Gaoluo: New Year’s rituals


Ice-and-candy vendor before karaoke bar, New Year 1998.

Eating ice-cream in winter always reminds me of my stays in Gaoluo village over Chinese New Year, between rituals in the lantern tent, the opera outside, and imposing processions.

This page, the latest in a series on Gaoluo (Laishui county, Hebei), is based on chapters 11 and 12 of my book Plucking the winds, where you can find more detail. Based on my observation of the New Year’s rituals in 1995 and 1998, the account also considers change over a longer period.

The main New Year’s observances throughout rural China take place not around the 1st day of New Year but on the days surrounding the Lantern Festival, the full moon on the night of 1st moon 15th. These rituals are the main annual observances on behalf of the peace and prosperity of the whole community. Indeed, my very first visit in 1989 coincided with the rituals in the lantern tent.

Gaoluo 1989

Ritual shengguan before the gods, New Year 1989.

New Year
Before we look at these communal rituals of the 13th to the 16th days of the 1st moon, let’s note some general New Year customs observed within the family.

Despite the assaults on faith and custom since the 1940s, most of the decline in Gaoluo has taken place more gradually since the 1960s, under first the Cultural Revolution and then the Deng era of liberalization. Despite different ideological conditions, just as with Christmas celebrations during the same period in England, many customs have either ceased or been diluted, even if they are still vaguely known. Similarly, people within a society attribute different meanings to rituals. Both in China and England a partial secularization may have occurred, but rituals are still considered necessary; I surmise that the practices of the Chinese ritual associations are considered rather more important than church choirs singing carols at Christmas in England.

New Year’s Day
Apart from the procession on the 15th, the ritual associations of both villages also used to parade on Chinese New Year’s Day. But after this was discontinued in the Four Cleanups, from 1965 until 1997 any observances on New Year’s Day itself took place purely within the family. These have declined, though on New Year’s Eve (12th moon 30th) many families were still displaying inscribed paper envelopes called baofu, filling them with paper money for the ancestors, and making offerings at home, burning them at the graves in the fields on 1st moon 3rd. Villagers used to eat millet at midday on the 30th of the old year, leaving some in the pot, called “pressing down the pot” (yaguo), to show there was a surfeit.

Spring couplets and posters of, or inscriptions to, door gods cannot be pasted up on either side of the doorways until after midday on the 30th of the old year; the saying goes that if you paste them up too soon then debtors can’t come in, which wouldn’t be right, since debts must be cleared by New Year. To seek good fortune and avert evil, papercuts are also pasted on the windows, from the eaves, in the kitchen and latrine, and at the well.

These paper artefacts were still common, but more explicitly religious ones had become rarer. Senior villagers recalled that in their youth an inscription to the Stove God was pasted above the stove, and one to the God of Prosperity in the storeroom; at the shrine in the outside north wall dwelt a statuette of the Dwelling God (jiazhaiye). Some people still pasted these inscriptions up in the 1990s, but it was hard to say just when they became less common. Genial Shan Yude recalled that his family still made them when he was young, around the 1948 Liberation, but of course they didn’t by the time he moved home in 1973.

In the early 1960s when Cai Yurun was young, everyone still made the offerings to the gods and ancestors in the courtyard before dawn on the 1st day of the year, burning sesame stalks on the ground and setting up an altar table with vegetarian offerings like fresh vegetables and large dough decorations. They used to make the offerings at about 5am, then having breakfast and setting out to first-foot (bainian) in darkness. Some people (including our friends Cai An and Cai Haizeng, whose elderly mothers were living with them) still made these offerings, but not Shan Yude or Shan Yutian, whose father was quite “modern”.

On the 1st day of Chinese New Year 1995 I get up with Cai An’s family at 5.30am, in the dark, to perform the offerings to the ancestors in the courtyard, kowtowing with incense before the paper envelopes and offerings of dough shapes on an altar table, while sesame stalks burn on the ground and firecrackers are let off deafeningly. After this ritual we take a fine breakfast of jiaozi dumplings with garlic and vinegar, constant fare at New Year, washed down with ferocious baijiu spirit.

In 1998, staying with Shan Yude, my impression of New Year was rather different. We get up at about 6am, but this family no longer makes offerings outside in the courtyard. On the 1st day of the year people traditionally eat vegetarian food.

In our family it was my father who stopped the custom of eating vegetarian dumplings. He reckoned, “It’s not easy to get to the end of the year and eat a good meal for a change, why should we put up with vegetarian food—let’s have some meat!”

Again, change was partly personal: while one might suspect that Yude’s father was influenced by Communist rationalism, many people, including many old revolutionaries, have persisted in eating vegetarian dumplings.

As dawn begins to break, villagers begin first-footing, kowtowing to the senior members of their close family, followed by the inevitable copious exchange of cigarettes. More distant relatives wait until the 2nd to pay respects.

On the 1st the four ritual associations in both villages used to offer incense on a tour of all the temples on behalf of all the villagers, just as they still do on the 15th. According to formidable He Qing the procession that day was itself like first-footing, paying respects to both gods and people. When the big gong summoning the association was sounded, no more individual first-footing was allowed. After the temples disappeared they continued to offer incense at the sites. The common term for these processions is chuancha, “weaving through”; the more prosaic bainian “New Year’s respects” is also used. That day the association used to eat a banquet at the house of the incense head.

By the 1990s, New Year’s Day had not been marked by ritual processions in Gaoluo for many years. Villagers didn’t agree about when they last made the procession on the 1st. Most said it has not been observed since the Four Cleanups put paid to the brief “restoration” of 1961–64, but Cai Yurun thought they did it around 1986. In North Gaoluo we were told that they had stopped only after 1990: kindly Li Junlan remembers his older brother, the leading guanzi player Li Junjie, saying “We’re all pretty busy these days, we’ll be even busier if we have to pay New Year’s greetings too, let’s forget it, OK?—let’s just parade on the 15th!” This, then, would be another instance of the assault of capitalism, rather than Maoism, on tradition. In 1995, embarrassingly, since the musicians realized our notes (taken when we were all less than diligent in distinguishing description from prescription) had led me to expect a parade on the 1st, the senior Li Shutong was despatched to North Gaoluo to arrange reviving the tradition for me, but there, perhaps fortunately, they felt it was too short notice.

By 1997, with no prompting from me, villagers felt that the time was ripe for the procession of the 1st to be restored. We were there for the procession in 1998. We assemble at maestro Cai An’s house, on the way north to the other associations. As we prepare, cigarettes are exchanged, and the atmosphere is festive. Ritual specialist Cai Haizeng writes red paper slips (tiewen) of greeting and thanks (bai, xie) for exchange with the other three ritual associations, each inscribed with the names of the two exchanging associations, and the characters “looking up to incense before the Buddhas” (foqian zhanxiang). We set off at about 10.30am, the procession taking about 90 minutes. Today the associations don’t enter the ritual buildings, just playing a piece outside.

After breakfast on the 3rd, a “ghost day”, villagers (except the Catholics) traditionally visited the graves to offer incense and kowtow to their ancestors, and avoided visiting each other. The even days of the 2nd and 4th were auspicious, and were devoted to visiting men’s in-laws. From the 5th people were free until the 12th, when couples again invited their sons-in-law to their house to drink toasts: the husband sat in the central place while the wife’s parents sat on either side. Though these customs were much diluted by the 1990s, most villagers still visited the graves on the 3rd, offering incense and burning the paper envelopes which had been displayed since New Year’s Eve, while kowtowing and letting off firecrackers.

Talking of ancestor worship, this is one of four annual visits to the graves scattered in the fields around the village: the others are 3rd moon 3rd, the qingming festival;  7th moon 15th, the Ghost Festival (guijie); and 10th moon 1st. All were still observed, the Ghost festival being the most important. Until collectivization the qingming festival was observed by the “kinship alliance assemblies” (qinmeng hui), when each lineage made offerings to the ancestors before their genealogies, and held a banquet using the produce of the lineage gravelands. Since then all such homages to the ancestors are made by individual families.

Sitting at the Altar
I’ve outlined the ritual artefacts of Gaoluo on this page, which also has maps of the ritual building in 1995 and 1998. The histories of the village’s other associations feature in a separate page; and here I introduced the remarkable story of the village Catholics—also parading at New Year.

If there had been a decline in traditional observances over the days following the New Year, the main calendrical rituals still took place at New Year from the 13th to the 16th of the 1st moon. The musicians call this whole ritual period Sitting at the Altar (zuotan 坐壇), to “receive the gods” (yingshen 迎神) and seek their blessing for the community, to “ensure well-being” (bao ping’an 保平安); as we have seen, the very fact of having a charitable assocation is thought to “create blessing” for the village. This is also the time for families which have requested the associations to perform for funerals over the past year to donate gifts such as cigarettes and tea in thanks; names are added daily to the paper posters listing donors.

All four associations in the two villages have their own “public building” (guanfangzi 官房子) for this period it is called “lantern tent”, dengpeng 燈棚) where the New Year’s rituals take place, functioning as temples. Meanwhile similar rituals to receive the gods are going on in villages throughout the region, indeed throughout China. Although the performances in Gaoluo are now a pale reflection of what they must have been like even in the troubled 1940s, now involving only two “music” associations, two “southern music” associations, and the Shaolin (martial arts) association, they are still an impressively “uproarious” event, of great significance for the village’s collective and people’s personal sense of spiritual well-being.

The basic structure of the rituals of the South Gaoluo “music” association every day from the 13th to the 16th is simple: a brief morning ritual to “Open the Altar and Receive the Gods” (kaitan jiefo 开坛接佛), and an evening gathering at which the association performs shengguan wind ensemble suites, percussion, and some excerpts of vocal liturgy while people offer incense before the god paintings. Many villagers used to come to the morning ritual on the 13th, but now few people apart from the association members attend. However, the hall is packed every evening as people offer incense and join in the fun, especially for the “expelling the hundred diseases” (diu baibing 丟百病) on the 16th, when at least one representative generally comes from each household to seek the blessings of the gods. The association usually performs in the afternoons too.

Early on the morning of the 12th day, one of the guanshi organizers beats the big gong to summon association members to prepare the ritual building. It has not been so cold these winters, but musicians are still quite slow in getting up when they hear the summons of the big gong around 7.15am. We are staying with kindly maestro Cai An, conveniently close to the “temple”, as the building now becomes.

The association members first sweep the long-unused building, prepare the altar, tables, and benches, and hang out the main ritual paintings. On the altar table before the pantheon are placed the incense censer, three bowls of tea, three plates of cakes, candles, and the qing bowl. When this first stage is completed, the musicians kowtow individually three times before the pantheon, while the gong is again sounded. They then continue to hang out the full complement of paintings and hangings, which takes the rest of the morning. They go to great lengths to trim the pantheon with fairy lights.

Both the gateway to the courtyard and the doorway of the temple are pasted with auspicious poetic slogans, religious or musical in content. They are quite an art in themselves: the urbane brothers Shan Ming and Shan Ling do a good line. Above the doorway the musicians have made an illuminated “Buddha” (fo: “gods”, given the syncretism of folk belief) character. In 1998, benefitting from the village electrical factory, the temple was crowned by an even bigger flashing “Buddha” character, flanked by lanterns. In 1998 too the layout has been extended: an awning extends from the temple, where the assocation plays, and a tent to the goddess Houtu has been built opposite the gateway to the courtyard, flanked by the gods of fire and wind and another pair of lanterns; the incense burner is placed before it.

The “Opening the Altar” ritual is performed before breakfast every morning of the “Sitting at the Altar” period. Some say they have to open the altar every morning because the gods go to sleep at night too, so they have to be invited daily: it is as much of an alarm call for the gods as for the musicians. The sequence is always:

  • percussion prelude: Hexi to Open the Altar (Kaitan Hexi)
  • percussion interlude: the piece Changsan pair
  • scripture (jing), recited with ritual percussion accompaniment
  • percussion coda

Once the gong has been sounded to summon the participants, the morning rituals begin around 8am. After the opening percussion, the liturgy always opens with the Hymn to Receive the Gods. On the 13th, 14th, and 16th they then recite the Heart Sutra or the Guanyin Sutra; on the 15th they sing the Incantation of Pu’an. A percussion coda closes the ritual. People then go back to their homes for breakfast.

The evening gatherings are more like a “concert” (yinyuehui, coincidentally the same term as that for ritual association, though few villagers have any use for the modern term) for the enjoyment of the villagers, and seem to have little or no ritual significance—apart from the fact that shengguan remains the only music suitable to be played within the temple before the gods.

Villagers come to offer incense, make or fulfil vows, chat, and enjoy the bustle: the “lantern tent” is the focus of the New Year’s activities, and indeed of the year’s only communal activity. The incense censer has been placed outside in the courtyard, for with so many people burning incense inside the small cramped temple the atmosphere would be stifling—it is quite dense enough with most men smoking and children letting off firecrackers. The lurid Ten Kings paintings of the tortures of the underworld are much inspected, for it is only for these few days during the whole year that they are displayed. Old people like to view them for their moral instruction, and young people for their horror-film-like qualities; perhaps some also appreciate them for their embodiment of village identity.

The musical sequence of the evening gatherings is always

  • percussion — shengguan suites — (vocal liturgy) — percussion

The final percussion suite is most spectacular, its climactic ending eliciting shouts of approval from the men in the audience. The vocal liturgy is less appreciated by ordinary villagers, at least in the present state of the singers’ performance—people listened raptly in the 1950s while Cai Fuxiang and Li Baoyu unfolded the touching story of Houtu.

There used to be “rules” about which shengguan pieces they should play on each day from the 13th to the 16th: this was still so in the 1940s. As throughout the area of the Music Associations, the main piece for New Year, the most powerfully exorcistic, is the lengthy and mantric Incantation of Pu’an, sung in chorus by the ritual specialists and accompanied on the melodic instruments (Plucking the winds, CD #19). According to the “old rules” this should be the only piece played everywhere on the 15th. But it is so long that they used to play it in sections on the procession; thus the procession took only half a day, whereas if you played it complete at all the ritual venues it would take all day. Cai An remembers the elders saying the piece Na tian’e 拿天鵝 (Plucking the winds, CD #20) should be played on the 15th. In fact the two pieces are related, and may once have been played as a sequence—this is a question for another volume. Anyway, now the musicians are more flexible, though the Incantation of Pu’an is still the central piece on the 15th.

The procession of the 15th
On the morning of the 15th, after the Opening the Altar ritual in which the numinous Incantation of Pu’an is sung, the big gong is sounded again to summon everyone for the major annual procession on which the four associations of North and South villages pay respects to each other, representing their “constituents”. It has always been South Gaoluo which makes the first move—apparently in recognition that the North Gaoluo great temple is the parent. Our South village Music Association has prepared three slips of red paper of homage and thanks to give to the other associations. During this procession the host association never performs in its own building: a guest association is always invited to play.

Our association first sets off north up the alley towards the “temple” of the “southern music” association of South village. They start to play a processional “small piece” as they turn the corner into the alley leading to the southern music association’s temple. As they arrive, the performers of the latter are already playing a percussion piece at the gateway to welcome them. A crowd has gathered and the atmosphere is excited. The leaders of the two associations then exchange papers of homage and thanks, and our association is ushered into the temple, with appropriate ritual protests, as the southern music association musicians follow them in. They exchange cigarettes and chat for a while. Usually all the associations would play at least a section of the numinous Incantation of Pu’an suite inside the various ritual buildings, but this year it is already quite late and they decide to go directly on to North Gaoluo together without playing first.

The two South Gaoluo ensembles now parade together, playing on procession through the village alleys, with the Music Association leading the way, to the building of the Southern Music Association of North village, also decked out like a temple.

gl baihui 98

Associations greet each other on ritual procession, New Year 1998.

As always, the shengguan music of the arriving associations mingles with the welcoming percussion of the host association. The performers now take seats around long tables to play the percussion suite with a combined large ensemble, more thrilling than ever.

All three groups now play on procession to the “temple” of the North Gaoluo Music Association, which also welcomes them with a percussion piece outside. Around long tables set outside before the temple, the Southern Music Association of North village now plays the long ritual piece Incantation of Pu’an, with their more “diverse” instrumentation including bowed fiddles.

After making a rather unlikely detour along minor alleys to pay respects at the sites of the other former temples, all four groups parade to the ritual building of the South Gaoluo Music Association from which we had set off earlier in the morning.

Virtually the whole village now tries to cram into the walled courtyard. Cigarettes are exchanged with ostentatious abandon. The combined ritual associations play a suite around long tables placed outside in the courtyard for the occasion, yielding to each other politely about who should play leading guanzi. Then the Southern Music Association of South Gaoluo is persuaded to play a medley of popular pieces. Finally, after midday, the two associations of North Gaoluo are escorted out of South village: the Music Associations of the two villages, and the Southern Music Associations of the two villages, combine to play a final piece on parade.

Then the associations go off for their separate banquets. Both today and on the 16th our association has its banquet at Shan Mingkui’s house, spilling out into the modest courtyard. Even so, they have to eat in shifts; the guanshi organizers wait until last, while the others politely observe that “good people have to eat last”. Maestro Cai An gently reminds them that the banquet isn’t designed to bring them together so they can play mahjong, but so they can get together as an association!

This custom of the associations “eating banquets” (chi zhai) was originally called “grasping the banquet” (zhua zhai). The word zhai denotes a religious banquet, often vegetarian, though in Gaoluo it cannot have been vegetarian within living memory. Village households who wanted to earn merit by “doing good”, or who had made vows, used to undertake to “look after the banquet” (guan zhai) for the association during the New Year period; to invite the musicians was like inviting the gods to your home. According to means, families might agree to feed “two tables” or “ten people”, for instance. The association fixed the date for each meal, generally by street, in order. On the 17th, after the New Year’s rituals ended, the association would invite the heads of the same families for a “concluding banquet” (laoyan 落宴), buying meat and vegetables with the income from the land it owned. Villagers still invited the association by “the old rules” until the mid-1950s, but the tradition ceased when everyone “ate from the big pot” in the commune period. The custom revived briefly when the association restarted after the end of the Cultural Revolution, but later lapsed.

The conclusion of the New Year’s rituals
Back at New Year 1995, late on the afternoon of the 15th, soon after the Catholic “demonstration”, the Shaolin (martial arts) association parades and performs in the open space to the north of the temple, with performances by youngsters, accompanied by an operatic percussion section. They are not part of the “association visits” (baihui 拜會) network, but are performing for the villagers who have donated money to them. The head of the association was one Cai Fuyuan (b. c1932). As he told us, like the ritual association, it was originally part of the Blue Banner Holy Association; they used to go on pilgrimage to Houshan together. Several members of the ritual association used to be keen participants.

But now the Shaolin association was a pale shadow of its former self, only performing for two days over the New Year. Their leaders were not especially keen on the ritual association—indeed, there seemed to be some personal animosity. However, they still donate to the ritual association every year: “It wouldn’t be right not to, because it’s an Old Association.” Veneration for the old is innate; a campaign like “Smash the Four Olds” consciously sought to overturn basic Chinese values. Anyway, donating to the ritual association guarantees correct funeral observances.

90-year old woman Zhang perhaps typified the belief of the older generation of women (see here). And in this post I observed the behaviour of villagers during the rituals.

While people continue to offer incense in the courtyard, the nightly “concert” resumes inside, with the moving Fendiezi percussion suite (Plucking the winds, pp.264–7, 378–81, and CD ##4–13); at the end, despite the cold, maestro Cai An is bathed in sweat from his exertions on the large cymbals, and onlookers roar with excitement, a rare occurrence. Despite repeated hearings, the piece never fails to move me to tears. The association then plays the long instrumental suite Mayilang.

At about 10pm the ritual specialists perform a section of the Houtu scroll, not very well. They then perform the all-important Incantation of Pu’an, the melodic instruments now accompanying the voices (duikou 對口); singers and instrumentalists alike put real passion into it. This passion is impressive partly since the text consists of an early Chinese imitation of a Sanskrit mantra, perhaps all the more efficacious for being entirely unintelligible.

On the morning of the 16th the association “opens the altar” for the last time. At 5pm they begin to “escort the gods away” (songshen). God petitions (shenbiao), large yellow paper envelopes with a written petition inside, made by the ritual specialists, are brought to the “temple”. These petitions are to all their tutelary gods. The observances of burning incense on the evening of the 16th are called “expelling the hundred diseases”. This is the most lively evening of all, and the temple is packed. After the percussion and instrumental pieces of the evening “concert”, the ritual specialists again perform the opening of the Houtu scroll, and a few of its labelled melodies, out of sequence; this is rather informal. Listening to this music, one feels a million miles away from the slick commercialism of Beijing culture, which is even closer than Beijing since it is to be seen nightly on TV. But of course the two worlds are no more mutually exclusive than Bach and the Spice Girls in London.

Just before midnight the association performs the mantric Hymn to escort away the Buddhas, followed by more percussion, and then “escorts the gods away by burning the petitions” (songshen shaobiao) outside in the courtyard. These petitions are borne aloft by the leading members of the association, kowtowing before the incense burner, and are then set on fire. People then leave, and the association members take down the paintings and clear the building, closing it down for another year.

We walk down the alley back to Cai An’s place. Sometimes when we get home late his wife, mother and a couple of grandchildren are already fast asleep on the kang brick-bed in the east room, but tonight a crowd of musicians and friends comes back for more tea, cigarettes and stories. Eventually they make their way home, and Cai An and I retire into the west room—here he gives me an apple and smokes one last cigarette while we reflect on the day’s hectic events. I manage to find the discipline to clean my teeth outside in the courtyard, and we sink exhausted into our quilts on the kang, the percussion suite still echoing in our ears.

New developments and conflicts
Looking back now, I was most fortunate to be privy to this ever-changing microhistory—reinvention, conflicts and all, as social dynamics evolved constantly in the wake of successive thefts of ritual paintings, with a change of leadership, and the rise of rival groups. Even the geography of the ritual site was changing almost yearly (see under paintings). Indeed, conflict was a regular feature of the village’s history, from the animosity between the ritual association and the Catholics which led to the 1900 Boxer massacre, to the social dislocation of Maoism. Such a detailed and frank account contrasts with both the sparse imperial records and the recent heritage propaganda —conflict, another core socialist theory, biting the dust…

After the death of He Qing in 1995, the wonderful Cai An was soon marginalized by the new leaders. In response to the loss of precious ritual artefacts in the two thefts of 1996, the association had to rise to the challenge:

We couldn’t let our generation be responsible for the end of a holy association which has been handed down from ages eternal.

Just before New Year 1997, after protracted intrigues, the association finally retrieved some of the ritual paintings said to have been handed over to the Baoding museum thirty years earlier: eight of the Ten Kings, and paintings of the four Officers of Merit and Empress Houtu. After getting a document of authorization from the county Bureau of Culture, they shrewdly requisitioned a car from Boss Heng so as to cut a more impressive figure on their visit to the museum. Meanwhile they had the various donors’ lists (which had also been stolen) carefully rewritten and repainted from my photos.

But just as everyone was preparing for an ostentatious New Year, the death of China’s Premier Deng Xiaoping threatened to disrupt it. A typical bit of mental juggling was now required in order for the village rituals to continue undisturbed. Deng died on the 11th day of the 1st moon in 1997, with remarkable, if uncharacteristic, attention to the rural calendar. When his death was announced, just before the major rituals around the 15th, the “commune” (as they still called the district authorities) dutifully ordered that New Year’s celebrations should be cancelled, and the village brigade had to tell the Music Association not to play. As one musician confided,

I turns it over in my head: when someone dies in the village, we play for them, so didn’t we ought to be able to play when Deng Xiaoping dies too? So I reckons, how about writing a motto “In mourning for Deng Xiaoping”, pasting it up outside the lantern tent, and playing as usual?

The Southern Music Association followed suit, and the New Year’s rituals went ahead.

I love this story: in order to make sure that Premier Deng’s death will not get in the way of their customary entertainment, they profess respect by pointing out the traditional use of ritual music to venerate the dead. As with all the best scams, its sincerity is unassailable. Things had changed a lot in the two decades since Chairman Mao’s death in 1976. Then the ritual association had virtually ceased to exist, and villagers had obeyed central orders without question out of genuine, indeed almost “superstitious”, belief in the Great Helmsman. Since 1978 villagers doubtless had a lot to thank Deng for, but there were ironies. Thanks to Deng’s liberalizations the association had been able to revive, but was threatened by new pressures; it was also thanks to him that people no longer placed blind faith in leadership, and were now disinclined to let his death take priority over their local culture.

Musicians regarded the 1997 New Year as the most lively in living memory, perhaps partly by necessity, to legitimize the new leadership and fight back against the theft of the paintings. While there is indeed constant re-invention, it is an organic remoulding of detail rather than a transformation of content.

For me, perhaps the best news was that they had recruited new members, and had coaxed back several former members to the fold, all sons of association stalwarts.

Meanwhile the declining village Shaolin (martial arts) association (for men) had effectively been replaced by a new yangge dance association for women.

Two months after New Year 1997 an unexpected revival took place. The Gaoluo ritual associations stopped making the 3rd-moon pilgrimage to Houshan by the 1930s; nor had they observed it within the village since the 1940s. Some villagers made the pilgrimage in small groups occasionally since then, especially since the liberalizations of the 1980s. But since 1948 the only vestige of collective worship within the village for Houtu’s festival on 3rd moon 15th was that some villagers still burned incense in the direction of Houshan on that day. In 1997 our association once again observed the festival in the village—although, as we found with some other aspects of cultural change, the revival was most haphazard.


Karaoke, New Year 1998.

Also in 1997 a gaudy flagship for modernity finally invaded Gaoluo: two or three families bought video-CD karaoke video machines. For the first time loud Chinese pop music polluted, or perfumed, the village air, wannabe singers paying 5 mao for each song. Just before New Year 1998 the main karaoke bar set up next to Cai An’s store, right opposite the temple, a fine juxtaposition: the two styles now competed, “facing platforms” in a classic juxtaposition of traditional and modern, as if pandering to the fantasy of some anthropological documentary maker.

But this turned out to be of minor consequence compared to another cultural initiative, controversy over which was to dominate my visit over the coming New Year, when I spent the New Year period in Gaoluo once again.

Strife at the opera
More significant than the yangge group and the karaoke bar was the miraculous restoration of the opera group, which got together for the first time since the brief revival of 1979–81 (for more on opera and karaoke, see Women of Gaoluo, under “Rural sexism”).

By contrast with the immutable ritual music, the village’s opera troupe performed modern opera in the early 1950s, abandoning it from 1958 to 1964 for the traditional bangzi style. They then inevitably blew with the wind to serve as a Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team, performing the “revolutionary” model operas. Political freedom after the dismantling of Maoism then allowed them to restore the traditional style from 1979 to 1981, but economic pressures soon forced them to disband.

The newly formed group was an extension of the shawm band; thus several members of the ritual association were also taking part. Their taste now subsumed both traditional and modern styles.

But exciting as it may sound that another traditional art-form had been restored, it soon exacerbated tensions within the ritual association. The argument hinged on the old taboo, inherited from imperial times and found across northern China, against professional and low-class “blowers-and-drummers” taking part in the refined ritual tradition of shengguan music. The conflict of “refined and vulgar” (ya-su) is both musical and vocational, in musical style and in the different prestige of amateur and occupational performance. Some association members seemed to feel a mixture of jealousy and disdain for the blowers-and-drummers, caused by economic, musical, and personal factors.

A new context
Further conflicts within the association surfaced when Factory Boss Heng invited the association to give a formal “concert performance” for cadres and affluent guests from Beijing at his tourist complex north of the county-town. To make a more varied “concert” he invited not only the ritual association, but also the new opera troupe and the blowers-and-drummers. This exacerbated the debate within the association, as complex personal relations form a backdrop for considerations of giving face.

Several factors were at work. Most simply, the times favoured such a development; Boss Heng had the material conditions to organize such a concert; sure, our scholarly interest had validated the music and made its outside presentation conceivable; and the old leaders of the association had now given way to more progressive organizers.

So was this the beginning of the end for the association’s traditional contexts, then? At the time it seemed a mere pie in the sky. It seemed that they might get used to the concert situation; but what a lot of work, for no obvious benefit. Xue Yibing and I told them of the experience of the Qujiaying village association nearby: since being discovered in 1986, it had indeed stayed in the headlines, largely through the dogged determination of its village chief, but without gaining any long-term security or satisfaction. Even if the Gaoluo musicians started to find the occasional concert in Beijing, it could never replace their traditional contexts. But later it did indeed prove a harbinger of the secularized reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

While the karaoke bar might seem a more obvious threat to the Music Association, in fact it wasn’t at all controversial. The members of the association weren’t opposed to modernity, for it occupies a separate sphere; the blowers-and-drummers were resented because they serve similar functions, and a conflict of material interest and spiritual duty was perceived.

As it turned out, both opera and karaoke were to be short-lived. Public karaoke was soon silenced as individual families bought their own video-CD players. And all were shocked in early 2000 when upright policeman Shan Rongqing, dynamic opera stalwart, died—Gaoluo had lost another great musician.

A lively New Year
Several performing associations from surrounding villages now come to pay their respects to Gaoluo. On the afternoon of the 6th day of the 1st moon a “small cart” association (Taipingche hui) consisting mainly of youngsters arrives on two trucks from Jianggezhuang village just west, performing in the courtyard of the village brigade. Solo singers, including a little boy, perform with the aid of a microphone: they sing traditional songs itemizing the days of the New Year, and the wonderfully kitsch Amitabha Buddha, a pop song of the comic Buddhist priest Jigong popularized in a TV series, a humorously satirical anti-religious product whose modern manifestation again has an imperial background.


Cart association, New Year 1998.

Then, just as the cart association was leaving, the Southern Music Association from West Yi’an arrived, joining up with their former pupils in South Gaoluo: Hu Delu, grandson of the great Hu Jinzhong who taught the Gaoluo musicians in 1952, was also a fine player of the large guanzi oboe, distinctive leading instrument of the “southern” style. Gaoluo villagers liked the cart association, but weren’t so interested in the Southern Music Association, since they had two of their own already; anyway the cart association made more of a spectacle.


Stilt-walkers, New Year 1998.

On the following afternoon, the 7th, a Stilts Association came from Liuhuangfu village east of the river. Helpers carried pennants on long poles—taken over by Gaoluo association members as they paraded through the village—and struck big gongs, while senior members of the association controlled the crowd and exchanged red papers of homage and thanks with the host village, represented by its own associations. The painted faces, costumes, and fans of the stiltwalkers made a great spectacle, but it must have been a tiring day for them. The helpers brought benches which served a double function: on arriving at the enormous playground of the village school after the long procession through the cratered village alleys, they rested on the benches as tea and cigarettes were brought. They then gave a lively performance, acting out short skits and leaping over the benches, first one, then two, then three, with elegant leaps whose danger is evident from the unusual hush of the spectators. The village’s genial ice-and-candy vendor is doing a roaring trade, children clamouring around his cart.

On the 7th the opera group were doing a gig in Nanhou village to the south. Back in South Gaoluo on the 9th at 3pm they performed in the packed courtyard of the brigade office, site of the former temple and opera stage. Their programme included excerpts from traditional bangzi, as well as the teahouse scene from the Cultural Revolution hit Shajiabang. Both were well received.

On the afternoon of the 9th both the North Gaoluo associations went to parade in Wucun village just south. On the next day they also repaid the visits from Liuhuangfu and West Yi’an, while the South village opera group performed at North Gaoluo, with amplification. The new yangge association was also active over the period: on the afternoon of the 3rd, as I returned from visiting Li Wenbin’s grave with his sons, they were rehearsing in the street by the shop near Shan Yude’s house, and later they go to perform in two other villages.

Meanwhile heated arguments about the blowers-and-drummers and opera group continued.

Another Lantern festival
On the morning of the 12th, a day earlier than the other associations, the North village Music Association opened its altar, and we paid a visit. That afternoon our village association prepared its ritual building, a laborious process.

Our association broadcast the rituals live over both South and North villages—they had just bought their own sound system—and when not performing they put on tapes of their Beijing recordings, drowning out the karaoke, and apparently flaunting their superiority over the other associations.

Meanwhile the other three associations were doing less well. This was judged by how efficacious its gods were considered, which in turn was evident from the grandeur of the decked-out ritual building, the prestige of the ritual, and the number of people offering incense. Perhaps the increased activity of the other associations outside the village was in response to their feeling of demotion within the village.

As in 1997, our association put up a Houtu tent in the courtyard, and an awning extended from the ritual building, under which they usually perform; the building itself looked rather bare, and was little used except for the daily “Opening the Altar”. As to the paintings recovered before New Year 1997, the eight surviving Ten Kings paintings occupied the building itself, as well as the Four Officers of Merit, now in pairs unlike the old single representations; alas, there was still no pantheon. The Houtu painting, flanked by two other old paintings, occupied a separate tent. Cai Yurun reminds us: “The old lot went off of their own accord, the conditions here were too poor, they couldn’t stand it! If we don’t look after this lot properly they’ll be off too!”

dengpeng 98

The lantern tent, New Year 1998, with new and newly-copied donors’ lists.

The new donors’ lists, and a copy of the stolen 1990 list made from my photos, were hung under the awning where the association plays.


Percussion suite, New Year 1998.

The solemn balletic Fendiezi percussion suite was magnificent as ever. It was also then that we recorded the Mayilang suite (playlist #10, with commentary here).

After midnight the tall yellow paper envelopes of petitions to the gods were burned and the association members kowtowed before the Houtu painting while deafening firecrackers (controversially requisitioned from Boss Heng) were let off. This made a rousing send-off to the gods, and we were all in an emotional mood as we tramped back home through the alleys, the full moon obviating the need for torches.

As ever, the crucial factors in decline, rather than political initiatives, were migration and the vogue for pop culture. Since my visits in the 1990s, village customs throughout the area have continued to be transformed.


Association members and helpers, New Year 1995.