Inspired by the recent British Museum performances of the new generation of Zhihua temple ritual specialists, I’ve just enriched the playlist in the sidebar (track 14) with a haunting recording of the former monks from 1953, with commentary here.
Following the 2014 performance of the Zhihua temple group at the British Museum, I’m looking forward to their repeat visit this coming Monday! I’ve just added it to the events calendar in the sidebar.
In addition to the hauting shengguan wind ensemble, we’ve now incorporated vocal liturgy as well as percussion items with large cymbals into the programme, to give a flavour of the whole ritual soundscape.
And on the Qujiaying connection:
In this, the second of a yin-yang pair of articles that might be entitled
Uncle Xi and the Ten Kings of the Underworld,
I find myself seeking to qualify the current coverage in the foreign media. The casual reader might be forgiven for supposing Chinese people to be languishing under a bombardment of Uncle Xi propaganda, just as we are abroad at the hands of China-watchers—in very different ways.
I don’t doubt that in some spheres this latest catechism is indeed intrusive. But the impression I get is that Chinese (peasants, workers, artists, students, academics…) have far more important things to do than study Xi Jinping Thought. I found public images of him rare—and if some households do display his poster, then there’s a sound pragmatic reason.
Invisible propaganda: business as usual
Of course no-one ever mentions him. On the few occasions that I broach the subject, it goes down like a one-legged man at an arse-kicking party. Following Nigel Barley (“like a vicar hoping to get a current affairs discussion going at a youth club”), I ask Li Manshan innocently, “Have you been studying Xi Jinping Thought?!” Without exactly rolling his eyes (unlike this reporter), he looks at me like I’m crazy—not for the first or last time.
In the poor rural county through which I’ve just been travelling, posters  were distributed to every household—with the offer (akin to a bribe) of sacks of flour, meat, and so on. In one village I know, around 80% have taken the bait. Poor-peasant families will likely play ball (like a rural Protestant woman we met, and a “left-over” family in a dying village).
A household Daoist, and a shawm player—both struggling to make ends meet—have also put their poster up. Another Daoist, my age, put his up gladly, but he’s not that well-off—and anyway he still reveres Chairman Mao, which his colleagues agree is weird. As we chat between ritual visits to the soul hall, I can’t even be bothered to ask him, “If Chairman Mao was so great, how come he let 45 million starve to death? How come you couldn’t even get a proper meal until the 1980s? How come he wouldn’t let you guys do rituals?”
But most of my village friends don’t need the supplement, so have refrained from putting up their posters. Thus I saw very few of them, either in the countryside or in the capital.  (Having just received a rather indecent gas bill, I wonder if I can ask for a poster from the county Propaganda Department to hang up in my house in Chiswick—if they can put bonus points on my Nectar card…)
Only now does it occur to me that there should be a strong correlation between households displaying the posters and those too poor to invite the whole ritual band to perform a complete sequence of funerary rituals, who instead request a solo Daoist merely to “smash the bowl” for them.
So my feeling is that for villagers, this is just yet the latest in a long line of gods who may or may not address their practical problems. Campaigns are water off a duck’s back for them:
There may be various reasons for choosing whether or not to hang a poster up. Villagers might feel that their room needs a splash of colour; or else it might not go with their colour scheme. No, aesthetic considerations are unlikely: some households may be genuinely enthusiastic, while most will swallow their scruples in order to get a supplement. At least, we can’t assess popular support for Uncle Xi merely by counting the number of posters displayed.
Nor did I see any painted wall slogans  to him as we walked and drove through the villages, or as we drove through townships and the county-town. Does the local government know something we don’t? Do I need a repeat visit to the optician?
Come to think of it, is it some extraordinary quirk of my routes through Beijing, or is there a remarkable absence of his images in public places there too? Has anyone covered this?
So—unless one were so desperate as to switch on the CCTV news—my whole trip was notable for his absence. Far Be It From Me to claim that he’s not an evil autocrat bent on crushing all dissent and Destroying Civilization As We Know It, but the tone of these online scare stories reminds me of the Daily Mail. It seems I have to come to China to escape from him (or should I say Him).
Sure, we’re all “blind people groping at the elephant”. We have to study everyone, including elites, and some scholars and journos have to focus on one man at the top of the structure. Not only do decisions made from on high affect the lives of ordinary people, but there are very compelling reasons why we should pay attention to the insidious encroachment of autocracy and the escalating erosion of rights. Everywhere.
Still, my single biggest culture-shock at returning home to the foreign media was to be suddenly reminded of their obsession with Uncle Xi. Those who follow such authoritative China-watchers might easily deduce that his worship is an all-consuming duty—but such a conclusion bears little relationship to the daily lives of Chinese people.
So foreign coverage may be diametrically at odds with Chinese propaganda, but they’re both barking up the same tree. Meanwhile the Labouring Masses either take action or Keep Calm and Carry On, ignoring all the flapdoodle; and other scholars, Chinese and foreign, get on with writing about the lives of real people, exposing grass-roots problems.
 I inadvertently find myself referring to them as shenxiang 神像, god images—which always gets a giggle.
 By contrast, see e.g. here: “the only image I saw more frequently—in elementary-school classrooms, in airports and shopping malls, on billboards on highways and in rice paddies—was the face of President Xi Jinping. Each image was identical: the country’s supreme leader, with raven-black hair and a face fastidiously airbrushed to erase any hint of human blemish, smiling calmly against a sky-blue background: an unimpeachable deity in an officially atheist state.”
 For a worthier feminist slogan, see here.
Just back in Beijing after a wonderful time with Li Manshan in Yanggao (more posts to follow when I find the time), I feel a bit like a newly-arrived migrant, a country bumpkin 土包子.
After a welcome shower and a change of clothes, I try to divest my accent of little vestiges of Yanggao dialect—remembering to say bucuo instead of kabulei (“fantastic”), and using the cosy third tone again instead of Yanggao’s handy substitution with the falling fourth tone. The poor villages of north Shanxi already seem like another world.
First film screening at Beijing Normal University yesterday seemed to go down well, convened by the brilliant Ju Xi, with some bright students making interesting comments. Even though Li Manshan went to great lengths on the voiceover to speak Yangpu “standard” Yanggao Chinese rather than tuhua dialect, I’m delighted when rather few of the urbane native audience find his voiceover comprehensible—so they too often have to follow my English subtitles.
Neither in the countryside nor in Beijing do I yet detect much evidence of a cowed population living under the yoke of a sinister autocracy—but hey, I’ll learn…
So I look forward to our further sessions at Beishida over the next week, as well as two more film screenings at People’s University and Beijing University, chaired respectively by distinguished scholars Cao Xinyu and Wang Mingming—whose courses, instead, I should be attending:
Further screenings coming up in April and May in London and Berlin—will keep you posted.
For anyone within spitting distance of Beijing (and I use the phrase advisedly), I’m screening my film there three times over the next week.
Details on Weixin, no doubt…
Here’s the flyer for the 21st March screening:
The People’s University event:
and the same evening, at Beijing University:
Makes a change from Xi Jinping posters, eh.
In articles on this site I often stress how soundscape is basic to ritual performance. In north China ritual specialists identify three types of organized ritual sound, “blowing, beating, and reciting” (chuidanian): melodic instrumental music, percussion, and vocal liturgy—in reverse order of importance, with vocal liturgy primary. Some groups accompany their vocal liturgy only with percussion, but where melodic instrumental music is performed, it is an essential component of ritual: “holy pieces” (shenqu), transcending language. Whereas vocal liturgy is not notated—most ritual manuals document only the texts, not the melodies to which they are sung—the outline of the melodic (and indeed percussion) instrumental music that punctuates and accompanies it is recorded in scores of gongche solfeggio. 
When the Qujiaying village ritual association, south of Beijing, was “discovered” in 1986 we already knew about the shengguan ensemble and its gongche solfeggio scores (notably those of the Zhihua temple in Beijing) thanks to the ground-breaking work on Yang Yinliu in the early 1950s, later comprehensively studied by Yuan Jingfang. In our project on the Hebei plain, we soon broadened our attention to ritual manuals, but the shengguan wind ensemble and the scores of village ritual associations were always among our major concerns.
In the fine tradition of anthologies that Chinese musicologists do so well, the major new compendium
collects some of the most important scores of gongche solfeggio. It provides rich material on the continuity of early history with modern folk practice.
The anthology is based more on northern shengguan than on southern genres—the distinctive scores of nanyin in Fujian and Taiwan are already collected in many separate anthologies.
The compendium comprises ten volumes to date:
The scores of Beijing temples, and those of the related village ritual associations on the Hebei plain just south, take pride of place. The detailed commentaries on the Hebei and Beijing material are the work of Zhang Zhentao, continuing the masterly chapter in his book Yinyuehui.
Most volumes further include useful tables of qupai labelled melodies.
Such scores also often contain precious prefaces bearing dates of transmission, as we saw in Xiongxian.
Of course, like the Daoist Canon, and like the ritual manuals of living groups, scores are merely silent artefacts. They should be combined with recordings of their transmitters, who have long experience of bringing them to life—first by decorating the skeletal notes of the score by singing in unison, and then in ritual performance, taking the instruments up to play them in heterophony suitable to the different instrument types. While some musicians learn mainly by ear, the score is an important repository representing the tradition.
But just in case you think the silent score is somehow equivalent to “the music”, then don’t just consult my transcription of Hesi pai under West An’gezhuang here (§2), but listen to the shengguan tracks on the playlist in the sidebar (including tracks 9 and 10, showing the progressive decorations)!
I should also add that notation is not a criterion for excellence. Many musicians, and ritual specialists, in the great and small traditions of the world don’t need it at all, and for others it is merely an aide-memoire, as in this case.
Indeed, this isn’t just an issue for music. This is not the place to discuss wider issues of oral and literate cultures, but this radical comment from Plato, no less, is suggestive:
This discovery of yours [writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things but will remember nothing; they will appear to be omniscient but will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
As Paul Cooper comments,
I love that when Plato complains about the spread of the written word in 370 BC, he sounds like my granddad complaining about the internet.
Such issues are thoughtfully explored by ethnomusicologists—for leads, see the fine chapters of Ter Ellingson and Richard Widdess in Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The New Grove handbooks in music), and Bruno Nettl, The study of Ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, chs. 20 and 26.
These gongche scores are a major aspect of the study of ritual. But that’s enough writing—wouldn’t want to offend Plato…
 See e.g. http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2017-09/06/c_129697492.htm,
 I gave an overview of gongche notation in my Folk music of China (ch.7); cf. my article “Source and stream: early music and living traditions in China”, Early Music August 1996, pp.375–88.
An important theme in our fieldwork on ritual associations around the Hebei plain is that of the itinerant occupational sheng mouth-organ repairers (dianshengde 点笙的). They make cameo appearances in several pages on Local ritual, so here I’d like to collect some of the material. 
While I constantly stress vocal liturgy, the shengguan wind ensemble is also a major aspect of the ritual soundscape in north China. The role of the sheng in the ensemble is somewhat akin to that of the baroque continuo. Like a harpsichord before a Bach cantata, the sheng needs regular fine-tuning in advance of performance. The term diansheng (dotting the sheng) derives from the adding of a drop of wax to the reed to tune it, but includes general maintenance; played for long rituals, with their sound-chambers susceptible to moisture, wear-and-tear on the sheng is considerable. Musicians may tune individual instruments themselves, and any sheng player can do it after a fashion, but it is a difficult job to do well, and a well-tuned sheng section is an important aspect of a good ensemble. As with the work of the luthier worldwide, it is a slow and meticulous task (for a loving tribute to instruments and instrument-making in Irish music, see Last night’s fun).
Occupational Daoist bands in north China, like the Li family in Yanggao, tend to maintain their own sheng; with quite a small personnel, they rarely have more than four to tune. Players can all carry out basic repairs, and in between the many ritual visits to the soul hall over the day they busy themselves in the scripture hall making fine adjustments to tuning. This is among the many practical skills that Daoists have to learn. Still, Li Bin takes all the band’s sheng to fine maker Gao Yong once a year for a thorough overhaul.
On the Hebei plain, amateur village ritual associations tend to be much larger, often using as many as twenty sheng players—so occupational sheng-repairers are much in demand. Most associations invite a sheng-repairer to tune all their sheng systematically two or three times a year, or before their major outings, at least before the New Year rituals. The Zhaobeikou association had its sheng repaired at least three times a year, once “before the lake freezes over”, again before the New Year rituals, and also before the river lanterns ritual of the 7th moon. Some associations may be reluctant to spend money on inviting a repairer—although in some villages in the early reform era payment for this comes out of the funds of the village committee. Around 1995 it cost 5–10 yuan to tune one sheng; most associations had at least eight sheng to tune. Sheng-repairers were making a good living.
When a ritual association buys new sheng, musicians take them to be tuned (pin sheng 品笙) to the standard pitch of their own association, taking the che gong of their yunluo or tuning them to the lowest note of their dizi flute.
So apart from their vital musical services to the village ritual associations, the sheng tuners act as a unifying factor in communication, an informal rather than institutional link. Experienced observers of musical life over the whole area, they serve not only ritual associations but also shawm bands and opera troupes, and they know a lot more about local ensembles than any cultural cadre we have met. They often go on tour throughout the villages, but ensembles may also take their sheng to the craftsman’s home. Again, most craftsmen still come from long hereditary traditions.
Below I introduce some of the more renowned sheng-repairers and makers around the Hebei plain.
Bazhou, Xiongxian, Jinghai
Back in 1989 our very first clue to the ubiquity of ritual associations on the Hebei plain came from Bazhou county. Based in Xin’an town, the Qi family was among many lineages of sheng-repairers active around Beijing, Tianjin, and the countryside just south.
We met Qi Youzhi (b.1920), from a long line of sheng-repairers in his lineage. His grandfather Qi Baoshan had worked for the imperial palace lamas in Beijing. Before the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Qi Youzhi’s father Qi Lanpu used to play sheng in the Tianqiao district of Beijing. Later, through contacts with palace eunuchs, he learnt to repair sheng, building a reputation with temple musicians. His older brother Qi Lanting and his oldest son Qi Youcai also took up the business, and they also repaired sheng in Tianjin.
They used to go out to find work repairing sheng, making the rounds of all the Buddhist and Daoist temples. They also tuned sheng throughout the villages. Twice a year Qi Youzhi used to go on a long trek by foot to Beijing with his uncle, staying in villages on the way and tuning sheng wherever there was work. After the 1949 Liberation, Qi Youzhi could no longer find work in Beijing, since priests were returning to lay life and temples were now largely inactive—but significantly there was still plenty of work repairing sheng for the village ritual associations. Indeed, this work continued until the Four Cleanups in 1964. By 1980 Qi Youzhi was 61 sui, and, despite the revival, gradually became less active.
Nearby in Gaoqiao village—whose Buddhist-transmitted ritual association is so outstanding (playlist track 8, and here)—the Shang family sheng factory is a long-established cottage industry. A local source claims that they too were repairing sheng for palace groups in Beijing as early as the Xianfeng era (1850–61), and that they made their first sheng in 1853. By the 1980s they were making sheng for the Hongsheng instrument factory in Beijing and Tianjin; by 1993 they had even started making shō for Japanese gagaku. In 1995 they were charging 140–180 yuan for a new sheng. The head Shang Xuezhi was often on tour, mending sheng for ritual associations (and also shawm bands and opera groups) over a wide area; he kept a three-volume list of his clients, wonderful evidence of the continuing vitality of the associations.
In Xiongxian, another excellent sheng repairer was Fan Huilai, based in Gegezhuang (see photo above; below, some of his equipment). By 1993 he was visiting about sixty associations every year (including Catholic groups in Hejian county), charging 5 yuan to repair each sheng. As he pointed out, most associations had about eight sheng to repair, but some, like Quantou on the Baiyangdian lake, had as many as eighteen.
Still in Xiongxian, there was a local saying: “from Nanjing to Beijing, the Shao family of Gaogezhuang are good at reparing sheng”. They came twice a year to Hanzhuang to repair the association’s sheng, tuning eight sheng for 100 yuan. Hanzhuang has a sheng said to be from 1929, with “made by Shao Guanghui” incised on one of the reeds; they had another even older one with a wooden bowl.
In Jinghai further east, Lesser Huangzhuang (also with its own ritual association) had an instrument factory specializing in sheng. They had been making sheng since before the Japanese occupation. In the 1950s the business was collectivized; in 1968, while assistant chief of the village revolutionary committee, Li restarted the workshop. Since the 1980s it had split into eight (!) household industries. One of their itinerant repairers was Tao Laicheng, who regularly visited the Zhangzhuang association in Bazhou, for instance.
Xushui and Yixian
In my article on ritual associations of Xushui county I introduced Qingmiaoying, another village long famed throughout the region for its hereditary makers and repairers of sheng mouth-organs. Several groups in this western region of the plain have fine old sheng made by the Qingmiaoying craftsmen, and all spoke of them with respect. In fact, since the technique of instrument-making has suffered, old instruments may survive better than new ones, and their timbre is much valued by musicians.
In 1995 we found Yao Haijun (b. c1965) at Qingmiaoying. His great-grandfather Yao Leping died in the Cultural Revolution; he still ran a stall at the county-town market in the 1950s. Leping’s son Hongru (b. c1914), and grandsons Xinghua (b. c1930) and Xingli, also took up the trade. In Dingxing county nearby, the Yishangying association had some fine sheng made by Yao Jiqing in 1951. Yao Haijun was letting his 10-sui-old son watch while he repaired sheng, hoping he would take it up too.
Yao Haijun was charging a dozen or so yuan to tune one sheng. Associations were bringing him over a hundred sheng every year to tune; in the 12th moon someone came virtually every day. He tuned a lot of them for free, because of long-standing good guanxi with the associations, and he wasn’t mercenary.
Another sheng-repairer in Qingmiaoying, Wang Qinghe, had learned from Yao Leping, and lived to the age of over 100 sui. His son, known as Tiger Wang (Wang Laohu, over 60 sui in 1993), continued the business; the Gaoluo association used to go to him on occasion right until 1991.
Just north in Yixian county, Li Kungui, a member of one of the four ritual associations in Shenshizhuang, was a sheng repairer active within a smaller radius. His father also repaired sheng, having learnt from one Zhang Rui. Li Kungui also mended sheng for the village’s East association, but the West association has its own sheng-mender. In this case, Li has been responsible for a certain local standardization in pitch. The fixed pitch of the Upper Huanghao association used to be D, but he changed their pitch to E for them to match that of other groups in the area—such as East and West Baijian, as well as Lower Huanghao and Mawuzhuang.
A nice story illustrates musicians’ awareness of the dangers of sheng-repairers going on tour to other villages. Senior musician Fu Zhongren (c1898–1983) had a comprehensive knowledge of the repertoire of “holy pieces”, but realizing that Li Kungui used to go round other villages repairing sheng, he wouldn’t teach him too many pieces in case he taught them to other associations!
Before the Japanese invasion in 1937 a sheng-repairer called Du, from Dujiazhuang in Shenxian county quite far south, walked to Gaoluo every winter to tune sheng for all four ritual associations there. Villagers said the maker was called Du Furui. We also heard of him in Yixian county: near the Western tombs of the Qing emperors, cultural cadres had found some old sheng with “Dujiazhuang in Shenzhou” incised on them.
In Jingxian county still further southeast, another renowned sheng-making lineage was the Wang family from Yangzhuang,  which went back some five generations. They were versatile, making many other instruments too; and like other such cottage industries, they have moved with the times, supplying instruments for urban professional troupes.
Since they are itinerant, sheng-repairers may also transmit the paraliturgical music, either directly or by acting as intermediaries. Two early transmitters of the “southern” style of shengguan music in Xushui were sheng-repairers, the Daoist priest Wang Leyun (fl. 1860) and Feng Daya (fl. 1920s), both from further south.
I look forward to reading material on sheng-repairers in regions like south Hebei, where shengguan is also a major component of the rituals performed by household Daoists.
I have discussed sheng-repairers at some length, both to illustrate continuity with pre-Liberation traditions and to suggest the practical material basis behind ritual culture in local society. Though there are no longer stalls at town markets, village repairers still still do good business making the rounds of rural ritual ensembles, as well as maintaining their contacts with urban outlets and taking part in innovations in instrument design. Sheng-repairers, like the assistants in funeral shops, are likely to be a more useful source of local knowledge than cultural cadres.
 See Zhang Zhentao’s masterly study, Shengguan yinweide yuelüxue yanjiu [Temperamentology of sheng pipe positions] (Ji’nan: Shandong wenyi cbs, 2002). For north Shanxi, note also the work of Chen Kexiu and Jing Weigang. For sheng factories in a changing society, see e.g. http://www.onesheng.cn/news/102721.html.
 See e.g. Yu Xuehong 于学洪, “Shengwang shijia” 笙王世家, Yueqi 1984/5 and 1984/6.