Ethnography at home: Morris dancing

female dancers

Esperance dancers. Source: EFDSS, via

Why bother traipsing halfway around the world, I hear you ask, when our very own Sceptered Isle offers such potential for pursuing the local ethnography of seasonal ritual?

Our folk culture may be a rich and ever-evolving topic, but Morris dancing has long been a national joke. Here I’ve churlishly suggested it as a suitably disturbing English riposte to the magnificent All-Black haka. I suddenly understand why some Chinese people may initially be reluctant to engage with their folk culture (see e.g. here and here).

Morris dancing comes round every so often as a drôle topic for media coverage—this article by A.A. Gill may not impress academics, but it’s brilliant, evocative, and strangely respectful writing.

I’m reminded of the topic again by a recent BBC4 programme, engagingly titled For folk’s sake.

One could almost mistake the May procession, with its bowery palanquin,
for a rain ritual in Shaanbei.

Now, I take a keen interest in calendrical rituals—indeed, as Easter week approaches, Bach is in store, and it’s a busy season for ritual in China too. But I’m not alone in tending to consign Morris dancing, with its incongruous juxtaposition of hankies, bells, and silly hats with beards and beer, to a long list of embarrassing genteel eccentricities of the English, along with The Archers. But like any social activity performed by Real People it deserves serious study, in the context of social change in England since the Industrial Revolution, and even a preliminary exploration is fascinating. [1]

The wiki entry makes a useful starting point. Whatever the etymological connection between Morris and Moorish, it does seem, Like Life (cf. Stewart Lee), to have come from abroad. It’s part of a group of genres that includes mummers’ plays, sword and stick dances, and so on.

Gender and class
Though there is evidence of female Morris dancers as early as the 16th century, male groups predominated. I’d like to learn more about the 19th-century decline; anyway, by the early 20th century the women who soon became the driving force of Morris learned from surviving male performers. From wiki:

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Lancashire tradition was taken up by sides associated with mills and nonconformist chapels, usually composed of young girls. These lasted until the First World War, after which many mutated into “jazz dancers” [note the cryptic quotes].

Mary NealAfter severe losses in World War One (when some entire village sides were killed) the female dominance increased, with women now teaching men.

In 1895 Mary Neal (1860–1944; website here; see also Lucy Neal’s project and this nice article) founded the Espérance Club, a dressmaking co-operative and club to enrich the lives of young working-class girls in London:

No words can express the passionate longing which I have to bring some of the beautiful things of life within easy reach of the girls who earn their living by the sweat of their brow… If these Clubs are up to the ideal which we have in view, they will be living schools for working women, who will be instrumental in the near future, in altering the conditions of the class they represent.

Cecil Sharp (1859–1924) first experienced Morris at Headington Quarry in 1899. Mary Neal began working with him in 1905, but their outlooks conflicted, and she soon joined the WSPU (for the Espérance’s modern reincarnation, see here). Vic Gammon encapsulates the conflict in his review of Georgina Boyes’s The imagined village culture:

Mary Neal, middle-class reformer, socialist, and suffragette who sees the possibility of reviving folk dance among working-class girls in north London, is defeated by Cecil Sharp, professional musician, Fabian, and misogynist who spread the activity of folk dancing among the young genteel, making vernacular arts fit bourgeois aesthetics.

These clips from 1912 feature the sisters Maud and Helen Karpeles, co-founders of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, as well as Cecil Sharp, and George Butterworth, who died in the Battle of the Somme:

But as in the world of work, male groups soon came to dominate again. The all-male Morris Ring was founded by six revival sides in 1934. And between the wars, for John Eliot Gardiner’s father Rolf “mysticism, misogyny, and Morris dancing formed a coherent whole in which nostalgia was a spur to action”. Whether he would have approved of The Haunted Pencil, with his AfD comrades, I couldn’t possibly comment.

Meanwhile Stella Gibbons and Elisabeth Lutyens took a more cynical view of genteel “folky-wolky” representations of English folk culture (note also Em creeps in with a pie).

Following World War Two, and particularly in the 1960s, there was an explosion of new dance teams, with some women’s or mixed sides. A heated debate emerged over the propriety and even legitimacy of women dancing the Morris; and mainly on the left, critics disputed the method of Sharp’s work as they pondered the perilous concept of “tradition” (as they do). But as in most walks of life, despite bastions of male conservatism, the creative participation of women is again becoming a major driving force, as you can see in this fine article by Elizabeth Kinder.

Boss Morris

Click here for a short clip from Berkhamstead in 1950, with pipe and tabor sadly mute. And this was filmed in Thaxted (“hub of the universe”), c1958—just as collectivization was leading to calamitous famine in China:

All this may seem quaint at any period, but all the more so in the Swinging Sixties. For folk’s sake shows glimpses of a 1966 festival at Thaxted—just as revolution (not least the Cultural Revolution) was in the air, alongside jazz, soul, the Beatles… The Saddleworth rushcart festival features in For folk’s sake—here’s a clip from 2014:

And as with folk traditions in China and worldwide, Morris survives alongside newer genres like punk (for punk in Beijing, see here).


Source: David Holm, Art and ideology in revolutionary China (1991).

Indeed, a survey of the many English villages with teams somewhat resembles our documentation of ritual groups in particular counties of China—or the rich local dance traditions like yangge (among several genres using handkerchiefs and sticks!), Boat on Dry Land, Bamboo Horses, and so on, with their common ritual connections—covered at length in the provincial volumes of the Anthology for dance:

  • Zhongguo minjian wudao jicheng 中国民间舞蹈集成,

with over 30,000 pages there alone, besides all the related material in the volumes for folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, and instrumental music.

Among the main regional Morris traditions are Cotswold, Northwest, Border, and Plough Monday groups in Yorkshire and the east Midlands (all the sides have instructive websites)—and as in China, their styles are often distinctive to individual villages. Four teams claim a continuous tradition predating the revival: Abingdon, Bampton, Headington Quarry, and Chipping Campden. In the 1930s at the important centre of Thaxted, the sinologist Joseph Needham championed Molly dancing.

Only now do I recall that my granddad took me to watch mummers in Wiltshire (at Colerne? Marshfield?). Indeed, his home village of Potterne still has a group. It’s a very blurred childhood memory, by which I seem to have been underwhelmed; but did it sow a seed?


The Britannia Coco-nut [2] Dancers of Bacup (“Nutters”; see e.g. this article) have a venerable history that inevitably attracts controversy (no less inevitably, one of the transmitters is called Dick Shufflebottom, who celebrated fifty years of service in 2006). A.A. Gill’s description of the Nutters is classic:

They are small, nervous men. And so they might be, for they are wearing white cotton night bonnets of the sort sported by Victorian maids, decorated with sparse ribbons. Then black polo-neck sweaters, like the Milk Tray man, with a white sash, black knee-breeches, white stockings and black clogs. As if this weren’t enough, someone at some point has said: “What this outfit really needs is a red-and-white-hooped miniskirt.” “Are you sure?” the dancers must have replied. And he was. But it doesn’t finish there. They have black faces, out of which their little bright eyes shine anxiously. On their hands are strapped single castanets. A single castanet is the definition of uselessness. The corresponding castanet is worn on the knee. To say you couldn’t make up the Coco-nutters would be to deny the evidence of your astonished eyes.

The dance begins with each Nutter cocking a hand to his ear to listen to something we human folk can’t catch. They then wag a finger at each other, and they’re off, stamping and circling, occasionally holding bent wands covered with red, white, and blue rosettes that they weave into simple patterns. It’s not pretty and it’s not clever. It is, simply, awe-inspiringly, astonishingly other. Morris men from southern troupes come and watch in slack-jawed silence. Nothing in the civilised world is quite as elementally bizarre and awkwardly compelling as the Coco-nutters of Bacup. What are they for? What were they thinking of? Why do they do these strange, misbegotten, dark little incantations? It’s said that they might have originally been Barbary corsairs who worked in Cornish tin mines and travelled to Lancashire, and that the dance is about listening underground, a sign language of miners. And then there’s all the usual guff about harvest and spring and fecundity, but that doesn’t begin to describe the strangeness of this troupe from the nether folk world.

Do watch the Nutters on YouTube.

Again as in China, the Morris vocabulary is suggestive, with teams, sides, squires, bagmen, fools, beasts. At least England hasn’t yet fallen for the Intangible Cultural Heritage flapdoodle (we have our pride). Still, even without it, contentious arguments about “authenticity” continue to fester. And even now there’s still considerable opposition to admitting women. FFS.

I might be tempted to make the music share the blame. Of course, it is what it is, irrespective of the impertinent tastes of outsiders; but it often seems to endow the proceedings with a twee comfy feel that conflicts with the edgy (“pagan”?!) atmosphere of the dance itself. Once mainly accompanied by pipe and tabor, fiddles and melodeons became more common. The gritty new sounds of great musos like Jon Boden don’t seem so relevant to most Morris sides—though again, see Elizabeth Kinder’s article. I’d love to hear a Bulgarian version—accompanied with suitably complex metres by zurna and davul, relatives of early English pipe and tabor.

For the BBC2 documentary Tribes, predators and me, it was a cute idea to show footage of Morris dancing to tribespeople (click here).

* * *

Of course I’m merely dabbling here. But is this the kind of thing that urban educated Chinese people think I’m doing in their country?

In a way, it is: cultures change, in China as in England. The brief of the ethnographer is the same: to document the whole history, down to today, of local traditions amidst ongoing challenges to community cohesion through social and political change. We both have blind spots about our own cultures, further muddied by patriotic posturing and our reactions against it. It’s not that I can’t see the “value” of Morris, just that I’ve inherited negative associations. While plenty of English writers have debunked the myth of an unspoilt Victorian Merrie England, in China the “living fossils” nostalgia, referring to a Golden Age of much greater antiquity that bears even less relation to rural life there, is still touted by heritage pundits. For the awful cliché of “international cultural exchange”, see here.

And whereas in China I’m keenly aware of major dates in the rural calendar when temple fairs may be held, I’m not alone in being completely estranged from the seasonal rhythms of English life; only Bach cantatas manage to educate me.

This may be a particular issue for the English. In Hungary the táncház revival has become popular; and it would seem natural enough for an American studying old-time music in Appalachia to find continuity when working on China.

The world of Morris and English folk-song culture, like that of Newcastle punks, is no more “home” to me than are the rituals of the Fujian countryside for an educated Chinese from Beijing. But whereas local ritual in China still seems to me an intrinsic component of local life, Morris dancing has long seemed a quaint byway in my whole experience of England. Of course, when pressed, I can quite see this is wrong. OK Guys, I’ll take my culture seriously if you take yours…

Anyway, just think, as you board a rickety bus to a poor Hunan village in search of household Daoist rituals, you could be sitting in a sunny Oxfordshire pub courtyard nursing your pint as you take notes on the magnificent ritual spectacle unfolding before you—complete with its “feudal superstitious colourings” 封建迷信色彩.

For a roundup of posts on the English at home and abroad, see here; and for more on Heritage movements, here.


[1] Useful background includes the research of Vic Gammon; Georgina Boyes, The imagined village culture: culture, ideology and the English folk revival (1993/2010); Trish Winter and Simon Keegan-Phipps, Performing Englishness: identity and politics in a contemporary folk resurgence (2013); numerous publications from the English Folk Dance and Song Society, e.g. here; Theresa Buckland, ” ‘Th’owd pagan dance’: ritual, enchantment, and an enduring intellectual paradigm” (2002). On class, gender, and national identity, see also this (cf. Stewart Lee!). For innovative performance-based studies of clog dancing, see the work of Caroline Radcliffe. For an accessible introduction to the English folk scene, see The Rough Guide to world music: Europe, Asia, and Pacific, “England: folk, roots”, and regular features in Songlines and fRoots.

For further refs. on the wider context, see Helen Myers, “Great Britain”, in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (The New Grove handbooks in music, 1993), pp.129–48. Among many fine compilations of British folk music, note the extensive Topic Records series The voice of the people (here on Spotify).

[2] Pedants’ corner (or is it Pedant’s corner?): the form “coconut” seems more common (as on their own website)—I can’t find a ruling on the hyphen, but it seems suitably eccentric (but was it eccentric then? That’s the perennial question!).

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 a vivid personal account of the period is the eight-part series by Tsering Woeser to be found here, based on collections of 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 maybe one day I will.

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.


Seven samurai


I was first spellbound by Seven samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954) at Cambridge in the early 1970s, among many other formative film experiences there.

Of the samurai, I was most captivated by the master-swordsman Kyūzō (a character inspired by the “sword-saint” Miyamoto Musashi), akin to the Zen archers and mystics who were then inspiring me.

While my fellow-students were attracted to contemporary China, I was still mired in silent immobile ancient texts; but though the film’s drama is set in 16th-century Japan, it must somehow have sown the seed for my later studies of Chinese peasant life…

Among several homages, never mind The magnificent seven: most subtle and perceptive is Tampopo.


Cheremis, Chuvash—and Tibetans


Photo: Cheremis “pagan” ritual singer H.H. Musztafa (then 69), June 1975.

Along with from the many Hungaroton LP box-sets of the musics of east Europe, another impressive 3-disc set that I brought back from Budapest is

collected and published by László Vikár (1929–2017) and linguist Gábor Bereczki. The set documents musical traditions of peoples in the “autonomous” republics around the eastern perimeter of the European part of the USSR, the central Volga and Urals—peoples about whom I know nothing, but feel we should know:

Mordvinians, Votyaks (Udmurt), Cheremis (Mari), and the Turkic-speaking Chuvash, Tatars, and Bashkirs.



Between 1958 and 1979 Vikár and Bereczki made four long summer fieldtrips to some 286 villages, accompanied by local scholars. With sound engineer Pál Sztanó they recorded life-cycle and calendrical items, both vocal and instrumental, including bridal dirges, funeral laments, dance tunes, and historical epics.

The recordings on this box set are part of a much larger archive. You can hear tracks on a playlist here:

The 43-page booklet contains detailed notes, as well as maps, translations, photos, and some transcriptions.

notes 2

A page from the booklet, on Mari singing.

Bartók, Kodaly, and Bence Szabolcsi had already shown an interest in these groups, mainly as part of their comparative musical paleography, classifying melodic types; Vikár was building on this tradition. [2]

Such early recordings were made on request, not—as ethnographers later also sought—while documenting the social events of which they are the core. So we meet the typical issue that often crops up in Chinese collections: were they performing items then still in use, or recalling them from an earlier social practice?

And of course these projects could barely hint at the painful recent histories of such peoples. Music is never autonomous, but gives us a window into the study of changing local societies.

Indeed, it’s worth recalling what else was happening in those years. Notwithstanding early east European scholars’ interest in “archaic layers”, these are not timeless idyllic communities; though they were over the worst of the years of repression under Stalin, they had been constantly starved, deported, subject to political whims, suffering under collectivization and the Great Purge (cf. Blind minstrels of Ukraine, under “Other minorities”). This too is a rich field of research—see e.g.

The task of modern ethnographers—just as for China—is to integrate socio-political histories with expressive cultures. In 1975 the moment had still not come to record the memoirs of “pagan” Mr Musztafa—and now it’s too late.

In addition to the Garland encyclopedia of world music, for more on early collecting, see under

  • Margarita Mazo, “Russia, the USSR and the Baltic states”, in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (The New Grove handbooks in music, 1993), pp.197–211,

and in the same volume,

  • Theodore Levin, “Western central Asia and the Caucasus”, pp.300–305.

In the early years after the crushing of the 1956 Budapest uprising, one might wonder how smooth was the collaboration between Hungarian and Soviet scholars—only of course the latter too would have suffered under the policies of their own regime.

* * *


Left to right: Yang Yinliu, Bence Szabolcsi, Li Yuanqing, Beijing 1955.

Meanwhile in China, scholars were also documenting local traditions, for both the Han majority and the many ethnic groups—under testing conditions, and with a similar caution in broaching socio-political issues. By the 1950s, with a growing interest in early connections between Hungarian and Chinese musics, China was open to Hungarian musicology; Bence Szabolcsi visited the great Yang Yinliu in Beijing in 1955, on the eve of the Budapest uprising. And Yang Yinliu visited the USSR in 1957, just after his remarkable fieldtrip to Hunan—just before the Anti-Rightist campaign and Great Leap Backward led to untold suffering.


Yang Yinliu (seated, right) on a visit to the USSR, 1957.

For Czech–Chinese exchanges over the period, see here.

Kodaly’s Folk music of Hungary, dating from 1935, was published in 1964 in a Chinese translation from the 1956 German edition—just as a brief lull after the Leap was destroyed by the Four Cleanups and Cultural Revolution.


In east Europe, the USSR, and Maoist China, the enthusiasm of ethnographic collectors of the day is admirable—even as their leaders were imprisoning them and manipulating the peoples they were studying. As William Noll observes, such studies need both to be intepreted in their historical framework and updated constantly, both by augmenting the earlier material and by documenting more recent change. Also in that post, note Noll’s comment that ethnographers of one cultural heritage commonly conduct fieldwork among peoples of a different cultural heritage—even if both groups live within the political boundaries of one state.

Left: monks lay down their arms, 1959. Right: Norbulingka, 1966.
For insights on the period in Tibet, with rare photos, see this fine series by Woeser.

A flagrant instance of circumspection is fieldwork by Chinese musicologists in Tibet in the 1950s, rosily portraying the region (like Xinjiang) as a happy land of singing and dancing—even in 1959 Lhasa, just as mass rebellions were breaking out all over Tibet against Chinese occupation. Two of the most distinguished, and well-meaning, Chinese scholars resumed their fieldwork upon the 1980s’ reforms, encouraging their Tibetan pupils; but the whole social-political backdrop remained taboo.

Expressive culture is an illuminating window on society. How little we know about the world…


[1] The term Finno-Ugric seems somewhat dated, but see here for a more extensive list of peoples.

[2] An early curiosity among the ouevre of the great Bruno Nettl is his slim tome Cheremis musical styles (1960), part of a Cheremis project at Indiana. The Preface by Thomas Sebeok has a useful summary of interest among Hungarian and other scholars. But written from a distance, the monograph could still only be narrowly musical—free of ethnomusicology’s later concern for society and culture, in which Nettl has played such a major role; and the material that he assembles consists largely of transcriptions rather than recordings.

For Chuvash and Mordvins, note also the 1996 Auvidis CD Chants de la Volga: musique traditionnelle de Tchouvachie et Mordovie.



Musical cultures of east Europe

tanchaz 93

String trio with cimbalom at the Meta táncház, Budapest 1993another perk of my orchestral touring life. My photo.

Having written about the ill-fated blind minstrels of Ukraine, here I’d like to outline the importance of the varied soundscapes around east Europe (a region I’ve also touched in several posts). Also, changing expressive cultures there—besides their intrinsic fascination—suggest useful perspectives for our studies of China.

This may be Old Hat for World Music fans, but perhaps less so for China-watchers or scholars of Asian ritual. Here I’ll offer a mere smattering of reading and audio-visual material.

As in China, sandwiched between the timeless ancient and recent turbo-rock images of the whole region are the elusive fates of local cultures during the state socialist era. Parallel with the official state ensembles, folk traditions were not entirely dormant (a major theme of mine for China; for the spectrum, see e.g. here and here); and fieldwork and research continued, despite political obstacles. These traditions are not so much national as regional, indeed local; subcultures cross boundaries.

And they are not timeless reified commodities to be preserved, but ever-evolving amidst complex social change. Changing political boundaries, and mutual borrowings, belie ongoing nationalist agendas—another reminder of the fantastic and enduring diversity of European cultures (see e.g. Iberia tag for flamenco and fado). Tensions are apparent between local values and official images—and latterly the World Music scene.

Life-cycle rituals, notably weddings, remain a major context. But as the image of the unspoilt rural idyll recedes, turbo-folk tends to dominate. Weddings have become a focus of modernization; secular festivals, no longer manipulated by the Party state, also come to the fore. Yet changes in rural life also remain a lively topic. There’s never a simple progression from unspoilt rural traditions through kitsch state ensembles to turborock.

Both vocal and instrumental genres are remarkable. Older instruments haven’t entirely been replaced, such as gadulka and gusle fiddles, kaval end-blown flute, zurna shawm, gaida bagpipe.

For an introduction to the different early post-war histories of the whole region, see

  • Anne Applebaum, Iron curtain: the crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956.

* * *

Fieldwork on east European traditions began still before the explorations of Bela Bartók, Zoltán Kodaly, and Constantin Brăiloiu, but they make a convenient starting-point. Their interests extended far beyond the borders of Hungary and Romania—indeed, Bartók made fieldtrips as far afield as Turkey and north Africa.

Bartok LP

We can admire Brăiloiu’s 1933–43 recordings on this CD:

For convenient collections of articles, see

  • Bela Bartók, Essays (1976)
  • Zoltán Kodaly, Folk music of Hungary (1960/1982—translation revised by Laurence Picken, who maintained a lively correspondence with east European musicologists!)
  • Constantin Brăiloiu, Problems of ethnomusicology (1984).

Still, their work belongs towards the “music” end of the music—culture spectrum, and later under the Communist era, social and political analysis was discouraged from developing. On the one hand, the early fieldworkers are laudable for making trips long before the formal discipline of ethnomusicology; on the other, under state socialism the scholars were laudable for attempting to pursue ethnographic principles under political pressures. Later the whole region became one of the most lively topics of the European Seminar in Ethnomusicology (ESEM).

As Carol Silverman observes about the Roma,

Early folk music studies focus on aesthetics and creativity rather than on power differentials; they were primarily about the culture within folk groups, not about domination, resistance, and conflict among groups.

Indeed, there are varied ways to study the topic, from popular to scholarly. We might start with the articles in the Rough guide to world music and Songlines magazine, where east Europe is well covered thanks largely to the enthusiasm of their editor Simon Broughton. Apart from the recent glossy World Music stars, it also features local traditions and archive recordings (mostly listed at the start of the discographies).

Among more scholarly studies, note relevant chapters in

  • Timothy Rice and James Porter (eds.), The Garland encyclopedia of world music, vol.8: Europe (2000).

For many further refs. at the traditional end of the spectrum, showing the energy of early collecting and recording, see

  • Barbara Krader and Bálint Sarosi, “Southern and eastern Europe”, in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (The New Grove handbooks in music, 1993), pp.160–96,

and in the same volume, updating the story, relevant sections of

  • James Porter, “Europe”, pp.215–39.

Chapters in

  • Mark Slobin (ed.), Retuning culture: musical changes in central and eastern Europe (1996)

suggest Chinese parallels in the adjustment following the demise of state socialism. Of course, while the early 1990s were a time of pivotal significance, the scene has continues to change since then. I cited a couple of salient general points from Retuning culture here.

In all these regions, educated urban “roots” movements have become an aspect of the revival since the fall of Communism. In Retuning culture Judit Frigyesi describes this for Hungary, whereas in the following chapter Barbara Rose Lange discusses the reaction against it in the form of lakodalmas rock—resembling similar tensions in China.

At the same time, as Timothy Garton Ash comments in a review of Witold Szablowski’s Dancing Bears,

There is a long tradition, stretching back to the Enlightenment, of western Europeans and North Americans orientalizing eastern Europe, as Voltaire did with Russia and Rousseau did with Poland. What is unusual about Szablowski is that he is orientalizing his own region.

Another constant theme is ritual, along with religion—which persisted in various ways under state socialism. See e.g.

  • Jacek Jackowski, “Folk religious songs sung during the peregrination of Virgin Mary’s icon: an example of traditional Polish peasant piety in Communist times”, in Music traditions in totalitarian systems (2010).

I won’t attempt to cover Polish, Czech, or Slovak traditions here, though they too are a rich topic, with a wealth of material (for Moravia, see here). For an introduction to the perspective from Poland, see Anna Czekanowska in Retuning culture. And I already mentioned Michael Beckerman’s piece in Retuning culture on Milan Kundera’s brilliant dissection of culture clash in The joke.

But despite the glossy stars of the World Music scene, it’s not all about them: they are just the tip of the iceberg of changing social life (cf. my flamenco series, starting here). That’s far from saying that folk traditions are anonymous—on the contrary, personalities are always important, and locally there are always hierarchies and admired performers.

Under state socialism, in the wake of the tradition of Bartók, Kodaly, and Brăiloiu, fieldwork on regional traditions was avidly pursued. Before and after 1989 I returned from concerts in Budapest with suitcases full of box-sets of LPs from the Hungaroton label, founded in 1951.


There’s also a wealth of material on film and online. Gigs are all very well; feature films (see below) are more revealing; ethnographic documentaries are fewer (if only the BBC films of Simon Broughton were available now).

Hungary, Transylvania, Romania
Here—by contrast with the brass-band sound that has come to dominates the Balkans—string bands are still plentiful, surviving notably in Transylvania, source of much of the inspiration for Hungarian folk music studies ever since Bartok’s fieldwork.

The combo of primas fiddle, contra viola, and bass is enchanting (for this and other world fiddle traditions, see here). Foremost among many recordings with a more traditional brief is a series of fine box sets from Hungaroton, followed by the Fono label, including their Final hour/ Új Pátria series.

Unearthing Transylvanian bands has long been at the heart of the projects of the enterprising Budapest-based concert band Muzsikás and the wonderful singer Márta Sebestyén, and of the Budapest táncház (“dance house”) scene (for which see e.g. Jávorszky Béla Szilárd, The story of Hungarian folk, 2015, and an introductiion in Songlines #112). But the fortunes of most such rural bands remained based in the lives of their local communities.

Here Muzsikás accompany the master fiddler Sandor “Neti” Fodor (1922–2004):

Still in Romania, the Rough Guide introduces many distinctive traditions, such as those of Maramureș and Moldavia. The Csángó people of Gyimes are famed for the duo of fiddle with gardon slapped bass—one of the best possible things to do with a bass, apart from furniture effects and marriage guidance counselling (cf. viola jokes).

Here’s a documentary made soon after the 1989 revolution, with contributions from Muzsikás and (from 28.28) the Gyimes fiddle and gardon:

Transylvania is also another of the enviable fieldsites of Bernard Lortat-Jacob:

  • Jacques Bouët, Bernard Lortat-Jacob, and Speranţa Rădulescu, A tue-tête: chant et violon au pays de l’Oach, Roumanie (2002, with DVD),

a detailed ethnography of social musicking in the Oaș region, including musical analyses.

From Clejani near Bucharest, Taraf de Haïdouks were plucked up into the World Music scene; indeed, they are the source of my favourite quote about such success. Speranţa Rădulescu had recorded them from 1983, and introduced fellow-ethnomusicologist Laurent Aubert to them in 1986. Later, taken up by the likes of Johnny Depp, they toured with the Kronos quartet (“Californian pointy-heads” apud Cartwright, Princes amongst men, pp.196–7—actually a telling vignette on the different aesthetics of folk and art musicians).

But with the goals of ethnomusicologists and World Music promoters not always in tandem, such collaborations may not unfold smoothly. The World Music scene not only propels certain bands to fame, but may engender rival clones, misunderstandings, and lawsuits.

Retuning culture has a fascinating article

  • Steluta Popa, “The Romanian revolution of December 1989 and its reflection in musical folklore”,

documenting songs just as they were being composed—if only we could hear them too. But we can hear, from Latcho Drom (see below), the “Ballad of the dictator” by the late great Nicolae Neacșu (of Taraf de Haïdouks)—including my very favorite fiddle technique, evoking anguish, earthquake, or perhaps the creaking door that precedes “The master is not at home” in a Hammer Horror movie (perhaps not so suitable in the Mahler Adagietto, but who knows):

Green leaves, flowers of the fields, What are the people doing?
They’re taking to the streets, yelling and crying “Freedom!”
Green leaves, flowers of the fields, What are the students doing?
They’re marching on Bucharest, yelling and crying “Sweep away the dictatorship.”
Green leaves, a million green leaves on this 22nd day
Here, the time for life has returned, to live in freedom
Green leaves, flowers of the fields, There in Timisoara people are taking to the streets, yelling “It’s all over for the tyrant!”
What are the men doing? They’re taking out their guns. They’re shooting at people. Ceaucescu hears them:
“Tyrant, you have destroyed Romania.”

Beyond all the traumas of warfare and occupation, these are regions where countless Jewish and Roma peoples were murdered and deported in the mid-20th century, transforming the cultural landscape. In addition to its articles by country, The Rough Guide has a section on the trendy tag of Gypsy music—indeed, casting the net as wide as Rajasthan, Turkey, Russia, Spain, France, and Britain.

The fortunes of Roma peoples in various nations are tellingly described in

  • Isobel Fonseca, Bury me standing (1995),

and turning to music, another most accessible book is

  • Garth Cartwright, Princes amongst men [sic]: journeys with Gypsy musicians (2005),

with vignettes from Serbia, Macedonia, Romania, and Bulgaria. Though based on interviews with the stars, it makes a lively and well-observed read, a popular introduction not only to the scene at the time of his visits but also to the state socialist background. See his playlist here.

 The transgressive lifestyle of the Roma, Exotic Other “deviating from behavioural norms”, has long made an irresistible commercial proposition, as gleefully evoked in many popular feature films (Cartwright, pp.306–8 gives a useful list), such as those of Emil Kusturica like Time of the Gypsies (1989), Underground (1995), and Black cat, white cat (1998), or—more acceptably to the Roma community—Tony Gatlif, including Latcho Drom (1993, travelling from Rajasthan, Egypt, and Turkey to Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France, and Spain):

and Gadjo dilo (1997):

An impressive early film was I even met happy Gypsies (Aleksandar Petrovic, 1967).

The Balkans
Here the scars of the war following the breakup of Yugoslavia are constantly on display. Brass bands have come to dominate the soundscape, the Guča festival making a heady showcase. Among the stars are Boban and Marko Marković (Serbia), the Kočani orkestar (Macedonia), and Fanfare Ciocârlia (from Zece Prăjini in Moldavia, Romania). While high-octane numbers dominate, the slow ballads are also most affecting.

Sorry, can’t find English subtitles for this 2002 documentary Iag bari/Brass on fire, so here’s some Swedish practice:

Modern brass bands have developed from groups led by zurna shawms with percussion, rather as Chinese shawm bands have added Western brass and pop music to their instrumentation since the 1980s.

The label “Balkan jazz” reminds me that I couldn’t resist describing the amazing Hua family shawm band as Chinese gypsies playing Ming-dynasty jazz; but accounts of both the social life of Balkan musos and the wildness of their playing do indeed suggest similarities.

In Bosnia–Herzegovina, apart from sevdalinka singing (sevdah resembling Romanian dor, as well as duende and saudade), Islamic soundscapes include kaside, ilahije, and zikr rituals—note the Smithsonian Folkways CD Bosnia: echoes from an endangered world:

Bulgaria, Macedonia
Academic studies include

  • Timothy Rice, May it fill your soul: experiencing Bulgarian music (1994, with CD)
  • Donna Buchanan, Performing democracy: Bulgarian music and musicians in transition (2006)
  • Carol Silverman, Romani routes: cultural politics and Balkan music in diaspora (2012, with companion website)

See also Silverman’s 2007 article on the changing wedding market, and chapters by Rice and Silverman in Retuning culture.

Silverman notes that Bulgaria had one of the most centralized forms of state socialism, Macedonia one of the least. But under both regimes the Roma—“powerless politically and powerful musically”—continued to play for non-Rom as well as Rom audiences at village and town events, such as weddings, birth celebrations, soldier send-off celebrations, circumcisions, and baptisms.

In the West, broad awareness of Bulgarian music began when “World Music” was just a twinkle in the promoter’s eye, with Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. The original LP, released as early as 1975, was reissued more widely in 1986. After the collapse of state socialism they reinvented themselves with several reincarnations, with further albums following. They made rather more earthy recordings too, like Bulgarian custom songs (1993):

Another early star of the World Music circuit was Ivo Papazov—subject of a fine article by Donna Buchanan in Retuning culture, and vignettes in Rice’s May it fill your soul. Reminding us again that musicking doesn’t necessarily take place in designated venues like concert halls, the wedding scene is important. But Buchanan unpacks the ethnic and cultural tensions. In summer 1989, 370,000 ethnic Turks and Muslims were deported. Buchanan also puts into context how Papazov was promoted abroad by Joe Boyd with the Hannibal albums Orpheus ascending (1989) and Balkanology (1991), soon launching him as a global touring star—just as the local economy was collapsing.

Weddings had been lucrative, and moreover musos prefer their ambience—as Ivo commented,

In truth, a wedding is equal to a dozen concerts. There a person can create… A great deal of music is introduced in a wedding, and in a concert you lack this thrill.

However, by the 1990s weddings lasted only one day: he was being nostalgic for the extravagance of the 1980s! He returned to recording with the great albums Fairground (2003) and Dance of the falcon (2008). Meanwhile the wedding scene in Bulgaria continues to change.

Whatever setting he plays in, his music is just intoxicating. Here’s one of several YouTube playlists, including some raw footage from local gigs also featuring other bands:

And a drôle quote from Frank Zappa, no less:

Ivo’s wedding music, played first thing in the morning, provides thorough and long-lasting attitude adjustment for the busy executive.

Though additive “limping” metres feature in much folk music around the region and further afield (notably Turkey), Bulgaria has been particularly associated with them.

In Macedonia, megastars (sic) are Esma Redžepova (e.g. here, and here; and a playlist:)

and sax player Ferus Mustafov, also featured by Cartwright.

But again, it’s not all about the stars of the World Music scene. At the same time, musical appraisals expand from local to global, which are often at variance. By contrast with both nostalgic romantics and World Music fans in search of the latest groove, the brash sounds of Bulgarian chalga and Romanian manele have become highly popular.

As Cartwright observes,

The difference between what the West’s world music industry sells as Gypsy music and what the Roma listen to back in the Balkans can be huge. Sure, in Serbia Šaban is king and across Macedonia Esma reigns. But this is akin to African Americans acknowledging James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Don’t mean they’re listening to them. And in Romania the breach seems wider than anywhere else. Fulgerica is respected but he’s no pop star while Fanfare Ciocârlia and Taraf de Haïdouks exist only for Western audiences. That they play superior Gypsy music, rooted in tradition, means nothing. The local Roma aren’t listening. What they want is Adrian. And Guța.

Meanwhile, as he notes, the Venezuelan soap opera Kasandra became wildly popular across the Balkans, giving Šaban Bajramović a huge hit in 1997.

Albanian cultures
As a respite from the bombardment of turbo-folk, it’s good to return to a more traditional milieu. Again, ethnic Albanians occupy not just Albania but Kosovo and parts of Macedonia and northern Greece; the soundscape is highly regional, with Gheg culture in the north, Tosk and Lab further south.

The splendid A. L. Lloyd somehow issued a fine album as early as in 1966:

The polyphony here is amazing. From the south, another fine CD from Bernard Lortat-Jacob is

  • Albanie: polyphonies vocales et instrumentales (notes here):

A substantial study is

  • Jane Sugarman, Engendering song: singing and subjectivity at Albanian Prespa weddings (1997, with CD).

Again, the epics sung by bards, over a wide region of south Yugoslavia and Albanian communities, don’t neatly fit national or ethnic boundaries.

The classic study is

  • Albert Lord, The singer of tales (with CD-Rom; complete text here)

following the work of Milman Parry, Most singers are accompanied by a one-string fiddle like the gusle, as in this celebrated 1935 clip:

And in case all this seems like a bygone world, see here for a 2018 Venice performance of a Kosovan bard.

* * *

Under all these unwieldy national rubrics, the diverse ethnic groups negotiate the changing times, interacting. As ever, this is far more than a “merely musical” topic, as such cultures are not merely quaint ornaments, aural pashmina; they are windows on changing local societies, an essential part of what makes them click. As in China, it’s no use clinging onto a romantic idealization of the past; and we should always delve beyond the World Music stars to musicking in local societies.

As ever, Bruno Nettl offers useful perspectives, as in his taxonomies for various types of change and responses to them.

For any sinophiles who have read this far, it may serve as a reminder of the persistent variety of regional and local traditions in China—not just the ethnic tapestries of the northwest, southwest, and indeed northeast, or even Hakka and Hokkien cultures, but all kinds of musicking beneath the provincial level in Han Chinese regions.

The cultures of all these groups—before and during state socialism, and since— deserve detailed attention. And World Music fans may tend to favour modern commercial pop, but it’s important for ethnographers to include it in the picture too. Even in my work on Daoist funerals in China, I could hardly neglect the pop bands outside the gate (my film, from 30.32).

Both academic and popular accounts repay study: and both keep track of change. I wonder what Bartok would have made of all this—another of those fruitless debates like “Would Bach have used the ondes martenot?” or “Mozart would have written advertising jingles”…

For a sequel, see here.

On a lighter note, far from PC, there’s Molvania

Famine: Ukraine and China

LHJ 456 Kings detail

North Shanxi, Ten Kings ritual painting, detail: see here.

*Companion to two posts on the fates of blind bards in Ukraine and China*

Hunger, malnutrition, and famine are an essential backdrop to the lives and cultures of people we meet doing fieldwork in China, including expressive culture and ritual. They loom large in the life stories of peasants whom I’ve got to know—like the villagers of Gaoluo in Hebei, and the inhabitants of Yanggao county in Shanxi (see below). And I haven’t even visited the worst-affected regions, like Henan, Anhui, or Gansu.

Yet this is just the kind of memory that the rosy patriotic nostalgia and reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project are designed to erase.

I began by writing about expressive culture under state socialism in Ukraine and China, and I’ve given links to some basic readings on the Chinese famineGlobally, one might also adduce 1840s’ Ireland, Bengal 1943, North Korea, and chronic famines in Africa. A classic study is

  • Amartya Sen, Poverty and famines: an essay on entitlement and deprivation (1981).

However, one estimate suggests that 80% of 20th-century famine victims died in the Soviet Union and China.

Ukraine: the 1933 Holodomor
Here I discuss the Holodomor; in a post to follow I’ll take the story on to World War Two.

I found it useful to read these works in conjunction:

  • Robert Conquest, The harvest of sorrow (1986) (for a review of his work by Sheila Fitzpatrick, see here)
  • Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010)
  • Anne Applebaum, Red famine: Stalin’s war on Ukraine (2017): reviewed by Sheila Fitzpatrick here, and, more critically, by Sophie Pinkham here.

One might begin with Applebaum’s summary of research in her Chapter 15 “The Holodomor in history and memory”, as well as Chapter 14 “The Cover-up” and her Epilogue. Snyder’s Chapter 1, “The Soviet famines”, makes a useful summary. While Conquest’s book, written before the collapse of the USSR, was a fine early study (for a review, with a fractious exchange, see here), Applebaum writes with the benefit of three decades of further research, using impressive Ukrainian sources and oral history projects since the 1980s (the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and many websites, including an interview database led by William Noll); and she offers insights on the changing political scene since the 1990s. Her maps are very good too (and note this site).

Conquest’s book was published soon after the 1985 documentary Harvest of despair (following the film proper, from 54′, are further interviews):

Note also Sergei Bukovsky, The living (aka Spell your name, or Live, 2006):

* * *

In the aftermath of World War One (see e.g. Why the First World War failed to end) and the Russian revolution, as the population was bludgeoned into submitting to the kolkhoz collective farms, the term kulak was soon devalued to denote anyone questioning Party policy—“enemies of the people”, as an odious phrase currently in vogue goes. Vasily Grossman cited a woman activist (Harvest of sorrow, p.129):

What I said to myself at the time was “they are not human beings, they are kulaks” … Who thought up this word “kulak” anyway? Was it really a term? What torture was meted out to them! In order to massacre them it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human beings. Just as the Germans proclaimed that Jews are not human beings. Thus did Lenin and Stalin proclaim, kulaks are not human beings.”

Conquest (p.118) cites an activist in 1930:

He has a sick wife, five children and not a crumb of bread in the house. And that’s what we call a kulak! The kids are in rags and tatters. They all look like ghosts. I saw the pot on the oven—a few potatoes in water. That was their supper tonight.

This reminds me how fellow villagers of kindly Daoist Li Qing (see also my film, and book) ribbed him for his status as a “rich peasant” (see here, under “The sojourn of Educated Youth”).

Over a long period there was constant unrest, with mass executions and deportations. Defiance (which indeed soon offered the only hope of survival) took the form not only of lethargy; violent resistance was common—not least from women. Rebellions had broken out as early as 1919 (Harvest of sorrow ch.3, Red famine ch.2). A widespread famine ensued in 1921. But it wasn’t kept secret, and international aid was welcomed (notably from the American Relief Administration)—whereas by 1933 the scale of the disaster was concealed, and no foreign aid was accepted.

While periodic retrenchments, and “indigenization” policies, were brief, an uneasy stalemate prevailed in the 1920s. Conquest opens The harvest of sorrow thus:

At the beginning of 1927, the Soviet peasant, whether Russian, Ukrainian, or of other nationality, had good reason to look forward to a tolerable future. The land was his; and he was reasonably free to dispose of his crop. The fearful period of grain-seizure, of peasant rising suppressed in blood, of devastating famine, were over, and the Bolshevik government seemed to have adopted a reasonable settlement of the countryside’s interests.

Even by 1929 (Red famine p.113–14),

as Dolot remembered it, the presence of the Soviet state in his village had been minimal. “We were completely free in our movements. We took pleasure trips and travelled freely looking for jobs. We went to the big cities and neighboring towns to attend weddings, church bazaars, and funerals. No one asked us for documents or questioned us about our destinations.” […] The Soviet Union was in change, but not every aspect of life was controlled by the state, and peasants lived much as they had in the past.

Politics had remained loose and decentralized. The choice of Ukrainian or Russian schooling was made in the locale itself; villages were still self-governing, and the various groups tried to accommodate one another. In a passage reminiscent of China (see e.g. here, under “Old and new stories”), for Christmas Day in Pylypivka,

the boys made a star [traditional for carollers] and thought about how to design it. After some debate, a decision was made: on one side of the star, an icon of the Mother of God would be featured, while on the other, a five-pointed [Soviet] star.
In addition, they learned not only old carols, but also new ones. They made a plan: when they were approaching a communist’s house, they would display the five-pointed star and sing the new carols, but when they approached the house of a religious man, they would display the icon of the Mother of God, and would sing [old carols].

But such flexibility was short-lived. Pressure escalated from 1927; as urban activists met stubborn resistance from peasants, they soon found that brutal coercion was the only way of fulfilling their brief. The new wave of collectivization soon led to famine. Despite the introduction of “internal passports”, starving peasants continued their migration to urban industrial centres. The gulag system (on which, among the vast literature, Applebaum also has a definitive study) expanded massively.

Major rebellions erupting in 1930 caused Stalin to tone down the rhetoric briefly (though the title of the anthem of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, “Ukraine has not yet died”, sung by armed rebels in 1930, doesn’t seem entirely encouraging.)

At the height of the famine, as later in China, cannibalism and insanity became common. Meanwhile there were purges at all levels of the Party too.

Conquest gives a prophetic quote, further foretelling the current total surveillance in Xinjiang:

What gave the regime its advantage both in 1930–31 and even more in 1932–33 was that it was now organized and centralized as it had not been in 1921. Herzen, back in the 1860s, had said that what he most feared was a “Genghis Khan with the telegraph”.

Religion and culture
The church (in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church—currently engaged in a divorce from the Moscow Patriarchate) was both a target of and a focus for resistance—as later in China. Church bells were melted down, icons smashed. The rituals of traditional peasant life—and thus musical traditions—were disrupted.

Alongside the major branches of the church, the repression and survival of the diverse sectarian groups is a rich theme, including Protestants, Evangelicals, and the Molokans—see also Margarita Mazo, “Change as confirmation of continuity as experienced by Russian Molokans”, in Retuning culture: musical changes in central and Eastern Europe (1996).

As to expressive culture, the itinerant kobzari blind minstrels soon disappeared. Meanwhile,

The Ukrainian musician Yosyp Panasenko was dispatched by the central authorities with his troupe of bandura players to provide culture [sic] to the starving peasants. Even as the state took the peasants’ last bit of food, it had the grotesque inclination to elevate the minds and rouse the spirits of the dying. The musicians found village after village completely abandoned. Then they finally came across some people: two girls dead in a bed, two legs of a man protruding from a stove, and an old lady raving and running her fingernails through the dirt. (Bloodlands, p.47)

With all this background it becomes easier to understand why the blind minstrels were dying out, along with the culture of which they were part—although I wonder why they were not erased so efficiently in China under Maoism.

One member of a local concert band recalled playing for funerals of activists murdered by irate peasants:

For us it was a happy event because every time somebody was killed, they would take us to the village, give us some food and then we would play at the funeral. And we were looking forward every time to the next funeral, because that meant food for us. (Red famine, p.150)

Again, I heard similar stories in China, such as north Shanxi:

When Li Yuanmao’s father died of hunger in 1960, no-one even had the strength to dig a grave for him. In a village in nearby Tianzhen county, even the village cadres volunteered to carry the coffin just so they could get a paltry mantou steamed bread roll to eat (Daoist priests, p.119).

In Ukraine by 1933, apart from the banning of traditional funeral rites,

Nobody had the strength anymore to dig a grave, hold a ceremony, or play music. “There were no funerals,” recalled Kateryna Marchenko. “There were no priests, requiems, tears. There was no strength to cry.”

Meanwhile, cultural institutions, writers, and academics—historians, ethnographers, museum curators—were also under assault.

Talking of documenting folk-song (see here, and here), Snyder cites a children’s song (Bloodlands, p.36):

Father Stalin, look at this
Collective farming is just bliss
The hut’s in ruins, the barn’s all sagged
All the horses broken nags
And on the hut a hammer and sickle
And in the hut death and famine
No cows left, no pigs at all
Just your picture on the wall
Daddy and mommy are in the kolkhoz
The poor child cries as alone he goes
There’s no bread and there’s no fat
The party’s ended all of that
Seek not the gentle nor the mild
A father’s eaten his own child
The party man he beats and stamps
And sends us to Siberian camps.

And a collective farm song from the 1930s (Red famine p.113, cf. p.145):

Green corn waves new shoots
Though planted not long ago
Our brigadier sports new boots
While we barefoot go.

I wonder if Chinese people were singing similar songs around 1960. Still, there neither religious nor cultural life was such a blank slate under Maoism as one might suppose.

The cover-up and aftermath
Somehow, through a series of grudging concessions, the death toll fell by 1934. But with resistance broken, collectivization accelerated.

And no less telling is the story of the cover-up, suggesting further Chinese parallels. The findings of the Soviet census of 1937 were suppressed, and the responsible demographers executed. During the Great Terror of 1937–8,

Mass graves of famine victims were covered up and hidden, and it became dangerous even to know where they were located. In 1938 all the staff of Lukianivske cemetery in Kyiv were arrested, tried, and shot as counter-revolutionary insurgents, probably to prevent them from revealing what they knew.


There were plenty of outside witnesses too, such as Vasily Grossman, Arthur Koestler, Malcolm Muggeridge, Andrew Cairns, Rhea Clyman—and Gareth Jones, to whom I devote a separate post. The photos of Alexander Wienerberger also provided firm evidence. The influential Walter Duranty knew well, but chose to deny. On the left, pundits like the Webbs averted their gaze in the interests of the greater cause. And diplomatic silence reigned, already aware of the impending need for an alliance with the Soviets against Hitler. Conquest describes the apologists—a large and influential body of Western thought—as “the lobby of the blind and blindfold”. With bitter irony, it was only the Nazis who were prepared to publicize the 1933 famine.


Emerging evidence gave pause to left-leaning scholars like Eric Hobsbawm. But the whole topic still remains highly charged ideologically, as shown by some agitated reviews from both left and right. But exposing the iniquities of state socialism shouldn’t be reduced to a blunt implement monopolized by those on the right to bludgeon the left.

Here’s a trailer for Hunger for truth: the Rhea Clyman story:

And Grossman (cited in Harvest of sorrow, 286) observed:

And the children! Have you ever seen the newspaper photographs of the children in the German camps? They were just like that: their heads like heavy balls on thin little necks, like storks, and one could see each bone of their arms and legs protruding from beneath the skin, how bones joined, and the entire skeleton was stretched over with skin that was like yellow gauze. And the children’s faces were aged, tormented, just as if they were seventy years old. And by spring they no longer had faces at all. Instead, they had birdlike heads with beaks, or frog heads—thin, wide lips—and some of them resembled fish, mouths open. Not human faces.

He compares this directly with the Jewish children in the gas chambers and comments, “these were Soviet children and those putting them to death were Soviet people.”

The Holodomor and Great Terror were soon followed by yet more devastating atrocities in World War Two. The population had been decimated and brutalized long before the Nazis invaded. In desperation, many hoped for an invasion to rid them of tyranny.

Ukraine was further devastated by the famine that struck the USSR in 1947—this time alleviated by foreign aid. Applebaum also places the complex interpretations of the famine within the context of Ukraine’s troubled recent history.

Other minorities
The populations of Ukraine (also including Russians, Jews, Poles, Germans) were certainly the worst casualties of the famine: Stalin was waging war not just on recalcitrant peasant individualism but on Ukrainian nationalism. But other minorities also suffered—like the Kazakhs (Harvest of sorrow, ch.9) and Kyrghyz, who, when not being deported, were desperately migrating to and from Xinjiang as conditions changed. Bashkirs, Buryats, Khalkas, Chuvash, and Kalmyks were also hard hit (and the efforts of ethnographers to study the cultures of such peoples were frustrated by censorship and imprisonment). Conquest’s ch.14 on Kuban, Don, and Volga—Cossacks of Ukrainian origin, German minorities, and the North Caucasus—leads to further disturbing stories.

Famine in China
Again, the so-called “three years of difficulty” from 1959 to 1961 were not an isolated tragedy: food shortages in the wake of coercive collectivization were long-term. For many in the countryside, it was a case not of three years of famine but of thirty years of hunger. So I’m impatient with any diachronic ethnography of the lives of rural Chinese dwellers that fails to recognize hunger and malnutrition. I’ve cited some basic sources for the Chinese famine here.

LPS 27

Ghost king, Li Peisen collection.

In Yanggao county, home of the Li family Daoists, I recall the satirical couplet posted during the Cultural Revolution, deploring the lack of clothing and food. But even official sources offer clues. While many county gazetteers compiled since the 1980s may be cautious, that for Yanggao contains impressively candid material (pp.66–72, 26–31; see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.118–22).

While appearing to recognize the impact of natural disasters, the gazetteer hints at the deeper political problems, with sections on the “Communist wind”, the “wind of exaggeration”, the Great Leap Backward, and the short-lived communal canteens. Indeed, it offers alternative insights on the whole Maoist era—such as its account of the model commune of Greater Quanshan, where in the summer of 1958, amidst a flurry of visits by bigwigs, the brutal exactions of a militarized railroad project goaded five hundred peasants to flee (Daoist priests, pp.122–3). Inner Mongolia, a traditional refuge in times of adversity, was a common destination until travel restrictions were enforced. Yanggao dwellers were still hungry for some years after Li Manshan married in 1971 (see here, under “Yao Xiulian”).

So that’s the background behind my internet session with Li Manshan, when I showed him the surprisingly candid Chinese wiki article on the Holodomor.

Comparisons, figures
In China the whole process of collectivization, and the famine, make the most appalling instance of wilfully ignoring the lessons of history; both Chinese and Soviet regimes were in denial.

Several scholars have attempted comparisons with the Soviet famines. Ian Johnson has written an important article “Who killed more: Hitler, Stalin, or Mao?“, which I’ll discuss in my next post. Note also

  • Felix Wemheuer, Famine politics in Maoist China and the Soviet Union (2014)

and review essays by Lucien Bianco (also a major author on peasant uprisings under Maoism):

  • “From the great Chinese famine to the Communist famines”, China perspectives 2013.3, here
  • “Comparing the Soviet and Chinese famines: their perpetrators, actors, and victims”, East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies 3.2 (2016), here, with many further refs.

It’s ironic that the official story in China, still often parroted there today, was that food shortages were caused by China’s need to repay the Soviet debt (Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, ch.14). And it puts in a chilling perspective my fine lunch at the “1958” restaurant on the People’s University campus in Beijing earlier this year.

In Ukraine and China there was a similar time-lull between famine and renewed terror: in Ukraine from 1933 to 1937, in China from 1960 to 1964. Ukraine suffered a severe post-war famine in 1947, but hunger in China was longer lasting.

Before the famines, rural poverty seems to have been significantly worse in China than in Russia. And (allowing for impressionistic statistics) even in 1926, the literacy rate in Russia was c56%; in China it was still only c20% by 1950. As to life expectancy at birth, for China in 1950, I find a single figure of 35–40 years—lower than that for Ukraine before 1932, for which Applebaum cites: urban men 40–46, urban women 47–52; rural men 42–44 years, rural women 45–48.

By contrast, Ukrainian men born in 1932, in either the city or the countryside, had an average life expectancy of about 30. Women born in that year could expect to live on average to 40. For those born in 1933, the numbers are even starker. Females born in Ukraine in that year lived, on average, to be eight years old. Males born in 1933 could expect to live to the age of five. (Red famine, p.285)

Applebaum cites around 3.9 million excess deaths, plus 0.6 million lost births—around 13% of the Ukrainian population of 31 million. She goes on to delve into regional variations, concluding that

The regions “normally” most affected by drought and famine were less affected in 1932–3 because the famine of those years was not “normal”. It was a political famine, created for the express purpose of weakening peasant resistance, and thus national identity. And in this, it succeeded.

In China from 1959 to 1962 there may have been over 40 million excess deaths (Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, ch.37—Wemhauer and Bianco provide important further nuance); even by percentage of population, that gives a very rough estimate of around 16%, still greater than that for Ukraine. In many villages in both Ukraine and China virtually the whole population was wiped out.

Besides, deaths don’t tell the whole story; even for survivors, lives are ruined by malnutrition, desperation, and trauma.

In China, though extreme violence was also endemic, there was less mass murder, and less pervasive use of the secret police. Other patterns were distressingly similar: resistance to collectivization, raids on non-existent hoards, war on markets, travel restrictions—and denial, then and now. Thaws, retrenchments, strategic retreats were all brief. Warnings were sent all the way up the hierarchy; those given to Mao by Peng Dehuai and the Panchen Lama echo those given by senior Party leaders like Hryhorii Petrovskyi and Martemyan Ryutin to Stalin in 1932. All spoke out in vain, and at great personal cost.

While Ukraine was a specific target of Stalin, under Maoist China Tibetan areas were gravely affected, but Han Chinese suffered just as badly (though note Wemhauer).

While studies such as those of Applebaum and Dikötter inevitably use a broad brush to paint the wider tragedy, the kind of detail afforded by ethnographies of a particular community, like those of ThaxtonFriedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, or Guo Yuhua, is also valuable.

Worldwide, with humane values and truthful reporting under renewed assault, and incitements to hatred ever more common, these histories matter. And for China, I expect such social and political discussions to form an intrinsic part of our studies of expressive culture and ritual, all the more since the topic is still suppressed in public memory. Even as we document the ritual manuals of household ritual specialists, or the melodies of shawm bands, it seems like a basic human duty to record their life stories. All this suffering is deep in the hearts and bones of those who survived.


Folk music of Jamaica


I’m grateful to Vanley Burke’s recent Desert island discs for opening my ears to this fantastic archive compilation from 1956 in the ever-stimulating Smithsonian Folkways series:

Always showing their African origins, the tracks of the kumina magico-religious cult, as well as the Revival Zion and Pukkumina Christian cults, are particularly fascinating—further explored on an earlier album, Jamaican cult music (1954).

There’s plenty of material here to help us consider diverse ways of using the voice—and percussion—to communicate with mortals and gods. And as ever, the soundscape should lead us to explore the changing society.