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.

My account to accompany 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:

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 of posts, 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.

Update on Hebei ritual

pic 2

Petitions burned for Hailstone Association ritual, Greater Yidian, Gu’an 2016.

As village ritual associations throughout the Hebei plain south of Beijing perform their rituals for 1st moon 15th, I’ve just been taking another cursory glance at recent online material from the team led by Qi Yi 齐易 doing fieldwork since 2015 around our old hunting ground (see this substantial general introduction; also here, a whole series of detailed articles under Local ritual, and the Gaoluo and Hebei tags). They have revisited many of the village ritual associations that our own team documented in the 1990s.

You can find links on both and (don’t blame me for the adverts), with a search under 土地与歌 or specific names of counties. I won’t try and give individual links to all this material, but I have updated a few of my articles accordingly. As I mentioned in my general introduction to the Hebei ritual associations, the project shares the flaws of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project, but it still provides some useful supplementary material.

Following their earlier focus on the ritual yinyuehui, the recent studies branch out into other genres in the region (including chaozi hui 吵子会, shifan 十番, and vocal genres), also potentially interesting.

Despite the rapid encroachment of urbanization and the whole heritage flapdoodle, from the videos of lively recent rituals (I’ve added links for Shixinzhuang in Gaobeidian, and the Hailstone Association of Greater Yidian in Gu’an) we can see that such assocations remain far from secularized.

The whole topic still offers much scope for scholars of local folk religion!

pic 1

3rd-moon Houtu festival, Shixinzhuang 2015.

Ritual groups of Liaoning

*For main page, click here!*
(posted in the series on Local ritual, under Themes in the main menu)


This is among my more superficial introductions to changing ritual life over a wide region, the northeastern province of Liaoning.

I set forth from Ling Qizhen’s 1958 study of “Buddhist music” (shengguan wind ensemble) in Shenyang, moving on to the 1980s’ Anthology accounts of Buddhist and Daoist (largely temple) activity, and Li Runzhong’s fine detailed “salvage” ethnography from Panjin municipality.

Change is constant, not only in the vast social upheavals since the early 20th century but in the adoption of the “southern” style of vocal liturgy and the decline of the shengguan wind ensemble. But here it does appear that the ritual practice of household ritual specialists was much impoverished by the 1950s, and any folk activity today remains elusive.

So as with some of my other reports, this is a mere introduction to tempt people to continue such fieldwork.



New wave of temple demolition


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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