Coronavirus: mourning Li Wenliang, and blind bards


WeChat: “In this world there are no heroes descended from heaven, there are only ordinary people who come forward”.

Among the many areas of life in China that are suffering under the lockdown prompted by the Coronavirus outbreak are collective events such as life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies among rural communities.

SGL guiwang

Ghost king, South Gaoluo.

The grand New Year’s rituals from the 12th to the 16th of the 1st moon that take place throughout villages in north China, such as those of Gaoluo village in Laishui county south of Beijing, have had to be cancelled—though their purpose is precisely to “destroy the hundred diseases” (dui baibing 丢百病).

It reminds me of a story that villagers told me about the New Year’s rituals in 1997 (Plucking the winds, pp.317–18: passages below modestly edited). After thefts of the association’s ritual paintings the previous year, the New Year’s rituals now made a focus for a cultural fight-back. In preparation they managed to retrieve some of the paintings handed over the Baoding museum during the Cultural Revolution, and had handsome new donors’ lists (also stolen) rewritten and repainted from my photos, ready to display in the lantern tent.

But just as everyone was preparing for an ostentatious New Year, the death of Premier Deng Xiaoping threatened to disrupt it. A typical bit of mental juggling was now required in order for the village rituals to continue undisturbed. Deng died on the 11th day of the 1st moon in 1997, with remarkable, if uncharacteristic, attention to the rural calendar. When his death was announced, just before the major rituals around the 15th, the “commune” (as they still call the district authorities) dutifully ordered that New Year’s celebrations should be cancelled, and the village brigade had to tell the ritual association not to perform. As one musician confided, “I turns it over in my head: when someone dies in the village, we play for them, so didn’t we oughta be able to play when Deng Xiaoping dies too? So I reckons, how about writing a motto ‘In mourning for Deng Xiaoping’, pasting it up outside the lantern tent, and playing as usual?” The village’s “southern” ritual association followed suit, and the New Year’s rituals went ahead.

I love this story: in order to make sure that Premier Deng’s death will not get in the way of their customary entertainment, they profess respect by pointing out the traditional use of ritual to venerate the dead. As with all the best scams, its sincerity is unassailable. Things had changed a lot in the two decades since Chairman Mao’s death in 1976. Then the ritual association had virtually ceased to exist, and villagers had obeyed central orders without question out of genuine, indeed almost “superstitious”, belief in the Great Helmsman. Since 1978 villagers doubtless had a lot to thank Deng for, but there were ironies. It was thanks to Deng’s liberalizations that the association had been able to revive, but it was threatened by new pressures; it was also thanks to him that people no longer placed blind faith in leadership, and were now disinclined to let his death take priority over their local culture.

Villagers regarded the 1997 New Year as the most lively in living memory, perhaps partly by necessity, to legitimize the association’s new leadership and fight back against the theft of the paintings.

In many regions “rites of affliction” have long been an important part of the repertoire of ritual specialists—serving a symbolic rather than medical function. In the current crisis, however, such large-scale gatherings are unthinkable.

1965 poster campaign combining public hygiene and eliminating superstition: “Incense ash cannot cure disease” and “Human diseases are not an offence of the gods and ghosts”—another reminder (see e.g. here, under “Expressive culture”) that even at such a revolutionary time, plenty of people still thought so.

Funeral rituals, for which among the many locals attending are kin returning from distant parts of the country, must also have been put on hold, such as in Yanggao county in Shanxi, far from both the source of the outbreak in Wuhan and major urban centres like Beijing. So the Li family Daoists have had to take an enforced break from their busy ritual schedule (see here and here). I’m keen to know if Li Manshan and Li Bin can still do one-to-one sessions to “determine the date” (see e.g. here, under 2nd moon 28th)—which after all, apart from consultations after a death, also involve advice about health.

On local government websites (e.g. those of Laishui and Yanggao counties) I haven’t yet found any explicit bans on collective ritual activities—only bland, formulaic warnings proclaiming the state’s resolute response to the crisis. But morbidly creative slogans everywhere hammer out the message:


No visits for New Year this year
Those who come to visit you are enemies
Don’t open the door for enemies.

For the response in Tibetan regions, see e.g. here; and for concerns over Xinjiang, here.

* * *

 Even if folk musical activities are suspended, there are signs that local performers are reflecting the outbreak, in what Confucius would have called “popular feelings” (minqing 民情). First, some background.

I’ve already written at some length about blind bards and shawm players. The blindmens’ propaganda troupe of Zuoquan county in the Taihang mountains of east-central Shanxi has a history dating back to 1938, under Japanese occupation. One of the most illuminating and harrowing books on rural life in north China is

  • Liu Hongqing 刘红庆, Xiangtian er ge: Taihang mangyirende gushi 向天而歌: 太行盲艺人的故事 [Singing to the heavens: stories of blind performers of the Taihang mountains] (2004, with VCD, and abundant photos by Wang Jingchun).

LHQ book

One of innumerable such groups throughout the countryside, the Zuoquan troupe has always adapted to the changing times, from the warfare of the 1940s through Maoism to the reform era. In the latter period they began to perform stories criticising corruption.

The book’s author Liu Hongqing (see e.g. this interview) is the older brother of blind performer Liu Hongquan, whose life features prominently. Though Hongqing escaped the rural life to become a journalist, he kept in regular contact with his family, providing vivid stories of the troupe’s itinerant lifestyle (cf. Li Qing’s stint in the Datong Arts-Work Troupe from 1958 to 1962) and writing with great empathy about the lives of poor peasants.

ZQ pic

Liu Hongqing also pays great attention to the wretched fate of women in a rural area that remained chronically poor under Maoism. Two twins in the troupe had an older sister, four of whose five children were born blind. After she died in 1963 the burden of caring for the whole family fell upon the oldest daughter Chen Xizi, then 15 sui. She too was ill-fated. Her first daughter died at the age of 11 sui after going dumb the previous year; her son, born in 1968, was blind, dumb, and disabled; a second daughter died at the age of 7 sui; and a third daughter was herself left with three daughters at the age of 32 sui after her husband died. But amazingly, Chen Xizi’s youngest son endured great tribulations to become a researcher at Shanghai Communications University—the family’s only hope in an ocean of misery. Chen Xizi’s older brother Xizhao, a fine shawm player who died at the age of 55 sui in 1998, “bought” four wives, all mentally disabled.

After the death of another blind performer in the troupe, his widow had moved in with his younger brother, a common expedient (xuqin 续亲) in poor communities where early deaths were common and widows vulnerable.

Such stories, all too common in rural China (note e.g. Guo Yuhua’s ethnography of a Shaanbei village), make an important corrective to rosy state propaganda, putting into perspective scholarly accounts of machinations within the central leadership; and the fierce, anguished singing and playing of groups like this are utterly remote from the bland, cheery ditties of official troupes.

The Zuoquan performers are instrumentalists too—Liu Hongquan is a fine shawm player (for thoughts on the way shawm-band music reflects suffering, see here). Like others in the troupe, he has taken several adopted sons, forming a network of well-wishers throughout the villages where they perform. Like blind performers in north Shanxi, they had their own secret language (p.69), based on the ancient qiezi 切字 phonetic system.


Tian Qing (left, in white) with the blind performers of Zuooquan.

The group was soon promoted by eminent cultural pundit Tian Qing (see e.g. here, and this video). Following his visit to Zuoquan they gave their first Beijing performance in 2003. From 2007 the popular TV presenter and director Yani took them to heart, engaging with their lives in a ten-year project:

Since being enrolled under the aegis of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, while continuing their itinerant lifestyle performing for rural ceremonial, they have become media celebrities, promoted in regular TV appearances.

But even once absorbed into the state apparatus, such folk groups are not always mere mouthpieces for state propaganda. We may tend to think of folk-songs as commemorating events in the distant past—even when describing traumas such as famine, they tend to refer to early famines before the 1949 revolution. Itinerant performers like blind bards are occasionally enlisted to explain state policies among the folk, but they may also express resistance. With such topical songs hardly appearing in the collections of Chinese fieldworkers, it’s hard to judge how common they are. In Bards of Shaanbei (under “Old and new stories”) I explored the themes of AIDS, SARS, and Mo Yan’s fictional portrayal of a bard protesting at unjust local government requisitions, also linking to a protest song by Beijing blindman Zhou Yunpeng.

* * *

And so to the Coronavirus and the debate over freedom of speech. The Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliang was among the first whistleblowers (among a multitude of tributes, see e.g. here and here). Before his death on 6th February at the age of 34 he was punished for “spreading false rumours”. Though the central Party later backtracked on criticising him, the widespread tributes on Chinese social media mourning his death were largely an outpouring of popular resentment against the state’s irredeemably secretive policies in reaction to the outbreak—at a time when popular resistance to state power (notably in Xinjiang and Hong Kong) is otherwise muted. But online discussions continue to be censored.

A tribute to Li Wenliang, posted on WeChat on 8th February and only deleted by the 13th, featured a folk-song movingly performed by none other than Zuoquan blindman Liu Hongquan (contrast his rosy forecast here). Do listen to the song, since you can no longer hear it on WeChat:

The lyrics were written by Peking University economist Zhang Weiying, a native of Shaanbei who in 2019 composed, and sang, a Xintianyou folk-song in defence of dissident law professor Xu Zhangrun (see this article in a lengthy series by Geremie Barmé; for his translation of Xu’s essay on the virus, see here, and here; cf. this article in Chinese by Zhang Qianfan, another righteous scholar). Here are Zhang Weiying’s lyrics for the new song commemorating Li Wenliang:

LWL lyrics

The Party has also recruited performers to play a more orthodox role in promoting public health, such as this epic singer from Inner Mongolia:

and this song in the style of Huadengxi opera in Guizhou, filmed to promote awareness of the crisis.

Amidst the widespread publicity on the global ramifications of the virus, it’s worth considering its effects on poor rural communities in China and their collective observances. Perhaps some of you have further instances of how folk culture is suffering, responding, resisting?


A beguiling online post from Duyi Han shows murals purporting to come from a Hubei church, paying homage to Coronavirus medical workers. On reflection it’s clearly a virtual creation, but it makes an impressive and ingenious artistic tribute:

church murals

One has to read carefully to interpret this sentence as implying that it’s a virtual project:

The project sees the walls and ceilings of a historic church in Hubei province transformed into a large mural depicting figures dressed in white decontamination suits.

If one took that literally, some doubts might soon spring to mind—I append mine below merely to show you how gullible I was initially, how little I know about logistics of life in Hubei over these weeks—and how careful we have to be about what we find online, “nowadays”:

  • Where is this chapel, and how many Chinese churches have such classical architectural features?
  • Did the congregation not demur at the loss of their original Christian images?
  • Who is the artist, and if working alone (?), however could the murals be completed so quickly?  Supposing Hubei churches have been closed since the outbreak, OK I guess the artist could get a key.
  • We have to imagine them somehow finding a vast amount of paint (assuming there’s a well-stocked shop that’s open over this period), and putting up scaffolding…
  • And how about all the stages of painting murals, and drying times in winter?

Still, it’s easy to take at face value. Incidentally, apart from the major Daoist temple complex of Wudangshan, I haven’t sought material on folk ritual life around Hubei (as ever, we might start with the “instrumental music” volumes of the Anthology for Hubei), though the scene is (or was, before the virus struck) doubtless more active than this report may suggest.


A 2019 retrospective

For my sake as much as yours, I’m rounding up some themes from the last year (cf. my post for 2018)—do click on the links, both below and in the posts themselves! There’s plenty more to explore under the monthly archives as you scroll down in the sidebar.

I continue to add vignettes on the Li family Daoists (always bearing in mind my film and book!):

and I augment my post Walking Shrill with

On my other main fieldsite of Gaoluo (summary here),

Bearing on both the Li family and Gaoluo is

And under the main menu, it’s always worth exploring the many fieldnotes under Local ritual, and the various pages under the Themes sub-menu.

Among many posts on the great Yang Yinliu are

For links to ritual life around south Jiangsu, see

and for the rich cultures of Fujian,

Note also

For more on China, see

The plight of the Uyghurs is a pressing concern (see also Uyghur tag):

Note also

Further afield, see

The category of “world music“, or rather musicking in societies around the world, continues to grow. For salient perspectives on musical cultures worldwide (notably the brilliant, accessible work of Bruno Nettl), see

For diverse regional genres, see e.g.

For the musics of Iran, see

Pursuing my shawm theme. see

Among several posts on Italian folk culture are

See also

Note also new posts on flamenco.

On English culture (roundup here):

and having given Alan Bennett time off for good behaviour, he stars in several recent posts, notably

Under the WAM category, posts include

and recent additions to the Mozart tag, like

Under the Messiaen tag, major new posts are

On a lighter note are two classics on rubber chicken:

In my Must-Listen Playlist of songs (complementing the sidebar playlist for local Chinese traditions, with commentary here), most spellbinding is

And I continue the theme of stammering:

Also well worth a read is

And don’t forget the *MUST READ* category—among which my personal choice remains

A flawed funeral


Fetching Water procession, 2011.

Much of the voluminous work on Daoist ritual focuses on recreating the glories of ancient China. While fieldwork since the 1980s has greatly enriched our understanding, the complexities of modern life rarely intrude even in descriptions of rituals observed; the search for “living fossils” dominates research, implying a timeless social cohesion of local communities.

My diachronic ethnography of the Li family Daoists in Yanggao county of north Shanxi is partly inspired by the classic studies of Geertz; and for China, Ken Dean paid attention to the tensions involved in the 1980s’ revival of ritual practice in Fujian. This post is based on Chapter 19 of my book Daoist priests of the Li family, and in my film you can observe the rituals described here.

* * *

Since my visits from 2003 the “old rules” (lao guiju 老规矩) of ritual practice have been declining rapidly. Nowadays Li Manshan’s band works for patrons, kin, and audiences who have less discrimination, and in some respects the band’s response to this lack of appreciation is to perform less scrupulously. The Daoists are deeply gloomy about the future. They love the exhilarating percussion finale of Transferring Offerings (my film, from 1.11.07) as much as I do, but “within ten years it won’t be heard any more.” They know such repertoire is precious but are helpless to protect it; they make the comment without anguish or sentimentality. Whereas Li Qing’s generation used to wear their thick black costumes underneath their red costumes even in the summer heat, now they merely wear the red costumes over their daily apparel. And for Fetching Water, Call Me Old-Fashioned, but a plastic Sprite bottle just doesn’t do the job.

Yet they still demand basic standards of themselves, maintaining many of the old rules against all the odds. They play on procession all the way out from the scripture hall to the altar, and all the way back. While singing at the altar they may sometimes seem lax (the occasional joke, even answering a mobile), but their basic solemnity shows their perceived need to maintain their reputation. Recently they tend to sing some of the hymns rather too fast in the Invitation (the Song in Praise of the Dipper, and the Mantra to the Three Generations at the gate on the return), but they still perform most of the hymns extremely slowly (notably those for Opening and Delivering the Scriptures), when surely they could go just a tad faster; nor do they abbreviate them. While singing a cappella they keep the large cymbals folded on their chests, maintaining great solemnity. There is still room for further decline.

Like his father Li Qing before him, Li Manshan worried about the stresses of being band boss and choosing suitable personnel—like band leaders in jazz, indeed. But he is far from hands-on; I would like to see this as an embodiment of Daoist wuwei “non-action.” He notes occasional blips in ensemble playing, but he rarely reprimands. The dep Guicheng tends to mime a silent beat between the slow beats on the gong, which is “not good to look at,” but Li Manshan only mildly mentions this to him when he realizes I have noticed it. Back in the scripture hall, by contrast with the way the Daoists fool around now, Li Qing and his colleagues used to “hold a meeting” about how the previous ritual had gone, always maintaining standards. Li Qing would certainly want to retain the “old rules” now, but given the hosts’ apathy he too would be helpless to do so. Even in the 1980s he presided over a radical revision of the temple fair sequence, and his 1991 Pardon was very different from the manual (see Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.246–9). The decline has taken place gradually in waves over the last century or so.

When performed at all, some of the fashi public rituals have recently been radically simplified, such as Opening the Quarters, Communicating the Lanterns, and Judgment and Alms. Early one morning before a burial, Golden Noble gave me a perceptive summary of the current situation. The cycle goes from ritual (yishi) to form (xingshi) until the latter itself becomes a type of ritual; thus the ritual becomes a token, then the token becomes ossified. Let’s now discuss some instances of decline that I observed in 2011.

Ritual multi-tasking
The Li family has long prided itself on being able to split into several bands for rituals on the same day. But now the same band can even chase round more than one venue on the same day, cramming in a couple of ritual segments alternately. This is possible thanks to both improved modes of transport and the hosts’ lesser demands. Even on his own, Li Manshan can now zoom from smashing a bowl in one village to decorating a coffin in another.

One morning in 2011 while doing a burial at Houying they fitted in a half-day appearance at the new temple outside Lower Liangyuan. Li Manshan, Li Bin, and Wu Mei left at 7.30am to Open Scriptures there, hooking up with three other Daoists; then they hurried back to Houying for the burial procession before returning to Lower Liangyuan again, playing a long shengguan suite seated round a table outside. Later in a smoke-filled room to the side of the temple complex I found a large group of people, mainly women, clustering round a spirit medium who was curing illnesses. I now realized this must be the main reason why the temple was being rebuilt.

Fast food, Daoist style
In May 2011 I was roped in to take part in another perfunctory ritual.

The band is doing a funeral in Golden Noble’s village of Houying. After a fine Invitation ritual and a jovial supper, before the evening Transferring Offerings, they have agreed to cram in another quick Transferring Offerings at Wujiahe village, half an hour’s drive away along winding little roads. So we all cram cordially into Yang Ying’s car—Golden Noble stays behind to attend to the kin, so I dep for him on gongs.

This other funeral is a very minor affair, with paltry altar decorations, and no-one minds when we rush through the offerings at hectic pace—indeed, they expect us to do so. For the three sections we just sing brief excerpts from hymns, far from the long sequences prescribed. This is exceptional, actually, and the Daoists only agreed to do it because the host begged them.

I already hinted at a certain recent simplification of Transferring Offerings. As we pile back into the car back to Houying for our main course, I joke that this is like a ritual version of fast food, a drive-in take-out. Just further north, hosts are already more “careless”—there they no longer even request the Invitation. Even in our area, some patrons now request shorter hymns for Transferring Offerings; Li Bin recalls a funeral recently where the host didn’t want the ritual at all, considering it “too much hassle” (Pah!). Still, on our return to Houying they do a beautiful full sequence, with three long plaintive hymns.

A flawed funeral
During my stay in October 2011 I am looking forward to a three-day funeral in a nearby village; such funerals are no longer common, so I should be able to attend several rare rituals. When the day comes I am in high spirits; it is a beautiful sunny autumn morning, and it is a picturesque little village with a population of only two or three hundred.

Over the next couple of days my hopes are progressively deflated. First I discover that the Daoists now commonly simplify the three-day sequence. But in this village, as they realize the depth of their hosts’ ritual ignorance, they are even more casual. I begin to realize that a crucial factor in the maintenance of ritual is whether or not “the host is cooperative” (dongjia peihe 东家配合). The Daoists are used to having to guide the host family, but here they sense reluctance.


The deceased woman was 93 sui. Her third son had died seven years ago, aged 52 sui; his coffin was removed from the grave for the purpose of burying them jointly, and it now stands at the roadside under an awning. Li Manshan did the initial determining the date, decorating the new coffin on the third day, and Li Bin decorated the soul hall two days before the funeral. So they may have sensed a certain ignorance in the host family long before they turned up to do the rituals—but work is work.

The scripture hall—as usual at the other end of the village to allow for a suitably lengthy procession—is the house of an affable but poor 50-sui-old bachelor. It is still hot, and his house is full of flies. I gaze admiringly at the wall paintings around the kang brick-bed of our host; their dilapidated charm reminds me of Ming dynasty murals, and I am taken aback to learn that they were painted when the house was built in 1978!

Xingyuan 2011 female kin

Female kin kowtow before the coffin, 2011.

After the first two morning visits to Deliver the Scriptures, Wu Mei nips into town on his motorbike to collect his new bank card while the others return to Pansi for the burial procession there (more multi-tasking). I give this a miss, chatting with our host as he busies himself sorting the corn harvest piled up in his courtyard. The Daoists return from the Pansi burial at 11.25am, so there is only time for three of the usual four Delivering the Scriptures this morning. The Opening the Quarters ritual, once prescribed at this stage of a three-day funeral, is no longer performed in Yanggao.

Lunch is followed by a siesta. With Li Manshan still busy writing ritual documents on the kang, there is only space for three of us to rest there; two more Daoists recline in Yang Ying’s car, while Wang Ding nods off perched precariously on a narrow trunk. Then a couple of Li Manshan’s mates from Houguantun turn up to chat with him.

At 3pm the Daoists set off on procession to the soul hall for the afternoon Opening Scriptures. This turns into another Failed Experiment, and this time it’s all my fault. At my request they sing Eternal Homage (see here, under 3rd moon 4th), a very slow hymn that I have never recorded. Only afterwards does it transpire that it is commonly accompanied by shengguan; this is the first time they have tried the a cappella version for over twenty years. On the gong Wang Ding, then still inexperienced, keeps going too fast, and it’s a mess. Back at the scripture hall they rehearse it diligently. At least this shows that the a cappella version can still be performed.

Then the Fetching Water ritual (my film, from 41.06). First to the soul hall to collect the kin, then to the rather distant “river,” and back to the soul hall, ending with a fine sequence of popular errentai melodies and clowning. Again, for this sequence the family is either unaware of the tradition of throwing extra money onto the table or too stingy, and I fail to persuade the Daoists to let me give them some.

After supper we admire the bright stars and rest a while in the scripture hall, watching TV, while Li Manshan writes yet more paper documents for tomorrow’s Hoisting the Pennant. When our bachelor host returns I ask him, “You been watching the opera?” He replies wistfully, “Yeah—watching the women.”

At 8.30pm to the soul hall for the long-awaited Communicating the Lanterns—so-called. Instead of the prescribed ritual, the Daoists merely light ten candles in a row on the altar table, sing the long a cappella hymn Mantra of the Wailing Ghosts, then play a quick shengguan sequence, and it’s all over! But the family is oblivious. The Daoists don’t give me any heads-up for this, nor—gratifyingly?!—does it occur to them to perform the proper ritual specially for my benefit. I now begin to realize they are disgruntled because the kin are not “accommodating” and have no understanding of the “rules.” But irrespective of relations with the host, this simplified version of Communicating the Lanterns has become standard in recent years.

So we finish early, before 10pm. The Daoists all live nearby, so we decide against enduring the modest hospitality of our bachelor host; the others zoom off on their motor-bikes while Li Bin drives Li Manshan and me back home to Upper Liangyuan.

Next morning Yuan Xuedong is depping for his cousin Yuan Gaoshan, and Yang Ying for Li Bin, who has gone off to lead another band for a funeral at Lower Liangyuan. In the scripture hall Li Manshan makes the little triangular paper flag to go at the top of the central pole for Hoisting the Pennant (my film, from 44.22), and prepares the goodies, wrapping them up carefully in the beautiful long pennant. After the first two sessions Delivering the Scriptures the Daoists prepare the arena, hanging up the paper squares, sticking the red “god place” inscriptions onto the poles, and raising the flag and pennant high on the central pole. The ritual itself they perform in full, with all the hymns at each of the poles, the kin following them around the arena and kowtowing and burning paper on cue. But for the final chase Golden Noble doesn’t bother to don the five-buddhas hat or wield the precious sword. They are going through the motions. Still, this was the first Hoisting the Pennant here for at least thirteen years. While filming I got hit twice by firecrackers, with magnificent symmetry first on my left shoulder and then not long afterwards on my right. No damage done—occupational hazard.

The Daoists then lead the kin back to the soul hall, where they sing a short a cappella version of the brief pseudo-Sanskrit coda that concludes hymns like Diverse and Nameless. Next, on a brief kitchen visit to Invite Offerings they sing the six-line hymn Songjing gongde. Returning to the scripture hall they do a brief “scriptures for well-being” session for our poor host, playing The Five Offerings on shengguan while he kneels and burns paper before the image of the City God of This Earth. Then back to the soul hall again for a perfunctory Presenting the Offerings ritual. Both Inviting and Presenting Offerings were formerly more lengthy, particularly for temple fairs. After lunch the others take a siesta, but Li Manshan has to keep writing away.

For the first Delivering the Scriptures of the afternoon they sing a cappella the long Mantra of the Skeleton. They give me permission to sit out the second Delivering the Scriptures—and sure enough, on their return they tease me that they sang Fanhun xiang, which I’ve never recorded!

Between (and occasionally even during) rituals the Daoists check their mobiles. To wonder if their Ming-dynasty forebears would have behaved like this is as pointless as the debate whether Mozart would have written jingles for TV ads; the kind of conditions that produce mobile phones are related to those that prompt people to check them during rituals.

Towards dusk they do the Invitation at the edge of the village. Li Qing’s prescription for a three-day funeral places the Invitation on the first day and Redeeming the Treasuries on the second day; but since they no longer do the Pardon or Crossing the Bridges on the second day, there is time to do the Invitation and Redeeming the Treasuries in sequence then.

After returning to the soul hall we immediately set off to the public arena for Judgment and Alms. Again, this ritual is now rarely performed, so this should be a rare chance for me. The paper squares hung up around the arena for Hoisting the Pennant are taken down and burned, then the red god inscriptions on the poles, and finally the central pole is pushed over. But again the ritual is a far cry from what it should be. As Wu Mei later confides, “It was a modernized Judgment and Alms!”

Then immediately back to the soul hall to fetch the treasuries for the Redeeming the Treasuries procession. After supper we enjoy the skit outside the gate, laughing along with the village audience, tearing ourselves away to take our places around the altar table for the first installment of Transferring Offerings. As soon as Wu Mei plays the plaintive preludial two notes of Diverse and Nameless, the tone is set for a deeply mournful long slow hymn; at once we are all deep in the groove, our concentration total. But the ritual is rather perfunctory, and Yang Ying drives us back to Upper Liangyuan by 11pm. Tired as we are, Li Manshan is keen to give me a session on how the Judgment and Alms should really go, our chat itself serving as a kind of exorcism.


On the final day, in bright sunshine, we return to the village for the burial. A list of gifts is pasted up at the gate, on red paper: gifts range from 800 down to 100 yuan, with most donors giving 200. Popular opinion is that these amounts are too mean. The preparations for the burial take ages, the kin faffing around endlessly, while Li Manshan mutters expletives under his breath. The burial procession is uneventful. The son’s coffin is to be reburied next to that of his mother. Li Manshan returns to the soul hall to stick up talismans in a brief exorcism. A protracted lunch—a wearisome day altogether. By now Li Manshan and Li Bin are really annoyed with the family. First Li Manshan has to haggle with them over the bill (never normally an issue), then Li Bin, whose gig at Lower Liangyuan ended at 3am last night, arrives to lend his support. While I wait discreetly in Li Bin’s car, a toothless ancient geezer talks at me non-stop and incomprehensibly for twenty minutes. Since I gather he was talking about the funeral, this might have been interesting, but I can only deduce the gist—that it was a crap funeral, and the family was stingy.

Then an impressively ugly peasant woman in a flimsy minidress walks by, grazing two donkeys. I seem to have stumbled onto a Fellini filmset. She takes pity on my verbal bombardment from the ancient codger, and after he wanders off she chats with me for a while in mercifully standard Chinese. She comes from Sichuan, and was sold to a man in this village twenty years ago; she recalls that it took her a couple of years to adapt to Yanggao dialect.

While Li Bin haggles with the family, quarrels and recriminations break out within the family, people red-faced from booze wandering around shouting at each other. It’s just like Christmas in England. After Li Bin drives us back home to Upper Liangyuan, Li Manshan and I recover, consulting the manuals again, clearing up a few more of my incessant queries, joking.

Cohesion and dislocation
In a modest contribution to the fine tradition of learning from failed rituals, let’s reflect on these notes.

The idea of a failed ritual tacitly accepts that the aim of the proceedings is to confirm and celebrate community solidarity—and indeed that there is such a thing. That Geertz and others don’t always find this may reflect on a supposed loss of such harmony under complex post-colonial (or whatever) social tensions; perhaps by contrast with an imagined earlier ideal age, a notion that we may obviously challenge too.

Funerals in China do indeed seem to me to represent something valuable, for both kin and community. But the family is subject to scrutiny; the event is an opportunity to confirm status within the family and community, but also a moment when underlying animosities may be entrenched. And this applies to other rituals too, like the vast territorial processions of southeast China. The conditions of the 20th century have doubtless created many dislocations in thinking; and we should recognize conflicts in imperial China, between classes and lineages, different aspirations, and so on—the very area that Lagerwey (China: a religious state, pp.153–170) seems to characterize as a kind of rural paradise is one where feuds between lineages, and between villages, have long been brutal.

Shi Shengbao 2018

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

With his long experience of serving the villages in the area, Li Manshan has a network of guanxi contacts among senior men familiar with ritual proprieties—for instance, he is always happy to work in Pansi and Yangguantun, where the people are friendly and knowledgeable. At a fine funeral in Yangguantun in 2016, the gujiang shawm band was playing “greater opera” on their truck outside the gate, but stopped when we approached, as the “old rules” demand. The fine director Shi Shengbao, then a youthful 69 sui, took the job up in 1981 because he liked it. The family, and our scripture hall hosts, are cultured and respectful. Still, when you look closely, the village is still poor, with decrepit derelict boarded-up old houses. These villages are dying.

The main reason why the funeral described above was so unsatisfactory was because the Li band hadn’t performed there before, and none of the kin—or indeed the village’s ritual director or the plentiful men in their 50s to 70s—seemed to know the most basic “rules,” so Li Manshan had to explain even fundamental proprieties like kowtowing.

While the Daoists were disturbed by the whole ritual ignorance of the village, they and their rituals were not a crucial element in the failure of the event. It was through their irritation that I became aware of the conflicts within the village and the funeral family, which were going to come to a head anyway. The Daoists have routinely been simplifying the three-day sequence even for more discriminating clients; the titles of many ritual segments endure, but their content is diluted and homogenized.

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. It shows that a subtle degree of respect for the “rules,” from some quarter, is still expected. Sure, it is a small village, so they don’t get to put on so many funerals, but still, if they had so little clue about the proper procedures, and balked at the expense, then why did they bother requesting a three-day funeral in the first place—why not just book the Daoists for a minimal sequence? Li Manshan’s group is perfectly accustomed to doing this, and one might suppose that their irritation derived mainly from the final squabble over money. But the Daoists were already feeling disgruntled soon after arriving, long before the bill had to be settled.

The decision to hold a funeral over three days rather than two involves far more than merely the minor expense of asking the Daoists to perform a few more rituals. The pop band and the shawm band, as well as the cooks, have to be hired; the returning kin have to take extra time off their work in distant towns.

In sum, a lot depends on whether the host is “cooperative” or not. On tour in Germany in 2013 we observe that our hosts are all very cooperative—whereas we joke that Milan, scene of our most desultory European gig, should twin up with the village described above. Of course, what they expect of their hosts for domestic and foreign contexts are totally different. Abroad, the host merely has to find a good venue and provide decent hospitability; back home, the host family is expected to work closely with the Daoists in accordance with complex ritual organization.

In the Coda of my book, “Things ain’t what they used to be”, I round up the theme of ritual decline.

Note the recent diaries of Li Manshan and Li Bin. Funerals feature throughout my posts under Local ritual; see also e.g. Funerals in Hebei.


A secret language in north Shanxi


Blind shawm players Liuru (left) and Yinsan, Yanggao town 2003.

The use of Verlan backslang in Engrenages/Spiral reminded me of a fascinating secret oral language in north Shanxi. I’ve mentioned it en passant in my writings, but since I can’t seriously expect readers to follow up such links, it deserves a post to itself.

Known as “black talk” (heihua), it belongs to the wider family of insiders’ languages used by marginal social groups and tradespeople. [1] In north Shanxi it was spoken mainly by the members of outcast shawm bands (here called gujiang 鼓匠 rather than the common chuigushou), illiterate and often blind—mainly, but not entirely, for secrecy. Here I cite the section in

  • Wu Fan 吴凡, Yinyang, gujiang 阴阳鼓匠 (2007),
    Yuebande heihua” 乐班的黑话, pp.119–25.

During her fieldwork in Yanggao county Wu Fan—a native of Wuhan in Hubei—latched onto this arcane vocabulary with amazing alacrity (for her own skills in punning with Daoists, see here). Meanwhile, local scholar Chen Kexiu (to whom we may credit the “discovery” of the Yanggao Daoists and shawm bands), brought up in Yanggao, published an article incorporating the wider region of north Shanxi:

  • Chen Kexiu 陈克秀, “Yanbei guchuiyue yirende heihua” 雁北鼓吹乐艺人的黑话, Zhongguo yinyuexue 2007.4.

The terms for numbers (used mainly to discuss money and fees: Table 2–5 below) were still common until recently. They describe verbally the components of a character, just as Chinese people do routinely when explaining in conversation which character to use, like koutian wu 口天吴 for the surname Wu 吴, or wenwu bin 文武斌 for the given name Bin 斌.


Above: numbers; below: instruments.

To explain a few instances:

  •  1:  yi 一 becomes dinggai 丁盖, “the cover of the character ding 丁”
  •  2:  er 二 becomes konggong 空工, “the character gong 工 emptied”
  •  3: san 三 becomes chuan 川, rotating the character 90 degrees
  •  7:  qi 七 becomes zaodi 皂底, “the base of the character zao 皂”
  •  8:  ba 八 becomes fengai 分盖 “the cover of the character fen 分”
  • 10: shi 十 becomes tianxin 田心, “the heart of the character tian 田”.

What is remarkable here is that this style is used by illiterate, often blind, shawm players. The theory is that blind men, unable to see who might be listening to their conversation, needed a language where they needn’t fear saying something indiscreet, such as offending their patrons. Yet it’s a highly visual language; I wondered how it came into being. After all, even illiterate blindmen could be told how some characters were written; but you don’t have to know the etymology of words in order to use them!

One might suppose that these terms would be more widespread, but I haven’t found other instances yet. At the same time, another vocabulary for numbers (in various written forms) was in common use here—as around Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
刘 (流) 王 (汪) 挠 (神) 斜 (心) 内 (爱)

Throughout China, folk musicians commonly use local terms for their instruments (Table 2–6 above); such names are still used in Yanggao and elsewhere (cf. other areas such as Shaanbei). The derivation of the insiders’ terms for repertoire (Table 2–7 below) is obscure; again, the stimulus was perhaps secrecy—to avoid their choices being understood by their patrons. But these terms seem to have become largely obsolete, along with the repertoire itself (for the searing complexity of which, see here).

heihua 2

Above: titles of shawm suites; below: terms in daily life.

Expressions for daily life (Table 2–8 above) include huoyin 火因 for yan 烟 “smoke” (again splitting up left and right elements of the character); tiaoma 条码 “hottie”; dianyou 点油 (“lighting oil”) for hejiu 喝酒 “drinking liquor”; and kou 口 (prounounced kio) for chi 吃 “eat”. Some of these are dialectal, heard in more general parlance. Chen Kexiu gives an extensive list—and his examples of conversations are daunting:


As you can see there, even the local term gujiang for the members of shawm bands becomes pijia 皮家 (“skins”) in their own parlance.

Thickening the plot, Chen Kexiu goes on to introduce a separate style of black talk used by shawm bands, one that incorporates the ancient fanqie 反切 phonetic system into speech (qiekou 切口) (cf. the blind bards of Zuoquan county). For instance, while the term xunmenshi (or xingmenshi 行门事, yingmenshi 应门事, with shi pronounced si!) is standard local parlance for performing a ritual, one shawm player might ask another (cf. the simpler but no more intelligible 去哪儿贬皮呀? above):

呆劳乃拉许论没人是哩? (到哪儿寻门事?)—“Where are you going to do the ritual?”

Unlike the specialized secret vocabulary that we noted above, once you grasp the principle you can apply it to any words—and it doesn’t require literacy. But the shawm bands among whom Chen Kexiu collected this qiekou style of speech don’t seem to use the specialized vocabulary like the numerical terms; he attributes the qiekou style in particular to the lowly hereditary families of ritual specialists known as “music households” (yuehu), who were descended from banished imperial officials. While there is plenty of evidence for the yuehu further south in Shanxi [1] and elsewhere, I’ve never been very convinced by the piecemeal clues to their presence in north Shanxi. All this is tenuous, but perhaps the supposed yuehu connection for this particular style might just go towards explaining the literate, visual basis of the numerical terms, which otherwise seems so mysterious.

* * *

Much of this vocabulary of the shawm bands was adopted by folk opera groups, also lowly in status; and through constant interaction at rituals household Daoists like the Li family, while somewhat more esteemed, used it to some extent. Of course, all these expressions are pronounced in Yanggao dialect, itself none too easy for the outsider to understand; heihua (“black talk”) itself is pronounced hehua!

The language was still commonly used in the 1990s, but senior blind shawm players were giving way to younger players who no longer suffered such social stigma, and their traditional repertoire was largely replaced by pop. Still, it reminds us what a daunting task it can be for fieldworkers to enter into the aesthetic world of folk performers.

Let’s recite the numbers 1 to 10—altogether now:


For some erudite literary wordplay from household Daoists in Yanggao, see here.


[1] Note Qu Yanbin 曲彦斌, Zhongguo miyu hanghua cidian 中国秘语行话词典 (1994). 

[2] For links to the major studies of Xiang Yang and Qiao Jian on the yuehu in the Shangdang region, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.86–7.

Drum patterns of Yanggao ritual

Learning with the Hua band, 2001

Learning with the Hua family shawm band, village funeral 2001.

Even now, all this time after the years I spent immersing myself in the wild shawm and percussion playing of the Hua family band in Yanggao (“Ming-dynasty bebop”), I still regularly find myself tapping out the slow 8-beat drum pattern that accompanies the opening sequence of melodies in their ritual suites.

Within a slow 8/4 metre, the recurring pattern on the drum is punctuated by one gong stroke and four cymbal clashes every measure. The drum pattern may be considered as beginning on the 3rd beat of the bar, with a little syncopated motif “calling for the beat” (jiaoban 叫板) alerting the gong player to sound the coming downbeat. Hua Jinshan often varies the first two beats of the bar. I’ve only attempted a rough rhythmic depiction of the drum part, refraining from an exhaustive notation of all the varied techniques, with rim-shots, single- and double-stick notes, and damped notes—here the slur sign denotes a roll before the beat:


The pattern is quite fixed, with only occasional minor variants—though there is a certain variation between different drummers.

An easily-followed instance is the opening of the Da Yanluo suite, whose melodies I analyse in detail—with video—in Dissolving boundaries. For the gradual accelerando and the cumulative effect of the pattern, do get to know the two versions of Shuilongyin on the CD Walking shrill (one of them also on the playlist in the sidebar, #5, with commentary here). Once you have the metrical framework in your bones, you can admire the long melodic phrases and the way their own syncopated rhythms constantly tug at the metre. This is AMAZING music—Trust Me, I’m a Doctor.

* * *

WD 2011

Li Manshan, Wang Ding, Golden Noble, village funeral 2011.

Meanwhile household Daoists take part in the same rituals; and though their instrumental repertoire is quite different, their use of percussion has certain similarities. As the first beat of the bar approaches (here it is the cymbal player who sounds the downbeat), drummers like Li Manshan play a syncopated motif similar to that of the shawm bands—and then tends to leave the downbeat to the cymbals (for the subtleties of the variants, see here). This example, from the slow, mournful hymn Diverse And Nameless Are The Bitter Roots, shows both the drum patterns and the yaoshuan syncopation on cymbals at cadences:zzwm-perc-ex

In my film (from 22.04) you can find clear examples in the Hymn to the Three Treasures, with the late Yuan Gaoshan on drum.

Along with memorizing the vocal texts and melodies of the liturgy, such unwritten rules are a substantial aspect of the nitty-gritty of what household Daoists have to learn in performing ritual.

LMS drumming

See also Tambourin chinois.



A festival of ethnographic film


For anyone who happens to be in Shanghai in late August, the ever-enterprising Centre for Ritual Music at the Shanghai Conservatoire is holding a five-day festival of films on music ethnography, in collaboration with the Shanghai National Museum of Ethnology, from 26th to 30th August. More on FacebookWeChat, and douban, as well as clips here.

The festival is based on Chinese-language films, with further guest items including Anthony Seeger’s Why Suya sing. Ritual is a major theme, with Daoist ritual featuring in films from Guangdong and Zhejiang, as well as my own Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist (which is narrated by Li Manshan himself, with English subtitles for which Chinese audiences have been grateful!).


The accomplished Cheng Qiaoqiao 程俏俏 gives a thoughtful perspective on the New Year songs of the Kam people in Guizhou. A short film by Liu Guiteng evokes the rituals of spirit mediums in Qinghai, and “Big nose” and Body music explores the fieldwork of the late Jack Body among ethnic groups of southwest China—also a theme of briefer student presentations.

When thoughtfully made, films about music are always about social life, and often about ritual. As I keep stressing, it is an unfortunate trait of academia that the study of Chinese religion is still dominated by representations in silent immobile text, thereby downplaying the soundscape, actions, and “red-hot sociality” of ritual events.

Fine as the festival lineup is, there still seem to be few such films (edited, with research-led commentary) in the public domain (see e.g. here, under “Film”). The event is devised by Xiao Mei 萧梅, herself a distinguished music-anthropologist whose short films on spirit-mediums in Guangxi and rain rituals in Shaanbei are remarkable. For more films, see here.

Customs of naming


LPS jiapu detail

Detail of Li family genealogy copied by Li Peisen, showing Li Xianrong’s generation, and his sons and grandsons.

Lineages in rural north China commonly (though not invariably) observe the custom of alternating single and double given-names by generation.

Most of my instances come from household Daoist lineages, which happen to be my main material. Whereas most of their fellow villagers were illiterate, and common families might not be aware of their forebears’ names beyond their grandfather, household Daoists were often part of a prestigious local gentry, and their rather stable hereditary transmission has preserved names over many generations.

The genealogy of the Li family in Upper Liangyuan village makes a clear instance. The tree below shows only the Daoists in the lineage (Daoist priests of the Li family, p.5). Thus Li Qing gave double names to his sons (like Li Manshan), while their own sons received single names (like Li Bin):

Li jiapu

Daoists in the Li lineage, from Li Fu, himself the 16th generation in the lineage.

Indeed, Li Bin has continued the tradition by naming his son Li Bingchang. You will have noticed that this is a firmly patriarchal tradition; though wives’ surnames are listed on such genealogies, daughters don’t appear at all, and until the 1950s their formal names were little used anyway. While the rule seems to used more flexibly for daughters, they too sometimes follow the pattern, as with Li Bin’s feisty sister Li Min.

Moreover (Daoist priests, p.40), for the double names used every other generation, in one generation the constant element in the given names is the first character, while in their grandsons’ given names it is the second character. Thus the first character pei [1] is the constant in Li Peiye 培業, Li Peixing 培興, Li Peilong 培隆, but in the names of Li Peixing’s grandsons it is the second character shan that is constant: Manshan 滿山, Yushan 玉山, Yunshan 雲山. Brothers with single names receive related characters, like Tao 淘, Qing 清, and Hai 海, all with the water radical; or in that same generation, Tong 桐, Xiang 相, Huan 桓, and Hua 樺, all with the wood radical, like their grandfathers Shi 柘 and Tang 棠.

Among many fine artefacts that Li Peisen handed down to his son Li Hua (see also here) is his 1981 copy of a memorial for a domestic Thanking the Earth ritual dating back to around 1930. Li Peisen dated his copy “70th year of the Republic” (which we perhaps needn’t consider as an affront to the Communist regime), but he didn’t copy the date of the original memorial. The latter was written by his father Li Tang (c1879–c1931) along with a fine genealogy of his branch of the lineage; moreover, when Li Peisen copied it in 1981 he updated it with a list of more recent kin.

And at New Year 1989 Li Qing edited it for his own branch of the family, also as part of a Thanking the Earth memorial. These documents are evidence of the rather prosperous status of the Li lineage. For a start, only relatively well-off households would commission a Thanking the Earth ritual. But further, such genealogies are less common in north China than in the south; Li Manshan estimates that only 10 or 20% of lineages in the area would ever compile their own genealogy. A family commissioning a Thanking the Earth ritual would invariably list the previous three generations of ancestors, but it was less common to use the occasion to copy such an extensive genealogy, so we are lucky here.

And here’s the Wang lineage of Baideng township (Daoist priests, pp.78–9), descended from the stepson of Li Zengrong—and also Daoists:

Wang jiapu

This custom is common further afield in north Shanxi, as you can see from many posts under Local ritual. Still in Yanggao, here’s another Daoist lineage in Luowenzao township:

Li Fa 李發
Li Wanxiang 李萬祥
Li Tai 李泰
Li Jincai 李進财
Li Ke 李科
Li Deshan 李德山
Li Yuan 李元
Li Tianyun 李天雲

Li Yuan writing

Li Yuan writing funerary documents, 1992.

And the Zhang family Daoists in Jinjiazhuang:

Zhang Lianzhu 張連珠
Zhang Kui 張奎
Zhang Wenbing 張文炳
Zhang Bi 張弼
Zhang Deheng 張德恆
Zhang Mei 張美
Zhang Jincheng 張進成
Zhang Nan 張楠

Zhang Nan and LMS

Li Manshan with Zhang Nan, Jinjiazhuang 2018.

And just south in Yingxian county, here are seven generations of Longmen Daoists in the Zhao lineage:

Zhao Tianyu 赵天玉
Zhao Ming 赵明
Zhao Yongzhen 赵永珍, Zhao Yongbao 赵永宝
Zhao Zhong 赵仲, Zhao Xiu 赵秀, Zhao Cai 赵财, Zhao Rui 赵瑞
Zhao Guowen 赵国文 (son of Zhao Xiu)
Zhao Fu 赵富, Zhao Pu 赵普
Zhao Shiwei 赵世伟

On a practical fieldwork note, as soon as you manage to get to grips with these names, you realize that no-one really uses them. Instead they use nicknames like Golden Noble (Jingui) or Zhanbao, their “little names” (xiaoming)—itself an informal term for “breast name” (ruming). Li Manshan doesn’t even necessarily know the formal names of some of the Daoists from other lineages that he calls on as ritual deps. Actually, this discrepancy with “standard” names is entirely normal in social groups, as I noted in this post featuring the conductor Charles Mackerras (“Slasher”).

The Li family also used another naming system. Males of the same generation were given a double name whose second character was the same; for Li Qing and his siblings it was shun 順, for Li Manshan’s generation it was heng 衡. Thus Li Qing was known as Quanshun, while those who know Li Manshan well call him Manheng. His son Li Bin seems to be known as Li Bin, though even this is complicated; Li Manshan gave him the name Bin 斌 (the characters for “civil” and “martial” combined), but he often uses the name Bing 兵 “Soldier”—he’s not fussy. But most often they refer to each other by kinship terms, like “third maternal uncle”—their precision only useful if you happen to have a detailed genealogy in your head.

* * *

Meanwhile in Hebei province, we can see that the custom of alternating single and double names by generation was widely used in the various lineages of Gaoluo, stalwarts of the village ritual association (Plucking the winds, genealogies pp.357–61) such as the Cai lineage:


As with the Li family in Shanxi, the generational names often shared a stable element. For instance, the given names of Cai Yurun’s grandfather and his two brothers all had the “mountain” 山 component (Shan 山, Ling 岭, Chong 崇), while their cousins’ names incorporated the “rain” 雨 component (Lin 霖, Lu 露). Traditionally, families would often invite an educated villager to choose suitable characters for the name of the new-born, but by the 1950s the tradition was attenuated, with the parents themselves choosing the name less conscientiously.

The Fu generation there was crucial to the transmission of the ritual association under Maoism, with a whole cohort of distinguished performers. Apart from Cai Fuxiang, old revolutionary and vocal liturgist (like Cai Yongchun, also part of that generation), Cai Fuquan was the leading guanzi player, and Cai Fulai, Fuzhong, Fulü, Fushun, Fumao, Fulin, Fumin, and Futong were all keen members. It was their sons who were our own mentors through through the 1990s, like Cai An, Cai Ran, and Cai Yurun (the latter, son of Cai Fuzhong, being a curious exception to the naming system). Under both the Maoist and reform eras many of them served as village cadres even while supporting the ritual association.

Cai Fulu

A rare image from Gaoluo on the eve of the 1937 invasion:
left, vocal liturgist Cai Fulü; right, Catholic Shan Wenyi, brother-in-law of Woman Zhang.

Back in 1930, when Painter Sun visited Gaoluo to depict ritual images for the association, the Cai lineage had used the occasion to ask him to make a fine genealogy for them on cloth—and it seems to be the only one that has survived decades of turmoil. Somehow it was handed down to Cai Haizeng, third generation of vocal liturgists in his family following in the footsteps of his father Cai Fulü (another exception to the naming rule). When Haizeng hung it up for me to photograph in 1998, he insisted on preparing an altar table with incense, candles, fruit, tea, liquor, and cigarettes.

Cai 1930

Cai lineage genealogy, 1930.

Unlike the Cais, most branches of the Shan lineage simply used double given-names for every generation, but the case of Shan Zhihe (1919–2002), one of our most venerable mentors in Gaoluo, is interesting. His father Shan Futian (1882–1953) gave his two sons their “official names” Zhizhong and Zhihe after their coming of age with the “lesser capping” ceremony. He named them thus because his public baths in Hohhot were called Zhonghe 忠和 (Loyalty and Peace) baths; their names showed that the baths would one day belong to them. The zhi 之 element in their given names was an “empty character”, and so they were considered single names.

But by the 1940s the “old rules” were already being diluted here. The two sons of Shan Zhihe, Shan Ming and Shan Ling, who would eventually become ambiguous figures in the village’s ritual association, were born in Hohhot in 1942 and 1948. Though the custom of alternating single and double names by generation persisted in the Cai and He lineages more than with the Shans, by this time it was becoming more flexible. So when it came to the naming of his own sons, although Shan Zhihe’s own name was effectively, and properly, single, they too were given single names; it was actually their grandfather Shan Futian who made the decision. From the 1950s some families were beginning to adopt “revolutionary” names (see e.g. the wonderful photo of the Qiao family in Yulin, here); but in the Shan family the old tradition was losing ground irrespective of political control.

Here too, people had variant names. At least until the 1980s, after reaching the age of 50 sui, men adopted an “old” name (laohao 老號) beginning with the character “old” (lao). In principle, the new name should complement the original name, in a charming parallel with Cockney rhyming slang. Just as “apples” stands for “stairs” by way of “apples and pears”, so Shan Chang (eternal) took the “old” name Laole (old joy) by way of the binome changle (eternal joy). Cai Qing’s given name Qing (verdant) was associated with the phrase “verdant hills and abundant waters” (shanqing shuixiu) to create his “old” name Laoxiu.

Incidentally, villagers agree that as long as the characters for their given name reflect its pronunciation, it’s not important which characters are used—admittedly within a very narrow choice of two or three. This is evident in the association’s own donors’ lists, where different written versions of the same given name appear. And I must say it’s one of the few reliefs available to us in making fieldnotes.

* * *

While the alternation of single and double given-names is far from a universal rule in rural north China, I suppose it must have been common in the cities too—is it still so? And what of other regions, like south China, where lineage consciousness is more deeply embedded? Comments welcome!

Click here for compound surnames in Chinese and English.


[1] By the way, the pei character is 培, though they often use 丕 (officially pi) as a simplified character. They also often write a simplified character for zeng 增 in several Daoists’ names, with zhong 中 to the right of the earth radical; I haven’t found this in dictionaries.