.

On 17th January 1945 what was left of Warsaw was “liberated”; Krakow and Lodz soon followed. Budapest fell to the Soviet forces on 13th February; and as they were closing in on Berlin, Dresden was obliterated by RAF bombs on 13th–15th February.

There was still desperate fighting (see also here) around the Silesian region in April. The 1st Ukrainian Front captured Forst on the 18th. As Hildi recalls:

I remember our last days in Weißwasser vividly—the food shortages, the frequent air raids, the sound of fighting, the endless treks of refugees fleeing westward passing along our street. Every night my mother would take a family in to give them food and a bed before they continued their journey the next morning. The raids intensified daily and on the 13th February the light from the burning Dresden was clearly visible. As the fighting drew nearer, we could hear the bombardments coming from Forst just north.

During these anxious days there was a young woman briefly lodging in the flat who was betrothed to a German lieutenant. He told her she should urge Hildi’s mother to leave. The last military train going west was due on the 19th February from Hoyerswerda, 7 kilometres from Weißwasser. So along with a throng of desperate people (mainly women, children, and the elderly, since most men were either dead or away fighting), they now fled their home. Hildi, then seven, vividly remembers the chaos, with refugees panicking as they fled in all directions.

The most essential items were hastily packed, and I still remember gratefully that I was allowed to take both my beloved dolls. The lieutenant sent his orderly with an open lorry for us to catch the train—which turned out to be already overcrowded with hardly any room. My sister was precariously perched on top of several suitcases, resting her feet on the handle of a pram.

The train eventually left the next morning, but even on the night before there was an air-raid. Some people panicked and fled, but luckily the train was not hit. The journey was agonizingly slow, with the train frequently grinding to a halt. At some stations it was possible to get some soup and a hot drink, but these were dangerous moments, as nobody knew how long these stops would last and people were afraid the train might set off without them.

Planning to get to the small town of Kahla, near Jena in Thuringia, to stay with the family of an uncle, Hildi’s family finally climbed out of the military train in Zwickau, embarking on several complicated train changes. Again the carriages were packed with huge numbers of other refugees and luggage, so sometimes people could only get off the train by clambering out of a window. It was snowing and the ground was covered with dirty slush.

Thuringia, 1945: brief US occupation
When after three days they at last reached their destination, Hildi’s aunt gave them the use of one room in her flat, with the children sleeping in a little attic room. But even here they found that far from being safe, escalating air raids meant spending anxious hours in the cellar huddled together with the other occupants of the house.

Communication was sporadic: there were disruptions everywhere, with large sections of the railway lines destroyed (at the end of the bombardment only 650 of 8,000 miles of track were operating), and so any letters that made it through were long delayed. With millions on the move, tracing the whereabouts of family and friends proved arduous.

The family did at least have a little radio, and Hildi was delighted when a broadcast of a classical concert came on. Meanwhile, news broadcasts were less instructive than rumours of the allied troops’ advance, which created great anxiety.

American forces began occupying the province of Thuringia from 1st April; Patton’s forces entered Buchenwald on the 11th (for my post on Ravensbrück, see here).

Dresden in ruins.

On 20th April the Russians reached Berlin. As agreed by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin as early as 1944, and confirmed at the Yalta conference in February 1945, the defeated Germany (including Berlin) was to be divided into four zones of Allied occupation. Thuringia was to belong to the Soviet zone, but the Americans arrived there first before the fighting ended. Hildi’s family had no inkling of all this until later.

In Kahla, the situation deteriorated dramatically early in April, just after Easter, with frequent air raids. In a last-ditch effort, the German forces blew up the bridge over the river Saale. Warplanes were flying low over the town, with bombs exploding alarmingly close.

We seemed to spend most of our time in the cellar, anxiously listening and waiting for the all-clear signal, and then, climbing upstairs again, being thankful that, for now at least, we had been spared.

Then the day came when, with a roar of heavy motorcars and tanks, the Americans announced their arrival. Cautiously peeping through the windows, we saw the whole street full of cars and jeeps, which were constantly washed and polished.

The GIs went from house to house to find accommodation for their people. Nearly all the houses in our street had to be evacuated, but ours was spared. When the GIs came to investigate it was lunchtime, and our large family was sitting around the kitchen table—my mother, my aunt, my grandparents (who had recently arrived from Silesia by trek), and we children. When one man in uniform asked: “How many children?”, my mother answered in English “Five”, whereupon they left.

We mainly stayed indoors—there was a curfew in place, and at first only two hours were allowed daily for people to try and get provisions from shops, where there were long queues. On 2nd May ration cards were introduced, and the electricity supply seemed to be becoming more stable, but sadly, one day our radio was confiscated. From now on we could only get snippets of news while queueing for food. News of Hitler’s suicide on 1st May, and the signing of the act of surrender on the 7th, was anxiously passed around. We children picked up the atmosphere of doom and desolation.

Hildi recalls the GIs:

It was the first time in my life I saw a black person. I had heard that these were the people who were kind to children and were known to give them sweets and chocolate. So one day I plucked up my courage and gingerly approached one of them, uttering my first English words—“Have you chocolate?” I had never tasted chocolate—whenever I asked about it I would always get the answer: “When the war will be over”, to which I would wearily reply: “This is always your excuse!” Now the war really was over, this seemed to be the moment—but the soldier, somewhat bewildered, just shook his head.

At first the officials of the American Military Government were under strict orders to treat the defeated population with stern discipline. Rations began to shrink, often to under 1,000 calories per day. My mother lost so much weight that one day she was blown over by a gust of wind, spilling the precious thin broth she had just acquired from the butcher after queueing for ages. The black market flourished, but as refugees neither my mother nor my grandparents had anything of value to offer. Food shortage was a constant problem, but somehow they managed to put something on the table.

Under Soviet occupation, 1945–49
However, Thuringia was only to be very briefly within the US zone; in a deal unbeknown to locals, as the Allies had agreed with the Soviets for part of Berlin, the American troops began withdrawing on 1st July, ceding it to the Soviet forces—precisely those that Hildi’s family had fled from the east to evade.

 Then on 2nd July, without forewarning—almost overnight—the scene changed. The US jeeps disappeared, followed by an eerie, foreboding silence; and finally, as we all peeked anxiously through a small gap under the closed jalousie, Russian pony-driven carts arrived. What a change from the smart vehicles of the Americans! What a shock! What would become of us now?

US Russian handover 1945

Russian troops passing GIs into Weimar, 4th July 1945.

For the time being, having only just escaped the east with such difficulty, Hildi’s family stayed put. They were now to live under the Russian regime until 1948, when the administration began to transfer to what in 1949 became the GDR.

Still, Hildi’s family had done well to flee early from the east. Over three million people had fled west before the organized expulsions began, mainly driven by fear of the advancing Soviet Army; and another three million Germans were expelled in 1946 and 1947. For many, the formal end of the war was not an end to their suffering but a beginning; vast numbers died in the process.

As a post on armaments in the Kahla region comments,

The population’s fear of retaliation at the hands of the incoming Red Army resulted in a gigantic wave of German refugees. […] All through May, the American military witnessed the panicked streams of refugees heading west. In addition, there were masses of people from further east fleeing before the advancing Soviet troops.

Hildi reflects on my impertinent queries asking if they now considered taking flight from the Russians once again in July 1945:

In July 1945 the whole of Germany was in total chaos. Everyone was solely occupied with survival—there was no time for reflection, still less for coming to terms with the past. While travel was still possible, not only were journeys arduous and complicated, with the rail network still in disarray, but where should we go?

The housing situation was dire. Apart from the millions of refugees from the East, there were all the survivors of the bombings, now homeless, who had to find a roof over their heads as most cities lay in ruins. One couldn’t just turn up anywhere—one had to know someone who could guarantee at least some sort of accommodation. My mother’s youngest sister lived in the northwest, but she only had one room for herself—though she became an important point of contact for our entire family, at a time when so many people were desperately trying to locate their loved ones and friends, or simply to find out if they were still alive.

Above all, in 1945, apart from the zones of occupation, one was not yet conscious of a divide within Germany into “East” and “West”. The whole of Germany faced the same chaos of devastation, having to deal with the aftermath of war. Mountains of rubble had to be cleared—a task mainly performed by women, since their men were either still prisoners of war or too old and infirm to take part. [6] Everyone was living from one day to the next. With our large family including aged grandparents, there was no hope of resettlement in the near future. Besides, there was no indication then that life was any easier anywhere else.

Were we worried? I am sure the adults were. Were we safe? I think, on the whole, we were. Following the departure of the American forces, the Soviet soldiers were now on strict orders to behave accordingly, and were severely punished, often beaten, when they transgressed. Fraternization was strictly forbidden—there was a definite “them” and “us”. The hegemony of the occupying forces was never in question.

Considering the widespread punitive measures against Germans in these first few years after the war, and many horror stories, they were relatively unscathed. But as Hildi observes, hunger was still a constant companion, especially for city dwellers. In the villages, in the early days before farms were confiscated by the state, there was still enough produce; townspeople brought anything they could find of any value to exchange for food. It was said that the only thing missing at the farms were the Persian carpets in the cowshed!

Although we were given ration cards, the shops did not have enough supply, so wherever there happened to be a queue people would join, even if it was unclear what was for sale.

I remember our excursions to pick mushrooms in the woods nearby. We became quite knowledgeable about them. At home we would clean and slice them, threading the slices on a pieces of string to dry for the winter. We did that with apples too. Eventually we were given a small plot of garden, and my grandfather worked hard growing vegetables and salad. As living standards improved in the Allied zone, the highlights were occasional food parcels from relatives there with essential provisions—and to our delight they would sometimes even reveal a chocolate!

My older sister, now 17, helped enormously, working for a farmer in a village 7 kilometres away—not only could she now get enough to eat, but we had one less mouth to feed. On many weekends she would walk this long distance, carrying back as much food as she could manage.

After the harvest the townspeople were allowed to glean the fields. They would all line up at the edge of the field and only after the farmer had raked it over thoroughly was the sign given to enter. The stalks were gathered like a bunch of flowers before the heads were cut into a sack. Back home my grandfather would beat the sack until the husks separated, then blow them away carefully until he had just the grains in his palm. They were worth their weight in gold; some would be ground in an old coffee grinder to make porridge, and if there were enough then the local mill would exchange them for flour, a welcome supplement.

Occasionally slices of bark and pieces of wood were available from the local sawmill, which we piled up high on our rickety wooden cart. My grandfather then used an axe or a saw to cut them for our stove and wrought-iron oven. He also built a rabbit hut. We children loved these cuddly animals, and got quite upset whenever one suddenly went missing—my grandfather made sure we were not around when he sacrificed it for the pot.

Women had to be inventive with their dishes. I remember a brownish bread spread, ambitiously called Leberwurst, made from a flour mixture and spiced with marjoram, as well as Schlagsahne (whipped cream) made from whey, a thin greenish liquid that was available for free at the local dairy. For some time these recipes were carefully stored in a box, but, thankfully, never used later on! We children could not be choosy— we ate everything.

For cooking we had enormous pots in the kitchen, as the food lacked the necessary substance. Later they were adopted for boiling the washing.

Looking back now it seems amazing how we adapted to the deprivations of our daily life. Power cuts were frequent, and with candles in short supply we just stuck a piece of resin-wood into an earth-filled flowerpot and set it alight—a sooty affair! At other times we just sat in the dark and sang.

In 1945 Hildi’s father had been captured and interned in a PoW camp; [5] by June he was able to rejoin his family in Kahla. He must have known that his wife would try to get them away from Weißwasser, but with no means of telephoning, and only a sporadic postal service, Hildi doesn’t know how he found out where they had escaped to.

As Hildi’s father approached, pushing a bicycle, she was standing at the gate; recognizing him as he called out her name, she was so excited to see him that she jumped up to greet him and chipped a corner out of one of her front teeth.

Now at last we were a real family! My father immediately applied for a job. At a time when numerous factories were dismantled and their machinery taken away, he was lucky to find a job at the still-functioning sawmill. For a man who had never had done any physical work in his life, this was hard for him. There was no other footwear but heavy wooden clogs, and my mother spent hours sewing patches onto his torn gloves.

My brother and I spent the summer holidays of 1946 with our former help and her family in a village near Bautzen, east of Dresden. For my parents this was a godsend, since they could be sure we would be properly fed there; for us children it meant an exciting long train journey and a wonderful time in the country. But the journey confronted us with images that remain ingrained in my memory even today. Passing through Leipzig we witnessed with horror the devastation on both sides of the track—ruins everywhere, eerie monuments of gruesome battles, tall buildings sliced through the middle, with the occasional lone piece of furniture precariously balancing on the edge.

Leipzig devastated.

Just opposite their house was a school that served as a barracks; during this time another building was used for some teaching. So Hildi’s grandfather (himself a former teacher) gave her additional lessons, with daily reciting of maths tables. When the troops finally moved out, the barracks became a school again, which Hildi now attended. Among the subjects there was Russian, which she learned reluctantly. But she was much keener on learning the violin, taking lessons along with her brother from elderly local musician Emil Wittig—Hildi’s brother became his star pupil, and to this day she still treasures a copy of the Kreutzer violin studies with a dedication to him from their teacher.

If their radio hadn’t been confiscated, Hildi would have loved to hear broadcasts of the classics with conductors like Furtwängler. Here he is in 1948, rehearsing Brahms 4 in London—where his visits were still sensitive, since though acquitted of collaboration late in 1946 it would still be some time before he was entirely rehabilitated abroad:

Like Chinese people, Hildi’s father never discussed his war experiences—which, apart from perhaps being politically uncomfortable, must have been deeply traumatic.

Although we children seemed to find our own way through this period of deprivation, we could not help picking up the general atmosphere of resignation, uncertainty, and fear. Outside the home people did not engage in conversation before making sure no-one was nearby who could possibly listen. At school it was not uncommon for a teacher to use children as tools to gain vital information from them about their elders’ opinions. My brother and I were instructed never to mention any sensitive topics we might have heard at home.

By October 1949 Hildi’s family found themselves part of the new German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Apart from the major trials of the worst culprits, de-nazification [7] was pursued patchily even in the first couple of years after the war, as the occupiers soon discovered it was both impracticable and undesirable; in the Allied zones, reconstruction took priority over principles as Cold War loomed. People heard about the war-crimes trials, but they were little discussed, and never part of the school curriculum.

Discretion became still more important when in 1949 Hildi’s father planned to cross the border to Westphalia in the British zone, hoping to find a new life in the West so the family could join him eventually. His parents-in-law had already made the journey earlier without too many problems, since “old people” were considered not just unproductive but a burden on the state.

Sure enough, after a long trek northwest Hildi’s father managed to reach Detmold, where he was offered the use of a hut in a large garden belonging to a friend of a friend. At once he found work as a gardener, later getting an office job with the British authorities.

With the de-nazification process now inevitably something of a formality, it was formally abolished in 1951 with the ponderously-named Entnazifierungsslußgesetz law (expanding my acquaintance with German polysyllables). Meanwhile, senior German conductors jumped through the requisite hoops as the new authorities pored over their careers under Hitler. The search for culprits still continues even today, but there was no call for repentance, and nothing resembling Truth and Reconciliation—either here or later in China.

In Kahla, Hildi’s mother was questioned twice about her husband’s whereabouts by two officials knocking on the door. She simply replied, “He has abandoned us. I have no idea where he is.”

Second flight
In March 1950 Hildi, with her mother and brother, managed to flee the new GDR to join her father. But this time her sister made the choice to stay behind. Her life had changed for the better in 1947, when she was accepted for the pedagogic school for mathematics and natural science in Gera, east of Kahla. In what Hildi observes was a strange way of beginning one’s studies, all the students had to take part in clearing the Thuringian forest, sawing and stacking felled tree trunks—at least they were allowed to take some wood home.

By 1948 Hildi’s sister had a diploma, and soon found a teaching post. She realized her qualifications would count for nothing in the Allied zones, and she couldn’t face having to retrain; and besides, she had fallen in love with her future husband. The family parting was difficult.

After the trauma of their original flight as part of a mass exodus west in 1945, this second journey posed different challenges.

Our preparations for escape were complicated. The few belongings that we had gradually accumulated needed to be sent ahead in parcels. This was not officially allowed, but we had found one guard at the station who would turn a blind eye and post them. If he was not on duty, which was often the case, we just had to turn back home again with our wooden cart laden with parcels, and try our luck another day.

Just such a cart is an iconic image of the refugee exodus, displayed in museums like the excellent Forum of Contemporary History in Leipzig:

Finally we set off on the hazardous journey across the Harz mountains, by the same route that my father had taken. I was now 13. With the help of a guide, a woman who knew which route to take and was familiar with the schedules of the border guards, we made our way with rucksacks on our backs, my brother and I clutching our violins. At the time there was still movement in both directions, but since trains were rigorously searched at the border, a whole family travelling west would have aroused suspicion. So we got off one stop before the terminus and climbed down the railway embankment. Crouching at the bottom of it, we waited anxiously until the train set off again. It was already dark. Then started a long and difficult walk. Our nerves at breaking point, no-one spoke. We watched our footsteps, carefully avoiding the dry leaves on the ground. Occasionally there would be a rustle—our heartbeats racing, we all stopped and held our breath. But often it was just someone returning from the West, going in the opposite direction. The journey seemed endless, but at last we made it!

So after a trek of two days they once again found refuge, reunited with Hildi’s father in Detmold.

Given Hildi’s later immersion in Bach, her trek has an interesting parallel with Bach’s Long March from Thuringia to Lübeck in 1705 to seek his hero Buxtehude—in very different circumstances, and even further, over several months.

Meanwhile in rural China, the Li family Daoists, having mostly survived the Japanese occupation, were soon plunged into civil war and the turmoil and violence of “Liberation”—somehow continuing to provide ritual services for their local community throughout the whole period. All over the world convulsions continued in the wake of war, with over a million dying in the Partition of India.

Nearly four decades later, as we sat together in orchestras playing Bach and Handel, I had no inkling how very stressful Hildi’s early experiences were. In the next instalment we follow her from Westphalia to Zurich, and then on to London, as she embarks on a life of music; and we reflect further on refuge and memory.


[1] Sic: the metaphor is from archery, not fiddles, of course.
[2] Whatever the Daily Mail, or the Putrid Tang Emanating from the White House, may tell us. Among many documentaries on the current plight of refugees, the BBC series Exodus is remarkable.
[3] Cf. Hester Vaizey, Surviving Hitler’s war: family life in Germany, 1939–48.
[4] Savage continent: Europe in the aftermath of World War II, pp.xiii–xiv; I find this book a most instructive and sobering introduction to the period right across Europe. I can barely scratch the surface of the vast literature on the immediate post-war period. Other accessible books include Giles MacDonogh, After the Reich, and Frederick Taylor, Exorcizing Hitler—where the appalling situations in Silesia and Thuringia can also be pursued. Moving and detailed is Gitta Sereny, The German trauma.
[5] For the desperate conditions of the PoWs, see MacDonogh, ch.15; Taylor, pp.173–87; Lowe, ch.11.
[6] See also McGregor, Germany: memories of a nation, ch.27.
[7] MacDonogh, pp.344–57; Taylor, chs. 10–12, and Epilogue (for the Soviet zone, see pp.323–31, 360–61).

Feminist humour, old and new

Amidst the suffragette centenary (handily summarized by Philomena Cunk), it’s timely that the brilliant Bridget Christie has a new series on BBC Radio 4.

Alongside numerous Chinese jokes, I’ve posted on humour under state socialism (see also here; cf. Alexei Sayle), and also on Tibetan jokesFeminist political comedy may seem a recent inspiration, but Mary Beard doubtless has classical antecedents, and Krista Cowman [1] shows how astutely the suffragettes used humour, turning the tables. Open-air meetings were akin to, indeed precisely, standup—the brave women constantly faced by ridicule and heckling:

Provoking laughter at the expense of their opponents created a powerful and subversive weapon which they put to good use in their campaigns.

Annie Kenney recalled that suffragettes were

taught never to lose our tempers: always to get the best of a joke, and to join in the laughter with the audience even if the joke was against us. This training made most of the Suffragettes quick-witted, good at repartee, and the speakers that most of the audience took a delight in listening to, even though they did not agree with them, were those that were able to make them laugh.

Good to learn that this old joke was a response to a heckle:

An elderly man kept repeating the same statement every few minutes “if you were my wife I’d give you poison”. Eventually the speaker, tired of his repeated interruption, replied, “yes, and if I were your wife I’d take it.”


[1] “Doing something silly”: the uses of humour by the Women’s Social and Political Union, 1903–1914”, in Hart and Bos, Humour and social protest, 2008.

Ritual in The dream of the red chamber

Citing Cao Xueqin’s entrancing novel The story of the stone recently, I was reminded that among the many virtues of the epic tale is its detailed depiction of rituals in 18th-century Beijing[1]

A work of fiction it may be, but what I admire here is the ethnographic thick description—a model for modern fieldworkers. Prompting us to experience such rituals within the far wider context of social life and personal experience, the author not only evokes all the human detail of the family’s behaviour and emotional world, including the priests’ relations with their patrons, but depicts the whole physical setting and itemizes expenses.

Chapters 13 and 14 describe a 49-day observance for the funeral of the family matriarch, with several groups of ritual specialists performing. Chapter 13 gives the text of the placard—similar in style to those used in modern times. [2] In David Hawkes’s brilliant translation (for the whole passage, see vol.1, pp. 255–87):

He also instructed someone to invite an expert from the Board of Astronomy to select dates for the funeral and the ceremonies preceeding it. With the approval of this official it was decided that the lying in state should be for forty-nine days and that the notification of bereavement indicating the family’s readiness to receive official visits of condolence should be made in three days’ time.

A hundred and eight Buddhist monks were engaged to perform a Grand Misericordia for the salvation of all departed souls in the main reception hall of the mansion during these forty-nine days, while at the same time ninety-nine Taoist priests of the Quanzhen sect were to perform ceremonies of purification and absolution at a separate altar in the Celestial Fragrance pavilion. These arrangements having been made, the body was moved to a temporary shrine in another pavilion of the All-scents Garden. Fifty high-ranking Buddhist monks and fifty high-ranking Taoist priests took turns in chanting and intoning before it on every seventh day.
Inside the gateway, facing the street, a high staging was constructed on which Buddhist monks and Daoist priests sat on opposite sides of an altar intoning their sacred texts. In front of the staging was a notice on which was written in large characters:

The very Reverend Wan-xu, Co-President of the Board of Commissioners having authority over all monks and clergy of the Incorporeal, Ever-tranquil Church of the Lord Buddha,

the Venerable Ye-sheng, Co-President of the Board of Commissioners having authority over all priests and practitioners of the Primordial, All-unifying church of the Heavenly Tao,

with all due reverence and care, prepared offices for the salvation of all departed souls, supplicating Heaven and calling upon the name of the Lord Buddha

earnestly praying and beseeching the Eighteen Guardians of the Sangha, the Warlike Guardians of the Law, and the Twelve Guardians of the Months mercifully to extend their holy compassion towards us, but terribly to blaze forth in divine majesty against the powers of evil, we do solemnly perform for nine and forty days the Great Mass for the purification, deliverance and salvation of all souls on land and on sea…

—and a great deal more on those lines which it would be tedious to repeat [Cao Xueqin’s comment, not mine!].

Chapter 14 goes on to list some of the major ritual segments and activities. The Buddhist Water and Land (shuilu 水陸) ritual included Opening the Quarters (kaifang 開方), Smashing the Hells (poyu 破狱), Transmitting the Lanterns (chuandeng 傳燈), Illuminating the Deceased (zhaowang 照亡), Opening the Golden Bridge (kai jinqiao 開金橋), and Leading the Panoplied Pennant (yin chuangfan 引幢幡. [3]

Daoists performed the Presenting the Memorial (shen biao 申表) ritual before the Three Pure Ones and the Jade Emperor; Chan Buddhist monks performed Ambulating Incense (xingxiang 行香), Flaming Mouth (yankou 焰口), and Worshipfully Presenting the Water Litanies (bai shuichan 拜水懺); and thirteen young Buddhist nuns recited mantras.


Rendering the fantastical vocabulary of Daoist ritual into English is always a challenge—also well met by Ken Dean and John Lagerwey. Again, Hawkes makes a brilliant attempt at this passage—with occasional elaborations, and a quite understandable, even attractive, “translation” of titles for ritual segments into specific actions (which, of course, they are!):

The Thirty-fifth had now arrived—an important day in the penitential cycle of seven times seven days preceding the funeral—and the monks in the main hall had reached a particularly dramatic part of their ceremonies. Having opened up a way for the imprisoned souls, the chief celebrant had succeeded by means of spells and incantations in breaking open the gates of hell. He had shone his light (a little hand-mirror) for the souls in darkness. He had confronted Yama, the Judge of the Dead. He had seized the demon torturers who resisted his progress. He had invoked Kṣitigarbha, the Saviour King, to aid him. He had raised up a golden bridge, and now, by means of a little flag which he held aloft in one hand, was conducting over it those souls from the very deepest pit of hell who still remained undelivered.

Meanwhile the ninety-nine Taoists in the Celestial Fragrance Pavilion were on their knees offering up a written petition to the Three Pure Ones and the Jade Emperor himself in his heavenly palace. Outside, on their high staging, with swinging of censers and scattering of little cakes for the hungry ghosts to feed on, Zen monks were performing the great Water Penitential. And in the shrine where the coffin stood, six young monks and six young nuns, magnificently attired in scarlet slippers and embroidered copes, sat before the spirit tablet quietly murmuring the dharani that would assist the soul of the dead woman on the most difficult part of its journey into the underworld. Everywhere there was a hum of activity.

Not wishing to quibble over details, my only little comment there would be that the (thirteen!) niseng refers to nuns. And that final comment “Everywhere there was a hum of activity” (re’nao “exciting”, “bustling”, lit. “hot and noisy”, cf. Chau, Miraculous response, pp.147–68) is ironic after the silent mantras of the nuns. (BTW, I almost like the rendition of shifen as “everywhere”, but I’m still inclined to think it carries the modern colloquial sense of “really”—thus “it was really boisterous”.)

Chapter 102 gives a detailed account of a one-day exorcism performed by forty-nine Daoist priests, with god paintings hung out, performing Ambulating Incense, Fetching Water (qushui 取水), Worshipfully Presenting the Memorial (baibiao 拜表) and Inviting the Sages (qingsheng 請聖) rituals, and reciting the Dongyuan jing 洞元經 scripture throughout the day. Three chief liturgists, donning seven-star hats, wielded precious swords, flags, and a whip, as a placard was displayed and exorcistic talismans depicted.

In chapters  28 and 29 (Hawkes vol.2, pp.41–92) the family commissions a three-day Daoist Offering for well-being (ping’an jiao 平安醮) at the Qingxu guan 清虚观 temple:

Aroma continued:
“Her Grace sent that Mr Xia of the Imperial Bedchamber yesterday with a hundred and twenty taels of silver to pay for a three-day Pro Viventibus by the Taoists of the Lunar Queen temple starting on the first of next month. There are to be plays performed as part of the Offering, and Mr Zhen and all the other gentlemen are to go there to offer incense. Oh, and Her Grace’s presents for the Double Fifth have arrived.”

This section offers far less detail on ritual, the opera being the main attraction. We tend to assume that in the Good Old Days people gladly respected the “rules” (guiju 規矩), but like that intriguing re’nao of chapter 14, there is clearly a long ancestry to the common lament since the 1980s that audiences care more about ostentation than correct ritual performance. The account uncannily reflects my observations at Yanggao funerals since 2001 (Daoist priests of the Li family, p.356):

Daoists still have to be invited, almost routinely; but by now they are used to not being appreciated. Since the 1990s no-one pays much attention when they arrive at the soul hall; only the kin reluctantly abandon their places watching the pop music outside the gate to go and kneel before the soul hall.

Imagine if Bach had taken that sabbatical in Beijing, then he might have had patrons like the Jia clan in The dream of the red chamber… They could hardly have appreciated Bach’s genius any less than the Margrave of Brandenburg (“what does that even mean?”).

JPM Daoist painting

Perfected Man Huang sends forth an official document recommending the deceased, c1700: Daoists presiding over the liandu funerary ritual of chapter 66 of the Jin ping mei. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; see Little and Eichman, Taoism and the arts of China, pp.192–3. Note typical northern shengguan ensemble of guanzi oboe, sheng mouth-organ, dizi flute, and yunluo gong-frame, with large cymbals nao and bo.

Earlier still, the Ming novel Jin ping mei offers just as wonderful ethnographic material for rather less elite social strata—set in Shandong, ostensibly in the 12th century, but clearly based on the milieu of the author’s own day. Here too are many vignettes on minor domestic rituals and major exorcistic and mortuary rituals, as well as on the lives of Daoist priests and Buddhist monks.

Of course, these are just two of the most celebrated works of Ming–Qing fiction wherein we can seek such depictions. Just as with contemporary fieldwork, my first thought is to situate such rituals in space and time, rather than giving generic accounts. Thus one would seek to understand the rituals of the Jin ping mei in the context of 16th-century Shandong, and those of The story of the stone in that of 18th-century Beijing—just as we should be clear if our accounts of modern rituals refer specifically to north Shanxi in the 1930s, west Fujian in the 1990s, and so on.

Despite monumental social transformations since imperial times, all the rituals described in these early novels are still performed today—always varying by region and circumstances. [4]

Still, I need hardly reiterate that both texts (novels, ritual manuals, field reports) and images (paintings, photos) are silent and immobile: what we really need is films—which are in short supply even for current ritual practice, and an even taller order for the imperial era (though dramatized adaptations of The story of the stone may be quite educative!). [5]


[1] Within the vast literature on Hongxue 红学 (“Redology”—Dream of the red chamber studies), there are many Chinese studies of its religious and indeed musical components, searchable on databases. A considerable body of research is also available for Jin ping mei.
[2] For a couple of examples in English (for different kinds of rituals), see Dean, Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China, pp.53–8, and my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.230–31.
[3] For “panoplied pennant” in a funerary hymn, cf. my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.262, and film, from 24.39.
[4] For leads, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, and index.
[5] Perhaps I digress, but given the stylized acting culture of China, the “Star of Tomorrow” company’s recent nine-part TV version (beginning with the episode below), using child actors, has been highly praised for its naturalism and conviction—far from merely cute.


More East–West gurus

Besides Gary Snyder, another hero of mine in the 60s was Alan Watts (1915–73).

His 1972 autobiography In my own way is complemented by


  • David Stuart, Alan Watts: the rise and decline of the ordained shaman of the counterculture. [1]

Watts was blessed with extraordinary mentors throughout his youth. His accounts of drab suburbia in the early chapters of In my own way are worthy of Betjeman. In the distinguished British tradition of alienation,  he reflects on his early exposure to Christianity: “on the whole I am ashamed of this culture”, and “I could not make out why such pleasant people espoused such a fearsome and boring religion”. Yet while deploring the “asinine poems set to indifferent tunes”, “wretched bombastic, moralistic and maudlin nursery rhymes”, he goes on to appreciate their charm. He would have loved Dud’s Psalm.

And—long before Alan Bennett’s Sermon:

“the sermons of the clergy—bleated or sonorously boomed […]—conveyed nothing beyond the emotional energies of their funny voices, which all of us used to mock and mimic”. [2]

Still, he did well to note:

Strangely enough, young people in Japan have the same feeling about the atmosphere of their parents’ Buddhism—the atmosphere which is, to me, enchanting and magical with booming gong-bells and deep-throated and unintelligible sutrachanting. To them all this is kurai—a word which means deep, dark, dank musty, gloomy, and sad. (p.46; cf. pp.421–22)

Such dispassionate observation needs taking on board while observing Chinese rituals (cf. my post on Geertz).

Watts made trenchant comments on the “ritualized brutality” of British education and the teaching of history (“propaganda for the British Empire and the Protestant religion”). His view of schools and universities as “production lines turning out stereotyped personnel and consumers for the industrial machine” may be par for the anti-establishment course of the time, but In This Day and Age his mission to retune values is worth revisiting.

Railing against God and his [sic] role in Europe’s bloody history, he  had to escape, taking refuge in the more “amiable” tradition of Buddhism, seeking a mystical depth his guilt-ridden religious upbringing couldn’t offer. Through Christmas Humphreys he became immersed in the Zen of D.T. Suzuki. His early fascination with the Mystic East was nurtured both by his mother’s “oriental treasures” (he relished the clarity, transparency, and spaciousness of landscape paintings), and—plausibly—with Fu Manchu (for me it was The inn of the sixth happiness!). He got to know Nigel Watkins, whose bookshop he relished long before me (In my own way, pp.123–4)—aware that a lot of such literature was “superstitious trash”, he appreciated Watkins’s “perfect discrimination”. He wrote his first pamphlet, An outline of Zen Buddhism, while still a pupil at King’s School, Canterbury. Among many meetings with remarkable men [sic, as ever], he was first introduced to Krishnamurti in 1936. In 1937 he met Eleanor Everett, daughter of Ruth Fuller Everett (herself later married to the Zen priest Sokei-an Sasaki before his death in 1945); they married the following year, moving to the USA as war loomed.

Without any contradiction, Watts’s escape from the grey conformity of suburban Kent also made him “an unrepentant sensualist”. It’s all the more remarkable that he went on to train as an Episcopal priest, becoming ordained in 1945; at the time “it seemed to be the most appropriate context for doing what was in me to do, in Western society”. But unable to reconcile this “ill-fitting suit of clothes” with his inner beliefs, he withdrew from the church in 1950, and after a divorce he moved on to California. Of course, deploring missionary zeal, he was always free-floating—the ultimate trendy vicar, eagerly imbibing all the psychedelic trappings the burgeoning alternative scene had to offer from the prime position of his Cali refuge. Never one for institutions, he had an on-off relationship with academia, becoming what he called a “philosophical entertainer”—guru to the counterculture.

Watts’s 1957 book The way of Zen (1957) is a remarkable introduction to the whole subject. As he notes there:

During the past twenty years there has been an extraordinary growth of interest in Zen Buddhism.

So—just like sexual intercourse (on which he would also have much to say, based on avid participant observation—see e.g. Nature, Man and Woman (1958)—we clearly have to backdate the Western craze for Zen rather before 1963.

In parallel with Gary Snyder, Watts trod his own path, but his admiration for Snyder is clear, evinced in his writings such as the 1959 Beat Zen square Zen and Zen. And for all their discipline, they shared a delight in language and humour:

The task and delight of poetry is […] to eff the ineffable, to screw the inscrutable.

And he even relished Brazil’s balletic “gaieté d’esprit” in the 1970 World Cup! He also left a rich archive of audio recordings—many of them are on youtube, even if some tip over into self-help or Thought for the day. Here’s one worthwhile talk:


If the hippies were predated by the beats, then before them both came R.H. Blyth (1898–1964, when authors might still have unscrewable initials rather than personal forenames; see also here), to whose work I was drawn by Alan Watts. Blyth completed his Zen in English literature and oriental classics while interned in Japan in 1941.

I was far more amenable to the oriental classics (notably haiku, his main exhibit) than to all the Shakespeare and Wordsworth, but I got the point that enlightenment didn’t necessarily have to be sought in remote oriental mountain hermitages—as the Daoist and Zen masters indeed remind us. Blyth was also a great Bach lover.

He wrote a whole further series of books on haiku, as well as on humour in Asian and English literature—main exhibit for the former being senryū, humorous counterpart to haiku. He would have enjoyed “the first English haiku”, not to mention this limerick.

Apart from Alan Watts, other devotees of Blyth’s work included Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, J.D. Salinger, and Christmas Humphreys (another challenging dinner party), all of whom I admired in turn. For Salinger‘s absorption in oriental mysticism, see for example Seymour: an introduction (Penguin edn), pp.90–102. Indeed, the companion Raise high the roof beam, carpenters [3] opens with the narrator Buddy’s 17-year-old brother Seymour reading a Daoist story to their ten-month old sister Franny. [4] Call me old-fashioned, but these books just get better and better. OK, I’ll leave Salinger and Steinbeck for another day…


And before Blyth… there was Eugen Herrigel, whose 1948 book Zen in the art of archery was based on his studies in Japan in the 1920s!

Zen archer

Zen archer, Kyoto. ©Timothy Kraemer, on tour with English Concert, 1990s.

Apart from this whole fascination with Zen and Daoism, it was the characters provided in The way of Zen and Zen in English literature and oriental classics that led me to study Chinese at Cambridge, and eventually to read between the lines of dour field reports on local Chinese folk ritual, as well as seeking the unassuming wisdom of Li Manshan. As I became involved with such grass-roots religious activity among poor rural Chinese communities, documenting their fortunes under Maoism, I came to feel somewhat uncharitable towards traces of lofty New-Age hippy-style abstraction in studies of Chinese religion; but now that I revisit the work of such trail-blazing sages, I’m not just nostalgic, I sincerely find much to admire.


[1] Among many online sites, note http://www.alanwatts.com
[2] He also had a fine line in limericks, often religious—work this one out, a footnote to the Salisbury (Sarum) rite (In my own way, p.67), rather in the vein of Myles’s tribute to Ezra £ (and there’s another early orientalist!):

There was a young fellow of Salisbury
A notorious halisbury-scalisbury
He went about Hampshire
Without any pampshire
Till the vicar compelled him to walisbury.

[3] A Sappho quote, for aficionados of the female composers T-shirt.
[4] Some further links: https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/2010/01/29/j-d-salinger-1919-2010/, and https://tricycle.org/magazine/how-be-world/

Ritual groups of Xushui

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QMZ 1958

While ritual groups all around the Hebei plain survived Maoism to revive under the reform era since 1978, the county of Xushui makes a particularly intriguing case, notable both for its ephemeral fame with the razzmatazz of the 1958 Great Leap Forward and for its more long-lived ritual groups.

Despite its revolutionary image, Xushui county has remained a hotbed for religious activity, notably the cults of the sectarian creator-goddess Wusheng laomu and Auntie Silkworm Granny (Cangu nainai 蚕姑奶奶)—the latter a popular deity in this area, rarely featuring prominently elsewhere on the plain. Associations commonly display ritual paintings, like the Ten Kings and the Water and Land series, and perform vocal liturgy. They too are within the catchment area of Houtu worship—they used to make the rather distant pilgrimage to Houshan, though they more commonly visit the nearer Western Summit (Xiding 西頂) on Langyashan further southwest from Houshan. Again we found a rather complex overlap between the village-wide ritual associations, sects, and yinyuehui.

Further to my brief introduction in my post on Festivals, here I introduce some of the groups we visited from 1993 to 1996. Mao was impressively modest about his limited success when he admitted to Nixon in 1972: “I haven’t been able to change [China]—I’ve only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Beijing.” But he wasn’t modest enough: in some ways even a county so near Beijing, such a focus of the revolution, has remained resistant to Maoist ideology, predating and outliving it.