South Gaoluo: a tribute to two ritual leaders

This vignette is adapted from my 2004 book Plucking the Winds. For more, see this introduction to the Gaoluo sub-menu, and the Gaoluo tag; note also this page on ritual groups in the catchment area of the Houtu cult. And in this post I reflected on the similarities and differences with my work on the Li family Daoists.

Bear in mind that like most ritual groups in north China, the practice of the South Gaoluo ritual association subsumes three elements, chuidanian: in reverse order, vocal liturgy, percussion, and shengguan melodic ensemble.

* * *

Here I’d like to introduce two leading characters in the association, Cai Fuxiang and Cai An, whose lives overlapped under different periods of modern history.

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Cai Fuxiang: vocal liturgy, warfare, and Maoism
The most respected home-grown revolutionary in South Gaoluo was the tall Cai Fuxiang (c1905–79). In 1944, already well known throughout the area, having led a major guerrilla operation in a nearby village, he was elected chairman of the Poor Peasants’ Association in South Gaoluo, formed by the Communist underground to “stir up revolution”. Apart from singing the vocal liturgy for the village ritual association, he was also a keen member of the village Shaolin (martial arts) association.

Most celebrated Communist resistance hero throughout the area was a native of Yixian county just west, commander Xie Feng (1922–2004). Formidable He Qing, leader of the association from the early 1960s through to the 1990s, recalled him as embodying the integrity of the old Communists: while the occupying Japanese troops had bowed to his father He Jincai, then leader of the association, Xie Feng would not let He Jincai bow to him. Never one to mince his words, He Qing went on to contrast the post-Maoist Chinese leadership: “this bloody shower now are a bunch of con-men”, voicing a widely-held sentiment.

Already for some time before the Japanese surrender, the villages in the area west of the river, including Gaoluo, had been passing ever more firmly into the hands of the Communists. The Poor Peasants’ Association began redistributing landlord property early in 1945. The following winter, soon after the defeat of the Japanese, ritual specialist Cai Fuxiang led the first round of land reform in South Gaoluo, “sweeping [the landlords] out of the gate”. In what must have been a massively popular move throughout China, the land formerly belonging to “landlords” and “rich peasants” was now divided among common villagers. Although landlords were supposedly allowed to retain their dwellings, most fled, understandably. “Rich peasants” too, in theory, were only deprived of part of their land.

In fact Communist power seems to have gone largely unchallenged in Gaoluo until the early summer of 1947. On the 5th day of the 4th moon, the Poor Peasants’ Association, led by Cai Fuxiang, began to hold mass meetings to continue land reform. Ironically, in this area it was not long before the withdrawal of Nationalist troops in June that dispossessed landlords and rich peasants, as well as others with grievances or with nothing to lose, threw in their lot with vengeful “Return-to-the-district troupes” (Huanxiang tuan), as they are known in Communist parlance. These grew out of the local militia formed for protection, first against the bandits, then against the Japanese; their motives were often dubious. They too are described as “bandits” in Communist sources.

Legends soon grew around the two most celebrated revolutionaries in this story, Xie Feng and Cai Fuxiang. Venerable Shan Zhihe recounted a fine story:

Once the association was playing for the New Year’s rituals when armed members of the Return-to-the-district troupes entered to listen. Xie Feng and Bai Jie hid their own guns and entered the building too, pretending to be listening to the music, but actually spying on the bandits!

Similarly, maestro Cai An retailed a nice story about Cai Fuxiang:

He was doing a funeral with the association when someone came to warn him the Nationalists were after him. But he insisted on completing the funeral ritual before jumping over a wall and making his escape.

Whereas Francis Drake was so cool that he wouldn’t allow the sighting of the Armada to interrupt his game of bowls, this story combines a tribute to Cai Fuxiang’s bravery and a reminder of the priority of the observance of proper ritual.

But the fates of Xie Feng and Cai Fuxiang were to diverge extremely. After the 1949 Communist Liberation Xie Feng became commissioner of the Zhangjiakou region in northwestern Hebei. As late as 1963, as China was recovering from “the three years of hardship”, the village was having difficulty finding good quality horses to buy, so they sent someone to Zhangjiakou to ask Xie Feng to help them out; sure enough, he found them good horses for a bargain price. But while genial Shan Yude was in Zhangjiakou in 1967, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, he saw Xie Feng being “struggled” in a mass-meeting, castigated as a member of the “black band”. Villagers know that after the overthrow of the Gang of Four in 1976 Xie Feng became Party Secretary of Hebei province. He ranked highly through the 1980s, rising through the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

Local hero Cai Fuxiang suffered a much less illustrious fate. Early in the 7th moon in 1947 he summoned a secret meeting at the house of Pure Grain Association leader Shan Kai to discuss action to be taken against local tyrant He Jinhu, who had been deputy security chief under the Japanese. Though considered something of a village bully, he had joined the Communist resistance along with Cai Fuxiang, under the leadership of commander Xie Feng. He Jinhu and Cai Fuxiang never got on; Cai Fuxiang was about to betray He Jinhu’s opium habit to his commander, and the gambling of his younger brother He Jinshui, but He Jinshui managed to eavesdrop on the meeting. He raced off to warn He Jinhu, and they fled east of the river. They now switched sides, taking up with a group of bandits in Xiazhuang village.

He Jinshui now led a carefully prepared raid on the South Gaoluo arms stores. Dispossessed landlord Heng Demao, with his lackey Shan Deyou, now returned from Laishui county-town to Xiazhuang, acting as figurehead of a “Return-to-the-District” troupe and seeking to seize back land redistributed by the Communists. They borrowed further arms from the feared Nationalist brigade of Zhou Lin in the county-town. At first Shan Deyou was the real leader, rallying malcontents under the banner of the prestigious Heng Demao, but after six weeks he was replaced by one Cai Yongsheng.

The bandits made several raids on South Gaoluo. Once again innocent villagers were kidnapped for ransom. Guanzi-player Cai Fushun and Cai Fugui, father of maestro Cai An, as well as some livestock, were also abducted. Ransoms were calculated in fabi, the wildly inflating Nationalist currency. In one raid, on the 8th day of the 9th moon of 1947, of four men abducted, one went over to the bandit cause, while the others later paid 15 million fabi for their release. With the ransom money the bandits were able to buy more weapons.

That same night He Jinshui, with two men from nearby Xiazhuang, raided the house of Cai Fuxiang, whom he had overheard plotting against the He brothers. As it happened, Cai Fuxiang was away from the village, but his 36-sui old wife and two young sons, Quanzi of 7 sui and Erquan of just 40 days, were savagely bayonetted to death. Our friend Shan Yude, then 5, remembers people screaming, “Great Chairman’s family’s been killed!” The corpses were hurriedly buried without a funeral, and Cai Fuxiang had to stay on the run from the bandits.

This story emerged over many visits to the village, and seemed rather remote to me at first. I never got to meet Cai Fuxiang, but his story encapsulates the fortunes of tradition and revolution in the village. Later, back home in London, as I studied my photos of the 1930 donors’ list of the association, I found the names of both culprits, He Jinhu and He Jinshui, alongside those of the musicians, and somehow this made the period, and the tensions of village life, seem more vivid to me. Moreover, the He brothers were closely related to the Hes in the Music Association; even today the massacre remains an uncomfortable subject, reviving the ancient rivalry between the Hes and the Cais. He Jinhu’s pre-emptive strike against Cai Fuxiang’s family was a personal vendetta rather than a simple political story of goodies and baddies. But the incident left the whole village in shock; it was to trigger a long decline for Cai Fuxiang himself.

After the national “Liberation”, from 1949 to 1950 the village resumed land reform, which had been initiated by Cai Fuxiang in 1945–46 and interrupted, if not reversed, by the Return-to-the-district troupes in 1947. Despite the occasional guidance of work-teams sent from outside, the main burden for organizing the reform fell on village activists.

The new village boss Heng Futian had been absent from the village in recent years fighting for the Communists, and was no longer very familiar with local conditions. So the onus for resuming land reform again fell mainly on Cai Fuxiang, still reluctantly taking part in the revolution despite the shock of losing his family. Others involved in the decisions included Shan Yushan, a former grain-supplier for the 8th Route Army and a keen supporter of the ritual association; and Cai Yongchun, also a former grain-supplier, book-keeper, and (like Cai Fuxiang) ritual specialist. Their decisions inevitably gave rise to resentment, and Cai Fuxiang must have lost a certain amount of popularity in the process.

Throughout the area—indeed, throughout China—no conflict was felt between the revolution and the practice of the old ways; Cai Fuxiang and Li Wenbin, like many other impeccable revolutionaries we have met in nearby villages, led both the revolution and the reciting of the ritual manuals. After all, this was no elite group of Confucian landlords: the musicians came from poor backgrounds, and the association served and was supported by rich and poor alike.

A breakdown
Meanwhile Cai Fuxiang was going into a sad decline. He makes a sadly fitting emblem of the revolution in South Gaoluo: like the Chinese revolution itself, you might say, the reality didn’t live up to the myth of sacrifice.

After the massacre of his family in 1947 Cai Fuxiang had married again. At first after Liberation he served as village chief, subordinate to Party Secretary Heng Futian. But his confidence was destroyed; though his dedication to reciting the ritual manuals was undiminished, he seemed to lose interest both in the revolution and in life itself.

Cai Fuxiang was to live a lot longer than his brother-in-law landlord Heng Demao, but also in pitiable conditions. He was allocated to the 4th production-team after collectivization, but didn’t take to agriculture. In about 1956 he opened a small inn, letting out the two spare rooms of his house to travelling peddlars. Right until the establishment of the people’s communes in 1958 North Gaoluo had an inn called “The Zhou Family Old Inn”, next to the great temple and the lively market. But as the commune system was implemented, and the grain coupon system limited people’s mobility, the inn had to close down. Anyway, Cai Fuxiang soon gained a bad reputation for “ripping off” (keng) his clients, using the cadres’ emergency grain supplies to sell overpriced bowls of gruel—people muttered how in imperial times such a crime had been punishable by death. As ominous phrases like “the roots of capitalism” circulated, District Secretary Dong had Cai removed from office and expelled from the Party.

Unable to continue running the inn, Cai Fuxiang went off with a little barrow selling candymen, clay whistles, needle and thread, and knick-knacks, which he got wholesale from Xincheng nearby. Going on foot between Gaoluo and Beijing, he was now virtually a rag-picker. But as he was an old revolutionary whose family had been killed, and he had lost his job and his Party membership, he had “smashed his own jar”; people didn’t have the heart to take him to task, even the village cadres. He was later criticized for going round the houses in the village begging for food during the 1959–61 difficulties, and then feeding the pickings to his pig.

Wise Shan Zhihe told us it was such a shame, Cai Fuxiang seemed to have lost his scruples. Though Cai had been head of the committee which had lumbered Shan with a bad class label, Shan’s appraisal seemed objective enough. In the appraisal of another perceptive villager, distaste for Party-speak overcame charity. “Cai Fuxiang was a man who couldn’t take on the climate, he didn’t really achieve anything. When he was in charge of the Peasant Association before Liberation, he would bullshit at meetings, declaring how so-and-so deserved to die for smoking opium, so-and-so deserved to die for gambling, and in the end he got his own family killed instead.”

Still, come what may, Cai Fuxiang continued taking part devoutly in the activities of the ritual association and the martial arts association. Amongst his musician friends he remained a much respected figure; genial Shan Yude and eccentric Cai Ran, his young pupils from 1961, remember him as affable and dependable.

Cai Fuxiang had no problem with fellow musicians He Jincai and He Jinmei, close cousins of the He brothers who were responsible for the massacre of his family. When He Jincai died in 1958, just before the Great Leap Forward, aged nearly 80, the ritual association performed for his funeral, then still observing the Report to the Temple (baomiao) ritual; his old friend Cai Fuxiang led the vocal liturgy, including parts of the Ten Kings scroll and the Bearing Aloft ritual, both later lost.

True, Cai Fuxiang never got on with Party Secretary Heng Futian: Heng had been a real member of the Communist army (budui), whereas although Cai Fuxiang was respected he was only in the “Common 8th Route” (tu balu) irregular army. But no-one seemed to blame Heng Futian for Cai Fuxiang’s difficulties.

Cai Fuxiang inherited an allotment from his adopted father Cai Ming, just east of the main alley south, but did not have to give it up during collectivization since people still felt sorry for him. A plan had been mooted to erect a stele for him there in recognition of his sacrifices for the revolution, but later he so blotted his copy-book that it was constantly shelved. The debate came up again in the Four Cleanups campaign, but in the Cultural Revolution Cai Fuxiang’s stepson Cai Huan was in the unpopular “United” faction and the stele was never built. Cai Huan eventually built a house on the site; officially arable land should not be used to build houses on, but the village cadres turned a blind eye, not for the only time.

The 1961–64 restoration
After the calamities of the “Three Years of Hardship”, another short-lived cultural restoration now took place. This was made possible by an economic recovery based on the retrenchment from the disastrous political extremism of the Great Leap Forward.

Any political anxieties which might have emerged in the late 1950s about practising “feudal superstitious” culture were dismissed as two groups of young students began training with senior masters of the association. First to learn, in the winter of 1961–62, was a group of young men happy to study the vocal liturgy with flawed revolutionary Cai Fuxiang. Then through the following winter, after the autumn harvest, over thirty young men took up the ritual sheng-guan music.

Eccentric Cai Ran remembers how villagers were spellbound by Cai Fuxiang’s delivery of the Houtu precious scroll. He vividly recalls him sitting cross-legged before the scroll on the low table on the kang brick-bed, turning the pages with the bamboo slip, while Li Baoyu sat beside him beating time with the association’s splendid old woodblock.

The young recruits studied the scriptures in the winters and springs from 1961 to 1964 with the distinguished Cai Fuxiang. As they recalled, “we were a group of mates, and with nothing to do in the winter, we thought it would be nice to learn with him. We studied every evening at his house, and soon we were all hooked (shangyin).” Cai Fuxiang was very good to them; despite his recent political problems, not to mention the trauma of 1947, he was a kindly and affable character, and he knew the scriptures inside out. His second wife was always very kind, plying them with tea. The ritual specialists later remembered the study period with great nostalgia. Our host Shan Yude managed to keep a copy of the funeral manual which he made in the 2nd moon of 1962.

While the students were learning the liturgy, Cai Fuxiang also explained how to perform it in ritual context. But they had little opportunity to put this into practice before still more violent campaigns disrupted their lives yet again.

One omen of the coming storms, in the 7th or 8th moon of 1963, soon after the flood, was an unfortunate incident at the funeral of He Qing’s mother, widow of master-musician He Jincai. A midwife, she too was a popular character. Naturally the newly restored ritual association went to perform, including the vocal liturgists. Though Li Wenbin and Cai Yongchun were absent, Cai Fuxiang took along his keen new students, among them the bright young Shan Bingsheng, to recite the funerary scriptures. Of the children of the deceased, our mentor He Qing was a team chief, his older brother was the first underground Communist Party member in Gaoluo, later serving as village chief, while his sister was head of the Women’s Association in North Gaoluo. As tradition demanded, they now took their place among the mourners kowtowing before the coffin as the ritual specialists intoned the scriptures.

Alas, the Party Secretary of West Yi’an commune happened to be in the village on an inspection tour. Since a new “class struggle” campaign was just under way, he now officiously stepped in, pointing out that Shan Bingsheng was the “lamb of the landlord element” Shan Shutang—how could Party members kowtow before a landlord’s kid? The commune cadre forbade Shan Bingsheng there and then to continue reciting the scriptures, and chased him off. Bingsheng realized with a shock that he would find it hard to survive in the village.

It is an index of how far our understanding of the village had to progress, and how superficial casual fieldwork can be, that in 1993, despite our already close relationship with He Qing, he had presented the attendance of the commune Secretary at his mother’s funeral merely as a point of honour for his family, without mentioning the “class struggle” about which we later learnt.

Note again that problems for the ritual association arose mainly when cadres visited from outside the village. Everywhere, village leaders might or might not support traditional culture, but their understanding of local conditions tended to make them sensitive to people’s feelings; they too wanted a quiet life in which the proper decencies were observed. Gaoluo cadres had nothing against Shan Bingsheng: as musicians pointed out, “cadres don’t want to give offence to people”. It is also curious that the objection of the commune Secretary was not to the performance of “superstitious” funerary ritual, nor yet to the participation in it of people from “good” class backgrounds, but merely to the presence of a landlord’s son.

This funeral was also the last time that the Report to the Temple ritual was observed in South Gaoluo, with the association playing to accompany the family to report the death on three visits to the site of the old temple of the Five Ways. The association was still able to perform for the funeral of drum-master He Jinmei shortly after. But by now political conditions made it impossible to practise the vocal liturgy, the Four Cleanups campaign soon leading to the Cultural Revolution. The funeral of He Qing’s mother was to be remembered as the last properly observed funeral for sixteen years; it was not until 1979 that the young scholars of the village liturgy could again put into practice what they had learnt.

The Cultural Revolution
Cai Fuxiang, former revolutionary who had gone into serious decline after the murder of his family, was now vulnerable to pressure from the work-team. At a mass meeting of North and South villages organized by the work-team, Cai Fuxiang was cajoled into “speaking his bitterness” against Heng Futian: doubtless there was no love lost between the two, but the speech he now made was virtually dictated by the work-team. This must have been a further stage in his disintegration.

Now petrified, Cai Fuxiang had to decide what to do with the village’s precious ritual manuals. They had been kept in the house of Li Wenbin, also a ritual specialist with close ties to the local government, but Cai Fuxiang had taken them over when Li went to work as book-keeper in the county-town around 1957. The manuals now in danger were the two copies of the Houtu scroll, the Ten Kings scroll, and the funeral manuals, including volumes called Bearing Aloft (Zhifeng) and Litany of Repentance (Chanhui).

By 1993 eccentric Cai Ran—our first ever, reluctant, contact in South Gaoluo in 1989—was an enthusiastic participant in our studies. He has always identified closely with the Houtu scroll, having studied it with Cai Fuxiang from 1961 to 1964, and over the hot summer days of 1993 during breaks from recording it, he recalled how it survived.

In 1966, aged 17, Cai Ran was a Red Guard, like most young men in the village.

The Red Guards had already demanded the Houtu scroll once from Cai Fuxiang, but he only handed over the Ten Kings scroll, so as to “get through” and keep them happy. But then they violently ransacked the house of another villager who was supposed to have belonged to the DaFo jiao sect, parading him through the streets, so Cai Fuxiang was dead scared, and realized he had no choice but to sacrifice the Houtu scroll as well. I tried to talk him out of it, but about ten days later the Red Guards returned to his house to demand the Houtu scroll.

When Cai Fuxiang came forward with both the old and new copies of the Houtu scroll, Shan Xingfen, a teenage Red Guard about the same age as Cai Ran, took them off. Cai Ran went on:

I was perching on the tree outside Cai Fuxiang’s house waiting for them to come out. As Shan Xingfen came out with bundles in each arm, I jumped down from the tree. He was taller than me, but fatter too, and less agile. I snatched the manuals off—the old copy got torn in half, but I rescued the new [1943] copy complete. I ran off, the Red Guards chased me.

Cai Ran’s uncle Cai Heng lived just nearby—he had been classified as a poor peasant, so Cai Ran instinctively realized his house would make a safe hiding place, the Red Guards couldn’t possibly ransack it. (Villagers were shrewd: we heard a similar story of the rescue of the Southern Music Association’s scriptures.) “As I turned the corner, I jumped over the wall into the courtyard of my uncle’s house and thrust the bundle into his arms, telling him to hide it.” When Cai Ran emerged into the lane he was ready to take on his adversary. He grabbed a brick and managed to give Shan Xingfen a cut in the head—so he didn’t feel like taking it up with Cai Ran any more.

Cai Ran made himself scarce for a while; for now the Houtu scroll was safe. Incidentally, in 1990 his old adversary Shan Xingfen helped rebuild the ritual building. By some chance which villagers couldn’t explain, the 1903 funeral manual, which the ritual specialists use today, stayed hidden in Cai Fuxiang’s house. But the ritual specialists were later to regret the sacrifice of the Ten Kings scroll, never again to be heard at funerals in Gaoluo.

Cai Fuxiang’s funeral
As the association revived, the death late in 1979 of Cai Fuxiang, aged over 70, was a landmark. Despite being expelled from the Party for his misdemeanours in the 1950s, he was still revered throughout the area for his courage and leadership before Liberation, and the village Party leadership now posthumously reconferred membership on him. Again some of the musicians got together to play for his funeral, but even this was seen as a minor observance.

Nonetheless, Cai Fuxiang’s funeral seems to me one of the milestones in the history of the ritual association. For almost the first time since they had learnt the ritual texts with Cai Fuxiang in 1961–64, the still-young ritual specialists now had the ambivalent honour of performing them for their deceased master. Fifteen turbulent years had passed, during which they had taken part in constant campaigns as Red Guards or soldiers, far from their modest expectations in 1961. It was the ritual students themselves who decided to recite the scriptures for their master: no-one was interfering in such matters any more, they thought, and campaigns against superstition seemed a thing of the past. As eccentric Cai Ran said, “Cai Fuxiang had recited the scriptures for other people all his life, he was our teacher, so it was up to us to recite them for him.” They may not have recited with any fluency on that first occasion, and others may not have paid much attention, but for them it marked a significant revival.

Cai An: Maoism and the reforms
Overlapping with the story of Cai Fuxiang, and taking us through to my visits, is that of Cai An (1942–2012), our main host in Gaoluo through the 1990s. One of my favourite musicians in the world, he was largely self-taught. For me his brilliant musicianship embodied the tough and virtuous ethos which is the spirit of this music. Having had little schooling, he wrote with difficulty; however, he recited the gongche scores fluently.


Cai An reciting the gongche solfeggio for Beijing student Wu Fan, 2003.

To listen to him reciting the score and to observe the moving assurance of his cymbal-playing was to enter into the heart of music-making. Like his mentor He Qing, he was also an enthusiast for the long dormant local opera. He never held any official position in the village, but was authoritative. Entirely without artifice, he was a popular and much respected man, straightforward and conscientious; naturally reticent, he was generous without being effusive, his house always full of friends.

Early years
Cai An was born in 1942, during the Japanese occupation, with banditry and kidnappings rife. Though many of his uncles were leading lights in the association, his father Cai Fugui didn’t take part.

In 1954, when Cai An was 13 sui, his father died of gangrene, desperately reducing the bright young lad’s family circumstances; he now left school, having only attended four years. In the winter of 1956–57, on the eve of the Great Leap Forward, he was recruited to the association. He began to learn the ritual shengguan music along with seven others the first major intake since Liberation in 1950—another group had begun to study in 1953–55, but they soon gave up. It was Cai An’s uncle, the stern guanzi-player Cai Fuquan, who got him to take it up, exclaiming, “Don’t mess around, study!”—hinting at the moral virtue commonly attributed to the ritual music. Cai An recalls how they began by reciting the gongche solfeggio of the prelude Guolou pai’r, with students on one side of the table, masters on the other.

The core melodic instruments are guanzi oboe (which leads) and sheng mouth-organ; the arabesques of the dizi flute and the incandescent halo of the yunluo gong-frame are indispensable to the beauty of the ensemble, but are considered secondary. As it happened, there were already several fine guanzi players in the association, but there was a shortage of regular yunluo players. Sun Xiufeng and Shan Yunhe were no more, Sun Wenxiu had gone off before Liberation to work in the baths at Beijing, and Sun Wenqi soon went off to Gaobeidian to serve as a labour camp guard. Dizi-players Cai Shan and Cai Futong often had to deputize on yunluo. So young Cai An was now chosen to play yunluo, which was something of a waste of a fine talent.

He began playing with the association whenever they went out on funerals. He recalls learning yunluo by sitting beside Cai Futong at funerals, learning how to adapt the gongche outline of the score to the idiom of the gongs by watching the demonstrative style, the right hand doing tremolos with the slim beater.

But the new recruits were only able to study for just over a year before the Great Leap Forward, after which free time vanished. Even now, cadres from outside the village evinced the inflexible hostility of official policy towards “feudal” culture. Cai An recalled, “One night after finishing work we were humming the gongche together, but we were overheard by a cadre called Dong from the district work-team—he told us to shut up, and sent us off to shovel mud from the river for manure.” Six of the eight new students later gave up: only Cai An and percussionist Shan Bingyuan persisted.

By now Cai An was also playing percussion in the village opera troupe. Taking a major role in both the ritual association and the opera troupe was the formidable He Qing. Brusque, “cruel but fair”, apart from heading one of the village’s eight production teams, He Qing wielded a major influence on village life from behind the scenes.


He Qing leads the New Year rituals, 1989.

The famine
But before long, famine struck. The national famine of 1959–61, in which over forty million may have died, is still not widely recognized (for some basic sources, see here).

The period was a nightmare for all. The old, sick, and young were first to die; in many areas reports of begging, armed gangs, and the selling of wives and children were written—and suppressed. Desperation became more extreme the more exaggerated were the reports of bumper harvests demanded by the central leadership to vindicate their utopian policies.

Only in 1996 did Cai An confide to us that he was among those who migrated to escape the crisis. In 1960, still only 18 sui, he set off with a couple of fellow villagers passing through a ravaged countryside towards northeast China. “We’d heard there was still work to be found there, that you might be able to get enough to eat. On the way I was taken in by a refugee post. Luckily, before I’d set out I’d thought to get hold of a certificate of graduation from primary school, which was enough to qualify me for a job-placement, so I was sent to work in a mechanical factory at Fuxin.”

There Cai An earnt the princely sum of 52 yuan per month, of which he sent 40 yuan home to his widowed mother and his two younger sisters—there was a rule that families whose breadwinners had migrated were not to receive any food allowances, to make them pay for food. “The foreman in the factory took a liking to me, and the job was going all right. With my remaining 12 yuan a month I could buy bread rolls—when I was desperate I could go to the fields and nick a few radishes on the quiet to survive.”

But after only five months his mother wrote to beg him to come home. To avoid attracting attention he crept back into the village in the dead of night. But next day, the village boss came straight round to give him a talking to, confiscating his documents. Cai An now had no choice but to stick things out at home. It was a desperate time for all. Even if people had the strength to plant anything, nothing was growing in the drought. But villages needed all the labourers they could get, and officials had to try to get people back onto the land.

Now effectively trapped in the village, Cai An married in 1962, just as the village was recovering from campaigns and famine. As we saw above, a large group of young recruits to the ritual association was trained over the next couple of years. But soon the village was swept up in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution
In 1966 Cai An and other young members of the ritual association became Red Guards, although they did their best to protect their local culture. The association was forced into silence, but they were surreptitiously active again by about 1970.

We saw above how one young villager managed to snatch some of the village’s precious ritual manuals from the hands of a member of a rival Red Guard faction. When activists from the county Workers’ General faction came to South Gaoluo, they used to stay at Cai An’s place, two or three at a time. Cai An was an Ever-Red member and lieutenant of the village militia, and his house was strategically placed in the 5th brigade, stronghold of Ever-Red; his western room was vacant, and he was of kind disposition. I was amused to learn this in 1996, since very similar factors led to him being lumbered with me on my stays since 1993, in very different conditions. This time round, he was a senior member of the Music Association; again his house was strategically placed, in the middle of the village right near the association’s building, and it was considered quite comfortable for a foreign guest. And he was still the most wonderful host and friend. But how times have changed… Then, as later, the guests were farmed out to different families at mealtimes to lessen the burden on Cai An’s family.

Li Runtian, son of distinguished ritual specialist and government book-keeper Li Wenbin, was studying at the county junior secondary school. He was now caught up in the sobering adventure of the “Great Penetration”, Mao’s campaign to make students travel throughout the country to spread revolution. Runtian made the trip to Beijing to take part in the second “audience” of the Red Guards with Chairman Mao in 1966, one of a series of mass rallies in Tiananmen square—young Li Tinggang attended the third audience, and Cai An the eighth (for a horrifying account of the squalour that travelling to these audiences might involve, see Ken Ling, The revenge of heaven: journal of a young Chinese [New York: Ballantine, 1972], pp.107–16, 147–224).

The restoration
After the overthrow of the Gang of Four, and the following liberalizations, some more audacious musicians were trying to restart the village ritual association as early as the winter of 1977–78. Cai An was now a leading figure, working closely with He Qing and a group of senior musicians. But even after liberalizations continued through 1978, several more cautious senior musicians were still fearful of risking a revival: who was to say that the Four Olds would not be attacked again, and that they would not be dragged out as “ox-demons and snake-spirits”? It was not until the winter of 1979–80 that the association took new students and restarted in earnest. The main energy in reviving came from the indomitable He Qing (cousin of the then Secretary He Lai), supported by the senior (but not yet elderly) He Yi, Li Shutong, and Yan Wenyu, and the younger Cai An. The new guanshi organizers were He Qing, He Yi, Li Shutong, and Cai An; but already by 1980 He Yi decided he wasn’t much of an organizer, and since he was in poor health at the time, genial young ritual specialist Shan Yude took over.


Senior members, 1995: left to right Yan Wenyu, He Yi, Cai Shui, Li Shutong.

The restoration was total, with instrumental music, vocal liturgy, and ritual paintings all being brought into action again; many senior members once again took part, teaching new recruits. Unlike some cultural revivals documented in China since 1980, this was in no sense a piecing together of fragmentary material to reinvent a tradition: even if the tradition had been diluted, it had never been lost.

Two developments in the wider society finally persuaded people that the climate was ripe to restore their traditional culture. One was the showing of traditional operas on TV again from 1979—as we saw, there was a TV at the brigade office. Following Mao’s typically arcane dictum, “The old operas have stopped being performed for ten years”, his chosen successor Hua Guofeng had in 1977 issued directives for traditional opera to be allowed again. Musicians in South Gaoluo saw this as a clear green light for the revival of their ritual association, not to mention the opera troupe. At the same time, directives were being issued by the provincial Ministry of Culture encouraging the revival of local opera, but villagers were unaware of this, knowing only what they learnt from TV or the grapevine.

After the early 1970s the village opera troupe (then still a Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team) had become less active. In 1978 Cai An again joined an opera training group organized by the county Bureau of Culture, performing around the New Year. In 1979, as confidence grew that old culture was no longer taboo, the then Party Secretary He Lai reorganized the opera troupe. Now it was free to perform the traditional repertory of the bangzi style again, as during the early 1960s. The brigade spent 4,000 yuan to buy new costumes and instruments, and some new performers were trained. Again, ritual association stalwarts He Qing and Cai An, as well as model teacher Shan Rongqing, were leading figures. The part of female warrior Mu Guiying in the opera Yuanmen zhan zi was played by feisty 18-year-old Sun Yufen, soon to marry Cai An’s son. The troupe rehearsed for the whole of 1980, performed at New Year 1981, and then disbanded.

New tensions
Late in 1988 Cai An opened a general store with his wife from their strategic position right in the centre of the village, just across from the ritual building, and they did well. Cai An used to get up before dawn every day to drive his little truck to Dingxing county-town to collect supplies. His shop, like his house, was a delightful social centre, with a couple of old men sitting on the bench chatting and smoking while kids drift in and out to buy candies. People squatted outside at the junction watching mule-carts and the occasional motor-bike go by. Cai An’s sons-in-law now tilled his land. His mother Niu Jinhua, widowed so early, lived with the family, and though quite deaf, she made a genial presence about the house, pottering about on her bound feet with the aid of her walking-stick. Cai An’s son learnt the shengguan music for only one winter, but he genuinely liked it, and still remembers the gongche solfeggio.

There may be one or more “association heads” (huitou), and several “organizers” (guanshi, lit. “responsible for affairs”, “getting things done”). By now there was no strict distinction here between huitou and guanshi. Until his untimely death in 1995 the formidable He Qing was undisputably sole huitou; he was also the village funeral manager (zongli), which went well with his position in the ritual association. In his adherence to the “old rules” (lao guiju) Cai An was close to He Qing. After He Qing died the four guanshi all effectively became huitou—though Cai An was probably de facto chief simply because it was to his house that people knew they should go to get things done when the services of the association were required for a funeral. Other associations too commonly have several huitou. At least one of the organizers should represent the “civil altar” (the vocal liturgy): in recent years genial Shan Yude had held this post.

However much Cai An admired He Qing, he found that he used to rush the tempo from his leading position on the drum. In winter rehearsals for the New Year’s rituals he now constantly cajoled the group to slow down.

The simultaneous participation of some musicians in the shawm band was now giving rise to some tension. The shawm band had used the percussion instruments of the ritual association on a job and damaged some of the large cymbals. Shan Yude, genial leader of the ritual specialists, argued deep into the night about this with Shan Ling, now a member of both the shawm band and the ritual association. Yude, voicing the sentiments of other association members, reasonably pointed out that since the blowers-and-drummers earned good money from going on wedding-and-funeral gigs, they should now buy the association a new pair of each of the two types of large cymbals. A big meeting was held about it, and Cai An, who was also in the shawm band—despite being a stickler for the “old rules” of the ritual association—could only sit in silence with his head down, burying himself in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Eventually they settled on a new rule, that the shawm band must not use the instruments belonging to the ritual association. So the shawm band bought a set of instruments for its own use, while the new cymbals bought by the association with village donations in winter 1995–96 were painted with the name of the association.

Despite the enjoyment and material profit which some of the musicians derived from the shawm band, none of them decided to leave the ritual association, though with its amateur status it might seem a rather thankless task. Cai An, for instance, still seemed to feel a deep commitment towards the solemn ritual tradition. To be sure, even by doing occasional jobs as a blower-and-drummer he had now stepped outside the “old rules”. I suspect, however, that there is a residual morality, partly class-based, which made him unwilling to be ranked permanently and unambiguously among the “bastards, actors, and blowers-and-drummers”, traditional litany for social outcasts, and a certain concomitant pride about representing an amateur ritual association whose members had long been among the elite of the village.

Two reminders here: they are among the elite, but the richer families of the old society tended not to perform, only to support the association; and the pride I infer to be gained from representing the association is quite obstinate, no longer having much tangible basis in popular respect. On the 1979 restoration, the guanzi section included the senior musicians Cai Fuquan, Cai Fushun, and Li Shutong, as well as talented young recruits Cai Yurun and Li Yongqiang. On our first visit to the ritual tent in 1989, when we heard elders Cai Fuquan and Li Shutong and juniors Cai Yurun and Li Yongqiang all on guanzi, the immense power of tradition was still palpable. By the late 1990s this sense was less evident. Even in the 1980s senior members possessed considerable authority from both the old society and Maoism; by the 1990s younger people had scant respect for their seniors.

The status of the vocal liturgy also suggested a decline in prestige. Ritual specialists, as members of an association, tended to be rather better educated than most of the instrumentalists, and might earn rather more respect. In our association in the 1950s, such respect seems to have derived both from their personal characters and their mastery of the manuals. Above we saw how villagers were spellbound by Cai Fuxiang’s and Li Baoyu’s delivery of the Houtu scroll. By the 1990s, the ritual specialists commanded less respect for several reasons. For a start, less respect was available throughout the whole society; though faith in the goddess Houtu and other deities persisted, it had undoubtedly declined; the characters of the performers were still strong, but could hardly compare with masters who had led the revolution; most of all, by now the performers had a lesser command of the material.


The vocal liturgists recite the Houtu scroll, 1993. Far right, Cai Ran, next to Cai An. Audio playlist (in sidebar), #7, with commentary here.

Most flagrant and visible of the changes since the deaths of He Qing and Yan Wenyu was that, like many (but by no means all) other village ensembles in the area, they very soon added amplifying pipes to the sheng, an invention which had spread from the towns since the 1980s but was quite unthinkable in Gaoluo during Yan Wenyu’s day. In this I myself side very much with the conservatives; nothing can compare with the mellifluous intimate timbre of the old small sheng, along with the aesthetic beauty of the instrument, with its wooden bowl, the bamboo around the finger-holes worn and yellowed by constantly sliding fingers. I had no qualms about putting this point to the musicians, and they had no qualms about ignoring it.


Yan Wenyu (1924–95) on sheng, 1989.

Cai An had an outstanding grasp of the scores. Indeed, he agreed with me that his minor role in performance of the melodic music was a blessing in disguise for the association, since it gave him the distance to act as informal teacher. He admitted that his defect was that he couldn’t help glaring at musicians when they made a mistake! In fact by then few musicians were playing with their eyes closed—guanzi and sheng players do so more often than the others—but the principle is that one’s expression should at least be reserved and dignified.


The percussion suite, 1993. He Qing on drum, Cai An and Cai Yurun on bo cymbals; right, Li Yongqiang on nao cymbals

Cai An played the large heavy cymbals in the majestic percussion suite with amazing virtuosity and concentration, without ever having studied the suite formally; he was a magnificent drummer, playing with unshakeable rhythm and awesome power. A versatile musician, he was also a great fan of the local opera and member of the new shawm band.

With his natural talent, Cai An had picked up the vocal liturgy, like the percussion, without formally studying it. In the early 1990s he went with the village’s professional village shawm band to do a funeral in the Fengtai suburbs of Beijing. While vocal liturgy is not part of the business of such shawm bands, the funeral family asked Cai An to sing a ritual hymn, so he sang the Dragon-Flower Assembly hymn, which he had picked up over the years, and it went down very well. Encouraged by this, when he came back he asked the other ritual specialists to help him learn properly. By now the ritual specialists were somewhat defensive about their expertise. Cai Haizeng, ever conservative, didn’t approve, but soon Cai An was singing along with them—which, frankly, was just as well. Still, genial Shan Yude joked that when the others stopped singing, Cai An “had a powercut”! Cai An’s success at singing a hymn or two from the liturgy during funerals with the shawm band continued to irritate them. They heard he had been given extra money recently at a funeral; Cai Haizeng reckoned he was “using the civil altar’s stuff to earn money—he’d better not try and learn the liturgy from us any more.”

Tensions came to a head with thefts of the association’s ritual paintings in 1996. He Qing had already been conned out of some of the paintings in 1992.

In May 1996 our last day in the village was seriously marred. We were keen to see the association’s new donors’ list, made for that New Year, when they had sought donations from the villagers to buy new instruments. We also asked to see the old costumes and the 1964 donors’ list of the defunct opera troupe, kept in chests in the ritual building.

We were all having fun in the sunshine, admiring the donors’ list and trying on the opera costumes, not used since 1981. Cai An’s mother and Yan Wenyu’s widow stood in the background having a laugh. Meanwhile some of the musicians were looking inside the ritual building for the recent inscription. After a while it was clear something was wrong. The ritual paintings and donors’ lists had disappeared.

The musicians soon realized the chest had been forced. The locks on the doors to the building itself and the little side room where all the chests were kept were intact, no-one could have climbed in through the grilled window, and none of the other chests had been forced. It looked very much like an inside job. The building is basically unattended except during the New Year’s rituals and when they take out the instruments and paintings for a funeral, so no-one had entered the building since the altar was closed after New Year. Senior Li Shutong now thought back to a few weeks earlier, when we had brought the association a load of decrepit old furniture from the Music Research Institute. When the musicians had put the furniture in the building Li had in fact noticed that the lock on the inside door had come off; not finding anything obviously wrong, he had just gone to get the lock put back on.

The thieves seemed to have decided that the opera costumes would be hard to sell, although in fact they were probably worth more money than the ritual paintings. Museums or private collections are unlikely to want paintings from only 1930, now that so many more ancient artefacts (and convincing forgeries) are appearing on the market nationally and internationally. They take on an incomparable spiritual beauty hung in the ritual building at New Year, that’s all; the villagers surely recognize them as the soul of the village, the core of their whole heritage. We had a terrible feeling that no-one would buy the paintings and they would end up being thrown away—not that it made a lot of difference.

The fantastic Cai An was particularly upset. The incident brought out all his doubts about the way the association has been working since the death of He Qing. With all his energy, besides his great musical authority, he felt as if he bore all the responsibility for motivating the musicians. Living near the ritual building at the centre of the village, Cai An’s house was a natural meeting place, and he was the most active of the organizers of the association—the others were either elderly or working outside the village, and ordinary members showed little interest.

While Cai An felt personally responsible for the loss, he was also worried that the villagers would hold the association responsible. Families had donated money in good faith, and expected the association to look after the artefacts bought with their communal money; they expect to see them hung out at New Year. North Gaoluo villagers were apparently still angry with their Music Association members for failing to preserve the ritual manuals from the Red Guards in 1966. At least our request had allowed them to discover the theft quite early; otherwise, if their services were not needed for any funerals, they might not have known about it until the following New Year, by which time it would have been highly controversial. Now the most pressing task was to work out what to do for New Year.

My Beijing colleague Xue Yibing and I also felt responsible, and the incident finally revealed negative aspects of our presence in the village. Cai An was frank as ever with us:

These god paintings aren’t really worth any money, the thieves didn’t know the ins and outs of it—they must just have seen how these last few years the national Music Research Institute and even a foreigner had been coming here all the time, and so they thought the Music Association must have something worth money, that’s what made them do it.

We agreed, though we all knew that the plundering of artefacts had become rife throughout the country these last few years, irrespective of visits from outsiders. After all, He Qing had been conned out of the diaogua hangings in 1992.

There were further unfortunate developments in the second half of 1996. As long as He Qing was in charge, Cai An had acted gladly as his right-hand man, but after He Qing’s death, Cai An felt that most of the responsibility was falling on him. He had done a lot for the association these few years, like arranging the purchase of new instruments. The association has been in a really thriving period, what with our visits and the recording in Beijing. But he was worked off his feet with his shop anyway, without having to manage the association all on his own. So maybe it was better to let some younger people take over. Being responsible for the leadership of an amateur ritual association is an unenviable task, and as ever there is a succinct popular expression:

寧管千軍不管一會   Rather manage a thousand armies than one association.

So at a meeting of the association later that year Cai An resigned from his post as organizer. No-one objected, and at Li Shutong’s suggestion a new group of organizers was elected: Shan Ling, Shan Yutian, and Li Yongqiang, with Cai Yurun and Shan Yude soon joining too.

Our involvement


With Cai An, 1996.

The theft provoked some idle talk among the villagers, ignoring all Cai An’s efforts. That day in May 1996, after the discovery of the theft, he had told us,

In the association we all understand that you guys are here to do fieldwork, it’s scholarly, like—but there are some villagers who just can’t understand, some people gossip about “what a fortune Cai An’s been making out of them”. That doesn’t matter, let them talk—”time reveals people’s hearts” (rijiu jian renxin). But when people hear that your visits are coming to an end, that could give rise to another rumour: “There, you see?—now the association’s valuables are all gone, what’s the point of them coming any more?”

Of course, much as I’d love to, I couldn’t necessarily keep on visiting once my project was complete, funding came to an end, and I had to move on to other research. But after the thefts I clearly had to go back one further time, not only for my own reputation but also for that of the association, to convince people of the sincerity of the relationship. Thus with Xue Yibing I made a special journey early in 1998 to spend the New Year period in South Gaoluo once again, a stay whose joy was only modified by our awareness that this really might be my last serious visit. Another reason for my visit was natural: we were friends, and however much of a cultural gulf there might be, I found myself able to reflect and open up to them. Needless to say, apart from personal reasons, I could clarify still more points—indeed, we made further exciting discoveries. A final delight for all was that I was finally able to take part quite fully in the ensemble, having put in the time over Christmas in Italy to learn the gongche mnemonics of some of their major pieces: for all our common fascination with historical matters, the most wonderful bond is a shared delight in playing the music.

As to the ritual association, the new organizers had at first been rather reluctant to serve, but were now more committed. I had been looking forward to staying with Cai An’s family again, but on arrival we were at once taken to stay with genial ritual specialist Shan Yude and his family. Though they too are lovely people, at first I was upset, but I soon understood that we could no longer stay with Cai An; we must stay with the new organizers, and they now took the job seriously, attending on me constantly. I was always a guest of the association, and the organizers represented it.

Cai An said he was impressed by the abilities of the new leadership, but our distance from him became inevitable. He was too busy, with the shop and the newly-reviving opera group, as well as constant guests, but he also seemed to have lost a certain involvement with the ritual association. But another factor may have been that my stay with Shan Yude would nip any village gossip in the bud—Cai An could no longer be accused of profitting from me, and Shan Yude was widely admired as a simple honest man.

Sure, it wasn’t only Cai An’s close relationship with me that caused rifts; the emerging leadership seemed to resent his tendency to tread the “capitalist road”, although they themselves were doing something similar. Several incidents revealed the conflict between spiritual duty and material profit.

In many late-night discussions about the future of the association, I took what seemed like a “conservative” view, stressing that such amateur associations still, somehow, had to be nourished in the soil of local ritual culture. We had seen how the nearby ritual association of Qujiaying, first to be “discovered” by outsiders in 1986, had kept itself in the headlines without gaining any long-term security or satisfaction, or sustaining its ritual role in the local community. I wasn’t so much being conservative—I just didn’t think it would work. I didn’t, and don’t, have a solution either.

So the new leadership—no longer bound by the “old rules” of He Qing, Yan Wenyu, Cai An, and indeed me—eventually, inevitably, chose the “Qujiaying road”, commodifying the association largely as secular cultural diversion for visiting bigwigs, leading to their role in the Intangible Cultural Heritage juggernaut. Yet the problem of transmission remains troubling. That will make an interesting story for a restudy.

These vignettes have mainly sought to show how relationships shift under social conditions, and the importance of personalities in compiling the history of ritual culture.

For a major sequel on the “civil altar” in South Gaoluo, click here.