Updates: Shaanbei, bards, heritage


Headsup for major updates to several posts in the light of Wu Ka-ming’s fine book Reinventing Chinese tradition, a valuable addition to the literature on Shaanbei— where she gives a nuanced appraisal of paper-cutting, bards, and spirit mediums under changing rural conditions since 2004:

Bards of Shaanbei

In my summary of Guo Yuhua’s fantastic book on a Shaanbei village, I mentioned the blind bard Li Huaiqiang. The complex fortunes of these bards under Maoism and since the reforms require a nuanced approach, and deserve a separate post. [1]

As I edit my old material from around 2000, I’m aware that fieldwork is always of its time. I haven’t sought to update it, but the period since then will also have seen rapid change—which I discuss further below in my review of a more recent book.

LWJ in courtyard

LWJ shuoshu

Sighted bard Li Wenjin performs a “story for well-being” to protect the son of the host family, first inviting the gods in the courtyard and then narrating a sequence of stories before the altar inside the cave-dwelling (see DVD §C4 with my Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei, and pp.83–4 there).
Photos: Guo Yuhua, 1999.

In Shaanbei, as in much of rural China, while many blind men earn a living by taking up the shawm (on which see my post on Guo Yuhua, and here), others have also long served as protectors of children, acting as godfathers and healers, and telling fortunes—as well as singing “stories for well-being”, accompanying themselves on a plucked lute and clappers, a kind of one-man band. They are itinerant, going by foot over quite a wide area.

Though in decline since the 1960s, the bards appear to have adapted rather little in context or sound. Under the Maoist collectives, some spent brief periods being taught new stories in the county-town “propaganda teams”, but this hardly affected their repertory or performing contexts. Since the 1990s, the popularity of the genre has been further threatened by the media of TV and pop music; and little bands now increasingly supplement the solo performers.

Social background
Blind bards also tell fortunes, cure illness, and act as godfathers—occasions when they do not necessarily perform stories. As godfathers they perform ceremonies protecting children (including hanging the locket, the annual Crossing the Passes ceremony at temple fairs, and opening the locket). These ceremonies have doubtless become rather less common since the 1950s, though neither campaigns against superstition nor any gradual improvement in healthcare entirely explain this.

Li Huaiqiang, in his 70s, had hung the locket for three or four hundred children; Guo Xingyu, in his 50s, for “over 290”.

Like geomancers and mediums, the blindman performs healing in a ritual called Settling the Earth or Settling the Earth God. For this he recites incantations and depicts talismans, but does not perform stories.

These occupations were a lifeline for males only: the fate of blind females was pitiable.

Occupations for blind men in Shaanbei

  • begging (yaofan 要饭)
  • playing in a shawm band (guyue 鼓乐, chuishou 吹手)
  • telling fortunes (suangua 算卦)
  • exorcism / healing (antushen 安土神, zhibing 治病)
  • hanging the locket (baosuo 抱锁, daisuo 带锁), opening the locket (kaisuo 开锁), Crossing the Passes (guoguan 过关)
  • narrative-singing (shuoshu 说书).

Contexts for narrative-singing

  • Stories for vows (yuanshu 愿书), to fulfil a verbal vow (huankouyuan 还口愿):
    household (jiashu 家书), for well-being (ping’an shu 平安书)
    temple fairs (huishu 会书: miaohui 庙会)
    parish (sheshu 社书)
  • less common: weddings (hongshi 红事), moving into a new cave-dwelling (nuanyao 暖窑), going off to the army (canjun 参军), official meetings (jiguan 机关).

Ritual equipment, stories, and music
For the narrative-singing contexts, the bard performs before a small temporary altar. Inscriptions for the gods and family, rectangular paper “god places” with a triangular head, mounted on gaoliang stalks, as well as changqing yellow paper streamers, are inserted into one or two rectangular bowls filled with grains of millet or corn. Before the altar are placed a lit candle, small bowls to hold incense and burn paper offerings, and offerings such as dough shapes, biscuits, dates, fruit, peanuts, cigarettes, and cups of liquor.

The altar is placed on the family stove or on a table; for the rituals to invite the gods and escort them away at the beginning and end of stories for well-being, it is placed on a table in the courtyard outside. Li Huaiqiang, though blind, prepared the changqing streamers himself; someone sighted and literate has to be found to write the inscriptions. Incense and paper are burnt before the altar periodically throughout the performance.

The bard takes with him a red cloth bearing the titles of a pantheon of gods. When not in use it is rolled up and kept in the bard’s bag. The cloth is unfurled and placed upright behind the altar, supported by two sticks inserted into a sleeve at either end of the cloth.

Cloth pantheons:
(left) Li Huaiqiang, 1999;
(right) Xu Wengong, 2001 (for a list of these gods, see Zhang Zhentao, Shengman shanmen, p.356).

Stories overlap with opera plots, relating historical tales of love, official success, solving of crimes, famous battles, and righteous protest—all familiar in Chinese fiction since the Ming dynasty, and often referring to still earlier times. Like opera, these stories have long been a dominant form for poor people to learn of history, legend, and morality, only being challenged by schooling since the 1950s. Schooling even now is quite elementary, though TV and pop music are doubtless replacing traditional stories for entertainment.

Indeed, bards’ stories are like a cheaper, more portable version of opera that can be brought into the home to bring good fortune to the family. Like opera (and indeed TV soap opera), stories may be performed in sections at successive sittings—commonly three episodes (huihui).

Bards improvise phrases on the basis of a well-known story—as He Guangwu observed: “We respond to the changes on the spur of the moment (suiji yingbian 随机应变), the lyrics aren’t fixed and dead (dingsi 定死).”

The solo performer accompanies himself on a plucked lute and usually two percussion instruments attached to his left leg and right hand. He may rest his right foot on a low stool, and drapes a towel over his shoulder to wipe sweat from his face. The plucked lute is either unfretted three-stringed sanxian (known as xianzi) or the fretted four-stringed pipa; the sanxian is most common, the use of pipa declining drastically in this area since the 1980s.

This rare form of pipa (see below), held less vertically than the “modern” pipa, and played with a plectrum, was a major discovery, reminding scholars of the Tang dynasty pipa. As was the trend through the 1980s, they were keen to conjure up “living fossils” and evoke the glories of ancient dynasties, but they mustered less publicity for this supposed relic of the Tang pipa than did scholars of nanyin in southeast China.

Han Qixiang and the training sessions
As with many other genres in China, the national reputation of narrative-singing in Shaanbei rests largely on one performer who came to the attention of cultural cadres and was cultivated by them. Han Qixiang (1915–89), dubbed “China’s Homer” but redder than red. The Party’s model blind bard in Shaanbei during the Yan’an period.

Han Qixiang

from http://www.confucianism.com.cn/html/minsu/15021455.html

In my book I outline his career, trying to read between the lines of hagiographic Chinese accounts on the basis of the 1993 article

  • Chang-tai Hung, “Reeducating a Blind Storyteller: Han Qixiang and the Chinese Communist Storytelling Campaign”, Modern China 19.4 (1993).

From 1945, Party ideologues went to some lengths to reform storytelling with a network of training sessions. After the national “Liberation” of 1949, every county government throughout China set up an arts-work troupe, which soon metamorphosed into an opera troupe; some county authorities further set up a narrative-singing artists’ propaganda team (shuoshu yiren xuanchuandui). These narrative-singing teams were less permanent (and much less costly) than the opera troupes; they held training sessions before dividing into smaller teams to go off on tour round the villages. Bards were lodged together, sometimes for a few months but often for just a few days, and even if they could remember the new stories, they remained reluctant to perform them once they went on the road.

Apart from Han Qixiang, another blind performer mentioned in the 1940s as creator of new stories is Shi Weijun (b.1924), who organized training sessions for bards around Suide county. Blind bard Guo Xingyu (see below), himself no simple official mouthpiece, hinted that Shi Weijun found it hard to adapt to official demands after Liberation. “But then he gave up—he didn’t even want his wages, he lost his standing, and went off on his own to tell stories.” He was clearly reluctant to take part in official events.

We can discount the rosy official image, but even the candid local scholar Meng Haiping recalls the period before the Cultural Revolution as a golden age for the blind bards, with county Halls of Culture organizing them into teams and issuing permits, so that district and village leaders had to receive them, hosting and feeding them—an unprecedented and welcome way to guarantee their “food-bowl”.

Conversely, if the state now acted as the bards’ patron, their richer patrons had disappeared, and their poorer ones were becoming wary of inviting them; temple fairs and “superstition” were under threat. Many bards were not recruited to the teams or were unwilling to join, and even those who did take part did so only intermittently. Although those not registered in the teams were not given permits, they still managed to perform, relying on the old contexts such as “stories for well-being” and godfather duties. But the climate was changing: as the power of campaigns sunk into people’s consciousness, they would have been increasingly nervous of inviting bards openly.

Even those bards who did spend periods in the official teams learning new stories continued to earn their living from more or less “feudal superstitious” contexts. You couldn’t perform new items for hanging the locket, or as stories for well-being.

Party ideologues admired popular oral literature; while deploring its links with superstition, they were unsuccessful in seeking to break such links. The new stories were often based on novellas or opera scripts, and composed with the “guidance” of cadres. As Hung points out, it was hardly a collaboration between peasants and intellectuals—it was never in doubt who was in charge.

It’s hard to assess is how the new stories were received. Even clues in the unremitting hagiography unwittingly give glimpses of constant conflict and difficulties. Han Qixiang composed a new story called “We can’t withdraw from the collective” (Buneng tuishe) (how very true!), reportedly converting peasants who were opposed to collectivism. Having heard that in some Zichang villages women were reluctant to work in the fields, and men reluctant to tolerate them doing so, he composed pieces exhorting them and praising female labour heroes. During the famine of 1959–60 he performed “Turning over a new leaf” (see link in Comment § below) for peasants disgruntled with the paltry goods available on New Year’s Eve, supposedly enlightening them as to how much their lives had improved since the bad old society. Yeah right…

Still, Han Qixiang was a fine performer; even when he told new stories, he would naturally vary them every time, like bards worldwide, and he retained the colourful local vocabulary of bards throughout the area. One cannot merely assess his stories from the page, without being able to witness his performances and those of other bards of the day. Bards I met were less impressed by his technique or creativity than by his good fortune in meeting the right people at the right time and getting onto the government payroll.

So whereas Han Qixiang appears to have been a model “folk artist” propounding Party policies with conviction, most bards in Shaanbei have continued to eke out a living from their traditional exorcistic “stories for well-being”, both under Maoism and since the reforms.

Immortal Li
Among the characters in Guo Yuhua’s book on Jicun is the village’s blind bard Li Huaiqiang (1922–2000, known in the village as “Immortal Li”, Li xian); as ever, my notes benefit from her rapport with him. Visiting his cave-dwelling in 1999, she introduced us and we all sat ourselves down on his kang brick-bed; having explored my facial contours with his hands, he gently held my hand throughout our chat.

LHQ shuoshu

Li Huaiqiang was among the great majority of bards (and audiences) not amenable to the new stories. Under Maoism, though he gained a house and a family, his livelihood was reduced; since the reforms of the 1980s he suffered both from the decline in popularity of the art and his own dwindling skills.

Li Huaiqiang was born to a poor family of hired labourers working for the village landlords. Such poor families couldn’t afford to send their children to school, and he attended “winter school” for a mere few days. He lost his sight completely by the age of 10 sui. When he was 15 or 16 sui (c1936–7) his father took him to a blind bard to “learn up the arts” of narrative-singing, “history”, fortune-telling, and healing. Learning stories phrase by phrase was time-consuming and expensive—his father had to scrape the fees together. Li contrasts that ruefully with the ease of young upstarts today who can learn just by listening to tapes.

Li began “going out of the door” to earn a living before he was 18 sui, practising both healing and narrative-singing. He was often in demand to cure illness: when someone’s child was seriously ill, Li could give acupuncture and Chinese medicine. When adults had some irregular illness (xiebing), some bad karma, for which orthodox medicine was no use, he’d find them some special herbs.

Since Yangjiagou was still a landlord stronghold, in the early days Li often performed stories all four seasons of the year for the landlords in the village itself. Such performances—like longevity celebrations, or for the first full moon of newly-born children—often lasted seven or eight days. The landlords had a shrine to the god of wealth in their houses—before it bards would tell their stories, and Buddhist monks would recite their scriptures.

Ritual has always remained paramount for bards like Li. “Poor people (shoukuren) worship the Dragon King Elder (Longwangye), stockbreeders worship Horse King Elder (Mawangye), people in business worship God of Prosperity Elder (Caishenye). When people make vows they invite us to tell stories, that’s how we make our living.” Since vows were often fulfilled in the 1st and 2nd moons, bards were most busy then.

By the 1940s, Li’s itinerant business was taking him—by foot—all over Shaanbei. Recalling the old temple fairs, he mentioned the two most famous, still very active now: “I used to go to Baiyunshan for over twenty years, I even went once after the end of the Cultural Revolution. I used to go every year, there were kids there that I’d hung the locket for.” Li performed for the small temple fairs in his home village too, notably the 4th-moon fair at the Pusa miao temple. The temple fairs in the neighbouring hamlet of Sigou were planned best, and were popular; people liked listening to narrative-singing there.

Li Huaiqiang’s early visits south to the Yan’an region, in 1938 or 1939, were part of his routine itinerant business. He told stories around Hengshan and Bao’an (Zhidan) counties too. “No-one controlled what stories you told then, you could narrate what you liked.”

In 1943, after the Suide–Mizhi area was taken over by the Communists, Li found himself unable to make a living there, and went off to Yinchuan in Ningxia and nearby Xichuan. The Nationalist officials loved listening to stories—bards were invited to their quarters. They could travel freely then—only later, when the Communist–Nationalist collaboration ended, did the roads become impassable.

Still, his assessment of the Red and White areas was ingenuous. “It was just the same under the Communists and the Nationalists. Under the Nationalists it was easy to earn money, people liked to listen to stories. After the Communists took control over people, not allowing superstition, at least there was provision for us disabled people, there was relief. So things were the same.” But he did remark, “In the end the Communists came along and broke all the temple fairs up, so there was nothing left.”

I wonder how many bards chose to seek a living in either the Red or White Areas. Evidently old stories did not suddenly vanish throughout the Yan’an countryside. The Yulin region was a seesaw area between the two sides, and most local leaders would, as yet, be broad-minded about traditional forms. We can’t judge, but it is worth challenging the propaganda. And having blithely equated “new stories” with items supporting the Communists, I wonder if bards in the Nationalist areas performed new stories opposing the Communists.

Li Huaiqiang dismissed our queries about the officially-organized groups—he had only the vaguest recollection of this experience. It might have remained an exciting moment in his life distinguished by its uniqueness—but apparently hadn’t. Li went on:

From 1945 they summoned all the blind bards to meetings—they weren’t allowed to sing old stories any more, they had to sing new ones. I studied them and then forgot them all—well, I basically didn’t study them! When you go out [on business], the common people don’t listen to that stuff! New stories aren’t good to listen to—people don’t like listening to new stories, they like old ones! I could never forget the old stories I learned when I was young, though. I can tell twenty or thirty stories. When you went out in the old days there was business, you could count on it—who’d have thought it would all come to an end?

He knew of Han Qixiang but didn’t hear him perform or meet him. “That Han Qixiang, he got onto the official payroll. Oh yes, people in our business all know about Han Qixiang. In the Yan’an period people reformed it into new stories, but they didn’t control us lot who narrated old stories, we just went off round the countryside narrating on our own.” He knew that some performers sang for political meetings, but didn’t admit to doing so himself.

Li Huaiqiang was lucky to find a wife:

I was 24 when I got married [c1946]. They came to take conscripts—people stuck to their old habits, no-one wanted to go off, but they forced them. But us blind people, we couldn’t go off to the army, no-one wanted us—that’s how I got a wife. People were afraid of joining the army, both sides were taking people off, no-one dared go, as soon as you went off you’d get killed. If it was today I couldn’t get married—now it’s hard enough for sighted men to find a wife.

During land reform there were meetings all the time. The Communist Party controlled people, eliminating superstition. When they wanted to hold a meeting they first summoned a bard to narrate a [new] section, so everyone turned up—then the bard sang the old stories that people liked.

This was a common theme, of great significance for our understanding of the Maoist period. The bard would attract people to turn up for tedious political meetings, and satisfy the demands of political expediency by performing a brief political item first, before the fun began. Scholar Meng Haiping recalled: “Both old and new stories were heard then. Until 1956, they began with a short section with new content, then moved onto the old stories like ‘The story of five women reviving the Tang’ (Wunü xing Tang zhuan).”

Li Huaiqiang originally lived in a miserable cave-dwelling made of earth, but after land reform, he was helped to “buy” a comfortable cave-dwelling right at the top of the village from the former landlords, which had been servants’ quarters. The landlords also had to “sell” him their precious sanxian banjo, which he bought for one dan of grain.

If in that sense Li was able to profit from the overthrow of the landlords, he soon suffered from their demise. “We were allowed to narrate stories in the early days after Liberation, but people’s consciousness was raised, people had studied a lot of books.” I didn’t care to argue with him there, so he went on, “They said narrative-singing was boring, so there was a lot less of it—it got less all of a sudden with the collectives [from the mid-1950s]. People like us just tilled the fields, told fortunes, we could just about get by, the state gave us relief. We couldn’t just die off—some people were given relief, some were put in old people’s homes, some with skills could go out and heal illness and tell fortunes.” And he was still taking large numbers of godchildren, whose parents’ regular little gifts always presented a lifeline.

If Li Huaiqiang was unaware of it, the Mizhi county authorities were attempting to organize bards. Gao Zhiqiang, former chief of the county Hall of Culture, recalled, “The county first set up a narrative-singing team in the early 1950s, organizing over twenty blind bards, training them all together to sing new stories. The Hall of Culture issued them with performance permits, which meant that the district and village authorities had to host them—that resolved blind men’s problem of livelihood.” But the teams never controlled blindmen for long.

Li Huaiqiang, who had never belonged to a team or performed in a group, still relied on a minimal handout from the village government to survive; with his wife and five children, times were desperate. “In the Cultural Revolution they didn’t invite us bards any more, it just stopped. But people like us still went out—mostly to tell fortunes, not so much to narrate stories.” And he sometimes sneaked out to hang the locket for children in exchange for “a couple of little coins”. Li was soon branded an “ox demon and snake spirit”, accused of feudal superstition. They took his manual off and burned it; they took his sanxian banjo away too, but he got it back after half a year. “Pesky kids, coming to our houses to get us to hand things over—if you did, then you were let off, if you didn’t then they paraded you through the streets.” Li was only paraded once. The only time he could recall when the authorities regulated narrative-singing was in the year of rebellion (zaofan) of the Cultural Revolution, when all the brigades had to organize blind bards into narrative-singing teams to go round and make propaganda, the county Hall of Culture taking a cut.

The reform era
In Shaanbei, as elsewhere in China, as the commune system began to be dismantled from the early 1980s, traditional culture revived more openly. Bards had been active throughout the commune period, both in and out of the new teams; if the old contexts and stories had never died out, after the “rotting of the collectives” there was no longer such need for collusion or duplicity. As Li Huaiqiang recalled, “As soon as Mao Zedong died, they stopped controlling us bards.” But like other traditional performers, they were soon competing with new economic pressures, TV and pop music taking their toll: where Maoism had failed to marginalize tradition, capitalism looked like succeeding.

Despite his privations under Maoism, he warmed to the theme:

Society’s different now, people have “turned over a new leaf”, reforms and all that—too much reform, it’s all gone too far…

Ebullient local pundit Meng Haiping had a perceptive comment:

In those days [under the communes] they tried to destroy traditional culture, but couldn’t; now they don’t control it any more, but it gradually declines anyway. 1984 to 1990 was the best period. Ever since the great wave of economics started, culture has been dying out.

The agenda of the cultural authorities hardly changed, even if state policy would never again be so “hard”: they still sought to teach the bards new stories to spread education about party policies, and they still aspired to both “controlling” and “looking after” the bards—ambivalent meanings of the term guan 管.

By the late 1990s Li Huaiqiang, quite frail in his old age, was less active as a bard. Lucky enough to have found a wife during times of war, Li has two sons and three daughters; but the family has remained poor, and the sons have been unable to find wives. In 1999 Li performed for the 4th-moon temple fair in his village, and he still did the occasional story for well-being for families fulfilling vows. But he told us: “I’m almost without business these days, 80% of my work is gone. Most temple fairs don’t have narrative-singing any more. These days people read books a lot [surely he overestimates this!]—the state doesn’t control it any more, people just don’t want to be away from work. They’ve got TV and recordings too now.” He used to perform for audiences of 80 or 90 people, but now it’s only for around 20 or 30, mostly elderly. “I can’t keep up.” This didn’t apply generally to narrative-singing in the whole area, but to Li in particular—elderly, frail, and no longer a gifted performer.

In the exceptional conditions of Yangjiagou, the occasional visit from Japanese tourist groups, Chinese and foreign scholars, and visitors to the memorial hall to Chairman Mao’s 1947 sojourn, allowed Immortal Li to supplement his meagre income: “They always get me to perform when someone comes.” But his main income still came from his godchildren, as it had done under Maoism. While we were in the village, one of his godchildren’s children was getting married, and when he paid a visit he was given 20 kuai; when he left they gave him mantou steamed buns, and later they gave him some clothing.

LHQ qingshen

We took him to the cave-dwelling of our host Older Brother, the sweet blind shawm player, to perform a “story for well-being” for the family, as usual inviting the gods outside in the courtyard before telling a story indoors. Though his skills were in decline, it was a memorable occasion.

Li Huaiqiang died in July 2000, falling from a narrow mountain path while on his way to another village to hang a locket. Since his death, other itinerant bards occasionally stop off to perform in the village.

He Guangwu
He Guangwu (b. c1932) is a semi-blind bard from a village west of the river, south of Mizhi town. He began to lose his sight when 15 sui (c1946), so a couple of years later he began “learning the arts” with a master from Zizhou county, mastering a dozen traditional stories—although this was supposedly a climactic period for the new stories, the old stories were being transmitted as if nothing had changed.

He married when 21 sui. Their families arranged the match; his betrothed lived in a village only two li away, but they wouldn’t let her see him, and she only discovered his disability at their wedding. Now she jokes about it and is evidently happy that the family is relatively prosperous with many great-grandchildren; we didn’t like to press her on how it had seemed then.

He had taken part in training sessions in 1955 and 1964, but his concept of his livelihood barely took official contexts into account.

His family has done well since the reforms. He is active over a small area, proudly claiming to be well known within a radius of 20 li (10 kilometres), and he hasn’t taken any disciples. But he is busy. “People still invite me, and I still go. For temple fairs, or if a donkey isn’t eating its fodder, or if a family member is on a long journey, you must invite a ‘story for well-being’; and I tell stories for opening the locket, weddings, moving into a new cave-dwelling, and sons going off to the army.” He is also busy telling fortunes and healing.

HGW and me 2001

With He Guangwu, 2001. Photo: Zhang Zhentao.

In 2001 we found He Guangwu at a small temple fair at Jijiashigou, near his home village. He had agreed to tell fortunes for a family there to help them overcome adversity, and hadn’t brought his sanxian. He agreed to tell a story for us back at his home if we took him back to the temple fair later.

Tian Zhizi
We also visited Tian Zhizi (b. c1933) at his son’s home in a little town south of Zizhou on the road to Suide. He had belonged to the Zizhou team, and also studied in the Suide team. “My eyes were no good from young—I began studying narrative-singing in 1944. My master was Wang Jialai from Zizhou county. When I learned I lived at his house—his fee was 3 dan of grain per year, and I learned for three years.” Through the War of Resistance and the War of Liberation—precisely the period when the new stories were supposedly in the ascendant—Tian supported himself by curing illness, reciting incantations, and depicting talismans.

I began telling stories in 1951, and in 1952 became chief of the Zizhou blind people’s propaganda team, which had been formed the previous year. I was chief of the team for three years; it had over 60 members. Between 1952 to 1956 I studied new stories at the Jiuzhenguan hall in Suide.

Their boss was Shang Airen, an influential cultural official in Shaanbei. Despite my suspicions, Tian recalled,

In the 1950s the peasants loved hearing new stories. The main ones I learned were “The outstanding troupe member”, “Zhang Yulan takes part in the election”, “Opposing shamans”, “The tobacco pouch”, “Mother Gui makes shoes for the army”, and “Wang Piqin takes the southern road”.

Still, through the 1950s and 60s, while the bards from the team sometimes went on tour in small groups, Tian usually went round on his own. When he was 28 sui (c1960), Tian married a girl from the same town—which he claimed was “free love’” not arranged. In 1962 he spent a period working in Yan’an with none other than Han Qixiang, earning 36 kuai a month. Later he resigned and returned home, still making a living as an itinerant bard, also telling fortunes, hanging and opening lockets—by 2001 he had over 200 godchildren.

He went on, “I have 28 disciples in all, eight in Wubu, four in Yulin, two in Shenmu, also in Yan’an, Ansai, and Bao’an [Zhidan]. I took some disciples while I was at Yan’an in 1962, others stayed at my house to learn.”

Unusually, the Cultural Revolution was a significant period of activity for blind bards, who continued to perform both in their traditional contexts and in the state groups. The latter now had a new lease of life as “Blind artists’ Mao Zedong Thought propaganda teams”. In Mizhi county, the Hall of Culture organized a dozen bards into one such team, touring villages, mines, and schools—villages without electricity, mines where accidents were routine, schools with few tables or chairs, and the whole population constantly hungry and demoralized, if you will forgive me for reminding you.

“In 1972 I was mainly taking disciples in Wubu, ‘cos the Wubu Hall of Culture invited me to come to train members for their propaganda team.” Though it was ever harder for bards to perform without the sanction of the teams, popular taste still appeared to require an escape from the relentless revolutionary diet. Tian Zhizi had claimed that the new stories were popular in the 1950s, but “from 1967 [traditional] narrative-singing was forbidden—by that time people preferred old stories, or at least they didn’t like new ones, so we bards told some old ones in the villages on the quiet.”

Other bards also told us that while they couldn’t hang the locket openly during the Cultural Revolution, for those who needed it they still did it, and they still performed in secret in the villages—the people liked to listen and protected them. Geomancers were also still furtively active.

Ironically, perhaps the worst case of penalization was revolutionary Han Qixiang himself, inactive and subject to public criticism throughout the period. As late as 1976, just as the Gang of Four was about to be arrested, he was summoned to perform in Xi’an and criticized, though by late 1977 he was well back on the road to rehabilitation, taking part again in official meetings.

Guo Xingyu
A younger blind bard more able than many to move with the times is Guo Xingyu (b.1951), with whom I spent some time in 2001. His case is quite exceptional among bards I have met, following political trends astutely while continuing to take godchildren and cure illness.

Brought up in a poor Suide village, Guo Xingyu was blind from young. He studied narrative-singing and fortune-telling for ten moons with Wang Jinkao from the age of 12 sui (c1962). He started going out on business when about 16 sui, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. “When I was young I enjoyed learning everything from my master, curing illness, depicting talismans and chanting mantras”.

When I was just starting out we mainly told old stories, though in public contexts we told bits of new stories. New ones I liked telling, before and during the Cultural Revolution, were “Fuss over an abortion”, “Eliminating transactional marriages”, “The great immortal who eats ghosts”, “Eliminating superstition”, and “The tale of the city youth returning to the countryside”.

In 1968 Guo Xingyu joined the Suide county blind peoples’ propaganda team, which had several dozen bards, divided into three or four sub-groups:

In the 60s we were issued with narrative-singing permits; we had to hand over part of our income to the Hall of Culture as “public assets”—the state also took a certain amount of training expenses, but later that stopped. In the 60s and 70s the whole county probably had about 70 or 80 bards—about 40 or 50 didn’t enter the training bands, they had to tell stories on the quiet.

Guo Xingyu even took part in official festivals in Suide, Yulin, and Xi’an; he was praised by the venerable Han Qixiang. He appeared a model bard in the new mould—little would one think that all the while he was performing stories for well-being and healing.

From 1972 I was head of the blind men’s propaganda team organized by the Suide Hall of Culture. I entered the Party in 1975, and from 1978 I was political instructor of the team. In the 1980s I composed some new propaganda-type stories on the basis of the political needs of the time, mainly things like advertising the spirit of the Party’s 12th and 14th Plenary, and birth control, like “Fuss over an abortion” and “Marrying Late”.

By 2001 the team was moribund. Guo and his (sighted) wife were dividing their time between his home village and an apartment in the suburbs of Suide town. He had rarely performed as a bard since getting heart disease around 1991; now his main livelihood was curing illness by depicting talismans and chanting incantations, and hanging and opening lockets. Relying on his traditional magic, he legitimized it with a fashionably scientific-sounding defence: “magic power is rational (fali you daoli)”.

Guo Xingyu took us to see his blind master Wang Jinkao at his village home south of Suide town (DVD §C3).

WJK, GXY heying

With (right to left) Wang Jinkao, Guo Xingyu, and Wang’s son, 2001. Photo: Tian Yaonong.

Wang (known as Niur, b. c1930) married a sighted girl in 1947; they have three sons and a daughter, all peasants in the village. Wang accompanied himself on pipa rather than sanxian. When Guo Xingyu studied with him around 1962 he was running a kind of blind school in Qingjian; he learned in a group of five or six blind boys, whose parents had to pay fees. He was one of few bards still using pipa rather than sanxian.

Wang Jinkao had had minimal contact with the new ethos: he could tell new stories like “Wang Gui and Li Xiangxiang”, but if he had ever taken part in training sessions or belonged to the county team, no-one cared to remember.

As we saw, bards mostly worked solo; even when they assembled for temple fairs and New Year’s festivities, they performed in sequence, not together. But under Maoism, bards were sometimes organized into small groups to perform for non-ritual contexts.

Still, both new contexts and musical innovations remained a minor feature even through the years of Maoism, and after the “rotting of the collectives”, tradition became yet more dominant. Some new stories were still performed—on the birth-control policy, the reform and open-door policy, the private enterprise system. Some county authorities continued their efforts to organize blind performers, even trying entry by ticket. But as prices rose and more modern entertainments became popular, they resorted to more viable money-making ventures like setting up halls for video games, or classes teaching electronic keyboards.

By the 1990s the propaganda teams were virtually defunct. As one cultural cadre told us: “Later the bards didn’t want people to control them, and we didn’t have enough money anyway, so we gave up.”

Blind and sighted bards
Though Han Qixiang mentioned competition between blind and sighted bards when he was learning in the 1930s, narrative-singing in Shaanbei was largely a monopoly of blindmen, and only since the eve of the Cultural Revolution has the taboo against sighted performers been seriously challenged.

By around 2000 it was a fait accompli for sighted men to muscle in on the trade. There were fewer blind people anyway, since health has improved (though still appalling); and they could now receive modest disability benefits, or migrate in search of work as masseurs.

Nor do sighted men fear going blind any longer if they take it up. Half of Tian Zhizi’s 28 disciples were sighted—presumably those he taught since the 1970s. Although one elderly bard commented that the new disabled allowance for blind people makes them lazy, blind performers who are still active rather resented the encroachment on their “food-bowl”. “Originally sighted people weren’t allowed to tell stories—if you’re sighted you can do anything [else].” Now not only can sighted people learn, but they can even learn from tapes, saving them money but depriving senior blind bards of teaching fees.

Scholar Meng Haiping pointed out: “In the old days, bards’ social status was low; now for everyone all that counts is money, social status no longer comes into it.” This was certainly true for trendy young chuishou shawm-band musicians in the towns, but less obvious for the bards. Unlike the chuishou, bards have not spruced up their image so ambitiously, and remain quite modestly paid; nor have they yet availed themselves of the mobile-phone revolution that has occurred since about 1998. Whereas chuishou often ride motor-bikes, bards (even sighted ones) mostly go on foot.

Guo Xingyu:

Now there are sighted bards everywhere—many senior-secondary graduates, not wanting a hard life, go and tell stories. In Zizhou, Hengshan, and Yulin there are a lot of sighted bards, and there are some in Mizhi and Jiaxian too. Now there are fewer than thirty blind bards in Suide, but there are more sighted ones. They began appearing in the 1980s or 1990s, they drove the blind ones away; the blind ones were very angry about it—but the sighted ones had permits too.

He went on darkly,

Now how did that come about, then? Perhaps by bribery. Now blind artists are in great difficulties. There are more of them west of the river, but quite a few of the old artists have died; east of the river their skills aren’t quite so good.

Li Wenjin
I met sighted bard Li Wenjin (b. c1943) with Guo Yuhua in 1999 when he performed informally for staff at the office of the Black Dragon temple (on which see Adam Chau’s fine book Miraculous response), as a kind of advertisement for his arrival in the area. He comes from a village in Zizhou county. Soon after Liberation, in the early 1950s, he studied for three winters in the evenings in the “school for sweeping away illiteracy”. His parents died early, but he only began studying narrative-singing in the early 1980s, with the old blind bard in his village. His master could never find a wife: “when the five organs are incomplete, no-one will follow you”—though most of our blind mentors were exceptions. There was a libretto (benben) that he could follow—even blind performers sometimes owned a libretto. Li Wenjin was active over quite a wide area. He usually sings with his eyes closed—in imitation of blind bards?


Guo Yuhua and temple organizers listen to Li Wenjin, Black Dragon Temple 1999.

A couple of days after meeting him at the temple where we were staying, we bumped into him on our way back there, and he invited us along to hear a “story for well-being” that evening for a family in the nearby village (see photos at head of this post).

Xu Wengong
We met another sighted bard at the White Cloud Mountain temple fair in 2001. Xu Wengong (b. c1948), from a village in Qingjian county, began learning at 17 sui [c1964] from an uncle, so the taboo was perhaps being broken down even then. He has never taken part in any county-organized teams, or learned new stories. During the Cultural Revolution he was protected by villagers as he went round performing and hanging lockets on the quiet.

Many pilgrims attend the temple fair under the auspices of a dozen or so regional associations, each with particular allegiances among the many temple gods, sponsoring different daily rituals. Apart from the daily performances of opera, bards perform in a less public and commercial arrangement that is also typical of Shaanbei temple fairs. One evening we visit the cave of the Zizhou, Qingjian, and Ansai association where Xu Wengong was performing.

He comes to this fair every year as part of this pilgrim association, in order to fulfil a vow. “My father was a model labourer, and was head of this association”—note this typically casual link between Communist and traditional authority. “He came here to take part in the rituals and made a vow, because I’d had stomach disease for twelve years, and sure enough I got better. So I’ve been coming here to fulfil the vow every year since the temple restored, to revere the great god Zhenwu; I come here to avert calamity.” Some other bards also come to the temple fair not to make money but to fulfil vows.

There is no need to “invite the gods”, since they are already present, but on the left of the cave, as you stoop to enter, is an altar behind which the bard’s red cloth pantheon is displayed (see photo above). Individual pilgrims periodically burn paper and kowtow before it. Xu Wengong performs opposite the altar, the pilgrims sitting on mats at the rear of the cave, listening intently. They consist mostly of men over 50, but even those over 60 were brought up largely under Maoism. Yet such senior men entirely represent tradition; ritual associations like this surely represent a kind of passive alternative to government control.

Baiyunshan pilgrims 2001

XWG BYS 2001

Xu Wengong, Baiyunshan 2001

Old and new stories
Despite the propaganda surrounding Han Qixiang, not only does no-one value new stories now, but few recall them being popular even under Maoism. He Guangwu recalled, “In those days, usually we’d tell a section of a new story first and then tell an old one.” Other bards like Li Huaiqiang had no time for new stories at all. He had heard “Smashing superstition” on tape at a villager’s house, but “people don’t like it, it’s not good to listen to—you can’t sing stories like that for families, only for big meetings where tickets are on sale!” He Guangwu had learned “Opposing shamans” in the training session in the 1950s, but he too commented wryly, “You can’t tell that story nowadays—that’d be blasphemy!”

Even if the popularity of new stories was highly limited, and the subjects remained traditional, Li Huaiqiang pointed out that the bards’ language had been evolving along with the language of society generally. A certain change of style, reflecting the times, had evidently left him behind.

In the old days you sang of “Lady” or “Mistress” (furen, xiaojie), now it’s “missus” (poyi); in the old days it was “setting up as a family” (chengjia), nowadays it’s “the couple have got together”, “they held hands as they walked”, “they kissed”—it’s so lacking in culture! Old people won’t listen to that stuff, in the old days it was real cultured, now it just ain’t the same. But you have to adapt yer language to the times, eh?

So why should people apparently prefer stories about events many centuries earlier to ones about their society now? Local scholar Meng Haiping explained the ability of the old stories to survive under Maoism:

Traditional stories propound truth, goodness, beauty, and filial piety (zhenshanmeixiao 真善美孝)—that is China’s traditional morality, the Party doesn’t oppose that, and doesn’t suppress it.

Though there is ample evidence to show that they did oppose it, deliberately, regarding it under headings such as “bourgeois morality”, Meng was still making a fair point—because the Party he refers to is that on the ground, where continuity is more evident in local practice than the rupture often advocated by central theory.

Having complained about the coarsening of the bards’ language, Li Huaiqiang went on to lament the changing times:

In the old days bards used to wear a robe, and a hat with a pigtail. Nowadays it’s all simplified. Then it was wagai hats, sitting at a high table; now you don’t get changed, and just sit on a stool, it’s much simpler. And the gods used to be more efficacious, they were dead efficacious—if you didn’t follow them you could die. Once someone’s son died, and the parents made a vow to beg him to come back to life, so I obeyed the gods, and he really did come back to life.

So why didn’t the new stories become popular? Sure, villagers might be conservative and escapist in their tastes, finding stories of emperors and concubines, scholars and maids, generals and outlaws more attractive than propaganda. But the new stories might have been entertaining and meaningful in the contexts of the 1940s too. The irony was that the whole purpose of the new stories since the 1940s was to address current issues of great importance to the peasantry: namely tackling endemic social problems inherited from the old society.

But problems that might be arising under the new society were not now to be publicly aired. I would surmise that villagers might have been open to new stories, but were disillusioned by their glib political correctness, their failure to reflect complex new realities. The new stories were surely rarely heard in the villages apart from at mass meetings by which people were anyway alienated. If villagers were still able to host a performer to sing to invite the gods to heal their livestock, the new stories were inappropriate. In the early period of the 1940s, they might have had considerable novelty, and even helped people confront genuine problems, like forced marriages, opium, landlord exploitation. But maybe the themes didn’t keep pace with the problems: by the 1950s their perceived problems included campaigns, collectivization, irrational directives, and thus the new items seemed false, like the propaganda itself.

Still, as we saw, the stories Han Qixiang performed on his tours in the late 1950s were often semi-improvised according to the events unfolding in the village. That is, problems such as reactionary thinking among the peasants could be ridiculed; perhaps even bourgeois thinking of local leaders; but central policy could hardly be questioned.

As to issues topical since the reforms of the 1980s, several performers mentioned stories about the birth-control policy—that is, supporting it; given its massive unpopularity, has anyone dared sing stories opposing it? If no stories have arisen dedicated to sensitive issues such as official corruption, they are doubtless subtly aired in passing, if not as flagrantly as the fictional balladeer in Mo Yan’s visceral 1988 novel The Garlic Ballads (p.73):

A prefecture head who exterminates clans,
A county administrator who wipes out families;
No lighthearted banter from the mouths of power:
You tell us to plant garlic, and that’s what we do—
So what right have you not to buy our harvest?

Since the government mounts regular poster campaigns warning of sexually transmitted diseases, even if it was slow to admit to the danger of AIDS, I wonder if the bards could now be enlisted to tell stories warning of such perils. It seems unlikely.

At any rate, one can only be impressed by the adaptability and creativity of storytellers, and whatever the constraints on public speaking both under the communes and since the reforms, they must always rely to some extent on keeping their audience entertained with topical remarks which will strike a chord.

Note that it was the texts that the Party cadres sought to reform—the traditional melodic and rhythmic elements were not an object of their attention.

Research and images
By the 1980s, while local scholars did most of the work by contacting the bards through the urban teams, rather than accompanying them on tour, they were now concerned to document ritual aspects of the performance. People’s mind-sets had become much more free than under Maoism—one local scholar who recorded bards for the Anthology was not going to be hoodwinked into toeing the Party line by recording new stories:

When I recorded them, I chose anything about Heaven, Earth and Man, and rejected everything about the Party, Chairman Mao, and Socialism!

One might see this as a political bias in itself, but I would view it as a shrewd correction of any tendency the bards might have to play safe by performing a politically-correct piece for a government representative.

Since Shaanbei is often featured romantically in the national media as a revolutionary base, brief sanitized glimpses of Shaanbei folk culture are occasionally broadcast. The standard images are yangge dancing or a cheesey folk-singer, but in 2001 I saw a young sighted man do a passable imitation of a Shaanbei bard on a national CCTV chat-show featuring the cult Shaanxi novelist Jia Pingwa.

Avant-garde Chinese artists have presented a less revolutionary image of Shaanbei. One fine antidote to Han Qixiang is the blind bard in the novella Life on a string (Ming ruo qinxian) by Shi Tiesheng (b.1951), one of many “educated youth” rusticated to a village near Yan’an in 1969 (see my Shaanbei book, pp.8–11, 76–7). This 1985 story mystically evokes the life of an itinerant blind bard and his young blind disciple:

The old man believes that when he has broken one thousand strings, he can open up his sanxian and find a prescription inside which will restore his sight. When he finally does so, the piece of paper inside is blank.

The story was made into a film by Chen Kaige (1991), director of the brilliant Yellow Earth, also showing the gulf between the harsh realities of rural life and the Party’s ideals.

Such avant-garde creations, with their mystical minimalism, are more popular outside than inside China. While far from ethnography, they at least offer an imaginative alternative to the revolutionary idealism of official sources.

You can find many video clips of Shaanbei bards online (on Chinese sites and even youtube), most but not all in a commodified style. This one, while close to the traditional setting, is clearly specially staged.


* * *

Now I also learn much from

  • Ka-ming Wu, Reinventing Chinese tradition: the cultural politics of late socialism (University of Illinois Press, 2015).

Though Wu immersed herself the lives of her village hosts, she also engaged more with officialdom than I did. She was introduced to bards through the propaganda teams, which look to be more important in her region of the Shaanbei field site than in mine. So whereas bards that I met—even those who had spent periods in the training teams—found the new initiatives evanescent, she tends to take the institutional level as primary, although local variation may also play a part.

For instance, her subheading to Chapter 3 “Propaganda storytelling turned into spiritual service” puts the cart before the horse—when the latter has such a long history, and the former remains only one aspect of their activities. Following blind bard Master Xu around for a month, she gives some excellent vignettes.

She found that

He had transformed his performance into a series of clandestine religious activities and religious performances.

But this was precisely how the blindmen had always earned their living throughout history! A similar slip is

Northern Shaanxi storytelling was originally designed as part of a government-sponsored cultural enrichment mission to poverty-stricken rural areas. (104)

 In Chapter 4 Wu valuably describes danwei work-unit performances, which I hadn’t found. She shows bards’ (not always successful) search for performances in such danwei; indeed, even when a bard goes on a solo tour of the countryside she suggests a rather formal arrangement with the village leadership. Conversely, the nearest to this that any bards I met got to was when Li Wenjin announced his arrival in the area to the Black Dragon Temple temple committee—whereupon word soon spread, and household patrons came forward.

Again she shows how bards tend to open with a brief modern propaganda item (no longer based on class politics, as she notes) before launching into a more popular traditional story.

She gives some valuable translations of lyrics, both traditional and modern. Further to my comments above on stories about topical issues, she translates a remarkable item “Quality Control System Spread to Millions” warning against fake consumer goods, performed at a factory; and the 2008 “Alleviate Earthquake Disaster, Look Forward to the Olympics, Increase Productivity” for a staff appreciation event.

While she notes that such national and government messages were overshadowed by the traditional stories that followed them, she reminds us to pay attention to the mutual interpenetration and agenda contestation among the local state, danwei, and folk cultural practitioners.

She finds that storytelling

neither resists nor colludes with the state; nor does it cater to urban tourism or consumption.

And she observes acutely:

Instead of attributing the spiritual revival to a simple return to the storytelling tradition from before the 1940s, I relate it to the huge movement of labor, objects, and emotions between the rural and urban areas.
My point is not that northern Shaanxi folk storytelling has revived because of depressing rural economic conditions. Rather, I wish to emphasize that the revival of storytelling practice becomes one of the rare social and communal occasions for rural villagers to get together where they can openly discuss all kinds of major rural developmental contradictions: lack of elderly care, split households, and youth who find no career development in remote rural hometowns and who encounter much difficulty surviving in cities.
In short, folk storytelling occasions are valuable not so much because villagers are getting more religious or that the practice is a time-honored heritage. Rather, folk storytelling has become what Megan Moodie called “platforms for articulation”, where local citizens draw traditional cultural resources to discuss pressing concerns of split households among left-behind elderly and young wives in remote communities in a translocal age. (101–102)

 Despite these areas for discussion, when she writes so perceptively such variations in focus are welcome.

Despite the substantial material published on Communist reforms of narrative-singing, and ethnomusicologists’ eager search for change and modernization, it was hard while observing daily life in Shaanbei around 2000 to credit the Party’s reform programme with much long- (or even short-) term influence.

As Guo Yuhua observes, people remained loyal to their traditional concept of local village culture rather than to the state. Though state-funded troupes are undoubtedly an aspect of overall activity, this point appears to be of wide relevance for ritual activity and expressive culture in the Chinese countryside today, and for our understanding of modern China.

If the bards are now threatened by the recent spread of TV and pop music, they are still in demand for their “stories for well-being” as well as for their healing skills. While they do assemble for public rituals like temple fairs and New Year, they mostly perform solo. From the 1940s, a disjuncture emerged between the secular political performances of the official teams and the rituals of the solo bards. Narrative-singing has perhaps become a lesser aspect of the blindmen’s activities than their godfather and healing duties. Indeed, since sighted bards do not necessarily learn the healing arts of blind men, a potential divorce also looms between narrative-singing and healing—all the more since people can now learn stories by listening to commercial tapes.

My point is not to belittle official efforts, either in the cultural or political spheres. But we should avoid basing our assessments either on the new stories of Han Qixiang or on a simple revival or reinvention since around 1980. As Ju Xi comments, 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, local religion is not merely a “spiritual creation” or “cultural heritage”—it’s a cultural resource and social power which can play active roles in contemporary rural society.

The Party never managed to “eliminate superstition”, but complex social and economic changes continued to affect ritual life and expressive culture both under Maoism and since the reforms. Studying their changing fortunes in such a society requires a nuanced approach.


[1] This article is based on Part Two of my book Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei, (where you can find further refs. and characters)—note §C of the accompanying DVD. See also my “Turning a blind ear: bards of Shaanbei”, Chinoperl 27 (2007); Zhang Zhentao, Shengman shanmen 声漫山门, pp.353–79. I use the term “bard” for convenience, and to hint at their broader ritual duties.


China and Europe: local society and politics



My article on Guo Yuhua leads to several related posts on my blog—many collected under the Maoism tag in the sidebar.

For further alternative grass-roots accounts of Chinese society, see

For the troubled maintenance of local ritual life under changing regimes:

On recent conflicts between state and society, see e.g.

In Guo Yuhua’s interview with Ian Johnson she gives short shrift to the Intangible Cultural Heritage—as do I. Some tasters among the numerous posts under the heritage tag in the sidebar:

For Chinese parallels with authoritarian regimes in Europe, see e.g. my posts on



For another handy digest on a variety of topics, see here.

Guo Yuhua: Notes from Beijing, 3

GYH chat with last headscarfed man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapted from pp.xxvi–xxvii:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Hong Kong interview Guo Yuhua explains,

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

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

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

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

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

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

GYH 2006

Chat with village women, 2006.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The former landlord stronghold, 1999.

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

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

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

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

Commenting on their more recent memories, she notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

A vivid exchange in an interview with a former cadre:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GYH 2011

Village chat. 2011.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LHQ shuoshu

Li Huaiqiang, 1999.

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

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

Yangjiagou funeral 1999

Yangjiagou funeral, 1999. Older Brother second from left.

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

funeral climb 1

funeral climb 2


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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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


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


Flamenco, 1: palmas—soleares, bulerías

*Revised, with some sections moved to Part 3! Part 2 is here.*


Tony and Two-Jags explore the intricacies of flamenco palmas.

Coinciding with the thrilling Portugal–Spain match the other day was a flamenco gig in Chiswick with the splendid Ramon Ruiz.

Unlike the football, it’s not a competition, but much as I love fado (and you just have to listen to the Carminho song there; see also here), I’ve long been enchanted by flamenco. One benefit of the life of a touring WAM muso: how blessed to have had the chance to wind down from performing Bach Passions in Andalucia in time for late-night sessions in flamenco bars.

Recently my passion has been reinvigorated by occasional palmas sessions with Ramon. Flamenco is yet another illustration of the wonders of all the diverse regional cultures throughout Europe. And despite the efforts of those who would float off into an imperial ocean idyll of tweed and Morris dancing, London is still a wonderful microcosm of world music! You can find everything…

Youtube opens up a rich world of flamenco, not least the fantastic documentary series Rito y geografïa del cante flamenco.

This is just a preliminary reccy—more to follow.

* * *

Flamenco is about as far as you could possibly get from its cosy tourist image—Torremolinos, castanets, rose between the teeth, and all that. Like tango or rebetika, its life is among lineage gatherings, at informal fiestas and local peña clubs; and it’s rooted in the exorcizing of suffering. Rather than the commodified tablau shows, one lives in hope of sitting in on a juerga among aficionados (cf. the touring musos’ game). [1]

* * *

Like Lorca [name-dropper—Ed.], my taste draws me to the intensity of cante jondo “deep singing”, with genres like seguiriyas and martinetes. But my Spanish is rudimentary, I don’t play guitar, and No Way am I going to dance (like, ever)—so a great way of learning is to get a basic grasp of the wonderful palmas hand-clapping that accompanies singing, guitar, and dancing. Not to mention foot stamping, and the cajón box.

Come to that, palmas is a great way for British kids to become musically competent, growing into music—as Ramon finds in his school workshops.

Like the human voice, our hands, our bodies, are the most elemental musical instruments. Hand-clapping, relegated in northern societies to children’s games, is a captivating art in some Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cultures. And it’s belatedly come into its own with so-called minimalism—Steve Reich’s Clapping music,

and Anna Meredith’s exhilarating Hands free.

* * *

Complementing my explorations of youtube clips, I’m finding some practical sites useful, like this and this; also instructive are Ian Biddle’s chapter on cante and the Appendix “Cante, definition and classification” of Paul Hecht’s The wind cried.

As usual, we need an overview of the genres: this tree suggests the riches of all the various palos styles.

And then, within all these palos are the compas rhythmic patterns—embodied by specific (hands-on!) palmas. Not to mention all the local styles of towns throughout Andalucia—Seville, Jerez, Cádiz, Morón de la Frontera, Granada…

Palmas seems like a relatively easy way of getting a basic grip on flamenco. But focusing narrowly on the rhythms, it still takes me a lot of time to absorb the important clues from the guitar and voice that are equally basic.

Ramon suggests I begin with soleares (linguistic note: associated with soledad, like saudade in fado!) and (faster) bulérias. Here’s a soleares from Perrate de Utrera:

And bulerias by the de Utrera sisters, with Diego del Gastor:

I start by internalising the basic 12-beat cycle while swimming, taking breaths before the accents:

       1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

or (beginning on 12)

12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

So it’s a recurring hemiola* pattern; that should be simple enough, but for pedantic hidebound WAMmies like me it feels as if it begins on the “wrong” beat. (¿¡Surely this is as wacky as the Spanish upside-down question and exclamation marks?!). Anyway, you can already hear just how complex the rhythmic variations are. As always, if you’re hampered by a classical education like wat I is (innit), or if you don’t happen to come from a long lineage of Andalucian blacksmiths, then you have to unlearn any ingrained assumptions from WAM and just immerse yourself in the whole style through the experience of the body.

I think of Indian tala; or even the way that household Daoists in Yanggao pick up, largely by ear, their ritual percussion items—seemingly simple but endlessly varied, with large cymbals and drum interacting. Indeed, the way that the clappers often leave the main beat empty reminds me somewhat of Li Manshan “calling the beat” with a busy drum pattern just before the down-beat on the small cymbals.

It’s no good just going oom-pa-pa like a waltz—in one video, Ramon spots some old ladies at the back doing just that! And then there’s the nuance of fuertes hard and sordas soft dynamics, and all the contra-tiempo cross-accents between multiple clappers.

As Ramon explains, it’s a series of questions and answers. I’ll have a better handle on this once I’ve learned to latch onto the guitar, with its chord change on 3, and the extra cadential flourish ending on 10—though the beginner may find few landmarks in between those points. The youtube option of slowing down playback can come in handy.

Here’s yet another fine programme in the Rito series, with a series of bulérias (featuring, after Camaron, Cristobalina Suarez with young sleeping child from 23.20—see also Part 2):

This is seriously complex funky stuff. No sooner have you learned a basic pattern than you find how variable it is—like sonata form. Given its considerable theorization (as if that mattered), that theory is orally transmitted, and the brilliant exponents are often semi-literate. But while insisting that flamenco should absolutely be admissible to the ranks of “serious music” (whatever that means), the only important point is that it’s extraordinarily life-enhancing.

* * *

I also love it when all extraneous elements are stripped away: when everyone just claps their complex patterns in counterpoint with the dancer’s feet. Or the cantes a palo seco, when the singer dispenses entirely with guitar and even palmas, just howling in solitary pain… I’ll pursue these songs in my third post.

Talking of the Rito y geografïa del cante flamenco series, with all its precious archive footage, the programmes on the Utrera sisters illustrate the compilers’ fine ethnography of lineages, changing society and music, the amateur–professional continuum, and all the subtle distinctions that folk musicians always make:

All this wealth of musicking on our doorstep! I’ll keep studying and updating this post. The next post in this series outlines gender, politics, wine, and deviance!

As an aperitivo for the third post we just have to have a seguiriyas from Camarón de la Isla:


*BTW, lutenist Paul O’Dette told me this story on a long tour of the USA:
Summer school in Utah on baroque music. A professor from England solemnly writes “HEMIOLA” on the board and begins to explain the occasional use of three groups of two within a triple metre. One of the local students guffaws,
“HEY! We don’t have no hee-my-olas in Utaww!”


[1] Among a wealth of sources, in English one might start with the flamenco chapter of The rough guide to world music; William Washabaugh, Flamenco: passion, politics and popular culture; ethnographies like  D.E. Pohren, A way of life and Paul Hecht, The wind cried; and for cante jondo, see e.g. Timothy Mitchell, Flamenco deep song.

Taming the Uyghur “heritage”

I’ve ranted in many posts about the iniquities of “heritage“, particularly (though not only) for China. As if the commodification, reification, and secularization of local Han Chinese cultures isn’t bad enough, it’s still worse for minority traditions such as those of the Tibetans and Uyghurs, for whom the political agenda to sinicize and tame is even clearer.

On the cultural aspect of the repression of the Uyghurs (muqam, meshrep and so on), I’ve just added a link to an excellent detailed recent report on the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Xinjiang, both under my main theoretical discussion

Edible, Intangible, dodgy

and in my film review

Ashiq: the last troubadour.


Notes from Beijing, 2

Further to my post on the Beishida ethnographers, and my seemingly underwhelming maxim that

If you want to study Chinese culture, China’s a good place to do it,

in between my lectures at Beishida in March I sallied forth (cf. Cheeseshop sketch) to show my film at People’s University and Peking University for two fine scholars from whom I also have much to learn: Cao Xinyu (left) and Wang Mingming.

Cao Xinyu
I’ve already mentioned Cao Xinyu 曹新宇 (b.1973) in a previous post (just updated). Professor of the Qing History Research Institute in the History department of People’s University (Renda), he’s a most supportive teacher—and for me he has the added cachet of being a scion of Yanggao, home of my Daoist master Li Manshan! Talking of Renda, I was happy to tell Cao Xinyu of Li Manshan’s ingenuous repunctuation of 中国人大代表 (here, under 2nd moon 28th).

Sectarian activity is an important aspect of the picture of religious life in China, both in imperial and modern times—indeed right now. Cao Xinyu combines detailed textual research on the imperial ancestry of sectarian groups and fieldwork on their modern fortunes. In addition to his series of books on sectarian history, notably the Way of Yellow Heaven, you can also read astute articles such as this survey.

1958 fanguan

In a salient reminder of Maoist history, we had lunch at the Russian restaurant “1958” on the People’s University campus, opened in 2013 (with how much irony, I can’t fathom) to commemorate the Russian experts then at the university—shortly before they were all expelled.

Wang Mingming
Just up the road at Peking University is the eminent anthropologist Wang Mingming 王铭铭 (b.1962). [1] He’s a native of Quanzhou in Minnan (south Fujian), whose ever-vibrant ritual culture (temple fairs, Daoist ritualnanyin, and so on) has always informed his research.

From 1981 he studied archaeology in Xiamen University, going on to embrace anthropology as it was incorporated into the department there. He came to London in 1987 to study for a PhD in anthropology at SOAS; this was also the start of a long and fruitful collaboration with the great Stephan Feuchtwang. He returned to China in 1994 to make his base at Peking University, becoming a full professor there in 1997.

With Stephan he wrote the fine book Grassroots charisma: four local leaders in China (2002) on the linking of religion and politics in two villages in Quanzhou and north Taiwan. Wang’s historical anthropology of the city of Quanzhou, Empire and Local Worlds, was published in English in 2009.

His article on the Fazhugong festival makes an introduction to the tenor of his work:

  • “Lingyande ‘yichan’ ” 灵验的“遗产” [Efficacious “heritage”], in Guo Yuhua (ed.) Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁 [Ritual and social change] (Beijing: Shehuikexue wenxian cbs, 1999).

Like Guo Yuhua (his fellow anthropologist at Tsinghua next door), he combines detailed ethnography with a thorough grasp of theory. As Stephan writes:

Through numerous publications, books he has written, series he has edited, journals he has founded, and through his teaching of postgraduate and doctoral students, he has been dedicated to the re-formation of anthropology in China as an academic discipline, not as an aid to programs of development and of government, nor as simply an import from English-language social and cultural anthropology, but as an anthropology coming from China that can and does have something to say to a larger anthropology.

His theoretical mission to re-historicize anthropology over a long time-frame, and in a global context, may be seen in

  • “To learn from the ancestors or to borrow from the foreigners: China’s self-identity as a modern civilization”, Critique of anthropology 34.4 (2014).

as well as

  • “Minzuzhi: yizhong guangyi renwen guanxixuede jieding” 民族志:一种广义人文关系学的界定 [Ethnography: a redefinition from the perspective of extended human relations], Xueshu yuekan 47.3 (2015).

Among his recent projects, he has directed analytical fieldwork on the ritual life of Hui’an county in Minnan:

  • Wang Mingming et al., “Dili yu shehui shiyezhongde minjian wenhua: Huidong Xiaozuo kaocha” 地理与社会视野中的民间文化——惠东小岞考察 [Folk culture from the viewpoint of geography and society: survey of Xiaozuo, east Hui’an], Minsu yanjiu 2017.2,

as well as a study of towns of the “Tibetan–Yi corridor” (藏彝走廊):

  • Wang Mingming and Zhai Shuping 翟淑平, “Songpan, Batang, Zhongdian: ji sange xibu chengzhende yanjiu” 松潘、巴塘、中甸——记三个西部城镇的研究 [Songpan, Batang, and Zhongdian: studies of three towns in southwest China], Xibei minzu yanjiu 2017.2.

Wang’s diachronic approach has much to teach us (including scholars of ritual and music) about changing local societies through imperial, Maoist, and reform eras, not least on their relations with the state and “cultural” authorities. In utter contrast with the reified salvage-based “living fossil” flapdoodle of the “heritage” authorities, such study is based both on thorough fieldwork and on detailed research into sources since the late imperial era.

I can’t help noticing that Peking University has changed somewhat since my last sojourn there thirty-two years ago. In Wang Mingming’s interaction with his students he has a wonderful informal style; he clearly makes a fine fieldworker. Both he and Cao Xinyu encourage their students to think; at both events—and in the pub afterwards—I relished their lively exchanges.


[1] Many of Wang Mingming’s articles are collected on the aisixiang site here. For an English introduction, watch this 2008 interview with Alan Macfarlane, transcribed here; and Stephan Feuchtwang and Michael Rowlands, “Some Chinese directions in anthropology”, Anthropological quarterly 83.4 (2010).