Gaoluo: early history

dengpengMy first experience of the New Year’s rituals in the Lantern Tent,
South Gaoluo 1989 (see here).

My 2004 book Plucking the winds, an ethnography of Gaoluo and its amateur ritual association, mainly concerns the village’s fortunes under Maoism and since (see roundup here; apart from the pages in the Gaoluo sub-menu, you can find many more posts under the Gaoluo tag in the sidebar).

Since history may seem to have been obliterated by the successive turmoils of the 20th century, I felt glad enough to be able to sketch the story as far back as the Republican era and even the late Qing. And thanks largely to talented village litterateur Shan Fuyi (b.1940), I went on to learn clues to the village’s founding in the Yuan–Ming transition and its fortunes through the Qing dynasty.

In the politically-charged times of 1965, as a Four Cleanups work-team descended on Gaoluo from the regional capital Baoding (see Plucking the winds, chapters 5–6), they ordered young Shan Fuyi to compile a history of the village up to Liberation in 1948. Their purpose was frankly political: in order to “cleanse the class ranks”, they needed a definitive version of the village’s history. Anyway, he set about the task conscientiously, collecting oral accounts from senior villagers and seeking early artefacts such as steles.

SFY 1996

Shan Fuyi, 1996.

In the calmer times that followed the turmoil and tedium of the Cultural Revolution, Shan Fuyi had maintained a lively interest in local history, and he revised his work in 1997 after our first meetings. As he told me, his 1965 version, though rather more detailed, was couched in revolutionary language, full of criticism of “bad elements”, whereas for the new 20-page version that he now presented me he used a more natural style. In a charming reversal of one’s preconceptions, he was apparently giving the foreigner a version from which Communist propaganda had been censored!


In fact our detailed conversations with Shan Fuyi were much more frank and complete than any official version could possibly be. Moreover, his written history went only as far as 1948, whereas in our sessions together he made a thoughtful commentator on the Maoist and reform eras too; his detachment in observing the vicissitudes of the village’s history was of rare value.

These notes are adapted from Chapter 1 of Plucking the winds.

* * *

Like many villages in central Hebei province south of Beijing, Gaoluo is thought to have been founded in the Yongle reign-period (1403–24) early in the Ming dynasty, by forced settlement from Shanxi province to the west.

The whole area had been severely depopulated in two savage bouts of warfare, the first overthrowing the Mongol Yuan dynasty in the mid-14th century, the second in 1401 as the future Yongle emperor marched south to usurp the Ming throne (cf. Maozhou in Renqiu county just south).

Whatever the ultimate ancestry of the ritual and soundscape of Gaoluo’s ritual associations (even village groups learning in the 1950s often inherited a tradition going back many centuries), with airy claims of Tang or even Han origins being bandied around under the inflated recent Heritage propaganda, it’s worth bearing in mind that they can only have taken root here after that time!

The original name of the village was Gaole 高樂 (High Joy), and was probably related to the nearby village of Yongle 永樂 (Eternal Joy), apparently named after the early-15th-century reign-period.[1] The written form “Gaole” seems to have evolved into “Gaoluo” 高洛 only from around the early 20th century—the character luo [2] was used merely to economize on brush-strokes from the more complex character le. Our elderly mentor Shan Zhihe recalled that around 1930 journeying villagers used to carry cloth bags bearing the characters “South High Joy” (Nan Gaole); but that by then the character luo was sometimes used too. Later, indeed, under the Communist language reforms, since the old character le 樂 was anyway simplified to 乐, requiring even fewer brushstrokes, I impertinently suggested that they might like to reclaim the original name.

Shan Fuyi agreed with the official account that the village was founded by migrants from Shanxi in the early 15th century, but he further recounted several folk legends about the early occupants; like many such stories, they are detailed and eccentric enough to be worth taking seriously. The initial wave of migration to found the village consisted of three lineages, of which the Yan 閻 lineage in the north was the most powerful—indeed, they still dominate the North village today. The other two lineages were Niu and Ma, living in the south, east, and west of the village. Thus a legend soon sprung up that the Yans represented the Yama kings (Yanluowang, Yanjun) of the underworld, while the Niu (Ox) and Ma (Horse) lineages represented their subterranean attendants Ox-head and Horse-face (Niutou Mamian). Confronting such a ghoulish reputation, no-one else dared contemplate moving into Gaoluo for some years.

Shan Fuyi told us that the next people who dared to move to Gaoluo were from his own Shan 單 lineage, later in the 15th century. They too moved from Shanxi province, settling first in Mancheng county just south, and then in the young village of Gaole. [3] The new immigrants settled in the south end of the village among the Niu and Ma families.

Their very names showed that they could cope with the forbidding reputation of the established lineages. The patriarch of the Shan lineage was called Shan Xuanyin 單懸印, a name that implies rejection of official employment; his two sons were named Hu and Bao (Tiger and Panther), showing ferocity, the ability to suppress bad omens, and superiority over oxen and horses (the original Niu and Ma migrants). Even the surname Shan itself is a local homonym for a character which means castration, implying that the Niu and Ma lineages would be deprived of descendants by living among the Shans.

Sure enough, the Niu and Ma lineages declined until only one solitary Ma remained, Ma Qi “Ma the Seventh”. A story went round that his only hope of perpetuating his lineage was to move to the village of Chechang (“Cart depot”) in the hills north of the county-town—after all, carts need horses to pull them! So Ma the Seventh moved to Chechang, took a wife there, and sure enough his lineage prospered.

In Gaole the Yans now dominated the north, the Shans the south part of the village. In the late Ming dynasty, around 1600, the He 何 lineage moved to the village in large numbers. The Cai 蔡 lineage settled in the early Qing dynasty, perhaps half a century later, settling to the south of the Hes. Though there were rather few of them at first, after some time they prospered while the Hes declined. This soon gave rise to another folk tale: since rivers (he 河) irrigate vegetables (cai 菜), the fengshui of the Hes was flowing away from them to the Cais. Families of the He lineage started building walls between them and the Cais to stop their “water” (that is, their fengshui) escaping to the Cais; but the Cais deliberately made holes in the walls, and continued to do well, apparently at the expense of the Hes.

Apart from the Yans, the founding lineage, who still dominate the North village and the north of the South village, that is how Shan Fuyi described for us the ancestry of the three main lineages of the southern part of South Gaoluo today: Shan, He, and Cai.

Today, the Shan lineage is most numerous, followed by the Cai and then the He lineages. In our South village ritual association, nearly half of the members we have listed are from the Cai lineage, then Shan, then He (cf. Customs of naming).

The latest important arrival in Gaole, around 1700, was the Heng 衡 lineage of Manchu Bannermen.[4] The system of Eight Banners was a kind of “conquest elite” used by the Manchu rulers to organise their adherents after the creation of the early Qing state in 1616, and elaborated after the conquest of north China in 1644. The Banner system was military in origin, but not exclusively Manchu. Many Banner families were settled in the region surrounding the new capital Beijing. The first Heng lineage head to move to Gaole from Beijing was Heng Baoguo, a high military official to the Qing court.[5]

Banner officials had a reputation in rural China for their rapacity, occupying land at will. In Gaole the Hengs first occupied extensive tracts of land in the south part of the village; soon the villagers had no option but to buy or rent their land back from the Hengs, which irresistibly became the leading wealthy lineage there.

Leading figures in the Heng lineage were known respectfully in the village as Master Heng (Heng daye). Heng Baoguo’s family received a full ration of “imperial grain” from the Qing authorities—or rather, in practice, they were exempted from paying that amount of grain tax. Around the late 19th century, one Heng Jun married a Han Chinese girl, and so received only half a ration of imperial grain; the next generation received only a quarter. After the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Bannermen no longer received any special treatment, and even landlords like Heng Demao were in decline. Still, the Hengs have continued to prosper right until today.

To complete the story of lineage immigration, a few other families settled in South Gaole in the early 20th century. But the South village—and its ritual association—have remained dominated by the old lineages Cai, Shan, and He; while the noble Heng lineage has supported the association, none has ever joined it as either vocal liturgists or instrumental performers. [6]

Laishui map

Laishui county, southeastern area.

As we settled down with more tea and cigarettes, erudite Shan Fuyi placidly elaborated on local history for us. Among many Chinese terms for “village”, two are common in this area, cun 村 and zhuang 莊 (or gezhuang 各莊). Only villages with a “great temple” (dasi 大寺) could be called cun; those which lacked a “great temple” were called by the less numinous term gezhuang. (There are exceptions; my favourite is the district of Xushui county visited by Chairman Mao in August 1958, which is called Dasigezhuang 大寺各莊!)

A group of villages surrounding a village with a great temple was collectively known as a “parish” (she 社: “earth altar”), or “holy parish” (shenshe 神社). In the Jiaqing reign (1522–66) of the Ming dynasty, according to Shan Fuyi, a “great temple” was built at Baibao by the four villages of Baibao, Gaole, Shiguzhuang, and Zhenggezhuang, comprising the parish of Baibao. [7] By the late 17th century, expanding villages without a “great temple” sought to erect one and thereby claim the more auspicious name cun. Shan Fuyi had seen steles for the temples of both Baibao and North Gaoluo not long before both were destroyed in the 1960s, and he recalled that the stele of the latter was from the Qianlong era (1736–95) of the Qing. Of course, this shows only that the temples existed then, not that they were founded then, but it is probable that the Baibao temple had a longer history than that of North Gaoluo. [8] The North Gaoluo temple too was eventually considered a “great temple”.

Early ritual culture
We now find clues to the origins of the ritual associations that we first encountered in Gaoluo in 1989. The village still preserves—and performs—exquisite devotional manuals called “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷: see here, under “Other local ritual groups”): lengthy moral texts in 24 chapters, printed on rolls of paper and pleated concertina-like into books. The Guanyin Hall Associations of both North and South villages have several such manuals, not only inscribed with early-18th-century dates but bearing the name of the village and the chief sponsors there.

Right: Fuguo zhenzhai lingying Zaowang baojuan, North Gaoluo, 1720.
Left: Xiaoshi Baiyi guanyin pusa song ying’er xiasheng baojuan, North Gaoluo, 1745.

We have no record that these associations suffered persecution from official inquisitors, as did many sects in the area in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It would be tempting to surmise that these new scrolls were reproduced after their old ones were confiscated. Perhaps these early ritual groups were like today’s “ritual associations” (foshihui 佛事會, e.g. under The Houshan Daoists), their vocal liturgy accompanied only by percussion; we have no clues to when they began adding the shengguan wind ensemble.

Anyway, we can deduce that by the first half of the 18th century—apparently even before the building of the village’s main temples—both North and South Gaole had some form of ritual association. 

The late Qing
By the 1840s, just as the British empire was forcing the Qing government to open up further to foreign trade in the Opium Wars, Gaole was evolving in its own way. The land of the Manchu Heng lineage was mainly in the south of the village. We were told that villagers in the north part of Gaole used to bully those in the south, until they wouldn’t even let them come to watch the operas there. In order to delineate their power area, the Hengs started to refer to a separate “South Gaole”. Since the “great temple” was situated in North Gaole, the Hengs now sponsored the building of a separate temple in the South village, which was called Wenpu si 文普寺 (or more colloqially, Shijia miao or Foye miao, “Buddhist temple”)—devoted, unusually for this area, to the Bodhisattvas Wenshu (Mañjuśrī) and Puxian (Samantabhadra), suggesting Manchu influence. The new temple, they hoped, would earn the South village the independent name of cun; Shan Fuyi recalled that its stele was dated 1844 (24th year of the Daoguang reign). [9]

Since the original ritual association remained loyal to its geographical base around the great temple in North village, South village would now also need an independent ritual association to compete with it. Hence Shan Fuyi’s plausible theory that our South Gaoluo ritual association goes back to the Daoguang period, around the time of the founding of the Wenpu si temple.

The new rivalry is said to have stimulated the ritual associations of both North and South villages (for which see here), making their performing membership increase until both were larger than the original single association. By the 1990s the two associations still appeared to be on good terms; after all, each has its geographical catchment area. But the historical relationship is expressed by the fact that for the New Year’s rituals it is the South village association which comes first to North village to pay respects.

The “parish” was the collective unit which organised the appearances at the calendrical temple fairs of local performing arts and ritual associations, called Lantern Associations denghui 燈會 or Illustrious/Holy Associations shenghui 盛會/聖會). These associations convened to perform their rituals at temple fairs, with their god paintings, statues, banners, and lanterns; the “Music Associations” (yinyuehui 音樂會, a confusing term explained here), with their vocal liturgy and solemn shengguan instrumental ensemble, have always been the most prestigious. Hence the expression often heard in the area, “where there is a great temple there is a Music Association”.

The ritual associations of both Gaoluo villages are also called “Lantern Association”—the lantern referring to the main calendrical function of the associations at the New Year’s Lantern Festival. The Music Association of the South village is also known as “Southern Lantern Association”; their 1930 donors’ list and 1983 instrumental score are inscribed thus. The Guanyin Hall 觀音堂 ritual associations in the northeast of the south village and the southeast of the north village are called “Eastern Lantern Association”.

The Music Associations of both North and South Gaoluo had the further title “Blue Banner Holy Association” (Lanqi shenghui 藍旗聖會). This name, common throughout the area, seems to refer to the blue pennants traditionally adorning the processions of such associations. [10] Before the Japanese invasion in 1937 the Blue Banner Holy Association of North and South Gaoluo was a combined group functioning on behalf of the two villages: that is, outside the village they performed as one, and had been “taught by the same master”—although this seems to be a mere figure of speech, since they have little idea when the association was founded. [11]

Throughout the area the ritual “Music Associations” are often said to be the oldest and most venerable of all the performing associations. As in many villages, the Gaoluo ritual musicians relate traditions that Qing emperors favoured their association—apparently while the imperial entourage was on its way to pay respects at the Western tombs of the imperial family in Yixian county, meeting our Gaoluo association on their way to the Houshan mountain pilgrimage just northwest.

In sum, we have deduced that ritual associations in Gaoluo performed vocal liturgy in the form of “precious scrolls” by the early 18th century. We can only surmise that the Blue Banner Association of the whole Gaoluo village also performed shengguan wind ensemble music before the building of the temple in the South village in the 1840s and the establishment of a separate association there. The ritual and music, which are virtually identical in North and South villages, evidently predate the division of the villages. Several patterns of musical acquisition were common in the area: perhaps the villagers once acquired their music from priests resident in the great temple in North Gaoluo, or from another village association, or indeed from another temple in the area—we don’t even know that there were ever any priests in the North Gaoluo temple who were able to perform shengguan.

Sadly, if predictably, apart from the precious scrolls, all too few material artefacts have endured which might supplement this story. None of the village’s steles survived the Cultural Revolution, but some alert younger villagers still recall seeing them in the early 1960s. Erudite Shan Fuyi saw a stele dated 1689 (Kangxi 28th year) to one Cai Zhang, who had served the emperor; talented Cai Yurun remembered a stele to another official in the mid-19th century. An early donors’ list of our ritual association, which we were told was made in the late 19th century, was so faded by the time we saw it displayed in 1995 as to be totally illegible. By then their earliest datable artefact was a fine old ritual curtain from the Chinese New Year early in 1892, donated by “faithful disciple” (xinshi dizi) Heng Jun, another prominent member of the leading lineage.


Ritual curtain, 1892. The central characters read “Godly realms”;
the couplets on either side read “Seven spells Ahuiban” [meaning unclear] and
“The Three Treasures Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha”.

GL longpaiIn 1993 formidable association leader He Qing told us of a “dragon placard” from the Qing dynasty, inscribed with characters proclaiming allegiance to the reigning emperor, but it seemed to have been long lost. In 1998, while the musicians were preparing the association building for the New Year and unpacking the chests containing the ritual artefacts, they found the dragon placard again, much to our delight (see also here).

Inscribed indeed with the characters “Myriad years to the reigning emperor, myriad myriad years”, it appeared to be undated, but when we inspected the back closely, we detected a trace of writing. Soon the musicians were carefully washing and scraping off the accumulated dirt, to reveal the inscription

Guangxu reign 1st year [1875] 3rd moon 15th day,
Heng Yun and Shan Wenrong

The 15th of the 3rd moon is the birthday of the goddess Houtu, time of the pilgrimage to the Houshan mountains. Perhaps the new placard commemorated the accession of the new emperor, or was it prompted by some special event of local significance?

By the late 19th century, the decline of the Qing dynasty was terminal: central authority was crumbling and villages were severely impoverished. We have nearly reached a period which we can document more reliably from the oral witness of living villagers. The story of the Republican era continues with Ritual images: Gaoluo. But first, remarkably, a major trauma in the village in May 1900 is substantially documented in official sources, a story told in my post on the village Catholics.

All this was the background to the ritual associations that I got to know through the 1990s. It’s hard enough to reach definitive conclusions about ritual life today, but at least in this case we can observe, and ask…

[1] Here I call the village Gaole for the imperial era, using Gaoluo for the modern period, though in pronunciation it generally occupies a middle ground. As it happens, the character le 樂 “joy” is also commonly read yue (more like yao in local dialect), meaning music. The 1900 Boxer documents, as well as Ma Xiantu’s 1943 Houtu scroll, also give the form Gaolou 高樓 (High Mansion).

[2] Bearing the water radical, it may refer to a river, but in this case, as often, it was purely phonetic. It is sometimes used to render the “lao” element in personal names (see here). Cf. lao 落 in the vocal forms laozi and lianhualao, also read luo in standard Chinese.

[3] Shan Fuyi’s version was that they arrived in the late Yongle reign, but the village is supposed to have been founded in the same period, which lasted only 22 years, so I surmise that a little more time would have elapsed before the outsiders dared move in. The Shan lineage was said to come from Xiao Qinzhou (Qinyuan) near the prefecture of Lu’an fu in Shanxi, from where many early 15th-century migrants to the region had arrived (cf. Duara, Culture, power, and the state (1998), p.8 and n.15; Zhongguo lishi ditu ji 7, p.55). Shan Fuyi even noted an oral tradition that the lineage is descended from Shan Tong 單童 (Shan Xiongxin 單雄信), a minor general in the Sui dynasty (581–618), claimed (wrongly) as a native of Lu’an. But he hasn’t heard of anyone going to Shanxi to trace the Shan lineage’s ancestry. Shan Tong features in items of the bangzi operas of central Shaanxi: see e.g. Zhongguo xiqu zhi, Shaanxi juan, p.183, and here.

[4] Data here on the Heng lineage derives mainly from a long-awaited meeting in 2001 with the erudite Heng Zhiyi, former museum curator in the regional capital of Baoding.

[5] The Hengs were said to belong to the Bordered Yellow Banner, but Heng Zhiyi suspects that they were baoyi adherents of the Bannermen. Boss Heng Yiyou claimed that Heng Baoguo lived at the time of the early-17th-century Manchu leader Nurhaci: his own family used to have a painting supposedly presented to Heng Baoguo by the Shunzhi emperor (reigned 1644–61), but the more dispassionate Shan Fuyi thought he arrived in Gaole around the Yongzheng era of the early 18th century.

[6] The main new arrivals were surnamed Li, Zhang, Chen, Sun, and Qiao. Note that lineage consciousness here, as in other areas of north China, is traditionally much less strong than in southeast China, where it has been well documented; indeed, one might suppose that the Gaoluo ritual associations were able to thrive both before and after Liberation precisely because of their inclusive multi-lineage social membership.

[7] The unit below the parish was called a jia 甲, of which there were two or more, often constituting a village; Shan Fuyi recalled an expression from an old stele “the three main jia of Baibao parish”.

[8] The Baibao temple, like that of North Gaoluo, gradually fell into disuse by the early 1960s, although people still came to burn incense there in the 1950s. Naturally, North Baibao also had a ritual association until the Cultural Revolution, but it had difficulty restoring in the 1980s, and when we visited in 1993 its hopes of reviving looked gloomy.

[9] Neither temple affected the original parish: Baibao parish is still among 27 listed in the 1895 Laishui county gazetteer Laishui xianzhi 涞水县志. For the parish, see vol.1 pp.197–8 (j.1, 16a–b); for temples, vol. 1, pp.192–4 (j. 1, 14a-b). Indeed, temples are listed in the gazetteer under their parish, but for some reason none are listed for Baibao parish.
One source suggests that Gaoluo was divided into North and South villages as early as the 17th century (“late Ming to early Qing”: Laishui xian diming ziliao huibian [1983], p.195). Shan Fuyi’s version of the mid-19th century delineation seems convincing, but habitation was (and is) continuous, and Gaoluo was still considered one large village as late as the Republican period, as is also apparent from the letters of the Italian missionaries from around 1930. The 1844 stele may have commemorated not the founding of the temple but the planting of trees around it, renewing its energy and adding to its attraction; however, it was evidently founded later than the “great temple” of North village.

[10] Villagers denied any connection with the Manchu Banner system. According to the villagers of Qujiaying just east in Gu’an county, Blue Banner Association was the name of the committee which organized the performances of different village troupes for temple fairs in their region: Xue Yibing and Wu Ben, “Qujiaying ‘Yinyuehui” de diaocha yu yanjiu” (1987), p.90; Zhao Fuxing, “Qujiaying gu yinyuehui” (1987), p.50. According to Cai Yurun in South Gaoluo, Longcheng village (west of Shiting further north in Laishui) also has a Blue Banner Holy Association. The ritual associations of East Wenquan and Beihou villages nearby also used to be called thus. Such organisations in the area would mainly have served the Houshan pilgrimage. For the term shenghui around imperial Beijing, see Susan Naquin, Peking: temples and city life (2000), pp.230–34.

[11] Gaoluo musicians also say that the ritual association of Tianhou village just south in Dingxing county belongs to the same tradition.