*** Note also Shaanbei tag here!***

Even in English, we now have a considerable amount of material on changing traditional (ritual) culture in Shaanbei.

Shaanbei makes a potent field site because of the contrast between its iconic image as “a revolutionary mecca of modern China with colorful folk cultural traditions and scenic landscape” and the changing complexities of local reality. Chen Kaige’s 1984 film Yellow Earth explored the conflicts between the Communist Party’s idealistic mission and the poverty of traditional rural society during the War against Japan.

In Western scholarship the first notable achievement was

  • David Holm, Art and ideology in revolutionary China (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

While focusing on the CCP’s use of yangge in the base area before “Liberation”, it is based on fieldwork in the early 1980s, way before one might expect to delve into ritual culture.

  •  Adam Yuet Chau, Miraculous response: doing popular religion in contemporary China (Stanford UP, 2006)

is an exemplary ethnography of a particularly thriving temple in Shaanbei. Detailing all kinds of activity, he stresses the agrarian public sphere, “red-hot sociality”, “hosting”, and mutual help; the various actors in local politics; and gives an insightful picture of the complex temple leader Lao Wang. He expounds the new state-society dynamic, with local state agencies both regulating and profiting from popular religion, interacting with temple associations and temple bosses.

My own book

  • Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei (Ashgate, 2009, with DVD)

is a further contribution, focusing mainly on the changing lives of bards and shawm bands in ritual activity. Cf. my

  • In search of the folk Daoists of north China pp. 96–101.
    As I note there, Shaanbei seems to offer rather slim pickings for household Daoists; but even around Jiaxian county the Baiyunshan temple Daoists are only the tip of the iceberg.

Shaanbei folk culture is particularly well served in Chinese online video clips, although of course one has to maintain a critical eye. The DVD with my book makes a useful overview, with scenes of temple fairs, bards, funerals. and so on.

I was also inspired by the work of anthropologist Guo Yuhua 郭于华 on Shaanbei, notably an article in the important book that she edited,

  • Yishi yu shehui bianqian 仪式与社会变迁 [Ritual and social change] (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian cbs, 1999),

and more recently her outstanding book, the fruit of decades of oral history interviews:

  • Shoukurende jiangshu 受苦人的講述 [Narratives of the sufferer] (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2013).

The latter, perhaps hard to find in mainland China, should be essential reading for anyone seeking to understand modern Chinese history.

Also in Chinese, note

  • Zhang Zhentao 張振淘, Shengman shanmen: Shaanbei minzu yinyuezhi ‪声漫山门:陕北民族音乐志 (Beijing: Wenhua yishu cbs, 2014),

some of whose material overlaps to a degree with my own.

* * *

 If Miraculous response is already rather well known, here I’ll explore

  • Ka-ming Wu, Reinventing Chinese tradition: the cultural politics of late socialism (University of Illinois Press, 2015).

Wu focuses on the region around Yan’an, just further south from the common base around Mizhi and Suide counties (Guo Yuhua, Chau, me). Based on fieldwork from 2004 to 2012, it also makes a useful update to previous work. Indeed, it’s a reminder that the period since the 1980s’ reforms is not static: just as in the Maoist decades, the Republican era, and any slice of imperial history, society changes constantly.

Wu’s approach is nuanced, “avoiding the dichotomized assumptions of a hegemonic party-state and a subjected people”:

Folk discourse and practice are indeed meeting grounds of contemporary state interests, rural society initiatives, new capitalist values, and local government propaganda.

Her book cautions against

rendering the Chinese experience to a Western image of a totalitarian model and attends to the subtle ways the party-state socialist legacy, capitalist practices, and traditional cultural practices dance together. On the other hand, it cautions against simplifying the local, the social, and the rural as the opposite spheres of the state. (xi–xii)

Thus she disputes both existing research that

predominantly understands folk cultural tradition in Yan’an as a tool of revolution, a medium of state propaganda, or an object of Mao’s cultural reform,

and that which

claims to seek out an original and archaic folk cultural realm unmediated by political process and capital forces.

So instead of seeing folk cultural practices as a “nativist transcendental existence repressed”, Wu shows how

folk cultural tradition becomes the site of complex struggles where socialist legacy, state propaganda, local initiatives and, lately, market forces, heritage campaigns, and communal participation play out against each other.
In contrast to a popular view that folk tradition is now free from state intervention with blossoming local revivals, my principal arguments about folk traditions are 1) they have become ever more well-integrated to the party-state campaigns and propaganda; 2) they have blended together with tourist spectacles, commodities, and consumption experience; and 3) they have been actively reconstructed and reenacted by rural villagers for the making of a new rural identity and communal sociality.

Here I don’t entirely concur: to me, many of the forms she describes (such as the healing rituals of both bards and mediums) do still seem to suggest considerable long-term independence from state influence.

Citing Adam Chau’s insight that local governments turn folk religious practices into useful “resources” to boost the local economy, she too observes that

Folk tradition has become an omnipresent sign reworked by the party-state for policy purposes, simulated and packaged by companies for consumption by urban intellectuals for heritage listing purposes, and still actively reenacted by rural villagers for identity construction and communal remaking.

But she also observes:

The production of culture is not entirely commodified in the process of marketization; nor is it exactly manipulated by the strong state.

Citing River elegy, Wu reflects on the 1980s’ view of Shaanbei as “the moribund rural Other”—spatial proof of a stagnant civilization, backward and impoverished, cultural metaphor for China’s stasis, close[d]ness, and inertia. This reflects urban intellectuals’ constant difficulty in coming to terms with the material poverty of the area, from the 1930s through the Cultural Revolution right down to the reform era, after unremitting propaganda lauding the achievements of socialist policies.

In addition to its economic marginalization, Ansai was also divided between the haves and the have-nots. From the 1990s, private developers began to operate there, and associated industries such as transportation proliferated. Individuals engaged with these new industries started to accumulate wealth quickly, but the majority of rural residents still had no electricity, phone connections, or tap water supply, and most remained impoverished even into the early 2000s. (52)

Chinese fieldworkers were still shocked in 2004:

Instead of unearthing ritual practices and age-old customs, the survey seems to have been rather more of an exercise in cultural shock. Survey members were disoriented and emotionally disturbed by all the evidence of family breakdown and destitution at the margins of rural Yan’an. (57–9)

Wu’s own fieldwork shows how very poor many rural dwellers remain even now. While she notes the “extraordinary respect given to the villagers by the urban professional and artists”, by the 1990s, in contrast both to the 80s’ view and to Maoist ideology, Chinese scholars were vapidly reimagining folk culture as “idyllic, spiritually wealthy, and powerful”—an approach later to be elaborated in the ICH for middle-class consumers.

The 1980s’ collectors were indeed admirable, and their instinct to stress traditional over new stories (see Meng Haiping’s comment here, under “Research and images”) wasn’t necessarily a mere search for living fossils.

At Wu’s first fieldwork base, she finds that

Life was so much more stressful than I imagined. Underlying a peaceful and idyllic community were murky money politics, cadre-villager conflicts, and interest-driven household calculations and anxiety.
The more that Yan’an was raised as that symbol of the Communist revolutionary success and legacy, the more alienation villagers often experienced as the norm of everyday life.

As I suggested in my post on Guo Yuhua, surely the exposure of fieldworkers to poverty should be reflected in our writings, leading to analysis of the problems of the “sufferers”, rather than merely making “hit-and-run” missions to salvage ancient cultural artefacts.

I discuss Wu’s chapters on bards, complementing Part Two of my Shaanbei book, here.

Spirit cults and mediums
Also stimulating is Wu’s Chapter 5 on spirit cults and mediums, complementing the work of Adam Chau. These transpire to be a major element in Shaanbei religious life. She warns against a simple “religion as resistance” theory, as always observing the interpenetration of state and community. She notes the common background of mediums, who

went through crisis-type misfortune or illness initiation, an “unsolicited altered state of consciousness” that afflicted them first, drove them into solitude, and demanded them to become mediums.

She observes that the distinctive form of sociality in such performances make

critical moments when individuals came to articulate their experience, actions, and life situations.

While these rituals are more intimate, inconspicuous, and delicate than the “red-hot sociality” of more public temple fairs, they are complementary. Indeed, mediums are important organizers for temple maintenance and activity.

Villagers consulted one medium

for inability to conceive a baby, suffering from diseases, or suspicion of inauspicious forces. […] Female spirit mediums often give useful advice and personal guidance on private matters, particularly women’s childbirth matters, because such intimate and caring advice, with a kind of religious authority, is nowhere to be found in the rural area.

Mediums are also in demand as a result of new inequalities and insecurities, like the recent expropriations of land. Ironically,

It is in the vanishing of rural environment and community that spirit cults thrive and produce new folk discourse and new rural subjects. (146)

And the opening chapters on paper-cutting in Ansai county are excellent too. Unlike bards and mediums, this art is largely moribund, only given a new lease of life through the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH, my bête noire) and tourism—commodified, “paper-cuts have ceased to be sought after except by tourists”. But her discussion is astute. She succinctly critiques the naïve search for living fossils:

To say that paper-cut designs of […] “Ox-Plowing” preserve an aesthetic tradition many thousand years old is certainly a stretch because it assumes people of the region were not exposed or connected to any modern ideas or practices, including those introduced by the modern Communist revolution and reforms, after those ancient civilizations.

Staying with the famous paper-cutter Hao Guizhen,

My naïve expectation of finding the source of the Yellow River civilization as personified in a rural feminine figure was quickly shattered as I became familiar with Hao during the two months that followed.
Folk paper-cuts in the 1990s, claimed by the Yan’an government to symbolize an ancient civilization, became closely related to the region’s tourist, business, and investment opportunities.
Bearing much stigmatization as a financially stressed widow in a rural village, Hao is not living out the prosperity and auspiciousness expressed in her paper-cuts.

Along with Louisa Schein, Wu notes how the exoticizing “internal orientalist” discourse

not only fuels the fascination of the urban Chinese for the peasant and the folk, but it also detaches one from understanding the harsh material reality of villagers and the constructed relations between their contemporary practice and a certain time-honored national culture by the Chinese state.

She points out that

The historically ambivalent relationship between urban villagers and rural intellectuals recurs in the market reform eras and continues to be relevant in the contemporary debate of heritage listing.

Like Guo Yuhua, Wu notes both new female empowerment and new forms of gender inequality (60–61). In the post-reform discourse,

Women villagers are seen as rather passive cultural bearers of the so-called Yellow River civilization rather than as autonomous creative agents.

But ironically,

The three contradictory logics of capital, folk rural society, and political appropriation operate comfortably together through paper-cuts in the new millennium. […] In the end, paper-cuts seem to become that flexible cultural symbol of nostalgic desires, where the state and urban intellectuals seek legitimacy and profits and interpret the meanings of cultural modernity for a rising China. (63)

In Chapter 2 Wu looks more closely at the ICH, with its drab monochrome reifications, in a study of Xiaocheng Folk Art Village, a site developed since 2001.

Designs, sales, and rankings in the heritage lists are intimately connected to local governments’ tourism revenue, scholars’ research funding, and the market share of folk commodities.

Such sites are undoubtedly theme parks, but she finds that new local knowledge contests dominant and official understandings of tradition. Villagers and local and central intellectuals and state bodies enter into a fragile strategic alliance, with frequent competition between all layers—a “narrative battle”,

a process of collision and collaboration of many competing forces and interests. (85)

Traditional mud cavehouses with wooden window frames mounted with rice paper where paper-cuts used to be pasted have mostly disappeared and the majority of household have changed their homes to stone cavehouses with modern glass windows. Locals had long turned to shiny commercial posters with pop stars’ faces as interior decoration and paper-cuts were seen limited [sic] to wedding occasions. In other words, if the CAFA intellectuals wanted to find a rural community that kept practicing the paper-cutting tradition, they would have to invent one. (71)

Villagers’ objectives and concerns were clearly different. They could not care less whether paper-cutting was a medium of transmitting ancient totemic values and philosophy to the present. All they wanted was electric cables and tap water facilities. (74)

And the project did at least seem to offer them a potential way out from the “inertness and meaninglessness” of their rural condition. It

did not bring in gender empowerment overnight in terms of raising women’s income and status significantly. But in Xiaocheng, paper-cutting has changed the ways many women position and value themselves in rural households. (80)


this folk-centred narrative not only challenges the elitist convention of Chinese literary culture, it also contests the Communist party-state view of peasant folk culture as naturally receptive to revolutionary class struggle. (85)

Like Ju Xi’s summary of how the ICH may be used by local actors for their own ends, these are all perceptive points, but in the end I fear the discourse and directions are still dominated by the power of outsiders and remote officials: the counter-hegemonic narrative may be overstated.

In this case Wu recognizes the rose-tinted official propaganda and its agendas as an element in the overall scene, and writes with critical acumen. I guess it’s a question of balance—I discuss her thoughts on the issue at further length here.

Finally, following Xiao Mei’s fine article on rain rituals (another contribution to Shaanbei studies)

  • “Huwu hujie qi ganlin: Xibei (Shaanbei) diqu qiyu yishi yu yinyue diaocha zongshu” [The buzz of praying for sweet rainfall: field survey of ritual and music of rain prayer in the northwest (Shaanbei) region], in Tsao Poon-yee [Cao Benye] (ed.), Zhongguo minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Xibei juan [Studies of Chinese folk ritual music, North-west vol.] (Kunming: Yunnan renmin chubanshe, 2003, with DVD), pp.419­–88,

I’d love to see Wu’s notes on the rain ritual at Caozhuang (p.27).

* * *

As Wu ka-ming reflects,

An observable reality, such as objects, theaters, or texts, simply does not exist. The field is always a site of multiple, divergent stories and positioned utterances beyond the “knowing” of a set of prescribed research questions.

Together, all this body of work on Shaanbei comprises astute reflections on a century of change there, far from its romantic image as an unspoilt rural paradise.

Strangely, such an approach is less common in the vastly greater volume of research on folk and ritual culture in south China such as Hunan, which tends to focus on salvage at the expense of ethnography. Shaanbei is far from exceptional in the concerns explored by these scholars—the political background only makes it a particularly intriguing case.