Following in the footsteps of Kristofer Schipper, John Lagerwey has taken research on living Daoist ritual into new territory, expanding the field for scholars in mainland China. A new volume, published in Hong Kong and edited by Lin Chenyuan and Pan Junliang,
Wandering on the way of history and fieldwork: an anthology of essays by Professor John Lagerwey translated in commemoration of his retirement 優遊於歷史與田野之道：勞格文教授榮休紀念譯集,
consists of Chinese translations of some of the seminal works in his voluminous ouevre, made by many of the scholars whom he has inspired to do their own fieldwork (cf. Daoist ritual in south China, with links), including (besides the editors) Lü Pengzhi, Tam Wai Lun, and Wu Nengchang. David Faure pays tribute to John in a preface.
Left, Lagerwey with Master Chen Rongsheng, 1975.
Right, with students and colleagues, 2001.
In his own introduction, John expresses his gratitude to his Chinese students, first in Paris and then in Hong Kong, “who gave new meaning to the work of recovery”:
If what I thought to have found in their culture made sense to them, then perhaps what I had found was truly theirs and not some foreigner’s projections or idealisations.
Following the flummery of the Coronation, I keep finding myself perplexed by the ways in which elites dominate images of society.
The new exhibition at the British Museum, China’s hidden century, is a splendid idea. If the Qing dynasty is a poor cousin of the Ming, the 19th century has suffered by comparison with the long and glorious early-Qing reigns of the Kangxi (1661–1722) and Qianlong (1736–95) emperors. So it’s a worthy mission to reinstate the period, “often defined—and dismissed—as an era of cultural decline”, amidst economic crisis, uprisings, and foreign invasion. The Opium Wars of the 1840s marked the beginning of a “century of humiliation”, the late Qing making one of several instances of hitherto thriving empires that now suffered in turn at the hands of foreign imperialism (cf. Pankaj Mishra on the wider context of Ottoman modernization, at end of this post).
Attending a preview of the BM exhibition, I’m reminded that museums and art galleries, and indeed libraries, depend largely on material that reflects the values of a tiny minority of urban educated people (mainly men). This approach was long standard for most societies, but it’s clearly one that more recent historians have been seeking to refine. And of course, like books, artefacts are silent and immobile. Now I don’t mean to give you another of my “What About the Workers?” rants; I quite understand the brief of museums, and the culture of elite minorities has a rightful place alongside those of other social groups. But as anthropologists and ethnomusicologists seek to engage fully with the “red and fiery” nature of performance in local society, the limitations of both museums and elites soon become apparent (see e.g. Society and soundscape, and What is serious music?!).
So I’m grateful to the exhibition for stimulating me to revisit some of my own material from the field. In this I’m always in awe of the incomparable erudition of Yang Yinliu (1899–1984). Brought up in Wuxi during the final years of the Qing dynasty, Yang learned instruments from Daoist priests from the age of six, going on to join the refined Tianyun she society and to become a fine exponent of qin zither, pipa and sanxian plucked lutes, while supplementing his training with an education in Western culture.
In his research he had a rare grasp of both early and later imperial history, and at the helm of the Music Research Institute in Beijing after the 1949 “Liberation” he embodied continuity with Qing traditions of performance and scholarship, as well as directing major fieldwork projects.
I’m used to people (often local officials, indeed) citing this saying to explain
the inability of Communist policies to penetrate the countryside (an instance here),
but of course its original usage referred to imperial society.
In her online essay, exhibition curator Jessica Harrison-Hall asks,
How did Chinese cultural creativity demonstrate resilience in the face of unprecedented levels of violence in the long 19th century?
In the countryside some ritual and other performing groups suffered interruptions from warfare. Around Jiangsu, the Taiping rebellion must have disrupted some groups; but rather few local traditions were affected by military conflict, and those that were, recovered quite soon. The ritual association of Hejiaying village just south of Xi’an was caught up in conflict soon after the outbreak of the Hui rebellion in 1862, with instruments and scores destroyed and performers killed. The association was only able to relearn much of its repertoire in 1915 from the nearby village of South Jixian; both groups are still active today. I’d like to learn more about reasons for this remarkably long period of inactivity—much longer, for instance, than that between the 1949 Communist takeover and the 1980s’ reforms.
Xi’an village festival, 1950s.
Through the 19th century a major change in local societies was the arrival of Christian missionaries, vividly documented for Shanxi by Henrietta Harrison. By 1900, as the Qing regime went into terminal decline, tensions with traditional religious communities led to the Boxer uprising, when Catholics around Beijing and Tianjin were massacred (as in Gaoluo)—with village ritual associations supporting the Boxers against the Allied armies. Senior villagers whom we met in the 1990s had heard many stories about the events from their parents.
The exhibition has five main themes: court, military, artists, urban life, and “global Qing”. As the online introduction explains,
The show illuminates the lives of individuals—an empress, a dancer, a soldier, an artist, a housewife, a merchant and a diplomat.
Visitors will glimpse the textures of life in 19th-century China through art, fashion, newspapers, furniture—even soup ingredients. Many people not only survived but thrived in this tumultuous world. New art forms, such as photography and lithographic printing, flourished while technology and transport—the telegraph, electricity, railways—transformed society.
This makes sense as far as it goes; but while seeking to reach beyond the elite, whose culture is only the tip of the iceberg in any era, it can hardly address the poor rural areas where the vast majority of the population lived—so any attempt to broaden the topic rather depends on “going down” to the countryside. The evidence for material and expressive cultures may also invite significantly different perspectives. When Dr Harrison-Hall writes “Representing the millions of people who were not wealthy is a challenge as so little survives”, she refers to the material culture preserved in museums. Among the folk, local traditions of ritual and music that endured throughout the troubled 20th century go back multiple generations; many groups preserve early artefacts such as instruments, scores, ritual paintings, and pennants, but more importantly they transmit life-cycle and calendrical rituals that were being modified in ways that can rarely be glimpsed—even in the wealth of field reports for Hebei, Shanxi, and elsewhere in my series on Local ritual.
This reflects another common difficulty: we often seek to document history through major, exceptional events, whereas for peasants customary life is more routine. And apart from artefacts, much of the history of this (or any) period lies in oral tradition—which doesn’t lend itself so well to exhibitions.
Nor do women play a greater role in the traditions I’m about to outline; while we regularly came across elderly women with bound feet, they had hardly been exposed to the public activities of the village with which we were concerned (for posts on gender in China and elsewhere, click here; right, women of Gaoluo).
The elite solo art of the qin zither is a close ally of museums, having an intrinsic bond with calligraphy, painting, and poetry. Again, qin scholars tend to focus on tablatures from the Ming and early Qing, but John Thompson’s definitive site lists around fifty such volumes from the 19th century. Within this tiny coterie, collections like the 1864 Qinxue rumen 琴學入門 and the 1876 Tianwen’geqinpu 天聞閣琴譜 must have been in more common circulation than were early manuscripts.
Xiansuo beikao score, copied by Rong Zhai in 1814.
It’s also worth observing that there was constant interplay between folk and elite traditions. In Beijing the Manchu-Mongol court elite, such as prince Rong Zhai, were patrons of lowly blind itinerant street performers, with whom they performed a recreational chamber repertoire. For the 19th century we have names (and not much else) of musicians like the blind sanxian player Zhao Debi, and Wang Xianchen, a protégé of the empress Cixi.
“Musiciens Chinois. légation a Pékin”, Paul Champion, 1865/1866.
In 19th-century Shanghai, the paraliturgical instrumental ensemble of Daoist temples gave rise to the new secular style of silk-and-bamboo, with amateur clubs thriving right down to today. And we can even listen to recordings of music from the late Qing, such as those made by Berthold Laufer in Beijing and Shanghai. Even later releases (e.g. here) reflect an tradition that was unbroken from those times.
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Former Buddhist monks from Wutaishan with the exquisite arhat at the British Museum, 1992.
As to local temples, again we tend to focus on early dates when they were founded rather than on their social life thereafter, with steles commemorating their periodic renovation. In the temple network of imperial Beijing, traditions of shengguan ensemble which served ritual were inter-related. The Zhihua temple, built in 1443 as the private temple of a Ming eunuch, is famed for not only for its architecture but for its shengguan music, for which we have a precious gongche score from 1694.
Here it’s worth clarifying a significant misapprehension. As with notations for other genres (for the qin zither, the Beijing entertainment repertoire, or the village ritual groups we meet below), the date of copying was always long after the pieces came into currency. Scores were not consulted during performance, but constituted a prestigious artefact for their custodians. So the 1694 score of the Zhihua temple was not “composed” then; moreover, through the 19th century, long after the temple had lost its imperial prestige, the musical monks (yiseng 藝僧) of a network of Beijing temples continued to exchange and recopy scores—an energy that we can only imagine (I eagerly await the publication of Ju Xi‘s research on the evolution of the temple, in the next volume of the major EFEO series Epigraphy and oral sources of Peking temples). Meanwhile, temples in not so distant towns like Chengde and Shenyang were also acquiring new ritual repertoires.
South of Beijing, most village ritual associations on the Hebei plain seem to have been attracted by the same myths as the elite, tracing their history back to the Kangxi and Qianlong eras, or even the Ming—mostly on the basis of long oral tradition or early artefacts. While fieldworkers tend to dismiss the Chinese scholarly fashion for seeking “living fossils” in local traditions, when we extend our enquiries beyond contemporary observation to the past, perhaps we too are guilty of focusing on such early clues, rather downplaying references to 19th-century reign-periods:
Yet despite the successive upheavals of the 20th century, visiting such groups in the 1990s we gained an impression of remarkable continuity.
Recopyings of shengguan scores transmitted by Miaoyin,
including Tongzhi 13th year (1874). Hanzhuang village, Xiongxian, 1920. Photo: 1993.
Mostly we have to imagine Buddhist and Daoist priests arriving in rural temples to invigorate village ritual associations. In villages around Xiongxian county, the Buddhist monk Miaoyin transmitted a magnificent repertoire of shengguan suites in 1787, whose gongche scores were periodically recopied over the following 150 years.
Base of yunluo gong-frame with a Guangxu-era date equivalent to 1903,
South Shilipu ritual association.
Around the Baiyangdian lake, members of the Buddhist-transmitted association of Greater Mazhuang recalled an account in their old scriptures that in the Xianfeng era (1850–61) an elderly monk called Runan, from the Xingfu si temple in Libao village in Mancheng, came here regularly for three years to teach them. Nearby in Xin’anzhuang, a 1990 history of the association lists three changes of pennant over the previous two centuries and more: Daoguang 12th year , Guangxu 3rd year , and Republic 26th year (1937).
Ritual artefacts, South Gaoluo:
left, dragon placard, Guangxu reign 1st year  3rd moon 15th day,
at the behest of ritual leaders Heng Yun and Shan Wenrong;
right, ritual curtain, 1892.
In the village of Gaoluo, my main fieldsite through the 1990s, a new temple built in 1844 proclaimed the identity of a separate south village. In 1875 a “dragon placard” asserted allegiance to the new emperor, and a ritual curtain from 1892 was still displayed in the lantern tent for the New Year’s rituals in the 1990s (see early history, and ritual images).
Among ritual associations in this region the popular “southern music” that competed with the “classical” shengguan instrumental ensemble is commonly dated to the early 20th century, but Qianminzhuang in Xushui county (later famed during the Great Leap Forward) was among several village associations said to have learned in the Xianfeng era (1850–61) when the Daoist priest Wang Leyun came from Nangong county to transmit the style.
Genealogy of the Li family Daoists, from Li Fu, first in the lineage to learn Daoist ritual
in the 18th century (see also Customs of naming).
Our perspectives change once we engage with living traditions. By the 1990s, when we met senior ritual specialists born around the 1920s, they could often list the names of their forebears back five or more generations. Even if we can rarely do more than document their names, they would naturally feel more of a connection with their grandfathers than with earlier ancestors. For Shanxi, I think of hereditary household Daoist traditions like that of the Li family Daoists in their home village of Upper Liangyuan; if only we could learn more about the life of Li Qing‘s great-grandfather Li Xianrong (c1851–1920s), some of whose ritual manuals the family still preserves.
Left: manual for Presenting the Memorial ritual, copied by Li Xianrong.
Right: Li Manshan discovers temple steles.
Temples continued to be restored throughout the late Qing. The village’s Temple of the God Palace (Fodian miao) fell into disuse after Liberation (see our film, from 08.25), but we found a stele composed in Guangxu 6th year (1880), the year after the villagers completed a new bell tower and four priests’ rooms in gratitude for the end of a drought following a rain procession in Tongzhi 6th year (1867). But severe droughts again afflicted Shanxi from 1876 to 1879, so perhaps the stele further offered gratitude for this second recovery.
Another instance from Shanxi: we can trace the hereditary transmission of the Zhou lineage of Complete Perfection household Daoists in Shuozhou county. Of the third generation, probably active from the late 18th century, Zhou Laifeng was a temple Daoist, his younger brother Zhou Lailong a household Daoist.
Their descendant Zhou Erdan showed us a manuscript Yuhuang shangdi beiji (above, probably copied by his uncle Zhou Fusheng), that reproduces an 1813 stele of the Yuhuang miao temple in Shuozhou town, mentioning the brothers’ fine calligraphy.
From Qing-dynasty Tianjin Tianhou gong xinghui tu 天津天后宫行會圖.
Yet another instance of a tradition maintained through from the 18th to the 20th centuries is the “imperial assembly” of Tianjin, in this case among folk dharma-drumming associations.
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Wanhe tang musicians, 1993, heirs to an illustrious tradition.
As to local traditions of narrative singing and opera, the respective provincial monographs of the great Anthologyof folk music of the Chinese peoples (Zhongguo quyi zhi, Zhongguo xiqu zhi) contain much evidence for both material artefacts and oral tradition (e.g n.2 here; further citations in posts under Chinoperl). Near Suzhou, the Wanhe tangKunqu association was founded in the second half of the 19th century, performing largely for life-cycle ceremonies.
In Shaanbei, the Yulin “little pieces” are said to have been transmitted outside the regional court in the Daoguang era (1821–50) by Li Diankui and his son Li Fang—and the brief biographies throughout the volumes of the Anthology introduce many locally-renowned 19th-century performers. The style of the “little pieces” is thought to be influenced by opera troupes brought by Qing-dynasty regional governors from the Jiangnan region; some local scholars claim that it was based on the opera of Hunan, which may have been brought during the Tongzhi reign (1862–74) by a company attached to a division of Zuo Zongtang’s Hunan army on campaign in the region.
Nanyin in Quanzhou, 1986.
Further evidence is to be found in the riches of Hokkien culture of south Fujian, such as the exquisite nanguan (nanyin) ballads—the study of which is again rooted in the search for early origins rather than its vibrant later life. Similarly, scholars of Daoist ritual set their sights firmly on Tang and Song texts, but monographs on local household altars around south China also contain material on 19th century transmissions, including particularly rich collections of ritual paintings and manuals.
Late Qing murals are characterised by strong use of blue and white. While all of the old themes continued to be painted, a variety of new types of painting appeared in this period, some of them seemingly unrelated to anything which had come before. Important new developments include: new genres of opera-stage murals, often incorporating Western architecture, figures, or text; paintings connected to the Yellow River Formation 黃河陣 ritual; and a large number of rather eccentric Buddhist murals commissioned by charismatic wandering monks.
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Given its parameters, the BM exhibition is very fine; here I’ve just offered a few suggestive instances of the potential for documenting grass-roots history through local fieldwork. Much as we may hope to broaden the social base of our enquiries, it’s often hard to say much more than this: despite growing challenges, rural and urban ritual and performing groups, founded in the 18th century or earlier, maintained activity not only through the late Qing and Republican eras, but even after the 1949 “Liberation” and the convulsive campaigns of Maoism. Still, as the exhibition reminds us, it’s important to join up the dots between the late Ming/early Qing and the 20th century; and whether or not we spell it out, the late imperial period makes a constant backdrop to our fieldwork.
My book Daoist priests of the Li family, and the film that complements it, mainly document the maintenance of their ritual tradition in the countryside of Yanggao county (for a roundup of posts on the Li family Daoists, click here). But Chapter 18 of the book makes an interlude discussing their recent wider exposure, “marching towards the world”.
Taking the Li family Daoists on tour between 2005 and 2018 was both delightful and instructive. Our first forays to perform abroad were to Amsterdam in 2005 and the USA in 2009. After I began visiting the Li family Daoists again in Yanggao in 2011, the following year we visited Italy in the first of three tours sponsored by local Confucius Institutes (CI) (see also here, and here).
* * *
In 2013, after a year of constant emailing with the various German CIs, we’re on the road again at last.
This time on gongs we have Guicheng instead of Third Tiger, who is busy organising a campaign in his work-unit. I meet up with the band at Hamburg airport on 5th April. At our hotel the Daoists get back in practice with the coffee machine, and we catch up. Next afternoon we walk over to the CI, impressive with its elegant new repro Yuyuan pavilion teahouse modelled on the one in Shanghai. They rehearse and discuss the new item I have suggested, an a cappella sequence based on the Invitation ritual at the edge of the village. At first they were reluctant, worried that performing an item so explicitly funerary might be unsuitable. I point out that some of the greatest music in the Western concert tradition is for the dead. Apart from requiems, I go onto YouTube to play them the Buxtehude Klaglied (do you know that piece? It’s amazing!). The Invitation turns out a great success in the program, a moving tranquil interlude between the uproar of “catching the tiger” and the wild percussion of Yellow Dragon.
Next morning we just make our connection to Geneva, first of several fraught changes at the labyrinthine Frankfurt airport. On the plane, without any encouragement from me, the Daoists soon realise the beer is free—touring musos after my heart. Wu Mei listens to Chinese pop on his headphones. At Geneva we are received splendidly by the CI and Xavier Bouvier, enthusiastic head of the Geneva Conservatoire. Apart from the concert I give a lecture and show my film. As in Italy, I am happy to introduce the Daoists to old friends. Before rehearsing in the fine conservatoire hall we take some fun photos, with Li Manshan seated at the grand piano.
At Leipzig airport we are met by Thomas Rötting, indefatigable CI fixer all these months. Leipzig is wonderful. Our hotel is right opposite the Nikolaikirche—not only Bach’s church but the starting point of the 1989 Montag protests, only a few months after the Tiananmen demos. If the date means anything to the Daoists, they would recall how they were learning to do rituals with Li Qing. Apart from the GDR legacy (see under Life behind the Iron Curtain), I feel as if I am taking the Daoists to a holy site (cf. Bach—and Daoist ritual). I have played Bach here myself, even before the fall of the Wall, and have been banging on about him to the Daoists for years. On our visit to the fine new Bach museum they are as spellbound as I am, finally getting what I have been on about all this time. As I stand with Li Manshan at the urinals in the posh new loo there, he muses, “Wow, so this is where old Bach used to take a piss, eh!”.
Next day in our lecture-workshop at the CI I observe, “Now that the Li family know about Bach and have heard his music, I wish I could invite him to hear them!” Bach would have adored Wu Mei’s guanzi playing (cf. Bach and the oboe).
The gig is magnificent. The audience goes wild, their faces rapt; I love the feeling of turning on audiences to this music that has enchanted me for so many years. By now all the CIs are latching onto how very special this tour is.
Heidelberg concert, April 2013.
Happily, our last two concerts are in churches, the two sheng mouth-organs filling the building with a majestic sound just like Bach on a huge organ with all the stops out; indeed, it is the same instrument. Heidelberg is charming, if overrun with tourists (again mostly Chinese), whereas Erlangen, our final stop, is more tranquil. There, leaving Li Manshan to rest at the hotel, we are given a guided tour of the local brewery, where the Daoists imbibe the beer tastings keenly—so we can organise a piss-up in a brewery, then. The final concert is majestic. Meanwhile I’ve had plenty of opportunity to keep consulting Li Manshan and Golden Noble about the finer details of funeral segments, both on the road and while resting at hotels.
By now most of the Daoists are miraculously speaking standard Chinese—more, I hope, from talking with educated urban Chinese helpers and other laowai than from being with me. Next day we take the train from Nürnberg to Frankfurt airport. The Daoists get tax refunds on their gifts, which they promptly spend on duty-free. We bid fond farewells, their plane arrives on time for the train back to Yanggao, and next morning they’re ready to Open Scriptures for yet another funeral—hitting the ground running, just as on later tours (cf. Li Bin’s 2017 diary). For all the ephemeral pleasures of touring, the basic context for their performance, their daily “food-bowl”, remains the local funerary business.
For our 2017 mini-tour of France, click here, leading to a series of related posts.
Like the Great Plague and the Cultural Revolution, the Coronation is history, whether we like it or not. My flimsy excuse for adding to the endless discussions is that it reminded me of China—the role of Daoist and Buddhist ritual in propping up the status quo, and the way that peasants too buy into the “imperial metaphor” (see also Catherine Bell on ritual, including state ritual). I can be mildly impressed by the opulence of grand Chinese or Ottoman ceremonies, but being English I have more of a right to query the validity of our own.
The Anglican Church—another irrelevance to a growing segment of the population—plays a major role in “legitimising” the charade of the Divine Right. Yet again Monty Python and the Holy Grail comes to mind:
I didn’t know we ’ad a king—I thought we were an autonomous collective.
Awed deference is only to be expected from the BBC, toeing the Party line, but even on Channel 4 interviewees mustered platitudes, with Cathy Newman making a futile effort to feed them with alternative viewpoints. Nor could one expect usually sensible critics of irrational power like Justin Welby to demur. “Defender of all faiths” my arse. The only clue to God’s feelings on the matter came from the way it rained on the parade.
Still, nothing can detract from the sheer exhilaration of Zadok the Priest—tastefully reworked by Andrew Lloyd Webber in a benign gesture of inclusivity:
Zak the Used-Car Dealer and Nat the Bruiser (know wot I’m sayin’, right) bigged up Solly King of Da Hood, YO
Coming back for more after the Queen’s funeral, many of the riff-raff, or “subjects” (including young and poor people) may have found the display of privilege utterly irrelevant, but others took time away from their “rather gratifying” food banks (apudThe Haunted Pencil) to play their own dress-up with hats and bunting—Bread and Circuses.
After all, since Brexit we’re all rolling in money, eh? But the royals aren’t exactly short of a few bob—benefit claimants with the brass neck to go on about “service”. Service my arse. Bending over backwards to feign balance, another Guardian piece concluded
Whether multimillion-pound salaries and disdain for difficult questions can really unite and represent the values of a modern democracy remains to be seen.
Of course irony is a modern virtue, or vice, but when we study the grandeur of imperial Chinese ritual we rarely consider the perspectives of the lowly tofu-seller. In the words of Alan Bennett’s clergyman, Stuff This For A Lark. Private eye summed up my feelings:
In China after the 1949 “Liberation”, all kinds of religious activities persisted, with difficulty, at local level under Maoism—even during the Cultural Revolution—until they could be observed more openly since the 1980s’ reforms, as shown in numerous posts on this blog. Among the diverse cast of practitioners in local communities are spirit mediums, who constitute an important resource consulted by those seeking to resolve various physical, psychological, and practical afflictions (see this roundup of posts).
From Manshin: ten thousand spirits (see below).
In Korea (where they are mostly women), there’s a range of terms, among which mudang and manshin are commonly heard; in English they are widely, if controversially, known as “shamans” (see the useful discussion in wiki). While their practices in the south are well documented, they have clearly also maintained clandestine activity under the severely impoverished conditions of the DPRK in North Korea—a regime often likened to an ongoing Cultural Revolution. 
So I write these notes mainly out of curiosity; for whereas scholars who were previously limited to fieldwork in Taiwan have been able since the 1980s to turn their attention to religious life under state socialism in mainland China (see e.g. The resilience of tradition, Kristofer Schipper, Ken Dean), no such thaw has occurred in the DPRK, so clues to their activities there, gleaned mainly from defectors, remain highly elusive.
Two jangseung tutelary deities outside a Korean village, 1903. Source.
After the Korean war, the ecstatic shamanic tradition of the Hwanghae region (now the southwest of the DPRK) was introduced by many shamans taking refuge in the south. It seems important to distinguish the large-scale kut rituals performed by the mudang and the less public divination sessions of jeomjaengi fortune-tellers. An NPR article from 2021 provides some clues to the recent situation:
In South Korea, shamanistic rituals are visually flashy and involve a lot of sound, whereas in the North, from what I’ve heard, they are very small-scale and quieter. […] Practitioners can be jailed, sent to reeducation and labour camps, or executed for taking part in what’s considered an illegal superstition.
As in China, where religious activity increased in response to periods of extreme deprivation (such as in Hunan), an article on North Korea from 2015 suggests that consulting shamans (or at least the jeomjaengi fortune-tellers) has surged in popularity since the 1990s’ famine. As one defector commented:
North Koreans widely believe in shamanism. Before marriage they check their marital compatibility, when moving houses they check the site of their future home, and before they leave for business people used to ask me whether the journey would be comfortable or not.
an apparent continued increase in shamanistic practices, including in Pyongyang. […] Authorities continued to react by taking measures against the practice of shamanism. […] Defector reports cited an increase in Party members consulting fortune-tellers in order to gauge the best time to defect.
A South Korean scholar consulted for the 2021 article commented:
Because North Korean shamans who hold rituals risk being discovered and arrested, some shamans there simply do fortune-telling, which can still be effective in explaining the reasons for clients’ problems.
The article goes on:
Lee Ye-joo told fortunes in North Korea before defecting to the South in 2006 at age 33. She now lives in Chungnam province, south of Seoul. When she was 12, Lee began studying a book of divination called the Four Pillars of Destiny, based on the Chinese calendar system. She began telling fortunes eight years later. “All people who came to me were officials”, she recalls. Because ordinary North Koreans “don’t even have enough to eat, the only people who seek out fortune-tellers are those with money, like big-name officials. They usually ask when they might lose their job or who their children should marry.” Lee built up her clientele surreptitiously, by word of mouth. She had to be careful not to get caught, she says—but then again, so did her clients. “They were all linked to other officials who introduced me to them”, she says. “So if one of them got me into trouble, I could tell on all the others.” Telling fortunes didn’t pay well, so she turned to trading. She says she bought and smuggled goods out of a special trade zone to sell, often making a perilous trek through the mountains to evade authorities.
In the late 1950s, the state began to conduct campaigns against “superstitions”—a term that often included more institutionalized forms of religion as well. Since women made up the majority of fortune-tellers’ customers, the Women’s Union carried out most of these actions. […]
There are even reports about shamanistic rituals occasionally being performed in the countryside in the 1960s and 1970s—but a limited number of participants carried out such rites quietly, without music or singing, to avoid discovery. […]
The situation began to change in the early 1990s. Economic crisis and famine seriously damaged the once hyper-efficient surveillance system, and poorly-paid enforcers lost much of their erstwhile zeal. Simultaneously, the new world of trade, starvation, opportunities, and dangers made all kinds of superstitions far more popular. Amid capitalist uncertainties, it was too tempting to believe that a skilful shaman would persuade spirits to guide the newly established venture to prosperity. […]
Though sacrificial offerings, called jaesa, remained banned for a few decades, the state partially permitted some graveside rites from 1972. […]
As to geomancy and physiognomy, palm reading and dream interpretation,
North Korean refugees report that during the “Arduous March” famine it became common to consult with kunghap specialists about a would-be spouse.
Just as in China, assaults on custom are often made in the name of anti-extravagance campaigns:
In April 2007, Choseon Yeoseong (Korean Woman) magazine criticised large celebrations for the “four family events” of coming of age, weddings, funerals, and ancestral worship. “This extravagance leads to the waste of grain which was harvested with such great labour, and creates conditions for drunkenness.”
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In South Korea, besides having to adapt to commercial pressures and competition from Christianity (the latter also a significant underground presence in the DPRK), shamans have also experienced periods of state repression. A celebrated figure since the 1980s, when the mudang first came to wider attention and were documented by scholars and the media, is Kim Keum-hwa (1931–2019).  The vicissitudes of her life are brilliantly depicted in the splendid Manshin: ten thousand spirits (Park Chan-kyong, 2013), both documentary and biopic, a must-watch (here) even without English subtitles—which are at least provided in this trailer: 
Born in Hwanghae province—now part of North Korea, and then under Japanese occupation—Kim was subject to disturbing sinbyeong visions in her youth (such psychic crises commonly indicate that one is “chosen” to become a medium, in China and elsewhere); by the time she was 17, her parents could no longer resist, and her grandmother (who was also a mudang) initiated her with the naerim-gut ritual.
After the outbreak of the Korean War, Kim Keum-hwa’s “superstitious” practices came under attack from troops of both sides. For this turbulent period, the film (from 23.44) has some intriguing detail, which Simon Mills has kindly summarised:
During the war, Kim recalls seeing someone’s head explode and their guts fly up into the branches of a tree—she still feels disturbed when she thinks of it. One day a man wearing a communist-style cap and trousers said “You! Come out here!” As she came out, he said “So you’re a mudang, eh? Bring out all your things and we’ll burn them!” So she has nothing remaining from that period. At the time it was a case of do or die.
[Recreation] A woman asks Kim: “Could you help us? I hear that you’re a new mudang! Please do a kut just this once for us, to save my son-in-law Mr Park!” Kim replied: “I sense that his fortune is good. Let’s figure out a suitable date for the kut.”
(Still, as she recalls: “When the Communists retreated, the home guard treated us even worse—thinking that mudang were corrupting people’s minds and spying for the communists [presumably because they held discussions with many people and travelled around to see clients—SM]. In that period, we never thought we’d be able to hold rituals, but even people in the army would come to me for help.”)
So Kim makes the risky decision to head out to heal Mr Park—a spy from the South. During the ritual, she declares “He’ll get better” but in her head she’s hearing “He’s going to die”—and as she sings, her unconscious thoughts come out. A man points a gun at Kim and says “an unskilful novice just kills people; you should die right now!”, but both the woman who invited her and the afflicted man intervene. Kim comments: “That kind of thing happened all the time—people saying that it was all superstition and illusion… When they accused me, I just said: “My only sin was being born as a mudang…”
“As it turned out Mr Park returned to full health, but as the war situation became worse I escaped, fleeing from island to island in the West before arriving in Incheon.” She almost died in a sea storm, clinging onto some cymbals for protection, and hearing others speak of the River Jordan, wondering what they meant…
Ritual specialist attacked in anti-superstition campaign, South Korea 1972. Still from Manshin: ten thousand spirits.
Kim Keum-hwa eventually managed to relocate to Seoul, going on to master major rituals from great shamans. She started promoting the artistic features of shamanic rituals to the public, going on to win an award at the National Folk Art Competition in 1974.
Anything that hinted at superstition was frowned upon. I was persecuted day and night. I detested that I couldn’t be a normal housewife, raising a family that loves me. I loathed my fate for that. As I encountered one obstacle after another and saw how happy other people were, I was envious. Then I told myself off for coveting things that weren’t mine. My path was clearly in front of me, and I made up my mind to live it the best I could. After 40, I stopped envying the lives of others.
By the 1980s shamanism began to enjoy a vogue, and Kim Keum-hwa received the title of Living National Treasure in recognition of her work in preserving rituals, notably the baeyeonshin-gut fishing-boat blessing.
The film also shows a ritual for unification that Kim performed in 1998 near the demilitarized zone, during which she became possessed by the spirit of DPRK leader Kim Il-sung, behaving exactly as he did, to everyone’s amazement.
Still in South Korea, several other renowned mudang have perpetuated the northern Hwanghae style (see e.g. this 1988 article, and here on Yi Hae-gyŏng). Here’s a short film on the younger shaman Seo Gyunguk:
Back in the DPRK [unreleased Beatles track?], under the state ideology of juche “self-reliance”, the intense fervour for the Supreme Leader that is demanded at public demonstrations has led scholars to suggest influences from traditional Korean religions, such as the ecstasy of shamanic ritual. I would need to read up more on this before being convinced, since such politically-induced veneration appears across diverse cultures.
If grass-roots religious practices in China like those of spirit mediums have become a sub-theme of research alongside the formal institutions of Daoism, Buddhism, and Christianity, it remains impossible to conduct such ethnographic fieldwork in North Korea. Still, it’s clearly not a religious void, even if tantalising clues from defectors suggest that “shamans” there mainly practise surreptitious divination, rather than the grand public rituals of the south. If only we could somehow gain access to internal reports from local Public Security and Cultural bureaus on the continuing need to suppress “superstitious practices” among the people, such as we have for Maoist China (see e.g. under Hunan).
With thanks to Simon Mills.
 For the opaque society of the DPRK, note Barbara Demick’s fine book Nothing to envy: ordinary lives in North Korea (2010); and the Inspector O crime novels of James Church are both imaginative and well-informed. For divided Germany after the war, see links here, under the GDR.
 For the story of the goddess Houtu rescuing a Chinese brigade during the Korean war, see The Houshan Daoists, under “Houshan before and after Liberation”—another article that shows the tenacity of religious faith under Maoism. Cf. the deified young soldier shown on the pantheon of a Shanxi medium,(here, under “Dongye township”).
To accompany my post on Ethio-jazz, the whimsical piano music of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou (1923–2023) made another great coup for Buda Musique producer Francis Falceto in the CD series Éthiopiques. Vol. 21 (2006) opens with the enchanting sounds of The homeless wanderer (playlist):
Her father, the European-educated diplomat and former vice-president of Ethiopia, Kentiba Gebru Desta, was 78 years old when she was born, making her possibly the only person on the planet alive in 2023 with a parent born in 1845. The young Guèbrou was a glamorous society girl, educated at a Swiss boarding school and fluent in several languages. She had piano and violin lessons at a classical conservatoire in Cairo (learning under the Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz), immersing herself in the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann. On her return to Addis Ababa, she started to write her own compositions, and assisted Kontorowicz when he led the Emperor Haile Selassie’s Imperial Guard Band (she recalls playing the Emperor some solo piano pieces and singing him a ballad in Italian).
Following Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, Emahoy spent time in confinement with her family on an island near Sardinia (cf. this post). In 1948 she was offered a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London, but for some reason she couldn’t take up the offer. Depressed and apparently disillusioned, she abandoned high society life to take holy orders, going to live barefoot at an austere convent on the holy mountain of Gishen Mariam north of Addis Ababa.
There she stayed for a decade before returning to Addis to live with her mother, when she started playing the piano again; her recordings between 1963 and the mid-70s have become the basis for her canon. She remained in Ethiopia after the 1974 coup, but was increasingly involved in charity projects with the Ethiopian Orthodox church in Jerusalem, where after her mother’s death in 1984 she lived in a convent for the rest of her life.
In the words of John Lewis, her compositions are a “curious fusion of fin de siècle parlour piano, gospel, ragtime, Ethiopian folk music, and the choral traditions of the country’s Orthodox church… pitched somewhere between Keith Jarrett, Erik Satie, Scott Joplin, and Professor Longhair”, using
a series of pentatonic scales, or kignits [useful intro here], which are the building blocks of all Ethiopian music, from its ancient liturgical chants to its folk songs and funky pop music. These five-note scales are similar but musicologically quite distinct from Arabic maqams or Indian modes. They have names like the anchihoye, the tizita and the bati, and most have major and minor-key variations (some, like the ambassel, don’t have a minor or major third at all, and so have a wonderfully ambiguous, open-ended feel). Guèbrou’s piano playing manipulated these modes to draw us in and hypnotise us, like a snake charmer with a pungi.
Here’s an excerpt from the long-awaited documentary Labyrinth of belonging:
In her all-too-brief life, the film-maker Sara Gómez (1942–74) applied a critical ethnographic eye in documenting everyday lives in Cuba after the 1959 revolution.
One of only two black film-makers in ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos), and the institute’s first (in her lifetime, Cuba’s only) woman director, she was “concerned with representing the Afro-Cuban community, women’s issues, and the treatment of the marginalized sectors of society” (black people and women, the poor, religious, and young)—highlighting social injustice, as well as racial and gender discrimination. *
From De cierta maniera.
Most of her oeuvre consists of short films, such as her debut Iré a Santiago (1964)—visually innovative despite some almost touristy images, its voiceover as yet unchallenging but eschewing the clichéd travelogue style later parodied by Monty Python—note the funeral from 4.07, and Carnival from 11.53:
The social agenda (both the regime’s and her own) develops in Una isla para Miguel (1968):
In her final, full-length, masterpiece De cierta maniera (One way or another, 1974) Gómez incorporates a fictional love story within a documentary style to shed light on tensions in the revolution, using real people playing themselves alongside professional actors. While the style of the criticism session that opens the film may recall China under Maoism, her message is far more probing than in Chinese films of that era. Here it is:
Melodramatic outbursts of emotion are followed by an erratic camera flowing freely inside crumbling edifices. Sociological musings fade in favour of heartfelt musical renditions. Transitions are rarely seamless, clashing with every canon possible (even the revolutionary ones), but precisely because of such frontal disregard, Goméz’s cinema feels liberated. Only answering to the concerns of the souls framed on screen, every moment is used to challenge official narratives and position the urgency of the work still to be done.
Note also the vignette on the Abakuá religious fraternity (14.35–18.23)—here Gómez’s analysis concurs with socialist orthodoxy:
This cultural manifestation epitomises the social aspirations, norms, and values of male chauvinism in Cuban society. We believe that its traditional, secret, exclusive nature sets it against progress and prevents it from assimilating the values of modern life. Therefore, in the present stage it generates marginality, promoting a code of parallel social relations that is the antithesis of social integration.
Discuss—for a range of more nuanced approaches to ritual, refer to Catherine Bell…
With Gómez’s black middle-class background (see her 1966 short Guanabacoa: crónica de mi familia), her musical training was classical—but she was animated by the Afro-Cuban rhythms of the streets, lovingly documented in the fine Y… tenemos sabor (1967): **
The procession from 22.27 even features a shawm! ***
Here’s the illuminating documentary Sara Gomez, an Afro-Cuban filmmaker (Alessandra Müller, 2004):
* * *
More recently, note the films on Cuba in the Growing into music series. Akin to Goméz’s stress on marginalized groups, for the Maoist decades in China Guo Yuhua documents “the sufferers”—ironically, the peasant majority, again including women. For musicians’ “licence to deviate from behavioural norms”, click here. ****
** More piffling linguistic pedantry: the three dots should indeed follow the opening word Y, although many citations put them before it. No less pedantically, I note that the 2004 documentary seems to lack the accent on Gómez’s surname. Yes, I should get a life.
**** This isn’t the place for an analysis of suitable venues for a revolution (cf. Bill Bryson), but I recall a tour of France with an early music group playing worthy recreations of Qing-dynasty court music, where we ended up in the same hotel as a young early music group from Cuba, playing recreations of early Cuban music in the same festival. While our group were all buried in our arid, ponderous early music conservatoire shtick, the Cubans exuded sensuous physicality from every pore, laughing, grooving, alive. With All Due Respect, I realised I was doing the wrong gig—like the musos’ recurring dream. For the denial of the body, cf. Madonna and McClary.
Journalists in search of a soundbite sometimes claim rashly to have discovered “the last” exponent of some precious ancient genre; even ethnomusicologists may be prone to this faux pas (e.g. Balkan bards; the lama mani of Tibet; cf. Ishi, “the last wild Indian”).  There may be some cases of this, but it seems to misinterpret constant change in folk cultures.
I was reminded of the hallowed clickbait by a recent article on zhuizi shu 坠子书 narrative-singing of Henan province in central China. Despite the title “The last blind folk storytellers”, it’s an interesting piece. As it points out, narrative-singing, along with fortune-telling and massage, remains the most reliable means for blindmen to make a living, a traditional form of “poverty alleviation” not just in Henan but throughout China (e.g. Shaanbei, and note Liu Hongqing’s book on blind bards in Shanxi, which makes an even more harrowing version of the story told in the article on Henan).
The blind female performer Zheng Yurong 郑玉荣 (b.1985) was taken in by a poor couple after being abandoned as a baby. She took up zhuizi shu in the hope of making a living after losing both her foster-parents when she was young. As I learn from a 2022 article, after befriending another blind performer in 2011, they felt such an affinity that, utterly unlikely as it sounds, DNA tests determined that he was in fact her younger brother—though he too had been abandoned, his foster parents had survived to bring him up well. As Zheng Yurong made a name for herself, they sought their birth parents through the auspices of Zhengzhou TV, but without success. She had gone on to marry her accompanist Feng Guoying 冯国营 (43), also blind, and they raised two sighted children in a flat provided by the government in Lushan county-town.
Blind performers are no longer considered so auspicious—and then came Covid. Faced by rising household bills and the cost of their children’s education, Feng has had to take up fortune-telling again, from a rented flat.
The economic climate since the 1980s’ reforms has certainly affected the livelihoods of folk performers. Still, unlike narrative-singing in regions such as Shaanbei, zhuizi shu as never been limited to blind people (for posts on blind musicians in China and elsewhere, click here). And none of this justifies portraying them as “the last” bearers of the tradition. It feeds into the widespread yet powerless laments of well-meaning pundits about the decline of traditional culture—laments that, again, have a long history.
* * *
Henan has long been poor; but the most desperate famine there came in the “three years of hardship” following the Great Leap Backward. In recent decades the province has been hard hit by the HIV/AIDS scandal (see.e.g. here, and here).
I’ve mentioned Henan in posts on the zheng plucked zither (cf. the yaqinbowed zither) and spirit mediums (including refs. in n.3). Without the benefit of fieldwork, I thought I’d seek a basic acquaintance with the zhuizi shu, equipped with the great Anthology (click here, leading to my review “Reading between the lines”), whose monographs on narrative-singing Zhongguo quyi zhi 中国曲艺志, province by province, are among the most impressive of the whole vast project—further complemented by the Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng 中国曲艺音乐集成 volumes on narrative-singing music (for the folk-song volumes, see also here).
Despite the poverty of the region, one of the most notable survivals of its literati heritage is to be found in its folk narrative-singing. As shown in the Henan volume (1995), the genre known as zhuizi shu (named for its distinctive bowed fiddle zhuizi) is just one of thirty-five genres of narrative-singing identified around the province, including guzi qu 鼓子曲, dadiao quzi 大调曲子, sanxian shu 三弦书, pingshu 评书, dagu shu 大鼓书, daoqing 道情, shanshu 善书 morality tales (pp.93–4), and lianhualao 莲花落.
As always with these monographs, one has to piece together material distributed around various rubrics. The framework for zhuizi shu is presented in a brief overview (pp.65–70), which packs in some impressive historical documentation, supplemented by sections on performance contexts (pp.373–4) and venues (pp.456–497). Defined by the zhuizi fiddle, it emerged in the 19th century on the basis of other genres, notably sanxian shu and daoqing, spreading from Kaifeng to the southwest of the province and beyond. In its early days stories were delivered by one or two itinerant performers, invited for the redeeming of vows huanyuan shu 还原书, a common context in Henan (pp.498–9) and elsewhere, and for temple fairs (again, cf. Shaanbei).
Traditionally a solo male performer accompanied his own singing on fiddle, but by the early 20th century the roles of fiddle player (waikou 外口) and vocalist (likou 里口) were sometimes separate, and soon afterwards female vocalists began to emerge on the little stages of tea-houses, with simple props. By the 1920s (in a typical process) some groups featured both male and female vocalists, emulating the style of “little opera”, further enshrined by professional troupes after the 1949 Liberation.
The genre was performed as far afield as Tianjin and Beijing. The first recordings seems to date from 1928, and by the 1930s several companies were issuing 78s; click here for one of several recordings online of the influential singer Qiao Qingxiu 乔清秀 (1910–44). Another section of the Anthology volume documenting various types of organisation features zhuizi shu groups active in the Republican era: those of Wang Yulan 王玉兰, Lu Yuancheng 鲁元臣, Liu Weiran 刘蔚然, and the Fan 范 family (pp.418–20).
But it is rare for new styles to simply replace the old (note the wise words of Bruno Nettl): the itinerant, unstaged format persisted in the countryside. As the Anthology notes, while the state troupes came to be dominated by short excerpts from female vocalists, in the countryside itinerant male artists prevailed for much longer, performing lengthy stories (whose plots, related to other genres of narrative-singing and opera, are outlined in a separate section, pp.128–200). I’d be keen to document the enduring activities of story-tellers performing for poor rural families redeeming vows, and at temple fairs (you know me…).
The New Year’s narrative-singing at the Horse Street festival in Baofeng county.
Before we consult the Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, the Zhongguo quyi zhi has a succinct outline of musical features (pp.205–21), identifying melodic and metrical aspects of eastern, western, and northern styles, with transcriptions.
As well as a detailed chronology for genres, the material I enriched by biographies of celebrated zhuizi shu performers.  It introduces a wealth of studies over the decades preceding publication, such as the 1951 book Henan zhuizi shu (quyi zhi, p.531) by Zhang Changgong 张长弓 (1905–54; quyi zhi, pp.638–9), as well as official documents (pp.665–701) for imperial, republican, and Communist eras—the latter in particular offering illuminating vignettes on social change (cf. Hunan).
* * *
More recently, click here for lengthy footage from Baofeng county from 2022, and here for a documentary on the life of Xia Lingshan 夏玲珊, reflecting changing styles of presentation. And here’s a busker. For the same genre in nearby Shandong, there is film footage online of blindman Guo Yongzhang 郭永章 (b.1945), such as: 
Long before the Intangible Cultural Heritage sank its fangs into zhuizi shu, performance on the concert stage has become common—as usual, supplementing rather than replacing traditional folk contexts.
Even if we can’t refine the picture through our own fieldwork, the Anthology confounds the simplistic, reified image of the whole range of Chinese performance arts, showing the wealth of activity before, during, and since Maoism—supplemented by articles suggesting the precarious survival of poor families through all three periods.
For more on narrative singing in China, see under my post on Chinoperl.
 Ishi’s songs were wisely studied by Bruno Nettl in “The songs of Ishi: musical style of the Yahi Indians” (1965).
 Including (I’ve marked female performers—who emerged only later—with *): Liu Weiran (1878–1956), Li Mingyi (1888–1979), Gao Liankui (1889–1956), Zhang Zhikun (1889–1975), Liu Zhongtang (1890–1955), Zhao Yanxiang (1891–1963), Chen Yongqing (1891–1971), Chen Zhikui (1893–1939), Hou Wenming (1894–1942), Zhang Hongyu (1894–1947), Zhao Cuiting* (1897–1960), Gao Xuebin (1898–1945), Meng Zhifa (1899–1974), Fan Mingyan (1898–1980), Cheng Liyan (1900–1975), Li Zhibang (1901–83), Bi Liduan (1903–43), Zhu Yuanli (1907–76), Wang Gancheng (1908–60), Zhang Quanyou (1909–77), Zhang Yuqing (1914–79), Zhang Xiushan (1914–69), Wang Shuangqi (1914–85), Chen Fuzeng (1917–85), Liu Mingzhi* (1920–77), Zhao Yuqin* (1921–81), Zhao Yuanxiu (1923–84), and Ma Yanqiu* (1933–77). And that’s just the more celebrated names for whom the edited publication found space…
As I struggle to declutter my library, many books were easy enough to hand over to a new home within the CHIME collection in Heidelberg, but I was reluctant to part with a set of nine mimeographed volumes which Li Shigen 李石根 (1919–2010) gave me on my first fieldtrip to China, entitled Xi’an guyue quji 西安鼓乐曲集. So they too make up part of the bulky haul that I’ve just shipped off to Germany.
in advance of my first stay in China, Raffaella Gallio had given me clues to Li Shigen’s work (as I explained in my page on ritual life around Xi’an); and so early in 1986, soon after arriving in Beijing, I took the train to Xi’an to consult him. He made a hospitable, generous teacher, giving me daily seminars as well as taking me to visit and record groups in the city and countryside—my first glimpse of the fabled workers and peasants.
Li Shigen (2nd left) with Yang Yinliu (2nd right), 1953.
Li Shigen had devoted himself to the ritual music of Xi’an and its environs since the 1950s, under the testing conditions of Maoist campaigns. After the end of the Cultural Revolution he was able to salvage his work, while furthering his studies by visiting the urban and rural groups that had revived after the collapse of the commune system.
These volumes, which later formed the core of Li Shigen’s magnum opus Xi’an guyue quanshu (2009), consist largely of cipher-notation transcriptions of the scores in gongche notation handed down in the various groups of the city and surrounding countryside—with social and ritual context a sensitive topic until the 1980s, transcription was the main agenda of early fieldwork. But Li Shigen and others now began publishing articles to augment the purely musical documentation.
Mimeographed on flimsy paper like a more legitimate kind of samizdat, suggesting the tenuity of both folk activity and research, the set has a particular sentimental attachment for me—and I think it makes a valuable addition to the CHIME library, reflecting the resolve of Chinese scholars in the early days of the revival.
On my travels in the days before the monumental Anthology began to be published, province by province, I soon began acquiring many other mimeographed drafts that wouldn’t necessarily make it to the edited volumes. Another one, for the instrumental music of Laishui county in Hebei, would lead me to the ritual associations of Gaoluo village.
Meanwhile as the Music Research Institute in Beijing took me under its wing, at the archive there (cf. Li Wenru) I discovered a wealth of early field-reports from before the hiatus of the Cultural Revolution (Hequ 1953, Suzhou 1956, Hunan 1956, Fujian 1961, and so on), revealing the tenacity of folk music research through the first fifteen years after Liberation.
The authors note the “heavy securitization, mass incarcerations, and attacks on local languages and other aspects of cultural identity” since 2014, with detainees in the camp system “subjected to systematic torture and rape, cultural and political indoctrination, and forced labor. Outside the detention facilities Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples are subject to a pervasive system of mass surveillance, controls on movement, forced sterilization, and family separation”. […] Regional authorities have destroyed large swathes of built heritage, including mosques, shrines and graveyards; destroyed Uyghur language books and restricted the use of Uyghur and other indigenous Turkic languages; and imprisoned hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz intellectuals and cultural leaders”.
As acknowledged in the 2021 International Criminal Court framework on cultural heritage, acts of dispossession and destruction of cultural heritage are often inseparable from—or the precursor to—acts of genocide.
Yet despite international condemnation,
UNESCO continues to acknowledge China as a protector of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz heritage in the Uyghur region through the inclusion of several items on its lists.
With “heritage” widely exploited as a tool of governance, the Chinese regime regards the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) system as
a resource to develop the tourism industry, and a propaganda tool used to present heavily stage-managed images of normality in the region. […] In the same way that mosques and shrines are closed to local communities but open for tourist business, community gatherings are transformed into glamorous stage shows purveying messages of interethnic harmony within the framework of Chinese nationhood, while local communities are terrorized and torn apart.
The report criticises UNESCO’s continuing recognition of several genres.
The Uyghur muqam The Chinese authorities supported muqam from the 1950s, and by the late 1990s there were several institutions in Ürümchi dedicated to its study, performance, and promotion. But
since 2017, several well-known professional muqam performers employed in government-supported troupes have been arbitrarily detained, along with unknown numbers of Sufi followers who performed muqam in religious contexts. The regional authorities have closed institutions previously tasked with researching the tradition, and introduced radical changes to the teaching and performance of the muqam in order to align with Xi Jinping’s policy of promoting a “pluralistic-unified” Chinese nation.
One informant stated that around 30–40% of the employees of the Xinjiang Arts Centre were sent to the camps, including celebrated performers such as Shireli Eltekin, Abduqadir Yarel, Aytulla Ela, and Sanubar Tursun. By 2022 the Xinjiang Muqam Research Office was among 160 organizations devoted to researching traditional Uyghur culture that were closed, with those remaining being used as a propaganda tool for government policy. UNESCO-inscribed heritage was now “deliberately manipulated and staged as part of a wide-ranging disinformation campaign to deny crimes against humanity in the Uyghur region”.
The performance of muqam played a role in the religious context of Sufi gatherings, which had previously survived but were now attacked, as was informal secular music-making. Whereas performers have often been released on condition that they sing songs in public praising Xi Jinping, scholars have been sentenced to longer imprisonment or “disappeared”—notably Rahile Dawut, a fine ethnographer whose work had previously gained official support.
UNESCO has supported rival programmes in both China and Kyrgystan for the Kyrgyz vocal epic manas. But in Xinjiang, again, performers and researchers have been coerced and detained, and the genre has been exploited by the Chinese regime.
The meshrep A most incisive section of the report concerns the meshrep, “an umbrella term for Uyghur community gatherings that typically include food, music, joking, and storytelling, and an informal community court”. *
Meshrep: left, singing the Dolan muqam; right, village dancing. Images courtesy of Rahile Dawut. Source.
Both before and after the nomination, grassroots community meshrep gatherings have been designated by the Chinese authorities as criminal activities, meshrep leaders and participants have been arbitrarily detained, and Uyghur communities which formerly nurtured meshrep have been uprooted. In their place, staged meshrep shows have been used as tourist entertainment and for cultural diplomacy.
As one interviewee explained,
We don’t regard meshrep as just for playing music, singing and dancing, community entertainment. It is an unofficial form of self-government, a core social structure for the Uyghur community. Meshrep helps the community to take care of its social issues. It’s an essential social gathering to preserve Uyghurs’ cultural and social existence and development.
The authors comment,
These are core values in UNESCO’s heritage framework and they are also the direct reason why the Chinese authorities have consistently and sometimes violently suppressed the grassroots practice of meshrep over the past thirty years.
They remind us of the suppression of a grassroots meshrep movement in the northern city of Gulja in the 1990s, part of the backdrop to a massacre in 1997. Still, in 2010 UNESCO ratified China’s nomination of meshrep for the ICH—which led to draconian restrictions, denying local communities the right to organise their own gatherings. And in 2014 meshrep was co-opted for “anti-religious extremism” campaigns in Aqsu prefecture (see Rachel Harris, “A weekly mäshräp to tackle religious extremism: music-making in Uyghur communities and Intangible Cultural Heritage in China”). Meshrep participants are among innumerable performers and scholars who have been detained since 2017 .
The “natural heritage” is also exploited and implicated in human rights violations. The Chinese nomination of the Tianshan (Tengritagh) mountain range as “an area of outstanding natural beauty and ecological diversity” was ratified by UNESCO in 2014. Forced relocations and suppression of protests had already begun by 2005, leading to “forcible displacement of indigenous Kazakh communities and the sale of their ancestral lands to Chinese tourist companies for commercial development”. The Uyghur karez irrigation system met a similar fate, formerly “an integral part of an ecosystem, providing water for domestic use, farm irrigation, native plants and wildlife habitats”—yet another aspect of Uyghur culture that has fallen foul of Chinese development projects. At the same time, history was being rewritten, just as with the intangible heritage.
The report’s Conclusion is devastating:
Heritage management is not an innocent celebration of culture, but a selective process that leads to hierarchies and exclusion. […] When the management of heritage is used in tandem with the hard modes of governance currently in play in the Uyghur region—ones that states and international bodies have designated a form of genocide—then the heritage system is complicit in those acts of genocide. […] China’s approach to heritage in the Uyghur region takes the heritage out of the hands of its rightful owners, by expelling communities from their ancestral lands and polluting the environment, by destroying built heritage and de-sacralizing religious traditions, and by criminalizing grassroots cultural practices, while using their staged representations to promote new political narratives. Culture bearers are dispossessed and imprisoned while their history is rewritten, and the economic benefits of heritage accrue in the hands of the ethnic majority and flow back to eastern China.
The authors list points requiring urgent intervention by the international community—including a request for the removal of muqam, meshrep, and manas from the UNESCO lists, “given the serious and substantiated evidence set out in this report that the elements no longer satisfy the criteria for inscription on those lists”.
Despite numerous instances of co-option and suppression since 1949, it’s disturbing to think that Uyghur culture somehow coexisted with Party rule for many decades before the clampdown escalated. And while Xinjiang makes a particularly shocking instance, I have always felt uncomfortable with the ICH system as applied to Han Chinese communities, promoting reified, staged performances rather than providing genuine support for cultural activity among local communities.
Mukaddas Mijit’s The Thirty Boys (Ottuz Oghul, 2022) is a fine film on Uyghur meshrep gatherings in Kazakhstan, “occupying an uneasy space, one eye towards the growing ethnic nationalism of their host country, one eye towards China’s ongoing policies of securitisation, incarceration and cultural erasure in their homeland”:
Left, with Ghulam Sabir Qadri
Right, Magriel’s Ganda Bandan ceremony to become Abdul Latif Khan’s shagird disciple, 1995.
As he documents the sarangi’s history, he introduces the home life, cloistered musicianship, and training of its hereditary exponents—based in accompanying vocalists, including the popular songs of tawayaf courtesans (see e.g. the opening videos on this page).
Magriel devotes chapters to the art of two among around a hundred players whom he visited through the 1990s, Ghulam Sabir Qadri (1922–c2000) and Abdul Latif Khan (1934–2002). His detailed transcriptions and analyses supplement the rich audio-video archive on his website, elucidating melodic patterns, ornamentation, and technique. On the website even his brief musical descriptions of videos are instructive, such as the page on Chanda Khan accompanying Lakshmi Bai (e.g. notes on variant tunings, and a solo improvisation “vaguely in rāg Yaman with some impressive tans, and a bit of Maru Bihag”).
Along with performances on the concert platform that dominate our image (a context to which sarangi players gained admission belatedly), what I find just as remarkable as the musical detail is the panorama of domestic musicking that Magriel unfurls naturally, without labouring ethnographic points—ritual and commemorative gatherings, practising and teaching, dance parties…
The Appendices give technical details of the instrument’s construction and maintenance, with images and discussion of 321 sarangis. Also fascinating are minutiae of gut strings, bows, rosin, and tuning pegs, as well as the craft of repairing skins, fingerboards, and so on. He notes the instrument’s curious decorative fish motif.
The book is so fascinating that I take scant comfort in the thought that it’s no more likely than my work on north Chinese ritual to soar up the best-seller charts…
Just as Aleppo was receding from the news, it suffers yet again, the devastation of civil war now compounded by the earthquake. How will the city’s renowned musical life be further transformed amidst the ruined buildings and traumatised residents?
A handy introduction to the city’s history is
Philip Mansel, Aleppo: the rise and fall of Syria’s great merchant city (2018),
with a succinct main text at 73 pages (forming the framework of my outline below), the second half consisting of early travellers’ accounts.
Aleppo was yet another of those “global bazaars” (an image that masks tensions), populated by Arab, Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, Venetian, and French peoples. Muslims, Christians, and Jews coexisted rather than living in harmony; while the town had no major religious shrines to exacerbate conflict, rival Christian groups (Armenian, Maronite, Orthodox, Syriac) had a long history of enmity. While the diversity and tolerance of the Ottoman empire is an article of faith, conflicts became increasingly acute after the Ottoman empire crumbled.
The late-17th-century traveller Evliyâ Çelebi made several visits to Aleppo, listing 61 mosques, 217 Koran schools, 5,700 shops in the central market, 7,000 gardens, 105 coffee shops (a regular venue for musicking), and 176 dervish convents.
By the 18th century, the town’s Janissaries were mainly shopkeepers and artisans, in conflict with the ashraf gentry. Tensions between rival power groups grew through the 19th century. Long linked with Constantinople and other regional cities, from 1890 railway lines connected Aleppo to Beirut and Damascus.
Aleppo was a major hub in the deportation of Armenians from Anatolia in the Long March of 1915. Despite obstruction from the Ottoman authorities, the Armenian community there made great efforts to provide relief for the refugees (see e.g. here).
Even in 1922, T.E. Lawrence still found “more friendship between Christian and Mohammedan, Armenian, Arab, Turk, Kurd, and Jew than in perhaps any other great city of the Ottoman empire”. While the city remained multi-denominational, under the French mandate from 1920, Aleppo became subordinate to Damascus. Syria gained full independence in 1944. Many Jews left from 1947, not only to the new state of Israel but around the world, such as Beirut, New York, São Paulo, and Buenos Aires.
Though the city thrived in the 1950s, people continued to emigrate. Tensions, based on religion, increased after the Ba’ath party came to power in 1963 (cf. Everyday life in a Syrian village). In 1986 the Old City was listed as a UNESCO World heritage site. Aleppo was already being described as a “city of memories”. Even the 2011 book My Aleppo portrayed the city as a living culture—but under Bashir Assad, Aleppo, like Syria, was in crisis.
Since the outbreak of civil war In the early days after the outbreak of the war in 2011, Aleppo seemed immune from the conflict. But by July 2012 it became a centre of the uprising, and the population was soon at the mercy of both the brutal government and rebel militias. The latter established themselves in the sprawling industrial zones in east Aleppo, home to poor migrants with little or no investment in the cosmopolitan culture of the hitherto prosperous west of the city.
Channel 4 reports through the period are impressive (archive here). Meanwhile Waad al-Kateab was making the moving documentary For Sama. Note also the reports of Charles Glass, such as this from 2017 (cf. wiki).
Government forces finally regained control of east Aleppo in December 2016. While the situation remains tense, with predatory militias still operating, the painful process of rebuilding could begin among transformed demographics (detailed report here, and for the collection of cultural memory, see e.g. here).
Musicking Aleppo has long been renowned for its musical life.
Among the accounts of early European travellers that make up the second half of Mansel’s book, some bear on music. He cites Alexander Russell’s A natural history of Aleppo (1756), including this passage:
The coffee-houses are only frequented by the vulgar. The masters of these houses have often, for the entertainment of their customers, a concert of music, a story-teller, and in time of Ramadan particularly, an obscene, low kind of puppet-show, and sometimes tumblers and jugglers; and these, properly speaking, are all their public diversions. […]
The music of the country is of two sorts, one for the field, the other for the chamber. The first makes part of the retinue of the bashaws, and other great military officers, and is used also in their garrisons [cf. The Janissary band]. It consists of a sort of hautboy, shorter, but shriller than ours; trumpets, cymbals, large drums, the upper head of which is beat upon with a heavy drumstick, the lower with a small switch. A vizier-bashaw has nine of these large drums, while a bashaw of two tails has but eight, the distinction by which the music of one may be known from that of the other. Besides these, they have small drums, beat after the manner of our kettle-drums. This music at a distance has a tolerable good effect.
Their chamber-music consists of a dulcimer, guitar, dervises flute, blown in a very particular manner; Arab fiddle, a couple of small drums, and the diff, which serves mainly to beat time to the voice, the worst of all their music; for they bellow so hideously that it spoils what without it would be to some degree harmonious. This diff is a hoop (sometimes with pieces of brass fixed to it to make a jingling), over which a piece of parchment is distended. It is beat with the fingers, and is the true tympanum of the ancients… […]
Besides the above mentioned instruments, they have likewise a sort of bagpipe, which numbers of idle fellows play upon round the skirts of the town, making a pretence to ask a present of such as pass. […]
From A natural history of Aleppo, 2nd edition, 1794.
The print annexed represents a Turkish concert, drawn from the life; in which care has been taken also to show, through a window, the inner court-yard of a house, with the little garden, fountain, &c. and through another is seen part of a mosque, with the minaret, from whence the imams call the people to prayers. The dress of the performers also shows the different kinds wore by the ordinary people, according to their sect, &c. The first, who bears the diff, represents that of an ordinary Turk; the next a slovenly ordinary Christian; the middle figure is a Dervise; the fourth is a Christian of a middle rank, playing upon the Arab fiddle. What is peculiar in his dress is, that the sash of the turbant is strip’d with blue, and his slippers red. The last is an ordinary fellow, beating the small drum with his fingers, as they often do, instead of drumsticks. His head-dress is such as is worn by many Janizaries and commonly by the Arabgarlees, a race of Armenians, who attend upon the Europeans.
Moving on to modern times, I can’t really judge this, but whereas the Ottoman musical heritage of Istanbul has long become a niche market, the Sufi-tinged chamber music of Aleppo seems to play a greater role in the imagined soundscape of outsiders. Long before the civil war, the city had already become regarded as a kind of musical museum—a reified, nostalgic image at odds with the diverse changing genres that are universal in modern cities amidst the growing challenges of daily life.
The liturgy of Aleppo, largely a cappella, was renowned. On CD an introduction to the style is
Syrie: muezzins d’Alep, chants religieux de l’Islam (Ocora, 1980/1992, recorded in 1975), with notes by Christian Poché.
After a solo adhancall to prayer sung by Sabri Moudallal (1918–2006; for a playlist devoted to him, largely featuring concert groups, click here), the CD continues with devotional songs led by the qāriʾ Reader of the Qur’an. Following a solo free-tempo qaṣīda is a choral muwashshah hymn, accompanied by frame-drums. The disc also includes instances of salawāt prayer and du’a’ invocation. Here it is:
And here’s a track from Nawa: ancient Sufi invocations and forgotten songs from Aleppo, recorded just before the war (reviews here and here):
Like the liturgy of mosques and lodges, the polished, commodified versions of chamber music traditions that have attracted attention in the niche world-music scene are imbued with Sufism, but they differ in both context and sound. Formerly heard at intimate gatherings in hawsh private houses and public cafés,  these groups showcased long wasla suites (including qaṣīda and muwasshah vocal sections) accompanied by takht instrumental ensemble. The Ensemble Al-Kindi became prominent exponents of this style on the concert stage. Here’s their first album, then comprising an instrumental trio (1988):
One of their early albums was with Sheikh Hamza Shakkûr, Qadiri Sufi singer from Damascus:
Even if to my taste their shows are flawed by the Curse of the Whirling Dervishes, the ensemble went on to work with distinguished singers from Aleppo. Here’s their 2-CD album with Sheikh Habboush:
This playlist includes tracks from The Crusades and The Aleppian Music Room, featuring singers Sabri Mudallai and Omar Sarmini:
Here’s the album Orchestre Arabe classique d’Alep (Musiques du Monde, 2006):
I surmise that the social context of lodges and mosques was more enduring than that of the “secular” gatherings, so such recordings were largely an attempt at “salvage” (among many such instances around the world, cf. the suites of late-imperial Beijing); of course, they can never replace detailed studies of changing cultural life. This brief report describes the revival of qudud singing in Aleppo since the end of the war—and hints at its maintenance even under the bombings.
Joseph Eid’s viral image of Abu Omar listening to gramophone, 2017. Source.
The musical life of Syria will now be substantially in the hands of refugees and the diaspora. As music helps people come to terms with pain and loss, this 2015 documentary shows music-making in Zaatari camp, Jordan:
And we should spread the musical net beyond the “classical” genres imbued with Sufism—this article introduces the Aleppo metal scene.
 The booklet to The Aleppian music room CDs mentions a “blind men’s café” still functioning until after World War Two, where blind instrumentalists accompanied parties of women (cf. Blind musicians in China and elsewhere).
If the heroic war movie is no longer so ubiquitous on British TV, in mainland China the War of Resistance against Japan and the early strivings of the Communist Party remain perennial, unavoidable themes of big-budget TV series.
The “Anti-Japanese oratorio” (kangri shenju 看日神剧, subject of an interesting article on Chinese Free Wiki—shenju literally meaning “holy drama”) is a satirical internet term for wartime dramas that incorporate tropes from imperial culture such as martial arts, romance, and miracle tales. Instances from the wiki entry include using a rifle to shoot down a plane, tearing the enemy in half with one’s bare hands, and kicking away incoming grenades. Such tropes recall the supposed invulnerability of the righteous—as in the 1900 Boxer uprising, another popular topic in Chinese film. An early instance of the genre was the 1989 movie Rennai mochao人奶魔巢 (watch here). CCP ideologues have criticised such dramas as vulgar.
Recently on Twitter Yang Han relayed a short scene from WeChat, showing the divine intervention of Thunder Lord and Lightning Mother (leigong dianmu 雷公电母) from the clouds on behalf of the heroic Communist troops—a deus ex machina device, we might say. But Yang’s comment “I don’t know how this anti-Japanese drama passed the political censors? Communist Party members are clearly atheists” was premature. It transpires to be an ingenious spoof, * part of a mini-genre, with clips such as this.
And in this one it’s none other than the Buddha who intervenes—rebuking the Japanese for their barbarity as they sought to create a Buddhist empire. Indeed, villagers prayed to their temple gods for protection from the Japanese, as in north Shanxi; there too, household Daoist Li Qing recalled:
Our ritual business didn’t suffer during the occupation—the troops, themselves devout, even made donations when they came across us doing Thanking the Earth rituals!
Japanese troops entered the village on 3rd moon 15th just as the ritual association was leading the annual ritual for the goddess Houtu in the ritual tent. But the invaders merely entered the tent respectfully and kowtowed before the ritual paintings (my Plucking the Winds, p.92).
What Party ideologues oppose in those spoof clips is not the vulgarisation of religion but the offence to wartime Communist heroes. Still, the regime’s relation with religion has never been simple. When pressure from central ideology has allowed, grassroots cadres have long showed a certain laissez-faire. Despite periodic campaigns, ritual life persisted through the 1950s (see e.g. my work on Gaoluo, the Li family Daoists, and under Local ritual).
Left, Houtu painting, N. Qiaotou, Hebei; right, detail of pantheon, Wutai county, Shanxi.
And stories of divine intervention during times of war are common in the local folk cultures where the PLA recruited its cannon-fodder. In Hebei we heard accounts of how the female deity Houtu rescued a Chinese brigade during the Korean War; and in a Shanxi village, spirit mediums showed us a handsome ritual pantheon featuring a deified PLA soldier. Indeed, if those online clips came from real movies, they might speak to audiences who have heard such tales from their grandparents. Temples often have images venerating Mao and other national leaders (e.g. in Gansu).
But more often, religious groups mobilised to resist the social disruption of CCP campaigns. Throughout the high tide of Maoism in the 1950s and 60s, local sects rose up “under the cloak of religion” (as Party propaganda has it) in protest against coercive collectivisation, seeking divine protection just as they had done during the Japanese occupation. In Tibet too, as the Cultural Revolution caused extreme social and psychological breakdown, a divinely-inspired revolt against the Party broke out in Nyemo, with warrior-heroes again rashly claiming immunity from bullets. In Tibet since the 1980s’ reforms, the monasteries have been a focus for resistance to Chinese policies (see e.g. Eat the Buddha). And scholars have noted the irony of the atheist CCP claiming authority over the reincarnation of high Lamas.
Among the numerous topics that have since amplified my blog, it’s always worth bearing in mind that its original raison d’être was to advertise my film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist (watch here!!!). It complements my book on the Li family, and numerous vignettes and updates on the blog (roundup here).
An initial round of screenings was followed by a lull during Covid, so I was happy to introduce it the other day for the Music Department of Bristol University, at the enterprising initiative of Michael Ellison, a composer with a strong focus on transcultural performance, in particular Turkish music (see e.g. here).
It was good to watch my film in company again. In my intro I observe that this kind of subject can’t be addressed only by reading old books in libraries: books are silent and immobile—fieldwork is the key! As I like to say, it’s not only about Daoism, it’s an everyday story of country folk—a bit like The Archers. So this isn’t some obscure academic subject, or some exotic remnant of ancient oriental wisdom—it evokes the basic concerns of local communities, and how they handle life and death.
Audiences will approach the film from different backgrounds: Daoist ritual (often with an emphasis on “salvage“), ethnomusicology, sinology, modern China, and so on. In my book (and on this blog) I try to show that all these strands have to be integrated. Students studying ethnomusicology (rather than “music”) will find it easier to grasp my comment that the film can’t be neatly pigeonholed under music; conversely, for students of Daoism (and even Daoist ritual) I stress that sound is the vehicle through which ritual texts are conveyed and animated; it should go without saying that soundscape must always be a major element in our study of ritual.
Watching the film again at a certain distance from my initial flurry of work, I worry that it may be somewhat tough going (Like, Hello?). For those eagerly awaiting the “red and fiery” bustle of ritual (Chau, Chapter 3), the opening sequence that sets the scene before we get to the funeral makes quite a lengthy prelude, and once the ritual begins the opening hymns (even abbreviated) are slow and a tad arcane for the uninitiated.
The pace gathers as we follow the sequence of funeral segments; the scenes with pop music, and the afternoon clowning, make suitable interludes; and viewers are reminded of the human personalities who have maintained the tradition through thick and thin, with vignettes on the great Li Qing (including his 1991 Pardon ritual) and the reminiscences of his widow being particularly moving. Li Manshan’s own voiceover is illuminating. So I still feel this is the way the film has to be…
Again, watching it at a certain remove, I recall with a certain amazement all the work involved in providing the translations for the vocal liturgy (with original texts shown on screen), and karaoke-style captions for the mnemonics illuminating the percussion patterns—culminating in the exhilarating Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body, coda to the Transferring Offerings ritual (from 1.07.55). And I constantly admire Michele Banal’s fine editing.
While I point out that compared to some such groups in the south, the ritual practice of groups like the Li family band is quite simple, I still find it remarkable that they still do so much, even if it’s still a pale reflection of what they did 80 or even 20 years ago. Audiences tend to be interested in the future of the tradition, which I address in The life of the household Daoist. Other relevant posts from my roundup include
The young Tenzin Ösel Hita Torres with Lama Zopa Rinpoche (left) and Geshe Sopa (right) in 1986, during the consecration of Lama Yeshe’s stupa at Vajrapani Institute, California. Source.
A recent Guardian article, let down by the tabloid-style clickbait headline “From six-year-old Tibetan monk to teenage Ibiza raver”, led me belatedly to the intriguing story of Ösel Hita Torres (b.1985) (website, including bio; wiki).
The latest publicity is prompted by a new four-part documentary in Spanish, but his story has long been in the news. After this 1990 interview,
Vicki Mackenzie published Reincarnation: the boy lama in 1996. Two years later the BBC visited Ösel at Sera monastery in exile in south India, when he was 13, to make a documentary film:
The fifth of nine siblings, Ösel came from a village near Granada, where his parents had become devotees of the lama Thubten Yeshe (1935–84), an influential teacher—even if some detractors considered him a materialistic paisa lama, like many gurus.
Soon after his birth, Ösel was identified as the tulku reincarnation of Lama Yeshe, and formally recognised by the Dalai Lama. * He was brought up under the aegis of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), headed by Lama Zopa, a close colleague of Lama Yeshe. Vicki Mackenzie’s detailed account of Ösel’s early years can be found on this page.
This lengthy footage was filmed in Holland in 1986:
Ösel’s training in Sera monastery, from the age of 6, was remarkable. His mother features in the BBC radio documentary, and offers further perspectives here (some Spanish practice). As Ösel later reflected,
They dressed me in a yellow hat, they sat me on a throne, people worshipped me… They took me away from my family and put me in a medieval situation in which I suffered a lot. It was like living a lie.
So by the age of 18 he was free to make a similar choice to that taken by Krishnamurti in 1929, walking away from the cloistered life and his role as successor of the FPMT, despite their protestations. Opting for the secular path, he was disoriented by liberal Western values (“I was amazed to watch everyone dance. What were all those people doing, bouncing, stuck to one another, enclosed in a box full of smoke?”), and having spent a period living on the streets, he studied in Canada and Switzerland before opting to study film-making (cf. The Cup—Typical, you wait ages for a film-making lama, and then two come along at once). He is a friend of the 23rd Gomo Tulku (“the rapping lama”), who also opted for a secular lifestyle. Now settled in Ibiza with a family of his own, Ösel recognises that his story is easily sensationalised, and he remains on good terms with the FPMT.
* * *
Concepts of the “spiritual quest” may vary substantially over time, between cultures, and between classes. In Christian and other faiths, some monks find that the abnegation of the cloistered ascetic life loses its allure.
Of course, the situation of Tibetan centres like the FMPT, reaching out to Western followers, is very different from that of monasteries in Tibetan regions. For poor families there before the 1950 Chinese invasion (and even for some years before the radical interventions that escalated from 1956), it was almost a routine choice to send a young son to become a monk in the local monastery. In cases when an infant was identified as a tulku, to be venerated as the reincarnation of a high lama, his spiritual education would be closely supervised until he was ready to take his place as religious leader.
Since the occupation, state intrusion has often forced monks to abandon the clergy; despite the vast revival of religious life since the 1980s, the monasteries, potential hotbeds of unrest, have become ever more tightly surveilled. Ironically, the Chinese Communist Party has had to recognise reincarnation, with high lamas commonly becoming political pawns—most fragrantly in the case of the Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima (b.1989), “the world’s youngest political prisoner”, whose whereabouts remain unknown.
Aside from state interference, it is not out of the question among the clerical rank-and-file to change course. In Tibetan regions since the 1980s (as in pre-Communist China), among those who entered the monastic life in their youth, some have left to get married and care for a family, with little soul-searching. However, in Tibet it would be unthinkable for a tulku to abandon his role. The case of Ösel—not only a tulku but a European—is different; while his position was high-profile, with many resources having been invested in his path, aspects of the FPMT’s Western-leaning mission perhaps made his choice at least conceivable.
More often in the West one hears of making The Journey in the opposite direction: those who forsake sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll for the spiritual quest (hints of this with the Beatles, to cite another high-profile case). In Europe and north America the attraction of the Wisdom of the Mystic East grew after World War Two (some noble instances including Gary Snyder and Alan Watts), and many Westerners have devoted themselves to Tibetan Buddhism (see e.g. Donald Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La, 1998).
Gratifyingly, Ösel hasn’t rejected the spiritual path, but what he did renounce was becoming the object of blind veneration—an impressive choice when he had a ready-made, even cushy, career before him. I’m sure Ösel appreciates scenes from The life of Brian expressing the pressure on gurus to Bestow Wisdom upon their disciples (see note here, and at the end of my Krishnamurti post).
Still, despite his new family and outside interests, Ösel was perhaps unlikely to lead anything that resembled a Normal Life; deeply imbued by his upbringing, he has gone on to cater to demand among the Truth Seekers with an active teaching programme. While he generates far less hype than Krishnamurti, his demeanour is appealingly down-to-earth. Here’s a lecture he gave at Kopan monastery in 2012:
Many more talks online, such as here ( 2017) and here (2018).
Just as I admire those who persist in the religious life, I respect those who free themselves from it, or forge their own path—as long as there’s a thread of, um, mindfulness. After all, everyday normality is at the heart of Daoism and Zen.
* For the recognition of the Dalai Lama himself, click here (opening with the story of another “well-behaved” young lama!); and do watch the amazing footage of his own “graduation” rituals in 1958–59 (here, under “The political background”). The Dalai Lama’s early education in Lhasa was not entirely other-worldly: apart from learning English, maths, and geography, he watched films in his own private cinema. I wonder if he has commented on Ösel’s change of path.
Like a suburban Sisyphus doing and undoing a jigsaw, having gone to great lengths to mix up the daily sequence of my diverse topics in a stimulating fashion, it’s that time of year when I try and reassemble them into some kind of thematic order (cf. 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021). In September I essayed a handy roundup of roundups, covering some of this ground; and in November I listed Some recent *MUST READ* posts. As ever, in the sidebar you can consult the tags and categories, and even the monthly archive (scrolling waaay down); the homepage still provides useful orientation.
Disturbingly, the items featured below are just a selection, but do click away on all the links…
Perhaps I can begin with a story that combines several of my interests:
Well, that’ll keep you busy—as a reward, in future perhaps I’ll try posting every three days, rather than every other day, and I might even reblog earlier posts a tad less avidly—not wishing to try your patience (“You must come over and try mine sometime”—Groucho).
In 1950, soon after “Liberation”, the great Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe invited a wind band from Ziwei village (in what later became Dingxian county, Hebei) to record in Tianjin, coining the term “Songs-for-winds” (chuige 吹歌), which soon became a standard—and misleading—image for wind bands in Hebei (click here). But they never managed to go to Ziwei, and Yang soon began work on the ritual music of the Zhihua temple in Beijing.
By the late 1980s, as fieldwork resumed after the hiatus of the Cultural Revolution, Yang Yinliu’s successors in Beijing were clarifying the “northern” and “southern” styles of wind ensemble serving amateur ritual associations on the Hebei plain. The “northern” music accompanying ritual referred to the solemn classical style of temple ensemble (led by small guanzi oboe), and this was to be our main focus in the villages. The more popular repertoire of the “southern” style (with large guanzi) sounded more secular, and was more readily recruited to political campaigns—but as we later learned, it too served funerals and temple fairs. Both styles had been used in the temples of Beijing, Tianjin, and the Hebei plain (see e.g. A slender but magical clue, and under Festivals) since the early in the 20th century.
Stimulated by the 1986 “discovery” of the Qujiaying village ritual association, I began working with the Music Research Institute in Beijing to document the similar groups all around the Hebei plain just south. Our fieldwork began to develop with a reccy over the New Year period in 1989, before the Tiananmen protests got under way.
By the early 1950s Ziwei was a large village with over a thousand households; by the time of our visit it had doubled. The origins of its wind ensemble were in the classical style. Even before Liberation they had been providing wind players for professional troupes in Beijing, Tianjin, and elsewhere in the region, and they kept doing so through the Cultural Revolution.
We accompanied them on a trip to perform for a wedding at a township in nearby Lixian county, and on our return to Ziwei we held a recording session. Whereas the membership of most ritual associations is male, here unmarried women also play the wind instruments. The association’s repertoire included breakdancing (piliwu 霹雳舞), recalling Taiji, and a pop singer—both highly serious in demeanour (cf. rebetiko). After decades of isolation, pop had spread from south China as the commune system disintegrated (see Platform), along with a major restoration of ritual life.
We got another glimpse of the secular end of the continuum on a 1991 trip to Langfang city. And during our fieldwork around Xushui county in 1993 and 1995, where the temple connection was evident yet again, we found more material on the “southern” style. Some villages like Gaoluo had both northern and southern ritual associations.
The Qianminzhuang association, Xushui 1959.
Still, the southern style was always subsidiary, both in the villages and in our fieldwork—see our reports, county by county, under Local ritual.
The Silk Road has long been an alluring marketing slogan, but it made a spectacular pretext to gather musicians and craftspeople from all along the route—a remarkable feat of organisation, particularly only a few months after 9/11.
In tents set up on the National Mall (Xi’an Tower, Kashgar Teahouse, Nara Gate, Samarkand Square, Istanbul Crossroads, Venice Piazza…), a wealth of groups performed daily over ten hot summer days. To name but a few: Turkmen, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Uzbek, Mongolian, Afghan;  Bukharan Jewish traditions from the USA; Peking opera, narrative-singing from Beijing and Suzhou; Indian folk, notably Kathputli string puppets and Manganiyar musicians from Rajasthan; Persian classical, Khakasian, Armenian, Azeri, Turkish, Uyghurmuqam… And for sacred cultures, besides Tibetan monks from Drepung monastery in exile (cf. The Cup), Bauls from Bengal, and Syrian Christians, a group of Alevis from Turkey performed their sema ritual. Also featured were martial arts and wrestling from Mongolia, India, and Iran, as well as a range of craft and food traditions.
Here’s the thing: I hardly managed to catch any of these performances!!! My role was to look after the Hua family shawm band (2004 CD Walking shrill, my 2007 book, and Dissolving boundaries)—the shawm (suona/zurna) having reached China via the Silk Road, you dig. Having visited them at home in Yanggao county, north Shanxi, in 1991 and 1992, I had returned there in 2001 with a view to inviting them for the festival, and I then focused on Yanggao shawm bands for some time—only managing to devote my attention fully to the Li family Daoists from 2011. Anyway, I had to be constantly at the service of the band as minder and roadie, both on the Mall and at our hotel—handling their Byzantine (sic) family dynamics, keeping them happy, varying and refining the repertoire for two gigs of 30’ or 45’ each day, while augmenting my notes on their part in the ceremonial life of Yanggao. The Hua band were accompanied by the genial Li Hengrui from the county Bureau of Culture, who occasionally made himself useful—though I didn’t have the foresight to veto the yellow silk pyjamas that the bureau had designed for them.
Bureau Chief Li teased me for bringing them all this way just to play for “another bloody temple fair”, but the band found it a rather familiar setting. They also played on parade, with Yoyo Ma (figurehead of the festival) making a valiant effort to count to 4 on the gong—the band worked out that he was a Big Cheese, but couldn’t imagine that he would ever make it as a musician.
All the participants stayed at the same hotel, where our meals were provided; during the day on the Mall we rested in the performers’ area, where we were fed.
With able organiser Shuni, herself a gifted musician.
Impressive as the daytime gigs were, most delightful were the nightly parties back at the hotel, with everyone dancing to the Indian singers, Turks on zurna, Armenians on duduk, and so on. I did a routine with Indian juggler Kishan while Hua Yun did his amazing tricks on wind instruments.
On their first trip outside Shanxi, the Hua brothers were remarkably sociable. They particularly enjoyed hanging out with the Rajasthani musicians—significantly, both came from peasant backgrounds, whereas some of the other groups had rather more conservatoire training. Perhaps some of the musicians who shared an overarching tradition, like the various maqam groups or Central Asian bards, were able to forge more meaningful relationships. Any political tensions were swept under the (brightly decorated) carpet. I’m wary of the modern cliché “International Cultural Exchange” (click here, and here), even if the Silk Road embodies the idea—but the main point was simply for audiences to be able to hear all this wonderful unfamiliar music, as a gateway to further explorations.
The Hua brothers also met up with Zhang Fengxue, a paper maker from a village in Chang’an county south of Xi’an—their dialects made it hard for them to communicate, so sometimes I had to try and interpret (Yeah Right). Zhang recalled going on rain processions with the village “water association” (shuihui) to Taibaishan in 1952, 1976, 1979, and 1992.
Left, Kathputli puppets; right, Hua Yun with Drepung monk.
In the hotel’s outdoor pool, the Tibetan monks practised underwater meditation, their swimwear matching the colours of their robes. They offered me a Mañjuśrī mantra that they suggested could cure stammering:
OM A RA PA CA NA DHI
Left, blues; right, with Roksonaki.
I took the younger members of the Hua band out to hear blues at Bar Lautrec; everyone met up in the hotel bar early in the morning to cheer on Brazil for the World Cup final. At the 4th July party we admired the fireworks; a nice Turkish volunteer shaved my head, long before I became a regular with my Kurdish barber in Chiswick (cf. At the barbers). The Hua band did an impromptu gig with the Kazakh folk-rock band Roksonaki. Finally we admired a Silk Road fashion show, and Yoyo played a moving Bach solo alap in gratitude to the legion of helpers.
It was the most exhilarating time. There I was, rubbing shoulders daily with a wealth of musicians with whom I would now love to hang out; but there was nothing to be done—I gladly devoted myself to the Hua band.
So far, my dabblings in the ritual traditions of Istanbul have consisted mainly of exploring the cem ceremony of the Alevis—itself a substantial topic, both in the city (here, with sequel) and around Anatolia. In its values, gender inclusiveness, and ritual style, Alevism is closely related to Bektashi beliefs, but is quite distinct from other Sufi orders (tariqa) active in Turkey.
Naqshbandi traditions Like other tariqat, the Naqshbandi order has a wide presence around west, central, and south Asia.  It is influential in Turkey, where it is largely urban, supported by literati, bureaucrats, and merchants.There its pronouncements evince a less than liberal strain, vocally opposing perceived social decadence; opposing Westernising reforms, its leaders are critical of “heterodoxy”.
Hakan Yavuz, in his chapter “The matrix of modern Turkish Islamic movements: the Naqshbandi Sufi order”, observes that “the Sufi orders have turned out to be the major institutions for the aggregation of economic and political interests”. Focusing on Istanbul, he considers the Naqshbandis under the rubrics of inner cultivation and religious salvation, a tool for upward mobility, a network for social and political services, and a model for a community—headings that one might well apply to other orders too.
As to the Ottoman background, Sultan Mahmud II (1808–37), suspicious of charismatic popular leaders and competing loyalties within the state, banned the Naqshbandiyya-Khalidiyya order in Istanbul, as well as the Bektashis. But under later Sultans the Naqshbandis expanded their influence, often taking over Bektashi lodges, becoming “one of the most important forces between ruled and ruler”.
In the early years of the Republic, despite their support for Atatürk’s War of Liberation, the Naqshbandi and other Sufi lodges were banned. Still, their
ability to adjust to new situations and to develop new arguments neutralises the hostile propaganda of opponents who seek to identify the movement as fundamentalist or an “enemy” of modernity. For example, the Naqshbandis fully supported the Turkish War of Independence but protested against the radical and authoritarian secular transformation of the system by Mustafa Kemal.
Most of the eighteen rebellions against state policies between 1924 and 1938 were led by the Naqshbandiyya. But they were better able to survive persecution than some other orders.
In response to repression, most of these orders gradually transformed from strictly religious associations into competing educational and cultural informal associations with religious underpinnings. They gathered support from sections of traditional society, which regarded the Kemalist variant of secularisation as too radical and destructive for Turkey’s social fabric.
Indeed, “the post-Republican elite, which shaped the opinion and identity of the leading Muslim movements, evolved among local Naqshbandi groups in Istanbul and Anatolia”, and “the Turkish Muslim understanding of Islam is very much filtered through Naqshbandi concepts and institutions”. In modern Turkey, Naqshbandi is the most politically active of the Sufi orders; like others, they are closely involved in education, healthcare, commerce, and media promotion. Of the four main branches in Istanbul, most wealthy and influential is the lskenderpaşa, based at their Mosque in Fatih. But Hakan Yavuz argues that the remarkable adaptive powers and pragmatism of the Naqshbandi
may lead to decline, not so much because of state suppression or rivalry from other orders, but because of its smooth adaptation to capitalism and its integral involvement in Turkish politics, both of which may undermine the spiritual and cultural aspects of the order.
As he suggests, along with a reduction in the mystical and heterodox features of Islam and Sufism, Islam has been delocalised and a new, abstract, highly centralised and economically conscious faith created to cater for the modern urban population.
Dhikr On the Anatolian side of Istanbul, we visited the village of Beylerbeyi, just along the Bosphorus from Üsküdar and Kuzguncuk, to attend the Thursday evening dhikr (zikr) ritual at a Naqshbandi dergah (see here, and wiki), where Sheikh Mesud Efendi (d.1908) was influential. Set in a picturesque old quarter up the hill, the wooden building is just as fine.
The practice of collective dhikr (zikr) is intense. Among the Naqshbandiyya it is traditionally classified as either khafi “silent” or jahri “loud”; they seem to find both acceptable—see e.g. Isenbike Togan’s chapter on the historical controversy between them in Central Asia, n.1 below.
Glimpses from the women’s gallery.
Directing prostrations in a packed hall, the sheikh chanted a series of invocations, with occasional simple group responses. As the lights were switched off, the worshippers turned to sit in a circle facing the sheikh, the repetitive group invocations becoming more intense. In a segregated area on the upper floor a substantial group of women was also deeply devout, as my companions reported.
* * *
With such a very basic grounding in live ritual, I turned to YouTube for the wider picture, where several videos suggest the deeply immersive somatic experience of Naqshbandi dhikr. In her Introduction (n.1 below), Elisabeth Özdalga observes:
Many Sufi orders practice the dhikr collectively, with intensive and emotion-laden expressions, where the partakers move their bodies rhythmically as they loudly pronounce the names of Allah. The Naqshbandis are traditionally known for greater self-restraint. […] [They] have generally been regarded as more sober and orderly in their religious practices than other Sufis.
I can’t assess this as a general characterisation, but from the clips below it seems to need modifying. This substantial excerpt from a haḍra ritual in Bosnia is well annotated, featuring both Arabic qasidahs and Turkish ilahis:
Still more imbued with emotive expression are the rituals of Uyghur Naqshbandis, in a region of Central Asia that was invaded by the Chinese Communists in 1949. In retrospect, the Chinese state’s approach towards Islam in the decades before the clampdown under Xi Jinping may now appear relatively benign (see here). This zikr was recorded by Jean During in southwest Xinjiang in 1988, during a period when Uyghur traditions were enjoying an impressive revival after the end of the Cultural Revolution:
And the remarkable excerpts below show Uyghur Naqshbandis performing zikr in south Xinjiang on the eve of the Chinese campaign to obliterate Uyghur culture:
As to the Western diaspora, Naqshbandi groups meet in Europe and north America (cf. Alevi ritual), such as the Osmanli Dergahi in New York, transmitting the teachings of Shaykh Nazim Al-Haqqani (1922–2014), who moved from Istanbul to Syria, while also based in his native Cyprus (cf. wiki)—this 2017 video is among many on their YouTube site:
* * *
I’m acutely aware that outsiders like me cannot even begin to comprehend Sufi ritual. But my visit to the Naqshbandi lodge in Beylerbeyi reminded me again that (as in much Daoist and Buddhist temple ritual) the heart of ritual performance lies in The Divine Word, embodied through the pure a cappella vocal liturgy of the mosques and Sufi orders. In this case, the observance is unmediated even by percussion.
Having watched The Cup(Phörpa) (Khyentse Norbu, 1999) when it first came out, I’ve enjoyed it just as much on a recent viewing. “Inspired by true events”, it’s a most endearing film, against the spectre of Chinese repression of Buddhism within occupied Tibet (wiki; reviewed e.g. here). This glossy trailer largely fails to convey its charm!
Director Khyentse Norbu is none other than the lama Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, who worked as consultant to Bertolucci for Little Buddha. Set in a Tibetan monastery in Indian exile during the 1998 World Cup, the film was shot in Himachal Pradesh, with amateur actors (including the abbot and monks) playing themselves, resulting in what Roger Ebert calls a “cheerful truce between the sacred and the mundane”.
Orgyen displays his “shrine”.
The plot is driven by the football-obsessed young monk Orgyen (Jamyang Lodro), and his encounters with the abbot, (longing to return to the homeland), his assistant (more tolerant than he seems), and the oracle (belittled by the younger monks).
Charged with looking after two new arrivals have just escaped from Tibet, when Orgyen leads them in sneaking out of the monastery to watch a match after dark in the nearby village, one of the new refugees struggles to climb through the fence, prompting him to come out with one of my favourite lines:
How did you manage to escape the Chinese?
Another review observes the irony of the abbot’s bemusement at “countries fighting over a ball” while the Tibetans are deprived of their own homeland. Also subtly portrayed are Orgyen’s patronising attitude towards the new arrivals from China, the monks’ lament “When will this country ever develop?”, and their distance from the local Indian community.
Mischief during monastic ritual.
The aspect of ritual as chore—dozing off, fooling around—makes a refreshing change from the much-touted Wisdom of the Mystic East shtick. But beyond mere drôlerie, a message of benevolent wisdom shines through, and after the dénouement of the final between France and Brazil (glimpses of a youthful Zidane!), the final homilies are as gentle as the rest of the film.
I’ve long been hooked on the gritty art of flamenco (series rounded up here), and The Rite of Spring is utterly compelling in both orchestral and ballet versions, always a rich source of inspiration for new interpretations. It makes perfect sense for them to come together, and the other day I was delighted to attend a solo dance performance of La Consagración de la primavera by the ever-innovative Israel Galván at Sadlers Wells.
It’s hard to unhear the sonorities of the orchestral score, but the pared-down arrangement for two pianos (played by Daria van den Bercken and Gerard Bouwhuis) worked well, and Galván was mesmerising, embodying Stravinsky’s vision with his chthonic percussive energy.
Here are excerpts from a performance last year:
The dance complemented the agonised ethos of flamenco—modifying its ”self-pity, posturing machismo” (Timothy Mitchell) and the “culture of victimage” (William Washabaugh) (see Flamenco, 2). Blurbs for Israel Galván typically remark on how he “challenges gender norms”. While stressing the angular syncopations of Stravinsky, he added his own rhythmic counterpoints. His whole body became a sound-box, with relentless stomps and shimmies (his legs sometimes concealed beneath a huge billowing skirt) and expressive arms. Much as he deserved a nice sit-down, you might not think that the hectic Danse sacrale that concludes the piecewould be quite the moment, but he spent most of it on a chair—legs, feet, and arms frantically busy as ever.
The Rite of Spring usually makes a climactic finale, but here it was the centrepiece of a continuous event, amidst two contrasting musical works, Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues and a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti—also making suitable vehicles for Galván’s style. The programme brought out the highly percussive nature of the piano, even if I couldn’t help imagining a version on bandoneón and xylophone.
The independent scholar Jianglin Li—evidently no longer based in China—has a useful website War on Tibet, working with Matthew Akester. I’ve been reading her book
When the iron bird flies: China’s secret war in Tibet
(Chinese original, Taiwan 2012; English translation by Stacy Mosher of the revised version, 2022, 550 pages).
After her 2010 book Tibet in agony: Lhasa 1959 (English version 2016), When the iron bird flies describes the brutal military conflict in Tibetan regions from 1956 to 1962, which has long remained a closely guarded secret. It supplements chapters in Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snows (1999) (see his review of Li’s book) and vols 3 and 4 of Melvyn Goldstein’s magnum opus A history of modern Tibet (2013, 2019), as well as recent volumes like Conflicting memories.
The main focus of When the iron bird flies is the regions of Kham and Amdo (for some sources on the latter, click here), whose chiefdoms had always been resistant to external political power. Li’s account is based both on Tibetan accounts and classified Chinese documents within the PRC, as well as interviews with Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal.
Traditional Tibet, comprised of the three provinces of Kham, Ü-Tsang, and Amdo,
in current Chinese administrative divisions. Source: Marvin Cao.
For several years after occupying minority regions the Communists moved slowly; but the trigger for the convulsions of the late 1950s was “democratic reform”—their euphemism for coercive land reform and expropriations. It was launched over several stages in different provinces: in Yunnan in 1955, Sichuan in 1956, Gansu and Qinghai in 1958, and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) in 1959. Revolts broke out widely as the reforms were being imposed. Li introduces the system that soon became routine: work teams, struggle sessions, the fixing of class statuses, taxation, confiscation of grain and guns, assaults on monasteries. Even Tibetan activists groomed to the Communist cause were shocked to see the disastrous effects of reform when they returned to their localities.
The “first shot in the Khampa armed rebellion” came at Sertar county in Garzê. In response the Sichuan Party bosses only escalated the situation.
By the end of March 1956, eighteen of Garzê Prefecture’s twenty counties and forty-five of its seventy-seven townships had experienced full-scale or localised insurrections involving a total of 16,000 people and more than 8,000 firearms. During this time, fourteen land reform work teams came under attack, and ten county seats were besieged or encircled. More than 200 land reform cadres were killed, and the PLA suffered more than 300 casualties.
Reform was not invariably met by resistance:
In Middle Village and Lower Village in Ngawa’s Trokyab county, land reform was completed in about three months without conflict. But when the work team proceeded under order to Upper Village to launch land reform, it came under attack, and almost all of the thirty land reform work team members were killed.
But heavy taxation and grain confiscations led to food shortages.
Resistance by the Hor Drango (Shouling) monastery in Drango county was suppressed in March 1956. After Communist troops “annihilated more than 700 people,” “the Shouling temple’s eighty-member council sent representatives to the county’s Work Committee to deliver a written assurance that they would not resist taxation again”. This indicates that taxation was the direct reason for the Drango monks’ resistance.
As both Chinese and Tibetan sources show, with many of the most influential monks and laypeople having been recruited to official positions in the CCP system, resistance came mainly from the lower middle classes, including farmers, herders, monks, and traders. Li studies the class composition of areas, with tralpa (who leased land and cultivated their own crops) and gepa (who cultivated land or worked as servants for landowners, headmen, or monasteries):
The vast majority of peasants in these regions cultivated their own fields. Tralpa were not necessarily poor, and families with surplus labourers could engage in trade or hire themselves out. As a result, when the Tibetan regions were divided into class categories, the landlords, rich peasants, and middle peasants were mainly tralpa, whom the CCP classified as “serfs.”
As in Han Chinese regions, class classification was arbitrary and variable by locality. With land that had previously been communally owned now becoming state property,
a district designating 10 to 20% of its people as “landlords and rich peasants” meant that a relatively large portion of the middle stratum had their assets confiscated; this caused many of them to join in uprisings. [….]
Every stage of the land reform process in Kham, from its preparations to its implementation, demonstrated the arrogance and high-handedness of the CCP regime, as well as the ignorance and brutality of its cadres.
Numerous problems in the “redistribution” of resources were intractable. Resistance to land reform was inevitable. In response the Party requested military reinforcements while mobilising Tibetans into the army—who, hastily trained, suffered the heaviest casualties. The first battle, over nine days in March 1956, was in Lithang in southwest Garzê (cf. this post).
In a series of battles, both sides suffered heavy casualties. Determined to crush all resistance, on 29th March the air force dispatched two Tupolev Tu-4 aircrafts (a gift from Stalin to Mao) to strafe and bomb the monastery. Next day the PLA made their final assault.
This battle being the PLA’s first major military operation in the Tibetan region, its shock wave was felt by both the Chinese and the Tibetans. Tibetans were shocked by the “iron bird,” a powerful modern weapon they had never before seen or heard of, while the Chinese commanders were surprised by the willpower of the Tibetan resistance. In the following years, Tibetan willpower and Chinese modern weaponry would clash over and over again.
Southwest of Lithang, the people of Chatreng were also fiercely independent. Again, the early years of Chinese occupation were relatively mild, but in mid-February 1956,
Chatreng’s two main monasteries received a document from the work team. As Tibetans recall it, the document included seven points:
1) Lamas and monks have to be eliminated; 2) monasteries and their contents have to be eliminated; 3) worship and ritual are prohibited; 4) the wealthy and eminent members of the community have to be eliminated; 5) all land will be appropriated by the state; 6) all property will be appropriated by the state; 7) everyone has to obey the Liberation Army and serve them. If you do not agree to this, we will bomb you from the air and send troops on the ground and wipe you out. […]
The Tibetan leaders of Chatreng secretly held a meeting to discuss the document and then sent a messenger to deliver a strongly worded reply:
You officers, district heads, and soldiers are here in our land without the slightest justification, and have no business imposing these seven points, which are completely unacceptable. You had better leave immediately, otherwise we have also made our war preparations, and there is no doubt that we will fight.
From 20th March county government bases were besieged by the local Tibetans. When the surrounded Chinese finally managed to send word to Zhou Enlai, reinforcements were dispatched. On 2nd April bombers were again deployed, destroying large areas of Sampeling monastery and killing over two hundred monks and laypeople. Three monasteries in the region were bombed over nearly a month. Chatreng was destroyed.
Among the land reform work teams were many Tibetan activists trained by the Chinese. In Nyarong (yet another region long resistant to external power), 185 out of 257 members were Tibetan. The rebellion there began in February 1956, as land reform teams came under attack, with insurrections breaking out in 78% of rural townships. Again, PLA reinforcements were sent. Coercive reforms continued throughout the year.
In Ngawa prefecture, Sichuan province (focus of Barbara Demick’s Eat the Buddha), uprisings broke out from March 1956, again prompting Chinese military intervention. As elsewhere, “goodwill troupes” occasionally sought (vainly and cynically) to mollify a furious population even while persisting in reforms.
The following chapters turn to what became the TAR, where reforms were delayed, with a useful survey of the early years under occupation. But by 1956 news of the violence in Kham was causing great alarm in Lhasa among the Tibetan leadership and public. Li describes the intense diplomatic intrigue in 1956–57 surrounding the Dalai Lama’s visit to India, involving Zhou Enlai, Nehru, and the USA—as Zhou emptily promised the Dalai Lama that there would be no reforms for six years. The Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa on 1st April to find the situation increasingly tense. Meanwhile the CIA-trained Chushi Gangdruk (“Four Rivers and Six Ranges”) volunteer army prepared to resist Chinese occupation.
The “socialist transformation” continued, with forced collectivization around Golok Prefecture in 1958, as the Great Leap Backward (my apt term) caused untold suffering right across China. By August,
resistance among the Qinghai Tibetans had spread to five autonomous prefectures, 24 counties, 240 tribes, and 307 monasteries, involving more than 90,000 people. The Chinese government sent in five army divisions and 30 regiments of various kinds, plus 25 companies of armed police and local militia, for a total armed force of more than 50,000, including air force, artillery, infantry, cavalry, armoured troops, and others. […]
In Chikdril County, 1,050 people, nearly 10% of its total population, were arrested within three years. More than half of these captives died in prison over the next five years, and some were in jail until the early 1980s. Of the hundreds of herdsmen arrested from the Khangsar clan, only about twenty of them ever made it home again.
At least 9,262 people were arrested in Golok Prefecture, the vast majority of them males in the prime of life; in some places the proportion of young men to young women was one to ten.
As the military campaign shifted north from Sichuan and Yunnan to Qinghai and Gansu, Li documents the horrific “Yellow River massacre” at what later became Khosin Township (Yulgen county) on 1st June 1958—as ever, carefully assessing the conflicting sources.
After a Chinese convoy was ambushed in Yulshul, rebellions broke out at monasteries, with bombers again deployed. Over a third of the population of Yulshul died in these years. Many survivors were imprisoned in labour reform camps, where they died or suffered for long years. With food shortages worsening, in May 1958 the PLA murdered monks at the Drakar Drelzong monastery in Tsikorthang, Tsolho Prefecture; in September there was a bloodbath at Drongthil Gulch. A second wave of assaults took place from June to September 1959.
As the Chinese military administration was convulsed by Rectification and Anti-rightist campaigns, Tibetan resistance to reform was widespread—though what Chinese sources portray as rebellion (thus creating a pretext for massacres) was sometimes a mere exodus of herders fleeing collectivization. Refugees were described as “bandits” if they were killed, or “liberated masses” if they were captured. Resistance continued in 1959, met by massive troop deployments, with further major battles.
In 1958 a major arrest and denunciation rally took place at Kumbum monastery in Rusar county, Qinghai. The monastery then has 1,615 monks—remarkable in itself, we might suppose. Tibetan Buddhist life had been relatively unscathed through the early years of occupation; but now the CCP initiated a secret “religious reform movement”, in which Buddhist activity was specifically targeted, notably the monasteries. A document from the period noted the scale of the issue:
more than 5,000 monasteries of various sizes, and 450,000 religious personnel, among which there are more than 3,000 lamaist temples and 250,000 lamas in Tibet; 20,000 lamas in Mongolia and Xinjiang; and a total of 2,000–3,000 lama temples and more than 170,000 lamas in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, and other provinces.
Apart from ideology, the monasteries possessed substantial assets, in land and precious material artefacts—Li gives regional instances of the assets confiscated, metal statues and religious implements. Labrang monastery (in Gansu), with its 4,000 monks, was surrounded in April 1958; after “reform” began in June, over 1,600 people there were arrested, imprisoned, or executed. Many monasteries were now destroyed. In Qinghai province,
223 monasteries in the pastoral areas have been disbanded, 51.98% of the total, and 17,685 religious personnel have returned to secular life, composing 36.56% of the total. Among these, 97.5% of the monasteries in Huangnan prefecture have been disbanded, and 55.1% of religious personnel have returned to secular life; adding in those arrested or sent to group training brings it to around 95% of the total. In Hainan prefecture, 91.8% of the monasteries have been disbanded, and 87.9% of religious personnel have returned to secular life. In Haibei and Haixi prefectures, more than 80% of the monasteries have been disbanded, and more than 70% of the religious personnel have returned to secular life. The emergence of these new scenarios shows that religion is on the brink of total collapse.
The Anti-rightist campaign gave another pretext to denounce religious figures. As a Qinghai document declared:
After a large number of religious monasteries have been destroyed and a large number of religious personnel have returned to secular life, all localities must rapidly launch religious systemic reform work in the monasteries that have been purposely retained. […] The monasteries that remain must be controlled by progressive elements and must be completely controlled under the party’s leadership.
Another Party document explained:
In order to look after the religious beliefs of the masses, block rumours and provocations by counterrevolutionaries inside and outside of China, and facilitate the centralised management of lamas who have not returned to secular life, preserving some temples is essential. As to the appropriate number to retain, this should be according to the influence of the temple and the views of the masses. Rank the temples; in principle it is undesirable to retain too few. […] In terms of retaining temples, it is advantageous at present to retain more rather than less.
By the beginning of 1959, the vast majority of monasteries in Amdo and Kham had been closed down, occupied, or destroyed. I note that whereas in post-reform China the Cultural Revolution makes a scapegoat for a far more protracted range of abuses, in the vast heartland of the Han Chinese, the Communists began destroying temples from the early 1950s—in some areas as soon as they took power, even before the national “Liberation”. I’m also reminded that food shortages there predated the 1959–61 famine by several years, following collectivization. Yet Tibetan religious faith was not extinguished: it went underground.
Struggle meeting against monk officials in Sera monastery.
Struggle meeting against a Tibetan government official in Lhasa.
Lhasa was “the last hope”, where activists and ordinary people from Kham sought refuge in ever larger numbers. Li surveys the fateful events leading to the Dalai Lama’s escape to India—described in greater detail elsewhere, including her own earlier book. But as resistance continued, fierce battles took place in Lhoka, Namtso, and Mitikha. 1960 saw further campaigns. She looks in more detail at the covert activities of the CIA Tibet Task Force. The extended resistance in Chamdo from 1959 to 1962 was yet again ruthlessly suppressed with annihilation campaigns and aerial bombing.
Finally Li attempts to collate the conflicting statistics over the whole region—deaths in conflict, arrests, Chinese troop numbers, confiscated assets, and so on. Just the figures suggesting population decrease are staggering.
From 1956 to 1962, the iron horse galloped wildly across the plateau. Wherever its iron heels trod, the flames of war were ignited, monasteries collapsed, scriptures were burned, people were killed, and leaders fled into exile. The political system, economy, military, culture, and society of the Tibetan people were completely destroyed.
And again she reminds us of the tragic personal experiences buried beneath such statistics.
In an Afterword, Li considers the “rehabilitation” of the early 1980s, further evidence of the grievous losses of the secret war. She notes the Panchen Lama’s 1962 petition; and she hints at the further wave of destruction that was to follow with the Cultural Revolution, observing the ironic fates of some of the worst central and regional Chinese masterminds of the holocaust, purged and humiliated.
After the individual memoirs that I reviewed recently (here and here), the broader canvas and more dispassionate tone of this volume are no less affecting; Tibetan and Chinese documents are interwoven with personal stories, some recounted by ageing exiles in India. Whereas in the 1950s the Chinese presence in Tibet was novel and tenuous, by the 1970s, following the violence of the Cultural Revolution there, it became a fait accompli, with the suppression of public memory seeking to bury the story of the appalling brutality of the late 1950s. But the imprint of the period clearly remains deep in people’s hearts, making a backdrop to the sporadic unrest that continues to erupt around Amdo, Kham, and the TAR.
For those studying expressive culture, all this makes an important reminder that the much-vaunted “singing and dancing of minority peoples” could hardly be maintained during such a traumatic period of social disruption. Yet, remarkably, after the downfall of Maoism in the 1980s, people pieced together the fragments of cultural life with alacrity, while adapting to new social changes (see e.g. Some folk ritual performers).
Having been impressed by Epiphany at the Greek church near the iskele ferry in Kuzguncuk, recently we got to attend Sunday service at the main Greek church further up the main street (for a fine study of the mahalle‘s multi-ethnic past, see Nostalgia for cosmopolitanism).
The Greek population of Istanbul (like other ethnic groups there) having progressively dwindled since the early 20th century, only special feast days attract more than a very few worshippers from around the city.
One might just find the service a sad illustration of the decline of Greek culture in Istanbul, but it made me think. While I’ve long been alienated from prissy, drab Anglican worship, turning as an outsider to Orthodox liturgy (or to any ritual and musical tradition) I’m not in search of the exotic, but I’m drawn to it as if it’s a mystery, not in the sublime sense but like a thriller—trying to work out what’s going on, to decipher its rules.
The distinction between emic and etic perceptions comes into play. Rather than the more spectacular rituals that often attract scholars and visitors, stimulating their mystical romanticism, it’s good to attend normal services to get an impression of ritual as routine. As with the rituals I’ve frequented with Li Manshan’s Daoist band in rural China, one begins to perceive that for those attending it’s partly an obligation, and that for the ritual specialists, to some extent “it’s just a job” (more radically, Frits Staal described ritual as “meaningless”; cf. Catherine Bell). Of course, in both cases there are elements of duty to tradition, even faith; but any “meaning” we impute must be broader than mere doctrine, involving changing social perceptions.
In church the liturgists and assistants do their job unfussily; as in Britain, the little congregation goes through the motions with greater or lesser commitment—it’s a weekly duty. Devout spiritual feelings can’t be taken for granted.
In China, conversely, where the Gaoluo village Daoist/Buddhist ritual association often seemed to be going through the motions, attending vespers in the house church of the Catholic minority there I was struck by their intensity and solidarity, apparently a result of their outlaw status since the 1949 revolution. But whereas the Chinese village Catholics maintain their faith tenaciously, the Greek urban Catholics are a tiny minority overwhelmed in a sea of Islam.
And without being at all hung up on “living fossils” or Ancient Wisdom, I am somehow inspired by being reminded of a world beyond the dominance of the three-minute pop song, just as the sound of the Muslim call to prayer does more insistently, more publicly (and also routinely). Whereas the silences between phrases of the call to prayer are part of its magic (again, a magic that is not necessarily experienced), in church the liturgy is more continuous; even in melodic material, it reveals a different world from that of the call to prayer or ilahi hymns, though the latter are largely diatonic too.
Following my initial explorations of Alevi ritual in Turkey (Istanbul; Anatolia), it was good last week to visit another Alevi place of worship, this one near my home base of Kuzguncuk on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.
I tend to feel more comfortable with the atmosphere of smaller “places of gathering”; some are inconspicuous, resembling house churches. But even the larger centres, like that of Şahkulu, have a modestly-sized cemevi where rituals are held.
In Üsküdar the Karacaahmet Sultan dervish lodge (Karacaahmet Sultan dergahi) occupies a prominent position on the main road. It’s the site of a major türbesi mausoleum, with a large Janissary and Bektashi cemetery. Despite the enigmatic heading
Karacaahmet is a great saint an insane came to him starts behaving sensibly,
the English-language brochure is rather useful.
The 13th-14th century dervish * Karaca Ahmed, a contemporary of Hacı Bektâş Velî, came to Anatolia from Khorasan. He is linked to healing, in particular for issues of mental health.
The centre was busy with followers gathered to pay homage to the tomb and to receive the midday distribution of lokma food in a large canteen. The hospitable dede gave us a blessing over the lokma offering that we had ourselves brought; and he reminded us of the spiritual symbolism of the components of the bağlama plucked lute (cf. the Chinese qin zither, as described e.g. by Robert van Gulik).
We observed the ritual blessings for the sheep about to be slaughtered—it’s also a considerable commercial enterprise serving clients elsewhere in the city. The centre also organises study courses, and has an impressive bookshop.
When we visited the upstairs cemevi, though, the simple ritual was sparsely attended; rather few of the hizmet duties were filled, and the final sema dance was slow and somewhat perfunctory. Later the dede confirmed to us the triple dilution of Alevi ritual, from rural Anatolia to migrant communities in Istanbul and thence to the diaspora.
I pondered the use of amplification, which has become standard around the world despite the poor quality of most sound systems (cf. Chinese shawm bands, who need it like bankers need lower rates of tax).
Several videos from Karacaahmet appear on YouTube, such as this far more impressive cem ritual in honour of the saint Abdal Musa in 2018:
The state still hinders Alevi culture rather than supporting it. Like other cemevis, Karacaahmet is funded by private donations; we were reminded of the Alevis’ frustration at being caught in a Catch-22 whereby their buildings can’t be registered as sites of religious worship and are thus liable to exorbitant utility bills. Moreover, recent assaults on Alevis in the provinces (e.g. here, here) and in Istanbul are disturbing. For all that, the atmosphere at such centres is most welcoming and supportive.
* On the plane out to Istanbul I absent-mindedly watched a kitsch Turkish movie about a young dervish, with the usual picturesque timeless landscapes, gorgeous protagonists, blah blah. We needn’t worry about the plot—apart from gnomic utterances about dough and fire (the kinda thing that sounds just great coming from Rumi), it was full of Pythonesque remarks like this, when the dervish’s wife, abandoned while he goes on a lengthy Quest for Truth, is consoled by her mother (surely a part for Terry Jones):
“That’s how dervishes are—they lose themselves when it comes to Divine Love…”
cf. “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very Naughty Boy”:
This might (but only might) lead us to the different Quests of Gurdjeff and Dalrymple.
For another lesson from the Turkish Airlines in-flight menu, click here.
Having revisited Keila Diehl’s study of the soundscapes of Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, I’ve also learned from re-reading an imaginative evocation of the focus of their longing:
Robert Barnett, Lhasa: streets with memories (2006).
Just as Lhasa can’t stand for the whole of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), the latter doesn’t represent the whole of “Greater Tibet”, with the majority of Tibetan people within the PRC living in the extensive regions of Amdo and Kham to the north and east, comprising large areas of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. Along with fine scholars such as Tsering Shakya and Melvyn Goldstein, Robbie has documented the modern history of Tibet in detail—the 1950 invasion, the 1959 uprising, the Cultural Revolution; the early 1980s’ reforms, protests from 1987, the tightened security from 1993 as Chinese (both migrant workers and tourists) began to flood the city, and renewed unrest since 2008.
The book is a sophisticated and personal affective history of a city, revolving around memory (cf. more recent volumes edited by Robbie, Forbidden memory and Conflictingmemories). He eschews simplistic stereotypes: both nostalgia for an “unspoilt” mystical paradise before the 1950 invasion, and horror at the garish modern architecture that bludgeons dwellers with the inescapable Chinese presence. The main text, interspersed with notes on his visits to the city, is quite succinct, with substantial endnotes not cued in the main text but offered as further reading—it’s a blessing that one’s reading is uninterrupted by in-text references.
He opens the Preface with some broad context:
Returning to London after some years away, I am struck by the way each street evokes specific memories and sometimes poignant feelings. I sit on the upper deck of the No.55 bus and look over the iron railings and the walls that shield Gray’s Inn Fields. I see the windows of an office once occupied by a leading politician, and the blue plaque that marks the house in Doughty Street where Dickens lived…
Some of these associations mark moments that are significant only to me, while others might be relevant to a larger community. Some derive their potency from something I have read or heard, a film I have seen, or scraps of conversation that I cannot quite recall. They are triggered by the sight of memorable buildings and places that I pass.
Cities can be illegible to foreign visitors; as Robbie excavates the multiple stories of Lhasa, he finds that
some of the elements that I will find will turn out in time to be my own invention, or to be irrelevant to the web of associations most valued by the inhabitants or even damaging to their interests.
In the following Note on history, he traces inhabitants’ reserve about speaking with foreign visitors back to the British military expedition led by Younghusband in 1903–4. This was followed in 1910 by another invasion, this time from the East, as a Chinese military force occupied Lhasa; but the 13th Dalai Lama soon declared his country fully independent. Robbie gives a lucid, nuanced account of the debates over the status of Tibet, ably rebutting Chinese claims.
Chapter 1, “The unitary view”, critiques the rosy views of pre-occupation Lhasa by both outside observers and refugees—the “easygoing and carefree life” of religious festivals, picnics, and parties. Such accounts from exile represent
not naïveté or a desire to mislead, but a natural flattening of memory, an understandable form of evocation by people forced to abandon their homeland, and a counter to overstated, opposing claims by those who had usurped their positions and ridiculed their legacy.
Robbie reveals a more complex picture—not only theft and monkish misbehaviour, but incidents like the 1912 sacking of Tengyeling monastery, the blinding of Lungshar in the 1930s, and the prison death of the former regent Retring. Complementing such accounts is Jamyang Norbu’s article on the “dark underbelly” of Lhasa before the 1950 invasion.
A contrasting kind of one-dimensionality that mirrors nostalgic exile accounts is the typical Chinese view of the Tibetans as “enthusiastic and open-minded and good at singing and dancing”. The latter is a trusty cliché, dutifully parroted (even by a young Chinese musicologist trying to do fieldwork in Lhasa in 1956—though he wasn’t so naïve as to dispense with a revolver).
Besides, pre-1950 Lhasa was politically diverse, modernising, with an international presence. As early as 1904 Younghusband had been offered Huntley & Palmers biscuits in the Lhasa Yamen by amban commissioners—perhaps the inspiration for Jamyang Norbu’s vignette in The mandala of Sherlock Holmes.
Such reflections are juxtaposed with Robbie’s notes on the trauma of his first visit in 1987, which coincided with a major demonstration against Chinese repression—first of a series of protests over the following years. He also uses these notes to suggest the partiality of his own impressions.
Chapter 2, “Foreign visitors, oscillations, and extremes”, continues the story of early portrayals of Lhasa. The golden roofs of the temples and the splendour of the Potala are staples in the accounts of visitors that yet accompany a contrasting image of dirt, both physical and moral. Not just Chinese but many Western observers too found the images of Tibetan Buddhism to reveal “bigotry, cruelty, and slavery”. Such visitors were at once entranced and repelled. Among the latter were Christian missionaries; Robbie cites a leaflet from as late as 1990:
Is there no light that cuts through the demonic darkness in Tibet, a nation long steeped in demonism and Tibetan Buddhism called Lamaism? … Satan has enslaved the people to a lifetime pre-occupation with right words and works. “Om mani padme hum” and other phrases are chanted repeatedly to false gods.
Such views can easily “mutate into engines of persecution”. I might add that while being a missionary would seem to be a serious handicap when seeking to understand a non-Christian culture, it has been noted that some of them have shown a remarkably enlightened view, favouring description rather than prescription.
Lhasa, late 1950s.
Meanwhile Robbie continues to unpack the Chinese attempt to rewrite history in Tibet. Most Chinese statistics and descriptions now use 1980 as the date
to mark the beginning of Chinese modernization in Tibet, much as if China had not been in control for the previous thirty years. […] Had the previous decades not been excised from the Chinese calculations, the overall achievement in Tibet, at least, might have seemed marginal.
Chapter 3 considers topography as a window on the Tibetans’ own moral world-view, with illustrations from early history, including the place of Buddhism. While they always conceived Lhasa as Ü, the “centre” of a square, later they depicted themselves as belonging to the northern, barren region—a different concept from the vain Chinese claim of occupying the “central kingdom”. Robbie gives a cogent account of debates over the “civilising” influence of the 7th-century Chinese princess Wencheng.
Chapter 4 looks at the spiritual geography of Lhasa, including the Potala, the Jokhang temple, the Barkor, and the Norbulingka. He notes that tranquility was not a fitting attribute to describe the city or its teeming monasteries; the Barkor was not only a pilgrimage site but a thriving market. The layout of the city was shaped not [only] by its religious edifices, but by the market squares and aristocratic mansions.
As elsewhere, there was no sense of contradiction between commerce and religion: for both Tibetans and foreign visitors,
the excitement of Lhasa was as much about shopping as about prayer—
until the Chinese occupation, when commerce and supplies abruptly disappeared.
It is one of the great tragicomic ironies of the Chinese presence that since the new transition point of 1980, Beijing’s main claim to legitimacy in Tibet has been the fact that it has brought consumer commodities to Tibet; until the Chinese arrived, the shops had been full of them.
Chapter 5 considers the 1980s’ reforms, when the Chinese began initiating grandiose construction projects—hotels, hospitals, squares, danwei work units, long broad thoroughfares. As the city expanded hugely, formerly isolated settlements on the outskirts became part of an unbroken urban sprawl. Around the Barkor some noble mansions remained intact, but many old houses had been so neglected for decades that demolition seemed inevitable. New buildings before the late 1980s were “large, symmetrical, and regular, […] statements of the solidity and purposiveness of the new regime”.
À propos foreign rulers making a statement by reshaping the streets of another nation’s capital, Robbie offers an aside on the Hanoverian project in Edinburgh,
the capital of a mountain territory with a strong and traditional religious culture scorned by the new rulers; it had also been annexed, through a claimed but disputed legal process, by a neighbouring state. In both cases the new rulers belonged to an aspirant dynasty that had foreign, protestant, progressivist, and puritanical ideas. Both dynasties were capable of immense feats of organisation, rapid technological advancement, and inordinate cruelty.
In 1995 a new set of construction projects for Lhasa was unveiled, among which the most grandiose was the vast military parade ground of the New Potala Palace Square—nicknamed Kalachakra Square by the locals in subtle homage to the exiled Dalai Lama.
I reflect that just as in Beijing, it seems absurd that one can now be nostalgic for the old architecture not only of the 1950s, but even of the 1980s.
Chapter 6 continues the story with the vogue for geometric structures in glass and chrome, replacing the former concrete. Until then,
building primarily in cement offered the advantage that fewer trees would need to be cut down in Tibet. This rationale was largely theoretical, because the Tibetan forests were anyway then being cleared to supply the market for timber in inland China.
From 1992, as petty commerce was encouraged, box-shaped, one-room shops proliferated in central Lhasa. Karaoke bars also became highly popular. In 1996 the official Party newspaper in Tibet published a letter from an unnamed reader:
On a recent stroll through the streets of Lhasa, this writer discovered that the shop signs of several stores, restaurants, and karaoke dance halls showed extremely poor taste. Their display is strongly coloured by feudal superstitions, low and vulgar, of mean style, with some even making indiscriminate use of foreign names…
By 1997, while the city covered an area seventeen times that of 1950, the Tibetan quarter was shrinking fast. With the rise of (largely Chinese) tourism, some efforts were made to create new buildings that blended with the Jokhang in style, if only cosmetically.
Late in the 20th century the Tibetan quarter of Lhasa was thus a confusion of religiosity, decaying mansions, feverish construction, half-planned amenities, and demolition sites as it faced the onward rush of rapid modernization.
Chapter 7 takes us into the 21st century. At last, private houses were built in a hybrid Tibetan style. As wages of government employees rose, partly in compensation for restrictions on their behaviour and to mollify them for the influx of Chinese workers, some built new Simsha homes on the outskirts: “a new style of Tibetan housing, living, and class division had finally emerged”. Parks too, rendered soulless under Maoism, became Tibetanized. Still, casual visitors were unlikely to notice such changes amidst the hypermarkets and giant housing developments.
Western journalists and writers like myself found that our stories of five or ten years earlier had to be rewritten. Like our predecessors who had come with the British invasion a century before, we arrived prepared to write about the iniquities of the system and departed somewhat in awe of its achievements. This time the achievements were economic rather than spiritual, the system was Chinese rather than Tibetan, and the change was effected by major alterations in local policies more than by the exigencies of foreign outlook or temperament. Those who had created narratives after 1987 that focused on dissent, protest, and their suppression by the state found themselves wandering down streets where there were fewer police visible and far less crime than in the cities from which they had come. Those streets were now lined with arcades, malls, and shops advertising the same cornucopia of endlessly available commodity goods we were accustomed from our own histories to see as the goal of social progress.
Some writers even began to tone down their criticisms of the regime. While “the modern mechanisms of discreet control still abounded”, open demonstrations had ceased—for now.
Robbie also notes the “Tibet chic” craze among the Chinese middle classes, with a new respect for Tibetan Buddhism, seeking spiritual enlightenment in a way not unlike that long pursued by Western pilgrims. This craze was not matched by greater state tolerance, as monasteries were controlled even more strictly.
Meanwhile Robbie was changing too; by now he was Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, spending summers in Lhasa as a visiting teacher at the university there; as he became accustomed to modernization, it lost the ability to shock him. He finds his vision becoming blurred:
As my life in Lhasa filled with the momentary excitements and quotidian disappointments of work, relationships, food, and sleep, the streets I had studied became ways to get to a meeting or a meal, and buildings whose history I had once dreamed of understanding became permeable exteriors of which only the contents mattered: they became unnoticed extensions of the people I knew and the ways in which they lived, talked, and slept. Any clarity of vision that I had once thought I had on arrival became obscured, and the lines that Italo Calvino had said were written in the corners of city streets and the gratings of windows became invisible. They could not be deciphered. They were no longer available as the distinct elements that the foreign writer wishes for, to control, describe, and play with according to his or her dreams.
As to interactions with Lhasa dwellers, as he has already noted, where the line lies that Tibetans cannot safely cross in conversations with others
is a matter of contention, and it changes from time to time, according to political conditions, the temperament of certain leaders, individual interpretations, and, most dangerously, erroneous calculation of risk.
Visitors may not know when they have caused harm. He and his students
mainly inferred the rules that limited us through a vague sense of recent history or from collective fears. These last were more effective than explicit prohibitions.
In Chapter 8 he talks with a Chinese friend who confides, in a rare moment of candour:
“I do not like what we have done to this city. We have not treated these Tibetans as well as they deserve. The buildings are too low. What this place needs is tower blocks like we have in Chengdu.”
And he visits a student in his class, a stern-faced Chinese cadre who was part-owner of a high-class nightclub. Locals would describe her as gya ma bod, neither Chinese nor Tibetan, a mestizo. Her Tibetan mother, born to a poor rural family, had become a leading official.
The half-goat, half-sheep grazes both the pastureland and the mountainsides; she doesn’t run away to sea. The pure-breed lives only in the imagination, and finally migrates in search of dreams; the hybrid buys shares in nightclubs, reads books in foreign languages, and adapts. The one enchants, the other discards outward charms. With her the future lies.
In the brief concluding Chapter 9 Robbie recaps the diverse architectural styles and the world-views they represent, reminding us of earlier historical themes.
Within the walled and unwalled compounds of the city formed by these streets and buildings live people the archaeology of whose lives can scarcely be read from their exteriors, and whose present surroundings may speak nothing of their histories and desires.
While interrogating silent buildings may seem a poor substitute for meaningful interaction with people, Robbie stresses the dangers of claiming “knowledge” of such a culture, and gives revealing notes on necessarily guarded encounters with Tibetan (and Chinese) Lhasa dwellers. He has led the way in detailing the indignities and abuses from which Tibetans continue to suffer under Chinese rule, but here they are hinted at rather than spelled out. In similar vein, the book is illustrated with line drawings—again, of buildings rather than people; and again, whereas one might suppose that photos would have reminded us better that Lhasa is a Real Place (for remarkable photos from the Cultural Revolution there, note Woeser’s book on the topic), instead the drawings underline Robbie’s focus on the elusive, fuzzy nature of memory.
Since the book was published in 2006, the relative standoff that had prevailed in Lhasa and further afield at the turn of the new century has again been shattered by yet another cycle of protest and repression (for Robbie’s analysis of the 2008 protests, see e.g. here). Surveillance has become ever more high-tech, with police cameras and checkpoints prominent.
Alongside documentation that is rarely so qualified by doubts about subjectivity, Lhasa: streets with memories is a most welcome study. For updates, see e.g. posts (in Chinese) by Tsering Woeser (blog; Twitter), such as this (translated) from 2013.
It is most important to keep the travails of the Tibetans in the public eye alongside those of the Uyghurs.
Keila Diehl, Echoes from Dharamsala: music in the life of a Tibetan refugee community (2002)
is the fruit of ten months that the author spent from 1994 to 1995 in the hillside capital of the Tibetan government-in-exile in northwest India, “perched in the middle of one of the world’s political hotspots”. Despite the presence of the revered Dalai Lama, Dharamsala is no mystical paradise.
As Diehl explains in the Introduction, Dharamsala felt somewhat over-subscribed as a topic, and she had hoped to study Tibetan refugee communities elsewhere in India; but she was drawn back there by circumstance, and soon became a participant observer playing keyboards with The Yak Band. This informs her thesis on the performance and reception of popular music and song by Tibetan refugees—including traditional folk genres, Tibetan songs perceived as “Chinese”, Hindi film songs, Western rock, reggae, and blues, new Tibetan music, and Nepali folk and pop.
In the Introduction she notes a contradiction between scholarship on displacement and the people whose experiences generated it. Whereas anthropological theory tends to celebrate “transgression, displacement, innovation, resistance, and hybridity”,
it became clear that many of the displaced people I had chosen to live among and work with were, in fact, striving heartily for emplacement, cultural preservation, and ethnic purity, even though keeping these dreams alive also meant consciously keeping alive the pain and loss inherent in the exile experience rather than letting or helping these wounds heal.
Further, much of the scholarship that does include ethnographic case studies tends to emphasise
the richness, multivocality, dialogism, and creativity of their subjects rather than their deep conservatism, xenophobia, and dreams of emplacement.
Diehl gives cogent answers, in turn, to “Why study refugees?”, “Why refugee music?”, “Why refugee youth?”, and “Why Tibetans?”. Exploring “zones of invisibility” (and inaudibility), she seeks to
fill in some of the gaps left by the many idealised accounts of Tibetans. Through its generally uncomplicated celebration of political solidarity and cultural preservation in exile, much of the available information on Tibetan refugees exhibits a troubling collusion with the community’s own idealised self-image. […]
After four decades in exile, many Tibetans realise not only that the utopian dream is still an important source of hope but also that it can be a source of disappointment and frustration that has very real effects on individuals and communities who are raised to feel responsible for its actual, though unlikely, realisation.
She introduces the “Shangri-La trope”, analysed by Bishop, Lopez, and Schell, and notes the “disciplinary bias within Tibetan Studies towards the monastic culture of pre-1950 Tibet”—a bias that applied also to Tibetan music, largely interpreted as “Buddhist ritual music” until the mid-1970s (cf. Labrang 1). Since Diehl wrote the book, the whole field has been transformed by new generations of scholars at last able to document Tibetan culture within the PRC.
She notes Dharamsala’s position at the “literal yet liminal intersection” of a “geographical and conceptual mandala”:
What complicates this apparently cut-and-dry native point of view is the fact that […] sounds and musical boundaries are, ultimately, immaterial and are therefore felt and experienced in personal and varied ways.
Chapter 1, “Dharamsala: a resting place to pass through”, depicts the town as both a centre and a limen, a destination for pilgrimage which refugees hope eventually to leave. Besides them, the ever-shifting population also includes civil servants, nomads, traders, aid workers, dharma students, and tourists.
Members of the oldest generation in exile came to India from Nepal, Bhutan, or India’s North East Frontier Area (now Arunachal Pradesh) after escaping from Tibet in 1959 on foot over the Himalayas, travelling in family groups under the cover of darkness, following their leader into exile. Since then, for forty years, Tibetans have continued to escape from their homeland in a procession whose flow varies with the seasonal weather, the attentiveness of Nepali border patrols, the effects of specific Chinese policies in Tibet, and the varying intensity with which these policies are implemented in different regions of the country and different times.
Diehl identifies three general waves of migration:
The first escapees (between 1959 and the mid-1960s) came from Lhasa, Tingri, or other southern border areas of the country. Few Tibetans escaped during the worst years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), but in the 1980s a second wave of refugees, a number of whom had been imprisoned during the first decades of Tibet’s occupation, fled Tibet. Since the early 1990s, a third wave of refugees from Amdo in the northeast, known as sar jorpa (“new arrivals”), have arrived in exile, putting the greatest demands on the government-in-exile’s resources and institutions since the first months spent establishing tent camps, clinics, and schools in 1959.
Besides regional aspects, I note that there are political and class considerations here too, as the old generation that included aristocrats and former monks from the Lhasa region was replaced by commoners (and former monks) from a wider area, brought up under the routine degradations of de facto Chinese occupation. At first the shared plight of exile tended to homogenise interactions:
It was irrelevant, even laughable, to insist on special privileges or respect because one’s father had been a regional chieftain in Tibet, when you had no more power to set foot in Tibet than your neighbour, the son of a petty trader from Lhasa.
But social, regional, and sectarian divisions later re-emerged.
Some refugees in the diaspora avoid Dharamsala altogether, specifically because of the ambition, materialism, self-consciousness, and conservatism engendered by its status as an international hub of activism, tourism, and bureaucracy and because of its overcrowdedness and uncleanliness.
Refugees (and the Indian population) depend to a large extent on the influx of tourists, including the transient “dharma bums” and those on more committed spiritual or welfare missions. The new refugees find themselves
outside the rigid structures of Tibetan society, perched at the margins of Indian society, and inferior to all around them owing to their utter dependence.
Chapter 2 explores the notions of “tradition” and the “rich cultural heritage of Tibet”, which “authenticate the past and largely discredit the present”. The chapter opens at a Tibetan wedding, with a group of older chang-ma women singing songs of blessing and offering barley beer in toasts to the couple and the guests.
Groups like this had been common in Tibet before 1959, but only became popular in Dharamsala in the 1980s. The women performing for the wedding had all fled from the Tingri region of Tibet, working in Nepal as day labourers, petty traders, or wool spinners before reaching Dharamsala. They had recently pooled their memories of weddings in old Tibet to create a suitable repertoire.
At some remove from such non-institutional groups, Diehl examines the role of government-sponsored community and school events in “cultural preservation”, headed by the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA).
In exile the official drive was inspired both by the dilution of Tibetan culture after exposure to Indian society and by fears over the destruction of traditional culture inside Tibet after 1959 (this mantra, still repeated by rote, probably needs refining in view of research on the state of performing traditions in Tibet since the 1980s). The reified cause of “preservation” required perpetuating a sense of “loss and victimisation” among the second and third generations, who had no experience of the homeland.
But the nostalgic canonisation of certain genres
does little to account for (or respect) the complex mosaic of cultural practices that are continually being constructed in exile through the choices and circumstances of even the most “traditional” Tibetan refugees and that constitute their day-to-day realities.
Nor does it reflect the diversity of culture inside Tibet before the 1950s, and since the 1980s.
Diehl scrutinises the annual ache-lhamo festival of the TIPA Tibetan opera troupe (see here, a post enriched by wonderful videos), as well as TIPA’s international touring activities. But locals note that the school appears demoralised, its performances lacking vitality—the emphasis on preservation apparently leading to “cultural death”, just as in China.
Diehl notes the uncomfortable position of the sar-jorpa “new arrivals” from Tibet:
Rather than being valued as fresh connections to the increasingly remote homeland, as might be expected, these Tibetans more frequently cause disappointment by failing to validate the hopeful dreams of those living in exile. Instead, their apparent foreignness only confirms dire thirdhand news of cultural change (namely, sinicization) in Tibet.
Still, educated Tibetans in Dharamsala told Diehl that
the children escaping nowadays from Tibet (rather than those carefully schooled in exile) are the most likely to maintain a strong commitment to the “Tibetan Cause”, since they have personally experienced the consequences of living under Chinese occupation.
She illustrates the conflict with a telling scene at the Losar New Year’s gatherings. Besides the chang ma singing songs of praise and dancing, a group of new arrivals from Tibet were also taking turns to sing namthar arias from ache-lhamo opera, with loud amplification—a performance shunned by the locals.
It seemed a perfect illustration of the separate worlds refugee Tibetans and Tibetans raised in the homeland inhabit, even when living and dreaming in the same close physical proximity. No Tibetan in the temple that morning wanted to be celebrating another new year where they were, and all knew exactly where they preferred to be, but the differences between their relationships to those reviled and desired places [were] being expressed in ways that exaggerated the temporal, spatial, and cultural experiences that had been their karmic destiny, seemingly muting their commonality.
Diehl goes on to ponder the competing claims to cultural authority in Tibet and in exile. The singers visiting from Tibet were not making explicit claims to “tradition”, but, rather,
employing the range of their musical knowledge […] to express conservative and religious sentiments. Because they had recently come from the physical homeland, their potential space-based authenticity was actually a liability in the context of Dharamsala rather than a resource for claims to cultural propriety. […]
Young Tibetans in Tibet and in exile are not faced with a simple either-or choice between traditional or modern “styles”. […] It is difficult to assess most traditions as simply “preserved” or “lost”. *
Still, cultural pundits in Dharamsala see the risk of Chinese influence as more pernicious than that of other kinds of foreign music such as rock-and-roll. Exiles have criticised the vocal timbre of Dadon, a Tibetan pop singer who escaped Tibet in 1992, as sounding “too Chinese”; even more strident was the controversy over Sister drum.
Chapter 3, “Taking refuge in (and from) India: film songs, angry mobs, and other exilic pleasures and fears”, discusses refugee life in the here and now of contemporary India, when
few voices in the conversation grapple with, or even acknowledge, the Indian context in which the exile experience is actually taking place for the great majority of Tibetan refugees.
The shared disdain of many Westerners and Tibetan refugees for the day-to-day realities of India—hardship, corruption, poverty, and filth—is an important ingredient in the often-romantic collusion between these groups.
The Indians’ resentment of the refugees is “restrained by considerations of economic self-interest”, but ethnic conflicts sometimes arise, as in April 1994, when a fight between a Tibetan and a local gaddi led to a rampage against the refugees. The Dalai Lama’s offer to move out from Dharamsala was clearly in no-one’s interest, and so peace-making gestures were made.
Living in India, Tibetan refugees are no more immune than the rest of the subcontinent to the ubiquitous Hindi film music, with all its “fantastic dreams of sin and modernity”, in Das Gupta’s words. Commenting on the wider consumption and production of such songs among Tibetan refugees, Diehl reflects in a well-theorised section on the similarities and differences between the original and the mime.
Although Hindi film songs had long been adopted by Tibetan refugees as “spice” (or “salt-and-pepper”) at weddings and other events, they were to make a more conflicted choice for Tibetan rock groups. Diehl takes part in the Yak Band as they perform concerts that include some such songs, featuring the demure young schoolteacher Tenzin Dolma, who imitates the voice of Lata Mangeshkar, “the Nightingale of India”. Tibetans’ enjoyment of this repertoire is a guilty pleasure. The Yak band were aware of the risk that the “salt-and-pepper” might become “bread and butter”.
Having added India into the mix, Diehl reflects further on her time with the Yak Band in Chapter 4, “The West as surrogate Shangri-La: rock and roll and rangzen as style and ideology”, exploring the often-idealised romance with the West, and the quest for independence.
Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton have been part of the lives of Tibetans born in exile since childhood. Western rock brings as much cultural baggage as the soundscapes of traditional Tibet, modern India, and socialist China. Diehl notes the scholarly tendency to interpret youth culture in terms of “resistance” or “deviance”, downplaying cases where it may be conservative or centripetal. Referring to Bishop and Lopez, she surveys the Western fascination with first the “spirituality” of Tibet and then the high profile of the Tibetan political cause.
Social divisions in Dharamsala are further amplified when Tibetans who have gained residency in the USA return for a visit; those still left behind in India, not realising the hardships their fellow Tibetans have had to endure in the States to gain a foothold there, envy their apparently affluent lifestyle. But as refugees continue to arrive from Chinese-occupied Tibet, opportunities for those still in India remain limited; the lure of the West is strong.
Still, plenty of Tibetans of all ages in Dharamsala (including “new arrivals”) felt that Western pop and rock “have no place in a community engaged in an intense battle for cultural survival”.
On the one hand, there are very strong, politically informed reactions against any Tibetan music that sounds too Chinese, too Hindi, or too Western. On the other, many Tibetan youth respect traditional Tibetan music but find it boring.
In Chapter 5, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down: making modern Tibetan music”, Diehl ponders the challenges of creating a modern Tibetan music. She provides a history of the genre from its origins around 1970, introducing the TIPA-affiliated Ah-Ka-Ma Band before focusing on the Yak Band.
Paljor was brought up in Darjeeling, trained by Irish Christian missionaries. His late father was a Khampa chieftain who had been trained by the CIA in the late 1950s to fight Chinese incursion. Thubten, grandson of a ngagpa shaman, had escaped as a small child from Shigatse to Kalimpong in 1957, going on to spend seventeen years in the Tibetan regiment of the Indian army. Phuntsok was born in Dharamsala; Ngodup was an orphan schooled in Darjeeling.
In a community wary of innovation, even traditional musicians have a lowly status. Whatever people’s private tastes within the family, public musicking is subject to scrutiny.
Chapter 6 turns from sound to the crafting of song lyrics, with their narrowly solemn themes such as solidarity for independence, and nostalgia for the loss of a beautiful homeland—themes which demand expression in a language that is largely beyond the literary skills of the younger generation. Diehl talks with the official astrologer for the government–in-exile, who provided poetic lyrics for the local bands, and introduces the early work of Ngawang Jinpa, Paljor’s teacher in Darjeeling. Diehl cites a rather successful lyric by Jamyang Norbu (former director of TIPA, editor of the 1986 Zlos-gar, an important resource at the time; see e.g. The Lhasa ripper, Women in TIbet, 2, and The mandala of Sherlock Holmes), “poetic yet accessible, evocative rather than boring”.
She gives a theoretically nuanced account of what song lyrics communicate, and how; and she explains the refugees’ rather low level of literacy, official efforts to create a standard language among a variety of regional dialects, and the link with sacred sound. Love songs are also composed, but hardly performed in public. It is considered more acceptable to write lyrics in bad English than in bad Tibetan, but such songs are rarely aired in public.
Chapter 7 unpacks public concerts that “rupture and bond”. In January 1995, the Yak Band made a major trek to the Mundgod refugee settlement in south India to coincide with the Kalachakra initiation ceremony there, with the Dalai Lama presiding. Their choice of repertoire over fifteen nightly performances revealed “a comfort with cultural ambiguity and a passion for foreign culture that is disturbing to some in the community”.
Over the course of the concerts the band agonised over their set list. While their inspiration was to share their songs of praise for the Dalai Lama, their longing for a homeland they had never seen, and compassion for their compatriots left behind in Tibet (exemplified in their opening song Rangzen), they varied the proportion of modern Tibetan songs, “English” rock songs, and Hindi and Nepali songs in response (and sometimes resistance) to the reactions of the multi-generational audiences—which included, at first, young monks, before their abbot imposed a strict curfew on them. While hurt that the audiences preferred “silly Indian love songs” to their core Tibetan offerings, the Yaks reluctantly succumbed to popular demand.
One of the Yaks’ reasons for their visit to Mundgod was to get their tenuous finances on their feet by selling their cassettes, but they returned to Dharamsala having made a loss. Moreover, they now suffered from hostile public opinion about their repertoire.
Disillusioned by the lack of support in Dharamsala, the band drifted apart, but they were able to put on a reunion gig for the Dalai Lama’s 60th birthday—when their preferred Tibetan set list was eminently suitable.
In the Conclusion, Diehl reminds us of the importance of musicking
as a crucial site where official and personal, old and new, representations of Tibetan culture meet and where different notions of “Tibetan-ness” are being confronted and imagined.
In a brief coda she updates the stories of the Yak Band.
* * *
For all the book’s excellent ethnographic vignettes, some sections bear the hallmarks of a PhD, with little adaptation to a more reader-friendly style—which is a shame, since the topic is so fascinating. I’ve already confessed my low tolerance threshold for heavily theorised writing (see e.g. my attempts to grapple with Catherine Bell’s outstanding work on ritual).
From within the goldfish bowl of Dharamsala, Diehl only touches in passing on the changing picture inside Chinese-occupied Tibet. While repression there has been ever more severe since 2008, research on regional cultures there had already become a major theme, with a particular focus on Amdo (see e.g. here, including the work of Charlene Makley, Gerald Roche, and others, as well as chapters in Conflicting memories). For the pop scene, useful sources are §10 of the important bibliography by Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (including work by Anna Morcom), and the High Peaks Pure Earth website (see also Sister drum, and Women in TIbetan expressive culture). Within occupied Tibet, performers of popular protest songs have been imprisoned, such as Tashi Dhondup; in another thoughtful article, Woeser explores the shifting sands of prohibited “reactionary songs” and the challenge of keeping track of subtle allusions.
Diehl refers to a variety of publications such as those of Marcia Calkowski and Frank Korom, and I cite some more recent sources in n.1 here—among which perhaps the most useful introduction to the topic is
Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, “Easier in exile? Comparative observations on doing research among Tibetans in Lhasa and Dharamsala”, in Sarah Turner (ed.), Red stars and gold stamps: fieldwork dilemmas in upland socialist Asia (2013).
For contrasting lessons from occupation and exile, see also Eat the Buddha. Despite the presence of the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala has begun to occupy a less iconic position in our images of Tibetan culture. For all the growing disillusion with the political promises of Western countries, refugees continue to move on, while “new arrivals” have come to make up a significant component of the town’s Tibetan population—see e.g. Pauline MacDonald, Dharamsala days, Dharamsala nights: the unexpected world of the refugees from Tibet (2013), critically reviewed here. The growing popularity of satellite TV from the PRC, and the issue of Tibetan culture in the growing Western diaspora, further complicate the story.
* One of my own more disconcerting moments came while hanging out with young performers from TIPA on their tour of England in May 2004. Several of them were refugees from Chinese-occupied Tibet, but they were quite happy to speak Chinese with me. Much as I am attracted to Tibetan culture, apart from lacking the language skills, my whole background in Chinese culture has always made me wary of doing fieldwork in Tibetan areas. Whenever I meet Tibetans I am at pains to point out that my Chinese peasant mentors have also suffered grievously at the hands of the state, but I’m still anxious that they might consider me tarred with the brush of the invaders. Still, incongruously, several of the TIPA performers who had fled the PRC were now keen that I should sing them some Chinese pop songs to remind them of their old home, and were somewhat disappointed when I couldn’t oblige.
When I go to concerts, I’ve always resented forking out for a programme. Such insights as it may bequeath are sandwiched between an array of glossy advertisements, reminding us of the mundane capitalism from which the event promises to afford us temporary refuge. Sometimes I do grudgingly buy a programme in search of some nugget of wisdom, but ideally I’d rather not be distracted from the experience of live musicking.
Having broached the issue here, sorry to go all world music on you again, but I can’t help going back to the ethnomusicological studies viewing Western Art Music (WAM) through the eyes and ears of a Martian, like Christopher Small’s Musicking or Bruno Nettl’s Heartland excursions. Concert audiences being highly literate, they tend to use that literacy as a crutch, a comfort blanket, seeking verbal explanation for an experience that might otherwise be more somatic and socially immersive. I wonder if we’re not quite prepared to immerse ourselves thus, almost as if we need some kind of distraction to allay potential embarrassment—while clubbers enter more fully into the live experience, audiences at rock concerts are distracted by filming the event on their phones…
Literacy is enshrined among the orchestral performers too, faithfully reproducing the printed score set before them; the conductor’s score on the podium serves as a holy text (the “quasi-sacred rite of ceremonially placing the score at the centre of the act of performance”), with only some maestros enhancing the experience by conducting from memory.
Conversely, at the musical gatherings of communities around much of the world (take your pick: Aboriginal dream songs, a Daoist ritual, an Alevicem ceremony…)—where the participants may not even be literate—no need is felt to explicate the event in words, to list the performers and the conductor’s glittering list of recordings and forthcoming engagements, nor to tell us what Haydn was doing in London in 1795; rather, expressive culture is part of the fabric of the community, not hived off into a museum. Tickets aren’t on sale. I should add that there are plenty of events in Western societies where you don’t have to buy a ticket, or a programme, for an enriching musical experience—weddings, lullabies, Irish pub sessions…
As to fieldworkers, no matter how they immerse themselves in a community, through the very nature of their constant questions (“Do you always do it like this? Is there a crucial part of the ceremony? Why are you inviting two groups of ritual specialists today?”) they will never attain the state of the inhabitants, for whom musical events form an intrinsic part of their lives. Of course, local participants may be quite capable of reflection, aware of nuances in performance, and concerned with the rules of variation; but such awareness is embedded in their hearts and bodies. The discursive mission of the ethnographer can only violate this sense.
For the little segment of modern Western society that attends WAM concerts, the written exegeses of the programme booklet may enrich our appreciation of the event as well as distracting us from it. I now realise that the copious ads (for insurance companies, corporate sponsors, posh schools, retirement homes), so diligently blanked out by those drawn to the repertoire by some kind of spiritual bent, are just as revealing as the programme notes. Whether or not the ads are welcome, they convey a subliminal message, making a telling commentary on the social demographic of the audience. Concert-goers may be seduced by the myth of “music as a universal language”, but advertisers know better; programmes don’t tend to feature ads for food banks, helplines for immigrants, or offers of legal aid for striking health workers. As often in fieldwork, seemingly peripheral aspects, easily neglected, can afford valuable insights into the nature of the event.
The concerns of an audience for Mahler 7, apparently—
perhaps not so different from those of participants at a Chinese folk ritual:
providing for the security of the family?
Apart from my annual surveys (2021 here), I’ve added a tag in the sidebar for roundups, where I group together posts on a particular theme. Whether or not you share my fetish for taxonomy (see e.g. here) and the joys of Indexing, as long as you start clicking away on the links (and the links within them…) then this could be a really useful navigational aid!
I could have sworn I published this roundup of such roundups before, but it seems to have disappeared. Note especially
1966 was the major cut-off point, but research (and ritual practice) was highly constrained after the Socialist Education campaigns began in 1963; and already by 1957–58 the Anti-Rightist campaign and Great Leap Backward had disastrous consequences (see Cultural Revolutions). We can find several more signs of life on the eve of the Leap, such as the Xi’an scholar Li Shigen’s 1959 report on his 1957 visit to the White Cloud Mountain in Shaanbei. And I just recalled another one,
Yangzhou daojiao yinyue jieshao揚州道教音乐介绍 [Introduction to the Daoist music of Yangzhou], edited by the Yangzhou Cultural Association (Wenlian). 
This slim mimeograph of 37 pages, compiled in 1957 and published in 1958, consists mainly of cipher-notation transcriptions of the Qingchui dipu Shifan gu 清吹笛譜十番鼓 gongche solfeggio score for dizi flute of (paraliturgical) melodies for Shifan ensemble, a score which is said to have been handed down in the Chenghuang miao temple since the Ming dynasty.
By contrast with the outstanding work of Yang Yinliu, the pamphlet is entirely reified, with no social context at all on the severely-reduced conditions of ritual activity in the urban temples or the surrounding countryside—but at least it suggests a concern for ritual music at the time, that was only able to get into full swing as traditions and scholarship revived after the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s.
After a nugatory, formulaic introduction, the transcriptions are in three sections: qingchui dipu 清吹笛譜 solo flute scores, daoqing 道情 popular vocal melodies, with texts, and—most interestingly—twelve zanjing 讚經 hymns, again with texts:
Since the 1980s, the Anthology (see my “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3, 2003) sometimes affords valuable prospects of local ritual traditions—such as the household Daoists of Changwu, subject of a substantial section in the narrative-singing volumes for Shaanxi. Otherwise, “religious music” mostly appears under the “instrumental music” volumes—supplementing recent fieldwork with studies from the 1950s. For Jiangsu province the coverage of “Daoist music” gives pride of place to Suzhou, Wuxi, and Maoshan; Yangzhou is absent.
Perhaps there has been further study, but Zhu Ruiyun 朱瑞云 (b.1929), the main author of the 1958 mimeograph, finally published a much expanded revision in 2007, Yangzhou daojiao yinyue kao 揚州道教音乐考. Despite all the advances in China in the ethnography of religion since the 1980s, its 366 pages are still largely limited to hackneyed musicological concerns. Zhu had no training in Daoism, but since the 1980s many other cultural workers around China managed to educate themselves about their local Daoist ritual traditions—some (as in Fujian, Jiangxi, and Hunan) becoming considerable authorities, producing a wealth of fine ethnographic work.
The introductory material, including a brief account of ritual practice, consists largely of generic citations from early history; Zhu spectacularly avoids even the briefest reference to any modern ritual activity in Yangzhou. In the transcriptions (now in Western stave notation), the brief section of hymns, after the opening Kaijing zan, even dispenses with the ritual texts that he provided in the 1958 mimeograph.
At least we now learn that the Qingchui dipu Shifan gu score was provided by Sun Guiyuan 孙归源, fourth-generation abbot of the Chenghuang miao temple, to whom Zhu was introduced while he was working the Bureau of Culture in 1957. And the brief account by Sun Guiyuan’s son, written in 1991, tells us that the temple was demolished in 1950 and the score destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.
Alas, this is one book we can well do without. So Daoist ritual around Yangzhou still cries out for detailed research—not only on imperial history, but fieldwork on current activity (both temple and folk),  and studies of change from the Republican to Maoist eras. We may find the 1958 mimeograph meretricious (and a Happy New Year), but I still admire the work of scholars through all the travails of Maoism. Meanwhile, it’s a reminder to return to the splendid work on Daoist ritual around Suzhou and Wuxi.
 In Yangzhou, a more popular topic has been the lively (secular) folk traditions of qingqu 清曲 narrative-singing, which are the subject of many dedicated studies since the Yangzhou qingqu caifang baogao 揚州清曲采访报告 of 1962 (yet another impressive monograph from the Chinese Music Research Institute, in the lull between the famine and the Socialist Education campaigns), and the genre features prominently in the narrative-singing volumes of the Anthology.
 As usual, the most promising approach will be simply to spend time there “among the people”, chatting with locals and perhaps hanging out at funeral shops. Almost wherever one goes, household Daoist (and Buddhist) groups are in demand to provide services for mortuary rituals—as shown even by a popular article like this from 2016, in which the author, on a visit home to Yangzhou, is surprised to find that his father has taken up the Daoist trade late in life. For temple Buddhism, see e.g. this announcement for the Water-and-Land ritual as performed at the Daming si temple.
Nine lives: in search of the sacred in modern India (2009)
(reviewed e.g. by Colin Thubron, and here).
By now Dalrymple had long been based in India. In the Introduction (click here for a variant) he traces the book’s origins back to the summer of 1993, when on a trek in the Himalayas he met an ash-smeared, naked itinerant sadhu of about his own age—who turned out to be a dropout from the world of commerce.
Living in India over the last few years, I have seen the country change at a rate that was impossible to imagine when I first moved there in the late 80s.
So extraordinary was the pace of development that
It was easy to overlook the fragility and unevenness of the boom. […]
Within twenty minutes of leaving the headquarters of Microsoft or Google Asia, cars and trucks are beginning to give way to camel and bullock carts, suits, denim, and baseball hats to dusty cotton dhotis and turbans. This is a very different India indeed, and it is here, in the spaces suspended between modernity and tradition, that most of the stories in this book are set. […]
While the West often likes to imagine the religions of the East as deep wells of ancient, unchanging wisdom, in reality much of India’s religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices, and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing very rapidly as Indian society transforms itself at speed.
I set out to write an Indian equivalent of my book on the monks and monasteries of the Middle East, From the holy mountain. But the people I met were so extraordinary, and their own stories and voices so strong, that in the end I decided to write Nine lives in a quite different form. Twenty years ago, when my first book, In Xanadu, was published at the height of the 80s, travel writing tended to highlight the narrator; his [sic] adventures were the subject, the people he [sic] met were sometimes reduced to objects in the background. With Nine lives I have tried to invert this, and keep the narrator firmly in the shadows, so bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories firmly centre stage.
Indeed, this has been a growing tendency in anthropology and ethnomusicology; see e.g. Helen Rees’s introduction to Lives in Chinese music (2009). This trend is reflected in my own work on Gaoluo, and the Li family Daoists.
Besides all the scholarly research on living Indian religious traditions in change, a popular book like this is most valuable. Many of these topics have been covered by other authors, and Dalrymple provides a succinct reading list by chapter. This might have taken the form of a rather more detailed annotated section (as Barbara Demick does in Eat the Buddha, for instance); he might even have included some audio-visual documentation, as I attempt selectively below.
So Nine lives focuses on ascetics and ritual specialists (the latter chiming with my own work on China). And as in China, women play a major role. Dalrymple’s work is no simple paean to the Wisdom of the Mystic East; despite all the evocative descriptions, he is concerned to reflect the ravages of modern change.
A great many of the lives of the searchers and renouncers I talked to were marked by suffering, exile, and frequently, great pain; a large number turned out to be escaping personal, familial, or political tragedies. […]
Nor (I note) does religion always provide an escape; often it compounds exploitation. Dalrymple again:
I have made a conscious effort to try [and] avoid imposing myself on the stories told by my nine characters, and so hope to have escaped many of the clichés about “Mystic India” that blight so much Western writing on Indian religion.
Amidst a widespread tendency towards standardisation, the stories highlight
the deeply embedded heterodox, syncretic, and pluralist religious and philosophical folk traditions which continue to defy the artificial boundaries of modern political identities.
As he notes,
The book makes no claims to be comprehensive, and there are many traditions which I have completely left out: there are, for example, no Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, or Jews in this book, though all have long histories in the soil of South Asia.
The chapters follow a trusty formulaic sequence: some evocative scene-setting (often worthy of Stella Gibbons’ *** purple passages in Cold comfort farm); a vignette on his first meeting with the guru in question; some early history; “I will tell you my story”; and worries about the future.
* * *
The first chapter is The nun’s tale, in which Dalrymple meets the young Jain devotee Mataji on the pilgrimage to Sravanabegabola in Karnataka. Jainism, little known outside India (where it now has “only” four million followers), is rather more ancient than Buddhism, and more extreme in its asceticism.
Mataji had chosen the discipline gladly in her mid-teens. Despite the principle of non-attachment, she was still devastated by the loss of her constant companion, who completed the sallekhana fast to the death after contracting TB; and she herself has already embarked on the same path.
The dancer of Kannur introduces a theyyam troupe of ritual dancers and drummers in Kerala, with a typical opening Stella-esque*** paragraph:
In the midnight shadows of a forest clearing, bounded on one side by a small stream and a moonlit paddy field, and on the other by the darkness of a rubber plantation and a green canopy of coconut palms, lit only by a bonfire and a carpet of flickering camphor lights, a large crowd has gathered, silhouetted against the flames. Most have walked many miles through the darkness to get here. They are waiting and watching for the moment when, once a year, the gods come down to earth, and dance.
Dalrymple’s subject is Hari Das, a dance medium possessed by Lord Vishnu. For nine months of the year he works as a manual labourer building wells, and at weekends as a jail warder—other members of the troupe work as waiters, bus conductors, and so on. The theyyam season lasts from December to February; it now provides a much better living than labouring, and than it did in previous generations. While work in the prison is dangerous, performing theyyam is physically exhausting—dancers have a very low life expectancy—and mentally demanding.
Dalrymple notes that while Kerala appears idyllic, it has always been one of the most conservative, socially oppressive, and rigidly hierarchical societies in India. The theyyam, performed by Dalit outcastes, and free from Brahmin control, is “a conscious and ritualised inversion of the usual structures of Keralan life”.
After another typical transition (“We sat drinking chai on the veranda as the sun set, and he began to tell his story”), Hari Das describes how his father taught him the complex arts of thottam story-songs, mudra hand gestures, nadana steps, facial expressions, make-up, and headgear. He notes a certain recent increase in prestige for theyyam.
The daughters of Yellamma tells the distressing story of the devadasi (for a version of this chapter in The New Yorker, click here). Dalrymple travels to Saundatti in north Karnataka to meet Rani, sketching the long history of the devadasi. Dedicated as children (by their family) to the goddess Yellama, they originally came from cultured families, serving as courtesans, dancers, and temple attendants; only in later centuries were they explicitly sexualized. From the 19th century, well-meaning Hindu reformers broke their links with the temples; in Karnataka further prohibitions were decreed in 1982, but only further demeaned and criminalised the practice, driving the devadasis underground; “several thousand girls, usually aged between six and nine years old, continue to be dedicated to the goddess annually.” As a government sign warns:
DEDICATING YOUR DAUGHTER IS UNCIVILISED BEHAVIOUR.
Today the women are low-caste Dalits directly involved in sex work. Their life expectancy is even lower than that of the theyyam dancers. Rani’s two daughters had died of AIDS, and she too is HIV-positive. Yet they still pride themselves on having a more exalted status than ordinary sex workers, being blessed by the goddess.
For Guardian coverage, see here and here. Here’s the BBC documentary Sex, death, and the gods (Beeban Kidron, 2010):
And two more films within a controversial representational field:
In The singer of epics Dalrymple returns north to Rajasthan with Mohan Bhopa, a hereditary bard and shaman. He had first encountered the genre twenty years earlier on a visit to Laxmi Chundawat in Jaipur, who had documented the epic in the 1970s; she even arranged for Mohan to perform for him. Introducing the work of Parry and Lord on Yugoslavian epics, Dalrymple marvels at the “Rajasthani Homers” who still perform in another epic tradition.
He had already written about Mohan for The New Yorker in 2006, inviting him to perform at several urban festivals; but now he travels with him and his wife to their home environment.
The bhopa are performers of epics, of which the most popular is The Epic of Pabuji. It is not merely entertainment, but a religious ritual. As with “precious scrolls” in China, the epic is rarely performed complete today, which would five nights from dusk to dawn. Punctuated by bhajan hymns and Hindi film songs, it is performed before a phad, a long religious painting on cloth (see e.g. here, here, and here), which also serves as a portable temple. Victor Mair’s 1989 book Painting and performance introduced such traditions around China and south Asia, including the Tibetan lami mani with their thangka.
Parbū Bhopo of Mārwāṛ Junction and his wife Rukmā Devī performing the epic of Pābūjī for a small audience in their own village in 1989. Parbū is using the bow of his fiddle to point to a narrative detail on the paṛ while he chants the equivalent section of the epic story.
Caption and photo: John D. Smith.
Again like the precious scrolls, the phad is treated with reverence; the bhopa themselves earn respect through their knowledge despite their low caste. Dalrymple learns that the motives of the rural audience “were less to hear the poetry than to use him as a sort of supernatural veterinary service”; the bhopa also protects children from djinns. Again, these are among the functions of rural Chinese bards.
The bhopa are illiterate—which stimulates their prodigious memory. They accompany their songs on dholak drum and ravanhatta (not a zither but a bowed lute)—a reminder of the rich instrumentarium of Indian folk cultures, another striking instance of which I showed in Gujurat.
The epic is performed by husband and wife in duet; Mohan was fortunate that his wife Batasi had become a fine singer too. But when Mohan died—all too soon after the visit to the rural home—their son (who had been unable to continue the vocation since his own wife turned out to be tone deaf) began performing the epic with his mother.
John D. Smith, working with the eminent Rajasthani folklorist Komal Kothari (for whose own work see e.g. here), wrote his PhD on the bhopa in the 1970s—you can find an updated edition of The epic of Pābūjīhere, along with instructive images and audio/video examples.
When Smith returned to Rajasthan some twenty years later he found the art much impoverished by the drift to the cities and the popularity of cable TV and DVDs. FWIW, Dalrymple is not quite so gloomy about the future of the tradition.
The bhopa have been the subject of a succession of documentaries. Here’s Pabuji ki phad (Shammi Nanda, 2005):
See also e.g. here. The lost music of Rajasthan (BBC, 2011), a tour of various traditions., includes a brief scene with a bhopa from 25.45. Note also Daniel Neuman, Shubha Chaudhuri, with Komal Kothari, Bards, ballads and boundaries: an ethnographic atlas of music traditions in west Rajasthan (2007).
The red fairy takes us into Pakistan, to the Sufi shrines of rural Sindh, a centre of Hindu–Muslim syncretism. There Dalrymple visits Lal Peri, devotee of the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine at Sehwan Sharif. He witnesses the ecstatic dhammal devotional dance, with its massed kettle drums.
Lal Peri was the sort of deeply eccentric ascetic that both the Eastern Christians and Sufis have traditionally celebrated as Holy Fools. She was an illiterate, simple, and trusting woman, who saw the divine and miraculous everywhere. It was also clear that she had lived an unusually traumatic life, which had left her emotionally raw. She was in fact a triple refugee: first as a Muslim driven out of India into East Pakistan after Hindu–Muslim riots in the late 1960s; then as a Bihari driven out of East Pakistan at the creation of Bangladesh in 1971; and finally as a single woman taking refuge in the shrines of Sindh while struggling to live the life of a Sufi in the male-dominated and increasingly Talibanized society of Pakistan. […]
The longer I explored Sehwan Sharif, the more it became clear that, more even than most other Sufi shrines, this was a place where for once you saw religion acting to bring people together, not to divide them. Sufism here was not just something mystical and ethereal, but a force that demonstrably acted as a balm on India’s festering religious wounds. The shrine provided its often damaged and vulnerable devotees shelter and a refuge from the divisions and horrors of the world outside.
The Qalander dervishes
have chosen a life of wandering and calculated impropriety, seeking God on the road and in Sufi shrines through a regime of self-punishment and celibacy, while trying to generate a sense of religious ecstasy with the aid of music and dance and hallucinogens.
Lal Peri is fearful of the advance of Wahhabism.
As in 16th-century Europe, the reformers and puritans were on the rise, distrustful of music, images, festivals, and the devotional superstitions of saints’ shrines. As in Reformation Europe, they looked to the text alone for authority, and recuirted the bulk of their supporters from the newly literate urban middle class, who looked down on what they saw as the corrupt superstitions of the illiterate peasantry.
Several shrines had already been attacked. Dalrymple goes to meet the director of a new madrasa, who while cordial is severe in his views (“Musical instruments lead men astray and are sinful. They are forbidden, and these musicians are wrongdoers. With education we hope they will change their ways.”). He regards it as his duty to destroy all the mazars and dargahs.
In The monk’s tale Dalrymple visits Dharamsala to consult an elderly Tibetan monk from Kham who had reluctantly taken up arms in resistance to the Chinese invasion. He recalls his early monastic training, and the arrival of the Chinese forces in 1950. As repression escalated, Kham was the heartland of the Tibetan struggle. He joined the “Four Rivers, Six Ranges” resistance force (for links, see the work of Jamyang Norbu).
Though we acquired some old guns, we were outnumbered and knew nothing of fighting. All we knew was how to pray, not how to kill. As soon as we came across Chinese troops they put us to flight. It was a total fiasco.
After making his way to Lhasa to warn people of the imminent catastrophe, he describes the tension there that led to the escape to India of the Dalai Lama, for whom he served as escort and then as decoy while the Chinese went in pursuit.
After fleeing Tibet, from 1962 he spent many years in a secret CIA-trained Tibetan unit in the Indian army—but he finds himself fighting in the war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Always vexed at having abandoned the monastic precepts, not until 1986 could he retire to Dharamsala. In atonement for the violence he had committed as a soldier, he began to make printed prayer-flags, and in 1995 he renewed his monastic vows. In his old people’s home there, thirty of the 150 occupants had been engaged in a similar struggle against the Chinese.
Again, the exodus from Tibet of the Dalai Lama, and the resistance to Chinese occupation, are much-studied topics (see my roundup of posts on Tibet), with many biographical accounts. As a suitable illustration on film, do click here to watch the footage of the Dalai Lama’s “graduation” rituals in 1958–59!
In The maker of idols we return to the south, to Swamimalai in Tamil Nadu. Dalrymple meets Srikanda, a ritual artisan who comes from a long line of hereditary casters of bronze images for temple worship, dating back to the Chola empire.
There was a growing market for what he called “show pieces” for tourists and collectors, but the family’s main work was idols created in exactly the same manner as laid down by the ancient Hindu religious texts, the Shilpa Shastras, and specifically designed for temple worship.
It seemed to me that Srikanda had mentioned three quite different ways in which an inanimate statue could become a god: by the channelling of divinity via the heart and hands of the sculptor; a ceremony of invocation when the eyes were chipped open [cf. “opening to the light” in China]; and through the faith of the devotee. I pointed this out to Srikanda, but he saw no contradiction; all that mattered was that at a certain point a miracle took place and the statue he had made became divine.
He attends a temple festival when the god statue is paraded on a chariot. He waxes lyrical about the sensual bronze statues of the Chola dynasty, and admires the complex discipline of Srikanda with his team in his workshop, where ritual also plays a role. He meets a singer of thevaram devotional songs before the gods. Typically, after the lineage’s 700 years of transmission, Srikanda’s son wants to become a computer engineer.
The Lady Twilight takes us to a cremation ground in Bengal—dwelling place of Tantric sadhus, devotees of the goddess Tara, who celebrate the power of skulls and fresh blood.
Again, Dalrymple’s guide Manisha hints at a painful past: she was beaten by her husband, rejected by her mother-in-law, and had lost her home and her three daughters. For her Tara was a saviour, not a fearsome ogre. Although the ruling Communist Party in Bengal sometimes sent out Anti-Superstition Committees to persuade people to embrace more mainstream forms of Hinduism, for the inhabitants of the cremation ground is a place of illumination, despite its ghoulish reputation. And Dalrymple finds an
oddly villagey and almost cosy feel. There is a palpable sense of community. Among the vulnerable outcasts, lunatics, and misfits who have come to live there, and those who might be locked up, chained, sedated, hidden, mocked, or shunned elsewhere are here venerated and respected as enlightened lunatics full of crazy wisdom.
Dalrymple surveys the history of Tantrism and early Tantric sex—
an unimaginable distance away from the sort of faddish Tantra cults embraced by Western rock stars, with their celebration of aromatherapy and coitus reservatus, a movement well described by the French writer Michel Houllebecq as “a combination of bumping and grinding, fuzzy spirituality, and extreme egotism”.
But as with the Sufis, behind modern Tantrism lies “the idea of reaching God through opposing convention, ignoring social mores, and breaking taboos”.
I am beginning to think that Tantra only really works properly when it is coupled with intense devotion, with bhakti. When I first came here, I was very obsessed with skulls and the secrets of Tantra. I would do anything to collect new skulls and tend to them […].
But now my attention is more directed on Ma Tara herself, and increasingly I believe that the most important thing is to get close to her through devotional love.
Meanwhile Manisha’s partner Tapan Sadhu, himself deeply committed to the life of renunciation, punctuates their conversation with updates from the radio on the latest Test score:
“England are 270 for four!”, he shouted excitedly.
Still in Bengal, The song of the blind minstrel introduces the bauls, itinerant minstrels who practice their own form of renunciation.
Dalrymple attends a major festival at Kenduli where several thousand bauls gather each year. He talks with the blindman Kanai, who finds the lifestyle one of great freedom. His companion Debdas explains:
“He taught me everything, how to reject the outer garb of religion and to dive deep into the ocean of the heart.”
The ecstatic singing of the bauls is another popular topic, appearing early on the world music scene (see e.g. the introduction in The Rough Guide to world music, under “Bangladesh”). Here’s a short film:
Deben Bhattacharya was very much on the case of the bauls. His CD Bauls of Bengal: mystic songs from India was issued in 2001—here it is as a playlist:
Charles Capwell’s 1973 LP Indian street music: the Bauls of Bengal (again, playlist):
A track from the more reflective CD Shahjahan Miah: chants mystiques bâuls du Bangladesh (Inedit, 1992):
And Radha Bhava, from the female singer Parvathy Baul (as playlist):
* * *
The fluency with which Dalrymple’s characters appear to tell their life stories is presumably an authorial device, a concession to the demands of the genre. No-one has ever given me such a fluent account—many peasants just shrug and say “I ain’t never done nothing much… um, I’ve just tilled the fields and gone out to do ritual, like”, and my many biographical sketches have been pieced together over several years, as my mentors open up and I gradually think of more promising angles. And Dalrymple’s subjects seem to have a remarkable ability to explain things in a fashion that neatly resembles our own conceptualisations.
In some chapters he notes how his visits punctuate invitations at his behest to appear at urban festivals; yet despite his worthy cause of highlighting their own lives, more scholarly (and perhaps less readable) accounts flag the gulf between the status of fieldworkers and that of their subjects, and the complications that such relations involve. In this short clip Dalrymple introduces some of the ritual performers on stage:
Anyway, Dalrymple does well to remind us of the riches of folk cultures by following the performers back to their local environments. Full of vividly-told stories, Nine lives makes an admirable book, extending the audience for Indian religious traditions way beyond the arcane realms of ethnography.
Cf. my extensive series on the very different spiritual milieu of north Indian raga, and under the Indian tag in the sidebar.
Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week for an audience with President Tsai Ing-wen was both bold and costly. As she tweeted,
America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.
But at such a highly sensitive moment in world affairs, her trip has inflamed relations with the PRC, prompting much ominous sabre-rattling from them; and according to many China-watchers, and indeed the US government, it was ill-advised. So far not only has the PRC regime escalated the war of words, but it is retaliating seriously by launching live-fire military drills.
Pelosi’s visit was illustrated by this striking image that has been making the rounds on social media:
The transliteration Nanxi Peiluoxi 南西 佩洛西 is felicitous (cf. Shuaike 帥克 for Švejk). Her Italian parents migrated west (xi 西), and her mother came from the south (nan 南); more to the point, in the image above the final xi character has been elided into the popular deity Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu 西王母). * It illustrates the, um, nexus between sacred and secular power that one finds so often in Chinese religion, both before and since the 1949 “Liberation” (such as the ritual associations of Hebei; see e.g. my Plucking the winds). And on opulent processions in both Taiwan and Fujian across the strait, such god images are borne aloft on palanquins to re-assert territorial boundaries.
Still, by contrast with Pelosi’s excursion, pilgrimages for the seafarers’ goddess Mazu 媽祖 have been a major factor since the 1980s in the political, economic, and cultural rapprochement of people on both sides of the strait (see e.g. here).
While the T-shirts made a popular kitsch image in Beijing, adroitly combining enthusiasm for a foreign icon with misplaced nostalgia for Mao, in the USA they were soon in demand among Obama’s opponents, who fatuously compared his health-care reform with the Holocaust.
The world is a complicated place (You Heard It Here First).
I suppose most people read it simply as “Nanxi Peiluoxi wangmu niangniang” rather than “Nanxi Peiluo Xiwangmu niangniang”, but it’s a nice ambiguity—cf. the classic story of the hilarious misconstruing of a report on Prince Sihanouk’s visit to China!
The ancient fortress, monastery of St Anthony, Egypt.
Travel writing takes many forms, fromEvliyâ Çelebi to Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, and Bruce Chatwin (for a wise survey of the genre through changing times, see this article by Barnaby Rogerson). Female authors like Dervla Murphy and Sarah Wheeler are in a minority. With added focus, generally sacrificing a certain readability, travel writing may shade into anthropology.
William Dalrymple (website; wiki) may seem like a natural successor to his travel-writing guru Patrick Leigh Fermor (see e.g. his tribute to Mani: travels in the southernPeloponnese). But whereas I find Leigh Fermor’s confident purple prose irksome, as he zigags “between sleeping on peasants’ mud floors and bursting into consular drawing-rooms or baronial halls with his letter of introduction: ‘Oh, good, there you are, just in time for the brandy’ ” (I concur with Neil Ascherson, who cites Vesna Goldsworthy‘s book Inventing Ruritania), Dalrymple’s own work is more endearing. Before going on to write distinguished scholarly tomes on Indian art and history, he hit on a winning formula with several popular travel books—including
soon became a bestseller. It describes his four-month journey along the Silk Road over the summer of 1986, before his final year as a Cambridge undergraduate—just as I was returning from my first stay in China.
In Xanadu records the impressions, prejudices, and enthusiasms of a very young, naïve and deeply Anglocentric undergraduate. Indeed my 21 year old self—bumptious, cocky, and self-confident, quick to judge and embarrassingly slow to hesitate before stereotyping entire nations—is a person I now feel mildly disapproving of: like some smugly self-important but charming nephew who you can’t quite disown, but feel like giving a good tight slap to, or at least cutting down to size, for his own good.
Indeed, “gazing at flowers from horseback” can produce trite generalisations (“Dogubayazit was full of sinister, swarthy Turks”), but his jovial tone makes for good reading.
His journey makes a cultured latter-day variant of the hippy trail that had borne fruit in leading Veronica Doubleday and John Baily to Afghanistan, where they made a base in Herat on the eve of the Russian invasion. With Dalrymple’s historical bent he reads up on early travellers’ accounts rather than on modern ethnography.
He begins at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where, having noted the sectarian divide, he takes some holy oil (which, as he notes wryly, he pours not into a goatskin flask but into a plastic phial from the Body Shop) to deliver to the site of Xanadu, the summer capital of Kublai Khan, just as Marco Polo had done in the 13th century. Following in Polo’s footsteps, * he embarks on an ambitious trek east, with two intrepid female companions in relay.
At my primary school we knew all about Marco Polo. He wore a turban, a stripy robe a bit like a dressing gown, and he rode a camel with only one hump. The Ladybird book which had this picture on the cover was the most heavily thumbed book on the school bookshelf. One day, my friends and I put some biscuits in a handkerchief, tied the handkerchief to a stick, and set off to China. It was an exhausting walk as there were no camels in Scotland, and by teatime we had eaten all our biscuits. There was also the problem that we were not absolutely sure where China was. It was beyond England, of that we were certain, but then we were not absolutely sure where England was either. Nonetheless we strode off manfully towards Haddington where there was a shop. We could ask there, we said. But when it began to get dark we turned around and went home for supper. After consultation we decided to put the plan on the shelf for a while. China could wait.
The trip, long unfeasible, at last looked more promising with the opening of the Karakorum Highway in 1986. In Jerusalem
the streets were filled with elderly Saga pensioners on pilgrimage from Preston; in the Via Dolorosa weeping Evangelicals sung “Kum-ba-ya” against the background of wailing muezzin. There were a few miserable-looking Presbyterians, some rotund Eastern European widows, and an Ethiopian cleric in his flowing cassock of grey serge.Pallid, short-sighted Orthodox Jews shuffled past clutching Uzi sub-machine guns. The Arabs—wearing pin-stripe for practicality, and keffiyeh to attract the tourists—had taken up station outside their shops: Rainbow Bazaar, The Omar Khayyam Souvenir Museum, Magic Coffee House, The Al-Haj Carpentry Store.
But as he notes,
This pantomime of subservience had gone on day after day for centuries. Jerusalem has always been a tourist town. The pilgrims have changed, religions have come and gone and empires with them; only the knickknack sellers remain.
Travelling through Israel by bus, he notes
the shoddy sprawl of supermarkets, warehouses, drive-in cinemas, factories, and military installations—all imposed over the old Palestinian villages, bulldozed after their inhabitants were evicted in 1948.
In Syria they go in search of traces of the Assassins, a militant wing of the heterodox Isma’ili sect in medieval times. In Aleppo he tuts at child slavery in a shoe factory, visits a nightclub (Django Reinhardt songs played by an Armenian band), and admires the architecture, commenting on the city’s long history of massacres and sieges.
They move on to Turkey, travelling northeast from Ayas to Sivas and Erzurum. His companion Laura tempers his romanticism:
“We could be the first people to see this view for hundreds of years,” I said, moved to unusual lyricism.
“Balls,” said Laura. “People come up here all the time.”
In Sivas he contrasts the styles of the Ulu Cami mosque and (above) the nearby Gök medresse. With the medieval Armenian connection looming large, they also get a lesson on the 1915 genocide.
As they near the border with revolutionary Iran, logistical challenges become ever more daunting, with Laura now equipped with a full-length black chador and headscarf. They are underwhelmed by Tabriz:
The atmosphere of Tabriz on our arrival exactly paralleled that at the time of Polo. The oil wealth of the 60s and early 70s had financed a population explosion in the town, and if the town had ever had an old-fashioned, Russian flavour [as their guidebook claimed] it had certainly lost it by the time we visited. Like any other rapidly developing town in the Third World, Tabriz was surrounded by miles of ugly urban sprawl.
They get another lesson on politics from an Armenian priest. At Sultaniya and Saveh they ponder the story of the Three Wise Men and Zoroastrianism.
Unable to attempt the northern route through Afghanistan, they keep moving southeast, cadging lifts with groups of devout Afghans until they reach Baluchi Pakistan, a welcome relief. They move on to Quetta, where Dalrymple’s great-aunt had lived as the wife of the Commander of the Western Command, India.
They recover from the ordeal of the train to Lahore by enjoying the luxurious hospitality of a Pakistani friend from Cambridge—air conditioning, baths, clean clothes, a swimming pool, and Mozart, all making a well-deserved interlude between their travails (cf. Nigel Barley on the veranda). As he bids farewell to his brisk companion Laura—a cross between Boudicea and Joyce Grenfell—his fragrant accomplice Louisa arrives for the latter leg of the journey, “dressed as if for the King’s Road”. His love for Lahore has remained a major theme of his ouevre.
Having faced more Kafkaesque bureaucracy to gain permits to enter China, they set off again. With an interlude on Alexander the Great, they cross the border into Xinjiang, rejoining the trail of Marco Polo at Tashkurgan, yet another drab border town. More ingenuity is required in order to keep moving north towards Kashgar.
There they stay at Chini Bagh, residence of George Macartney for twenty-eight years around the turn of the 20th century as the Great Game was being waged, now converted into a dowdy hotel—offering yet another illustration of decline. Kashgar in the 1980s might now seem an unspoilt paradise, but it was already the object of modernisation with Chinese characteristics, its old city walls being demolished over a long period, like those of Chinese cities such as Beijing. Still, as yet there were no cars, and few bicycles; no police surveillance on every corner or labour camps. Venturing behind the façade, they are shown the sights by Mick, a genuine 60s’ hippy who has moved on from Kabul and Goa. They find a world of bazaars and craftsmen, and admire the Id Kah mosque; they even glean further clues to the Nestorians.
Uyghur children, Keriya.
In retrospect this seems like a happy period for the Uyghurs, when despite the scars of the Cultural Revolution, cultural and religious traditions were reviving on a large scale. Along with local scholars, Sabine Trebinjac and Jean During were just starting to document the riches of Uyghur musical life.
Wedding band, Kashgar 1988, from booklet with 2-CD set Turkestan chinois/Xinjiang: musiques Ouïghoures.
Having spent ten days in Kashgar they negotiate a series of lifts to skirt the desert by the southern route via Khotan and Keriya. In Keriya they gatecrash a drunken banquet for German geologists hosted by effusive Chinese apparatchiks—which unexpectedly eases their onward progress in the company of a busload of stoned Uyghurs (hash “is to the Sinkiang People’s Autobus Company what McEwan’s Export is to British Rail”). In Charchan, exhausted, they are finally apprehended by the Public Security Bureau, who deport them by sending them by train all the way to Beijing, away from what they realise is the Lop Nor nuclear testing ground peopled by mutants.
By way of the Gansu corridor and Shaanxi, the train to Beijing takes six days, so they’re happy to graduate from Hard Seat to the luxury of Soft Sleeper.
I vowed never again to travel on a heap of coal slag, never again to stay in a hotel that smelled like a morgue, never again to use a squatter that belched up its contents over the user. I had done all that. If something needed to be proved it was proved. From now it would be a holiday cottage by the seaside, a rocking chair and some new, relaxing hobby, perhaps knitting or crochet.
After exploring Beijing by bike, and eating fourteen chocolate eclairs in three hours, they set off on one last mission north to the site of Kublai Khan’s summer capital Shangdu (Xanadu), on the steppe of what is now Inner Mongolia. Taking the train as far north as Chengde, summer palace of the Qing Manchu emperors, they again dodge the Public Security Bureau to take the bus to Duolun. Although the cops catch up with them, they finally reach their goal, where Dalrymple pours the oil from the Holy Sepulchre into the earth.
Then, rather as in the dénouement of Teddy bears’ picnic, they have to hurry back to take the plane home for the start of term.
Back at Cambridge with Louisa, “looking smug”.
* * *
While In Xanadu makes some telling observations on the societies he travels through, the people whom Dalrymple encounters often seem merely a drôle backdrop.
Far from dropping out, his youthful Long March was the start of an illustrious career. Following City of Djinns (1994), I’ve been re-reading his third book,
It’s already in a different league. By now his blend of early history and contemporary observation is more assured and thoughtful. He’s no longer a backpacking student but an accredited journalist and author, and his budget is less constrained. The people he gets to meet are more informed, and at 454 pages the book is considerably longer than In Xanadu, allowing for more detail.
Dalrymple follows the path of the 6th-century monk John Moschos, guided by his book The spiritual meadow, a diary of his travels around the Eastern Byzantine world. He embarks on a six-month journey in search of the modern descendants of the Christian Levant—different political exigencies often making a dangerous trek.
In the popular imagination, the Levant passes from a classical past to an Islamic present with hardly a break.
Yet for over three hundred years before the rise of Islam in the 7th century the Eastern Mediterranean was almost entirely Christian. The spiritual meadow
could be read less as a dead history book than as the prologue to an unfolding tragedy whose final chapter is still being written. […]
Today the West often views Islam as a civilisation very different from and indeed innately hostile to Christianity. Only when you travel in Christianity’s Eastern homelands do you realise how closely the two religions are really linked. For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now lost in Christianity’s modern Western incarnation.
In the Middle East, the reality of continuity has always been masked by a surface impression of cataclysm.
Dalrymple had already mastered the art of the short suggestive opening sentence with In Xanadu:
It was still dark when I left Sheikh Jarrah.
And the following chapter opens:
Latakia is a filthy hole. I had forgotten how bad it was.
He opens From the holy mountain at the Orthodox monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos—with another winning opening sentence:
My cell is bare and austere. **
Moving on to Istanbul, his vignette of the Pera Palace Hotel makes an extreme contrast with Athos. He reflects on the multi-ethnic Byzantine history of Constantinople, and the gradual erosion of tolerance since the late Ottoman era. Greek and Armenian priests give him a gloomy picture of the severely reduced current circumstances of their flocks. He visits the nearby Princes’ Islands, where Greeks were in a majority until the early 20th century.
But his quest is only just beginning.
As the physical world fell into decay, thousands left their families, intent […] on becoming monks and hermits in the desert.
He moves on to Antakya (Antioch) in southeast Anatolia, going in search of clues to the early stylites. From Moschos he gathers that
visiting these pillar saints was a popular afternoon’s outing for the pious ladies of Antioch’s more fashionable suburbs. […]
It was strange: a ragged illiterate hermit being fawned over by the rich and highly educated Greco-Roman aristocracy; yet odder still was the idea of a hermit famed for his ascetic simplicity punishing himself in the finest setting money could buy. It was like holding a hunger strike in the Ritz. […]
They were men who were thought to have crossed the boundary of reality and gained direct access to the divine. It is easy to dismiss the eccentricities of Byzantine hermits as little more than bizarre circus acts, but to do so is to miss the point that man’s deepest hopes and convictions are often quite inexplicable in narrow terms of logic or reason. At the base of a stylite’s pillar one is confronted with the awkward truth that what has most moved past generations can today only sometimes be only tentatively glimpsed with the eye of faith, while remaining quite inexplicable and absurd when seen under the harsh distorting microscope of sceptical Western rationality.
Next he visits the frontier town of Urfa, site of ancient Edessa, another crucible of diverse faiths (including Manicheans, Zoroastrians, and Nestorians), where
Orthodoxy was only one among a considerable number of options available to the inquiring believer. […] Doctrine was still in a state of continual flux, and no one interpretation of the Christian message and no single set of gospels had yet achieved dominance over any others.
In modern times, after waves of incidents, the whole region had been purged of Armenians in 1915 (though for a detailed recent ethnography, note Avedis Hadjian, Secret nation). He learns of the ongoing neglect of Armenian monuments, and the political constraints on archaeology.
Suriani woman at the fortress church of Ein Wardo.
Diyarbakir, Dalrymple’s next stop, was now the centre of the Turkish army’s struggle with the PKK (cf. Some Kurdish bards). Braving a succession of checkpoints, Dalrymple manages to reach the ancient Suriani Orthodox monastery of Mar Gabriel, now much reduced but still functioning, as well as the fortified village of Ein Wardo, stronghold of Suriani defence against the Ottoman and Kurdish troops in 1915—an Assyrian genocide was under way at the same time as that of the Armenians.
“I believe there is a very large Nestorian community in … is there somewhere in London called Ealing?”
“Yes, I think that’s right,” said George. “It was in Ealing that the current Nestorian Patriarch was crowned. There should be far more Nestorians in London than here. Ealing has the largest Nestorian community in Europe.”
Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late 20th century: go in search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find that they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street in London.
After another fraught journey into Syria, then a relatively safe haven for Christians, he reaches Aleppo, with notes on another faded grand hotel that appealed to a former generation of English travellers:
The inexplicably horrible food, the decaying neo-Gothic architecture, the deep baths and the uncomfortable beds: no wonder Lawrence and his contemporaries felt so much at home here—the Baron is a perfect replica of some particularly Spartan English public school strangely displaced to the deserts of the Middle East.
Exploring the countryside, he notes the role of monks and holy men in quelling evil spirits, a tradition that still continues. He visits the convent of Seidnaya (previously visited by Colin Thubron), with Muslims praying together with Christians.
Back in Aleppo, he finds a church where the monks still sing Urfalee chant, “apparently the most ancient form of Christian music still being sung anywhere in the world” (cf. Chant and beyond). As Dalrymple fishes for a simple, exotic soundbite on the style, the Italian scholar Gianmaria Malacrida offers careful caveats—which I admire as much as I admire Dalrymple for citing them.
Click here for his update on the cultural damage in the early days of the Syrian civil war.
En route to Lebanon, he is struck by the surreal roadside artwork:
Perhaps strangest of all were the unlikely lines of hoardings that rose above the forbidding ruins lining the highway:a smiling Claudia Schiffer stretched out leopard-like in Salvatore Ferragamo next to a yellow sandstone French colonial villa so riddled with great round shrapnel-holes it resembled an outsize slice of Emmental; the Marlboro cowboy with his ten-gallon hat and herd of steers beaming out over an apocalyptic wasteland of shattered tower blocks; a metal tube of Bodymist—un beau corps sans effort—set against a carbon-black skeleton of twisted metal that had once been a filling station. […]
It was like a morality tale, spiralling downwards through one of the world’s greatest monuments to human frailty, a huge vortex of greed and envy, resentment and intolerance, hatred and materialism, a five-mile-long slalom of shellholes and designer labels, heavy artillery and glossy boutiques.
In Beirut he gains insights from the historian Kemal Salibi, who directs him to Leila Badr, an archaeologist who gives him leads to Byzantine remnants around the city. And he consults the journalist Robert Fisk, “a chronic war junkie” who gives him some valuable, if dodgy, contacts. He learns more of the Maronites, Christian supremacists who emerged from the civil war “with their reputation for ruthlessness, barbarity, and political incompetence enormously enhanced”. The trail leads him to the Maronite town of Bsharri, once famed for its saints, now for its warlords. It was soon to become a scenic tourist destination, not least as the birthplace of Khalil Gibran—whose bequest of the royalties from The prophet had led to a bitter war between rival Maronite clans. Back in Beirut, Dalrymple visits a camp for Christian refugees from Palestine.
Continuing south by a tortuous route into Israel, he gives a succinct introduction to the modern history of the occupation of the West Bank. He delves further into the Armenian history of Jerusalem, and (as in Turkey) learns more about the highly politicised world of archaeology in Israel. He expounds the history of St George, on whom the English have no monopoly.
As the various Christian populations of the Middle East seek sanctuary abroad, without them
the most important shrines in the Christian world will be left as museum pieces, preserved only for the curiosity of tourists. Christianity will no longer exist in the Holy Land as a living faith; a vast vacuum will exist in the very heart of Christendom. As the Archbishop of Canterbury recently warned, the area, “once centre of a strong Christian presence,” risks becoming “a theme park”, devoid of Christians “within fifteen years”.
The monastery of Mar Saba.
Dalrymple enters the desert of the West Bank—once a rather densely populated terrain of monks and monasteries. Staying at Mar Saba, the only living monastery there, he admires their austere regime, but is less impressed by the inedible food. Again recalling Mount Athos, his descriptions of monastic rituals are always evocative (see below).
Ever the historian, he visits the chapel of St John Damascene, whose refutation of heresies The Fount of knowledge makes a critique of Islam—as a new, if heretical, form of Christianity:
What Damascene wrote in this cave was largely responsible for saving Byzantium from the ban against sacred art that has always been part of Islam and Judaism. Without Damascene’s work, Byzantine ars sacra would never again have been permitted, Greek painters might never have been able to pass on their secrets to Giotto and the Siennese, and the course of the Renaissance, if it had happened at all, would have been very different.
And he draws our attention to the prayer niche, “another of those features of the early Christian world which has been lost to modern Western Christianity, yet which is still preserved in Islam”.
His explorations of Egypt start in Alexandria, long deserted by its Greek, Jewish, and Armenian entrepreneurs. Dalrymple visits an abandoned synagogue, and finds the gathering place of the city’s last Greeks.
He offers a vignette on the 1895 discovery of ancient papyrus fragments at Oxyrhynchus by the British archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt, remarkable not just for their classical texts but for their rich archive of Byzantine correspondence and administrative documents, revealing the lives of ordinary people.
In the desert southeast of Cairo he reaches the Coptic Orthodox monastery of St Anthony, still flourishing. Again, the 3rd-century hermit monk was pursued by a fan club of fashionable intelligentsia. By the early 5th century some seven hundred monasteries filled the desert between Jerusalem and the southern border of the Byzantine Empire.
In contrast to medieval Western monks, the Egyptian desert fathers also tended to reject the concept of learning, the worship of knowledge for its own sake. St Anthony was particularly scathing about books, proclaiming that “in the person whose mind is sound there is no need for letters”. […] Many of St Anthony’s Coptic followers emulated his example, preferring a life of hard manual labour and long hours of prayer to one of study.
Unlike the other monasteries on Dalrymple’s journey, St Anthony’s continues to attract young monks—literate, often university graduates, and keen students of arid farming techniques. Dalyrymple finds them “kind, gentle men, much more modest and reasonable than the bristling Greek brigands of Mar Saba or their sometimes fanatical brethren on Mount Athos”. He gives another vivid depiction of vespers:
Now, as if from nowhere, at least sixty monks had materialised in the nave and all were chanting loudly in a deep, rumbling plainchant quite different from the elusive, bitterwseet melodies of Gregorian chant or the angular, quickfire vespers of the Greeks. Individually the gentlest of men, the Copts at prayer made a massive, dense, booming sound, each stanza sung by the monastic cantor echoed by a thundering barrage of massed male voices. The wall of sound reverberated around the church, bouncing off the squinches of the dome, crashing onto the mud-brick roof then down again like a lead weight into the nave. Yet despite its heaviness, there was nothing harsh or brutal about the Coptic chant, the swelling notes of the refrain resolving to give the whole threnody a tragic, desolate air, as if all the distilled deprivations of generations of monks were being enunciated and offered up, at once an agonised atonement for the sins of mankind and exorcism foretelling the terrors of the night to come. […]
There was a moment of silence as the monks marched from the middle of the nave, through the swirling incense, to a long lectern near the sanctuary where a line of ancient bound vellum lectionaries lay open. There the brethren split into groups. Quietly at first, those on the north began singing a verse of the psalm of the day, those to the south answering them, the volume gradually rising, the stiff, illuminated pages of the service books all turning together as the chant thundered on into the late evening, accompanied now by an occasional clash of cymbals or an ecstatic ringing of triangles. As the service progressed and the tempo of the singing rose, novices swung their thuribles and the great cumulus clouds of frankincense coagulated into a thick white fog in the body of the nave…
I’d love to find videos of such rituals.
After five days in the seclusion of St Anthony’s, he is horrified by the mundane chaos of Cairo, and soon moves on in search of more desert monasteries. He eventually gains permission to visit the province of Asyut, centre of Egypt’s Coptic population, but closed to foreigners since the Islamist insurgency. The prospects seem gloomy, with Copts migrating, first to the anonymity of the cities, and then abroad. With an armed guard he reaches the fortified Coptic Abbey of Deir al-Muharraq, which had recently been attacked. As the convoy moves on to Kharga, an even more remote area, he reflects on the different problems confronting Christians around the Middle East:
In southeast Turkey the Syrian Christians were caught in the crossfire of a civil war, a distinct ethnic group trodden underfoot in the scrummage between two rival nationalisms, one Kurdish, the other Turkish. Here it was their ethnicity as much as their religion which counted against the Christians; they were not Kurds and not Turks, therefore they did not fit in. In Lebanon, the Maronites had reaped a bitter harvest of their own sowing: their failure to compromise with the country’s Muslim majority had led to a destructive civil war that ended in a mass emigration of Christians and a proportional diminution of Maronite power. The dilemma of the Palestinian Christians was quite different again. Their problem was that, like their Muslim compatriots, they were Arabs in a Jewish state, and as such suffered as second-class citizens in their own country, regarded with a mixture of suspicion and contempt by their Israeli masters. However, unlike most of the Muslims, they were educated professionals and found it relatively easy to emigrate, which they did, en masse. Very few were now left. Only in Egypt was the Christian population unambiguously threatened by a straightforward resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, and even there such violent fundamentalism was strictly limited to specific Cairo suburbs and a number of towns and villages in Upper Egypt, even if some degree of discrimination was evident across the country.
* * *
Dalrymple’s work exemplifies why many foreigners are attracted to the Mystic East, in search of grand architecture and the vestiges of ancient civilisations. Sometimes his work reads like a more dependable modern rebranding of Gurdjeff and the Truth Seekers; but his highly readable blending of early history, spiritual quest, and current affairs is really most impressive.
FWIW, all this reminds me why I really don’t like travelling. It’s not really that I have any sense of “belonging” in London; but I’m averse to being a stranger, an ignorant foreigner unable to communicate. If I’m going to go somewhere, I want to stay there a bit, and get to know at least the basics of what makes the society tick. In China, “hit-and-run” missions can be useful, such as Yang Yinliu’s Hunan survey in 1956, or our reccies of south Fujian (1986/1990), north Shanxi (1992), and the plain south of Beijing; but I’ve relished making a base in one village, and with one family. Indeed, Dalrymple perhaps reached a similar conclusion, having made his home in Delhi since 1989, producing erudite (and always accessible) studies on the art and history of the Indian subcontinent.
* * *
Dalrymple has also written and presented several TV series. In From the holy mountain he himself exposed the long history of bitter conflict in the region (Moschos makes clear “the horrifying, almost apocalyptic nature of the destruction he witnessed around him”), exacerbated in a polarised modern world; so while he might have chosen to join the media in focusing on the gloomy outlook, with all the irreconcilable schisms, instead he prefers to preach a contrasting gospel—the shared roots, diversity, and historical tolerance of Christianity and Islam.
The exigencies of commercial TV suggest that I shouldn’t mark them down too much for including some of the Usual Suspects like the Whirling Dervishes (cf. Bektashi–Alevi ritual, 1). But hey, I continue to churn out armchair vignettes of world music—so “I can’t talk”…
At a considerable remove from the patriarchy of mainstream Islam, gender equality is a beacon of Alevism (cf. here and here)—so it’s worth listening to Alevi women challenging the truth of the notion, as Ceren Ataş did in her presentation (from 37.15), and succinctly here (following an interview with Gülfer Akkaya) on a useful forum (see also e.g. here).
A more detailed discussion is
Fazilet Ahu Öhmen, “Alevi women and patriarchy”, in
Rasim Özgur Dönmez and Fazilet Ahu Öhmen (eds), Gendered identities: criticizing patriarchy in Turkey (2013).
As to theology, Alevis don’t subscribe to the genesis myth: all (both women and men) share one ungendered can “life, soul”. Still, the debate hinges on social experience. Alevi women may indeed enjoy rather greater latitude in lifestyle than their mainstream Sunni counterparts; and in cem ritual practice, both women and men take part actively—sitting, praying, and dancing together.
Sema dance at cem ritual, Istanbul 2021.
However, even if flanked by a respected “Mother/Sister” wife, the (male) dede elder remains dominant. He is the mentor of the community, presiding over the cem and taking responsibility for social and economic decisions. The portraits of the Twelve (male) Imams gaze down sternly over the proceedings. Many Alevi women, discouraged from working outside the home (even in the big cities, where their earning power is important for the family), are still disadvantaged—partly as a consequence of seeking not to alienate the Sunni majority by appearing too different. Of course it’s hard to generalise, either about urban and rural Alevi women, or about women’s roles in Turkey more broadly. But the theory of equality deserves to be checked against social reality.
Such material as I have seen  refers to groups in east Anatolia (within the borders of modern Turkey), home to a substantial population of Zazas who trace their origins to what is now north Iran. While most are Sunni Muslims, many are Alevi. Their modern history, like that of the Kurds, has been turbulent, with several bloody rebellions against the Turkish Republic, notably in Dersim (1937–38).
The Zazaki language is considered in danger of extinction. This short film includes footage of an Alevi cem ritual (from 7.18):
Hawrami ritual: the Pir Şaliyar festival To the southeast, way beyond Anatolia, the Hawraman (Avroman) region is also distinctive.
The large village of Hawraman Takht, in the foothills of the Zagros mountains near the western border of Iran (whose economy is boosted by smuggling), has attracted considerable attention for its grand annual festival commemorating the wedding of the ancient hermit saint-healer Pir Şaliyar, with the singing and dancing of dervishes accompanied by daf frame-drums.  Here’s a short film: 
It’s such a scenic village that I can’t help wondering how representative the festival is of ritual practice in the region, how it has changed in recent years under the influence of tourism (itself a valid subject of research, though I suspect this is the kind of event that many an anthropologist might avoid), and the routine practices of the dervishes once the visitors are gone.
In the same region, I’m keen to learn more about siyaw chemane singing.
 See e.g. Mehmed S. Kaya, The Zaza Kurds of Turkey (2011); Paul White, here; abstracts from a conference on the Zaza in Anatolia—with many papers devoted to Alevism, and one on the actor and film director Yılmaz Güney (1937–84), among several Zaza with a high public profile; https://zazaki.de/index.php/en; and even wiki (here and here). I note en passant that Zaza means “stammerer”.
Nigel Barley, Dancing on the grave: encounters with death (1995).
The innocent anthropologist is cited so often in my posts on fieldwork that I’ve awarded Barley his own tag in the sidebar.
Since much of my work in China consists in documenting funerals, it makes sense for me to seek perspectives from around the world. While bearing in mind the more abstruse ritual theories so lucidly introduced by Catherine Bell, Nigel Barley is always immensely readable. With typical humour, he surveys the variety of ways of viewing death and dealing with it, which are such an idée fixe of anthropology. Citing the major players such as Malinowski, Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, and Bloch, he refers to a range of field reports.
Like detective fiction, it is not surprising “that Western anthropologists have sought, in funerary practice, the sense of an ending that would solve and interpret all the vicissitudes of life”.
Yet interest in “belief” may simply be a largely Western obsession. In China great concern with a common ritual response has gone quite happily with an overwhelming disregard for similarity of belief: it does not matter very much what you think you are doing as long as you do it like everyone else. It is left to a small number of foreign and local experts to worry about ideas.
On this most unpromising basis, different peoples have raised up complex and tortuous rites that are elaborated into true works of art.
He considers the public expression of grief. The performance of wailing (not only in cultures like China but in early modern rural Europe) seems to be largely a matter of etiquette. Other behaviours are diverse too: the firing of guns and beating of drums, or the widow “showing her appreciation of the mourner’s sympathy by brave but tight-lipped hand-grasping through a soggy hankie”. And “around the world, grief is as likely to find expression in verbal artifice and poetic fireworks as mere noise or stillness of sound or motion”.
By contrast with our own funerals, where “a blanket of straight-laced formality covers all”, in many cultures merriment and jokers are common. As the Nyakyusa of Malawi told Monica Wilson:
We talk and dance to comfort the relatives. If we others sat sad and glum then the grief of the relatives would exceed ours. If we just sorrowed what depths of griefs would they not reach? And so we sit and talk and laugh and dance until the relatives laugh too.
But Barley also unpacks the double-edged nature of joking at funerals, “walking a line between aggression and solace”.
In the writings of anthropologists on the sociality of African death, the triumph of the group over the individual is an endlessly reiterated theme that amounts to little more than an urging of the sick to “lie back and think of Africa”.
He considers the Mexican Day of the Dead, at odds with the Catholic church’s urging of “respect” and sobriety—not unlike the English wakes that were finally driven underground by the Puritan dictatorship. And he notes the “joke slot” in modern British rituals, which for our mortuary practices may occur in the disposal of the ashes. Perhaps Always look on the bright side of life hadn’t quite caught on; now it seems to have replaced Abide with me in popularity.
Barley intersperses his forays into diverse cultures both with reflections on his own English upbringing and with notes from his fieldwork in Cameroon—such as the classic story in The innocent anthropologist:
“What happens to a man’s powers/soul/spirit after he dies?” I tried querulously, like a vicar hoping to get a current affairs discussion going at a youth club. They ignored me. Then one young man turned round and snapped, “How should I know? Am I God?”
In another bold attempt to elicit origin myths among the Dowayo, Barley talks with the local schoolteacher. The conversation turns to Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel:
“And Europeans?” I asked. “White men like myself. Where did they come from?”
He appraised me coolly. “I have studied the Bible in great depth, monsieur. As far as I recall, there are no white men in it.”
In English it’s common to avoid the word “died” by euphemism and a proliferation of terms; not just “passed away” (to which I’m allergic) or “gone to meet his maker”, but “take an early bath” and “hear the final whistle”, not to mention the rich lexicon of the Parrot sketch. The Layli of Bolivia say that a dead person “has gone to cultivate chilli pepper”.
do not necessarily translate easily into beliefs about the material needs of the dead or any surviving spirit. In a move that would drive anthropologists to distraction, pilgrims to the grave of Andy Warhol have taken to stacking it with unopened cans of Campbell’s soup.
He mentions the zombies of Haiti (cf. Zora Neale Hurston), “ghost marriages” (for China, see here, under “Excesses”), and the smashing of pots (cf. “smashing the bowl” at Chinese funerals: my film, 1.16.49). He introduces notions of kinship, gender issues, the siting of the grave, “bad deaths”, and political funerals—including those of state socialism:
While the incorruptible body might be seen by the peasants as a continuation of the traditional veneration of saints’ relics, the Soviet leadership seems to have urged its interpretation as an anti-mystical act, an engaging and debunking of the church’s claims of saintly preservation, neatly showing ritual’s ability to transmit two totally opposed messages at the same time.
The book ends with a useful bibliography and index.
* * *
To return to Chinese village funerals, held over two or three days, I remain impressed by their ritual exuberance and complexity; the differentiated attire of the kin, the shawm bands, firecrackers, communal meals, female wailers, the ritual sequences of the Daoists, the skits of itinerant beggars, the pop band on a stage outside the gate (for the latter, see my film, from 30.32). Young urban educated Chinese returning for the funeral of their grandparent will find all this remarkable too.
My Daoist friends are bemused by my accounts of the perfunctory nature of our observances in England. Having observed as an outsider, Barley gives a personal account of his own father’s funeral. He remarks on the motley outfits, the architecture of the crematorium, the “witness” who spoke instead of a parson (“his model was a press conference”);
I felt angry at the hypocrisy of it all. We were colluding in a dishonourable pretence and we knew it. […]
The dull emptiness in your stomach is called grief. But grief isn’t the right word. It’s a sort of cocktail of acrid emotional pollutants of which the strongest element is surely guilt. Guilt for sins of omission and commission or perhaps simply when there is an emotional vacuum, nameless guilt just floods in to fill it up. Part of what we feel for our loved ones is a sort of addict’s dependence. Presence may not bring ecstasy but absence is unbearable. […]
I think there were hymns, but not the comforting meaningless hymns from school that carried feelings of nostalgia. In these, although the tunes were familiar, the words were wrong, all too spiritually correct and involving no allusion to a transcendental higher God. I had an intensely irritated feeling of being interfered with. […]
A trapdoor opened as in pantomime and the coffin disappeared. […]
At the house was an embarrassingly small group of largely unfamiliar relatives, a parody of kinship, testament to the failure of the Western family. The symbolism of the cold meats was horribly obvious.
“Dreadful,” one said with clicking false teeth. “When I were a lad there’d be horses with black plumes. What did we get this time? A bloody van. Not a hearse. A van like we were going to a building site. It’s not right.”
He also notes that Western funerals,
stressing as they do the uniqueness of the dead, deal heavily in separation and liminality but have very little to say about reintegration, leaving the mourners high and dry in their grief and the dead with nowhere to go.
There are few rites of passage on earth that are as stilted, uncomfortable, and excruciatingly awkward as a typical English funeral.
The rituals “are just formal enough to make us feel stiff and resentful, but also informal enough to expose our social dis-ease”.
We are expected to say solemn, earnest, heartfelt things to the bereaved relatives, or respond to these things in a solemn, earnest, heartfelt way if we are the bereaved.
But not too heartfelt. […] Even those family and friends who are genuinely sad are not allowed to indulge in any cathartic weeping and wailing. Tears are permitted; a bit of quiet, unobtrusive sobbing and sniffing is acceptable, but the sort of anguished howling that is considered normal, and indeed expected, at funerals in many other cultures, would here be regarded as undignified and inappropriate.
And for once, our default mode of humour seems inappropriate; we “put on a brave face”. Fox gives a quaint list of the “optimum tear-quota”, classified by gender, affinity to the deceased, and age. She also observes class differences—with working class, lower-, middle-, and upper-middle classes, and upper class all having their own preferred ways of performing funerals.
Even the “outpouring of grief” (considered “un-English”) that followed the death of Princess Diana was marked largely by the typical English behaviour of “quiet, orderly, disciplined, dignified” queuing, and flowers; tears, but no wailing.
Fox may have exaggerated some of this for effect, but such critiques seem legitimate coming from cultural insiders. As she herself observes, self-deprecation is a major trait of the English; a Dowayo or Chinese ethnographer might be disturbed by aspects of our ritual behaviour, but I doubt if they would analyse it in quite the same way. Of course, these are not level playing-fields.
Anyway, while the laments of Barley and Fox strike a chord, I find myself surprisingly reluctant to indict the stoic stiff-upper-lip funerals of Middle England, or at least the mourners. Yes, our “blanket of straight-laced formality” covers drabness, repression, embarrassment—but a certain kindness is also notable. We too build on the cultural norms of our heritage. This may not be a grandiose anthropological insight, but people do their best in the circumstances.
Performance in the presence of Sultan Ahmed III: Burnaz Hasan Çelebi, the lead singer (left row at top, with hook nose and fur robe, directing with his frame-drum), with tanbur, kemançe, ney, and santur. Miniature by Nakkaş İbrahim, early 18th century. Source.
For the broad range of musical activity in late imperial China, I struggle to think of accounts that go beyond the generalised clichés of Confucian theory to depict the diverse soundscapes of local communities of the day.
For musicking in late Ottoman Istanbul/Constantinople, my dabblings (severely limited by my inability to read Turkish) aim merely to gain a very basic perspective. 
A major resource is the renowned travelogue of Evliyâ Çelebi (1611–82) (see e.g. under The tanners of Zeytinburnu). Among a wealth of material on all kinds of life, his accounts of the expressive cultures that he encountered on his journeys through the empire are exceptionally detailed. Evliya’s comments on musicking, as a participant observer, are the subject of considerable research in Turkey. 
While (as in China) much discussion is based on sources for art music, I learn from a useful online article in English,
He reminds us of the wider soundscape, encompassing venues such as the dergah dervish lodges, the Enderün palace, and the taverns; and occasions such as weddings, circumcision feasts, and parades (note also Ahmet Önal, “Public ceremonies in Ottoman Istanbul”). Music also accompanied dancing (such as kõcek) and ortaoyunupopular theatre, as well as wrestling, acrobatics, and juggling.
Bahçıvaoğlu Kolu’s ortaoyunu show in the presence of the sultan and his sons on a raft in front of the Aynalıkavak Palace. Miniature by Levni. Surname-i Vehbi.
Ersu Pekin notes the wide range of performers in a multilingual and multi-faith society,
from the sultan and şeyhülislam to the müderris (professor), qadi (judge), poet, dede, and dervish. Musicians served as religious functionaries in mosques, churches, and synagogues. They performed as street musicians and bards. They lived as concubines in the harem and as housewives.
Meclis gatherings were held by both elite and commoners, when people came together for conversation, poetry reading, drinking, and making music. From the 16th century, coffee houses became popular venues for musical interaction, attracting everyone “from the unemployed to candidate officers, qadis, müderrises, high-ranking officials, imams, muezzins, and even ersatz Sufis”. Among the article’s fine illustrations is this painting of possibly the first coffee house opened in Tahtakale, as described by Peçuyi:
Taverns, according to Evliya Çelebi, were mostly located in Samadyakapusu, Kumkapu, Yeni Balıkpazarı, Unkapanı, Cibalikapusu, Ayakapusu, Fenerkapusu, Balatkapusu, Hasköy, and Galata. On the European side of the Bosphorus, there were taverns in Ortaköy, Kuruçeşme, Arnavutköy, Yeniköy, Tarabya, and Büyükdere, and on the Anatolian side in Kuzguncuk, Çengelköy, Üsküdar, and Kadıköy.
Ersu Pekin cites passages showing Evliya’s deep familiarity with a range of genres:
Horos Imâm, with whom I memorised the Qur’an in the has oda [privy chamber], and Tâyezâde Handân, Ferruhoğlu Assâf Beg, Ma‘ânoğlu, Keçeci Süleymân, and Amber Mustafâ, who were my friends reciting the adhan [call to prayer], all gathered in the place for music (meşkhane), near the bath in the palace, day and night, and performed music and fasıls of Hüseyin Baykara. […]
Hânende [vocalist] Kara Oğlan Âmidî was one of the students of Yahyâ, and he was a unique master in usûl-bend and sihr-i helâl. Together with the ruler of Bitlîs, Abdâl Hân, I have performed the fasıls of Hüseyin Baykara for three years in Persia, then in Erzurum with Defterdârzâde Mehemmed Pasha in ’56.
In Constantinople, combining with the makam system, the fasil suite form developed from its Persian origin, with masters such as Buhurizade Mustafa Efendi (Itrî, 1640–1712). Though known as a chamber genre, it also appears in Evliya’s accounts of the mehterJanissary bands (cited by Ersu Pekin):
About the parade of the performers of pipes and reeds: there were eleven instrumentalists who were craftsmen and they all were soldiers. They all tuned their instruments and performed Segah makam, then Emîr-i Hac peşrev and Hasan Cân peşrev, gül‘izâr peşrev;… and the fasıls of Tatar Hân semâ‘î, and paraded in front of the sultan with a great and loud performance. (n.38)
Forty soldiers performed three fasıls in the evening and in the morning; this is on the order of Mehmed the Conqueror. In the four places [jurisdictions] in Istanbul [Evliya uses the name İslâmbol], in Eyyub, Kasımpaşa, Galata, Tophane, Beşiktaş, Rumeli Hisarı, Yeniköy, Rumeli Yenihisarı, Kavak Yenihisarı, Beykoz, Anadolu Hisarı, Üsküdar, Kızkulesi, every evening and morning [dawn], the military band performs; the subaşıs, qadis, and dizdars [castle wardens] stand at attention; this is on the order of Mehmed the Conqueror, because these places were serhads[frontiers] at that time. In fact, they still are serhads. (n.74)
Besides native authors, Ersu Pekin cites the Polish Wojciech Bobowski (Ali Ufki, 1610–75) and the Moldavian prince Dimitrie Cantemir (1673–1723; see under Musics lost and found). As tastes changed, innovation is a constant theme, continuing with musicians such as the Mevlevi “composer” Dede Efendi (1778–1846).
Despite the broad social base, most paintings depicted events for the upper layers of society:
Ensemble directed by lead singer Burnaz Hasan Çelebi (Enfi Hasan Ağa) at the festivities of 1720. Nakkaş İbrahim, Surname-i Vehbi.
Later, popular forms like şarkı began to replace the long fasil suites. Taking us into the early 20th century, Ersu Pekin sings the praises of Tanburi Cemil (1873–1916), who can be heard on many recordings on YouTube, including this album; here he plays a taksim on kemançe:
Has the memory of the city forgotten the music that reflected the refined taste of the Ottoman elite? Does the rich heritage contained in the records, now transformed into şarkı and peşrevs, semais and ghazels, reflect that old style? Alas, we will never know!
Jordi Savall’s recreations with Hesperion XX are always stimulating—here’s their 2009 album Istanbul, as playlist:
And their 2013 album Bal–kan: honey and blood:
* * *
Another useful introduction in English is
Cem Behar, “Music and musicians in the city”, in Shirine Hamedeh and Çiğdem Kafescioğlu (eds), A companion to early modern Istanbul (2021).
He too notes the broad social basis of musicking:
Traditional Ottoman/Turkish music could and did survive independently from the impetus or patronage provided by the ruling group, and the court was not the main centre of music making. […]
The musical tradition was sufficiently diffused and ingrained in the urban social tissue and resilient enough to survive the effects of random changes in the musical tastes, whims and preferences of rulers or their immediate entourage.
Cem Behar goes on to cite the biographical compendium of Şeyhülislâm Es’ad Efendi (1685–1753), which besides a few dignitaries and members of various Sufi orders, lists many musicians of humble origin. Many distinguished musicians were Greek, Jewish, or Armenian (cf. Zithers of Iran and Turkey). Behar stresses the blurred lines between “folk” and “art” musics, and between religious and secular styles (just as we need to do for China); as Constantinople became home to migrants from all over the empire, their regional styles were incorporated into music of the capital. Despite the common phenomenon of named “composers”, oral teaching and transmission were primary.
He describes changes in the building-blocks of usûl metre and makam scale, and the emergence of the fasil from the early 17th century.
The 1638 procession Most celebrated are Evliya Çelebi’s vivid descriptions of the huge 1638 procession of the “guilds and professions, merchants and artisans” for Sultan Murat IV, “a kind of perambulatory census” with 1,001 guilds parading in 57 sections.  As the Sultan declared,
I desire that all the guilds of the city of Constantinople, both great and small, shall repair to my imperial camp. They shall exhibit the number of their men, shops, and professions, according to their old constitutions. They shall all pass before the Alay Köskü with their sheikhs and chiefs, on foot and on horseback, playing their eightfold music, so that I may see how many thousand men and how many guilds there are. It will be a procession the likes of which has never been seen before.
Among the groups parading were carpenters, fur-makers, toy-makers, bakers, butchers, mariners, cooks, confectioners, tavern keepers; civil servants, entertainers, madmen; corporations of beggars, of thieves and footpads, and of pimps and bankrupts; fools and mimics. Evliya even records disputes over precedence between rival groups.
This instance of Evliya’s attention to music (translated, impressionistically, by Joseph von Hammer, 1834) introduces some singers:
And the 43rd section (pp.233–40) is a fine inventory:
If I, poor Evliya, should be asked where I found such a complete catalogue of musical instruments, I would answer that in my travels in Arabia and Persia, in Sweden and Denmark, in Germany, Poland, and Bohemia, I, myself, saw all of these instruments and many more, and, if it please God, I shall give a more complete description of them in my travels; but these are the instruments used at Constantinople, which I am much more conversant with, as I at all times delighted in the company of singers and musicians…
In the 39th section (pp.225–8) Evliya further describes the mehter Janissary bands, as well as instrument makers.
Returning to late imperial China: there too the literati elite experienced a range of musicking in their quotidian social activities, even if they rarely described it. Apart from qin zither and pipa lute, or attending performances of opera and narrative-singing, they frequented temples, mingling with clerics, as well as taking part in chamber music with lowly blind retainers. A useful alternative source is fiction, such as the detailed accounts of ritual life in The story of the stone, or Jin ping mei.
But material on Ottoman musicking, with the insider detail of Evliyâ Çelebi, seems particularly rich.
 I have yet to read other major sources in English such as
Walter Feldman, Music of the Ottoman court: makam, composition and the early Ottoman instrumental repertoire (1996), including chapters on the kanun, and taksim
Along with The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians and The Garland encyclopedia of world music, for the “classical” forms, see also Robert Labaree’s chapter in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics. Dare I say it, the wiki article makes a useful introduction…
 Some sections are translated in An Ottoman traveller: selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi, translated by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim (2011, pp.24–31). Along with his book Istanbul: the imperial city, John Freely uses Evliya’s account the 1638 procession as the basis for his own explorations in Stamboul sketches (1974, reprinted by Eland in 2014).
I’ve noted the exuberance of national anthems based on the style of Italian opera, notably that of Brazil. But I curiously omitted to pay homage to the Italiananthem, composed by Michele Novaro in 1847 when the concept of “Italy” was still novel. Though it soon became popular, it only became the national anthem in 1946.
With All Due Respect to the spirited renditions of players and spectators, it’s worth relishing it in a polished performance, with three of the six verses (1, 2, and 4):
For anyone not quite ready to sit through an entire Verdi opera, this makes a ready stopgap. The instrumental intro already passes through several moods in quick succession; the song, with its snappy modulation at 0.57, and the fine sequence from 1.18, is just as rousing.
Some of the lyrics may seem a tad niche, all the more so from the mouths of burly athletes—like the openings of verse 1:
Fratelli d’Italia, l’Italia s’è desta, dell’elmo di Scipio s’è cinta la testa.
Noi fummo da secoli calpesti, derisi, perché non siam popolo, perché siam divisi.
Verse 4 is rather arcane too:
Dall’Alpi a Sicilia, dovunque è Legnano, Ogn’uom di Ferruccio ha il core, ha la mano, I bimbi d’Italia si chiaman Balilla, Il suon d’ogni squilla i Vespri suonò [noisy Vespas].
And verse 5:
Son giunchi che piegano le spade vendute Già l’Aquila d’Austria le penne ha perdute [make do with spaghetti then] Il sangue d’Italia, il sangue Polacco [checks notes] bevé col cosacco, ma il cor le bruciò.
Yet again, this exhilarating piece, bursting with energy and variety, only underlines the utter tedium of the British anthem (see also Haydn for football). For Italian folk musicking, click here; and do listen to Enza Pagliara!
We impertinent laowai are used to descending on a Chinese community to interpret its customs, but it’s less common to find Chinese ethnographies of religious life in Western societies.
Li Shiyu 李世瑜 (1922–2010) was a leading authority on Chinese sectarian religion and its “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷). Alongside his historical research, he was concerned to document religious life in current society—although it was hard to broach the latter in China after the 1949 revolution. In his work on the precious scrolls, I have also been impressed by his attention to performance practice. When I met him in the early 1990s he was still going strong, and still doing fieldwork.
Li Shiyu with his wife, 1993. My photo.
Li Shiyu undertook his early field training in rural north China in 1947–48, on the eve of the Communist revolution, assisting his teacher, the Belgian Catholic missionary Willem Grootaers, in documenting village temples around the regions of Wanquan, Xuanhua, and Datong.  Whereas Grootaers was mainly concerned with listing the material evidence of “cultic units”, Li went further in describing sectarian activity. His resulting thesis Xianzai Huabei mimi zongjiao 现在华北秘密宗教 [Secret religions in China today], was published promptly in 1948, focusing on four sects including the Way of Yellow Heaven (also active in north Shanxi in counties such as Yanggao and Tianzhen, and later documented by scholars such as Cao Xinyu and Liang Jingzhi).
After the 1949 “Liberation” Li’s research was highly circumscribed (like that of countless other scholars such as Wang Shixiang), though he managed to continue his study of the precious scrolls, publishing a major catalogue in 1961. It was only after the liberalisations of the late 1970s following the collapse of the commune system that was he able to resume his work in earnest.
And in that early reform era, from 1984 to 1986 he also spent eighteen months as a Luce Scholar at Pennsylvania University. Hannibal Taubes (always ready to supply a stimulating lead: e.g. here, and here) alerts me to a chapter in Li Shiyu’s memoirs (Li Shiyu huiyilu 李世瑜回憶錄 , pp.296–311) in which he attempted to apply the kind of field methods that he had acquired under Grootaers (described in pp.267–70) to the “folk religions” of the USA, with vignettes of the diverse Christian life of urban Philadelphia.
In his last six months there Li Shiyu made an ethnographic survey of church activity in the university district—an area of twenty streets and some 8,000 inhabitants. The 160 churches there might be large or small, with some shared by more than one denomination; seventeen were established Catholic and Protestant churches, while the others belonged to over seventy different groups that had mostly been formed since World War Two, some of them just small “house churches”.
With the Mayor of Philadelphia.
My eyebrows were raised to read of Li Shiyu’s first port of call: in search of statistics, he began by consulting the very people he would never dream of going anywhere near in China—the Police Chiefs 公安局局长 (!) of the district and city. In China, local police archives (see Liu Shigu’s chapter for Fieldwork in modern Chinese history) would make most instructive sources on religious activity for the whole era of Maoist campaigns, but attempting access would be rash. Indeed, to Li Shiyu’s lasting anguish, his 1948 thesis had been used by the Public Security Bureau to suppress the very sectarian groups he had respectfully documented.
Anyway, when the Philadelphia police chiefs were unable to help, the City Council introduced him to the Mayor, who asked, “Why do you wanna know? You been sent by your government? Are you gonna give your report to them when you go back?”.  Li Shiyu replied that he was just doing academic research, nothing to do with the government—just as we might have to explain in China (cf. Nigel Barley in Cameroon, cited at the end of my post on The brief of ethnography).
In answer to Li Shiyu’s query whether churches needed to register when they opened, the Mayor explained how “freedom of religious belief” worked in the States; all people had to do was to find a property, ideally one bequeathed in someone’s will, tax-free and rent-free. He went on, “Some pastors are pitiable—unable to find a site, they have to rent one temporarily, paid by donations from the congregation or from their subsidiary occupation. Spreading the teachings is a good thing, it’s good for society, there’s no need to register with the police—so I dunno how many churches there are in Philly.”
Next Li Shiyu visited the Westminster Theological Seminary. But as one has to do in China, he soon gave up on officialdom, “going down” to the churches themselves, one by one. As he notes, in an unstable, even dangerous, American society, parents sought to prevent their children getting into trouble by introducing them to the spiritual power of the church (rather like the elders of Hebei ritual associations, as recalled by many villagers such as Cai An). Li absorbed himself in the intensity of sermons and choirs, getting to know congregation members. But rather than observing the mainstream churches, his experience in China doubtless prompted him to seek out some of the more less orthodox, charismatic groups—some of which forbade marriage or the owning of property.
To imbue us with the holy spirit, here’s a musical interlude from 1976 (which will get you in the mood for Aretha’s ecstatic Amazing Grace):
Li Shiyu’s survey makes fascinating reading in Chinese, bearing in mind his particular concerns, suggesting parallels with religious life in China. A case in point is the first, and most remarkable, of his nineteen vignettes, “The Holy Mother descends from the mountain” (Shengmu xiashan 圣母下山).
I doubt if Li Shiyu quite knew what he was getting into  when he stayed for ten days in a hostel on 36th Street, whose basement was the meeting place of the International Peace Mission. The mission was founded by the controversial African-American preacher Father Divine—here’s a short documentary:
After his death in 1965 the organisation was led by his white wife Edna Rose Ritchings, known as “Sweet Angel”, “Mother Divine”.
Mother Divine signs her book for Li Shiyu.
In March 1986 Li Shiyu witnessed Mother Divine’s annual “descent from the mountain” (the “mountain” of her estate at Woodmont in the suburbs), and even made a speech as guest of honour at the banquet. But he can’t have been privy to Father Divine’s turbulent story or the Peace Mission’s intrigues. From 1971 Mother Divine was engaged in a dispute with cult leader Jim Jones, until he fled to Guyana in 1978 and instigated his followers to commit a horrific mass suicide there (subject of several documentaries, e.g. here)—alas, just the kind of cult that the Chinese state seizes on as a pretext to suppress peaceful gatherings of believers.
Li Shiyu goes on to introduce the Miracle Temple of Christ; he takes part in a “qigong” healing session, and a service involving “wild kissing”; he is struck by the silence of prayer at a Quaker (Kuike! 魁克) meeting (evidently “unprogrammed worship“), discovers Sister Tina’s lucrative psychic fortune-telling business, and observes a rather stressful immersive baptism. In an experiment that only the most intrepid fieldworker will care to contemplate, he confuses a couple of what sounds like Jehovah’s Witnesses by showing a genuine interest in their teachings, asking them etic questions like why there were so many denominations in Philadelphia, and their economic circumstances. And he describes the only occasion in visiting over a hundred churches when he was met by a hostile reception.
Of course, Chinese scholars have long sought to understand “Western culture”; one might even see it as the mainstream of Chinese intellectual life since at least the May Fourth era (for science, philosophy, fiction, music, and so on)—I think, for example, of Fou Ts’ong’s father Fu Lei. Though Western culture didn’t reside solely in advanced technology or reified masterpieces of high art, it was rare for Chinese scholars to have the curiosity (or means) to contemplate the ethnography of living Western societies.
Even making the transition from rural to urban ethnography is rather rare, let alone shifting one’s sights from rural China to urban America. Just as Western fieldworkers in China build on a considerable body of research by local scholars, within the USA such charismatic traditions attract much study. And like Western scholars making an initial survey in China, during Li Shiyu’s time in Philadelphia he could hardly engage with the complexities involved in documenting religious life, or address issues such as race, gender, poverty, migration, and social change.
Still, he clearly found the encounter most fruitful and suggestive. For Chinese readers, potentially, such studies might suggest that “superstitious” practices were not unique to a “backward” China, that they have their own social logic. Li Shiyu’s non-judgmental, etic viewpoint is refreshing.
Though he gives Christian Science an easy ride, when interviewed by a representative he encapsulates a significant issue: asked, “Why do you want to come to the States to study our folk religion?”, Li Shiyu replies feistily, “That’s a question I’d ask your scholars—why do you come to China to study our folk religion?!”, citing the Chinese proverb Lai er bu wang fei li ye 來而不往非禮也 “Not to reciprocate is against etiquette”. Click here for the more elaborate interview in The Christian Science Monitor.
Despite his somewhat testy initial encounter with the Mayor, Li Shiyu clearly relished the ease of doing fieldwork in the States, without the fear of consequences that bedevilled research under Maoism in China. His sojourn in Philly must have made a welcome relief before he plunged back into the fray of fieldwork in China, as academic pursuits there became more free—if never free enough.
 The Mayor was apparently Wilson Goode—who might well have been feeling sensitive since he was under the shadow of an investigation into the police’s botched attempt the previous year to clear the building occupied by the radical anarcho-primitivist cult MOVE, when a police helicopter had dropped a bomb that led to a fire destroying four city blocks, killing eleven (including five children) and leaving 240 people homeless (documentary here). Goode himself later went on to become a minister of religion.
 Rather as I had no idea in 1989 when I first witnessed the New Year’s rituals in Gaoluo that the village had been the scene of a major massacre in the 1900 Boxer uprising, and that the Catholics there had later been evangelised by Bishop Martina, who was accused of plotting to blow up the Communist leadership at the 1949 victory celebrations in Tiananmen: click here.
Complementing the Music in the Ottoman empire and in Turkey project of the Orient-Institut, and as part of the institute’s online workshop series, Esther Voswinckel Filiz and Salih Demirtaş recently convened “Experience of a city: multisensorial approaches to past and present” (booklet here).
The series aims to bring together approaches from musicology, historical ethnography, anthropology of religion, and cultural studies in exploring experiences of the city. Its theme moves away from ocularcentrism (a useful word!), and the assumption of silence—exploring how sound, smell, taste, touch, and other senses are vital in cultural practices of dwelling, movement, and social life (cf. China: film, and attempts to correct the discursive bias of approaches to religion).
After a keynote by Cambridge anthropologist and musicologist Peter McMurray on dreamscapes, Martin Greve discusses the changing atmosphere of Alevi rituals in Dersim and Istanbul (cf. his 2018 article). Older people remember the greater spirituality of cems in ordinary village houses, including both trance and the performance of keramet supernatural power:
Music was not perceived as something isolated, but rather was a part of the all-encompassing atmosphere, where musical elements such as intonation, melody, or the control of voices had no separate importance.
Burcu Yaşin explores the sonic atmospheres of Romani wedding ceremonies in the Sarıgöl neighbourhood of Istanbul, where meticulously chosen songs stress the wealth of the spouses’ families, and recals (improvised poems performed mostly by women) praise the beauty of the bride. The festive atmosphere relies on the dynamic communication between participants and performers, all coming together as the members of the same community. She analyses how the Romani community employs music and sound to reproduce social hierarchies, to strengthen intercultural relations, and to subvert gender roles within the uniformed kinaesthesia imposed by the lead singer.
On late Ottoman Istanbul, Onur Engin explains how “talking machines” generated new modes of listening. Jacob Olley discusses the multisensorial clamour of the gazino, the screeching of the tram, and the seemingly unintelligible songs of migrant street musicians. Nazan Maksudyan explores sound and temporality, with houses of worship orienting their believers to the tempo of daily routine and religious life—citing the ezan call to prayer and the Orthodox semantron, as well as the secular innovation of clock towers. And Tülay Artan evokes soundscapes of the Ottoman Bosphorus:
Rain, nightingales, oars splashing and creaking, busy landing places, the hymns of dervishes, gulls and other sea birds, fishermen’s songs, calls to prayer, the wind in the trees, waves swirling around the wooden piles of piers and waterfront mansions. Reflected in the hues of the opposite shore, whether in sunlight or by the moon, and occasionally dotted by flickering candles, lanterns, torches, or fireflies.
It’s good to see (hear, taste, smell, touch…) Istanbul still serving as a hub for such creativity.
In an earlier post I began to introduce the delights of the mahalle neighbourhood of Kuzguncuk, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, just along the coast from the teeming hub of Üsküdar.
Kuzguncuk is the subject of many works in Turkish, including several books by Nedret Ebcim; and Suzan Nana Tarablus has written on its Jewish history. In English, a most thoughtful study on Kuzguncuk is
Amy Mills, Streets of memory: landscape, tolerance, and national identity in Istanbul (2010).
Cutting through the cosy nostalgic image, she finds that the neighbourhood’s landscape not only connotes feelings of “belonging and familiarity” connected to a “narrative of historic multiethnic harmony” but also makes these ideas appear to be uncontestably real, or true. The resulting nostalgia bolsters a version of Turkish nationalism that seems cosmopolitan and benign.
Whereas Kuzguncuk was long dominated by Armenians, Greeks, and Jews, their numbers dwindled through the 20th century, with Turkish Muslim immigrants coming to form the great majority there. But by around 2000, Turkish historians, journalists, memoirs, and novelists displayed a growing interest in minority issues, their nostalgic images articulating hopes for a tolerant, multicultural society. Kuzguncuk has become popular as a film set, and has been rapidly gentrifying, attracting a mixture of dwellers from relatively comfortable but diverse backgrounds.
Mills interrogates what it is that such images, and the landscape, conceal. Memory, amnesia, and violence are major themes (cf. China).
In the early 20th century, non-Muslim minorities and foreigners comprised 56% of Istanbul’s population, and were even more prominent as property owners, tradespeople, and skilled workers; by the end of the century, following massive emigration and the influx of Turks and Kurds, they were less than 1%.
However powerful the state may be in producing nationalist ideology, the ways in which people negotiate with it are inconsistent and unpredictable; individual identities are multiple and fragmented, and cohere, sometimes only briefly, in specific places.
The shared memory of the past is selective, fragmented, with tensions; as people remember or forget the Christian and Jewish past, they engage in self-censorship of dissonant information. In the face of the “contemporary malaise” of alienating social change, nostalgia “may appear to be escapist, romantic, or even regressive”. The 1942–43 Wealth Tax, the riots of 1955, and the 1964 expulsions have belatedly been acknowledged for Istanbul, but are still denied for Kuzguncuk, where they also had dire consequences.
Chapter 1 concerns the Ottoman background of the Istanbul mahalle neighbourhoods—which were neither monochromatic nor static. Migration to Istanbul increased through the 19th century; between 1840 and 1880 the population doubled to 800,000 (!).
Since at least the 19th century Kuzguncuk had mainly been populated by Armenians, Jews, and Greeks. In 1865, fire burned five hundred shops along the main street. In the process of reconstruction, a steamboat station was built, whereafter some elite Muslim families also began to move in. A 1914 census showed 1,600 Armenians, 400 Jews, 250 Greeks, 79 Muslims, and four foreigners, although the Armenian population had already started to decline after an 1896 decree expelling Armenian workers from Istanbul. By 1933, sources suggest that the population was still 90% non-Muslim.
Turkification under the new Republic from 1923 eroded religious and ethnic plurality. As economic power was transferred into the hands of Muslims, the “Citizen, Speak Turkish” campaign ran from 1928 through to the 1950s.
Kuzguncuk’s Armenian church, built in 1835, was rebuilt in 1861 and repaired in 1967. Of the two Greek Orthodox churches, the smaller one near the coast road was built in 1823, rebuilt in 1871, and restored in 1951; the larger church further up the main street was built in 1836, and restored in 1911.
Armenian church and mosque.
By the 1940s, migrants from the Black Sea region were settling in significant numbers in Kuzguncuk. The mosque next to the Armenian church was built in 1952, “the first moment in the neighbourhood’s long history when there were enough Muslim Kuzguncuklus to necessitate a local, regular, community gathering space.” By that time, as Mills notes, the Armenian community had virtually disappeared.
Still, even then, Kuzguncuklus who remember this period describe a culture in which it was common for residents to speak “a little Ladino, Greek, Armenian, or French”, and sharing the various religious holidays with their neighbours.
The Turkification of Istanbul intensified in the period after World War Two. While the Jews had tended to favour assimilation more than the Greeks and Armenians, after the 1942–3 Wealth Tax, which penalised minorities heavily, 30,000 Turkish Jews emigrated to the new state of Israel in 1948.
The anti-Greek riot of 1955—also impacting Armenians and Jews—and the expulsion of Greeks in 1964, led to further departures. By 1967 only around three thousand Greeks remained in Istanbul. The confiscation of minority-owned properties continued; many of these became homes to new waves of rural migrants. Between 1945 and 1975 Istanbul’s population swelled from one to four million. Ironically, “it is this very period that is nostalgically narrated in the dominant collective memory as one of tolerance, siblinghood, and belonging in the mahalle”.
By 2004 Kuzguncuk was home to under a hundred non-Muslims; the churches and synagogues are now maintained and attended mainly by Christians and Jews living elsewhere in the city (see Epiphany in Istanbul).
Chapter 2 shows how from the 1980s Kuzguncuk became a major backdrop for nostalgic memory-making in Istanbul. The mahalle’s material landscape “was popular precisely because the seeming reality of the memory so successfully obscured the tensions and disharmony of everyday life in Istanbul”. Indeed, the Kuzguncuk landscape had to be restored to conform to the image, not just by TV companies but by new immigrants to the mahalle, although they were themselves continuing its socio-economic transformation.
A common feature of the loss of community was the erosion of mahalle social life by families owning TVs and the disappearance of open-air cinema.
The TV series Perihan Abla began screening in 1986, portraying the interconnectedness of the lives of mahalle people—middle class, Turkish, and Muslim.
From 1978 the architect Cengiz Bektaş was the pioneer of restoration in Kuzguncuk, inspiring artists and professionals even before the wave of gentrification from the 1990s. His goal was to foster a sense of care and responsibility among residents, based on its (earlier) history of multiethnic tolerance. His work began from the dwellings said to have been occupied by a former Armenian artisan community near the ferry, but it didn’t actually bring this history to light.
Gentrification (common to various other districts of Istanbul) is a “lifestyle preference of a particular population”; but by contrast with earlier residents, it is typically led by smaller families, from urban backgrounds, well educated, with both spouses in work, connected to the outside world.
However, community in Kuzguncuk fails not only because of gentrification but simply because the same social and political divisions that fragment Istanbul society are also present in Kuzguncuk.
While the media mostly portrays a romanticised fairytale, a 2002 novel evoked the social changes of the 1960s, with the influx of new rural migrants.
However unintentionally, the narrative of peace and tolerance embedded in the landscape of collective memory mahalle works to support the nationalist historical narrative of Istanbul life in that it obscures the traumas and events that pushed out the minority communities.
As we saw above, the Armenian church near the ferry dates from 1835, but the mosque next to it was only built in 1952. The church and the mosque seem to suggest that cosmopolitanism is alive and well in Kuzguncuk; what remains unspoken is the fact that the congregation of the 19th-century church is gone, replaced by the Muslims who attend the 20th-century mosque.
In Chapter 3 Mills discusses the “contested space” of the Bostan market garden, established by the Kuzguncuk Neighbourhood Association since 2000—another major symbol for nostalgia and community.
In a common instance of illegal expropriation, the state had confiscated the garden from a Greek family in 1977. Mills becomes aware of her own emotional investment in the project through a “disturbing and exhilarating” meeting with the last descendant of the original Greek owners, who embodied the sense of loss; her claims to the land and those of the Association turned out to be incompatible.
For some time after 1977 the status of the space was in limbo. Opposition to planned development grew from 1992, part of the wider protest movement against corruption, and further stimulated by the 1999 earthquake.
Active in the Association were young adults born in Kuzguncuk to parents of Black Sea migrant families who began arriving in the late 1930s, working with the professionals and artists who had joined them in the mahalle later.
The project was not without its critics. Some residents were wary of potential political activity; among those who failed to support the project were people from peripheral, poorer settlements, as well as the leaders of the churches and synagogue.
In Chapter 4, the mahalle’s nostalgic memories of a vibrant and tolerant social life sit uncomfortably alongside the collective silence surrounding the state-instigated anti-minority riots of 6th to 7th September 1955. Two hundred Greek families were still living in Kuzguncuk. While the riots, fomented by Turks arriving by boat, seem to have been less severe than in some other neighbourhoods on the Asian side of Istanbul, windows were smashed, houses ransacked, shops vandalised, the Greek churches damaged. The events marked a watershed in the exodus of minorities from Kuzguncuk.
The moment of contradiction hinges on the neighbourly relationships—that in a neighbourly place like Kuzguncuk such a thing couldn’t happen (and yet it did), that there was no difference between religions (and yet there was).
People’s contradictory memories reveal
the pressure of being caught between maintaining loyalty to one’s collective identity as a member of Turkish society and possessing personal knowledge of events or moments that challenged the popular historical narrative.
The memories of senior residents also suggest a distaste for the new immigrants from rural Anatolia, even if those people too shared the nostalgia for the former cohesion of the mahalle, partly to authenticate their own claims to belonging.
Chapter 5 discusses belonging and exclusion mainly through the fluid proprieties of female neighbourliness, and the intersecting identities of class, ethnicity, economic position, and regional origins. Mills describes visits between women, including the therapy of “reading” fortune in the coffee grounds (fal). Apart from positive aspects, such relations can also have oppressive implications, as in the ramifications of gossip.
As Mills observes, gentrification too is a gendered process. Mahalle norms reveal tensions for female residents who assume non-traditional gender roles, making difficult their access to the social support networks of the community.
Because of the ways it is threatened by new urban lifestyles, the mahalle has become exclusive, a space for those who already belong or for those who move here through previous friendships; it is not an inclusive community for otherwise disconnected newcomers.
Despite the small number of minorities in Kuzguncuk since the 1950s, intermarriage, common for several generations, remains something of a taboo topic.
Chapter 6 focuses on the Jewish history of Kuzguncuk. Today the main synagogue at the foot of the main street, though inconspicuous, is still maintained, with regular services. Another one, tucked away on Jacob street further up the hill, is currently inactive. Further still up the hill, the Jewish cemetery is now forlorn. Jews in Istanbul have tended to assimilate, a delicate balance that they have long performed in Turkish society; still, they remain vulnerable.
Mills learned much from a visit to Tel Aviv, where Jewish people who had emigrated from Kuzguncuk were keen to share their memories (including the anti-minority events before, during, and after World War Two)—underlining the silence that reigned within Istanbul.
After an absorbing section on early Jewish migrations to Istanbul, Mills describes the early 20th century. Their economic status varied; many were quite poor. They often spoke only Ladino, not Turkish. Jewish people migrated to the mahalle from other regions, and from elsewhere in Istanbul; some also moved away, to neighbourhoods on the European side. But Turkification under the Republic prompted an exodus. Emigration (from Kuzguncuk, and from Turkey) began to become common. It was a long process, increasing markedly in the 1940s, after the 1955 riots, and through the 1970s and 90s. As Muslim migrants continued to arrive from Anatolia, the mahalle’s former ethnic diversity was lost. Again Mills finds former Kuzguncuk residents now in Tel Aviv more prepared to discuss the 1942–3 Wealth Tax than those still living in Istanbul.
* * *
Mills is always sensitive to her own role, reflecting on the narratives that people offer her (and don’t). In conclusion, she asks
Whose cultural politics does the nostalgia for Istanbul’s cosmopolitanism serve? What does this nostalgia do? The nostalgia that foregrounds tolerance in enterethnic relationships obscures the tensions and violence of the processes through which the cosmopolitan city became nationally Turkish. By appearing to be real, by the ways in which the materiality of landscapes seem to authentically represent a tolerant multicultural past, this nostalgia preserves the illusions of the state, illusions that the nation is inclusive, that it does or can exist for all.
While both Turks and minorities comply with the code, the agreement is not entirely succeeding. […]
If nationalist, secularist, and Islamist intolerance is ever to subside in Istanbul, people must openly perceive that antiminority discrimination and oppression is a problem and must also imagine a peaceful, shared diversity to be possible. […]
Memories of cosmopolitanism must be examined for how they speak of loss and betrayal, and how they articulate a stake in the future of the city.
The Sun dance is a complex series of rituals for the healing of the community, with drumming and singing, held annually over many days and nights in late spring or early summer—and preparations are said to take up much of the year in between. Ritual practice varies between tribal groups, and over time.
A medicine lodge is constructed of pole rafters radiating from a sacred central pole. The arena is surrounded by a camp of kin and friends singing and praying in support of the performers. For young male dancers among some groups it is an ordeal, an extreme physical and spiritual sacrifice which they have vowed to endure both for their own merit and to ensure tribal well-being. Having fasted for many days in the open, as they dance around a central pole they perform self-mortification, the skin of their chests or back pierced with skewers tied to the central pole (for self-mortification rituals elsewhere, see Dervishes of Kurdistan, including Amdo Tibetans and Hokkien Chinese, and the Rufai sect in the Balkans). But this is far from standard today, and it doesn’t feature in some early accounts.
Shoshone Indians perform Sun dance at Fort Hall, 1925. Source: wiki.
Along with the whole suppression of indigenous peoples, the ritual was prohibited from 1883, but the ban was enforced only patchily. Detailed early studies include
George Amos Dorsey, The Arapaho Sun Dance: The Ceremony of the Offerings Lodge (1903, 228 pages, lavishly illustrated)
The ban was lifted in Canada in 1951, in the USA in 1978. In 1993 a Lakota summit issued a declaration:
Whereas sacrilegious “sundances” for non-Indians are being conducted by charlatans and cult leaders who promote abominable and obscene imitations of our sacred Lakota sundance rites; […] We hereby and henceforth declare war against all persons who persist in exploiting, abusing, and misrepresenting the sacred traditions and spiritual practices of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people.
Non-indigenous people were banned from attending the ritual in 2003.
Part of a trilogy on on the lives of Kanai Nation Blood Indians of the Blackfoot confederacy in Western Alberta, the short film Circle of the Sun (1960) shows little of the ritual, but rather the changing tastes of young people no longer bound to the reservation (oil-rigging, rodeo):
* * *
Zitkala-Sa, 1898 with violin. Wiki.
The Dakota activist Zitkala-Sa (1876–1938) chronicled her struggles with cultural identity; her training in WAM led to The Sun Dance opera (1913), with William F. Hanson. Here’s a documentary:
Do watch the fine documentary Buçuk [“The Half”] (Elmas Arus and Haluk Arus, 2010) on vimeo, an all-too-brief portrayal of the lives of three minority groups in Turkey: Rom around the Aegean, Thrace, and the Black Sea; Lom in the Armenian regions of Sivas, Erzincan, and Erzurum; and Dom in southeast Anatolia. *
Among scenes are the work of a hereditary family of circumcisers and dentists; Lom basket weaving; blacksmiths; waste recycling; training dancing bears.
The soundtrack is effective throughout. From 6.57 an exhilarating sequence of musicking among the Dom people segues from Gaziantep to Mardin—reminding me yet again of how much we lose in “refined” society” by shackling music acquisition to the classroom (cf. the Growing into music project, and flamenco).
From 22.15 another musical sequence shows a Rom municipal wind band in Bergama north of Izmir; the only instance I know of folk violin played with a mute; and a female wedding group (cf. Afghanistan). Music makes a crucial income:
If we did not have this job, we would have died of hunger—no farm, no land, no income.
As I absorbed the hippy zeitgeist of the 60s with regular forays to Watkins bookshop, Zen, Daoism, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, and Krishnamurti were all grist to my mill. Also part of this scene were Castaneda and Gurdjieff; but I was immune to them both at the time—and apparently I still am.
Of Armenian and Greek descent, he was brought up in the multi-ethnic society of Kars (“a remote and very boring town”) in the Transcaucasus. His father was a carpenter and amateur ashokh (ashik) bard. In early adulthood George travelled widely around Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, and India, seeking out dervishes, fakirs, and monastic sects.
By 1912 Gurdjieff was back in Moscow, where he conceived his ballet The struggle of the magicians (1914). He soon took pupils such as Peter Ouspensky and Thomas de Hartmann. After the Russian revolution he returned to his family home of Alexandropol, moving on to Tbilisi and Istanbul (where he attended the sema ritual of the “whirling dervishes”). He set up an Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Avon south of Paris, as well as visiting Berlin and London. After a car accident he began visiting the USA, raising funds and attracting followers. From 1936 he was based in Paris, where he remained through the war.
Meetings with remarkable menis the second book in Gurdjieff’s trilogy All and everything. He began writing it in 1927, revising it over many years; in English translation it was first published in 1963. It relates his intrepid expeditions with the “Community of Truth Seekers” before 1912, with a series of adventures in places such as Tabriz, Ferghana, Tashkent, Bukhara, Kashgar, Thebes, Babylon, India, and Siberia; whether he visited Tibet, perhaps as a Russian secret agent, looks dubious (see here, and here).
I find the book somewhat curious. While autobiographical in outline, its characters appear more symbolic than factual; it’s full of drôle anecdotes, short on ethnography. He recalls his father taking him to contests of ashokh bards in Van, Karabakh, and Subatan. He soon became attracted to a discursive, metaphysical mode of enquiry, and to the Wisdom of the Ancients.
And rather than the itinerant bards and folk dervishes of Sufi tradition, Gurdjieff’s main subjects are from a literate urban milieu, such as Father Borsh, dean of the Kars Military Cathedral; Bogachevsky, or Father Evlissi, assistant to the abbot of the chief monastery of the Essene brotherhood, who later became a monk in Russia, Turkey, Mount Athos, and Jerusalem; and the Russian prince Yuri Lubovedsky. He even introduces a remarkable woman: Vitvitskaya, Polish by birth, had been rescued from “white slavery” by the prince, and she became interested in his ideas, and took part in the team’s expeditions. After learning the piano, she began to explore the psychic dimensions of music, but died early.
Another companion on Gurdjieff’s travels was Soloviev. With an introduction from a dervish to the enigmatic Sarmoung brotherhood, they embarked on an expedition to find the brotherhood’s secret monastery “somewhere in the heart of Asia”. There, apparently, they witnessed the “sacred dances” of the priestesses. This whole passage is among several of Gurdjieff’s tall tales that stretch credibility.
While these Gurdjieff’s colleagues were interested in the occult, exploring hypnosis, fakirism, and séances, they ended up pursuing academic or scientific careers.
Much of the account is devoted to supernatural phenomena that seemed to defy rational explanation—such as an encounter with the “devil-worshipping” Yazidis, and efficacious rain prayers performed by an archimandrite from Antioch. Such experiences draw him further to the study of ancient esoteric literature. As they go in search of the Aïsor minority, he notes in passing the political turmoil among Turkish, Persian, and Russian Armenians.
To finance his explorations Gurdjieff engaged in various money-making enterprises—as repairman, tourist guide, shoe-shiner, and so on. In one of such ventures Gurdjieff learns how to make bric-a-brac, “all the rubbish with which it was at one time fashionable to decorate tables, chest of drawers, and special what-nots”. He notes the trade in relics, made by Aïsor household priests.
He mentions expeditions in search of monastic communities and dervishes without telling us anything much about them; they appear rather as exotic extras in an Indiana Jones movie. He bemoans European ignorance of Asia, yet this kind of mumbo-jumbo does little to dispel it. The book often reminds me of the brilliant spoof The ascent of Rum Doodle.
This is neither here nor there, but in my teens, fascinated by mysticisms farther east, I wouldn’t have been receptive to all this. Now, though I have become more enamoured of Sufism, and I (somewhat) admire Gurdjieff’s mystical quest, I am still resistant to his habit of re-dressing contemplative lifestyles as abstruse philosophy. This isn’t entirely fair of me: as at Zen or Christian communities, in his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man he was much concerned to embody his teachings in a whole way of living, such as manual labour. And of course, he was a product of his time, as we all are—we have to bear in mind that his travels took place before 1912.
Music Gurdjieff’s music makes a rather minor theme. His best-known works were composed for piano in the 1920s, in collaboration with the Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann.
This substantial ouevre, often associated with his “movements”, or sacred dances, is influenced by Caucasian and Central Asian folk and religious music and Russian Orthodox liturgy. Among many works on YouTube, here’s Musics of sayyids and dervishes:
Of course, composers like Bartók commonly adapted folk material. But not all Gurdjieff fans will be led to the original Sufi sources of his inspiration.
If some of the piano pieces can sound rather twee, falling foul of the harmonic straitjacket (try the two “Tibetan” pieces at 37.54 and 57.26 on the Meditations album!), Gurdjieff’s improvisations at the harmonium, perhaps better suited to his style, are monochromatically meditative. Recordings of the latter were made in his Paris apartment in the last two years of his life:
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for lengthy musical meditations, and the extreme affective contrasts of WAM are perhaps exceptional; but the over six hours’ worth (!) of recordings here will appeal only to the mystical masochist. Of course, one shouldn’t hear such improvisations divorced from the context of his soirées—better still, I suggest, would be not to hear them at all.
It’s also curious to think that Gurdjieff was based in Paris, where Messiaen discovered his own unique style of Catholic mysticism in which monumental works for piano and organ played a major role. Of course, the two men were totally different: for Messiaen, like Bach, music was the whole vast edifice within which he devoted himself to the service of God, and it entrances audiences irrespective of their faith—whereas Gurdjieff’s music will appeal mainly as a byway to adherents of his philosophy.
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Peter Brook’s 1979 film version of Meetings with remarkable men, while bold, is inevitably rather English; perhaps more in tune with Gurdjieff’s mystical vision are the extraordinary fantasies of Sergei Parajanov. As to latter-day quests for gurus, try the travel writings of William Dalrymple, such as In Xanadu, From the holy mountain, and Nine lives.
The triangulation of music, politics, and geography is explored in
Alex G. Papadopoulos and Aslı Duru (eds), Landscapes of music in Istanbul: a cultural politics of place and exclusion (2017; online here).
Inevitably, the book can only offer a few illustrations of a diverse soundscape. As is common in ethnomusicology, the authors focus on the subaltern, marginal end of the spectrum, rather than highly audible soundscapes such as mainstream pop music, or the ezan call to prayer (cf. China, or Ukraine). Revolving around mahalle neighbourhoods, the chapters focus on the modern era, noting links with the Ottoman heritage.
Alex Papadopoulos wrote his introductory chapter “Music, urban contestation, and the politics of place in Istanbul” under the shadow of the Trump inauguration, suggesting pertinent analogies with “musics that build inclusion or express opposition to (even rage against) exclusion”. He cites Adam Gopnik on the “abyss between the man about to assume power and the best shared traditions of the country he represents”—traditions “that have implicated stories about race, class, war, and ethnicity”. Papadopoulos adduces the work of Martin Stokes work on arabesk, “an entire anti-culture” that “flaunts the failure of a process of reform whose icons and symbols dominate every aspect of Turkish life”.
All four of the genres considered express regional and trans-boundary mobilities, exposing exclusion and suggesting the potential for inclusion. Papadopoulos observes:
Landscapes can be modified or erased, as a palimpsest. Urban spaces and populations can be made to bend to the will of an adamant state and of hyper-animated capital. Musics can be deterritorialized from places of meaning and memory, and either silenced or channeled to electronic media that modulate their cultural (and political) character.
Rembetika music riffed on, lamented, mocked, attacked, and sung about the limitations and exclusions, injustices and cruel punishments (including incarceration), and anomie that mainstream society imposed upon the socially marginalised.
If rembetika survived the efforts of the state to remodel the physical contours of the city, as a way of life it declined sharply in Istanbul after the population expulsions of 1922–23, the riots of 1955, and the further expulsion of Greeks in 1964, whereafter it was “rehomed” to the Hellenic mainland.
Both state cultures defined themselves in opposition to the multi-ethnic, multi-vernacular, cosmopolitan, imperial, and regional cultural forms of the Ottoman world, and went to considerable length to contain, if not expunge, vestiges of Ottoman culture. A musical heritage that was a reflection of empire—not unlike the musical cultures of the âşıks and the zeybeks—clearly, rembetika heightened the anxieties of Greek and Turkish nationalisms, which aimed at purity of cultural idiom.
He observes that rembetika (like many genres, one would add) loses