Changing ritual artefacts

Talking of commemorating the ancestors, for funerals in Yanggao the soul tablet (lingpai 灵牌, or shenwei 神位) (Daoist priests of the Li family, p.197) is carried by the son or grandson at the head of the sequence of processions throughout the day from scripture hall to soul hall, where it is placed on the table before the coffin while the Daoists sing a sequence of hymns; eventually it is burned late at night, on the eve of the burial, for the brief Escorting Away the Orphan Souls that follows the majestic Transferring Offerings ritual (my film, from 1.13.40).

Funeral, Yangguantun 2011: the soul tablet is carried from soul hall to scripture hall.

Since the 1980s the soul tablet has been made of paper, mounted on a chopstick stuck in a bread roll. But one day at a scripture hall I noticed an old soul tablet made of wood, written in Li Qing’s elegant hand in 1980 for the funeral of our host’s mother-in-law. So it transpires that the soul tablet has only been made of paper since the 1980s; previously, the bereaved family could make regular offerings at home over New Year before the more durable wooden version.

Left: wooden soul tablet, written by Li Qing, 1980.
Right: standard paper soul tablet, 2011.

Li Bin came across another old wooden soul tablet recently:

new LB lingpai

Indeed, along with subtle adaptations to ritual practice, funeral artefacts have changed significantly since the 1980s (Daoist priests, ch.19). Apart from the wooden soul tablet, no longer seen are the large rectangular wooden dou 斗 vessel filled with grain for the public rituals, or the layered wooden barrow for jiexian 接献 offerings from the returning female kin; the red lacquered wooden tray of offerings has been replaced by metal, and the elegant ceramic flask for Fetching Water by a plastic bottle.

tray 91

Li Qing takes the red lacquered tray for funerary offerings, 1991.
My film, from 48.23.

Here the paper artefacts burned at the grave, though far less elaborate than in southeast China and Taiwan, have shown only modest innovations: since the 1990s the horse and cart have commonly replaced by a car, and sometimes the deceased is provided with a mobile phone to ease other-worldly communication.

Paper artefacts to escort the deceased, 1991.
Note headgear denoting grades of kinship.

A new memorial stele


Altar to Li Qing and his wife Xue Yumei in the central room of Li Manshan’s house, 2018.

The revered household Daoist Li Qing (1926–99) occupies a special place in the affections both of his own family and of the many Yanggao people whom he helped over his long career. With his generous character and thorough mastery of ritual practice, he guided the ritual band through the years of Maoism, and upon the revival he recopied the family manuals and trained new disciples. Among many posts, see the links here, as well as my film and book.

When the “filial kin” decide to erect a stele, it’s customary to do so for both parents together—Li Qing’s wife Xue Yumei (1925–2016) was also much loved (she features in a moving scene of the film, from 36.46, recalling their 1945 wedding). The family were going to wait for the 3rd anniversary of her death, but in the end they decided to hold the simple ritual in 2018, on the 1st day of the 10th moon—along with Qingming in the 4th moon, the main day annually for paying respects at the ancestral graves. Before Liberation some more well-to do lineages had grave charts, but Li Manshan never saw one for the Li family.


Photo: Li Bin.

The handsome stele was ordered by the couple’s grandson Li Bin, used to providing such mortuary equipment at his funeral shop in Yanggao town. Along with Li Manshan, the whole family (“filial children and virtuous grandchildren”, as in the inscription) gathered at the lineage gravelands outside Upper Liangyuan village to erect the stele. Presenting offerings of incense, liquor, cigarettes, biscuits, cakes, and fruit, they “reverently kowtowed” while burning a set of paper artefacts and paper spirit money.

The artefacts, made by Li Bin and his wife at their funeral shop, were those commonly used for funerals in Yanggao: a siheyuan courtyard house, gold and silver dou 斗 vessels, a money-tree (yaoqian shu 摇钱树), gold and paper mountains, a car, and wreaths.

By contrast with south China, such steles are not so common in the Yanggao countryside, but in 2014 the family of Li Qing’s Daoist uncle Li Peisen (another crucial figure in the transmission) had also erected one for him and his wife Yang Qinghua at their home of Yang Pagoda just south, where they had moved to escape the rigours of Maoism.

And all this reminds us that household Daoists like the Li family provide a complete mortuary service for the local community of which they are part ( see e.g. Li Bin’s diary, and this post on funerary headgear).

Li Bin’s first funeral shop in town.

For more updates on the Li family, see here—most recently this diary of Li Manshan’s activities so far this year.

Buddhism under Mao: Wutaishan


After an interlude on ritual around south Jiangsu (notably the great Daoist ritual held in Suzhou in 1956), here I return to my home base of north China, focusing on the Maoist era as a kind of prequel to my post on the Wutaishan Buddhists.

As always, I note the tension between studies of ritual and “music”. Whereas scholars of religion tend to focus on early doctrine and silent texts, Chinese music scholars set forth from the living soundscapes of ritual. At the same time, they have tended to collect reified “pieces of music”, only paying attention to ethnography quite recently. However, at least they do the fieldwork, stressing the actual performance of ritual, and we can glean clues to the changing life of religion in society.

Wutaishan is one of the foremost sites for Buddhism in north China. Since the 1980s, the history of its temples has become a major research topic, [1] and Chinese music scholars have documented their rituals (for an introduction, see my Folk music of China, pp.213–25). But already in 1947, amidst civil war and land reform, Ya Xin spent three months on Wutaishan documenting the ritual soundscape (whose features in north China I introduce here).

Following the national Communist victory in 1949, major projects to document a wide range of folk musical genres were initiated right across China. In March 1954 Ya Xin took part in a conference in Chengdu to discuss the enterprise, prompting him and five others to spend August doing fieldwork in the temples of Emeishan in Sichuan. In 1955 he edited a 508-page volume of transcriptions, including both that material and his 1947 work on Wutaishan:

  • Ya Xin 亞欣, Siyuan yinyue 寺院音樂 [Temple music], Zhongguo yinyuejia xiehui Chengdu fenhui, 1955.

By the 1950s, scholars like Yang Yinliu studying “religious music” found it obligatory to defend the “value” of the topic, and Ya Xin prefaced his introduction (pp.1–15) with such a defence. The following transcriptions for Emeishan (pp.16–297) include the major Yuqie yankou ritual, daily services, and other vocal liturgy. [2]

But back in 1947 (just as Bill Hinton was embedded with the land reform teams in a village further south in Shanxi), Ya Xin had carried out fieldwork on Wutaishan while serving as a cultural cadre for the Jin–Sui Liberated Area. The conditions were most taxing: amidst ongoing battles with Nationalist troops, the Communists were implementing land reform. So Ya Xin notes that his work was imperfect. But it was a bold initiative: while collecting folk music had been a major project in the Shaanbei Base Area, temple ritual was not on their agenda.

For Wutaishan (pp.299–454), Ya Xin transcribed the main items from the Yuqie yankou ritual, shengguan wind ensemble melodies for both Han Chinese (qingmiao) and Tibeto-Mongolian (huangmiao) styles, and the Three Days and Nights (san zhouye) mortuary ritual. With the book’s many transcriptions of hymns (zan 讚), gathas (ji 偈), mantras (zhenyan 真言), and so on, it provided an early framework for understanding the mechanics of vocal liturgy.

YX score

From Ya Xin’s transcriptions of the Wutaishan yankou: Daochang chengjiu hymn,
and opening of Huayan hui, showing melisma with padding characters.

Finally, visiting Du Wanzhongshan’s gufang 鼓房 folk wind band in Dongye town at the foot of the mountain Ya Xin notated their “eight great suites” (pp.455–508), derived from the shengguan of the temple monks (Folk music of China, pp.218–19)—although unlike groups of household ritual specialists, they don’t perform vocal liturgy.

Since Ya Xin wasn’t equipped with a recording machine, one both admires his diligence in transcription and wonders at its accuracy. I surmise that much of his work on the vocal liturgy was done with individual monks singing items for him repeatedly, rather than in the course of rituals—not least because the Buddhist texts themselves are highly complex, so he clearly had access to ritual manuals; and he seems to have consulted gongche scores of the shengguan music too. But he didn’t list the temples where he made his transcriptions, or provide names of monks.

We should bear in mind the wider history of Wutaishan around the time. Here I seek clues in the 1988 Wutai county gazetteer. [3] Though such sources are “history of the victors”, they contain some useful material.

Warlord conflict from the 1920s, with Yan Xishan’s troops active, already made the region unstable. But in 1936 Wutaishan had 130 active temples with 2,200 registered clerics (including 800 lamas)—many of whom were doubtless fleeing from warfare. John Blofeld spent time there in 1936–37.

The early architecture of the Wutaishan temples had attracted historians for some time. Japanese scholars found some important temples early in the 20th century, though the Danish Johannes Prip-Møller was unable to visit during his 1929–33 temple survey. In 1937, on the eve of the invasion, Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin rediscovered the Tang-dynasty Foguang si temple. The search for “living fossils” would later become a major industry in Chinese musicology.

Japanese troops invaded the area in October 1938, carrying out several massacres. This was an early base area for the Communists in the resistance against Japan. Both patriotic and quisling Buddhist associations were formed in the temples. Many of the monks assisting the resistance were Tibeto-Mongolian lamas, such as those of the Zhenhai si temple, who in 1938 handed over to the 8th Route Army an entire arsenal of weapons that had been given by Chiang Kai-shek to the bodyguard of the Zhangjiafo lama. Monks handed over another cache of weapons in 1942.

The Nationalists fled in 1943, and the Japanese were in retreat from 1944. By July 1946 the Communists were in complete control, and began carrying out land reform. The monks now lost much of their land and income, and some temples were destroyed. By 1947, with little patronage, tilling the monks’ remaining land constituted 89% of their income.

Yan Xishan’s forces returned in October 1946, but retreated again in November. Even in February 1949 they committed a massacre in Dongye town.

During this whole period from 1937 a succession of Communist leaders had passed through. After Chairman Mao’s 1947 visit to the White Cloud Temple in Shaanbei, on a trip to Wutaishan in 1948 he expressed appreciation of the cultural heritage of Buddhism (for many such comments see e.g. here). Such utterances might have offered a certain intermittent validation for research, though they are utterly paltry alongside the Party’s long-term onslaught on religion.

Upon Liberation and over the following years, most temple clerics were laicized, with their traditional patronage severely reduced. The remaining monks on Wutaishan (a 1956 survey lists 445) [4] received a monthly income of 20–40 yuan from the county government. During the Maoist era ritual life was doubtless much impoverished, though the authorities sanctioned occasional visits from overseas Buddhist delegations.

Meanwhile, away from the temples, household ritual specialists, their numbers now boosted by clerics returning to the laity, maintained a certain activity. And although the influence of Wutaishan made Buddhism dominant around the region, Daoist ritual specialists were also active, such as in nearby Xinzhou.

Sectarian groups are another major theme in religious life throughout China. The sectarian connections of the amateur ritual associations in central Hebei, whose liturgy was transmitted from temples, are a separate case. But all these sects should interest us, since while not all of them performed complex liturgy, they show a link between temple and lay practice.

It is not that Buddhist monks or Daoist priests were usually sectarian; often, as in Yanggao, occupational ritual specialists are clearly distinct from the sects. But I have a growing list of temples where clerics belonged to such groups (Tianzhen, Xinzhou, Baiyunshan).

The recent county gazetteers, however partial, are often a useful source on the sects. Major campaigns were held from 1950 to 1951, and continued through into the Cultural Revolution. Of course, campaigns against “heterodox teachings” were nothing new, having been frequent under both imperial and republican governments, but the new campaigns were far more ruthless. Still, the sects went underground as usual, and have revived since the 1980s. However partial such recent accounts may be, it is important to bear in mind this perspective on local religious organizations when we consider the practice of folk ritual over the last century; this background still colours local society, and our discussions, today.

In the Wutai region, despite campaigns since 1945, intensifying in 1949 and 1950, a variety of sectarian groups were still active through the 1950s, including the Jiugong dao, Huanxiang dao, and Houtian dao. [5] They had a firm base in the temples as well as throughout the countryside. A brief biography of Zhang San Baotai 张三保泰 (1890–1958), [6] leader of the Houtian dao sect, is so rare as to be worth summarizing.

After joining the sect in 1924, Zhang became a monk at the Yuanzhao si temple on Wutaishan in 1938. The following year he declared himself a living Buddha, but his plot with Yan Xishan’s troops to organize an underground arsenal was exposed. In 1941 he travelled through Shanxi, Hebei, and Shandong, recruiting over ten thousand followers. His activities continued under the PRC, despite the campaigns of 1950–51. After returning to Wutai from Yuxian in Hebei in 1955, he prepared a major armed uprising for 1960, planning to establish a capital at Dingxian in Hebei, and mobilizing in Shandong; but he was captured and executed in 1958.

Apart from the general persecution of “orthodox” religious practices, the sectarian connection would have further darkened the cloud hanging over the temples.

Research in the 1950s
I know of no fieldwork on the rituals of the Wutaishan temples after Liberation. Still, eighteen monks from Wutaishan took part in a provincial festival of folk music at Taiyuan in 1958, winning a prize. Provincial scholars were hoping to do fieldwork from the mid-1950s, but were unable to do so. [7]

The “eight great suites”
The folk shengguan instrumental bands made a more palatable topic than the vocal liturgy of the temples, and this style did go on to achieve wider fame. In 1953 the Shanxi Radio Station revisited Du Wanzhongshan’s band in Dongye to record, which were widely broadcast, and Liu Shiying 刘士英 published transcriptions.


Bapaizi melody for shengguan, in Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian.

Indeed, early in the War against Japan a friend of Bo Yibo, then a major Communist resistance leader in Shanxi, had lent a 1926 gongche score of this repertoire to Lü Ji, who would become the pre-eminent official pundit of Chinese music. After Liberation Lü Ji lent the score to Yang Yinliu; [8] a page was reproduced in vol.4 of the 1957 Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian 中国音乐史参考图片, spreading awareness of the genre in music circles.

Even as the enforcement of the commune system was leading to desperation, further recordings of the suites, along with transcriptions, were made from 1959, with Du’s son Du San now leading the band.

When I first visited Wutaishan in 1986 it was still far from a bustling national and international tourist attraction. Indeed, I needed a special permit to travel there. Even the town of Taihuai was still a tranquil retreat. But my attention soon turned from the temples to folk ritual practice, and on my later trips I explored household groups in the surrounding region, including a fine shengguan band in Dongye town, led by Xu Yousheng. In 1992, having followed them round on funerals, we held a recording session (#5 on CD1 of my China: folk instrumental traditions; or a shorter version as #5 of the CD with the 1998 paperback of Folk music of China).

Since the reforms
The provincial scholars who had planned fieldwork on Wutaishan in the mid-1950s were only able to realize the project after the end of the Cultural Revolution, leaping into action as early as 1978. A group of senior monks was invited to the Shanxi Music and Dance Research Institute that year, and the precious recordings (as well as some further tracks from 1988) were issued on the five-cassette series

  • Wutaishan foyue 五台山佛乐, with notes by Liu Jianchang, in The Audio and Video Encyclopedia of China series, ed. Tian Qing (Shanghai yinxiang gongsi, 1989; reissued on CD since 1998). [9]

The set includes both vocal liturgy and shengguan ensemble music, with excerpts from the yankou ritual and examples of both Han Chinese (qingmiao) and Tibeto-Mongolian (huangmiao) styles. Like the group that came to England in 1992, most of the performers had been ordained on Wutaishan but had spent much of the Maoist era elsewhere in Shanxi, doing rituals sporadically among the folk. And meanwhile the “southern” style of vocal liturgy was replacing the distinctive regional styles of northern temples (such as Beijing and Shenyang).

1978 mim

From 1978 to 1980, Chen Jiabin and Liu Jianchang published transcriptions in mimeograph, and by the 1980s, along with the Anthology fieldwork, several provincial scholars were undertaking studies. The most extensive research is

  • Han Jun 韩军, Wutaishan fojiao yinyue zonglun 五台山佛教音乐总论 (2012).

The Anthology coverage is also substantial:

  • Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Shanxi juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成, 山西卷 (2000), introduction pp.1543–53, transcriptions 1554–1768.

The yankou: opening of Huayan hui hymn, from Anthology. For variant renditions, see Han Jun, Wutaishan fojiao yinyue zonglun, pp.152–5.

Such studies suffer from the usual flaws of Chinese research, consisting mainly of reified transcriptions rather than ethnography, but they contain some clues to the changing fortunes of religious life.

Meanwhile, as with groups such as the Zhihua temple, media coverage steered clear of the ritual basis of the tradition by highlighting the shengguan instrumental ensemble, with glossy performances on stage.

  • Beth Szczepanski, The instrumental music of Wutaishan’s Buddhist monasteries (2012)

also mainly focuses on the shengguan ensemble, but she takes a more ethnographic approach, with useful sections on the vocal liturgy; notes on actual rituals observed, including a funeral; and astute comments on the ideological baggage of Chinese studies and the recent commodified market.

* * *

In the West the study of Chinese ritual is often considered to date from the work of Kristofer Schipper in Taiwan in the 1960s; and in the PRC much of the vast energy in researching local ritual traditions has taken place since the 1980s.

However, long before scholars of religion, fieldworkers in mainland China, in the Republican era and under Maoism, were hard at work documenting ritual practice—their studies conducted under the discreet guise of “music”. [10] It was the intrepid fieldwork of such scholars before 1965, despite all the ideological obstacles then placed in their way, that formed the background to the monumental Anthology project of the 1980s. While most Chinese music scholars working on northern ritual traditions stress the shengguan ensemble, they don’t neglect the vocal liturgy.

Most scholars of Buddhism, and indeed Daoism, are more concerned with early doctrinal issues and the material heritage than with ritual performance. But as I constantly stress, if we wish to study religion in China, we must get to grips with its soundscape. And even this barely addresses my main concern—the changing ritual life of local communities.


[1] Note e.g. the journal Wutaishan yanjiu 五台山研究, and the recent volume Yishan er wuding: duoxueke, kuafangyu, chaowenhua shiyexiade Wutai xinyang yanjiu 一山而五頂:多學科,跨方域,超文化視野下的五台信仰研究 [One mountain of five plateaus: studies of the Wutai cult in multidisciplinary, crossborder and transcultural approaches], ed. Miaojiang 妙江, Chen Jinhua 陳金華, Kuan Guang 寬廣 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng, 2017).

[2] Yang Yinliu had visited Qingchengshan in the summer of 1942, but his attempts to transcribe vocal liturgy there were frustrated by an unhelpful abbot (see his 1961 essay “How to treat religious music”). BTW, folk and temple ritual in the vast province of Sichuan is also a major topic that I can’t begin to address—as ever, the Anthology is one starting-point, and Volker Olles can provide leads.

[3] Besides other essays in the Wutai xianzhi, for “major events” of the Republican and Maoist eras, see pp.696–714. See also Beth Szczepanski, The instrumental music of Wutaishan’s Buddhist monasteries (2012), pp.10–21. For more background, see Holmes Welch, Buddhism under Mao (1972).

[4] Wutai xianzhi, p.581.

[5] Wutai xianzhi, pp.576–7, 603.

[6] Wutai xianzhi, p.643.

[7] Liu Jianchang 刘建昌, Chen Jiabin 陈家滨, and Ren Deze 任德泽, “Shanxi zongjiao yinyue diaocha baogao” 山西宗教音乐调查报告, Yinyue wudao 1990.1.

[8] Yang Yinliu yinyue lunwen xuanji (1986), prelude by Lü Ji, p.3.

[9] Cf. Szczepanski, The instrumental music of Wutaishan’s Buddhist monasteries, pp.128–9. Of course, rituals such as the yankou, with its complex Tantric mudras, cry out to be documented on film. For a brief 2003 excerpt from a yankou in a minor temple in Yanggao, led by a monk trained at Wutaishan, see my film Doing Things.

[10] Cf. my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.20–26.

Grave charts


For the Li family Daoists in Yanggao, north Shanxi, in addition to my film and book you can find subheads under the Li family category in the sidebar for updates and vignettes. I’ve filed some under both—here’s another one.

Over the days following a death in Yanggao, among the many solo tasks of household Daoists like Li Manshan and his son Li Bin (along with determining the date for the funeral, writing the yangzhuang placard, supervising the encoffinment, decorating the coffin, and so on) is to determining a suitable site and alignment for the grave in the fields outside the village (see my film, from 16.21).

To help the Daoist in this task, some lineages still preserve grave charts (fenpu 墳譜). Only lineages that were relatively well-to-do before Liberation had them made, and rather few have survived the ravages of Maoism.

My main energies are devoted to the ritual performance of the Daoist band for the funeral proper—including my attempt to understand the texts that the Daoists perform then, with the help of their ritual manuals. From my notes:

As my frame of reference gradually expands—from the instrumental music to the ritual to local history to the wider activities of the Daoists—I am often out of my depth, but Li Manshan has developed a fine sense of where the borders of my research might lie. One day, as I query some abstruse comment of his on the correct timing for the burial in accord with the calendrical indications, he says with a twinkle in his eye, “Hey Steve, you don’t have to understand everything!”

So, like Li Manshan’s many almanacs to help him determine the date, the grave charts are way beyond my competence; but in a society where so much has been lost, they offer a glimpse of former geomantic knowledge in the area.

This vignette accompanies the scene in the film (Daoist priests of the Li family, p.190):

We have just had supper at Li Manshan’s house after an unusually rainy day. Around 7pm he gets a call. A rich entrepreneur in town is to collect him to go to a grave siting (kanfen) outside Lower Liangyuan for his mother. Li Bin has already determined the date. The entrepreneur, in mourning weeds, arrives in one of the poshest cars I have ever seen, and we keenly set about getting it all muddy. Collecting two grave-digger types in the village, we reach the sodden fields as it gets dark. It’s like Glastonbury, only without the irritating music. While I film with night-shot, Li Manshan takes out his luopan compass from its bag, and conscientiously checks the alignment with the compass and some string, consulting the family’s old grave chart.

By the time they finally finish it’s pitch dark. Oblivious of my presence, they blithely stride off with their torches, leaving me stumbling over grave mounds into puddles. At least I finally seem to have achieved that chimera of the fieldworker, becoming a fly on the wall. They come back to rescue me with their torches, and we all clamber back into the posh car and set to work making it all muddy again.

In some cases, such as when the old ancestors are buried elsewhere, Li Manshan really has to look for an appropriate site in the fields before using his compass for the specifics. On one such morning we spend considerable time seeking a suitable spot, driving round, getting out, studying the lie of the land. Me, I’m just looking for an Italian coffee bar.

Some of the grave charts look to have been written from memory since the 1980s, but on Li Bin’s travels through the countryside to assist funeral families he is sometimes shown some older ones. Here are a couple of photos he took from a chart made by a lineage in Xujiayuan north of the county-town, dated 1937:

And Li Bin recently came across one in nearby Yangyuan county, also apparently from before Liberation—here are three of its seven pages:

YY fenpu 3

You can find further images of grave charts online, and articles like this.

Two recent themes


Two images from the 1950s.

Recently I wrote a mini-series of posts on the fortune of expressive culture through the first fifteen years of the PRC, and the intrepid scholars who documented it—worth reading along with my tribute to the great Yang Yinliu:

And further posts followed:

This happens to be an important period for the relationship of politics and culture—the Maoist decades are a crucial bridge from the “old society” to the current reform era—but that’s not the only reason for studying it. One always seeks to gain a picture of change over the lifetimes of informants; if we had visited in the 1880s, or indeed the 880s, we would also have asked them how their social and cultural life had before the cataclysms of the Taiping uprising and the An Lushan rebellion respectively. While I’m critical of reified studies that are limited to the “salvage” of an idealized past, a diachronic approach is always valuable.

* * *

I followed up that series with Great Female Singers Week (cf. A playlist of songs):

Again, these are part of larger series, in this case on gender (for a roundup, see here), jazz, and Mediterranean culture—to which you’ll find links in the above posts.

Expressive culture (both popular and elite) always makes a revealing prism through which to view social change—whether for China, Puglia, New York, or Vienna.

Famine and expressive culture

Glimpses of the early 1960s’ cultural revival in response to desperation

Liu Shaoqi visits Hunan, 1961.

The disastrous consequences of the Great Leap Backward have been documented by several scholars. But between 1961 and 1965, as the CCP retreated briefly from extreme policies in a brief lull before the Four Cleanups campaign, traditional (incuding ritual) culture revived significantly throughout the countryside. I’ve documented this fleeting revival for my main fieldsites in Hebei (Plucking the winds ch.5) and Shanxi (Daoist priests of the Li family, ch.5), and it often features in my accounts of local ritual—note also the Maoism tag.

Apart from talking with people who can recall the period, documents by the provincial Bureaus of Culture from the late 1950s–early 1960s make an unlikely but fruitful source. While they are prescriptive decrees calling for further suppression of a gamut of “superstitious” activities, they thereby show how prevalent such practices were becoming—precisely in response to the desperation of the Leap.

Here I’ll focus on the province of Hunan, to complement my post on Yang Yinliu’s 1956 survey. [1]

Mao Zedong, Peng Dehuai, and Liu Shaoqi were all natives of Hunan. On 11th May 1959 Liu wrote to Chairman Mao after spending a month investigating the region of his birth:

According to comrades from the provincial Party committee, 40% of all houses in Hunan have been destroyed. Besides this there is also a portion that has been appropriated by state organs, enterprises, communes, and brigades.

On a visit to Mao’s home village in Shaoshan before the fateful Lushan conference of summer 1959, the Chairman himself had hinted at a partial retreat from the more radical policies of the Leap. Peng Dehuai went on to confront him at the fateful Lushan conference of summer 1959:

When Peng had gone back to his home in Xiangtan, he found abuse and suffering everywhere, from farmers forced to practice close cropping to cadres tearing down houses in the iron and steel campaign. Visiting a retirement home and a kindergarten, he saw nothing but misery, the children in rags and the elderly crouched on bamboo mats in the freezing winter. Even after his visit he continued receiving letters from his home town about widespread starvation.

Becker notes that in the anti-Peng hysteria that followed the conference, Hua Guofeng personally supervised the brutal persecution of Peng’s family who lived in the Xiangtan region. Provincial leader Zhou Xiaozhou, who had tried to blunt the impact of extreme leftist policies, was purged, and the madness only escalated.

Dikötter observes:

The number of people per room in Hunan doubled during the years of the Great Leap Forward, as entire families crowded into a single room the size of a wardrobe—despite the space created by the loss of several million to starvation.

Ambitious yet misguided irrigation and land reclamation projects further depleted the environment. People were beaten to death in 82 out of 86 counties and cities. As investigating teams dispatched to the countryside reported:

In Daoxian county many thousands perished in 1960, but only 90% of the deaths could be attributed to disease and starvation. […] Having reviewed all the evidence, the team concluded that 10% had been buried alive, clubbed to death or otherwise killed by Party members or militia. In Shimen county, some 13,500 died in 1960, of whom 12% were “beaten or driven to their deaths”.

Dikötter cites reports from 1961:

In Yuanling county, testicles were beaten, soles of feet were branded, and noses were stuffed with hot peppers. Ears were nailed against the wall. In the Liuyang region, iron wires were used to chain farmers.

Liu Shaoqi returned to Hunan in 1961 in a widely-reported trip (online, see e.g. here):

Determined to avoid the large retinue of bodyguards and local officials that inevitably came with every visit from a top dignitary, Liu set off on 2nd April 1961 from Changsha, travelling in two jeeps in the company of his wife and a few close assistants, bowl and chopsticks tucked away in light luggage, ready for a Spartan regime in the countryside. Soon the convoy came across a sign announcing a giant pig farm. On closer inspection, it turned out that the farm consisted of no more than a dozen scrawny hogs foraging in the mud. Liu decided to spend the night in the fodder store, and his assistants combed the place in vain for some rice straw to soften the plank beds. Liu noted that even the human excrement piled up for fertilizer consisted of nothing but rough fibre, another telltale sign of widespread want. Nearby a few children in rags were digging for wild herbs.

Liu Shaoqi’s fears were confirmed over the following weeks, however difficult it was to get wary farmers to tell the truth. In one village where he stopped on his way home, he found that the number of deaths had been covered up by local leaders, while an official report drew a picture of everyday life which had nothing to do with the destitution Liu saw on the ground. He clashed with the local boss, who tried to steer the team away from speaking with villagers. He tracked down a cadre who had been dismissed as a rightist in 1959: Duan Shicheng spoke up, explaining how the brigade had earned a red flag during the Great Leap Forward. To protect their privileged status, Duan explained, local leaders had systematically persecuted anybody who dared to voice a dissenting view. In 1960 a meager crop of 360 tonnes of grain was talked up to 600 tonnes. After requisitions villagers were left with a paltry 180 kilos, out of which seed and fodder had to be taken, leaving a handful of rice a day.

In his home village Tanzichong, friends and relatives were less reluctant to speak out. They denied that there had been a drought the year before, blaming cadres instead for the food shortages. “Man-made disasters are the main reason, not natural calamities.” In the canteen cooking utensils, dirty bowls and chopsticks were tossed in a pile on the floor. A few asparagus leaves were the only vegetable available, to be prepared without cooking oil. Liu was shaken by what he saw. A few days later, he apologized to his fellow villagers in a mass meeting: “I haven’t returned home for nearly forty years. I really wanted to come home for a visit. Now I have seen how bitter your lives are. We have not done our jobs well, and we beg for your pardon.” That very evening the canteen was dissolved on Liu’s orders.

A committed party man, Liu Shaoqi was genuinely shocked by the disastrous state in which he found his home village. He had dedicated his every waking moment to the party, only to find that it had brought widespread abuse, destitution, and starvation to the people he was meant to serve.

Becker also describes Liu Shaoqi’s visit to Hunan:

In the Hengyang district “nearly an entire production team had died of hunger, and there was no one left with the strength to bury the bodies. These were still lying scattered about in the fields from which they had been trying to pull enough to stay alive.” Yet when Liu Shaoqi and his wife, Wang Guangmei, visited Hunan to see for themselves, local leaders went to extraordinary lengths to try and deceive them. Along the road leading to Liu’s home town of Ningxiang, starving peasants had torn the bark off the trees to eat, so officials plastered the tree trunks with mud and straw to conceal the scars. […] Liu only managed to discover the truth in the village where he had been born, Ku Mu Chong, when some villagers dared to tell him that twenty of their number had starved to death, including a nephew of Liu’s, and that a dozen more had fled.

Expressive culture
With all this in mind, it may seem almost perverse to turn our attention to expressive culture. Doubtless in some areas upon the 1949 Liberation, traditional culture was virtually stamped out, quite abruptly, only reviving after the collapse of the commune system from the late 1970s. Even where traditional genres survived relatively unscathed in the early 1950s (in 1956 Yang Yinliu’s team found rich material on his fine fieldtrip to Hunan, and his report contains no hint of the impending disaster), one might suppose that they would have declined further as collectivization intensified. We might doubt the ability of performance genres to survive through the famine following the 1958 Leap. Indeed, in many regions, irrespective of any official prohibitions, it may seem inconceivable that people could even have the strength to observe traditional cultural practices (see e.g. here, under “Religion and culture”).

On the contrary, it seems that it was precisely the desperation of the times that prompted (on the economic front) a revival of folk performing groups and (in the sphere of belief) a renewed emphasis on traditional ritual. With no food or shelter in their home villages, people resorted to extreme measures. Migration was a traditional response to adversity; Hunan peasants often crossed the border into Hubei (cf. the flight of Yanggao dwellers to Inner Mongolia: Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.120–21).

For the condition of folk performance activity in the early 1960s, apart from talking with people who recall the period, official documents in the Appendices of several of the provincial volumes of the monographs on opera and narrative-singing in the Anthology make an unlikely but revealing source, containing documents from imperial, Republican, and Maoist times, often relating to prohibitions (for all three periods!). [2] Often they inadvertently reveal “negative material” in discussing the desperate revival of folk and ritual groups from the late 1950s, reminding us that even through all the traumas of campaigns and collectivization, traditional genres “obstinately“, however tenuously, kept active.

A series of detailed documents from the Hunan Bureau of Culture between 1957 and 1965 gives a remarkably frank impression of a far-from-stable socialist society. [3]

A document from September 1961 innocuously prescribes a systematic project on the province’s rich heritage of local opera, specifically calling for impartial documentation irrespective of “feudal” and “superstitious” elements. Doubtless they benefitted from the model established by Yang Yinliu on his 1956 fieldwork. A lengthier document from March 1962 explicitly includes the diverse genres of narrative-singing in the project.

By October the Bureau of Culture was discussing the registration of “folk professional scattered artists” (minjian zhiye lingsan yiren 民间职业零散艺人) that they had initiated in 1957. They note the recent growth of such performers along with state cutbacks and the arrival of migrant groups; some belonged to the “five black categories”, performing “unhealthy” items.

With new campaigns for Socialist Education, the tide was turning: by April 1963, prompted by a central decree from Beijing, the Bureau of Culture issued a ban on the performance of “ghost operas”, which had grown “in the last couple of years”. For rural and urban Hunan they describe an increase of funeral elegies and rituals, offering incense and worshipping the Buddha, constructing temples, and inviting opera groups for rituals to invite the gods and redeem vows, [4] all encouraging the spread of anti-revolutionary elements and reactionary sects (fandong huidaomen).

A draft discussion from 1964 elaborates further on how to register folk performers, mentioning over 12,000 rural scattered semi-professional artists (performing opera, shadow-puppetry, marionettes, and narrative-singing), some of whose groups “have become hiding places for class enemies, their programmes mostly spreading feudal superstition and capitalism.”

Despite (or because of) the rising tide of political campaigns, a lengthy supplement from August 1965 reveals continuing issues:

wenjian 1
wenjian 2
wenjian 3
wenjian 4

Under “Severe situation” (pp.622–3), problems are listed under five headings, all with detailed examples:

  • Performing bad [feudalistic, superstitious, capitalistic] programmes, long prohibited but still rife, “poisoning people’s thinking”. This was a problem among the state troupes as well as folk groups: from the founding in November 1963 of the No.2 Marionette Troupe in Xinshao county to September 1964, 84 of their 103 performances were deemed “superstitious”.
  • People abandoning production to take up itinerant performance. Of 96 shadow-puppet artists in one district, 21 took it up before Liberation, 17 from Liberation to 1958, but 58 since 1958—and those taking it up since Liberation were mostly strong young men, badly needed to help agriculture recover from the disasters of the years of hardship. In Lixian county, [5] the senior yugu performer Cheng Dengyun’s oldest son (33) was a production-team chief, his second son (28) team accountant, his third son a strong worker, but from 1961 they all took up yugu and abandoned production.

Left: daoqing/yugu performers in Hengyang municipality, 1956.
Right: yugu, undated photo from Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan.

Yugu 渔鼓, related to daoqing 道情 and shadow-puppetry, is one of the most widespread genres of narrative-singing around Hunan and nearby provinces, using a distinctive drum made from a bamboo tube. The separate Anthology item on the genre introduces the early and later history of yugu, giving useful leads for the various regional styles. [6] But the 1964 document valuably supplements the largely official picture of yugu modernizing under the avuncular guidance of the Party. Online, besides more glossy official versions, you can find some excerpts from recent funerary performances, like this from Qidong county.

  • Exorbitant charges. In a case from 1963, two shadow-puppeteers from a commune in Hengnan county performed an opera to redeem a vow; apart from a ticket price [??] of 6 yuan, they also demanded a dou of “holy rice” and 2 jin of oil; at the end they gave a commune cadre a statue of the deity Guanyin and demanded a further 2 yuan as a donation.
  • Taking disciples, exploitative hiring practices—again showing the persistence of pre-revolutionary traditions.
  • Harbouring bad elements and carrying out anti-revolutionary activities; examples are given of puppeteers performing anti-Communist propaganda.

For local religious life over the Maoist era I haven’t yet sought documents from the Bureau of Religious Affairs, or indeed the archives of the Public Security Bureau, but one might expect revealing results there too.

* * *

Having endured yet more traumas in the Cultural Revolution, such genres, mostly based on ritual practice, revived spectacularly after the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s. But we can now see that the revival was not some miraculous atavistic re-imagining after three decades of silence: it took up a thread that had never been erased. Indeed, there was even a certain very limited activity through the Cultural Revolution decade. Equally, the wealth of research since the 1980s didn’t spring from a vacuum: it built on the brave work of scholars under Maoism.

Studies of expressive culture under Maoism are often narrowly based on central policy towards “the arts”. Candid documents like those discussed here reveal not only regional policy but—more interestingly—the real situation on the ground, even if they were seeking to “correct” it. Thus the Party refutes its own simplistic narrative that “feudal superstition” was abruptly suppressed after Liberation—a claim that is rarely challenged even by scholars outside China .

So the study of Maoism, expressive culture, and people’s lives should go hand in hand.


[1] The material here is based on Jasper Becker, Hungry ghosts and Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, consulting the indexes under Hunan. The famine in some provinces, notably Henan, was considerably worse: I won’t attempt to summarize the abundant material here, but again it is described by Becker, Dikötter, et al. For refs. to Henan folk opera troupes begging during the famine, see Zhongguo quyi zhi, Henan juan, pp.735–40. For the great famines of Ukraine and China, see here.

[2] Zhongguo xiqu zhi 中国戏曲志 and Zhongguo quyi zhi 中国曲艺志; cf. pp.329–30 of my “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003). For a recent discussion of sources on Maoism, see Sebastian Veg (ed.), Popular memories of the Mao era: from critical debate to reassessing history (2019).

[3] For all the rich material on local household Daoist ritual in Hunan, I would love to read more accounts of their activities under Maoism.

[4] Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan, pp.614–25.

[5] Confession: in “Reading between the lines” I miswrote this place-name—I have no culture!

[6] Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan, pp. 67–74; for its music, see pp.275–300, and Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Hunan juan.


Hequ 1953: collecting folk-song


The fieldwork team sets off into the Hequ countryside, 1953.

After the Russian revolution, the work of ethnographers in the Soviet Union and their satellites was severely hampered right until the 1990s (see also here). So turning to China, I remain deeply impressed by the energy of fieldworkers documenting folk culture in the first fifteen years after the 1949 “Liberation”, for all its limitations.

In autumn 1953, in one of the first major field projects of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, Yang Yinliu and Li Yuanqing dispatched a team to spend three months collecting folk-song in rural Hequ (“river bend”) county in Shanxi. On the banks of the Yellow River at the borders of Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi, this large isolated area in the far northwest corner of the province connects the Datong region and the much-studied Shaanbei (see also here).

The results of the project were published in the 244-page

  • Hequ minjian gequ 河曲民間歌曲 [Folk-songs in Hequ], ed. Zhongyang yinyuexueyuan Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo (Beijing: Yinyue chubanshe, 1956, reprinted 1962).

Hequ cover

The team of eight was led by Xiao Xing 晓星, and included Li Quanmin 李佺民 and Jian Qihua 简其华, who went on to do significant field research further afield.

Meanwhile back in Beijing, a Czech couple were documenting narrative-singing, while Yang Yinliu and Zha Fuxi were discovering the shengguan wind ensemble of the Zhihua temple. Whereas the study of temple music was rather bold, folk-song—the creation of the labouring masses—seemed to make an acceptable topic.

But despite the experience gained in the Yan’an base area in the 1940s, where collecting folk-song was already a pillar of CCP cultural policy (as shown in the 1984 film Yellow earth), the editors reveal a certain resistance among local cadres to the idea, and go to some lengths to justify it. With the social changes upon Liberation, they hint that it was already to some extent a salvage project: “people don’t sing shanqu nearly as much as before”.

Hequ singer

Here one can hardly expect candid ethnographic coverage of the Japanese occupation, civil war, and the early years of Liberation (cf. Hinton‘s detailed, but also ideologically-driven, accounts for the land reform and later campaigns in a village in southeast Shanxi). And sadly, the volume includes only a few very brief biographical accounts of the singers. This 1953 photo of Guan Ermao was reproduced in the Anthology.

As in Shaanbei, the repertoires are dominated by “mountain songs” (shanqu), “Walking the Western Pass” (zou xikou), and errentai genres. Through the zou xikou songs the collectors paid attention to seasonal migration, and songs about love and marriage prompted them to explore the lowly status of women—in the “old society”. They documented work hollers (including those of boatmen), and the songs of miners. Apart from lyrics and transcriptions, the introduction (5–41), and the substantial report (107–224) are inevitably pervaded with the language of the day—”feudalism”, “working masses”, and so on; the authors’ attempt to explore the relation of the songs with people’s lives is constrained by ideology. Still, there’s rich material here.

For a definitive 2-CD set with archive recordings of Chinese folk-song, note

  • Tudi yu ge 土地与歌 [English title Songs of the land in China: labor songs and love songs], ed. Qiao Jianzhong (Taipei: Wind Records, 1996).
Hequ map

Field sites in Hequ county, 1953.

The bleak Hequ landscape later formed the backdrop for Chen Kaige’s 1991 film Life on a string. By the way, I’m curious to learn of any household Daoist activity in this little-studied region.

* * *

After the Cultural Revolution disrupted research, and lives, the collapse of the rigid commune system from the late 1970s soon allowed the task of documenting expressive culture to resume—now with the monumental Anthology project. The folk-song volume for Shanxi

  • Zhongguo minjian gequ jicheng, Shanxi juan 中國民間歌曲集成, 山西卷 (942 pp.)

was published in 1990. For Hequ, indeed, it includes some transcriptions from the 1956 volume.

I touched on folk-song collecting in

  • “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003), pp.287–337.

Clearly, as William Noll also observes, we always have to interpret texts in the context of their time; learning to read between the lines is a basic task in studying both early and modern Chinese scholarship. Yang Yinliu and others had to learn to use the rhetorical language of communism to handle ideological pressure. However obligatory his language of class struggle, he documented both folk and élite traditions with great insight.

Still, explicit or implicit ideological frameworks will inevitably affect the work of collection and presentation. An obvious case is the former Maoist highlighting of “revolutionary songs”.

It is a tribute to the advances of Chinese musicology since the 1980s that Yang Mu’s comments (“Academic ignorance or political taboo? Some issues in China’s study of its folk song culture”, Ethnomusicology 38.2 [1994]), based mainly on his experiences in China in the 1980s, now look dated. Yang caustically describes the limitations of Chinese folk-song collection, questioning the “authenticity, representativeness, and reliability” of the early Anthology folk-song volumes. He observes the narrowly political nature of fieldwork in China: that “the arts must serve proletarian politics”, and that collection often served as material for new composition. Yet this criticism again seems to fail to distinguish slogans from genuine intent or actions.

Yang Mu reasonably finds such collections misleading, with revolutionary songs being given space far above love songs. Yang points out that revolutionary songs are not representative of actual folk-song activity, as they were not popular, being performed only for government-sponsored events—at least by the 1980s, and quite probably through the Maoist era too, I might add. Such songs may be academically significant as reflections of the Party’s artistic policies, but as Yang Mu says,

after asking the local singers to sing all types of their local folk songs, and having listened to them singing for many hours, I never heard a single song that could be considered “revolutionary”.

Singers may know a few such songs, but they are not part of their customary repertory. Yang Mu claims the scholars arguing against political control lost the battle, but revolutionary songs take a more modest place in most of the published volumes, so quickly has Chinese thinking shaken off Maoism. Whereas until the 1980s revolutionary songs compulsorily opened most collections, in the Anthology they take their chance along with other songs.

in the Anthology the list of themes at the end of each volume (with minor variations), however subjective, is as useful as any rough-and-ready system. Political songs are included under the headings “social struggle” and sometimes also “revolutionary struggle”, both with sub-categories; a category called suku, “speaking bitterness” or lamenting hardship, may be included under either heading. In many volumes these songs occupy around 10% of the total, which one may still find “unrepresentative”, though by no means as dominant as Yang Mu suggests. I gave a couple of examples:

table 3

table 4

Yang Mu also criticizes the excessive selection of “texts describing or complaining about the bitter life, suffering, and distress of the laboring class people before they were liberated by the CCP”. But such songs are not always clearly about the old days, and even if they are (such as deploring a cruel landlord), songs lamenting the bitter life of olden times are rather common in many societies, and motivations for singing them may be quite complex; they may embody a kind of historical memory, and might even be seen as a subtle criticism or expiation of current woes. Many songs I have consulted in this category seem, like the blues, to be simply lamenting hardship or separation, with no clear time-frame. So I would be less keen to assume political bias here.

Still, if songs praising the CCP are no longer dominant, songs criticizing it are entirely absent, which may or may not reflect reality! Songs with “negative” (e.g., feudal, religious, or sexual) texts may have been censored, both by singers and collectors.

In the Anthology love songs and work songs are in a majority. The ritual and religious soundscape has been allowed a certain presence throughout; but if the collectors and editors have significantly reversed any revolutionary bias, a secular bias may remain. How may one assess their relative importance? Short of fly-on-the-wall recording of folk-song life over a long period, singers may indeed censor songs they see fit to sing for outsiders, long before collectors and then editors make their own selections.

By contrast with Yang Mu’s criticisms, I’ve already discussed the choice of one local cultural cadre collecting the repertoires of blind itinerant male bards in 1980s’ Shaanbei (see here, under “Research and images”):

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

For more on folk-song collection, see here.

* * *

For Shanxi, neither in the 1956 report nor in the Anthology folk-song volume do the collectors give revolutionary songs pride of place; but they hardly fulfil their aspiration to evoke people’s lives. And while the 1980s’ Anthology fieldwork now looks impressive by comparison with the later superficial reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project, it too falls short in ethnographic detail.

All the same, I’m full of admiration for the team that spent those months “among the people” in 1953. And how one wants detailed accounts of the fortunes of their peasant hosts as collectivization and campaigns got under way.