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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sojourn of Educated Youth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

 

 

Folk ritual: testing the waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Documenting religion in China

Gansu miaohui FK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

At the barbers

“Barber” by Sidney Gamble, Wenchuan, Sichuan (Item ID 43A-231). Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.  Reproduced by permission.

Notwithstanding the constant transformation of Chinese society, Sidney Gamble’s photo from around 1917–19 shows a scene that is still common in rural China today (for his remarkable collection, see here; and for the Miaofengshan pilgrimage, including Gamble’s early film footage, here. And for more fine historical images, see this site).

I was wont to have my head shaved even before I began doing fieldwork in China. But since the older generation of peasants in north China tend to do so (mainly for the sake of hygiene), I emulate them while I’m there.

Early in the course of my long-term work with the ritual association of Gaoluo, one demonstration of our developing relationship was my decision to have my hair cut in the village. From my Plucking the winds (pp.205–6):

Our visits through the hot summer of 1993 were our first since our initial one in 1989. Though now engaged on a general survey of many villages, we were increasingly drawn to Gaoluo, returning there frequently, and despite the recent theft, we spent many happy times together. We used to sit outside on low stools in the shade of He Qing’s courtyard, with Cai An, Li Shutong, and others gathering round for a chat and a smoke. This was the time when we appreciated the depth of He Qing’s knowledge. And our major musical discovery that summer was the vocal performance of the magnificent Houtu scroll (audio playlist, track 6, and my notes here].

GL haircut

He Junqi prepares to cut my hair. Left: our fine MRI driver Little Deng; behind him, in white, maestro He Qing.

I admired the closely cropped heads of many of the musicians, and tend to do without much hair in the summer myself. He Junqi (then 54), a regular visitor to He Qing’s house, son of the sweet elderly flautist He Yi, used to cut the musicians’ hair for them, so I asked him if he’d like to do mine. Everyone stood round having a good laugh, while He Junqi gave me the most meticulous haircut and shave of my life, scouring my scalp with local “White Cat” washing-powder.

And since 2011, a regular haunt of mine on visits to Yanggao to hang out with Li Manshan and his Daoist band is the Barber for Old, Middle-aged and Young (Laozhongqing 老中青) in town, just round the corner from Li Bin’s funeral shop.

laozhongqing

Photo: Li Bin.

Since we all agree that I look years younger with my head shaved, we soon glossed the name as “Old Jonesy is younger” (Lao Zhong qing 老钟轻)—yet another in our series of merry puns

Kulture

As I snap remorselessy at the heels of the heritage shtick, my cavils revolve around the Chinese concept of mei(you) wenhua 没(有)文化 “lacking in culture”. It’s a cliché referring to people’s degree of modern state education. Even peasants deprecate themselves with the term, though it is precisely the riches of their quite separate culture that “educated” urban pundits purport to admire—before trying to shoehorn it into their own.

Li Bin’s brilliant joke (keep watching after the final credits of my film) subtly satirizes the gulf between peasants and intellectuals. Here’s a fuller English version (my book, p.ix):

So there’s this Ph.D. student on a long-distance train journey, sitting in the same compartment as a peasant.

He’s dead bored, so to pass the time, he says to the peasant, “I know, let’s play a game. We both ask each other one question. If you can’t answer my question, you have to give me 100 kuai; if I can’t answer yours, then I have to give you 200—because I have a Higher Level of Culture, don’t you know?” The peasant goes, “Oh right—umm, OK then.”

The student says smugly, “You can start, because I have a Higher Level of Culture!” So the peasant thinks for a bit and asks, “OK then, I got one—so…
What is the animal with three legs that flies in the sky?”

The student racks his brains. “Huh?? An animal with three legs that flies in the sky? Hey, there isn’t one, surely… Ahem… Crikey—you’ve got me there. OK, I give up, I guess I have to pay you 200 kuai.” He hands the cash over to the peasant.

The student, still bemused, goes on, “An animal with three legs that flies in the sky… Go on then, you tell me, what is this animal?”

The peasant scratches his head and goes, “Hmm… nope, I dunno—OK then, I can’t answer your question either, here’s 100 kuai!”

As local traditions continue to be distorted, large areas of the world are in danger of being turned into a kitsch Disneyland theme park. A certain amount depends on the “level of culture” of state bureaucrats all along the chain; in China the central ICH authorities do indeed organize “training sessions” for regional cultural cadres.

But the whole system seems inherently flawed. Local, um, heritage bearers have their own ideas about what to do with their traditions—and given the dubious benefits and evident dangers of the state system, with its own “lack of culture”, people like me might hope they could be left alone to do so. But beguiled by the chimera of fame and fortune, they’re all too easily hijacked by the power of state machinery and tourism—in China and elsewhere.