Ritual paintings of Li Peisen

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Until the 1950s, household Daoists in north Shanxi displayed paintings for funerary, temple, and other rituals—notably of the Ten Kings (cf. Hebei), as well as representations of deities worshipped during other funerary rituals like the Pardon. Such images are now rarely displayed, and I have found few in the collections of Daoist families. Many were casualties both of political campaigns and a more general impoverishment of ritual practice.

One exception to this (recent) paucity of images in north Shanxi is the array of paintings handed down by the great Daoist Li Peisen (1910–85) to his son Li Hua. Some he seems to have painted himself, perhaps in the 1940s; others appear to be rather older.

In the main article I reflect on the specific use of such paintings in space and over time, and their subsidiary role to the ritual soundscape.


Sacred river

Radio 3 doesn’t seem to be speaking to Radio 4.

Like Neil MacGregor’s thoughtful series on German history, his new BBC Radio 4 series Living with the gods is typically urbane and engaging. As he immediately disarms my reservations about material culture and museums, the series makes an accessible mission-statement for the anthropology of religion. And the BBC Radio 3 marathon Sacred River (see also the love-in on https://twitter.com/bbcradio3), the latest of many epic broadcasts, seems like a fine idea to complement it.

I’m most reluctant to cavil at my favourite radio station, and normally I’d be grateful for such a playlist of glorious music (cf. my paeans to the Proms). But it seems something of a retreat from the global perspective of MacGregor’s series. Whereas in Living with the gods he can discuss social contexts, with music examples making evocative soundbites, it’s proved less easy for a programme of “spiritual music” tailored to a Radio 3 audience to address world soundscapes within their regional societies.

Radio 3 is generally rather good on, um, world music (a tradition going right back to David Munrow), but here Neil MacGregor’s stimulating introduction is soon deflated, as one “masterpiece” of (let’s face it, Christian Europe) WAM choral music follows another. My own blog is full of Bach, Mahler, and Messaien—but in Sacred river, whereas one might wish for more challenging juxtapositions from around the world, here a mere five out of fifty tracks are devoted to other world genres (and that’s a generous count: OK, a bit of plainchant, but Ladysmith Black Mambazo? Trio da Kali with The Kronos quartet? Hey!), choices like the Pathétique symphony or the Allegri Miserere hardly open our ears to new horizons—as do many other Radio 3 programmes (Late junction, The listening service, Words and music, and so on). It’s The Great Composers in a new costume. And though “music and ritual” is a rich topic in ethnomusicology, the site offers few links to further sources—even from its own output.

Inevitably, I think of the percussion coda Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body of the Li family Daoists, that concludes their Transferring Offerings ritual. Of course neither this nor most other ritual traditions around the world might work on the radio on their own. But listeners deserve more than the Usual Suspects like qawwali, “Find your inner peace with the sound of Buddhist chant”, and “the oldest song in the world”. Sure, they might not necessarily conform to the hackneyed message of Peace and Love, that cramped ghetto from which Neil MacGregor rescues us. But if the Radio 3 team had half his imagination (as I write, he’s discussing royal power, sliding effortlessly from Zadok the priest to bronzes from Benin and China, with asides on Trump and Putin), they could have found more stimulating and offbeat tracks, even from their own archive—aboriginal dream songs, ritual shawm bands, Andalucian saeta, gospel, you name it. So Sacred river ends up undoing the fine work of Living with the gods. Do keep exploring Radio 3, which is full of creative programming—just not this.

Of course, what it needs is a TV series. Alas, since a little heyday in the 1980s there has been little appetite for informed anthropological documentaries on local cultural life—in which ritual features prominently.

Hey-ho. Just saying, like…

Performance ethnography

Pace Robert Hanks and indeed the great man himself, one can never have too much of Alan Bennett.

From his 2008 diaries, more perceptive ethnography of both orchestral musicians and audiences (cf. here and here), about a TV broadcast of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra from the Proms:

… one of the cameras fascinated with a particular woodwind player who has a good deal to do, but who in turn obviously fancies the flautist who’s next but one. So at the end of his own contribution he’ll often half-turn in order to pass the tune or whatever to this flautist, and she is equally attentive during his solos. There’s a cellist with a cheeky face who plainly makes jokes, a bear of a violinist who throw himself about a lot, and next to him the child violinist with a face made tragic by concentration. It’s hard to conceive how such a small figure copes with the great winds of Brahms, though he’s more composed about it than his hairy and demonstrative neighbour.

It’s moving, too, of course because of the moral stance of the orchestra, though the players are by now probably bored or at least matter-of-fact about this ethical burden. But with similar experience in the theatre (including I hope The History Boys), one longs to stay with them once the performance is over and they disperse. Who looks after the child, I wonder, whom does the cheeky cellist sleep with and are the flautist and the woodwind player as close as their performances suggest? So there’s sadness too in being excluded from all this and longing, just as there is coming away from the theatre or for some people, I imagine, the football stadium.

Competing with the lofty claim of detached spiritual contemplation of the work in hand, such observation is a universal yet little-documented feature of attending public performances—just the kind of detail that ethnomusicologists might seek, and that the “absolute music” wing of WAM scholars would eschew.

My work with the Li family Daoists is full of such detail, both for their funeral practice at home—such as Golden Noble corpsing the others while reciting the Invitation memorial, or the reluctance of the kin to pay attention to the liturgy of the Daoists they still feel obliged to hire—and for their concerts on tour (such as this, and this). But even in the 1990s I had apparently read enough Geertz, Barley, and so on to pay attention to the behaviour of the Gaoluo villagers—like this passage (Plucking the winds, pp.304–5):

After supper on the 15th, the “temple” courtyard is packed. Apart from South Gaoluo villagers, some have also come from the North village and elsewhere. Many have come to offer incense, but many also just for the fun. Boisterous children are chasing around letting off firecrackers, both outside and inside the “temple”. Five sticks of incense are considered “a bundle” (yifeng).

As to ordinary villagers, though there are more women than men offering incense, quite few of the people are elderly: young and middle-aged women and young men seem to be more active in this. Many pray silently to the goddess Houtu for a healthy son, or for the health of their aged parents; more generally, people pray for good luck and prosperity. One couple were offering incense for the safety of the husband, who is a driver—even for the most diehard atheist, recourse to divine help is particularly tempting on Chinese roads. The atmosphere is highly jocular as people enter the courtyard. As they go to offer incense and kowtow they look embarrassed, but then when they are actually doing it they become extremely serious. Then as they get up and dust down their trousers, they look all embarrassed again, and, avoiding meeting the gaze of all the onlookers, they leave the area, often going into the “temple”.

Of course, Geertz, Barley, and indeed Bennett may do it better, but as with WAM, such social ethnography is quite rare in (both Chinese and foreign) studies of Daoist ritual, which are more concerned with recreating the abstract deep structure of medieval texts and ritual sequences. And similarly, it’s not one or the other—both angles are desirable.


Later in 2008 AB notes a comment on the distressingly populist Classic FM radio:

“Elgar’s Nimrod conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. It doesn’t get much better than that. Or does it? Give us a call.”

Cultural revolutions

17 troupe 1959

North Shanxi Arts Work Troupe, 1959. Li Qing front row, far right. His four years there (1958–62) were a brief interlude within a lifetime of ritual practice.

For some reason, I found Frank Dikötter’s book The Cultural Revolution far more rewarding than the two previous volumes in his popular trilogy on the Maoist era, The tragedy of Liberation and Mao’s great famine.

Ritual and religious life under Maoism
From the perspective of my own fieldwork on local ritual, there has been no single decade in history where culture has been independent of society— as observed by none other than Confucius and Chairman Mao (see the Coda to my book Plucking the winds), in what may seem like reproaches to the “living fossils” fallacy.  To be sure, Gaoluo villagers themselves failed to admit a connection between their ritual association and society:

“The association has nothing to do with politics”
“The association has nothing to do with the Boxers
“The association has nothing to do with the history of the revolution“.

But all the while they were providing rich material that contradicted their assumptions.

So I would hope that ritual studies can fit into our picture of social change. As I suggest in Appendix 1 of my recent book, scholars of Tang Daoism expect to relate it to the wider history of the period; so why would we who document local ritual groups, whose material derives largely from contemporary fieldwork, not also do so? However deep we probe, the social, economic, and political history of the past century is the air that ritual specialists and their patrons breathe—so what kind of air might scholars breath by downplaying it?

By failing to study the nuances of the period through which we and our Daoist masters have lived, we ignore precisely the kind of material that historians of earlier periods would die for. Sometimes we fall back on facile clichés about the eternal nature of tradition until the 1940s, and the subsequent destruction of cultural practices (after 1937? 1949? 1966?). All, supposedly, before the untrammelled restoration since the 1980s ushered in an equally timeless and transcendent new Golden Age—unless urban migration and the new pop culture have rendered further study superfluous by destroying tradition further?!

And vice versa, work like this on the changing lives of local communities should also be a contribution to modern historiography—a convenient prism through which to view the “negotation of identity” (a hoary cliché that I generally avoid!).

With some noble exceptions (such as ter Haar, Ruizendaal and Mueggler), religious life under Maoism is not the strong suit of scholars of religion, but I find it crucial. So I write this partly with a view to reminding those documenting folk ritual in China—and even those who do fieldwork mainly in order to reconstruct the culture of previous ages—that the whole Maoist era is an indispensable part of our background reading and enquiries in the field.

Religion features in many accounts mainly as protest against campaigns (for the 1950s, see The tragedy of Liberation, pp.196–206; Mao’s great famine, pp.227–8), but it’s also worth documenting the “obstinacy” of everyday practice (e.g. The Cultural Revolution, pp.294–6; see also the revival on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, pp.31–2). I belatedly note incidents in places where I did fieldwork innocently in the 1990s, such as the 1966 massacre in Daxing county outside Beijing (p.78).

As Dikötter observes (p.119),

Many ordinary people had accepted liberation with a mixture of fear, hope, and resignation. There was widespread relief that the civil war had come to an end. The proclaimed values of the regime, including equality, justice and freedom, were genuinely appealing, and the Part tirelessly trumpeted the New Democracy, a slogan promising the inclusion of all but the most hardened enemies of the regime. Above all, the communists promised each disaffected group what it wanted most: land for the farmers, independence for all minorities, freedom for intellectuals, protection of private property for businessmen, higher living standards for the workers.

Classic studies of local life through the whole Maoist period, a model for detailed local fieldwork, are

  • Chan, Madsen, and Unger, Chen village under Mao and Deng (1992) and
  • Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden’s two volumes Chinese village, socialist state (1991) and Revolution, resistance, and reform in village China (2005).

As a counterbalance to such authors, I like to cite William Hinton (whose Through a glass darkly grinds a leftist axe against the latter), as well as Mobo Gao’s fine ethnography Gao village.

Short of expecting ourselves to read detailed scholarly accounts of the period, such works are important preparation. For our own local studies, apart from works in Western languages, the modern county gazetteers (xianzhi 县志) are an indispensible resource.

A lot has been written about the Cultural Revolution; the period often stands as a simple and misleading soundbite for the whole three decades of Maoism—indeed, ironically, as a shorthand for the first couple of years of extreme violence up to 1968. So since the details of the first seventeen years of the People’s Republic are less well known outside academia, Dikötter’s first two volumes should be more illuminating; in Mao’s great famine individual chapters focusing on topics like agriculture, women, and accidents are well chosen and revealing. But for all the undoubted iniquities that he gruellingly parades, I found the first two books inevitably impersonal, suggesting a lack of empathy that may seem merely to follow a wider pattern in foreign studies of simplistic Commie-bashing.

Studies of the famine years around 1960 (from both foreign and, laudably, Chinese scholars; note e.g. Wu Wenguang’s project, and the works of Xun Zhou) are a growing topic, on a par with other state-engineered famines like that of Ukraine in the 1930s—as Anne Applebaum’s new study reminds us. But the whole period preceding the Chinese “years of difficulty”, to adopt a bitter metaphor, was no picnic either.

The Cultural Revolution
Conversely, we already know more about the Cultural Revolution, but Dikötter explores and augments such material in a communicative way. The Cultural Revolution seems to me less plainly propagandistic. It’s not that the insanities he documents are any more flagrant; rather, perhaps, the account seems more personal. Dikötter effectively meshes central and local perspectives, while showing clearly how the period, often dismissed as a “ten-year disaster” was not one undifferentiated black hole. But as we break up the whole Maoist era into manageable chunks, they bleed into each other—a sadly apt metaphor.

Despite revolutionary fervour being whipped up among naïve youths, cynicism, boredom, and lethargy had set in as early as 1967 (p.165). Any idealism among those students sent down to the countryside to learn from the peasants was short-lived, as they encountered the sheer destitution there (ch.15). As I also learned in Yanggao, severe food shortages continued right until the 1980s.

In the countryside, as organizational chaos spread, market enterprise—which had previously revived in the wake of the famine—also persisted early in the Cultural Revolution; despite a re-imposition of collectivization in 1968, private initiatives were increasingly widespread (pp.225–8). By the “grey years” from 1971, private trade began to expand further. Still many regions were mired in desperate poverty, like Ziyang in south Shaanxi (pp.262–5).

Notwithstanding a late rearguard action (ch.23), Dikötter describes the “silent revolution” in the final years of the Cultural Revolution (chs.21–22) that continued the process of abandonment of the commune system which had come in waves ever since the early 60s. In Henan (pp.274–5) blockades to prevent the private sale of grain were easily evaded:

A weakened state was no longer any match for determined individuals who had honed their skills over many years of hardship. Villagers who had survived the horrors of Mao’s Great Famine were not about to be intimidated by a tax officer hanging about at a roadblock in a conspicuous uniform.

Urban migration, too (a crucial social factor under the 1980s’ reforms), began early. Dikötter even shows an early revival of traditional culture (opera, poetry, story-telling, and so on: p.276).

As in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, a hidden, underground, largely invisible society lived in the shadow of the former political system. (p.287)

Still, it’s always worth consulting Mobo Gao’s book Gao village, where with personal experience he gives a more positive, less adversarial picture of Maoism.

Anyway, when the commune system was officially dismantled from 1982, it was largely a fait accompli.

A case-study
I discussed the whole Maoist era in some detail in both Plucking the winds and Daoist priests of the Li family. In the former, since Gaoluo village lies rather near Beijing and Baoding, the members of its ritual association, themselves active participants, were able to give a rather detailed account of factional warfare and people’s lives through the Cultural Revolution (Plucking the winds, ch.6). But here I’ll just give a few vignettes from my work on the Li family Daoists in Yanggao county of north Shanxi (from my book, ch.6)—who were less actively involved in wider events.

With hindsight, surveying the apparent thriving of religious activities today, the Cultural Revolution period—perhaps even Maoism as a whole—may seem like a blip; but both are crucial elements in the transformation of peoples’ mindsets under the more liberal religious landscape since the reforms of the 1980s.

Household Daoist families in Yanggao had continued performing their liturgy for funerals intermittently for the first fifteen years after Liberation, although the domestic ritual Thanking the Earth was rendered largely obsolete by escalating collectivization from 1953, and temple fairs were silenced.

The immediate precursor of the Cultural Revolution was the Four Cleanups campaign. In many areas of China, “superstitious” artefacts had already been taken off and destroyed in the 1940s as the Communists came to power, but in Yanggao villages Daoist families seem to have kept most of their old ritual manuals until the mid-1960s. Meanwhile Yanggao was still in the grip of ongoing natural disasters.

The Four Cleanups must have come as a real shock for kindly Li Qing; having weathered the tribulations of the early 1950s, and then landed a prestigious and secure job in Datong (see photo above), he was even more revered after his return in 1962, and able to practice his beloved ritual again. But so it went for innumerable victims of the “class struggle” system. After the respite of the early 1960s, the mood was now to be grim right until the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966. Li Qing’s rich-peasant “hat,” though enforced as early as 1948, hadn’t had any great effect until now—not even disqualifying him from joining the prestigious arts-work troupe. But early in the Cultural Revolution he was again classified as a rich peasant.

The Smash the Four Olds campaign from 1966 was the culmination of two decades of measures to limit religious practice. At the same time, campaigns were sporadic.

Following a Four Cleanups re-inspection, late one night in 1966 Li Qing sneaked out to bury his most precious ritual manuals in the sorghum fields just east. Next day, to allay the suspicions of the Red Guards, he burned a large pile of other volumes in his courtyard—he had a large collection of printed volumes and almanacs, not necessarily ritual manuals.

The callow Red Guards paraded Li Qing a few times in a high white dunce’s hat with the characters “ox demon and snake spirit” written on it. But, just like hapless village cadres all over China who were now victimized too, the degree of punishment of so-called landlords and rich peasants depended a lot on their character and reputation. While privately retaining their sympathy for Li Qing, villagers had no choice but to go through the motions of “struggle meetings” dictated from above. Li Qing and his wife bore their sufferings with dignified silence throughout.

When Li Qing’s sensitive sheng mouth-organs were confiscated and deposited in the brigade office, kids messed around with them. Poor peasant Kang Ren was not under suspicion, so he managed to keep his sheng. But here no-one dared ask friends or family to help hide suspect items for them.

Meanwhile in Yang Pagoda, Li Peisen continued to weather the storm. The son of his wife’s younger sister was a Red Guard chief, so they discreetly agreed he would just take off a few scriptures for show—Li Peisen would have chosen decrepit or duplicate volumes that he considered less important.

Li Qing’s son Li Manshan, twenty-one sui in 1966, had gained an impression of the liturgy before his father left for Datong in 1958, and after he returned in 1962 he had nearly two years of relative freedom to continue learning. After the Four Cleanups campaign of late 1964, though there was no pressure on the children of bad elements to “draw the class line” from their fathers, he felt seriously depressed. At least he didn’t have to join the Red Guards—his status as son of a “black” family disqualified him. One day in 1966, just as the Cultural Revolution was breaking out, Li Manshan found himself in the county-town, and had his photo taken there. He hinted to me that it was virtually designed as a farewell to the world; exhausted by constant labor on the reservoir, with his family’s so-called “rich peasant” status boding ill as an ominous new campaign was brewing up, he could see no future.

In 1960, when Li Manshan was fifteen sui, he had “studied Russian for two whole days” at school. Later, when the Red Guards found his notebook with a few Russian words written in it, they confiscated it and cursed him for being a spy. In many parts of China, the innocent possession of a mere scrap of supposedly reactionary material, or a careless comment, could condemn people to long spells in labor camp.

Whereas the neighbouring county of Tianzhen was described as more “barbaric”, the relative peace in Yanggao didn’t mean that Daoists there somehow had any latitude to keep practising. In some parts of rural China traditions were maintained more or less furtively even through the Cultural Revolution, but here the Daoists were forced into total inactivity from 1964 to 1978. Daoist arts went into hibernation. Li Qing’s family, with their black class label, suffered more than other Daoists, but everyone was pretty desperate.

Villagers weren’t becoming any less “superstitious”. Public rituals might be impossible, but there was still a clandestine demand for determining the date, under cover of darkness. For a daring couplet pasted up in the period to satirize the poverty of their conditions, see here.

In 1967 Li Manshan was among a group of Upper Liangyuan team members who had to walk to the commune seat of Greater Quanshan, in the hills to the west, to take part in one of a series of huge public criticism meetings of the disgraced Party Secretary of Yanggao county before his incarceration. By now this model commune had been eclipsed by Dazhai further south in Shanxi, but it still had to host visiting delegations and mass meetings. Ten thousand people from five communes attended the struggle session, all arriving on foot. Although Li Manshan was a “rich peasant,” he had no choice but to go, or else people would accuse him of being counter-revolutionary.

The Sojourn of Educated Youth

Shoulders unable to carry, hands unable to grasp, soft and sensitive skin…

Coming across this phrase in 2013 as I made inept attempts to help Li Manshan with the autumn harvest, I thought it might have been coined to parody my efforts. Rather, it is a standard expression used to describe the travails of urban “educated youth” in performing physical labour after being sent down from the cities to the countryside in the Cultural Revolution to “learn from the peasants.” The experience was a rude shock for such groups all over China; brought up in relatively comfortable urban schools to believe in the benefits of socialism, and often protected from understanding the tribulations of their own parents, they were now confronted not just by the harshness of physical labour, but by medieval poverty (see also my Shaanbei book, p.9).

From 1967, large groups of secondary school students were sent down to live in many Yanggao villages. Over thirty stayed in Upper Liangyuan for a year or so, but Li Manshan had no contact with them. A group from one Beijing school descended on Golden Noble’s village of Houying in 1967, then another batch the following year; most managed to leave around 1972. Golden Noble’s cousin married one of them in 1971, condemning her to rural life; desperate to escape, she eventually divorced him, getting back to Beijing around 1980.

These groups of students brought their musical and acting skills to some villages where they were based, performing revolutionary songs and model operas to dour bemused peasants. Li Manshan never heard them sing or play, but in nearby Shizitun Older Li Bin learned the modern system of cipher notation from educated youth billeted there.

Just when convulsions seemed to have eased, Li Qing’s rich-peasant status was re-imposed in the Cleanse the Class Ranks campaign of 1968. If there had been a certain basis for the original classification around 1949, by now—in a ravaged countryside where everyone was virtually destitute—the label caused his fellow villagers bitter mirth, who ribbed him, “Call yourself a rich peasant?!” After the chaotic first couple of years, things quietened down by around 1969, but there was always tension. As Li Manshan recalls, “We just sat around at home, but we could never feel at peace”—always fearing a knock at the door.

Life Goes On
Even then, life was not entirely about campaigns. Having had four children by 1954, Li Qing and his wife had been separated for four years while Li Qing was in the Datong troupe, but in 1967 they had a third daughter, and then in 1969 a third son, Li Yunshan (known as Third Tiger), twenty-three years Li Manshan’s junior. For the lovely little wooden folding stool that Li Manshan made in the late 1960s, see here.

Then, in the winter cold late in 1971, Li Manshan married, aged twenty-six sui. The new couple lived in Li Qing’s courtyard complex, part of which had been allocated to another family after land reform. In the Cultural Revolution Li Qing “bought” it back, but village cadres accused him of illegal trading, and confiscated it again. Anyway, from 1948 right through till 1980 their conditions were cramped. In 1972 Li Manshan had to spend another six months away laboring on the reservoir project, only returning for the autumn harvest. The couple’s oldest daughter was born in 1973. That year Li Qing and his wife took their youngest son Third Tiger, five sui, into town for a group photo—now nowhere to be found. Around that time Li Qing managed to get his mother’s ashes back from Inner Mongolia, reburying her with his father’s coffin in the family graves outside Upper Liangyuan—though without any ceremony, of course.

All this was around the time of the campaigns to Study Lei Feng and Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius. The latter, prompted by the mysterious 1971 death of Lin Biao in a plane crash in Mongolia, caused major convulsions in Party and army ranks, but Li Manshan has only the vaguest memories of these campaigns.

Whereas through the 1950s and 60s the Party had somehow managed to whip up enthusiasm for further campaigns despite constant abuses, by the 1970s people had thoroughly lost their appetite for the constantly changing directions of policy. Indeed, in Yanggao people were largely unaware of the machinations at the heart of the Party in distant Beijing.

I would gladly qualify all this gloom with reminders of the benefits of Maoism such as are offered by apologists like Bill Hinton and Mobo Gao. But I can find no-one in Yanggao who can think of any. There were some harbingers of reform, like a certain freeing up of markets in 1972. Education too was expanding again. A sporadic supply of electricity eventually reached villages like Upper Liangyuan by the mid-1970s. Before that people used kerosene lamps, but they slept soon after it got dark—except, of course, when there were rituals to perform. The electricity supply in the countryside remains unreliable.

By the 1970s the national population was increasing rapidly, but that of villages like Upper Liangyuan grew little. Under Maoism there was hardly any new house building in Yanggao; by the 1970s, over ninety percent of houses in the county had been built before 1937. By the mid-1970s a few villagers managed to buy watches; even by the end of the decade only a few cadres enjoyed the luxury of riding bicycles.

Traditional culture was still on hold. Without the benefit of hindsight, there was no end in sight to the depression of the commune system. And people—not just the Li family, but the whole population—were still seriously hungry.


For local Daoist ritual, I must stress that none of this obviates the need for the study of early textual history of ritual manuals, which should continue to play a major role. However, the life stories of Daoists (and all kinds of religious practitioners) are just as important for the modern era as for the imperial period—but with careful and sensitive fieldwork they are much more available. And they can not only clarify aspects of textual transmission, but also (more crucially?) illuminate the changing performance of ritual. So it seems to me that whether sinologists and ethnographers like it or not, our subject has to embrace both early and contemporary periods. At the same time, modern historians may even find our discussions of ritual life in living times to be of some relevance to wider histories.



Folk ritual: testing the waters

As I observed, the recent confiscation of instruments in Pingyi county was only one aspect of the directive aimed at decimating funerary traditions there. It reminds me of an early incident during the revival of Daoist ritual in Yanggao (my book, ch.7; cf. my film), illustrating constant nuances in local relations as people explore ritual boundaries through changing times. So here’s a kind of prequel to my post on the Pingyi flapdoodle.

By 1979, as the commune system began to crumble, the great Li Qing (1926–99) and his colleagues in Upper Liangyuan, along with other Daoist groups in the county, were clandestinely performing Daoist rituals again, testing the waters. There was now demand again; as soon as villagers were once again able to stage proper funerals, they sought to invite Daoists. Seeing other households beginning to make money outside the collective, Li Qing would soon have realized this was a chance for him to feed his family too (they had been hungry throughout the Maoist era, not just around 1960). Most simply, Daoist ritual was in his blood: it was what the family had always done. A major stimulus for Li Qing’s band was the return in 1977 of his uncle Li Peisen (1910–85) from Yang Pagoda, where he had laid low throughout the Maoist period, preserving ritual instruments, costumes, paintings, and manuals.

Over a long period from 1979 to 1984 the Daoists performed for funerals at first furtively and gradually more openly. In those early days they didn’t stand directly in front of the coffin, just playing “little pieces” on the shengguan instruments without any vocal liturgy. And they wore their ordinary clothes; before 1981 a host wanting them to wear their ritual costumes had to pay danger money. As anxieties dwindled, they first donned their black costumes without hats, then the red costumes with hats.

One early occasion when they dared perform vocal liturgy, however clandestinely, was for the funeral of Li Peiye (another Daoist uncle of Li Qing) in the 2nd moon of 1980. Born in 1892, Li Peiye had learned Daoist ritual under the Qing dynasty, living just long enough to witness hope of a revival of tradition. Li Manshan recalls Li Yuanmao (1919–92), then with a long white beard) leading the reciting of the scriptures for the funeral.

Soon after Li Peiye’s funeral, a great burden was lifted for Li Qing. The county authorities sent official letters to all the village brigades listing the rehabilitation (pingfan) of people whose “black” class label of “rich peasant” was now to be removed. Li Qing was among thousands in Yanggao alone who were reprieved. The family no longer bore any stigma; at last there seemed some hope for both them and the wider society.

One of the first funerals for which the Daoists wore their full costumes was for Golden Noble’s grandmother in Houying in 1982. She died on the 6th of the 2nd moon, and the date of the burial was determined for the 19th.

But on the first day of the Houying rituals, someone returned from the county-town with the news that the Wangzhuang Daoists had been arrested while doing a funeral there. Senior Daoist Yan Mei—one of many Daoists who had served as brigade accountants under Maoism—was band boss; Liu Zhong (1930–96), soon to be a regular member of Li Qing’s band, was taking part. As luck would have it, the house where the funeral was held happened to be right opposite the police station. They managed to perform the rituals all day, but then two cops turned up, detained two of the Daoists, took mugshots, and confiscated their instruments.

As the liberalizations gathered pace, the incident soon became something of a local joke; people take such minor reverses in their stride. Naively, the Wangzhuang Daoists had supposed the climate to be relaxed enough now that Deng Xiaoping was in power—but surely they could have seen this coming. Things were indeed easing up in the countryside, and after a few weeks the Daoists reclaimed their instruments and got back to work, but official attitudes in the county-town were always more sensitive.

Even when I attended funerals in the town in 1991, it was still only possible to hire gujiang shawm bands, not Daoists. And still today it remains rare for town-dwellers to use Daoists; and since there are groups nearer whom patrons can invite, the Li family seldom performs there. But ever since the revival, and all the more since around 2009, they and other groups in the area have been worked off their feet performing rituals throughout the villages—despite urban migration and the “left-behind” patrons’ preference for the glossy pop shows outside the gate of the soul hall.

Ever since those early days of the revival, I occasionally hear of transitory campaigns against mediums or sects, but funeral practice has remained largely untouched—so the “Keep Calm and Carry On” message still seems fair.

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

Documenting religion in China

Gansu miaohui FK

Temple procession, Xincheng, south Gansu, June 1997. Photo: Frank Kouwenhoven. © CHIME, all rights reserved.

Ian Johnson’s recent book The souls of China is just as fine as its many reviews say. I’ve praised it in some detail in several posts (notably here and here), so here I’d like to discuss responses to it; my comments here also relate to my article on the brief of ethnography.

The religious revival in China since the late 1970s is hardly news: it has long been a major topic within the confines of academia. Scholars like Ken Dean have described local temple organizations as “China’s second government”. But by contrast with most studies within a narrow scholarly milieu, the great strength of Ian’s book is that he engagingly places religious practice within the changing context of Chinese society, blending the personal and the political with rare insights into the lives of Real People.

The souls of China has already been reviewed by some noted scholars of Chinese religion (such as here and here), but given that it laudably reaches out to a wider audience, some reviews have come from more general observers of contemporary China and the modern world. While this is clearly A Good Thing, amidst some fine reviews I find others that tend to somewhat misrepresent the book.

Preaching to the converted?
A comment in the publisher’s blurb gives me pause:

This entrancing and engaging book challenges the modern assumption that religion is a thing of the past; on the contrary, the dramatic resurgence of spirituality in China, after a century of violent persecution, suggests that it is an irrepressible force that may in some sense be essential to humanity.

Such an evangelical tendency may be Buddhist or Daoist (or indeed Islamic—Ian’s book wisely focuses on the Han Chinese), but it will often be Christian commentators who see the revival simply as “an astounding miracle”. Even less doctrinal readers may read The souls of China as a mere paean to “freedom” and some abstract “spirituality”—as if the Chinese revival represents some great victory for Western liberal values. This constitutes a handy stick with which to beat the Communist Party, quite lacking the nuance of Ian’s writing. Would pundits latch with such enthusiasm onto a notional (and unlikely) resurgence of religious faith in north Europe? It seems unlikely too that a study on the growth of atheism in China would be so enthusiastically received abroad.

To be sure, religious groups in China have often taken a stance against the regime, notably at times of extreme pressure, like collectivization, famine, and the Cultural Revolution—well, that just about covers the whole Maoist period. And more recently too, religion may indeed—in particular cases—act as an alternative sphere upholding moral values in public life, as is clear from Ian’s chapters on the Early Rain Christians of Chengdu.

His fieldwork sometimes blends with his own personal search for some kind of purpose—engaging in fine “participant observation” through involvement in meditational retreats and qigong (which indeed the CCP leadership first seized on with enthusiasm and then sought to suppress; note also Ian’s book Wild grass). But The souls of China manages to be both involved and dispassionate—covering a range of behaviours within what several scholars have called the “religious market”, with rich ethnographic detail on the diverse, messy, and inconvenient grass-roots situation.

Religion can be a lucrative business. And—just like the Communist Party—it may sometimes serve as a cloak for highly reprehensible behaviour. The Party pounces on (and sometimes fabricates) instances of financial scams and sexual crimes among religious groups, although Party members themselves are renowned for such abuses. But they’re covered by the criminal code—even if it may be easier for Party members to escape the long arm of the law; so it makes no more sense to ban sectarian groups than it does to outlaw the CCP (now there’s a thought).

Religion may serve as spiritual inspiration, or to spur social action; but (as we can see in “democratic” societies like the USA or India) it can also be a socially conservative force—which is why in China (and Russia) the Party now co-opts its “traditional values”. During fieldwork in China, like De Martino in post-war Italy, I’ve sometimes been shocked at the delusions of religion, observing cripplingly poor rural familes unable to afford even basic healthcare yet spending vast amounts over New Year on a barrage of deafening and evanescent firecrackers. Or a vignette from my book on Shaanbei (p.86):

Back in the county-town, returning to our hostel one evening, we switch on the TV to find a documentary about coal-mining accidents, which are reported nightly. There are some rather fine investigative programmes on TV these days, and the main theme of this one is how the response of the village Communist Party leadership to the disaster, rather than considering improving safety measures, has been to give funds to construct a new village temple in the hope of divine protection. OK, in this case the programme happens to fit into an agenda of rationalism against superstition, a view we sometimes feel inclined to challenge, but tonight I can only go along with the presenter’s lament.

Only later did I put together further pieces of a grisly jigsaw. Under the tradition of posthumous marriage (minghun), revived in northwest China, within five years after the death of an unmarried male over the age of 15 sui, a suitable dead unmarried female is found. Indeed, shawm bands often perform, and a Daoist may officiate. The unnatural deaths of many men in unregulated mines were bad enough, but newspaper reports in 2007 revealed that women (often disabled, or from poorer provinces) were being murdered to cater for this market.

The souls of China does indeed document some of the less noble aspects of religious practice in China. Few commentators would regard the sectarian groups (including many Christian sects, indeed) like Eastern Lightning (ch.25) as a paragon; some of them are no less weird and worrying than they are elsewhere in the world. We do indeed need to describe them, but not necessarily to praise them; Ian’s account is admirably balanced.


Catholic vespers

Gender-segregated Catholic Vespers  in a Hebei village house-church, 2001.

Permeating Plucking the Winds, my history of the ritual association of a Hebei village (see also Gaoluo tag), is the intriguing sub-theme of the underground Catholic community there. I note the complexities of their troubled relations with both the village association (whose conflict goes back to a massacre in the Boxer uprising) and the local state:

Their presence might be seen as somewhat akin to that of a Hindu temple in an English village, which has also created frictions.

One might both admire them for their obstinacy and worry at their intransigence.

Household Daoists
All this puts in perspective my work on the Li family Daoist band (as in my recent book and film). Ian’s splendid vignettes in The souls of China (cf. also his own video clips) focus on the life of Li Bin (b.1977), who is gradually taking over the leadership of the band from his wonderful father Li Manshan (b.1946); apart from all the material in my book and film, I’ve updated the story here, as well as explaining how unlikely it is that there will be a tenth generation of Daoists in the family.

Inasmuch as they are hereditary occupational ritual specialists, they don’t quite fit into the “faith” picture—although such groups are an ubiquitous part of the religious scene throughout China. They have been doing good business since the 1980s’ revival, and particularly since around 2009—not due to any resurgence of faith, but mainly, as Li Manshan sagely told me, because the demographic is such that it’s been a busy few years for funerals. Li Manshan still needs to choose the correct date and site for the burial; for the funeral proper, his band is invited more as a duty towards ancestral tradition (“the old rules” lao guiju) than as a sign of any resurgence of “spirituality”—funeral audiences now pay scant attention to their liturgy, only crowding round for the “red-hot sociality” of the (few) entertainment interludes over the day. When the kin are required to kneel and kowtow for the Daoists’ rituals at the “soul hall”, they are reluctant to drag themselves away from the pop routine outside the gate (do watch the eloquent vignette in my film, from 30.32!). Often I am the only audience for the magnificent vocal liturgy before the coffin.

But scholars of Daoism are unlikely to rejoice in this, since it’s “the wrong kind of Daoism”; nor does this quite fit into the kind of spiritual devotion sought by other foreign aficionados of religion. The current vibrancy of the band takes place amidst the depletion of the countryside and the discrediting of traditional rural values. I can see that Li Manshan’s services have considerable value for those “left behind” in such declining village communities, but that doesn’t mean that I wish to parade them as some kind of model for Chinese society.

Following Geertz, I described a “flawed funeral” I attended with the Li band (my book, pp.343–56):

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.

What we might call the “hippy tendency” has a foothold in Daoist studies too, from Bill Porter’s intriguing work to more scholarly quests for the timeless wisdom of white-bearded temple-dwelling sages (and again, Ian well describes the solitary truth-seekers). The gritty realities of rural society, and household ritual specialists like Li Manshan, don’t quite mesh with such a picture. To use Ian’s book to “celebrate” religious faith ignores the serious social problems he notes, that such fervour won’t solve.

One can still be amazed at the vibrancy of temple festivals in areas like south Fujian or Gansu, but the religious “revival” of the last four decades has been taking place in the context of the depletion of the countryside and rapid urbanization, along with the pervasive spread of pop and consumer culture. So while many rural dwellers have used the liberalizations to reinvent their local traditions (not necessarily “faith”), those traditions are threatened by the migrations that liberalization also engendered. Ian covers both rural and urban pictures, but the “hope” of the faithful may reside more in the latter, with their wider online networks and more “modern” discursive modalities.

Let’s hear it for secular humanism
While freedom of religion may be a good principle, it’s not the same as extolling all its manifestations. Today, vapid materialism and blind faith in the supernatural are not the only choices; religion is not the only remedy for moral decay. As I observed in my book,

By comparison with the years of Maoism, people now have more decisions to make, choosing from a range of options. They may have rituals performed and seek consultations to determine the date and select auspicious sites, but they are not entirely fatalistic. They tend their fields, save money, gamble, watch TV, play video games online, eat out in restaurants, establish guanxi networks, set up businesses, deplore and exploit corruption. State education here may lag far behind the big cities, but it has become ever more important since the 1950s.

Whether or not people engage in meditation, prayer, or charitable projects for the common good, they can and do lead ethical lives, taking part in their communities and finding meaning without creating imaginary supernatural beings. It would take courage to argue with the long-term and ongoing humanist secularization of north Europe—a choice that has followed many centuries of violent religious persecution like that lamented in the blurb I cited above. People’s faith in imagined beings (Richard Dawkins’s “flying spaghetti monster”) needs to be documented, all over the world, but evangelism is best excluded—all the more on the part of romantic outsiders.

The purpose of ethnographies of religious practice, for any society, is not to Praise the Lord; scholarship like this shouldn’t be exploited by adherents of Western religious faith. Such faith is by no means universally admired—observers like Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens (whose work may be disputed, but can’t be dismissed as merely eccentric) might be shocked by any such revival of delusion and superstition.

I’d like to see a review of The souls of China from a committed secularist like the anthropologist Mobo Gao. In his fine book on his home village where he grew up, he comments approvingly on the hygiene and healthcare campaigns under Maoism that sought to lessen popular belief in mediums, noting the 1980s’ religious revival in measured tones (Gao village, pp.77–8, 89–90, 227–31). In similarly leftist vein, on William Hinton’s return to Longbow village, where he had documented the 1940s’ land reform in rich detail, he was disturbed by many social consequences of the 1980s’ liberalizations—not least the major Catholic revival there (see also his Through a glass darkly, pp.180–82, 209). While some anthropologists may dispute such views, they are valid and quite widely held—both in China and the West.

Many will feel that religious freedom is only a minor aspect of the freedoms that China needs—basic human rights, control over corruption, freedom of the press and the judiciary, and so on. Indeed, Ian is a leading observer of these movements, as is also clear in The souls of China. In some cases religion may contribute to such freedoms, but in others it is irrelevant or even obstructive. Given the diverse social problems of Chinese people today, it may seem whimsical to trust in gods to rescue them from adversity. And such issues are far from unique to China: the current persecution of atheism in Russia is worrying.

Ian’s book is exemplary in its rapport with religious practitioners, its ethnographic detail, and its involved yet dispassionate stance—that readers would do well to note.


Tambourin chinois

In my teens, as a fiddler and budding aficionado of Chinese culture, I couldn’t help practising Fritz Kreisler’s Tambourin chinois. You can explore various brilliant later versions, but here’s Kreisler himself playing it in 1936: 

I relished getting my fingers round all the funky pentatonic runs and double-stops in fifths and fourths—and the whimsical middle section is great too.

At the time, deprived of “real” Chinese musical culture (as indeed were the Chinese, then—With All Due Respect to The Red Detachment of Women), chinoiserie was still attractive. It was to be a long time before I came across The Real Thing in rural China. OK, Tambourin chinois isn’t entirely similar to Li Manshan’s funky drumming in Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body (coda to the Transferring Offerings ritual—my film, from 1.11.07), or the amazing tracks on the playlist in the sidebar. But I still like it…

LMS drummingMuch as I admire Kreisler and Co., don’t miss Sun Huang‘s exquisite playing—and do click on the link to Saint-Saens and the toothbrush