Ritual change in north Shanxi

tray 91

By contrast with most research on Daoist ritual, change over the three modern eras (before Liberation, under Maoism, and since the 1980s’ reforms) is a constant theme of my work. These recent posts, elaborating on my film and book on the Li family Daoists, make a useful series:

Ritual business

See also e.g.

You can search further under the sub-heads of the Li family category in the sidebar.

Li category

In Chinese, a classic on ritual and social change is the 1999 volume Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁 edited by Guo Yuhua.

Gaoluo: early history

*For main page, click here!*

dengpeng

My first experience of the New Year’s rituals in the Lantern Tent,
South Gaoluo 1989.

Under the Gaoluo sub-menu (Other publications > Gaoluo) I’ve just added a page on the early history of the village, like so:

GL menu

Apart from those pages in that menu, there are many more posts under the Gaoluo tag in the sidebar; for a basic roundup, see here.

My 2004 book Plucking the winds, an ethnography of Gaoluo and its amateur ritual association, mainly concerns the village’s fortunes under Maoism and since. Since history may seem to have been obliterated by the successive turmoils of the 20th century, I felt glad enough to be able to sketch the story as far back as the Republican era and even the late Qing. And thanks largely to talented village litterateur Shan Fuyi (b.1940), I went on to learn clues to the village’s founding in the Yuan–Ming transition and its fortunes through the Qing dynasty. The new page provides notes on the main lineages, local temples, the “parish” 社, “precious scrolls” 寶卷, and early ritual life.

The story of the Republican era continues with Ritual images: Gaoluo. But first, remarkably, a major trauma in the village in May 1900 is substantially documented in official sources, a story told in my post on the village Catholics.

All this was the background to the ritual associations that I got to know through the 1990s. It’s hard enough to reach definitive conclusions about ritual life today, but in this case at least we can observe, and ask…

Haydn for football

The Euros remind me again of national anthems—like an archaic, stilted Eurovision Song Contest. La Marseillaise is very fine, and Italy’s song is a mini-opera, though it’s hard to beat the exuberance of Brazil’s anthem, or the drama of the haka.

Kaiser

Joseph Haydn composed Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser in 1797, in honour of Francis II of the Austro-Hungarian empire (wiki here and here). After the song became the national anthem of Germany from 1841, the lyrics continued to go through several revisions under successive regimes.

Written in response to Britain’s plodding God save the king * (superior suggestions here), it’s among several melodies of Haydn said to be inspired by a Croatian folk-song. The song alone outranks the British anthem, but Haydn soon elevated it as the theme for variations in the transcendent slow movement of his Kaiser quartet—tastefully played here by the Quatuor mosaïques:

With All Due Respect, renditions at football internationals don’t quite rise to such heights. But of course, chamber music and football matches serve different functions…

For some more exquisite Haydn, see here


My usual homage to Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “I didn’t know wa ‘ad a king—I thought we were an autonomous collective”.

Daoist ritual: the Pardon

This discussion of the Dispatching the Pardon (fangshe 放赦) ritual sets forth from my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.246–50, exploring the imperfect match between Daoism as performed and as shown in ritual manuals.

The highlight of my first visit to Yanggao in March 1991 was witnessing the great Li Qing presiding over a funeral at Greater Antan (see my film, from 48.35). I didn’t know how lucky I was. It was as if a Martian happened to land on earth, not at a conference of middle managers in Belgium, nor even at a church fête in Suffolk—but in Leipzig in 1727, filming the premiere of the Matthew Passion on her 3D eye-laser system, and then assuming that this was typical of life on Planet Earth. And then recording an episode of Family Guy over it.

The Pardon ritual was traditionally performed for both funerals and temple fairs, with the words “filial sons” (xiaozi) or “filial kin” (xiaojuan) as alternatives for “master of the retreat” (zhaizhu) or “temple chief” (miaozhu).

For funerals the Pardon is normally only part of the three-day sequence; the 1991 funeral was held over only two days, but Li Qing performed the Pardon at the request of the son of the deceased, a gujiang shawm player who loved the ritual for its lively (honghuo) atmosphere.

Li Qing’s band that day included his senior colleagues Li Yuanmao and Yuan Lishan; the guanzi player for the jocular “catching the tiger” sequence was Wang Chang, from the related Wang family in Baideng township. Li Qing’s son Li Manshan was taking part on drum, and the young Wu Mei was there; the band also featured Li Peisen’s second son Li Hua, as well as Li Yushan, son of Li Peisen’s older son.

As Li Manshan later recalled, this was the third time he had taken part in the ritual; they performed it for the 1987 video project, and did it again around 1993 for a funeral in Wangjiatun. The younger recruits Li Bin and Golden Noble have performed it for temple fairs, but by 2015 they hadn’t done it for nearly ten years—like Crossing the Bridges, kin and villagers now consider it “too much hassle”. It hasn’t been used for temple fairs since the early 1950s.

The Pardon manual
The Li family Daoists distinguish between the routinely used “inner five rituals”,  and the optional “outer five rituals” (see Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.30–32). Before Liberation Li Peisen copied a lengthy manual including the latter, generously titled

LPS old coverLingbao kaifang shezhao yubao xianzhuan youlian poyu fangshe duqiao zhu baiyu rang huangwen [ke] 靈寶開放[方]攝召 預報獻饌遊蓮破獄放赦渡橋祝白雨禳蝗瘟[科]
Numinous Treasure [Manual] for Opening the Quarters, Summons, Reporting, Offering Viands, Roaming the Lotuses, Smashing the Hells, Dispatching the Pardon, Crossing the Bridges, Precautions against Hailstones, and Averting Plagues of Locusts.
There was little trace of these “outer” rituals in their practice after the 1980s’ revival.

Finding Li Qing consulting Li Peisen’s early manuscript at the 1991 funeral, I hastily took some photos, rather randomly; by 2011 Li Manshan could no longer find it, so we rely on the faithful copy that Li Qing made in the early 1980s, divided into two volumes, with 42 double pages in all.

The Pardon itself takes up fifteen double pages. It’s one of their most complex, opening with long sequences of zhenyan mantras in four-, five-, and seven-word structures, and containing elaborate fu 符 talismans and jian 简 slips. Whereas most funeral segments are now dominated by the Heavenly Worthy of Grand Unity who Rescues from Suffering (Taiyi jiuku tianzun), this ritual is addressed to the Jade Emperor, in his role as Heavenly Worthy Who Pardons Sins (Yuhuang shezui tianzun). The talismans are addressed to the Three Officers (sanguan). The 108 pardon slips (shetiao, shewen) to be recited are combined into a few long documents.

Some pages from Li Peisen’s copy:

LPS Pardon 1

Slips to Rescue from Suffering.

LPS Pardon 3

Recto: slip for Long Life.
Verso: in the last line, the term jiao (Offering) in “dark yang pure jiao
(mingyang jingjiao 冥陽凈醮) refers to a funeral;
the listing of “Shanxi Datong fu” shows its local origins.

And some pages from Li Qing’s copy of the manual:

LQ Pardon 1

Pp.1b–2a. Third line from right: the Naihe qianchi lang couplet,
followed by 7-, 5-, and 4-word mantras.

LQ Pardon 2

Verso: the talisman for the Heavenly Official.

And we can compare these pages with Li Peisen’s copy above:

LQ Pardon 4

Recto: template for slip to Rescue from Suffering, “in red characters, with white envelope”.

LQ Pardon 5

Slips for Long Life.

The ritual as performed in 1991
We can soon discover that the version performed that day by Li Qing and his colleagues (and again, do watch my film, from 48.35) bears little relation to that given in the manual.

Li Qing copying ritual document, 1991

First, in the scripture hall, Li Qing copies the lengthy series of pardon slips with their talismans, and envelopes to put them in—a lengthy process, for which he consults Li Peisen’s manual.

Meanwhile, in light snow, the other Daoists construct an open-air altar in a large clearing in the middle of the village near the funerary site, using tables, benches, and planks. On this structure are placed in a row five “palaces”—cardboard images mounted on stalks of gaoliang inserted into large rectangular dou bowls filled with grain—for the Jade Emperor Yuhuang, the Three Officers (sanguan, for heaven, earth, and water), and the pole star Purple Tenuity (Ziwei, not mentioned in the manual).

Pardon altar

Just below the central palace to the Jade Emperor is an altar table bearing the soul tablet, and below that, a long table around which the Daoists will stand to make offerings to the five palaces. Further behind, facing the palaces, a long high platform has been built on top of tables, from where the Daoists will later dispatch the writs of Pardon.

Around midday, after the morning visits to Deliver the Scriptures, the seven Daoists proceed from their scripture hall, playing percussion with occasional blasts on the conch. After paying a brief visit to the soul hall, they purify the arena by leading the kin on an elaborate winding procession around it. Virtually all the villagers have gathered round—by contrast with their apathy today, gorging instead on the pop music outside the gate.

The ritual is in two large sections: presenting the offerings from the altar table, and announcing the writs of pardon from the ritual platform before handing them down to the kin to be burned.

Pardon x

Acting as intermediary for the kin standing in a row behind him, the chief celebrant Li Qing, wielding his wooden “court placard” (chaoban) and sounding a hand-bell and a qing bowl on the table, now faces the altars and presents offerings to each of the five deities in turn on behalf of the kin. An offerings tray (of red lacquered wood, not like the metal one used now) is at first placed on the altar table before the god palaces.

While the Daoists play an instrumental piece (for this next sequence the two sheng accompany not the guanzi oboe but the dizi flute), Li Qing bids the oldest son to wash his face from water in a bowl and offer one preliminary stick of incense to the palace of the Jade Emperor. After he shakes the bell and strikes the qing bowl, the Daoists sing a sequence of a cappella choral hymns from the “words of blessing” (zhuyan 祝言) repertoire, accompanied only by the ritual percussion, beginning with Myriad Years to Elder Emperor (Huangdiye wansui). These hymns are punctuated by imposing patterns on nao and bo cymbals.

Li Qing recites a brief shuowen introit while the tray is handed to the oldest son of the deceased. Again accompanied by dizi, he takes the court placard, bows with it, and one by one places five cups of tea, with incense resting on them, on his court placard to transfer them onto a small raised table before the central palace to the Jade Emperor. The sticks of incense are then further placed before the god palaces, accompanied by dizi. After each offering they sing another a cappella hymn from the “words of blessing”.

Li Qing now clambers up onto the table, taking bell and placard with him. He leads the Daoists as they solemnly intone the two couplets “Thousand-foot waves at Bridge of No Return” (Naihe qianchi lang, from p.1b of the manual, also used at the end of the Invitation, my film from 1.03.25). Whereas the first sequence was punctuated by jaunty dizi, for this new sequence the hymns are to be accompanied by solemn shengguan wind ensemble, punctuated with interludes on large cymbals, while Li Qing kneels on the table, bows with the placard, and transfers the remaining offerings (incense, flowers, and so on) in turn before the god images, always placing them on the placard first. He recites another shuowen introit, shakes the bell, and the Daoists play another piece with dizi while Li Qing steps down from the table.

Then, taking all their ritual and musical instruments with them, the Daoists ascend the platform behind, standing in a long line behind a long row of tables to face the altars. As a majestic prelude they play the percussion piece Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body.

The Pardon, 1991

Wang Chang recites a pardon writ from the ritual platform,
with Li Qing and Yuan Lishan further to our left;
to the right are Li Peisen’s grandson Li Yushan and a youthful Wu Mei.

Then the three leading officiants (Li Qing, Wang Chang, and Yuan Lishan) don five-buddhas hats, representing the Three Officers. The group plays The Five Offerings (Wu gongyang 五供養) on shengguan, and then the three officiants, in turn, solemnly read out the large and lengthy pardon slips. The first is read by Yuan Lishan. Li Qing calls out an instruction, folds the document up and places it in a large envelope, folds over the strip of paper to “seal” it, handing it down to the kin, again accompanied by the ensemble with dizi. The documents, envelopes, and seals are all of different colours, as specified in the manual.

Li Qing shakes the bell, recites a shuowen introit, and they sing the hymn Ten Repayments for Kindness (Shi bao’en 十報恩) with shengguan, another item common to several rituals. Li Qing recites a shuowen, and they play the cymbal interlude Sanqi song. Another shuowen leads into the second reading by Li Qing. Then a shuowen leads into a shengguan piece, which segues into a protracted “catching the tiger” clowning sequence.

Wang Chang

Wang Chang, the main guanzi player, standing to the left of Li Qing, plays two guanzi alternately and then at once, blows the mahan small telescopic curved trumpet, dismantles his instruments while playing them, plays a hefty whistle in his mouth, pretends to pluck snot from Li Qing’s nose and smear it over the face of the sheng player on his left, replaces the latter’s cap with a cymbal, puts on false eyes, and makes ribald gestures with the curved trumpet. Li Qing and the others try to keep a straight face throughout, but Wang Chang is having fun, and the villagers are in stitches.

Li Qing now recites a shuowen, followed by a percussion interlude. Then he recites the final pardon document, folds it up, places it in its envelope, and hands it down, accompanied by Sizi zhenyan 四子真言 on dizi. Finally, the Daoists descend from the platform, playing shengguan, and lead the kin on a slow parade around the arena. Li Qing guides the kin in the burning of the memorials in a pile together, while the Daoists stand round playing shengguan. They then retire to their scripture hall to rest and prepare for the next ritual segment.

Manual and practice
In sum, although we didn’t quite film the Pardon complete, they evidently didn’t perform the manual complete either. Li Qing was quite familiar with the text—he had lovingly copied it out a few years earlier. We can only surmise how often the senior Daoists Li Qing, Wang Chang, Yuan Lishan, and Li Yuanmao had performed the ritual before the 1950s with Li Peisen and others from that generation, but whereas they had maintained the “inner five rituals”, by 1991 their recollection of the Pardon may have been hazy, and the younger Daoists were quite unfamiliar with it. So perhaps this explains why the ritual was so transformed. Alas, on my first visits I lacked the background to consult Li Qing about such matters.

It is likely that sections like the Yellow Dragon percussion item and the “catching the tiger” sequence, though not specified in the manual, were traditionally included. But instead of the long series of four-, five-, and seven-word mantras in the manual, they alternated a cappella “words of blessing” from the Diverse Rituals for Joyous Scriptures (Xijing zayi 喜經雜儀) compendium for “earth scriptures” with an instrumental refrain using dizi, and sang standard “floating” hymns with shengguan. I suspect this was actually a version of the Noon Thanksgiving for temple fairs and Thanking the Earth, though the texts they performed also differed from those in the Xiewu ke 謝午科 manual. Only their final recitations of the Pardon writs appear to have been performed more or less intact as in the Pardon manual.

Anyway, rather as the temple fair sequence since the late 1980s seems to be a revision, this was already an adapted version. The ritual is lengthy and imposing, and its purpose is communicated, but it tallies only occasionally with the manual. With the same diligence that he had preserved the original content of the manuals, Li Qing was now selectively adapting rituals according to changing conditions—as Daoists (and other ritual specialists) have done throughout history; but it marks a substantial break with tradition.

Of course, scholars of Daoism may be more interested in the manual, which undoubtedly preserves early features. But (like the 1940s’ temple fair sequence) we can’t now witness it being performed; there is no demand for it among patrons, and even if we requested it specially, the current Daoists would be hard-put to recreate even Li Qing’s 1991 version, let alone attempting to perform it as shown in the manual. Even the “words of blessing” and the dizi interludes (which themselves may have been a substitute) are no longer part of their repertoire. For continuing ritual change, see A flawed funeral.

The Pardon elsewhere
The Pardon is commonly performed by household Daoists in southeast China, the heartland of research on Daoist ritual. For Taiwan it has been described in detail by John Lagerwey (based on the practice of the great Chen Rongsheng) and Jiang Shoucheng; and Ken Dean has documented it for south Fujian. [1]

While the text of Chen Rongsheng’s version appears different, its themes are similar. Apart from the mystical core of the ritual, Lagerwey draws attention to its dramatic, jocular interlude. In Yanggao such elements are absent from the manual, but an interesting connection seems to be implied in the “catching the tiger” sequence.

Lagerwey cites the 13th-century Daoist priest Wang Qizhen:

This Pardon document does not belong to our method for doing the fast. It is the invention of later people. Given the fact, however, that it has been used far and wide for some time, it would not do to eliminate it.

And he too notes variation between the early manual and modern practice.

For north China I have only a few other instances so far. [2] In Julu, south Hebei, it was performed on the afternoon of the 3rd day of funerals, comprising the segments qingshen 清神, ji lengshui 祭冷水, qing Yuhuang 請玉皇, song wulao 送五老, qing jianzhai 請監齋, and zhuan dagong 轉大供.

And in the jiao Offering around Baiyunshan in Shaanbei, again on the afternoon of the 3rd day, the Pardon is a spectacular (if not highly liturgical) ritual, with large god puppets of the Eight Immortals and the Four Officers of Merit (Sizhi Gongcao 四值功曹) descending on a rope down from the hillside to the bank of the Yellow River—somewhat reminiscent of the guandeng Beholding the Lanterns nocturnal ritual around Beijing (see here, under “A Buddhist and Daoist funeral”), on a far grander scale.

Pardon cover TianzhenBack in north Shanxi, in Tianzhen county just east of Yanggao, the Lü family of household Complete Perfection Daoists, whose tradition derives from the Nanmen si temple in Huai’an nearby, have a tradition of performing the Pardon, though it now seems to be defunct. Their lengthy manual, apparently copied in the Republican era, is entitled Taishang shuo Yuhuang shezui 太上玉皇說赦罪 or Yuhuang shezui tianzun shenjing 玉皇赦罪天尊神經. They also have a template for the writs of Pardon (“Pardon slips” shetiao 赦條):

shetiao

Aided by Lagerwey’s discussion, scholars of early Daoism will wish to trace the ancestry of “pardon for sins” (shezui 赦罪) in the Daoist Canon, with many sources following the Yuhuang shezui cifu baochan 玉皇赦罪賜福寶懺. Meanwhile, ethnographers are left to observe modern changes in the ritual adaptations of Daoists and patrons.


[1] See Lagerwey, Taoist ritual in Chinese society and history (1987), pp.202–215, Jiang Shoucheng 姜守誠, “Nan Taiwan Lingbaopai fangshe keyi zhi yanjiu” 南台灣靈寶派放赦科儀之研究 (2010); Dean, “Funerals in Fujian” (1988), pp.45, 52–53. Cf. Pregadio, Encyclopedia of Taoism (2008), pp.403–404.

[2] Based on my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.91 and 99–100. The Julu material is from Yuan Jingfang 袁靜芳, Hebei Julu daojiao fashi yinyue 河北鉅鹿道教法事音樂 (1997), pp.72–4; for Baiyunshan, see e.g. Yuan Jingfang et al., Shaanxi sheng Jiaxian Baiyunguan daojiao yinyue 陝西省佳縣白雲觀道教音樂 (1999), pp.112–13, and Zhang Zhentao 张振涛, Zhuye qiuyue lu 诸野求乐录 (2002), pp.149–50.

Thanking the Earth, and words of blessing

Today the great majority of the Li family Daoists’ ritual work is for funerals. As to rituals for the living, they now rarely perform for temple fairs, and the Thanking the Earth ritual, once commissioned by families for domestic blessing, has not been required since 1953 (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, chapter 12).

Ritual business

The Yanggao Daoists now perform almost solely for funerals, but before Liberation the ritual they did most often was Thanking the Earth (xietu 謝土). [1] Held over two days during the winter, it was a domestic ritual for an individual household of certain means. The head of such a household might pledge a vow (xuyuan 許願) in the summer, and fulfil it (huanyuan 還願) by commissioning a Thanking the Earth ritual in the winter. The request was commonly prompted by illness or crisis, or in thanks for a good harvest or success in business. It could be held in the family household, or in a temple.

In 1991 the great Li Qing, oblivious to the Party line, recalled the Japanese occupation in the 1940s:

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! The local bandits didn’t interfere either.

Li Qing’s colleague Kang Ren (1925–2010) recalled performing Thanking the Earth rituals forty to fifty times every winter from the age of 15 sui (when he “graduated” as a Daoist) until he was 30 sui in 1954. Given the poverty of the area, this sounded a lot to me. Just west of Kang Ren’s house, poor peasant Li Cunren (1915–2013) recalled that only people with money could afford to commission the ritual—and even before the 1950s there were few of them. But Li Manshan believes Kang Ren’s account: even two or three moderately affluent household patrons for twenty or so villages would suffice to keep the Daoists busy. Forty to fifty such rituals meant eighty to a hundred days work each winter, not counting funerals, which were also most frequent then; they must have been busy virtually every day.

Even after the Communists took control in 1948 some households were still able to commission a Thanking the Earth ritual until 1953; but as the economy was levelled, beleaguered former “landlord” and “rich peasant” families could no longer afford to do so. Previously the ritual had involved making vows for prosperity and the health of their livestock, but now prosperity was unimaginable, and livestock collectivised.

By the 1990s, following the liberalisations after the collapse of the commune system, plenty of relatively affluent households began to re-emerge. But now that they could afford to hold Thanking the Earth rituals again, they were no longer inclined to do so. Whereas families still dutifully invite Daoists to perform funeral rituals, and still believe strongly in fengshui and determining the date, a lesser faith in divine aid to protect their crops and livestock has now rendered the Thanking the Earth ritual obsolete. So documenting it requires considerable reconstruction.

The Memorial
The memorial for Thanking the Earth doesn’t get burned, as it is for the living; the family keeps it after the ritual.

Li Qing’s uncle Li Peisen made a copy of one such memorial in 1981, for a ritual commissioned by his father Li Tang in the late 1920s, entitled “Document for good fortune, with genealogy, recopied” (Jixiang ruyi wen jiapu chongchao 吉祥如意文家譜重抄). Such genealogies often contain a genealogy, a useful resource (cf. Customs of naming):

LPS jiapu detail

Li family genealogy, detail from Li Tang’s memorial.

Li Qing himself wrote a Thanking the Earth memorial over New Year 1989, again including a detailed genealogy:

IMG_20151221_105009

Thanking the Earth memorial with genealogy, Li Qing 1989.

I was also lucky to be shown another memorial preserved by the Ren family in Apricot Orchard village nearby, with the more formal title of “Memorial for supplementing and thanking the five earths” (Buxie wutu yiwen 補謝五土意文), dated 1942—the very year that the Li family Daoists’ participation in the Zhouguantun temple fair is documented:

IMG_2258_2

Thanking the Earth memorial, Xingyuan village 1942.

Comparing the three memorials reveals a basic standard format. It opens with the date, the place, the purpose of the ritual (to fulfill a vow and guarantee well-being, expressed in a standard formula), and the name of the male head of household commissioning it. It then lists the names and birthdates of the family taking part. There follows a general description of the ritual, including titles of some of the ritual segments to be performed. Finally, after another request for well-being that includes the orphan souls, there comes a list of deceased kin—minimally the three generations of ancestors (sandai zongqin).

Among the ritual documents that LI Qing copied in In the early 1980s is this placard for Thanking the Earth:

On separate occasions, both Li Manshan and I asked the elderly Kang Ren to describe the former sequence for Thanking the Earth. The older generation, who recalled the “old rules” of ritual life before Liberation, had steered the group through the revival of the early 1980s (see my film, from 40.22), but in turn they passed away; after the death of Li Qing (1999) and Li Zengguang (2000), Kang Ren was the sole survivor, and he still continued “responding for household rituals” with Li Manshan’s band.

Li vocals 2001

Kang Ren (left) with Li Manshan and junior Daoists, 2001;
right middle, Golden Noble.

Apart from the vocal liturgy, note how Kang Ren detailed the instrumental pieces, both the long suites and the shorter melodies accompanying particular segments:

Thanking the Earth

Day 1
am:

  • Opening Scriptures (kaijing): recite scripture Yuhuang jing
  •      shengguan suite 1 Shuihonghua
  • recite scriptures Laojun jing and Bafang zhou

pm:

  • Fetching Water (qushui)
  •      shengguan suite 2 Zhuma ting
  • sing “words of blessing” (zhuyan)
  •      shengguan suite 3 Yaozhang
  • recite litany Yansheng chan

eve:

  • Communicating the Lanterns (guandeng) to Bestow Blessing (cifu).

Day 2
4–7am:

  • Opening Scriptures (kaijing): rising at the fifth watch (qi wujing);
    then “seven litanies”, including six-line hymn; “words of blessing” such as Zhenxin qingjing daoweizong; and scriptures including Yuhuang jing and Bafang zhou
  • exit the yard and play shengguan piece Qiansheng fo
  • enter yard and sing “words of blessing”: Huangdiye wansui
  • Parading the Streets (shangjie) to each temple, burning incense and paper, reciting mantra for offering paper and playing dizi flute
  •      shengguan suite 4 Puanzhou
  • Shenwen Announcing Text
  •      shengguan suite 5 Da Zouma
  • exit the yard playing shengguan piece Sizi zhenyan
  • on return, burn yellow paper (huangbiao) in the house

noon:

  • recite Noon Thanksgiving Ritual (Xiewu ke)
  • shengguan piece Langtaosha

pm:

  • recite scripture Zhenwu chan
  •      shengguan suite 6 Ma yulang
  • depict the earth altar and recite Thanking the Earth Manual (Xietu ke), including scripture Bafang zhou and Erlang zhou; do Yubu cosmic steps

eve:

  • Offering to the Stove (jizao)
  • Bestowing Food (shishi) and Spreading Fowers (sanhua)
  • Escorting Away the Orphan Souls (songgu); Settling the Gods (anshen).

Xietu duilian

The first six of fifty couplets for Thanking the Earth in Li Qing’s Couplet volume.

First the chief Daoist had to write couplets from the series of fifty for this purpose within the Couplet Volume, to be pasted up around the site, as well as all the “god places” to the Three Pure Ones (sanqing) and Three Officers (sanguan), Lord Lao, the Heavenly Masters (tianshi), and Elder Emperor (Huangdiye).

As in the three-day funeral, the two major nocturnal rituals were Communicating the Lanterns and Bestowing Food. But whereas for funerals most ritual segments (including the seven visits to Deliver the Scriptures) feature sung “hymns of mourning,” the Thanking the Earth sequence included instead a repertoire of “words of blessing” (zhuyan 祝言), sung a cappella with percussion accompaniment, as well as a sequence of fast chanted scriptures. Note also the lengthy “rising at the fifth watch” on the second morning, and the six long shengguan suites in fixed sequence.

This is yet another case of the gulf between textual study and practical accounts. If we relied only on manuals, we might suppose the ritual consisted only of the Xietu ke, apparently the only relevant manual. And even once we learn which manuals were used, they describe neither the ritual business (like how to use the earth, or the mandala), nor how the texts are delivered.

LMS xietu mandala

Template for the mandala for Thanking the Earth
in Li Manshan’s blue notebook, 1990s.

The Earth Citadel
The core procedure of Thanking the Earth, on the second afternoon, is “depicting the earth citadel” (hua tucheng 畫土城, or just “depicting the citadel” huacheng; or “depicting the earth altar” hua tutan 畫土壇), on the floor of the central room before the god images. The texts performed here are those in the Xietu ke, a long manual of 17 double pages, apparently mostly for fast chanting on symbolic visits to the five quarters.

According to Li Manshan, the “Diverse rituals for joyous scriptures” (Xijing zayi 喜經雜儀) manual was for earth scriptures rather than temple fairs. At 27 double pages it is quite long, and its title suggests a compendium containing various optional sub-segments (like the funeral manual), not a manual to be performed complete. It contains some of the “words of blessing” mentioned in Kang Ren’s account (see below); a long sequence for Fetching Water, similar to that in the hymn volume; a series of eulogies (zan, not hymns here); and it concludes with a long series of thirty-five hymns in the classic six-line structure. As with the funerary manuals, there are lengthy sections here that even the senior generation seem not to have performed. There are several mentions of the Divine Empyrean (shenxiao 神宵), but Buddhist as well as Daoist elements look prominent.

The words of blessing
When Kang Ren talked me through the Thanking the Earth ritual in 2001, I mechanically wrote the term “words of blessing”, without querying it further. Only later did I find that these words of blessing were the equivalent for earth and temple scriptures of the funerary “hymns of mourning” (for vocal liturgy, see under Pacing the Void 2). From the late 1980s, when Li Qing taught his disciples, including his nephew Golden Noble (see film, from 53.15), he included the words of blessing in their training, but by the 1990s the rituals that required them were hardly needed, so that later the young recruits could barely recall them.

Not long before Kang Ren died in 2010, Golden Noble went to see him, using his mobile to record him singing a series of words of blessing, which Kang Ren recalled well despite hardly having occasion to sing them for over half a century.

zhuyan tapes contents

Golden Noble’s list of contents for his recordings of Kang Ren, 2010.

Li Qing didn’t include any of these “words of blessing” in his cipher-notation score in the 1980s, but later Golden Noble found some loose pages that Li Qing wrote just before his stroke in 1996.

Huangdiye score

Huangdiye wansui, opening.

Golden Noble did all this purely out of his own curiosity, before my own increasing attention to the ritual repertoire. For the recording Kang Ren marked the main beats with a woodblock, including the syncopated cadences, though making sense of them was doubtless easier for the Daoists than for us. Still, at our hotel in Beijing in 2013 we tried to record the songs with the aid of Kang Ren’s tapes, but it didn’t work out. (For Golden Noble’s exquisite leading of the Invitation ritual, see here, with my film, from 58.15.)

Here are Kang Ren’s recordings of the two “words of blessing” Zhenxin qingjing daoweizong [2] and Huangdiye wansui:

 

Though the texts are quite few, they make a precious addition to our impression of ritual as once performed. In melodic style they seem similar to the funerary hymns—although being sung a cappella, they would be sung rather faster. Golden Noble noted that their sections (gu 股) are punctuated by interludes on nao and bo cymbals.

This labour of love impresses me, even if it illustrates the tenuity of transmission; for more on ritual impoverishment, see Recreation. As usual, scholars of Daoist ritual will be content to have the texts, unencumbered by the messy realities of modern social change; but becoming a Daoist priest depends on learning how to perform the texts. 

Apart from the compendium, the manuals for Communicating the Lanterns and Bestowing Food (the yankou), and the chanted scriptures, we have Li Qing’s manuals for three more of the ritual segments specified: Announcing Text, the Noon Thanksgiving, and the Offering to the Stove. Note that we need to consult a range of manuals even in order to gain a full picture of the texts used in the Thanking the Earth ritual; and even this is no substitute for witnessing it in performance.


[1] For Shanxi, I gave a bare outline in In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.77–9. In Shuozhou just south of Yanggao, Daoists still perform jiao rituals pledged by individual families. For a description from a temple Daoist, see Ren Zongquan 任宗權, Daojiao keyi gailan 道教科儀概覽 (2012), pp.13–16. In south China there are many common terms for such domestic rituals, such as Settling the Dragon (anlong 安龍), and they are still commonly performed; for Thanking the Earth in Hunan (in the text-based style common in scholarship on religion in south China, free of modern social change), see the recent MA thesis by Tian Zeren 田泽人, Sheshu rudao: Hunan Xinhua xian minjian daotan xietu yu xiefen keyi yanjiu 摄术入道: 湖南新化县民间道坛谢土与谢坟科仪研究 (2021).

[2] Yet another text used in the daily services of Complete Perfection temples: Xuanmen risong pp.11–15, Quanzhen zhengyun puji pp.17–18.

A 1942 temple fair

LMS ZGT

Here I expand on a charming vignette in my film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist (from 35.45), and my book Daoist priests of the Li family (pp.60–61), illustrating how fieldwork can help us not just to observe current activity and collect historical material, but to illuminate earlier practices.

One morning in April 2011, at home in Upper Liangyuan village with Li Manshan, he casually told me that he knew of a stele at a nearby village temple which listed some names of his Daoist forebears. So after lunch we set off to the temple just northwest, known simply as “the Zhouguantun temple,” though it is rather distant in the fields to the north of the village (see maps here and here).

When we arrive, the temple grounds appear to be empty. Finding two weather-beaten stone steles planted on either side of the main entrance, we spend ages trying to make out the names of Li Manshan’s forebears. Eventually we go to disturb the siesta of the solitary temple keeper Zhang Zheng. Most affable, he helps us draw some water from the well so we can smear it over the stone to bring out the engraved characters.

ZGT kanmiaode

Zhouguantun temple keeper Zhang Zheng.

Slightly lame, Zhang Zheng is a bachelor. Brought up in Zhouguantun, he was attracted to Buddhism, spending time at Wutaishan; his master is now in Datong. As he “roamed the clouds” (yunyou, cf. the Hunyuan Daoist Jiao Lizhong), he came to look after this temple in 1998 (well before it was refurbished), becoming a monk in 2000 with the Buddhist name Shi Zhengci 釋正慈.

As Zhang Zheng tells us, the temple is now formally called Foxian si 佛仙寺; its original name was Zhangdenghe miao 張登河廟, to the deity Zhang laoxian shen 張老仙神. Its three annual temple fairs are on 3rd moon 3rd, 6th moon 6th, and 9th moon 9th.

As we apply water, the steles become easier to decipher. At last we can make out the date: they commemorate donors for the restoration of the temple in 1942, the 31st year of the Republican era—confirming that religious life was still thriving despite the Japanese occupation. If local people were seeking the protection of the deity at a time of crisis, it seemed to work, for today he is considered to have protected them then. Though the temple was destroyed under Maoism, it was refurbished in 2010, and is still considered very efficacious.

And sure enough, in a row near the foot of the right-hand stele, facing the temple, is a heading “Upper Liangyuan” followed by the names of five Lis; unclear at first, they scrub up nicely with plentiful applications of water, and eventually we make out the names of the three brothers Li Peiye, Li Peixing, and Li Peilong, as well as Li Peiye’s son Li Tong (then 33 sui) and Li Peixing’s son, our very own Li Qing (then 17 sui). The brothers’ cousin Li Peisen isn’t listed—he led a separate band. Here’s my genealogy of the nine generations of Daoists in the Li family, from Li Fu, first in the lineage to learn Daoist ritual in the 18th century:

Li generations

The stele doesn’t list any monetary donations from the Lis; as Li Manshan explains to me, this means that they were not mere donors, but were performing rituals for the temple fair as a “dutiful” (yiwu) offering of scriptures—a devotional act for which they would have been recompensed with donations over the course of the event. At the time, temple fairs were still known by the term jiao 醮 Offering, which is now little known in Yanggao.

Nowadays a band of six Daoists is standard in this area south of the town; but until around 2003 they still commonly used seven (as in my 2007 DVD Doing things, §B6). So the 1942 stele lists only the five adult Daoists; there were probably a couple of unspecified junior recruits too, playing percussion as they learned the ropes (see also here).

painting-detail-cropped

Ritual painting, detail, commissioned by Li Peisen from Artisan the Sixth, early 1980s.

This shows how fieldwork with living people can teach us about the past. It’s one thing to document early steles, listing dates and names of donors, but only acquaintance with Daoists like Li Manshan can reveal such clues. Who knows how many names of Daoist bands languish unremarked on old steles? Early artefacts are silent, immobile records of a vibrant ritual life.

Alas, the stele doesn’t record the sequence of rituals that they performed—such lists were commonly made, but on transient paper placards pasted up at the temple (cf. Changing ritual artefacts). Today the great majority of the Li family Daoists’ work is performing mortuary rituals; they still perform for a few temple fairs in the area (see the DVD with my 2007 book, §B), but the ritual sequence is less elaborate than before the 1950s, and has become quite similar to that of funerals (see my book, chapter 12). Most of the former segments have since become obsolete here, but we can glean clues from the ritual manuals that Li Qing and his uncle Li Peisen recopied upon the revival in the early 1980s (for a list, see Appendix 2 of my book), together with Li Manshan’s comments.

In 1942 the ritual segments would have included not only a cappella hymns and fast chanted scriptures such as Scriptures for Averting Calamity (Rangzai jing 禳災經), but also all six long shengguan suites for the instrumental ensemble. Apart from standard morning, noon, and evening segments, the Yanggao Daoists performed two major nocturnal rituals—temple-fair versions of rituals also used for funerals: the nocturnal “Bestowing Blessings” Communicating the Lanterns (cifu guandeng 賜福觀燈) and yankou 焰口; as well as Announcing Text (shenwen 申文), Presenting the Memorial (jinbiao 進表) and Stepping the Cosmos (tagang 踏罡), Inviting and Sending Off the Gods (qingshen, songshen 請送神); perhaps also Prior and Latter Invocations (qian’gao 前誥, hougao 后誥).

Moreover, Willem Grootaers and Li Shiyu were doing fieldwork in the region at the very time—how I would love to discover ciné footage of the 1942 temple fair at Zhouguantun!

It has been a pleasant, instructive afternoon. Before we leave, Zhang Zheng reads my hands. Bidding him farewell, we call a friendly local cab driver to take us back home to Upper Liangyuan. When we arrive, the main gate of Li Manshan’s house is locked, and his wife is out. We stand outside smoking contentedly in the early evening sunshine, waiting for her to return, until eventually I look at Li Manshan and ask him casually, “Do you, um, have a key?” He takes a leisurely drag on his cigarette and goes “Er… yeah.” We smoke some more, digesting this news. Me: “Ah… right.” Further long pause. “Um… Care to open the gate then?” Li Manshan shrugs nonchalantly: “OK then.”

Though the two main temples of Upper Liangyuan were demolished in the 1950s and never restored, on my 2013 stay in the village, thanks to the elderly Li Xu, we discovered steles lying abandoned and forgotten in ditches—again, see my film (from 8.18) and book (pp.46–9). The stele of the Temple of the God Palace (Fodian miao) is dated 1880; that of the Palace of the Three Pure Ones (Sanqing dian) is from 1942, like that of the Zhouguantun temple—again suggesting recourse to divine aid in times of crisis.

beiwen 2013

Li Manshan inspects the abandoned stele of the Temple of the Three Pure Ones,
with Li Bin (left) looking on.

Chinese scholars have been diligent in copying early steles in Shanxi; for me, such historical work merely provided punctuation for a daily schedule following Li Manshan’s band around the area as they performed funerals.

For a sequel, see Thanking the Earth.

Some memorable umbrellas, East and West

umbrellas

I’m inordinately fond of these handsome souvenir umbrellas that the Li family Daoists and I were given on tour: a capacious one at the Amsterdam China Festival in 2005, and a dinky one from the Confucius Institute of Clermont-Ferrand in 2017.

Left: folk-singer, southwest China.
Right: Wu Mei improvises rainwear during a storm at Nanterre before our trip south.

Tianjin huanghui tu

The Imperial Assembly, Tianjin.

Umbrellas, or rather parasols, are an important part of the paraphernalia of Chinese ritual processions. And they’re a common prop for folk-singers at festivals in northwest China.

Gansu miaohui FK

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

A suitable soundtrack (note the leap of the major 7th!):

In north Europe we are unlikely to pray for rain, so I have much more practical use for umbrellas than do the dwellers of drought-prone north China.

Left, “Place this immediately above your own. Saves getting it wet”.
Right: top, paternalistic umbrella; lower left, umbrella for dry climates “for collecting the water of life”.
From Jacques Carelman, Catalogue of extraordinary objects (1969).

On a personal note, it may be thanks to my great-aunt Edith Miles that I warm to the topic:

Red umbrella lowres

For the plucky resistance of British street-signs to continental conformity, see here.

umbrella

 

Shanxi, 1991: a message from beyond

Hua session 1

Second recording session with the Hua family shawm band, March 1991:
the afternoon entertainment repertoire (Walking shrill CD, §4).
Hua Yinshan on shawm, Hua Jinshan on yangqin;
sheng player on left is blindman Duan Guanming.

In early March 1991 I took the train from Beijing to Datong, accompanied by local scholar Chen Kexiu, for the first of many fieldtrips to Yanggao county, whose unprepossessing exterior cunningly concealed a wealth of ritual life.

Visiting the great household Daoist Li Qing at his home in Upper Liangyuan, we made a date for a grand funeral the following day at Greater Antan village, where he would be presiding over the Pardon ritual with his Daoist band (my film, from 48.35, cf. my book pp.246–50).

pardon-in-colour-version-2

The other main object of my studies in Yanggao was to be the Hua family shawm band, whom we first met one afternoon at their home in Yangjiabu village north of the county-town. We were already impressed by the solicitude of kindly Yanggao cultural cadre Li Jin, whom I have extolled here. He was working at the office in town that day. By the time I began to record the shawm band, most of the villagers were crammed into Hua Yinshan’s courtyard. As I sat there blown away (“literally”, as one says nowadays) by the band’s Ming-dynasty bebop (e.g. sidebar playlist §5, commentary here), Li Jin rode up on his bicycle bearing an urgent message for me.

David Adams, fixer for the English Baroque Soloists, was renowned for his persistence, and somehow he had managed to track me down to Yanggao, seeking to book me for some EBS dates. David had phoned my partner in London, with whom I had left the phone number of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, so he called them; I have no idea how they managed to communicate, but he got hold of the number for the Yanggao Bureau of Culture. No-one in Yanggao spoke any English, but again Li Jin surmised that the phone-call must be from England, and it must be for me (cf. Comrade Paul); and he gamely, if approximately, transcribed David’s name with its unfamiliar letters—Russian was the preferred foreign language when he was studying at school in the 1950s, and pinyin was still little known.

In light snow, Li Jin then promptly set off to Yangjiabu on his bicycle (a contraption that had only become common in Yanggao in the 1980s); somewhat bedraggled, he handed over this important message to me, whatever it meant, before the bemused villagers. Alas, I can’t now find Li Jin’s pencilled note, but the message read something like DEWUEDADAAMS. I was impressed.

Immersed as I was in Daoist ritual sequences and shawm suites, early-music touring already seemed rather remote to me, but it was a pleasant reminder of my other life. In those days, still before email, it was hard enough to make a phone-call from Yanggao to Beijing; it was clearly out of the question to try one of the few landlines in the village, and hey, I was busy… Even when we returned to the dingy county-town, making an international call looked most unlikely. I don’t recall how I eventually got through to David—I guess only on my return to Beijing the following week, in between attending folk Buddhist funerals there. Anyway, I must have hastily pencilled in dates for my diary, perhaps even our Barcelona trip for the Mozart anniversary the coming November?! (Contrast “Can you come and do a Messiah next Monday night in Scunthorpe? There’s no fee, but there’ll be a jolly good tea.”)

Palau Mozart

Like my early run-ins with the local constabulary, this story soon became a popular source of mirth among my friends in both China and London. Though my forays to the Chinese countryside were far from the utter isolation of early fieldworkers in remote climes like New Guinea or Easter Island, on my early fieldtrips I cheerfully gave up any notion of keeping in touch with home (cf. Laowai, on my 1999 Long March with Guo Yuhua in Shaanbei). Those were the days.

For more in this linguistic ball-park, see It’s the only language they understand, and Interpreting pinyin

* * *

Keen as I was to learn more about ritual life in Yanggao, I made it one of our destinations on a tour of Shanxi the following year with Xue Yibing. For the rest of the 1990s I was busy with a major project on the ritual associations of Hebei (see outline of the progression of my work in the second half of this post); but those early trips to Yanggao made an important basis for my more in-depth studies there from 2001 (for the Hua band) and 2011 (for the Li family Daoists).

IMG_1411 - Version 2

The Li family Daoist band tending their motor-bikes and mobiles
between funerary ritual segments, Houguantun 2011.

By around 2004 the ritual “food-bowl” of Daoists and shawm bands began revolving around motor-bikes and mobile phones, which allowed them to “respond for household rituals” far more promptly than their forebears over the previous centuries. By 2013, whereas my own phone had already stopped ringing, on our European tours with the Li family Daoists (see e.g. France 2018Li Manshan and his son Li Bin were busy fielding calls on their mobiles from Yanggao villagers asking them to determine the date for burials and arrange their funeral rituals—a rather similar circumstance to mine in 1991, albeit more convenient.

Shaanbei-ology

SB covers

The northwestern province of Shaanbei (see sidebar tag) is a popular venue for the discussion of the interplay of politics and traditional culture, its iconic image as “a revolutionary mecca of modern China with colourful folk cultural traditions and scenic landscape” contrasting with the changing complexities of local reality.

Just in case you haven’t noticed, the top menu (under the Other publications sub-menu!) has a page on Shaanbei-ology, introducing splendid studies by David Holm, Adam Yuet Chau, and Ka-ming Wu;

GYH cover

and most notably, the ethnography of Guo Yuhua (must-read page here) on the hill village of Yangjiagou, detailing the peasant’s own views of the periods before, during, and since the coercive Maoist era.

My own work on Shaanbei is mainly presented in my 2009 book, leading to a series of posts on this site, including

For yet more, see Shaanbei tag in the sidebar.

Images of the Li family Daoists, revised!

The Pardon, 1991

This is to direct you to a new revision of the photos (click here) on the first page of images of the Li family Daoists (in the top menu: see screenshot below).

I first compiled it early in my blogging days, and since then I’ve added many more posts and photos (see the Li family category in the sidebar, with sub-heads); but this selection still makes a good introduction, so I’ve now overhauled it to make a handy way of surveying some of the topics covered, giving links.

Li images

And do also consult the other pages in that menu:

All this to complement your viewings of my film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist!

Pacing the Void 2: styles in vocal liturgy

WD 2011

Li Manshan, Wang Ding, and Golden Noble Delivering the Scriptures at the soul hall, 2011.

To follow my article on Pacing the Void hymns, what I didn’t attempt there was to discuss the musical style of modern renditions of the genre. It’s clearly important to document the soundscape of ritual: the most basic argument for taking it into consideration is that ritual is about performance, and sound is the means through which silent texts are animated and ritual expressed.

However, I find it hard to find clues that might help differentiate styles within vocal repertoires (such as notional “archaic” elements), or to suggest how Pacing the Void hymns may be distinguished from other items—either among temple or household Daoists.

To illustrate the problem, here I’ll outline aspects of the vocal liturgy of the Li family in north Shanxi, based on chapters of my Daoist priests of the Li family, with examples from the complementary film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist (for a roundup of many posts, see here).

In Chapter 11, “The ancestry of texts”, I noted:

Scholars of ritual tend to discuss whole segments and whole ritual manuals, rather than the individual elements within them. But it’s not just music scholars who focus on the detail: collections of musical transcriptions from current temple practice reflect the emic views of Daoists themselves (both temple and household) in documenting individual hymns. Since the same text is often used in different rituals, we may call such texts “floating” hymns.

I find more of the Li family’s Orthodox Unity texts in modern Complete Perfection temple practice than in the Daoist Canon or the Daozang jiyao; most come from the daily services and the yankou. At least nine of the texts sung by the Li family today appear in the “Orthodox melodies of Complete Perfection” (Quanzhen zhengyun) (cf. Rethinking Zhengyi and Quanzhen).

In a ritual corpus like this we have three types of text, some highly standard and national, others apparently distinctive and regional, even local:

  • ritual manuals: now hardly performed; few sources in the Daoist Canon or elsewhere, either whole or in part
  • individual hymns still in use today: few appear in the Canon, but many are found in modern temple sources like the daily services and the nocturnal yankou ritual—which are now known mainly in Complete Perfection versions
  • scriptures (jing 經) and litanies (chan 懺), which the Li family no longer performs: nationally standard, ancient, and found in both the Daoist Canon and modern temple sources.

In content, Pacing the Void texts can’t be neatly distinguished from those of other hymns. Many of the same hymns may now be used for several different ritual segments. As I explained in my previous post, the Li family’s Pacing the Void hymn is performed at the central pole for Hoisting the Pennant (yangfan 揚幡) and just before the coffin is taken out of the house to be buried.

In structure and style there is no clear difference between song types, like hymns (zan 讚) , mantras (zhou 咒), and gāthas (ji 偈) (such as Hymn to the Three Treasures, Mantra to the Three Generations, Gātha to Water), so such titles provide few clues. Here the terms zhou 咒 and zhenyan 真言 (mantra) seem to be used interchangeably; and despite its title, Sanbao zan 三寶讚 isn’t a “hymn” in the classic six-line structure of 4-4-7-5-4-5 words, common to both Daoist and Buddhist ritual (for an extensive collection of such texts in the syncretic tradition of Lesser Huangzhuang village south of Tianjin, see here).

As to textual structure, some hymns are in regular verse with lines of five or seven words—such as Recitation to the Great Supreme (Taishang song 太上誦, our Pacing the Void hymn Taiji fen gaohou 太極分高厚) and Diverse and Nameless (Zhongzhong wuming 種種無名) respectively—but most are in verses of irregular lines. Some hymns are strophic, with a recurring melody for successive verses, though that of the opening line is usually somewhat different. Two textual structures with several different lyrics are sung to the same two melodies: the six-line hymns, and the Lantern structure. More often, one just has to learn them individually.

For the seven visits to the soul hall over the day to Deliver the Scriptures (songjing 送經) , some hymns are prescribed, others a free choice. The hymns sung at the five poles for the Hoisting the Pennant segment are prescribed, but their texts are not specific to the ritual; and those for Transferring the Offerings (zhuanxian 轉獻) are a free choice, with only the brief shouted instructions to the kin between the sequence of hymns relating to the ritual itself. Such flexibility might seem like an impoverishment, but we find similar versatility in the elite temples, where many of the same texts may be used within different rituals.

Sound
For contrasting reasons, the texts of both hymns and scriptures are barely intelligible to the human ear: whereas the former are sung very slowly with melisma, the latter were chanted very fast, isorhythmically.

In Chapter 14 of my book I went on to discuss the Li family Daoists’ vocal liturgy in some detail.

What the Daoists learn is not so much ritual manuals to be recited complete, as how to perform rituals—acquiring the building-blocks and learning how to put particular hymns together within the context of the ritual segments required.

Daoist and Buddhist traditions, both temple and household, use a variety of styles of vocal delivery along the continuum from speech to song. The Yanggao Daoists now distinguish only shuowen 說文 solo recited sections and zantan 讚嘆 sung hymns; they are all “recited” (nian 念), though for visiting scholars they may explain that the hymns are “sung” (chang 唱)—a word usually denoting popular secular singing. “Reciting” can mean singing a cappella, accompanied only by the ritual percussion; when a hymn is further accompanied by the shengguan wind instruments, they call it chui 吹 “blowing” (see Unpacking “Daoist music”)—the singing goes without saying. Before focusing on the sung hymns that are now the main content of the Li family’s ritual practice, we should note other vocal styles:

  • short chanted shuowen solo introits (film from 32.19)
  • fast chanted mantras (film from 35.00)
  • reciting documents (solo) (film from 1.02.55)
  • silence (rare!).

As an instance of variety within the seemingly narrow parameters of vocal liturgy, I analysed the Invitation (zhaoqing 召請) segment performed at dusk at the edge of the village.

Focusing on the hymns, most are sung in unison by the whole group—either all six Daoists (formerly seven) when singing a cappella with percussion accompaniment only, or three (formerly four) when accompanied by the shengguan wind ensemble.

Whereas the melodies of the shengguan ensemble are recorded in gongche solfeggio notation, vocal liturgy is not traditionally notated. But as I seek to identify a core melodic style in the latter,  the useful cipher-notation score (see here, under 3rd moon 4th), compiled by Li Manshan’s father Li Qing while he was recopying the ritual manuals upon the revival of the early 1980s, lists a group of several hymns with similar or identical melody. Of these, still performed are A Lantern (Yizhan deng 一盞燈, film from 27.30) and Mantra of the Wailing Ghosts (Guiku zhenyan 鬼哭真言, sung a cappella for Redeeming the Treasuries huanku 還庫, film from 1.03.58), as well as Diverse and Nameless, based on the same melodic material. Li Qing further listed four other hymns to the same melody that have not been performed since the 1950s. Also closely related in melody is the Mantra of the Skeleton (Kulou zhenyan 骷髏真言), used to Open the Scriptures in the afternoon (film from 56.08).

Some hymns are only sung a cappella—I haven’t heard a shengguan version of the Hymn to the Three Treasures (Sanbao zan 三寶贊), first hymn to Open the Scriptures in the morning (film from 22.02) though Li Qing notated it. Li Manshan observes that the a cappella versions must be primary; and that “six-line hymns” are hard to sing with shengguan.

Conversely, some other items seem to be performed only with shengguan, like our Pacing the Void hymn Recitation to the Great Supreme; Diverse and Nameless is rarely sung a cappella; and A Lantern could presumably be performed a cappella (as are some other hymns with the same melody and textual structure), but the Daoists never do so.

To the casual listener it’s not at all clear how a cappella and shengguan versions of the “same piece” align. In my score below, the upper stave shows Mantra of the Wailing Ghosts, the lower stave A Lantern—they may look quite similar, but note that the latter is performed very much slower than the former!

Li score 1

Today one of few hymns still regularly heard in both a cappella and shengguan versions is Mantra to the Three Generations (Sandai zhou 三代咒). My film shows the contrast between the a cappella rendition sung at the gate on the return from the Invitation (from 1.06.08; cf. Playlist in sidebar, §§2 and 3, with commentary here) and the magnificent slow decorated version with shengguan in Transferring the Offerings (from 1.08.01); again, this is how the openings of the two versions align:

SDZ opening

In Chapter 14 I went on to discuss cadences and melisma; repeated words, text-setting and timbre; vocal contour, register, and tempo progressions. The percussion accompaniment on drums and cymbals follows the same rules across the sung hymns (for the melody and accompaniment of the opening of Diverse and Nameless, see here, and here).

If we listen again to the Li family’s Pacing the Void hymn (with the aid of my score), while it contains some phrases from the core melodic repertoire, it also uses phrases not heard there. The patchwork of melodic elements has to be learned hymn by hymn.

* * *

In sum, there are many sonic distinctions to be made within any Daoist ritual corpus: the sung hymns, fast chanted sections, and so on. But I find little to distinguish the Li family Daoists’ Pacing the Void hymn from their other vocal liturgy: it belongs firmly within the general stylistic parameters of their repertoire. Any distinctive melodic, or even textual, identity is elusive. So we should treat it not as some exotic ancient remnant, but rather as a part of a living ritual tradition.

At the same time, a reminder: ritual is about performance, and sound is the means through which silent texts are animated and ritual expressed!

For ritual traditions elsewhere in north Shanxi, see under Local ritual.

Ken Dean: discovering Fujian ritual life in the early reform era

Ken 2

Ritual procession entering the outskirts of Zhangzhou, 1985.
This, and photos below, from Ken Dean, Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China.

In mainland China from the late 1970s, as the commune system crumbled, a vast revival of traditional culture got under way (for the Li family Daoists in north Shanxi, see Testing the waters and Recopying ritual manuals). This energy was reflected in the excited discoveries of fieldworkers in the 1980s, as shown in the early reports of Kenneth Dean from Fujian province:

See also his short overview

  • “Taoism in southern Fujian: field notes, fall 1985”, in Pen-yeh Tsao [Tsao Poon-yee] and Daniel Law (eds), Studies of Taoist rituals and music of today (1989), pp.74–87.

Ken 1993 cover

Along with C.K. Wang, John Lagerwey, and Patrice Fava, Ken Dean built on experience of Daoist ritual in Taiwan and the classic portrayals by Kristofer Schipper and others; by the early 1980s, as mainland China became accessible at last, they began pursuing the Hokkien traditions back to their homeland across the strait to south Fujian—an eye-opening revelation.

Ken’s stay in Fujian from 1985 to 1987 led to the publication of his 1993 book Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China. And among the results of his later focus on the Putian region was the fine documentary Bored in heaven.

Ken film

Wang and Lagerwey soon expanded their regional studies, recruiting local scholars as they initiated major projects; a vast series of monographs soon proliferated, and later fieldworkers became accustomed to finding vibrant ritual traditions throughout south China. But in the first flush of discovery, the early reports by Lagerwey and Dean on ritual cultures of Fujian are especially vivid.

I ended my recent post on Pacing the Void hymns like this:

Our choice of emphasis is significant: whereas the sinological method is to use fieldwork as a mere adjunct to unearthing textual vestiges of medieval theology, a more ethnographic approach incorporates such ritual archaeology into our studies of living ritual repertoires in modern society.

And Ken’s work is a fine example of the latter: by contrast with most salvage-based accounts of southern Daoist ritual traditions, he not only followed the classical bent of Daoist studies, but integrated thoughtful social ethnography on this period of rapid change. 

“Funerals in Fujian” opens thus:

Unknown to most outside observers of modern China who believe it to be monolithic, atheistic, and materialist, and wholly divorced from its traditions, an enormous resurgence of traditional rituals, local cults, and popular culture has been gathering force since 1979, when the Chinese government relaxed its controls on the practice of religion.

Visiting scores of temples, Ken attended over fifty rituals—

week-long god processions involving tens of thousands of villagers, five-day community festivals centering around Taoist jiao Offering rituals, five-day funerals complete with theatrical rituals such as the “Smashing of Hell”, and several exorcisms featuring mediums in trance.

As he observes,

Economic activity boomed, and the first thing that people who had made money did was not to buy televisions and refrigerators but to rebuild temples to their local cult god that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

In Tong’an county alone, cultural authorities estimated there were 3,000 temples.

Manuscripts that had miraculously survived were copied back and forth. Paintings were taken out of their hiding places in pigsties and latrines. Gods were unearthed and returned to their temples.

Lineage organisations revived, and folk theatrical groups struggled to meet demand in performing for god birthdays and temple consecrations, weddings and funerals. The boom in house-building required inviting ritual specialists to perform house-settling exorcisms. Community jiao Offering rituals were held for the first time in several decades. Donations from overseas Chinese, encouraged by local cadres, played a major role in this restoration. While some cadres, angered by their loss of power in the economic sector, still resisted the observing of religious celebrations, most identified with the revival. Ken also notes ritual inflation.

In “Two Taoist jiao observed in Zhangzhou”. he describes three-day Pure Offerings (santian qingjiao 三天清醮). Ken notes how the local communities organised and funded the rituals.

jiao altar 1

Jiao altar 2

The first Offering was held in a rather small temple in an outlying neighbourhood of Zhangzhou city (see photo above), with Daoists officiating who were still not fully equipped to perform the rituals, such as the Division of the Lamps (fendeng 分燈). As Ken comments most pertinently,

possession of a liturgical manuscript does not necessarily imply the ability to perform the corresponding ritual. The actual performance depends in large measure on oral transmission.

 

Zhangzhou jiao 1.1

Zhangzhou jiao 1.2

Building on his experience in Taiwan, he describes the ritual segments in some detail.

Ken 1

Community procession bearing King boat, rural Zhangzhou 1985.

Two days later Ken attended the second half of another three-day Offering in a nearby village. What distinguished it from the previous ritual was the inclusion of a Pestilence King Offering (Wangye jiao 王爺醮). Traditionally held here every seven years, it had still been performed under Maoism, the last time being 1961. The article ends with an Appendix detailing altar hangings and documents, lu 籙 registers, and total listed costs.

* * *

Whereas much of the ritual activity that I find in north China consists of funerals, scholars in the south tend to focus on community rituals for the living. So Ken’s detailed fieldnotes in “Funerals in Fujian” are all the more valuable.

He discusses mortuary rituals in the natural sequence, from encoffinment to burial, the first brief funeral service, and the more elaborate third-anniversary rituals. He notes regional variation, whereby some areas call for Buddhist rather than Daoist ritual specialists to perform funerals; in Nan’an and Jinjiang counties, “either group may do them, but most people agree the Taoists do a better show”.

Encoffining
In Dongshan a Daoist officiated in a set of procedures (cf. my Li Manshan film, from 14.58), including the maishui 買水 procession to fetch water to wash the corpse, and a series of recitations. Ken compares the more elaborate rituals described in a local manuscript.

Burial
Near Anhai, he follows a long and elaborate procession to the grave (again, cf. my film, from 1.18.59).

A Western brass band played several incongruous tunes rather poorly. A traditional band played excellent nanyin.

Initial funeral service
Back in Dongshan, Ken attended a brief funeral ritual, its simplicity perhaps related to the fact that the deceased was only around 50 years old. Still, altars with paintings were on display (cf. Ritual paintings of north China). The ritual sequence (here and below I’ve slightly modified some of these translations) was

  • Opening to the Light (kaiguang 開光) and Opening Drumroll (qigu 起鼓)
  • Announcement of the Memorial (fabiao 發表)
  • Inviting the Gods (qingfo 請佛, fo referring generally to gods)
  • Visiting the Soul (guoling 過靈)
  • Worshipping the Soul (bailing 拜靈)
  • Filling the Treasury (tianku 添庫) (cf. my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.111–12)
  • Bathing the Soul (muyu 沐浴)
  • Settling the Soul (anling 安靈)
  • Seeing Off the Gods (cifo 辭佛)

Ken describes all these segments in detail. Like John Lagerwey, he pays attention to the “heat and noise” of ritual performance, including the varied soundscape.

A three-day funeral
This gongde 功德 ritual in Shishan, Nan’an county, with fifteen Daoists presiding, was held for the third anniversary of the death of an overseas Chinese relative.

In general, the ritual tradition is very similar to that of southern Taiwan, but one can find elements in Nan’an that have disappeared in Taiwan or perhaps were never completely transmitted there.

Ken notes:

The older Taoists now complain that since the Cultural Revolution and the massive destruction of Taoist manuscripts, many people have taken up work as Taoist priests despite a lack of training or materials. Thus, instead of one Taoist to a county, you can now find twenty. Or so they say.

Here, while Daoists do perform Pure Offerings (see above) for god birthdays, most of their work is for mortuary rituals. The overall effect of the elaborate altars and paintings displayed for this funeral was “beautiful and staggering in complexity”. He documents the ritual sequence in detail with a 20-page account (cf. my composite list for an area south of Beijing).

Day 1, evening

  • Rousing the Hall (naoting 鬧廳) and Purifying the Altar (jingtan 淨壇)

Day 2
morning:

  • Announcing the Memorial (fabiao 發表)
  • Inviting the Gods (qingshen 請神)
  • Reciting the Scripture of Universal Salvation (nian Duren jing 念度人經)
  • Summoning the Soul (zhaoling 召靈)
  • Opening to the Light (kaiguang 開光)
  • Untying the Knots (jiejie 解結)
  • Opening the Litanies (kaichan 開懺)

noon:

  • Giving Offerings (zuogong 作供)

afternoon:

  • Paying Tribute to the Ten Kings (gong Shiwang 貢十王)

evening:

  • Requesting the Writ of Pardon (qingshe 請赦)
  • Destroying the Fortress (pocheng 破城)

Day 3
morning:

  • Rites for the Masters (lishi 禮師)
  • Visiting the Soul (jianling 見靈)

noon:

  • Noon Offering (zuo wugong 作午供)

afternoon:

  • Juggling Gongs and Cymbals (nong luobo 弄鑼鈸)
  • Joining the Tallies (hefu 合符)
  • Worshipfully Presenting the Memorial (baibiao 拜表)
  • Universal Distribution (pushi 普施)

evening:

  • Filling the Treasury (tianku 添庫)
  • Dismantling the Soul Palace (chuling 除靈)
  • Sending Off the Gods (xiefo 謝佛)

Again, supporting musicians played nanyin melodies. Ken gives evocative detail on the theatrical, sometimes comic, Pardon ritual (cf. the Li family in Shanxi: my film from 48.35, and Daoist priests pp.246–50)—followed by the even more dramatic Destroying the Fortress. He translates the cloth displaying the list of rituals to be performed.

A simultaneous Buddhist and Daoist five-day funeral
Again in Shishan, again a gongde ritual for an overseas Chinese family.

The Buddhists’ rituals for the most part matched the Taoists’, but they had some special effects of their own. The music, dancing, patterns, spells, and deities invoked differed, but the structure of the rituals was identical.

Ken notes the fierce competition between the two groups.

Lake of Blood rites
The ritual also included a Lake of Blood (xuehu 血湖) segment. Ken also witnessed a Lüshan version in nearby Nan’an, also serving to save the souls of two women who had hung themselves from the same beam.

Putian: the Smashing of Hell
Having already described the Smashing of Hell for Shishan, Ken now discusses a version in Putian county further north, a rather different cultural area. Nine household Buddhists presided, and spirit mediums played an active role (for the self-mortifying mediums of southeast and northwest China, see n.1 here).

Ken 3

Mediums in front of the Baosheng dadi temple running with a sedan chair
carrying a visiting god statue, Baijiao 1987.

Zhao’an: a Hakka funeral
To the south, in the Hakka area of Zhao’an, Daoists had a rich tradition of jiao Offerings; but

funerals [there] are performed exclusively by Buddhists—unlike the situation in Quanzhou or Putian, but similar to the tradition in north/central Taiwan.

For the funeral that Ken attended he lists sixteen ritual segments. He focuses on the climactic Smashing of the Sand (dasha 打沙) ritual; and again he notes variations in ritual traditions even within this area.

In conclusion, citing de Groot’s major work in the region in the 1880s, Ken observes:

In general, extraordinary as it may seem, one may say that anything in de Groot is still happening in southeast China, but no longer all in any one place. The immediate qualification of course is that the role of civil mandarins and Confucians is no more.

In a fine formulation he notes:

Any one community brings its own desires to bear on the selection of elements from the regional cultural and ritual repertoire. At the simplest level, these forces select between competing groups of ritual specialists. The relative popularity of Buddhist,, Taoist, and sectarian ritual specialists for the performance of funerals and other rites varies regionally. Factors include the relative strength and historical depth of the various religious traditions in the locale, the range of fees demanded by the different groups, and the closely connected prestige value of the performances. At a deeper level of analysis, every ritual is a unique performance, inevitably opening up new connections and new expressions within the community. The growing force of these reviving traditions will change China.

The same volume of Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie also includes a catalogue of 290 ritual manuscripts that Ken copied during his stay in Fujian.

I note differences and similarities with my experience of mortuary rituals in north China. We should beware taking the ritual practices of southeast China as a national template (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Conclusion); indeed, as Ken stresses, considerable variation is evident even within a single region of south Fujian.

* * *

As to local folk musicking, those of us undertaking fieldwork in the heady days of the early reform era felt a similar excitement at discovering traditions hitherto unknown outside their locale. Such early energy is clear in the pages of the CHIME journal, particularly in the fieldwork of Antoinet Schimmelpenninck and Frank Kouwenhoven in south Jiangsu.

marionettes 86

Marionettes for nocturnal ritual, Quanzhou 1986. My photo.

Meanwhile in dusty north China, having learned much from accompanying Ken round some temples and rituals around Quanzhou in 1986 (see Fujian, 1961 and onwards, also including a basic map), I benefitted from a similar energy, working closely with the Music Research Institute as we discovered amateur ritual associations and household Daoists in the poor villages south of Beijing (see e.g. A slender but magical clueThree baldies and a mouth-organ, and a whole series of fieldnotes under Local ritual).

Incorporating ethnographic perspectives on a fast-changing society alongside the nuts and bolts of ritual sequences and manuals, Ken Dean’s work in Fujian makes a notable exception to the largely salvage-based template of most such research. While later monographs (notably in the Daojiao yishi congshu series) studied individual Daoist “altars” in great historical depth, the early reports of Dean and Lagerwey laid a foundation for such studies, showing the excitement and energy of the time.

For remarkable film clips from 1930s’ Fujian, see here.

Bernard Lortat-Jacob at 80

BLJ playlist

Bernard Lortat-Jacob is one of the great ethnomusicologists. I’ve already admired his work on Sardinia, and featured his recordings from Morocco, Romania, Albania, and Valencia. To celebrate his 80th birthday (cf. my sonic tribute for Stephan Feuchtwang), we have a splendid new volume:

  • Petits pays, grandes musiques: le parcours d’un ethnomusicologue en Méditerranée (2020; 512 pages).

BLJ Petit pays cover

Among BLJ’s main fieldsites, the focus here is on the Mediterranean, notably Sardinia—his early work on Morocco only features en passant. His remit also extends to India, Java, Iran, the Hebrides, Brazil, jazz, and Western Art Music. Most valuably, the text is cued to 63 wonderful audio and video tracks on this online playlist, so that we can instructively listen and watch as we read (or even before Rushing Out to buy the book). Meanwhile BLJ also considers changing ways of musicking (the French musiquer is good), and changing trends over his long career in ethnomusicology. One feels his rapport as participant observer; while applying thick description (cf. Geertz) to both social and musical aspects, his style is deeply engaged, full of character.

Bernard, Irgoli 1995

BLJ entertains villagers, Irgoli 1995. Photo: Maria Manca.

* * *

The Introduction by Giovanni Giuriati gives background on early influences on BLJ’s studies and the significance of his ouevre; while sharing many approaches with Anglo-American ethnomusicology, he has also been at the centre of a distinctively European tradition (cf. posts under Society and soundscape).

The main text is a parcours in three parts, each with nine chapters—an anthology of mostly previously-published articles, illuminatingly arranged by themes.

BLJ 462

Part One, “Improvisation: permanence et transformations”, unpacks the creative process (cf. Nettl).

BLJ 32

After an introductory chapter, BLJ offers three vignettes on Sardinia, featuring the launeddas (in memory of Aurelio Porcu); dances with organetto; and songs with guitar. Alongside detailed musical analyses, he always pays attention to social context (festas, bars, and so on).

“Bartók’s kaleidoscope” is a thoughtful tribute, dating from 1994. Focusing on Bela Bartók’s early recordings and transcriptions of the folk music of Romania (cf. my Musical cultures of east Europe), it’s further informed by BLJ’s own fieldwork there from 1991 to 1996 with Jacques Bouët and Speranţa Rădulescu (see A tue-tête: chant et violon au pays de l’Oach, Roumanie, 2002, with DVD, including amazing clips like #23).

Oach

Chapter 6 is a more general discussion of models and typology, in which BLJ spreads his net to Iran, India, and Scotland—as well as Morocco, illustrated by the Aissawa cult of Meknes (#15), and Turkey, with a fine taksim on the zurna (#18b).

He then continues exploring Romanian village traditions with chapters on the oral traditions of the Ouach (Oaș) and Baia Mare regions. He discusses the misleading dichotomy between fieldwork and the laboratory.

BLJ 124

In an intriguing experiment, the team asked local musicians to play their own transformations on short extracts played to them from a Brahms Hungarian dance, The four seasons, and West Side story (##24–27). While I appreciate the idea, here I’m rather less excited by the insights it yields.

BLJ 155

A numinous image, also used for the cover of Paul Berliner’s Thinking in jazz
just the kind of fusion of ethnographic and musical detail that BLJ practises.

Part One ends with a virtuosic entr’acte, “The jazz ear”, suggesting grander themes through two suggestive analytical vignettes. Seeking to assess contrasting evaluations of Chet Baker’s vocal intonation, BLJ gives a micro-analysis of his “deviant” pitches at the opening of I fall in love too easily (cf. Deep in a dream, and Chet in Italy). And the “cultural ear” is apparent too in his discussion of the harmonic implications in Charlie Parker’s different melodic renditions of Billy’s bounce. While this kind of analysis stops short of explaining why audiences are so moved by both jazzmen, it suggests fruitful paths.

This jazz vignette leads BLJ to suggest three approaches:

  • the imperial (“not to say imperialist”) position, whereby ethnomusicologists, with their universal science, declare themselves the omniscient authority, taking credit for the aptitude of others (Others) without asking too many questions;
  • the discouraging opposite view, as expressed famously by Bruno Nettl‘s teacher in Iran: “You will never understand this music”;
  • a middle way, which BLJ favours: that it is precisely the problematic accessibility of the music of others that is at the heart of our task.

BLJ 179

Part Two, “Chanter ensemble, être ensemble” (and the word ensemble is more evocative in French!) returns to Sardinia, considering vocal polyphony there (“Les mystères des voix sardes”). Five chapters explore aspects of the Castelsardo confraternities, with their annual cycle of rituals culminating in the Passion rituals of Holy Week, illustrated with magnificent video clips like #35 and #39 (more under Sardinian chronicles). Exquisite as is BLJ’s Chants de Passion (1998), he reflects that

les mots du livre sont beaucoup moins riche que les paroles qui leur ont donné naissance. […] L’écriture est toujours maladroite lorsqu’il s’agit de rendre compte des intonations et de la richesse de l’oral…

Musical notation too is an imperfect tool.

tenores 1998

BLJ in deep harmony with tenore quartet at wedding, 1998. Photo: SJ.

In the fourth chapter of this section BLJ expands his consideration of vocal polyphony in Sardinia to the more widely-known secular genre of the tenore quartet, including the distinctive group from Fonni, who open his 1991 CD Polyphonies de Sardaigne (#36b).

Chapters 5 and 6 offer more perspectives on the Castelsardo liturgy, reflecting on the aesthetic judgements of the participants, and on memory, individual style, conditions and constraints (the ritual cycle, sense of place), grammatical rules, preparation. With such factors in mind, BLJ analyses a 1993 Stabat mater (#41).

Chapter 7 considers such orally-transmitted group singing in the less formal (male) social interaction of the cantina. Describing the singer as “creator of empathy”, he notes that while such societies commonly refer to nos anciens, the word “tradition” doesn’t belong to such societies, but is an invention of the “professors”—an issue to bear in mind in China.

BLJ 297

This discussion makes a bridge to the last two chapters of Part Two. Chapter 8 is a version of BLJ’s 2013 article “Multipart drinking (and singing): a case study in southern Albania”. After apéritifs in Ancient Greece and the Andes, he describes the Tosk ensemble seated around a table (also a focus of Chinese musicking), singing in free tempo as they make toasts with raki (e.g. #45), revealing the correlation between social and musical rules and their spatial and temporal dimensions.

La performance a pour but de render contigus, de façon construite et progressive, le proche et le lointain, le present et l’absent et—pourrait-on dire plus largement—les mondes physique et métaphysique.

He notes the presence of virtual as well as real participants:

Il s’agit d’etres mythiques: héros convoqués par les textes des chants dont on célèbre l’importance, faits d’armes divers (en general contre les Turcs), fiancées perdues ou inaccessibles dont on ne sait pas meme si elles existèrent un jour. Mais aussi présences-absences: le chant est la trace d’un souvenir, d’une situation précédente, de l’objet de ses pensées, et qui se voit adoubé d’attentions expressifs particulières. De sorte qu’être ensemble revient à s’inscrire dans un présent, mais consiste tout autant dans l’évocation et le rappel des absents.

As to the polyphony of the Lab people further southwest in Albania, Chapter 9 discusses the mournful song Ianina, led by Nazif Çelaj (#48; full version on BLJ’s 1988 CD Albanie: polyphonies vocales et instrumentales). It was premiered at a 1983 folk festival in Gjirokastër, and despite being promptly elevated by the regime to national status, audiences agreed that it was both original and moving. This seems to have been a rather rare occasion in folk tradition to witness a song regarded as a “new creation”; while BLJ describes the innovative aspects of the vocal arrangement (always embedded in tradition), I’d like to know more about just how the song came into being.

One particularity of the song is its evocation of the funeral laments of women:

Il est comme un esquisse ou un rappel des lamentations funèbres dont les femmes ont en principal l’exclusivité. Il emprunte ainsi, sans le dire, au vaj (cri, plainte ou lamentation féminine). Il y a là un travestissement qui ne peut passer inaperçu. En fait, un double travestissement, car ce chant d’hommes emprunte aux femmes et il ne raconte pas seulement une histoire: il la met en scène en y insérant—en live—le chagrin occasionné par le mort du héros.

He concludes:

Chant de douleur de l’ancien régime, il renvoie au temps de la domination des Turcs. Mais aussi et sourtout au régime qui l’avait vu naître, comme si, à son tour, il ne pouvait plus s’extirper de ce passé encore brûlant. Cependant, il n’est pas nécessaire que son référent soit precis, car en tant que plainte masquée Ianina chante la douleur. Or, celle-ci ne manque pas des scénarios anciens ou nouveaux pour fair irruption: elle renvoie à ce qui fut autrefois, mais aussi à ce qui est aujourd’hui (l’instabilité morale, l’injustice social et l’émigration notamment). Et sans doute a-t-elle même l’étrange pouvoir d’inclure les douleurs à venir. Elle et à la fois précise et indécise. En cela réside sa fonction paradoxale autant que son charactère opératoire.

In Part Three, “La musique en effet”, we return again to Sardinia. Chapter 1 reflects on BLJ’s “home base” of Irgoli, opening with villagers’ apparent indifference to the intrusion of American rock music blasting from the TV in the bar. He contrasts the whole social soundscape with the silence surrounding vendetta. The tenore style of Irgoli has hardly been affected by the fashionable adoption of other such groups onto the “world music” bandwagon. And meanwhile the canto a chitarra, the improvised “jousts” of the gara poetica, and dancing in the piazza continued to thrive there.

Further pondering how music reflects the social structures in which it is inscribed (an idée fixe of ethnomusicologists), in Chapter 2 BLJ revisits the launeddas and the liturgy of Castelsardo.

BLJ 353

In Chapter 3, “Le cheval, le chant, la poésie”, he reflects on the limitations of comparison, even between the various festive cultures of Sardinia. Chapter 4 explores the connection between flowers and liturgical song. The following three chapters discuss Lévi-Strauss, the “science” of music, and affect—ending with an astute commentary on the speaking voices of women in Castelsardo.

In Chapter 8, BLJ’s return to Orgosolo in 2011 after thirty years prompts reflections on memory and the individual “proprietors” of repertoire among his various fieldsites. This in turn leads to a discussion of female mourners in Albania (#61), and the return of a celebrated Albanian singer to his desolate natal home, shown in BLJ’s film with Hélène Delaporte, Chant d’un pays perdu (2006) (extracts e.g. #62b and 62d).

For both performers and audiences, a complex, imprecise nostalgia may be involved in a synchronic event (as well as in later reception history, I might add). He ends with a note on music, memory, and possession—the latter here denoting the power of absent or lost beings in the performative expressions of the living.

This leads suitably to the final chapter of Part Three, on Georgia on my mind as sung by the “alchemist” Ray Charles. Applying the same methods he has developed for folk traditions, BLJ analyses the musical features that create the multivalent portrait of an elusive protagonist, with its “tempo-malaise”.

“Georgia”—l’être évoqué—existe a travers son énonciation chantée, des qualités d’intonation spécifiques, un timbre ô combien particulier, des transitoires d’attaque et de fin, etc., constituant non pas l’accessoire du chant mais son essence.

Noting the human voice as marker of social discrimination, he explores the “black voice”, anchored in the memory of douleur, and “le nègre blanc”; the pentatonic basis of the song, both gospel and rural (another pays perdu); and the arrangement by Ralph Burns. Nor does he neglect to pay homage to the 1941 recording of Georgia by Billie Holiday (and one might cite her Don’t explain as a succinct assessment both to support and criticise his method?!).

In his thoughtful Postface/Volte-face, BLJ reflects on the major themes that have emerged, describing the ethnomusicologist as both droguiste and acrobate-gymnaste. While noting the reduced local diversity of rural traditions since his first fieldtrips in the 1960s (a theme, indeed, that one might trace back to the origins of anthropology), he has remained alert to change, constantly refining his “models”.

All this makes one keen to explore the final bibliography, discography, and filmography—and do also consult the ear-opening CD set Les voix du monde, in which BLJ played a significant role. What—no index?!

This stimulating tour de force is both a survey of Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s lifetime immersion in musicking and another reminder of the wealth of Mediterranean traditions on our doorsteps, along with their relevance to a global understanding of local cultures.

Pacing the void 步虛

yangfan

Li family Daoists sing Taishang song at central pole to open Hoisting the Pennant ritual,
Yanggao 2011.

Following the recent commemorations of the great Kristofer Schipper, I’ve been re-reading his article

  • “A study of Buxu: Taoist liturgical hymn and dance”, in Pen-yeh Tsao [Tsao Poon-yee] and Daniel Law (eds), Studies of Taoist rituals and music of today (1989).

The volume was the result of a conference held in Hong Kong, just as the revival of ritual traditions was getting under way, with further contributions by such scholars as Michael Saso, Chen Yaoting, John Lagerwey, Ken Dean, Issei Tanaka, Qing Xitai, John Blacking, and Alan Kagan.

It’s impressive that “Daoist music” was considered to belong with Daoist ritual so early; later, scholars of ritual and those studying ritual soundscapes (a more suitable term) would work separately, to the detriment of both.

Many of the articles in the volume are historical; and most of those discussing “rituals and musics of today” concern southeast China and Taiwan. Indeed, even now, this focus of time and place still dominates the field.

Schipper’s article opens with modern practice in south Taiwan, noting that Buxu 步虛 Pacing the Void hymns are sung there in unison at the opening of jiao Offering rituals, as well as within chao Audience rituals. But the bulk of his article concerns early textual history. He notes that while Buxu hymns already opened jiao Offerings in the Southern Song dynasty, their texts date back as early as the 4th century, soon becoming enshrined in Lingbao liturgy. He also seeks clues about how such hymns were performed in medieval times, noting Buddhist influence. And he finds early associations with meditation, citing the 5th-century Daoist Lu Xiujing:

In the practice of the Lingbao Retreat, when reciting the stanzas of the Empty Cavern Buxu: grind the teeth three times, swallow three times, and then concentrate on the vision of the sun and the moon, in front of one’s face. The rays enter through the nose in the Palace of the Golden Flower. There, after a moment, they change into a nine-coloured halo… Again, grind the teeth three times and swallow three times, and then concentrate on the vision of the Primordial Lord of the Three Simple (pneumata) in the Palace of the Golden Flower, in the likeness of an infant…

Schipper also notes the link with the bugang 步綱 Pacing the Constellation (Yubu 禹步) liturgical dance steps, as well as the Buxu genre in secular literature. He ends by stressing the link between music and meditation in the simultaneous execution of an “interior” and external” ritual:

The way of achieving this, and this is borne out in a way no literary source can provide by today’s rituals, is through music. Only music can integrate the different levels of execution during a ritual, make the meditation and breathing of the Master follow step by step the performance of the outward ritual by the acolytes. Only music can bridge the separation between the two worlds and ensure the harmony of man and his environment and beyond that, of all the spheres of the universe.

I much admire Schipper’s stress here on soundscape; and the high bar that he sets for the “internal” aspects of Daoist ritual was indeed evident in the practices of his own Daoist masters in Taiwan. Yet the fundamental importance of soundscape in ritual practice (hardly pursued by later scholars of Daoism) is far wider than the abstruse arts of cosmic visualisation.

* * *

Schipper set the tone for Daoist ritual studies, which relate modern liturgy firmly to the medieval era. Yet the basis of modern practice is the formation of liturgical traditions since the late imperial period. Throughout China, at the opening of the rituals of both temple clerics and household ritual specialists (Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection alike), Pacing the Void hymns turn out to be widely performed today. Thus modern collections of vocal liturgy and the provincial volumes of the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, compiled through the 1980s and early 90s (see e.g. under Suzhou Daoist ritual), contain numerous transcriptions of Pacing the Void hymns from all over China.

For temple practice, Buxu hymns such as Dadao dongxuan xu 大道洞玄虛 are part of the Xuanmen risong 玄們日誦 daily rituals (Min Zhiting 閔智亭 ed., Quanzhen zhengyun puji 全真正韵譜輯, pp.31–2):

And such hymns, sung very slowly with melisma, are just as common among household Daoists. In my chapter on vocal liturgy in Daoist priests of the Li family I gave an example:

Recitation to the Great Supreme (Taishang song 太上誦) is the main hymn that the Li family sings in the Pacing the Void (Buxu) genre. Its incipit is Taiji fen gaohou (“As the Great Ultimate divided high and broad”); this ancient text, sometimes attributed to the Daoist master Du Guangting (850–933), is often found both in the Daoist Canon and in current temple practice.

It consists of eight five-word lines, plus a final fast seven-word invocation to the Great Heavenly Worthy of Five Dragons who Expels Filth (Wulong danghui da tianzun). As ever, my translation stays rather close to a literal interpretation, though the text (such as the obscure third couplet) has been subjected to highly arcane commentary.

Only performed with shengguan wind ensemble, never a cappella, the hymn is mainly used in three rituals: Fetching Water (qushui 取水); Hoisting the Pennant (yangfan 揚幡), at the central pole; and at the soul hall before the coffin is taken out (film, from 45.20 and 1.14.38). Until the 1950s it was also sung for Opening the Quarters (kaifang 開方), and in the Announcing Text (shenwen 申文) ritual for earth and temple scriptures. Buxu is also the title of a percussion item, which they now rarely play—the longest interlude between sections of certain a cappella hymns, a slightly expanded version of Jiuqu (Daoist priests, p.286).

Taishang song

Taishang song score

So while the hymn texts are “in general circulation” (Schipper’s term again), the melodies to which they sung vary widely by locality.

Anyway, Schipper did well to point out the significance of Pacing the Void, even if he could hardly have imagined at the time how very widespread the genre was throughout the PRC. As he wrote, “an entire book could, and perhaps should, be written about Buxu.”

So our choice of emphasis is significant: whereas the sinological method is to use fieldwork as a mere adjunct to unearthing textual vestiges of medieval theology, a more ethnographic approach incorporates such ritual archaeology into our studies of living ritual repertoires in modern society—further discussed here.

TSS

Coda of Taishang song before the burial procession:
Li Manshan, Golden Noble, Wu Mei, Li Bin.

For a sequel on the Li family Daoists’ vocal liturgy, see here.

Chinese tomb decoration, ancient and modern

While I generally go for living embodiments of traditional culture, Shanxi province is a rich field for iconography, temples, murals, opera stages, and steles—for all periods of imperial history. Besides the major early sites, neglected little village temples also contain a wealth of murals since the Ming dynasty.

North Shanxi has long been one of my main bases for fieldwork (see under Local ritual). Traces of the Northern Wei dynasty (386­­–534), with its capital at Pingcheng (modern Datong), attract many visitors to the region—most famously, the Buddhist grottoes of Yungang just west of Datong city. The elite Daoist Kou Qianzhi 寇謙之 (365–448) is often wheeled out by scholars as an instance of the illustrious ancestry of Daoist ritual in north Shanxi.

The Shaling site, with mural.

Near Datong, excavations at a major Northern Wei tomb complex outside Shaling village in 2005 yielded impressive results, even though it had been subject to severe looting. Another remarkable tomb has recently been excavated at Qilicun village, revealing a lacquered tomb, murals, silk artefacts, and ceremonial lacquerware.

Qilicun: coffin, and mural.

Such elaborate tombs were made for the elite; while archaeologists still commonly excavate tombs from the period, it can be hard to relate them directly to ritual life today. And even before the modern disappearance of the old elite, the furnishing of tombs changed over more than two millennia.

Still around Datong, many tombs from the Khitan Liao dynasty (907–1125) have also been excavated. The Wohuwan site in the northern suburbs of Datong (c1119) was discovered in 1961–62—reminding us of the energy of archaeologists even under the difficult times of Maoism (cf. musicologists). More recent finds in the vicinity are introduced herehere, and here

Liao tomb: left, entrance; right, constellations—again, a living feature of Daoist ritual in
the litanies of stellar lords (xingjun 星君).

The new incarnation of the Datong museum (founded in the dark days of 1959) looks most impressive, with plentiful exhibits of early tomb art and artefacts. The compendium Yicai qiannian: Datong diqu muzang bihua  熠彩千年: 大同地区墓葬壁画 (2019) includes images from the Northern Wei, Liao, Jin, and Yuan dynasties.

* * *

Now, I’m underwhelmed by the fetish for blithely claiming connections between modern and ancient culture, flitting from millennium to millenium, as is popular in Chinese musicology—though I did make an exception for Li Qing and ancient sheng masters. In Daoist (and Buddhist) studies too, ritual archaeology is more popular than living ethnography (see Debunking “living fossils”).

For the wealthy families who had such early tombs built, elaborate mortuary rituals would have been held too—Daoist, Buddhist, perhaps both. The recent Northern Wei excavations naturally remind me of my times following Li Manshan round nearby villages as he determines the date, supervises the encoffinment, chooses the grave site, decorates the coffin, writes the tomb tile, and presides over the burial (all shown in my film, from 13.38). In between all the initial solo activities and the burial come the group rituals of the Daoist band that he leads—with repeated visits to the soul hall, as well as rituals in a more public arena, to a numinous source of water, and to the edge of the village at dusk, in prescribed ritual sequence.

Of course, today the main clientele of household Daoists like the Li family is the ordinary peasantry, by contrast with the imperial elite whose tombs are revealed by archaeologists.

Left, Li Manshan decorating a coffin;
right, an assistant placing the tomb tile over the bow-and-arrows on the coffin.

In modern times graves are only just big enough for the coffin itself, no longer containing any artefacts, apart from the tomb tile covering the little bow-and-arrows placed on top of the coffin—in Li Manshan’s own words (my film, from 1.18.12),

to protect against grave looting, the common people imitating the real bow and arrows used for the tombs of imperial princes of old.

But he and his son Li Bin do decorate the coffin (huacai 畫材), painting it with elaborate motifs such as “qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting” (qinqishuhua 琴棋書畫)—again emulating the culture of the imperial elite.

The Li family’s base of Yanggao county is just east of Datong; even closer to the Northern Wei site at Qilicun is Datong county, where we also found active household Daoist groups.

So artefacts are all very well; but one wants to relate them to people’s lives, and deaths. With finds like Qilicun, what I lack is knowledge of Northern Wei burial practices. Indeed, for folk ritual life in north Shanxi, it’s none too easy to glean firm clues right through from early medieval to late imperial times; for the period since the late Ming it is mainly through fieldwork that we at last begin to find clues to the forebears of the household Daoists practising today.

One fine study is

  • Jeehee Hong, Theater of the dead: a social turn in Chinese funerary art, 1000–1400 (2016),

focusing on a lively period for the evolution of drama—again, still a major aspect of modern expressive culture in Shanxi. With material on Shanxi (though not the Datong region), Hong uses tomb artefacts as evidence of the funerary practices of the day, and paying attention to the artisans who created them.

xuanhua liaomu HT lowest

Mural from Xuanhua tombs, 1116.  Reproduced in Yuan Quanyou 袁荃猷 (ed.),
Zhongguo yinyue shi tujian 中国音乐史图鉴 (1988), p.109.
This image ingeniously created by Hannibal Taubes from his own photo.

As to the soundscape of mortuary rituals, tomb murals and statuettes have long provided rich evidence for music historians—such as the above Liao-dynasty mural, a forebear of the shengguan ensemble still used by household Daoist bands in the region today. The pipa lute and paixiao panpipes were perhaps only common in the elite groups of regional courts, and were no longer used as ritual groups distilled the instrumentation to sheng mouth-organ, guanzi (bili) oboe, dizi flute, and yunluo gong-frame, with drum and cymbals. For some later murals of musicians from the region, see here. Of course, such images can only furnish scant clues to the vocal liturgy, the main component of ritual. Amidst all the artefacts within an ancient tomb, what is fatally lacking is video footage of the activities surrounding the event.

Anyway, the practices surrounding tombs of the medieval elite are quite remote ancestors of the mortuary rituals of common folk today—it just strikes me with my explorations in the region (“you dig?”), traipsing round gravelands and peering into freshly-dug graves. Fieldwork among living ritual specialists and their clientele can give us concrete images of the kinds of details we would like to learn about early practices—one way of coaxing ancient artefacts from their frozen silence.

See also e.g. Grave charts (and sequel), Changing ritual artefacts, and the funerary headgear of the kin; for Qing-dynasty temple murals in Yanggao, see The cult of Elder Hu.

 

With thanks to Hannibal Taubes.

Kristofer Schipper

portrait

Portrait of Kristofer Schipper,
commissioned for commemorative ritual in Suzhou, 2021 (see below).

Not only in the West but in Taiwan and China, the great influence of the great Daoist scholar Kristofer Schipper (Chinese name Shi Zhouren 施舟人, 1934­–2021) is clear from the many tributes to him that have been appearing. Here’s a selection from the various extensive lists going round.

Perhaps the most accessible starting-point is Ian Johnson’s NYT article (Chinese version here). You can find numerous posts on the websites of the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions (SSCR) and the Chengdu-based Centre for the Study of Chinese Religions (CSCR); by subscribing to the European Network for the Study of Religions in China (ENSRC); as well as on douban and Wechat.

The SSCR and CSCR sites include tributes by John Lagerwey, Vincent Goossaert, Franciscus Verellen, Brigitte Baptandier, Lee Fong-mao, Lü Pengzhi, Lü Chuikuan, Ye Mingsheng, Stephen Bokenkamp, Terry Kleeman, and David Palmer. See also e.g. Ken Dean (live), Patrice Fava (forthcoming), Richard Wang, and an online discussion held by the Global Daoist Studies Forum. Doubtless the bibliography will continue to grow.

Several of these sites also give extensive lists of Schipper’s writings—this one looks comprehensive. Just a few of the seminal works that we keep consulting:

  • Le fen-deng (1975)
  • “Vernacular and classical ritual in Taoism”, Journal of Asian studies 45.1 (1986)
  • Le Corps taoïste (1982; English version The Daoist body 1994).

And I’ve reflected on his 1989 article on Pacing the Void hymns.

* * *

Schipper was brought up in Holland, where during the war his parents sheltered Jewish children from the Nazis. As Vincent Goossaert commented, “This really shaped his worldview, both his hatred of nationalism and his deeply humanistic preference for local democracy instead of great national narratives”.

Schipper with Chen Rongsheng, 1960s.

After training with Max Kaltenmark in Paris, in 1962 Schipper went to study in Taiwan; based at the Academia Sinica, he became a disciple of the great household Daoist priest Chen Rongsheng 陳榮盛 (1927–2014) in Tainan (see video tribute in n.1 here), who ordained him in 1968. He returned to Paris in 1970, taking up a position at the École Pratique des Hautes Études.

Schipper went on to create a massive project on the Daoist canon; the result, co-edited with Franciscus Verellen, was The Taoist canon: a historical companion to the Daozang (3 vols., 2004), an essential companion to texts found both in libraries and in the manual collections of local ritual specialists. His distinction between texts “in general circulation” and those distinctive to local traditions has been most useful to me in trying to classify collections of ritual manuals among northern household Daoists (see e.g. under Recopying ritual manuals, and Daoists of Hunyuan).

We might almost regard Schipper as a Daoist equivalent of Nadia Boulanger. Paris has been an île sacrée for Daoist studies, with Schipper bridging the lineage from Henri Maspero and Max Kaltenmark to John Lagerwey and Vincent Goossaert; his vast influence is clear from the list of his pupils, many of whom have gone on to distinguished careers.

If his main contribution was in sinology and textual research, his influence extended to anthropology. As Ian Johnson writes:

His ideas contributed to an understanding of how Chinese society has been organized through its history—by local autonomous groups often centred on temples rather than the emperor and his vaunted bureaucracy, as historians have traditionally tended to depict it.

Ken Dean observed:

He was able to show that there was a religion of the people of China that was deeply connected to local forms of self-organization and self-government. It was part of a change in how people described Chinese society.

Schipper and Chen Guofu

Inklings of change in the PRC: meeting Chen Guofu (1914–2000), Tianjin 1981.

While Taiwan had hitherto been the most fruitful fieldsite to study Daoist ritual, by the late 1970s, as a huge revival of tradition got under way in mainland China, it was becoming clear that there too there was now a vast field to explore—and Schipper was among the first to build bridges. Recruiting regional fieldworkers, scholars like C.K. Wang, John Lagerwey, and Ken Dean now initiated fieldwork projects on local ritual traditions throughout south China, which still continue to yield major results (see e.g. Lü Pengzhi’s massive Daojiao yishi congshu series). Such projects have tended to focus on the “salvage” of early history rather than documenting modern social change (among exceptions, see e.g. Yang Der-ruey on Shanghai, Qi Kun for Hunan); the historiography and ethnography of Daoism remain rather separate fields (see Debunking “living fossils”).

By the 1990s, Schipper’s concern for the history of religious life within local society resulted in another major collaborative project between the EFEO and Chinese scholars on the temples of old Beijing, still ongoing. Despite his focus on south China, he was most supportive of research on northern ritual practice (even my own, such as In search of the folk Daoists of north China, and related articles under Local ritual). After retiring in 2003, he and his wife made their home in Fuzhou, further inspiring Chinese scholars.

* * *

1991: left, as liturgist; right, “rousing the altar” (naotan 鬧壇).

While Schipper’s early training as a Daoist priest was to form the inspiration for his career, one method where later scholars have roundly ignored his example is participant observation—a route very rarely taken in Daoist studies, though de rigueur in ethnomusicology. Even more remarkable was Schipper’s apprenticeship to Chen Rongsheng, which opened up the path for studying the ritual practice of household Daoists. Of course, “becoming a Daoist priest” can only refer to one particular tradition—the ritual practices that Schipper acquired (including its language, melodies, chants, and style of percussion) were particular to one region of Taiwan.

Analysing an ancient ritual manual, or even a modern ritual, in silent, immobile text is not the same as performing it. Sure, few scholars will find the time—though they are happy to devote years to poring over Song-dynasty ritual compendiums in libraries, to collect silent immobile texts in the field, and then to create more such texts themselves. Of course, performing as an occupational Daoist priest, as part of a ritual group, can only be done by living in China or Taiwan; it’s an unlikely career path for academics, yet it has hardly appealed to them even as an interlude. Still, the insights to be gained from even a basic training are most valuable (see e.g. Drum patterns of Yanggao ritual).

Schipper doesn’t seem to have discussed any tensions between textual research and living performance. Though uniquely placed to write a detailed ethnography of Daoists’ lives, that wasn’t his main concern; for him, the lessons gained from learning to perform look to have been more about texts than practice. It was John Lagerwey, in his Taoist ritual in Chinese society and history (1987), who provided the most detailed account of Chen Rongsheng’s ritual practice. See also my remarks on documenting ritual in film, and Appendix 1 of my Daoist priests of the Li family.

So Schipper’s training as a Daoist priest, while most thorough, was part of his studies within the bounds of academic sinology, rather than a vocational conversion. It can work the other way round too: some practising temple priests, such as Min Zhiting, have undertaken research on historical texts.

Around the same period in Taiwan, Michael Saso learned to perform Daoist ritual, also going on to become a scholar before eventually returning to the Catholic priesthood. More recently, another remarkable exception is Tao Jin 陶金 (an accomplished young architect who writes many profound articles on Daoism), who studied with masters in Beijing and Suzhou and was ordained in Suzhou in 2018 (see under Ritual life around Suzhou). Meanwhile in Taiwan, Stephen Flanigan 馮思明 has learned to perform Daoist ritual to inform his academic studies in Hawaii. While the pull of an academic career is strong, the path that Schipper opened up has brought added depth to the field.

Outside academia, many in the West have espoused individual versions of Daoist meditation (often with a New-Age tinge—see David Palmer, Dream trippers: global Daoism and the predicament of modern spirituality, 2017); but for them, as for scholars, the idea of learning to perform ritual has largely remained alien.

Schipper also had suitable esteem for nanguan, the exquisite chamber ballads so popular in Hokkien communities of south Fujian and Taiwan (see the tribute from Lü Chuikuan), whose melodies were incorporated into Daoist ritual there—even if I’ve suggested that he may have overestimated the importance of a concert in Paris in 1986 for the revival in south Fujian.

* * *

Shanghai gongde

Commemorative ritual for Schipper at the Chenghuang miao, Shanghai.

Notably, several Daoist temples have held commemorative rituals for Schipper (listed here, and here). For the sixth “sevens”, temple priests performed shengdu gonggde daochang 升度功德到場 rituals: at the Xuanmiao guan in Suzhou, with some of the most distinctive ritual segments that are performed there, and at Huotongshan, Fujian. For the seventh “sevens”, rituals were held in ShanghaiFuzhouLonghushan, and Beijing.

Kristofer Schipper’s work is a benchmark within a range of disciplines, firmly establishing the study of Daoism—in particular its rituals—as a core element in our understanding of traditional Chinese culture.

The reinvention of humanity: the Boas circle

Like the societies that it studies, anthropology is in constant flux.

On Franz Boas (1858–1942) and his circle, a most engaging book is

  • Charles KingThe reinvention of humanity: how a circle of renegade anthropologists remade race, sex, and gender (2020)—main title of 2019 US edition Gods of the upper air (“Discuss”). Reviewed e.g. herehereand here.

Immensely readable, it surveys how ways of making sense of the diverse cultures of the world have changed since the beginnings of formal anthropology.

Cover, showing Margaret Mead with Fa’amatu in American Samoa, c1926.

Reaching beyond the confines of drier academic treatments, it’s a real gift to write like this for a general audience. King really brings to life what might seem like abstruse theoretical debates.

Alongside Boas himself, he focuses on four female scholars: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Ella Cara Deloria, and Zora Neale Hurston. [1] As Francis Gooding comments,

It’s not a coincidence that Boas and his collaborators, variously Jewish, Black, Indigenous, female and queer, were all outsiders of one kind or another to the mainstream of American society. That their ideas were found radical and strange is an indictment of their culture; that King’s book seems timely is an indictment of our own.

The work of the Boas circle set forth from fieldwork on “exotic” cultures to the lessons it might provide on issues in American society, as they challenged the entrenched notion of linear progress from “primitive” to advanced societies, and the narrow categories of race and gender.

More than anyone in his day, Boas understood that his own society’s deepest prejudices were grounded not in moral arguments but rather in allegedly scientific ones. Disenfranchised African Americans were intellectually inferior because the latest research said so. Women could not hold positions of influence because their weaknesses and peculiar dispositions were well proven. The feebleminded should be kept to themselves because the key to social betterment lay in reducing their number in the general population. Immigrants carried with them the afflictions of their benighted homelands, from disease to crime to social disorder.

Thus

the core message of the Boas circle was that, in order to live intelligently in the world, we should view the lives of others through an empathetic lens. We ought to suspend our judgment about other ways of seeing social reality until we really understand them, and in turn we should look at our own society with the same dispassion and skepticism with which we study far-flung peoples. […]
In time these shifts would inform how sociologists understand immigrant integration or exclusion; how public health officials think about endemic illnesses from diabetes to drug addiction; how police and criminologists seek out the root causes of crime; and how economists model the seemingly irrational actions of buyers and sellers.

Such insights, I confess, do look like progress to me. Still, even as they have gained widespread currency, King notes the resistance from the political right, where

some of these changes are said to constrict a community’s ability to determine its own social mores. A new form of state-sanctioned intolerance, protected in “safe spaces” and monitored by “language police” from schools to workplaces, insists that we should all agree on what constitutes marriage, a good joke, or a flourishing society. The narrative is one of overreach, of unreasonableness, of an overweening state’s infringing on individual speech, thought, and sincerely held values.

King also pays suitable attention to the personalities, their struggles, and complicated love lives of the group.

The members of the Boas circle fought and argued, wrote thousands of pages of letters, spent countless nights under mosquito nets and in rain-soaked lodges, and fell in and out of love with one another. For each of them, fame, if it ever arrived, was edged with infamy—their careers became bywords for licentiousness and crudity, or for the batty idea that Americans might not have created the greatest country that had ever existed. They were dismissed from jobs, monitored by the FBI, and hounded in the press, all for making the simple suggestion that the only scientific way to study human societies was to treat them all as part of one undivided humanity.

* * *

Franz Boas was born in 1858 in Minden, Westphalia—where my orchestral colleague Hildi was to find refuge after fleeing invasive regimes. After studying physics in Heidelberg and Kiel, Boas was drawn to Arctic adventure; in 1883, taking a servant, he embarked for Baffin Island.

The Inuit there had been known to European explorers since the 16th century; in 1577 four of them were captured and displayed as objects of curiosity in England before dying of disease and injuries sustained during their capture.

During Boas’s stay he was assisted by a local man:

Signa was no timeless native simply struggling for survival on an unchanging shore. He had a past, with wanderings and movement, a family lineage, and remembered moments of hardship and joy.

While studying Inuit lifestyles, Boas documented stories and transcribed songs, made maps and sketches. The blood from a raw seal liver is still visible on the paper of his notebooks. But the population soon began succumbing to diphtheria.

Here among the Inuit, a person with the title of “doctor” couldn’t cure an ailing child. A university graduate knew nothing of snow and wind. An explorer was dependent on the whims of a dog team. He had seen it himself—the disorientation that comes with staring at one’s own ignorance, as plain as a brown seal on white ice. Being smart was relative to one’s own circumstances and surroundings.

In late 1884 Boas made his way to New York and then to Washington DC, where he visited the “backwoods intellectual” John Wesley Powell, head of the new Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian. Its researchers were currently engaged in major projects on Native American cultures; but with no position available for Boas there, he returned to Germany.

The scientific field that he had been circling since his voyage to Baffin Island was on the brink of an explosion, one that he was now well placed to miss.

The study of people was becoming known as ethnology, the word anthropology, at first referring mainly to the study of anatomy or natural history, only gradually came into vogue. The journal American anthropologist was founded in 1888. Whereas works like Frazer’s The golden bough (1890) were based on classical written texts, the new discipline sought “to go beyond what was written and ancient into what was observable and alive right now” (cf. Daoist ritual, where the driving force for most fieldwork has been the Ancient Wisdom of written texts, rather than change in modern social practice).

Powell’s mentor Lewis Henry Morgan specialised in the study of the former Iroquois Confederacy, his projects based on the widespread “spiritual renewal” of the day. But they still subscribed to the linear model from savagery to barbarism to civilisation. King gives an instance of this way of thinking:

Music, too, differed from one stage to the next. Savages might beat out a rhythm on a log or a stone, but barbarians sang a melodic line, while civilisation added counterpoint and harmony.

Hmm…

Boas was keen to get back to the USA, and in 1886 he returned to New York. King notes that almost 1.8 million German speakers settled in the States between 1850 and 1900; New York seemed as much German as American.

While seeking an academic position, Boas embarked on new fieldwork among the indigenous groups of the Pacific Northwest. Returning to New York, he found himself at odds with the Powell circle and the classification system then in vogue at the Smithsonian as well as for collections such as the British Museum, the Royal Ethnological Museum in Berlin, and the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The organisation of the collections seemed to reflect the collector’s sense of what the object was for, as opposed to the worldview of the artisan who had originally made it. […]
The only people who could really say whether something that looked like a bow was a weapon, a child’s toy, or an instrument for making fire were the true experts—that is, those who actually used it, in a given place, at a given time. This bone rattle might make music. That one might drive away evil spirits. Yet another might distract a wailing child. It all depended on where you were in the world, not when you happened to be on some linear path of social evolution.

With his shaky English and his disputes with senior figures in the field, Boas took some time to establish himself. In 1889 the psychologist Granville Stanley Hall invited Boas to take up a post at Clarke University in Massachusetts, but the atmosphere there soon became unproductive. He continued spending his summers doing fieldwork in British Columbia. (Alongside personalities, King pays attention to institutions and funding bodies.)

Now an American citizen, Boas moved on to Chicago, where a World Fair was to be held in 1893. The Harvard archeologist Frederic Ward Putnam invited Boas to design a display.

The Midway Plaisance featured exhibits on the peculiar ways of the world’s peoples, from a Bedouin encampment to a Viennese café, most of them thin disguises for hawkers of merchandise and cheap entertainment. An entire building was devoted to the lives and progress of women, while others highlighted advances in agriculture, electrification, and the plastic arts. A new fastener called a zipper made its debut over the six months of the fair’s operation, as did a chewable gum called Juicy Fruit, a tall circular ride presented by a Mr Ferris, and…

Next to the ethnological area, with wigwams, totem poles, and so on, on display, was the Anthropological Building. Boas’s contribution, in eight rooms, was a display of anthropometry, a vogue to which he had subscribed; but the exhibits revealed his increasing reluctance to regard it as a useful method.

Measurements of North American mulattoes showed them to be roughly the same height as white people. […] The distribution of people by stature in the city of Paris varied widely, just as it did for a study of Civil War veterans (although it was found that those from western states were in general taller than the easterners). An attempt to show the heights of Italians ended up finding no obvious pattern from northern Italy to the south. […] The peoples of “Old Europe” were, perhaps surprisingly, shown to be even more physically mixed than the population of the avowedly immigrant United States.

Boas was coming to perceive that

What counted as social scientific data—the specific observations that researchers jotted down in their field notes—was relative to the world view, skill sets, and preexisting categories of the researchers themselves. […] Theories were neither true nor false. They might better be described as successful or unsuccessful: they either fit the observable data or they didn’t. When observation bumped up against the walls of an existing theory, the theory was the thing that had to be changed. The first step was to get good data and then let the theory follow, which was the entire point of all those confusing tables and graphs in his Chicago anthropometry lab.

Meanwhile Chicago suffered a smallpox epidemic, followed by a round of influenza; the mayor was assassinated, and much of the exhibition was destroyed by fire. Still without a regular post, Boas returned to New York, where he began to work for the American Museum of Natural History, whose anthropology section was now directed by Putnam; there he continued his work on the American Northwest. In 1899 he oversaw the launch of a new series of American Anthropologist. At last in 1902 he gained a professorship at Columbia. By 1902 he had five children.

The issue of race now assumes centre stage. King introduces theories current at the time. Blumenbach (1775) had adopted a fivefold classification: Ethiopians (Africans), Americans (!), Mongolians (Asians), Malay (Pacific) and Caucasian (European), but by 1871 Darwin was questioning such basic schema.

As racial theories sought to justify the assertion of power by people of European descent (the term Aryan was in use from the mid-19th century), in the USA the Jim Crow system of segregation came into force. The theories of social scientists could have deep, often destructive, ramifications for people’s lives.

In 1899 William Z. Ripley divided European peoples into Teutonic, Alpine, and Mediterranean types, the first of which he claimed were at the forefront of the achievements of world civilisation. The term eugenics came into use.

Over the two decades spanning the turn of the century the foreign-born population had swollen:

Nearly a third more people were foreign-born in 1910 than in 1900. (It would take another century, into the 2010s, before immigration figures would ever approach similar levels. At the time Donald J. Trump announced his campaign for president by denouncing Mexican “rapists”, for example, the foreign-born figure was within a little more than a percentage point of the 1910 level.)

Madison Grant turned from zoology to human species, and “the preservation of his own race against an onslaught of immigration”; no longer could the USA remain an “asylum for the oppressed”. Hitler later expressed his approval of Grant’s work, considering the US to be showing the way toward a brighter, more scientific way of building a political community.

In 1907 the US Congress established a commission to study the rise in immigration; representatives, “decked out in straw boaters and linen suits”, visited the squalid detention camps of ports like Naples, Marseilles, and Hamburg. The following year they invited Boas to lead a team researching physical changes in the immigrants of the neighbourhoods of lower Manhattan. His 1911 report found them to be remarkably adaptable to their new surroundings; races were unstable.

There was no reason to believe that a person of one racial or national category was more of a drain on society, more prone to criminality, or more difficult to assimilate than any other. What people did, rather than who they were, ought to be the starting point for a legitimate science of society and, by extension, the basis for government policy on immigration.

Still, Boas’s findings were largely ignored in the Commission’s final report.

Also in 1911, he published his first book for a popular audience, The mind of primitive man, dismantling the whole concept of racial hierarchy. Disputing the idea that the successes of one’s own society today were due to some inherent superiority of “civilised” peoples over lesser-achieving “primitives”, he summarised:

Historical events appear to have been much more potent in leading races to civilisation than their faculty, and it follows that achievements of races do not warrant us in assuming that one race is more highly gifted than the other. […]
Race was how Europeans explained to themselves their own sense of privilege and achievement. Insofar as races existed, at least as Europeans typically understood them, it was through an act of cultural conjuring, not biological destiny.

And he stressed the subjective responses of fieldworkers:

Tribal people were often said to be indolent, but what if they were only lazy when it came to things that they didn’t happen to care about? Why should we expect that every people everywhere should necessarily attend to the same things with equal zeal or approach the same projects with diligence and commitment? Primitive people were sometimes said to be quick to anger and to lash out wildly according to their emotions. To be civilised, after all, was to be coolheaded and rational. But didn’t it take coolheadedness and logical thought to follow a seal pod across a featureless ice floe, or to track a whale in an oared canoe to the point of its, and your own, exhaustion? “The proper way to compare the fickleness of the savage and that of the white,” he wrote, “is to compare their behaviour in undertakings which are equally important to each.”

His work pointed towards a “higher tolerance”. But despite the relatively prestigious position of German immigrants in US society, with the outbreak of World War One Boas found himself a member of a feared minority. Already a critic of expansionist American foreign policy, by 1917 he denounced US involvement in the war. After the war, disillusioned with rising nationalism, he continued to encounter professional problems. Immigration laws tightened.

Again in 1911, Alfred Kroeber had “discovered” Ishi, “the last of the Yahi” in California. Despite the media circus,

The Yahi were not in fact a lost tribe. Their reduced condition was the product of modern history, not a relic of some mist-shrouded past. […] They were not holdovers from prehistory but rather refugees from a brutal present.

* * *

So far the story of American anthropology has been dominated, like the society of the time, by entitled white men. But now the younger generation whom Boas nurtured at Columbia began to include some talented female scholars.

Ruth Benedict (1887–1948, right) studied first with Elsie Clews Parsons. She began studying with Boas in 1921. In 1924, embarking on fieldwork among the Zuni in New Mexico (already a well-established research topic), she learned of their cross-gender custom of “berdache”.

In New York, she met Margaret Mead (1901–78), who was to be her life-long soulmate, and encouraged her to come to Columbia to study with Boas.

The London-based Polish émigré Bronislaw Malinowski had already published his landmark study of the Trobriand Islanders in 1922, introducing the notion of “participant observation”, and Mead was now drawn to the study of Polynesian peoples.

As she grew ever closer to Benedict, she began an affair with Edward Sapir, whose own work focused on Native American linguistics. The complicated amorous entanglements of the circle, complementing their explorations into the diverse relationships of the peoples they studied, form one theme of King’s book.

In 1925 Mead set sail for American Samoa to do fieldwork. Undeterred by the razzmatazz that accompanied her arrival in Pago Pago, the US Navy’s main station in the South Pacific, she soon “went down to the countryside”, as the Chinese say. She was made an “honorary virgin”—a useful concept for fieldworkers.

A hurricane gave her an opportunity to engage with the locals in their immediate practical concerns. With her studies focusing on the lives of women and girls, she learned that adolescent angst was not necessarily the prerogative of American teenagers.

On the seven-week return voyage to the States in 1926, her own love life became even more complicated when she met the British-trained New Zealander Reo Fortune. Back in New York she became assistant curator at the Museum of Natural History.

Also in 1926, following Nanook of the North, Robert J. Flaherty released his silent film Moana—again offering prurient glimpses of bare female breasts, by then largely a fantasy:

Mead’s book Coming of age in Samoa was published in 1928, to great acclaim—apart from a few men in the Boas circle like Alfred Kroeber, and later Derek Freeman.

In October, again parting reluctantly with Benedict, she married Fortune in Auckland, and they set off for Melanesia together. As Boas took issue with the growing esteem in the USA for eugenics, Mead’s work bore on ways in which a more flexible society might absorb its deviants to lead healthy lives. The result was her book Growing up in New Guinea (1930). She was already a celebrity.

Two other female pupils of Boas went on to work largely outside academia. The African American Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) had grown up in Florida in rather comfortable surroundings, but her mother’s early death plunged her into the harsh realities of segregation. Even later in Washington, the integrated university of Howard was an oasis: the racial divide was no less flagrant. She began to write stories, essays, and poetry, and in 1925 she set off for New York, where she gained a place as a mature student at Barnard and became a popular member of the “Harlem Renaissance”.

Still, she bridled at the genteel image expected of black people to gain favour in the eyes of the white cultural establishment.

Having enrolled in English, Hurston now studied with Gladys Reichard, who was working on Navajo culture; soon she gravitated to the Boas circle. In 1927 Boas arranged for her to do fieldwork back in Florida. There she was to collect folk tales around Eatonville—not far from Ocoee, where protests over voter suppression had led to a pogrom against the black population in 1920, first of a series (Tulsa, Rosewood, Little Rock).

Convict leasing had been abolished in 1923, but private chain gangs persisted: as late as 1960, a farmer commented, “We used to own our slaves—now we just rent them.”

Hurston’s brief fell under the rubric of folklore, a term that went back to the 1840s. Among such collections among African Americans, King adduces the Uncle Remus stories (1880)—“a white person gazing at an allegedly black world, uncomplicated, tricksterish, full of wily creativity”.

Back in New York, Hurston struggled to transform her notes into a coherent ethnographic narrative. She took odd jobs, and worked on a novel, Jonah’s gourd vine (1934). But in 1935 she enrolled as a doctoral student at Columbia under Boas, and managed to publish Mules and men, described by King as

the first serious attempt to send the reader deep inside southern black towns and work camps. […] … not a holdover from Africa, or a social blight to be eliminated, or a corrupted version of whiteness in need of correction, but something vibrantly, chaotically, brilliantly alive.

Here’s a excerpt from Hurston’s 1928 film footage, with her voiceover:

Boas was now eminent yet frail. His wife Marie died in 1929.

Another talented student of his was Ella Cara Deloria (1889–1971). On the Northern plains, the Omaha had been removed to reservations since the 1850s. They were early subjects for research; James Owen Dorsey’s Omaha sociology (1885) became a standard reference in anthropology.

Refreshingly, Dorsey also noted contradictory accounts, notably when some gem he had gleaned on ritual practice was then denied by the chieftain Two Crows, “nagging naysayer, an ethnographical balloon deflator”. Assessing thee value of conflicting sources is indeed a common issue that fieldworkers (not to mention textual historians) have to confront. Even what seemed to be a consensus of opinion could be thrown into doubt. Again, informants might have their own agendas; and “perhaps [Two Crows] simply misunderstood the question, or maybe you misunderstood his answer”. As King puts it,

What you needed was repeated and respectful conversations with the real human beings whose worlds you were straining, as best you could, to comprehend.

Ella Cara Deloria, also called Aŋpétu Wašté Wiŋ, grew up in Standing Rock. Her mother was of mainly European descent; her father’s heritage was the Lakota/Dakota subgroup of the Sioux. She spoke both English and Dakota, attending an Episcopalian boarding school. Having managed to gain admission to college in Oberlin, joining the provincial elite, in 1912 she entered Columbia’s Teaching College, whose mission was to shape “civilised aboriginals who would become credits to their race and help elevate their charges out of poverty and paganism”.

For Deloria,

the end of the western frontier was still a recent memory. Her father had been among those who had tried to mediate between reservation authorities and Sitting Bull.

She was two years old when agency police killed Sitting Bull on the very reservation where she grew up, followed by the Wounded Knee massacre.

Deloria was living at a time when American views of Indians were shaped not only by the recent experience of violent conquest but also by the refashioned memory of it: a world of dime novels, cigar-store statues, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

On graduation she taught first at her old home in Sioux Falls and then in Lawrence, Kansas. Having met Boas at Columbia, in 1927 they met again when he visited Lawrence, and he invited her back to New York, recognising her rare qualification to participate in various projects. In the summer of 1928, while Hurston was collecting in Florida, Deloria returned to the Plains. Her first project was to check the reliability of James Walker’s 1917 study of the Sun Dance. She was guided by Ruth Benedict as well as Boas. But her local knowledge was invaluable:

I cannot tell you how essential it is for me to take beef or some other food each time I go to an informant. The moment I don’t, I take myself right out of the Dakota side and class myself with outsiders.

King goes on,

You had to know precisely how to make a gift, how to make the right kind, how to eat properly with people, how to call them by the correct kinship terms…

Deloria led an itinerant life; to eke out an income she led pageants of indigenous music and dance. In 1933 Boas again enlisted her in a project for the revived Handbook of American Indian languages. As Benedict recalled, “In all his work with American Indians Professor Boas never found another woman of her caliber”.

Deloria was a native speaker of Dakota and its dialects, with little education as a linguist apart from the informal sessions that Boas or Benedict might provide. But her instincts and on-the-spot grasp of field methods, Benedict said, probably amounted to more expertise than many doctoral students had at their disposal.

By the time that Margaret Mead paid a visit to the Omaha, she found their conditions disturbing: “It’s just nothing at all. A thing like this isn’t a culture, hardly even the remains of one.” But if she thought anything of interest had been killed off by poverty and white invasion, for Deloria

a better method was to give up trying to identify the dying embers of an older civilisation and instead get to know the living, right-now culture of the people you were actually surrounded by—women and men who weren’t stuck in history, but, like Deloria herself, were feeling their way through it. There was no need for nostalgia about the past if you could uncover the kaleidoscopic richness of the present. It was just that the present might take forms that you found surprising or frustrating, even disappointing.

I quite agree—although in cases like Grassy Narrows, Identifying cultural riches must surely give way to concerns over healthy drinking water and a reasonable life expectancy.

Deloria also resisted inert depiction by documenting linguistic change. But by 1938 she was again without work. Her Dakota grammar, published in 1941,

provided a glimpse of a deeper America, one obscured by its obsessions with racial fitness and linear cultural evolution. If you wanted to know what Sioux chiefs had said after the Battle of Little Bighorn or to understand the anguished wail of mothers when their sons’ bodies were brought home from Wounded Knee—if you wanted to discover, in other words, the inverse of American history as it was normally taught in schoolrooms and summer camps—Boas and Deloria were showing the way.

When Boas retired from teaching in 1936, Columbia, still prone to sexism, overlooked Benedict in favour of Ralph Linton. But the Boas circle were still involved in a wide range of projects.

Some differences of approach festered. Mead met Sapir’s attacks on her work in kind: in her experience, she wrote, jealousy was frequently found among old men with small endowments.

Pressed to derive a general conclusion from his decades of study, Boas came up with “People don’t use anything they haven’t got”.

In the USA, the related discipline of sociology was making headway, with studies such as Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown (1929).

Mead and Fortune returned to New Guinea in 1931. Their trip turned out to be traumatic, with Gregory Bateson now entering into the equation. [2] Their studies of local cultures informed reflections on their own tangled relationships. As things came to a head in 1933, Mead returned to Benedict in New York. The latter’s Patterns of culture (1934) would become most influential; in the next year Mead followed it with Sex and temperament, linking up Boas’s ideas on race with her own on sex and gender, based on her work among the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli.

Yet the price of such methods

was a kind of intentional madness. If your sense of reality was shaped by a particular time and place, the only way to free yourself was to go out of your mind: to step outside the mental frameworks that you knew to be real, true, and obvious.

* * *

The publication of Mead’s Sex and temperament coincided with that of Hurston’s Mules and men. Yet

volumes on Samoans or New Guineans were hailed as commentaries on the universal features of human society. One about African Americans was a quaint bit of storytelling.

Hurston had done more collecting in the south with the young Alan Lomax, recording stories, work songs, spirituals, and blues for the Library of Congress (catalogue here). [3] Here’s an excerpt with Lomax recording Hurston herself:

Hurston now set off for Haiti, just recovering from US military occupation. First in Kingston she observed the Jamaicans’ ability to take on the airs of the English, noting that “passing” from one racial category to the next almost always took place towards the direction of social power.

Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals, she realised. It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.

After making expeditions inland, attending a boar hunt and a nine-night mortuary ritual, in autumn 1936 she moved on to Haiti, where the African influence was even clearer. Parallel with the work of Melville Herskovits on rural religious life there, she entered into the practices of voodoo, already covered in the patina of the sensationalist depictions of travellers.

One challenge to our categories of living and dead was Hurston’s meeting with the zombie Felicia Felix-Mentor, said to have died in 1907.

Put away, disregarded, institutionalised, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labour camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.

She now planned two books, “one for anthro, and one for the way I want to write it”. The latter, the novel Their eyes were watching God, was published on her return to New York in 1937, combining “a coming-of-age story, a meditation on the inner lives of women and the men they loved, a literary ethnography of the Gulf Coast”.

Though by now Hurston had no thoughts of an academic career, she still returned to the American South for more fieldwork. Tell my horse (aka Voodoo gods), her field report from Jamaica and Haiti was published in 1938.

From 1936 to 1938 Mead and Bateson lived in Bali, working on trance there—they eventually released a short film in 1952:

And then they returned to New Guinea. But war loomed.

* * *

The theories that Boas and his circle had developed so scrupulously were now in opposition to state-sanctioned dogma, which bore a remarkably close resemblance to Nazism. Boas had been expressing his anxieties about the rise of Nazism in Germany since 1933. But the tide of intolerance there was just as evident in the USA; racial segregation and eugenics were already well established there, inspiring Hitler. Despite the US sense of moral superiority, as King observes,

None of America’s enemies saw themselves as opponents of American values. Not even Adolf Hitler claimed to be against freedom, justice, or prosperity. Rather, they saw themselves as better, more advanced versions of what they believed America had been trying to achieve. Real freedom would mean the subjugation of the racially inferior. Real justice would mean allowing the fittest individuals and countries to take their rightful place on the world stage. Real progress would mean cleansing and separating, pushing forward the able and advanced while sweeping away the primitive and retrograde.

Franz Boas on the cover of Time, 1936.

Boas died in 1942. Here’s the 1986 documentary The shackles of tradition, again by Andre Singer:

With the outbreak of war, the team’s original fieldsites became inaccessible. As many social scientists were recruited to the war effort, Bateson and Mead joined an advisory group to President Roosevelt. Benedict later joined them in Washington. By June 1944 she was charged with assembling material on Japanese society, gathering a group of scholars. In the USA the Japanese were seen as utterly alien and subhuman; internment camps for Japanese Americans were harsh. But Benedict sought the kind of understanding that would provide enlightened guidance for the eventual occupation of Japan. The resulting book The chrysanthemum and the sword, published in 1946, was widely read.

While working to keep afloat the school at Standing Rock that her father had founded, Deloria continued with her studies and writing, much of it still unpublished at the time of her death in 1971. Hurston, shocked by the Detroit massacre of 1943, was deeply ambivalent about the US victory. She continued to write while working in a succession of odd jobs. Since her death in 1960 her work has belatedly been appreciated, with tributes by such figures as Alice Walker. Here’s a documentary:

Back in New York after the war, Mead and Benedict resumed their bond. Benedict was at last promoted to the rank of full professor, and elected president of the American Anthropological Association. She died in 1948. Mead, the most renowned heir to Boas, died in 1978; on her career, here’s Andre Singer’s 1986 documentary Coming of age:

* * *

King begins his conclusion by citing Allan Bloom, who in his attack on the trend for cultural relativism in The closing of the American mind (1987) found few women worthy of note: he grouped Mead and Benedict alongside Hannah Arendt, Yoko Ono, Erica Jong, and Marlene Dietrich—all “negative teaching examples”, as the Chinese say. As King observes, the Boas circle would have surprised to learn that their views had triumphed, their struggles against prejudice having been met with such resistance.

Conversely, Clifford Geertz, pillar of the later generation of anthropologists, praised the insistence

that the world does not divide into the pious and the superstitious; that there are sculptures in jungles and paintings in deserts; […] that the norms of reason were not fixed in Greece, the evolution of morality was not consummated in England. Most important, we were the first to insist that we see the lives of others through lenses of our own grinding and that they look back on ours through ones of their own.

If readers today take all this as self-evident, that’s because they too have been infected with the bug. But as is only too evident in our news today, resisting bigotry still remains a constant struggle.

Of course, anthropology, like the societies it studies, continues to change; the work of these scholars from the 1880s to the 1940s may have been refined since, but it remains seminal. King brings this story to life, combining a vivid feel for period detail with reflections on fieldwork methods and perceptive comments on ideological trends. He makes a fine advocate for the enlightened values of the Boas circle.


[1] Besides folklore and sociology, ethnomusicology is a strongly related discipline (under Society and soundscape, see e.g. Michelle Bigenho’s observations). Bruno Nettl surveyed the prominent contributions of women in Native American studies during the same period, including Alice C. Fletcher, Frances Densmore, Natalie Curtis, and Helen Roberts, on to Gertrude Kurath, Ida Halpern, Charlotte Frisbie, Judith Vander, Charlotte Heth, Victoria Levine, Beverley Diamond, and Tara Browner. But he goes on,

Considerable female participation may generally have been characteristic of new yet unestablished fields; ethnomusicology was not taken as seriously as ancient history and Latin philology, for example, thus permitting women easier access. The fact that American and English women are particularly well represented in this group may also be related to the common relegation of music in Anglophone cultures to women, and thus to the fact that music departments in North America were first introduced at women’s colleges.

Like the Boas circle, ethnomusicologists extend their purvey to fieldwork “at home”

[2] Here I’d like to put in a word for Peter Crowe (1932–2004), such a lively, alternative presence at gatherings of the European Seminar for Ethnomusicology, who underwent his own transformation in Melanesia. See e.g. his “After the ethnomusicological salvage operation—what?” (1981) and his Musical traditions in the South Pacific (1984).

[3] This leads me to remind you of the work of Bruce Jackson among southern convicts, and his fine manual on fieldwork.

The Bach passions

For Good Friday, as a reminder to listen to the Bach Passions, two, um, trailers—

Here’s the chorale Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück that follows the anguished O Schmerz! to end Part One of the John Passion:

Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück,
Seinen Gott verneinet
Der doch auf ein’ ernsten Blick
Bitterlichen weinet.
Jesu, blicke mich auch an,
Wenn ich nicht will büßen
Wenn ich Böses hab getan,
Rühre mein Gewissen!

And also from the John Passion, the aria Zerfließe, mein Herze:

Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren        Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears
Dem Höchsten zu Ehren!                                         to honour the Almighty!
Erzähle der Welt und dem Himmel die Not:        Tell the world and heaven your distress:
Dein Jesus ist tot!                                                     your Jesus is dead!

I trust that will lead you to these complete versions, from the Proms:

And then, just as profoundly:

Essential background:

As we embark on the long haul of the Passions, sinking into the opening choruses is a uniquely spine-tingling experience for performers and audiences alike.

John MS

The ritual calendar: cycles and seasons

Bach

In my page on Bach—and Daoist ritual, I cited John Eliot Gardiner’s brilliant Music in the castle of heaven. For Easter Week, I’ve been re-reading Chapter 9, “Cycles and seasons”. At least in an increasingly secularised north Europe, our awareness of the rich annual programme has been severely diluted—but it does remind me of the continuing calendrical rituals of Chinese temple fairs.

Bach’s church cantatas were performed not for “concerts” but as part of religious services. As in Chinese ritual, elements within them could be recycled. However, whereas minimal change—both conscious and unconscious—was doubtless a feature of the Daoist soundscape (as in much of the world), Bach’s congregation grew used to hearing new music every week.

Gardiner places the Passions within the cycle of cantatas (note also the vast database on bachcantatas.com).

On the face of it, there is little reason to bother about Bach’s cantatas today. Never intended to be performed or listened to other than as part of a lengthy church service, they were composed (and rehearsed) each week at great speed to act as a foretaste of the Sunday sermon. *

Whereas Charles Rosen disputed the “fashionable” placing of the cantatas as Bach’s principle achievement, seeking to return to the conception of the keyboard works as central to his oeuvre, Gardiner cites John Butt (see Passion at the Proms, and Playing with history):

Cyclic time is essential to a liturgical, ritualistic approach to religion, in which important events and aspects of dogma are celebrated within a yearly cycle.

Bach devoted himself to such cycles, first at Weimar (with twenty-two extant church cantatas) and then in Leipzig, notably in his first few years there from 1723. Even in the “closed” seasons of Advent and Lent, when no figural music was allowed in church, he was busy preparing new works.

Following his cantatas in their seasonal context also allows us to notice how Bach, like Janâček two centuries later, often brings to the surface pre-Christian rituals and forgotten connections that reflect the turning of the agricultural year—the certainty of the land, its rhythms and rituals, the unerring pace of its calendar and the vagaries of rural weather. Saxony in the 18th century was still a predominantly agrarian society in which these seasonal events and happenings were closely linked to the concerns of religion—reminding us how, in today’s predominantly urban society, many of us tend to lose contact with the rhythms and patterns of the farming calendar and even with perceptions of the basic, cyclical round of life and death which feature prominently in so many of Bach’s cantatas. […] For Bach to remind his urban audience of Leipzig burghers of the patterns of seed-time and harvesting existing just beyond their city walls was nothing unusual, and the rhythms and rituals of the agrarian year frequently seep through into his music, giving it topicality and currency as well as a layer of simple rusticity.

Among their doctrinal messages, the cantatas allude to sowing, corn-flattening summer storms, bird damage, crop-failure. Rediscovering this seasonal basis on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000

was markedly different from the conventional practices of music-making we were used to in concert halls, which, however persuasive, cannot help but carry resonances foreign to the intrinsic purpose of the music.

Through his hectic first Leipzig cycle, Bach’s self-imposed task was to keep pace with the weekly demand:

There was the copying out of parts and guiding his (as yet) untried group of young musicians in how to negotiate the hazards of his startling and challenging music with a bare minimum of rehearsal. […] Come the day, there was first a long, cold wait in an unheated church, then a single shot at a daunting target. Then, without a backward glance, on to the next, maintaining a relentless rhythm. […]

One marvels at how he and his performers could have met these challenges. We shall of course never know how well they acquitted themselves and just how well the music was performed under such pressure.

As Gardiner notes,

The underlying theology is at times unappetising [to us today, that is—SJ]—mankind portrayed as wallowing in degradation and sinfulness, the world a hospital peopled by sick souls whose sins fester like suppurating boils and yellow excrement.

Here I can only sample Gardiner’s vivid commentaries on individual cantatas. In BWV 25, Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe, the dark text (such as “The whole world is but a hospital”; Adam’s Fall “has defiled us all and infected us with leprous sin”) is somehow healed by Bach’s setting:

As autumn passes into winter the themes of the week become steadily grimmer as the faithful are urged to reject the world, its lures and snares, and to focus on eventual union with God—or risk the horror of permanent exclusion.

Cantata schedule

After Advent the mood is lightened by the glorious explosion of festive music for the Christmas season (for the Christmas oratorio, see under Weimar here). Christum wir sollen loben schon (BWV 121), for the Feast of St Stephen, is “one of the oldest-feeling of all Bach’s cantatas”, adding cornett and trombones to the orchestration.

Replacing the portrayals of dancing seraphim are images of those angular, earnest faces that 15th-century Flemish painters use to depict the shepherds gazing into the manger-stall. […] Bach’s design for this cantata mirrors the change from darkness to light and shows how the moment when Christians celebrate the coming of God’s light into the world coincides with the turning of the sun at the winter solstice.

For a change, here’s Ton Koopman directing:

But there was no respite: Bach composed six new cantatas for the period between Epiphany to the beginning of Lent—including the operatic Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (BWV 81), with Jesus calming the storm at sea. Here’s Koopman again:

Always pushing the boundaries of the Leipzig councilmen’s warnings about excessive theatricality, such music leads to Holy Week and Bach’s Passions.

Bach opened his second Leipzig cantata cycle on 11th June 1724 with another setting of O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 20), again evocatively described by Gardiner. Time for some Sigiswald Kuijken:

The opening chorus of Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott (BWV 101, for the tenth Sunday after Trinity) features a trio of oboes, the voices doubled by archaic cornetto and trombones, and dissonances for the “grave punishment and great distress” of the hymn text. In the “rage” aria for bass the oboes become “a kind of latter-day [sic] saxophone trio”; and the pairing of flute and oboe da caccia that complements the soprano and alto duet foretells Ausliebe in the Matthew Passion. Here’s Nikolaus Harnoncourt:

Gardiner contrasts Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (BWV 65) and Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen (BWV 123), written for Epiphany in successive years. The first is “oriental and pageant-like”; getting a bit carried away, he describes

high horns to convey majesty and antiquity, recorders to represent the high pitches traditionally associated with oriental music, and still more, oboes da caccia so redolent—to the modern ear—of the Macedonian zurla, the salmai of Hindustan and the nadaswaram from Tamil Nadu. […] With their haunting sonority these “hunting oboes” seem to belong the world of Marco Polo—of caravans traversing the Silk Route—and it remains something of a mystery how a specialist wind-instrument-maker, Herr Johann Eichentopf of Leipzig, could have invented this magnificent modern tenor oboe with its curved tube and flared brass bell around 1722 unless he had heard one of those oriental prototypes played by visitors to one of Leipzig’s trade fairs.

(Cf. my fantasy of Bach on the erhu.) Indeed, the riches of Bach’s writing for the oboe are inexhaustible—as are those of world shawms! Returning to Gardiner’s own performances, here’s the Saba cantata:

Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen “opens with a graceful chorus in 9/8, a little reminiscent of an Elizabethan dance”. But as Gardiner reminds us, the central arias are just as captivating as the opening choruses:

In accord with the brief of ethnomusicology (e.g. works like Enemy Way music, or Thinking in jazz; cf. Pomodoro!), Gardiner’s study integrates social life, sound object, and doctrine, which lesser scholars often consider separately.

* * *

Mouldering away somewhere in the attics of [Leipzig] citizens there could still be letters holding what we so sorely lack—direct testimony to the varied responses by members of Bach’s listening public to the music he put in front of them.

Whatever their responses, I never cease to envy them as they dutifully turned up every Sunday to be regaled with such extraordinary new music. And the musicians—imagine Bach’s oboist Johann Caspar Gleditsch when he got home after rehearsal:

“Good day at the office, dear?”
“You’ll never believe it when you hear what our new Kantor has given me to play this Sunday! God knows how I’m going to manage it—but it’s amazing…”

For the cantatas, Passions, and much more, see under A Bach retrospective.


* A cantata might even be punctuated by the sermon—bear this in mind when you find your listening on YouTube cruelly disrupted by a smarmy ad for funeral care, a latter-day vision of the torments of hell. On the other hand, the Leipzig congregegation couldn’t click on “Skip sermon”, so Thanks Be to God.

The Annunciation in art and music

Fra Angelico 2

Fra Angelico, fresco for the Convent of San Marco, Florence, early 1440s.

I wonder how many of us pause to notice that today, the 25th March, is the Feast of the Annunciation. At least in north Europe, popular awareness of the cycle of feast days in the Christian calendar has been much diluted (that’s an observation rather than a lament). So here are some representations of the event in art and music.

The Annunciation is one of the most popular themes in Christian art, notably frescos and paintings. Wiki introduces variations over time and region:

The composition of depictions is very consistent, with Gabriel, normally standing on the left, facing the Virgin, who is generally seated or kneeling, at least in later depictions. Typically, Gabriel is shown in near-profile, while the Virgin faces more to the front. She is usually shown indoors, or in a porch of some kind, in which case Gabriel may be outside the building entirely, in the Renaissance often in a garden, which refers to the hortus conclusus, sometimes an explicit setting for Annunciations. The building is sometimes clearly the Virgin’s home, but is also often intended to represent the Jerusalem Temple, as some legendary accounts placed the scene there.

The Virgin may be shown reading, as medieval legend represented her as a considerable scholar, or engaged in a domestic task, often reflecting another legend that she was one of a number of virgins asked to weave a new Veil of the Temple.

Late medieval commentators distinguished several phases of the Virgin’s reaction to the appearance of Gabriel and the news, from initial alarm at the sudden vision, followed by reluctance to fulfill the role, to a final acceptance. These are reflected in art by the Virgin’s posture and expression.

In Late Medieval and Early Renaissance, the impregnation of the Virgin by God may be indicated by rays falling on her, typically through a window, as light passing through a window was a frequent metaphor in devotional writing for her virginal conception of Jesus. Sometimes a small figure of God the Father or the Holy Spirit as a dove is seen in the air, as the source of the rays.

Less common examples feature other biblical figures in the scene. Gabriel, especially in northern Europe, is often shown wearing the vestments of a deacon on a grand feast day, with a cope fastened at the centre with a large morse (brooch).

Especially in Early Netherlandish painting, images may contain very complex programmes of visual references, with a number of domestic objects having significance in reinforcing the theology of the event.

Among Byzantine representations:

Armenia

Armenia: Toros Taronetsi, 1323.

Russia

Russia, 14th century.

Zechariah

Annunciation to Zechariah, from an Ethiopian Bible, c1700.

For Italy,Duccio

Duccio, 1311.

Martini

Simone Martini, 1333.

Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, c1472–5.

Here’s a 1637 woodcut by Giulio Aleni—from Jinjiang, Fujian:

Annunciation China 1637

Source.

Much later in England, the theme was revived by the Pre-Raphaelites:

Rossetti 1850

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1850.

Waterhouse 1914

John William Waterhouse, 1914.

* * *

In A question of attribution Alan Bennett introduced his drôle and perceptive views on the lost symbolism of art, fancifully attributing his comments on Annunciation paintings to the Queen (see On visual culture).

Fra Angelico 1

Fra Angelico, altarpiece for Santo Domenico in Fiesole, c1426.

And recalling her Catholic upbringing in Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood reflects on her youthful quest for enlightenment:

While we were growing up there was another painting in our house: Fra Angelico’s Annunciation. It was one of those paintings that seem to continue outside their own borders and reach into real life; this, I thought, must be what “good art” must mean. Two hands stretched out of the sun and shot a streaming gilt tassel into Mary, who bent over the place where she was struck. The angel, with feathers like a fractal quail, delivered his message directly into her eyes. Mary’s face was an unripe peach, not ready, not ready; a little book slid off her right thigh like a pat of butter. Stars in the ceiling pierced down. Far to the left, those two green grinches of sin, Adam and Eve, began their grumbling nude walk offstage.

When I left home, I hardly ever saw pictures of the Annunciation anymore. I was not expecting this somehow—I thought I would still encounter the messenger angel everywhere. It was the messenger angel who captured my attention, and not the angel with the flaming sword and not the dark-headed angel of death and certainly not the angel with the regrettable name of Phanuel. By instinct I understood that the most interesting one is the information angel, who carries the newspaper that is meant for you over the doorstep and into your life.

And how does the good news arrive? It does not arrive in your ears, exactly; it arrives in your face as a great gush of light. It is carried to you, not like a rose but like the symbol of a rose, straight into your understanding. There is no sound. It happens in your bedroom, or in your cave in the middle of the desert, with a lion’s head spreading on your lap, or on top of the pillar where you’ve sat for a hot century. It happens in your study, wherever that happens to be.

* * *

Lest we forget musical inspirations, the Annunciation was a theme of Gregorian chant:

By the baroque era, German composers commonly provided cantatas to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation—notably Bach (much detail here, with links to discussions of individual works).

Talheim

Talheim altarpiece, 1518.

His two surviving cantatas for the Annunciation on 25th March coincided with Palm Sunday. He composed Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (BWV 182) for Weimar in 1714, depicting the entry into Jerusalem:

Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern: left, the hymn, Nikolai 1599; right, violin part.

and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BWV 1!!!) for Leipzig in 1725:

For more Bach cantatas, see under A Bach retrospective.

* * *

In German, rather than Verkündigung, the Annunciation is commonly known as Englischgruss—which one realises means “Angelic greeting” (cf. the finale of Mahler 4), rather than a stiff handshake and lugubrious “How do you do”.

So here’s Brahms‘s a cappella setting Der englische gruß, simple and affecting:

Brahms text

The Lhasa ripper

Kumas

Continuing to educate myself about Tibet (roundup of posts here), I always admire the writings of Jamyang Norbu. I’ve cited the useful volume Zlos-gar that he edited, as well as his vivid comments on lhamo opera. His website contains a wealth of information.

This may seem a strange way to stress the maturity of Tibetan culture before the Chinese occupation, but his article The Lhasa ripper is a fascinating vignette on the “dark underbelly” of Lhasa society before the Chinese occupation, in the tradition of subaltern studies. Setting forth from the story of a serial killer murdering sex workers in late 1920s’ Lhasa, he goes on to cover begging and crime.

By this time the modern police force, recently formed, had met resistance from the monasteries and conservative faction. It was only reinstated in 1948.

Colonel Bailey, the British Political Officer in Sikkim, visited Lhasa in July 1924. In his report he mentions: “Laden La has organized a very creditable police for Lhasa city. The men are smart and dressed in thick khaki serge in winter, and blue with yellow piping in summer. They are stationed in different parts of the city [in police boxes—JN]. The fact of their presence has reduced crime in the city considerably and the inhabitants appreciate this.” The police force also had a bagpipe band (Tib: pegpa), which Bailey took credit for introducing.

It was mainly by chance that the “Lhasa ripper” case was solved in the mid-1930s. Jamyang Norbu relates variant accounts of the arrest of a minor monk official, a Nepalese national, after he was overheard.

In Part Two he broadens the theme:

I have long been interested in what might be called the “dark underbelly” of old Lhasa society: the professional gamblers, criminals, burglars, pickpockets, forgers, bandits, beggars, scavengers, and even the ladies of easy virtue, though some may object to their inclusion in this class. Granted, this particular dark underbelly wasn’t so “dark” or extensive as that of London or New York, and certainly not as exotic as that of old Peking or Shanghai, I suppose, but it was interesting in its own way because of its medieval flavor, and, as with all things Tibetan, its inevitable though nonetheless odd connection to religious life.

He introduces the kuma petty criminals, with their various specialities, such as thep-tre street urchins targeting peasants and pilgrims in Lhasa.

When the Communist Chinese occupation force took over Lhasa, I was told that many of the thep-tre shifted their attention to Chinese troops, relieving them of their watches, wallets, and fountain pens, and in the case of the officers, even pistols.

And outside Lhasa, the jhagpa armed bandits:

the chivalry of some of these bandits could be decidedly ambivalent ­– happily looting monasteries on the one hand while making lavish gifts to their own lamas.

And he has more on the celebrated “label” ladies of Lhasa documented by Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, including this catchy audio track of Chushur Yeshe Drolma playing a töshe melody on the dranyan plucked lute:

In 1985 Jamyang Norbu staged a musical tableau in Dharamsala, depicting

a street scene in the Holy City where ordinary city folk, aristocrats, lamas and so forth go about their business, while in the background a line of ten dranyen musicians play and sing songs related to the unfolding scenes. I had also included a (pantomime) donkey carrying firewood, Drekar beggars, and two actresses playing the role of the famous singers of old Lhasa, Shimi Lemba (Cat label) and Porok Lemba (Crow Label).

I was taken to task for this production by a Dharamshala mob and later the exile-parliament, and charged with insulting the Dalai Lama on his birthday by showing donkeys and prostitutes. I attempted to argue, quite unsuccessfully, that these two famous ladies were not prostitutes but respectable entertainers belonging to the Nangma musical guild (nangmae kyidug) of Lhasa, who even performed at cabinet banquets (kashag thogtro) in the old days.

Ragyabpa

Next he evokes the professional and spiritual beggars. The Ragyabpa guild of professional beggars/scavengers/undertakers was a kind of halfway house for freed criminals;

It was said that the Ragyabpa would curse you if you didn’t pay [the mandatory tariff on entering Lhasa] and a Ragyabpa’s curse was considered malignant. This was essentially a kind of cultural extortion, resembling the practice of the transgender Hijra community in India that still derives its income from similar begging/extortion performance rituals.

Other professional beggars in Lhasa were the fiddlers (tse-tse tangyen), beggars with performing monkeys (trangbo-tre-tse), and wandering acrobatic dance troupes (khampa repawho were not only skilled tumblers, drummers and dancers but claimed a spiritual connection to Milarepa. And he has more on the drekar and lama mani.

In a section on the chang beer taverns and a note on chang brewing, he notes:

Tibet was admittedly a politically backward and industrially undeveloped society, but the account of Lhasa beggars drinking beer that was at least clean and wholesome made me think of Gustave Doré’s engravings of the squalor and despair of working class London, and Hogarth’s famous print of Gin Lane (in the notorious slum parish of St. Giles) where the working poor destroyed themselves and their children by drinking manufactured spirits (frequently mixed with turpentine), foisted on them by a government whose primary concern was raising revenue from alcohol sale. I wrote about something much the same happening in Lhasa from the early 1980s onwards, “a ubiquitous alcoholism fuelled by the sale of cheap Chinese rot-gut, baijiu and sanjiu … pushing Tibetans into immediate unemployment and ultimate extinction.”

drinking

For more on alcoholism since the reforms, see here, following this article on the period from 1959 to 1978.

On pre-occupation Tibet Jamyang Norbu goes on to cite Hugh Richardson, Britain’s last representative in Lhasa and leading Tibet scholar of the day:

From fourteen years’ acquaintance with it I maintain that it was not deliberately cruel or oppressive. It did not need force to maintain itself … It had evolved a closely knit society with a balanced economy and higher standard of living with far less distance between rich and poor than obtained, say in India [and also say in China—JN]. There was a regular surplus of grain, and large reserve stocks. No one suffered the degrading conditions of life of which we read in the industrial revolution here or in Ireland.

* * *

While such a study debunks the obstinate view of an isolated, exotic, spiritual Tibet (cf. Tibetan clichés), for me it offers further evidence that it was a real, mature society, warts and all—far from the simplistic Chinese polarity of exploiters and victims. One might suppose the current regime would regard this as welcome evidence of the iniquities of the “old society”—but it also opens a can of worms on the realities of life both before and since the Chinese occupation.

Daoism and local cults

Clart cover

Another recent conference volume offers perspectives on local religious practice in China:

  • Philip Clart, Vincent Goossaert, and Hsieh Shu-wei 謝世維 (eds), Daojiao yu difang zongjiao: dianfan de chongsi (guoji yantaohui lunwenji) 道教與地方宗教─ 典範的重思國際研討會論文集 [Daoism and local cults: rethinking the paradigms] (2020).

Most of the ten chapters are in Chinese; among many other articles on this useful databasethey can be downloaded by clicking on the relevant pdf icon, with abstracts in both Chinese and English shown by clicking on the title.

With the scope largely limited to south China, still the dominant trend in Daoist studies, a common theme of the chapters is the interaction between different kinds of ritual specialists.

  • Hsieh Shu-wei on the Dipper Mother ritual
  • Matsumoto Kōichi 松本浩一 with a historical chapter on the Taiji jilian neifa 太極祭鍊內法 mortuary ritual and the religious thought of Zheng Sixiao.
  • Xie Conghui on Lüshan ordination rituals in central Fujian
  • Lee Fong-mao on pestilence rituals in Taiwan
  • Zhang Xun on the popular theme of Mazu worship in Fujian and Taiwan
  • Pan Junliang on ritual healing in Cangnan county, Zhejiang
  • Paul Katz on rituals of the Miao of west Hunan (cf. next link below).

Three chapters are in English:

  • Mark Meulenbeld continues to explore the rich ritual life of Hunan
  • Adam Yuet Chau again stresses hierarchies of “hosting” at jiao communal festivals
  • Isabelle Ang on a temple cult and pilgrimage associations in Jiangxi.

Ritual and masked drama in Hunan

nuoxi 2

From the nuo drama Da pandong, and the she tanshen ritual.

Adding to the extensive research on ritual in Hunan (note also Yang Yinliu’s 1956 field survey) is a recent case-study of ritual and sacred drama there:

  • Tan Jinhe 譠金鶴 and Tian Yan 田彥, Nanyue shenxi: lishi chuancheng yu yanchu wenben 南嶽神戲: 歷史傳承與演出文本 [Sacred opera of the Southern Peak: historical transmission and performing texts] (2020; 370 pages).

Nanyue shenxi cover

The book, result of a collaboration between household Daoist Tan Jinhe (b.1946) and the able fieldworker Tian Yan (b.1981), describes the range of rituals performed by groups of household Daoists around Hengyang, and the nuoxi 傩戏 masked dramas that are included within them. The ritual specialists, known as shigong 师公, combine Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi) practice with the Hunyuan jiao 混元教 branch of Daoism—which I’ve mainly encountered in its northern sectarian forms (see various pages under Local ritual).

While plenty of “religious” groups (both temple- and household-based) have been recruited to the cause of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), this is a rarely detailed study under its auspices: with its main role as official propaganda rather than academic research, coverage of such local traditions is usually formulaic and brief. But Hunan has an impressive tradition of scholarship: conferences on the topic began as early as 1981, part of a renewed academic interest in ritual drama and Daoist ritual in mainland China that soon led to the influential fieldwork projects masterminded by the great C.K. Wang (see also the films of Jacques Pimpaneau).

Tan Jinhe, leader of the Xianying leitan 显应雷坛 altar, is the fifteenth generation of Daoists in his lineage, based in Shaotian village in the southern suburbs of Nanyue township. Though only 3 when his father died while recovering the body of a local guerilla, he studied under his grandfather; by 1957 he was taking part in rain rituals. But (like his exact contemporary Li Manshan in Shanxi) amidst the privations following the Great Leap Backward, he can only have been active sporadically for a few years before Socialist Education campaigns escalated; recruited to the local propaganda troupe in 1965, through the Cultural Revolution he pursued other trades. He was able to resume ritual practice by 1980, going on to train new generations of Daoists. In 1985 he became head of his village committee, while doing well in correspondence college. He went on to assume several prestigious official positions for Daoism and the arts.

Tan lineage

Two branches of the Tan ritual lineage.

The authors survey the ancestry of other “thunder altar” ritual groups in the area: other branches of the Tan lineage, Yongxing leitan 永兴雷坛 altars led by the Yang and Kang lineages, and the Kaihua leitan 开化雷坛 of the Li family.

The ritual scene since the 1980s’ reforms is described in a useful section. While activity revived strongly upon the revival of the 1980s and 1990s, the authors admit to a certain dilution of faith in ritual among the local clientele by the 21st century. With the spread of hospital treatment, healing rituals were commissioned less often; Tan Jinhe has seldom been invited to perform exorcistic rituals like she tanshen or rangxing zuofu, and other rituals are abbreviated. I’m curiously encouraged to read this admission, since it rarely features in accounts of southern Daoism (contrast my account of a flawed funeral in Shanxi)—even if it may derive partly from the ICH’s “salvage” agenda, portraying itself as a saviour in rescuing genres from decline (see also Glimpses of Hunan).

hexiao sequence

Sequence for three-day hexiao ritual.

Seeking maximum information irrespective of recent dilution, the authors list ritual sequences in detail, including jiexiao 接霄, hexiao 和霄, she tanshen 设坛神, rangxing zuofu 禳星作福, and the “graduation” ritual chuantan 传坛. These Daoists don’t perform mortuary rituals.

chuantan sequence

Sequence for three-day chuantan ritual.

The authors describe the deities worshipped in rituals, notably the xiao 霄 goddesses. Here we perhaps need John Lagerwey to tease out themes in the wider inter-regional context (cf. west Fujian).

Long sections provide ritual and dramatic texts in turn. Foremost among the latter is Da pandong 大盘洞. The authors note the connection between the ritual dramas and huagu xi opera (cf. Famine and expressive culture in Hunan). 

Left, artefacts; right, Tan Jinhe demonstrates mudras.

A final section describes ritual costumes, masks, statuettes, and other artefacts, with some transcriptions of the vocal liturgy, which in addition to percussion is supplemented here by shawms and fiddles; and mudras and cosmic steps are described in detail.

Hunan Fava

Inviting Water (qingshui 请水), standard opening ritual segment. Photo: Patrice Fava, 2016.

Even better, of course (my usual refrain), would be to see all this on film—youku has only a few unsatisfactory clips. As with many groups, Patrice Fava tells me that Tan Jinhe’s band has recently taken to using amplification—a challenge for both ethnographers and film-makers to confront.

So this study makes yet another valuable addition to the extensive literature on ritual activity in south China.

 

With thanks to Patrice Fava

 

In praise of Patricia Lockwood

Lockwood

I entirely share the universal delight in the intoxicating language of Patricia Lockwood, with her passion for the mind-expanding power of words.

Within her genre-bending oeuvre, the publication of a new article by her is always the occasion for fireworks and champagne. Just when we thought we couldn’t take any more analyses of the genius of Elena Ferrante, Lockwood makes the perfect commentator; so now we can delight in her own delight at Lila and Lenù.

Besides her pieces for organs such as The New Yorker and The Paris review, her LRB articles are virtuosic, perceptive, and exuberant in their language—such as her thoughts on Lucia BerlinVladimir NabokovCarson McCullers. Her review of John Updike (“Malfunctioning sex robot”) is a most thoughtful, informed critique, like a more wacky update of Henry Miller’s emasculation at the hands of Kate Millett:

I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling.

See also Insane after Coronavirus?, and this piece on the US Elections, reminding us that her astute, enquiring mind takes wing way beyond mere lit crit.

* * *

Her essay The communal mind is a prelude to No one is talking about this, her new novel about living in the internet. Amidst a multitude of blazing fanfares (e.g. this review), this comes from an interview with Hadley Freeman:

“White people, who had the political educations of potatoes, were suddenly feeling compelled to speak about injustice. This happened once every forty years on average, usually after a period when folk music became popular again. When folk music became popular again, it reminded people that they had ancestors, and then, after a considerable delay, that their ancestors had done bad things.”

Lockwood is all too aware that books about the internet have a bad reputation: “[They] had the strong whiff of old white intellectuals being weird about the blues, with possible boner involvement.”

* * *

Lockwood’s memoir Priestdaddy (2017; reviewinterview) celebrates and bewails her eccentric family, in a style distantly akin to the stories of David Sedaris. The title refers to her father, a rare married Catholic priest; she wrote the book while staying back at the family home with her husband Jason during a period of adversity. I guess it’s “confessional”.

Priestdaddy cover

While her parents make hapless victims of her trenchant pen, it’s far from mere slapstick; it’s an affectionate, benign portrayal, becoming increasingly reflective.

She was deprived of college by her father’s inability to resist buying a guitar made for Paul McCartney:

Later, I would take a detached literary pleasure in the notion that higher education had unwittingly been robbed from me by a Beatle.

She observes family life with detachment:

The drama of the scene ought to have been tense and throbbing, but it was undercut somewhat by my mother’s decorating, which ran heavily to bowls of gold balls. Still, we played our parts: every once in a while my father would bang down his fist while looking patriarchal, and my mother would turn to stare out the window while looking powerless, which contributed to the impression that we were participating in a Tennessee Williams play where “the internet” was being used as a code for “homosexuality”.

And

The Don Pablo’s in Cincinatti was a large converted factory, so it looked vaguely like a nightclub where people went to have wrong ideas about Mexico. In the corner, a fake cactus threw up its helpless arms, as if my father were holding it at gunpoint.

Her relationship with her husband Jason is most endearing. As he wonders if her father is trying to kill him, she responds:

“Did you give him any indication that you were a pacifist or an intellectual, or that you liked abstract art?”

Pets are a bone of contention too:

My father hates cats. He believes them to be Democrats. He considers them to be little mean hillary clintons covered all over with feminist legfur. Cats would have abortions, given half a chance.

When Jason takes a job at a local newpaper, she muses:

There was a sign announcing how many days had passed since the last workplace accident, which made me think of the unlucky employee who had to climb up on a ladder the next morning to flip the number back to zero with a maimed hand.

As Tricia tries to watch old movies on TV, her father switches over without ceremony to

something like Bag of Guts: How Much Blood is in a Human Body? or Boom! A Toot from the Bum of the Apocalypse or Ragged Claws: Hideous Mutant Poem from the Deep.

She guesses the plots of his favorite movies based on the sounds coming through the walls:

A remake of The Ten Commandments where the lead actor is just an AK-47 wearing Moses robes. He parts the Red Sea by shooting it.

Indiana Jones flips through his dad’s diary and finds a map of the clitoris. “IT’S MINE”, he yells, but will the Nazis get there first?

God is a cop with a monkey sidekick, but the monkey sidekick is mankind.

She takes singing lessons with her sister:

We often sang together at church because our voices sounded related, though mine was obviously the hunchbacked insane relative who lived up in the attic and only descended for meals.

Her second teacher

looked like she knew where Prague was, which at that moment in time I did not.

But the chapter segues to her suicide attempt as a cloistered teenager.

Some of the most baroque passages come when she explains Catholicism to her bemused husband, suggesting a Martian ethnographer (indeed, she likens her notebook to that of an anthropologist):

“What did these people teach you?” he asked me one night, mystified. “What exactly do Catholics believe?”

I’d been preparing my whole life for this question. “First of all, blood. BLOOD. Second of all, thorns. Third of all, put dirt on your forehead. Do it right now. Fourth of all, Martin Luther was a pig in a cloak. Fifth of all, Jesus is alive, but he’s also dead, and he’s also immortal, but he’s also made of clouds, and his face is a picture of infinite peace, but he always looks like one of those men in a headache commercial, because you’re causing him such suffering whenever you cuss. He is so gentle that sheep seem like demented murderers in his presence, but also rays of light shoot out of his face so hard they can kill people. In fact they do kill people, and one day they will kill you. He has a tattoo of a daisy chain on his lower back and he gets his hair permed every eight weeks. He’s wearing a flowing white dress, but only because people didn’t know about jeans back then. He’s holding up two fingers because his dad won’t let him have a gun. If he lived on earth, he would have a white truck, plastered with bumper stickers of Calvin peeing on a smaller Calvin who is not a Catholic.”

See also under The Annunciation in art and music.

While reluctant to “harp on” (my garish phrase, sic!) about feminism, Lockwood reflects on her relationship with the seminarians who come to stay:

What else could I do but tease them? I had no real power; it was men like these who were in charge of my life. If they decided tomorrow I had to cover my hair or wear skirts or pray separately, or be barred from reading certain books, or take certain pills and not take others, or be silent in the presence of men, I would have to do it. To have that bald display of power on display in your home every day, pretending to arch over and protect you—it does something to a person. The seminarian calls women “the tabernacle of life”. The tabernacle, if you do not know, is an ornamental box that is largely important for what it holds. It is shut up and locked when the men go away, so the consecrated elements inside cannot be stolen.

YAY! Hallelujah! The “indomitable human spirit”, demurely Renting Asunder the Chains of Bondage—not just surviving but thriving!!!

People do sometimes accuse me of blasphemy, which is understandable, and which is their right. But to me, it is not blasphemy, it is my idiom. It’s my way of still participating in the language I was raised inside, which despite all renunciation will always be mine.

So while she doesn’t give the church an easy ride, she describes her background of taking part ungrudgingly in its rituals. Merging emic and etic, she is altogether gentle in her lack of confrontation—as she observes in this review:

“But in a way, I am happy that I wrote it before all this [the US elections] went down because you can look at those things foreignly. There can be a sort of nostalgia looking back at it. Whereas now, it feels so urgent to excise all these conservative forms of thought as opposed to just seeing them as quirks—which they’re not just quirks, but they are that, especially when it’s your family.” She adds, “I always had the sense that running alongside this book was a book that was much angrier, or was expressed more as a sort of haranguing monologue against various things, but that’s not particularly natural to me as a writer.”

She describes the background and reactions to the publication of her poem Rape joke, and adds a note to her comments on motherhood:

The twinge you are feeling right now is the twinge of wondering whether I am really right-thinking, whether I am really on the right side when it comes to this subject. I put that twinge in because I sometimes feel it myself. But after all that, you must understand that I had to leave right-thinkingness behind.

She reflects on her family’s involvement in the “pro-life” movement (see also this, adapted from the book):

We patronised pro-life businesses, which in the Midwest, back then, was easy to do. It was possible to buy a pro-life pizza, despite the fact that a pizza is by its very definition made out of choices.

She perceives certain feminist credentials in her mother, who is ever alert to danger while not clearly subscribing to the notion of female suffrage. In a charming chapter rejoicing in the title “The Cum Queens of Hyatt Palace”, they bond over finding cum on a hotel bed. After a spirited exchange with the management (not of bodily fluids, I should add),

We join hands and set forth into the morning, united by that human glue which cannot be dissolved.

But amidst the hilarity her account addresses ever more serious topics—the church child-abuse scandal, pollution-induced disease, and her father’s roles in counselling the desperate and officiating for the bereaved.

Eventually he concedes to his errant daughter,

“I never thought it would be so much fun to have you home. It’s so nice when your kids grow up and you don’t have to kill them anymore.”

But while revelling in language she treasures its limitations:

The desire to describe voice, gesture, skin colour, is a desire to eat, take over, make into part of the pattern. I am happy every time I see a writer fail at this. I am happy every time to see real personhood resist our tricks. I am happy to see bodies insist that they are not shut up in this book, they are elsewhere. The tomb is empty, rejoice, he is not here.

Do bask in every enchanted word that Ms Lockwood writes! As a suitable soundtrack for such shots in the arm, I suggest You’re my thrill.

A new website on Chinese religions

tongxun 1

A useful new resource in Chinese is the website of the Center for the Study of Chinese Religions at the Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu, along with its online newsletter Shenzhou studies 神州研究: 中國宗教研究中心通訊.

tongxun 2

It’s masterminded by the dynamic Lü Pengzhi 呂鵬志, integrating Chinese research with the international academic milieu, with input from his long-term collaborator John Lagerwey.

Focusing on Daoism, the site also covers Buddhism, Confucianism, and shamanism; while it reflects the historical, textual bias of scholarship, its remit also includes recent ethnography. With news of publications and academic activities, here we can find updates on the vast Daojiao yishi congshu 道教儀式叢書 series (for the most recent volume, see here). 

A Daoist altar in west Fujian

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Daoist master Dingling (Guanbao, 1929–2013).

In the immense Daojiao yishi congshu 道教儀式叢書 [Anthology of Daoist ritual] series, the provinces of Jiangxi, Fujian, and Hunan feature prominently (more on Hunan here). While studies of Fujian culture often focus on the south of the province, the Hakka western region is also rich in ritual traditions.

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The distribution of Daoist groups in Shanghang county.

This latest magnum opus in the series is a detailed study of the Lingying tang 靈應堂, one of fifteen groups (“altars” tan 壇 or “halls” tang 堂) of household Daoist ritual specialists in Shanghang county, west Fujian:

Wu Nengchang cover

Born in 1984, Wu Nengchang trained in Xiamen, going on to study in Paris before taking up a post at Fudan university in Shanghai. In French, see his thesis

The main text of this new publication has 336 pages; the following 1,392 pages comprises reproductions of ritual manuals.

In his English introduction to the series, the masterly John Lagerwey highlights some main points, with his unmatched experience of Daoist ritual in south China. He sees Daoist, Buddhist, and exorcistic rituals as a single system. This classification is widely applicable in south China, though not necessarily elsewhere—spirit mediums are important in the north too, but they are not integrated with the liturgical system there. Lagerwey also gives a fine English summary of this volume, again identifying salient themes.

Although the Lingying tang was only founded a century ago, the study is rich in historical evidence. The Lingying Tang inherited the ritual traditions of two older Daoist altars, specializing respectively in Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi) liturgies performed by “Daoist priests” (daoshi 道士) and the exorcistic rituals of “ritual masters” (fashi 法師).

While this volume, like the whole series, stresses early history and ritual texts, Wu provides a useful outline of the Lingying tang Daoists under successive periods in the modern era (pp.69–91). As I did for Yanggao in north Shanxi, Wu surveyed all fifteen of the Daoist altars in Shanghang county before focusing on this group. There his main consultant was Guanbao (Daoist name Dingling, 1929–2013), older son of the founder Chen Lintang (Hongxing, 1894–1959).

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Left, Guanbao (Dingling) in 1944; right, his father Chen Lintang (Hongxing).

After giving fine detail on the Republican period, Wu explores transmission under Maoism. This may play a very minor role in the series, but here I’d like to summarise this section of the chapter, as it illustrates common themes (cf. my work on Gaoluo, and the Li family Daoists, particularly this); indeed, it’s a fundamental context for the liturgical material presented.

Following Land reform, Hongxing’s family were classified as poor peasants. He was given posts in new state troupes for local opera. His son Guanbao at first retrained as a photographer, but then resumed Daoist activity on a small scale until 1956, eventually desisting after twice being criticised by work teams while performing rituals.

When Hongxing died in the winter of 1959, his sons Guanbao and Xibao, with other Daoist colleagues, surreptitiously “did the lanterns” (zuodeng 做燈) for his funeral. That same year they adapted scenes from the zuoxi 做覡 exorcistic ritual for a “cultural programme” at county and district levels.

When the Socialist Education campaign began in 1963 Guanbao buried the altar’s ritual paintings, instruments, and manuals for safekeeping. Though 1965 the work teams found some such artefacts on a raid of his house in 1965, the team chief, declining to consider them as belonging to the tainted “Four olds”, didn’t have them destroyed. However, as the situation became ever more serious, Guanbao fearfully burned ritual images himself.

In 1963 Guanbao had been appointed head of the new Nanyang amateur opera troupe, and worked away from the town after the violent opening of the Cultural Revolution. Recalled in 1976, he won county awards in 1979 for educative cultural items. As tradition, and ritual, were restoring, that year he was put in charge of the revival of the Nanyang puppet troupe, which was soon in considerable demand over a wide area. Jiao offering rituals were now being gingerly revived too.

Around 1983 Guanbao met the son of another renowned Daoist, who showed him some crucial ritual manuals which he copied, making notes on how to perform them. By this time the restoration of Daoist ritual was in full swing (cf. the Li family Daoists in Shanxi).

The group’s sporadic activities under Maoism make the extensive ritual repertoires, texts, and images presented in the book even more remarkable.

And then Wu takes the story on further into the reform era, with detailed descriptions. Guanbao soon found he could make a much better living from performing rituals than from his photography and puppetry—and fees continued to increase. He trained a new generation of young disciples to perform jiao Offering rituals. The two brothers often met demand by leading separate bands.

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Guanbao’s band: annual ritual income from 2003 to 2011.

Again interspersing black-and-white photos, Wu then moves onto his main theme, the ritual repertoire, describing in turn the segments of xi 覡 (read sang in dialect) exorcistic liturgies, Orthodox Unity rituals for jiao Offerings and funerals, and “rites of confinement”.

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Arena for zanghun and other ritual segments.

Always noting wider regional and historical connections, he explores the history of the whole pantheon, including the Three Immortal Masters, earth gods, and female deities such as Queen Mother (Wangmu 王母), the Ladies (Furen 夫人), and Chen Jinggu.

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Ritual paintings by Dingling.

The extensive second part, preceded by detailed catalogues, is an anthology of ritual texts (mainly manuscripts) of the Lingying Tang. Whereas other volumes in the series often contain manuals from the Qing dynasty, most of those presented here look to have been copied by Dingling since the 1980s’ reforms—discussed in more detail in his article “Zhizao keyiben: yi Minxi daotan Lingying tangde duwang keben weili” 制造科仪本:以闽西道坛灵应堂的度亡科本为例Daojiao xuekan 道教学刊 2018.2, cf. his French thesis, pp.90–107 (for my take on the process for the Li family in Shanxi, see here).

The study concludes with an enticing series of colour photos from Wu’s fieldwork.

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From the yingxian ritual.

* * *

My comments on Daoist ritual studies in Appendix 1 of my Daoist priests of the Li family relate to the dominance of south China in the project, and its salvage-based nature, based on texts rather than performance and social change. I mention these points again here because I would dearly like the monographs in this series to reach a wider audience; yet they are at some remove from the kind of ethnographic fieldwork on local society (including religious behaviour) that has simultaneously become popular (for a sample of coverage for Hunan, see here).

Thus, throughout the series, I’d be interested to learn how ritual practice has changed since the 1940s, along with the changing socio-economic context, such as migration and education. With the Li family in north Shanxi, the basic performing style seems quite constant, but the repertoire has diminished; I also noted changes in the material artefacts deployed, and in the perceptions of their clients.

In line with the brief of the series, the emphasis is on silent text, rather than performance and soundscape; yet these are precisely the means by which such texts are rendered efficacious. A core part of the Daoists’ training, not reflected in ritual manuals, is learning to sing, chant, and recite all the hymns, mantras, and memorials, and how to accompany them on the ritual percussion. Another compelling reason to highlight this soundscape is that it’s the main marker differentiating similar rituals regionally.

So if we can’t experience the sounds and movements of Daoist ritual live, then at least we should be offered edited videos of these traditions; this should be an indispensable part of any funding. If we had access to such films, then all this meticulous textual research would make a valuable complement. That said, the riches of this volume are astounding.

Expressive cultures of the Himalayas

Musique et epopee

To complement my introduction to Tibet: the Golden Age, another volume, focusing on ritual and expressive cultures in the Himalayas and Tibet,

  • Katia Buffetrille and Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (eds), Musique et épopée en Haute-Asie: mélanges offerts à Mireille Helffer à l’occasion de son 90e anniversaire (2017; 427 pages),

makes a fine occasion to survey the inspiration of Mireille Helffer’s pioneering studies.

Helffer

The book opens with a tribute from her long-term colleague Bernard Lortat-Jacob (another doyen of French ethnomusicology, whose own ouevre is the subject of a new volume) and a detailed overview by the editors themselves, followed by a bibliography and discography of Helffer’s work on pp.25–33 (for her audio recordings, see also under https://archives.crem-cnrs.fr).

Though C.K. Yang’s distinction between “institutional” and “diffused” religious practice has been refined, I still find it useful for Tibetan as well as Chinese cultures. While the Tibetan monastic soundscape became a major focus of Helffer’s work (see e.g. her section in the New Grove article on Tibetan music), she always paid attention to folk practice too—a focus continued by scholars in recent years. The chapters further show the relevance of her studies for iconography, historiography, and organology.

Helffer 72

Through the 1960s and 70s, when Chinese-occupied Tibetan regions were inaccessible to outsiders, the base for Helffer’s fieldwork was among the Himalayan peoples in Nepal, India, Bhutan, Ladakh. Since the 1980s her research has inspired younger scholars to address the embattled Tibetan heartland of the TAR, Amdo, and Kham (cf. Henrion-Dourcy, “Easier in exile?” and other articles in n.1 here). Here I’ll just mention some chapters that particularly arouse my interest.

Helffer 100

The essays are grouped in three main sections. The first, “Conteurs et épopée”, includes a survey by Gisèle Krauskopff of the early days of ethnology on Nepal, as Helffer’s concern for sung oral literature developed through her fieldwork on the gäine minstrel castes—who are also discussed in the following chapter by Jean Galodé. Marie Lecomte-Tilouine explores a related tradition through an interview with a damāi minstrel. In the first of several contributions addressing the Gesar epic, Roberte Hamayon sets forth from Helffer’s work on the genre to compare its form in Buryatia.

Helffer 222

The second section, “Danse, musique et théâtre”, opens with reflections by Geoffrey Samuel on Tibetan ritual and cham ritual dance, focusing on its use inside the temple. Always keen that we should have an impression of such rituals as performed, rather than mere silent immobile text, I’m glad to learn of the films Tibet: le message des Tibétains by Arnaud Desjardins from the mid-1960s (set mostly in Dharmasala), including this on Tantrism:

Turning to Kham (in the PRC), Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy reports on her 2014–15 fieldwork on Gesar dance in the Dzogchen monastery—one of three ritual dances created under the Fifth Dzogchen (1872–1935).

Helffer 209

Gesar is also the subject of “From Tibet to Bhutan” by Françoise Pommaret and Samten Yeshi. Françoise Robin contributes a translation, with commentary, of “Dream of an itinerant musician”, a novella by Pema Tseden (b.1969), based in Amdo.

The third section, “Études népalaises et tibétaines”, opens with Véronique Boullier reflecting on issues in studying the life of apparently “closed” Hindu temples in India, setting forth from Helffer’s 1995 article “Quand le terrain est un monastère bouddhique tibétain”. Following chapters discuss themes in the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism.

The volume ends with an engaging conversation between Samten G. Karmay and Katia Buffetrille (English version here), with astute reflections from Karmay on the culture clash he experienced since making an academic career in the West from 1960—covering topics such as Karmay’s childhood in Amdo, Tibetology in France, Gesar, Bön, and documenting a ritual on his return visit to his natal village in 1985.

Helffer 425

Ample references complement Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy’s bibliography for the Tibetan performing arts.

Throughout these chapters the influence of Mireille Helffer is clear. Yet again I am struck by the great vitality of Tibetan studies, and the mutual benefit of perspectives from both outside and within the PRC.

See also Recent posts on Tibet.

Tibet: the Golden Age

L'age d'or cover

Adding to my series of recent posts on Tibet, I’ve been reading a fine book in French:

  • Katia Buffetrille, L’âge d’or du Tibet (XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles) (2019; 311 pages)
    (review here; this brief notice; numerous other publications by Buffetrille here).

While Tibetologists have long focused on early history, more recently many scholars have turned, impressively, to addressing the complexities and traumas of Tibetan society since the Chinese occupation in 1950; so this volume on the historical background is welcome. Notwithstanding the focus on the “Golden Age”, it provides material on both earlier and later history, making a useful, wide-ranging introduction for the greater Tibetan region—including Amdo and Kham—before the Chinese occupation, as well as relations with neighbouring countries including Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh, and Manchu China.

Using Tibetan, Chinese, and European sources, the book is attractively presented in the Guide Belles lettres format, with copious illustrations and a bibliography arranged by topic. Paying attention to both material and conceptual aspects of Tibetan culture, Buffetrille covers not just the upper echelons but popular life too, correcting misconceptions in the process (cf. Tibetan clichés).

Here I’ll merely list some main themes of the eight chapters.

History: subsuming both the thriving period of political stability under the Great Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–82), with the hegemony of his Gelugpa school of Buddhism, and attendant power struggles.

The Tibetan space: cosmology; central Tibet and the peripheral regions, notably Amdo and Kham; and cosmopolitan Lhasa, with its ethnically mixed population (also including Muslims, Newars, Armenians, Christians), dynamic commercial life, and monuments.

Chapter 3 looks at the political and administrative organisation in more detail, including justice, the army, finance, and the postal system.

Chapter 4 unpacks the society and economy. Buffetrille introduces the nobility; the varied strata of common people (“serfs”, in the parlance of some modern observers), including brigands; and the clergy, another stratified category. As to the economy, she discusses agriculture, nomadism, commerce, measures and currency, mining, hunting, and the artisanat.

Age d'or 1

In a chapter on Time, she discusses astrology, the calendar, divination, and the life cycle.

Chapter 6 considers Religions in all their forms. Besides giving a useful overview of the various schools of Buddhism (with earlier historical background) and Bön, Buffetrille features “social inscription”: the life of monasteries, lay practices, pilgrimages, beliefs, indigenous rituals, and local deities.

Age d'or 3

Intellectual life: language, writing, paper, xylography, printing, libraries, and literature (Buddhist, historical, scientific, fiction).

Age d'or 4

The arts, again enmeshed with religious practice: artists, painters (with an interesting vignette on pigments), iconography, sculpture, architecture—ending with a brief mention of music, which is further covered in

Pastimes, with the annual cycle of festivals, both in Lhasa and in rural communities, including courtly and popular songs and dances, lhamo opera—and picnics.

Private life, including naming customs, family, women, sexuality; the house, tents, food and drink; healthcare, costume.

All this makes a suitable reminder that before the Chinese occupation, for all its social issues, Tibet was a mature, functioning, independent society. This concise introduction much deserves an English translation.

Amazing Grace

Aretha

In my post Detroit 67, among several clips of the great Aretha Franklin I featured her extraordinary live sessions in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA. The double album Amazing Grace was released that year to huge acclaim, but the documentary had to wait right until 2018 to see the light of day. For anyone who hasn’t yet managed to do so, you have four weeks to bask in it on BBC2 (here)—otherwise, one can always buy it… [1]

BBC2 followed the film up with the documentary Respect.

Recorded over two evening sessions, the film Amazing Grace is all the more effective for showing its workings, complete with its calculated planning, technical hitches, and even piano-tuning. Yet despite the constraints of live recording, these were clearly inspired celebrations—just like many musical gatherings around the world (see What is Serious music?!, under “Serious world music”).

Between numbers, Aretha’s focus sometimes makes her look pensive, almost frail—but as she sings she becomes a spirit medium, a vessel for the Holy Spirit, possessed with all the joy and pain of Gospel.

Aretha and Rev

With the MC Reverend James Cleveland adroitly mediating sacred and secular, Aretha is backed by the Southern California Community Choir, who are also spurred on by the balletic Reverend Alexander Hamilton. Among very few white faces in the ecstatic congregation are Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts.

On both evenings the tone is set by a devotional opening song (Wholy Holy and Mary don’t weep), followed by rousing up-tempo numbers like What a friend we have in Jesus, How I got over, All go back, I’m climbing higher mountains, as well as the ensemble interactions of Precious memories (“Sacred secrets will unfold”) and Precious Lord, take my hand/You’ve got a friend in Jesus.

The way Aretha opens in slow free-tempo is always moving—her final song (from 1.12.01), I have heard of a land on the far away strand, ‘Tis the beautiful home of the soul where we shall never grow old, is a whole seven-minute alap in itself—just as inspired as Indian dhrupad.

Most miraculous of all is the title track Amazing Grace (from 37.04; for the audio version, see under Detroit 67)—a long, slow meditation (without clearly defined beat or melody!) that leaves the congregation, the choir, Rev. Cleveland, and Aretha herself in tears.

And here‘s a version on Japanese hichiriki… Do also listen to my eclectic playlist of songs


[1] Among many reviews:

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/aretha-franklin-documentary-review-amazing-grace-754911/

https://variety.com/2018/film/reviews/amazing-grace-review-aretha-franklin-1203027289/

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/apr/08/aretha-franklin-amazing-grace-movie-backstory

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/may/12/amazing-grace-film-review-aretha-franklin-sydney-pollack

Roundup for 2020!

Since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual roundup (cf. 2018, 2019) is an occasion to group together some major themes from the last year (see also the tags and categories in the sidebar). This is just a selection (with apologies to the posts I’ve missed—do seek them out!):

For China, note

A substantial addition to my series on the ritual associations of Gaoluo:

Also new to the extensive Local ritual menu:

and on folk culture around Tianjin:

See also

Book reviews, mostly on religion and politics:

as well as

On modern Tibetan cultures, I’ve added a whole series, listed here:

—complementing my series on Uyghur culture in crisis, also with new input:

besides

* * *

For fieldwork and cultures elsewhere around the world—bearing in mind the important perspectives of

This year’s new posts on Indian raga, including some divine dhrupad singing:

* * *

On the travails of the 20th century:

* * *

On jazz:

and WAM:

On TV, film, popular culture:

* * *

Thanksgivings for liberation from tyranny:

And another sign of hope:

More jocular items include

as well as additions to The English, home and abroad:

and new entries under the headlines tag:

Further roundups:

And much much more, As They Say. Having grouped them together like this, I hope readers will scramble them all up again like a jigsaw, rather than retreating into their own little boxes… And do click on all the links within these posts! Happy, Happier New Year!

La nativité du Seigneur

Nativité stained glass

Nativity, Saint Denis, Paris, 12th century. Source here.

Eschewing tinsel, sprouts, and a plethora of meretricious seasonal listening, what better way of celebrating Christmas than immersing ourselves in the profound meditations of Messiaen’s monumental La nativité du Seigneur! It’s high time for it to soar to the top of the Christmas charts… (cf. What is serious music?!)

Even by 1935, Messiaen’s distinctive vision was fully-fledged, expressed through a unique harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic language, with extreme contrasts.

In French organ improvisation! (which also includes remarkable film of Messiaen himself at the organ of Saint-Trinité) I featured the joyous finale Dieu parmi nous, but here’s the complete work, played by various organists, as at the premiere:

I like the BTL comment “This music seriously messiaens with your head”. I set no great store by notation; it can be distracting as well as instructive, so do listen with eyes closed too.

The nine meditations are:

  • La vierge et l’enfant
  • Les bergers
  • Desseins éternels
  • Le verbe
  • Les enfants de Dieu
  • Les anges
  • Jésus accepte la souffrance
  • Les mages
  • Dieu parmi nous

Nativité score

This should lead us on to his great piano work Vingt regards sur l’enfant-JésusNote also Messiaen tag, leading to equally cosmic orchestral works (Turangalîla, Des canyons aux étoiles, Éclairs sur l’au-delà …), as well as his late opera Saint François d’Assise

Tianjin: a folk Buddhist group

*For main page, click here!*
(under Themes > Local ritual, in main menu)

Tianjin FYT 1989

Having written about the 1990s’ UK tours of ensembles from Wutaishan (Buddhist) and Suzhou (Daoist), my articles on dharma-drumming associations and sectarian groups around Tianjin now remind me to introduce a household Buddhist group based in the Southern suburbs there.

Tianjin FYT 1993.1

As tradition revived with the 1980s’ reforms, the group was guided by former temple monks, long laicised. I reflect on their 1993 UK tour and the resulting Nimbus CD Buddhist music of Tianjin.

Tianjin CD cover 1

Four sacred pieces

Alongside the soundscape of popular celebration in Italy, we might think ourselves into the mood of late-19th century Italian Catholicism among the elite with the Quattro pezzi sacri of Jo Green—sorry, I mean Giuseppe Verdi, composed between 1886 and 1898.

In 1992, as early music kept on getting later (cf. The shock of the new), John Eliot Gardiner and the wonderful Monteverdi choir recorded it, with me maintaining a suitably low profile on violin after a summer traipsing around Shanxi in search of, um, sacred pieces (shenqu 神曲, the core of the ritual suites of north Chinese ritual groups):

The whole piece, highly chromatic, demands close listening. Of the two a cappella movements Ave Maria and Laudi alla Vergine Maria, the first is inspired by the “enigmatic scale

Verdi scale

(with five semitones and four whole tones!!!Cf. Unpromising chromaticisms)—though I haven’t yet found it in Indian raga, I’d love to hear a dhrupad version.

For more a cappella, cf. Bruckner’s Locus iste, and The Real Group.

Dharma-drumming associations of Tianjin

*For main page, click here!*

Tianjin huanghui tu

Yet another instance of the variety of ritual performance around Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei

Just southeast of Beijing, the municipality of Tianjin is vast, with extensive suburban and rural regions. I’ve only made brief forays there (notably to sectarian groups around rural Jinghai), but it’s a remarkably rich area for fieldwork, both for ritual traditions and for various genres of narrative-singing.

In many villages in the Western and Southern suburbs, large “dharma-drumming associations” (fagu hui 法鼓會), perform for mortuary observances, calendrical rituals for the parish (she 社) temple fairs, and rain prayers; processions for popular entertainment, and formerly the grand ceremonies of the elite.

Tianjin is a major centre for maritime trade, so it has long been a rare northern outpost for the worship of the seafarers’ goddess Mazu, such a pervasive element in the cultures of south Fujian and Taiwan. 

Huanghui 2

Also known as the “Imperial assembly” (huanghui 皇會) since the patronage of the 18th-century Qianlong emperor, it is the subject of considerable research—not least on its heyday before Liberation, suddenly a legitimate topic after the 1980s’ reforms. Since 2005 it has become an object for the commodifying agenda of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, along with the dharma-drumming associations.

So do click here for the main page!

Madonna pilgrimage in Communist Poland

The Black Madonna of Częstochowa.

One of my main themes for Maoist China is the persistence of religious activity. In my posts on folk traditions of Poland and east Europe I mentioned the 2009 volume Music traditions in totalitarian systems (see also Life behind the Iron Curtain).

Complementing studies of the largely “secular” Polish folk genres, an interesting chapter there is

  • Jacek Jackowski, “Folk religious songs sung during the Peregrination of Virgin Mary’s Icon: an example of traditional Polish peasant piety in Communist times”.

Despite secular, atheist Communist policy, the Catholic church remained central to Polish identity, and a focus of resistance.

Among many pilgrimages in Poland, the Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa northwest of Kraków inspires a national network of religious devotion, with its holy icon of the Virgin Mary, the Black Madonna (most famous of many such images around Europe and around the world).

The pilgrimage was sometimes interrupted by political movements from the late 18th century, and notably during the wars of the 20th century.

Source here.

As in Communist regimes more widely, a partial thaw followed the death of Stalin in 1956, though persecutions of the clergy continued. From 1957 major round of Peregrinations to the Icon got under way in many dioceses and parishes, which were held until 1966—just as in China local folk rituals that had managed to persist during the first fifteen years of Maoist rule were also silenced by the Cultural Revolution. After the Icon was “arrested” that year, empty frames were taken on pilgrimage, “the best example of authentic folk piety”.

Meanwhile in Jasna Góra small copies of the Icon were consecrated and offered to all parishes in Poland for veneration. With the approval and guidance of the institutional Church, domestic services (“Small Peregrinations”) before the Icon also became highly popular. Even after the clampdown, all these manifestations of popular piety persisted, emerging more openly by the 1980s.

A 1983 Peregrination.

As with any study worth its salt, Jackowski pays attention to the soundscape, going on to give details of religious song, under three broad headings:

  • Church songs, from official songbooks, with official approbatur
  • Religious songs from the songbooks especially issued on the occasion of the Peregrination
  • Local religious and devotional folk creations—a rich repertoire.

Pilgrimage songs were led by przewodnik/prowadnik “guides”, often elderly women.

With religious devotion and pilgrimage significant elements in the popular resistance to the Communist regime, such songs were also sung during strikes and protests.

Meanwhile the Catholics of China were enduring their own tribulations.

The mantric Shipping forecast

The Shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4, whose antecedents date from 1861, is an extraordinary marker of British identity (cf. The Archers and Desert island discs, among many posts under The English, home and abroad). To be fair, Radio 4 listeners may not quite be representative of the whole population (You Heard It Here First), but still…

The forecast is replete with the abstract, poetic litany of

North Utsire, South Utsire, Viking, Cromarty, Forth, Dogger, German Bight…

and

southwesterly veering northwesterly five or six, decreasing four. Rain then showers. Moderate with fog patches, becoming good.

In a perceptive chapter on “weather rules” from her brilliant book Watching the English, Kate Fox notes the power of this “arcane, evocative, and somehow deeply soothing meteorological mantra”:

None of this information is of the slightest use or relevance to the millions of non-seafarers who listen to it, but listen we do, religiously mesmerised by the calm, cadenced, familiar recitation of lists of names of sea areas.

Mark Damazer, Controller of Radio 4, attempted to explain its popularity:

It scans poetically. It’s got a rhythm of its own. It’s eccentric, it’s unique, it’s English. It’s slightly mysterious because nobody really knows where these places are. It takes you into a faraway place that you can’t really comprehend unless you’re one of these people bobbing up and down in the Channel.

Zeb Soanes, a regular Shipping Forecast reader:

To the non-nautical, it is a nightly litany of the sea. It reinforces a sense of being islanders with a proud seafaring past. Whilst the listener is safely tucked up in their bed, they can imagine small fishing-boats bobbing about at Plymouth or 170ft waves crashing against Rockall.

Like Fran in Black books, perhaps:

Charlie Connelly, in his engagingly nerdy book Attention all shipping: a journey around the Shipping forecast (2004, complementing the 1998 picture-book Rain later, good), notes the subtleties of reading the forecast at different times of day.

The late-night broadcast is particularly evocative (as in the old joke “Drink Horlicks before you go to sleep—otherwise you’ll spill it”). It’s perfectly crowned by the healing aural balm of Sailing by (1963), by the splendidly-named Ronald Binge, creator of Mantovani’s “cascading strings” effect [Persontovani, please!—Ed.]:

In case you’re still mystified as to what the forecast is for, click on the YouTube icon and note the BTL comments there.

As reader Jane Watson comments, the forecast is “comforting for people at home, because they’re tucked up in bed and they’re hearing that it’s absolutely blowing a gale somewhere out at sea”—which might sound rather like Schadenfreude.

As with most ritual traditions, the language is slow to change—how I would love to hear the suave tones of Charlotte Green announcing

Pissing down. Bummer.

Among many parodies, most brilliant are Les Barker’s version as read by Brian Perkins:

and Stephen Fry (1988):

Back at the real script, Alan Bennett (“occasionally moderate”) read it for Radio 4’s Today at the inspired request of Michael Palin—taking on a quite different tone, both sinister and hilarious:

Talking of British identity, the forecast waxes philosophical in the phrase “losing its identity”—precisely the paranoid fear bandied by Brexiteers.

Yansheng chan gods

Stellar lords of the Northern Dipper, from the chanted Litanies for Prolonging Life
(Yansheng chan 延生懺) manual, copied by Li Qing, early 1980s.

SanskritRadio 4 listeners, bless their cotton socks, defend the ritual fiercely: there was a “national outcry when the BBC had the temerity to change the time of the late-night broadcast, moving it back by a mere 15 minutes (‘People went ballistic’, according to a Met. Office spokesman).” When the name of sea area Finisterre was changed to FitzRoy, “Anyone would think they’d tried to change the words of the Lord’s Prayer!”

Needless to say, such formalistic language reminds me of the long litanies of deities and pseudo-Sanskrit mantras that punctuate Daoist ritual (e.g. here, under “20th May”), whose efficacy for the devotee is also unsullied by mere cerebral comprehension.

For further meteorological drôlerie, see Cloudy with showery outbreaks, and More wisdom of the elders.

Gaoluo: vocal liturgists

*For main page, click here!*
(under Other publications > Local ritual > Gaoluo, in main menu)

This is to direct you to yet another vignette on the ritual association of South Gaoluo, based on my detailed historical ethnography Plucking the winds. Focusing on the transmission of the vocal liturgy through the first fifteen years of Maoism and since the 1980s’ revival, my main purpose here is to illustrate the close relation of ritual and political authority both before and after the Communist revolution, with sketches of the vocal liturgists (“civil altar”) of the association, and their strong hereditary backgrounds, from the 19th right through to the 21st century.

The new page (to be read in conjunction with Two ritual leaders) features the great masters Cai Fuxiang, Cai Yongchun, and Li Wenbin, who steered the vocal liturgy through the early years of the revolution; and their young students from 1961 to 1964, Shan Mingkui, Shan Yude, Cai Ran, and Cai Haizeng, who have represented the “civil altar” in performing for funerals and calendrical rituals since the 1980s.

Do explore the wealth of further material on Gaoluo (as well as its tag) and the many other village ritual associations on the Hebei plain (main page here, articles under Local ritual)!

Festive soundscapes of the Rioja

Further to my flamenco series, and Songs of Valencia, continuing to explore the regional cultures of Spain, I return to the fine CD

  • La gaita: dance and festive music of La Rioja (Pan, 2000),
    with instructive liner notes by Ad Linkels.

It comprises vocal hymns and dance music from the fiestas of villages in La Rioja (the northern province of Logroño) for their local patron saints.

Short of being there, or watching video footage, as an aural portrait these recordings are highly atmospheric—with most tracks captured live during feast days, and most inclusive in showcasing the variety of the ambient soundscape. They hardly offer the illusion of listening as disembodied sound.

So the CD title refers to the whole festive soundscape, with its gaita dances (often using sticks, stilts and ribbons—cf. Morris) accompanied by small shawms (dulzaina, gaita) and tamboril drums. But the latter are only one element in the texture of the soundscape, which also features campanillas ritual songs of confraternities, punctuated by church bells and hand-bells; festive jota songs; castanets, and the chirping of caged birds.

Here it is as a playlist:

The CD includes extended sequences from three village fiestas: ##1–8 from Cervera del Rio Alhama (for Santa Ana and San Gil); ##13–17 from Anguiano (for Santa Magdelena), with twirling, perilous zancos stilt-dancing; and ##18–23 from San Vicente de la Sonsierra.

Here’s a video of the Anguiano stilt dancers:

San Vicente de la Sonsierra is also among many villages which hold self-mortifying processions:

And here shawms accompany giants at the nearby festival of Estella:

(many more clips under “Gaiteros de Estella”).

The region is also among many parts of Spain notable for a variety of bagpipes.

Masked drama in Asia

Speaking of masks for the current crisis, the use of masks in performance is common throughout the world. It occurs to me that this blog now has a quorum of posts featuring masked drama around Asia.

Starting with Tibet:

For China and Japan:

And for Tuva:

Elsewhere, apart from Africa and the Americas, masked performances around Europe would make a fruitful theme, both in folk and art cultures.

Songs of Valencia

Several of my posts derive from the perks of orchestral touring (e.g. Calendrical rituals, Enza Pagliara). For Spain, I’ve focused on the vibrant flamenco scene of Andalucia (roundup here)—but like Italy, regional cultures all around the country are remarkably diverse (see also Festive soundscapes of the Rioja).

In Valencia on the Mediterranean coast, the cant d’estil are short festive songs sung on the street and on procession. My baroque gigs there have coincided with a couple of processions to the cathedral, but I’ve never managed to hear cant d’estil live. What I did pick up, though, was

  • Antologia del cant Valencià d’estil 1915–1996,volumes XXV–XXVI (!) of Fonoteca de materials of traditional Valencian music,

a 2-CD set with 192-page booklet by Jordi Reig in both Valencian [related to Catalan] and Spanish, containing 59 pieces by 46 singers; the erudite notes (with photos, transcriptions, analysis, and English summary) consider (quite limited) musical change over the 80-year period.

And cant d’estil is the subject of yet another fine CD by Bernard Lortat-Jacob, assisted by Vicent Torrent, compiler of the Antologia:

  • Espagne, València, cant d’estil, joutes chantées (Ocora, 2005), with recordings from 2003—here’s the playlist:

Of the two main genres, valencianes are accompanied by guitarró, with wind bands providing formulaic punctuation; albas are framed by dolçaina small shawm and tabal snare-drum. The songs themselves are more florid and free in tempo than the rigid, banal instrumental sections—the two seem in deliberate conflict; even the fandango strummings of the guitarró serve merely to offset the rhythmic freedom of the singing.

Within a framework that seems based on “art music”, there is considerable latitude in both texts and melody. The creation of songs, with llisteros and versadors whispering in the singer’s ear to prompt themes, may remind us of the gara poetica “poetic jousts” in Sardinia. Both men and women sing in the same range, the former in a “forced” high register.

The brief lyrics are not just traditional, but also cover charmingly topical themes:

I ask the crowd here assembled
To give a thought
To whether the powers that be
Will ever find a solution
To the parking problem.

Others seek to do little more than introduce the band (cf. Sgt Pepper):

Today the wind section
Are all here
Toni on the powerful trombone
Tico on the trumpet
And Casar on the clarinet.

Among many YouTube clips, this sequence, from 9.14, after the opening speeches, shows the prompters:

And alba:

And pursuing my drum-and-shawm theme (notably for China, starting here, as well as Uyghur, Lorestan, south Asia, Morocco), having featured a Catalan group here, here’s the Valencia tabal and dolçaina combo that frames alba songs (featured on the Antologia, and #13 of Bernard’s CD):

Shawm and drum score, featuring additive metre.

Among posts on other Mediterranean cultures, see e.g. Musics of Crete.

A stammering musical Bodhisattva?

Prelude to shengguan score, Hanzhuang village,
Xiongxian county, Hebei.

A Buddhist monk called Miaoyin 妙音, “Wondrous Tones”, is associated with transmissions of the grand shengguan suites that have punctuated the vocal liturgy of amateur village ritual associations around Xiongxian county in Hebei since the late 18th century (see also under Local ritual).

Hannibal Taubes, ever on the trail of recondite historical byways, leads me to Gadgadasvara, a minor-league figure among the great Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism. Since his name literally means “stammering tones”, even if he’s an imaginary being, he may appear to be a promising early Indian candidate to complement my list of great Chinese stammerers—and a musical one, to boot (see also stammering tag). But there are several strands to unravel here, both for ancient India and late-imperial China.

Gadgadasvara, as described in chapter 24 of the Lotus sutra (e.g. here and here),

emits rays of light from his topknot and between his eyebrows and illuminates the world of the Buddha Kamaladalavimalanakṣatrarājasaṃkusumitābhijña [Kevin for short—Ed. Try saying that with a speech impediment].
[…]
Gadgadasvara passes through many worlds, and his beautiful form is described. He arrives at Vulture’s Peak Mountain on the seven-jeweled platform and presents a necklace to Śākyamuni Buddha, inquiring after him on behalf of Buddha [Here we go again—Altogether now] Kamaladalavimalanakṣatrarājasaṃkusumitābhijña. *
(source here).

Gadgarasvara Nepal

Modern bronze image of Gadgadasvara, Nepal.

Svara is not just “sound” or “voice”, but the comprehensive system of musical pitches as represented by sargam solfeggio (see e.g. here). Sources do indeed allude obliquely to Gadgadasvara’s mastery of music:

In the worlds through which he passed, the land quaked in six ways, seven-jeweled lotus flowers rained everywhere, and hundreds of thousands of heavenly musical instruments sounded spontaneously without being played. 

Still, musical accomplishments play only a minor role in his transcendent CV:

According to T’ien-t’ai’s Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra, this bodhisattva is called Wonderful Sound because he propagates the Lotus Sutra throughout the ten directions with his wondrous voice. Among the many sutras, Bodhisattva Wonderful Sound appears only in the “Wonderful Sound” chapter of the Lotus Sutra.

And he doesn’t seem to be among the numerous cosmological deities who feature in the rich mythology of Indian music.

As to gadgada, the etymology of stammering, faltering, even sobbing, is clear. However, there seems to be no suggestion that the Bodhisattva was ever actually portrayed as a stammerer. Moreover, would any Indian, now or at any earlier point in history, be conscious of the etymology? Instead, the name has long been interpreted as “Wonderful Voice” or “Wonderful Sound”, and that is how it was rendered in Chinese.

So alas, Gadgadasvara is not an ancient mystical precursor of the characters listed here. In short, neither stammering not music make fruitful avenues to explore! Aww.

Conversely, Moses (like Marilyn Monroe) has been widely recognised as a stammerer, although the evidence is open to dispute (see e.g. here and here). The image on the left (from the latter article, p.169) shows the ancient hieroglyph for “stammer”!

* * *

From Lotus sutra scroll. Source: British Library.

In medieval Chinese translation, Gadgadasvara became Miaoyin 妙音 “Wondrous Tones”—which seems a faithful rendition of how the Sanskrit name has been understood.

After that inconsequential excursion to the ancient world of scripture-revelation, let’s return to our musical monk in Qing-dynasty Xiongxian county. It remains to be seen how distinctive it was for a monk to be given the name Miaoyin. For the double-character names chosen for Buddhist and Daoist clerics, either the first or second element was stable within each generation (cf. Customs of naming), and miao 妙 was often adopted for the first; the second character yin 音 seems less common than sheng 聲 (sound)—such as the cohort of young monks at the Guangji an temple in Beijing in the 1930s (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.223).

Anyway, even if Miaoyin received his early ritual training in Beijing before being deputed to staff a rural Hebei temple, such occupational “musical monks” (yiseng 藝僧) performing rituals around the old city were most unlikely to be familiar with the Lotus sutra, which is not among the ritual manuals that they performed—so our musical monk clearly wasn’t named after Gadgadasvara.

Still, while he would have been utterly remote from the abstruse concerns of ancient Buddhist cosmology, the prelude to the Hanzhuang score does indeed describe him as “Chan master Miaoyin, Wang ‘Bodhisattva’ Guanghui” (妙音王菩薩光輝禪師)—the honorific “Bodhisattva” suggesting his local reputation.

Anyway, do get to know the wondrous tones of the shengguan ritual suites attributed to Miaoyin, still being performed by ritual associations in Hebei villages (cf. ##8 and 14 of playlist in sidebar, and for the process from singing the oral gongche to instrumental performance, ## 9 and 10—with commentary here)!

Gongche solfeggio score, Hanzhuang: Hesi pai prelude to Qi Yanhui suite.

Long story short: like “And did those feet in ancient time?“, my title seems to resemble those questions they ask you at airport check-in—to which you’re pretty sure the answers are going to be “No”, but you have to keep on your toes just in case.


* I don’t mean to labour the point à la Stewart Lee, but in search of wisdom, I find this helpful explanation:

The Sanskrit term Kamaladalavimalanakṣatrarājasaṃkusumitābhijña can be transliterated into English as Kamaladalavimalanaksatrarajasamkusumitabhijna or Kamaladalavimalanakshatrarajasamkusumitabhijna.

Thanks for that.

Music and the potato

The potato is central to the structuring of musical expression.

—Henry Stobart 
(To be fair, he wasn’t claiming this as a universal of human musicking.
Cf. The life of Brian sermon: ““Blessed are the cheesemakers”
Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally.
It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”)

*UPDATED!*

Being highly partial to a good potato, I’m well up for an article on its relation with music.

  • Henry Stobart, “Flourishing horns and enchanted tubers: music and potatoes in highland Bolivia”, British journal of ethnomusicology 1994.3,

makes a tasty hors d’ouevre for his 2006 book Music and the poetics of production in the Bolivian Andes; note also his Introduction to The new (ethno)musicologies (2008)—a volume that includes many thoughtful chapters, such as those of Michelle Bigenho. and Nicole Beaudry. For me, Stobart’s discussion of a rural Andean hamlet marks a rare excursion to south America.

Music is not the universal language that many people have often claimed it to be. This does not prevent us from deriving great pleasure and inspiration from the musics of other cultures, but the structural principles, aesthetics, and perceptual bases of our appreciation are likely to be radically different from those of the performers themselves.

In another instance of the exclusive, culturally-based meanings of the term “music”, the Spanish word musica is used to refer to either urban brass bands or sometimes sikura panpipe ensembles. As conversations veer off into agriculture, he learns that performance revolves around cycles of agricultural production.

Flutes and guitars, or panpipes, are played for rainy and dry seasons in turn. The wooden pinkillu flutes, considered “alive”, with their “eyes”, are strongly associated with the potato, whereas the panpipes of the dry season, lacking fingerholes, are unable to regenerate. The flutes are “enclosed” by women in the qhata circle dance, and released at Carnival preceding the dry season.

As Stobart notes, “the lives of humans and potatoes overlap and are sometimes compared with one another”. Instruments are considered to “weep”. The pinkillu is also associated with the sirinus, demonic and enchanting beings, who are said to provide players with new melodies between the feasts of San Sebastian and Carnival. The flutes are then hidden away until the following November—which according to a recent survey in The Strad was also voted one of the “best possible things you can do with a viola“, among other popular items covering the entire annual cycle.

For my hosts the potato is no mundane staple, but is an enchanting and magical being whose life is seen in many ways to parallel and enable their own. Potatoes must be loved and cared for, just like human children. This sentiment is expressed through music, song, poetry, and dance which in turn are some of the ultimate expressions of human feeling. For the people of this highland hamlet, it would seem that the potato must count among the most important organising principles of musical performance. Or rather, might it be more accurate to say that music is one of the primary expressions of the potato?

As one often finds, this cyclical relation between agriculture and performance is being impoverished by migration and changing patterns of labour. But this account makes a welcome antidote to all those (alas, perennial) panpipe bands that clog high streets worldwide, bless their alpaca socks.

* * *

To introduce a meretricious interlude on Li Manshan, I can offer the classic headline

Oh my gourd! (cf. these other silly article titles).

LMS potatoes

For more, see The history and social influence of the potato. Though “Daoist ritual and the potato” is a yet-unploughed field, for some reason I always think of Li Manshan when I’m peeling potatoes at home in Chiswick—which I do remarkably often, if impressionistically. While potatoes (shanyao 山药 or yangyu 洋芋 rather than standard tudou 土豆) feature rather sparingly in the local cuisine, which (as generally in north China) is based on noodles, he has a cool underground store in his courtyard, occasionally using a wicker basket to dredge up some potatoes for his wife to incorporate into various succulent recipes. For Li Manshan’s relationship with the earth, see my film, from 6.20.

See also You say potato, You say tomato, and Alan Partridge‘s confident, tasteless comments on the Irish famine.

* * *

“Flourishing horns and enchanted tubers” belongs to Stobart’s early career. In a fine recent update,

  • “Potato music revisited and the rise of a worldly music studies: perspectives from the UK”, in Gerd Grupe (ed.), Recent trends and new directions in ethnomusicology: a European perspective on ethnomusicology in the 21st century (2019),

he puts it in a wider context, reflecting wisely on the changing scene in UK musicology, as WAM scholars have fought a rearguard action against the growing trend for studies of folk and popular music, jazz, and film music.

On his early article, he notes that if he had written it a decade later,

it would probably have included explicit references to (post)colonialism, modernity, class, race, politics, violence, gender issues, migration, or new technologies; themes, among many others, that I would go on to explore in subsequent work.

But that’s not the main issue he needs to address here. Like other ethnomusicologists, Stobart is eminently sympathetic to the study and practice of WAM. Conversely, as Bruno Nettl already observed over half a century ago, the WAMmies are anxious about the perceived threat to their status (a regular theme of my blog, e.g. under Musicking, and What is serious music?!), fearing that “the ethnos are taking over”. So Stobart’s chapter is mainly a careful, equanimous response to belated, misleadingly simplistic critiques by J.P.E. Harper-Scott and Ian Pace.

Is Harper-Scott suggesting that by glancing beyond, what he calls, a “Eurocentric focus on Beethoven” and asking bigger questions, students’ minds might somehow become contaminated?
Alternatively, is he worried about the legitimacy of what he studies and teaches, where we might interpret his attack as an attempt to shore up this music’s value though negative assessment of others?
[…]
The ‘noble savage’-style “essential authenticity” Harper-Scott reads into the article is largely a product of his own imagination.

Moreover,

According to Harper-Scott, I should be berated for failing to condemn these Bolivian potato farmers for their misogyny and pro-natalist attitudes from a universal moral position. Quite how he manages to read the text , and interpret the symbolism of this dance, as evidence of these people’s misogyny is hard to fathom. […]

Of course, a global economic order which enables certain populations to live in poverty is immensely troubling. As Harper-Scott would know if he read my 2006 book, I am painfully aware that the musical expressions I have documented in this rural community have been maintained in large part because of the precariousness of people’s lives. However, it is hard not to be annoyed by the dismissive way in which Harper-Scott seems to propose that, rather than listening to these people and trying to understand their values and way of life, I heroically barge in with scientific knowledge to miraculously bring them out of poverty.

That’s just a taster—do seek out the whole article, as well as reading Music and the poetics of production in the Bolivian Andes!

While Bach did reflect exotic imports with his Coffee Cantata, a Potato Cantata has not come to light. Indeed, potatoes were not grown as a field crop in Germany until the 1770s; considering the malnutrition from which Bach’s ancestors suffered, John Eliot Gardiner (Music in the castle of heaven, pp.23–4) laments that “they had no access to the common spud”.

Recent posts on Tibet

*UPDATED!*

Amidst outcry over China’s recent assault on the Uyghurs, I’m finally giving equal coverage to the plight of the Tibetans. My comments set forth not from any knowledge of the societies in question, but from my interest in local communities and lives under the CCP, both during the Maoist era and since the 1980s’ reforms. So these posts cover social change, political upheavals, and expressive culture.

and necessary corrections to misguided views:

On the ritual cultures of ethnic groups around Amdo, see

A conspicuous absentee from my coverage so far is monastic ritual, a major part of the Tibetan soundscape that has been much studied, even at the expense of other genres. And as many Western studies turn to the lively scene of Tibetan pop, I tend to seek the changing fortunes of traditional culture.

See also Tibet tag.

Iranian lives

In reportage, a cartoon book, and feature films

I’ve been seeking to glean a few basic perspectives on Iranian society beyond its (seemingly “autonomous”) chamber music—note Laudan Nooshin’s useful Songlines introduction to the sound spectrum in Iran.

  • Ramita Navai, City of lies: love, sex, death, and the search for truth in Tehran (2014)

makes a compelling read, an effective blend of interviews, observation, and research. The eight vignettes read like a novel—in “Sources” she explains how she compiles each account, giving further references. In a final note she summarises her own story: based in London from young, returning to Iran as a journalist since 2004, engaging with the poor of south Tehran. Her website also includes her excellent films for Channel 4 from around the world.

With the long avenue of Vali Asr as a thread linking bourgeois north Tehran and the gritty south of the city, the characters (both male and female) encompass all the contradictions of changing modern life there—regime supporters, mullahs and judges, party-goers and dissidents, morality police and mobsters; fashion, nose jobs, and rap; opium, crystal meth, and heroin.

Among all the waves of repression and executions since the 1979 revolution, the protests of 2009 loom large, as well as the constant lure of refuge in the diaspora—including the murky Iranian underworld in Japan.

The book opens with the tale of an MEK hit-man returning to Tehran for a botched assassination attempt. Other characters include Somayah, a devout girl who still falls foul of the regime’s moral strictures, reveals the society’s misogyny; Amir, unable to forgive a repentant judge for sentencing his parents to death; Leyla, whose divorce leads to her to sex work and the thriving porn scene, exploited by hypocritical police and judges; Morteza, an abused young member of a basiji militia who finally manages to have a sex-change operation (a chapter that opens with a vignette on ritual self-mortification); and Farideh, a widow from an affluent family fallen on hard times, who, having learned that swinging 60s’ London was uptight and “backward”, finally decides to make a home there, but returns to Tehran after only two months.

While the contrast between tradition and modernity is a staple cliché of travel writing, here Navai brings real insight to these life stories, always nuanced, conflicted.

Even in large cities, the soundscape is among ways in which such conflicts are evident—in this case, not just the contrast between rap and the call to prayer, but the duality of the art music of the radif and more gritty sounds like festive shawm bands. As Morteza observes the incantations, sobs, and drum-beats of ritual self-flagellants in trance, he notes that they appear strangely like the north Tehran ravers they abhor (cf. Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam).

To varying degrees, duplicity is perhaps a universal in societies, “the consequence of surviving in an oppressive regime”. While it has been noted as a characteristic of socialist societies (e.g. The whisperers), Alan Bennett also regards hypocrisy as a defining trait of the English. More basic is the imposition of power through intimidation, exercised both by political regimes and by traditional values—often reminiscent of China.

* * *

I was reminded of the educative cartoon book

  • Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2000­–2003; complete English edition 2007),

another fine introduction to the modern urban society of Iran.

At 343 pages it’s a substantial autobiography, whose innovative format belies its serious message. Under headings such as “The veil”, “The party”, and “The croissant”, it evokes her early experiences after the 1979 revolution, her troubled teenage years in Vienna from 1983, and her return, feeling defeated, four years later to Iran—where she gets married and divorced before leaving again for good. Since 1993 she has been based in France.

Here’s a trailer for the 2007 film version:

* * *

One of Ramita Navai’s characters approves of the film A separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011), by contrast with the “overrated and pretentious” Iranian films, with their heavy-handed symbolism, that beguile the Western media—a suspicion that is widely common within societies, again as in China.

Still, the new wave films of Iran have a distinguished history, the “second wave” led by Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016) such as the Koker trilogy—here’s a trailer for Where is the friend’s home? (1987):

As to the “third wave”, Samira Makhmalbaf (b.1980), following the path of her father Mohsen (b.1957; family website here) directed her first film The apple (1998) at the age of 17, a moving story of a Tehran family in difficulty (reenacted by the family themselves) that again blurs the line between documentary and fiction.

By contrast, Blackboards (2001) depicts the plight of Kurdish refugees in desolate countryside, against the backdrop of the chemical bombing of Halabja, only revealed at the devastating greyed-out ending. As an itinerant teacher struggles stoically to convince poor villagers of the remote benefits of literacy, he creatively puts his blackboard to more practical uses:

All this just to remind myself again that music is never autonomous… Cf. Three women of Herat.

Tibet: some folk ritual performers

Ngagmo female ritual group, Rebkong (Amdo), c2009. Source here.

For the Tibetan peoples, both before the Chinese occupation—or the uprisings from 1956—and under the reform era since the 1980s, our popular image of religious life is dominated by “institutional” monastic activity. Even genres like lhamo opera, nangma-töshe, and grand local folk communal rituals seem more commonly known than the diverse types of folk ritual performers.

To remind ourselves of a pertinent comment,

any attempt at (re)presenting Tibetan culture today is inseparable from an implicit ideological and political commentary on the situation of Tibet, through history and at present. 

Taxonomy
Emic and etic ways of slicing the cake of expressive cultures vary; and for Tibet they vary both within and between Tibetan, Chinese, and Western approaches. As in many cultures, a simple dichotomy like sacred–secular will only confuse, even if we take it as a continuum. Catherine Bell reflects wisely on the variety of “ritual specialists” within world cultures in Ritual theory, ritual practice, pp.130–40. But again, such an etic umbrella term often seems inadequate for Tibet.

One would include the male ngagpa and female ngagmo self-cultivational groups of Tantric practitioners (see e.g. the work of Nicolas Sihlé, such as this article; wiki, and here; photo above). Further, with religion such a pervasive element in the daily life of Tibetan people, there’s no simple way of encapsulating the variety of performers, family groups and individuals, occupational, often itinerant—such as spirit mediums and diviners, mendicants and beggars (for the latter in pre-occupation Lhasa, see e.g. Part Two here, under “Professional and spiritual beggars”). Moreover, the trite rubric of “song-and-dance” subsumes calendrical rituals with communal, largely ascriptive participation (see e.g. here). [1] Indeed, since the 1950s, and still now, lay performers may be less closely surveilled than the major monasteries such as Labrang (for which see here and here).

A variety of such genres is described in the 2006 book (in Chinese) Zangzu shuochang yishu [Narrative-singing arts of the Tibetan people] by Suolang Ciren 索朗次仁 [Sonam Tsering], (cf. this page).

As with Han Chinese traditions, some of these genres are described as obsolete, and appear to belong to “salvage” fieldwork. Having so often heard this claim from Chinese cultural cadres anxious about revealing “superstitious” activities in their domain, I am reluctant to take it as gospel. It is hard to assess the current picture from published material in Chinese and Tibetan. On one hand PRC scholars may take mediated, secular performances on the concert platform as evidence of the continuing life of tradition; on the other, their access enables them to document local genres. But of course change is always a factor. As with some Han Chinese traditions, folk activity may be continued by other means, and I suspect that lengthy immersion in a given area may still reveal neglected life in such genres. At the same time, few of these groups quite resemble the household ritual specialists who are my main theme in local Han Chinese communities.

In exile, while some genres of the former elite were maintained, and the monasteries have long been the main scholarly focus, many folk ritual genres hardly feature in representations of Tibetan expressive culture such as the 1986 Zlos-gar. However, some of the folk performers who made their way into exile sought to continue activity there.

Moreover, one would seek to consider groups among Tibetan communities such as those of Sikkim, Bhutan, and Ladakh, from where some of the most interesting material derives. As with other “marginal survivals”, always bearing in mind that these are local traditions, it can be tempting to regard such manifestations as suggestive of culture within old Tibet (cf. “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”).

* * *

Among all these genres, by far the most popular area of research is the Gesar epic (see here, n.2, and here). Though it is often treated as a reified genre of oral literature, and since the 1980s has also been performed on the secular stage, the solo performers (both the “inspired” bards who received the text through spiritual revelation in trance after a psychological crisis, and those who learned by listening to other bards) continued to play a role in the domestic rituals of their local communities after the 1980s’ reforms, despite the encroachment of pop and media culture.

But as in south Asia and China, there was (and is) a variety of performers. So here I will illustrate the difficulties of simple classification with brief introductions to lama mani, drekar, and ralpa.

Lama mani
The itinerant solo folk storytellers lama mani enact religious tales with the aid of thangka paintings. It may be more suitable to regard them as educators. [2]

An important source for the wider historical context around China and south Asia is

  • Victor Mair, Painting and performance: Chinese picture recitation and its Indian genesis (1989).

For the TAR, the lama mani feature in Zangzu shuochang yishu; see also this introduction. Around Lhasa, this 2014 article portrays “Chilie” [Thinley / ‘Phrin las] (b. c1940), typically, as “the last lama mani”.

Brought up in a village of Nagarze county in the Lhoka region of southeast TAR, both of his parents had performed lama mani, and he learned with them from young, along with his three older sisters; here one would wish to fill in the gaps in his biography for the Maoist decades. Even recently, his status as a Transmitter of the Intangible Cultural Heritage hadn’t brought him security: in 2014, performing on the street in the Barkhor, he was moved on by the police.

Thinley performing in Lhasa, 2014.

Some lama mani have also been active in exile—note

Besides a film by Tsering Rithar on a refugee lama mani in Nepal, this is a 10-minute film on lama mani there:

Drekar
Drekar oldAlso belonging within this diverse rubric are the drekar (in Chinese, zhega 折嘎: see this useful page), mendicant masked buffoons reciting auspicious verses for New Year and weddings (cf. Chinese beggars, such as in Shaanbei).

Again, the drekar have been described as obsolete, both within and beyond the PRC. A brief recorded excerpt (from since the 1980s’ reforms!) can be heard in #2 of CD 6 in Mao Jizeng’s anthology Xizang yinyue jishi. Whereas it was clearly recited on request, Woeser filmed this even briefer video during a street performance, suggesting that there may still be potential for fieldwork:

Ralpa
Until the 1950s the ralpa or relpa (in Chinese, reba 热巴), mostly from the Kham region in origin, were family-based, low-class, itinerant performers, using narration, singing, dancing, acrobatics, and small plays, based on the life of Milarepa.

Ralpa dancers, Dengchen, Chamdo. Source here.

But the sense in which ralpa is now commonly promoted is as a communal dance festivity in the villages of Kham—subject of a book by Gonpo Gyaltsen (1928–2020), himself a former ralpa from the Dechen region there: in Chinese, Oumi Jiacan 欧米加参, Xuecheng reba 雪域热巴 (1998), Tibetan translation Gangs-ljongs ral-pa (2017).

Today this form too may be largely obsolete (see e.g. this useful survey), even as it has become a victim of commodified dance arrangements and the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

* * *

Under Chinese occupation and modernity some of these genres have doubtless suffered more than others; but we should include them all within our picture of the varied religious behaviours in local Tibetan societies—even as many fine scholars, quite legitimately, turn their attention to the pop soundscape. And of course more revealing ethnographies could be compiled on how individual, family, or devotional groups of lay participants dovetail in local societies with monasteries, communal ritual activities, and so on [3]over time: as usual, we might hope to seek threads of continuity in 1950s’ activity.

With thanks as ever to Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy


[1] Sources for such genres appear rather piecemeal. Some feature in §III of the New Grove article on Tibet, and in the bibliographies of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (for Western-language sources) and Sangye Dondhup (for Tibetan and Chinese items); but Isabelle surveys much of the material in chapter 3 of her magnum opus Le théâtre ache lhamo, with references including some notes by early Western Tibetologists (such as Tucci and Stein), and for the post-reform era, studies by Tibetan and Chinese scholars, again mostly brief.

For Tibetan communities within the PRC, among the Anthology volumes (for the Tibetan Autonomous Region [TAR], Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan, in Chinese), those on narrative-singing (and perhaps on folk-song, and dance) should give further leads.

At a tangent, YouTube has a range of interesting material under “Tibetan wedding”, like this 2013 ceremony from a village in Qinghai, with some fine singing. This might lead us to the chang ma beer servers in old and new Tibet.

[2] Among references to lama mani in Le théâtre ache lhamo (n.1 above), two discuss the drama Padma ‘od-‘bar (also popular in lhamo, like many items here): Anne-Marie Blondeau’s chapter in Zlos-gar (referring mainly to the relation of paintings and text), and a 2012 booklet (in Tibetan) with three CDs, for the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

[3] For a mendicant singer in early 20th century Amdo, with pertinent details on present-day performers, see this article by Gerald Roche.

Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam

Amidst the current savage repression in Xinjiang, a brilliant new book is

aptly dedicated to the fine anthropologist and film-maker Rahile Dawut, who is among countless Uyghurs “disappeared” into the “re-education” camp system.

Integrating expressive culture, religion, society, and politics, it’s complemented by the website http://www.soundislamchina.org, where we can find audio and video examples discussed in the text.

Though Rachel has been unable to return to Xinjiang since 2012, alongside others like Rian Thum and Darren Byler, she has been assiduously documenting the whole cataclysm there with a whole series of articles, some of which form the basis for chapters in this volume. Since then too, her research has benefitted from the perspectives of visiting Uyghur communities in neighbouring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Indeed, even her fieldwork in Xinjiang from 2006 to 2012 was hampered by tensions that came to a head with the protests and inter-ethnic violence of 2009 in Urümchi. Since 2016 for Xinjiang Uyghurs to have any contact with relatives and friends abroad has become highly dangerous.

After a long period of research on the largely masculine worlds of the muqam and Uyghur pop music, Rachel turned late to the less visible world of female culture, studying a group of pious women in a village in southern Xinjiang who recite the Qur’an and intone zikr religious formulas. Their schedule was busy, including calendrical and life-cycle rituals, rituals for the dead, and to heal sickness, for individual families and the whole community. The village women were “immersed in a perpetual cycle of reciprocal hospitality and mutual aid. […] Moral propriety and communal responsibility were intertwined with being a good Muslim.”

By contrast with media images, these women were not isolated, but highly networked and responsive to social change. They continued practising, often clandestinely, throughout the Maoist era, becoming more open after the 1980s’ reforms—until being suppressed since 2014.

The seven chapters flow compellingly in an escalating sequence of tragedy, moving from poor villages to labour camps

.Chapter 1 is an exemplary exposition of the main themes, adding to our material on society and soundscape, always striking just the right balance between cross-cultural theory and grassroots fieldwork. The chapter opens with insightful sonic vignettes:

The massive development of recent decades in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China has brought rapid advances in infra-structure, the wholesale extraction of natural resources, and large-scale Han Chinese immigration into a region until recently dominated by Turkic Muslim peoples, the most numerous of whom are the Uyghurs. This development has wrought huge changes, not only in the landscape but also in the soundscape. By 2012, coal mines and oil refineries had come to dominate the desert landscape, and heavy trucks thundered up and down the new highways transporting minerals and building materials. In Xinjiang’s provincial cities, bulldozers rumbled over demolition sites and mud-brick shacks crashed to the ground, fracturing precarious communities of Uyghur rural migrants. The thudding of pile drivers echoed around the high-rise residential developments that were shooting up in their place. In the manicured town squares, the evening soundscape became carnivalesque. Groups of Han Chinese women performed American line dancing or Chinese yang’ge dancing to techno soundtracks that competed with tinny music from children’s fairground rides. In the Muslim graveyard in Ürümchi, there was an audible hum from the electricity pylons and the mass of wires that passed overhead; relatives complained that the noise was disturbing the sleep of the dead. In the Uyghur villages of the rural south, the roar of motorbikes had all but replaced the groan of the donkeys, and the nights throbbed to the sound of water pumps as farmers took advantage of cheap electricity to pump water to their cotton fields. The village loudspeaker, that supreme sonic marker of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, was once again filling the village streets with a mixture of popular songs and news of the latest political campaigns.

But just as important is silence: “equally important for an understanding of the soundscape are the sounds that are not heard, sounds that do not circulate in the public sphere”—such as the call to prayer. Even the women’s religious gatherings, the main subject of the book, were held furtively behind closed doors. And by 2018 people didn’t even dare to talk (cf. The whisperers).

Rachel introduces the religious history of the Uyghurs, and the revival since the reforms of the 1980s, noting increasing piety among local communities, and placing it within the wider context of transnational flows of Islamic ideologies and practice, notably activity within Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. But already on the eve of 9/11 even the most routine of Muslim practices were coming to be targeted by the Chinese state in campaigns against “extremism” and “separatism”. Nor were Uyghur communities unified in their faith, with a growing debate around stricter forms of Wahhabism. She notes the interpretation of religious revivals as a response among marginalised and deprived people to the upheavals prompted by the introduction of globalized capitalism.

She presents fine perspectives on “Why sound?”, “Is it music?”, and “Thinking about music”, and among “Contested soundscapes”, she draws attention to gendered aspects. With “music”, singing, and dancing all subject to scrutiny within Uyghur communities themselves, she highlights the experience of the participants, and notes the social circulation of religious media via recordings and the internet, finding similarities with the transmission of pop music.

Gathering before khätmä ritual.

As an interlude, a village woman tells her story in 2009, growing up under the Maoist commune system, and her experiences since the 1980s’ reforms, cautiously taking part in the village’s ritual events. Rachel reflects on the account in Chapter 2, which focuses on the khätmä healing ritual, also used for commemorating the dead. She explores the role of  büwi, the senior ritual specialist who leads the women in reciting and weeping in trance. The role is often hereditary, but one of Rachel’s mentors had begun her path after a dream, like many spirit mediums in China (see e.g. here, with many links) and further afield.

The authority for their learning is often conferred by a period of study with male ritual specialists. Some identify as tariqa, people of the path, and she traces the connection with Sufi lodges and the wider history of organised Sufism.

Rachel gives a detailed account of a khätmä ritual she attended in 2009, alternating surah verses in the Qur’an and zikr short repeated phrases of prayers. With the affective power of sound more important than lexical meaning, she focuses on bodily, rhythmic entrainment, as well as ishq (divine love, passion) and därd (suffering), expressed through weeping (some links here), which she explores with yet another detailed cross-cultural analysis. As one büwi commented on watching the video of the climax of the ritual:

The oil is sizzling in the pot [qazan kizip kätti]. Their love for Allah is so strong that they can’t stop themselves crying, just like the pot on the stove. When the oil is hot, you must throw in the meat otherwise the oil will catch fre. It’s just like that. Then you must put in the vegetables, otherwise the meat will burn. So just like that the women cry a lot. . . . Their love [ishq] for Allah is like the hot oil in the pot, their love for Allah is so strong.

She notes that

reciting the khätmä and weeping not only is for alleviating one’s own sin but can also serve as an act of intercession on behalf of the families of the deceased, or even for the whole community.

Chapter 3 discusses the hikmät sung prayers of the women’s rituals, the complex interactions of text and performance, and debates over style. Acknowledging the work of Chinese musicologist Zhou Ji (see here, under “The muqaddime“), she again gets to the heart of religious practice. She describes a healing ritual in 2012, when the political climate was already tense; and a 2015 ritual across the Kazakh border, with insightful comments on the modern history of the region (cf. The Kazakh famine).

Do listen to the audio examples here and here; see also under https://www.musicofcentralasia.org/Tracks.

Chapter 4 continues to incorporate material from Uyghur communities beyond Xinjiang, exploring patterns of circulation of Qur’anic recitation, and how they are discussed and strategically deployed in public spaces, digital media, and daily practice.

Under the more relaxed conditions of the 1980s and 90s, travel and trade helped satisfy the longing for engagement with the Muslim heartlands in the Middle East. The growing influence of Saudi and Egyptian styles of recitation as heard on media platforms brought a certain dilution of local styles, which was not always welcome. Rachel’s attuned ear notes both the tajwid rules for recitation, including nasal timbre, and the taste for reverb in recordings.

She makes adroit comparisons with modal improvisation and changing styles in Egypt and Indonesia. With all this in mind, she looks again at the vocal style of the khätmä ritual in her adoptive village in south Xinjiang, in another detailed analysis of a “spiritual aesthetic in transition”. She notes the apparent contradiction in the rural büwi incorporating the Saudi style, which preaches against the “superstitious” Sufi practices that they represent. While she notes that “many observers of the Islamic world have pitted supposedly tolerant and hybrid forms of local Islam against the purifying practices of reformist individuals and groups”, the distinction is far from clear-cut. While internalising their marginality,

For them, mimicking the sounds of Salafism did not necessarily denote an adoption of Salafi ideology. For Aynisa, as for other reciters, rather than indexing rival ideologies, what both the Egyptian and Saudi styles indexed was modernity.

Aynisa

felt the need to make herself strong and to make herself modern, in part in response to pressure from state religious policies, in part in response to criticism of her own practice by Uyghur reformists. Cyborglike, magpielike, she mimetically absorbed and deployed foreign styles of recitation within a very local form of ritual, using them to resist backward status and to lay claim to alternative styles of modernity.

After another interlude translating the anonymous satirical poem “They’ll arrest you” posted on WeChat in 2014, showing clearly that the campaign’s true target was normal moral behaviour for Uyghurs, Chapter 5,“Mobile Islam: mediation and circulation”, explores depictions of religion and Uyghur identity (not least through the sensory, affective experiences of images and sound) that thrived briefly on social media platforms, and the complex debates among Uyghurs about how to be a good Muslim—in particular a good, modest Muslim woman. With state repression escalating after the 2009 unrest (fed by the Global War on Terror), virtually any form of Uyghur behaviour became vulnerable to accusations of “religious extremism”, and debate was silenced. Countering the state discourse, she notes:

Together these phenomena helped to produce new structures of feeling within Uyghur society that may be best characterized as a crisis of suffering—both personally and collectively experienced—to which only Islam, in different guises, could provide a solution through its capacity to enable personal and collective transformation. For the majority, this spiritual awakening and quest for greater religious knowledge, and the projects of practice and self-discipline impelled by their new faith, were primarily personal. For some, they converged with experiences of the increasingly repressive state policies and took on a more overtly political dimension.

In July 2014 violent confrontations in Yarkand county in southern Xinjiang began with a police raid on an “illegal religious gathering” by a group of village women. Rachel returns to the ubiquitous theme of därd suffering, now denoting national as well as spiritual pain, and expressed in religious worship and pop music alike. The latter often took the traditional—and transnational—a cappella form of anashid, sung poetry in praise of Allah, only in a breathy popular style remote from the nasality of tajwid recitation. Though their main theme was the call to prayer, Rachel confronts the radical message of some of these items. And with typically instructive cross-cultural examples, she contemplates the power of rumour.

Agents of the state reacted with horror at the spread of what they perceived as alien, antimodern, and hence threatening ways of being, and they invoked the globally circulating trope of Islamic terror, which enabled new violence to be unleashed against the supposed terrorists and against the Uyghur people, who were now coming to be collectively defined by this trope.

Chapter 6, “Song and dance and the sonic territorization of Xinjiang”,notes people’s alienation from the formal musical performances promoted by state media since the intensification of campaigns since 2014. The chapter opens by unpacking Little apple, a bizarrely kitsch video adopted nationally by the security forces to promote stability and ethnic unity. Rachel utilizes research on Tibet. Uyghur culture and the Chinese state have irreconcilable images of the landscape; noting the rebuilding, and bulldozing, of sites like Kashgar and Qumul to bolster the Chinese agenda, she discusses sonic territoralisation. Since 2015 the soundscape of urban Xinjiang has been dominated by Chinese propaganda songs, evoking the mass propaganda of the Maoist era—cue for further instructive introductions to Muzak and shopping malls, and to the use of sound in warfare.

She now discusses the campaign against religious extremism in detail.

Rather than targeting the small number of people who might reasonably be judged vulnerable to radicalization and violent action, the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang sought to eliminate all visible and audible expressions of Islamic faith—veiling, beards, public prayer, fasting, religious gatherings, instruction, and media—from the landscape and soundscape.

Among the targets were visible signs of religiosity, including women’s clothing. “By 2016, veils and beards had disappeared from the landscape.” Also to be eliminated was “noise”—meaning Muslim noise, inside unofficial mosques, in restaurants and family homes, and on social media. Listening was dangerous.

Again we are reminded of the debate within Uyghur communities with a discussion of the proper observance of weddings. But the state now fabricated a simplified and misleading opposition: “foreign” religious extremism versus “traditional” song and dance.

To replace Muslim noise, the commodified Chinese song-and-dance style was heavily promoted. In another fascinating discussion Rachel unpacks the meanings of smiling in such performances—by contrast with the Uyghur emphasis on weeping.

If China’s professional minority performers had long been accustomed to smiling to service the requirements of nation building, the unfolding of the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang made it clear that it was no longer sufcient for paid professionals to smile; now ordinary Uyghurs from schoolchildren to büwis were required to silence their weeping and publicly demonstrate their happiness. From 2015 on, local cultural bureaus across Xinjiang organized villagers to participate in song-and-dance performances, mass dancing displays, weekly sessions for singing revolutionary songs, and weekly mäshräp gatherings in order to counter extremism.

The mäshräp had long been a contested and regionally variable forum—see her 2020 article, also bearing on the incongruous attempt to gain UNESCO status under the Intangible Cultural Heritage; and in similar vein, “You shall sing and dance: contested ‘safeguarding’ of Uyghur Intangible Cultural Heritage”, Asian ethnicity 21.4 (2020), by an anonymous (apparently Uyghur) scholar.

Again referencing the Maoist era, another focus of the campaigns was singing “Red Songs”, which even religious personnel were required to perform.

With the Uyghur diaspora responding by declaring such performances haram, Rachel has to clarify that “music”, song and dance, including muqam and the songs of the ashiq Sufi mendicants, had long co-existed with more orthodox, austere modes of religious expression, constituting another historical object of debate among Uyghurs. And even the staged song-and-dance style had a history going back to the early 20th century: “a rejection of this culture implied, in the view of many urban intellectuals, a rejection of the development of the modern Uyghur nation”.

Such issues were hotly debated on Uyghur forums in exile.

It was in this context, with music and Islam in Uyghur culture fixed into positions of opposition, and musical performance deployed as a tool of control by the state, that Uyghur pop singers like those mentioned in chapter 5 fled the country, arrived in Turkey “repenting of their sins”—sins that might well have included performing patriotic or revolutionary songs praising the Chinese Communist Party—and atoned for these sins recording radical anashid supporting the mujahidin.

The Xinjiang campaigns were an attempt to replace one form of embodied practice with another—secular, modern, patriotic. While Rachel notes that such compulsory gatherings weren’t invariably experienced as the imposition of an alien sonic regime,

the fact that these experiences of singing and dancing were coercive and underpinned by state violence was completely consistent with past precedent, and this juxtaposition of song and dance and state violence would come still more sharply into focus in the new context of the mass internment camps that were already under construction across the region.

And so the reeducation techniques in the camps are the subject of Chapter 7, “Erasure and trauma”. Among much coverage, this too is a masterly account.

By 2017 the campaigns had extended way beyond the religious sphere.

Increasingly the term “religious extremism” seemed to serve as a gloss for Uyghur culture and identity, which was now regarded as a “virus” in need of eradication.

Again, coercive musical performance played a key role in the reeducation programme of the camps. I remain unclear how making inmates sing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” for foreign journalists might ever be expected to convince anyone—I suppose it’s more of a demonstration of power.

The chapter continues with an astute discussion of trauma, subsuming the Cultural Revolution and other societies.

Rachel finds the binding theme of repetition—in Red Songs and forced confessions, as in zikr and repeating the shahadah 72,000 times for a death ritual. She reads the securitisation of Xinjiang as a colonial project, prompting further global comparisons. Yet—or thus,

we should not assume for one moment that the effects of the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang will be a permanent erasure of the religious sensibilities and the cultural identity of its subjects and to rewire them as patriotic automatons.

Simple acts of remembering “suggest the inevitable failure of state projects of social reengineering”.

She adopts scholars’ metaphor of the palimpsest to evoke unsuccessful attempts to erase previous layers.

Far from internalizing understandings of their culture and faith as an infectious disease that led inexorably to terrorist violence, I suggest that Uyghurs are well accustomed to the periodic and transient nature of political campaigns, and they know how to attune themselves to the requirements of the present.

While it will hardly console those grieving over bulldozed gravelands or mourning their loved ones, it’s a remarkably far-sighted and optimistic conclusion.

* * *

While some sections on Islamic transmission are highly technical, Rachel has a gift for integrating theory with ethnographic detail. In all, despite pertinent reminders in the later chapters, Xinjiang faces firmly west, not east: Han Chinese culture may be highly visible, and audible, in the towns, but here it hardly appears except (as Barnett observes for Tibet) as an “inanimate or malignant force”. In Xinjiang and further afield, the whole culture is dominated by the diverse practices of Islam—which are precisely what the Chinese state is now trying to erase.

For more, see Uyghur tag; and for a comparable case, see posts under the Tibet tag. These themes should never have been considered marginal in studies of the PRC, and now they seem all the more urgent.

More films on ritual drama

From Un opéra rituel chinois : Zhang Wenxuan (Anhui).

For the rich local traditions of Chinese ritual—as I never tire of observing—we have ample silent, immobile textual documentation, but much less material in the public domain on film (see this list).

Ritual drama has been a substantial component of this field ever since the projects initiated by C.K. Wang soon after the 1980s’ revival of tradition. But again we rarely have access to the drama itself, with all its actions and soundscape, all the “red and fiery” sensuous pleasures that are an indispensable part of the experience.

The distinguished sinologist Jacques Pimpaneau (b.1934), along with his numerous publications, founded the Musée Kwok On in Paris in 1972, the collection more recently housed in Lisbon (see also here).

And besides documenting textual and material aspects, he avidly recorded local Chinese ritual drama on film—mainly in the early 1990s, before migration, pop music, the lures of material enrichment, and heritagification were too rampant.

The playlist of films (mostly around half an hour, with French voiceovers) on his YouTube channel includes exorcistic drama from south China, such as the nuoxi masked dramas of Jiangxi, Hunan (including Mulian drama; see also here), and Anhui; as well as Nantong near Shanghai, and, again in Hunan, New Year rituals of Hengshan and among the Miao.

Here’s the English version of L’expulsion du petit demon, filmed in Pingxiang on the Jiangxi–Hunan border:

Of two excerpts from shadow-puppetry in Shaanxi (cf. Chinese shadows), the second also including marionettes from Chaozhou and again Shaanxi:

The playlist also ventures to Tibet—a grand monastic festival near Lhasa, and lhamo opera—as well as south and southeast Asia: Kerala, Java and Bali—as well as itinerant story-tellers of Bengal illustrating their religious paintings, part of a rich Asian tradition documented by Victor Mair in Painting and performance: Chinese picture recitation and its Indian genesis (1989).

Tibet: conflicting memories

Coming soon after the English edition of Woeser’s Forbidden memory, another fine contribution to our understanding of modern Tibetan history is the magnum opus

  • Robert Barnett, Benno Weiner, and Françoise Robin (eds), Conflicting memories: Tibetan history under Mao retold (2020, xxix + 681 pp.!).

Covering the periods since the Chinese occupation in 1950 and the death of Mao in 1976, it presents a wealth of original material in the form of memoirs and oral narratives, histories and official sources, fiction and film, dovetailing perceptive essays and primary documents. Besides the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), Amdo and Kham are especially well represented.

As Robert Barnett explains in yet another of his exemplary introductions, the book presents the candid narratives of a range of Tibetan and Chinese writers—by contrast with the historiography of the Chinese state, with its “logic of legitimization”. Before the reform era since 1980, the main periods, in an escalating sequence of violence, were the early years of occupation; the crises of 1956–59; and the Cultural Revolution (notably 1966–69).

Oral accounts and memoirs—from Tibetan and Chinese officials, some early Tibetan Communists and progressives, and ordinary and elite Tibetans—“seek to make nuanced, sometimes almost imperceptible, adjustments to official narratives about China’s recent record in Tibetan regions”. While they don’t go so far as to challenge CCP rule over Tibet, they are “historical retellings in which the state has been removed or reduced to an inanimate or malignant force, and in which Tibetan agency has been restored, but only as a question of endurance and at an individual, local level.” In all such accounts, we need to “read between the lines”—just as for material on Han Chinese regions (see e.g. here, and here).

Part One, “Official retellings and revisualisations of the ‘Liberation of Tibet’ ”, opens with chapters by Benno Weiner (whose recent book The Chinese revolution on the Tibetan frontier is another important contribution to our knowledge of the modern history of Amdo) and Alice Travers, exploring changing agendas in the published “cultural and historical materials” (wenshi ziliao)—also a revealing source for Han Chinese areas (cf. here).

Compared to the extreme violence that was to come, Western, Chinese, and Tibetan authors have tended to portray the early years of occupation as relatively genteel. But Bianca Horlemann’s scrutiny of an account by the Chinese leader of a “Work Group” for the pastoralist Golog region in south Amdo adds to a growing body of evidence that “liberation” was far from smooth.

And Robert Barnett’s own chapter describes in detail the change of emphasis in mainstream Chinese “Tibet-encounter” films and TV dramas from the Maoist era to the reforms (cf. his Columbia course). Setting forth from the beguiling voyeuristic notion (Western as much as Chinese) of Tibet as “mysterious” and “exotic”, he notes a shift from tales of socialist military valour to commercially attractive stories of romance and self-discovery.

He suggests that the rationale for the early films was

in large part to explain and justify to the wider nation the abrupt and large-scale interaction then occurring between Chinese forces and Tibetans. That contact was, after all, on an unprecedented scale and involved entirely different and unfamiliar cultures, languages and social systems. Chinese citizens who were sent to Tibet were being asked not just to risk their lives fighting Tibetan troops and rebels in deeply unfamiliar and difficult terrain, but also in many cases to dedicate decades of their lives as cadres, teachers, doctors, road-builders, labourers, and so forth in order to administer and colonise an area which, unlike other minority areas within China, had had its own government, military and ruling institutions for centuries and where few Chinese had ever lived or worked before.

Throughout the various periods, many films portray Tibetans as grateful allies of the Party; and they dwell on the exploitation of the masses at the hands of the old ruling classes.

At its simplest, films in the Mao era vilified Tibetan culture and the Tibetan social system, while those produced in the reform period beautified Tibetans, their environment, and, increasingly, their bodies.

TV series Love song of Kangding, 2004.

Ever attentive to gender issues, Barnett notes the trope of the “orphan–heroine”. And while Chinese characters have come to be explored in more depth, there remain no credible portrayals of the Tibetan side of the story.

In Part Two, “Rereading the past: stories told by documents”, Alex Raymond again reinterprets the initial “liberation” of Tibet, showing that any “gradualism” in Chinese policy was a matter of expediency and logistics. Chung Tsering assesses a variety of accounts of the ambiguous political career of Ngaphö Ngawang Jigme (1910–2009); Document 4 translates his 1989 speech. And Document 5 is an important addition to work on the Tenth Panchen Lama—a hitherto unpublished speech also from 1989, a critique not just of the Cultural Revolution but of the whole three decades of occupation.

Part Three, “Speaking the past: oral remembering” addresses the uprisings in Amdo from 1958, and the Cultural Revolution there. Dáša Mortensen unpacks ongoing historical amnesia through public and private accounts of the 1966 destruction of Gandan Sumtsenling, the main Tibetan monastery of Gyalthang in Yunnan province, showing how “the politics of memory and forgetting are shaped by both official and individual agendas, competing to produce an acceptable memory at a time when grievances are still deeply entrenched and inconvenient for any side to air”.

Charlene Makley, with two pseudonymised contributors, unpacks an oral account of the years following 1958 by a senior Tibetan village leader (“G.” below) in Rebgong (southeast Qinghai)—using a detailed system of transcription to evoke the subtle messages of his language and his interactions with the participants, which rarely emerge in interview transcripts. A sample (asterisks denoting Chinese loanwords):

T: How many years were you in the *labour camp*?
G: Four and a half years.
T: For four and half years? Oh so that means ’58, ’59, ’60 and ’61?
[11:38 G explains how central Party officials came to investigate Qinghai during the post-famine rectification process. Here he goes into the most detail so far. T had never heard this; T and CM are entranced.]
G: [until] ’62… ’62… that’s how long I had to stay. Not just for 1958, but for ’59, ’60, ’61 and ‘62. – T: Oooh. – Until August of 1962, in *September I returned. – CM/T: Mmm/Oooh – The one who reported [the situation] to *central leaders* was … Wang Zhao came, Wang Zhao, the *deputy head* of the *Central Management Department* (Ch.: Guanlibu). – CM/T: Oooh. – So Qinghai *province *sent a delegation down*, and the *Management Department* officials accompanied them. When they came, they *investigated everything. They disbanded the *cafeterias. All those sent to the *labour camp* were released. Wang Zhao said a few words: “Just as for the People’s Militias, keep the *‘group leaders’* (Ch.: banzhang) imprisoned, and release the ‘militia members’.” He used that kind of metaphor, he didn’t say more than that … What did he mean by a *‘group leader’*? He meant the traditional Tibetan leaders, of course. By *‘group leader’,* he meant Tibetan *landlords, or lamas or lay leaders. [Wang] ordered everyone but them to be released. But *half [of those leaders] had already died, They died! They all died! That region was harsh because of the high altitude!

The same period is discussed in an excerpt from a remarkably frank book by Rinchen Zangpo (Shamdo Rinzang).

Shamdo Rinzang (left).

Documents 7–10 are excerpts from the 2016 Living and dying in modern Tibet­, an important collection of oral memoirs from the 1930s to the 1970s for northern Kham.

 Part Four describes “Literary retellings”—the short stories, novels, literary memoirs, and fiction from the reform era that served as a necessary, not optional, forum for Tibetan critiques of the terrors following 1958. Françoise Robin discusses literature recalling the period in Amdo:

Fiction and literature confirm their use by Tibetans to counter official memory and circumvent the hegemonic memory engineering that has been going on for over fifty years. Still facing too many risks to offer directly a revised account of lost events, these works of fiction not so much mark what has been forgotten as delineate the history of state erasure of that past, and its silencing of the generation that experienced it.

Xénia de Heering introduces Nagtshang Nulo’s autobiography Joys and Sorrows of the Nagtshang Boy, set in Machu county, Kanlho, interspersing official documents.

Part Five, “Religious remembering” focuses on history recollected through the lens of faith. Nicole Willock, Maria Turek, and Geoffrey Barstow describe accounts by lamas, Buddhist scholars, hermits, and a religious artisan. Even those who accommodated with the new regime suffered terribly, but they continued to view their role as guardians of Tibetan culture and religion, recalling ultra-leftist violence merely in terms of obstacles to spiritual development.

The volume is further enriched by extensive references, detailed maps, glossary, photos, and an exhaustive index. Hefty as it is, I still wonder how Brill still manages to charge such astronomical prices for their fine books, mitigating against the wide readership they deserve.

Again I marvel at the enterprise, energy, and nuance of recent scholarship on Tibet, so very far from the simplistic, polarised work of the 1980s. But the emergence of a certain space for alternative versions of this traumatic history can be of little consolation for Tibetan people amidst their current plight, as Chinese state control continues to intensify.

See also Labrang 1; How not to describe 1950s’ Tibet; and Tibet and Uyghur tags.

Tibetan clichés

Tibetan clichés

Following my series of Chinese clichés (under Party-speak, art, and music, as well as this party game), the clichés surrounding “exotic, mysterious” Tibet are even more egregious.

The guilty misconceptions are methodically unpacked in

  • Françoise Robin (ed.), Clichés tibetains: idées reçues sur le toit du monde (2011).

As she comments in the Introduction, few countries attract such interest while being so misunderstood. Some of the clichés the authors deflate are propounded by the Chinese state, others are Western orientalist misconceptions; neither faction will welcome such corrections.

It’s an ingenious idea, a stimulating, palatable history lesson from a team of accomplished Tibetologists: Robin herself, with Étienne Bock, Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (whose contributions can be found here), Thomas Kerihuel, Nicolas Tournadre, and Alice Travers.

Labrang map Makley

Source: Makley, The violence of liberation.

First, Robin clarifies a basic point: the very concept of “Tibet”. Apart from “central Tibet” (which became the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” [TAR] under the Chinese in the 1950s), the far more extensive area where ethnic Tibetans live (still within the PRC) also includes the regions of Amdo and Kham. Moreover, Tibetan culture is strong in countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim.

The list of clichés that the contributors refute or refine with digestible essays goes on to include

  • “Tibet was isolated from the world until 1959”
  • “The regime that preceded the Chinese invasion was a theocracy”
  • “The traditional Tibetan regime was a system which oppressed the people and rested on their servitude”
  • “Tibet has been part of China for 700 years”
  • “The Chinese invasion made a million victims in Tibet”
  • “A great number of Tibetans live in exile”
  • “Western forces sustained the Tibetan resistance”
  • “Tibet couldn’t have gained access to modernity without China”
  • “China destroyed all the Tibetan monasteries during the Cultural Revolution”
  • “All Tibetans are Buddhist”
  • “The Tibetans are non-violent” (cf. The Lhasa ripper)
  • “Authentic Tibetan culture is only preserved in exile”
  • “All art and culture in Tibet is Buddhist”
  • “The Tibetan language is not taught in Tibet”
  • “Tibetans are nomads”
  • “Tibetans don’t eat meat”