A flawed funeral


Fetching Water procession, 2011.

Much of the voluminous work on Daoist ritual focuses on recreating the glories of ancient China. While fieldwork since the 1980s has greatly enriched our understanding, the complexities of modern life rarely intrude even in descriptions of rituals observed; the search for “living fossils” dominates research, implying a timeless social cohesion of local communities.

My diachronic ethnography of the Li family Daoists in Yanggao county of north Shanxi is partly inspired by the classic studies of Geertz; and for China, Ken Dean paid attention to the tensions involved in the 1980s’ revival of ritual practice in Fujian. This post is based on Chapter 19 of my book Daoist priests of the Li family, and in my film you can observe the rituals described here.

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Since my visits from 2003 the “old rules” (lao guiju 老规矩) of ritual practice have been declining rapidly. Nowadays Li Manshan’s band works for patrons, kin, and audiences who have less discrimination, and in some respects the band’s response to this lack of appreciation is to perform less scrupulously. The Daoists are deeply gloomy about the future. They love the exhilarating percussion finale of Transferring Offerings (my film, from 1.11.07) as much as I do, but “within ten years it won’t be heard any more.” They know such repertoire is precious but are helpless to protect it; they make the comment without anguish or sentimentality. Whereas Li Qing’s generation used to wear their thick black costumes underneath their red costumes even in the summer heat, now they merely wear the red costumes over their daily apparel. And for Fetching Water, Call Me Old-Fashioned, but a plastic Sprite bottle just doesn’t do the job.

Yet they still demand basic standards of themselves, maintaining many of the old rules against all the odds. They play on procession all the way out from the scripture hall to the altar, and all the way back. While singing at the altar they may sometimes seem lax (the occasional joke, even answering a mobile), but their basic solemnity shows their perceived need to maintain their reputation. Recently they tend to sing some of the hymns rather too fast in the Invitation (the Song in Praise of the Dipper, and the Mantra to the Three Generations at the gate on the return), but they still perform most of the hymns extremely slowly (notably those for Opening and Delivering the Scriptures), when surely they could go just a tad faster; nor do they abbreviate them. While singing a cappella they keep the large cymbals folded on their chests, maintaining great solemnity. There is still room for further decline.

Like his father Li Qing before him, Li Manshan worried about the stresses of being band boss and choosing suitable personnel—like band leaders in jazz, indeed. But he is far from hands-on; I would like to see this as an embodiment of Daoist wuwei “non-action.” He notes occasional blips in ensemble playing, but he rarely reprimands. The dep Guicheng tends to mime a silent beat between the slow beats on the gong, which is “not good to look at,” but Li Manshan only mildly mentions this to him when he realizes I have noticed it. Back in the scripture hall, by contrast with the way the Daoists fool around now, Li Qing and his colleagues used to “hold a meeting” about how the previous ritual had gone, always maintaining standards. Li Qing would certainly want to retain the “old rules” now, but given the hosts’ apathy he too would be helpless to do so. Even in the 1980s he presided over a radical revision of the temple fair sequence, and his 1991 Pardon was very different from the manual (see Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.246–9). The decline has taken place gradually in waves over the last century or so.

When performed at all, some of the fashi public rituals have recently been radically simplified, such as Opening the Quarters, Communicating the Lanterns, and Judgment and Alms. Early one morning before a burial, Golden Noble gave me a perceptive summary of the current situation. The cycle goes from ritual (yishi) to form (xingshi) until the latter itself becomes a type of ritual; thus the ritual becomes a token, then the token becomes ossified. Let’s now discuss some instances of decline that I observed in 2011.

Ritual multi-tasking
The Li family has long prided itself on being able to split into several bands for rituals on the same day. But now the same band can even chase round more than one venue on the same day, cramming in a couple of ritual segments alternately. This is possible thanks to both improved modes of transport and the hosts’ lesser demands. Even on his own, Li Manshan can now zoom from smashing a bowl in one village to decorating a coffin in another.

One morning in 2011 while doing a burial at Houying they fitted in a half-day appearance at the new temple outside Lower Liangyuan. Li Manshan, Li Bin, and Wu Mei left at 7.30am to Open Scriptures there, hooking up with three other Daoists; then they hurried back to Houying for the burial procession before returning to Lower Liangyuan again, playing a long shengguan suite seated round a table outside. Later in a smoke-filled room to the side of the temple complex I found a large group of people, mainly women, clustering round a spirit medium who was curing illnesses. I now realized this must be the main reason why the temple was being rebuilt.

Fast food, Daoist style
In May 2011 I was roped in to take part in another perfunctory ritual.

The band is doing a funeral in Golden Noble’s village of Houying. After a fine Invitation ritual and a jovial supper, before the evening Transferring Offerings, they have agreed to cram in another quick Transferring Offerings at Wujiahe village, half an hour’s drive away along winding little roads. So we all cram cordially into Yang Ying’s car—Golden Noble stays behind to attend to the kin, so I dep for him on gongs.

This other funeral is a very minor affair, with paltry altar decorations, and no-one minds when we rush through the offerings at hectic pace—indeed, they expect us to do so. For the three sections we just sing brief excerpts from hymns, far from the long sequences prescribed. This is exceptional, actually, and the Daoists only agreed to do it because the host begged them.

I already hinted at a certain recent simplification of Transferring Offerings. As we pile back into the car back to Houying for our main course, I joke that this is like a ritual version of fast food, a drive-in take-out. Just further north, hosts are already more “careless”—there they no longer even request the Invitation. Even in our area, some patrons now request shorter hymns for Transferring Offerings; Li Bin recalls a funeral recently where the host didn’t want the ritual at all, considering it “too much hassle” (Pah!). Still, on our return to Houying they do a beautiful full sequence, with three long plaintive hymns.

A flawed funeral
During my stay in October 2011 I am looking forward to a three-day funeral in a nearby village; such funerals are no longer common, so I should be able to attend several rare rituals. When the day comes I am in high spirits; it is a beautiful sunny autumn morning, and it is a picturesque little village with a population of only two or three hundred.

Over the next couple of days my hopes are progressively deflated. First I discover that the Daoists now commonly simplify the three-day sequence. But in this village, as they realize the depth of their hosts’ ritual ignorance, they are even more casual. I begin to realize that a crucial factor in the maintenance of ritual is whether or not “the host is cooperative” (dongjia peihe 东家配合). The Daoists are used to having to guide the host family, but here they sense reluctance.


The deceased woman was 93 sui. Her third son had died seven years ago, aged 52 sui; his coffin was removed from the grave for the purpose of burying them jointly, and it now stands at the roadside under an awning. Li Manshan did the initial determining the date, decorating the new coffin on the third day, and Li Bin decorated the soul hall two days before the funeral. So they may have sensed a certain ignorance in the host family long before they turned up to do the rituals—but work is work.

The scripture hall—as usual at the other end of the village to allow for a suitably lengthy procession—is the house of an affable but poor 50-sui-old bachelor. It is still hot, and his house is full of flies. I gaze admiringly at the wall paintings around the kang brick-bed of our host; their dilapidated charm reminds me of Ming dynasty murals, and I am taken aback to learn that they were painted when the house was built in 1978!

Xingyuan 2011 female kin

Female kin kowtow before the coffin, 2011.

After the first two morning visits to Deliver the Scriptures, Wu Mei nips into town on his motorbike to collect his new bank card while the others return to Pansi for the burial procession there (more multi-tasking). I give this a miss, chatting with our host as he busies himself sorting the corn harvest piled up in his courtyard. The Daoists return from the Pansi burial at 11.25am, so there is only time for three of the usual four Delivering the Scriptures this morning. The Opening the Quarters ritual, once prescribed at this stage of a three-day funeral, is no longer performed in Yanggao.

Lunch is followed by a siesta. With Li Manshan still busy writing ritual documents on the kang, there is only space for three of us to rest there; two more Daoists recline in Yang Ying’s car, while Wang Ding nods off perched precariously on a narrow trunk. Then a couple of Li Manshan’s mates from Houguantun turn up to chat with him.

At 3pm the Daoists set off on procession to the soul hall for the afternoon Opening Scriptures. This turns into another Failed Experiment, and this time it’s all my fault. At my request they sing Eternal Homage (see here, under 3rd moon 4th), a very slow hymn that I have never recorded. Only afterwards does it transpire that it is commonly accompanied by shengguan; this is the first time they have tried the a cappella version for over twenty years. On the gong Wang Ding, then still inexperienced, keeps going too fast, and it’s a mess. Back at the scripture hall they rehearse it diligently. At least this shows that the a cappella version can still be performed.

Then the Fetching Water ritual (my film, from 41.06). First to the soul hall to collect the kin, then to the rather distant “river,” and back to the soul hall, ending with a fine sequence of popular errentai melodies and clowning. Again, for this sequence the family is either unaware of the tradition of throwing extra money onto the table or too stingy, and I fail to persuade the Daoists to let me give them some.

After supper we admire the bright stars and rest a while in the scripture hall, watching TV, while Li Manshan writes yet more paper documents for tomorrow’s Hoisting the Pennant. When our bachelor host returns I ask him, “You been watching the opera?” He replies wistfully, “Yeah—watching the women.”

At 8.30pm to the soul hall for the long-awaited Communicating the Lanterns—so-called. Instead of the prescribed ritual, the Daoists merely light ten candles in a row on the altar table, sing the long a cappella hymn Mantra of the Wailing Ghosts, then play a quick shengguan sequence, and it’s all over! But the family is oblivious. The Daoists don’t give me any heads-up for this, nor—gratifyingly?!—does it occur to them to perform the proper ritual specially for my benefit. I now begin to realize they are disgruntled because the kin are not “accommodating” and have no understanding of the “rules.” But irrespective of relations with the host, this simplified version of Communicating the Lanterns has become standard in recent years.

So we finish early, before 10pm. The Daoists all live nearby, so we decide against enduring the modest hospitality of our bachelor host; the others zoom off on their motor-bikes while Li Bin drives Li Manshan and me back home to Upper Liangyuan.

Next morning Yuan Xuedong is depping for his cousin Yuan Gaoshan, and Yang Ying for Li Bin, who has gone off to lead another band for a funeral at Lower Liangyuan. In the scripture hall Li Manshan makes the little triangular paper flag to go at the top of the central pole for Hoisting the Pennant (my film, from 44.22), and prepares the goodies, wrapping them up carefully in the beautiful long pennant. After the first two sessions Delivering the Scriptures the Daoists prepare the arena, hanging up the paper squares, sticking the red “god place” inscriptions onto the poles, and raising the flag and pennant high on the central pole. The ritual itself they perform in full, with all the hymns at each of the poles, the kin following them around the arena and kowtowing and burning paper on cue. But for the final chase Golden Noble doesn’t bother to don the five-buddhas hat or wield the precious sword. They are going through the motions. Still, this was the first Hoisting the Pennant here for at least thirteen years. While filming I got hit twice by firecrackers, with magnificent symmetry first on my left shoulder and then not long afterwards on my right. No damage done—occupational hazard.

The Daoists then lead the kin back to the soul hall, where they sing a short a cappella version of the brief pseudo-Sanskrit coda that concludes hymns like Diverse and Nameless. Next, on a brief kitchen visit to Invite Offerings they sing the six-line hymn Songjing gongde. Returning to the scripture hall they do a brief “scriptures for well-being” session for our poor host, playing The Five Offerings on shengguan while he kneels and burns paper before the image of the City God of This Earth. Then back to the soul hall again for a perfunctory Presenting the Offerings ritual. Both Inviting and Presenting Offerings were formerly more lengthy, particularly for temple fairs. After lunch the others take a siesta, but Li Manshan has to keep writing away.

For the first Delivering the Scriptures of the afternoon they sing a cappella the long Mantra of the Skeleton. They give me permission to sit out the second Delivering the Scriptures—and sure enough, on their return they tease me that they sang Fanhun xiang, which I’ve never recorded!

Between (and occasionally even during) rituals the Daoists check their mobiles. To wonder if their Ming-dynasty forebears would have behaved like this is as pointless as the debate whether Mozart would have written jingles for TV ads; the kind of conditions that produce mobile phones are related to those that prompt people to check them during rituals.

Towards dusk they do the Invitation at the edge of the village. Li Qing’s prescription for a three-day funeral places the Invitation on the first day and Redeeming the Treasuries on the second day; but since they no longer do the Pardon or Crossing the Bridges on the second day, there is time to do the Invitation and Redeeming the Treasuries in sequence then.

After returning to the soul hall we immediately set off to the public arena for Judgment and Alms. Again, this ritual is now rarely performed, so this should be a rare chance for me. The paper squares hung up around the arena for Hoisting the Pennant are taken down and burned, then the red god inscriptions on the poles, and finally the central pole is pushed over. But again the ritual is a far cry from what it should be. As Wu Mei later confides, “It was a modernized Judgment and Alms!”

Then immediately back to the soul hall to fetch the treasuries for the Redeeming the Treasuries procession. After supper we enjoy the skit outside the gate, laughing along with the village audience, tearing ourselves away to take our places around the altar table for the first installment of Transferring Offerings. As soon as Wu Mei plays the plaintive preludial two notes of Diverse and Nameless, the tone is set for a deeply mournful long slow hymn; at once we are all deep in the groove, our concentration total. But the ritual is rather perfunctory, and Yang Ying drives us back to Upper Liangyuan by 11pm. Tired as we are, Li Manshan is keen to give me a session on how the Judgment and Alms should really go, our chat itself serving as a kind of exorcism.


On the final day, in bright sunshine, we return to the village for the burial. A list of gifts is pasted up at the gate, on red paper: gifts range from 800 down to 100 yuan, with most donors giving 200. Popular opinion is that these amounts are too mean. The preparations for the burial take ages, the kin faffing around endlessly, while Li Manshan mutters expletives under his breath. The burial procession is uneventful. The son’s coffin is to be reburied next to that of his mother. Li Manshan returns to the soul hall to stick up talismans in a brief exorcism. A protracted lunch—a wearisome day altogether. By now Li Manshan and Li Bin are really annoyed with the family. First Li Manshan has to haggle with them over the bill (never normally an issue), then Li Bin, whose gig at Lower Liangyuan ended at 3am last night, arrives to lend his support. While I wait discreetly in Li Bin’s car, a toothless ancient geezer talks at me non-stop and incomprehensibly for twenty minutes. Since I gather he was talking about the funeral, this might have been interesting, but I can only deduce the gist—that it was a crap funeral, and the family was stingy.

Then an impressively ugly peasant woman in a flimsy minidress walks by, grazing two donkeys. I seem to have stumbled onto a Fellini filmset. She takes pity on my verbal bombardment from the ancient codger, and after he wanders off she chats with me for a while in mercifully standard Chinese. She comes from Sichuan, and was sold to a man in this village twenty years ago; she recalls that it took her a couple of years to adapt to Yanggao dialect.

While Li Bin haggles with the family, quarrels and recriminations break out within the family, people red-faced from booze wandering around shouting at each other. It’s just like Christmas in England. After Li Bin drives us back home to Upper Liangyuan, Li Manshan and I recover, consulting the manuals again, clearing up a few more of my incessant queries, joking.

Cohesion and dislocation
In a modest contribution to the fine tradition of learning from failed rituals, let’s reflect on these notes.

The idea of a failed ritual tacitly accepts that the aim of the proceedings is to confirm and celebrate community solidarity—and indeed that there is such a thing. That Geertz and others don’t always find this may reflect on a supposed loss of such harmony under complex post-colonial (or whatever) social tensions; perhaps by contrast with an imagined earlier ideal age, a notion that we may obviously challenge too.

Funerals in China do indeed seem to me to represent something valuable, for both kin and community. But the family is subject to scrutiny; the event is an opportunity to confirm status within the family and community, but also a moment when underlying animosities may be entrenched. And this applies to other rituals too, like the vast territorial processions of southeast China. The conditions of the 20th century have doubtless created many dislocations in thinking; and we should recognize conflicts in imperial China, between classes and lineages, different aspirations, and so on—the very area that Lagerwey (China: a religious state, pp.153–170) seems to characterize as a kind of rural paradise is one where feuds between lineages, and between villages, have long been brutal.

Shi Shengbao 2018

Shi Shengbao with Li Manshan, Yangguantun 2018. Photo: Li Bin.

With his long experience of serving the villages in the area, Li Manshan has a network of guanxi contacts among senior men familiar with ritual proprieties—for instance, he is always happy to work in Pansi and Yangguantun, where the people are friendly and knowledgeable. At a fine funeral in Yangguantun in 2016, the gujiang shawm band was playing “greater opera” on their truck outside the gate, but stopped when we approached, as the “old rules” demand. The fine director Shi Shengbao, then a youthful 69 sui, took the job up in 1981 because he liked it. The family, and our scripture hall hosts, are cultured and respectful. Still, when you look closely, the village is still poor, with decrepit derelict boarded-up old houses. These villages are dying.

The main reason why the funeral described above was so unsatisfactory was because the Li band hadn’t performed there before, and none of the kin—or indeed the village’s ritual director or the plentiful men in their 50s to 70s—seemed to know the most basic “rules,” so Li Manshan had to explain even fundamental proprieties like kowtowing.

While the Daoists were disturbed by the whole ritual ignorance of the village, they and their rituals were not a crucial element in the failure of the event. It was through their irritation that I became aware of the conflicts within the village and the funeral family, which were going to come to a head anyway. The Daoists have routinely been simplifying the three-day sequence even for more discriminating clients; the titles of many ritual segments endure, but their content is diluted and homogenized.

Daoists still have to be invited, almost routinely; but by now they are used to not being appreciated. Since the 1990s no-one pays much attention when they arrive at the soul hall; only the kin reluctantly abandon their places watching the pop music outside the gate to go and kneel before the soul hall. It shows that a subtle degree of respect for the “rules,” from some quarter, is still expected. Sure, it is a small village, so they don’t get to put on so many funerals, but still, if they had so little clue about the proper procedures, and balked at the expense, then why did they bother requesting a three-day funeral in the first place—why not just book the Daoists for a minimal sequence? Li Manshan’s group is perfectly accustomed to doing this, and one might suppose that their irritation derived mainly from the final squabble over money. But the Daoists were already feeling disgruntled soon after arriving, long before the bill had to be settled.

The decision to hold a funeral over three days rather than two involves far more than merely the minor expense of asking the Daoists to perform a few more rituals. The pop band and the shawm band, as well as the cooks, have to be hired; the returning kin have to take extra time off their work in distant towns.

In sum, a lot depends on whether the host is “cooperative” or not. On tour in Germany in 2013 we observe that our hosts are all very cooperative—whereas we joke that Milan, scene of our most desultory European gig, should twin up with the village described above. Of course, what they expect of their hosts for domestic and foreign contexts are totally different. Abroad, the host merely has to find a good venue and provide decent hospitability; back home, the host family is expected to work closely with the Daoists in accordance with complex ritual organization.

In the Coda of my book, “Things ain’t what they used to be”, I round up the theme of ritual decline.

Note the recent diaries of Li Manshan and Li Bin. Funerals feature throughout my posts under Local ritual; see also e.g. Funerals in Hebei.


Lives in Stalin’s Russia


Hand-in-hand with my focus on ritual and expressive culture, I have long been concerned to document life-stories—of ordinary people, artists, and scholars, both in China (cf. my detailed work on the Gaoluo villagers and the Li family Daoists) and Europe.

Under the Iron curtain tag (see also roundup here) I’ve broached life-stories under state socialism in the GDR (here and here), Czechoslovakia, and Ukraine (blind minstrels, and the famine)—and tribulations under the Soviet regime were the context for this post on ethnic minorities there. But now, reading

  • Orlando Figes, The whisperers: private lives in Stalin’s Russia (2007)

makes an accessible single-volume study to begin shedding light on my ignorance of ordinary lives in the Soviet Union. Apart from the importance of the topic in itself, I muse (as ever) on the similarities and differences with Maoist—and post-Maoist—China.

Many books describe the externals of the Terror—the arrests and trials, enslavements and killings of the Gulag—but The whisperers is the first to explore in depth its influence on personal and family life.

The oral history of family memory makes a counterweight to the official narrative (notes also Soviet lives at war). Figes interrogates the issues in interpreting such sources. His website, following on from his oral history project, is a treasury of related material. For significant caveats on the book, see here (with further links).

As the regime sought to erase the distinction between public and private life, Figes describes both the effectiveness of the Soviet indoctrination of children and the internal conflict with messages they gleaned from their families. The system taught dissimulation, producing duplicity and lifelong fear. As a survival strategy, people learned to wear a mask, going into “internal emigration”, leading double lives; they had to adjust to the system merely in order to survive. They learned not to talk: “whisperers” were both those who whispered out of fear of being overheard, and those who informed.

Figes details the effects of successive waves of repression, before, during, and after the Stalin regime from 1928 to 1953, interweaving many family histories throughout the book. The case of its central figure Konstantin Simonov, who “embodied all the moral conflicts and dilemmas of his generation”, though revealing in its complexity, is exceptional in his high profile as cultural cadre. The index, and the website, can be used to follow the stories of individual families throughout the book. The cast includes both cadres and the catch-all of “kulaks”, but seems more urban than rural—whereas China was more predominantly rural as late as the 1970s. Even early images of “kulaks” being expelled, and photos from the gulag (however manufactured), suggest that China was still more backward—and repressed—in the 1950s than Russia in the 1920s.

Exiles gulag Siberia 1933 101Exiles in a “special settlement” in western Siberia, 1933.

For Maoist China too, diverse sources can be assembled to modify and counter the official narrative, including memoirs, family photos and documents, local archives, and so on—note Sebastian Veg, Popular memories of the Mao eraMemoirs and biographical accounts have proliferated since the liberalizations of the 1980s. In film, recent projects such as laogai documentaries and Wu Wenguang’s Caochangdi Work Station are impressive. Also revealing are fictional portrayals—not just laogai novelists like Zhang Xianliang and Yan Lianke, but films such as The blue kite that suggest the everyday tribulations of ordinary families. But while there may be a comparable wealth of material for China, it’s hard to envisage such an accessible, personal, wide-ranging and diachronic account as The whisperers.

Illuminating his sources perceptively, Figes identifies clear periods in people’s fates under the Soviet regime. The repression took place over a longer period than that of Maoism, and may seem to have been even more terrifying. The gulag—among the extensive literature on which, see e.g. Anne Applebaum, Gulag: a history (2003)—looms larger in the public (and private) image of the USSR than the laogai system in China, although the latter has also become the subject of brave research. Executions, and the all-pervading NKVD, also seem to play a more common role in Soviet history.

Below I can only list some of the main themes of the book, rather than citing the many personal life-stories that illustrate them—which is actually its outstanding strength.

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Figes opens with Children of 1917, on the early years of the revolution, and the beginnings of state indoctrination and the war on religion. In 1926 the peasantry represented 82% of the Soviet population—cf. China, where the rural population peaked at 84% in 1963. But urban populations grew rapidly. Families were dislocated; millions of children were abandoned, having to fend for themselves. Figes describes life at the camps. Some “kulaks” managed to flee from the camps, living on the run.

Young people renounced their relatives, for various motives.

As millions of people left their homes, changed their jobs, or moved around the country, it was relatively easy to change or reinvent one’s social class. People learned to fashion for themselves a class identity that would help them advance. They became clever at concealing or disguising impure social origins, and at dressing up their own biographies to make them seem more “proletarian”.

But they were haunted by the constant threat of exposure—many concealed their secrets right until the 1990s.

In The great break (1928–32) Figes describes the temporary relaxation in the assault against religion between 1924 and 1928:

On 2 August 1930, the villagers of Obukhovo celebrated Ilin Day, an old religious holiday to mark the end of the high summer when Russian peasants held a feast and said their prayers for a good harvest. After a service in the church, the villagers assembled at the Golovins, the biggest family in Obukhovo, where they were given home-made pies and beer inside the house while their children played outside. As evening approached, the village dance (gulian’e) began. Led by a band of balalaika players and accordionists, two separate rows of boys and girls, dressed in festive cottons, set off from the house, singing as they danced down the village street.

Thereafter, while clandestine belief may have persisted, I find rather few clues to any public religious (or even customary) activity—by contrast with Maoist China, where it kept resurfacing despite constant campaigns. Am I wrong to see local Chinese populations as more resilient in maintaining their expressive culture under Maoism? Still in Obukhovo:

That year the holiday was overshadowed by violent arguments. The villagers were bitterly divided about whether they should form a collective farm (kolkhoz), as they had been ordered by the Soviet government. […] There were terrifying tales of soldiers forcing peasants into the kolkhoz, of mass arrests and deportations, of houses being burned and people killed, and of peasants fleeing from their villages and slaughtering their cattle to avoid collectivization.

Kulaks exiled 1930s 89“Kulaks” exiled from the village of Udachne, Khryshyne (Ukraine), early 1930s.

As Figes explains:

During just the first two months of 1930, half the Soviet peasantry (about 60 million people in over 100,000 villages) was herded into the collective farms. […] Peasants who spoke out against collectivization were beaten, tortured, threatened, and harassed, until they agreed to join the collective farm. Many were expelled as “kulaks” from their homes and driven out of the village. The herding of the peasants into the collective farms was accompanied by a violent assault against the Church, the focal point of the old way of life of the village, which was regarded by the Bolsheviks as a source of potential opposition to collectivization. Thousands of priests were arrested and churches were looted and destroyed, forcing millions of believers to maintain their faith in the secrecy of their own homes. […]
There was surprisingly little peasant opposition to the persecution of the “kulaks”. […] The majority of the peasantry reacted to the sudden disappearance of their fellow villagers with passive resignation born of fear.

Golovins 1940s 78Yevdokiia and Nikolai with their son Aleksei Golovin (1940s).

In Obukhovo the Golovins were deported on 4th May 1930:

I recall the faces of the people standing there. They were our friends and neighbours—the people I had grown up with. No-one approached us. No-one said farewell. They stood there silently, like soldiers in a line. They were afraid.


There was widespread resistance to collectivization, even though most villagers acquiesced in the repression of “kulaks”. In 1929–30, the police registered 44,779 “serious disturbances”. Communists and rural activists were killed in their hundreds, and thousands more attacked. There were peasant demonstrations and riots, assaults against Soviet institutions, acts of arson and attacks on kolkhoz property, protests against closures of churches.

Figes unpacks the motives of those responsible for enforcing the brutal war against the peasantry.

Under The pursuit of happiness (1932–36), while observing brief concessions to consumer culture (promoting perfume, cosmetics, fun), he evokes urban projects like the construction of the Moscow metro from 1932, using peasant immigrants and gulag prisoners:

The splendour of these proletarian palaces, which stood in such stark contrast to the cramped and squalid private spaces in which the majority of people lived, played an important moral role (not unlike the role played by the Church in earlier states).

But popular unrest continued. The rise of a new bureaucratic elite also caused discontent:

In 1932, a manager at Transmashtekh, a vast industrial conglomerate, wrote to the Soviet President Mikhail Kalinin:

The problem with Soviet power is the fact that it gives rise to the vilest type of official—one that scrupulously carries out the general designs of the supreme authority… This official never tells the truth, because he doesn’t want to distress the leadership. He gloats about famine and pestilence in the district or ward controlled by his rival. He won’t lift a finger to help his neighbour… All I see around me is loathsome politicizing, dirty tricks, and people being destroyed for slips of the tongue. There’s no end to the denunciations. You can’t spit without hitting some revolting denouncer or liar. What have we come to? It’s impossible to breathe. The less gifted a bastard, the meaner his slander. Of course the purge of your Party is none of my business, but I think that as a result of it, decent elements still remaining will be cleaned out.

Figes notes the “hierarchy of poverty”. And meanwhile the lives of women failed to improve:

For women nothing changed in the 1930s—they worked long hours at a factory and then did a second shift at home, cooking, cleaning, caring for the children on average for five hours every night—whereas men were liberated from most of their traditional domestic duties (chopping wood, carrying water, preparing the stove) by the modernization of workers’ housing, which increased the provision of running water, gas, and electricity, leaving them more time for cultural pursuits and politics.

Trotsky had trenchant views on sexual politics:

One of the dramatic chapters in the great book of the Soviets will be the tale of the disintegration and breaking up of those Soviet families where the husband as a Party member, trade unionist, military commander or administrator, grew and developed and acquired new tastes in life, and the wife, crushed by the family, remained on the old level. The road of the two generations of Soviet bureaucracy is sown thick with the tragedies of wives rejected and left behind. The same phenomenon is now to be observed in the new generation. The greatest of all crudities and cruelties are to be met perhaps in the very heights of the bureaucracy, where a very large percentage are parvenus of little culture, who consider that everything is permitted to them. Archives and memoirs will some day expose downright crimes in relation to wives, and to women in general, on the part of those evangelists of family morals and the compulsory “joys of motherhood”, who are, owing to their position, immune from prosecution.

Figes documents the constrained domestic spaces of urban dwellers, and the tensions caused by lack of privacy, with some fine room plans.

Above, left: Khaneyevsky household, Moscow; right: Reifshnieders’ room, Moscow.
Below, left: Nikitin and Turkin apartments, Perm; right: Bushuev “corner” room, Perm.

In later years many people felt a rose-tinted nostalgia for the pre-war years, when

Everybody helped one another, and there were no arguments. No-one was stingy with their money—they spent their wages as soon as they were paid. It was fun to live then. Not like after the war, when people kept their money to themselves, and closed their doors.

But, as in China (where many peasants felt an equally perplexing nostalgia for the commune system), there’s ample evidence for the contrary view of communal life:

It was a different feeling of repression from arrest, imprisonment, and exile, which I’ve also experienced, but in some ways it was worse. In exile one preserved a sense of one’s self, but the repression I felt in the communal apartment was the repression of my inner freedom and individuality. I felt this repression, this need for self-control, every time I went into the kitchen, where I was always scrutinized by the little crowd that gathered there. It was impossible to be oneself.

Still, millions of people were taught to believe that

hard work today would be rewarded tomorrow, when the “good life” would be enjoyed by all.

Though the mid-1930s have been regarded as the calm before the storm,

for millions of people whose families were scattered in the Gulag’s labour camps and colonies, these years were as bad as any other.

Kondratiev 1938 226Nikolai Kondratiev’s last letter to his daughter, 1938.

In The great fear (1937–38), Figes explains that the Terror was not a routine wave of mass arrest, but a calculated policy of mass murder. Among the complex reasons prompting Stalin’s purge was the imminent threat of war. Not just the direct “offenders” but also their kin were hunted down. The motives of the informers, often themselves under extreme pressure, were also complex.

In 1938, the NKVD chief Yezhov was deposed. “The real reason for Yezhov’s fall was Stalin’s growing sense that mass arrests were no longer a workable strategy. At the rate the arrests were going, it would not be long before the entire Soviet population was in jail.” Under his successor Beria the purge was scaled down.

Fear brought out the worst in people. Yet there was also acts of extraordinary kindness by colleagues, friends, and neighbours, sometimes even strangers, who took enormous risks to help the families of “enemies of the people”. […]
The disappearance of a father and a husband placed enormous strain on families. Wives renounced husbands who had been arrested, not necessarily because they thought their spouses might be “enemies of the people”, although they may have had that thought, but because it made survival easier and gave protection to their families (many husbands for this reason advised wives to renounce them). […] It took extraordinary resilience, and not a little bravery, for women to resist these pressures and stand by their husbands.

There is scant consolation in Remnants of terror (1938–41) on the eve of the German invasion. Figes praises the untold acts of heroism of grandmothers striving to keep together the scattered remains of repressed families.

Lebeva 1940 322Elena Lebedeva with her granddaughters, Natalia (left) and Elena Konstantinova,
Ak-Bulak, 1940.

But many children ended up in orphanages, roamed the streets begging, joined street gangs, or were themselves sent to children’s labour colonies.

Meanwhile, in a Nazi–Soviet pact that alarmed faithful Communists, both Germany and the Red Army invaded Poland, and the USSR pressurized the Baltic states to accept pacts of “defence and mutual assistance”, extending the reach of their reign of terror.

The theme of Wait for me (1941–45) is the social consequences of the sudden German invasion of the USSR in 1941. Apart from its global significance, it was also crucial for the maintenance of the Soviet regime. Stalin now had no choice but to call for unity, setting aside class struggle and ideology. Many saw that the whole climate of the Terror had played a major role in the USSR’s initial inability to resist the invasion; criticism became open (some even welcomed the prospect of a German victory), and arrests continued.

But the desperate need for self-defence did indeed foster a spirit of national unity. The horrors of war against a brutal external enemy helped people forget, for now, the misery of their situation during “peacetime”. Patriotic morale even produced a new merging of the public sphere and the intimate world of personal relationships.

As the tide turned, the Red Army chased the Germans back. Convinced by the courageous determination of the Soviet forces, Figes seeks to explain it. Terror and coercion played a role, but

Appeals to the patriotism of the Soviet people were more successful. The vast majority of Soviet soldiers were peasant sons; their loyalty was not to Stalin or the Party, which had brought ruin to the countryside, but to their homes and families, to their own vision of the “motherland”.

The image of Mother Russia was promoted; controls over religion were temporarily relaxed. Hatred of the enemy was also an important element. But most significant, Figes suggests, was the cult of personal sacrifice:

As Simonov remarked, the people were prepared for the privations of the war—the sharp decline in living standards, the breaking up of families, the disruption of ordinary life—because they had already been through much the same in the name of the Five Year Plans.


Contrary to the Soviet myth of wartime national unity, Soviet society was more fractured during the war than at any previous time since the Civil War. Ethnic divisions had been exacerbated by the Soviet state, which scapegoated certain national minorities, such as the Crimean Tatars, the Chechens, and the Volga Germans, and exiled them to regions where they were not welcomed by the local populace. Anti-Semitism, which had been largely dormant in Soviet society before the war, now became widespread. It flourished especially in areas occupied by Hitler’s troops, where a large section of the Soviet population was directly influenced by the Nazis’ racist propaganda, but similar ideas were imported to places as remote as Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and Siberia by Soviet soldiers and evacuees from the western regions near the front.

Even so, people united for the defence of their local communities. And soldiers found camaraderie:

Veterans recall the intimacy of these wartime friendships with idealism and nostalgia. They claim that people then had “bigger hearts” and “acted from the soul”, and that they themselves were somehow “better human beings”, as if the comradeship of the small collective unit was a cleaner sphere of ethical relationships and principles than the Communist system, with all its compromises and contingencies. They often talk as if they found in the collectivism of these groups of fellow soldiers a type of “family” that was missing from the lives before the war (and would be missing afterwards).

Zinaida 1942 357Left: Zinaida Bushueva with her brothers, 1936.
Right: Zinaida (centre) in ALZhIR, 1942. A rare private photograph of Gulag prisoners, it was taken to send to relatives. The three women were photographed together to reduce the costs.

During the war the exploitation of the Gulag labour force intensified—in 1942 one in four Gulag workers died.

As Pasternak would write in the epilogue of Doctor Zhivago (1957), “When the war broke out, its menace of real death, were a blessing compared to the inhuman power of the lie, a relief because it broke the spell of the dead letter.” The relief was palpable. People were allowed to act in ways that would have been unthinkable before the war. By necessity, they were thrown back on their own initiative—they spoke to one another and helped each other without thinking of the political dangers to themselves, and from this spontaneous activity a new sense of nationhood emerged. The war years, for this reason, would come to be recalled with nostalgia.

The years 1941 to 1943 were described as a period of “spontaneous de-Stalinization”. People were empowered to think critically; a new freedom of expression even included political debate. The revival of religious activity continued through to 1948. Still, over the whole period cultural and religious life at a distance from urban centres remains somewhat obscure.

All this marked the beginning of a fundamental change of values. Towards the end of the war, as the Red Army entered Europe, their encounter with conditions there—clearly superior even amidst its desperately ravaged state, to which indeed they contributed further—also allowed them to question Soviet propaganda. And like the British, their experiences gave them ideals of building a better society—in their case, dismantling the collective farms, establishing democracy and religious freedoms. “Party leaders were understandably anxious about the return of all these men with their reformist ideas.” Such liberal notions were anyway spreading among civilians, not least as a result of the alliance with Britain and the USA.

As Ilia Ehrenburg wrote,

Everybody expected that once victory had been won, people would know real happiness. We realized, of course, that the country had been devastated, impoverished, that we would have to work hard, and we did not have fantasies about mountains of gold. But we believed that victory would bring justice, that human dignity would triumph.

Their hopes were soon dashed.

The ending of the war coincided with the first mass release of prisoners from the Gulag. […] Families began to piece themselves together again. Women took the lead in this recovery, sometimes travelling across the country in search of husbands and children. There were tight restrictions on where former prisoners could live. Most of them were banned from residing in the major towns. So families who wanted to be together often had to move to remote corners of the Soviet Union. Sometimes the only place they could find to settle was in the Gulag zone.

But the Gulag population actually expanded in the years after the war, with forced labour making a significant element in the economy.

People were damaged; fear, and silence, still reigned. All this also makes even more remarkable the widespread telling of political jokes, throughout the whole period.

The post-war period is the subject of Ordinary Stalinists (1945–53).

No other country suffered more from the Second World War than the Soviet Union. According to the most reliable estimates, 26 million Soviet citizens lost their lives (two-thirds of them civilians) […] and 4 million disappeared between 1941 and 1945. […] The demographic consequences of the war were catastrophic. Soviet agriculture never really recovered from this demographic loss. The kolkhoz became a place for women, children, and old men.

The material devastation was grievous too. Another famine occurred from 1946 to 1948. The brief improvement in the supply of consumer goods before the war was a distant memory. With people no longer afraid to express their discontent, strikes and demonstrations broke out. But as the new threat posed by the Cold War developed, Stalin moved promptly to purge the army and Party leadership, and to rule out any idea of political reform. Censorship was tightened; the new wave of dissent had to continue underground.

Left: Inna Gaister (aged 13) with her sisters Valeriia (3) and Natalia (8), Moscow, 1939. The photograph was taken to send to their mother in the Akmolinsk labour camp (ALZhIR).
Right: Inna Gaister (centre) with two friends at Moscow University, 1947.

But a new type of middle class now emerged, better educated and less ideological in outlook—though they had to conform, at least outwardly, to the demands of the regime, perfecting the art of wearing masks. Figes gives more stories of informants. Valentina Kropotina made her whole career by informing. With her “kulak” background,

I was basically a street-child, dressed in rags, barefoot… All my childhood memories are dominated by the feeling of hunger… I was afraid of hunger, and even more, of poverty. And I was corrupted by this fear.

She felt no remorse for what she did. Still,

The “little terror” of the post-war years was very different from the Great Terror of 1937–8. It took place, not against the backdrop of apocalypse, when frightened people agreed to betrayals and denunciations in the desperate struggle to save their lives and families, but against the background of a relatively mundane and stable existence, when fear no longer deprived people of their moral sensibility.

Anti-Semitism, always latent, escalated along with the “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign. When Stalin died in 1953, even some victims of the Terror felt genuine sorrow, but

The mourning ceremonies in Krasnodar were more like a holiday. They put on a mournful face, but there was a sparkle in their eyes, the hint of a smile beneath their greeting, that made it clear that they were pleased.

Even so, there was still no release from fear—indeed, people were anxious for the future. Beria played a role in allaying such fears, though he was soon executed in a Kremlin coup organized by Kruschev. Hopes were high among Gulag inmates; new demonstrations broke out, which helped bring about the abolition of the system. About 40% of the gulag population were released in an amnesty on 27th March 1953—though they returned to their families physically and mentally broken. The climate in the Soviet Union also led to the serious demonstrations that erupted in the GDR.

The story continues in Return (1953–56).

The family emerged from the years of terror as the one stable institution in a society where virtually all the mainstays of human existence—the neighbourhood community, the village and the church—had been weakened or destroyed. For many people the family represented the only relationship they could trust, the only place they felt a sense of belonging, and they went to extraordinary lengths to reunite with relatives.

But former prisoners found it hard to build relationships, to find jobs and places to live. They still had to confront those who had betrayed them, although they also understood the extreme pressures that had led them to do so. The process of rehabilitation was laborious. And millions never returned from the camps.

Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 made a decisive break, the beginnings of the reformist thaw. Still, Stalin, rather than the whole system, was the scapegoat. But it also had consequences for the countries of east Europe, notably with the Hungarian uprising that year.

And just as the worst was over in the USSR, China systematically repeated its deadly mistakes. Dikötter outlines many of the same features of life under Maoism, but his treatment is less personal.

As Figes describes in the final chapter, Memory (1956–2006), even after 1956, the vast majority of ordinary people were still too cowed and frightened by the memory of the Stalinist regime to speak out openly. The thaw ended when Brezhnev replaced Kruschev in 1964; as dissidents were persecuted, people again suppressed their traumatic memories. Stoicism and passivity became enduring social norms.

But nostalgia for the war persisted, even overriding other assessments of the system. Viacheslav Kondratiev recalled:

For our generation the war was the most important event in our lives, the most important. This is what we think today. So we are not prepared to belittle in any way the great achievement of our people in those terrifying, difficult, and unforgettable years. The memory of our fallen soldiers is too sacred, our patriotic feelings are too pure and deep for that.

Eventually more candid memories of the war surfaced, such as the 1975 film A soldier went. A whole Gulag literature emerged.

Unlike the victims of the Nazi war against the Jews, for whom there could be no redeeming narrative, the victims of Stalinist repression had two main collective narratives in which to place their own life-stories and find some sort of meaning for their ordeals: the survival narrative, as told in the memoir literature of former Gulag prisoners, in which their suffering was transcended by the human spirit of the survivor; and the Soviet narrative, in which that suffering was redeemed by the Communist ideal, the winning of the Great Patriotic War, or the achievements of the Soviet Union.

Figes reflects on the startling paradox in the later myth of Norilsk,

a large industrial city built and populated by Gulag prisoners, whose civic pride is rooted in their own slave labour for the Stalinist regime,

as well as the popular nostalgia for Stalin (and again we might compare the Chinese nostalgia for Mao—see also here), which

reflects the uncertainty of their lives as pensioners, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991; the rising prices that put many good beyond their means; the destruction of their savings by inflation; and the rampant criminality that frightened old people in their homes.


nostalgia notwithstanding, the ruinous legacies of the Stalinist regime continued to be felt by the descendants of Stalin’s victims many decades after the dictator’s death. It was not only a question of lost relationships, damaged lives and families, but of traumas passed from one generation to the next. […]
Even in the last years of the Soviet regime, in the liberal climate of glasnost, the vast majority of Soviet families did not talk about their histories, or pass down stories of repression to their children. […] Fifteen years after the collapse of the regime, there are still people in the provinces who are afraid to talk about their past, even to their own children.

Again, the Chinese parallel is interesting: whereas the Soviet “liberation” occurred after over seventy years of repression, in China “reform and opening” not only happened earlier, following the collapse of Maoism in the late 1970s, but came after a mere thirty years of state repression. Both Russia and China suffered grievously under invasion and warfare; and for both, the hard-earned victory came to form a cornerstone of the national image. But whereas in China the war set the scene for the Communist takeover and the people finally “standing up”, in Russia it made an interlude within a system in which repression was already deeply entrenched; it seemed to offer hopes for reform, which were soon thwarted. In China too the lid on popular expression of trauma remained quite tightly sealed, though as Sebastian Veg notes, “after a period of post-traumatic outpour, followed by commodified nostalgia, popular memory in recent years has shown signs of moving towards more critical discussions.” But both Chinese and Russian regimes continue to devise new forms of repression.

* * *

In my post on Bloodlands (n.2) I mentioned attempts to compare death tolls under Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—in ascending order, it seems. As Timothy Snyder wrote,

it turns out that, with the exception of the war years, a very large majority of people who entered the Gulag left alive. Judging from the Soviet records we now have, the number of people who died in the Gulag between 1933 and 1945, while both Stalin and Hitler were in power, was on the order of a million, perhaps a bit more. The total figure for the entire Stalinist period is likely between two million and three million. The Great Terror and other shooting actions killed no more than a million people, probably a bit fewer. The largest human catastrophe of Stalinism was the famine of 1930–1933, in which more than five million people died.

But appalling are the death tolls, they are far from the whole story. Now that I read Figes’s account, it seems callous and irrelevant to dwell on such statistics.

With my classical, mystical background, it took me a long time to appreciate the importance of all this—and it may still elude younger people in the UK, Russia, and China. But having long focused on the life-stories of Chinese ritual specialists and their patrons, I continue to find such accounts an illuminating perspective on modern history, for China and elsewhere.

Popular culture in early modern Europe


We often study Chinese culture (both expressive and material) rather in isolation, but many parallels are suggested in

  • Peter Burke, Popular culture in early modern Europe (1978, thoughtfully updated in 2009 edition),

a lucidly-written single-volume work on the period 1500 to 1800. Of course it’s a vast field, but Burke’s broad coverage is enriched by illuminating detail.

Think away television, radio, and cinema, which have standardized the vernaculars of Europe within living memory, not to mention changes which are less obvious but may be more profound. Think away the railways, which probably did even more than conscription and government propaganda to erode the culture peculiar to each province and to turn regions into nations. Think away universal education and literacy, class consciousness and nationalism. Think away the modern confidence (however shaken) in progress, science, and technology, and the secular modes in which hopes and fears are expressed.

Indeed, many in Europe had little access to these features well into the 20th century—and many Chinese still later. So the historical coverage not only makes a useful perspective on popular traditions enduring today (e.g. Italy or east Europe), but is also full of lessons for our studies of popular culture in modern China.

Many (not least in China) tend to visualize Europe as a monolithic, reified, “developed” (and largely secular) modern bourgeois society, whose music (for instance) is represented by the “classical” canon. In the wake of the industrial revolution, change in the popular cultures of Europe was already a complex issue by the early 1900s, when study began to take off in earnest; but in China, for all its own revolution, many of Burke’s perspectives still seem relevant in the late 20th century. So it may be easier to see the parallels here than it would be with a study of modern Europe.

In Chapter 1 he discusses “The discovery of the people” by early-19th-century intellectuals, just as traditional culture seemed threatened—of which he gives some fine examples, long predating 20th-century concerns. Already before the industrial revolution, with the growth of towns, the improvement of roads, and the spread of literacy, the centre was invading the periphery.

Burke adduces early collections of folk-songs from Germany, Russia, Sweden, Serbia, Hungary, and Finland. The intellectuals also discovered popular religion and festivals (cf. Zhao Shiyu‘s work on Chinese temple fairs), along with folk music. Burke discusses aesthetic, intellectual, and political reasons for this interest. Along with the reaction against the Enlightenment, and the growth of nationalism,

the discovery of the people was part of a movement of cultural primitivism in which the ancient, the distant, and the popular were all equated.

In Chinese discourse on folk culture, terms like “simple” and “primitive” were still common in the late 20th century.

At the same time, Burke unpacks problems with studying the subject through the work of early European folklorists: distortion, creative bias, and the notion of “improvement”. Just like the CCP in China,

it is all to easy to continue to see popular culture through the romantic, nationalist spectacles of the intellectuals of the early 19th century.

On “restoration” he observes:

To read the text of a ballad, a folktale, or even a tune in a collection of this period is much like looking at a Gothic church which was “restored” at much the same time. One cannot be sure whether one is looking at what was originally there, at what the restorer thought was originally there, at what he thought ought to have been there, or at what he thought should be there now. Not only texts and buildings were subject to “restoration”, but even festivals.

Burke criticizes the notions of primitivism, communalism, and purism, stressing that “popular culture does have a history”.

In Chapter 2, “Unity and variety in popular culture”, Burke notes pockets where there was still a shared culture on the lines of the (dodgy) model of tribal societies, but observes that the broad picture was not monolithic or homogeneous: social stratification was widespread. He refines the model of interdependent great and little traditions, both urban and rural, that Robert Redfield suggested in the 1930s:

There were two cultural traditions in early modern Europe, but they did not correspond symmetrically to the two main social groups, the elite and the common people. The elite participated in the little traditions, but the common people did not participate in the great tradition. The great tradition was transmitted formally at grammar schools and at universities. It was a closed tradition in the sense that people who had not attended such institutions, which were not open to all, were excluded. […] The little tradition, on the other hand, was transmitted informally. It was open to all, like the church and the market-place, where so many of the performances occurred.

So in the early period the elite, the nobility, local literati, and the clergy had access to and participated in both cultures.

In the Cracow area about 1565, more than 80% of the poor nobles were illiterate. The style of life of some rural nobles and parish priests was not so different from that of the peasants around them.
But this situation did not remain static throughout the period. The upper classes gradually withdrew from participation in the little tradition in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Following Kodály and Gramsci, Burke also notes that “the people” were not a homogeneous group. As in 20th-century China, the peasants formed 80–90% of the population. But apart from peasants and craftsmen, women, children, shepherds, sailors, beggars, and so on, all had important sub-cultures. The diversity of occupations makes a useful reminder for China, both in imperial and modern times; the peasantry was itself stratified, as the CCP would observe. Burke cites Kodaly again:

Many traditional folksongs are appropriate only for one social group, like the Scandinavian drängvisor, or farm-hands’ song, and the pigvisor, the “complaints” of ill–treated maidservants.

He notes ecological differences:

Leaping dances seem to be associated with mountainous regions, in the Basque country, in Norway, in the highlands of Bavaria, Poland, and Scotland, because this was an old form of dance which did not survive in the plains.

In the countryside farmers, herdsmen, and shepherds also had different cultures, as did blacksmiths, carpenters, woodsmen, miners, and bandits. Similar stratification was notable in the towns: guilds, craftsmen (weavers, tailors, shoemakers, journeymen, apprentices, and so on), and shopkeepers.

Burke notes religion and ethnic minorities as markers of cultural difference—not only Catholics and Protestants, but Jews and Muslims. And he discusses the male category of “wanderers”—soldiers, sailors, beggars, and thieves. He notes variation by gender and region, coexisting with other types of variation. Excluded from most of the categories, “women’s culture is to popular culture what popular culture is to culture as a whole.” Other potential elements in a cultural geography of Europe would include architecture, literacy, and topography. He observes interaction between great and little traditions, finding traffic in both directions, with creative transformations.

In Chapter 3, “An elusive quarry”, Burke interrogates the sources, their literati bias and unreliability:

We want to know about performances, but what have survived are texts; we want to see these performances through the eyes of the craftsmen and peasants themselves, but we are forced to see them through the eyes of literate outsiders.

The attitudes and values of craftsmen and peasants

were expressed in activities and performances, but these activities and performances were only documented when the literate upper classes took an interest in them.

And when, as often, festivities were described by foreign visitors, they

are likely to miss all sorts of local or topical allusions and may misunderstand what the festivities mean to the participants.

Or (as in China) popular activities may be recorded simply because the authorities were trying to suppress them. And of course

A text cannot record a performance adequately, whether it is a clown’s or a preacher’s. The tone of voice is missing, so are the facial expressions, the gestures, the acrobatics.

Further, Burke notes that printed texts (including sermons) are likely to vary from the texts performed. Print not only recorded popular culture but undermined it. He lists six kinds of mediator, and explores oblique approaches to popular culture, adducing witch trials and “iconology”. And he notes the useful perspective of rebellion, also fruitful for China.

Discussing folk-songs and epics “collected” in the 20th century, he comments:

Historians whose sources consist of fragmentary texts have a lot to learn from folklorists whose sources are living people, who can be observed at work and even questioned. What I am advocating is a rather more indirect use of the modern material, to criticize or interpret the documentary sources.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me say at once what the regressive method is not. It does not consist of relatively recent situations and cheerfully assuming that they apply equally well to earlier periods.

He notes the potential for historians to learn from anthropologists.

Part Two, “Structures of popular culture”, opens with Chapter 4, “The transmission of popular culture”, focusing on the “active bearers of culture”. While observing that

Shepherds made their own bagpipes as well as playing them. The men of the household made the furniture, and the women made the clothes. […] Anyone who fell ill or had an accident would be treated at home,

he stresses that

Neither the household nor the village was culturally autonomous.

Semi-professional healers, traveling pedlars, and wandering minstrels [a term, I note, encrusted with romantic flapdoodle] were also part of the picture. He unpacks the notion of “popular artist” (one who works mainly for a public of craftsmen and peasants), and the spectrum of professionals and amateurs. I like his list of occupational performers for England:

Ballad-singers, bear-wards, buffoons, charlatans, clowns, comedians, fencers, fools, hocus-pocus men, jugglers, merry-andrews, minstrels, mountebanks, players, puppet-masters, quacks, rope-dancers, showmen, tooth-drawers and tumblers. [1]

(For instances of the evocative use of lists, see Last night’s fun and Accordion crimes.)

But again there were gradations, as with shawm bands in China today. Like tinkers and pedlars, many performing groups were itinerant. The Russian skomorokhi (interestingly seen as antecedents of Pussy Riot here) travelled in bands of up to one hundred men. Burke’s description of “strolling players” in 18th-century England reminds me of Chinese opera troupes today:

Two actors would be sent ahead of the rest to get permission to play in the towns and villages on their route. Their properties and costumes would be secondhand, even dilapidated, and they would perform in inns or barns.

la Tour

Georges La Tour, The hurdy-gurdy man. Cf. the lirniky of modern Ukraine.

Several more features suggest China. Solo bards were also common—as in Spain, France, Serbia, and Russia. Whether solo or in a group, they were often equated with beggars; and many “vagabond-entertainers” were blind. Itinerant preachers were also widespread. Besides human opera, ritual puppet plays may remind us of groups still performing in regions like Fujian and Gansu.

Less well documented were the amateur performers, and semi-professionals (as in China), “part-time specialists who had another occupation but might derive a supplementary income from their singing, playing, or healing.” Performers of plays and other festivities were often organized into guilds. Funeral wailers were hired, as in Britain, Italy, and Russia. Popular healers and diviners are listed for England, Sweden, Poland, Spain.

Burke explores the physical setting, noting that it is easier to document public performances (church, tavern, market-place) than domestic occasions. He outlines the balance of folk tradition and individual innovation, refuting the “collective creation” myth.

Chapter 5, “Traditional forms”, explores genres, discussing the variety of dance and song forms; themes and variations; and the process of composition—all recurring issues in ethnomusicology. He includes preaching and material culture, seeking not only formulas and motifs but structures.

Chapter 6, “Heroes, villains, and fools” goes on to look at stock characters, probing the attitudes and values of craftsmen and peasants. In popular culture the images of rulers, the clergy and saints, the nobility and knights, the middle class and officials, are sometimes ambivalent, but the lower classes seem “conservative”, accepting them and structuring their world through the models provided by the dominant group. Conversely, craftsmen and peasants also saw society in terms not of harmony but of conflict, complaining of poverty and injustice. Here Burke lists five points along a spectrum of responses: fatalist, moralist, traditionalist, radical, and millenarian.

The Chinese peasantry since the 1940s have also clung to such heroic figures from the imperial past, remaining quite resistant to the cultural values of the CCP while absorbing new elements (like the PLA soldier in the medium’s pantheon here).

Under “ordinary people”, Burke notes that craftsmens’ image of the peasant was unflattering. Nor, in the male-dominated sources, do women emerge well:

Most popular heroines were objects, admired not so much for what they did but what they suffered. For women, martyrdom was virtually the only route to sanctity.

More common are images of deceitful and malicious women.

Under “outsiders”, outlaws (another popular theme in China) are usually, though not always, portrayed as heroic, “enabling ordinary people to take imaginative revenge on the authorities to whom they were usually obedient in real life”. Negative instances are those of the Turk and the Jew (both “scarcely human”), as well as the witch; and the stereotypes of Catholics and Protestants about each other.

Hatred of outsiders was so common as to make one wonder whether most ordinary people of the period were not what psychologists sometimes call “authoritarian personalities”, combining submissiveness to authority with aggressiveness towards people outside their group.


Breughel, The combat between Carnival and Lent.

in Chapter 7, “The world of Carnival”, Burke pursues the theme of relieving tensions, putting myths and rituals in the physical context of festivals, both Carnival itself and “carnivalesque” activities. Here he explores ritual—always a prominent theme—in greater detail, and ritual reversal, “the world upside down”. Carnival was both a holiday, a game, and a time of ecstasy and liberation, with food, sex, and violence. He subsumes public executions and mocking ceremonies like the charivari, and explores the tensions between social control and social protest. He cites Victor Turner:

By making the low high and the high low, they reaffirm the hierarchical principle.

But the “safety-valve” of ritual was not always able to contain popular dissent. Riots and rebellions made more direct forms of action. Popular rebellions, of course, are a major theme in Chinese history—studied selectively in the PRC.

The concern of the upper classes that popular festivals might pose a threat to the status quo leads to Chapter 8, “The triumph of Lent: the reform of popular culture”. Always alert to change, Burke describes the attempts of the educated (“the reformers, or the godly”), notably the clergy, to “improve” popular mores, on both theological and moral grounds. Again (as in imperial and modern China) folk religion was a principle target—miracle and mystery plays, popular sermons, and religious festivals such as saints’ days and pilgrimages.

He suggest two main periods, the first until around 1650 led by the clergy, the second in which the laity took the initiative, adding secular arguments. He outlines the “culture of the godly” that they hoped would replace the old pagan ways (more echoes of modern China). Battles were waged not only over rituals but over images and texts. One important weapon was the dissemination of vernacular Bibles. Burke is sensitive to changes in the meaning of words, such as the ever-thorny “superstition”.

One major result of this reformist zeal, unevenly achieved, was the widening of the gulf between great and little traditions, discussed in the final Chapter 9, “Popular culture and social change”. Over the whole period popular culture changed in ways that no-one could have foreseen. Burke lists population growth and urbanization, the rise of “commercial capitalism” with increasing division of labour, and the communications revolution. Though he warns against exaggerating the impact of such changes, by the 18th century the peasantry were coming to own more material objects, and better ones—although east Europe remained relatively poor. A gradual shift was under way “from the more spontaneous and participatory forms of entertainment towards more formally-organised and commercialized spectator sports.” Although he also shows that it was often in the outlying regions that traditional culture was best maintained,

In the larger towns, the process of social change seems to have enriched popular culture. In the countryside, particularly in outlying regions, the same process led to cultural impoverishment.

This topical comment from the Highlands of Scotland comes from the late 18th century:

The noblest virtues have been ruined, or driven into exile, since the love of money has crept in among us; and since deceit and hypocrisy have carried mercenary policy and slavish, sordid avarice into our land.

Under “the uses of literacy” Burke stresses the influence of the printed book, and then the press. He explains methods for assessing literacy rates around Europe, with partial evidence suggesting that “more people could read in 1800 than in 1500, that craftsmen were generally much more literate than peasants, men than women, Protestants than Catholics, and Western European than Eastern Europeans”.

Whereas some secular reformers feared that popular literacy would make the poor discontented with their lot, the godly saw it as a step to salvation. Again Burke unpacks the idea of “access” to books, with some fine examples under physical, economic, and linguistic access. He takes a nuanced approach to how all this affected popular performances, although “the book was both a dangerous competitor and a treacherous ally”.

The spread of literacy and the decline of the epic occurred together in Western Europe, while illiteracy and the epic survived together in Sicily, in Bosnia, in Russia.

I note that even the lowest literacy rates around Europe surpassed those of China in the mid-20th century; and even in the early 1990s I found few books in peasant homes there.

Burke cites the work of a sociologist working on the modern Middle East, where print is among factors said to engender “a high capacity for empathy, a willingness to accept change, to move from one place to another, or to express their own opinions about society; in a word, modernity.” However, in early modern Europe such changes were less spectacular. Old themes did not go out, but new themes did come in: as in modern China, cultural changes were not so much “substitutive” as “additive”.

He moves on to unpack the concepts of secularisation and politicisation:

Hopes and fears which had traditionally been expressed in religious terms now needed another mode of expression and increasingly found it in the political.

Despite the problems in assessing piecemeal material, and always sensitive to differing social strata, he finds an increasing sense of involvement with politics, at least in Western Europe.

Craftsmen and peasants had good reason to be more aware of the state by the end of the 18th century than they had been three hundred years before.

Burke notes the gradual withdrawal of the upper classes from the popular culture that they had previously shared—as in China. But as ever he asks probing questions:

Who withdrew? From what did they withdraw? In what parts of Europe? And why? The clergy, the nobility, and the bourgeoisie had their own reasons for abandoning popular culture.

In many regions the upper classes literally spoke a different language from ordinary people. But—at different times in different parts of Europe—they came to reject their whole culture.

And it was this gap that led to “discovery”: only when folk traditions became “alien” to the elite did they provoke curiosity, leading to the rise of folklore studies.

Looking back over the whole period,

The change in the attitudes of educated men seems truly remarkable. In 1500, they despised the common people, but shared their culture. By 1800 their descendants had ceased to participate spontaneously in popular culture, but they were in the process of rediscovering it as something exotic and therefore interesting. They were even beginning to admire “the people” from whom this alien culture had sprung.

After 1800 factors like urbanization, education, printing, and railway transport were to transform culture still more radically.

* * *

Houshan 1995

Medicine-pouch vendor, Houshan temple fair 1995.

While Burke’s study is based on the period before 1800, and has been amply supplemented since, it offers thoughtful perspectives on the diverse little traditions that still persist today, and were even more widespread alongside the great traditions of Renaissance and baroque. Relevant to our studies of imperial and modern China are not only the many commonalities they share—recurring themes like ritual, reform, and so on—but ways of studying and unpacking the sources. I do recommend the book, not least to Chinese students: here’s a Chinese edition.

The Cultural Revolution in Tibet

book cover

With my focus on Han Chinese culture, I rarely presume to venture into modern Tibetan history. But amidst the recent escalation in the plight of the Uyghurs, we should keep in mind the chronic tribulations of the Tibetans within the PRC.

Social and political change is a major element in studying the travails of expressive culture and religious activity—not least under authoritarian regimes, including the Han Chinese and ethnic minorities. So work on the Maoist era is particularly important, with local studies such as Chen village, the work of Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Mueggler’s The age of wild ghosts, my study of Gaoluo (Plucking the winds)—and, devastatingly, Guo Yuhua‘s study of a Shaanbei village.

For Han Chinese regions, accounts of factional fighting, armed warfare, and massacres are common for the Cultural Revolution—largely pertaining to the years 1966–68. Since the tension between religious practice and politics is one of my major themes, this disturbingly riveting book makes an extraordinary case-study for a rural Tibetan county near Lhasa:

  • Melvyn C. Goldstein, Ben Jiao, and Tanzen Lhundrup, On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo incident of 1969 (University of California Press, 2009).

It’s the fruit of collaboration between Goldstein, leading scholar of modern Tibetan history, with Ben Jiao (Tibet Academy of Social Sciences, Lhasa) and Tanzen Lhundrup of the China Tibetology Centre in Beijing. Yet another instance of the vast amount of material that Goldstein has managed to unearth over a long period, the book prompts us to reflect not only on society, politics, and religion, but on the multiple viewpoints afforded by interpreting fieldwork material.

Since the 1980s, Tibetan studies have emerged impressively from an uncritical reified nostalgia for an idealized old culture, when few (either under Chinese rule or in the diaspora) were able or willing to document modernity and a changing society—a view that still tinges scholarship on Han Chinese culture, not least Daoist ritual

Besides Goldstein’s own ongoing history of modern Tibet (the first three volumes of which take us up to 1957), the definitive single-volume study, from 1999, is

  • Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snows: a history of  modern Tibet since 1947.

Chapter 12 makes a useful introduction to the Cultural Revolution. Note also this site. And vivid personal accounts of the period are found in the writings of Tsering Woeser, based on her father’s photos[1]

Also most authoritative on modern Tibetan society are the voluminous writings of Robbie Barnett, going back to the early days of the ground-breaking Tibet Information Network. [2] He introduces the field in this 2014 interview.

Throughout the Tibetan populations—not just in the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” (TAR) but also in Amdo and Kham—unrest has been constant under Chinese rule. Major incidents include the 1959 Khamba uprisings (note the 10th Panchen Lama’s 1962 report to Chairman Mao, detailing severe sufferings among Tibetan communities); [3] and since the partial liberalizations after 1980, the disturbances of 1987–9 and 2008. Such friction is still ongoing today.

By the early 1960s the CCP leadership, including TAR Party boss Zhang Guohua, were anxious. Through much of the 50s they had sought for the “stability” of a “gradualist” approach for Tibet: collective farming was postponed after the 1959 rebellion, and when the Cultural Revolution erupted they made a case for controlling its volatility. But warfare inevitably broke out between the rival Gyenlo and Nyamdre factions, spreading out from Lhasa. The army sided with Nyamdre. In June 1968 a major battle took place at the Jokhang temple.

By summer 1969—by which time the major violence in inland China had been pacified—serious unrest had broken out in a quarter of the rural counties of TAR, in which ordinary Tibetans participated as much as Chinese-led revolutionary groups. On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet focuses on Nyemo county in Lhasa municipality, but outlines other disturbances in at least eighteen counties; most of the five for which the authors give brief accounts involved a religious element.

The book
Using far more detailed material than previously available, the authors analyse the violence in Nyemo, which came to be led by the former nun Trinley Chödrön. Unlike the 1959 Khamba uprising, the authors argue, this was not explicitly a revolt against the Chinese occupiers. Assessing the balance of nationalist and economic elements, they find the latter more significant:

The Nyemo disturbance was not a spontaneous Tibetan nationalistic uprising against the Chinese “oppressor”, nor was it a revolt aimed at creating an independent Tibet. To the contrary, it was the outgrowth of a careful strategy orchestrated by a Maoist revolutionary faction to seize control of its county from a rival revolutionary organization.

The power-struggle, they comment,

clearly had nothing to do with the now famous nun called Trinley Chödrön. Gyenlo’s move to wrest power from Nyamdre started well before the nun from Nyemo was involved, and it certainly would have continued with or without her presence. Moreover, at this time, Gyenlo’s strategy was not about religion or nationalism; it was about Gyenlo defeating its rival revolutionary faction with the support of village masses who were willing to join in this venture because Gyenlo was promising them that they would benefit by being allowed to keep more grain, by ridding themselves of officials they saw as corrupt and avaricious, and by stopping implementation of the collective system.

The authors seek to refute previous views of the revolt:

Rather than a simple dichotomy, angry Tibetans spontaneously organizing and striking back at hated Chinese or Tibetans rising to fight only for their material interests, there were multiple levels and multiple actors, Tibetan and Chinese, with different motives, using and manipulating each other for different end goals.

Some may have stood to gain following the “Democratic Reforms” implemented in Tibet after 1959, but the common people were soon hit by exactions, leading to food shortages (from which the Han peoples across inland China were also suffering terribly). The Gyenlo faction promised to postpone the threatened imposition of collective farming. But while the authors find economic factors more urgent causes of popular discontent, the widely-resented assault on religion was a further factor:

Notwithstanding the suppression of organized religion (monasteries and nunneries) after 1959, individuals had still been permitted to practice religion on a private basis. That freedom ended with the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

Indeed, a work-team sent from Lhasa in 1987 (just as further waves of unrest were looming) reported on the negative consequences of the Party’s assaults on religion:

We used to talk too much but do too little to help people with their religious beliefs. Especially during the Great Cultural Revolution, religious beliefs were labelled as one of the “four olds”, and nobody was allowed to practise any religion. People did not like our policies, and once something tempting about religion appeared, the masses were easily fooled.

This is the tightrope from which the regime constantly falls.

The problematic figure of Trinley Chödrön
Among Tibetans and Westerners it may be tempting to view the nun who came to lead the violence as a heroic freedom fighter, a kind of Joan of Arc. The authors go to some lengths to describe her background and the development of her spiritual powers. Her family and fellow villagers themselves described her as having mental problems—which were doubtless exacerbated by the 1959 measures and the new campaign to destroy the “four olds”.

As she developed the powers of a trance-medium, claiming possession by deities, the book describes how she went (in 1968!) with her younger brother to a local lama called Chamba Tenzin for the tsago che initiation ritual. This briefly caused her to become more stable, and she herself applied to join the Gyenlo faction. It was now, as her trances became more frequent, that she gained a following. Still, when she claimed to be possessed by Jowo Rimpoche (the Sakyamuni Buddha whose statue in the Jokhang chapel in Lhasa was the most sacred in Tibet), orthodox lamas were sceptical, not least since trance-mediums channel local territorial deities, not Buddhas.

Of course, in local society mediums were by no means perceived as unbalanced; and  a system was in place to distinguish fake mediums. The authors note how her claims to possession diverged from the those of mediums in traditional society; and it was not just atheist cadres who regarded her as a crazy charlatan.

Still, the authors claim, it was precisely because she was considered insane that she was given latitude to perform religious activities at this unlikely time; but gradually locals came to trust in her powers of healing. The most powerful god by whom she claimed to be possessed was to be Ani Gongmey Gyemo, aunt and adviser of the legendary King Gesar—although how she acquired this allegiance is unclear, since the Gesar story was not popular in Nyemo, and this seems to be a unique case. Anyway, as the authors note, Ani Gongmey Gyemo and Gesar

were not some mythical figures in folktales, nor were they simply local mountain deities; they were real and powerful deities famous for fighting for Buddhism in Tibet.

While Trinley Chödrön’s claim to be a medium for a figure connected to King Gesar was at the core of previous scholars’ understanding of her as primarily a religious or ethno-nationalist figure, the authors note that she now also began to praise the Thoughts of Chairman Mao in public. The pragmatic Gyenlo leaders, while themselves secular in mentality, now saw the value of utilizing her as a channel for the religious faith of local people, to earn them more support in their factional struggle. Still, they themselves described her as “the crazy one”, an assessment they shared with more devout Tibetans; and they were preparing to kill her once they had won victory.

Her following was consolidated with the formation of a group of adherents known as warrior-heroes (badü), who also went into trance in what the authors call a kind of “Gesar hysteria”. With the faction now known informally as Gyenlo’s Army of the Gods, she became crucial to their cause, and soon a series of brutal killings began.

The authors give a nuanced categorization of the “enemies” killed and mutilated, including not just Chinese and Tibetan cadres but those who had ridiculed Trinley Chödrön’s religious authenticity and other hapless victims of her personal vendettas. But still the Gyenlo leaders refrained from intervening to have her detained:

“It is not necessary to arrest the nun. She is just a common lunatic. We’ll have trouble if we take her to the Public Security Bureau. So don’t bother her. She is useful to us. We need to protect her.”

At last the PLA arrived, putting themselves in the firing line. Just like the Boxers in 1900, Trinley Chödrön’s adherents rashly claimed immunity from bullets. Locals, while disillusioned, were fearful of her powers. But eventually in June 1969 she was captured, her followers surrendering. Early in 1970, along with the other warrior-heroes and her lama, she was executed at the sand dune area below the Sera monastery near Lhasa. Gyenlo leaders managed to exculpate themselves until 1970, blaming the massacres on the very “religious reactionaries” whom they had exploited. Investigations continued in 1971; though in 1972 the Gyenlo faction was punished, revised assessments in the 1980s reduced the verdicts.


As the authors observe, the Nyemo disturbances would not have been possible without the state-sanctioned chaos that Mao unleashed with the Cultural Revolution. Yet disturbances of one kind or another have erupted constantly ever since the Chinese occupied Tibet.

It was, of course, very unorthodox for a revolutionary organization of the masses to ask a Tibetan religious medium to dress in costume, go into a trance, and summon a god to motivate them to undertake revolutionary work for Chairman Mao, but Gyenlo in Nyemo was pragmatic to the core, and the leaders found it easy to rationalize the temporary utilization of “superstition” (religion) as an acceptable price to pay for achieving their consuming goal of deposing Nyamdre and taking control of the county.

Though the authors are to some extent proposing an alternative explanation of the Nyemo revolt to those of previous scholars like Tsering Shakya, they conclude:

However, we should not minimize what clearly fuelled this incident: the anger many rural Tibetans felt at the direction party policies had taken, not only in the realms of taxation and economic freedom, but also towards religion and culture.

And to me this doesn’t look so far from Shakya’s own view (The dragon in the land of snows, pp.346–7):

The revolt of 1969 was inspired by the Tibetans’ desire to regain some measure of social, psychological, and cultural freedom. It was not, however, a conscious nationalist uprising, but a cultural response to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
A nationalistic interpretation of the events in Nyemo tends to stress the Tibetanness of the revolt and view it as an anti-Chinese uprising. However, at this stage we do not know how far the events in Nyemo can be separated from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, and it has to be remembered that it was the Chinese authorities who highlighted the revolt as a nationalist and separatist movement.

On first reading, Goldstein’s analysis seems perfectly convincing. But we can also learn from critical reviews by three scholars who have themselves made notable progress in documenting the travails of modern Tibet: Charlene MakleyRonald Schwartz, and Benno Ryan Weiner. What they dispute is the balance of economic/materialist and cultural/nationalist explanations; the role of religion; and the very interpretation of local accounts.

Beginning with the latter, lessons from the book are not just in the extraordinary detail, but in the constant dilemma of assessing fieldwork material. As the authors observe, “We investigate the past not to deduce practical political lessons, but to find out what really happened.” In the years following the violence several investigation teams descended on Nyemo—reminding me of the 1974 visit to Gaoluo of a team seeking material on the Boxer uprising of 1900 (see my Plucking the winds, pp.37–42 and n.42).

TOHAPThe authors seek to assure the reliability of interviews by collating a wide range of accounts (including but not limited to interrogations and confessions), from victims and perpetrators, members of both factions, ordinary people caught up in the events, officials and soldiers. [4]  So they claim:

“in the end we feel confident that we are able to represent the different attitudes and experiences in Nyemo accurately.”

Alas, multiple interpretations are always likely to emerge, depending on people’s experience of the society in question and their whole worldview.

Thus Makley argues:

Despite the complex and copious data which they present, the authors’ overwhelmingly statist perspective and the bluntness of their analytic tools obscure their conclusions and leave us with little against which to assess them. In the end, they echo the findings of the state teams charged with re-investigating and re-labeling the Nyemo events in the mid-80s. They refer throughout to “the Nyemo incident”, the term which the 1980s team used to re-categorize the events as isolated local conflicts rather than fundamentally ethnic “rebellion” against Chinese rule.

So she is

unconvinced by the authors’ easy assertions that they controlled for “bias” in their “private” interviews and were able to get at participants’ actual experiences during the violence.

Of course, she isn’t suggesting we should dismiss all the local accounts of the nun’s disturbed mental state as statements made under duress, as propaganda for which the authors have fallen—that might almost amount to questioning the validity of any field discussions within the PRC. After all, such accounts note both Trinley Chödrön’s instability and the faith that local people came to have in her.

I can’t presume to assess Makley’s criticisms, but they are worth citing at some length. She finds that Goldstein’s

preference for the clear contours of the social over the messy indeterminacies of the cultural—especially since the rise of the modern Chinese state critically depended on categorizing and disciplining “ethnic minorities” as premodern Others mired in alien cultural worlds—subtly negates Tibetan concerns.

Although to me the book’s variety of views seem suitably messy, and not oblivious to the cultural, Makley comments that Goldstein is brought

face to face with the quintessential premodern Other: Trinley Chödrön, a young Buddhist nun turned deity medium who led brutal attacks, murders and maimings in the name of resistance to Chinese-led “democratic reforms”.

As she explains,

the authors aim to refute idealized or simplistic views that the nun was primarily an ethnic nationalist leading a Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, arguing instead that she accepted the administrative contours of the “new society” under Mao, only seeking to restore “religion” within it.

But she counters:

Their statist view from the outside gives us no real sense of Trinley Chödrön and her followers’ own, very Tibetan cosmologies and notions of personhood, agency and  power. There is no cultural history of Nyemo here as a specifically Tibetan locale, only testimonies gathered by successive waves of statist outsiders. Thus, despite a perfunctory nod to the basic features of deity possession as a “cultural script” among Tibetans, Trinley Chödrön ultimately figures as the marginal premodern Other par excellence. We come to view the defrocked nun’s unconventional mediumship, claiming possession by Gongmai Gyemo, the divine aunt of the great Tibetan epic hero Gesar, and ordering brutal attacks against her “Gyenlo” enemies, as the repulsive workings of a cult (as in Jim Jones, or Waco).

Of course, “the exoticized premodern Other” was precisely how Tibetan clerics were portrayed before the growth of serious scholarship. And there may indeed be scope for a more sympathetic portrayal. But surely it wasn’t just “statist” Chinese and Tibetan cadres, but ordinary villagers and lamas too, who described her as “crazy”; those whose limbs were hacked off might be reluctant to entertain a cultural defence. Perhaps one might say that Trinley Chödrön’s mental instability reflected that of Tibetan society traumatized under Chinese occupation.

The fate of Tibetan religion under Chinese rule has become a major field, with many detailed and sensitive case-studies. Goldstein may tend to favour economic explanations, but he is quite aware of the major role of religion (e.g. his 1998 co-edited book with Matthew Kapstein, Buddhism in contemporary Tibet: religious revival and cultural identity). Of course, Makley is not suggesting a return to the outmoded idealization of Tibetan religion; critical ethnographies, such as her own, are to be encouraged.

She further unpacks the authors’ language:

Trinley Chödrön is “the nun” (never the god!) and, unlike other Tibetan youth who were “barely affected”, she is bitterly angry and thus “mentally disturbed” and “unbalanced” at the loss of Buddhist monastic life enforced with the Democratic Reforms. Faction leaders are “firmly committed” to their factions, treating each other as kin; Trinley Chödrön and her followers are “fanatically committed” to the gods, “immersed in imagined worlds”, or subject to “Gesar hysteria”. In essence, this is a stratigraphic approach to history; the Nyemo events unfold on “two planes”, the Tibetan cultural world of protector gods inhabited by Trinley Chödrön layered over the primary world of economic concerns and realpolitik inhabited by faction leaders and most other Tibetans. Culture never infects the faction leaders’ motives. Their brutality is understandable; Trinley Chödrön’s is an aberration.

Schwartz’s critique largely tallies with Makley’s. He finds the authors “at a loss to explain the syncretic and millenarian elements of Trinley Chödrön’s religious vision.” And

The testimony of the participants collected by the researchers through interviews also declares the mediums to be frauds. But the pressure to reconstruct the Nyemo incident in line with the officially acceptable narrative—in both the interrogations documented by Chinese investigators immediately after the incident and in the recollections of participants many years later—is difficult to ignore.

Schwartz continues:

The authors gloss over the extent to which cultural practices suppressed by the new state reappeared overnight and quickly became widespread once it became clear that they were permitted—burning incense, prayers, the exchange of katas. But the same thing happened after 1980 following the post-Mao reforms and continues right up to the present whenever policies on religious practice are relaxed. The underlying memory of religious practice has never disappeared, and whatever its sources, it is deeply rooted in Tibetan culture and society. The revival of religion defies a strictly economic explanation—it recurs during periods of prosperity as well as during periods of deprivation.

Goldstein and his co-authors’ efforts to temper the overwhelming focus among Westerners on ethnicity and nationalism in the Sino–Tibetan conflict is laudable, but their own profoundly statist and modernist perspective forces them to swing the pendulum too far the other way. The particularly Tibetan violence of Trinley Chödrön and her followers in 1969 is just too great a challenge for them. Their efforts to cordon off Trinley Chödrön from the other characters whom they recognize as modern and rational leads to no clear sense of her character and motives: she is mentally ill, she is a hapless puppet, she is a cunning manipulator. In the end, we are left with no real means to assess the authors’ core claim that Trinley Chödrön accepted the “new society” under Mao, because they give us no systematic sense of local Tibetans’ own views and experiences of “the state” or of the Maoist factions. Only a decade after the trauma of the Democratic Reforms, we cannot assume with the authors that Tibetans had entirely assimilated the grounding premises and administrative geographies of the modern Chinese state. A clue comes when the authors comment incredulously at Trinley Chödrön’s “bizarre” statement that Mao is the incarnation of Manjuśri. Yet for centuries Tibetans across the plateau have recognized emperors as incarnations of the bodhisattva of wisdom; Trinley Chödrön here recognizes Mao as a commensurate imperial agent—far away and benign, yet under the jurisdiction of Buddhism.

This is a good instance of how carefully we have to read Goldstein’s text. The relevant passage from his p.81:

At the same time, the nun also said bizarre things like “I am the right shoulder [hand] of Chairman Mao” and “Chairman Mao will not treat us badly, since he is the incarnation of Manjuśri. It is the internal [local] people who are the worst.” Such claims and comments reinforced many people’s belief in her mental instability…

So whereas lamas and common people do seem to have been taken aback by her initial claim to be possessed by Jowo Rimpoche, and indeed by her mental problems, in this case the authors haven’t given a source to show that locals doubted the Manjuśri–Mao equation. Schwartz goes on:

The unfortunate, unintended effect of the authors’ modernist ttake on Trinley Chödrön is that it individualizes, pathologizes, and dehumanizes Tibetans’ shock, grief, and anger at the physical and cultural violence of CCP intervention in 1959. Trinley Chödrön as the emblematic premodern Other stands in for any misguidedly ethnic Tibetan left behind in the sweep of Chinese-led modernization. Indeed, throughout the book, although the devastating trauma of the 1959 Democratic Reforms is referred to, it is not considered as a major causal factor behind the Nyemo events ten years later during the Cultural Revolution. Such violence could only happen in the absence of the state. Cordoning off Trinley Chödrön as the aberrant premodern allows the authors to retain the ultimate value in the book: the modern, rational State that returns, legitimately, to restore Order.

* * *

Both the book and its reviews overturn the simplistic stories once told on both sides of the fence. As a mere onlooker, I take the reviewers’ points, but I like to think that the seemingly conflicting “materialist” and “cultural” interpretations can be mutually beneficial.

For me, branching out from the often reified realm of Daoist ritual studies, the intrusion of the Real World is most welcome—even if its interpretation is controversial. However lurid and “messy” the story may be, all this serves as a reminder of the importance of Tibetan studies. Both the book and the responses to it indicate the acumen that is now being brought to bear on the plight of the Tibetans, from which scholars of Han Chinese society and culture can learn.

As to the embattled condition of Tibetan expressive culture—particularly the traditions of ritual and soundscape that have somehow continued to evolve against all the odds—again there is a far more complex story to be told than the reified portrayals on both sides of the PRC–exile divide. It would be rash of me to attempt an overview, “reading between the lines” of research by Tibetan and Chinese scholars within the PRC. But here’s a preliminary attempt for Labrang.

With many thanks to Robbie Barnett


[1] See also interviews by Ian Johnson (here and here, as well as Woeser’s 2013 book (with Wang Lixiong) Voices from Tibet. Indeed, following the initial lively debate between Tsering Shakya and Wang Lixiong, the latter has come much closer to Shakya’s viewpoint.

[2] See e.g. Robert Barnett and Ronald Schwartz (eds.), Tibetan modernities: notes from the field on cultural and social change (2008).

[3] See A poisoned arrow: the secret report of the 10th Panchen Lama (TIN, 1998).

[4] See the Tibet oral history archive; cf. Wu Wenguang’s archive for the famine.


New wave of temple demolition


Amongst considerable media coverage, the Bitter winter website reports regularly on the current wave of measures to demolish temples and expel clerics—contrasting starkly with the Party’s claim to protect religious sites and worship.

Of course Islamic and Christian groups have every reason to be deeply anxious; for the Han Chinese too, I’ve already given some instances of the Party’s insensitivity to local values, such as in Shandong and Gansu.

Unlike the instances above (directed specifically at ritual practice), the pretext for temple demolition is often a failure to conform to planning and registration directives. It can be hard to discern the balance of the authorities’ concern to control both popular worship and finances; pecuniary factors seem uppermost, though they may accompany ideological extremism. We need a clearer understanding of local factors, but what is clear is that these measures are coercive, entailing serious conflict with villagers. Grand ancient temples that have long been converted to mere tourist attractions are not an object of attack; but material like this (for Shaanxi, Hebei, and Liaoning) makes a salient contrast with the glossy images of picturesque ancient temples paraded in the Chinese media.

Among further links on the Bitter winter site, this report also comes from Shaanxi. And for recent reports from Weihui and Shaogang municipalities in Henan, see here. Most of these reports come from north China, but the south is not immune.

Naturally, what such important single-issue sites are not concerned to document is that religious activity has somehow persisted throughout China since the 1940s. Today, when household Daoist groups perform funerals, or a temple holds a grand jiao Offering ritual; when spirit mediums hold healing sessions, or sectarian groups meet to chant scriptures for domestic blessing—none of this attracts such media attention. “Temples demolished” always makes a more eye-catching headline than “Temple fair lively as usual”.

We might be better at balancing these conflicting parts of the current equation if we did so for the three decades of the Maoist era—but there again (and again understandably) the negatives have dominated, with the troubled maintenance of ritual life little studied.

So far for the Han Chinese, repressive measures seem exceptional rather than systematic—but the growing number of cases is indeed worrying. We need more in-depth studies of religious activity at local level—both when it manages to function (as it has, painfully, since the 1940s), and when it prompts repression.

None of these observations constitute a defence of irrational state power.

Update on Uyghur culture


While I am tarred by the brush of studying Han Chinese cultures—themselves long accustomed to state brutality—the traditions of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang also feature in several of my posts, collected under this tag. Now painfully aware that my review of the film Ashiq: the last troubadour already needs revisiting in the light of the recent cultural genocide in Xinjiang—reminiscent of Stalin’s nationalist purges yet much more efficiently hi-tech and far-reaching—I’ve just done a distressing update to that post, with some further links.

Yet again this illustrates the vacuous, duplicitous claims of heritage pundits (note this post), whose reified presentations (for the Han Chinese too, if less fragrantly destructive) serve mainly to consolidate the ideological agenda of the modern state. But such polite, subtle manipulations are now rendered brutally obsolete.

Other posts under the Uyghur theme should also be read with this picture in mind.

The folk–conservatoire gulf

Yang Yinliu 1950

Yang Yinliu, 1950.

I just remembered a wise quote from the great Yang Yinliu. First, some useful background (“Typical!”).

Further to my post on Different values, the gap that has opened up between the sound ideals of traditional and conservatoire musicians is a regular theme of this blog (see e.g. many posts under heritage). Indeed, I already discussed it in chapter 3 of my first book Folk music of China (1995/1998). It may be a spectrum, but it often seems like a chasm.

In the Republican era, in the face of the apparently wholesale victory of Western civilisation and technology over the “backward” Chinese heritage, along with the influx of a range of Western genres patriotic Chinese sought with modernizing zeal to create an “improved” “national music”, learning from the West while searching for valuable elements in their own tradition. This, of course, was a common reaction in many cultures around the world, as explored by Bruno Nettl.

Some rejected the old “feudal” culture completely; another response was a self-conscious musical antiquarianism, with educated Chinese establishing patriotic groups for the preservation of the “classical” heritage. This not only perpetuated the abstractions of early Confucian music theorists, but also left a legacy that has now been enshrined in the romantic staged reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project.

Indeed, in the Chinese and foreign media this has come to stand for traditional music, despite the continuing vigour of a vast wealth of rural genres.

Early uses of the term “national music” (guoyue) were found among the literati of what were still regional groups, as in Chaozhou and Hakka groups and around Shanghai. What became a “conservatoire style” was based to a large extent on the Shanghai style.

Meanwhile inland in Shaanbei at the CCP base of wartime Yan’an, a debate was also waged between “foreign” and “indigenous” (yang 洋 and tu 土) approaches; the latter was always going to dominate, but Communist cadres often found the raw folk material that confronted them “feudal and superstitious”. I noted the dilemma of cultural cadres in “managing” poor blind bards there under Maoism; and for gender perspectives on “superstition”, see here.

The ambiguity, not to say confusion, of the Party line on traditional culture was expressed by Wang Chun, mentor of the author Zhao Shuli. He criticized both opera and narrative-singing, lamenting the close links between folk music and “superstition”. This established a tendency to treat music as autonomous, divorced from context.

Of course, all this was based on social conditions. At local level, despite the assaults on former patrons, the expressive culture of many rural societies remained based in ritual, whose values were little influenced by the secularizing trends of the cities. As you can see from my post on Festivals, what developed was a range of performance along a continuum.

17 troupe 1959

North Shanxi Arts Work Troupe, 1959. Li Qing front row, far right. His four years there (1958–62) were a brief interlude within a lifetime of ritual practice.

The new state-funded institutions (opera troupes, arts-work troupes, conservatoires, and so on) didn’t replace the traditional groups (like ritual associations, shawm bands, amateur clubs), but supplemented them. Musicians from folk backgrounds recruited to the official troupes found themselves having to compromise (see e.g. my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.113–18). Some adapted more than others. Regional characteristics were gradually diluted in an attempt to forge a “national” synthesis.


Daoist Shifan gu, c1962.

Right, here’s what I was going to offer you:

The great Yang Yinliu, whose encyclopedic erudition on Chinese music history was enriched by being brought up among traditional musicians (Kunqu, Daoist ritual, the qin), was well aware of the stylistic conflict. In an article on instrumental music, first published in Renmin yinyue in 1953—not long after Liberation, and just as he was studying the shengguan music of the Zhihua temple—he touched on several sensitive topics including “temple music” and “palace music”, already under criticism from rigid ideologues on simplistic class grounds—carefully couching his defence in the new politicized language. He went on to observe tellingly (my Folk music of China, p.51):

Once in Wuxi there was a technically brilliant and enthusiastic comrade directing a group of twelve folk artists who were thoroughly versed in performing the local wind-and-percussion music. He announced his opinions to them about the “improvement” [of the music] considering the peasants’ music too long (around half an hour), and that it would only be right if the pieces were abbreviated so that the whole suite lasted about five minutes; further, the peasants’ percussion music was too complex, with too many decorations; the workers only liked simple pieces, and they should eliminate all the decorations on the drum and other percussion instruments. The result was that the folk musicians began to feel doubtful, and their interest dwindled. They felt that after abbreviating the pieces, not only would it be difficult for them to make the transitions, but the transmission of the pieces would be endangered if the greater part of them were cut; and completely to eliminate all the decorations was simply to make them regress to the stage of beginners.

In such official contexts at least, uncomprehending apparatchiks wielded power over helpless folk musicians. I went on to comment:

As Yang wisely points out, “these opinions of the folk musicians cannot be neglected”, but the same patronizing attitude towards folk musicians and audiences alike remains endemic today.

Again, this relates partly to context: the apparatchiks were seeking to adapt folk music for short breezy staged performances, whereas in ritual life, musicking unfolds gradually over events lasting a couple of days.

Still, irrespective of the new institutions and the platitudes of Party pundits, folk activity persisted, resistant to Party ideology. And Yang, with his able colleagues at the Music Research Institute, just kept on researching living genres (both folk and elite), and their imperial history, right until the Four Cleanups campaign of 1964. But the sound ideals of folk and conservatoire musicians continued to diverge starkly, as we found with the 1980s’ recreations of the “suite plucking” of old Beijing.

More than Bartók, Yang Yinliu was also concerned with documenting the changing society in which music functions. As suggested in my post on him (such as his account of Daoism in Wuxi and his 1956 report from Hunan), he was attuned to issues that were soon to become basic to ethnomusicology—even if such study was still limited under Maoism, and (with honorable exceptions) remains so today under stultifying heritage propaganda.

The corpse walker

Corpse walker

Always interested in alternative, local accounts of modern Chinese history, I much admire The corpse walker by Liao Yiwu 廖亦武 (English translation 2008, from originals published in 2002).

Subtitled Real-life stories, China from the bottom up, it contains over two dozen vignettes of lives neglected in the official history (subaltern studies, on which more soon). As the Foreword says, “hustlers and drifters, outlaws and street performers, the officially renegade and the physically handicapped”—but more than that, ordinary peasants, cadres, labourers, all kinds of people whose lives have been serially buffeted by the adversities of a capricious system. [1]

Their life stories are micro-histories shedding light on the abuses of Maoism (campaigns, famine) and the corruption and immorality of the reforms. The book makes salient reading for those interested not only in modern history, but in ritual and music.

Building on Liao’s early experience as a collector of folk music, the interviews (mostly based around Liao’s home of Chengdu) make valuable material for scholars of religion. Many folk ritual specialists appear—an elderly fengshui master, an ancient abbot, a mortician.

Supernatural beliefs also play a role in the distressing story of a leper and his wife, as well as that of a peasant who—in 1985!—declared himself emperor of an independent kingdom in his Sichuan hometown. The latter story, with rich historical antecedents, also relates to the birth-control policy.

Musicians also feature prominently, like ritual singers and wind players, a blind erhu player and a street pop singer. Visiting composer Wang Xilin, Liao learns of his tribulations under Maoism and more recently in trying to commemorate its victims. And he chats with a father who lost his son in the 1989 protests, as well as a fellow-inmate imprisoned (like Liao himself) in the aftermath.

Tiananmen inmates

Liao Yiwu (front row, 2nd from right) with fellow inmates imprisoned after 1989 protests. Sichuan 1992.

The vignettes are also effective because they are genuine dialogues—Liao is very much a “participant observer“. He doesn’t merely ask questions, his own comments are perceptive too, sometimes disputing conservative views. Among several prison interviews is one with a trafficker, guilty of selling women from his home province of Sichuan to desperate men in Gansu. As he defends himself with a series of shocking justifications like “rebalancing the yin and yang“, Liao’s ability to empathize is thankfully limited.

This is just such a cast as the fieldworker meets in the course of documenting society, and the stories have much to tell us about both Maoist and reform eras.

So far I’ve only read it in translation, though some details make me curious to read the Chinese version. For instance, in the very opening vignette a shawm player who migrated from Henan to Sichuan also takes on the role of funeral wailing—a combination that I hadn’t heard of in either province. Again, his recollections make a salient history of ritual change.

The manuscript was smuggled out by exiled author Kang Zhengguo, whose own memoir Confessions: an innocent life in Communist China is an important ethnography of subaltern life in Shaanxi under Maoism and since.

Since going into exile himself, Liao Yiwu is prolific both in documenting his own former tribulations within the system and in speaking out on behalf of those still enduring discrimination in China (Twitter: @liaoyiwu1 ). For Ian Johnson’s 2011 interview, see here; for a 2016 interview, here.


[1] Such collections of interviews have a noble history since the 1980s, such as Chinese lives (Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye, 1987), China candid: the people on the People’s Republic (Sang Ye, 2006), China witness (Xinran, 2009), and Chinese characters: profiles of fast-changing lives in a fast-changing land (ed. Angilee Shah and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, 2012). For scholarly discussion, see Guo Yuhua. For comparisons with the USSR under Stalin, see here.

Another Daoist debate

Gansu ritual

Following the Daoist ritual to bless a football team, another intriguing debate has just arisen on the place of Daoist ritual in society under a notionally secular and atheist regime. [1]

In Minqin county in the north of Wuwei municipality in Gansu province, an exorcistic Daoist ritual was performed recently at the inauguration of the construction site of an experimental thorium reactor of the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Though the ritual was commissioned by the local construction team, two employees from the institute were promptly sacked and placed under CCP investigation for having failed to stop the contractors, thus “deviating from the scientific spirit”.

Rituals for “moving the earth” are commonly performed all over China. This one was conducted by a single local priest depicting talismans and burning yellow paper memorials, as a sheep was slaughtered (lingsheng 领牲). In the brief video, at some distance one can see an altar table, around which a shawm band stands to play.

Some may be content to seize on the story to demonize the CCP (which is fair enough, as far as it goes). But again, just as with the Daoist ritual for the football match, what is more notable is the intelligent rebuttals of the po-faced official stance that are already appearing online and in the media—if not yet on a par with the protests that greeted the Pingyi funeral clampdown. Most authoritative essays come from the brilliant Tao Jin, and on WeChat here; doubtless there will be more. Here’s a critique from a leading Daoist priest, only marred by introducing a confused angle of indigenous and foreign religions (mute the soundtrack! What are they thinking?!):

So it’s another storm in a teacup. Local rituals are performed all over China (including, magnificently, Shanghai). The problem here was merely that the CCP shouldn’t be seen to be promoting “superstition”—so it’s a healthy sign that the online community rallies round to observe that by the CCP’s own terms it’s no longer considered as such, and to stress the depth of “Daoist culture” that the Party itself now propounds. The authorities’ kneejerk reaction can only entrench people’s “belief” in the laws on religious freedom. The popular message is clearly: don’t mess with the Traditional Culture of the Chinese Peoples!

It’s also a reminder that Gansu must be one of the most fertile sites for research on household Daoist ritual!


[1] See this from Sixth tone, with a brief video clip (why on earth (sic) did someone deem the video footage acceptable but not the original audio?!); and a follow-up expounding the issues clearly:

I also fear that Taoist conservatives—the kind who head up the country’s religious associations—will grow tired of reacting to public suspicion with openness and warmth, and will instead try to defend Taoism from a purely nationalist standpoint. As China’s sole homegrown religion, Taoism is fertile ground to be claimed by hyper-patriotic revivalists of traditional Chinese culture. It is essential that Taoists remain level-headed and oppose radical and exclusionary political attitudes.

For other comments, see e.g. herehere, and here.

Cultural revolutions

17 troupe 1959

North Shanxi Arts Work Troupe, 1959. Li Qing front row, far right. His four years there (1958–62) were a brief interlude within a lifetime of ritual practice.

For some reason, I found Frank Dikötter’s book The Cultural Revolution far more rewarding than the two previous volumes in his popular trilogy on the Maoist era, The tragedy of Liberation and Mao’s great famine.

Ritual and religious life under Maoism
From the perspective of my own fieldwork on local ritual, there has been no single decade in history where culture has been independent of society— as observed by none other than Confucius and Chairman Mao (see the Coda to my book Plucking the winds), in what may seem like reproaches to the “living fossils” fallacy.  To be sure, Gaoluo villagers themselves failed to admit a connection between their ritual association and society:

“The association has nothing to do with politics”
“The association has nothing to do with the Boxers
“The association has nothing to do with the history of the revolution“.

But all the while they were providing rich material that contradicted their assumptions.

So I would hope that ritual studies can fit into our picture of social change. As I suggest in Appendix 1 of my recent book, scholars of Tang Daoism expect to relate it to the wider history of the period; so why would we who document local ritual groups, whose material derives largely from contemporary fieldwork, not also do so? However deep we probe, the social, economic, and political history of the past century is the air that ritual specialists and their patrons breathe—so what kind of air might scholars breath by downplaying it?

By failing to study the nuances of the period through which we and our Daoist masters have lived, we ignore precisely the kind of material that historians of earlier periods would die for. Sometimes we fall back on facile clichés about the eternal nature of tradition until the 1940s, and the subsequent destruction of cultural practices (after 1937? 1949? 1966?). All, supposedly, before the untrammelled restoration since the 1980s ushered in an equally timeless and transcendent new Golden Age—unless urban migration and the new pop culture have rendered further study superfluous by destroying tradition further?!

And vice versa, work like this on the changing lives of local communities should also be a contribution to modern historiography—a convenient prism through which to view the “negotation of identity” (a hoary cliché that I generally avoid!).

With some noble exceptions (such as ter Haar, Ruizendaal and Mueggler), religious life under Maoism is not the strong suit of scholars of religion, but I find it crucial. So I write this partly with a view to reminding those documenting folk ritual in China—and even those who do fieldwork mainly in order to reconstruct the culture of previous ages—that the whole Maoist era is an indispensable part of our background reading and enquiries in the field.

Religion features in many accounts mainly as protest against campaigns (for the 1950s, see The tragedy of Liberation, pp.196–206; Mao’s great famine, pp.227–8), but it’s also worth documenting the “obstinacy” of everyday practice (e.g. The Cultural Revolution, pp.294–6; see also the revival on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, pp.31–2). I belatedly note incidents in places where I did fieldwork innocently in the 1990s, such as the 1966 massacre in Daxing county outside Beijing (p.78).

As Dikötter observes (p.119),

Many ordinary people had accepted liberation with a mixture of fear, hope, and resignation. There was widespread relief that the civil war had come to an end. The proclaimed values of the regime, including equality, justice and freedom, were genuinely appealing, and the Part tirelessly trumpeted the New Democracy, a slogan promising the inclusion of all but the most hardened enemies of the regime. Above all, the communists promised each disaffected group what it wanted most: land for the farmers, independence for all minorities, freedom for intellectuals, protection of private property for businessmen, higher living standards for the workers.

Classic studies of local life through the whole Maoist period, a model for detailed local fieldwork, are

  • Chan, Madsen, and Unger, Chen village under Mao and Deng (1992) (see also the works of Jonathan Unger, here) and
  • the two volume study by Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Chinese village, socialist state (1991) and Revolution, resistance, and reform in village China (2005).

I think also of biographical accounts like Huang Shu-min, The spiral road (1989) and Peter Seybolt, Throwing the emperor from his horse (1996), as well as Jing Jun’s The temple of memories. But on the Maoist period perhaps the most important work of all is that of Guo Yuhua, with her detailed ethnography and critique of “Communist civilisation”.

As a counterbalance to such authors, I like to cite William Hinton (whose Through a glass darkly grinds a leftist axe against the latter), as well as Mobo Gao’s fine ethnography Gao village.

Short of expecting ourselves to read detailed scholarly accounts of the period, such works are important preparation. For our own local studies, apart from works in Western languages, the modern county gazetteers (xianzhi 县志) are an indispensible resource; and I’ve discussed documents on expressive culture here. Note also

  • Sebastian Veg (ed.), Popular memories of the Mao era: from critical debate to reassessing history (2019).

A lot has been written about the Cultural Revolution; the period often stands as a simple and misleading soundbite for the whole three decades of Maoism—indeed, ironically, as a shorthand for the first couple of years of extreme violence up to 1968. So since the details of the first seventeen years of the People’s Republic are less well known outside academia, Dikötter’s first two volumes should be more illuminating; in Mao’s great famine individual chapters focusing on topics like agriculture, women, and accidents are well chosen and revealing. But for all the undoubted iniquities that he gruellingly parades, I found the first two books inevitably impersonal, suggesting a lack of empathy that may seem merely to follow a wider pattern in foreign studies of simplistic Commie-bashing.

Dikötter’s study of the famine years around 1960 is part of a growing body of material from both foreign and (laudably) Chinese scholars, on a par with other state-engineered famines like that of Ukraine in the 1930s—as Anne Applebaum’s recent study reminds us. Basic sources include

  • Jasper Becker: Hungry ghosts: China’s secret famine (1996)
  • Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: the great Chinese famine, 1958–1962 (English translation 2012)
  • Wu Wenguang’s memory project
  • the works of Xun Zhou
  • Ralph A. Thaxton, Catastrophe and contention in rural China: Mao’s Great Leap Forward famine and the origins of righteous resistance in Da Fo village (2008)
  • Erik Mueggler, The age of wild ghosts: memory, violence and place in southwest China (2001)
  • websites such as China famine 1959–61.

See also under China: commemorating trauma, and comparative sources under Famine: Ukraine and China.

But the whole period preceding the Chinese “years of difficulty”, to adopt a bitter metaphor, was no picnic either.

The Cultural Revolution
Conversely, we already know more about the Cultural Revolution, but Dikötter explores and augments such material in a communicative way. The Cultural Revolution seems to me less plainly propagandistic. It’s not that the insanities he documents are any more flagrant; rather, perhaps, the account seems more personal. Dikötter effectively meshes central and local perspectives, while showing clearly how the period, often dismissed as a “ten-year disaster” was not one undifferentiated black hole. But as we break up the whole Maoist era into manageable chunks, they bleed into each other—a sadly apt metaphor.

Despite revolutionary fervour being whipped up among naïve youths, cynicism, boredom, and lethargy had set in as early as 1967 (p.165). Any idealism among those students sent down to the countryside to learn from the peasants was short-lived, as they encountered the sheer destitution there (ch.15). As I also learned in Yanggao, severe food shortages continued right until the 1980s.

In the countryside, as organizational chaos spread, market enterprise—which had previously revived in the wake of the famine—also persisted early in the Cultural Revolution; despite a re-imposition of collectivization in 1968, private initiatives were increasingly widespread (pp.225–8). By the “grey years” from 1971, private trade began to expand further. Still many regions were mired in desperate poverty, like Ziyang in south Shaanxi (pp.262–5).

Notwithstanding a late rearguard action (ch.23), Dikötter describes the “silent revolution” in the final years of the Cultural Revolution (chs.21–22) that continued the process of abandonment of the commune system which had come in waves ever since the early 60s. In Henan (pp.274–5) blockades to prevent the private sale of grain were easily evaded:

A weakened state was no longer any match for determined individuals who had honed their skills over many years of hardship. Villagers who had survived the horrors of Mao’s Great Famine were not about to be intimidated by a tax officer hanging about at a roadblock in a conspicuous uniform.

Urban migration, too (a crucial social factor under the 1980s’ reforms), began early. Dikötter even shows an early revival of traditional culture (opera, poetry, story-telling, and so on: p.276).

As in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, a hidden, underground, largely invisible society lived in the shadow of the former political system. (p.287)

Still, it’s always worth consulting Mobo Gao’s book Gao village, where with personal experience he gives a more positive, less adversarial picture of Maoism.

Anyway, when the commune system was officially dismantled from 1982, it was largely a fait accompli.

For the Cultural Revolution in Tibet, see here and here; and for a comparison with the Soviet Union under Stalin, see The whisperers.

A case-study
I discussed the whole Maoist era in some detail in both Plucking the winds and Daoist priests of the Li family. In the former, since Gaoluo village lies rather near Beijing and Baoding, the members of its ritual association, themselves active participants, were able to give a rather detailed account of factional warfare and people’s lives through the Cultural Revolution (Plucking the winds, ch.6). But here I’ll just give a few vignettes from my work on the Li family Daoists in Yanggao county of north Shanxi (from my book, ch.6)—who were less actively involved in wider events.

With hindsight, surveying the apparent thriving of religious activities today, the Cultural Revolution period—perhaps even Maoism as a whole—may seem like a blip; but both are crucial elements in the transformation of peoples’ mindsets under the more liberal religious landscape since the reforms of the 1980s.

Household Daoist families in Yanggao had continued performing their liturgy for funerals intermittently for the first fifteen years after Liberation, although the domestic ritual Thanking the Earth was rendered largely obsolete by escalating collectivization from 1953, and temple fairs were silenced.

The immediate precursor of the Cultural Revolution was the Four Cleanups campaign. In many areas of China, “superstitious” artefacts had already been taken off and destroyed in the 1940s as the Communists came to power, but in Yanggao villages Daoist families seem to have kept most of their old ritual manuals until the mid-1960s. Meanwhile Yanggao was still in the grip of ongoing natural disasters.

The Four Cleanups must have come as a real shock for kindly Li Qing; having weathered the tribulations of the early 1950s, and then landed a prestigious and secure job in Datong (see photo above), he was even more revered after his return in 1962, and able to practice his beloved ritual again. But so it went for innumerable victims of the “class struggle” system. After the respite of the early 1960s, the mood was now to be grim right until the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966. Li Qing’s rich-peasant “hat,” though enforced as early as 1948, hadn’t had any great effect until now—not even disqualifying him from joining the prestigious arts-work troupe. But early in the Cultural Revolution he was again classified as a rich peasant.

The Smash the Four Olds campaign from 1966 was the culmination of two decades of measures to limit religious practice. At the same time, campaigns were sporadic.

Following a Four Cleanups re-inspection, late one night in 1966 Li Qing sneaked out to bury his most precious ritual manuals in the sorghum fields just east. Next day, to allay the suspicions of the Red Guards, he burned a large pile of other volumes in his courtyard—he had a large collection of printed volumes and almanacs, not necessarily ritual manuals.

The callow Red Guards paraded Li Qing a few times in a high white dunce’s hat with the characters “ox demon and snake spirit” written on it. But, just like hapless village cadres all over China who were now victimized too, the degree of punishment of so-called landlords and rich peasants depended a lot on their character and reputation. While privately retaining their sympathy for Li Qing, villagers had no choice but to go through the motions of “struggle meetings” dictated from above. Li Qing and his wife bore their sufferings with dignified silence throughout.

When Li Qing’s sensitive sheng mouth-organs were confiscated and deposited in the brigade office, kids messed around with them. Poor peasant Kang Ren was not under suspicion, so he managed to keep his sheng. But here no-one dared ask friends or family to help hide suspect items for them.

Meanwhile in Yang Pagoda, Li Peisen continued to weather the storm. The son of his wife’s younger sister was a Red Guard chief, so they discreetly agreed he would just take off a few scriptures for show—Li Peisen would have chosen decrepit or duplicate volumes that he considered less important.

Li Qing’s son Li Manshan, twenty-one sui in 1966, had gained an impression of the liturgy before his father left for Datong in 1958, and after he returned in 1962 he had nearly two years of relative freedom to continue learning. After the Four Cleanups campaign of late 1964, though there was no pressure on the children of bad elements to “draw the class line” from their fathers, he felt seriously depressed. At least he didn’t have to join the Red Guards—his status as son of a “black” family disqualified him. One day in 1966, just as the Cultural Revolution was breaking out, Li Manshan found himself in the county-town, and had his photo taken there. He hinted to me that it was virtually designed as a farewell to the world; exhausted by constant labor on the reservoir, with his family’s so-called “rich peasant” status boding ill as an ominous new campaign was brewing up, he could see no future.

In 1960, when Li Manshan was fifteen sui, he had “studied Russian for two whole days” at school. Later, when the Red Guards found his notebook with a few Russian words written in it, they confiscated it and cursed him for being a spy. In many parts of China, the innocent possession of a mere scrap of supposedly reactionary material, or a careless comment, could condemn people to long spells in labor camp.

Whereas the neighbouring county of Tianzhen was described as more “barbaric”, the relative peace in Yanggao didn’t mean that Daoists there somehow had any latitude to keep practising. In some parts of rural China traditions were maintained more or less furtively even through the Cultural Revolution, but here the Daoists were forced into total inactivity from 1964 to 1978. Daoist arts went into hibernation. Li Qing’s family, with their black class label, suffered more than other Daoists, but everyone was pretty desperate.

Villagers weren’t becoming any less “superstitious”. Public rituals might be impossible, but there was still a clandestine demand for determining the date, under cover of darkness. For a daring couplet pasted up in the period to satirize the poverty of their conditions, see here.

In 1967 Li Manshan was among a group of Upper Liangyuan team members who had to walk to the commune seat of Greater Quanshan, in the hills to the west, to take part in one of a series of huge public criticism meetings of the disgraced Party Secretary of Yanggao county before his incarceration. By now this model commune had been eclipsed by Dazhai further south in Shanxi, but it still had to host visiting delegations and mass meetings. Ten thousand people from five communes attended the struggle session, all arriving on foot. Although Li Manshan was a “rich peasant,” he had no choice but to go, or else people would accuse him of being counter-revolutionary.

The Sojourn of Educated Youth

Shoulders unable to carry, hands unable to grasp, soft and sensitive skin…

Coming across this phrase in 2013 as I made inept attempts to help Li Manshan with the autumn harvest, I thought it might have been coined to parody my efforts. Rather, it is a standard expression used to describe the travails of urban “educated youth” in performing physical labour after being sent down from the cities to the countryside in the Cultural Revolution to “learn from the peasants.” The experience was a rude shock for such groups all over China; brought up in relatively comfortable urban schools to believe in the benefits of socialism, and often protected from understanding the tribulations of their own parents, they were now confronted not just by the harshness of physical labour, but by medieval poverty (see also my Shaanbei book, p.9).

From 1967, large groups of secondary school students were sent down to live in many Yanggao villages. Over thirty stayed in Upper Liangyuan for a year or so, but Li Manshan had no contact with them. A group from one Beijing school descended on Golden Noble’s village of Houying in 1967, then another batch the following year; most managed to leave around 1972. Golden Noble’s cousin married one of them in 1971, condemning her to rural life; desperate to escape, she eventually divorced him, getting back to Beijing around 1980.

These groups of students brought their musical and acting skills to some villages where they were based, performing revolutionary songs and model operas to dour bemused peasants. Li Manshan never heard them sing or play, but in nearby Shizitun Older Li Bin learned the modern system of cipher notation from educated youth billeted there.

Just when convulsions seemed to have eased, Li Qing’s rich-peasant status was re-imposed in the Cleanse the Class Ranks campaign of 1968. If there had been a certain basis for the original classification around 1949, by now—in a ravaged countryside where everyone was virtually destitute—the label caused his fellow villagers bitter mirth, who ribbed him, “Call yourself a rich peasant?!” After the chaotic first couple of years, things quietened down by around 1969, but there was always tension. As Li Manshan recalls, “We just sat around at home, but we could never feel at peace”—always fearing a knock at the door.

Life Goes On
Even then, life was not entirely about campaigns. Having had four children by 1954, Li Qing and his wife had been separated for four years while Li Qing was in the Datong troupe, but in 1967 they had a third daughter, and then in 1969 a third son, Li Yunshan (known as Third Tiger), twenty-three years Li Manshan’s junior. For the lovely little wooden folding stool that Li Manshan made in the late 1960s, see here.

Then, in the winter cold late in 1971, Li Manshan married, aged twenty-six sui. The new couple lived in Li Qing’s courtyard complex, part of which had been allocated to another family after land reform. In the Cultural Revolution Li Qing “bought” it back, but village cadres accused him of illegal trading, and confiscated it again. Anyway, from 1948 right through till 1980 their conditions were cramped. In 1972 Li Manshan had to spend another six months away laboring on the reservoir project, only returning for the autumn harvest. The couple’s oldest daughter was born in 1973. That year Li Qing and his wife took their youngest son Third Tiger, five sui, into town for a group photo—now nowhere to be found. Around that time Li Qing managed to get his mother’s ashes back from Inner Mongolia, reburying her with his father’s coffin in the family graves outside Upper Liangyuan—though without any ceremony, of course.

All this was around the time of the campaigns to Study Lei Feng and Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius. The latter, prompted by the mysterious 1971 death of Lin Biao in a plane crash in Mongolia, caused major convulsions in Party and army ranks, but Li Manshan has only the vaguest memories of these campaigns.

Whereas through the 1950s and 60s the Party had somehow managed to whip up enthusiasm for further campaigns despite constant abuses, by the 1970s people had thoroughly lost their appetite for the constantly changing directions of policy. Indeed, in Yanggao people were largely unaware of the machinations at the heart of the Party in distant Beijing.

I would gladly qualify all this gloom with reminders of the benefits of Maoism such as are offered by apologists like Bill Hinton and Mobo Gao. But I can find no-one in Yanggao who can think of any. There were some harbingers of reform, like a certain freeing up of markets in 1972. Education too was expanding again. A sporadic supply of electricity eventually reached villages like Upper Liangyuan by the mid-1970s. Before that people used kerosene lamps, but they slept soon after it got dark—except, of course, when there were rituals to perform. The electricity supply in the countryside remains unreliable.

By the 1970s the national population was increasing rapidly, but that of villages like Upper Liangyuan grew little. Under Maoism there was hardly any new house building in Yanggao; by the 1970s, over ninety percent of houses in the county had been built before 1937. By the mid-1970s a few villagers managed to buy watches; even by the end of the decade only a few cadres enjoyed the luxury of riding bicycles.

Traditional culture was still on hold. Without the benefit of hindsight, there was no end in sight to the depression of the commune system. And people—not just the Li family, but the whole population—were still seriously hungry.

* * *

For local Daoist ritual, I must stress that none of this obviates the need for the study of early textual history of ritual manuals, which should continue to play a major role. However, the life stories of Daoists (and all kinds of religious practitioners) are just as important for the modern era as for the imperial period—but with careful and sensitive fieldwork they are much more available. And they can not only clarify aspects of textual transmission, but also (more crucially?) illuminate the changing performance of ritual. So it seems to me that whether sinologists and ethnographers like it or not, our subject has to embrace both early and contemporary periods. At the same time, modern historians may even find our discussions of ritual life in living times to be of some relevance to wider histories.



Folk ritual: testing the waters

As I observed, the recent confiscation of instruments in Pingyi county was only one aspect of the directive aimed at decimating funerary traditions there. It reminds me of an early incident during the revival of Daoist ritual in Yanggao (my book, ch.7; cf. my film), illustrating constant nuances in local relations as people explore ritual boundaries through changing times. So here’s a kind of prequel to my post on the Pingyi flapdoodle.

By 1979, as the commune system began to crumble, the great Li Qing (1926–99) and his colleagues in Upper Liangyuan, along with other Daoist groups in the county, were clandestinely performing Daoist rituals again, testing the waters. There was now demand again; as soon as villagers were once again able to stage proper funerals, they sought to invite Daoists. Seeing other households beginning to make money outside the collective, Li Qing would soon have realized this was a chance for him to feed his family too (they had been hungry throughout the Maoist era, not just around 1960). Most simply, Daoist ritual was in his blood: it was what the family had always done. A major stimulus for Li Qing’s band was the return in 1977 of his uncle Li Peisen (1910–85) from Yang Pagoda, where he had laid low throughout the Maoist period, preserving ritual instruments, costumes, paintings, and manuals.

Over a long period from 1979 to 1984 the Daoists performed for funerals at first furtively and gradually more openly. In those early days they didn’t stand directly in front of the coffin, just playing “little pieces” on the shengguan instruments without any vocal liturgy. And they wore their ordinary clothes; before 1981 a host wanting them to wear their ritual costumes had to pay danger money. As anxieties dwindled, they first donned their black costumes without hats, then the red costumes with hats.

One early occasion when they dared perform vocal liturgy, however clandestinely, was for the funeral of Li Peiye (another Daoist uncle of Li Qing) in the 2nd moon of 1980. Born in 1892, Li Peiye had learned Daoist ritual under the Qing dynasty, living just long enough to witness hope of a revival of tradition. Li Manshan recalls Li Yuanmao (1919–92), then with a long white beard) leading the reciting of the scriptures for the funeral.

Soon after Li Peiye’s funeral, a great burden was lifted for Li Qing. The county authorities sent official letters to all the village brigades listing the rehabilitation (pingfan) of people whose “black” class label of “rich peasant” was now to be removed. Li Qing was among thousands in Yanggao alone who were reprieved. The family no longer bore any stigma; at last there seemed some hope for both them and the wider society.

One of the first funerals for which the Daoists wore their full costumes was for Golden Noble’s grandmother in Houying in 1982. She died on the 6th of the 2nd moon, and the date of the burial was determined for the 19th.

But on the first day of the Houying rituals, someone returned from the county-town with the news that the Wangzhuang Daoists had been arrested while doing a funeral there. Senior Daoist Yan Mei—one of many Daoists who had served as brigade accountants under Maoism—was band boss; Liu Zhong (1930–96), soon to be a regular member of Li Qing’s band, was taking part. As luck would have it, the house where the funeral was held happened to be right opposite the police station. They managed to perform the rituals all day, but then two cops turned up, detained two of the Daoists, took mugshots, and confiscated their instruments.

As the liberalizations gathered pace, the incident soon became something of a local joke; people take such minor reverses in their stride. Naively, the Wangzhuang Daoists had supposed the climate to be relaxed enough now that Deng Xiaoping was in power—but surely they could have seen this coming. Things were indeed easing up in the countryside, and after a few weeks the Daoists reclaimed their instruments and got back to work, but official attitudes in the county-town were always more sensitive.

Even when I attended funerals in the town in 1991, it was still only possible to hire gujiang shawm bands, not Daoists. And still today it remains rare for town-dwellers to use Daoists; and since there are groups nearer whom patrons can invite, the Li family seldom performs there. But ever since the revival, and all the more since around 2009, they and other groups in the area have been worked off their feet performing rituals throughout the villages—despite urban migration and the “left-behind” patrons’ preference for the glossy pop shows outside the gate of the soul hall.

Ever since those early days of the revival, I occasionally hear of transitory campaigns against mediums or sects, but funeral practice has remained largely untouched—so the “Keep Calm and Carry On” message still seems fair.

informal session
Informal session at Li Qing’s house, 1991. Left to right: Li Qing (sheng), his second son Yushan (yunluo), Liu Zhong (guanzi), Li Zengguang (drum), Kang Ren (sheng), Wu Mei.

For the concurrent process of recopying the ritual manuals, and a caveat, see here.


Officials without culture


Strange—not to say fatuous—goings-on in Pingyi county in Shandong.

I generally give Short Shrift to horror stories in the Western media about new clampdowns on “superstitious practices” in China, finding that they rarely have any perceptible long-term effect at local level. Indeed, I have it on good authority that this latest instance of interference from local government is only a blip, going against the current tide in these more laissez-faire times—but it’s still rather interesting.

A fine article “The endangered sound of suona” by Fu Danni, on the Sixth Tone website, reports on the recent ban on shawm bands at funerals in Pingyi county. But the official directive looks far more disturbing than that—it’s just one aspect of a far more ambitious attempt to limit the length of life-cycle ceremonies and extravagant spending therein. The Pingyi measures even castigate the zacai decorations at the funeral altar as a “corrupt feudal practice”. Similar leftist campaigns, effectively seeking to deprive villagers of their traditional funerary observances, have occasionally been touted ever since traditional life-cycle events revived in the 1980s—a related article makes an ominous comparison with the “Destroy the Four Olds” campaign that accompanied the Cultural Revolution.

But there’s both more and less to this story than meets the eye. Campaigns aimed at enforcing frugality at life-cycle ceremonies have a long and mostly futile history, long before funeral strippers became a routine and salacious media topic (as a quick Google search will reveal). So it’s good to see twenty-one noted Chinese academics protesting at the fatuous recent official directive in a detailed open letter (Chinese text here). Note how adroitly it adopts the language of both Confucian and current CCP values—reminiscent of the recent online rebuffs to the Chinese FA over their attempt to ban Daoist ritual at a football match. The open letter has stimulated much online discussion, in which voices in support of the restrictions are largely drowned out.

Still, however isolated and fleeting such instances of local implementation may be, it’s remarkable that even in 2017 the Pingyi county government announced that it would confiscate musical instruments played at funerals. Sure, this kind of thing has happened occasionally since the 1980s’ revival; generally, as here, the musicians manage to get them back after a while.

Wang Ruiyong’s shawm band in Pingyi, suffering from the recent directive. From Sixth Tone article.

It may be that in Pingyi the shawm bands have unfairly taken the blame; some scholars too have reservations about “other, more vulgar, funeral practices” (like stripping, perhaps), though it’s unclear how a criterion for vulgarity might be policed, short of inculcating norms of public decency—for which cadres are not renowned.

Xingyuan 2011
Burning paper ritual money for the deceased before the coffin—village funeral, Yanggao 2011. My photo.

The article on the Pingyi nonsense observes the flagrant irony of the simultaneous [albeit formalistic and superficial, I should add!] brief of the cultural authorities to document such bands as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project—whose agenda has anyway never been exactly ethnographic. But by contrast with the project’s kitsch nostalgic dreams, shawm bands all over China are far from a bastion of tradition. They’re always innovative: for several decades, they have themselves been spontaneously adapting to the times by replacing their traditional repertoire with popular melodies and supplementing their instrumentation with trumpet, electronic keyboard, and drum-kit. You can read all about shawm bands in my post Walking Shrill, and in my books on Yanggao and Shaanbei (both with DVDs); there I documented the rapid substitution of the majestic old suite repertoires with pop music before my very eyes and ears. There are tracks on the playlist too, with notes here.

Were I just a tad cynical [surely not—Ed.], I might say that the Chinese are perfectly capable of diluting their own local traditions without government assistance. This cultural shift has been taking place ever since the early 1980s, as a result not of state interference but of changing popular tastes. And when the article comments that “most suona players have started to take on other jobs”, such as in factories and construction, this too is part of a much wider and longer trend, not some sudden response to the directive—as I noted for the Li family Daoists, the choice to abandon a hereditary tradition is complex.

Though the Sixth Tone article uses the nationally standard term suona for the shawm, it’s good to see the local term wulawa—one of many such names by which this most ubiquitous instrument is known (hence my adoption of the English term shawm, avoiding official vocabulary). And I was glad to see a reminder of the technique of blowing through a hollow reed into a basin of water—standard device for teaching circular breathing to young students.

The article doesn’t mention liturgical performance (such as household Daoists) at funerals, which generally alternates with that of the “secular” shawm bands, but it’s quite possible that there aren’t any ritual groups in this area. Anyway, hiring such bands is only a minor item in the total budget for the funeral family.

Keep calm and carry onMeixian funeral
Back in 1990 I attended an impressive funeral in Meixian county-town in Guangdong province, with accomplished young xianghua household Buddhist ritual specialists presiding. Above the road outside (where they performed many of their rituals) was draped a slogan advertising a campaign against spirit mediums (cf. my unpublished article “Striking a happy medium”). Of course mediums and liturgical specialists (not to mention shawm bands) provide very different services, but one might suppose that there’s a risk that blanket directives may throw out the baby with the bathwater.slogan Meixian 1990So while there are complex issues at work here, the recent directive illustrates a common befuddled knee-jerk response from local government. If they’re so keen on harking back to Maoist values, they might instead consider a re-education campaign for cadres—it is they who now lead the way in “vulgarity” and “lack of culture”.

Still, I can’t quite join in the general moral outrage over the Pingyi campaign. While it is quite right for scholars (both Chinese and foreign) to protest, at the same time we shouldn’t overestimate the long-term effect of such fatuous official measures. Observers have been lamenting “cultural impoverishment” in China for many decades—indeed, further afield, nay worldwide, the call to “rescue endangered traditions” went out a nanosecond after the birth of anthropology. But change is a constant. As is clear from my recent film and book, since the 1980s’ revival—in both ritual and music—any dilution takes place not so much as a direct result of sporadic leftist campaigns, but under more pervasive socio-economic pressures (to be sure, related to wider political currents) such as urban migration, modern secular education, and the changing tastes of rural patrons as they aspire to the modernity of pop and media culture. Since these are trends with which few seekers of hallowed Chinese traditions tend to engage, the state may seem to make an easier scapegoat.

For a prequel to this story, see here.

Local relations have only deteriorated following the interference of the radical cadres of Pingyi in funeral customs. A recent article on Chinese Twitter tells how irate musicians have ceremoniously burned their instruments in protest. The only good news is that public criticism of the directive forbidding “extravagant” funeral observances is ever-more widespread, both from local villagers and from higher-ranking officials and pundits further afield—again adroitly (indeed convincingly) adducing “cultural heritage” and the good old Confucian values touted by Uncle Xi.

One old musician observes that neither the Allied forces suppressing the Boxers, nor the Japanese invaders, nor even the Four Cleanups campaign had ever managed to silence such bands:


Do watch the video in the article.

From London, or even Beijing, it’s hard to judge what’s going on. The focus on shawm bands still seems something of a red herring. As locals observe, “extravagance is something for people with money—what have the common people got to waste?” The shawm bands are not only inexpensive but utterly “secular”—and again, we’re not being told about the wider restrictions on funeral observances.

This still seems to me like an isolated blip—has anyone heard of serious instances anywhere else recently? It’s all the more curious when funeral customs continue to be observed grandly throughout China—see this recent report on a six-day Daoist funeral in Hunan.

The radical stance of the Pingyi cadres seems deranged. Usually such campaigns blow over (an apt metaphor), or at worst cadres adopt the age-old practice of “one eye open, one eye closed”, or “there’s a policy, but it isn’t implemented”; but here they haven’t backed down, and the musicians’ astute demonstration has gained widespread publicity.

burning shawms

For more background, see here; and for a related debate, here.

Further update
I can’t keep up with all such cases, but this one caught my eye.

Chinese media (in English, see e.g. here, and this article with further background) are in uproar over a draconian policy in 2018 to destroy coffins in rural Jiangxi province—which one might suppose less vulnerable to radical directives. It’s a misguided attempt both to save land and to discourage extravagant burial rituals.


Again, campaigns to enforce cremation have a long history, but have been largely ineffective outside the towns.

In this case the protest doesn’t even need righteous netizens—it’s led by the state-run media:

Chinese state media editorials on Monday slammed the policy as “barbaric and unpopular”. Articles in both People’s Daily and Guangming Daily urged the Jiangxi government to rethink its funeral reform.

“Is there any reason to carry out such a rough and even barbaric move?” the editorial in People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party, said. “Even if the funeral reforms are effectively carried out, the hearts of the people are hurt and [the administration’s] credibility is lost … [and] built-up resentment triggers instability.”

Even Jiangxi’s department of civil affairs issued a notice saying a number of county-level officials had taken “simplistic and extreme” actions that had “hurt the feelings” of local residents.

Again, it looks like a conflict between particular trigger-happy extremist local governments, with central authorities on the side of the local population.

None of these stories is so simple as blanket state repression: conflicting forces operate.


Daoist ritual and football

Daoist football

WOW. Following my post on the Haka, Chinese football has just gone one better. On 23rd September a Henan team had a Daoist ritual performed on the pitch, going on to get their first home win in months—and getting a slapped wrist from the Chinese FA, what’s more:


Sure, unlike the Haka, in this case it’s not the players themselves who perform the ritual—yet.

Chinese Twitter is buzzing with discussion. Daoist fans aren’t taking the stern rebukes lying down: pointing out that Daoist ritual is protected under the brief of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, they deftly play the old “culture, not feudal superstition” card.

有道教网站转发新闻办的微博称:来来来,我给建业支个招,各地的道教音乐中包括全真十方韵,全国很多地方都有批准为非物质文化遗产, 建业去问问那次的道长是传承自哪里,在比赛前进行音乐演奏,非遗文化表演。是受非遗法保护的。《中华人民共和国非物质文化遗产法》里 面有支持其参与社会公益性活动。这么喜闻乐见不如看怎么合理弘扬?

Others worry that it may give rise to competitive rituals in which the other team employs their own ritual specialists to break the magic of the opposition’s Daoists. Of course, it has long been common to hire two or more groups (Buddhist, Daoist, Tibeto-Mongol lamas…) for a single ritual event—competing between each other but not for rival patrons.

Another article defends the move by pointing out various international instances of teams seeking divine assistance (for a recent one, see here).

For a related debate, see here; note also the rebuttals of local government’s restrictions on funeral observances in Shandong.

Early Chinese versions of football were popular, though I’m not going to devote much time to searching for specific blessing rituals in Song-dynasty ritual compendia… Not will I detain you here with a discussion of the constant historical adaptations of Daoists to their patrons…

football painting

Chinese women’s football. Du Jin, Ming dynasty.

I note that during the Song dynasty only one goal post was set up in the centre of the field—now that would be an intriguing modification to the FIFA rules. Further to the magnificent ripostes of young female footballers to the British FA, at a match in the Tang dynasty

records indicate that once a 17-year-old girl beat a team of army soldiers.

YAY! Could it have been after this match that the men shifted the goalposts? Typical!

Under Maoism a leading CCP apparatchik (can anyone put a name to this fine pundit?) observed twenty-two players chasing around after one ball, and in a spirit of egalitarianism, unhappy with the conventions of what he supposed was a misguided capitalist invention, declared grandly:
“We’re a socialist country now—why not give them a ball each?”

Anyway, my new dream is for the Li family Daoists to perform a ritual to help Arsenal win the Champions’ League.

For more on women’s football, see here.

The brief of ethnography

Gaoluo 1989

Recently on Twitter, following a post on my work with the Gaoluo village ritual association, an urban Chinese worker sent me a succinct and intriguing reaction:

中国农村地方的风俗,我不喜欢!— I don’t like local Chinese rural customs!

Well, tough! 罗卜青菜各有所愛, chacun à son trou, “it’s a free country”… But actually it’s a valid point, highlighting an important issue.

Rural customs are what rural dwellers do; it’s hard to belittle the former without rejecting the latter. It’s not just a lack of tuanjie solidarity within the Labouring Masses, between the gong workers and the nong peasants; there has long been a more general alienation anyway among the urban educated. This feeling that Chinese tradition is “backward” dates back well before the 20th century, despite the efforts of Chinese folklorists since the 1920s to document the, um, heritage.

Today those older urbanites who endured banishment to impoverished villages under Maoism (like Kang Zhengguo, or the countless, and hapless, zhiqing educated youths from 1968) have good reason to feel ambivalent about rural culture (see also here).

Younger cityfolk may not have had to endure rural life like their elders. But steeped in pop music and video games, when they are dragged back to the poor countryside to attend the funeral of a grandparent, they too may find village customs irrevocably tainted by poverty and backwardness.

Moreover, apart from those duped by the media into regarding folk culture as a theme park, those younger cityfolk (not least those bravely seeking social justice) have been further alienated by rosy state cultural propaganda—quite understandably.

Of course, the arcane concerns of academia generally may not float their boat. Anyway, they’re unlikely to be excited by the links of some Daoist ritual to manuals from the Song dynasty.

But ethnographers don’t have to be misguided mouthpieces for official patriotism. It’s not about praising traditional culture—more about documenting it, complete with all the problems of rural life. Ethnography aims for the descriptive, not the prescriptive. I’ve already given some traumatic examples of participant observation in fieldwork—Germaine Tillion’s notes on her own incarceration in Ravensbrück concentration camp, and Sudir Venkatesh’s work among Chicago street gangs.

So it’s always worth documenting society, and history, without romanticizing it as some ideal “living fossil” of an illusory golden age. Along with any grandeur that pundits may impute to ritual in rural China, there belong power struggles, violence, the plight of women and blind outcast shawm players, and all kinds of tribulations under imperial, Maoist, and modern regimes. And while studying folk culture, it’s proper to note the alienation of younger urban dwellers from it, as I do. Indeed, I’m not naturally thrilled by Morris dancing—but when you get to know a little about it, you can see how it fits into the changing social culture of rural England.

However rapidly the Chinese rural population has been diminishing since the 1980s, documenting rural life is just as important as studying urbanites, of all classes—including the workers’ struggle and their expressive culture. We don’t have to “like” ♥ (grr) the songs of either those workers or household Daoists, but they all need documenting.

Descriptive ethnography doesn’t necessarily imply standing aside entirely from judgment. Now, as it happens I do indeed admire many aspects of village ritual, but that’s not the point. More adventurous fieldworkers (like De Martino) may seek to spell out some respects in which ritual is life-enhancing, offering consolation and cohesion; or, conversely, ways in which it serves to entrench delusion and conflict, or fortify irrational power. Or—quite likely—they may entertain both hypotheses at once. And both need to be tested, not assumed.

So to that underwhelmed Chinese worker on Twitter, I might say: as the great Tsinghua-university-based anthropologist Guo Yuhua can tell you, far from obstructing the quest for social justice, ethnography can be a contribution to it. Apart from urban workers, if anyone has been downtrodden, it’s the peasantry.

However much the official version may seek to reify and sanitize culture, yet factory workers, household Daoists, village cadres, spirit mediums, army recruits, sectarian groups, vagrants, and entrepreneurs are all part of the social spectrum, whose lives deserve to be documented.

All this reminds me of another gem from Nigel Barley. Arriving at his field site in rural Cameroon, he grapples with police bureaucracy (The innocent anthropologist, p.38):

The commandant turned out to be a huge Southerner of about six foot five. He summoned me into his office and inspected my documents minutely.  What was my reason for being here? […] He was clearly very unhappy as I tried to explain the essential nature of the anthropological endeavour. “But what’s it for?” he asked. Choosing between giving an impromptu version of the “Introduction to Anthropology” lecture course and something less full, I replied somewhat lamely, “It’s my job.”




Yet more heritage flapdoodle: Hongtong

Hongtong 1
Further fodder for my distaste of the heritage shtick—thanks again to Helen Rees, my Word on the Street, I’ve been reading an interesting article by Ziying You,

  • “Shifting actors and power relations: contentious local responses to the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in contemporary China”,
    Journal of folklore research 52.2/3 (2015).

And now she has published a book on the topic, which I look forward to reading:

Hongtong cover

Hongtong county, in south Shanxi, is always cropping up in studies of local culture in north China—notably since it was used as a huge migration transfer centre to areas further north and northeast that had been depopulated by the appalling dynastic warfare of the early Ming. Like many villages on the plain south of Beijing, Gaoluo, subject of my book Plucking the winds, is said to have been founded as a result of this migration; and Li Manshan’s lineage moved north to Yanggao just around this time. [1]

It’s a long time since we’ve featured The China Daily, so I’m delighted to cite a 2012 article here:

A step into Hongtong county in southern Shanxi province and I found myself transported into a land filled with fairy tales.

YAY! The paper hasn’t lost its old magic, then. It does provide a couple of charming pieces of folklore:

The Chinese term used today to mean “go to toilet” or jie shou is also linked to the legend.
The migrants had their hands tied behind their backs when they migrated. They were only allowed to untie their hands when they needed to relieve themselves. Jie shou, which literally means to untie the hands, gradually became the term used for “go to toilet”. The expression spread widely to the provinces where the Shanxi migrants were sent.

Another interesting tale on Hongtong involves a woman by the name of Su San in the Ming Dynasty, who became probably one of the most well-known prostitutes in Chinese history.
Su met young scholar Wang Jinglong at her brothel. The two fell in love and Wang stayed with Su for a whole year but was later chased out of the brothel because he ran out of money. Su was then sold to another man as concubine. She was framed for murdering the man, imprisoned and was sentenced to death.
Meanwhile, Wang who attempted the imperial examination, did well and was appointed governor of Shanxi. He heard about Su’s case and helped with the investigation to deliver her from death row.
The lovers eventually got married and as how all fairy tales end, they lived together happily ever after.
The story has been adapted as a Peking Opera play The Story of Su San (Yu Tang Chun) and became one of the best-known Peking Opera plays in China. Hongtong county where Su San was imprisoned became well-known through the play.
Although the original prison was severely damaged during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), the present one restored in 1984 retains all its original features. For example, there is a cave used for dead bodies, and a well with very small mouth to prevent prisoners from jumping in to kill themselves.
Su San’s story has brought fame to the prison, making it a must-see in Hongtong. Today the site is renamed as “Su San Prison”, and her story is presented by a series of wax statues within the site.

Damn, I’m trying to write about the ICH here… Led astray by The China Daily“typical!”

Anyway, Ziying You’s article concerns Hongtong as the site of an enduring cult to the ancient sage-kings Yao and Shun, in which several villages form a she parish, with temple fairs and processions. [2] For ICH purposes it is nominated as Hongtong zouqin xisu “the custom of visiting sacred relatives in Hongtong” [3] — and yes, sure enough the term “living fossil” rears its ugly head again.
Hongtong procession
Though not currently on the UNESCO “Representative list” for the ICH, it has been inscribed on the provincial and then national lists since 2006. With typical official razzmatazz, local cultural cadres set up a “Hongtong Centre for the safeguarding of ICH”, niftily bypassing the temple committees which are the lifeblood of the whole tradition.

BTW, as at many such festivals, I see no signs here of liturgical sequences of ritual specialists—only large groups of gong-and-drum ensembles (which are also widespread in Shanxi).

By contrast with the alacrity of cadres,

For most ordinary people, ICH was a foreign term remote from their knowledge and discourse.
Those who were mobilized to assist in the ICH application expected to receive a large amount of money from the central government to do whatever they wished within their local communities.

Not only has this expectation been unfulfilled—the Yangxie temple committee spent a substantial amount in the extended process of preparing the application. Moreover, the Centre, jockeying for favour with ICH bodies higher up the chain, monopolizes as-yet elusive state funding. And while the local conflicts between the villages did not originate with the ICH application, they were exacerbated in the process. Anyway, the temple committees, true “bearers of the heritage”, have been disempowered.

The ICH project thus became a means for the local ICH centre to exploit the local population and harvest the profits from the state.

Citing Chiara de Cesari, the author comments:

UNESCO frequently ends up reinforcing the power and reach of the nation-state and its bureaucracy, which is contradictory to its own principle of involving local communities and “grassroots”.

Yet again, the ICH machinery appears not to be safeguarding local cultures so much as safeguarding itself.

My encounters over the years with groups earmarked for ICH status—such as the village ritual associations of Qujiaying and Gaoluo, as well as the Li family Daoists—only confirm such findings. But the juggernaut rolls on.

As I write, Haitink’s recent Prom is on the radio, with the Prague symphony. No Mozart balls, just boundless energy and creativity!


[1] For the migrations to Yanggao, see Jing Ziru’s article in Yanggao wenshi ziliao 阳高文史资料 2: 216–228 and 206.
[2] Note also Anning Jing, The Water God’s Temple of the Guangsheng Monastery: Cosmic Function of Art, Ritual, and Theater (Brill, 2001)—albeit more historical iconography than contemporary ritual ethnography.
[3] These photos are among many from http://photo.xinzhou.org/2010/0717/picture_1826.html

Taranta, poverty, and orientalism


Watching the 1959 footage of healing sessions for possessed women in south Italy by Ernesto De Martino and Diego Carpitella, one may feel almost voyeuristic.

Below I cite a review by Stephen Bennetts of

  • Ernesto De Martino, The Land of Remorse: a study of Southern Italian tarantism. [1]

First published in 1961, The Land of Remorse is a classic of anthropological detective work. Was this bizarre phenomenon really caused by the bite of the tarantula, or was it instead a mere “superstitious relic”, or a localised form of psychosis prevalent among illiterate Southern Italian peasants? Almost sixty years ago, in 1959, a group of scholars arrived in the small town of Galatina to unravel the riddle. They comprised a historian of religion (De Martino), neuropsychiatrist, toxicologist, psychologist, anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, social worker and photographer.

It soon became clear that the research team was documenting the last vestiges of the cult, which by now had retreated to an isolated pocket of peasant society in Salento, the stiletto heel of Southern Italy. Tarantism still persisted in its classical form in the music and dance therapy sessions conducted in the home, whilst the partly Christianised form of the cult, amputated of its musical and dance component, continued in the grotesque and histrionic displays at the Chapel of St Paul, as possessed tarantati arrived for the feast day of Saint Paul to ask the saint for healing.

In De Martino’s analysis, the mythology of the taranta and the catharsis of the possession state provide a framework in which personal psychological tensions common throughout Southern Italian peasant society could be publicly dramatised. Private sufferings caused by unhappy love, bereavement, sexual frustration, or subaltern social status were transfigured into annually recurring possession states which were culturally determined, rather than being the result of a real spider bite. The ritualised healing through dance and music provided victims with psychological closure and reintegration back into the community, at least until the summer of the following year.

[According to one Salentine authority, the last episode of tarantism involving actual possession took place in 1993, but the last living practitioner died in 2000. Yet “tarantism” has recently taken on another curious form. The current Southern Italian folk revival and associated pizzica dance craze incorporate a grab bag of different impulses: re-emergent Southern regionalism, the reevaluation of a peasant past which is now distant enough for young Southern Italians to romanticise rather than feel ashamed of, and a rejection by the Italian anti-globalisation movement of the television-fixated “cultural homogenization” of Berlusconian Italy. De Martino’s book has now achieved cult status beyond the academy; go to many folk concerts in Southern Italy today and you will find it on sale alongside tambourines, castanets and other accoutrements of the recently exhumed Southern Italian past. In a process which has been aptly described as “proletarian exoticisation”, De Martino’s plain female peasant tarantate have given way in contemporary reworkings of the theme to video clips featuring dissociated but picturesque young beauties writhing to the latest tarantella folk hit. Within the current Salentine folk revival, De Martino functions as a kind of symbolic fetish, validating an isolated area of Southern Italy which almost nobody had heard of until the “rediscovery” of tarantism and tarantella ten years ago suddenly put Salento on the map.]

Along with more detached ethnographic observations, one easily discerns severe social problems here—not least poverty, and not just the role of the church. Urban Chinese observing rural Chinese ritual may be beset by similar, prescriptive, responses—which will be secondary for foreign fieldworkers, more entranced by the persistence, perhaps exoticism, of religious practice there. That’s partly why study of the practices of “primitive” ethnic minorities are so fashionable.

De Martino’s work, though focused on religion, makes a successor to Carlo Levi’s 1945 book Christ stopped at Eboli, and even James Agee’s 1941 Let us now praise famous men, with the photos by Walker Evans. Accounts like these are a world away from the idealizing of peasant communities often implied in Chinese cultural studies. But both types have their own agendas. Meanwhile, brave Chinese journalists have blazed a trail, with village surveys like those for Anhui, and a substantial body of work on the famines around 1960.

We may contrast the anthropology/ethnography of religion with pious insiders’ views of religion. Of course a participant or “believer’s” own account will be important material. But if in the description the ethnographer promotes her own “belief”, that is dangerous: more like propaganda. Empathy is to be desired, evangelism to be avoided. Good histories of Christianity or Islam are unlikely to come from the standpoint of proponents for such beliefs.

So what is, or should be, the anthropologist’s view on religion? While showing how it works in the society, one doesn’t have to promote it as entirely beneficial there, or to that of other societies. Of course our picture is blurred by the quest for ancient oriental wisdom, which may even follow on from hippy mysticism. It is remarkable how commonly this still plays a role in studies of Daoism.

Some scholars make a case for the superiority of Daoism as a world view, over other religions and other world views. Not only is this not the job of the ethnographer, but it may flaw the whole research enterprise. What we learn from such accounts is what a Western scholar, of a particular upbringing and taste, thinks about Daoism; not what Daoism in society is like.

To repeat, it is different to develop a certain empathy with one’s subjects than to come from a standpoint of evangelical zeal. In the course of an ethnographic relationship one will doubtless begin to explain their mindset, their backstory, and so on. But the study of Daoists is mainly to be done with the same kind of anthropological curiosity that one would bring to the study of any other group, such as Party cadres or sex workers (funny how those two random examples seem to make suitable bedfellows. I didn’t say that).

Participant observation brings many benefits. In the case of religion, to participate fully in the life of Daoists will certainly confer insights—but there is no single type of Daoist, and even participation is only one aspect of the duties of the scholar. One should observe not only how religious activities inspire local patrons, or bring social cohesion, but how people may ignore or oppose them. I’m not even arguing with evangelism, necessarily; just that it blurs proper scholarship.

Study of oriental religion risks exoticizing. Even if the scholar avoids the trap of “Just look at this rare ritual I’ve stumbled across/gained unique access to”, rituals may yet be portrayed as “special”, ancient, mystical, and so on—whether they are or not, and downplaying their routine nature. This kind of social behaviour is normal. The visitor may stumble (once) across something supposedly rare, but more likely it will be repeated again and again—always adapting over time.

Note also this documentary from 1952, with funeral laments from Lucania:

and the 1958 sequel Magia Lucana:

For more recent pizzica, see here and here; and for Sardinia, here. I’ve also outlined work on folk musicking around Italy.


[1] Weekend Australian, Review section, 28–29 January 2006.