Gaoluo: other ritual groups

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

Amateur ritual associations have long been active in most villages on the Hebei plain. Many had just one such group, serving the needs of the whole community; but some, like Shenshizhuang in Yixian—and Gaoluo—had several, serving particular areas of the village.

While my main focus in Gaoluo was always the “Music Association” (yinyuehui: for this misleading term, and more background, see here) of South village, I also paid visits to the three other ritual associations in the village, which themselves have interesting histories and artefacts. Here’s a brief introduction—worth reading in conjunction with this page on their ritual artefacts.

North Gaoluo: the Music Association
Just as the Music Association of South Gaoluo is in the south of the village, that of North Gaoluo is in the north. Again, we were always received with great warmth by the members, though they must have been somewhat envious of all the attention we give to the South village association.

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The North Gaoluo Music Association, 1993. Li Junlan on dizi flute.

Kindly association leader Li Junlan (b. 1932) typifies the honesty and sincerity of senior ritual specialists whom we have been honoured to meet during our years of fieldwork in the area. He was one of over twenty young village men who began studying the ritual shengguan music together in the early 1940s during the War against Japan. His older brother, the leading guanzi-player Li Junjie (1919–96), brigade leader until the 1964 Four Cleanups, was long the most dynamic force in the association.

In imperial times, the association effectively served the great temple. As in the South village, they say they are Daoist-transmitted (daomen), and they even used to wear Daoist robes. Before Liberation the association had no “public building”, but after Liberation two “masters” (xiansheng) bequeathed their houses for the use of the association. Yan Fucai’s older brother, a businessman in Taiwan, sent him money to set up a factory, with which they built an ordinary three-unit building—actually, such overseas Chinese connections are virtually unheard of in north Chinese villages I have visited. Anyway, the factory plan didn’t come off, and the building was left to the association. It was on the site of the old Tudi miao temple, right in the middle of the village. As in South village, they always practised at each other’s houses.

Their gongche score, though undated, is very similar to that of our South village Music Association. [1] They can still play a few pieces which the latter has “lost”—notably the major Da Zouma, which we were pleased to record in 1998. Though they have not performed funeral liturgy since before the Four Cleanups in 1964, they preserve two funeral manuals very similar to those of South village. The musicians say they used to have a Ten Kings scroll and a Houtu scroll, but they have not performed such “precious scrolls” since the Japanese invasion, just because all the old ritual specialists died off, and any old scrolls now seem to have been lost.

As ever, ritual musicians have been prominent in the village leadership. Another enthusiastic senior member was Li Tingshui (b. c1941, guanzi). He began studying the music in the winter of 1957–58, and learned very quickly, but he went off to the army “with an empty belly” during the 1960 famine. After returning to the village on the eve of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 he became chief of the village militia and then chief of the Revolutionary committee. Since the death of respected senior masters like Li Junjie, he became the leading guanzi player. Li Tingqi (b. c1945), a former deputy village chief, had been one of the leaders of the association since the late 1980s; a dizi player, he learned from one Yan Quan, who could play everything.

The story of the eccentric Yan Fucai (b. c1929, guanzi and all the instruments) is unusual. His father had served in the retinue of the warlord Feng Yuxiang, spending time in Beijing. In 1948, when Yan Fucai was 17, he broke with his father and went off to join the 4th Liberation Field Army in the distant southern province of Jiangxi. His older brother had gone off to “study” in Taiwan, but soon fell ill, only recovering fully after eight years; helped by fellow students to get started in business, he was still working in Taiwan, also doing business in Singapore. Yan Fucai himself also fell ill and came back to Gaoluo in 1952, just in time to join a new batch of six or seven new recruits to the Music Association. He admits he “wasn’t particularly taken with it”, but he felt the obligation not to let the old tradition die out. That year he also taught in the village school.

Yan Fucai’s older brother sent him money to open a factory in the village; when the plan fell through, the building they put up became the home of the association. In 1954 Yan went off to Beijing to work in the Administrative Bureau of the National Affairs Academy, but gave up after a couple of years when he found it difficult to get on with people at work. After a short stay back in Gaoluo, he had an even shorter interlude in another work-unit in 1956. He hated the Great Leap Forward, when “people were no longer treated like people”, and went off again to Beijing to work in the 1st Universal Machine Factory. Again, he got into trouble with people at work, and returned late in the 8th moon of 1962. Though he didn’t spell it out, one supposes that his constant difficulties derived at least in part from his family connections with Taiwan. He now worked mainly as a bricklayer in the village. After the reforms, he went to the nearby town of Gaobeidian in 1986 to open a small factory, but got fed up with it and gave up in 1992. “You have to be so good at making gifts, I’m no good at all that poncey stuff. I don’t earn money for myself, I just want to help the village school, and help with electricity, so the village can get richer.”

On the evening of every market day some of the musicians had an informal arrangement to get together at Yan’s house and play through some of the shengguan pieces. Yan Fucai often acted as lead guanzi, but exclaimed with a chortle, “I have a speciality, I never play it right! But I can always get back in again when I hear the others!” Yan’s wife used to work at a piano factory in Beijing; after she died in 1996 he moved back to Beijing.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution the association had restarted in 1982, training six guanzi and seven sheng players; now only two guanzi and three sheng of that intake remained. They were stimulated by our visit to the South village Music Association in 1989, and by its consequent new lease of life, to have new ritual paintings made. Their 1990 donors’ list for these new paintings is entitled “Enduring fragrances of myriad ages” (Wan’gu liufang). At the top are the names of twelve guanshi organizers. The inscription reads:

Our village North Gaoluo Blue Banner Holy Association is reckoned to have been transmitted for several hundred springs, but has previously encountered warfare and barren years, and has been in decline; even as recently as the Cultural Revolution, all of our cultural relics were completely destroyed. The villagers have been lamenting this ceaselessly. This spring, with abundant rain water and auspicious nature, the people’s sentiments are inspired, mindful of restoring the sacred association, calling on the common people to support it with generous donations. We have made an inscription to record this, in the hope that the reputation of the customs of this village will be transmitted for a thousand ages.

Time: People’s Republic of China, 1990 AD

The inscription is followed by a list of 147 heads of households who had given between 50 and 2 yuan. Such donors’ lists are hung alongside the paintings during rituals, and are part of village identity, its spiritual and cultural core.

We also saw a more transient paper list of expenses from New Year 1992–93, pasted at the entrance to their “temple”, and already decrepit and hard to read by the following summer. They had received 690.47 yuan—including 64.4 yuan from the Socialist Education work-team; they had incurred expenses such as buying coal, meat, vegetables, doufu, oil, salt, tea, firecrackers, tuning sheng, buying cloth bags for sheng, copying scores (two items, 5 and 4 yuan respectively), and mounting ritual manuals and paintings (1 yuan).

At New Year 1998 we also saw paper lists of income and expenses for the past year. Most of the association’s income had come from the hiring of crockery; donations had also been made when the association performed funerals (the rate being around 100 yuan). Some individuals had donated money, one as much as 750 yuan, and the village committee had given 200 yuan. They had received 3,638.2 yuan (including 939.8 yuan brought forward from the previous year) and spent 2,992.2 yuan.

The musicians stressed that our brief 1993 visit had further strengthened their resolve, giving them more confidence. It was again Li Junjie in 1995 who took out 120 yuan of his own savings to have a new Dizang painting made; later the other members had contributed too. The old one (as in South Gaoluo and elsewhere) was in rows, like a pantheon, but this artist had just painted a single Dizang, and as they say the effect is not so good, though it bore a long text.

Alas, Li Junjie died shortly afterwards. For his funeral they draped the lower half of his coffin with one of the association’s pennants, following the modern urban secular custom for national leaders, originally borrowed from the West. And of course they hung out the new Dizang painting which Li Junjie had recently commissioned for the association. Although his younger brother Li Junlan makes a wonderful successor, the loss of Li Junjie may be as grievous for the association as that of He Qing in the South village.

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North Gaoluo Music Association, New Year 1994. Front row, in centre, Li Junjie.

Through the 1990s the association had over twenty musicians. They were friendly, and keen, but again there were few young people. In 1996 only Li Junlan and Yan Zengkui (b. c1927, dizi) survived of the recruits of the early 1940s. By 1998 Junlan had persuaded four or five former members to come back to the association, as in South Gaoluo; and a keen young recruit called Yan Wenshan (then 26) was already playing the complex bo cymbal part of the percussion suite with relish, though he had only been learning for a couple of months.

Li Junlan sincerely pleaded with me to spend more time there, and to stay at his house, to increase the association’s prestige and encourage young people. Much as I would have loved to, I was already too busy with the South village association; nonetheless, I played a suite with them and made some recordings, and we had a great meal together, all of which we trust will increase their commitment.

South Gaoluo: the Association of the Guanyin Hall
Although our contacts are mainly with the Music Association, the members of the Guanyin Hall Association (Guanyin tang 觀音堂) have also been most warm in welcoming us on our few brief visits. They were pleased for us to copy their score and manuals, both for them and for our own research.

The Music Association is in the south end of the village, the Guanyin Hall (later commonly known as Southern Music Association) in the north end, belonging still to the Guanyin temple formerly on the site of their present building. Allegiance of villagers to the two associations is mainly geographical: when there is a funeral to perform, a family in the south end of the village generally invites the Music Association, while a family in the north end invites the Guanyin Hall. Families also donate to one or other association accordingly.

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South village Southern Music Association, 1995. Shan Yunming 2nd from left.

The Guanyin Hall is also quite rich in history. According to erudite Shan Fuyi the Guanyin temple was only built in the late Qing dynasty, perhaps even early in the 20th century. It was also known as Eastern Lantern Association (Dongdeng hui).

The association has beautifully embroidered old ritual curtains from 1907. We wondered if they could even commemorate the founding of the temple, but in 1996 we deduced that the association at least (if not the temple) must be much older than this, when the musicians brought out two fine old “precious scrolls” (see here, under “Other local ritual groups”), to Baiyi (Guanyin) and Dizang, officiating over birth and death respectively—the musicians say they also used to have a Houtu scroll, though the Baiyi scroll fulfils a similar function. The Dizang scroll is dated 1710, apparently the earliest ritual artefact we have from Gaoluo, though the inscription gives no place or name. Their funerary manual is similar to but more complete than the 1903 manual of the Music Association.

In 1930, competing with the Catholics, like the Music Association, the Guanyin Hall association commissioned new Buddha images, including some fine Houtu paintings which still adorned the ritual building at New Year. Before the 1950s they punctuated their ritual with the popular and simple shawm-and-percussion music called chaozi—that was the music which they performed in September 1931 for the benediction of the Catholic church.

On the eve of Liberation, their revered ritual master was Zhang Yi, also a leading figure in the Three Teachings sect which overlapped with the Guanyin Hall Association. But even before the 1950s they performed the ritual manuals quite rarely on outings of the association; and the death of Zhang Yi in 1950 spelt the virtual end of their ritual tradition.

The association converted from chaozi to Southern Music in 1952. They invited the famous musician Hu Jinzhong from West Yi’an village nearby, giving him food and accommodation through the winter, but no fee, as ever. There was some opposition to them learning the music, so the association sought no public donations; it still owned some land in the early 1950s, so it could buy instruments independently. Supporters merely “took care of a banquet” for the association, and no donors’ list was made. Nor did they learn any vocal liturgy from West Yi’an. This revamping of their musical image might seem like a kind of acceptance of the loss of their ritual tradition, but in fact their original chaozi was itself a relatively secular genre, and the musicians say they changed simply because chaozi wasn’t popular—with only one small shawm (laba) it wasn’t considered exciting enough.

The association has three handsome blue pennants inscribed with the characters “Southern Music Association, Blue Banner Holy Association of South Gaoluo, Yizhou-Laishui counties in Zhili”; [2] apparently the county Hall of Culture took a fourth pennant off during the Cultural Revolution, and didn’t give it back—we heard similar stories in other counties.

Their 1962 revival as a “Dragon-Lantern Association” (indicating the dragon dancing accompanied by percussion) again reflects the short-lived cultural restoration of those years. This time they did seek donations, and made a donors’ list. They used the same cloth on which the 1930 list had been written; the 1930 list is on the right, the 1962 list continues to the left.


At the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, with the same cunning as our friend Cai Ran, the members protected their ritual manuals from the Red Guards by hiding them in the house of association member Zhang Wen (b. c1926). During the civil war Zhang had been a Communist guerrilla and district team chief, but had lost an eye in battle; he later bought a wife, but she ran off in disgust after a few days, and he has been alone ever since. But since Liberation he had received a token stipend from the government as an “honorary soldier”, and no-one would have dreamt of giving him a hard time in the Cultural Revolution. Still pretty down-and-out when we met him, he continued to support the association keenly.

After the demise of the commune system the association must have restarted along with the other associations by about 1980. Following our 1989 visit and the revamping of the Music Associations of North and South villages, they too had a surge of energy in 1992, making a new donors’ list for the rebuilding of their “temple” (a typically unprepossessing modern brick building), with this inscription:

The Eastern Lantern Association of South Gaoluo rebuilt its public building in 1992 AD under the People’s Republic of China, with the aid of the donors listed above. Total expenditure 2,984 yuan 4 jiao; 15 yuan surplus.

The list shows 215 donors giving sums from 20 yuan to 2 yuan. From 65 donors in 1930 and 83 in 1962, the new figure reflects population increase rather than any expansion of influence.

In 1996 the association had around twenty-seven musicians, of whom thirteen were surnamed Yan (the dominant surname of North Gaoluo and also the northern part of the South village) and nine were surnamed Shan. Nineteen of the members were in their 50s and 60s. The only man over 70, former ritual head Yan Fengchi (1917–97), had made the Houshan pilgrimage three times before Liberation. He had studied the vocal liturgy, but by 1995, having hardly performed it since the 1950s, he could barely recall a few phrases. Since he died they no longer burned the god petitions on 1st moon 16th; no-one remained with adequate ritual expertise. Again, tradition was being impoverished by personal loss rather than political restriction.

The musical leader was the forthright Shan Yunming (b. 1934), who led the ensemble on large guanzi. After Liberation he had gone off to Beijing to work on the railways, returning home in 1962, like many, and taking part in the brief ritual revival. He went on to serve as a village cadre, and was involved in the factional wrangling of the Cultural Revolution.

Like other “Southern Music” bands, in addition to the traditional shengguan instrumentation they use large guanzi and bowed fiddle, as well as the “lama horn” (lama hao), played in jocular imitation of the vocal parts of local opera. One Shan Yunde (b.1934) gave a nice viewpoint on amateur activity:

How could I learn the guanzi while I was trying to support a family of four sons and two daughters? I couldn’t even earn enough work-points to support them by working all day long! Now they’re grown up I’ve got time to pick it up at last!

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Their gongche score contains ninety-five melodies—many more than that of West Yi’an, whose association had taught them. In total contrast to the conservative repertory of Music Association scores, these melodies are a charming catologue of 20th-century musical change, illustrating how the Southern Music Associations “keep up with the times”. There are some old pieces like Chao tianzi, Ji xianbin, Yu furong, and Elangzi, some popular folk-songs like Xiao mofang; classic “southern” pieces like Si shangxian and Erfan; and pieces from the local bangzi opera.

But the score also contains many “revolutionary songs” such as Socialism is good, Land Reform, The East is red, In praise of Chairman Mao, Study Lei Feng, Electing the village chief, and the catchily-titled The hearts of the poor and lower-middle peasants are as one. All are written in traditional gongche notation, which may seem rather like transcribing Hendrix riffs into lute tablature. They may still be able to play most of the revolutionary pieces, but they don’t; when they play new pieces today, it is usually pop songs and TV theme tunes. The score also contains the seven sections of the percussion suite Fendie, which they copied and relearnt in about 1964.

Like many  musicians using the “southern” style, they readily conceded that the more solemn music of the Music Associations is more “civilized”. And however they had modernized their repertory, they still preserved the ritual tradition of performing only as amateurs, for funerals, not for weddings, just like their old chaozi association. However, since the late 1980s, as in our Music Association, several members had also been taking part in a professional shawm band.

North Gaoluo: the Association of the Guanyin Hall
This group was also based on a former Guanyin (or Baiyi, “White Clothes”, as she is popularly known) temple. In 1995 it had over twenty performers, led by Yan Jintian (then 64). Situated in the south end of North Gaoluo not far from the South village Guanyin Hall Association, they learned the “southern” style from the latter in the early 1960s.

They have an inscription dating from New Year 1981, written alternately in elegant classical Chinese and the clichés of the standard modern language. It makes much of the “civilizing” powers of the association and the moral virtues of its members. The inscription gives a brief history of the association, which is named as “East Great Street Baiyi Lantern Association”. Though the association is described as ancient, not until 1998 were we able to confirm its ancestry.

Accompanied by friends from our South village Music Association, we paid a visit to the organizers, and over tea and cigarettes we got talking about ritual manuals. The musicians now brought out their own “precious scrolls”, similar to those of the South village, which gave us exciting further clues to the early history of the association, and of village ritual. The association has not performed them since the early 1960s, and they are in poor condition, mixed up, and incomplete. However, their Zaowang scroll (to the kitchen god, the only such scroll I have seen in this area) is dated 1720, and their Baiyi scroll 1745; furthermore, most significantly, their concluding inscriptions include the characters “Gaole village”, showing that they were indeed acquired for the village itself at the time, not just bought later (again, see here, under “Other local ritual groups”).

Another scroll, to Dizang, though undated, also seems early, and further contains a new section copied in 1932, just after the building of the Catholic church, when as we have seen the ritual associations were making a show of strength. The association also has an undated funeral manual, similar to those of the other associations, but less complete. Anyway, their vocal liturgy clearly has a longer tradition than their instrumental music.

The first historical material on the 1981 list consists of four names (“transmitters of the ritual business”) from the 1920s. In the mid-1930s, it goes on, the North Gaoluo opera association (xihui) arose from East Great Street: seven names are listed. In 1951 its name was officially changed to “Laishui 1st District Educational Pingju Troupe”. In this period their only instrumental music was a simple percussion group called by the onomatopoeic name pengpengcha.

But they did not become an exclusively secular association: with such fine early scriptures, they still had a considerable reputation for their observance of the ritual proprieties. Shan Yongcun (d. c1956) was said to perform the vocal liturgy (nian dafo 念大佛, they said, “reciting the great Buddha”) well. In the optimistic cultural climate of the early 1960s they invited their sister association, the Guanyin Hall Association in South village, to teach them the “southern” style of shengguan, “exhorting and educating the people with folk melodies”; ten names are listed. Again, they managed to preserve the scriptures through the Cultural Revolution, but the tradition of reciting them never revived.

Upon resuming activities in 1981, they learned lion-dancing from the lion association of North Wazhai village, west of the county-town; twelve names are listed, with donors on the reverse side of the cloth, unusually. Later the lion dancing went into decline.

Thus having originally been a temple-based ritual association, they acquired opera in the 1930s, reformed pingju opera in 1951, Southern Music in the 1960s, and lion dancing in 1981.

They too performed the Fendie percussion suite which is the pride of the associations. The ensemble had a fine left-handed percussionist, called Yan Chuncai; in 1995 I was amazed by this, but in 1998 we met more and more left-handed people—at one meal I was one of four left-handers at a table of eight men, another reminder of the potential for non-conformity in village China.

* * *

As ever, with such groups we see the close connection between secular and ritual leaderships; and constant reinvention in rapidly changing social, political, and economic climates.


[1] The contents of the score, as well as the donors’ lists below, are listed in Zhongguo yinyue nianjian 1994, p.321–4, and Zhang Zhentao, Yinyuehui, p.135.

[2] Though these pennants were evidently made after 1952, the use of the term Zhili, name of Hebei province before 1928, is still commonly used today on ritual inscriptions in the region.