Li family Daoists, Beijing 1990

BJ 1990

The recent Beijing visit of a sectarian group from north Shanxi reminds me of the Li family Daoists’ performance at the 1990 Festival of religious music (for such festivals, see here)—the occasion that gave rise to their misleading media title (“calling Li Manshan’s band the Hengshan Daoist Music Troupe is like calling a group of Calabrian folk exorcists the Sistine Chapel Choral Society”).

I discussed here the gradual revival of Daoist ritual (now mainly funerals) in Yanggao after the collapse of the commune system; even by 1990, rural conditions there were still terribly poor, and memories of the Maoist era still fresh. For the dubious concept of “religious music”, see here.

Here’s how I described the festival in my Daoist priests of the Li family (pp.175–6):

Meanwhile my friend Tian Qing, later to become the pre-eminent pundit on Chinese music, was planning a major festival of Buddhist and Daoist music in Beijing for June that year, with groups from all over China invited to perform on stage. This was unfortunate timing, as everything was disrupted by the student demonstrations and their subsequent suppression, so the festival had to be postponed. With Tian Qing now indisposed, his colleagues at the Music Research Institute managed to put on the festival the following June—not in public, but with considerable publicity in the musicological world. To hold a festival of religious music was still controversial: some apparatchiks were opposed, but influential senior ideologues like He Jingzhi and Zhao Puchu supported it.

Li Qing had a difficult task to perform when it came to choosing the personnel to go to Beijing. Of his three Daoist sons, he ended up taking not Li Manshan or Yushan, but his third son Yunshan (Third Tiger), then 22 sui. Though Third Tiger was soon to take a different path, he remains nostalgic about his teenage years studying and the trip to Beijing with the great masters. Nine Daoists made the trip: the trusty core group of seniors Li Qing, Li Yuanmao, Kang Ren, Liu Zhong, Li Zengguang, and Wang Xide, along with Li Yunshan, Li Peisen’s son Li Hua, and Li Yuanmao’s son Li Hou. They stayed in the White Cloud Temple (Baiyunguan) along with several other Daoist groups from elsewhere in China invited for the festival, doing five performances (not rituals) for privately invited audiences over fifteen days in the temple and at the Heavenly Altar. The Music Research Institute also made studio recordings—which now sound rather harsh to me.

informal session

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

The 1993 Yanggao county gazetteer includes a proud mention of the Beijing trip in its brief account of the Li family band. Valuable as the gazetteer is otherwise, Daoism is not its strong suit. Li Manshan and I giggle over its quaint description:

the average age of the members is 62.5. The instruments are even older than the people.

Still, even now, religious groups that have been legitimized by official recognition are in a tiny minority compared to all those that have never been “discovered”. Even in Yanggao and nearby, many other groups are active that have never enjoyed even such minor celebrity. And while it lent Li Qing’s group confidence, offering a potential buffer against any future ill winds, it brought them no tangible benefit, and no new audiences—at least until 2005 when I began taking them on foreign tours. They continued to scrape a living by performing for local funerals, and they still do.


For Third Tiger’s fine interpretation of my SOAS T-shirt, see here.

Famine: Ukraine and China

LHJ 456 Kings detail

North Shanxi, Ten Kings ritual painting, detail: see here.

*Companion to two posts on the fates of blind bards in Ukraine and China*

Hunger, malnutrition, and famine are an essential backdrop to the lives and cultures of people we meet doing fieldwork in China, including expressive culture and ritual. They loom large in the life stories of peasants whom I’ve got to know—like the villagers of Gaoluo in Hebei, and the inhabitants of Yanggao county in Shanxi (see below). And I haven’t even visited the worst-affected regions, like Henan, Anhui, or Gansu.

Yet this is just the kind of memory that the rosy patriotic nostalgia and reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project are designed to erase.

I began by writing about expressive culture under state socialism in Ukraine and China, and I’ve given links to some basic readings on the Chinese famineGlobally, one might also adduce 1840s’ Ireland, Bengal 1943, North Korea, and chronic famines in Africa. A classic study is

  • Amartya Sen, Poverty and famines: an essay on entitlement and deprivation (1981).

However, one estimate suggests that 80% of 20th-century famine victims died in the Soviet Union and China.

Ukraine: the 1933 Holodomor
Here I discuss the Holodomor; in a post to follow I’ll take the story on to World War Two.

I found it useful to read these works in conjunction:

  • Robert Conquest, The harvest of sorrow (1986) (for a review of his work by Sheila Fitzpatrick, see here)
  • Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010)
  • Anne Applebaum, Red famine: Stalin’s war on Ukraine (2017): reviewed by Sheila Fitzpatrick here, and, more critically, by Sophie Pinkham here.

One might begin with Applebaum’s summary of research in her Chapter 15 “The Holodomor in history and memory”, as well as Chapter 14 “The Cover-up” and her Epilogue. Snyder’s Chapter 1, “The Soviet famines”, makes a useful summary. While Conquest’s book, written before the collapse of the USSR, was a fine early study (for a review, with a fractious exchange, see here), Applebaum writes with the benefit of three decades of further research, using impressive Ukrainian sources and oral history projects since the 1980s (the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and many websites, including an interview database led by William Noll); and she offers insights on the changing political scene since the 1990s. Her maps are very good too (and note this site).

Conquest’s book was published soon after the 1985 documentary Harvest of despair (following the film proper, from 54′, are further interviews):

Note also Sergei Bukovsky, The living (aka Spell your name, or Live, 2006):

* * *

In the aftermath of World War One (see e.g. Why the First World War failed to end) and the Russian revolution, as the population was bludgeoned into submitting to the kolkhoz collective farms, the term kulak was soon devalued to denote anyone questioning Party policy—“enemies of the people”, as an odious phrase currently in vogue goes. Vasily Grossman cited a woman activist (Harvest of sorrow, p.129):

What I said to myself at the time was “they are not human beings, they are kulaks” … Who thought up this word “kulak” anyway? Was it really a term? What torture was meted out to them! In order to massacre them it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human beings. Just as the Germans proclaimed that Jews are not human beings. Thus did Lenin and Stalin proclaim, kulaks are not human beings.”

Conquest (p.118) cites an activist in 1930:

He has a sick wife, five children and not a crumb of bread in the house. And that’s what we call a kulak! The kids are in rags and tatters. They all look like ghosts. I saw the pot on the oven—a few potatoes in water. That was their supper tonight.

This reminds me how fellow villagers of kindly Daoist Li Qing (see also my film, and book) ribbed him for his status as a “rich peasant” (see here, under “The sojourn of Educated Youth”).

Over a long period there was constant unrest, with mass executions and deportations. Defiance (which indeed soon offered the only hope of survival) took the form not only of lethargy; violent resistance was common—not least from women. Rebellions had broken out as early as 1919 (Harvest of sorrow ch.3, Red famine ch.2). A widespread famine ensued in 1921. But it wasn’t kept secret, and international aid was welcomed (notably from the American Relief Administration)—whereas by 1933 the scale of the disaster was concealed, and no foreign aid was accepted.

While periodic retrenchments, and “indigenization” policies, were brief, an uneasy stalemate prevailed in the 1920s. Conquest opens The harvest of sorrow thus:

At the beginning of 1927, the Soviet peasant, whether Russian, Ukrainian, or of other nationality, had good reason to look forward to a tolerable future. The land was his; and he was reasonably free to dispose of his crop. The fearful period of grain-seizure, of peasant rising suppressed in blood, of devastating famine, were over, and the Bolshevik government seemed to have adopted a reasonable settlement of the countryside’s interests.

Even by 1929 (Red famine p.113–14),

as Dolot remembered it, the presence of the Soviet state in his village had been minimal. “We were completely free in our movements. We took pleasure trips and travelled freely looking for jobs. We went to the big cities and neighboring towns to attend weddings, church bazaars, and funerals. No one asked us for documents or questioned us about our destinations.” […] The Soviet Union was in change, but not every aspect of life was controlled by the state, and peasants lived much as they had in the past.

Politics had remained loose and decentralized. The choice of Ukrainian or Russian schooling was made in the locale itself; villages were still self-governing, and the various groups tried to accommodate one another. In a passage reminiscent of China (see e.g. here, under “Old and new stories”), for Christmas Day in Pylypivka,

the boys made a star [traditional for carollers] and thought about how to design it. After some debate, a decision was made: on one side of the star, an icon of the Mother of God would be featured, while on the other, a five-pointed [Soviet] star.
In addition, they learned not only old carols, but also new ones. They made a plan: when they were approaching a communist’s house, they would display the five-pointed star and sing the new carols, but when they approached the house of a religious man, they would display the icon of the Mother of God, and would sing [old carols].

But such flexibility was short-lived. Pressure escalated from 1927; as urban activists met stubborn resistance from peasants, they soon found that brutal coercion was the only way of fulfilling their brief. The new wave of collectivization soon led to famine. Despite the introduction of “internal passports”, starving peasants continued their migration to urban industrial centres. The gulag system (on which, among the vast literature, Applebaum also has a definitive study) expanded massively.

Major rebellions erupting in 1930 caused Stalin to tone down the rhetoric briefly (though the title of the anthem of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, “Ukraine has not yet died”, sung by armed rebels in 1930, doesn’t seem entirely encouraging.)

At the height of the famine, as later in China, cannibalism and insanity became common. Meanwhile there were purges at all levels of the Party too.

Conquest gives a prophetic quote, further foretelling the current total surveillance in Xinjiang:

What gave the regime its advantage both in 1930–31 and even more in 1932–33 was that it was now organized and centralized as it had not been in 1921. Herzen, back in the 1860s, had said that what he most feared was a “Genghis Khan with the telegraph”.

Religion and culture
The church (in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church—currently engaged in a divorce from the Moscow Patriarchate) was both a target of and a focus for resistance—as later in China. Church bells were melted down, icons smashed. The rituals of traditional peasant life—and thus musical traditions—were disrupted.

Alongside the major branches of the church, the repression and survival of the diverse sectarian groups is a rich theme, including Protestants, Evangelicals, and the Molokans—see also Margarita Mazo, “Change as confirmation of continuity as experienced by Russian Molokans”, in Retuning culture: musical changes in central and Eastern Europe (1996).

As to expressive culture, the itinerant kobzari blind minstrels soon disappeared. Meanwhile,

The Ukrainian musician Yosyp Panasenko was dispatched by the central authorities with his troupe of bandura players to provide culture [sic] to the starving peasants. Even as the state took the peasants’ last bit of food, it had the grotesque inclination to elevate the minds and rouse the spirits of the dying. The musicians found village after village completely abandoned. Then they finally came across some people: two girls dead in a bed, two legs of a man protruding from a stove, and an old lady raving and running her fingernails through the dirt. (Bloodlands, p.47)

With all this background it becomes easier to understand why the blind minstrels were dying out, along with the culture of which they were part—although I wonder why they were not erased so efficiently in China under Maoism.

One member of a local concert band recalled playing for funerals of activists murdered by irate peasants:

For us it was a happy event because every time somebody was killed, they would take us to the village, give us some food and then we would play at the funeral. And we were looking forward every time to the next funeral, because that meant food for us. (Red famine, p.150)

Again, I heard similar stories in China, such as north Shanxi:

When Li Yuanmao’s father died of hunger in 1960, no-one even had the strength to dig a grave for him. In a village in nearby Tianzhen county, even the village cadres volunteered to carry the coffin just so they could get a paltry mantou steamed bread roll to eat (Daoist priests, p.119).

In Ukraine by 1933, apart from the banning of traditional funeral rites,

Nobody had the strength anymore to dig a grave, hold a ceremony, or play music. “There were no funerals,” recalled Kateryna Marchenko. “There were no priests, requiems, tears. There was no strength to cry.”

Meanwhile, cultural institutions, writers, and academics—historians, ethnographers, museum curators—were also under assault.

Talking of documenting folk-song (see here, and here), Snyder cites a children’s song (Bloodlands, p.36):

Father Stalin, look at this
Collective farming is just bliss
The hut’s in ruins, the barn’s all sagged
All the horses broken nags
And on the hut a hammer and sickle
And in the hut death and famine
No cows left, no pigs at all
Just your picture on the wall
Daddy and mommy are in the kolkhoz
The poor child cries as alone he goes
There’s no bread and there’s no fat
The party’s ended all of that
Seek not the gentle nor the mild
A father’s eaten his own child
The party man he beats and stamps
And sends us to Siberian camps.

And a collective farm song from the 1930s (Red famine p.113, cf. p.145):

Green corn waves new shoots
Though planted not long ago
Our brigadier sports new boots
While we barefoot go.

I wonder if Chinese people were singing similar songs around 1960. Still, there neither religious nor cultural life was such a blank slate under Maoism as one might suppose.

The cover-up and aftermath
Somehow, through a series of grudging concessions, the death toll fell by 1934. But with resistance broken, collectivization accelerated.

And no less telling is the story of the cover-up, suggesting further Chinese parallels. The findings of the Soviet census of 1937 were suppressed, and the responsible demographers executed. During the Great Terror of 1937–8,

Mass graves of famine victims were covered up and hidden, and it became dangerous even to know where they were located. In 1938 all the staff of Lukianivske cemetery in Kyiv were arrested, tried, and shot as counter-revolutionary insurgents, probably to prevent them from revealing what they knew.


There were plenty of outside witnesses too, such as Vasily Grossman, Arthur Koestler, Malcolm Muggeridge, Andrew Cairns, Rhea Clyman—and Gareth Jones, to whom I devote a separate post. The photos of Alexander Wienerberger also provided firm evidence. The influential Walter Duranty knew well, but chose to deny. On the left, pundits like the Webbs averted their gaze in the interests of the greater cause. And diplomatic silence reigned, already aware of the impending need for an alliance with the Soviets against Hitler. Conquest describes the apologists—a large and influential body of Western thought—as “the lobby of the blind and blindfold”. With bitter irony, it was only the Nazis who were prepared to publicize the 1933 famine.


Emerging evidence gave pause to left-leaning scholars like Eric Hobsbawm. But the whole topic still remains highly charged ideologically, as shown by some agitated reviews from both left and right. But exposing the iniquities of state socialism shouldn’t be reduced to a blunt implement monopolized by those on the right to bludgeon the left.

Here’s a trailer for Hunger for truth: the Rhea Clyman story:

And Grossman (cited in Harvest of sorrow, 286) observed:

And the children! Have you ever seen the newspaper photographs of the children in the German camps? They were just like that: their heads like heavy balls on thin little necks, like storks, and one could see each bone of their arms and legs protruding from beneath the skin, how bones joined, and the entire skeleton was stretched over with skin that was like yellow gauze. And the children’s faces were aged, tormented, just as if they were seventy years old. And by spring they no longer had faces at all. Instead, they had birdlike heads with beaks, or frog heads—thin, wide lips—and some of them resembled fish, mouths open. Not human faces.

He compares this directly with the Jewish children in the gas chambers and comments, “these were Soviet children and those putting them to death were Soviet people.”

The Holodomor and Great Terror were soon followed by yet more devastating atrocities in World War Two. The population had been decimated and brutalized long before the Nazis invaded. In desperation, many hoped for an invasion to rid them of tyranny.

Ukraine was further devastated by the famine that struck the USSR in 1947—this time alleviated by foreign aid. Applebaum also places the complex interpretations of the famine within the context of Ukraine’s troubled recent history.

Other minorities
The populations of Ukraine (also including Russians, Jews, Poles, Germans) were certainly the worst casualties of the famine: Stalin was waging war not just on recalcitrant peasant individualism but on Ukrainian nationalism. But other minorities also suffered—like the Kazakhs (Harvest of sorrow, ch.9) and Kyrghyz, who, when not being deported, were desperately migrating to and from Xinjiang as conditions changed. Bashkirs, Buryats, Khalkas, Chuvash, and Kalmyks were also hard hit (and the efforts of ethnographers to study the cultures of such peoples were frustrated by censorship and imprisonment). Conquest’s ch.14 on Kuban, Don, and Volga—Cossacks of Ukrainian origin, German minorities, and the North Caucasus—leads to further disturbing stories.

Famine in China
Again, the so-called “three years of difficulty” from 1959 to 1961 were not an isolated tragedy: food shortages in the wake of coercive collectivization were long-term. For many in the countryside, it was a case not of three years of famine but of thirty years of hunger. So I’m impatient with any diachronic ethnography of the lives of rural Chinese dwellers that fails to recognize hunger and malnutrition. I’ve cited some basic sources for the Chinese famine here.

LPS 27

Ghost king, Li Peisen collection.

In Yanggao county, home of the Li family Daoists, I recall the satirical couplet posted during the Cultural Revolution, deploring the lack of clothing and food. But even official sources offer clues. While many county gazetteers compiled since the 1980s may be cautious, that for Yanggao contains impressively candid material (pp.66–72, 26–31; see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.118–22).

While appearing to recognize the impact of natural disasters, the gazetteer hints at the deeper political problems, with sections on the “Communist wind”, the “wind of exaggeration”, the Great Leap Backward, and the short-lived communal canteens. Indeed, it offers alternative insights on the whole Maoist era—such as its account of the model commune of Greater Quanshan, where in the summer of 1958, amidst a flurry of visits by bigwigs, the brutal exactions of a militarized railroad project goaded five hundred peasants to flee (Daoist priests, pp.122–3). Inner Mongolia, a traditional refuge in times of adversity, was a common destination until travel restrictions were enforced. Yanggao dwellers were still hungry for some years after Li Manshan married in 1971 (see here, under “Yao Xiulian”).

So that’s the background behind my internet session with Li Manshan, when I showed him the surprisingly candid Chinese wiki article on the Holodomor.

Comparisons, figures
In China the whole process of collectivization, and the famine, make the most appalling instance of wilfully ignoring the lessons of history; both Chinese and Soviet regimes were in denial.

Several scholars have attempted comparisons with the Soviet famines. Ian Johnson has written an important article “Who killed more: Hitler, Stalin, or Mao?“, which I’ll discuss in my next post. Note also

  • Felix Wemheuer, Famine politics in Maoist China and the Soviet Union (2014)

and review essays by Lucien Bianco (also a major author on peasant uprisings under Maoism):

  • “From the great Chinese famine to the Communist famines”, China perspectives 2013.3, here
  • “Comparing the Soviet and Chinese famines: their perpetrators, actors, and victims”, East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies 3.2 (2016), here, with many further refs.

It’s ironic that the official story in China, still often parroted there today, was that food shortages were caused by China’s need to repay the Soviet debt (Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, ch.14). And it puts in a chilling perspective my fine lunch at the “1958” restaurant on the People’s University campus in Beijing earlier this year.

In Ukraine and China there was a similar time-lull between famine and renewed terror: in Ukraine from 1933 to 1937, in China from 1960 to 1964. Ukraine suffered a severe post-war famine in 1947, but hunger in China was longer lasting.

Before the famines, rural poverty seems to have been significantly worse in China than in Russia. And (allowing for impressionistic statistics) even in 1926, the literacy rate in Russia was c56%; in China it was still only c20% by 1950. As to life expectancy at birth, for China in 1950, I find a single figure of 35–40 years—lower than that for Ukraine before 1932, for which Applebaum cites: urban men 40–46, urban women 47–52; rural men 42–44 years, rural women 45–48.

By contrast, Ukrainian men born in 1932, in either the city or the countryside, had an average life expectancy of about 30. Women born in that year could expect to live on average to 40. For those born in 1933, the numbers are even starker. Females born in Ukraine in that year lived, on average, to be eight years old. Males born in 1933 could expect to live to the age of five. (Red famine, p.285)

Applebaum cites around 3.9 million excess deaths, plus 0.6 million lost births—around 13% of the Ukrainian population of 31 million. She goes on to delve into regional variations, concluding that

The regions “normally” most affected by drought and famine were less affected in 1932–3 because the famine of those years was not “normal”. It was a political famine, created for the express purpose of weakening peasant resistance, and thus national identity. And in this, it succeeded.

In China from 1959 to 1962 there may have been over 40 million excess deaths (Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, ch.37—Wemhauer and Bianco provide important further nuance); even by percentage of population, that gives a very rough estimate of around 16%, still greater than that for Ukraine. In many villages in both Ukraine and China virtually the whole population was wiped out.

Besides, deaths don’t tell the whole story; even for survivors, lives are ruined by malnutrition, desperation, and trauma.

In China, though extreme violence was also endemic, there was less mass murder, and less pervasive use of the secret police. Other patterns were distressingly similar: resistance to collectivization, raids on non-existent hoards, war on markets, travel restrictions—and denial, then and now. Thaws, retrenchments, strategic retreats were all brief. Warnings were sent all the way up the hierarchy; those given to Mao by Peng Dehuai and the Panchen Lama echo those given by senior Party leaders like Hryhorii Petrovskyi and Martemyan Ryutin to Stalin in 1932. All spoke out in vain, and at great personal cost.

While Ukraine was a specific target of Stalin, under Maoist China Tibetan areas were gravely affected, but Han Chinese suffered just as badly (though note Wemhauer).

While studies such as those of Applebaum and Dikötter inevitably use a broad brush to paint the wider tragedy, the kind of detail afforded by ethnographies of a particular community, like those of ThaxtonFriedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, or Guo Yuhua, is also valuable.

Worldwide, with humane values and truthful reporting under renewed assault, and incitements to hatred ever more common, these histories matter. And for China, I expect such social and political discussions to form an intrinsic part of our studies of expressive culture and ritual, all the more since the topic is still suppressed in public memory. Even as we document the ritual manuals of household ritual specialists, or the melodies of shawm bands, it seems like a basic human duty to record their life stories. All this suffering is deep in the hearts and bones of those who survived.


Mahler and the mouth-organ


More on the European taste for exotic orientalism (see Berlioz, and Ravel).

Stimulated by the 1851 Great Exhibition in London and the 1889 Exposition universelle in Paris, I was interested to read

Among composers she discusses are Purcell, Debussy, Puccini, and Stravinsky; but here I’d like to continue my series on Mahler by reflecting on his possible exposure to Chinese music. While the “imitations” of Tang poems by Hans Bethge that Mahler used for Das Lied von der Erde have been much discussed, Kang discusses the oboe lines of Der Abschied (see also here):

One can ponder whether Mahler may have heard the reedy timbre of the traditional and popular Chinese instrument called the sheng on the wax cylinders given to him by his friend Paul Hammerschlag. M. De La Grange gives an account of an event which may have strongly influenced the Chinese dimension in Das Lied:

During the last fortnight [of the summer of 1908] Mahler had a visit [at Toblach] from Paul Hammerschlag and his wife. Later, the banker recalled two memories of that summer, particularly one of a lively discussion during which, to his great surprise, Mahler suddenly threw up his table napkin so that all the guests could see that he had slashed it with his knife as it was on his knees. Another, more interesting, concerned some cylinders of Chinese music, recorded in China itself, that Paul Hammerschlag had bought in Vienna in a shop near the cathedral, and that he had given to Mahler at that time. This makes it quite certain that Mahler had not only read, but actually heard music from that far- off land before composing Das Lied.

There is no evidence with regard to what types of music the cylinders contained, and whether it was instrumental, percussive, or vocal music. And one can only speculate whether it was popular, celebratory, religious, or funeral-like.

57 shengguan trio

Indeed, I don’t know why Kang chooses the sheng mouth-organ here, rather than the guanzi oboe that accompanies it in north Chinese ritual; after all, Mahler didn’t feature the organum characteristic of the sheng. Still, it makes an equally intriguing speculation. Unfortunately, neither the shengguan ensemble nor the deafening shawm bands make likely candidates: several scholars have been studying early recordings of Chinese music, but most were vocal, with chamber ensemble of plucked and bowed strings. Had Mahler heard early recordings of the solo qin zither, such as those among the wax cylinders made by Herbert Müller in China between 1903 and 1913, that meditative sound-world might have appealed more to him.

Anyway, Kang goes on:

Traditional Chinese music tended to be categorized according to social function. Aside from the possible influence of the wax cylinders, there was also research being undertaken in Vienna on non-Western techniques (as in other major centres of musical creativity). This was no doubt as a result of current fashion, thinking, and growing academic interest in sinology and ethnomusicology as we have already witnessed in France in chapter 3. Guido Adler’s article “Uber Heterophonie” (1908) is a prime example of the fascination with and thinking about non-Western traditions that was common in Vienna at that time. Adler writes:

Although there is as yet a very incomplete, and largely unreliable body of exotic music extant, it is, nevertheless, possible—thanks to reliable material on music for several voices, whether vocal or instrumental—clearly to distinguish one kind of treatment that is essentially different from both homophony and polyphony. We may then sum up the main corpus of the kind of exotic music just referred to as follows: the voices begin in unison, in harmony or in octaves, only to separate from one another subsequently. The main theme is paraphrased and distorted, so that secondary and transitional melodies arise to join the main theme, now consonantly, now dissonantly. This paraphrasing and distorting, then, lead one to suppose that the instrumentalists and singers wanted to add something of their own, whether in individual deviatory sounds or merely in grace notes. But these deviations soon give the impression that the instrumentalist or singer has only unconsciously deviated from the right path, that the deviation is merely a coincidence, either because the performers have had a mental aberration or because they do not consider these middle sections worthy of their attention. As at the beginning, the voices then approach the end almost invariably in unison, or in a regular parallel movement. This kind of movement of several voices is the main branch, even the stem, of heterophony.

Today Adler’s comments hardly stand up. Anyway, I wonder if anyone can now find further clues to those wax cylinders. Still, whatever sounds they captured, I doubt that they were the ethereal transcendent tones of Mahler’s imagination. However timeless anyone might suppose Chinese music to be, he was seeking neither to reproduce the Chinese music of his own time nor to recreate that of the Tang. So in all, any precise links with actual Chinese soundscapes remain elusive; like Bethge’s poems, his fantasy of the Mystic East is uppermost—which is fine by me.

All the same, how I wish I could have introduced Mahler, and Berlioz—not to mention Bach—to the exquisite shengguan ensemble of the Li family Daoists, who only managed to perform  in France and Germany long after they were gone.


A justly neglected composer

Somewhat less well known than Haydn and Beethoven is a composer immortalized in yet another Monty Python classic:

The final “of Ulm” is brilliantly chosen, the place-name both niche and monosyllabic (unlike “monosyllabic”).

Good to see Johann rescued from the obscurity that he so richly deserves (contrast Vernon Handley). His absence from the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians urgently needs correcting.

His name is reminiscent of a ritual title for a Daoist priest—like that of Zhang Daoling, handed down in the Li family (my book, pp.11–12; film, from 2.48):

IMG_1031 - Version 2


Ancestral Master,
Heavenly Worthy of the Grand Ritual
who Supports the Teachings of the Three Heavens,
Assists the Numinous,
and Embodies the Way.



Actually, that’s quite a succinct one: appellations to the Daoist gods, recited (mercifully fast, by contrast with the slow hymns) in the course of rituals, are lengthy (see.e.g. here), and ritual titles still handed down today to household Daoist priests in south China upon their ordination may be a mouthful too.

John Cleese’s interview technique is perhaps a less probing model for the fieldworker than that of Peter Cooke.

All this long before Stewart Lee made a whole art form out of trying the audience’s patience.

Modifying disfluency

Not such a gratuitous illustration: one of the Great Stammerers,
as well as a worthy pretext for a link to female jazzers.

I’ve already featured stammering quite often on this blog (see tag). Rather than expecting you to listen to this in the form of a six-hour podcast, these notes may serve partly as a reminder for myself, for others wrestling with vocal fluency, and indeed for anyone who knows anyone who is. But they may be of wider interest too: effective communication isn’t merely about disorders commonly identified as “stammering”.

We all labour under various habitual ailments through life, but on reflection the constant struggle with fluency is still an extraordinary experience. “Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…”, I spent the first forty years of my life trying at all costs to avoid stammering—indeed, to speak in public at all. And the more one struggles to avoid it, the harder it is to modify:

stammering is what we do when we try to avoid stammering.

It’s largely thanks to China that I have been gradually and belatedly chipping away at the iceberg of fear. I’ve even grown used to presenting the Li family Daoists and the Zhihua temple group on their foreign tours.

It’s a good start to confront the event itself, but monitoring one’s speech as one goes along is another challenge: I rarely catch myself in time as I use all the habitual fruitless little avoidance techniques—backtracking, trying to get a run-up (like crashing through a hurdle), and so on. In the end, it just about works, but there’s always room for improvement: a gamut of physical and conceptual techniques is available.

Among the substantial literature, from the days when I was doing occasional group therapy courses (and it’s not a one-off fix), I remain most impressed by

  • Malcolm Fraser, Self-therapy for the stutterer (1987, 11th edition 2010!), available here,

which I heartedly recommend, even if I make only sporadic progress in implementing its suggestions. I note that it has been translated into German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Lithuanian, Finnish, Slovakian, Danish, Russian, Czech, Zulu, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Norwegian, Arabic, Polish, Thai, Portuguese—and Chinese (5th edition here; for less helpful techniques reported in the China Daily, see here; and for my encounter with a stammering shawm player, here). That still leaves plenty of worldwide stammerers in need of the book’s guidance.

Like Life, speech therapy goes through fads. We can dismiss short-term solutions like sing-song inflection (indeed, singing), metronomic speech, finger-tapping, foot-stamping. Even prolonged (slurred, or perhaps legato) speech, while an important part of one’s toolbox, is only a temporary relief. We need a wide range of approaches at our disposal, without depending on particular crutches.

Of the major therapists (mostly sufferers themselves), great pioneers were Charles van Riper and Joseph Sheehan. So here’s yet another iceberg: we need to reveal all the accumulated covert behaviour that makes up our stammering. Therapy pays as much attention to psychological as to physical techniques.The basic aim is eliminate all such behaviour and avoidances, at various levels:

  • To stop avoiding situations themselves. Of course, some situations are more stressful than others. At one end of the continuum would be spending time with a small group of old friends; at the other, delivering a worldwide live TV broadcast on an unprepared topic that one knows absolutely nothing about. Naked.
  • To stop avoiding particular words (staggeringly common!): to catch ourselves substituting words, and stop it!
  • And then, when stuck on a word, or anticipating a block, we mustn’t fear/avoid/postpone the sound of stammering.

Our goal shouldn’t be “fluency”, and certainly not to “avoid stammering”. Strangely, in solitary preparation at home, where blocks don’t naturally occur, it’s about reminding myself what they feel like when they do—manufacturing, monitoring, and then modifying them.

Conversely, during and after a presentation (or indeed just routine conversation), often I don’t experience fluency, I’m merely relieved at not stammering too badly. But to build on fluency we need that sensation.

stammering stan

Please excuse me for featuring this cartoon yet again, but it says it all.

  • pausing: well-meaning encouragement to relax, take a deep breath, and so on, are of little avail when one’s efforts aren’t based on thorough preparation, So—instead of



internalize the experience of taking pauses (breathing!!!) while you

  • keep moving forward—a major step to replace backtracking, postponing, or trying to get a run-up;
  • monitoring: finding out what you do when you stammer, including extraneous bodily movements and eye contact; superfluous and counter-productive filler words;
  • desensitizing and “easy/voluntary stammering” (stammering on purpose on non-feared words, in a variety of ways!): this can be an amazing sensation. See also here.
  • modifying blocks: easy onsets, light contacts, extended sounds.

Amidst the whole blinkered panic that besets us, humour can play a useful role, as in my stammering games, or Gepopo.

Putting it into practice
Thing is, modifying habitual addictive behaviour needs a lot of work: an investment of time and energy. One tends to have other things to do, and accept one’s wretched fate.

“It’s easy for you to say that…”

We should aim to enter speaking situations with forethought: to bear goals in mind. We’re advised to prepare before making a phone call, or asking for things in shops, or even talking with friends; again, the goal can be modest, like remembering to pause, or using a deliberate (easy) stammer at least once in such situations…

In private practice, extreme slowed speech is a great feeling; after all, public speakers vary in their speed of delivery, and some of the most effective are those who speak remarkably slowly (see below). But both this and voluntary stammering may be tough to practice in the heat of the social moment, as we flounder around helplessly, lurching from one crisis to another.

Conversely, in the company of the Li family Daoists I generally rise to the occasion. Whereas in London, not only do I rarely talk in public but I hardly ever talk to anyone at all, at my happy meetings with people in Yanggao, and on tour with the band, I’m propelled into constant sociability, often in the company of a large group; and then I manage public speaking with quite minor preparation. It’s so much easier when I’m on a roll. I love Li Manshan’s comment:

“Wotcha doing when you get back to Beijing?”, he goes.
“I’m going to be giving lectures (jiangke)…”
His local dialect, or his lively mind, instantly converts this to jieka “stammering”:
“Old Jonesy, you don’t have to go back to Beijing to stammer—you can just keep on stammering away here!”

Still, simply talking regularly isn’t a panacea if one merely reinforces negative behaviour. And even after relatively successful presentations in Beijing and the British Museum this year, I was taken aback by my disfluency at a more recent London appearance—a film screening that I had already successfully negotiated many times. With this reminder that I still constantly need to put in the work, I prepared more thoroughly for my latest presentation, and it went better again. I still wasn’t exactly monitoring and modifying, but at least I wasn’t avoiding blocks; I got through it, somehow—and that’s progress.

It can be tough for the audience too: I sometimes put in a little aside to help defuse mutual embarrassment, like “You may also like to entertain yourselves by trying to work out what goes wrong when I encounter a helpless b-b-block!”. Intriguingly, this sentence tends to emerge rather fluently—just to show how it’s all about being open.

Anyway, by now, with positive experiences to build on at last, I think I can just about do it; but it requires constant vigilance. I need to keep hearing myself stammering, which may involve manufacturing blocks in preparation, and then getting into the habit of modifying them.

* * *

To be fair, the bar for academic presentation is rather low. More often than not, the goal here seems to be merely to fulfill the embarrassing task of speaking at all, rather than the noble pure aloof form of silent text—an audience being no more desirable than in the toilet. One often witnesses mumbled delivery, avoidance of eye contact or any physical attributes that might suggest human communication, as if engaging the audience, even making one’s topic sound interesting, is some demeaning concession to populism. Stammerers probably shouldn’t find this a consolation.

Whether or not we’re afffflicted with a recognized bona fide imp-p-pediment, effective public speaking is much to be appreciated. While I’m deeply envious of fluent communicators, they too achieve their results with practice—like Robert Peston, whose random hesitant delivery, with its arbitrary accents and intonation, is brilliantly compelling, even while suggesting someone taking the p-p-p-mickey out of
de-li-ber-ate       sssslo-o-owed    speeeeech.

Note the nice fortuitous mention of the iceberg… For Peston’s (real) cameo with the great Philomena Cunk, see here (episode 5, from 13.04).

Effective therapy is based on getting the problem out in the open, and even posts like this are a tiny part of that.

For brilliant help in the UK, there are the British Stammering Association and the City Lit. But it’s up to us!


The Li family Daoists: a roundup


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

The basic material is


On ritual, see e.g.

Among the vignettes: for Yanggao, try

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

and including

Other posts (reflecting on material from my book) include

On tour, you can start with

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

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

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





Ritual studies mildly censored


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

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

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

Dayin p.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Chinese draft had gone:


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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