Coronavirus: mourning Li Wenliang, and blind bards

LWL

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

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

SGL guiwang

Ghost king, South Gaoluo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

slogan

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

LHQ book

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

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

ZQ pic

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

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

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

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

TQ

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

LWL lyrics

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

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

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


Appendix

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

church murals

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

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

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

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

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

 

Recent updates on the Li family Daoists

 

One of the great things about this internet thingie (“don’t think it’s going to catch on”) is that it allows me to keep updating my film and book on the Li family Daoists.

After a flurry of posts from my visits to Yanggao last year (see here), here’s a reminder of recent additions to my material:

For much more, see under updates and vignettes in the “Li family” category of the sidebar.

stele

 

 

A new memorial stele

IMG_3287.JPG

Altar to Li Qing and his wife Xue Yumei in the central room of Li Manshan’s house, 2018.

The revered household Daoist Li Qing (1926–99) occupies a special place in the affections both of his own family and of the many Yanggao people whom he helped over his long career. With his generous character and thorough mastery of ritual practice, he guided the ritual band through the years of Maoism, and upon the revival he recopied the family manuals and trained new disciples. Among many posts, see the links here, as well as my film and book.

When the “filial kin” decide to erect a stele, it’s customary to do so for both parents together—Li Qing’s wife Xue Yumei (1925–2016) was also much loved (she features in a moving scene of the film, from 36.46, recalling their 1945 wedding). The family were going to wait for the 3rd anniversary of her death, but in the end they decided to hold the simple ritual in 2018, on the 1st day of the 10th moon—along with Qingming in the 4th moon, the main day annually for paying respects at the ancestral graves. Before Liberation some more well-to do lineages had grave charts, but Li Manshan never saw one for the Li family.

stele

Photo: Li Bin.

The handsome stele was ordered by the couple’s grandson Li Bin, used to providing such mortuary equipment at his funeral shop in Yanggao town. Along with Li Manshan, the whole family (“filial children and virtuous grandchildren”, as in the inscription) gathered at the lineage gravelands outside Upper Liangyuan village to erect the stele. Presenting offerings of incense, liquor, cigarettes, biscuits, cakes, and fruit, they “reverently kowtowed” while burning a set of paper artefacts and paper spirit money.

paper money

The artefacts, made by Li Bin and his wife at their funeral shop, were those commonly used for funerals in Yanggao: a siheyuan courtyard house, gold and silver dou 斗 vessels, a money-tree (yaoqian shu 摇钱树), gold and paper mountains, a car, and wreaths.

By contrast with south China, such steles are not so common in the Yanggao countryside, but in 2014 the family of Li Qing’s Daoist uncle Li Peisen (another crucial figure in the transmission) had also erected one for him and his wife Yang Qinghua at their home of Yang Pagoda just south, where they had moved to escape the rigours of Maoism.

And all this reminds us that household Daoists like the Li family provide a complete mortuary service for the local community of which they are part ( see e.g. Li Bin’s diary, and this post on funerary headgear).

Li Bin’s first funeral shop in town.

For more updates on the Li family, see here—most recently this diary of Li Manshan’s activities so far this year.

Li Manshan’s latest diary

LMS

After recent excursions further afield, it’s high time for another update on the Li family Daoists in Yanggao.

The venerable Li Manshan, now 74 sui, may have been taking a back seat to his son Li Bin in the family’s ritual services over the last couple of years, but he’s still busy zooming around on his motor-bike, as I now learn from his recent diary.

LMS 1992

In a break during a funeral, Li Manshan consults with another family to determine the date for a future burial. August 1992.

He has been meaning to limit his work to the immediate vicinity, and focus on determining the date; whereas for funeral consultations he has to visit the bereaved family, for other requests (weddings, timing of journeys, siting of houses, and so on) he can just await patrons at home. But since he has served most of these villages frequently over the last four decades, such as Pansi, Luotun, Wujiahe, Houying, Sibaihu, Shizitun, he still often has to lead the band for lengthy and tiring funerals, and not always so nearby.

2019 (dates in lunar calendar)

1st moon

  • 1 and 2: to Wujiahe to determine date for burial
  • 5–6: funeral at Wujiahe
  • 7–8: another funeral at Wujiahe
  • 8–9: funeral at Luotun
  • 10: major snowfall—made paper artefacts at home
  • 13–14: funeral at Anzao
  • 18: ritual for third day after death at Qiaojiafang
  • 19–20: funeral at Qiangjiaying
  • 21: funeral in Tianzhen; determined date for burial at Pansi
  • 22–24: 3-day funeral at Qiaojiafang
  • 24–25 funerals at Yaogou (Tianzhen) and West Zhanjiawa (Gucheng district, can’t find on map)

2nd moon

  • 1: funerals at Pansi, West Yaoquan, and Luotun
  • 5–6: funerals at Houying and Zanniangcheng
  • 8–9: funeral at Wujiahe; determined date at Tiantun
  • 13–14: funerals at South Renyao and Zhaojiagou
  • 14–15: funeral at Tiantun
  • 18–19: funeral at Upper Liangyuan (his home village)
  • 21–22: funerals at Yangheta (Tianzhen) and Anzao
  • 23: funeral in southern suburbs of Datong
  • 24–25: funeral at Xingyuan
  • 26–27: funeral at Pansi

3rd moon

  • 1: funerals at Pansi and Yangyuan
  • 3–4: funeral at Wujiahe
  • 5–6: funeral at Yaogou
  • 8–9: funeral at Anzao
  • 11–12: funeral at Balitai
  • 15–16: funeral at Shizitun
  • 18–19: funeral at Qiangjiaying
  • 21–22: funeral at Yaozhuang (Yangyuan)
  • 23–24: funeral at Sibaihu
  • 24th–25th: funeral at Shizitun

4th moon

  • 2–3: funeral at Houying
  • 4–5: funeral at Wujiawa (Datong)
  • 6–7: funeral at Taishan village in Datong suburbs
  • 8–9: funeral in Yituquan [good village name, this: “One-spit stream”] (Yangyuan)
  • 13–14: funeral for the wife of our wonderful friend Li Jin in Yanggao town

For some of these funerals Li Manshan works together with Li Bin, but the latter also often has to lead a separate band, as well as doing his own consultations to determine the date. As with Li Bin’s diary from 2017, we can see that improved transport has enabled them to perform funerals in different villages concurrently—never an option before the 1980s when they had to walk everywhere.

So while Old Lord Li deserves to take things easy, he still can’t easily turn down requests. I can understand why he longs for the contemplative life of the temple priest. Belief endures in the powers of the Daoists to deliver the soul, and for now they are still much in demand, as they have been for the last forty years—but with the rural population continuing to dwindle, this can’t last.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meditation: update with translation!

LMS

Hardly had I published this series of links to posts on the Shunzhi emperor’s Buddhist meditation on impermanence, and what it’s doing in the ritual manuals of the Li family Daoists, when I realized that I would be churlish not to provide a rough translation, for those readers less than fluent in classical Chinese—of whom I hope there are many!

So I’ve now added it under the original post, here. Help welcome…

Grave charts

fenpu

For the Li family Daoists in Yanggao, north Shanxi, in addition to my film and book you can find subheads under the Li family category in the sidebar for updates and vignettes. I’ve filed some under both—here’s another one.

Over the days following a death in Yanggao, among the many solo tasks of household Daoists like Li Manshan and his son Li Bin (along with determining the date for the funeral, writing the yangzhuang placard, supervising the encoffinment, decorating the coffin, and so on) is to determining a suitable site and alignment for the grave in the fields outside the village (see my film, from 16.21).

To help the Daoist in this task, some lineages still preserve grave charts (fenpu 墳譜). Only lineages that were relatively well-to-do before Liberation had them made, and rather few have survived the ravages of Maoism.

My main energies are devoted to the ritual performance of the Daoist band for the funeral proper—including my attempt to understand the texts that the Daoists perform then, with the help of their ritual manuals. From my notes:

As my frame of reference gradually expands—from the instrumental music to the ritual to local history to the wider activities of the Daoists—I am often out of my depth, but Li Manshan has developed a fine sense of where the borders of my research might lie. One day, as I query some abstruse comment of his on the correct timing for the burial in accord with the calendrical indications, he says with a twinkle in his eye, “Hey Steve, you don’t have to understand everything!”

So, like Li Manshan’s many almanacs to help him determine the date, the grave charts are way beyond my competence; but in a society where so much has been lost, they offer a glimpse of former geomantic knowledge in the area.

This vignette accompanies the scene in the film (Daoist priests of the Li family, p.190):

We have just had supper at Li Manshan’s house after an unusually rainy day. Around 7pm he gets a call. A rich entrepreneur in town is to collect him to go to a grave siting (kanfen) outside Lower Liangyuan for his mother. Li Bin has already determined the date. The entrepreneur, in mourning weeds, arrives in one of the poshest cars I have ever seen, and we keenly set about getting it all muddy. Collecting two grave-digger types in the village, we reach the sodden fields as it gets dark. It’s like Glastonbury, only without the irritating music. While I film with night-shot, Li Manshan takes out his luopan compass from its bag, and conscientiously checks the alignment with the compass and some string, consulting the family’s old grave chart.

By the time they finally finish it’s pitch dark. Oblivious of my presence, they blithely stride off with their torches, leaving me stumbling over grave mounds into puddles. At least I finally seem to have achieved that chimera of the fieldworker, becoming a fly on the wall. They come back to rescue me with their torches, and we all clamber back into the posh car and set to work making it all muddy again.

In some cases, such as when the old ancestors are buried elsewhere, Li Manshan really has to look for an appropriate site in the fields before using his compass for the specifics. On one such morning we spend considerable time seeking a suitable spot, driving round, getting out, studying the lie of the land. Me, I’m just looking for an Italian coffee bar.

Some of the grave charts look to have been written from memory since the 1980s, but on Li Bin’s travels through the countryside to assist funeral families he is sometimes shown some older ones. Here are a couple of photos he took from a chart made by a lineage in Xujiayuan north of the county-town, dated 1937:

And Li Bin recently came across one in nearby Yangyuan county, also apparently from before Liberation—here are three of its seven pages:

YY fenpu 3

You can find further images of grave charts online, and articles like this.

Guide to another year’s blogging

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some posts are instructively linked in chains:

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

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

Do keep exploring the sidebar categories and tags!