Nuns of rural Hebei

In traditional China, ritual activity—indeed, public appearance altogether—appears to be male-dominated. We’ve noted that women have always been excluded from the core membership of both amateur ritual associations and household Daoist groups, but the role of women in religion is significant—as worshippers, as members of amateur sects, and notably as spirit mediums (for a roundup of posts, see here).

Nuns hardly threatened the patrilineal traditions of ritual and instrumental music before the 1950s, but they make an interesting sub-plot. As with clerics generally, research is available on some of the more renowned nuns of the great urban and mountain temples in early and modern history, but we have much less material on ordinary nuns performing ritual in the poor countryside.

Many nuns led a detached life whose ritual practice revolved around services within their own small temples, their vocal liturgy accompanied only by percussion. But before the 1950s, both in larger towns and in the countryside, some groups of nuns performed liturgical services among the folk—notably funerals. So one index of this in north China is their use of shengguan wind ensemble music.

During fieldwork we often heard of nuns playing shengguan as part of their ritual services before 1949, and they should still have been alive in the 1990s, but it took some effort to find them. Indeed, it was none too easy to find former priests. Perhaps few were killed, but some were imprisoned, or exiled far from the area. Many more were subjected to great indignities, both in the 1940s and early 50s and then (like all “black” elements) throughout following campaigns, notably the Cultural Revolution. They were forced to eat meat, had alcohol poured down their throats, made to engage publicly in demeaning sexual acts. Nuns were sometimes raped. Even in less harrowing cases, nuns were made to or expected to get married, and their partners may have been less than ideal; their relatives and friends may not want to be reminded of this story.

Also, they had been rejected by their parents, who had given them to a temple not out of piety but because of family poverty, whether they were ill or because they couldn’t support so many children (and sons were often given to temples for the same reason). Thus nuns, and indeed priests, had commonly been consigned to temples when very young—a few months old, or as old as 8 sui. They were traditionally given to a temple at a considerable distance from the home of the parents.

Buddhist nuns (formally nigu 尼姑) were disparagingly known as “second-rate monks” (erseng 二僧) or “juvenile monks” (youseng 幼僧), no better than the more colloquial name guzi 姑子; the former nuns in Renqiu much preferred the term “female monks” (nüseng 女僧) or “nun monks” (niseng 尼僧)! For the (less common) Daoist nuns, the term daogu 道姑 was used.

Beijing and Tianjin
The extreme variations in wealth in old Beijing gave rise to a varied funeral market (See my In search of the folk Daoists, Appendix 1—note the works of Chang Renchun). Lengthier rituals were held mainly for the more affluent, but most familes (apart from the severely poor) would endeavour to invite Buddhist monks to perform a yankou. Buddhists—as always, most numerous—were the first choice; Daoists might be hired too, but apparently not on their own; nuns and Tibeto-Mongolian lamas were also hired for more opulent funerals. Groups of Buddhist nuns also performed for funerals; those from the Xianying si nunnery even added shengguan.

Nuns in Tianjin also played shengguan. Itinerant sheng-tuner Qi Youzhi recalled that the Buddhist and Daoist clerics at the “Buddhist Temple” (Fosi) and Chenghuang miao at North Great Gate had a lot of sheng to maintain. The Qi family used to tune sheng for the Taishan miao nunnery and the one in Xiaomalu (‘Small road’).

The Hebei plain
Laishui county
In the whole western area around Laishui, the only temple we found with resident priests or nuns was the small Guanghua si nunnery (known as Guzi miao 姑子廟) in Laishui county-town, founded way back in the Sui dynasty.

Laishui nuns 93

Changyong flanked by disciples, 1993. My photo.

In a 1993 visit to the town between our explorations of the villages, we met the abbess Changyong 昌湧 (b. c1915). She had been given to the nunnery at the age of 8 sui around 1922, and had apparently lived there ever since. She was ordained in 1937 (she said “26th year of the Republic”) at the Xiyu Yunju si 西域云居寺 temple in Fangshan just north, which then had a large staff of around one hundred. But no sooner had she completed her ordination period than the Japanese invaded, crossing the Lugou bridge nearby. Since the Yunju temple was hosting resistance guerrillas, the Japanese troops assaulted it, burning it to the ground as the monks fled.

Changyong reeled off a long list of staffed temples around Laishui villages before Liberation, as well as several nunneries just north whose nuns did rituals among the folk, including those of Xiangyang village in Zhuozhou. The only other nunnery we heard of in that area was in Liujing village on the approach to Houshan, defunct by the 1940s.

The buildings of the Guanghua temple were occupied after Liberation by the brigade school, but Changyong was allowed to stay on and till the fields there. From 1981 she led the project of reconstructing the temple; by 1991 the Religious Affairs Bureau officially recognized it as one of five “sites for legitimate religious activity” in the county. They offered no funding to the temple, but gave her a living allowance of 38 yuan per month. In the temple she had five disciples from Baoding, Zhuozhou, and distant Heilongjiang, aged between 70 and 17 sui. They didn’t perform rituals among the folk.

Around Xiongxian county
Nuns may have rarely played the shengguan wind instruments, but when they did, they were remembered.

Several senior masters in Xiongxian recalled groups of ritual nuns. Xie Yongxiang in Hanzhuang recalled bands from Guanglingcheng in Wen’an, and in Dacheng. Elderly peasants in Lihezhuang recalled a contest in 1935 as part of a longevity celebration, between two groups both playing the “southern” style of shengguan, one led by the famous monk Haibo, the other a band of young Buddhist nuns from Renqiu. Nuns wore their hair in a long queue—only the abbess shaved her head. There were many nuns in Yilunbao, and the nuns from Lingche (?) village played well. They didn’t recite scriptures, but sometimes did rituals like Chasing Around the Arena (paochang 跑場). Nearby in South Shilipu the association leader Zhang Hongzhi recalled a funeral in his youth when the famous nuns from Santai were invited to recite scriptures and play shengguan.

Former cleric Li Duqi had seen groups of Daoist priests and Buddhist nuns “facing in the tent” (duipeng) in Wen’an. In 1993 he told us there were still two nuns in Wen’an town (one old, one younger) who played shengguan.

Renqiu county
But our most intruiguing material came from the Renqiu area, near the Baiyangdian lake—the southern boundary of our project. We heard that before Liberation, North Han district had a celebrated group of nuns who played shengguan. We wanted to pursue those clues; I didn’t get to join in that leg of our survey, but Xue Yibing went to North Han village there in 1994, finding two former nuns whose demeanour impressed him as deeply as his notes always impress me. He gained some further background from two elderly male villagers.

Before the 1950s there were over twenty nuns in the two temples in the village: the “Buddhist” Laomu tang (to Guanyin) in the north (temple fair on 3rd moon 24th), and the “Daoist” Granny Temple (Nainai miao, to the Three Ladies of the Empyrean) in the south (temple fairs on 24th of the 6th and 12th moons). They were “subsidiary cloisters” of the Great Temple in Hejian town.

During the Japanese occupation this was a guerrilla area. With village funds exhausted by the exactions of the Japanese and collaborators, the village leaders had to have the two temples partially demolished to sell their wood. Temples were indeed under assault well before “Liberation”, but destruction was to gather pace as the Communists extended their power.

The nuns continued to live in the temple buildings for a while, but during land reform they were “mobilized”—euphemism for “coerced”—into leaving the clergy. Five of them were married to men in the village, while one found work in Beijing.

Zhang Dadong (b. c1915) was given to the Laomu tang nunnery when 3 sui by her poor parents from Julu county quite far south. Remarkably, she never learned to read, but she studied the ritual shengguan wind music from 13 sui, to “go out on ritual business” (yingchoushi 應酬事, like the often-heard yingmenshi); even within the home village, they had to be paid. They were taught by a Daoist priest from Wudangmiao village in Hejian county just south, who also maintained sheng; already over 70 sui, he came to the temple to instruct them, returning home when required for ritual business. As usual, they began their studies of shengguan by singing the gongche solfeggio, but since they couldn’t read, they did so purely by ear.

When she was ready to take up the instruments, Zhang learned sheng first, then guanzi, studying along with six or seven others—as well as her older brother, who was a labourer on the temple land. She mastered the music after two or three years.

Their instrumentation belonged to the “southern” style of shengguan, adding a small haidi shawm to the standard sheng (small, with wooden bowl), and large guanzi, accompanied by drum, small and large cymbals, and gong-in-frame. Echoing several groups on the Hebei plain, her fellow-nun Liu Guilan observed:

We began by playing in the “small guanzi” [classical shengguan style], but because all the ensembles nearby were using that style, our temple decided to change to large guanzi [the more popular “southern” idiom].

The nuns of the south temple could already play, but seven or eight of them also refreshed their playing by studying with the old Daoist at the same time (see below). Their Daoist master had also taught the nuns of West Pangkou, Shimenkou, Bijiamiao, and Majiawu; when they combined forces to go out on business, performing yankou rituals in the “scripture tent” (jingpeng), there were eighteen or nineteen of them, including five or six large guanzi (!), four or five sheng (small, with wooden bowl), and two haidi shawms. They also did rituals like Visiting the Soul (canling 參靈), Ambulating with Incense (xingxiang 行香), Crossing the Bridges (duqiao 渡橋), and Chasing Round the Five Quarters (pao wufang 跑五方). Everyone received 1 or 2 yinyuan silver coins for a funeral—ritual business was clearly their main source of income. But they couldn’t perform so often after the Japanese invasion because society was in such chaos.

In 1953—a couple of years after the temple was destroyed—Zhang Dadong was married, aged 39 sui, to a man eight years her elder, a former labourer. He died in 1992, but she had children and grandchildren.

Renqiu nun 2

Renqiu nun

Photos: Xue Yibing.

The dignified Liu Guilan (b. c1916), from the Granny temple in the south of the village, outlined her story clearly and vividly to Xue Yibing:

I was given to the Granny temple when I was seven months old; my old home was Yuanzhuang village [further northeast]. An old nun came to the village begging for alms (huayuan 化緣), and persuaded my parents to give her their baby daughter.

So the nun became my “master” (shifu). Cradling me in her arms, she had to go round begging for milk. When I got a bit older, she sent me to the village school (xuetang) for a year. After the temple was destroyed—when I was 28 or 29 sui [1944–45]—the officials (guanjia 官家) made me get married (xunzhu 尋主). But they had a rule that nuns should take care of their shifu, so as mine was elderly and had no-one to look after her, I took her to my new husband’s home. But my husband died early—I was still only in my 30s. Later I adopted a daughter, and I’ve remained a widow all my days.

After Liberation I took part in labour, looking after my shifu and my daughter, but it was hard—as women we lacked strength, so we stayed terribly poor. Now my daughter is married, and things are fine, they look after me well.

She recalled her life in the temple:

Besides doing the temple’s daily chores, I started learning the shengguan music when I was 7 or 8 sui. I started out on guanzi, but soon changed to sheng because I was so young. The old Daoist you heard about was called Li, I don’t know his other names—we called him Master Li (Li ye). My shifu (known as Sanr 三儿) played sheng—she’d been taught by Master Li too. Our temple had originally had a shengguan ensemble, but as the nuns got older they didn’t have any puff, so that’s why we invited Master Li to teach our generation.We studied for a year, practised for a few more years, and then after “graduating” (chuke 出科) we were ready to go out on ritual business (yingshi).

We had one vocal liturgist to every three instrumentalists. There were three of us in my group—War 哇儿 on haidi shawm, Chengr 成儿 on large guanzi, and me (Guir 桂儿) on sheng. We just learned to play, we didn’t study the scriptures; even the melodies I only knew by their gongche solfeggio incipits. The nun in our group who recited the scriptures was known as Fatty Huir 大胖惠儿. From the north temple, Zhang Dadong, who you talked to, was known as Dongr 東儿; there was a nun called Chunr 春儿 who played the gong-in-frame, and a drummer from Majiawu.

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Though these vignettes were based on brief chats, they offer an absorbing glimpse into the world of rural nuns before Liberation. They were doubtless in a small minority compared to male clerics; while the vocal liturgy and shengguan wind ensemble of complex ritual sequences were never confined to temples, since the 1950s they have been performed mainly by lay—and male—villagers. But the stories of nuns—like those of female mediums, sectarians, and ordinary worshippers—deserve including in our picture of local cultures.