Modifying disfluency

Marilyn
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, and for others wrestling with vocal fluency. 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. 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.

Theory
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

rushingheadlongtogetasmanywordsoutaspossiblebeforemeetinganuncontrollable

B—

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!

 

Yanggao personalities

Wang Ji 2003

Wang Ji (right) explains the structure of a “precious scroll” to Shanxi scholar Jing Weigang, My photo, Yanggao 2003.

Worldwide, biography makes a fruitful complement to social history. Fieldwork reports on religious life in rural China don’t necessarily focus on personalities at all—with some noble exceptions (such as the book of Stephan Feuchtwang and Wang Mingming on charisma, or Antoinet Schimmelpenninck‘s work on folk singers), they’re often more concerned with silent, inanimate artefacts like ritual manuals or temple murals.

When we do discuss the lives of Real People, our work often focuses on particular “bearers of tradition”. Even then, Chinese biographies often seem to take their cue from the hagiographies of Lei Feng (all the more so since the contagious ideology of the Intangible Cultural Heritage); and even Western descriptions tend to portray their Daoist masters as paragons nobly aloof from any engagement with social and political change. But we also need to document the complexities of their lives within changing society; over a long period I’ve come to engage with many other local figures too. Writing history clearly involves looking beyond kings and queens.

My first long-term field site of Gaoluo, where the village’s amateur ritual association represented the whole village, made a good education: while I focused on ritual specialists like He Qing and Cai An, the cast was diverse. This trained me to integrate my accounts of ritual in changing society with people’s lives—a theme that I continued with my work on bards and shawm players in Shaanbei.

* * *

In Yanggao county of north Shanxi, my primary mentors were again outstanding ritual performers—first the Hua family shawm band, and then Daoist masters Li Qing and his son Li Manshan (see also here). But again I began to spread the net wider.

Li Manshan’s wife Yao Xiulian, and his mother Xue Yumei.

First, a reminder of the women of Yanggao, whose various roles I’ve described in three posts—the female relatives of Daoists, sectarians and mediums, and singers. Anthropologists like Guo Yuhua also stress the importance of studying women’s experiences under Maoism.

Further to my film and book, on tour of France with the Li family Daoists in 2017 I wrote a series of tributes, starting here.

Li Xu with Li Manshan, 2013; right, Li Xu’s coffin, 2015.

In the Li family’s home village of Upper Liangyuan, I met poor peasant Li Xu (1926–2015) all too briefly. Though illiterate, he seemed to be the only villager who knew of the precious early steles of the village’s two main temples (my book, pp.46–9). If only I had been in time to learn more from him—he was a living library of local customs.

SLY oldies

In 2011 Li Manshan took me to meet the oldest person in the village, born in 1915. Just south of the site of the Temple of the God Palace, opposite the house of senior Daoist Kang Ren (1925–2010: photos here and here, with playlist #2; more in my book), he lived in a humble cave-dwelling with his (somewhat younger) wife. Being poor and childless, the couple had played no active role in major events in the village. That didn’t mean they couldn’t have valuable insights; they were friendly and articulate, and we had a long chat about life before and after Liberation (temples, rain processions, campaigns against sects, and so on); but even Li Manshan found them quite hard to follow, and I learned less than I had hoped.

Shi Shengbao 2018

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

Nearby in Yangguantun, the energetic Shi Shengbao (b.1948) has fulfilled the role of ritual director there since 1981. One of the Li family’s most trusted collaborators, he’s the subject of a nice vignette in Ian Johnson’s book (pp.373–4).

North of the county-town everyone admired the kindly and devout ritual specialist Wang Ji (1950–2017, photo at head of article), local leader of an amateur sect that performs “precious scrolls” as part of their rituals (for an update, see here).

In another instance of the tacit maintenance of ritual traditions during the Cultural Revolution (see e.g. under “Other coverage of liturgy” in my post on Ningxia), Wang Ji studied from 1967 with his father and another sectarian master in the village. They were all disciples of a former abbot at Wutaishan, whom they looked after in this period. They also studied with a liturgist in a nearby village. Wang Ji was formally admitted to the sect in 1970. Though it was formally proscribed after Liberation, they  were clearly active throughout the period, and he and his father had no problems as long as they didn’t cause trouble for the village cadres by practising too openly. In some memorable sessions in 2003 Wang Ji patiently explained to us the complex practice of singing the scrolls, as well as inviting us to the sect’s imposing rituals.

* * *

As to the lowly shawm players who also accompany life-cycle and calendrical rituals, I endured some challenging times over the years with the brilliant yet dysfunctional Hua family, both in Yanggao and on foreign tours. Most bands have long abandoned the complexity of the former long suites for a pop repertoire, but Yang Ying still leads a fine band, as well as depping with the Li family Daoists.

But it was two senior blind players who made a deep impression on both Wu Fan and me. Liuru’s circumstances had been desperate both under Maoism and since the reforms; Erhur at least had children to help him out. Their spellbound reciting of the gongche mnenomics of the shawm melodies gave us an entry into their world.

Left: Liuru, with Yinsan, another blind shawm player. Right: Erhur. Photos 2003.

ZQ and me

With Zhang Quan, 2018.

In recent years I’ve always been delighted to meet up with the sweet semi-blind shawm player Zhang Quan in Pansi village—this time he was helping me with my search for the kang murals of Artisan the Sixth!

gravediggers HGT 2013

Grave-diggers, Houguantun 2013.

I should also consult some of the other still more lowly helpers, like coffin-bearers and grave-diggers. One character whom I’ve seen countless times at funerals over the years is a bearded, itinerant helper with ragged clothes. Despite impaired use of his limbs he accompanies the kin, helping out with various duties like carrying props for the Invitation procession.

I’ve never managed to chat (guada 呱嗒) with him, but the trusty Li Bin has just given me some background on his story, which—in utter contrast to the long hereditary solidity and repute of the Li family—evokes chronic rural poverty and family vulnerability:

He’s known by his nickname Yanjun. Born in Liujiaquan village in the mid-1980s, his mother came from Sichuan, from where poor village men often buy wives. But she soon returned there, leaving him behind. Again, such bartered brides often sought to flee their unwanted new homes, and the unfamiliar northern climate and dialect, though many too resigned themselves to their fate—I’ve met several of them. Even in those days transport was still primitive, and there were no telephones.

But Yanjun’s maternal grandmother stayed on to look after him—he had severe physical problems, and if it hadn’t been for her care he might never have learned to walk. But later she too returned to Sichuan, while Yanjun’s father found another wife and set up a family in Inner Mongolia just north (again, a common refuge of Yanggao people since imperial times). Yanjun now moved in with his poor bachelor uncle.

An only child, Yanjun never went to school, and he has no prospect of finding a wife. As a vagrant, he’s quite aware of his outcaste status. He knows his place—I’ve never seen him chatting with anyone at funerals, and of course he doesn’t eat with the guests, just hanging around outside the field kitchen. I can’t even recall seeing him indoors. But he’s alert and trustworthy, and the host families take pity on him, giving him cigarettes and liquor, as well as (these last few years) quite a bit of cash—most of which he spends on buying cigarettes for the funeral director. Charity isn’t always evident in rural society, but inconspicuously it operates its own safety net. Now Yanjun also gets a little dibao allowance from the local government.

Meanwhile on a trip into town, Li Manshan’s younger brother, a successful cadre, invites me with a group of friends to a sumptuous banquet in a posh restaurant, washed down with a case of 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon. The gulf between rich and poor in China is staggering.

* * *

Jing Ziru

Right to left: Jing Ziru, Li Bin, and Li Jin, 2013.

At the other end of the social scale from Yanjun, by comparison with areas like Fujian in south China, cultural scholars in north Shanxi are thin on the ground. But in Yanggao the affable Jing Ziru (b.1926) is a local historian whose erudition is alas displayed only in a few brief articles. Also widely admired—truly an unsung local hero—is Li Jin (b.1945), successively opera performer, trusted cadre, and retired amateur Errentai instrumentalist, to whom I wrote a heartfelt tribute. But like their rural counterparts, they too suffered under Maoism.

Alongside all the necessary work documenting material artefacts like temple steles, ritual manuals, and so on, it’s only through such wide-ranging personal accounts—the tribulations of people’s lives—that we can evoke a vivid picture of changing rural society.

Notes from Beijing, 4: between cultures

Left: Dom (photo: SCMP). Right: Matt jamming at home.

The support network enjoyed by fieldworkers rarely intrudes into scholarly accounts, except as dry lists in the acknowledgements to musty tomes. So to follow my posts on recent encounters with Chinese scholars (Notes from Beijing, 1, 2, 3), here are some vignettes on expat life in Beijing—perhaps reminiscent of Nigel Barley’s remarks on the missionary veranda.

The laidback hospitality of Matt Forney has long been a delight whenever I return grubbily to Beijing from the countryside. This time, after my fruitful stay with the great Li Manshan (see a whole flurry of posts from March–April 2018, some linked here), amidst the unprecedented experience of an almost daily lecture schedule, I find expat life a jovial counterpoint to meeting inspiring Chinese teachers and students.

* * *

After a fond farewell with Master Li, I arrive at Beijing station at midnight to join a long taxi queue—rogue drivers touting for business all along the line. Maybe not so much has changed…

I miss Li Manshan and Yanggao already, and am tempted to get straight back on the train. But over the next few days I gradually acclimatize, coming on as “civilized”. I soon stop finding it weird when people say ni hao, xiexie, and zaijian (hello, thankyou, goodbye)—words never heard in rural China. And after acclimatizing to the lunar calendar, I’m back with “normal” dates, even days of the week and the concept of the “weekend”!

Settling in at Matt’s place, next morning I take a welcome shower and put my filthy clothes in the washing-machine. Matt’s wonderful lodger is film-maker Dominique Othenin-Girard, who, finding inspiration in China, has lived in Beijing since 2013. Their door is always open, and they also have the lovely Italians Gabriella and Nelly staying. It’s good to get back to the style and topics of conversations in English (bear in mind that in London I rarely have any company…), and I enjoy cranking up my crap Italian (hallucinante)—though since much of my energy still needs to be invested in Chinese, trying to switch between three languages is perhaps a challenge too far.

The donne italiane are much given to home cooking. Much as I relish meals with Li Manshan and his wife (noodles and baozi dumplings and steamed bread), breakfast of espresso with home-made crostaccia is a treat.

After my first film screening at Beishida, Ju Xi and her students take me to the campus bar round the corner. Already pleasantly pissed (“I drank a little beer”; cf. Some Portuguese epigrams), I take the subway home (so much more civilized these days) to a sumptuous Italian supper over copious wine and a political discussion: why is Italy so totally fucked, in a different way from the US and UK? At least we have been lately stimulated to resist: Italians seem somehow resigned to their fate.

I still find no evidence of a cowed population, either in Beijing or in the countryside. Xi Jinping seems an irrelevance, for both locals and expats. If there is little evidence of him on the street, I do pass an intriguing sign on my walk to the subway:

Pu'an Pharm lowres

The Song-dynasty Buddhist monk Pu’an is remembered throughout Hebei villages (and further afield) in the long pseudo-Sanskrit mantra Pu’an zhou 普庵咒 sung with shengguan accompaniment for exorcistic healing over the New Year’s rituals; so (allowing for typical folk variation of the second character) it seems suitable that a pharmacy should be named in his honour.

After my second Beishida show, on the walk home I pass a group of deaf-mutes signing in heated debate.

What should await me back home but a vision of pan-European elegance, the force of nature that is the multi-talented Miranda Vukasovic, having supper with the Italians and Dom—or rather holding court. Alongside his day-job, Matt is a brilliant old-time banjo player, and he used to play guitar in Miranda’s band. Miranda (like Dom, a roving soul) is a born performer—I can’t wait to see her on stage. She regales us with the long story of the impressive collection of gaily-coloured cazzotti—phallic bottle-openers—that she found in Bali.

I can’t resist trying out my chat-up line “You’re almost as beautiful as Li Manshan!” Yeah I know, I’m such a smooth talker.

(For Li Manshan and Andy Capp, see here).

Preparing with casual expert rapidity, Miranda floats off to go clubbing, leaving me shell-shocked. Aargh, young people. But I can’t possibly expect her to share a stage, so I’ve written a separate homage to her.

Of course, there are cultural bazaars everywhere, but this gives me a glimpse of why people find Beijing such a lively scene these days—like Xi’an in the Tang dynasty?! Sure, there are always challenges—sponsors who are all mouth and no trousers, the arcane ways of bureaucracy, and so on. But beneath all the political flapdoodle there’s an energy here that I’m not sure is so easy to find in a depressed declining Europe (like I’d know). My ailing friend the cult novelist and musician Liu Sola—who should know—says there are a lot of funky people here too.

Another evening, Hannibal and Hannah come over for an aperitivo. Browsing the shelves at April Gourmet I’ve snapped up a bargain bottle of Bombay Sapphire (which features in my fantasy address at the foot of my homepage, with its Chinese name), served complete with Schweppes, ice and slice—”if a job’s worth doing…”.

Then we meet up with the splendid Andrea Cavazzuti at the Ganges; I have the opportunity to introduce him to Dom, a fellow film-maker. Andrea is a long-term resident of Beijing, and an old friend of the Li family Daoists; with Hannibal and Hannah we reflect on change in the Shanxi countryside. Back home we have a little party—my tipple this evening is a beer sandwich, with gin standing in for the bread.

Italian group

With Andrea, Gabriella, and Nelly. Photo: Domenique Othenin-Girard.

Never mind the tribulations of my fellow-students in Beijing in the 1970s—even in the 90s, when my Chinese friends were still terribly poor, such a lifestyle felt like an unwarranted luxury, a failure to Become at One with the Masses. But now that most of us have become poor foreign cousins to the locals (cf. fieldwork too)—and even Li Bin’s circle in Yanggao county-town have become conspicuous consumers—“long gone are the days when” [Molvania] one might feel ashamed at indulging in such expat decadence.

At the same time I’m always aware that I’m only passing through, and I respect the experience of long-term Beijing dwellers like Matt, Andrea, or the redoubtable Ian Johnson (another groupie of the Li family Daoists!).

At one film screening I’m received by a seriously cool Uyghur student, considerate and lovely. After setting up, we sit outside in the courtyard and we check out cool tracks on his tablet. He loves Billie, Amy, and punk—and he takes to heart Nowhere man:

I tell him how I used to play ghijak in London (we are eliptical with words), and we listen to intense muqaddime on satar.

After the film, and astute questions from the students, a bunch of us take cabs to a great upper-storey bar, mates of my new friend. Yet again I get pleasantly pissed, loving their chat—such a great scene here. Adept with their fancy phones, they insist on prepaying for a cab for me back to the hotel. Thankyou all for the inspiration, teachers and students!

Despite my culture-shock on returning from Yanggao, Beijing seems great—overlooking the “architecture”, obviously. But I still miss Li Manshan. He was getting a cold as I was leaving, so I call him up to see if he’s on the mend. I tell him his name is on everyone’s lips here; and I’m happy to report that I met a “Chinese bloke—big cheese” (see here, under 2nd moon 28th).

Next evening I take Matt for a curry, then more laughs with Dom and the Italians. The warmth of their interaction is precious.

Friday is Good Friday—better for us than for Jesus (I suppose that’s the whole point). After our round table at Beishida, we all go for an informal and boisterous meal. The splendid Cao Xinyu wonderfully insists on making a detour to take me home in a cab. My Beijing friends find my commitment to public transport an affectation; I get used to my erstwhile poor Chinese colleagues ferrying me round in cabs and their own gleaming posh cars, the like of which I never see among my friends in the UK.

Back home there’s yet another party going on (a juerga, if you like), to which I contribute Prosecco. I tell the Mantua joke for our Italian maestre della cucina. Matt gets in the groove with some blues, and Stones numbers; after a rendition of I’m a pheasant plucker, he sings an amazing I’ve been everywhere, along the lines of Johnny Cash (“tight but so loose”, as Matt observes)—Country, like flamenco, making another instance of “license to depart from behavioural norms”:

—itself based on the Hank Snow version. So it’s a “catalogue aria” (here I go again)—as in Don Giovanni (immortalized by Michael Nyman!), or Chinese folk-songs—including ritual items like the Song of the Skeleton and the Twenty-four Pious Ones. So there.

Matt shares the true guitar aficionados’ love of open tuning, and we sing the praises of Keef.

Chez Matt cropped

Gabriella, Dom, Nelly, Matt.

International cultural exchange, eh. On my last day in Beijing my lighter runs out at the same time as my notebook—most satisfying. Then back to London for another dose of culture-shock.

A feminist Chinese proverb

Jiuzhan quechao

Occupying the male stronghold: Li Min (left), her sister, and their children, 2013.

Further to proverbs like “No silver here” and, um, “Confucius, Mencius…“, the thought-provoking Appendix of Guo Yuhua‘s definitive book on Maoism in a Shaanbei village is titled

鸠占鹊巢 jiu zhan quechao
doves occupying the magpie’s nest

This may sound rather like our dog in the manger, and while there doesn’t seem to be a suggestion that the doves are being pointlessly selfish, in imperial times it did acquire a derogatory sense of usurpation.

Guo Yuhua used it to evoke the stubborn resistance of a somewhat down-and-out villager in refusing to move out of the cave-dwellings that had become incorporated into the village’s glossy new Commemorative hall to the revolution. Indeed, the Party leadership had itself requisitioned the former landlord complex when they moved into the village in the 1940s.

Further east in north Shanxi, whenever I come to Upper Liangyuan village to stay with Li Manshan, his wife and any visiting female relatives use the east room—by the kitchen—while Li Manshan and I sleep in the west room, which becomes our male domain for chatting amidst a fug of cigarette smoke.

I mentioned Li Manshan’s brilliant second daughter Li Min in the first of three posts attempting to redress the flagrant gender imbalance of my fieldwork on ritual life in Yanggao. Li Min maintains a healthy scepticism about my visits—my outsider status and general ineptitude in facing the challenges of village life—and with her quiet yet fierce intelligence she’s always ready with an astute quip, like the way she pithily unpacked the ethnographic time-frame for me.

While the proverb had long acquired a pejorative tone, Li Min herself usurped it with a wry feminist slant one afternoon when Li Manshan and I returned home to find her, her sister, and their young children availing themselves of “our” west room, taking their due—doves occupying the magpie’s nest, as she observed.

In fact their visits enliven the general mood at home, and Li Manshan and his wife make wonderful grandparents… For my gifts to Li Min’s son, do click here!

Like the BBC of Lord Reith’s mission statement (cf. Philomena Cunk‘s aperçu “The show got a record audience of 400—the sort of viewing figures BBC4 still dreams of”), Li Min always informs, educates and entertains me; she’s a star. As I tell her, she may never have got on the official payroll, but she should be made Director of the Datong Bureau of Culture forthwith. And jiu zhan quechao might make a suitable motto for the Chinese feminist movement.

Li Min reading

Li Min reads a passage on women’s status in Yanggao ritual life from Wu Fan’s fine book.

 

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).

Maoism
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).

But perhaps the most important work of all on the Maoist period is that of Guo Yuhua, with her detailed ethnography and critique of “Communist civilization”.

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.

Dikötter’s study of the famine years around 1960 is part of a growing body of material from both foreign and (laudably) Chinese scholars, on a par with other state-engineered famines like that of Ukraine in the 1930s—as Anne Applebaum’s recent study reminds us. Basic sources include

  • Jasper Becker: Hungry ghosts: China’s secret famine (1996)
  • Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: the great Chinese famine, 1958–1962 (English translation 2012)
  • Wu Wenguang’s memory project
  • the works of Xun Zhou
  • Ralph A. Thaxton, Catastrophe and contention in rural China: Mao’s Great Leap Forward famine and the origins of righteous resistance in Da Fo village (2008)
  • Erik Mueggler, The age of wild ghosts: memory, violence and place in southwest China (2001)
  • websites such as China famine 1959–61.

See also under China: commemorating trauma.

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.

Excesses
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.

Christians

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.