Under reviews of my book, I’ve just added a link to a thoughtful new review by Daniel Murray in Journal of Chinese religions.
Under reviews of my book, I’ve just added a link to a thoughtful new review by Daniel Murray in Journal of Chinese religions.
Just as I was lamenting the lack of public acknowledgement of the crimes of Maoism—by comparison with countries where regime change has enabled such necessary commemoration (see e.g. my posts on Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Hildi, Gitta Sereny, the work of Philippe Sands, the GDR, and the Salazar regime)—the new Wang Bing 王兵 documentary Dead souls, just shown at Cannes, is a timely reminder of his brave work and that of other documentarists and journalists, not to mention their interviewees, survivors of the late-1950s’ labour-camp system and the kin of its victims.
Research on the notorious Jiabiangou camp in Gansu has an estimable history. Wang Bing’s project goes back to meeting He Fengming in 1995 (herself a Gansu camp survivor), whose husband died at Jiabiangou—resulting in Wang’s 2007 film Fengming: a Chinese memoir (here, with Spanish and Italian subtitles; also interview), shown at Cannes that year. From 2003 Zhao Xu 赵旭 began publishing his research on Jiabiangou, Fengxue Jiabiangou 风雪夹边沟. From 1997 Yang Xianhui 杨显惠 was visiting former inmates, and in 2003 he published his collection Woman From Shanghai: tales of survival from a Chinese labor camp (English translation 2009). As Wang Bing began dramatizing these stories in a narrative film, he met more survivors from Jiabiangou, and The ditch was premiered in 2010—a deeply distressing watch (here with French subtitles):
And then, even before Wang’s latest documentary was released, the great activist film-maker Ai Xiaoming 艾晓明 (b.1953, another Beishida alumna later based in Guangzhou) filmed her six-hour Jiabiangou elegy: life and death of the rightists (2017)—in five parts, here:
The interviewees note the general desperation of the inmates’ families and the local population, themselves struggling to find anything edible. Yang Jisheng, whose book Tombstone is an important source on the great famine of the time, points out the political background in Gansu (for the famine and Wu Wenguang’s Memory project, see here; for the works of Frank Dikötter, here).
Wang Bing’s Dead souls is even longer, at 496 minutes—here are three clips:
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That latter excerpt leads me to a subsidiary point about ritual and ritual soundscape, about suffering, and people’s lives—and in this case the suffering that we can, and must, document is that of the Maoist years.
My film Notes from the yellow earth (DVD with Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei) contains a lengthy sequence (§B) from a similar funeral—filmed in a village which indeed has its own traumatic memories. One might hear the playing of such shawm bands as merely “mournful”—indeed, that’s why younger urban dwellers are reluctant to hear them, associating the sound with death. And of course the style and repertoire of these bands took shape long before Maoism, based on earlier historical suffering. But we can only hear “early music” with our own modern ears…
So in the context of Wang Bing’s film the bleakness of the soundscape really hits home, suggesting how very visceral is the way that the style evokes the trauma of ruined lives and painful memory—slow, with wailing timbre and the “blue” scale of jiadiao, the two shawms in stark unison occasionally splintering into octave heterophony. For similarly anguished shawm playing, cf. playlist, tracks 5 and 6 (commentary here). For anyone still struggling, despite my best efforts, to comprehend the relevance of shawm bands, Wang Bing’s scene should be compulsory viewing. Similarly, since I often note the importance of Daoist ritual in Gansu, the camps there might form one aspect of our accounts of ritual life there.
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As a recent review notes:
It’s not as if the prisoners had been caught red-handed in plotting the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party. Nearly all of the interviewees insist they are loyal, patriotic party members, with some saying they were indicted for a small critical comment against a supervisor or splashing tears on a portrait of Mao. One interviewee recalls hearing how leading cadres were sending people off to “re-education” by random, just to prove Mao’s view that 5 percent of society is composed of “bad elements.”
Amidst a shameful wall of official silence, both Ai Xiaoming and Wang Bing, along with their interviewees, were subjected to harrassment while filming. It may seem nugatory to observe that technically the editing and structuring of their films is highly accomplished.
And these are just a few of many hundred such camps, with their countless victims. No less harrowing is a film by Xie Yihui 谢贻卉 on juvenile labourers in a Sichuan camp:
Like “the German soul”, suffering in China isn’t timeless: it is embodied in the lives and deaths of real people in real time. People dying since I began fieldwork in the 1980s all had traumatic histories; at the grave their memories, and those of their families, are covered over merely in dry earth, ritual specialists only performing a token exorcism that doesn’t obviate the need for a deeper accommodation with the past.
Arguments for maintaining the stability of the state, avoiding chaos, are paltry compared to the duty to commemorate, to learn from history—for Europe, UK, anywhere in the world. Just a couple of examples: the destruction of the Summer Palace by British troops, and the 1937 Nanjing massacre. We should all owe loyalty to truth, to people; in China it’s an ethical duty, not least in the traditions of filial piety.
And all this may remind us how important it is to seek beyond the sanitized representation of “Chinese folk music”, or indeed Daoist ritual, both in China and abroad. The people shown in these documentaries are just those who anyone doing research in China will encounter—whether working on social or cultural life. The stories of suffering, however distressing, need telling.
On my recent trip to China, I was having such a great time with Li Manshan in rural Yanggao  that I was somewhat reluctant to take the train back to Beijing—but thanks to encounters with some fine scholars (and home-made Italian cakes) I soon acclimatized. For me to observe
may not be quite as fatuous as it sounds—given the hangover from the old image of Red Guards and the new one of a cultural desert watered only by Xi Jinping Thought, both perpetuated by Western sinologists.
I’ll outline the work of these scholars in turn, beginning with my main host, the ethnographer Ju Xi 鞠熙 (b.1981), of the Department of Anthropology and Ethnology at Beishida—or Beijing Normal University, as it is quaintly known (now, to invite me to talk at an Abnormal university, that I might understand). With great imagination, she invited me to show my film as part of a series of talks in which I could reflect on fieldwork and rural ritual amidst social change, focusing on my two long-term projects: the Li family Daoists and the ritual association of South Gaoluo.
Quite apart from making an articulate and supportive moderator to my talks, Ju Xi’s own research is distinguished. With Marianne Bujard, she has long been involved in a major collaborative project with the EFEO in Paris (four of eleven volumes published so far!):
Ju Xi’s wisdom was encapsulated at an unpromising one-day conference in March, which she transformed with a succinct and brilliant speech explaining the significance of local religion in current rural China—that should be compulsory reading for cultural pundits and cadres at all levels:
Criticizing the recent interpretations of “secularization” (compared with imperial China) and “revival” (compared with the Maoist era), both of which portray Chinese religion as somewhat isolated from society, Ju Xi observed that local religion is not merely a “spiritual creation” or “cultural heritage”—it’s a kind of cultural resource and social power which can play active roles in contemporary rural society.
She outlined the role of local religion in ecological conservation, building techniques, and handicraft taboos, and pointed out its tight social structure, close interpersonal and reciprocal relationships—a valuable resource for today’s poorly-organized rural society. She stressed the importance of temple fairs, pilgrimages, ancestor worship, ritual associations, and clan organizations, noting the “grassroots charisma” of ritual specialists. She explained local religion as practical strategy, and observes how peasants are now availing themselves of the mask of “intangible heritage” to express their own requirements and views, making local religion a new pivot of cultural identity.
Thus local religion should be seen as an important basis upon which the peasants can construct their social order, organize their social relationships, take part in social practices, and articulate their own life styles. It makes an essential pattern through which multiple actors in rural society can express their own requirements.
Ju Xi’s students are most fortunate.
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and a slim but useful tome with David Arkush (欧达伟),
In English Dong Xiaoping’s acuity may be admired in a short review in Overmyer, Ethnography in China today, pp.343–67.
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At Beishida I was also delighted to meet Chen Zi’ai 陈子艾 (b.1933), part of an illustrious generation of scholars whose academic careers might have been more fruitful but for the vagaries of Maoism. A native of Hunan, her experience of local Daoism there and in Jiangxi has left her with a deep impression. She is a contributor to the lengthy series of publications on Hunan Daoism edited by Alain Arrault.
In a lengthy and mesmerizing impromptu speech after my second presentation, Chen Zi’ai touched candidly on crucial aspects of research on religious behaviour in the PRC, observing the riches of the topic as a window on folk culture, by contrast with the incongruity of her generation’s ideological indoctrination; and the more recent benefits of Chinese–foreign collaboration on such projects.
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Such research on folk religion and temple fairs builds on an influential volume edited by
and the work of Zhao Shiyu 赵世瑜, notably his 2002 book
Another Beishida scholar is Xiao Fang 萧放, co-editor with Zhang Bo 张勃 of another book discussing temple fairs around Beijing, including Miaofengshan:
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Yet another brilliant fieldworker and ethnographer at Beishida is Yue Yongyi 岳永逸 (b.1972), who has a prolific list of publications based on his fieldwork in rural Hebei.
His detailed work on the Miaofengshan temple fair
Other Hebei temple fairs on which Yue Yongyi has published include two in Zhaoxian county—on the Dragon Placard Association (longpaihui) of Fanzhuang village: 
and on the temple fair to the Water temple goddess in Changxin village:
Most notable is his detailed work on the temple fair of Cangyanshan in Jingxing county—which we may add to our bibliography on south Hebei:
Like Yue’s book on Miaofengshan, it contains detailed subheadings on temples, gods, ritual associations and other performers, activities, and artefacts, with rich material on spirit mediums (xiangtou, cf. north Shanxi) as well as on the sectarian creator goddess Wusheng laomu (widely found in Hebei, e.g. in Xushui and Yixian counties) and (in the case of Cangyanshan) Third Princess (sanhuang gu 三黄姑).
In English, note his
which also includes a useful bibliography. More general, but no less thoughtful, are his books
With his rich experience, Yue Yongyi made a fine discussant in our unlikely one-day panel at Beishida.
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All these fieldsites provide rich material for ethnographers, even if they share a paucity of complex liturgical sequences such as those I generally find. My encounters with these scholars make a welcome change from the insidious infiltration of romanticized “living fossil” ICH flummery into music studies. Given the understandable dominance of research on religious activity in south China, they also form a community of scholars working on changing ritual life in north China (see also Goossaert article cited here).
While I entirely recognize the ongoing erosion of rights under the current regime, the current Chinese academic scene is far from emasculated. Fine scholars like these, undaunted, continue to seek the truth about modern history, at a great remove from the supposed brainwashing from Xi Jinping Thought trumpeted in the Chinese and foreign media. This theme continues in my following posts on the Beijing scene.
 Another recent book on the incense associations of Beijing is Zhang Qingren 张青仁, Xingxiang zouhui: Beijing xianghuide puxi yu shengtai 行香走会: 北京香会的谱系与生态 (Beijing: Zhongyang minzu daxue cbs, 2016).
 For earlier refs., see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.8 n.14.
To help navigate through a plethora of recent posts, this is just a selection of some of the more substantial ones:
In Minqin county in the north of Wuwei municipality in Gansu province, an exorcistic Daoist ritual was performed recently at the inauguration of the construction site of an experimental thorium reactor of the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Though the ritual was commissioned by the local construction team, two employees from the institute were promptly sacked and placed under CCP investigation for having failed to stop the contractors, thus “deviating from the scientific spirit”.
Rituals for “moving the earth” are commonly performed all over China. This one was conducted by a single local priest depicting talismans and burning yellow paper memorials, as a sheep was slaughtered (lingsheng 领牲). In the brief video, at some distance one can see an altar table, around which a shawm band stands to play.
Some may be content to seize on the story to demonize the CCP (which is fair enough, as far as it goes). But again, just as with the Daoist ritual for the football match, what is more notable is the intelligent rebuttals of the po-faced official stance that are already appearing online and in the media—if not yet on a par with the protests that greeted the Pingyi funeral clampdown. Most authoritative essays come from the brilliant Tao Jin, and on WeChat here; doubtless there will be more. Here’s a critique from a leading Daoist priest, only marred by introducing a confused angle of indigenous and foreign religions (mute the soundtrack! What are they thinking?!):
So it’s another storm in a teacup. Local rituals are performed all over China (including, magnificently, Shanghai). The problem here was merely that the CCP shouldn’t be seen to be promoting “superstition”—so it’s a healthy sign that the online community rallies round to observe that by the CCP’s own terms it’s no longer considered as such, and to stress the depth of “Daoist culture” that the Party itself now propounds. The authorities’ kneejerk reaction can only entrench people’s “belief” in the laws on religious freedom. The popular message is clearly: don’t mess with the Traditional Culture of the Chinese Peoples!
It’s also a reminder that Gansu must be one of the most fertile sites for research on household Daoist ritual!
I also fear that Taoist conservatives—the kind who head up the country’s religious associations—will grow tired of reacting to public suspicion with openness and warmth, and will instead try to defend Taoism from a purely nationalist standpoint. As China’s sole homegrown religion, Taoism is fertile ground to be claimed by hyper-patriotic revivalists of traditional Chinese culture. It is essential that Taoists remain level-headed and oppose radical and exclusionary political attitudes.
After some time immersed in the rich harmonies of Mahler 10, it made a nice contrast for me to bask in the purity of monophonic Hindustani music in the Indian gallery of the British Museum. With the arhat at the other (Chinese) end of the gallery gazing on serenely from afar, Kaushiki Chakraborty sang with the lucidity and intensity characteristic of the style, accompanied by tabla and harmonium (the latter, alas, only intermittently suggestive of the bandoneon—call me old-fashioned, but you still can’t beat the sarangi).
She began with a khayal in the late-evening rag Maru Bihag—whose relation with rag Yaman (and Yaman Kalyan) is a subtlety to be explored by the aficionado. But even for the less attuned ear it’s worth homing in on the basic vocabulary of rag: the pitch relationships, always expounded most clearly in the opening alap.
To simplify absurdly the ascending and descending scales, and the choices of phrases within them (NB upper-case letters denote higher degrees, lower-case their lower degrees; S and P, do and so, are invariable), Ms Chakraborty’s version of the rag featured N and M prominently, using an ascending scale of
N R G M D N—
as in many ragas, feeding on the tension with the tonic drone of S. The natural-fourth degree m is introduced as a subsidiary theme (N G m, or S m, and G m G), and later a sustained P also features. Here’s a version she sang in 2017:
Indeed, focusing on the pitch relationships of solfeggio is a good way of listening to Chinese ritual melody—albeit a very different process of composition, with a far more limited tonal palette. Neither of these systems, nor that of WAM, is “superior”: they are all valid means of organizing sound.
Some would date the “decline” of “Western music” from later Miles, or from the Second Viennese School; one might playfully suggest (pace Bach and Mahler!!!) that it began a millenium or so earlier, with the spread of harmony, and even the invention of graphic notation… Comes in jolly handy for Mahler 10, though.