Blind musicians in China and elsewhere

Blind musicians have long been major transmitters of traditional culture: do click away on this list of some posts featuring them.

For China—mainly shawm players and bards (passing quickly over the “usual suspects”, the ancient Master Kuang and the ubiquitous Abing):

as well as my first two posts on Coronavirus:

For blind musicians elsewhere:

—indeed, one could greatly augment the list for many other cultures around the world.

 

Self-mortification: dervishes of Kurdistan

with a note on Tibetan spirit mediums in Amdo

dervish

Leading on from my post on Yazidi culture, here I consider a distinctive kind of ritual activity among the Kurds—mainly through a fine documentary from 1973.

Suffering in the quest for union with God is a universal theme, such as among the Uyghur ashiq, or indeed the Bach Passions. An extreme instance is the controversial yet widespread practice of tatbir ritual self-mortification by such acts as flagellation and skewering the body. Practised quite widely through the Islamic world, mortification of the flesh is a theme in other ritual cultures too, including Christianity: it was practised by Lutherans and Methodists, and among Catholics, rituals continue in Spain and Italy. It seems rare in China, though spirit mediums perform self-mortification at extreme northwest and southeast regions: Tibetans in Amdo, and Hokkien in south Fujian and Taiwan. [1] As ritual performers in the public domain, they are male (see here).

As to Kurdistan, dervishes—broadly members of a Sufi tariqa lodge/order/fraternity, sometimes also religious mendicants—perform dhikr (zikr) ecstatic devotional acts, commonly in the form of litanies, but also in rituals of self-mortification. Of course, as in other cultures, this is only one among many manifestations of faith. Beyond sensationalist voyeurism, one hopes for a more sober ethnographic approach—like the documentary

  • Kurdistan: the mysterious dervishes (André Singer and Ali Bulookbashi, 1973, in the series Disappearing world).

It shows the daily lives and religious practices of a dervish community in the Kurdish village of Baiveh on the border between Iran and Iraq, at a time when the two countries had cut diplomatic ties. Many were refugees from Kurdish areas of Iraq; a major source of their economy was contraband. They were dervishes of the ecstatic, mystical Qadiri cult. The film explores the spiritual and temporal power wielded by their leader Sheikh Hussein. By serving him the dervishes consider that they are also serving God. He presides over rituals in which they have the power to carry out acts which would normally be harmful, such as having electricity passed through their bodies, eating glass, and skewering their faces.

It is the less privileged members of the community who seek to enhance their status through performing such acts of subservience—demonstrations of loyalty, as much to the Sheikh as to God. The film also includes explores the tensions with the local mullah, representative of orthodox Islam; but it is the complex of modern secular values that pose a greater challenge to the ways of the dervish, and to the Sheikh’s feudal power.

Here’s the film—not at all for the faint-hearted:

A restudy would be interesting.

This more recent French documentary also features extreme scenes:

The resilience of tradition in troubled modern times is also shown in the revival of ritual pilgrimages, again often featuring tatbir (on the revival since the fall of ISIS, see e.g. here). The ancient battle of Karbala is commemorated in the Arba’een pilgrimage to Karbala that marks the end of the Ashura festival.

As ever, the commodified urban dervish performances for tourists that are often featured in the media—invariably cast as “whirling”—are a world away from local rituals—though they too are a proper subject for ethnographers.

 

Tongren 1

Qinghai 2

Tibetan self-mortification, Rebkong: source here.

[1] For the 6th-moon Klu-rol festival of Tibetans in Rebkong (Tongren), Qinghai, note
Charlene Makley, “Rebgong’s Klu rol and the politics of presence: methodological considerations” (2013),
perceptively situating the event within the changing politics of the area as it has become a tourist attraction since 2001 (as you can see from online videos). Among several other articles, see e.g.
Kevin Stuart, Banmadorji, and Huangchojia, “Mountain gods and trance mediums: a Qinghai Tibetan summer festival”, Asian folklore studies 54 (1995);
Cao Benye 曹本冶 and Xue Yibing 薛艺兵, “Renshen gongwu: Qinghai Tongren liuyuehui jishen yuewude diaocha yanjiu” 人神共舞: 青海同仁六月会祭神乐舞的调查研究, in Cao Benye (ed.), Zhongguo chuantong minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Xibei juan 中国传统民间仪式音乐研究, 西北卷 (2003, with DVD).

For self-mortifying mediums in south Fujian, note Ken Dean’s fine film Bored in heaven; for Taiwan, see Donald Sutton, Steps of perfection (2003), Margaret Chan, Ritual is theatre, theatre is ritual; tang-ki: Chinese spirit medium worship (2006), and Patrice Fava’s 1995 film Mazu la déeese de la mer, réalité d’une légende.

For a broader treatment of self-inflicted violence in the imperial history of Chinese religion, see Jimmy Yu, Sanctity and self-inflicted violence (2012).

 

Studying “old customs” in 1950s’ Wenzhou

Left: Mei Lengsheng, 1950s;
right, yankou ritual, Baiyun guan temple, Wenzhou, 2015.

Further to research under Maoism on ritual life in China, I appreciate

The work of local scholars in China striving over this difficult period to legitimize their religious cultures continues to impress me.* Katz’s article astutely discusses the

  • Wenzhou jiusu shiliao 溫州舊俗史料 [Historical materials on Wenzhou’s old customs]

on ritual life in the late Qing and Republican periods, a report of over 100,000 words compiled in 1960.

Katz traces the identities of the elites who composed the monograph, as well as their agendas in doing so (such as the new dichotomies promoted since the late 19th century, particularly that of “religion” and “superstition”).

Among the main compilers of the 1960 study was Mei Lengsheng (1895–1976), whose fortunes Katz describes. He notes study sessions apparently linked to the 1956 Hundred Flowers Movement, euphemistically known as “immortals’ gatherings” (shenxianhui ), when elders and other elites were encouraged to reminisce freely about the past, including local culture and customs—information that often ended up being used against them during the following “anti-rightist”movements, and then the Cultural Revolution, when Mei and others were punished. Still,

China’s elites did what they could to create at least some room for creative accommodation in which they could preserve valued facets of local culture. Intellectuals and other elites strove to the utmost to survive in this tricky environment; including (like Mei) performing acts of self criticism when necessary, but also relying on personal connections while attempting to use state rhetoric to their own advantage.

Noting that such works exploited CCP rhetoric against local customs to serve the cause of preserving them, Katz reads between the lines of the Preface. The main contents that follow are subdivided thus:

  • 1) Annual ritual calendar (suishi 歲 )
  • 2) Peasant proverbs (nongyan )
  • 3) Birth (shengzi )
  • 4) Marriage (hunjia 婚嫁)
  • 5) Birthdays, anniversaries (shengri, zhushi he zhushou )
  • 6) Mortuary rituals (sangzang )
  • 7) Prayers (qidao 祈禱)
  • 8) Miscellany (zazu 俎),

with temples and their festivals included in categories 1 and 7. Indeed, the “prayers” rubric subsumes rituals performed by Daoist and other ritual specialists, such as rituals for rain and to repay vows. Katz goes on to discuss some of these in detail, such as the plague expulsion rituals of Marshal Wen (on which he has written extensively), noting the continuity of the compilers’ disparaging language (however obligatory) with that of their elite imperial forebears as shown in county gazetteers.

But what we can hardly expect of such material under Maoism is a detailed account of religious life at the time of writing. Though the work is inevitably framed as “historical”, with current practices downplayed, Katz considers change over the period, outlining the relatively laissez-faire approach of the Communist authorities towards folk religious life from 1949 until the 1958 Great Leap Backward; and he cites a 1957 survey by the Rui’an county [1] Buddhist Studies Association of some 340 temples, and ritual specialists, there.

As he notes, while some of these traditions have disappeared, many others have revived since the liberalisations of the late 1970s—one starting point might be the Anthology for Zhejiang province, notably the lengthy section on “religious music” in the instrumental music volumes. [2] Katz concludes by suggesting that the delicate accommodation since the late 1970s with the power of the state may partly be traced back to such writings from the 1950s.

 

* I’ve always been most partial to such research—see my Folk music of China, pp.52–4; for more, see e.g.

A further perspective is that of fictional films like The blue kiteevoking the personal stories behind the tensions of the era.

For Katz’s work on ritual in Hunan, see here; and for his article on temple fairs in Taiwan in a recent book on doing fieldwork in China, here.

 

[1] On Rui’an county, I look forward to reading Xiaoxuan Wang, Maoism and grassroots religion: the Communist revolution and the reinvention of religious life in China (2020).

[2] I also look forward to reading Mayfair Yang, Re-enchanting modernity (2020).

 

Coronavirus 4: household Daoists in Shanxi

 

Li Bin’s first funeral shop in town.

Li Bin’s funeral shop in Yanggao town.

To follow my earlier posts on Coronavirus (1, 2, 3), I’ve been catching up, remotely, with the household Daoists of the Li family in Yanggao county of north Shanxi, 300 km west of Beijing on the way to the city of Datong—in normal times, ever more accessible. Whereas my previous posts on the crisis have concerned responses online and behind the closed doors of temples, here we find how ritual activity is still being maintained for routine burials.

In recent years, as the wonderful Li Manshan has begun to take things easier in his eighth decade, his son Li Bin, working since 2007 from the base of his funeral shop in the county-town, has been worked off his feet (for their busy diaries, see here and here; and for the tough life of the household Daoist, here). Not only does he book and lead a band to perform funeral rituals throughout the villages, but he has to organise every stage of the mortuary procedure from death to burial—as well as making routine individual consultations to “determine the date” for weddings, health, journeys, selecting auspicious sites for new buildings, and so on.

Since the Coronavirus scare, strict measures have been in place in north Shanxi, though no cases seem to have been reported there. Many neighbourhoods in Datong city were sealed; in Yanggao town the gated communities monitored all activity. Restaurants and schools have been closed. For a change, there are no traffic jams at the crossroads just north of Li Bin’s funeral shop (my film, from 4.17).

Wedding festivities are on hold, and bereaved families are not currently allowed to invite Daoists or shawm bands to perform group funeral rituals (known as “opening the drum” kaigu 开鼓), as is normally de rigueur. So regular members of the Daoist sextet like Wu Mei and Li Sheng, normally busy reciting the scriptures with wind and percussion for the sequence of rituals they perform for funerals over two (sometimes three) days, now find themselves temporarily unemployed. Golden Noble, another core member of the band who leads the vocal liturgy, can perform the solo mortuary procedures like determining the date, siting graves, and supervising the burial, so he has picked up a bit of work in the immediate vicinity of his home township Houying.

One accomplished Daoist who has only rarely been able to appear with the ritual group since seeking work as a migrant labourer in 2004 is Li Qing’s nephew Erqing. Whereas the other Daoists are active over a small radius, his work has taken him over a large area of north and south China. He has been an important member of our foreign tours. Like Gansu singer Zhang Gasong and countless others, since returning home for New Year he has found himself exiled there.

Erqing and WM

Erqing (right) with Wu Mei, funeral 2009.

Despite the crisis, Yanggao didn’t go into total lockdown. Remarkably, Li Bin is still in considerable demand, individually, to meet people’s routine needs for mortuary procedures; indeed, he is just as busy as ever—the boss continuing to prosper as the workers are laid off?! Few customers have been venturing out to his funeral shop, but he fields constant messages on his smartphone. So he is still called out constantly, driving throughout the countryside but now having to pass through a laborious series of checkpoints on the main roads and at the entrance to every village, where temperatures are taken and all movements registered. Li Bin’s work is considered a legitimate cause for such journeys.

Checkpoints in Yanggao, February 2020. Photos: Li Bin.

In these poor villages that are depleted yearly by urban migration, with the population ageing, conditions of hygiene may have improved since around 2000, but remain far from ideal. Routine burials still need to be held—though currently by the immediate family alone, with one single Daoist carrying out the necessary procedures (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.185–200).

After a death, the immediate task is to summon Li Bin to use his almanacs to determine the date for the burial—which may vary, as usual, from around five days to over a month. Then he has to write the placard announcing the death (yangzhuang 殃狀), supervise the encoffinment, and provide mourning clothes for the kin as well as the paper artefacts (which he and his wife make at their shop) to be displayed and eventually burned at the grave; he has to decorate the coffin, write the tomb tile, depict talismans to be pasted up at the house of the deceased, and choose an auspicious fengshui site for the grave, using his luopan compass to determine its position and alignment. All these tasks are shown in my film, and even over this stressful period Li Bin still continues to perform them constantly.

Left: reverse side of tomb tile; right, talismans. My photos, 2011.

Even in normal times some very poor families, unable to afford the elaborate funerary rituals of the full band, have long requested a single Daoist to preside over a simplified burial ritual (known as “settling the burial” anzang 安葬). During the current crisis this has become routine. Mostly it only takes an hour or two, though even now some families expect a rather longer ritual.

Li Manshan: decorating a coffin (2015), and exorcising the house (2013).

Just before the coffin is raised out of the central room of the deceased’s home (my film, from 1.16.31), the Daoist—now wearing a face-mask in addition to his red costume (fayi 法衣) and yinyang hat (riyue guan 日月冠)—exorcises the rooms (qiyang 起殃) by wielding a sheaf of gaoliang stalks and a cleaver, knocking them against the lintels and silently reciting the mantra Qiyang zhou 起殃咒. Then, as the coffin-bearers raise the coffin out of the house, the Daoist uses his cleaver to smash a food-bowl on the floor at the entrance to the room, marking the end of the son’s duties to feed his parent; indeed, “smashing the bowl” (dawan 打碗, more graphically “decapitating the bowl” zhanwan 斬碗) is the term commonly used to describe the whole simplified burial ritual. As he does so, the Daoist silently recites another mantra, the Zhanpen zhou 斩盆咒. These two mantras for dangerous liminal moments serve to protect the Daoist himself.*

Li Bin then accompanies the coffin through the fields to the grave he has chosen, and fine-tunes its alignment in the grave. After returning to the house he performs a further brief exorcism there. He then hurries off to other villages help more bereaved families.

Again, I note the adaptability of the “old rules”; in times of crisis, rituals can be simplified, yet a proper commemoration of grief is still needed. In Li Bin’s notebook he keeps a careful record of all his daily work, noting the precise date and time of death, details of the birth dates of the deceased and their sons and grandsons, the location of the grave, and the date that he determined for the burial.

Li Bin’s father Li Manshan too has to respond to the requests of his local clients, zooming round on his motorbike to determine the date, choose burial plots, and smash bowls. Sure, all this is their livelihood; but like their forebears right back to the 18th century, they are like parish priests, “serving the people”—a cliché now commonly used with a rather satirical edge, but in this case true. Meanwhile elsewhere in Yanggao, in neighbouring counties (see my other posts on Shanxi under local ritual), and doubtless further afield, other Daoists too will be continuing to meet the needs of their rural clients.

By 23rd February, with no new cases of the virus reported in Yanggao, roadside checks were easing and officials were only monitoring travellers’ temperatures, not registering their details. I wonder how long it will take for the more elaborate funeral rituals to be restored, with the other Daoists joining Li Bin in performing the full sequence of vocal liturgy, accompanied by wind and percussion.

 

silent mantras

 

* Though the texts of these two silent mantras don’t appear in any of the Li family’s surviving ritual manuals, Li Manshan eventually found them for me in his little blue pocket-book, which he copied in the 1980s from a similar notebook of his late great father Li Qing (for whom, see e.g. here, and, for his ritual manuals, here).

Seeking instruction with Li Manshan one day, I joked that I had learned them, “reciting” them for him, lips firmly closed—providing us with another creative topos (e.g. in France).

 

 

 

Coronavirus 3: temples, Sichuan

sdr

Daoist temple ritual, Sichuan, lunar New Year’s Eve, 2020. Photo: Volker Olles.

To follow my first two posts featuring songs commenting on the Coronavirus outbreak (here and here), I now consider how local ritual life has been adapting to the crisis at the grassroots.

* * *

Reflecting the age-old adaptability of ritual practice, much activity has moved to a virtual life on WeChat. I’m grateful to Volker Olles, based at Chengdu in Sichuan for his project on Daoist ritual traditions there, for this vignette. As he wrote on 17th February:

All temples are still locked down, but Daoist clerics in the sanctuaries will occasionally perform rituals or offer incense and candles in the name of adherents (thanks to WeChat!). ​So the temples are still working—behind closed doors. Through Wechat, people can even participate in rituals by having their names added in ritual documents. In this regard, WeChat is a real blessing, allowing communication, payment of liturgical fees (fajin 法金), and feedback by means of video sequences of the rituals posted by the clerics.

I spent the Spring Festival in a remote Quanzhen Daoist temple in Chongzhou, west of Chengdu, just when the lockdown started. The liturgies at Chinese New Year’s Eve and the welcoming of the God of Wealth were properly performed by the Daoists, burning masses of ritual documents (shuwen 疏文), with the help of lay adherents—who were partly stuck at the temple and unable to return home on time. ​

All religious institutions are closed and closely monitored by the authorities. I also had to register with the local government and the Bureau of Religious Affairs. However, I’m back in Chengdu now, and we all hope that spring (in the best sense) finally will arrive.

notice

Public notice [my translation—SJ]

Owing to the severity of the current Coronavirus outbreak, for the health and safety of everyone to pass a secure, auspicious, and blessed New Year, the temple Management Committee has decided after investigation:

From 8am on 24th January 2020 the temple is temporarily closed to outsiders. All activities seeking blessing to greet the New Year will be managed according to the law by the temple priests. Please do your best not to visit the temple, in order not to come into mutual contact, and to prevent the contagion of the virus. All prayers for blessing and the elimination of calamity are to be liased via WeChat. We request the great masses and the faithful to share [this information].

During the current initiative to restore traditional Chinese rites, when you meet, please clasp your hands in greeting and avoid shaking hands!*

Xizhu Daoist Temple Management Committee, Chongzhou
24th January 2020​

Huolei
Note also Ian Johnson’s article on the response to the outbreak from temples, mosques, and churches, covering charitable donations and rituals from all over China—including a Purifying the Land ritual at the Changchun Daoist temple in Wuhan; as well as a new Daoist song Huolei jiangmo lu 火雷降魔錄 by Sichuan dramatist Zhang Shuzhi.

 

In my next post on Coronavirus I report on the busy schedule of the household Daoists of the Li family in Shanxi, even through the crisis, as they continue to meet the needs of their rural clients for routine burials.

 

* I now also see that as the virus spreads around the world, churches in Italy are issuing directives on ritual hygiene and online worship.

Coronavirus 2: songs from Gansu, and blind bards

 

ZGS vid

To follow blind bard Liu Hongquan’s song mourning Li Wenliang, thanks to Alex Davey and others on Twitter I note some great new satirical songs about Coronavirus by the enterprising Gansu folk-singer Zhang Gasong 张尕怂 (b.1989).

His own song about Li Wenliang appeared only very briefly on Weibo (see his regular posts there at weibo.com/zhangdabenshi). Another one, criticising a range of responses to the crisis, with incisive visuals, was also soon deleted from Chinese social media:

And he created this song to cheer up his granny by satirising his unexpectedly lengthy sojourn upon returning home for New Year —a common predicament:

Musically the gutsy style, with funky sanxian lute, is reminiscent of the blind bards of Shaanbei—like Liu Hongquan’s song, the “northwest wind” makes an incisive medium.

On Zhang Gasong there’s a lengthy article in Chinese, with a clip from the documentary Huanghe gayao 黄河尕谣. What’s more, I find that he’s a fellow-stammerer (among posts under the stammering tag, note Great Chinese stammerers)!

Brought up in a poor village of Baiyin municipality beset by frequent drought, he relished the huar song festivals at temple fairs; he managed to attend college, but found himself drawn back to his local culture, becoming a collector as he studied with noted folk performers.

Zhang Gasong studying Liangzhou xianxiao with Zang Shande (left) and blind female singer Feng Lanfang (right).

A busy touring schedule has brought him celebrity—though he finds the idea of “touring” (xunyan 巡演) poncey: “it’s pretty much like being an itinerant singer”. As his horizons have expanded, he’s absorbed new pop styles; yet he’s aware of the dangers of losing himself in the urban jungle, and as he astutely comments, he doesn’t like to be forced into representing a contrast between rural and urban China.

Here’s his song “Tell the truth”:


Appendix

Zhang Gasong’s work in collecting the local song cultures of Gansu, with its complex ethnic tapestry, is part of a long tradition dating back to the Maoist era. As ever, it’s worth consulting the folk-song and narrative-singing volumes of the Anthology:

  • Zhongguo minjian gequ jicheng, Gansu juan 中国民间歌曲集成, 甘肃卷 (1994)
  • Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Gansu juan 中国曲艺音乐集成, 甘肃卷 (1998).
Feng Lanfang

Feng Lanfang (centre).

Just one instance: Zhang Gasong visited Wang Yue 王月 (b. c1936; see also here), Zang Shande 臧善德 (b.1945), and female performer Feng Lanfang 冯兰芳 (b.1965) to study melodies from the Liangzhou xianxiao 凉州贤孝 (“virtuous and filial songs of Liangzhou”) genre, popular around the region of Wuwei. Belonging under the wide umbrella of morality songs “exhorting virtue“ quanshan 劝善, widespread in China, its history and structure are outlined in the Gansu narrative-singing volume. [1] Like so many genres around China (such as Zuoquan in Shanxi), it is mainly performed by itinerant blind singers for life-cycle and calendrical observances.

Research was carried out under Maoism, with official attempts to reform “superstitious” content of limited effect. Activity resumed more openly in the 1980s, coinciding with the Anthology fieldwork. In recent years Liangzhou xianxiao has been espoused by the Intangible Cultural Heritage project, with considerable media coverage—while (here I go again) substituting reified festivals on urban stages for serious ethnographic fieldwork on its life in a changing society.

Some of the great perfomers whom Zhang Gasong visited may be found in online videos; here’s Feng Lanfang, incorporating topical themes into her morality tales (cf. Bards of Shaanbei, under “Old and new stories”): [2]

Still in Gansu, for a fine film on shadow-puppetry, see here; and for Daoist ritual, here. For some archive recordings of huar songs and narrative-singing from the northwest, note the CDs here; and for a recent project from Naxos, Folk music of China, vol. 1: folk songs of Qinghai and Gansu. Yet more instances of the remarkable resilience of Chinese tradition through successive modern crises…

 

[1] Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Gansu juan: introduction pp.636–40, transcriptions 641–92, biographies 693–4. More recently, see e.g. Li Wulian 李武莲 ed., Liangzhou xianxiao jingxuan 凉州贤孝精选 (2011).

[2] As I’m sure you’ll notice, the final instrumental melody (from 16.54) was mistakenly uploaded at high speed!

Buddhist ritual of Chengde

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

As part of my extensive series on local ritual, I’ve just added a page about an early salvage project on the shengguan wind ensemble of Buddhist temples in Chengde in northeast Hebei, summer retreat of the Qing emperors—where I made a little fieldtrip in 1987, with comments inspired by a passage from Bruce Jackson’s wonderful book Fieldwork.

Chengde 4