Robert van Gulik


Van Gulik

Robert van Gulik (Chinese name Gao Luopei 高羅佩, 1910–67)—“diplomat, Asian scholar, calligrapher, polyglot, polymath, passionate lover of life in all its forms”—is perhaps best known for his Judge Dee detective novels set in the Tang dynasty and his writings on the qin zither, as well as on imperial Chinese painting and erotica.

A 1995 biography, now translated into English,

  • C. D. Barkman and H. de Vries-van der Hoeven, Dutch mandarin: the life and work of Robert Hans van Gulik (2018)

makes a fascinating read, at once sympathetic and dispassionate, and covering not just China and Japan but the many cultures where Van Gulik was posted during turbulent times.

And at a recent conference on the qin at SOAS, convened by the enthusiastic London Youlan qin society, I was glad to see the 2016 film

in the presence of Van Gulik’s granddaughter Marie-Anne Souloumiac. It’s far from a biopic, more a free-ranging fantasy—somewhat as imperial China was for Van Gulik and others like Arthur Waley. Here they introduce the film:

Indeed, Van Gulik was only able to make stays in China from 1936 to 1946. While his interests were broad, his character affable, and his lifestyle tactfully bohemian, he immersed himself deeply in the role of an imperial mandarin. For all his hedonism, his writings are full of meditations on impermanence.

Early life
With his parents, Van Gulik’s early life was spent mostly in Dutch East Indies. As he recalled:

Father’s main orderly and groom was a Javanese sergeant who was a lover of the wayang, the ancient Javanese shadow-play. The puppets he had hung on the wall of his room caught my fancy at once (these stylized puppets constitute as a matter of fact one of the finest expressions of Javanese artistic genius) and prompted by me he began to relate to me the stories enacted on the shadow stage. The wayang thus became the dominating passion of my childhood. My parents knew that I expected no other birthday present than a new wayang puppet, and I built up a small collection of the main characters, with which I gave performances against a bedsheet hung across the room, and under the guidance of the Javanese groom.


So precocious was the young Robert that he wrote a substantial essay on wayang in 1921, aged 11! He also attended performances at village feasts, and (like Wang Shixiang in Beijing) enjoyed martial arts, kite-flying, and football.

I can’t help thinking of the accident of birth: what a contrast Van Gulik’s blessed life makes with his Chinese peasant contemporaries like household Daoist Li Peisen—who himself was luckier than most.

Back in Holland, while Van Gulik’s interests turned towards Chinese culture, he became familiar with an array of languages—even including Blackfoot (in whose music Bruno Nettl would also specialize). Still,

Although I had a certain facility for learning languages, my aim in doing so was primarily to come to know more about the people who used these languages, and not to become an accomplished philologue.

Studying Chinese and Japanese at the universities of Leiden and later Utrecht, Van Gulik also added Tibetan and Russian to his repertoire, continuing his studies of Sanskrit. At first the reader may find all this rather overwhelming—as with other prodigies of that generation like Laurence Picken’s mentor Walter Simon, or Harold Bailey at Cambridge.

With his family background, Van Gulik now naturally gravitated towards the Foreign Service, serving as diplomat first in Japan (1935–42) and then China (1943–46)—with a typically picaresque interlude as a secret agent in east Africa.

His first experience of China was a week-long stop-off in Harbin on his train journey towards Tokyo. Though the book’s authors go on to refine it somewhat, his description encapsulates the shock of the idealistic scholar:

Harbin shocked and baffled me. It was the most dismal city in the dismal puppet-city of Manchukuo. I felt completely at a loss, also because my Chinese, Russian, and Japanese colloquial knowledge proved sadly inadequate [YAY!—SJ]. In the cavernous Hotel Modern where I was staying, suave Soviet officers (then still attached to the Chinese Eastern Railway) rubbed shoulders with grim-looking Japanese agents, in the squalid streets Chinese hooligans brawled with pauperized poor White Russians, under the indifferent eyes of slovenly clad, insolent Chinese soldiers, and smartly turned-out, contemptuous Japanese military police; the bars were crowded by blowzy Russian prostitutes, and the noisy Chinese women in the shops and in the streets were drab and ugly. Everywhere one was met with hostility and suspicion. Where were the refined Chinese scholars, writing poetry in their elegant miniature gardens, where their dainty damsels? It was a terrible disillusion.

His confusion continued on arriving in Tokyo. But amidst his busy hedonistic life there, as his spoken Japanese improved, he also took lessons in Chinese; and “every so often he would learn another language (Mongolian, Hindi, Korean)”. Perhaps we can derive very slight consolation from comments that even in later life his spoken Chinese accent was less than perfect. And I note with a certain pride that we can add Van Gulik to the list of Famous People with a Slight Speech Impediment.

Early encounters with the qin
On his first visit to Beijing in September 1936 Van Gulik purchased an antique qin zither, taking lessons with Ye Shimeng. Back in Tokyo he found another Chinese qin player to instruct him further.


Much of the repute of the qin zither outside China may be attributed to Van Gulik’s publications (even if he called it a lute, for which organologists tend to forgive him!). His two books on the “lute” were completed as early as 1940—when he still had very little practical experience of the qin community.

John Thompson, whose amazing website remains basic to qin studies, has an instructive page on Van Gulik. Indeed, John has a cameo in Rob Rombout’s film. I describe my own ambivalent relationship with the qin here.

Van Gulik’s diplomatic work in Tokyo had become even harder after the Japanese launched their full-scale invasion of China in 1937, and then in 1940 with the German occupation of Holland. He intervened to forestall an anti-semitic move in Japan—back in Holland, his brother would help Jews to escape.

In summer 1939 he was able to pursue his sinological interests in Shanghai. But in 1940 he lost his entire collection of books, paintings, and objets d’art after sending them to Batavia for safe-keeping. Like Li Shiyu and his collection of precious scrolls, he simply began again.

On a trip to Beijing in December that year, his first qin master Ye Shimeng having died in 1937, he pursued his tuition with Guan Zhonghang.

His diplomatic work became ever more urgent with the spread of the war to Indochina and the attack on Pearl Harbor. He wrote a detailed report on extreme nationalist parties in Japan. A fortnight after the surrender of Dutch East Indies, Van Gulik still managed to order qin strings from Beijing (indeed, as a baroque fiddler, strings are a topic that I take to heart). In July 1942 the legation was evacuated, sailing to Portuguese east Africa. There, apart from his energetic undercover activities, he began to learn Swahili and Arabic while continuing his library studies. Travelling widely, he found the experience (and, as ever, the women) enchanting. Meanwhile the tide in north Africa turned in favour of the Allies.

Chongqing 1943–46
With much of the heartland of China now occupied by the Japanese, intellectuals and artists flocked to Chongqing, stronghold of the Nationalists in their uneasy truce with the Communist forces based in Yan’an in Shaanbei further north. Van Gulik was now to take up a post as first secretary to the embassy in Chongqing. On his tortuous journey by way of Delhi in 1943, he became acquainted with the great Joseph Needham, then working for the British Embassy.

In between taking shelter from bombing raids, he took part keenly in the activities of the Tianfeng qin society, and sometimes played Chinese chess with the mystically-inclined John Blofeld. He met Shui Shifang, who soon became his wife; they went on to have four children.

My mentor Laurence Picken described his own first visit to China in 1944 (CHIME journal, 1991):

The very evening I arrived in Chongqing, Van Gulik and his wife had arranged a dinner-party for a number of Chinese musicians, the Needhams and myself. Liang Tsai-ping, Zha Fuxi, and Xu Yuanbai were all present…

Gulik qin Engrave and seal croppedLaurence too was immediately captivated by the sound of the qin:

There was no music like it! I bought a qin, made under the supervision of Xu Yuanbai, and began to take lessons. I played guqin every day. In England, I had always enjoyed a daily ration of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues; I felt it no loss practicing guqin instead.

Laurence also became a member of the Chongqing qin society, and bought a qin, made in 1935 by Li Shaotang under the supervision of Xu Yuanbai. He asked Van Gulik to stamp his seal on the back.

I’m honoured that Laurence bequeathed this qin to me.

And do read the CHIME story of how Van Gulik made Laurence “a sort of emissary” when he visited Pei Tiexia—and his two Tang-dynasty instruments!—in Chengdu. For an account of the tragic fates of Pei Tiexia and Pu Xuezhai, see here.

Aftermath of occupation
Van Gulik’s insights into the wartime situation in China were tempered by a colonial desire to restore Dutch power in the East Indies. And he made no efforts to engage in covert diplomacy with the Communists. He learned of the Japanese surrender while on a plane to the USA for meetings with the embassy and the State Department, and once there he advised strongly against the removal of the emperor. During his month-long trip he found time to visit libraries and museums, and to confer with scholars.

Talking of the USA, another fine contributor to Rob Rombout’s film is the New York antiquarian bookseller and litterateur Henry Wessells, also a Van Gulik aficionado (for his tribute, see here). In the film he reads from his novel A funeral procession, which features a fantasy Van Gulik—reminding me of the cortège Mahler heard in New York that inspired him to write the finale of his 10th symphony.

As the Dutch embassy relocated from Chongqing to Nanjing in 1946, Van Gulik was recalled to the Netherlands. But first he paid another visit to Beijing, at last meeting his distinguished father-in-law, as well as qin master Guan Pinghu.

An Shilin 1946

There he also visited An Shilin, errant abbot of the White Cloud Temple—shortly before irate priests burned him to death on his return from performing a yankou ritual. [1] The character of An Shilin was to become the basis for The haunted monastery in Van Gulik’s Judge Dee series (see below).

In 1946 the Van Gulik family spent two weeks in England, visiting London, Oxford, and Cambridge.

Interlude: fate and nostalgia
Once again we come up against the 1949 barrier (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.371–4): alas, neither Van Gulik nor Picken were able to continue visiting China after “Liberation”. This, of course, was a common pattern among Western sinologists right until the 1980s’ reforms.

Van Gulik was unable to serve there since Western nations like the Netherlands had only chargés d’affaires in the new PRC, a post too high-ranking for his status; later in Kuala Lumpur he even declined the Chinese ambassador’s offer of a trip as guest of the government “because he had no wish to revisit China where so many of his best friends had perished.”

And Picken too demurred from attempting to visit, since “I didn’t want to return to a country where I couldn’t move about freely. Travelling would have been possible only on a sort of Intourist basis.” His belated return in 1990 followed an interval of fifty years.

Golden-age nostalgia is a chronic conceit, that has also recently become increasingly fashionable in China. Those gatherings in the 1940s, before the convulsive change of dynasty, are now adorned by a numinous patina.

For all the tribulations of elite culture under Maoism, both of them would have been deeply impressed by all the scholarly and performance activities of the qin fraternity through the 1950s, in Beijing and around Shanghai—many of whom they already knew, like Zha Fuxi, Guan Pinghu, Wang Mengshu, Pu Xuezhai, Xu Yuanbai. How they would have loved to take part in Zha Fuxi’s project in 1956, documenting qin players (and their instruments and scores) all over China!

One curious absentee from accounts of Van Gulik’s time in Chongqing is the incomparable Yang Yinliu, who was also active there at the time. With Yang’s deep erudition on Chinese music (both elite and folk, and both history and current practice), and his own studies of the qin, they would have got on splendidly. Indeed, like Picken, Yang had a qin made by Xu Yuanbai in 1935.

Yang Dajun

In Chongqing, Van Gulik and Picken had spent time with the pipa player and artist Yang Dajun (1913–87) (see herehere, and here). Van Gulik even repaired Yang’s pipa for him. Early on my first trip to China in 1986 I visited him in Beijing, at Laurence’s suggestion; but alas even if my language skills had been up to it, I was still too callow to ask him for details on his life before and after Liberation. But such slender silken threads bind us with the past…

Yang Dajun 1986

With Yang Dajun, Beijing 1986.

Long after Van Gulik’s visit to the ill-fated abbot An Shilin, in Beijing in the early 1990s I also visited the White Cloud Temple to consult the far more upright priest Min Zhiting—great authority on Daoist ritual, and also a qin player.

And now I succumb to nostalgia myself, recalling sessions in the 1980s with qin elders like Wu Jinglue, Wu Zhaoji, Lin Youren, and Yao Gongbai. Even today grand masters continue to assemble at qin gatherings.

One may also be nostalgic for the days of the Renaissance man (even the gendered term is quaintly outmoded) and the polymath orientalist. While such enthusiasts may still be found even in this age of dour professionalized academia, there remains a gulf between the classical sinologist and the modern ethnographer.

As Li Manshan observes at the end of our film, “things ain’t what they used to be” (今非昔比). Indeed, Old Lord Li decorates coffins with images of the qin (see film, from 18.46), although he (like most rural dwellers) has only seen it on TV in the last decade. And while very remote from Van Gulik’s refined taste for the amateur art of calligraphy, Li Manshan is always busy writing characters for ritual use (film, from 10.44).

Still pursuing this unlikely link, Van Gulik, like Li Manshan, was a chain-smoker. I’m amused to learn that, not entirely bound by Confucian taboos, he was wont to allow fag-ash to drop onto his precious antique qin—like my violin teacher Hugh Maguire onto his Strad, and Irish folk musicians.

After China
From 1946, as people worldwide recovered painfully from wartime devastation, Van Gulik embarked on to a succession of posts in The Hague, Washington DC, India, the Middle East, and Malaya, as well as more extended stays in Japan—his Chinese wife gradually overcoming her understandable reluctance to live there.

Thus after the age of 36 Van Gulik never returned to China. While he had relished life there, interacting with various types of people, his main passions (like many sinologists and indeed lovers of “high art”) were always antiquarian. Notwithstanding Nigel Barley’s caveat about “being accepted” (here, under “Rapport”), Van Gulik’s insider status has long been fêted both in China and Japan. Apart from important intelligence work, his formidable reputation allowed him to privilege his scholarly pursuits over routine diplomatic chores, his eccentric lifestyle largely tolerated by his superiors.

For all his keen insights into the situation on the ground, his political horizon was limited, as the book observes. With Communist victory imminent in China, he lamented that the USA had not helped Chiang Kai-shek attack them earlier, but commented that the conflict

is not one of ideological differences, it is actually the struggle for supremacy between two rival power groups, both shaped in the same totalitarian mold and both relying on the nationalist sentiments of the Chinese people. Communism in China is not a foreign doctrine to be imposed on the people by force, it links up with how the Chinese have lived for centuries.

He also observed,

Chinese culture is in the Chinese blood and will endure for as long as there are Chinese. Whatever they may say about Communism, it is not totally new in China. Earning money for money’s sake has always been regarded with the greatest contempt in China. Down the centuries, China has offered everyone equal chances, and the important industries have been state property.

Hmm. Discuss…

In Hong Kong, and later in Kuala Lumpur, he took part in gatherings with qin players. In India he pursued his studies of Tantrism. Back in Holland he renewed his affinity with wayang and gamelan, chatting with Jaap Kunst. He continued to enjoy visits to the cinema, and (like Mozart) playing billiards. In Kuala Lumpur he developed a passion for gibbons, keeping them as pets. He relished haiku and limericks.

Meanwhile in the West, oriental mysticism was coming into vogue, as people like Gary Snyder and Alan Watts began to spread the word.

Judge Dee
Most captivating are Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries, set in the Tang dynasty and based on the real character of Di Renjie. Rob Rombout’s film includes suitably naff scenes of the Judge Dee park in Taiyuan.

Van Gulik had taken an 18th-century Chinese novel about Di Renjie with him when the Dutch legation was evacuated from Tokyo in 1942, and set to work on translating it in Washington DC in 1947, publishing this first volume in 1949. He now embarked on a whole series of beautiful novels on Judge Dee’s exploits—some written during his time in Lebanon during the civil war.


Agatha Christie praised The Chinese maze murders, and the series became popular in translation in China. For more, see here; for an internal chronology and Judge Dee’s postings around China, here.


Naturally, since Judge Dee is Van Gulik’s alter ego, he makes him a qin player.

I’m not so sure that the State Department’s erstwhile choice of the novels as “the best possible introduction to the background to Chinese life” was entirely practical—though given my own early taste for Tang culture, I’m a fine one to talk. Anyway, for what it’s worth, soon after reaching China in 1986, inspired by Van Gulik and Picken I avidly began learning the qin; but my own interests transferred to living folk traditions of music and ritual. At first, still seeking vestiges of elite culture, my rural forays were driven by the Confucian concept of “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside“.

But as studies of China continued expanding in scope beyond classical sinology (political campaigns, famine, gender studies, migration, and so on), I was soon pursuing broader ethnographic (and modern) concerns, hanging out with household ritual specialists, spirit mediums, outcast shawm players, and vagrants. Hence my gradual estrangement from the tiny, rarefied world of the qin, despite my admiration for my mentors there like Yuan Quanyou and Lin Youren.

Towards the end of his life Van Gulik was planning keenly for cartoon and puppet versions of the Judge Dee stories. Rob Rombout’s film also features a vignette from Frédéric Lenormand, author of a further series of novels focusing on Judge Dee’s wives.

Art and erotica
Van Gulik’s later life was also devoted substantially to the study of imperial Chinese art and erotica. On the latter he published two major works, Erotic colour prints of the Ming period and Sexual life in ancient China.


He had carried out impressive practical research on the “arts of clouds and rain” during his bachelor days, notably in a succession of more or less transactional liaisons with female companions in Tokyo—hinting again that Philip Larkin may not have been entirely correct to claim that sexual intercourse was invented in 1963.


Quaintly, Van Gulik wrote the more explicit passages in Latin, as they were not intended “to be read by all and sundry”—although even he couldn’t devise a system to prevent the riff-raff from enjoying the illustrations. Diligently, he also documents the array of dildos available to the ancient Chinese, a theme probed further by Li Ling in the film.

Meanwhile his health was declining. Though ever keen to explore new cultures, his last years, apart from another stay in Japan (and Korea) from 1965 to 1967, were spent mainly in the Netherlands, where he succumbed to cancer, too young, aged 57.

* * *

What an extraordinary life. While making allowances for Van Gulik’s background and tastes, his story suggests tantalising perspectives on changing strands in sinology, and how the scholar or amateur might engage with, or withdraw from, the Real World—regarding ancient and modern China, and further afield.


With thanks to Marie-Anne Souloumiac and Cheng Yu


[1] For refs., see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.226; also e.g. Vincent Goossaert, The Taoists of Peking, pp. 259–301; herehere, and here.




A rare duet for qin and erhu


Much as I love the qin zither, I still need to rehabilitate myself for daring to query its dominance in Chinese music studies—as I observed here, it is as if the whole varied spectrum of European musics were represented mainly by the clavichord (see also here).

So here’s a rare version of the qin solo piece “No ulterior motives regarding seabirds” (Oulu wangji 鷗鷺忘機: I might suggest “Seabirds: forgetting ulterior motives”) as a duet with fiddle, recorded in 1962 by the great Zha Fuxi (1895–1976) on qin and Jiang Fengzhi (1908–86) on erhu:

In the 1954 image here, left to right are: Wu Jinglue, Wu Zhenping, Zha Fuxi, Jiang Fengzhi (looking remarkably  like Yang Yinliu!), Guan Pinghu.

The qin has such an intimate solo timbre that the only other instrument usually deemed suitable to play with it is the mellifluous end-blown flute xiao; the erhu, with its modern romantic conservatoire repertoire, is generally considered quite remote from the meditative ethos of the qin. But this version of Oulu wangji shows how a simpler, restrained, selfless style of fiddle playing can blend well, enhanced by the low tuning—a model for Bach on the erhu?! It’s also effective because whereas in most qinxiao duets both instruments play throughout, here the erhu takes the main melody while Zha Fuxi accompanies selectively with pivotal notes, almost like a continuo player.

It’s all the more poignant when we think of the date of recording—during the interlude between the traumas of the Great Leap Backward and the Four Cleanups. It may seem hard to imagine how anyone can be nostalgic for the period before the Cultural Revolution—but despite their tribulations, the stellar gatherings of qin masters, and the brilliant scholars of the era, have a numinous allure.

Oulu wangji is a favourite of qin players—among many versions online are performances by Guan Pinghu and Wu Zhaoji. As ever, John Thompson’s website is a treasury of information—for Zha Fuxi, see here, and for a typically erudite discussion of the piece, here.

The story goes back to the ancient Daoist sage Liezi[1]

There was a man living by the sea-shore who loved seabirds. Every morning he went down to the sea to roam with the seabirds, and more birds came to him than you could count in hundreds.

His father said to him: “I hear the seabirds all come roaming with you. Bring me some to play with.”

Next day, when he went down to the sea, the seabirds danced above him and would not come down.

Therefore it is said: “The utmost in speech is to be rid of speech, the utmost doing is Doing Nothing.” What common knowledge knows is shallow.


[1] Liezi, BTW, deserves a bit of an image-rebrand to boost his ratings alongside Laozi and Zhuangzi! By the Tang his work was honored with the fine title True Classic of Simplicity and Vacuity (沖虛真經)—an award now reserved for TV reality shows.

A playlist of songs


Apart from the mainly-Chinese playlist in the sidebar (commentary here), below are some links to an eclectic selection of All-time Great Songs* on this blog. Besides the songs, the posts are worth reading too—Trust Me, I’m a Doctor.

*Of course, varied as this selection is (à la McClary; see also here, and here), it isn’t so eclectic as to include Transylvanian funeral laments, Sardinian tenores, flamenco deep song, Umm Kulthum, Indian singing, or Aboriginal dream songs…

For a similarly diverse playlist of trumpeters, see here (indeed, trumpet has its own tag); and for some feminist lists, here (with bonus tracks including Sheridan’s Smith’s amazing cover of Anyone who had a heart) and here.

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.

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.

The Mary Celeste

A couple of dubious and inadvertent highlights from my orchestral life, on the perils of gut strings—among several occasions in my so-called “career” in early music when the taint of maestro-baiting would be quite unfounded:

Mary Celeste

Göttingen, mid-1980s, concert performance of a Handel opera on stage, recorded live for broadcast. I’m sharing a desk with a Hungarian violinist who hasn’t been playing with the band for long, and in the middle of a frantic tutti passage his E string breaks (as they do).

We do take spare strings onstage, but it’s not long till the end of Act One, so you might think he could just flounder around in the upper reaches of the A string when necessary before putting on a new string in the interval—it’s quite a tricky procedure, made tense in public. Ideally you want to take time notching the bridge, and the node at the top of the fingerboard, with a pencil; securing the loop at the tailpiece and threading the string carefully into the peg (perhaps after applying a bit of peg-paste), spooling it neatly inwards in the pegbox; stretching the string and adjusting the bridge—and even once you’ve got the string on and up to pitch, it needs a while to bed in. By now the other three strings will have gone haywire too. *

But no, bold as brass my desk partner decides to replace the string right there and then, on stage. It’s not exactly that I’m not amused at the comic potential, but apart from my subtle discouraging shrug there’s not a lot I can do—am I my brother’s keeper? So as the loud chorus gives way to an intense recitative from Michael Chance, I join in with the magical sustained pianissimo string accompaniment, while my desk partner is noisily and cheerfully cranking his string up to pitch, twanging away, tuning peg creaking ominously.

Later in the bar I evoked the soundscape:

“It was just like the Mary Celeste…”

Needless to say, backstage in the interval it was me that got a bollocking from the maestro: “Steve, you really should keep your desk partner under control—these foreigners just don’t understand our system…” WTF.


And here’s a related incident from the second half of a concert in Lübeck cathedral during the wonderful Bach pilgrimage in 2000, again being recorded:

I was sitting in the middle of the band innocently admiring a hushed secco recitative when the tailgut on my fiddle snapped. Since that’s what holds the whole contraption together, it exploded spectacularly, sending bridge, tailpiece, tuning pegs and sundry fittings flying high into the air. It wasn’t so much the initial explosion—everyone watched spellbound as bits of wood descended in slow motion onto the ancient tiled floor all around, the clatter drowning the singer’s exquisite pianissimo. With a husk of a violin in my hand, I scrambled round furtively on the floor to retrieve all the debris I could find, and sloped off while the cantata continued.

I thought I handled the mishap rather well, but sure enough, after the gig I got another (neither deserved nor surprising) bollocking from the maestro, who seemed to take it as a personal affront—as if I had deliberately made my violin explode in order to undermine his personal majesty. Hey ho.

Drowning my sorrows at the posh reception afterwards, ** I asked around to see if there was a luthier there who could get my fiddle back in shape for the rest of the tour, and sure enough I was introduced to a kindly old man who, after we’d shared a few more drinks, took me back to his workshop to take a look. We spent a lovely hour chatting as he carefully fitted a new tailgut and pieced my violin back together, exchanging stories of my fieldwork in China and his own early memories of Lübeck cultural life.

My new friend refused to take any payment, but having been just as enchanted by the Buxtehude Klaglied in the first half as I was, he asked if I might possibly get hold of a copy of the recording that had been made. Later, back in London, I did indeed manage to send it to him, which made a suitable reward for his kindness. Silver lining, then.

See also Muso speak: excuses and bravado, and the early music and humour subheads under the WAM category.


* If you like this kind of detail, then try my comments on the Daoist mouth-organ, and Carson’s on Irish music. If you don’t, then tough.

** For Gary Kettel’s classic posh reception story, and Stewart Lee’s variation, see here.

Guo Yuhua: Notes from Beijing, 3

GYH chat with last headscarfed man

2005: Guo Yuhua chats with the last man in Jicun village still wearing the traditional headscarf of the north Chinese peasant, iconic image of the revolution. Photo courtesy Guo Yuhua.

During my recent sojourn in Beijing, as well as my lecture series at Beishida and film screenings at People’s University and Peking University, it was a great inspiration to meet up again with the fine anthropologist Guo Yuhua 郭于华 (b.1956).

She’s just done an interview for Ian Johnson (latest in a fine series for the NYRB; this earlier interview in Chinese is also instructive), so here I’d just like to add my own personal reflections on her extensive oeuvre, with further material on fieldwork. [1]

1 Introduction
Introduced in London by the great Stephan Feuchtwang in the 1990s, we later met up in Beijing. In 1999 she took me to the Shaanbei village that was already a major focus of her research. In March 2018, not having seen her for ages, I was keen to catch up.

Professor of sociology at Tsinghua university in Beijing since 2000, Guo Yuhua is widely admired by scholars in China and abroad, maintaining high academic repute in the innovative sociology department alongside Shen Yuan 沈原 and Sun Liping 孙立平[2] What distinguishes them from other China anthropologists—both in China and abroad—is their rigorous critique of “Communist civilization”.

I meet Guo Yuhua on the vast Tsinghua campus one afternoon and we go to a quiet café. I sip a bucket-sized strawberry frappé for hours as she delivers a passionate tirade/lecture, talking non-stop.

After gaining her PhD at Beishida and doing a post-doc at Harvard, by the 1990s Guo Yuhua was involved in a major project on oral history at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), documenting villagers’ personal experiences of the Maoist era—a project very far from the traditional oral history of folklorists.

Her early fieldwork focused on folk culture (as was the vogue at the time), but as she began delving deeper she moved onto the wider, and deeper, social and political systems of modern life. In 1999 she edited the influential book

  • Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁 [Ritual and social change] (Beijing: Shehuikexue wenxian cbs),

with contributions from leading scholars like Wang Mingming and Luo Hongguang. Most articles explore the complex relation between local society and the state. Apart from her introduction, her own article there expounds many of the issues in her 2013 book (see below):

  • “Minjian shehui yu yishi guojia: yizhong quanli shijiande jieshi” 民间社会于仪式国家:一种权利实践的解释 (陕北骥村的仪式于社会变迁研究) [Folk society and the ritual state: an interpretation of the practice of power (Ritual and social change in Jicun, Shaanbei)].

Guo Yuhua was an early blogger, later moving onto Weibo, Wechat and Twitter, where she is indefatigable in exposing injustice and defending rights.

Surveying her activist online activity, it might seem as if she’s changed paths since her early fieldwork on rural society and ritual, towards a deeper political engagement. But far from it, it’s all a continuum (“the whole dragon” again)—the social concern was always there. Amidst the current threat to our own values in the USA and Europe, many Western scholars may now be appreciating her wisdom.

But in China, such a principled stance requires more determination. Guo Yuhua’s blog and social media accounts have long been regularly blocked or censored. As she observes, in the face of constant scrutiny, it’s never clear where the line is—you just have to keep probing. The Party can’t control thought totally—the genie is out of the bottle, and China has to stay open for business; social media stills brings information and can be astutely deployed. Still, plain speaking is easier for established scholars than for younger scholars starting out.

I’m scribbling notes as she talks, but after a while my pen runs out. I suggest, “Is this one of Theirs, trying to stop me writing down your Thoughts?!

Apart from her Tsinghua colleagues, scholars she admires include historians Qin Hui 秦晖 and Zhang Ming 张鸣; and in legal studies, Xu Zhangrun 许章润 (for the latest in a series of critiques, see here), He Weifang 贺卫方, and Zhang Qianfan 张千帆 (individual articles also on—gosh, what an important resource this site is!). Guo Yuhua is part of a chorus of scholars criticizing the “New Rural Construction” campaign, with its coercive programmes of expulsion.

Apart from her through background in Western sociology, her work builds on Chinese tradition—like Fei Xiaotong’s candid account of villages evading state collective policy (Dikötter, The Cultural Revolution, p.280).

Though she is closely surveilled even when she does rural fieldwork, she never loses her sense of humour—she has lots of funny stories about her fieldwork, and being surveilled. She seems cool and open, knowing she’s doing the moral thing, saying what needs to be said, on the basis of her rich practical and theoretical experience, with careful detailed scholarly research. She speaks for truth, that of the common people among whom the CCP once gained support by espousing. She does all this not out of “bravery” but more as a duty, like the patriotic intellectuals of yore. As she comments in the NYRB interview,

Sometimes, you feel you can’t tolerate it—you have to speak out. And if you’re looking at the people in society who are suffering, well, they’re so pitiful. It’s intolerable. You feel you can’t help them in another way, so at least you can try to publicize it and get a public reaction. In fact, you aren’t really helping them, but you feel you have to speak.

And she still manages to take teaching very seriously. Her courses, with impressive reading lists, include rural sociology, research methods, and the sociology of politics. Taking students on village fieldwork, she even does livestreams.

Such Chinese scholarship doesn’t tally neatly with Western concepts of left and right.  Over here, last time I looked, those who strive for social justice and speak truth to entrenched conservative power are considered on the left. But When Guo Yuhua visited the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle in 2016, making a critique of Karl Polanyi’s views on the market economy, their views were at odds.

While she understands my lament that some foreign media coverage seems to suggest that Chinese people are brainwashed automatons, she still worries that many are indoctrinated. Like in the USA, I ask? I may sometimes feel uncomfortable with foreign China-watchers’ monolithic portrayal of an evil surveillance state, but Guo Yuhua, in the thick of it, commands great authority.

* * *

Fieldwork may stimulate a social conscience (cf. journalistic reports like those of Liao Yiwu), and anthropology has a long history of activism—if less so for China. The task is to understand different lives, and speak out on people’s behalf—obvious topical instances including Syrian refugees and Beijing migrants.

I’m tempted to wonder, isn’t this a natural career path for any anthropologist (or indeed priest) working among the poor? What may seem more curious is that many, whether Chinese or foreign, don’t follow such a path. Exposure to the lives, and cultures, of rural dwellers should inevitably prompt us to ponder their situation—but that rarely surfaces clearly in the literature on China. And it does seem to lead naturally to a principled involvement with issues of social justice. So perhaps that’s why authoritarian governments are likely to be wary of anthropology, and “experts” in general.

The anthropology of ritual and expressive culture in China may seem somewhat separate from such social and political enquiry, but it needs to absorb such lessons (as I often suggest. e.g, here). So with much research on Chinese music and Daoist studies still blinkered and stuck in reification and myths of an earlier idealized past, I’ve long looked to anthropology for inspiration. Still, compared to the 1990s when one could do meaningful work, Guo Yuhua finds the current anthropological scene in China backward, with funding ever more politically controlled.

Of course, anthropologists don’t only study exotic tribes and peasants. They may also explore the lives of the legions of those who make “our” own pampered lifestyles possible—cleaners, migrants, construction workers, often from poor villages whose conditions the anthropologists may also experience.

The fabled Chinese Masses may have been thoroughly exploited under Maoism, but since the reforms they have been serially demoted from the empty epithet of laobaixing to flagrant “low quality” (suzhi di) to “low-end population” (diduan renkou). Guo Yuhua is always on their side.

2 Narratives of the sufferers
There’s already a substantial literature in Chinese and foreign languages not only on Shaanbei-ology (see also Shaanbei tag) but on the village of Yangjiagou (Guo Yuhua uses its old name, Jicun). It features prominently in my own book

Adapted from pp.xxvi–xxvii:

In the hills east of Mizhi county-town, Yangjiagou has been the object of study for a steady stream of Chinese and foreign scholars. It is not necessarily typical, in that it was home to a dominant local landlord clan in the Republican period, and has been visited by sociologists since the 1930s; since Chairman Mao stayed there in 1947 it has become a minor revolutionary pilgrimage site. Sociologists with new agendas have made thorough restudies since the 1990s, and recently a Japanese team has published a book on its architecture, soundscape, and society. Today villagers have become all too accustomed to outsiders. However, the revolutionary connection hasn’t protected it from poverty. Though only 18 kilometres from the main road, it was a difficult journey until 1999. The village gained electricity only in the early 1980s, and its first telephone only in 2000. Though Yangjiagou’s musical traditions have been declining since the 1930s, they were maintained into the reform era. My modest contribution to Yangjiagou studies is to attempt to put the lives of its bards and its shawm-band musicians since the 1930s in the wider Shaanbei context.

By the time Guo Yuhua took me on my first fieldtrip to Shaanbei in 1999 she was already engaged in an important oral history project there. I suppose my tagging along with her confirmed my gradual shift towards the more social approach that had already been emerging in my work with Chinese colleagues in Hebei—an approach more embedded in the changing lives of people than was, or is, the fashion in either musicology or Daoist studies.

It was a great trip, instructive and fun—even if she was doubtless underwhelmed by my limited ability to behave suitably with either peasants or cadres. But I learned a lot from her, from the warmth and honesty of her rapport with villagers, right down to little practical details like buying a modest amount of incense paper as a suitable gift on attending funerals.

We spent some time around the Black Dragon Temple—another site which she and Luo Hongguang were studying, later covered in Adam Chau‘s book Miraculous response—before going to stay in Yangjiagou.

Guo Yuhua’s principled stance is shown in a nice story from our fieldwork together. In my Shaanbei book (p.147) I describe how I found some obscure tapes of shawm bands there:

I sweated blood to get hold of some of these cassettes. Few shops stock more than a couple of them, and I finally tracked down a selection on an expedition by foot to a dingy general store in the sleepy township near Yangjiagou. As I eyed the cassettes up over the counter, the dour assistant—who apparently hadn’t ever sold any of them, and certainly not to a foreigner—spotted a business opportunity. She ingenuously asked 5 yuan each for them—I had enough experience to realize they sold at around 2 yuan. My companion Guo Yuhua was indignant, and we launched into some increasingly impolite haggling. But the assistant wouldn’t budge. I generally get angry when people try to overcharge me in China, but having been searching for these tapes for years, in this case I was inclined to allow myself to be ripped off—the three tapes I had set my heart on would still cost less than a half-pint of London beer. But for Guo Yuhua the principle was clear, and she dragged me out of the shop, refusing to let me part with my money.

After some spirited exchanges as we set off back to Yangjiagou along the filthy main track, debating the balance between adhering to principle and yielding to corruption, I dashed back to the shop and bought them at the inflated price, flinging the money at the assistant with a vain display of sarcasm that went clear over her head.

Guo Yuhua reminds me how my visits to the latrine always prompted the “patriotic” family dog, chained worryingly nearby, to bark fiercely—but a visit from a district cadre also aroused its ire, so it had a certain taste. Another vignette:

One day in 1999 we visit a former village cadre—who also happens to be a spirit medium—to chat with him while his wife prepares lunch for us (“Typical!“), when in walks a young policeman from the township nearby, in search of a signature from our host for some bureaucratic trifle. I’m a bit alarmed, not so much as we’re kinda talking about some sensitive stuff here, but because as the climate relaxed through the 1990s we had reckoned we could probably economize on the laborious rounds of local permits that my forays once invited. Sure enough, the cop eyes me somewhat ferociously and goes, “What’s this wog [oh yes, there’s another story!] doing here?”

When our host explains that I’m from England, even before I can launch into some spiel about collecting the fine local folk music heritage, blah-blah, international cultural exchange, blah blah, he is open-mouthed. “Do you like Manchester United?” he asks, spellbound. Relieved, I launch into my Beckham routine, we exchange cigarettes as we discuss the prospects for the World Cup, and he leaves contented.

On my second stay there in 2001, this time accompanied by Zhang Zhentao, I spent more time with the village’s lowly shawm players (see below), and appreciated them a lot.

An important book
Propaganda is pervasive—and not just in China, as this recent attempt at debating the British legacy shows. The romantic patriotic image of Shaanbei (cf. my post One belt, one road), deriving first from Mao’s base there on the eve of “Liberation”, is now further entrenched by the bland legends of Xi Jinping’s seven years there as a “sent-down youth” during the Cultural Revolution.

Guo Yuhua’s article on Jicun in Ritual and social change already broached many of the issues expounded in her 2013 book

  • Shoukurende jiangshu: Jicun lishi yu yizhong wenming de luoji [Narratives of the sufferers: The history of Jicun and the logic of civilization] (Hong Kong: Chinese University, 2013)
    (for Chinese reviews, see e.g. here and here).


If I were King of China (an unlikely scenario), it would be required reading for all. But I’m not, it’s not, and even to find a copy in the PRC may take a certain ingenuity.

As Guo Yuhua writes [Harriet Evans’s translation],

We discovered that ordinary peasants are both able and willing to narrate their own history, as long as the researcher is a sincere, respectful, serious and understanding listener.

Notwithstanding my comment that ethnography is about description, not prescription,

Bourdieu and his collaborators’ work in listening to these people’s stories and entering their lives can be seen as a fulfillment of the sociologist’s political and moral mission—to reveal the deep roots of the social suffering of ordinary people.

The peasants of Ji village where we have been carrying out fieldwork for many years refer to themselves as “sufferers”. This is not a term that we as researchers have imposed on the subjects of our research; rather it is the definition that villagers give to themselves. In the region surrounding Ji village, “sufferer” is a traditional term that peasants continue to use today to refer to those who farm the land present. In local language, the “sufferers” are those who “make a living” on the land; it is a local term that is popularly accepted and conveys no sense of discrimination. When you ask a local person what he is doing the common response is “zaijia shouku” (lit. “suffering at home”), in other words, making a living farming the land.
[from Harriet Evans’s translation].

In the Hong Kong interview Guo Yuhua explains,

Of course, in doing oral history we would never expect people to “tell about your suffering”—we’d never ask like that. Rather, we ask them to tell us their stories: how their life was when they were young, when they grew up, married and became parents. We don’t go in search of suffering, and their accounts aren’t entirely about pain. Sometimes their stories sound really painful, but they will talk very ironically. Often we find women laughing and crying at the same time—one moment crying as they talk of heartache, the next finding it funny how foolish they must have been at the time.
Scholars aren’t some Arts Propaganda Troupe [!!!]—we don’t have to extol how happy and contented we are nowadays, that’s not our job [cf. “WTF” article in n.1 below]. Our job is to view the issues in this society, to understand the painful experiences of ordinary people, and where they come from.

Citing Xu Ben 徐贲 (For what do human beings remember? 人以什么理由来记忆) and Wu Wenguang’s project on the famine, she goes on to discuss the significance of memory.

Apart from the villagers’ own accounts, the subtlety and perception of Guo Yuhua’s enquiries are a model for fieldworkers (e.g. 211–12).

As we will always find, the village’s history is utterly remote from its model revolutionary image. You might think it would take more effort to ignore what happens than to document it, but people have been effectively groomed in public amnesia. The case of Yangjiagou is all the more revealing since it is a common rosy theme online, including videos, based on the image of Mao’s sojourn there and the whole CCP myth-making. It also makes a good case because there were no excess deaths there in the “famine”; unlike the labour camp stories, it’s a story not so much of extreme degradation but rather the routine degradation of daily life—the constant hunger, duplicity, and brutality.

Breaking free of the simplistic class narrative of Maoism, Guo Yuhua’s thorough theoretical Introduction [3] is inspired notably by Bourdieu, as well as authors like James Scott, Philip Huang, and Guha and Spivak; for the stories of women, she cites Marjorie Shostak.

Clearly written and structured, the book highlights the vivid voices of the local “sufferers” (including former “landlords”, cadres, women, and so on), linked by her trenchant commentaries.

GYH 2006

Chat with village women, 2006.

The memories of women form a major component of the story, on which she reflects thoughtfully—not least issues in eliciting their more domestic world-view (e.g. 127–37; cf. this article).

Women do recognize the social “conviviality” (honghuo) of being forced out of the house to work in the collective fields. [4] But the true impact of hunger hits home in their accounts of childcare, with the constant anguish of being unable to feed their children.

In the Hong Kong interview she expands on the changing status of women, as ever disputing the Party line:

Some scholars consider that after rural women had experienced the female liberation (elevating their status), they regressed after the reforms. But after you have done fieldwork among rural women and listened to them describing their life experiences, you will realize that it simply couldn’t be called “liberation”. However is liberation passive? To be called liberation it has to be autonomous, personal. Their status was merely changed: previously dependent on family and lineage, they were now dependent on the state and the collective. They remained tools, objects, being organized and mobilized into collective labour against their will. What they seem to be telling is how they fell sick, exhausted by labouring, looking after children, sewing, enduring famine amidst a lack of material goods. Such accounts may sound like trivial matters, but the whole background it is quite clear what it really meant to be a rural woman, and what it was that created their plight. With no room for choice, women had to do what they were told; they had to take on the most exhausting, physically demanding tasks, not even able to recuperate properly after giving birth, thus subjecting them to disease. Their condition was one of enslavement.

After the reforms, they could leave the village to work, and there were plenty of active young women able to use their determination and aptitude to change their fate to some extent. This was definitely progress, but it wasn’t an automatic process: there were still many constraints, with injustices at many institutional levels. Still, although many girls don’t appear independent, and may choose to find a good husband, at least they have this choice; or they can choose to go and study, become female enterpreneurs and independent women. All this gives them more choices than under the collective era.

Adroitly adopting the recent CCP buzzword hexie 和谐, Guo Yuhua pointedly details how—both under Maoism and since the reforms (121, 240–41)—the “harmonious” social relations of the old society were polarized and moral values poisoned.

The revolution brought to the fore the less reputable elements in local society, like the local bully who used his new power as an activist under the CCP to torture a “landlord” into giving him his young daughter in marriage (60–61). And the villagers remained disgusted despite his political power. As she notes, facing such problems in mobilizing the masses, “the use of bad people became the only choice” (112–14).

As throughout Shaanbei, infant mortality rates were high, both before Liberation and under Maoism. Apologists like Mobo Gao point out certain advances (in healthcare, education, and so on) under the commune system; the Mizhi county gazetteer (p.630) [5] claims an increase in life expectancy from 35 in 1949 to 60 by 1989. Indeed, the villagers concede that some of the economic advances since the reform era were based on the desperate projects under Maoism.

But for Guo Yuhua such defences are derisory. On my interminable bus journey back to Beijing in 2001 I chatted with a modest young guy from poor Jiaxian county who was studying for an economics PhD at People’s University in Beijing; he was one of fifteen children, of whom only three had survived.

In numerous villages like this where there was no resentment towards the landlords (they were widely considered “benevolent”), and the concept of “exploitation” was alien, the CCP had to manufacture “class hatred” by the indocrination of constant campaigns. Landlords and their children, educated and able, joined both sides of the conflict, working away from the village until they were dragged back to be punished as “sacrificial victims”, notably with the layoffs from state work-units around 1962 (another universal theme in my own studies, e.g. Li Qing in Yanggao: Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.113–18).

She concludes: “Overall, before 1946 Jicun was a relatively tranquil and serene traditional village.” (Discuss…)

The new rulers now had to foster class consciousness. With both oral accounts and substantial official sources Guo Yuhua documents the stages of land reform, with its inevitable corruption and theft. [6] Conscription, brutally enforced (108–10), added to their woes. Citing Zhang Ming (see above), she shows how the goal of land reform was not economic but political (113).

She refutes the CCP myths of “temporary problems” like the Cultural Revolution, or the “three years of difficulty”: just as I found in north Shanxi, villagers were starving for over two decades, from collectivization right until privatization.

After a brief interlude when the peasants at least nominally had their own land, a long succession of political rituals now cowed the villagers into obedience, condemning them to long-term hunger, exhaustion, and sickness. Having already suffered famine in winter 1947–8, their hunger became ever more severe as collectivization was enforced; one villager recalls that from 1958 to 1979 it got worse year by year (154). Scavenging was the only hope of survival.

Coercion was an intrinsic component of the whole system, and excessive violence was rewarded (236­–8). As the objects of attack soon expanded from the landlord class to the whole rural population (114), campaigns became a life-or-death struggle.

In describing the stages of collectivization, Guo Yuhua reminds us of the traditional voluntary methods of mutual help, and the whole ethical system, that were demolished (117–21).

Stressing the militarization of society, she details the whole succession of what the villagers call “a fucked-up flim-flam” (luanqibazaode mingtang 乱七八糟的名堂)—like short-lived care enterprises for children and the childless elderly, largely unsuccessful literacy campaigns, the failure to teach revolutionary songs. After the sheer desperation following the Great Leap and the short-lived communal canteens, the interlude when private plots were tolerated from 1961, giving peasants a slender lifeline, was all too brief before the Socialist Education and Four Cleanups campaigns led into the Cultural Revolution, as hunger became endemic again. Cadres were just as clueless as ordinary villagers about the details and goals of these “rotten” campaigns; and the aims of factional fighting (180–82) were no clearer, apart from the constant cycle of petty revenge that the whole system had long fostered.

Apart from the persecution of cadres, the landlords again made inevitable scapegoats. Only two villagers met violent deaths in the Cultural Revolution (and that after the main violence of 1966–8)—but their story still haunts villagers today (182–6).

With its landlord history, the village had a wealth of fine old architecture. Nearly forty years after a stone mason was recruited to detonate “the finest archway in Shaanbei”, Guo Yuhua finds him to tell the story.


The former landlord stronghold, 1999.

As in Europe, even today the older buildings that somehow survived look picturesque—as long as you don’t dwell too much on the indignities that they have witnessed.

By the 1960s villagers’ disillusion was complete. Still, Guo Yuhua notes their own later conflicted memories:

  • the sense of conviviality (honghuo) enforced by collective labour (including singing haozi work hollers), which she compares with the “collective effervescence” of ritual;
  • the sense that they were all in the same boat—scant consolation when people were all destitute and starving together, but contrasting with their later atomization since the reforms:

Out we went, voices all round, chattering away merrily, convivial all of a sudden. As soon as we got back home, there was nothing to eat, the kids were crying, clothes all tattered, nothing to mend them with—just that moment of conviviality.

Commenting on their more recent memories, she notes

Material amelioration and the deterioration of social life, as well as nostalgia for the collective life produced by their escalating marginalization, to some extent transforms and even conflicts with their memories of suffering.

  • and their startling ironic “logic” that with the collapse of the commune system the CCP slogan “first bitter, then sweet” (coined to contrast the old feudal society with the Communist Utopia) had indeed finally come to pass with the present material sufficiency—albeit several decades too late, and only after the collapse of the very system that had touted the boast (156–65). For some, the transition

from collective to privatization wasn’t a retrogressive transformation of correcting the mistakes of the system, but like a natural “first bitter, then sweet” cause-and-effect.

She notes the villagers’ sullen passive resistance in showing up for collective labour without working, citing the dictum of Qin Hui (see above) that communes from which people can’t withdraw are no different from concentration camps.

Since the reforms
As the stultifying commune system collapsed (“rotted” as they say, lan nongyeshe 烂农业社; another common expression for the privatizing reforms is dan’gan 单干, “going it alone”), the book describes the long complex process of adjustment.

With villagers clamouring to overthrow the commune system, at first some cadres hesitated to stick their necks out, anxious that the political winds might change yet again.

A vivid exchange in an interview with a former cadre:

Later it became the norm, the whole county was dividing up…
[Woman interjects:] It was spring. I remember dividing up the donkeys, don’t I.
Cattle, you mean cattle.
[They argue over whether it was donkeys or cattle…]

As for villagers in north Shanxi, this was the real “Liberation”:

Going it alone was great, just great. If we’d have gone on in the collective, in a few more years there’d be no-one alive, we’d all have fucking starved to death [laughs]—really! (212)

Guo Yuhua goes on to reflect on the mechanism that had enabled such coercion, and the villagers’ own assessment of the changing times, including their reservations about the way society had gone on to evolve (213–21).

In the final chapter she draws conclusions, exploring the “logic” of both sufferers and the system that they endured, and warning that the campaign style is still active.

In an Appendix (also online) entitled “Doves occupying the magpie’s nest” she updates the story, reflecting on later visits in 2005 and 2006. The dwelling where Mao stayed from 1947–8 had been revamped as “Commemorative hall to the revolution”, and the former ancestral hall of the Ma landlords was being converted to an “Commemorative hall to the battle relocation in Shaanbei”, an “educational base on the revolution”. No room for the villagers’ own voices here.

Taking a tour of Mao’s old dwelling she suddenly realizes that two of the cave-dwellings—former residence of Peng Dehuai, no less—had become the home of the eccentric villager Liudan, whose father had made such a deep impression on Guo Yuhua that she had published an article about him in 1998:

Though from a landlord background, he was considered “enlightened gentry”, and was on the advisory team for land reform. Becoming a teacher away from the village, he was yet another victim of the state cuts in 1962, having to return home. He now became “maladjusted”, cut off from village life.

Now, amazingly, his son Liudan was still occupying the two caves in the revolutionary site, adamantly refusing the state’s handsome offer of money to move out. Never able to find a wife, he too was unable to work; most villagers understood his seeming mental deficiency as a highly astute form of passive resistance. Even recently he was still something of a down-and-out. As Guo Yuhua observes, his refusal to move out was reminiscent of both the indignant protests of evicted urban dwellers and the struggle over whose version of history will prevail; but given his mental frailty, his resistance was rather complex.

Anyway, we needn’t hold our breaths for a memorial to the victims of Maoism, to match the commemoration sites in Germany for those of Nazism and the GDR.

And Guo Yuhua still manages to go back regularly to Yangjiagou—even as year by year, fewer people remain who can recall the period before “Liberation”; before long, who will remember the Great Leap Backward?

GYH 2011

Village chat. 2011.

As in Europe, we all visit sites where people were tortured and murdered within living memory, yet we may merely see them as picturesque—an image avidly promoted by Chinese propaganda.

* * *

One feature that enriches the authenticity of the book is its direct citations of villagers’ accounts in their own words. Thus it also serves as a kind of practical handbook for Shaanbei dialect. Use of language, of course, lends insights into people’s conceptual world. [7]

Apart from having to latch on to regional pronunciations, like de (duo), hou (hao), he (hei), bie (bei), ha (xia), ka (qu), and so on, Guo Yuhua soon helped me pick up some basic expressions, like haikai 解开 “understand” and chuanka 串去 “go for a stroll”. Now I can finally savour the language of her meticulous documenting of peasants’ reflections, albeit twenty years too late—basic expressions like nazhen 那阵 “then” (jiuqian 旧前 “in the old days”); zhezhen 这阵 or erke 尔刻 “now”; laoha 老下 “dead”; yiman 一漫 “totally”; ele 恶了 “very” (not the standard feichang). The whole commune system is known as nongyeshe 农业社 or daheying 大合营; for collective labour they say dongdan 动弹.

Among the many pleasures of peasant language is its liberal use of expletives, a revealing contrast with the standard Chinese of propaganda—polished, polite, and so flagrantly false as to insult the intelligence.

Religion and ritual
Guo Yuhua’s PhD, which became the book

  • Side kunrao yu shengde zhizhuo 生的困扰与死的执着:中国民间丧葬仪式与传统生死观 [The puzzle of death and the obstinacy of life: Chinese folk mortuary ritual and traditional concepts of life and death] (Beijing: Zhongguo Renmin daxue cbs, 1992),

largely concerned traditional rural mortuary rituals, and remains stimulating (note her fieldnotes from Shanxi and Shaanxi, pp.198–217). Indeed, her 2000 article on Jicun in Ritual and social change contains more material on changing temple life there than does her 2013 book.

While she has moved on from ritual to broader social issues, she recognizes the importance of both religion and religious studies in China. I think of de Martino‘s fieldwork on taranta in south Italy, also engaging with the plight of the sufferers.

Guo Yuhua sees religion and myth as behaviour with long historical roots to explain the world, a kind of survival technique. (cf. Ju Xi). In an email she notes similarities with the CCP’s enforced belief system:

If the latter is as “scientific” as they claim, then it too should be subject to corroborating or refuting; it should be explored, debated, doubted, critiqued. But the current reality is that it demands unconditional veneration as an item of faith, even written into the constitution—a totally illogical position.

Religious studies should take account of such [sociological] approaches, rather than mere descriptive documentation or “salvage”—viable cultures will endure and evolve without such measures. Given the importance of religion in society, as long as studies takes account of its social basis, then it’s a worthy discipline.

As she observed in interview, alluding to the Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft debate,

If you say, Chinese tradition is such a society of rites and customs (lisu 礼俗), not of legal rationality (fali 法理), then its distinctive feature is human governance. To be satisfied with this explanation is to shirk responsibility, because if everything goes back to the ancestors, then what is there for us to do? If one wants true reform, I think we have to start from the institutional level, so naturally we have to transfer our attentions towards institutions, or more precisely, the interactive configuration of culture and human nature. 

Expressive culture
My taste of fieldwork with Guo Yuhua only increased my own quest to relate local expressive cultures to politics and society—a common goal of ethnomusicologists, but much less commonly achieved for China.

On one hand, the study of imperial China is eminently necessary, but for many Chinese scholars it has had the added attraction of being relatively safe (cf. former Yugoslavia). Studies of culture and ritual, too, tend to be an autonomous zone into which social change since 1900 rarely intrudes.

As the state has receded somewhat since the 1980s, it may seem slightly less risky to document the current fortunes of folk genres, though this too often descends into a simplistic lament about the lack of a new generation; and as the overall society certainly becomes more affluent, those stark social problems that do remain continue to be taboo. So we accumulate dry lists of ritual manuals and sequences, vocal and instrumental items, and birthdates of performers.

Meanwhile, social and political change is often seen only through the lens of “revolutionary” culture, while living (or at least only semi-moribund) traditional vocal and instrumental genres are imprisoned in museums and libraries, and their performances sanitized for the concert platform. Their history under Maoism is blandly encapsulated by listing a few isolated performances at secular regional festivals, along with a standard clichéd sentence on the “mistakes” of the Cultural Revolution.

Guo Yuhua tellingly describes the replacement of traditional ritual culture by that of political campaigns—although in my Shaanbei book I note the enduring strands of tradition even through the years of Maoism. While the lives of blind bards and shawm players feature in her account, I think my own focus on them in my book still makes a useful supplement.

LHQ shuoshu

Li Huaiqiang, 1999.

In my survey of itinerant storytellers in Shaanbei, my accounts of the changing fortunes of the village’s blind bard Li Huaiqiang (1922–2000, known as “Immortal Li”, Li xian) also derive from Guo Yuhua’s close relationship with him (see my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei). As this article grows, I’ve written about him and other bards in a separate post.

Another major theme of my Shaanbei book, and the accompanying DVD (§B, cf. my comments on the funeral clip from Wang Bing‘s recent film), is the village’s shawm band. Such bands belong to the traditional litany of social outcasts. One of Guo Yuhua’s main informants is Older Brother, the sweet semi-blind shawm player who features in my own book and film.

Yangjiagou funeral 1999

Yangjiagou funeral, 1999. Older Brother second from left.

While I was filming the procession to the hilltop grave, setting off before dawn, Guo Yuhua was taking photos:

funeral climb 1

funeral climb 2


In a society where no matter how desperate people were, even vagrancy offered no hope (162), Older Brother tells Guo Yuhua how, with his family starving, he reluctantly went on the road begging in the second half of 1968 (133–4, 193–6), led by a sighted old man from a martyred revolutionary family. In a moving account, he tells how they went on a long march throughout Shaanbei, sleeping rough; they were treated kindly on the road, learning to beg for scraps. When conditions allowed simple funerals, he even played his shawm, his companion accompanying on cymbals. He would find people to write letters home to his father to reassure him he was still alive. By the winter he had found a rather secure village base where he was hopeful of eking a living, but this enabled his father to track him down and summon him home.

It may seem ironic to cite Mao here, but as he observed,

There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.

So did the socialist arts Serve the People, meeting their needs? Whose needs do state propaganda units like the Intangible Cultural Heritage serve now? Of course, while the state has its own agenda for the latter, local actors can utilize it to achieve their own requirements, as several scholars have observed (and that is perhaps the only thing that can be said for it).

As I suggested in my post on the recent film of Wang Bing, this is the context in which we blithely analyse the scales, melodies, and structures of Chinese music. Primed with Guo Yuhua’s book, you’ll never again want to read the bland reified propaganda from the ICH.

* * *

In her book, as in her whole scholarly output, Guo Yuhua makes a rational and forceful indictment based on detailed evidence, a passionate plea for heeding the voices of ordinary people and rewriting history.

All this may be a rather familiar story abroad (from individual studies like those of Chan, Madsen and Unger (Chen village), Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden’s two volumes on Wugong, my own Plucking the winds and Daoist priests of the Li family, or the broader brush of Frank Dikötter—I hardly dare mention the few apologists like William Hinton and Mobo Gao, to whom Guo Yuhua gives short shrift). But it feels yet more incisive coming from PRC scholars, and her research is both detailed and amply theorized. The only aspect where the stories of Chen village and Wugong may make more impact is that they follow individual lives, whereas most of Guo Yuhua’s citations are anonymized.

While her work such as that on Jicun exposes the tragic failures and outrages of the Maoist decades, she is also relentless in denouncing current abuses—always upholding the values of social justice and the liberation of the sufferers, inspired by the same concern for the welfare of Chinese people that once made the CCP popular. (For my own nugatory contribution to Xi Jinping studies, see here, and even here.)

I seem to be suggesting a rebalancing from the newly-revived Guoxue 国学 (“national studies”: traditional Chinese culture, especially Confucianism) towards Guoxue 郭学 (Guo Yuhua studies). She bridges the gap between politics, anthropology, and cultural studies. Whether you’re interested in society, civil rights, history, music, or ritual, let’s all read her numerous publications—and do follow her on social media.


[1] Many of her important articles are collected here, including several related to her work in Shaanbei. For another major recent article, see here (or here). For a brief yet penetrating and indignant essay, try “OMG, not that stupid ‘happiness’ again?!” My thanks to Guo Yuhua, Stephan Feuchtwang, Harriet Evans, and Ian Johnson for further background.
[2] For a translation of Sun’s recent article, soon blocked from WeChat, see here. For a useful English account of the Tsinghua group, see here; and yet another fine anthropologist there is Jing Jun 景军. For Wang Mingming at Peking University just up the road, see here.
[3] §4 of which was translated by Harriet Evans as “Narratives of the ‘sufferer’ as historical testimony”, in Arif Dirlik et al. (eds.). Sociology and anthropology in twentieth-century China: between universalism and indigenism (Hong Kong: Chinese University, 2012), pp.333–57.
[4] Guo Yuhua notes that traditionally women’s main opportunity for public interaction was at the 3rd-moon temple fair for Our Lady, but I wonder if their exclusion from the ritual sphere was so severe: female spirit mediums had been, and still are, a major element in ritual life.
[5] The silence of the 1993 Mizhi county gazetteer on the privations and indignities of the Maoist decades makes the frank accounts in the Yanggao gazetteer (also 1993) all the more impressive: see my Daoist priests of the Li family, e.g. pp.100–101, 123.
[6] Hinton, in his classic Fanshen, also documents complexities, but within an overall positive tone.
[7] I’m not sure how rare this is in academia, but it has been adopted by novelists such as Li Rui and Liu Zhenyun. In Sun Peidong’s review she cites Han Shaogong’s novel A dictionary of Maqiao (Maqiao zidian 马桥词典), set in Hunan, for its unpacking of local language. For Shaanbei dialect, cf. the 2007 book Tingjian gudai 听见古代 by Wang Keming 王克明. For film documentaries, see here.


Deviating from behavioural norms


In Paris with the Li family Daoists, 2017.

Under my fetish for taxonomy, the new subhead for humour under the WAM category contains many orchestral stories.

As Stephen Cottrell observes, they may often be subsumed under what Merriam calls the musician’s “licence to depart from behavioural norms”.

Many, indeed, relate to maestro-baiting (see also conducting tag), like John Wilbraham‘s celebrated comments.

Several stories go in pairs, like

And there’s an indecent wealth of Matthew Passion stories, such as Mein Gott.

Spreading the net wider, for instances of deviant behaviour

  • in Iberian folk traditions, see here and here;
  • and for jazz, e.g. Chet Baker, here and here.

Of course, it’s not only musicians who may have license to depart from behavioural norms, as is clear from the career of Bumbling Boris.