Gaoluo: vocal liturgists


The South Gaoluo vocal liturgists perform the Houtu precious scroll, summer 1993.
Left to right: Shan Mingkui, Cai Haizeng, Shan Yude, Cai An, Cai Ran.

Here’s another vignette on the ritual association of South Gaoluo, based on my detailed historical ethnography Plucking the winds (see this roundup, and Gaoluo tag).

Focusing on the transmission of the vocal liturgy through the first fifteen years of Maoism and since the 1980s’ revival, my main purpose here is to illustrate the close relation of ritual and political authority both before and after the Communist revolution—with sketches of the vocal liturgists of the association, and their strong hereditary backgrounds, from the 19th right through to the 21st century.

Most amateur ritual associations in the villages of the Hebei plain south of Beijing use shengguan wind ensemble music to represent their veneration of the gods, but not all of them incorporate vocal liturgy—although that was the only style that some groups performed (the foshihui 佛事會), accompanied by percussion without melodic instrumental music (see e.g. under The Houshan Daoists). Even in those associations that use both, like Gaoluo, the vocal liturgy tends to be subsidiary.

Rather like church choir and orchestra, the “civil altar” (wentan 文壇) reciting the ritual manuals is separate from the instrumental section: though some performers did both, the general rule was that “those who recite study reciting specially, those who study wind music can’t recite”.

Unlike the instrumentalists, the liturgists recite the texts with the aid of the manuals; but the vocal melodies do not exist in notated gongche versions. They accompany themselves on the main beats with the ritual percussion (faqi) of bangzi woodblock, yinqing small bowl on stick, and pengling small bells; for funerals, drum and dangzi gong-in-frame add a simple pattern.

GL wentan

The “civil altar” performing for a funeral, winter 1995.

Vocal liturgy is prescribed for funerals, including the Ten Kings precious scroll. Other “precious scrolls” (baojuan, folk sectarian religious manuals in 24 chapters relating popular morality tales about the gods) are also performed for calendrical rituals, notably the New Year’s rituals and the 3rd-moon festival of the goddess Houtu (Playlist §7, with commentary here). Throughout the area we found many such scrolls, dating back to the 18th century, and Gaoluo in particular is a treasure trove: see The Houshan Daoists, under “Other local ritual groups”.

HTJ shiziti

Houtu precious scroll, ten-word form.

The main surviving funeral manual of the Gaoluo association dates from 1903, just after the Boxer massacre of the village Catholics.

For more photos, see Funerals in Hebei.

All four ritual associations in North and South Gaoluo have a long tradition of vocal liturgy and ritual manuals (also outlined in Plucking the winds), but by the 1990s only our association was still performing them, with a middle-generation group who had learned in the early 1960s. Though they were only able to study the liturgy for three winters before the Four Cleanups, and their master Cai Fuxiang and some of his colleagues died before the full restoration, the senior Cai Yongchun and Li Wenbin at least were able to guide them throughout the 1980s. By 2000 the present group had been free to practise again for twenty years.

In this region, as elsewhere, no conflict was felt between the revolution and the practice of the old ways; many impeccable Party members we have met in these villages led both the revolution and the reciting of the ritual manuals. After all, this was no elite group of Confucian landlords: the performers came from poor backgrounds, and the association served and was supported by rich and poor alike.

But ritual specialists were by no means aloof from politics. In South Gaoluo after Liberation, even when the village cadres didn’t formally take part in or support the association, none of them opposed it. Here, as it happens, Party Secretary and village chief were not association members until the 1980s, but many ritual performers were prestigious figures in village politics all through the years of Maoism—like the formidable He Qing, who led the association upon the 1980s’ revival. After He Qing’s death in 1995, the talented Cai Yurun played a major role, leading the shengguan ensemble on guanzi oboe while serving intermittently as village Party Secretary.

In many other villages we visited, Party Secretary, brigade chiefs, and heads of the revolutionary committee might all be active members of the ritual association. If they weren’t, then they were close relatives. So while campaigns undoubtedly posed dangers for such groups, yet the solidarity of influential men must have also worked to protect them.

The 1940s were an extremely troubled period, with Japanese occupation followed by a savage civil war; the association was only intermittently able to perform from 1937 to 1948—a period long than the whole Cultural Revolution. 

In the winter of 1949–50, in the brief “honeymooon” after Liberation, a group of young students of the shengguan instrumental music was recruited, apparently to celebrate the end of a long period of chaos and to restore ritual norms. Still, the manufactured “class struggle” accompanying Land Reform was to perpetuate the cultural impoverishment temporarily inflicted by poverty and chaos. With the disappearance of the old elite, variation in expenditure was condensed.

Funerals were now often condensed from three to two days, and were to become still simpler after the early 1960s. Some villagers suggested that in the 1950s it was not so much that they felt intimidated by the new regime; rather, the disappearance of the more affluent class meant that no-one had enough cash to perform these complex rituals—the expense consisting in organisation and hosting, not in inviting the association, which has always performed as a ritual duty. Before Liberation, you might observe a grand funeral if you could still afford it; after Liberation you just couldn’t afford it.

As formidable association leader He Qing observed, funeral practice became simplified after the 1940s, with some major segments becoming obsolete in Gaoluo—though not throughout the area.

So when villagers said religious life was “exactly the same” after Liberation, they meant, for instance, that when there was a funeral, the eldest son still came to kowtow to the head of the ritual association to invite them, and they still performed their traditional shengguan music, percussion, and a substantial sequence of rituals with the vocal liturgy. They still sang the solemn melismatic hymns, the Triple Offerings of Tea, and the Ten Kings scroll. Indeed, apart from the latter, they were still performing them in the 1990s. There had been no clear change of function, nor any change of content apart from a certain abbreviation. The secular “memorial meetings” long prescribed by central policy have remained entirely unknown.

* * *

In the 1940s two activists in the underground Communist organizations in South Gaoluo were liturgists in the ritual association, Cai Fuxiang and Cai Yongchun. A suitable starting point for us is the sad, complex tale of Cai Fuxiang (told here), whose experience of guerrilla activity and the massacre of his family led to a breakdown under Maoism. 

Cai Yongchun
Cai Yongchun (1909–92), son of ritual musician Cai Qing, besides playing guanzi in the association, also specialised in the vocal liturgy. It was him that we heard singing the great Incantation of Pu’an (Plucking the winds, CD 19) on our very first visit to the ritual building at New Year 1989.

Cai Yongchun 1989

On the eve of Liberation Cai Yongchun sometimes served as “incense head” for the association. He went on to become head of the “Grain-resistance association”, and later he acted as grain-collector on behalf of the Communist 8th Route Army—he made himself scarce whenever Nationalist troops came to the village. Often on the run, sometimes at night in another village he would creep into the livestock shed of some landlord and sleep in the hay.

Cai Yongchun also acted as village book-keeper (then called xiansheng, “master”), and served on the Land Reform committee. Still, he was himself classified as a “middle peasant”, and after Liberation he held no official positions apart from helping to collect the grain tax. Fastidious about hygiene, he always brought a couple of pieces of mo bread which he ate on his own while the association members were eating their food together. With his revolutionary credentials, he was to play a crucial role in hiding the association’s ritual paintings from the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution.

Li Wenbin
The tall and imposing Li Wenbin (1931–93) was also a fine ritual specialist, and played percussion in the shengguan ensemble. A career Communist Party member, he was also a devout adherent of religion.

His father Li Baoyu (d. c1975) was a fine performer of the liturgy; his own father Li Sheng was from the first generation of musicians that anyone can recall—he too recited the liturgy, as well as playing yunluo gong-frame; he taught He Qing’s father He Jincai.

Like Cai Fuxiang and many other ritual specialists we have met in the area, Li Wenbin was a staunch revolutionary. Before Liberation he attended sishu private school; after 1956 he went off to act as book-keeper for the county government. Married to the older sister of association stalwart He Qing, he always came home to take part in the New Year’s rituals. The old ritual manuals used to be kept at his house, but later they were kept with Cai Fuxiang—a fateful transfer.

Following the government cuts necessitated by the famines, Li Wenbin returned to Gaoluo in 1962 to act as Deputy Secretary and brigade book-keeper; it was also perhaps in this period that he was Party Secretary of the village Communist Youth League.

Li Wenbin piKong

Li Wenbin’s award for “Criticising Confucius and Lin Biao” campaign, 1974.

Li WenbinHe was only able to return to work in the county-town in the late 1970s after the wasted years of the Cultural Revolution; he returned to the county Finance department, later moving to the county government office. After the death of his wife in 1976 he remarried; his new wife already had a child. Sadly, in 1993 all three were asphyxiated by coal fumes from a blocked pipe in their room in the county-town (a none-too-rare cause of accidents in China); villagers said they got on so well despite only getting together quite late in life, but at least they were able to go to heaven together! He was a lovely, generous man, all agreed; everyone who knew him had wept at his funeral.

LWB stele kowtow

Kin kowtow at grave of Li Wenbin and his first wife, 1st moon 3rd day 1998.

Li Wenbin’s five children by his first marriage promptly erected a stele to their parents in the fields by the track west of the village, a rare sight in the area these days: such a stele cost about 700 yuan. It faces northwest, in the direction of the Houshan mountains, home of the goddess Houtu, whose scripture Li Wenbin so loved to recite. For all his lifelong service to the Party, the inscription commemorates his moral virtue in purely Confucian terms.

Two of Li Wenbin’s sons, Li Runtian (b.1950, percussion) and Li Chuntian (b.1962, sheng), were in the association through the 1990s. Runtian was just starting to learn the Houtu scroll in the family tradition (see below) when the Four Cleanups campaign started and they all had to give up. During the Cultural Revolution, as a secondary school pupil, he was caught up in the sobering adventure of the “Great Penetration”, Mao’s campaign to make students travel throughout the country to spread revolution. By the 1980s the Li brothers were part of a group in the ritual association who regarded themselves as disciples of He Qing, and later they were to form something of a rearguard “conservative faction”.

Returning to the earlier period, another ritual specialist, the brusque Cai Lin (Cai Laoyi: for “old names”, see here), one of the “managers” on the 1930 donors’ list, died in the famine of 1960. His son Cai Fulü (d.1969) also performed the scriptures, though villagers agree that his own son Haizeng (see below) later recited them more devoutly. Cai Fulü attended private school; he had a damaged leg (visible in the photo below) after being shot by bandits. Just before Liberation he found himself in dispute with association when he took over the ritual building as a store.

Cai Fulu

Cai Fulü (left) with village Catholic Shan Wenyi
(brother-in-law of Woman Zhang), 1930s.
Photo courtesy of Cai Haizeng.

The Sun lineage in Gaoluo, originally only two families, had moved from Nangong county in south Hebei earlier in the 20th century; they also provided some ritual performers. Sun Xiufeng (d. c1947) worked as a foot masseur in the bath-houses of Beijing; he taught both yunluo and vocal liturgy to his son Sun Wenqi (b. c1926).

Sun Wenqi, like flautist Shan Jiutong, was responsible for Public Security in South Gaoluo; from 1958 until 1962 he went off to act as a labour-camp guard in Gaobeidian nearby. By 1979 he was ill, and unable to take part in the restoration; by the 1990s he was mentally unbalanced. Maestro Cai An, himself a fine yunluo player, much admired Sun Wenqi’s playing.

The 1961-64 recruits
As all over China (e.g. the Li family Daoists), after the calamities of the “Three Years of Hardship“, another short-lived cultural restoration now took place, made possible by an economic recovery based on a retrenchment from the disastrous political extremism of the Great Leap Backward.

Any political anxieties which might have emerged by the late 1950s about practising “feudal superstitious” culture were dismissed as two groups of young students began training with the senior masters of the ritual association. First to learn, in the winter of 1961–62, was a group of young men happy to study the vocal liturgy with flawed revolutionary Cai Fuxiang. And then, through the following winter, after the autumn harvest, over thirty young men took up the ritual shengguan music.

This was far the largest recruitment in living memory, and the first new intake since that of seven youngsters (including Cai An and Shan Bingyuan) to learn the shengguan music in the winter of 1956–57. Unusually, the stigma of Shan Bingyuan’s “rich-peasant” class status didn’t mitigate against joining this “mass organisation”. 

As perky Shan Yutian commented, “There was nothing else to do, so we studied wholeheartedly. Our families all supported us, because it was like a traditional moral education for us to learn something like that.” While the economy seemed to be recovering and campaigns quietening down, I believe the restoration was partly stimulated by the forced return of many men from working outside the village. The rooms of the ritual association and opera troupe were supplied with electricity at village expense, and erudite Shan Fuyi reflects that this was another factor.

The young recruits studied the scriptures in the winters and springs from 1961 to 1964 with the distinguished Cai Fuxiang. As they recalled,

We were a group of mates, and with nothing to do in the winter, we thought it would be nice to learn with him. We studied every evening at his house, and soon we were all hooked (shangyin).

Cai Fuxiang was very good to them; despite his recent political problems, not to mention the trauma of 1947, he was a kindly and affable character, and he knew the scriptures inside out. His second wife was always very kind, plying them with tea. The ritual specialists today remember the study period with great nostalgia. Shan Yude still keeps a copy of the funeral manual which he made in the 2nd moon of 1962.

While the students were learning the liturgy, Cai Fuxiang also explained how to perform it in ritual context. But they had little opportunity to put this into practice before still more violent campaigns disrupted their lives yet again.

wentan and me

With the “civil altar”, 1998 (photo: Xue Yibing).
Left to right Cai Haizeng, Shan Mingkui, me, Shan Yude, Cai Ran.

The new students of the vocal liturgy included Shan Mingkui, Shan Yude, Cai Ran, and Cai Haizeng, all still active into the 21st century.

Three other villagers who took up the liturgy later desisted. Cai Fulin (d.1988) son of guanzi-player Cai Peng, was to hold leading posts in the Cultural Revolution, and did not take the ritual up again. Li Wenbin’s son Li Runtian (b.1950) later stuck to playing percussion in the association. Perhaps best of all at “running the text” (zouwen), with a good memory and a fine voice, was Shan Bingsheng (b.1941), son of “landlord” Shan Shutang; but political problems were soon to drive him out of the village.

Shan Mingkui
The oldest of the new recruits was the quietly-spoken Shan Mingkui (b.1931). He was one of three cousins who took part on dizi flute in the recruitment of 1949–50, but he was later discouraged from persisting. Never having been to school before Liberation, he attended evening school from 1950 to 1952.

Mingkui’s cousin Mingzeng’s study of the shengguan ritual music was rudely interrupted when he was one of six youngsters “volunteered” to serve in the Korean War. However villagers may have welcomed the new society, after so many years of warfare, no-one had much stomach for going off to distant parts to lay down their lives, no matter how cadres might bombard them with patriotic propaganda. Shan Mingzeng soon deserted, returning to the village to continue learning the ritual music.

Though utterly placid in nature, from 1958 to 1964 Shan Mingkui was “political instructor” for the 5th production-team; barely literate, such cadres had no grasp of official directives—most of Shan Mingkui’s education consisted in studying the ritual manuals with Cai Fuxiang. He became team chief in 1970.

In 1995 association rehearsals were held in his house, just up a little alley from their ritual building. Although he only performed the vocal liturgy, during his brief apprenticeship in 1949–50 he had learned the gongche solfeggio of the shengguan music so throughly that he could still take part confidently in informal readings of the score in the 1990s.

Shan Yude
Genial Shan Yude (b.1943) came from a family which had gone into decline. “One of my ancestors was a minor official in Beijing; my great-grandpa’s generation was rich. When my grandpa’s possessions were divided up among his sons they had horses and oxen to allocate too, which was rare for the time. My grandpa liked to eat, liked gambling, and lost all the family wealth. Just as well, in a way, or else we’d have been labelled as landlords!”

Yude’s father Shan Hongming joined the underground Communist movement, acting as grain-supplier for the 8th Route Army; as Yude recalled, “he was pretty obedient to Chairman Mao’s words”. After Liberation Shan Hongming became leader of a mutual-aid team; after the 1958 Great Leap he became a production-team leader and warehouseman for the brigade, also serving as a delegate of the co-op store and the credit co-op.

Yude himself attended the North Gaoluo junior comprehensive from 1951. From 1958 to 1960 he was at agricultural secondary school. During the famine, like many, he migrated in search of work and food, but had to come home in 1961 to help out in the fields. Family background did not automatically condition people’s proclivities: whereas Yude’s older brother Yutang was soon to become a leading figure of the village Red Guards, Yude joined them with no great enthusiasm; but he was much taken with the vocal liturgy, while his younger brother Yutian took up the ritual shengguan music at the same time. No-one ever suggested any contradiction between revolution and the ritual tradition.

Left: Shan Yude with his new bride Sun Wenxian, 1963
Right: the couple with their first child, 1966.
Photos courtesy of Shan Yude.

Shan Yude married in 1963, just when he was learning the liturgy with Cai Fuxiang. His bride came from the Sun lineage of musicians in the association. Like Shan Zhihe‘s family 26 years earlier, they hired the Shiguzhuang shawm band for the ceremony, but there the similarity ended: it was a rather frugal affair, costing a mere 270 yuan in all. The bride was at least brought to the groom’s house on horseback—the horses were among those bought from Zhangjiakou with the aid of revolutionary hero Xie Feng.

After the 1979 restoration Shan Yude became one of the leaders of the association. He had perceptive insights into the modern history of the village.

Cai Ran
When we descended on Gaoluo in February 1989, our very first port of call was the house of eccentric Cai Ran (b.1949), then village chief. Even as the New Year’s rituals were going on in the “lantern tent” just up the alley, his spirited initial objections to our witnessing the rituals derived not from his official capacity but from his anxiety as association member, hoping to protect the heritage from being “transmitted outside” to other villages.


Our first visit to the New Year’s lantern tent, 1989.

cai-ranCai Ran attended junior primary in South Gaoluo, in the Catholic church, and then senior primary in North Gaoluo during the famine; unlike some others, his father stayed put, not trying to flee hardship by seeking work elsewhere. Cai Ran then studied the vocal liturgy with Cai Fuxiang, and in 1964 he gained entrance to junior secondary school, but was unable to attend because the family needed his labour in the fields.

He went on to take part keenly in the Four Cleanups campaign and the Cultural Revolution, since he “enjoyed a scrap” (ngai zheteng 爱折腾). Even then, his first loyalty was not to Chairman Mao but to the village’s religious scriptures—here (under “The Cultural Revolution”) he tells the story of how he learned to perform the village’s beautiful Houtu scroll and then rescued it from the Red Guards.

Cai Ran is a fascinating mixture of personalities. He is a gentle, unassuming, private man, given to musing. Still, having tested his political education as a Red Guard, he went on to serve in the army in distant Xinjiang, and after returning he became village chief in the 1980s. For a long time I supposed him quite unsuited to jobs as a cadre: indeed, he told me as much after he resigned as village chief, saying that he couldn’t stand all the meetings and admin. However, during our meetings in 1998 I realized he has a keen political sense: in conversation with the new Party Secretary he was candid, animated, even passionate about the village’s problems. From 1995 he often went to work as electrician or cook in Gaobeidian and Beijing.

Cai Haizeng
The reticent Cai Haizeng (b.1942) was perhaps the seventh generation of association members in his family; his grandfather Cai Lin and his father Cai Fulü both performed the vocal liturgy. For all his reserved personality, Cai Haizeng is a believer, and naturally he was to identify closely with the Houtu scroll in later years. He did well under the reforms, selling his agricultural produce at county level.

With curious yet typical nostalgia for the early years of Maoism, Cai Ran recalls how villagers were spellbound by Cai Fuxiang’s delivery of the Houtu scroll, sitting cross-legged before the scroll on the low table on the kang brick-bed, turning the pages with the bamboo slip, while Li Baoyu sat beside him beating time with the association’s splendid old woodblock.

HTJ page

Indeed, as the ritual revival got tentatively under way upon the crumbling of the commune system, the first occasion when the liturgists could put their youthful ritual studies into practice was for the funeral of their master Cai Fuxiang in 1979.

By the early 1990s the instrumentalists of the association were aware that the “civil altar” had a less than dependable grasp of rhythm and intonation. Any of the other musicians could sing better, they all said; “So why don’t you, then?!”, I responded. For the story of maestro Cai An, his later addition to the civil altar, and the decline in prestige of the vocal liturgy in Gaoluo, see again A tribute to two ritual leaders, under “New tensions”.