Ritual life around Xi’an

The life of ritual performance around Xi’an may not be the first thing that springs to mind when visiting the, um, ancient Tang capital, now typically submerged under skyscrapers and traffic jams. On this blog I have so far introduced ritual styles in peripheral areas of Shaanxi (ShaanbeiChangwu), but it’s worth outlining those around the provincial capital (cf. my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.95–6).

The introduction in my 1995 book Folk music of China (pp.227–45) is still useful—it’s a tad musicological, but I don’t neglect the social angle. (Whenever I come across a passage in my earlier writings that makes sense, I never know whether to be pleased at my sagacity or disturbed by my lack of progress…) As I observed there:

Xi’an is the site of the Tang capital Chang’an, and the music still played by folk musicians in the area has more claim to antiquity than the garish Hollywoodesque spectacle doled out to unsuspecting tourists under the guise of the music of Tang Chang’an. However, since 1949 the performing tradition has been very much impoverished, with only four ensembles meeting sporadically. It is ironic and perhaps significant that a virtually defunct genre should be among the most studied genres of Chinese instrumental music.

(For a brilliant misreading of that last sentence, see here!) Actually, even when I made my final revision of the book, I qualified that depiction “virtually defunct”.

My visits
I was drawn to Xi’an by a precious clue from Raffaella Gallio, first foreign student to study at the Shanghai Conservatoire when they were admitted after 1980. As we met up later in Venice, she told me about Li Shigen’s work with the Xi’an groups, and I was keen to visit.

So, soon after my arrival in Beijing on my very first stay in China in 1986, I took the train there (then an epic journey) to study for a couple of weeks with the great Li Shigen 李石根, indefatigable authority on the ritual groups of the area. Neither of us quite knew what to do. Despite Raffaella’s visit, foreign scholars were still hardly known, and apart from a brief session in Beijing with former Buddhist monks from the Zhihua temple tradition, this was my very first experience of fieldwork. Perhaps inevitably, Li Shigen organized the “musicians” to perform specially for us—the Dajichang 大吉昌 group in the city, and a trip to Hejiaying 何家营 in Chang’an county south of the city.

1986 HJY

Hejiaying, 1986.

For me, such an excursion into the countryside was still a mere expedient in my search for the music of ancient times; as yet I was absurdly oblivious to the living conditions of peasants there.

My photos are a bit crap, and my fieldnotes were quite free of the social enquiry that I later adopted; but my audio recordings aren’t bad, considering. And Li Shigen was wonderful, patiently guiding me in my faltering studies. Back in Beijing, I devoured the hefty series of mimeographed volumes that he gave me.

LSG mims low-res

(My house is packed to the rafters with precious early mimeographs like this—they have a very different feel to later published versions; for reflections, click here.)

My little 1990 article for Laurence Picken’s magnum opus Music from the Tang court shows how I still had an antiquarian bent, but it was a significant discovery to find the term yousheng in early Xi’an scores, just as in the Tang—and with a living performance practice, to boot.

yousheng lowres

It was inevitable that scholarly enthusiasm to discover the lost music of the Tang dynasty would alight upon the genre. Chinese musicologists were all for “living fossils”—a focus that even now deflects scholars from the need for basic modern ethnography on the changing ritual life around the city, in villages, and on pilgrimages to the mountains to the south. As with other such “ancient” genres (nanyin in Fujian, the Zhihua temple, and so on), this has detracted from proper, more tangible study—both of its ancestry in the Ming and Qing dynasties and more recent ethnography. [1]

Xi'an BJ 1987

Xi'an BJ 1987b

Beijing, 1987.

I met them again in 1987 when they came to Beijing to perform there.

A rival group was soon formed at the Xi’an conservatoire (musicians in fake-antique costumes reading from cipher notation on music stands! Pah…), throwing the baby out with the bathwater (see my Folk Music of China, p.227 and n.55). This commodification laid the groundwork for the later glitzy distortions of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

with LSG 2001

Scholar Li Shibin, me, Li Shigen, and qin maker and player Li Mingzhong, 2001.

I returned to Xi’an briefly in 2001, partly to talk to some people there who could give me more background for my work on Shaanbei, and also to record some amazing earthy shadow-puppet music. I was happy to visit the venerable Li Shigen again, and I took the chance to reacquaint myself with more groups—though I still didn’t manage to experience their ritual practice.

2001 Jixian

With Zhang Gui, South Jixian West village 2001.

In Zhouzhi county west of the city I visited both East and West villages of South Jixian, a large township of some 8,000 residents. In the West village I chatted with the senior Zhang Gui 张贵 (then 82). They were still performing for several calendrical temple fairs annually. The East village had only recently restored, but was also active. They had eighteen (!) sheng players, four dizi players, one yunluo player, and seven percussionists (two of whom were female). With the exodus of men to seek laboring work in the towns, women were already being recruited widely: twelve of the sheng players were female, and two of the percussionists. This sounds like a rational move, and there have been some similar initiatives among amateur groups in Hebei and Yunnan, but it hasn’t become so common there.

Apart from these village groups still active to the south of the city, there are several in Lantian county to the southeast.

Social aspects

Xi'an miaohui lowres

Village festival, 1950s. Photo: courtesy MRI, Beijing.

Performing contexts are temple fairs in the city and villages, and the major rain pilgrimages to the “southern Wutai” and Zhongnanshan mountain ranges in the 6th moon—indeed, the local term for such village groups is often “water associations” (shuihui).

Rain routes

Map of routes for rain processions. Source: Li Jianzheng and Yu Zhu, “Xi’an guyue jinxi tan”, Jiaoxiang 1983/3, p.18.

In its amateur devotional practice the genre belongs in a group with the Hebei ritual associations and Dongjing associations of Yunnan (on which, see the fine work of Helen Rees)—as opposed to family groups of occupational ritual specialists like the Li family Daoists in Yanggao, with which they otherwise share a lot in vocal liturgy, instrumentation, and social context.

As with those other groups, both amateur and occupational, they are based on Daoist and Buddhist practice. Now that I’ve suggested the complexity of the links between Complete Perfection and Orthodox Unity branches, work is needed here too.

City groups until the 1950s included

  • Chenghuang miao 城隍庙
  • Yingxiang guan 迎祥观
  • Taiyang miao 太阳庙
  • Xicang 西仓
  • Dongcang 东仓
  • Dajichang 大吉昌
  • Xianmi si 显密寺
  • Xiangmi yuan 香米园
  • Guangren si 广仁寺 (Lama si 喇嘛寺)

Even the temples listed above weren’t necessarily temple groups as such—many were folk groups named after their neighbourhood temple, though some priests might take part.

city groups map

City groups before the 1950s. Source: Jiaoxiang 1983/3, p.11.

We know little of the ritual practices of city temples like the former Yingxiang guan temple, or the Chenghuang miao. At the latter, master Daoist priest An Laixu was a revered instrumentalist, but I wish his vocal liturgy had been documented. Nor do we have much detail on the Buddhist temples that performed folk ritual in the area before the 1950s.

An Laixu 安来緖 (1895–1977) became a priest at the age of 11 sui. After Liberation his ritual life was much reduced. He was never formally laicised, but was kept in check by being recruited to prestigious official committees; he only cut his hair in 1966.

ALX group lowres

1961 Beijing performance, led by An Laixu on drums. Photo courtesy MRI, Beijing.

He led a celebrated 1961 trip to Beijing to perform (audio playlist #12, with notes here). After the silence of the Cultural Revolution, he died in obscure poverty in 1977 before he could be rehabilitated.

Ritual groups like these are easily misconstrued as “instrumental ensembles” (see my comments on Hebei). But to outline their instrumentation, they belong broadly to the northern shengguan style, though in most groups the guanzi oboe is subsidiary, with an exceptionally large quorum of sheng mouth-organ and di flute players (playing more in unison than in heterophony). The large and varied percussion section is also exceptional.

There is a strong percussion component even in the groups using melodic wind ensemble, but some (known as dagua she 打瓜社 or tongqi she 铜器社) play percussion alone. Most appear to sing only a few short ritual songs; not a prominent focus of research, this deserves further exploring. [2]

One can usually find a few online videos of folk activity, but here, so far, I can only see highly commodified clips—“negative teaching material”, I’d say.

One feature that has attracted antiquarian scholars to the genre is the vast collection of gongche solfeggio scores (perhaps comparable only with those we collected later in Hebei), which Li Shigen meticulously transcribed into cipher notation, worthily informed by the sung versions of senior performers. The scores are all the more attractive for the rather early form of their gongche characters, prompting somewhat ambitious links with Tang notation (Folk music of China, pp.119–23, 235–7). “But that’s not important right now.”

As so often for north Chinathe musicological study is all very desirable, but there should be far more to it than that. It can’t be left only to musicologists—it’s just as much a topic for historians, ethnographers, and scholars of religion.

Li Shigen

LSG:YYL 1953

Li Shigen (2nd left) with Yang Yinliu (2nd right), 1953.

Li Shigen (1919–2010) was already engaged in documenting these groups (known, like many amateur ritual groups, as she “societies”) when the great Yang Yinliu visited in summer 1953, inspired by his recent work on the Zhihua temple in Beijing. Great as Yang and Li Shigen were, they came up with the unfortunate term Xi’an guyue 西安鼓乐, which, in a common pattern, has proved hard to erase. Guyue (“drum music”) is the widely used folk term for shawm bands (aka chuigushou “blowers-and drummers”), who are a very different kettle of fish: occupational outcast groups quite separate from such amateur devotional associations. But the term stuck, used by such influential authorities as Yuan Jingfang. When I came to write my book I plumped for the more neutral term “Xi’an ceremonial music”.

In 1957 Li Shigen made what must have been an arduous journey to Baiyunshan in Shaanbei with Fan Zhaoming and his faithful assistant He Jun, finding the 4th-moon temple fair thronged with pilgrims. Their visit resulted in a slim 1959 volume of transcriptions of the Daoists’ shengguan pieces and ritual songs, as well as shawm pieces.

It was after Li’s return to Xi’an that he began to suffer in the Anti-Rightist campaigns, but he managed to pursue his studies until 1965. As academic and traditional activity revived after the end of the Cultural Revolution, he resumed work with renewed vigour. Several other scholars also contributed to research; Li engaged in heated polemics with Yu Zhu 余铸, a senior master recruited to the conservatoire.

Li Shigen lived to see his works collected and published in the multi-volume Xi’an guyue quanshu.


Li Shigen with his life’s work.

* * *

Near Xi’an are several Daoist temples of great antiquity. As usual, in seeking ritual activity, the trick is to look beyond the practice of temple-dwelling priests. In this case there is plenty of folk religious activity too, but I have little material on any Daoist involvement in it. Major temples like Louguantai are mainly staffed by Complete Perfection priests—though many of them have become more like photo opportunities for tourists, and are not apparently active doing folk ritual.

Here I queried the elements in the ritual practice of the distinguished Complete Perfection priest Min Zhiting. For a large city like Xi’an, we need a thorough study such as that of Naquin (2000) for Beijing.

The major site of worship in the city today, and since the 1950s, is the Baxian gong 八仙宫 (Baxian an 八仙庵) temple. As we await study from Liu Hong 刘红, I gave a few references in my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.95–6.

Further east, one assumes there should be lay ritual groups around the Huashan mountains (as around the northern Hengshan, or Wudangshan), but I have no material. From there, just east across the Yellow River, we can connect with the lively household Daoist ritual traditions of southwest Shanxi. See here for south Shaanxi.

* * *

Back in 1986 I was largely oblivious to the conditions in the city and countryside which nourished these ritual traditions. For Xi’an in the 1950s, and the conditions that An Laixu and the ritual groups had to negotiate, the most illuminating reading I know is Kang Zhengguo’s memoir Confessions: an innocent life in Communist China (2007).

Describing his sorry transition from school to factory to prison to labour camp, he gives rich detail on black markets, and the persecution of religious practice, as temples are ransacked and his grandfather, a devout Buddhist, comes under growing pressure.

He describes an incident in Chang’an county (where I later visited the Hejiaying ritual group) in 1965:

I hiked back to the road, boarded the Number 15 bus, and took it to the end of the line, the town of Weiqu, in Chang’an county on the outskirts of Xi’an. There I continued my aimless wandering. Trucks and horse carts were parked all along the main street, which boasted a few shops and restaurants. This was a place where some of my co-workers came on their day off, instead of going all the way into downtown Xi’an.

The town of Weiqu seemed embroiled in some kind of public event that day. The street was plastered with slogans and mobbed with pedestrians. I made my way toward the shrill sound systems that were blaring from the middle school playing field, where I found a huge crowd. I had stumbled into a county-wide tribunal, and verdicts were being read out from a faraway stage against landlords charge with “class retaliation”, county-level leaders arrested for “sabotaging the Socialist Education campaign”, and a bunch of common criminals. The Central Committee had designated Chang’an county as a spearhead of the Socialist Education campaign and given its work teams carte blanche there.

Desperate after his release from labour camp in 1971, his only option is to get adopted by an elderly peasant in a Chang’an village. His experiences there are no less harrowing. Of course this is an account of a largely self-educated former convict banished to rural life—both insider and outsider.

It is precisely inconvenient truths like these that continue to prompt scholars instinctively to refrain from modern ethnography, retreating instead to the disembodied safety of comparing the suite form of genres like Xi’an guyue to that of the Tang dynasty. Amnesia reigns.

[1] Li Shigen and other gave basic social outlines in several articles. Note also Cheng Yu’s PhD thesis from SOAS, and her article “China’s Xi’an guyue: ritual and performance contexts”, in Keith Howard (ed.) Music and ritual (Semar, 2006).

[2] The CD Xi’an drums music (Hugo, 1993, a rare published recording of folk groups) has two fine instances from the Fusanxue society (tracks 3 and 9)—brilliantly translated “This is a piece of rap music”.