- I’ve just added a few more photos to the gallery in the sidebar, as is my wont. And now I’ve linked them to particular posts/pages so you can follow them up. Like so:
A new page (under Themes in Menu) introduces changing ritual life around Xi’an, setting forth from my visits since 1986 and the work of the late great Li Shigen.
It accompanies the new track 11 on the audio playlist, with comments here.
As so often for north China, all the musicological studies are very desirable, but there should be far more to it than that. It can’t be left only to musicologists—it’s just as much a topic for historians, ethnographers, and scholars of religion.
It’s been a popular subject ever since Gu Jiegang’s early study, published in 1928. The fine film-maker Patrice Fava has just made a handsome film about it too, for the Chinese Ministry of Culture—making an intriguing comparison with Ian’s own recent footage. Rather than idealizing the temple fair, Ian takes a more personal ethnographic approach, documenting the changing nuances of people’s lives.
How wonderful to see Sidney Gamble’s footage from 1927! Visitors to Miaofengshan in 1925 included not only Gamble with Li Jinghan but also Gu Jiegang’s team. Even then, despite the wealth of devotional performing associations (huahui, xianghui etc.), they found hardly any performance of complex liturgical sequences. Gu Jiegang’s list of 99 associations making the pilgrimage in 1925 contains only one yinyuehui ritual association—which he, like most educated urbanites, would have assumed to be an entertainment group; his list mainly consists of huahui and “incense associations” (xianghui), mostly voluntary pilgrim groups from Beijing. On the Hebei plain, by contrast, the Houshan temple fair has many more ritual associations alongside the huahui. 
Along with scholars’ attention to the temple fair of Fanzhuang in Zhaoxian county,  a misleading image may arise of north Chinese religious life, whereby liturgical sequences performed by occupational ritual specialists and amateur sectarian associations are downplayed.
From my experience of ritual life around Beijing and on the plain to the south, the dominance of semi-secular “entertainment associations” at sites like Miaofengshan seems curious. I think, for instance, of the temple fairs on Houshan in Yixian county southwest of Beijing, so much less publicized in the media. Unlike on Miaofengshan and the other sacred mountain sites just north of Beijing, Bixia yuanjun is a minor deity in this region, which instead is dominated by the cult of Empress Houtu.
But the differences aren’t only their respective deities. The two major annual fairs of Houshan are also attended by vast throngs. Apart from the diverse huahui performing groups (martial arts, stilts, and so on) that one finds on Miaofengshan, amateur ritual associations from many villages throughout the area (our project through the 1990s) also make the pilgrimage. They perform devotional hymns to the patron goddess Houtu, as well as their solemn style of shengguan instrumental suites. The elders recall performing in full the “precious scroll” (baojuan) to Houtu—a lengthy process, though this may have lapsed on the mountain itself. But as I noted in Plucking the winds (p.363),
Despite considerable interest in village sects in imperial times and even until 1949, we find rather little on the observed performance of ritual. One scholar wrote laconically in 1948:
During the recitation of canons and divine rolls [viz. precious scrolls] musical instruments were probably used. In the country districts in North China there are still some similar organizations. They perform on musical instruments when they recite their canons.
Why write “were probably used” when he could have gone and observed them performing the scrolls?!
Houshan is also heavily patronized by spirit mediums, many of whom also have “precious scrolls” from which they perform devotional songs.
I note en passant that whereas the “tea-tents” on the route to Miaofengshan are precisely that, in the Xushui—Dingxing—Xiongxian area south of Beijing the Tea tent association is often an alternative name for sectarian groups like Hunyuan and Hongyang associations; and they perform complex rituals with vocal liturgy and shengguan instrumental music.
The more popular, quasi-secular entertainment groups tend to influence our image of north Chinese religious activity; the cliché is that ritual life is far more complex in the south than in the north. I don’t dispute this (my book pp.367–8)—some scholars of southern Chinese religion will ask “Where are all the grand jiao Offering rituals?” But we should bear in mind that in the north too, complex vocal liturgy, such as one finds further south in China, is widely performed by groups of occupational Daoist and Buddhist household ritual specialists and amateur ritual associations (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China).
In other words, it’s another case of “customs differ every ten li” (shilidi butong su). Of course, whether or not we find complex ritual sequences, we still need to document all kinds of activity.
As I noted for Houshan and Baiyunshan, state departments compete with local interests for economic control of the substantial profits from such temple fairs.
There’s also a puzzle that I mentioned in In search of the folk Daoists. We know there were constant transmissions, in both directions, between Buddhist and Daoist temples in metropolitan Beijing and Tianjin (on the one hand), and (on the other) the myriad local temples and amateur sectarian ritual associations in the surrounding areas. But from our material so far it looks as if these exchanges were largely limited to the plain south, hardly in other directions—like northwest, in the case of Miaofengshan. I surmise that this is related to topography, trade links and transport. Northwest of Beijing the land is hilly and poor. The plain to the south, while also poor, was at least more accessible, and on trade hubs.
But there’s always more fieldwork to be done!
Ritual transmission is supposed to have gone from the Zhihua temple to Qujiaying; or rather, from the many temples of Beijing and Tianjin to the many villages on the plain south. But the Zhihua temple tradition has only been maintained since the 1990s through the initiative of Lin Zhongshu in sending a group of teenage boys from Qujiaying to the temple to learn from the elderly former monks.
And actually this kind of thing was also common before 1949—villagers might spend extended periods based in Beijing or Tianjin temples, performing ritual business with the monks among the folk; later they would return home, now able to use this experience in their own village association. Locally, Buddhist monks like Haibo and Daoist priests like Yang Yuanheng also taught many associations.
And just as Qujiaying needs to be seen in the context of ritual associations throughout the plain, the musicological furore surrounding the instrumental music of the Zhihua temple should be expanded to the ritual practice of its monks—which in turn should be considered within the changing social context of Beijing before 1949 (and indeed since). I outlined this scene in Appendix 1 of my In Search of the folk Daoists of north China.
One Beijing researcher who does this well is Ju Xi 鞠熙 (and here). Along with brilliant Daoist scholars Vincent Goossaert and Tao Jin 陶金, we are all inspired in part by the detailed recollections of former Beijing ritual specialist Chang Renchun 常人春, such as
- Hongbai xishi: jiujing hunsang lisu 红白喜事——旧京婚丧礼俗 [Weddings and funerals: wedding and funeral customs of old Beijing] (Beijing: Yanshan chubanshe, 1993).
- Jinshi mingren da chubin 今世名人大出殡 [Grand funerals of famous people in modern times] (Beijing: Yanshan chubanshe, 1997).
In extreme contrast to the image of glamorous female soloists on the concert platform, male shawm bands are by far the most common form of instrumental music in China. They perform mainly for life-cycle and calendrical rituals—as you do…
Bands are widely known as “drum music bands” (guyueban 鼓乐班), the members as “blowers-and-drummers” (chuigushou 吹鼓手) or just “blowers”. In Yanggao they are called “drum artisans” (gujiang 鼓匠).
Indeed, these bands are more ubiquitous and indispensable at funeral and temple fairs than groups of ritual specialists. In Yanggao the Daoists and the shawm bands alternate, and often go on procession together.
Such groups are common throughout China—not to mention the Islamic world and early Europe. To give you an idea of just how common, take the Anthology volumes on instrumental music for Liaoning province. There are no solo pieces, nor any pieces for strings; instead it contains four wind ensemble genres:
- the music of the shawm bands (guyue 鼓乐);
- shengguan 笙管 pieces (here a subsidiary repertoire of the shawm bands)
- yangge 秧歌 pieces (again played mainly by the shawm bands); and
- “religious music” (sic), with subheads for Buddhist and Daoist music, including vocal liturgy, percussion, and shengguan pieces.
But this overview for one single province contains 1,491 pages, of which 1,113 are devoted to the shawm bands—and as ever, the material published on them was only a tiny proportion of that collected.
That’s an outline for one whole province. In 2001, within the single county of Mizhi in Shaanbei, a local band boss estimated that there were 138 bands working at least part-time there. Again, contrast the qin, with its tiny elite coterie of players, and its vast media presence.
Further south many bands play a rather light repertoire, though there are some fine genres, such as the Longchui of south Fujian (my Folk music of China ch.14). But it’s the majestic timbre, heterophony, and complex repertoire of long suites of northern bands, played on XXL shawms, that appeals to me particularly.
While my main focus has always been Daoist and Buddhist ritual, its vocal liturgy accompanied by shengguan ensemble, I realized I had to give serious attention to the shawm bands too. So from 1999 to 2005 I took some lengthy time out to document them.
Status and disability
Shawm bands were always at the bottom of the social pile. Virtual outcasts, they were often illiterate, bachelors, opium smokers, begging in the slack season, associated with theft and violence. Freelance like household Daoists and carpenters, they had difficulty adapting to the straightjacket of the commune system, but revived by the 1980s.
At least until recently, shawm players often had some disability, notably visual. Just in Yanggao town, blindmen Liuru (c1931–2007), Yinsan (b.c1947), and Erhur (b.1946) were all fine players and delightful people.
In China and much of the world, blind musicians are thought to have special musical gifts. Erhur learned, and loves to sing, the gongche solfeggio, but pointed out playfully, “Only a stupid musician needs notation”! Take that, qin players! (see also here)
Elderly Liuru, living in pitiful conditions, was also devoted to the gongche of the suites.
I also met several stammering shawm players. Like the fraternity of one-legged men in The third policeman, as a stammerer myself I naturally identified with fellow sufferers like Yuanr, the young shawm band boss in Zhenquan township, Shaanbei—bluntly known as “The Stammerer” (Jiekazi). When I introduced myself he thought I was taking the piss. Both his colleagues and mine had a terrible time trying to conceal their mirth once we got ch-ch-chatting. Imagine the number of tapes you’d need to record the interviews.
I studied the Hua family shawm band in Yanggao county (also home of the Li family Daoists) on and off from 1991 to 2005. Over the years I got to know many other bands in Yanggao too; since 2011 it’s been a pleasure to continue meeting them at funerals. Yang Ying, a regular dep for Li Manshan’s Daoist band, is also the leader of his own family shawm band, one of the finest in the area. Shi Ming, Li Qing’s friend from their days in the regional troupe, led a great band in Wangguantun just west.
The Hua band played magnificently, despite being totally dysfunctional as a family. Led by two senior brothers on shawm and drum who were barely on speaking terms, they played in perfect ensemble, with complex heterophonic melody, and meticulously graded tempi. I still admire their artistry as much as I admire the Li family Daoists.
We did some great tours together (Washington DC, Holland, England), and made the most spectacular CD, Walking shrill, that should be part of everyone’s collection. Go on, order it—it’ll blow your head off. Meanwhile, there’s a track on the audio playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here.
While we’re about it, I wrote a long detailed analysis:
- “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”, in Simon Mills ed., Analysing East Asian music: patterns of rhythm and melody, Musiké vol.4 (Semar, 2010), pp.25–112.
Here the classic style consists of long suites for large shawms. But since soon after I began visiting (“Typical!”), as my books show, such majestic music has largely become a casualty of the “big band” pop style adding trumpet, sax, electronic keyboard, and drum-kit. Hey ho.
Further west, the barren loess hills of Shaanbei, heartland of the revolution, is renowned inter alia for its shawm bands. We met many bands there.
Shawm players from Mizhi county, assembled for a regional festival in 1981.
Most distinguished of shawm players in the area was Chang Wenzhou, also a fine luthier, though he could be almost as difficult as the Hua brothers. Li Qishan’s rival band was also very fine.
By contrast to the mercenary atmosphere in Mizhi county-town, I enjoyed my time in the hill village of Yangjiagou with the lowly and unsung village band there. Of no great technical distinction, they merely supplemented their livelihood by doing occasional funerals. The two leading shawm players there, Chouxiao and “Older Brother” (on the left of the photo), semi-blind, were delightful unassuming people.
The 1999 funeral sequence from Yangjiagou is one of the highlights (§B) of my DVD Notes from the yellow earth, that comes with my 2009 book.
As a kind of footnote to both this post and my account of our 1992 fieldwork, in summer 1992, just after our trip to Shanxi, we visited southern Liaoning province to seek shawm bands there.
Northeast China is also renowned for its majestic shawm bands with large shawms.  The editor of the Anthology for Liaoning (see above), Yang Jiusheng 杨久盛, had a rare grasp of the material—like his fine colleague in Heilongjiang, Li Laizhang 李来璋.
Through Yang Jiusheng we found a wonderful young scholar in Panjin county called Li Runzhong 李润中. He was himself son of a fine shawm player—so he had already done rather well for himself.
Besides making the usual transcriptions from his recordings, he had diligently collected rich material on social contexts (including photos, maps, and diagrams), and written brief biographies of some of the leading shawm band players and ritual specialists in the county. Locally published in several thick volumes, his work, like the music of his county, is likely to remain unknown.
This was a period when the Anthology was in full swing, but it was also an insecure time after the chipped “iron rice-bowl” of the commune era. Under Maoism people, in their villages and secure work-units, knew they were screwed; now they had to go out and fend for themselves, and would probably still get screwed. But Li Runzhong, like our friends in Hebei, was passionate about doing the fieldwork.
A vast archive of precious recordings for the Anthology languishes unpublished. Perhaps it was then that I realized someone would have to document this major aspect of Chinese musical life for outsiders.
Using circular breathing, the two shawms play continuously in heterophony, often an octave or two apart. Home base (cf. the sheng) is the lowest note, do in the basic scale; the upper player often “walks shrill” with soaring and searing high notes. With drum, cymbals, and gong thwacking away too, the sound is deafening even from a hundred metres away, but sitting in the band is a serious yet intoxicating challenge to the ears.
Our SOAS shawm band
Now from the sublime to the ridiculous:
Having taken part occasionally, and sketchily, in the ritual associations of Hebei on yunluo gong-frame and even sheng, I eventually took the plunge with the shawm too. Shawm music is much harder to learn than either the ritual shengguan ensemble of the Daoists or their vocal liturgy; the instrument itself is a challenge (certainly for a baroque violinist…), and the wild improvised decorations can only be learned through prolonged exposure from young. But hey—I knew it would help me get a handle, however rubbish I was.
At first I didn’t try taking part with the Hua band, but when I got to Shaanbei in 1999 I thought I might have a go on the shawm. Chang Wenzhou showed me the ropes, and I tried a few pieces out with Dage and Chouxiao in Yangjiagou.
In 2001, after more fieldwork in Shaanbei with my Beijing colleagues, I spent some time alone in Yulin, the regional capital. Putting aside my scruples about such a culturally inappropriate context, I went for daily “lessons” several times a week, one-to-one with a younger folk player, Feng Xiaoping. He got his band together for an informal “graduation concert” in his courtyard for bemused neighbours (well, they didn’t have much choice). After getting through a little suite I was completely knackered. The place names used at the dentist sprung to mind. As in Teach yourself Japanese, I drank a little beer.
In Yanggao with the Hua band in 2003, I mainly stuck to cymbals or gong—like their sons do from aged six!
In 1999 I had come down from the mountain, like Moses (also a stammerer, I note), with a whole set of instruments made by Chang Wenzhou. At SOAS I now had a little coterie of like-minded ethnos: Rachel Harris, Simon Mills, Manuel Jimenez, and Morgan Davies, all fine musicians, experts in their own various genres (Uyghur, Korean, Indonesian, Indian), and great mates. So, just for fun and our own instruction, we boldly decided to have a go at learning a few pieces. This is not like learning the erhu in a conservatoire—they are wild complex long semi-improvised pieces.
We made enough progress to give the occasional gig for suitably uncritical audiences—at CHIME conferences in Venice and Sheffield (not Scunthorpe), at SOAS, and even on procession (aha!) at the Lord Mayor’s Parade. We strung a few pieces together in little suites, and had a lot of fun.
Later I also bought a set of instruments in Yanggao (like “the music itself”, they vary from region to region—it’s no good playing Shanxi repertoire on Shaanbei shawms, or vice versa!). We all loved the Hua band’s wild repertoire, but it was considerably more daunting than that of Shaanbei. Still, I had all my recordings and videos, and I was making transcriptions anyway, which served as a useful crutch—another compromise, since picking it up entirely by ear would have been a challenge too far for us. Rachel, Simon, and I took turns on the two shawms, and since the drum is always an anchor, we relied heavily on the intuitive brilliance of Manuel Jimenez.
Then in 2005 I managed to get the Hua band invited for a tour of England. My old friend Bureau Chief Li, from the Datong regional Bureau of Culture, who had acted as “group leader” on the band’s 2002 DC trip, came along for the ride again.
Bureau Chief Li has always been most tolerant, nay supportive, of my fascination for folk culture—like a bemused dad baffled by his son’s obsession with Aston Villa. On the National Mall in DC, taking one look at all the performance tents set up for a mind-blowing array of groups from all over the Silk Road, he exclaimed, “Hey Steve, you bring us all this way and they’re supposed to play for another bloody temple fair?!” In England our most delightful gig was in Portesham Village Hall in Devon, home to a great jazz series. This time Bureau Chief Li chuckled, “WTF?! You’ve gone and done it again, Steve—this time you’ve got us a gig in the sodding village brigade headquarters!”
Anyway, during this visit, SOAS impressively invited the Hua band for a brief residency. We solemnly assembled daily in a little recording studio in SOAS and took turns joining in with the band on all the various instruments. One evening Morgan and I took a couple of the youngsters to a blues bar—though no strangers to the considerable vices of Yanggao town, they seemed a little nonplussed.
Now that we’re dispersed to the far corners of the globe, or at least of England, we’re all deeply nostalgic about those years. It’s not that we did it at all well—it could sound excruciating—but we learnt a lot, and it was the perfect way to work up a thirst for a good session in the nearby art-deco bar of the Tavistock Hotel, not least in memory of hosting the Hua band there in 2005.
Alas, the Hua band has since gone the way of many “blower-and-drummer” families. Drummer Hua Jinshan survived a stroke onstage in Amsterdam later in 2005. Falling ill there doubtless saved his life: if it had happened back home in Yanggao, it would have been curtains. As he recovered in hospital, I could only obey his pleas to wheel him daily to the courtyard for sneaky fag along with a motley crew of inmates. But his younger brother Hua Yinshan died of cancer, and Wuge, Yinshan’s son, was stabbed to death in an unsavoury brawl.
My usual rant
(For a similar one, see here). If you’ve heard me go on about this before, then go and pour yourself a large G&T.
None of what we tried at SOAS could possibly happen in a Chinese conservatoire. Sure, plenty of folk musicians have become professors there, but once enshrined in the big city they have to develop a more, um, “scientific”, more breezy repertoire. No-one there would dream of learning long suites of up to an hour, in the style of local folk genres, or emulating a bunch of peasants.
The brief of anthropologists/ethnomusicologists is to study people in all levels of society, and to show that all kinds of music-making are valid aspects of social activity, local cultures, in constant flux. Different genres have different aesthetics, all based on social practice.
So we mustn’t assume that state education is the norm. Among all the kinds of music in the world, WAM is rather exceptional, in its notation-based classroom training system and its domination by “concerts”. But that’s the ethos of the conservatoire. All kinds of musicians learn in different ways.
Vocal music too is rarely dependent on the state educational system. In England, aspiring bluespeople, like Mick and Keef, learned their art in art schools. Jazz was only seriously institutionalized since the 1980s, though school bands were always an influence. Elsewhere traditional music may be adopted in similar fashion: there are schools for flamenco, Irish music, muqam, and so on, but often they change the flavour of folk style—and anyway they only represent a miniscule tip of the iceberg.
My old friend Matt Forney, long-term Beijing resident whose towels I have often darkened in between my trips to the countryside, is a fine old-time banjo player. How do spirit mediums in Guangxi, or indeed punks in Beijing, learn? Such folk performers have no need of notation, training classes, WAM theory, and so on. It may be a continuum, but we shouldn’t confuse one for the other.
As to instrumental music: solos are rare in China, as you can see from the Anthology. Solos for erhu, pipa, and zheng are neither a norm nor an ideal. Notable aspects of traditional music-making include oral transmission, versatility, flexibility, and not performed for “concerts”. Folk instrumental music remains male-dominated, whereas since the 1980s the conservatoires have become dominated by women.
So look at these differences between local shawm bands and conservatoire suona soloists: different society, different values, different aims, different music. Even the names of the instruments are different: the urban term suona (found in historical sources) is rarely heard in rural China: instead they use a variety of local names, like weirwa, wazi, or laba. That’s why I fall back on the English word shawm.
(chuigushou 吹鼓手, guyueban 鼓乐班)
|By far the most common form
of instrumental music in China.
|Not so numerous, even in conservatoires.|
|Weddings and funerals.||Concerts on stage; film sessions.|
|(formerly) Family training, from young;
largely oral training, in course of rituals.
Some blind or disabled; they may beg
in the off season.
Partial to liquor and drugs.
|Even if from a rural background, they now learn with a “teacher” in the conservatoire.
Notation plays a role.
|(formerly) Long complex suites derived
from imperial tradition.
|Short simple pieces derived from 20th-century modern urban values.|
The upwardly-mobile conservatoire suona soloist will never aspire to the social context of the blowers-and-drummers. The most one can hope is precisely what does happen: maybe the former will pick up a few techniques from the latter.
Learning in a classroom, whether in China or elsewhere, is very different from the participant observation of the ethnographer. This difference is clear in China, where the former is done in conservatoires, the latter not at all.
If we learn shawm pieces, we’re unlikely to do it for the same reasons that a young boy in a shawm band family does; his reasons are not the ideal for us—we don’t want their lives. The rural bands may be occupational, but it’s not the kind of professionalism to which conservatoire musicians aspire. Suona soloists in conservatoires learn with a view to doing concerts on stage, or making money in pop/film studio sessions, not doing weddings and funerals.
I should stress again that notation may be a badge of elites, but is not so common either in China or elsewhere, nor is it a criterion for superiority! Notation is not at all important as a learning tool in China or elsewhere, though it may be a totem/fetish for those seeking to establish a “canon”. Of course it may be a useful tool for our analyses…
Yang Der-ruey’s study of a Daoist training school in Shanghai  (anyway an exceptional case: most Daoists learn through hereditary family training in the course of rituals) shows the school’s break with tradition, and its irrelevance once they begin working in the real world, collaborating with temple patrons and spirit mediums. Even for amateur genres like Shanghai silk-and-bamboo, the point of learning isn’t to win prizes or even to “perform” in stage “concerts”; it’s a social activity, not to be judged by conservatoire standards.
The kinds of music promoted in conservatoires are very selective: mainly solos that can be taught, with precise scores, one-to-one, like a Brahms concerto or a Chopin étude. The flexibility of traditional ensembles, folk-singers, or a spirit medium, is not required here. But this gives people a very narrow picture of what Chinese music is about, both musically, socially, and historically. One may attempt to create a “canon”, but within the whole field of Chinese or world music it will be no more significant than that of WAM. Such a discourse may even play into a dangerous nationalistic, patriotic, narrative.
In China some examples of the chasm between folk and conservatoire aesthetics are the rare attempts by conservatoire musicians to render traditional music; in failing to subscribe to its aesthetic, they entirely lack the “flavour” that makes it effective, as with their polished stage renditions of the shengguan music of the Zhihua temple, or silk-and-bamboo: meticulously rehearsed from fixed parts, with graded dynamics, and so on.
In general, though, conservatoire musicians neither want to nor could learn local folk traditions. They learn a fixed version of “the dots”, overlooking style, and entirely removed from the social context that nurtures it. They may consider this superior, “improved”, more “scientific”. The musical style of rural shawm bands is also ridiculously difficult—but the point is that there’s no reason at all why conservatoire students would want to learn long shawm suites like this.
In sum, the conservatoires do what they do, and that’s fine. It’s just that as ethnomusicologists we seek to offer a broader soundscape and a broader social range. And anyway, for a sensitive musician, the intensity and grandeur of the folk style will be far more rewarding than those cute little conservatoire pieces.
So after all this discussion of urban (and urbane) concert performance, we should return to the rural ceremonial setting by watching the Hua band playing their hearts out at a funeral—see my lengthy analysis here.
 See also my Folk music of China, ch.10, and its CD, as well as the 2-CD set China: folk instrumental traditions. In Chinese, my colleague Zhang Zhentao has also written well on them. See also my “Men behaving badly: shawm bands of north China”, in Gender in Chinese Music, pp.112–26.
 See my Folk music of China, ch.10, and §4 of the CD. Note also two CDs from François Picard: Chine, Hautbois du Nord-Est, musiques de la première lune, and Chine, Hautbois du Nord-Est, la bande de la famille Li (Buda, Musique du Monde, 1995).
 For a succinct version, see his “From ritual skills to discursive knowledge: changing styles of Daoist transmission in Shanghai”, in Chau ed., Religion in contemporary China, pp.81–107 .
Temple procession, Xincheng, south Gansu, June 1997. 
Photo: Frank Kouwenhoven. © CHIME, all rights reserved.
Of course, festivals and pilgrimages all over the world are a major theme of ethnography: not just Uyghur meshreps and Tibetan monastery festivals, but Indian melas, Sufi festivals, Mediterranean (Andalucian festas, south Italy…), Moroccan ahouach, you name it. Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s 1994 book Musiques en fête is charmant, with wise and vivid words about Morocco, Sardinia, and Romania (¡¿BTW, why do French books put the list of contents at the back?! ¡¿Typical Gallic contrariness?!)
To adopt the metaphor of “the whole dragon” again, there is a long continuum between folk festivals, based on ritual (often calendrical) observances, and secular events for a largely urban audience.
So I too am going to link up diverse themes like temple fairs, ritual, famine, village names, Eurovision, and propaganda. It does make sense, though—you can trust me, I’m a doctor.
Traditional events in China`
Funeral rituals have been my main topic in China for thirty years, but of course it’s not easy to plan visits much in advance. The calendrical dates of temple fairs (often known as miaohui) may seem easier to anticipate. Again, scholars of religion tend to home in on their specifically religious elements, as in the great jiao Offering—though note Ken Dean’s fine film Bored in heaven. But like funerals they are multivalent, embracing all kinds of activity: ritual, opera, folk-song, pop, commerce, “hosting” (Chau!), socializing… Apart from my 2007 and 2009 books, names like Zhao Shiyu, Guo Yuhua, Wang Mingming, Stephan Feuchtwang, Adam Chau, and Wu Fan spring to mind. The knack is to detail both sacred and secular aspects of temple fairs.
But the dates of calendrical rituals, like temple fairs, may not be easily vouchsafed to the outsider either. The temple fairs on the Houshan mountains in Yixian county southwest of Beijing, mainly in the 3rd and 7th moons, are much less well know than those of Miaofengshan, but they also draw huge crowds, both local and from further afield.
To work all this out you have to spend time around the villages of Liujing and Matou in the foothills around Houshan, and then observe who goes where when and does what. Although Chinese villagers are a rich source of ritual and musical information (far more than any silent library), they often speak prescriptively rather than descriptively, telling us on what occasions a jiao Offering ritual should be performed, whether or not is has been performed since the 1940s. They don’t necessarily volunteer information on change, preferring (like some officials and scholars) to present their traditions as constant, eternal—even if contexts and repertoires have evidently changed in their lifetime. On our first visit to Liujing we rather assumed that villagers’ descriptions of ritual pilgrimages related to “the past”— but we soon found that they were very much alive.
The Songs-for-winds associations: propaganda and catastrophe
What got me “thinking” (I use the word loosely) about all this was that 1950 visit to Tianjin of the “Songs-for-winds” band from Ziwei village, in what later became Dingxian county.
The Central Conservatoire (as it was then) was then still based at Tianjin, of course. The work of Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe on the Songs-for-winds may be considered a prelude to that on the more solemn ritual style of the Beijing temples that Yang undertook from 1952, a topic that was to expand vastly after 1986. But the Songs-for-winds groups, more popular than the ritual style that is my main focus, are worth a little detour here.
We should bear in mind that such wind ensembles were quite unfamiliar to southerners like Yang and Cao. Having invited the Ziwei band to the conservatoire, they recorded their repertoire on a Webster wire recorder. The band went back some six generations, and under the leadership of the celebrated Wang Chengkui, they had invited the great wind player Yang Yuanheng to teach them in the winters of 1945 and 1946. Yang Yuanheng, a former Daoist priest in a little temple in Anping county, was himself appointed professor of guanzi oboe at the conservatoire in 1950.  Yang Yuanheng, like the Buddhist monk Haibo, was a major influence on many shengguan ritual associations in the area: we would hear their names from many village associations.
Yang and Cao’s monograph on the Ziwei band, published in 1952, consists mainly of transcriptions, with little of the social detail that they covered for the Wuxi Daoists or Yang’s 1956 Hunan fieldtrip. Ziwei would go on to supply wind players to many state troupes for decades to come.
Adapted from my Folk music of China (p.196):
During the 1958 Great Leap Forward (or Backward, as it’s known), Dingxian and particularly Xushui counties became model counties for the relentless drive to full communization.  Notable for its revolutionary fervour at this time was the “Great Leap Forward Songs-for winds association” of Qianminzhuang commune in Xushui.
The propaganda of the Leap makes a stark contrast with the grim realities of the period, with villages throughout the area suffering from crop failure, famine, and social disruption.
Our visit to Qianminzhuang in 1993 was the only time I’ve ever had a police escort—to take me there for a change, not to drag me away! Predictably, such an effusive welcome for me as a “foreign guest” indicated close supervision and censorship of our fieldwork.
In 1995 we visited some of the senior musicians independently, with much more useful results.
At the height of the Great Leap back in August 1958, Chairman Mao had visited communes in Dingxian and Xushui. In Dasigexiang district just southeast of Xushui county town. Dasigezhuang village was now renamed the 4th August brigade. As part of the nationwide campaign to smelt steel in village furnaces, they had to melt down waterwheels, woks, door hinges.
“Waterwheels are made of steel,” observed one villager caustically, “what’s the bloody point of melting them down to make steel?”
Some village ritual associations had to sacrifice their yunluo gong-frames in the campaign. When Zhou Enlai visited Xushui he was shocked to see the destitution that communization was bringing.
(BTW, in South Gaoluo in Hebei, erudite Shan Fuyi explained village names for us. Among many terms for “village”, two are common in that area, cun and zhuang (or gezhuang). Only villages with a “great temple” (dasi) could be called cun; villages which lacked a “great temple” were called by the less numinous term gezhuang. So going back to Dasigezhuang (“Great temple village”), that clearly contradicts the Hebei rule! That may seem just a curious little detour, but it was precisely the villages with a “great temple” that held temple fairs.)
Xushui’s favoured status did nothing to prevent many starving to death there in 1960—but just near Qianminzhuang, the Gaojiazhuang ritual association still managed to restart in 1961. Religion revived in China precisely at moments of political crisis such as the famines of 1960 and the Cultural Revolution, albeit with great difficulty. It may provide solace, or a focus for resistance—both against Maoism and later against the insecurities ensuing its demise.
The Gaojiazhuang ritual association was one of many in Xushui villages that used, and use, the older more solemn shengguan style. Ritual associations throughout the area commonly claim transmission from either Buddhist monks (heshangjing 和尚經) or Daoist priests (laodaojing 老道經)—the Gaojiazhuang association is Buddhist-transmitted. In another common taxonomy, the association divides into “prior altar” (qiantan, the shengguan instrumental ensemble, and “latter altar” (houtan, vocal liturgy).
Despite its revolutionary image, Xushui county has remained a hotbed for religion, notably the cult of the sectarian creator goddess Wusheng laomu. Associations there commonly hang out ritual paintings, like the Ten Kings (Shiwang) or Water and Land (Shuilu) series, and they use “precious scrolls” and other ritual manuals. They too are within the catchment area of Houtu worship—they used to make the pilgrimage to Houshan. Even the revolutionary Qianminzhuang band told us that their former tradition was to recite the scriptures, performing only as a social duty for funerals, not for weddings. And certainly not to accompany mendacious parades to report a bumper harvest…
In 1994 the Gaojiazhuang association built an Ancestral Hall to Venerable Mother (Laomu citang, a rather rare use of the term citing in this region), occupying about one mu, stylish and grand. It cost around 60,000 kuai to build; the stele lists 132 donors, who gave from 50 up to 3,000 kuai. The altar has Wusheng laomu in the centre, Wangmu niangniang and Songzi niangniang to the right, Can’gu niangniang and Houtu niangniang to the left.
The village Party Secretary told us that sources of support included incense money from the Great Tent Association (dapeng hui, a common term in the area for a ritual association) and from the temple, and money from fortune-telling and curing illness. He reflected, “A dozen or so women kept on coming to see me about building a temple. I had no choice—the brigade couldn’t refuse, so I gave them a plot of land. Believing in the gods and having a temple is no bad thing, it’s not as if you stop production if you believe in it!”
In all, the flamboyant (and readily secularized) Songs-for-winds style remains a common image of wind bands on the Hebei plain, but since all our fieldwork through the 1990s it is clear that ritual practice, with its more solemn shengguan instrumental style, is both older and more common. It is resilient too. This persistence of tradition, both in religious and musical practice, is all the more striking in such a once-revolutionary county as Xushui.
Mao was impressively modest about his limited success when he admitted to Nixon in 1972:
“I haven’t been able to change [China]—I’ve only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Peking.” 
But he wasn’t modest enough: in some ways even a county so near Beijing, such a focus of the revolution, has remained resistant to Maoist ideology, predating and outliving it. Still, disruption was severe.
Official festivals in the 1950s
Meanwhile, the new government, in its own way, was promoting local culture through the medium of regional folk festivals (diaoyan, huiyan). First, local festivals were held to select representatives for major performances in the regional capitals. Some laicized priests were even assembled to perform as “troupes“, sometimes for the first time in many years—such as Baiyunshan Daoists (1955), Wudangshan Daoists (1956 and 1957), Wutaishan Buddhists (1958). For such performances, inevitably, their shengguan instrumental music was plucked out of its ritual context.
These festivals served partly as auditions for the state song-and-dance troupes then expanding all over China. Daoist and Buddhist ritual specialists had a deserved reputation as outstanding instrumentalists. Many, like our very own Li Qing (my book pp.113–25), were recruited as musicians to state troupes around 1958—and then sent home again as the state apparatus collapsed in 1962.
While such festivals stimulated the collection and documentation of folk music, we must balance this with the ongoing assaults on its traditional context. The background ( beginning from the 1940s) was campaigns against “feudal superstition”, terrifying public executions of sectarians, and the destruction of temple life.
The reform era
Urban festivals featuring rural groups—perhaps related to a conference—make a convenient recourse for busy academics into whose holidays they fit nicely. From the 1980s, the secular arts festivals of the Maoist era were remoulded into more glossy events. By the 21st century the new ideology was confirmed in the regular staged “living fossil” presentations of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The latter project, with its whole bureaucratic workings, has now become a major research topic on its own, at the expense of studies of the local traditions that it is supposed to assist (my book pp.331–3).Note also the Qujiaying bandwagon.
I tend to steer clear of conferences, but in May 2016, as a pretext for going to hang out yet again with Li Manshan in Shanxi for a couple of weeks, I accepted an invitation to take part in a conference celebrating the 80th birthday of my esteemed teacher Yuan Jingfang in Beijing. It was a déjà-vu experience. Apart from a sequence of eulogies, the event also featured staged performances from three representatives of Yuan Jingfang’s long-term research areas: the Hanzhuang ritual association from Xiongxian in Hebei (near Xushui), the Zhihua temple group, and a ritual band from near Xi’an.
It made me feel my age, reminding me of all our visits to these very groups between 1986 and 2001. Taking time out of the conference to chat with the Hanzhuang group outside by the lake, we recalled their kindly association leader Xie Yongxiang 解永祥, father of the present leader, and another of those wise sheng masters. We had learned a lot from him in 1993 and 1995.
But returning to the conference—the object of admiration, inevitably, was their “music”, detached from its enduring social context. I already missed hanging out with Li Manshan in the scripture hall.
All the glossy stage presentation has many Western parallels—flamenco on the Terry Wogan show (remind me to do more on flamenco in due course), WOMAD, Songlines, prizes, urbane discourse explaining its “cultural value” to outsiders… The fancy costumes and dry ice of many Chinese events are reminiscent of Eurovision; they may seem like a Disneyland version of the Chinese heritage.
That photo comes from a recent ICH “performance” of the Baiyunshan Daoists, no less.
Now, I adore opportunities to present the Li family Daoist band on the concert platform (see this post and a whole related series of Vignettes), but while it is of course a compromise, we take care not to tart them up—we can hardly do otherwise, so solemn is their demeanour.
And their regular “rice-bowl”—day in, day out— is always performing funerals for their local, not global, clientele.
What is dodgy is when people begin mistaking the staged events for the Real Thing, or some kind of ideal. Urbanites may do so, but villagers know better. Of course those staged events are themselves a legitimate, and popular, object of scholarly analysis. But I worry that it creates a fait accompli, like the way that in old-school WAM musicology the Great Composers were the main story (as deconstructed by McClary, Small, Nettl)—“this is what we find, so it must reflect the real picture, and so this is the object of study”. As always, “modern” secular performance doesn’t replace traditional activity: they co-exist.
The CHIME conference in LA will doubtless turn up many instances of what I’m struggling not to call “contested negotiation”. Anyway, staged events can give us a lead, rather like using the photos in the Anthology, otherwise flawed, to draw us towards folk activity.
 For more, see Frank Kouwenhoven, “Love songs and temple festivals in northwest China: musical laughter in the face of adversity”, in Frank Kouwenhoven and James Kippen eds., Music, Dance and the Art of Seduction.
 For this whole section, see my Folk music of China, pp.48–52, 195–203; “Chinese ritual music under Mao and Deng”, British Journal of Ethnomusicology 8 (1999): 27–66; “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003): 287–337. See also my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.166–7, 183–4, 188–90.
 As correctives to all the Xushui propaganda, see e.g. the brilliant works of Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Chinese village, socialist state and Revolution, resistance, and reform in village China—describing a commune not far from Xushui. Note Chinese village, socialist state, pp.215–20; Dikotter, Mao’s great famine, pp.40, 47–9, 68–70; and estimable analysis online in Chinese, e.g. http://mjlsh.usc.cuhk.edu.hk/book.aspx?cid=6&tid=184&pid=2269. For the model commune of Greater Quanshan in Shanxi, precursor of Dazhai, and temporary “home” to the Li family Daoists, see my book, pp.122–3.
 Also reported by Henry Kissinger in Newsweek, 3rd March 1997, p.31.
Partly to remind myself that I don’t only do jokes, here are some more fieldnotes.
I’ve already noted the differences between our early fieldwork in the 1990s and conditions more recently. So I thought I’d give you a flavour of one of those earlier fieldtrips.
Over the hot summer of 1992, following hot on the heels of the Wutaishan Buddhist group’s visit to England, Xue Yibing and I made a three-week trek from Taiyuan northwards through Wutai, Xinzhou, Daixian, and Hunyuan, finding ritual activity all along the way, en route for another rendezvous with the great Li Qing in Yanggao. Our last stop was nearby Yangyuan county, just in Hebei.
Since our fruitful initial survey of ritual associations in Hebei over New Year in 1989, this was my fourth fieldtrip with Xue Yibing. Before we could return to the Hebei plain, and before I began to focus on particular villages and families, this was still only a partial survey of central and north Shanxi—for what became Chapter 12 of my book Folk music of China.
We had a van and a driver from the MRI at our disposal, and for parts of the trip we were accompanied by Shanxi scholars Jing Weigang and Wang Bin, whose local knowledge was valuable. We were mostly unencumbered by the need to “kowtow to the Gods of the Soil”, except when we knew there was a knowledgeable scholar—like the senior Liu Jianchang in Taiyuan, who was studying the Buddhist ritual music of the Wutaishan mountains through the 1950s whenever political conditions allowed. All along the way we found local traditions, differing significantly from each other.  Power cuts were frequent. And before motorways, our progress was often far from smooth; even on the main roads we generally found ourselves crawling along behind long lines of coal lorries.
In central Shanxi, I had already visited the central area of Wutaishan, so I was interested to explore the outlying areas. While we found many shawm bands (here called gufang 鼓房), our main interest was in ritual shengguan bands (here called xiangda 响打). Though they were rarely ritual specialists with vocal liturgy, some bands performed a fine repertoire of long suites related to the temples of Wutaishan and Beijing—the kind of groups found by the great Yang Yinliu in 1953, in whose steps we were now following.
We spent time with one such band, led by Xu Yousheng in Dongye.
It soon became clear that this whole area was also a hotbed for female spirit mediums, including Xu Yousheng’s wife. These mediums did exorcistic rituals as a group, singing ritual songs a cappella. In this photo, at Xu Yousheng’s house near Dongye, his wife and her fellow medium pose before ritual paintings commissioned by him.
This page from Xue Yibing’s precious notebook lists the gods on the pantheon to the right in the photo.
In this detail, the “young soldier god” features because a medium had divined that he once saved the life of Xu’s son while he was in the army:
The Xinzhou region
In this large and mountainous region we found more household Daoists (this time of the Complete Perfection branch!), as well as a thriving community of Catholics who also used shengguan music to accompany their rituals.
The Ekou Buddhists
After digging our van out of the mud yet again, we reached Ekou village in Daixian county in the northern foothills of Wutaishan. I was hoping to see Chengde, lovely former Buddhist monk whom I had hosted in England a few weeks earlier. But he was doing a temple fair some distance away—so we had a chat with his older brother, who provided us with useful detail on local ritual life there. This was one of rather few occupational household Buddhist groups that we found.
Arriving hot and sweaty in the (then) cosy little hill town of Hunyuan (at the foot of Hengshan, the northern marchmont of Daoism), we checked into a hostel. On the guest registration form, under “Level of Culture” (wenhua chengdu 文化程度) I wrote “None” (wu 无), as is my wont.
After a long drive and many days in scorching temperatures without running water, we were delighted to find that not only did our room have a bath, but that hot water was promised (typically “after 8pm”, which often means either “never”, or “from 3.30 to 3.35 am”).
The bathroom wasn’t exactly hygienic, but hey, we weren’t fussy—ruxiang suisu, “when in Rome…”. Xue Yibing rashly took the plunge first, and he was just sinking into the water in ecstasy when the ceiling (exhausted by unprecedented strains on the plumbing above) promptly caved in, covering him in rusty debris (or is that the name of a Country singer?). Adopting what Nigel Barley calls “fieldwork mode”, we both burst out laughing. He came out a lot dirtier than he went in.
Next day we found no ritual activity at the Hengshan mountain temples, but in town we found yet another great family of household Daoists.
This group belonged to a lengthy Orthodox Unity lineage. By the time I went back to see them in 2011 with the wonderful Li Jin, significant changes had taken place in their practice.
After a brief visit to more Orthodox Unity household Daoists in Datong county, we reached Yanggao, where I was delighted to find Li Qing again, performing a funeral with his ritual band. He also managed a long session with us, providing detailed accounts of ritual sequences, augmenting my notes from the previous year.
After a brief and rather unedifying stop-off in Yangyuan county, we made our way back to Beijing. Upon my return, I once again (as usual) sought out former monks, before we set off once more for Liaoning in the northeast, finding majestic shawm bands there too…
Such early fieldtrips with Xue Yibing were an important training for us both, before we launched into more in-depth study of the Hebei ritual associations. I always treasure his notes, but however brief our visits on that Shanxi trip, the hand-written volume he copied out for me is full of wonderful ethnographic detail on folk religion.
Since 2011, having profited from collaborative fieldwork for twenty-five years, I have largely engaged with the Li family Daoists on my own, regaining a certain self-esteem—except for the occasional mishap…
 For more detail on most of these sites, see my In search of the folk Daoists, pp.65–81; Chen Yu, Jinbei minjian Daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu, pp.65–90 and passim.