Bazhou: an update!

Xin'an guanzi 1989

I’ve just updated my page on ritual groups in Bazhou with some more photos and subtle edits…

To remind you, this is part of a major series under local ritual where I’m moving from occupational household groups in north Shanxi to amateur (mostly village-wide) associations on the Hebei plain—so far including

Houshan
The Houtu precious scroll
Ritual groups of suburban Beijing,

all related to previous articles on temple ritual in old Beijing (including the Zhihua temple), and the village associations of Gaoluo and Qujiaying.

More coming up soon!

Ritual groups around Bazhou, Hebei

*Click here for main page!*
(under Themes > Local ritual in main menu)

Xin'an Yingming drummer 1995

What a wonderful fieldsite we stumbled across in 1986, inspired by Yang Yinliu and Lin Zhongshu!

This is a new addition to a budding series on Daoist and Buddhist ritual groups on the Hebei plain south of Beijing. The elongated county of Bazhou lies just south of Langfang, Yongqing, and Gu’an. Rather as I did for the southern suburbs of Beijing, here I introduce two main ritual groups:

  • the Daoist tradition of Zhangzhuang village comes from a former Orthodox Unity temple;
  • the Gaoqiao village association nearby derives from a former Buddhist temple.

As we move south and east from Houshan, vocal liturgy tends to become subsidiary to the magnificent “holy pieces” of the classic shengguan wind ensemble deriving from the temples of old Beijing—notably the lengthy suites (daqu) whose most majestic form is to be found around Xiongxian county (coming up soon!).

And as this series of articles on local ritual expands from north Shanxi to Hebei, it’s becoming something of an alternative, grass-roots, history of 20th-century north China through successive social and political vicissitudes.

Ritual groups of suburban Beijing

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(in Local ritual, under Themes in main Menu)

N. Xinzhuang funeral 1

In the 1990s, ritual activity in the southern rural areas of the municipality of Beijing was patchy. While we found few ritual associations in the counties of Gu’an, Fangshan, and Zhuozhou south of the city, the groups in the suburban counties of Daxing and Tongxian, southeast of Beijing, were still actively providing ritual services.

Like other associations on the Hebei plain, these groups have ongoing ritual traditions, and clear links to Daoist priests and Buddhist monks. But these groups are distinguished by their proximity to Beijing, and by the fact that many groups acquired their ritual only in the 1950s, as laicized clerics sought to transmit their knowledge to villagers. Thus although they are not “old associations”, lacking the early history of most village groups that we found just further south on the plain, they clearly reflect temple traditions of ritual, relating to Beijing and Tianjin as well as to local networks. Again by contrast with most of the amateur village associations elsewhere on the Hebei plain, many of these groups don costumes for rituals, and accept fees.

This whole region was still largely rural when we made fieldwork trips there in the 1990s, but has since been absorbed into the ever-expanding urban sprawl of suburban Beijing—as indeed are villages further south on the plain, where we found many more ritual associations. In a physical and moral landscape that has changed constantly since the 1930s, restudies are always to be desired.

There are many such groups here, but in the article I focus on two:

  • The Lijiawu Daoist group, derived from the temple priests of Liangshanpo, and
  • the Buddhist-transmitted group of North Xinzhuang nearby.

This article also complements my various posts on Beijing temples and the transmissions south to villages like Qujiaying.

The Feuchtwang Variations

The wise and infinitely supportive Stephan Feuchtwang continues to inspire generations of anthropologists in China and worldwide (see also here) with his work on Chinese popular religion. He has just celebrated his 80th birthday—and so do we all!

Stephan's invitation edited

Design: Lotte van Hulst.

For the party at the Tabernacle (a great venue, and, um, marker of the changing territorial identities of West London religious life!) his wonderful family played some popular and moving musical items, with the assembled guests on kazoos (anyone have a funky collective noun for kazoos in English, or measure word in Chinese?). And following my little foray into a world-music version of Bach earlier this year, we did a warmup act as a heartfelt tribute to Stephan, essaying a little medley from the Goldberg Variations—with me on erhu fiddle and Rowan Pease (unsung Lucy Worsley of East Asian popular culture, currently embroiled in the China Quarterly struggle for academic freedom) on sanxian banjo (or should I say friction chordophone and plucked lute?) [Nah, give it a restThe Plain People of Ireland].

Not Rowan, not playing the sanxian.
beggars BYS 2001

Neither Rowan nor me (honest), not playing Bach—beggars at Baiyunshan temple complex, Shaanbei, 4th-moon fair 2001.

That makes a total of five strings—and all without a safety net. Since Bach never wrote for either piano or sax (shades of WWJD), if his music can sound great (to us) on those instruments, then why not erhu and sanxian, eh. We haven’t tried adding a kazoo yet, though. As I said in my intro:

Just imagine that the Italian missionaries, like Pedrini[1] at the court of the Qianlong emperor in 18th-century Beijing had invited Bach for a sabbatical—and indeed Stephan, although that was perhaps a little before even his time… So we’re going to essay a little medley from what should now be known as The Feuchtwang Variations[2]

Since among Stephan’s many talents he is also a viola player (“Not a Lot of People Know That”), I can avail myself of a couple of the muso’s classic excuses:

It was in tune when I bought it…
and
I didn’t really study any place, I just sort of… picked it up..

[studiously] After intensive research on the performance practice of both Leipzig and Beijing in the 1740s, I can now say with some certainty that…  it wouldn’t have sounded like this.
[Cf. John Wilbraham’s remark.]

If you enjoy this half as much as we do, then we will have enjoyed it twice as much as you.

Framed by the Aria (itself infinitely enchanting—molten, ethereal, suspended in time), we played the first variation (blimey), then numbers 18 and 25—a perfect selection, eh. Short of recording daily until Steph’s 90th birthday, we’re never going to play it to our satisfaction (editing this is a similar challenge to editing one of my voiceovers), so meanwhile here’s an almost-recognizable attempt, just to give you a flavour—It’s the Thought that Counts. Just think yourselves lucky we didn’t do the repeats. Take It Away (and don’t bring it back):

Stephen Jones (erhu), Rowan Pease (sanxian, vocals).
Recorded in Maidenhead, 14th November 2017.

“They said it couldn’t be done”—and they were right! (Cf. Bob Monkhouse).

Just to make our chinoiserie version sound a little less banal, here’s the opening of the Aria on Lego harpischord—differently charming…

Li Qishan band 2001

Li Qishan’s family shawm band, Shaanbei 2001.

Never having played the Goldberg Variations on a keyboard, I (like millions of others) am deeply familiar with it through recordings—notably that of the iconic Glenn Gould, of course. So at the age of 286 I’m almost in the position of a young player in a Chinese family shawm band, who begins to play the melodies on shawm after many years of aural experience (and let’s just be grateful I didn’t do an arrangement for large Shaanbei shawms—yet). Similarly, I hardly needed to consult Bach’s notation, except out of curiosity. At the same time, anyone playing the piece is inevitably conditioned by the experience of hearing Glenn Gould’s version.

We played the medley in F rather than G—less as a result of all my erudite research into 1740s’ pitch standards (not), but just because I like a lower tuning on the erhu.

Bach party

Blending with invisible singers to left of picture. Stephan in red on left. Photo: Cordelia Pegge.

For the ecstatic Variation 18 we recruited a backing band consisting of Stephan’s daughters Rachel and Anna, along with Harriet Evans (outstanding scholar of the status of women in China). I arranged some personal lyrics, often in a kind of verbal hocket, incorporating (in stave 3) anthropology (with a little jest on the challenge, for some of us, of mastering the abstruse nature of Stephan’s theory!), (in stave 4) his dear wife Miranda, and his love of cycling:

Goldberg Var 18 in G

For the recording, without vocal backup, Rowan and I take the upper parts wordlessly, in more ethereal vein. Do feel free to sing along with a partner of your choice (cf. the karaoke versions of Daoist ritual percussion in my film, from 24.09).

And then the slow and intense minor-key Variation 25 is just amazing. Here Rowan’s singing supplies further harmonic intensity, evoking Glenn Gould’s own ocassional inadvertent vocals. [3] And with the sustained sound of the erhu, and all my one-finger chromatic slides (1st finger on the way up, 4th finger on the way down), it sounds even better—or rather, it could do in the right hands. Not unlike a Chinese ondes martenot—trad keyboards just can’t compete with the vocal quality of bowed instruments. But OMG, how about this:

Sure, our version goes a tad faster—again, not resulting from any holier-than-thou baroque authenticity, but because it helps the whole harmonic logic.

Still, Bach is amazing on tuned percussion too, like this:

It can also sound wonderful as a string trio:

All this wealth of divine music I offer in tribute to the great Professor Feuchtwang!

 

[1] For Pedrini’s sonatas, click here. “They come over ‘ere, with their fancy harpsichords…” I’d better write a separate post about the court music of the Qing dynasty…
[2] Maybe I can concoct a couple of Chinese musicians in 1740s’ Leipzig from the Bach archives. If north African wind players were active at European courts of the day, then why not… International cultural exchange, eh. Note also Bach and Daoist ritual—not least Li Manshan’s classic remark.
[3] This encomium could come in handy for Rowan’s CV:
“Less irritating than Glenn Gould”—Dr S. Jones.

 

Women of Gaoluo

Woman Zhang

Woman Zhang at 90 sui, 1998.

Chain-smoking cross-legged on the kang brick-bed with all the carefree abandon of the elderly, wielding her cigarettes with more relish than accuracy, Woman Zhang (Zhangshi nü 张氏女, b.1909) told us what she could about her life. As she said, entirely without feminist irony, “I had no [given] name until going to work [in 1958] in the Great Leap Forward—that’s when they gave me the name Yurong.”

Apart from the Li family Daoists (film, and book: also tag in sidebar), my other most in-depth ethnography concerns the ritual association of Gaoluo, just south of Beijing. On this blog I’ve written about two leading figures there, as well as their performance of “precious scrolls”—and also the village’s substantial minority of Catholics.

It may not have escaped the alert reader that much of my fieldwork is basically about the public activities of men. I made a partial attempt to redress the balance with three posts on Women of Yanggao (starting here). So here are some further notes on the status of women in rural China, setting forth from our chats with the characterful Woman Zhang in Gaoluo in 1998, and again based on vignettes from my book Plucking the winds (where you can find further detail).

Though 90 and illiterate, her mind is quite clear, and to my relief she speaks with a clear calm voice in a standard accent. Given her advanced age (she claims to remember the long pigtails still worn by men for a while after they ceased to be enforced with the fall of the Qing dynasty), our meeting should have been a fascinating glimpse into village history. But, in total contrast to the detailed day-by-day accounts of the cultured men Shan Zhihe and Shan Fuyi, I was taken aback by her ignorance of the momentous events which had convulsed the village. Of course, men can be muddled too; but this wasn’t muddle. We know a lot of men who are totally vague about dates, but at least they have participated in history, even when only trying to escape it or deplore it, and one can learn a lot. The problem was that she was not only uneducated and a woman, but had been widowed over fifty years earlier: she had simply played no part in the village’s public history. This itself was a salient lesson. We supplied the dates below: significantly, the only date she had ever heard of was 1960, the famine.

While nominally a Catholic, Woman Zhang “believes in everything”. Though she was only brought to Gaoluo from her home in a village in Dingxing just south in about 1930, she had heard stories about the famous Boxer massacre at Gaoluo in May 1900. Some of the Catholics took refuge in the Catholic stronghold of Anzhuang further south, while others fled to the Xishiku church in Beijing. Woman Zhang’s father-in-law Shan Zhong was the only survivor of his whole family from the Boxer massacre; two sons and a pregnant daughter had been slaughtered. Shan Zhong himself had gone to Dingxing town that day; on his way back he got as far as Wucun village just south of Gaoluo when he got wind of the massacre and fled, taking refuge in the Xishiku church in Beijing. After it became safe to return to Gaoluo, Shan Zhong remarried, taking a young wife.

1930 donors' list, South Gaoluo

1930 donors’ list.

By 1930 the village ritual association, sensing a need to compete with the revival of Catholic power, commissioned a new set of ornamental hangings for the New Year rituals (see here, under Ritual rivalry). Shan Zhong was by now an established leader of the village Catholics—but impressively, he was one of the most generous contributors whose names appear on the rival association’s handsome donors’ list.

That same year Woman Zhang, then 22 sui, was brought to Gaoluo to marry Shan Zhong’s 14-sui-old son Wenli, the youngest of their three sons. Later the Italian missionaries became popular partly because like the local spirit mediums they could cure illness, and Shan Zhong also gained quite a reputation as a healer. But he died only a year after Woman Zhang’s son was born, quite soon after the building of the church.

“Soon after I married here, the Catholics used to try and get me to come to church, but my mother-in-law wouldn’t let me—I couldn’t just please myself when I went out, she’d beat me. They talked it over with the other Catholic wives. They took me to church, and after the service was over they took me home, so the mother-in-law didn’t beat me.”

Through the growing fug of cigarette smoke, as we tried impertinently to help Woman Zhang direct some of her ash in the general direction of the floor, she went on: “They taught me eight scriptures [jing: hymns, I think, as often in folk parlance]—I couldn’t read them, I just learnt them by heart. Dunno what the words mean, though!”

Japanese warplanes bombed Laishui county-town at 8am on 17th September (the 13th of the 8th moon) 1937, and that same day Japanese troops first entered Gaoluo. Coming from the direction of Wucun to the south, they were just passing through; they had about fifty tanks, and were covered by aircraft. The troops entered the village before Woman Zhang could take her children to the church to hide; they passed by her house. In order to dissuade them from murdering them all and setting fire to the village, the village leaders went out to welcome them. Before the Japanese even entered the village, they shot dead a villager who rashly stuck his neck out to look, but after entering Gaoluo they harmed no-one, just asking for fresh water, eggs, and meat. The venerable Shan Zhihe, along with Cai Ming (a sheng-player in the ritual association who worked as a pig-slaughterer), was responsible for looking after them and giving them water—the Japanese made them drink some first to be sure it was not poisoned. Though they soon went on their way after a token search, Japanese cavalry and infantry passed through constantly for several days on their way to Baoding, and Gaoluo villagers had to look after them.

Woman Zhang was widowed during the War against Japan. Her husband, Catholic Shan Wenli, hoping to join up with the guerrilla army, had gone out with a big stash of opium to use as a “sub” for travel expenses, but it was soon stolen. Though he eventually managed to join the army, he was wounded first in one eye and then in the body. He was brought home to die, still only in his 30s. Woman Zhang went to kowtow to Cai Yantian, who by this time had been ordained as a priest by Bishop Martina, to ask him to come and give her husband the last rites.

In our talk we fast-forwarded to 1958 and the infamous campaign for making steel—most frenetic, exhausting, and pointless campaign of the Great Leap Forward, in which many households were deprived of precious equipment, even including woks and door-latches. Woman Zhang was enlisted, and since this was virtually the first time she had been allowed out of the house, she was now given a personal name—at the age of 50 sui. She told us with an incredulous cackle: “They wanted me to make steel out of woks!” She didn’t have a clue what that was all about, and none of us could enlighten her.

1960 was the worst year: villagers agreed it was just unbearable. Though the famine is generally known as “the three years of difficulty” (sannian kunnan shiqi), it is colloquially identified simply as “1960” (liulingnian). Everyone was still expected to report for work, but only able-bodied people could survive; less sturdy villagers soon got ill and started dying. Malnutrition was as serious as at any time in the hated old society. Woman Zhang remembers having to eat yam leaves to avoid starving to death. The village cadres were in the same boat—at best, they might have been able to sneak into the canteens after work to snatch an extra mouthful of snake-melon.

She perked up when we went on to seek her opinions on the Red Guards:

“Oh yeah—what were they on about? I couldn’t make it out. I know they used to parade through the streets…”

But some of their victims were her fellow Catholics.

Our time with Woman Zhang was both funny and sad. She had lived through so much over the last nine decades, but had little clue what had been going on. Over the following weeks, as winter turned to spring, I often saw her sitting outside “taking the breeze” at her gateway in the bright sunshine, looking curiously at passers-by and giving me a somewhat formal nod. Life too had passed her by, which maybe was not altogether a bad thing. Pretty bad, though: she had lost her husband young, and with or without him had led a semi-existence.

Still, she reckons life is much better than in the old society, and this is no expedient courtesy to a foreign guest. Blissfully oblivious of the continuing persecution of the Catholics and the general convulsions the society was subjected to, she was genuinely grateful both for Liberation and the reforms: “Now you can get to eat barley and white flour—years could pass in the old days without that stuff.” On the other hand, when we asked her provocatively, indeed rather desperately, whether she preferred the old or the new village cadres, she had absorbed enough of the cynical climate to retort: “They’re all rubbish, they just bully people, what is there to prefer?!”

Woman Zhang perhaps typified the belief of the older generation of women. Though a Catholic since she was young, she finds Jesus rather remote: “Who of us has actually seen Jesus?” But as to “Mountain Granny” (shanli nainai, a popular term for the local goddess Houtu), “How can you help believing in her? The village women used to buy incense and go on pilgrimage to burn incense on Houshan, so I went along too. Catholics aren’t supposed to burn incense, but I went on the quiet, they didn’t know. Yes, I believe in Granny.” As we saw, she went to Catholic services, but she also enjoys visiting the association’s lantern tent at New Year, and likes both the shengguan wind music and the percussion; she remembers hearing Cai Fuxiang recite the Houtu scroll, and though she didn’t understand it, she liked to listen to that too. Cases like hers confound those “tick one box only” surveys of “religious faith” in China.

Rural sexism
Local literatteur Shan Fuyi, as ever, had a nice story. In 1990 the leaders of the association were seeking donations from villagers to refurbish their ritual building. As it happened, South Gaoluo’s nouveau-riche entrepreneur Heng Yiyou was working away from the village when they called at his house, and his wife only had a paltry couple of kuai to hand. When Shan Fuyi, who was to write the donors’ list, asked her whose name he should write, she exclaimed sharply, “Write Heng Yiyou’s name of course—do I count as a person?!”, hitting the sexist nail on the head. Shan Fuyi did as she said, but soon realized they couldn’t put Boss Heng down for such a meagre amount. When he tracked Heng down, Heng now gave a further 100 yuan, besides four long bamboo poles from which to attach the association’s pennants. Luckily the donor’s list had a blank space at the top where Shan Fuyi could write up the extra donation, giving Boss Heng appropriate recognition.

1990 beiwen

1990 donor’s list, by Shan Fuyi.

The trenchant remark of Boss Heng’s wife gives us a pretext to reflect on the status of women in village life. For the record, she’s called Li Shufen! As Shan Fuyi observes, people are not generally aware of women’s names unless they are close relatives.

In Gaoluo, although women are devout in taking part in the ritual activities which the ritual association serves, both spiritual and secular spheres continue to collude in excluding them from learning the ritual music. Their exclusion from the association reflects their exclusion from power and influence in village society as a whole, underlining the persistence of tradition and the limited scope of the revolution. Sexism, like irrational violence, is one aspect of tradition which one could understand the Communists hoping to overturn, but they were largely unsuccessful.

I must preface these comments by admitting that they are entirely impertinent: I have only added to the burdens of both women and men while in Gaoluo, feeling unable to offer any practical assistance, and never transcending my status as a guest. One of our most uncomfortable experiences in these villages is the helpless feeling of colluding in the macho tradition, all men in a group smoking and chatting while the women cook for us. At meal-times, they serve us while the men all sit around the table discussing the Important Things men talk about; the women then get to eat the cold left-overs, often outside in the courtyard, only after we vacate the table and they have served us with tea. Our entreaties for them to join us are laughed away. To be fair, this happens mainly when there are guests: normally the family eats together, though segregation is also sometimes observed.

Thinking again of Shan Zhihe and his arranged marriage, or of Woman Zhang and Cai An’s mum with their bound feet, I can’t help observing that despite the continuing glaring inferiority of women’s social position today, there has been some progress—thanks to the enlightened Communist Party, as I joke with them. Young people at least choose their own partners now, and even if the women won’t share the meal they have prepared for the men, they all now have a certain amount in common, standing around making good-humoured jokes while the menfolk are chatting away over their booze and fags.

But progress has been painfully slow. After Liberation, obeying a central decree, the village Party branch dutifully elected a token female head of the new Women’s Association. Under the commune system, the vague idea was that she should implement gender equality and the female liberation campaign, but there was no specific programme, and the position was largely a sinecure. The only thing anyone could remember her organizing was International Woman’s Day on the 8th March, when the women were summoned to a meeting. After the birth-control policy began to be enforced strictly in the 1980s, that became her main duty, an onerous and invidious one, dependent largely on the orders of a male establishment.

While Party membership is the means to career progress, the Gaoluo Party branch, like most others, has made no efforts to “develop” bright young female applicants; as one cadre said, “It’s a waste of time, they’re going to leave the village sooner or later [to get married]”—exactly the reason given for denying women admission to the ritual association. Men join the Party with the prospect of becoming cadres. Women are caught in a neat Chinese Catch-22: they are not considered for Party membership because they are not going to become cadres, and because they are not going to become cadres, there’s no point in admitting them to the Party. As we saw, some girls began to attend school in the 1950s, but seldom progressed to higher grades.

Traditional morality has retained its stranglehold in many respects. There are simply no women in the village with any authority. Any woman seeking an active social role was, and is, likely to be cursed as a slut (“broken shoe”, poxie) by men and women alike. The only publicly active woman I heard of was the mother of formidable He Qing, a respected midwife. Until at least the 1960s, women were just not allowed out of the house, as Woman Zhang’s story reminded us. Women and men did not mix unless they were related. Even at the village opera in 1998, the audience consisted almost entirely of women and children; the few men who wanted to watch clambered onto the rooves or walls.
opera
It’s clearly not that men don’t like opera. Perhaps they are embarrassed to be seen among women and children? Gender segregation is still mutually agreed upon.

Only the new karaoke bar, where separate gangs of teenage boys and girls eye each other up, posturing before the video-CD screen is overthrowing traditional morality, much to their relief and the chagrin of the elders; such bars in the nearby towns are indeed notoriously equivalent to brothels. Hence also the traditional disdain for female opera singers, who display themselves outside the house in the company of men. The female singers in the new village opera group have to watch their step—their reputation is at stake.

Returning to the association rituals, apart from women’s active participation in worship, some major female deities are worshipped, notably the Bodhisattva Guanyin and fertility goddesses like the goddess Houtu. Although the associations are invited to perform for the funerals of men and women alike, it is the eldest son who kowtows to the male leader of the male association to invite it. Donors’ lists for New Year or for special donations for new ritual manuals, god paintings or instruments list the male head of the household. In the secular sphere, government campaigns have long attempted to raise the prestige of female children in China, with wall slogans protesting feebly that “daughters are also descendants”.

slogan
Yet female infanticide remains common; under siege from the draconian birth control policy, women and men alike attend association rituals to pray to Houtu to be granted a healthy son.

The continuing exclusion of women from the ritual associations is all the more disturbing since there is a certain crisis in transmission—not so much as a result of political campaigns culminating in the Cultural Revolution, but rather since the 1980s, as young men desert the villages in search of work, at the same time espousing the modernity of pop music. Meanwhile the potentially gifted daughters of fine musicians remain in the home village, at least until marriage. Yet there is no prospect of adaptation. Girls are neither offered nor do they seek a role in public ritual.

Niu Jinhua

Niu Jinhua (left) with Yan Wenyu‘s widow (among several Gaoluo women with bound feet), 1996.

Since women are such a silent group in our studies, in 1996 we finally had a chat with Niu Jinhua (b.1920), mother of our host maestro Cai An—with great difficulty, I may add, since she is rather deaf; her brilliant granddaughter helped us get through, acting as interpreter. Though women are not allowed to perform the vocal liturgy or the ritual shengguan wind music, they benefit from listening to it as much as men. Asked if she likes the music, she replied enthusiastically, “Oh yes! I’ve heard it all my life, I like to listen, you can’t get tired of it (bufan).” One often hears villagers use this expression about shengguan music, but her matter-of-fact statement will remain with me, summing up its enduring impact; other women we’ve asked also express active enthusiasm. Niu Jinhua goes on, “My old home [Zhangcuitai village, just further north] has a ritual association, just the same as the one here, same pieces, they recite the Buddha too, and hang out the god paintings at New Year.” Cai An chips in: “Yes, I went there when I was young—it’s very like our association.”

As we all smile quizzically, my friend Xue Yibing then asks Cai An’s mother ingenuously,
“Were there ever any women who learnt the music?!”
“Oh no!”, she cackles.
“Why not, then?!”
“It was Old Feudalism in them days, wannit, how could women take part?!”

While I wondered if the fact that women still don’t learn meant that we are still stuck with “Old Feudalism”, her comments sparked off a group discussion (which, for men, was quite observant) on the position of women in village life.

The men, while doing nothing about it, rather like their British counterparts, readily admit that women have a much harder time than men. Their explanation of the male monopoly on ritual is feeble: “The ritual performance of the associations is a business for Buddhist and Daoist priests; what with setting up the altar and burning the petitions, everyone kowtowing, it wouldn’t be convenient if there were women there.” Though I recall that nuns used to perform rituals and even play the shengguan wind music, the point is at least that men and women should be segregated—yet even all-female performing groups are rare in rural China. But after all, women constitute the majority of those offering incense and making vows during these rituals.

The male musicians go on, just a bit more plausibly, “Anyway, women just don’t have the time to study the music; their life is much more harsh, in the old days grinding flour, making shoes, mending clothes, cooking, looking after the kids, they were so busy. Men have nothing much to do except tilling the fields; especially in winter, they have time to learn the music.”

Indeed, men (both in Gaoluo and Beijing) think women’s liberation has gone too far. A familiar male lament is heard: “Nowadays the women even get their husbands to do the household chores!” To be sure, women can have quite a temper, and men commonly deplore their fate with the nice, if sexist, pun “I’ve got tracheitis”, tracheitis (qiguanyan) being homophonous with “hen-pecked” (“wife controls strictly”). One otherwise bright young village boy, back for New Year from his studies at college in Tianjin, couldn’t see what I was on about, claiming rather wistfully that men and women in Gaoluo were entirely equal—overlooking little details like the total absence of women in positions of responsibility, their failure to go on to higher education, their relegation to eating the cold leftovers after the men have taken their fill, and the fact that several Gaoluo wives have been bought. Moreover, since able-bodied men now migrate to the towns to seek work, women are left behind on their own not only to run the house and look after the elderly and young but also to tend the fields. Apart from that, they have a great life…

Though all this doesn’t exactly get to the roots of sexism, I’ve given a couple of vignettes. That’s how things were in Chinese villages in the 1990s; so much for gender equality under Maoism or the reforms. The closest we came to influencing women’s status in Gaoluo was that Cai An’s mum finally got used to being included in a round of cigarettes—hardly a great coup in favour of the global women’s movement.

All this began to change towards the late 1990s when rural girls began to move from secondary education to college in the towns and cities—but that’s another chapter in the story.

Revolution and laowai

liuxuesheng

Acting the part: new UK students from class of 1975, Foreign Languages Institute, Beijing.
Robin Needham (R.I.P.), Andrew Seaton, Howard Nightingale;
Frances Wood, Derek Gillman, Richard King, Steve Crabbe;
Harriet Evans, Pippa Jones, Beth McKillop, Rose Kerr, Sarah Garbutt.
Photo taken at Wudaokou photo shop and hand-tinted there, autumn 1975.
Courtesy Beth McKillop.

In the light of later exposés of the Cultural Revolution, the acquaintance with Chinese society of laowai (“Wogs”)* from my generation, idealistic students at Cambridge, now inevitably seems somewhat less than well-informed.

The great Frances Wood, long-term curator of the Chinese collection of the British Library, and whose insights and mellifluous voice regularly inform BBC Radio 4’s series In our time, evokes that generation’s experience of revolutionary China in her brilliant memoir Hand-grenade practice in Peking: my part in the Cultural Revolution. The blurb makes a good summary (extra points too for eschewing the standard “smorgasbord” and “picaresque swathe”):

In 1975 I went to Peking for a year, together with nine other British students who had been exchanged by the British Council for ten Chinese students.** The latter knew exactly what they were doing: learning English in order to further the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. We were less sure.
From 1966, China had been turned upside down by young Red Guards who were encouraged to “Bombard the Headquarters”. Professors, surgeons, artists, pianists, novelists and film directors were attacked for their bourgeois pursuit of excellence or their attachment to decadent Western ideas.
Though by 1975 there were no longer violent street battles or badly beaten bodies floating down the Pearl River, we found Peking University governed by a Revolutionary Committee of workers, peasants and Party members determined that we should not learn too much and become experts divorced from the masses.
With our Chinese classmates, we spent half our time in factories, getting in the way of workers making railway engines, or in the fields, learning from peasants how to bundle cabbage or plant rice seedlings in muddy water. Heroically, we stayed up half the night to dig rather shallow underground shelters in case of nuclear attack. Much of the rest of the time was spent in class, with two compulsory hours of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought every Saturday morning and compulsory sport, which included hand-grenade throwing. I studied Chinese history which had to be revised overnight when Deng Xiaoping was criticized for the second time and erased from the record. The constant hammering of political rhetoric, broadcast from tannoys hidden in every tree, and the endless expositions of Marxist-Leninist dialectic were only interrupted by funeral announcements as yet another ancient revolutionary went to join Karl Marx.
Just after I returned home, the Great Helmsman himself, Chairman Mao, died. Within weeks, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was not only over but renamed “The Ten Disastrous Years”. The reinstated Deng Xiaoping bounced back and declared that it was glorious to be rich: all my helpful digging and enginemaking had been a mistake.

To some, the book may seem to make light of what was a distressing period for Chinese people, but as Frances notes:

To all those in China who suffered terribly at the time I apologize for my determination to amuse myself and be amused by what I found. I only began to discover what was happening to China’s intellectuals [not just them, I might add—SJ] when I got home.

With quaint stoicism Frances and her fellow-students learn the arts of aimlessly moving rubble, the “ceremony of entering into traffic” (as a Chinese student interpreted the phrase rite de passage) on rickety bikes, and the labyrinthine system of coupons, chits, and travel permits. Cabbages play a major role. Her description of the dangers of eating the baozi dumplings of unheated restaurants in winter brought memories flooding back (also evoking Bill Bailey’s “soaking in the hoisin of your lies“):

They were difficult to pick up and dip in soy sauce at the best of times, even if you had all your fingers free to manipulate the chopsticks. Eating them in in an outer coat and padded cotton mittens was a very messy business, and it didn’t take long for the front and cuffs of our coats to become stiff with soy sauce and bits of baozi.

Frances relishes her excursions in search of imperial architecture—which, distressingly, even in those revolutionary times (despite the best efforts of the Red Guards) was much more abundant than today.

With vital government departments depleted, and “so-called experts” dismissed, in favour of glib and dangerous populist slogans (now where have we heard that recently?), Frances reflects on the weird campaign extolling Lei Feng, with its classic song

I would like to be a tiny screw… Put me in place and screw me tight.

Meanwhile, pressed into finding a party-piece to compete with their North Korean and Albanian counterparts, the UK students soon become adept at trotting out “the British national song” Old MacDonald had a farm. On other occasions, wheeled out for visits of foreign dignitaries, they feel like model prisoners.

As she devours “negative teaching material“, Frances identifies many experiences familiar to foreigners in China, like holding a fluent conversation in Chinese with a local, who then suddenly interjects, “Can you understand Chinese?” Even her final chapters on the culture-shock of returning to Blighty, bewildered by excessive choice, rank alongside the dénouement of Nigel Barley’s The Innocent anthropologist after his stay in Cameroon.

In his introduction, Oliver Pritchett regards Frances as part of the great tradition of intrepid British women explorers—reminding me of Ronnie Ancona’s spoof. The book is perceptive, hilarious, and warm-hearted, and you must read it at once!

Cambridge 1974

Partying at the Oriental faculty, Cambridge 1974. Beth McKillop, Carol Murray, Catharine Saunders, Tim Wright, Hisako Tottori (later Princess Takamado), a fragmentary bearded Paul Kratochvil, Nick Menzies, Craig Clunas with hair, Evelyn X, me with even more hair, André (then “Al”) de Vries.

All the while, amidst the deep waters and raging fire, I was granted a welcome sick-note to remain safe in the ivory towers of Cambridge. When I wasn’t drunk in charge of a string quartet (with grateful thanks to Adnams and Bartók), my own naïveté focused on obstinately reading Tang poetry and Huineng’s Platform Sūtra, inspired as I was by fine scholars like Denis Twitchett and David McMullen—as well as Laurence Picken‘s work on Tang music, and Michael Loewe’s training in Han-dynasty texts. As Frances observes,

Learning Chinese then was like learning a dead language: there seemed no hope of ever using it in China.

For me (rather like the attitude of the LA Phil board towards composers) it wasn’t so much a case of “no hope of using it in China” as “no danger of having to use it there”. My classical bent went along with my stammer—reluctant even to speak English, I couldn’t imagine ever trying to communicate with foreigners. Quelle horreur!

The fusty pursuits of Tang history were already somewhat antiquarian in an increasingly leftie Cambridge, and hardly appealed (then) to my fellow students. Apart from Frances and Craig, others like Beth McKillop and Nick Menzies, as well as students from other UK universities, were plunging into the fray and Becoming At One with the Masses with extended stays in China as part of their course. Some were rather keen on the revolutionary baptism; the tastes of others were more historical (in China, as Frances notes, “History was regarded as a very dangerous weapon which could not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands”). More than flared trousers, history—which had then seemed like, well, history—soon came back into fashion, and many of my fellow-students later became distinguished sinologists of imperial China; but unlike me, they had already noticed that one’s studies needed to be grounded in some kind of current reality.

Still, I suspect few of us were at all clear by this stage that the Labouring Masses were in a depression that must have seemed terminal, bitterly disillusioned with constant lurches in central policy, and suffering from constant hunger; or that this was already prompting a “silent revolution” in private enterprise, some years before decollectivization became an official policy.

Another 1975 photo [1] of the great Craig Clunas makes an evocative image:

Craig
Craig’s own caption:
Shock and awe on childish faces as Foreign Friend massacres the greatest hits of revolutionary modern Peking opera, Yan’an, 1975.
My take:
Becoming At One with the Masses: revenge for Langlang. “Wow—Taking tiger mountain by strategy! Don’t get to hear that much—just what we need!”

Back at Cambridge my only compromise to modern China (indeed, anything after the 9th century) was taking supervisions with Paul Kratochvil, although his expert guidance consisted mainly of plying me with beer and jokes in the pub—for which I’m eternally grateful. But in the vein of Arthur Waley, cocooned in a disembodied dream of ancient oriental wisdom, I only began spending time in the Real China a decade after my fellow-students; whereas they had evidently got time off for good behaviour, I’ve since made up for my insouciance by spending the last three decades traipsing around dusty Chinese villages trying to document the fortunes of ritual culture under Maoism, learning to read between the lines of the arcane socialist vocabulary that Frances explores so tellingly.

Still, my first trip in 1986 was hardly prompted by any desire to engage with modern China: I went in search to clues to Tang-dynasty performance practice in living genres. It was only when I found folk culture a vibrant and fascinating theme that I switched my focus to modern society and the ethnography of local religion.

Since 1993 my lengthy stays Becoming At One with the Masses as guest of the Gaoluo ritual association, and later the Li family Daoists, belong under the heading of dundian, “squatting”, or more elegantly “making a base”. I was never dragooned into moving rubble, but in Gaoluo I did spill the occasional bucket of water from the well—and in 2013 I managed quite effectively to get in Li Manshan’s way (my book, pp.132–3):

Coming across the phrase Shoulders unable to carry, hands unable to grasp, soft and sensitive skin… as I made inept attempts to help him with the autumn harvest, I thought it might have been coined to parody my efforts. Rather, it is a standard expression used to describe the travails of urban “educated youth” in performing physical labour after being sent down from the cities to the countryside in the Cultural Revolution to “learn from the peasants.” The experience was a rude shock for such groups all over China; brought up in relatively comfortable urban schools to believe in the benefits of socialism, and often protected from understanding the tribulations of their own parents, they were now confronted not just by the harshness of physical labour, but by medieval poverty.

For my counter-productive work on the harvest we reached a deal whereby Li Manshan would pay me at the rate of 1950s’ work-points. As I suggested that he might extend this arrangement to my sessions depping in his band for funeral rituals, that month I must have earned several pence.

How I envy Frances’s early excursion to Datong and its temples, the Yungang grottoes, and even a nearby coal mine. From the train she observed the very villages where I was later to immerse myself in household Daoist ritual groups like the Li family—then nearing the end of over a decade of forced inactivity. In 1974 Li Manshan and his wife had their second daughter, Li Min; their son Li Bin, later to become the ninth generation of Daoists in the lineage, was born in 1977.

The innocence of us laowai at the time is all the more reason why we need to continue our quest to understand the period—and those before and since.

In a topical—somewhat older but no less relevant—kind of remembrance, Frances features in the new Channel 4 documentary Britain’s forgotten army. Meanwhile our teacher Michael Loewe is still going strong at the age of 95. Craig couldn’t attend his lecture at SOAS recently, since he was himself giving a talk on Freud and China—one of those niche Mastermind topics like Norman Wisdom and Albania (I know which I’d choose).

 

* If the more polite term waiguoren (“foreigner”) was in use in the 1970s, then by the time I arrived in 1986 the more informal, and less diplomatic, laowai was often heard as we walked the streets. Or at least that’s what they always shouted at me… See sequel here.

**For the British Council to send ten UK students to Beijing in exchange for ten Chinese students sounds like a hostage deal gone wrong. Maybe bumbling Boris has this up his sleeve?

[1] Among many great sites for photos of the Cultural Revolution, see here.

The Houshan Daoists

*Click here to read page!*

So far, most of my pages on local ritual have described traditions in Shanxi. The province of Hebei, surrounding Beijing, may seem “too close to home”, lacking the romantic image of either the ethnic minorities or the barren northwest, but it is a remarkably fruitful site for fieldwork.

While the topic belongs with my pages on Gaoluo (under Other publications), I’ve put it under Local ritual, since it sets forth from the lives of Daoist priests.

You can find background on the Hebei plain south of Beijing by consulting the many sources in my introduction here, but one major site in our fieldwork on ritual life there was Houshan 后山, in Yixian county, centre of the cult to the female deity Houtu 后土, whose temple fair I’ve already outlined.

This sketch of the Complete Perfection Daoist priests of the temple there on the eve of the 1949 Liberation again illustrates their close connection with the ritual life of local villagers. In a (lavishly illustrated!) article I introduce the Houshan priests; the village ritual associations and sects nearby which continued their ritual tradition; the rich trove of “precious scrolls” in the region; and nearby temples to Houtu.

Pantheon, Liujing 1995