Towers and wells—and a ferocious quadruped

San Gim

San Gimignano.

From 1979, in that youthful idyll that one somehow took for granted, I delighted in taking part in the summer music festivals of Montepulciano (Mahler 10!!!),* Batignano (Mozart’s Zaide!!!), Pesaro (Rossini’s Mi manca la voce!!!), and the Arena di Verona. Meanwhile I avidly began exploring the whole region—Florence, Siena, Perugia, Urbino, Pisa, Orvieto, Arezzo, and so on.

S Fina
Apart from phrase-books, impressionistically-translated guidebooks can provide much Harmless Fun for All the Family. Among the favourites in my collection is one that I found in the medieval hill-town of San Gimignano, “the Manhattan of Tuscany” (cf. Suzhou, Venice of the East, Balham, gateway to the South, and “palm trees are nothing to us—we’re from Torquay”).

Here’s St Fina (1238–53, sic), patron saint of the town, clasping a model of it (or possibly a birthday cake), as depicted in a series of scenes from her legend on a reliquary tabernacle (1401–2) by Lorenzo di Niccolò Gerini.

Some of these guidebooks are impressively erudite. In English, estimable research like that of Enzo Raffa in San Gimignano by the beautiful towers has been pleasantly garbled, supplementing education with giggles—always a winning combo. It opens with evocative images:

Seen in the distance, it seems an inaccessible town. Going up from the Poggibonsi way, which is the most common, the towers lose their prospective and get down** till disappearing among olive trees. The brown silver color of leaves increases the silence around red bricks of walls. From the Certaldo way, the town is more braggart. Towers are as straight as halberds be they wet by the rain or burnt by the sun, they always keep the very same color and maintain the same soleliness of the black and closed cypresses of these places.

He then goes all Zen on us:

And here, in the space enlarging at a bell’s touch, a strange sensation of surety embraces our soul.

As he takes us through the usual catalogue of medieval strife, some elements in the social picture are timeless:

A few families, the richest ones, try to impose their sovereignty through the joke of reincharges.

With Italy currently a major centre for Coronavirus, some recent articles have made parallels with historical disasters such as the 1629 outbreak in Florence. Still earlier, as Raffa relates, San Gimignano was stricken by the Black Death pandemic:

Where the interior struggles could not get, the pest arrived. The great pest of 1348, the one killing the sweet Laura of Petrarca poet, along with a great number of persons.

And he’s aware of other modern parallels:

For a town like San Gimignano, the destruction of walls would have been equal to the taking off of a suit at the open air in a rigid winter day. […] San Gimignano is refusing.

Once upon a time it was said that San Gimignano had 72 beautiful towers. Only 25 were standing up in 1580. Today there are 14, others may be numbered but they are either included in buildings or docked to a great extent. Their architecture is a speaking sign of the mentality made of surety, of offense and of pride.

As the author explains:

The holes we can still see on the facades were used for the quick building of bridges which could be used either for reaching friend families’ towers or to attach enemy families’ towers.

I’m sure he’s right, but I wonder if anyone spotted a design flaw there.

well

Piazza della Cisterna.

Elsewhere I read that a common, if one-off, pastime in San Gimignano was to commit suicide by throwing oneself off a high tower. But another popular way of ending it all, in Italy as in China, was by throwing oneself down a deep well. The most elegant method, I surmise, would be to throw oneself off a high tower into a deep well, as Freud and Jung might have suggested—one possible target for the ambitious acrobatic depressive might be the well in Piazza della Cisterna.

Well (sic) might one exclaim, like a duty roster for the Wigan emergency services as read in the voice of Alan Bennett:

Sick transit, Gloria, Monday

Cf. A Bach mondegreen, and Jan ‘n’ Dia—L.A. den “Bhabi!”.

From Assisi, home of Saint Francis, I moved on to Gubbio, enjoying the miracle of the saint taming a wolf that terrorized the town until it meekly offered its paw to him. Actually, it was a peace deal:

“As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?”

“Giving in to terrorism”, as it might now be called.

Sassetta

The wolf of Gubbio is one of many panels that Sassetta painted from 1437 to 1444 for an altarpiece in San Francesco at Borgo San Sepolcro near Arezzo. And now I can go and admire it, alongside some gorgeous Duccio panels, at Room 52 of the National Gallery in London!

Describing the wolf, my Italian guidebook to Gubbio contained the delightful phrase quadrupede feroce—an expression that later my Italian partner and I always tried, on the flimsiest of pretexts, to shoehorn into our conversations revolving around cuddly domestic pets.

The troubled background of such picturesque old towns can now be neatly packed away under cultural history; and they are not mere cultural playgrounds for tourists—real people have to make a living there through changing times (cf. Venice daily life in a theme park). Still, basking in these guidebooks now, with their lavish illustrations of exquisite medieval archecture and painting, I find it intriguing that only a few years later I graduated to traipsing around grimy dilapidated towns in north China, where little trace has survived of any material culture predating the 1950s (see also Molvania).

Suide 2001

Suide county-town, Shaanbei, 2001. My photo.

And the villages are hardly more idyillic: among decrepit single-storey dwellings from the Maoist era, the alleys are strewn with litter. The great compensation, of course, is the expressive culture of rural China.

See also Italy: folk musickingOn visual culture; and The struggle against Mussolini.

 

* Exclamation marks courtesy of Mahler himself.

** Cf. “get down baby” in Bo Dudley’s Mama’s got a brand new bag.

 

 

 

Coronavirus: mourning Li Wenliang, and blind bards

LWL

WeChat: “In this world there are no heroes descended from heaven, there are only ordinary people who come forward”.

Among the many areas of life in China that are suffering under the lockdown prompted by the Coronavirus outbreak are collective events such as life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies among rural communities.

SGL guiwang

Ghost king, South Gaoluo.

The grand New Year’s rituals from the 12th to the 16th of the 1st moon that take place throughout villages in north China, such as those of Gaoluo village in Laishui county south of Beijing, have had to be cancelled—though their purpose is precisely to “destroy the hundred diseases” (dui baibing 丢百病).

It reminds me of a story that villagers told me about the New Year’s rituals in 1997 (Plucking the winds, pp.317–18: passages below modestly edited). After thefts of the association’s ritual paintings the previous year, the New Year’s rituals now made a focus for a cultural fight-back. In preparation they managed to retrieve some of the paintings handed over the Baoding museum during the Cultural Revolution, and had handsome new donors’ lists (also stolen) rewritten and repainted from my photos, ready to display in the lantern tent.

But just as everyone was preparing for an ostentatious New Year, the death of Premier Deng Xiaoping threatened to disrupt it. A typical bit of mental juggling was now required in order for the village rituals to continue undisturbed. Deng died on the 11th day of the 1st moon in 1997, with remarkable, if uncharacteristic, attention to the rural calendar. When his death was announced, just before the major rituals around the 15th, the “commune” (as they still call the district authorities) dutifully ordered that New Year’s celebrations should be cancelled, and the village brigade had to tell the ritual association not to perform. As one musician confided, “I turns it over in my head: when someone dies in the village, we play for them, so didn’t we oughta be able to play when Deng Xiaoping dies too? So I reckons, how about writing a motto ‘In mourning for Deng Xiaoping’, pasting it up outside the lantern tent, and playing as usual?” The village’s “southern” ritual association followed suit, and the New Year’s rituals went ahead.

I love this story: in order to make sure that Premier Deng’s death will not get in the way of their customary entertainment, they profess respect by pointing out the traditional use of ritual to venerate the dead. As with all the best scams, its sincerity is unassailable. Things had changed a lot in the two decades since Chairman Mao’s death in 1976. Then the ritual association had virtually ceased to exist, and villagers had obeyed central orders without question out of genuine, indeed almost “superstitious”, belief in the Great Helmsman. Since 1978 villagers doubtless had a lot to thank Deng for, but there were ironies. It was thanks to Deng’s liberalizations that the association had been able to revive, but it was threatened by new pressures; it was also thanks to him that people no longer placed blind faith in leadership, and were now disinclined to let his death take priority over their local culture.

Villagers regarded the 1997 New Year as the most lively in living memory, perhaps partly by necessity, to legitimize the association’s new leadership and fight back against the theft of the paintings.

In many regions “rites of affliction” have long been an important part of the repertoire of ritual specialists—serving a symbolic rather than medical function. In the current crisis, however, such large-scale gatherings are unthinkable.

1965 poster campaign combining public hygiene and eliminating superstition: “Incense ash cannot cure disease” and “Human diseases are not an offence of the gods and ghosts”—another reminder (see e.g. here, under “Expressive culture”) that even at such a revolutionary time, plenty of people still thought so.
Source: https://chineseposters.net.

Elaborate funeral rituals, for which among the many locals attending are kin returning from distant parts of the country, have also been put on hold. Still, in Yanggao county in Shanxi, far from both the source of the outbreak in Wuhan and major urban centres like Beijing, the Li family Daoists, individually, are still in demand to provide routine burial services, as I describe here.

On local government websites (e.g. those of Laishui and Yanggao counties) I haven’t yet found any explicit bans on collective ritual activities—only bland, formulaic warnings proclaiming the state’s resolute response to the crisis. But morbidly creative slogans everywhere hammer out the message:

slogan

No visits for New Year this year
Those who come to visit you are enemies
Don’t open the door for enemies.

For the response in Tibetan regions, see e.g. here; and for concerns over Xinjiang, here.

* * *

 Even if folk musical activities are suspended, there are signs that local performers are reflecting the outbreak, in what Confucius would have called “popular feelings” (minqing 民情). First, some background.

I’ve already written at some length about blind bards and shawm players. The blindmens’ propaganda troupe of Zuoquan county in the Taihang mountains of east-central Shanxi has a history dating back to 1938, under Japanese occupation. One of the most illuminating and harrowing books on rural life in north China is

  • Liu Hongqing 刘红庆, Xiangtian er ge: Taihang mangyirende gushi 向天而歌: 太行盲艺人的故事 [Singing to the heavens: stories of blind performers of the Taihang mountains] (2004, with VCD, and abundant photos by Wang Jingchun).

LHQ book

One of innumerable such groups throughout the countryside, the Zuoquan troupe has always adapted to the changing times, from the warfare of the 1940s through Maoism to the reform era. In the latter period they began to perform stories criticising corruption.

The book’s author Liu Hongqing (see e.g. this interview) is the older brother of blind performer Liu Hongquan, whose life features prominently. Though Hongqing escaped the rural life to become a journalist, he kept in regular contact with his family, providing vivid stories of the troupe’s itinerant lifestyle (cf. Li Qing’s stint in the Datong Arts-Work Troupe from 1958 to 1962) and writing with great empathy about the lives of poor peasants.

ZQ pic

Liu Hongqing also pays great attention to the wretched fate of women in a rural area that remained chronically poor under Maoism. Two twins in the troupe had an older sister, four of whose five children were born blind. After she died in 1963 the burden of caring for the whole family fell upon the oldest daughter Chen Xizi, then 15 sui. She too was ill-fated. Her first daughter died at the age of 11 sui after going dumb the previous year; her son, born in 1968, was blind, dumb, and disabled; a second daughter died at the age of 7 sui; and a third daughter was herself left with three daughters at the age of 32 sui after her husband died. But amazingly, Chen Xizi’s youngest son endured great tribulations to become a researcher at Shanghai Communications University—the family’s only hope in an ocean of misery. Chen Xizi’s older brother Xizhao, a fine shawm player who died at the age of 55 sui in 1998, “bought” four wives, all mentally disabled.

After the death of another blind performer in the troupe, his widow had moved in with his younger brother, a common expedient (xuqin 续亲) in poor communities where early deaths were common and widows vulnerable.

Such stories, all too common in rural China (note e.g. Guo Yuhua’s ethnography of a Shaanbei village), make an important corrective to rosy state propaganda, putting into perspective scholarly accounts of machinations within the central leadership; and the fierce, anguished singing and playing of groups like this are utterly remote from the bland, cheery ditties of official troupes.

The Zuoquan performers are instrumentalists too—Liu Hongquan is a fine shawm player (for thoughts on the way shawm-band music reflects suffering, see here). Like others in the troupe, he has taken several adopted sons, forming a network of well-wishers throughout the villages where they perform. Like blind performers in north Shanxi, they had their own secret language (p.69), based on the ancient qiezi 切字 phonetic system.

TQ

Tian Qing (left, in white) with the blind performers of Zuooquan.

The group was soon promoted by eminent cultural pundit Tian Qing (see e.g. here, and this video). Following his visit to Zuoquan they gave their first Beijing performance in 2003. From 2007 the popular TV presenter and director Yani took them to heart, engaging with their lives in a documentary filmed over ten years.

Since being enrolled under the aegis of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, while continuing their itinerant lifestyle performing for rural ceremonial, they have become media celebrities, promoted in regular TV appearances.

But even once absorbed into the state apparatus, such folk groups are not always mere mouthpieces for state propaganda. We may tend to think of folk-songs as commemorating events in the distant past—even when describing traumas such as famine, they tend to refer to early famines before the 1949 revolution. Itinerant performers like blind bards are occasionally enlisted to explain state policies among the folk, but they may also express resistance. With such topical songs hardly appearing in the collections of Chinese fieldworkers, it’s hard to judge how common they are. In Bards of Shaanbei (under “Old and new stories”) I explored the themes of AIDS, SARS, and Mo Yan’s fictional portrayal of a bard protesting at unjust local government requisitions, also linking to a protest song by Beijing blindman Zhou Yunpeng.

* * *

And so to Coronavirus and the debate over freedom of speech. The Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliang was among the first whistleblowers (among a multitude of tributes, see e.g. here and here). Before his death on 6th February at the age of 34 he was punished for “spreading false rumours”. Though the central Party later backtracked on criticising him, the widespread tributes on Chinese social media mourning his death were largely an outpouring of popular resentment against the state’s irredeemably secretive policies in reaction to the outbreak—at a time when popular resistance to state power (notably in Xinjiang and Hong Kong) is otherwise muted. But online discussions continue to be censored.

A tribute to Li Wenliang, posted on WeChat on 8th February and only deleted by the 13th, featured a folk-song movingly performed by none other than Zuoquan blindman Liu Hongquan (contrast his rosy forecast here). Do listen to the song, since you can no longer hear it on WeChat:

The lyrics were written by Peking University economist Zhang Weiying, a native of Shaanbei who in 2019 composed, and sang, a Xintianyou folk-song in defence of dissident law professor Xu Zhangrun (see this article in a lengthy series by Geremie Barmé; for his translation of Xu’s essay on the virus, see here, and here; cf. this article in Chinese by Zhang Qianfan, another righteous scholar). Here are Zhang Weiying’s lyrics for the new song commemorating Li Wenliang:

LWL lyrics

The Party has also recruited performers to play a more orthodox role in promoting public health, such as this epic singer from Inner Mongolia:

(more here) and this song in the style of Huadengxi opera in Guizhou, filmed to promote awareness of the crisis.

For more songs from north China on the virus, see here; for temple ritual in Sichuan, here; and for continuing activity of household Daoists in Shanxi, here.

Amidst the widespread publicity on the global ramifications of the virus, it’s worth considering its effects on poor rural communities in China and their collective observances. Perhaps some of you have further instances of how folk culture is suffering, responding, resisting?


Appendix

A beguiling online post from Duyi Han shows murals purporting to come from a Hubei church, paying homage to Coronavirus medical workers. On reflection it’s clearly a virtual creation, but it makes an impressive and ingenious artistic tribute:

church murals

One has to read carefully to interpret this sentence as implying that it’s a virtual project:

The project sees the walls and ceilings of a historic church in Hubei province transformed into a large mural depicting figures dressed in white decontamination suits.

It’s clarified in this interview, but if one took that literally, some doubts might soon spring to mind—I append mine below merely to show you how gullible I was initially, how little I know about logistics of life in Hubei over these weeks—and how careful we have to be about what we find online, “nowadays”:

  • Where is this chapel, and how many Chinese churches have such classical architectural features?
  • Did the congregation not demur at the loss of their original Christian images?
  • Who is the artist, and if working alone (?), however could the murals be completed so quickly?  Supposing Hubei churches have been closed since the outbreak, OK I guess the artist could get a key.
  • We have to imagine them somehow finding a vast amount of paint (assuming there’s a well-stocked shop that’s open over this period), and putting up scaffolding…
  • And how about all the stages of painting murals, and drying times in winter?

Still, it’s easy to take at face value. Incidentally, apart from the major Daoist temple complex of Wudangshan, I haven’t sought material on folk ritual life around Hubei (as ever, we might start with the “instrumental music” volumes of the Anthology for Hubei), though the scene is (or was, before the virus struck) doubtless more active than this report may suggest.

 

Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing

huapencun

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, maintaining 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:

koujue

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.

Categories

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

comics

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.

SFY

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.

cunshi

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

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.”

wentan004

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.