Early in 1986, only a couple of days after my first arrival in Beijing, hearing the former monks of the Zhihua temple on a cold but beautifully sunny winter’s day was an experience that changed my life—and their ritual soundscape still entrances me:
Musicologist He Changlin astutely took me to a Buddhist temple to ask a group of elderly former monks to play their shengguan music for us. That sound will always stay with me. The soulful guanzi, the darting dizi, the sturdy sheng, the halo of the yunluo piercing the bright Beijing sky above the green-and-yellow roof-tiles of the temple…
[adapted from my Plucking the winds, p.185]
While I go to great lengths to stress that the Zhihua temple is only the tip of the iceberg—for ritual life both within Beijing and all over north China—its liturgy remains a classic source, and its soundscape ever-entrancing. There are no “living fossils”, and the temple itself has long ceased to function as a ritual site; but the present group performs with majestic authority, led by Hu Qingxue, about whom I must write in more detail—he’s not only an amazing guanzi player, but a fine vocal liturgist, and he’s just as hooked on exploring ritual groups in the countryside as I am.
In the photo above, the reason our demeanour is somewhat less solemn than that of the transcendent arhat is because Hu Qingxue had just suggested the caption which forms the title of this post—and, incidentally, of my latest Hollywood blockbuster.** The old sheng mouth-organ was my gift to him: it had been a gift to me in the early 1990s from a village ritual association that no longer used it, and since he’s an avid hoarder and repairer of sheng, it surely belongs in his fantastic collection.
It was delightful to present the group at the British Museum again on Monday. In our pre-concert discussion (with subtle prompting from Jessica Harrison-Hall, curator of the BM’s Chinese collection) I was glad to introduce the social background and wider ritual context, as well as research by a succession of fine Chinese scholars; and with the musicians, to illustrate how the skeletal notes of the gongche solfeggio score are progressively ornamented, first by singing the score in unison and then by taking up the instruments to further decorate that version in heterophony.
For someone who was brought up in a poor Hebei village, Hu Qingxue has learned to recopy the temple’s old scores rather finely:
Having learned from my tours with the Li family Daoists, I’ve now worked out a much-improved programme with the Zhihua temple too. While the shengguan ensemble is always most captivating for audiences, we now include all three elements in the ritual soundscape, chui-da-nian—in reverse order of importance: wind ensemble, percussion, and vocal liturgy. Thus the programme began with Cymbals to Open the Altar (Kaitan bo 開壇鈸), featuring the hocketing alternation of the nao and bo large cymbals that you can explore in my film on Li Manshan. It continues with the vocal hymn Yangzhi jingshui 楊枝淨水 in praise of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, also used near the beginning of a ritual—here accompanied by the melodic instruments. Then they demonstrate the process of ornamenting the skeletal notes of the score with the melody Qingjiang yin 清江引 (see photo above). After the captivating suite Jin–Wu–Shan (Jinzi jing 金字經—Wusheng fo 五聲佛—Gandongshan 感動山!) and Haiqing na tian’e 海青拿天鵝, the programme ends by reminding us of the primacy of vocal liturgy, with the a cappella hymn Qingjing fashen fo 清靜法身佛, accompanied only by the percussion.
As I am wont to observe, the blend of timbres of the shengguan instrumentation is the most perfect combo ever, alongside the jazz quintet… And the free-tempo alap-like introductions are just magical.
This overlaps with my blogposts, but here’s the full version of my programme notes:
Music of the Zhihua temple
A world away from the modern conservatoire style that now dominates the media, this music belongs as a kind of aural filigree interlaced within the vocal liturgy and percussion of lengthy rituals for funerals and temple fairs among local communities. To experience it in the concert hall or museum is a compromise, of course. It is one of many genres still performed today in a continuous tradition since the Ming – several types of regional opera, the nanguan ballads of Fujian, the music of the ubiquitous rural shawm bands, the elite qin zither.
The Zhihua temple has become a byword for the melodic instrumental music used until the 1950s as part of rituals in Beijing—mainly funerals, notably the nocturnal yankou ritual to feed the hungry ghosts. The monks of many minor temples in the hutong alleys of north and east Beijing, both Buddhist and Daoist, were available to come together to perform this music.
Built as the private temple of the court eunuch Wang Zhen in 1443, the Zhihua temple is one of the only wooden structures from the Ming dynasty to remain intact in Beijing. After Wang Zhen was executed in 1449, the monks became part of the ritual life of the wider community, with twenty-six generations down to the 1940s.
Since then the tradition has struggled to survive. After 1949 the monks were laicized, so by 1953 when the Zhihua temple music first gained its reputation among music scholars, with influential studies from the qin zither master Zha Fuxi and the great musicologist Yang Yinliu, the monks were no longer performing rituals. Through the 1980s, as ritual life was restoring throughout the countryside, and even in cities like Shanghai, scholars like Ling Haicheng and Yuan Jingfang began attempts to revive the Beijing style, collecting the surviving former monks together.
Though the style remains the most exquisite rendition of a widespread repertoire, it is now mainly further afield that we can hear it in its ritual context – in the countryside south of the capital among amateur associations that learnt from temple monks, and among household ritual groups all over north China. The present performers hail from the poor village of Qujiaying, whose ritual association was first discovered in 1986. They were recruited while in their teens to study in the Zhihua temple with the elderly former monks, notably Benxing (1923–2009). But worthy attempts by cultural cadres have proved unable to maintain the classic Beijing style without the firm ritual base of local community support that remains common elsewhere in China.
While the more elite temple rituals use only vocal liturgy accompanied by ritual percussion, melodic instrumental music has long been commonly added for rituals among the folk. Throughout north China this takes the form of the exquisite shengguan chamber ensemble, which coalesced around the Ming. The instruments play in heterophony, each decorating the bare bones of the nuclear melody differently; the plaintive guanzi oboe leads, the sheng mouth-organ maintaining a continuous wall of sound, decorated by the halo of the yunluo (ten pitched gongs mounted in a frame) and darting ornaments from the dizi flute.
The repertoire of classic labeled melodies, combined in strict sequences in lengthy suites, was also coming together in the Ming. Since then, a kind of solfeggio called gongche has been commonly used to notate the outlines of the melodies of instrumental ensembles. Scores from several Beijing temples, of which the earliest now preserved is the 1694 score of the Zhihua temple, use a rare antique script that resembles those known from Tang and Song sources. But the bare bones of the score give few clues to the magic of performance; having learnt to sing in unison an already highly ornamented version of the nuclear melody, the performers then further decorate it in mesmerizing heterophony on the instruments. The style is exceptionally slow and solemn, the free-tempo preludes especially magical. But we have to imagine it as a decoration within the whole liturgy of the complex rituals that are still common elsewhere in China.
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The Zhihua temple events were part of a fine ongoing series at the British Museum (see also here) that also includes flamenco, Indian music, Japanese gagaku, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Cage, and the overwhelming Metamorphosen.
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A further note for stammerers, and indeed for anyone who knows any:
“Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…”, it’s largely thanks to China that I have been gradually and belatedly chipping away at the iceberg of fear. Presenting the Li family Daoists on their foreign tours also bears fruit in my introductions to the Zhihua temple. It’s a good start to confront the event itself, but monitoring one’s speech as one goes along is another challenge: I rarely catch myself in time as I use all the habitual fruitless little avoidance techniques—backtracking, trying to get a run-up (like crashing through a hurdle), and so on. In the end, it just about works, but there’s always room for improvement: a gamut of physical and conceptual techniques is available.
**Cf. the alternative title for my film on Li Manshan: Four funerals and a funeral.
It’s all very well me swanning off to China (see flurry of posts since 14th March) and Germany, but one has to keep up with the domestic news. OK, the Windrush affair is shameful, but on a lighter note:
And I have another episode of Cunk in Britain to catch up on too!
Anne Sebba‘s book Les Parisiennes is high on my reading list. Meanwhile, it’s good to hear her on Private passions paying homage to the great ethnologist Germaine Tillion, who somehow composed the operetta Le Verfügbar aux Enfers while incarcerated in the hell of Ravensbrück (see link in Bearing witness)—a spoof of Orpheus in the underworld, an attempt to help prisoners “resist by laughing”.
A salutary link with the Ten Kings of the Underworld?
My time with Li Manshan last month also gave me the chance to renew my acquaintance with Elder Hu, most intriguing of local deities in the region.
Surveying “cultic buildings” just northeast of Yanggao in the troubled 1940s, the intrepid Belgian missionary Willem Grootaers drew attention to a local cult of the deity Hutu 胡突 or Hudu 胡都, aka Elder Hu (Hulaoye, Huye, Hushen 胡老爺, 胡爺, 胡神) or even Dragon Hu (Hulong 胡龍). His temples are often known as Hushen miao 胡神廟. See
Around the Xuanhua region Grootaers and his Chinese assistants found fourteen temples devoted to Elder Hu, as well as six more with tablets in the temples of other gods; as a lateral image in Dragon King temples he appeared sixteen times.
I have already published brief introductions to the cult in Yanggao. 
In south China one often find “cults,” in the common sense of groups (whether voluntary or ascriptive) devoted to a particular deified local territorial personage. Much work on southern Daoism is complemented by studies of such gods. One finds some cults in north China too, although they are more often to “national” deities. Such groups may or may not include ritual specialists performing complex sequences of ritual and liturgy.
But one important regional deity whom people in north Shanxi and northwest Hebei do worship is Elder Hu. Perhaps an ancient general, his proper name Hutu (or Hudu) may be Mongol. Closely related to the Dragon King deities, he too is thought to have power over rain and the elements. In Upper Liangyuan there was a statue of him in the Temple to the Three Pure Ones (my book, pp.46–9), but in Yanggao the main sites for his worship, still today, are the temples of Zhenmenbu, Xujiayuan and Lower Liangyuan. Here I introduce the latter two.
The Xujiayuan temple (formally named Temple of Clear Clouds Qingyun si 清雲寺, though as usual it is commonly identified simply by the name of the village) is part of a network of early temples lining the border north of the county-town, just beneath the remains of the Great Wall. From our 2003 notes:
In the main temple the three god statues (from left to right) were Pineapple Tree King God (Boluoshuwang fo, responsible for water), Watery Heaven God (Shuitian fo, one of the Heavenly Officers tianguan), and Elder Hu (Hulaoye, responsible for rain, not water in general). On either side of Elder Hu were small dragon statuettes. There was also a portable statuette to Elder Hu to be taken on procession.
The various local legends about Elder Hu are not consistent. Xujiayuan villagers said that his old home was Hujia village quite far further east in Tianzhen county (see map below), so the village always donates to the Xujiayuan temple fair (in 2003 they gave 300 yuan). According to the temple’s abbot Miaoyun, Elder Hu was an ancient general called Hutu; the common people erected a temple to him after he was wrongfully executed by an emperor and the climate went awry (xingfeng zuolang 興風作浪).
Most village temples in the region are unstaffed, but the Xujiayuan temple had about eight resident Buddhist monks when we visited in 2003. The main day for the temple fair is 7th moon 3rd; it begins on the 1st and finishes on the 4th. This is a most vibrant event, with many stalls, and an opera troupe, shawm bands, and the temple’s own monks all performing an impressive nocturnal yankou ritual (see the DVD Doing Things with my book Ritual and music: shawm bands of Shanxi, §B5).
Another major ritual of Xujiayuan is the rain procession on 5th moon 18th, bearing aloft the statuette of Elder Hu. The temple is the centre of a parish (she 社) of twelve villages (still known as “brigades”—note the casual elision of imperial and Maoist vocabulary), although by 2003 it was mainly the four nearby village that were taking part actively. Elder Hu “deputes the dragons” (fenglong 封龍) to release rain.
Today on the plain southeast of Yanggao county-town, with no temples still standing in Upper Liangyuan, the most important temple in the area is in the sister village of Lower Liangyuan just north. Its formal name is Temple of Efficacious Source (Lingyuan si 靈源寺).
The survival of the temple is due in large measure to the sprightly Yuan Xiwen 袁喜文 (b.1934!), still blessed with a youthful spirit within the body of a fit 50-year-old.
Serving as a brigade accountant and cadre under Maoism, he did what he could to protect the temple, and led the revival of its temple fair upon the 1980s’ reforms. He has recently compiled a detailed genealogy of thirteen generations of the Yuan lineage (my film, from 57.46). Local society depends on men with such charisma.
The village has long had a larger population than Upper Liangyuan (1,120 in 1948, 1,805 in 1990, according to the county gazetteer), although since then it continues to suffer from the inevitable drift to the cities.
Back in 2013 we strolled over there to find Yuan Xiwen sitting in lotus posture on the kang in his bare house. He too told us a charming local legend about Elder Hu, detailed enough to have a certain authentic value:
Dragon Hu came from Jiaocheng village, southwest of Datong.  He held the post of looking after the cabinet official (geyuan 閣員) Wang Qiu 王囚 in Shandong province. Wang agreed to his request to return home for a visit to his old home. So Dragon Hu began the journey home, riding the clouds (jiayun 駕雲) from Shandong to Jiaocheng. Once he reached north Shanxi, he passed through “nine dragon mouths” (jiu longkou) in all.
[For villages marked * below I know of active temples today; the others remain to be explored. The legend doesn’t track his earlier progress from Shandong—however did we manage before satnav?!].
At Wayaokou (Tianzhen county) there was a heavy downpour; he rode on through Zhendagou 镇大沟 (?), Zhenmenbu*, and Xujiayuan*, where he rested his horse (yinma 飲馬). Continuing his journey south, he rested his horse again at Liujiaquan, then at Lower Liangyuan* at midday, then on to Tailiang 太梁 (?) [which, said Yuan Xiwen, still had a decrepit old temple to him], to Lower Shenjing (?), and one other village which escaped me.
Throughout Dragon Hu’s progress, all the places he passed through were beset by hailstones. The Heavenly God (Tianshen) was angry, and made him pay a forfeit. So Dragon Hu pinched three ears of wheat into the shape of a shuttle, creating what is now buckwheat…
There’s clearly a lot more fieldwork to be done here—but how exciting it may be for someone to pursue!
Towards a modern history of the temple
Yuan Xiwen recalled the village’s last rain procession, and temple fair, before Liberation. In the 7th moon of 1947 some three hundred villagers went on procession to the Xujiayuan temple, with big drums, gujiang shawm bands, and banners bearing the characters “Silence!” (sujing 肅靜), both there and back. From 1st to 3rd they stayed at Xujiayuan, returning on the 4th, holding their own temple fair from 5th to 7th.
The temple only had around a dozen mu of land; it was common land, not “owned”, and anyway there were no resident clerics, only one shabby temple keeper. This was surely typical—far from the great temple estates further south.
As collectivization escalated, the temple buildings were taken over by the Supply and Marketing Co-op (Gongxiao she 供销社). The god statues were taken away in 1956, to a little shrine in between the Lower and Upper villages; people still worshipped surreptitiously before them. The temple was only assaulted in 1966 at the opening of the Cultural Revolution; the murals were further damaged while it was used as a classroom. It was not until 1987 that Yuan Xiwen was able to lead the first temple fair there after the revival.
The modern religious history of this and other villages is closely related to the fates of sectarian groups. Though village temples were public sites, they made a natural base for sects like the Way of Yellow Heaven and the Way of Nine Palaces.  By the 1940s Lower Liangyuan was a hotbed of such groups. After the Yiguan dao sect was introduced to Yanggao in the 1940s, 200 of the 240 households in Lower Liangyuan are said to have belonged. While the villagers’ more public religious activities were somewhat separate, the sectarian persecutions of the early 1950s inevitably affected their spirits. Still, the sects survived underground until reviving along with more public ritual behaviour from the 1980s.
I should add that (as far as I know) there is no separate “cult” of sectarians worshipping Elder Hu, nor any scriptures to him.
Over the years I’ve often passed by the temple—for instance when the Treasuries are burned before it during funerals (my film, from 1.03.56). But it’s been ages since I took a close look at the interior, so Li Manshan calls up the wonderful Yuan Xiwen and we stroll over there. They’re in the middle of a meeting of the clansmen—his younger brother is there. I’d have learned more about the temple images if Yuan had come to the temple with us, but he’s too busy with his family. Later Li Manshan tells me the temple committee had recently lost the temple’s old divination list,  and how rumours flew around about an inside job—until they found it again.
The villagers don’t seem to know of any surviving steles—though after our discoveries in the Upper village, there may still be room for exploration in nearby ditches.
The temple has belatedly been taken under the wings of the county Bureau of Cultural Preservation, and (judging from my 2003 photos) some of its old murals seem to have been retouched. Though they clearly date from the late Qing (not the Ming, as the temple minders airily claimed), their beauty is rare in Yanggao villages—by contrast with the amazing wealth of such murals in nearby Yuxian.
The interior complex
Inside the temple the main complex facing south onto the courtyard now has two rooms: a central hall to the Dragon Kings, and an east room to Elder Hu.
The main altar of the central hall has statues of six dragon gods before a mural of the Jade Mother of the Five Dragons (Yulong shengmu 玉龍聖母):
On the rear wall, to the west and east of these central images, are further murals to the mythical emperors Yao, Shun, and Yu:
My 2003 photos of the above:
Further murals adorn the side walls—for the River God (heshen 河神) to the west, Efficacious Immortal (lingxian 靈仙) to the east (I think):
To the east of this central hall is the room to Hutu (photo at top of article). To one side of the main altar is a small portable statuette for processions, carried in a palanquin that rests by the west wall:
The side walls bear murals depicting the progress of Hutu through his domain:
The front complex
At the main entrance of the complex is a central room to Śakyamuni, flanked by his attendants Mañjuśrī (Wenshu) and Samantabhadra (Puxian). To its west is a room to Dizang and the Ten Kings:
The west and east side walls bear Ten Kings murals repainted since the 1980s—here are two details:
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But in the end I want to return to real human beings. As disembodied “cultural relics” these images may have no particular artistic merit; however numinous they may be, they’re still silent and static. In between the common fates of falling apart or becoming museums, temples are for living people, for interaction under changing social conditions; their gatherings are full of life, “hot and noisy“.
I can’t help thinking back to August 1992, my second visit to Li Manshan’s father the great Li Qing, when I even attended a funeral he led at Lower Liangyuan—alas, I had only just missed the village’s 7th-moon temple fair! Li Qing told me that two Daoist bands took part (later the temple committee only invited one). All his colleagues, with whom he had been performing rituals since the 1930s, would have taken part, like Li Yuanmao, Li Zengguang, Kang Ren, and so on.
After the 1980s’ revival I suspect they didn’t restore a fuller sequence of the jiao 醮 Offering, for whose segments Li Qing had recently recopied ritual manuals (I doubt they chanted any of the jing scriptures, for instance)—but still, their ritual programme may have been rather more complex than it later became (my book, pp.237–43). For Hoisting the Pennant, did they sing the hymn Yuyin 玉音 at the central pole? And how I would have loved to witness their Communicating the Lanterns; by the time I attended it at the temple fair in 2003, Li Qing was no more, and his pupils were less than familiar with the ritual.
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So this little introduction to Elder Hu gives you an idea of what we were up to before our brief yet charming encounter with the local constabulary on the walk home to the Upper village.
 Part of an extraordinary series that also includes
 Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi, pp.73–84; Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.49–50; Wu Fan provides further detail (Yinyang, gujiang, pp.61–71, 150–59).
 Yuan Xiwen said it was in Shanyin county, which it isn’t now—but anyway, judging by the logic of the route, and the limited radius of the cult, not the county considerably further south.
 See Yanggao xianzhi, pp.610–15; Zhao Jiazhu, Zhongguo huidaomen shiliao jicheng, pp.159–62. The Yiguan dao was a particular scapegoat; though in some respects inquisitors were quite meticulous, I suspect the name served as an umbrella term, a rallying-call for persecution. The early 50s’ campaigns are a growing theme of research; note Barend ter Haar’s site.
 Cf. Wu Fan, Yinyang, gujiang, pp.280–85.
Following the 2014 performance of the Zhihua temple group at the British Museum, I’m looking forward to their repeat visit this coming Monday! I’ve just added it to the events calendar in the sidebar.
In addition to the hauting shengguan wind ensemble, we’ve now incorporated vocal liturgy as well as percussion items with large cymbals into the programme, to give a flavour of the whole ritual soundscape.
And on the Qujiaying connection: