Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing


Mural, Lord Guan Hall, Huapen village, Yanqing district, Beijing, c1809.

Quite beyond my area of expertise, I was inspired by reading the brief yet suggestive article

  • Liu Lingcang 劉淩滄, [1] “Minjian bihuade zhizuo fangfa” 民間壁畫的製作方法 [Techniques of making folk murals], Yishu yanjiu 1958.2, pp.52–6.

As Hannibal Taubes divined when he sent it to me, slight as it is, it links up nicely with my taste for scholarship under Maoism documenting the customs of old Beijing just as they were being dismantled. It’s not so much the quality of the research that attracts me here—rather, the delicate nature of studying the topic just as collectivisation was escalating, painfully evoked in films like The blue kite. As ever, we need to read between the lines. Moreover, we can always learn from accounts of the nuts and bolts of creativity.

I’ve already introduced the work of the great Yang Yinliu at the helm of the Music Research Institute, along with the ritual traditions of old Beijing represented by the Zhihua temple. For more on old Beijing, see also Li Wenru, Wang ShixiangChang Renchun, and narrative-singing (here and here)—and in recent years a major project on the social history of imperial and Republican Beijing temples through epigraphy and oral sources.

* * *

From November 1955 to the autumn of 1956, the Central Academy of Fine Arts carried out a project documenting the work of ritual painters in Beijing. Rather than Liu’s gloss huagong 画工, the common folk term was huajiang 画匠 “artisan painter”, as in Yanggao, referring to artisans working for what had always been largely a ritual market—part of the whole network of ritual service providers upon whom Chang Renchun‘s work opens a window. They were apprenticed from young, often within the family.

Themes of their murals and paintings included the Seventy-two Courts (qisier si 七十二司) (cf. here, under “Buddhist-transmitted groups”) and the Ten Kings of the Underworld, depictions of Guanyin, the life of the Buddha, Yaowang Medicine King, and Water and Land rituals; and scenes from popular fiction such as the Three Kingdoms and the Water Margin. The article also hints at the market in the surrounding countryside for New Year’s lanterns and diaogua hangings, such as our own team found in Hebei (cf. the story of itinerant Qi Youzhi and his forebears, tuning sheng mouth-organs for temples and village ritual associations). The themes of such hangings were closely related to historical subjects embodied in opera and story-telling.

Diaogua hangings adorning the alleys of Gaoluo village, 1989. My photos.

Just as our understanding of ritual is enriched by zooming in on the nuts and bolts of its vocal and instrumental soundscape, we can learn much by unpacking the techniques and vocabulary of religious painting. [2] In the end, ritual performers and ritual artisans are closely related.

The whole process of creating murals consisted of three stages (yixiu erluo sancheng 一朽二落三成):

  • xiu “draft”, known as tanhuo 擹活, creating a draft outline, drawn in charcoal
  • luo (lao, perhaps), “setting down”, known as laomo 落墨 “setting down the ink”
  • cheng “completion” (cheng guanhuo 成管活).

As with Renaissance artists in Europe, the laborious final stages depended on a division of labour, with the assistance of disciples.

Liu goes on to discuss elements in turn, with details on materials and tools, including this marvellous summary of the technicalities of preparing Water and Land paintings:

Shuilu details

Citing examples as far back as the Tang dynasty to illustrate techniques still in use, Liu goes on to discuss applying ground layers to the wall, templates (fenben 粉本), traditional methods of mixing and adjusting mineral pigments, the use of glues and alum, creating 3-D effects, and colour gradation. For pigments, while Liu notes the incursion of Western materials since the 1920s, among the team’s informants for traditional painting techniques was none other than Guan Pinghu, master of the qin zither! And in a detailed section on depicting gold, Liu consulted Wang Dingli 王定理 and Shen Yucheng 申玉成, working on the statuary of Tibetan temples in Beijing, as the best artisans then working in the medium.

An intriguing part of the final stages of mural painting is the addition of colours according to the master craftsman’s indications in charcoal, such as gong 工 for red and ba 八 for yellow—economical versions of the characters hong 红 and huang 黄, or liu 六, whose pronunciation stood for  绿 green. They even found such indications visible in the Ming-dynasty murals of the Dahui si 大慧寺 temple in Beijing. Liu notes that the custom was already dying out in Beijing, [3] but the shorthand reminds me, not quite gratuitously, of the secret language of blind shawm players in north Shanxi, and (less directly) the characters of gongche notation, which persisted.

Though again the ancient tradition of oral formulas (koujue 口诀) was dying out (at least in Beijing), Liu lists those that they could recover—just the kind of vocabulary that we seek from ritual performers, going beyond airy doctrinal theorising to gain insights into the practical and aesthetic world of folk society:


Just as the ritual soundscape still heard throughout the countryside in the 1950s (and today) contrasted starkly with the official diet of revolutionary songs, these traditions occupy an utterly different world from our image of propaganda posters of the time.

But—not unlike all the 1950s’ fieldwork on regional musical traditions (links here)— what the article could hardly broach was how the lives and livelihoods of such ritual service providers were progressively impoverished after Liberation, as their whole market came under assault and temples were demolished or left to fall into ruin. Even in the previous decade, through the Japanese occupation and civil war, the maintenance of temples can hardly have been a priority; new creation of murals was clearly on hold, and one wonders how much, if any, maintenance and restoration these artisans were still doing when Liu’s team visited them. Some of the artisans were doubtless already seeking alternative employment such as factory work or petty trade. We get but rare glimpses of this story, such as Zha Fuxi’s 1952 frank letter to the former monks of the Zhihua temple tradition. Later in the 1950s some official documents inadvertently provide further material on the period.

Of course, irrespective of their current circumstances, asking people to recall their previous practices is always an aspect of fieldwork, while one seeks to clarify the time-frame of their observations.


[1] Liu LingcangBy this time Liu Lingcang (1908–89) was already a distinguished artist and educator; but his early life qualified him well for the project discussed here. A native of a poor village in Gu’an county, Hebei, as a teenager he worked as an apprentice folk ritual artisan in nearby Bazhou before finding work as a restorer of temple murals in Beijing—so the 1955–6 project was based on his own former experience as a participant. Becoming a member of the Research Association for Chinese Painting in 1926, he went on to study at the Beiping National School of Art (precursor of the Central Academy of Fine Arts), taking up senior official posts after the 1949 Liberation. Some of his later paintings addressed religious themes: like Yang Yinliu over at the Music Research Institute, he clearly remained attached to his early background, despite his elevation. Again I think of Craig Clunas’s comment “The published curricula vitae of Chinese scholars often give a false idea of the continuity of their employment, and conceal the long periods of frustrating idleness caused by periodic political campaigning.”

[2] Craig Clunas kindly offers some further leads to “technical art history” in China, such as John Winter, East Asian paintings (2008), and (for the medieval period, notably for Dunhuang) Sarah Fraser, Performing the visual: the practice of Buddhist wall painting in China and Central Asia, 618-960 (2004). For technical details in the world of literati painting (such as mounting), see Robert van Gulik, Chinese pictorial art as viewed by the connoisseur (1981).

[3] As Hannibal tells me, a variant of this system is still used by folk ritual artisans in rural Shaanbei. For the anthropology of folk ritual art there he also directs us to a wealth of research, notably the insightful work of Huyan Sheng 呼延胜, such as his PhD on Water and Land paintings (Shaanbei tudishangde shuilu yishu 陕北土地上的水陆画艺术), and the article “Yishu renleixue shiyexiade Shaanbei minjian simiao huihua he kaiguang yishi” 艺术人类学视域下的陕北民间寺庙绘画和开光仪式, Minyi 民艺 2019.3; as well as a detailed article on painter-artisans in nearby Gansu by Niu Le 牛乐, “Duoyuan wenhuade yinxing chuancheng celue yu wenhua luoji” 多元文化的隐性传承策略与文化逻辑, Qinghai minzu yanjiu 2018.3.

Gosh—for such remarkable continuity in Chinese culture, despite all its tribulations, yet another reminder that “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”, and that “a starved camel is bigger than a fat horse”.

Temple murals: a new website

HT site

For aficionados of Chinese art and religion, to complement the fine website of Hannibal Taubes on north Chinese temple murals http://twosmall.ipower.com/blog/ (see my post here), we now have a related (and still evolving) site Temple Trash—the drôle title taken from the description of the murals by an unnamed professor! http://twosmall.ipower.com/murals/

Both websites are vast, and still only a selection from the archive deriving from his fieldwork. It’s a Herculean (or in this case Hannibalesque) task, that invites us to reassess the whole history of religious art—commonly assumed to have entered terminal decline since the Ming dynasty. Unlike the many glossy compendia of early temple murals and architecture protected by the state, these murals come mainly from minor village temples, and often suffer from neglect and pillage. And given the southern focus of religious studies, the focus on north China (mainly for Hebei, Shanxi, and Shaanbei), is itself original.


The wealth of images is meticulously documented. As Hannibal explains, the image scroll on the main page is in chronological order from c1500 to the present day, top to bottom. Click on the little squares to see the galleries. You can browse the images according to type by clicking on the “Categories” menu at the upper left—select the dropdown menu for a quick-list of categories (deities, genres and topics, locations, venues, periods, and so on, all extensively subdivided), or scroll down for more info. The murals are shown in context, with details of temple architecture and village topography.

To give a few examples of the wealth of the new site: apart from the temple focus, some interesting galleries show images depicted since the 1949 founding of the PRC. Some living traditions of ritual paintings are also included (cf. my modest contributions on this blog under Ritual paintings), such as pantheon scrolls for spirit mediums (Shaanbei, and Wutai in Shanxi). Among many topics, the theme of Women in murals supplements the Goddesses listed under the Deity category.

Of course (as I would say), like ritual manuals, material culture is both silent and immobile: temples are not mere repositories of artefacts, but sites for social activity. All such documentation should complement studies on religious life in north China; and (as I would say) funerals too have remained vibrant occasions for ritual life.

Exploring these sites is an edifying, eye-opening pleasure.

Art: insider knowledge


In my post on Visual culture I cited Alan Bennett’s remarks comparing Renaissance audiences’ “insider knowledge” of the religious themes shown in paintings of the time—knowledge to which very few of us now have access—with that of film viewers in his own childhood. This entry from his 2011 diaries (in Keeping on keeping on) suggests a similar case:

17 April. Seeing a banana skin on the pavement reminds me how when I first read the Dandy and the Beano the presence of a banana skin meant that inevitably it was going to be slipped on. No matter that, at that time, in the early 1940s, few children had even seen let alone eaten a banana, the skin was still shorthand for calamity. Other comic clichés were a fish, almost certain to be stolen by a cat and always represented as a perfect skeleton devoid of flesh but still with the head on; a string of sausages, destined to be grabbed by a dog, the sausages trailing from the dog’s mouth like a scarf in the wind; a bull (beware of) in a field, a billy goat similarly, with a ladder another portent of disaster. The bump on the head which might be the consequence of one of these mishaps was generally described as being “as big as a pigeon’s egg”, something else which like the banana I had never seen.

While I’m here, in the very next entry he asks a sensible question:

18 April. Why does the opening theme of Tchaikovsky’s No.1 Piano Concerto never return? What is that about? Everybody listening to it (at least for the first time) must always have expected it. But no.

Indeed, when the concerto is said to be popular, I suspect people mean that opening theme—which may make the rest of the piece quite tough going.

A village scholar

My vignettes from Gaoluo, taken from my book Plucking the winds, have featured both performing members of the village’s amateur ritual association (Cai Fuxiang, He Qing, Cai An) and supporters like the venerable Shan Zhihe. The name of Shan Fuyi has already cropped up in several posts, but he deserves a separate account.


Shan Fuyi (right) with my trusty colleague Xue Yibing, 1996.

Shan Fuyi (b.1940) is considered the village’s xiucai talented scholar. Amateur historian, painter and calligrapher, he is widely admired for his intelligence and artistic bent. He was given the task of writing the village history in 1965, and in between making donors’ lists for the opera troupe and the ritual association he did artwork for the Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Troupe. Latterly he became a trusted employee of Boss Heng, the village’s own nouveau-riche entrepreneur.

We had heard so much about him, but since he was based at Boss Heng’s workplace near Laishui county-town, we never coincided in the village—he seemed elusive, and we even joked that maybe he was a figment of our imaginations.

Finally in 1996 we sought him out in his work-unit. He affably sat us down and, without any preamble, launched into a detailed account of the village from its founding through to the 1990s, instinctively understanding our brief without any need for the long justifications which we sometimes have to give cadres or even ordinary villagers. Indeed, later we did indeed meet up back in the village. Our hopes were well rewarded, and we had many edifying sessions with him, learning from his wide-ranging and impartial knowledge; his detachment in observing the vicissitudes of the village’s history was of rare value.

He is the main source of my account of the village’s early history (Plucking the winds, chs.1–3); indeed, his work gave us valuable perspectives on the history of the whole area, not least the terminology of village names and the she parish network.

Shan Fuyi is not a ritual specialist, and regards himself as a “thorough atheist”, but he takes a keen yet dispassionate interest in all aspects of human behaviour. He’s never been the leading type; unlike most Chinese, who are long accustomed to public speaking, he is petrified of such occasions; with my own stammer, this further endears him to me. He seems to float above the village, observing with detachment and perception. He understood our mission implicitly. He is at once down-to-earth and transcendent. Unassuming, introverted, yet humorous, he never bothered with the empty platitudes of Party-speak. Still, recalling his experiences in the Cultural Revolution and since, he reckons “I keep right up with the way things are going”, a charmingly ambiguous comment; perhaps his very detachment has enabled him to ride all the storms.

Shan Fuyi’s early years
Born in 1940 to a virtually illiterate father, Shan Fuyi attended private school in Zhuozhou county just north for half a year during the civil war when he was 7 sui. With quiet humour, he recalls:

Our texts were The Hundred Family Surnames and The Three Character Classic; when the 8th Route Army passed through we recited “Long live Chairman Mao”; when Nationalist troops passed through we recited “Long live Chairman Jiang” [Chiang Kaishek]; having not offended either of them, when they had both left we could get back to reciting “Zhao, Qian, Sun, Li” [The Hundred Family Surnames] again!

His godfather was Sun Xiang, a spirit medium and folk healer. In 1949 he entered 2nd grade at the village primary school. He recalled the village’s last rain procession that summer. From 1955 he attended the No.1 Secondary School in Laishui county-town, graduating from the junior department early in 1958. He then passed an exam to study surveying at technical college in distant Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi province to the west. In 1960 he began training at the Shanxi Machine Building Factory, but like many villagers, he was forced by the grave national economic hardships to return home to South Gaoluo in the autumn of 1961, cutting short a promising career. He now served as book-keeper for the brigade orchards.

Meanwhile the village ritual associations continued to adapt to the new regime. After the Great Leap Forward and the famine, the revival of the early 1960s (however short-lived) was significant for the transmission of traditional culture. Not only were the village’s ritual associations reinvigorated, with a substantial group of new recruits training, but the opera troupe also revamped their equipment (Plucking the winds, pp.143–5). Like the ritual associations, they too sought donations from all the village households, shown on Shan Fuyi’s donors’ list dated 2nd moon 1964. In 1996 the musicians took it out to show us:

opera beiwen 1964 edited

Writing a village history
In 1965 the Four Cleanups work-team ordered Shan Fuyi to compile a history of the village up to Liberation in 1948. This may seem like an unlikely task, but their purpose of this was frankly political: in order to “cleanse the class ranks”, they needed a definitive version of the village’s history.

In north China, apart from county gazetteers (from imperial, Republican, and reform eras), and in some counties one finds slim volumes of “material on cultural history” (wenshi ziliao); but with rural literacy low, this is the only history of an individual village that I have seen compiled by a local scholar.

As I observed here, in my work with the Li family Daoist in Shanxi I mainly talk with one extended family, seemingly detached from politics, and with hardly any contact with local leaders. Indeed, the experience of “freelance” household Daoists was different from that of peasants tied to the land, and they were always straining to gain some independence from the production teams. Though inevitably deeply affected by political vicissitudes, they had little investment in the public affairs of the village. In Gaoluo, by contrast, several sources helped me to put the village’s ritual and social culture in political context: many of the members of the association held positions of authority under all three periods of 20th-century history, so we naturally talked with the village leadership. With their detailed knowledge of the modern history of the village, several men were able to offer clear accounts of major events in the area and to connect them to the village’s ritual association. But some of our most detailed material came from our talks with Shan Fuyi.

Back in 1965 he conscientiously set about the task of compiling the history. Though the avowed focus would inevitably be the modern political background, he avidly sought evidence for the early history of the village, right back to its founding in the Yongle reign-period (1403–24) of the early Ming. Apart from documenting oral traditions, he consulted several steles: those of the North Baibao temple from the Ming-dynasty Jiaqing era (1522–66), the temple of North Gaoluo from the Qianlong reign (18th century), and the Wenpu si temple in South Gaoluo from the Daoguang era (1840s).  All these steles were soon to be destroyed. Still, even by the 1990s considerable material evidence for the history of both North and South villages of Gaoluo survived, supplementing Shan Fuyi’s research.


The opening of Shan Fuyi’s village history.

After our first meeting with Shan Fuyi in 1996 we all sought the history everywhere in the village and in the county-town, but it didn’t surface. In 1998 he finally brought out a revised version of the history for me, with a mere twenty pages; as he told me, his 1965 version was rather more detailed but also couched in more revolutionary language, full of criticism of “bad elements”, while for his new version he used a more natural style. In a charming reversal of one’s preconceptions, he was apparently giving the foreigner a version from which Communist propaganda had been censored!

In fact our detailed conversations with Shan Fuyi were much more honest and complete than any official version could possibly be. Moreover, his written history went only as far as 1948, whereas our sessions together took the story on to the present. Indeed, he was a thoughtful source for the Maoist and reform eras too.

One topic on which I was able to find considerably more detail in sources from outside the village, unavailable to Shan Fuyi, was the 1900 massacre, which turned out to be a major episode in Boxer history (Plucking the winds, pp.37–42 and p.387 n.42). A team from Tianjin University even came to carry out interviews in 1974. Similarly, while elderly villagers still recalled the Italian missionaries before 1949, I managed to document them further through the Stimmatini archives in Verona.

Inevitably, the representation of events surrounding the complex struggle for Liberation was particularly sensitive and controversial. In 1965 Shan Fuyi was still able to interview most of the protagonists in the revolution, including long-serving Party Secretary Heng Futian—despite his recent demotion—and the traumatized Cai Fuxiang.

The brigade gave work-points to those taking part in the meetings—I had to note them down. We met sometimes at Cai Fuxiang’s house—the meetings were held anywhere convenient.

By no means all the meetings were group sessions:

To understand the situation with “negative characters” (those with particularly bad historical problems) we usually did one-to-one interviews—viewpoints could be so different, you couldn’t sort it out in group meetings.

The next stage was to seek corroboration:

After absorbing the statements we’d taken from people in the village, we needed to corroborate them with historical material, so we sent to the county-town for old police statements. We were very conscientious about seeking proper evidence. Whenever I needed any material, I wrote a note for the work-team, and they sent people to get it.

Cai Fumin, one of the large group of young men who had just begun learning the ritual music, was secretary of the village Youth Corps. He recalled,

The work-team wrote a letter of introduction, and me and Ding You went down the county police station to copy a load of statements, like He Jinhu and He Jinshui’s confessions (they’d been executed as counter-revolutionaries), about how they’d fled, how they’d organized the Return-to-the-district troupes and stuff.

The Cultural Revolution
Shan Fuyi remained largely aloof from factional upheavals. He was known as a good writer and artist, and just as in 1964 he had made the donors’ list in traditional style for the opera troupe, now he inevitably got roped in by both factions to write the inscriptions for armbands and flags, and to paint cartoons of “class enemies”. “Large-character posters” were pasted up on the wall of the brigade just opposite maestro Cai An’s house, beside Shan Fuyi’s spirited cartoons showing Capitalist Roaders in dunce’s caps and ratlike figures carrying sedans. As he recalled:

I criticized Deng Xiaoping, criticized Confucius, criticized Liu Shaoqi, criticized the Gang of Four—I criticized everyone except Chairman Mao!

The activities of the village Red Guards were both farcically infantile and casually vicious. While factional strife was not as yet too serious, the Red Guards now singled out not only cadres but helpless individuals with bad class backgrounds.

One main target of the Red Guards’ mission to destroy the “Four Olds” was the demolition of the Catholic church. But they had to work harder to find other icons to smash. The statues in the old temples were so decrepit that no-one had cared much when the brigade finally got rid of them in the early 60s. As Shan Fuyi observed caustically,

The Red Guards were searching for more things to destroy, but there was nothing left, so they had to fight each other instead!

Meanwhile stalwarts of the ritual association scrambled to rescue what artefacts of the village’s tradition that they could, like the Houtu scroll.

Shan Fuyi helped out in the village’s Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Troupe, painting scenery and doing make-up. Still, petty rivalries persisted. Shan Fuyi recalled the troupe going to perform in nearby Fuwei village in 1967 or 1968. Just like a traditional association, they sent someone ahead to issue a red “paper of homage”; the host village then made preparations, setting up the opera stage and matting tent, and making arrangements for feeding the performers. When the day arrived, the hosts walked to the entrance of the village to receive the Gaoluo troupe:

The United faction managed to put the boot in that day. They spread a rumour that the opera troupe was only going to perform there so they could cadge a free meal. The performers had no choice but to display their revolutionary fervour by nobly declaring that they wouldn’t perform at all if the village insisted on feeding them; they had brought their own rations, and they would absolutely not eat other people’s food! It was late at night by the time the performance came to an end, but they stuck to their guns and went home with empty stomachs, honour intact.

For more on the Cultural Revolution in Gaoluo, see Plucking the winds, ch.6.

Shan Fuyi’s wedding
Meanwhile, at the height of factional conflict, Shan Fuyi got married on the 29th of the 10th moon in 1966. The wedding was a sign of the subtle obstinacy of tradition. Though no great traditionalist himself (his historical erudition is quite dispassionate), as he recalled it for us thirty years later, it was the resistance to imposed modernity which he stressed—he didn’t mention the correct “revolutionary” part of the ceremony at all. They naturally wanted to invite the school percussion band (“gong-and-drum brigade”, luogudui) to give them a lively send-off.

Although these bands were widely used by work-units everywhere to “report joy”, at the time the use of such music for private celebration was considered feudal—indeed, loud percussion in China commonly serves an exorcistic function to “chase off ghosts”. So at the time the school band was not supposed to play for weddings: the revolutionary slogan went “new affairs must be conducted in a new way”. But they weren’t putting up with that: the evening before the wedding they still borrowed the instruments, and our friends suave Shan Ling and upright teacher Shan Rongqing got up a band to play on the edge of the village; on the big day they played in Shan Fuyi’s courtyard.

Incidentally, the blowers-and-drummers from Shiguzhuang just north (who had escorted Shan Zhihe‘s bride in 1937) had still kept active in the 1950s, but after the Cultural Revolution broke out they too were silenced; during wedding feasts some families now asked the blind Shan Jiuhong to sing a few stories instead.

The other area of conflict between tradition and revolution in Shan Fuyi’s wedding was the custom that the couple should ride horses. The chief of the Women’s Association had dutifully informed them that the bride must not observe this feudal custom; but again they got round the problem. They got hold of a couple of horses and rode the three or four hundred metres from his bride’s house to his own, led by villagers taking the bridles. There were five or six tables at the feast, mainly for the two immediate families.

The response of the village cadres was also a sign of the times. They diplomatically stayed away, making excuses that they had business to do outside the village; if they went to the wedding, they’d have to criticize it, or else they’d be criticized themselves later, so it was better just to stay away and feign ignorance. Such “one eye open, one eye closed” behaviour has ever been a major part of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”: within the village, ideology and policy have always been sensitive to local conditions.

Since the reforms
Through the 1980s, after the collapse of the commune system, Shan Fuyi farmed his own land. He also found outlet for his artistic talents by painting landscapes for the corridors and gardens of a hospital in the suburbs of Beijing.

Shan Fuyi enjoys painting and calligraphy—as with his penchant for local history, he is self-taught. He did traditional paintings on the walls of the houses of his musician friends Cai Ran, Cai Yurun, and Shan Ling, a rare sighting in such villages. Maestro Cai An told us:

He did four paintings in his house showing the quarrels between his mother and grandmother, like a sort of cartoon. And he wouldn’t let his family take them down, so everyone could see—that takes a lot of guts! The women quarrelled less after that.

Quite soon after the 1980 restoration, Shan Fuyi made a painting for the ritual association. Depicting Dizang, god of the underworld, it was displayed at for funerals and also for the New Year rituals:

GL Dizang

During this period while he was quite free, he also wrote a lengthy novel, “Dream of the spring boudoir”, aka “Miasma on the river of love”:


novel intro

It describes illicit young love and wedding customs against a background of a village opera troupe and the reclaiming of village land during the Cultural Revolution. He sent it to the Literature Association of the regional capital Baoding, who responded frankly that while it was well above the level demanded for publication, it wasn’t commercial enough since it was “pure literature”, not like the popular martial-arts romances that people wanted to read nowadays; if he wanted to publish it, he’d have to put up the money himself. So he put it back in his drawer. But in a poor rural society where literacy was still low, it’s impressive.

It was Shan Fuyi who made the ritual association’s handsome new donors’ list in 1990. Though we didn’t meet him until 1996, he was well aware that our first visit in 1989 had acted as a stimulus for a reinvigoration of the association. His phrase on the list, showing that the decrepit nature of their ritual building seen by a foreign visitor “lost face” for the Chinese people, turns out to have been sincere. For his story about the sexism of such donations, see here.

1990 beiwen

Shan Fuyi’s circumstances were transformed in 1991 when Boss Heng invited him to work at his embryonic tourist complex north of Laishui county-town, where he was made responsible for designing and organizing architectural and horticultural features.

Shan Fuyi’s wife sometimes looked after the luxurious mansion of Boss Heng in South Gaoluo—a remarkable contrast with the lowly dwellings of other villagers. Of their four children, one son, training for a post in the air-force, married Boss Heng’s daughter on the politically-correct day of 1st October 1997, anniversary of the founding of the PRC. Though his connection with Boss Heng seems an uneasy alliance, this match must have confirmed his position as Heng’s protégé.

In 1995 my Gaoluo friends asked Shan Fuyi to do the calligraphy for a poem they had composed for me, which is one of my most treasured souvenirs:

GL scroll

One day, at a quiet and informal lunch with him and his family in the village, feeling utterly relaxed, I even broke my rule never to touch the lethal baijiu Chinese liquor, so free was he of the usual pompous macho ceremony which accompanies a drinking bout, and A Good Time Was Had By All.

Edifying commercial break: the highly palatable and efficacious Chongzhi Spirit, like Laishui county-town’s most enterprising institution, the Chongzhi Secondary school, is named after the great local mathematician Zu Chongzhi (430–510), who made what was to be the world’s most accurate measurement of Pi until the 16th century. A lot more accurate than if he’d been imbibing his eponymous spirit, I mused as I staggered out into the alley.

* * *

Again we see how the ritual association involved the whole village, serving its ritual needs both before and after Liberation. While Shan Fuyi was not an active member of the association, his research made major contributions in unearthing its history, and his artistic talents were in constant demand. We learned a lot from him.



Religion in Chinese society

My reviews of two recent surveys of the Chinese religious world by Ian Johnson and Adam Yuet Chau reminded me to revisit a remarkable early sociological study, also accessible:

  • C.K. Yang, Religion in Chinese society: a study of contemporary social functions of religion and some of their historical factors (1st edition 1961; Chinese edition here).

The sociological approach to Chinese religion was slow to develop—partly due to the difficulty of access to mainland China after 1949, and partly because of the enduring scholarly bias towards discursive, doctrinal issues and early history.

Indeed, much of Yang’s analysis anticipates approaches since the 1980s’ reforms, including Chau’s “five modalities”. Yang already saw through the bias of the discursive/scriptural modality that still holds a particular allure for many in the West, at the expense of the other “diffused” forms.

This study is an attempt to answer the question: What functions did religion perform in Chinese social life and organization so as to provide a basis for its existence and development, and through what structural forms were these functions carried out?

Having trained at Yanching University in Beijing and the USA, Yang returned to China in 1948, carrying out fieldwork there before having to return to the USA in 1951, where he was to be based at Pittsburgh. Given that his book was published in 1961, it may seem understandable that, until the final chapter, it’s largely written in the past tense. In my book Plucking the winds I noted a similar lapse in accounts of the performance of baojuanprecious scrolls”:

During the years of Maoism, “armchair sinology” was the only option, as in many fields. Even by the early 1980s, Daniel Overmyer still found that “unfortunately there are very few materials available for a discussion of sectarian ritual”.

Soon after, there was a growing awareness of the persistence of ritual practice in mainland China, but lapses still occurred: “We know a certain amount about how baojuan were [my italics] performed, although there are all too few good first-hand descriptions.”


South Gaoluo liturgists performing the Houtu scroll, 1993.

However, the vocal liturgists of the South Gaoluo ritual association were performing the Houtu precious scroll through the first fifteen years of the PRC, and they were still doing so in the 1990s.

While Yang’s focus is on the late Qing and Republican eras, and he surveys the early roots of Chinese cultural traits, he introduces major themes that later scholars have been able to elaborate with the benefits of detailed fieldwork since the 1980s’ reforms.

Yang makes extensive use of Republican-era sources such as Grootaers and county gazetteers, notably for Hebei (later explored further by scholars such as Naquin and Duara) and the Shanghai region.

In his Introduction he observes how early-20th-century urban scholars dismissed the role of popular religion in Chinese society, from Liang Qichao to Hu Shi (“China is a country without religion and the Chinese are a people who are not bound by religious superstitions”). By contrast, he notes the importance of temples in the collective life of local communities, going on to observe all kinds of religious influence. And despite the secular views of many intellectuals of the day, the Republican era also saw the beginnings of fieldwork on folklore.

In Chapter 2 Yang notes the place of religion in the integration of the family, including ancestor worship and mortuary rites. Chapter 3 goes on to discuss the religious bond in social groups, and Chapter 4 communal aspects of popular cults—notably temple fairs.

Chapters 5 to 8 explore the political role of religion over the long historical perspective. In his account Yang includes both official and popular cults, with notes on cults such as those of the deities Zhenwu and Chenghuang. Chapter 8 discusses the administrative control of religion, later elaborated by Vincent Goossaert; and the persecution of “heterodox cults”, which he pursues further in Chapter 9 on religion and political rebellion—again, while he cites pre-1949 material, the issue continued to fester under Maoism despite fierce campaigns.

As Yang’s manuscript was largely complete, the 1958 Great Leap Backward led to an appalling national famine, and religious sects rose in resistance over a wide area. The state’s partial withdrawal from extremist policies from 1961 produced a short-lived cultural and religious revival.

North Xinzhuang 1959

Former monk Daguang with village disciples, North Xinzhuang, Beijing suburbs 1959. For more images of Maoism, see here.

Yang was not to know of the maintenance of traditions among village-wide ritual assocations in Hebei through the first decade of the PRC, for instance, or the revival of “ghost operas” in Hunan and elsewhere; but his conceptual framework allows ample room to accommodate such grassroots activities.

In Chapter 12 Yang (inspired by Joachim Wach and Emile Durkheim) makes an important distinction between diffused and institutional religion, with the former dominant and the latter weak in Chinese society. In Adam Yuet Chau’s summary (Miraculous response, pp.143–5) he goes further:

C.K. Yang (1961) famously proposed that in China elements of popular religion are diffused into core secular social institutions such as the family, socioeconomic groups such as trade guilds, communities such as villages and native-place associations, and the state. He argued that the diffused religious ideas and practices provided an air of sanctity to, and thus helped uphold, these core institutions. I suggest that the symbiosis between secular institutions and religious life is even more intimate, that the same principles and mechanisms for organizing ordinary social life are used in organizing popular religious life.

Yang’s chapter concludes:

The lack of a powerful priestly religion did not mean the weakness of religious influence in social life. The Chinese common people, especially the women, hardly passed a day or faced a crisis without resorting to religious assistance. Burning incense to the house gods in the morning and evening, going to the temples to pray on numerous public and private occasions, visiting a classical priest for guidance on big or little problems, attending temple fairs and religious festivals, consulting the religious sections of the almanac for an auspicious time for making a major or minor move, and reflecting on the supernatural influence on life and the universe—all these added up to an intimate relationship between religion and life under the traditional social order. Yet all these activities proceeded without the organized direction of any priesthood. People visited a particular temple, worshiped a particular spirit, called on a particular priest, all in accordance with the practical function of religion for the particular occasion. To what religion a temple belonged might be a puzzle to many academicians, but such questions had no functional significance in the religious life of the common people. Hence, weakness in the structural position of institutional religion was not synonymous with the functional weakness of religion in social life.

See also the festschrift

  • Wenfang Tang and Burkart Holzner (eds), Social change in contemporary China: C.K. Yang and the concept of institutional diffusion (2007).

In Chapter 13 Yang uses detailed material to show the changing role of religion through the Republican era, noting the limited impact of the secular views of urban intellectuals and state campaigns. I’m happy to see him citing the maxim attributed to Confucius “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”, which later became a popular refrain with my fieldwork colleagues.

In Yang’s final chapter he looks beyond “Communism as a new faith”. While analysing the secular rituals of the new Party-state, he takes into account the coexistence with both diffused and institutional theistic religion in both policy and practice. He notes the radical assaults on “superstitious practices” and the destruction of religious properties, but always takes a nuanced view—such as this account setting forth from Wudangshan:

On this scenic mountain were eight palaces; thirty-two temples; twelve shrines; a “golden palace”, the largest existing bronze structure in China; and thousands of bronze Taoist images, many of which were unsurpassed works of art. In 1955 and again in 1956, county officials broke up hundreds of “scattered, damaged, or duplicate” bronze images and sold them as scrap metal to help provide funds for the county budget. Over 50,000 catties (about 65,000 pounds) of bronze were collected. In the 1956 campaign it took forty-eight days to destroy the images, one of which weighed over 3,000 catties or nearly two tons, and a large number of which had been preserved in good condition. Leading Taoist priests, some even with limited political status, could only watch the heart-rending destruction helplessly. Afterwards, as news of the wanton destruction reached the provincial authorities, several of the county officials responsible were given demerits as punishment, which seemed to be an insignificant gesture to placate the rising popular protest. Although the Wutangshan case was brought to public attention because of its prominence as a national religious center, the destruction or selling of the properties and sacred objects of innumerable obscure temples in villages remained unnoticed or unrecorded.

Although antireligious riots and destruction on temple property and images were partly inspired by the anti-supernatural attitude which characterized the Communist ideology, they were nevertheless scattered local occurrences without organized direction from the central Communist authorities. Furthermore, such actions were largely restricted to the destruction of religious properties without direct harm to believers. But when religious beliefs formed an active part of a “reactionary” social system, such beliefs became the object of drastic and systematic elimination in order to overthrow the social system which the religious beliefs supported. In such cases, professional practitioners of these beliefs would face persecution.

Yang also unpacks the state policy of preserving the art and architecture of major temples (cf. Wutaishan):

It should be kept in mind that the restoration work is limited to large, well-known temples in each locality, while innumerable humble ones are left to deteriorate or converted to nonreligious uses. The wholesale impressing of priests into secular production work and the conversion of most temples into secular quarters would seriously reduce the already weak foundation of Chinese institutional religion, an effect not canceled by the restoration of large temples.

Of course, worse was to come, but Yang must have welcomed the revival after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the new tide of research.

Even while describing campaigns against sectarian groups (on which we now have much more material), he suggests that

it is probably incorrect to assume that the Communists, although they have recently won success by their mastery of underground techniques, possess fully effective countermeasures against the underground sectarian societies. While the Communists can infiltrate into any of the known societies at will, they may not be able to penetrate into every one of the numerous isolayed small units in a highly decentralized organizational system. Furthermore, as one society is suppressed, others continued to rise spontaneously. The root of the matter lies in the popular belief in the gods and their magic to bring deliverance from suffering, and in the popular tradition or organizing religious groups to offer resistance to an oppressive ruling power against which the individual seems helpless.

His conclusion is prophetic, yet largely free of simplistic flag-waving for the supposed triumph of eternal, sacred values which some Western reviewers read into the more recent revival:

Communism’s probable inability to cope with all social and personal crises that may arise in the future would compel the people, when subjected to extreme distress, to continue to reach beyond the finitude of empirical experience and rational thought for relief. Should this be the case, even if the Communist ideology were to endure as a sociopolitical doctrine, it would have to develop permanent tolerance of theistic religion so that theism could perform the moral integrative function of stabilizing the new social order. The gods might then emerge from their eclipse to play a familiar role under the dominance of a disbelieving political orthodoxy, a situation reminiscent of the long and often stormy co-existence of theistic religion and Confucianism, whose excessively earthly quality invited the development of theistic faiths.

* * *

Through the 1950s few scholars were able to undertake fieldwork on the survival of local ritual traditions—with the laudable exception of considerable projects under the cloak of music studies.

But despite the paucity of material then available on the contemporary situation, Yang didn’t see the 1949 revolution as the end of the story. Though he was writing at such a traumatic time for Chinese society, when it would have been easy to take a black-and-white view, his book contains mature insights.






Reception history


Reception history is an important issue in all branches of the arts, including music, fiction, and visual culture.

For Renaissance painting, modern viewers inevitably bring to bear a wealth of visual and conceptual experience (later artistic movements, photos, film, and so on); by contrast, the world-view of audiences of the time was based on a far more detailed knowledge of scenes depicted. The social context of viewing has changed radically; such messages constantly change over time. In my post on visual culture I cite perceptive comments by Michael Baxandall, Marcia Pointon, Michael Jacobs, Alan Bennett, and (for China) Craig Clunas.

Even synchronically, Daoist ritual means very different things to local patrons, urban dwellers, young and old, local and central cadres, and scholars of Daoism—a theme I broached in Recreation.

I’ve touched on this issue in several posts on music, often relating to the HIP movement and changing styles of performance:

  • In Bach—and Daoist ritual I note the very different ears, eyes, minds, and bodies of 18th-century and modern audiences.

The work of John Butt pursues such themes:

Further posts on changing interpretations of Bach are also relevant:

More recent works too are pervaded by our changing experience:

and on a lighter note,

Popular culture in early modern Europe


We often study Chinese culture (both expressive and material) rather in isolation, but many parallels are suggested in

  • Peter Burke, Popular culture in early modern Europe (1978, thoughtfully updated in 2009 edition),

a lucidly-written single-volume work on the period 1500 to 1800. Of course it’s a vast field, but Burke’s broad coverage is enriched by illuminating detail.

Think away television, radio, and cinema, which have standardized the vernaculars of Europe within living memory, not to mention changes which are less obvious but may be more profound. Think away the railways, which probably did even more than conscription and government propaganda to erode the culture peculiar to each province and to turn regions into nations. Think away universal education and literacy, class consciousness and nationalism. Think away the modern confidence (however shaken) in progress, science, and technology, and the secular modes in which hopes and fears are expressed.

Indeed, many in Europe had little access to these features well into the 20th century—and many Chinese still later. So the historical coverage not only makes a useful perspective on popular traditions enduring today (e.g. Italy or east Europe), but is also full of lessons for our studies of popular culture in modern China.

Many (not least in China) tend to visualize Europe as a monolithic, reified, “developed” (and largely secular) modern bourgeois society, whose music (for instance) is represented by the “classical” canon. In the wake of the industrial revolution, change in the popular cultures of Europe was already a complex issue by the early 1900s, when study began to take off in earnest; but in China, for all its own revolution, many of Burke’s perspectives still seem relevant in the late 20th century. So it may be easier to see the parallels here than it would be with a study of modern Europe.

In Chapter 1 he discusses “The discovery of the people” by early-19th-century intellectuals, just as traditional culture seemed threatened—of which he gives some fine examples, long predating 20th-century concerns. Already before the industrial revolution, with the growth of towns, the improvement of roads, and the spread of literacy, the centre was invading the periphery.

Burke adduces early collections of folk-songs from Germany, Russia, Sweden, Serbia, Hungary, and Finland. The intellectuals also discovered popular religion and festivals (cf. Zhao Shiyu‘s work on Chinese temple fairs), along with folk music. Burke discusses aesthetic, intellectual, and political reasons for this interest. Along with the reaction against the Enlightenment, and the growth of nationalism,

the discovery of the people was part of a movement of cultural primitivism in which the ancient, the distant, and the popular were all equated.

In Chinese discourse on folk culture, terms like “simple” and “primitive” were still common in the late 20th century.

At the same time, Burke unpacks problems with studying the subject through the work of early European folklorists: distortion, creative bias, and the notion of “improvement”. Just like the CCP in China,

it is all to easy to continue to see popular culture through the romantic, nationalist spectacles of the intellectuals of the early 19th century.

On “restoration” he observes:

To read the text of a ballad, a folktale, or even a tune in a collection of this period is much like looking at a Gothic church which was “restored” at much the same time. One cannot be sure whether one is looking at what was originally there, at what the restorer thought was originally there, at what he thought ought to have been there, or at what he thought should be there now. Not only texts and buildings were subject to “restoration”, but even festivals.

Burke criticizes the notions of primitivism, communalism, and purism, stressing that “popular culture does have a history”.

In Chapter 2, “Unity and variety in popular culture”, Burke notes pockets where there was still a shared culture on the lines of the (dodgy) model of tribal societies, but observes that the broad picture was not monolithic or homogeneous: social stratification was widespread. He refines the model of interdependent great and little traditions, both urban and rural, that Robert Redfield suggested in the 1930s:

There were two cultural traditions in early modern Europe, but they did not correspond symmetrically to the two main social groups, the elite and the common people. The elite participated in the little traditions, but the common people did not participate in the great tradition. The great tradition was transmitted formally at grammar schools and at universities. It was a closed tradition in the sense that people who had not attended such institutions, which were not open to all, were excluded. […] The little tradition, on the other hand, was transmitted informally. It was open to all, like the church and the market-place, where so many of the performances occurred.

So in the early period the elite, the nobility, local literati, and the clergy had access to and participated in both cultures.

In the Cracow area about 1565, more than 80% of the poor nobles were illiterate. The style of life of some rural nobles and parish priests was not so different from that of the peasants around them.
But this situation did not remain static throughout the period. The upper classes gradually withdrew from participation in the little tradition in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Following Kodály and Gramsci, Burke also notes that “the people” were not a homogeneous group. As in 20th-century China, the peasants formed 80–90% of the population. But apart from peasants and craftsmen, women, children, shepherds, sailors, beggars, and so on, all had important sub-cultures. The diversity of occupations makes a useful reminder for China, both in imperial and modern times; the peasantry was itself stratified, as the CCP would observe. Burke cites Kodaly again:

Many traditional folksongs are appropriate only for one social group, like the Scandinavian drängvisor, or farm-hands’ song, and the pigvisor, the “complaints” of ill–treated maidservants.

He notes ecological differences:

Leaping dances seem to be associated with mountainous regions, in the Basque country, in Norway, in the highlands of Bavaria, Poland, and Scotland, because this was an old form of dance which did not survive in the plains.

In the countryside farmers, herdsmen, and shepherds also had different cultures, as did blacksmiths, carpenters, woodsmen, miners, and bandits. Similar stratification was notable in the towns: guilds, craftsmen (weavers, tailors, shoemakers, journeymen, apprentices, and so on), and shopkeepers.

Burke notes religion and ethnic minorities as markers of cultural difference—not only Catholics and Protestants, but Jews and Muslims. And he discusses the male category of “wanderers”—soldiers, sailors, beggars, and thieves. He notes variation by gender and region, coexisting with other types of variation. Excluded from most of the categories, “women’s culture is to popular culture what popular culture is to culture as a whole.” Other potential elements in a cultural geography of Europe would include architecture, literacy, and topography. He observes interaction between great and little traditions, finding traffic in both directions, with creative transformations.

In Chapter 3, “An elusive quarry”, Burke interrogates the sources, their literati bias and unreliability:

We want to know about performances, but what have survived are texts; we want to see these performances through the eyes of the craftsmen and peasants themselves, but we are forced to see them through the eyes of literate outsiders.

The attitudes and values of craftsmen and peasants

were expressed in activities and performances, but these activities and performances were only documented when the literate upper classes took an interest in them.

And when, as often, festivities were described by foreign visitors, they

are likely to miss all sorts of local or topical allusions and may misunderstand what the festivities mean to the participants.

Or (as in China) popular activities may be recorded simply because the authorities were trying to suppress them. And of course

A text cannot record a performance adequately, whether it is a clown’s or a preacher’s. The tone of voice is missing, so are the facial expressions, the gestures, the acrobatics.

Further, Burke notes that printed texts (including sermons) are likely to vary from the texts performed. Print not only recorded popular culture but undermined it. He lists six kinds of mediator, and explores oblique approaches to popular culture, adducing witch trials and “iconology”. And he notes the useful perspective of rebellion, also fruitful for China.

Discussing folk-songs and epics “collected” in the 20th century, he comments:

Historians whose sources consist of fragmentary texts have a lot to learn from folklorists whose sources are living people, who can be observed at work and even questioned. What I am advocating is a rather more indirect use of the modern material, to criticize or interpret the documentary sources.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me say at once what the regressive method is not. It does not consist of relatively recent situations and cheerfully assuming that they apply equally well to earlier periods.

He notes the potential for historians to learn from anthropologists.

Part Two, “Structures of popular culture”, opens with Chapter 4, “The transmission of popular culture”, focusing on the “active bearers of culture”. While observing that

Shepherds made their own bagpipes as well as playing them. The men of the household made the furniture, and the women made the clothes. […] Anyone who fell ill or had an accident would be treated at home,

he stresses that

Neither the household nor the village was culturally autonomous.

Semi-professional healers, traveling pedlars, and wandering minstrels [a term, I note, encrusted with romantic flapdoodle] were also part of the picture. He unpacks the notion of “popular artist” (one who works mainly for a public of craftsmen and peasants), and the spectrum of professionals and amateurs. I like his list of occupational performers for England:

Ballad-singers, bear-wards, buffoons, charlatans, clowns, comedians, fencers, fools, hocus-pocus men, jugglers, merry-andrews, minstrels, mountebanks, players, puppet-masters, quacks, rope-dancers, showmen, tooth-drawers and tumblers. [1]

(For instances of the evocative use of lists, see Last night’s fun and Accordion crimes.)

But again there were gradations, as with shawm bands in China today. Like tinkers and pedlars, many performing groups were itinerant. The Russian skomorokhi (interestingly seen as antecedents of Pussy Riot here) travelled in bands of up to one hundred men. Burke’s description of “strolling players” in 18th-century England reminds me of Chinese opera troupes today:

Two actors would be sent ahead of the rest to get permission to play in the towns and villages on their route. Their properties and costumes would be secondhand, even dilapidated, and they would perform in inns or barns.

la Tour

Georges La Tour, The hurdy-gurdy man. Cf. the lirniky of modern Ukraine.

Several more features suggest China. Solo bards were also common—as in Spain, France, Serbia, and Russia. Whether solo or in a group, they were often equated with beggars; and many “vagabond-entertainers” were blind. Itinerant preachers were also widespread. Besides human opera, ritual puppet plays may remind us of groups still performing in regions like Fujian and Gansu.

Less well documented were the amateur performers, and semi-professionals (as in China), “part-time specialists who had another occupation but might derive a supplementary income from their singing, playing, or healing.” Performers of plays and other festivities were often organized into guilds. Funeral wailers were hired, as in Britain, Italy, and Russia. Popular healers and diviners are listed for England, Sweden, Poland, Spain.

Burke explores the physical setting, noting that it is easier to document public performances (church, tavern, market-place) than domestic occasions. He outlines the balance of folk tradition and individual innovation, refuting the “collective creation” myth.

Chapter 5, “Traditional forms”, explores genres, discussing the variety of dance and song forms; themes and variations; and the process of composition—all recurring issues in ethnomusicology. He includes preaching and material culture, seeking not only formulas and motifs but structures.

Chapter 6, “Heroes, villains, and fools” goes on to look at stock characters, probing the attitudes and values of craftsmen and peasants. In popular culture the images of rulers, the clergy and saints, the nobility and knights, the middle class and officials, are sometimes ambivalent, but the lower classes seem “conservative”, accepting them and structuring their world through the models provided by the dominant group. Conversely, craftsmen and peasants also saw society in terms not of harmony but of conflict, complaining of poverty and injustice. Here Burke lists five points along a spectrum of responses: fatalist, moralist, traditionalist, radical, and millenarian.

The Chinese peasantry since the 1940s have also clung to such heroic figures from the imperial past, remaining quite resistant to the cultural values of the CCP while absorbing new elements (like the PLA soldier in the medium’s pantheon here).

Under “ordinary people”, Burke notes that craftsmens’ image of the peasant was unflattering. Nor, in the male-dominated sources, do women emerge well:

Most popular heroines were objects, admired not so much for what they did but what they suffered. For women, martyrdom was virtually the only route to sanctity.

More common are images of deceitful and malicious women.

Under “outsiders”, outlaws (another popular theme in China) are usually, though not always, portrayed as heroic, “enabling ordinary people to take imaginative revenge on the authorities to whom they were usually obedient in real life”. Negative instances are those of the Turk and the Jew (both “scarcely human”), as well as the witch; and the stereotypes of Catholics and Protestants about each other.

Hatred of outsiders was so common as to make one wonder whether most ordinary people of the period were not what psychologists sometimes call “authoritarian personalities”, combining submissiveness to authority with aggressiveness towards people outside their group.


Breughel, The combat between Carnival and Lent.

in Chapter 7, “The world of Carnival”, Burke pursues the theme of relieving tensions, putting myths and rituals in the physical context of festivals, both Carnival itself and “carnivalesque” activities. Here he explores ritual—always a prominent theme—in greater detail, and ritual reversal, “the world upside down”. Carnival was both a holiday, a game, and a time of ecstasy and liberation, with food, sex, and violence. He subsumes public executions and mocking ceremonies like the charivari, and explores the tensions between social control and social protest. He cites Victor Turner:

By making the low high and the high low, they reaffirm the hierarchical principle.

But the “safety-valve” of ritual was not always able to contain popular dissent. Riots and rebellions made more direct forms of action. Popular rebellions, of course, are a major theme in Chinese history—studied selectively in the PRC.

The concern of the upper classes that popular festivals might pose a threat to the status quo leads to Chapter 8, “The triumph of Lent: the reform of popular culture”. Always alert to change, Burke describes the attempts of the educated (“the reformers, or the godly”), notably the clergy, to “improve” popular mores, on both theological and moral grounds. Again (as in imperial and modern China) folk religion was a principle target—miracle and mystery plays, popular sermons, and religious festivals such as saints’ days and pilgrimages.

He suggest two main periods, the first until around 1650 led by the clergy, the second in which the laity took the initiative, adding secular arguments. He outlines the “culture of the godly” that they hoped would replace the old pagan ways (more echoes of modern China). Battles were waged not only over rituals but over images and texts. One important weapon was the dissemination of vernacular Bibles. Burke is sensitive to changes in the meaning of words, such as the ever-thorny “superstition”.

One major result of this reformist zeal, unevenly achieved, was the widening of the gulf between great and little traditions, discussed in the final Chapter 9, “Popular culture and social change”. Over the whole period popular culture changed in ways that no-one could have foreseen. Burke lists population growth and urbanization, the rise of “commercial capitalism” with increasing division of labour, and the communications revolution. Though he warns against exaggerating the impact of such changes, by the 18th century the peasantry were coming to own more material objects, and better ones—although east Europe remained relatively poor. A gradual shift was under way “from the more spontaneous and participatory forms of entertainment towards more formally-organised and commercialized spectator sports.” Although he also shows that it was often in the outlying regions that traditional culture was best maintained,

In the larger towns, the process of social change seems to have enriched popular culture. In the countryside, particularly in outlying regions, the same process led to cultural impoverishment.

This topical comment from the Highlands of Scotland comes from the late 18th century:

The noblest virtues have been ruined, or driven into exile, since the love of money has crept in among us; and since deceit and hypocrisy have carried mercenary policy and slavish, sordid avarice into our land.

Under “the uses of literacy” Burke stresses the influence of the printed book, and then the press. He explains methods for assessing literacy rates around Europe, with partial evidence suggesting that “more people could read in 1800 than in 1500, that craftsmen were generally much more literate than peasants, men than women, Protestants than Catholics, and Western European than Eastern Europeans”.

Whereas some secular reformers feared that popular literacy would make the poor discontented with their lot, the godly saw it as a step to salvation. Again Burke unpacks the idea of “access” to books, with some fine examples under physical, economic, and linguistic access. He takes a nuanced approach to how all this affected popular performances, although “the book was both a dangerous competitor and a treacherous ally”.

The spread of literacy and the decline of the epic occurred together in Western Europe, while illiteracy and the epic survived together in Sicily, in Bosnia, in Russia.

I note that even the lowest literacy rates around Europe surpassed those of China in the mid-20th century; and even in the early 1990s I found few books in peasant homes there.

Burke cites the work of a sociologist working on the modern Middle East, where print is among factors said to engender “a high capacity for empathy, a willingness to accept change, to move from one place to another, or to express their own opinions about society; in a word, modernity.” However, in early modern Europe such changes were less spectacular. Old themes did not go out, but new themes did come in: as in modern China, cultural changes were not so much “substitutive” as “additive”.

He moves on to unpack the concepts of secularisation and politicisation:

Hopes and fears which had traditionally been expressed in religious terms now needed another mode of expression and increasingly found it in the political.

Despite the problems in assessing piecemeal material, and always sensitive to differing social strata, he finds an increasing sense of involvement with politics, at least in Western Europe.

Craftsmen and peasants had good reason to be more aware of the state by the end of the 18th century than they had been three hundred years before.

Burke notes the gradual withdrawal of the upper classes from the popular culture that they had previously shared—as in China. But as ever he asks probing questions:

Who withdrew? From what did they withdraw? In what parts of Europe? And why? The clergy, the nobility, and the bourgeoisie had their own reasons for abandoning popular culture.

In many regions the upper classes literally spoke a different language from ordinary people. But—at different times in different parts of Europe—they came to reject their whole culture.

And it was this gap that led to “discovery”: only when folk traditions became “alien” to the elite did they provoke curiosity, leading to the rise of folklore studies.

Looking back over the whole period,

The change in the attitudes of educated men seems truly remarkable. In 1500, they despised the common people, but shared their culture. By 1800 their descendants had ceased to participate spontaneously in popular culture, but they were in the process of rediscovering it as something exotic and therefore interesting. They were even beginning to admire “the people” from whom this alien culture had sprung.

After 1800 factors like urbanization, education, printing, and railway transport were to transform culture still more radically.

* * *

Houshan 1995

Medicine-pouch vendor, Houshan temple fair 1995.

While Burke’s study is based on the period before 1800, and has been amply supplemented since, it offers thoughtful perspectives on the diverse little traditions that still persist today, and were even more widespread alongside the great traditions of Renaissance and baroque. Relevant to our studies of imperial and modern China are not only the many commonalities they share—recurring themes like ritual, reform, and so on—but ways of studying and unpacking the sources. I do recommend the book, not least to Chinese students: here’s a Chinese edition.