Participant observation

Following on from my remarks on fieldwork, some form of participant observation is almost a given in anthropology and ethnomusicology. But this is not so either in Daoist studies or Chinese musicology.

(Although for the latter, the grand master Yang Yinliu was a noble exception.)

From my book (p.370):

The emphasis on performance leads us to another tenet of ethnography: participant observation. While this is a notable feature of ethnomusicology (though again, not yet among Chinese scholars), it is widely applicable; but for Daoist ritual the early leads of Kristofer Schipper and Michael Saso have hardly been followed—only partly because scholarly visits, however frequent, are mostly brief. Without necessarily demanding a thorough training, there are significant benefits to taking part in ritual performance and acquiring as much basic practical familiarity as one can (Note Nettl 2015: 63–71, 147–156).

I should stress that the point is not necessarily to become a fully-fledged Daoist. I had previously made paltry attempts to take part in ritual groups, in Hebei (on yunluo, rarely on sheng), and accompanying shawm bands (in Shaanbei, and with the Hua band in Yanggao).

My book pp. 325­–6:

Even I have started depping occasionally. At a funeral in Houying in 2011, for the second Delivering the Scriptures of the afternoon the Daoists persuade me to dress up in costume and hat and play small cymbals—I should have a basic grasp by now, after all. But actually taking part is quite different. Even on the procession to the soul hall, during the percussion interludes I learn how hard it is to maintain the regular two-beat pulse from the rear while latching onto the irregular patterns of the drum at the front (clue: focus on the gong, not the drum). On setting out from the scripture hall they should really open with a luopu (p.280), but they don’t now. When Li Manshan is on small cymbals, he gets in a beat first, so the drum can then set the tempo; but I am rarely in time to get it in, so then I never quite know when to start after the first drum beat. 

On this first occasion, once we take our places around the table before the coffin, the session goes brilliantly; the whole village abandons the cheesy pop blaring outside the gateway to watch us. Wu Mei and Yang Ying lead a medley of errentai and clowning, egged on by village elders delighted to have their way at last. Alas, evidence for this exhilarating session survives only on the mobile phones of villagers. After all my tedious academic questions, the experience of working with these master musicians is unforgettable: Li Manshan on drum and Wu Mei on guanzi are so easy to follow, subtly guiding me. 

Flushed by success, I take part in the next session too, this time on yunluo gongs. For my benefit they choose Diverse and Nameless—still the only hymn I know properly, as we joke. But for the villagers the novelty had already worn off, most of them again crowding round the pop truck outside.

So it’s no use imagining that my taking part might increase local appreciation for the Daoists’ rituals. It turns out to be a fleeting curiosity, and doesn’t help “raise the peasants’ consciousness” any more than the Daoists performing in the Carnegie Hall. That’s not why I join in. I find it rewarding both as a performer and for study purposes; obviously, studying their texts on the page or describing their rituals are very different from actually singing the hymns while playing percussion. Since then, happy to make myself useful for a change, I sometimes get roped in when they’re one short—another reminder of my experience as an orchestral violinist?! Anyway, villagers are underwhelmed.

And a tiny example (my book, pp.280–81):

The hymns are in a regular slow 4/4 meter, and the beginner learns to mark out the beats, first on dangdang or yunluo gongs, later on small cymbals. The single gong dangdang and the hand bell (for a cappella singing), or the two-gong yunluo when the shengguan is playing, mark every beat. The pair of small cymbals is called guo (in this area sounding more like gua; in standard Chinese it is called cha or xiaocha). The small cymbals are sounded mainly on the first beat of every measure; but the player also marks cadences over a long sung melisma with a funky syncopated cadential pattern (yaoshuan), echoing the accents on the drum (see film, from 25’28”). This is one of innumerable tiny details that a Daoist must pick up.

This score of the opening of Diverse and Nameless[1] illustrates both the syncopated cadence (bars 5 and 13) and Li Manshan’s style in accompanying the hymns. In his pattern leading up to the downbeat (end of bars 3, 5, 7, 10) he mostly leaves the downbeat empty


Graduating from gong to small cymbals, I had to learn not to laisser vibrer as I became accustomed to doing when accompanying ritual in Hebei—in Yanggao it’s merely a marker, and shouldn’t interfere with the sound of the melody. Again, this is a simple business, but it’s all part of their oral training.

So having learnt a few hymns rather sketchily, I have reached the standard of Li Qing, or Li Manshan, around the age of 10! Anyway, a band would often consist of a beginner just learning the ropes of both singing hymns and accompanying them on gong or small cymbals. Of course, we learn in different ways. I have heard the liturgy for years, not least through listening to my recordings. I have made transcriptions, without ever making much attempt to memorize.

My book (p.312):

On my 2013 stay his best gift was to give me a flavor, however brief, of physical labor, both as a Daoist and in the fields. Subtly he groomed me in the routine, rhythm, lifestyle and whole feel of doing rituals. With all the processions, public rituals, long slow hymns, Wu Mei and the sheng players playing for long stretches, the latter emptying the accumulated saliva from their instruments during percussion interludes, it’s all tiring work over a long day. Excuse the facile analogy with Western art music, but just the seven visits to the soul hall are like doing two motets and five cantatas over the course of the day—plus a few oratorios, and (previously, for temple fairs) six long symphonies. 

Tiring as the funeral sequence is, it is less so than before, not to mention that they also had to walk to the village and back.

[1] Based on a Delivering the Scriptures rendition, 7th May 2011. The version in the DVD Folk Daoist ritual music of north China (Intersezioni Musicali/Fondazione Cini, 2014) illustrates how he may vary the patterns.